Posts Tagged ‘Grad school: expectations vs. reality’

And now getting back to expectations vs. reality when it comes to humanities grad programs. Again, I’m just one gal, in one department, in one school, studying one thing, yadda yadda. But I’m guessing my experiences aren’t THAT atypical. And there’s a gap scale: a zero means that expectations matched reality perfectly, while a five means that expectations had NOTHING in common with reality.

1. Expectation #3: I will be surrounded by a group of devoted faculty who will guide me through each step of my graduate career, while at the same time allowing me the independence to choose my own path.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 3

This was definitely naivete on my part. You’ll get some guidance in grad school, but if you’re expecting the same kind of hand-holding that you might have received during your undergrad years, think again. When it comes to many of the major decisions you’ll make in grad school–and a lot of the minor ones, like where to file that form or who to email about lapses in insurance–you may find yourself alone.

It isn’t that the faculty don’t WANT to help you. I’ve received an enormous amount of helpful advice and guidance from my advisor and various other faculty members over the years, and they were happy to give it. But faculty members are often overworked and harried, and you’re not always going to be at the top of their priority list. Additionally, you have to be prepared to be VERY persistent in your pursuit of said advice. An email isn’t enough–you’ll need to email, email again, call, and wait outside a few office doors if you really want to get results.

You should also expect a certain amount of cheerful disorganization within your department–professors who forget to sign recommendation forms or turn in final grades, funding applications that never get sent, etc. I was lucky enough to have a very organized department, but I heard horror stories from other grad students of administrators who were incompetent at best, hostile and biased at worst. Some grad students also regularly deal with professors who are simply never around. I met one recent PhD a while ago who said she was fairly certain that her advisor had never actually read her dissertation.

There’s a plus side to all this, of course. Not being smothered by guidance means you can make a lot of your own choices with regard to research and career trajectory without constantly having someone looking over your shoulder. But initially, at least, so much freedom can be overwhelming.

Expectation #4: In the academic world, I will not have to deal with the sexism, racism, and homophobia that is so prevalent in much of the corporate world.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 3

I’ve been a grad student for seven years, and I can’t recall ever being sexually harassed. Apparently I’m in the minority, though, because almost every female grad student that I’ve talked to has at least one story. And the shocking thing is universities often seem to be WORSE about covering up or flat-out ignoring sexual harassment than many major corporations. Check out the blog What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? for some stories that will make you cringe.

Beyond blatant sexual harassment, plenty of universities can still feel like old boys’ clubs. For me, the most obvious examples of this were the times when female academics were referred to as “bitchy” or “arrogant” or “annoying” just for standing their ground.

Racism’s out there, too. One professor in my university has famously said numerous times that he doesn’t want T.A.’s with “funny-sounding” (that is, foreign) names. Another American professor who specialized in Chinese studies seemed to constantly make disparaging remarks about the Chinese. And then there was the other American China specialist who spent an entire class talking about which Chinese actresses were the hottest.

Having spent the last several months in the corporate world, I can say that there’s a lot of blatant racism, sexism, and homophobia that just gets ignored. People say things that would likely cause every head in a room full of academics to turn in horror. But the idea that academia is COMPLETELY free of racism, sexism, and homophobia–well, that’s a fantasy.

Expectation #5: Following my passion and spending my time reading, writing, and thinking about intellectually stimulating things will bring a sense of meaning and purpose to my life.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 4

This one probably has a lot more to do with my own personality than with grad school as a whole. I know plenty of grad students who get a ton of satisfaction and fulfillment out of their academic careers. But for me, from the very beginning, what I felt most often was anxiety, uncertainty, and the constant sense that I would never be on equal footing with my colleagues.

This happens to everyone in the beginning, I think. Most of my friends and colleagues–even the ones whose work I thought was brilliant beyond compare– said that they were constantly feeling that they weren’t good enough. We all talked about dropping out and getting “real” jobs at least two or three times a year. But for me, that anxiety never really went away. There was a lot of joy for me in grad school, and a real sense of accomplishment when I presented a paper and got good feedback or held my own in a challenging discussion. But the constant sense that I was treading water, that I was never going to feel fully at home in this field, was exhausting.

As I’ve written before, I think much of my problem stemmed from the open-ended nature of academic research. It took me a long time to discover that I wasn’t good at long-term projects with seemingly endless choices. Being given the freedom to read and write for (almost) as long as I wanted didn’t inspire or motivate me–it rooted me to the floor, paralyzed to the point where I couldn’t move forward or backward.

It took a long time for me to admit this, and I have a feeling I’m not alone. There’s a certain shame and disappointment in realizing you might not be  the next great thinker–that, given ample time and money, you may just flounder instead of producing brilliant work. But it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or a sell-out. It just means you’re not especially suited to an academic environment.

So if you love academic life and can deal with occasional bouts of depression and anxiety, great. But if depression and anxiety start to become the norm, sit down and have a good think about whether academia is really for you. And if you realize that it isn’t, don’t beat yourself up.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately (really, racking my brain to try to remember) what I imagined grad school would be like before I actually started. I think my image was pretty similar to a lot of twenty-somethings. I pictured sitting around with brainy people talking about books, writing meaningful arguments about said books, and existing in a world full of values and ideals that were markedly different from the more corporate environment that I’d been living in during my first three years out of college. As I’ve said before, my image probably wasn’t so different from the little pigtailed girl in the So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities video.

