A guest post by Joyce King, UP English alum from 2012. Joyce is in her first year in an M.A. program in English at Saint Louis University. Those of you pondering graduate school will learn a lot from Joyce’s experience…
I cannot claim to understand how to be a graduate student, and talking about my personal experience may or may not be helpful. So, since the big thing is to make the whole titanic edifice seem more real and concrete and manageable, I offer some impressions of the beautiful tangled mess that is graduate study.
Pretty much everything they say about the difference between high school and undergrad counts double for grad school. The work is more interesting, but the stakes are higher, and you’re required to take on more responsibility. Your university may or may not send you information about housing or employment. You’ll receive fewer reminders about important things and you’re generally expected to figure things out and take care of them yourself in ways that you didn’t before. At the same time, whether or not you can take care of business matters a lot more than it did before: if you don’t take the initiative, you can and will find yourself up a certain well-known, brown, gloppy creek in a boat with a hole in it.
Okay, yeah duh: all of this is true whether you go to grad school or get a job that pays the bills. What’s different about grad school is that “school” – writing papers and reading theory and geeking out about Stoppard and Pope – is that job. And it’s a ridiculously cool job, but it can eat up your life like a starving actor. Graduate school doesn’t have an annual Club Fair or an Office of Student Activities or a Moreau Center: like intramurals, those are for undergrads. Your social life is your own problem and, if you’ve had to relocate, it can be hard to meet people outside of your department. Most of the people you see on a regular basis will be your classmates – only now, they’re not just classmates, they’re colleagues. You work with them; they’re fellow members of a very small profession; their opinions matter. At the same time, they’re stuck in the same boat you are, so they’ll understand your ideas and your problems better than anybody else.
They are also one of your most valuable resources. Professors, bless their hearts, can tell you all sorts of amazing things about the etymology of dirty words or the vagaries of medieval anti-sodomitical theology vs rhetoric vs legislation. If you develop relationships with them, they’ll give you amazing insights about literature and the state of the field and offer excellent advice about developing yourself as a scholar and a professional. But if you want to know how things work right now, talk to the older grad students. They’re the ones who can give you practical, approachable advice about everything from conferencing to researching to first-time teaching to surviving the lean summer months and, if you’re lucky enough to wind up in a department like mine, most of them will be more than willing to help.
You should also make friends with the departmental secretaries. They know everything, do everything, and make sure that everything in the department runs smoothly. Basically, they’re omniscient and omnipotent, which makes about the closest thing to God on earth there’s been for about two thousand years. If you let them, they will take good care of you. The lines of communication between you and the department can disintegrate if you let them, and in those moments when you really need to know what’s going on but nobody will tell you, the secretaries will know.
To switch gears entirely: you’re going to hear a lot of talk about specialization. The old “What’s your major?” chestnut has its parallel in graduate programs: “What’s your area?” Professors will tell you that, if you’re a Masters student (like me,) you have time to shop around and figure things out. This is a wretched and perfidious lie. A first year MA student may not need to know that they’re going to write their dissertation on depictions of pain in the late middle ages, or that they’re going to specialize in queer studies of fin de siècle authors. But they do need to figure out a general, usually chronological area of interest pretty damn quickly if they’re going to make good use of what is a truly brief time-to-degree. Pay attention to the flood of announcements that fill your inbox, and go to the events that sound interesting. Join reading groups from a lot of different areas. But be wary of taking too wide a variety of classes. There really isn’t time.
Coursework. Coursework is harder, but more rewarding. You know those class discussions in undergrad, where there’s the small handful of students who usually have something to say, and sometimes it’s really good? In grad school, your entire class is just those people. Which is great – it means the discussions are more intense and more satisfying. But it also means they’re more challenging. The brilliant things you came up with every so often in undergrad are, in grad school, supposed to be standard fare. The same goes for papers. Y’know the big senior thesis English majors have to write as the culmination of their undergraduate career? I have two of those due in about a month. Haven’t started either. And that’s just a normal finals season.
Strangely enough, though, all of those things are suddenly easier than they were in undergrad. Well, maybe easy isn’t the right word…. Let me explain it to you with an example. A few weeks ago I turned in a paper for my class on Medieval Sexuality. It was difficult. I spent a lot of time spinning around in circles in my headspace, revising outlines and re-jotting ideas. But the process itself was more comprehensible and easier to negotiate than it was in undergrad. When I turned it in, I was more aware of the things I needed to work on as a scholar. As usual (and I’m starting to think that if you don’t feel this, there’s a problem) I was unsatisfied with it and all I could think about were all the things I wanted to do, but couldn’t. At the same time, I could feel that my work was more solid than what I’d done in undergrad. Whether it actually is or not, I’m not sure I can say. But the main thing is: I feel more solid in my work.
Again with a contradiction: if you’re not familiar with the term “imposter syndrome,” you need to be. As a resource on the topic, and for good advice in general, I recommend Neil Gaiman’s commencement address to the University of the Arts class of 2012: http://vimeo.com/42372767
The most important thing to surviving grad school is having a support system. Find a grad school buddy. Kelsey Kiser of the class of 2012, currently pursuing her doctorate in African-American Lit at Southern Methodist University, started her program at the same time I did. Avid readers of this blog will remember her post on applying to grad schools. We weren’t very close at UP, but we connected over facebook during the application process, and I really don’t know how I would manage without her support. She has instructed me to describe our relationship as, “totes like an Austen-style grad school marriage.” We stress about the same things, so we can sympathize with each other when those things make us irrational. And at the same time, when one of us gets upset, the other can give her some perspective and encouragement, and doing that can, in turn, help the person who’s giving the advice. I cannot tell you how important it is to have somebody who can give you permission to be imperfect, and then remind you of all the things you do well – (which they notice, because those are the things about you that make them jealous, just like you’re jealous of all the things they do well.)
There will be moments of panic and desperation and of convincing yourself that everyone else is smarter than you and you really don’t belong. But you do. You have to know that you can weather the ups and downs – which you can! – and that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can figure it out. To paraphrase Shakespeare in Love: The natural condition of graduate education is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to immanent disaster. But, strangely enough, it all turns out well. How, you ask?
I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
But it does.