by Olivia Van Wey
It may reside in the intimate setting we create in our classes as lovers of literature or even in the nature of the content that creates a mesmerizing cohesion of the class setting, but somehow over the course of four years inseparable bonds are created between members of the English faculty and their students. These are the people who accepted us when we were first unsure of our choice of major, continuously encourage us when the inkling of an original idea comes to fruition from a classic novel, and genuinely care about our well-being. We love that they help us solve our most immediate quandary and very often leave their office hours wondering how they got to be so knowledgeable. They were once like us, in the beginning, middle, and end of their undergrad years, they graduated, and made it out okay. The big question is, how? How did they get from English undergrads to being our professors? I dared to vocalize this burning question and was not even surprised with the level of honesty they were willing to provide their students in the hope that once again they can be a pool of knowledge on which we can take some information.
Here my fellow English majors lies the holy grail of answers I am sure that you too have been wondering about in how our professors got to be in the positions they are today.
Biggest thank you to Dr. Hersh, Dr. Swidzinski, Dr. Weiger, and Dr. Larson for sharing their journeys to their doctorates and doing so in the most genuine unfiltered manner. To you do we owe our eternal gratitude for your advice and enthusiasm in expanding our minds to think critically in a conversation that started before our time.
1. On the question of what they did after they finished their undergrad years…
Dr. Hersh: I worked for a Human Resources consulting firm in Washington, DC. I did this for two years and then went on to grad school.
Dr. Swidzinski: I did a one-year MA in English literature immediately following my BA. I then worked full-time for a year before deciding to apply to PhD programs.
Dr. Weiger: I spent the year after graduation teaching English as a second language to adults and children in Japan. My partner traveled with me through JET (the Japan Exchange and Teaching program). I spent the first part of my year teaching with a large, private English-teaching firm (AEON), and the second part working with a small company that specialized in teaching preschool-age children.
Dr. Larson: After college, my girlfriend had a car and I had a plan: to spend a year living with spatial mobility. Since we both loved traveling American regions, and had the skills to do office temp work, we followed through on an idea to live in four different cities across a year, and take extended road trips on the way to each. The plan was to do that for just a year, but since I did not get into any of the grad schools I applied to during that first attempt, we spent the second year staying put in San Francisco.
2. On choosing grad school and doing it when they did…
Dr. Hersh: “I wanted to work before going on to grad school. I knew that it was something that I was interested in, but also needed a break from school. I loved being able to work 9-5 for those two interim years, but working also made me really SURE that graduate school was the right choice. I missed having to think hard about things and the general intellectual feel of literature studies.”
Dr. Swidzinski: In all honesty, I applied to PhD programs largely on a whim and without thinking through the consequences of this choice. I’d done well at the BA and MA level, I was dissatisfied with my current work, and so it seemed a natural step. I made the choice without doing much research, either into the various grad schools to which I applied or the nature of the humanities job market into which I would eventually graduate. Notwithstanding the fact that I’m now lucky enough to have a job, I’m dismayed by how little thought I put into my future at the time.
Dr. Weiger: I decided to go to grad school because I felt at home in literary studies and I knew I had a lot to learn. I felt excited about the prospect of meeting new teachers and peers, as well as testing my abilities. I actually applied to grad school while I was in Japan; that meant I spent a lot of time researching schools in smoky internet cafes and striking up friendships with the lovely ladies who worked at the local FedEx.
Dr. Larson: Grad school (PhD. in English) was my plan upon graduating. Professors told me Masters degrees can’t take you too far in the weirdly narrow field of English, and so going for the doctorate seemed right, even though at the time the average completion time was eight years. But I liked the thought of continuing the kinds of work and habits I’d enjoyed in undergraduate years — grad work just struck me as feeling more important than any other daily activity I could be doing. Scholarship felt more urgent than joining the workforce, pulling in an impressive income, getting a house, or other things many of my peers were doing. And two years working as an office temp certainly helped cement this belief in grad school’s value. Getting in took two years: in my first attempt, I got rejected from all eleven places I applied to, but the second year I radically changed my application essay and targeted schools more carefully and ended up getting in to all six places. Getting in involves a weird mix of strategy and luck.
