Sunday, July 22, 2007

So, You're Heading off to Grad School, Eh?

Inspired by Tenured Radical's Ten Commandments of Moving, along with her comment that the end of summer is fast approaching (although that's not quite true for those of us on the quarter system, which starts the end of Sept. rather than Aug.), I thought I could continue in my time-honored tradition of bossing the hell out of people giving useful advice and make some suggestions for those of you who are foolish to off to grad school. (You have been warned about the crappy job market, and the exploitation of adjunct and part-time workers, and the fact that it will take about 10 years to get a Ph.D. in English despite what they tell you on the brochures, and that 50 percent of the tenure-track jobs in English these days are at the community college level teaching comp, yes? And you have figured out what this will mean for you? Ok then. Carry on.)

1) Suggestion One: Move Early. The temptation is to drag out the paying job or hanging out with friends or family visits to the very last moment, which seems smart since you'll need to store up the money and sociability like a camel preparing to cross the desert. But remember that not only moving but finding a good apartment takes time. If you get there and unpack and start orientation stuff all in a flurry right as school starts, you will not have much time to discover that your apartment is really a slum. It takes about 3-4 weeks for the cockroaches to overcome their natural shyness and really take a liking to you, their new roommate, and that will be right as your seminars go from "this is fun" to "oh, this is a lot of reading!" Likewise it will take a while for you to realize that the reason one apartment is so cheap is that it takes four bus transfers and an hour and a half to make it in to campus, or that really, living in a neighborhood the locals have nicknamed "the war zone" is just not gonna work for you. You should also think about signing a lease vs. month-to-month if it's available. Sometimes taking an extra week or two sleeping on someone's couch while apartment hunting can prevent you from making a bad apartment choice, but if you do, moving a second time during the first week of school is way easier than right when your students turn in their first batch of papers.

2) So what do you do now that you're here so early? Get to know the place. Not only will it help to learn the bus (or car) route to school, find the buildings and your mailbox, introduce yourself (perhaps several times) to the dept. secretary, and wander around the library and bookstore (ooh fun!) but you can take the time pre-school to find great little places to eat, good coffeeshops, hopefully some interesting nightlife (don't think you're going to be going out like this on a regular basis though). See, your last "vacation" days can be fun adventuring through your new place and you will feel more settled and sure of yourself when it does come time to start. Just think how much better it will be to devote a day to just getting lost and navigating terrifying, confusing freeways, for example, rather than dealing with all that and the knowledge that you are half an hour late for your first seminar.

3) But I'm deathly bored, you tell me from the patio of the only decent coffeeshop you've found here so far. I have yet to see a single grad student on campus and all my friends are across the country. Really? Brilliant! 'Cause the next step is to meet some people not affiliated with grad school. It doesn't matter how ---- volunteer somewhere, show up to the local Dems. service club, take a pottery or cooking class or just look around the park for a pickup soccer game ---- you will really appreciate having a window on the town and some people to give perspective to your life once you start grad school. Yes, you may lose these friendships if they don't understand that grad school means periodic periods of intense work followed by a much lighter schedule, but it will be so nice to talk to people who don't want to only dish about the program or talk about how miserable they are or scoff that So-and-so had no clue what cathexis was in seminar. I'm not always so good at this myself, but keeping outside friends will help keep you sane. (PS the grad students are either gone for the summer or hiding in our library carrels. You'll just have to wait until the weather changes and we come out of dormancy. You'll meet us soon enough.)

4) Besides, you have to set up your work space in addition to familiarizing yourself with the locale. If you're like me, this is too fun for it even to count as advice --- did you love getting new school supplies and smelling the erasers every fall back in grade school? Well, you get to splurge and do it again starting grad school --- all the potential! All the excitement! All the new stuff in its new crinkly cellophane! Ok, seriously, make sure you have a work space set up --- desk, table, corner, whatever. Something where you can type and write and read and work with concentration. And that's the only thing you do there. Get yourself a filing cabinet and set up your books. Figure out what supplies you will need and organize them nicely. Reading dull critical articles (or even interesting critical articles) on the couch with the tv going will not really work well. In the same vein, making constant trips to get paper and toner and whatnot or rummaging through a desk disaster area can easily become procrastination methods, bad habits you don't want to start.