I’ve also been trying to decide to what extent expectations and reality meshed. Not much, of course, but there were some areas where I wasn’t too far off the mark.

So here, for the benefit of anyone wondering What It’s Really Like, I present Expectations vs. Reality, Part 1. I’ve even made a handy numbering system to illustrate the gap between expectations and reality, from 0 to 5. 0 means reality was just like what I expected, while 5 indicates a huge gap.

I present my usual disclaimers here–this is my experience and my experience alone, and I don’t claim that it’s universal.

A little more background: since 2007, I have been enrolled in two grad programs: one two-year M.A. program at an international university in Tokyo, and one PhD program in the U.S. The first program granted me a degree in “Comparative Culture” with an Asian studies concentration (in my case I focused on Japanese literature), while the second program will (heaven willing) grant me a degree in comparative literature.

1. Expectation #1: I will finally have the freedom to attend classes, read books, and write papers about the subjects that I love–unlike high school and college, where I had to take a bunch of stuff that I wasn’t interested in.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 4

Unfortunately, the specific requirements for an M.A. or PhD mean that you often have to take a lot of courses that you’re not interested in. Before starting grad school, I think I imagined a university just magically designing courses with interesting themes, with a wide enough variety that any student could find something to suit their interests. That’s not how it works, of course. Courses are designed by professors with very specific research interests. Those courses have to fit certain requirements–they have to include a certain amount of reading and writing, and if they’re in a particular department (comparative literature, for example), they have to, ostensibly, be related to comparative literature. But beyond that it’s really up to the professor to design the syllabus.

At my Tokyo university, the only courses offered in Japanese history (I had to take one history courses to complete my M.A.) were on legal documents from the Edo period and Christianity in Japanese culture. I went with the latter, which turned out to be an interesting course, though not really relevant to my subject area. At my second university things were a lot more frustrating. I was required to complete three English literature courses, and in any given semester there might only be *one* graduate level lit course on offer. (This happens a lot–courses are designed and scheduled but not enough people sign up for them, or the professor gets a different job, so they get canceled). In my case, I got stuck taking courses on medieval poetry and Greek and Roman rhetoric. Nothing against these subjects–I’m sure they’re fascinating for lots of people–but they were NOT what I wanted to be studying. And the papers I had to write for those classes, plus the weekly reading load, ate up a LOT of my time.

There is, of course, an advantage to making grad students take a variety of courses not necessarily related to their research interests. It’s what humanities grad school is all about–exposing yourself to a wide variety of subjects and ideas. I’ve gotten plenty of inspiration for my research from very unexpected places–a conference on otaku culture, for example, or a talk on the history of neoliberalism. I’m not saying that humanities grad students should only take classes that directly relate to their research interests. But certain realities–limited funding, professors with interests that don’t match your own, extensive course requirements, and an overall lack of choice–can mean that you will often end up in classes that feel like a waste of time. This is why it’s so important to learn as much as you can about the professors who actually teach the courses in the grad department you’ll be applying to. And don’t just take their word for it. Talk to students who’ve taken their classes and get some information off the record.

2. Expectation #2: I will be surrounded by smart people and we will get together and have lots of smart people conversations. Unlike in the corporate world, where people often just want to talk about their clothes and celebrity gossip.

Expectation vs. reality gap: 1

I was actually pretty right on this one. Grad school is full of people who unashamedly love books, learning, and having lengthy debates about complicated subjects. This was and continues to be one of the things I love most about the grad school experience–making friends who share your passions and who don’t just want to talk about books as they relate to a classroom assignment, but who take the conversation out into the hall and to the bar afterward. And who, at the same time, can laugh about celebrity gossip and fashion.

When it comes to the people you meet and take classes with, grad school can also be very humbling. Being surrounded by really smart people is awesome–it keeps you on your toes and makes you want to work harder–but it can also be a source of extreme anxiety, at least for me. Impostor syndrome sets in quickly. I took plenty of classes where friends and colleagues gave presentations and made comments that blew me away–and made me go home beating myself up for not measuring up. It was a comfort to hear from said brilliant people that they often felt the same way (though I didn’t always believe them), but the anxiety often lingered for a while.

Also, just because someone is smart doesn’t mean they’re nice. I’ve been lucky in that the vast majority of professors and grad students that I’ve interacted with over the last seven years have been great people, and if not great then at least not offensive. But I’ve also run across some serious assholes. People who think their above-average intellect gives them the right to treat others like shit. People who espouse a feminist / egalitarian ideology in the classroom but then sexually harass colleagues or make disparaging comments about female academics. People who are just plain petty and ruthless. In the corporate world, people will backstab and brown-nose over money and power. In academia, people will backstab and brown-nose over ideas and status. The reasons might be different, but shit still happens.

So overall I love the social and creative circles that I’ve been a part of thanks to grad school. I love my friends as people and as academics, and I love the opportunity to have meaningful conversations and engage in work that means something to me. But I’ve learned that academia will never provide a complete escape from shallowness, pettiness, or all-around assholery. I don’t think there’s any field that does.

All right, that’s a start–back with more later!

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