3. On something you think a UP undergrad should consider when deciding if grad school is right for them…
Dr. Hersh: Graduate school is a big time/financial commitment. You should be absolutely passionate about the discipline you have chosen. Make sure that you don’t romanticize what it will be like. It can be great—but it can also be frustrating, tedious, and even demoralizing at times. You need to know that you are there for the right reasons to get through the tough times.
I also think that you need to really make sure that you are self-motivated. Nobody in graduate school is there telling you that there are deadlines or reminding you that things are due. You need to be really disciplined.
Do a lot of homework. Visit different schools. Find out what their retention rate is, what their job placement rate is like, and how happy their students are.
Dr. Swidzinski: The average PhD in the humanities will take 6 or 7 years to complete. A PhD forces you to spend the majority (if not all) of your twenties with a very low income and without reliable health insurance. It doesn’t, in other words, leave you with much of a safety net in case something goes awry with your health or your housing. It presents a serious obstacle to those who wish to have children. (You may not be thinking about such things now, but the choice to go to grad school will impact life goals that you haven’t even imagined yet.)
Dr. Weiger: Given that many PhD students go on to careers that are not directly linked to their field of study (and may even be outside academia entirely), I encourage you to consider grad school only if the prospect of being a student for five to eight years — perhaps in a new part of the country or the world — excites you in itself. Do it if graduate school feels like a destination (a place you want to spend a good chunk of your life!), not a means to an end.
Dr. Larson: I have a hard time giving advice about graduate school because my experience is so limited. Whereas graduate pursuits can take you in all kinds of directions from law to heath care to business, I only have (minimal) insight into the English Ph.D track. But certainly UP undergrads should cultivate a solid list of reasons for committing to grad school. The life can be a long haul, and getting through takes a certain single-mindedness. (For example, on the English Ph.D track, only 50% decide to complete the degree; and for those who finish, during any given year, only 50% of job market candidates secure a long-term job.) Undergraduates will hear plenty of horror stories from professors about the brutality of the job market, and they’re certainly true. But what doesn’t get enough lip-service is the fact that this world needs more Ph.Ds — not fewer. If a person feels that pursuing knowledge for its own sake is a valuable thing to do with several years of what will most likely be a long life, then the job-market prospects should not be the paramount concern. Life-long learning should. Graduate school is a fantastic place to continue the process of forging your soul. If you can get a degree along the path of that noble task, then that’s a bonus.
4. Last minute advice for our graduating English class of 2016…
Dr. Swidzinski: Don’t go to grad school unless you can’t imagine living your life happily otherwise. If you can conceive of any way to be happy without going to grad school, you should probably pursue that path instead.
Dr. Weiger: Enjoy your post-grad time! It is very common for graduate students to begin their programs after taking some time to try out alternate careers, volunteer, explore the world, etc. Rather than worrying, then, about getting off-track, think about pursuing opportunities that seem singular, interesting, valuable, or just plain fun. And of course, you may also need to pursue a less-than-ideal position just to stay afloat. That’s o.k. too!
Dr. Larson: I’d advise graduates to remember that random forces shape so much of our identity, intellectual development, peer group, and success. We are neither masters of our fate nor captains of our soul. (Though isn’t it pretty to think so?) We are beneficiaries (or unfortunates) of legacies that began many generations ago; we have brains that are hard-wired for our own self-enhancing deceptions; and we are deeply vulnerable to the attractive narratives of others. Twenty years from now, your personality won’t be all that different from who you are today. And much of our future success or failure will have shockingly little to do with us. Graduation feels like a dramatic precipice, but that’s just somebody else’s narrative talking. What we can do, then, is to think more long-term about our lives and what will still matter across that long ride; seek fresher, more original language and plots for conceiving the arc of our lives; dance with randomness more comfortably and confidently; and to enjoy our ice cream while it’s on our plate. Grad school is far more hyper-specialized than the undergraduate experience, but it can still keep us engaged with the essential value of thinking our way through life.