5) And now that you have a work space, start working! What? No, this is grad school --- remember, the unofficial motto is "Catch up" (or "shit, that's already overdue?") and the biggest single difference between undergrad and grad school is that you have to self-motivate. I know, I know, you're already feeling lost and stupid and like a fraud and hyperventilating at the prospect of grad school. So, start small. Planning is always better than cramming. You are enrolled in classes already, right? Go see if the books are in the bookstore, or listed on the web, or email the prof. Pick a nice juicy one that seems fun to read and go find yourself a good reading spot. Sure, take a leisurely pace; have some naps. Don't bother with what comes when on the syllabus or worry about the course reader ---- even if you only read two novels early you should chortle at the joy of being ahead in the reading. Another possibility is to start reading for the class you are teaching, if you are teaching. The other important way to jump start grad school is:

6) Plan out the requirements. Do you have the grad handbook? Have you read it? Have you started to figure out the things you are required to do this year? (No, calm down, just work it on one year at a time. Small bites, ok?) If your program is anything like my program, you have a couple major projects that will be due eventually, completely separate from taking your classes and possibly teaching.
  • Qualifying or field exams.
  • A language requirement (or two).
So those language exams have really been throwing our grads for a loop the past few years. We have a translation exam and, while it you sure don't need to be fluent in any way to pass, you won't be able to pass it just knowing how to look up words in the dictionary really quickly. Trust me, you don't want to get a year behind because you keep failing the language exam and they won't let you move on to the next stage. (At our school, you can keep retaking the exam; at others, repeated fails can get you kicked out. Ask a bunch of different people at your school which is the case. And don't necessarily believe the first answer you get.) Do you have a foreign language? How well do you read it? Go buy a grammar book and a dictionary and some sample stories to practice translating or maybe some audio tapes and a CD. Even if your language requirement is passed by courses and not an exam, you have some free time right now to refamiliarize yourself with the language and it will only make things easier. If you have no language requirement: Tphhphphphphhphphphhphph! Oh, and if you're planning on becoming a med or a mod (medievalist or early modernist) I think you'll have to learn oodles of funky language crap regardless of what the "official" requirement is. Get a head start.

For the qualifying exams, you might have a required "Beowulf to Virginia Woolf" list or you might get to pick two or three historical periods. Or, you might be supposed to write your own lists with the help of your advisor. I had a general list at the place I did my MA and "fields" at my Ph.D. (If you have a fixed single list --- the "Beowulf to Virginia Woolf" --- start tracking down the material, assembling it and see how much of it you can pound through before school starts. Go for it.) But if you have historical periods or get to create your own, I'm going to actually advise you not to pick your fields right away. At my current school, the fields are (a very early) part of your professionalization. They will help declare who you "are," academically. Your fields will tell search committees what you can teach and will tell you which jobs you will apply for. The lists you choose should not be random. You'd think I shouldn't have to tell people this, but I just overheard someone in my dept. say they were doing Shakespeare and Postcolonialism and American Postmodernism, "just because they sounded fun." This person hasn't figured out what area or even what country s/he will study, which means s/he will probably have to re-take a list or two. Don't do this. A lot of grad school will be making sure you are well-rounded, but the time for being a dilettante and just reading for pleasure is over. The lists have nothing to do with pleasure and everything to do with grounding yourself in your field. You can always pick up the occasional book or sit in on your cohort's reading group in a different field. That is why I say: wait. Look at the lists and think about them very hard, but don't pick any yet. (see? it's even less intimidating this way.) Part of the point of taking all those seminars and meeting as many profs in your dept. as possible is for you to figure out (and hopefully be sure) what you want to study and when. You may discover you love something you didn't really know about before you got here. Or you may discover that what you thought you loved isn't fun to study in the way we study things in grad school. So the point of that first year is to figure out what kind of scholar you want to be, and to begin to lay a groundwork. That and get your damn translation requirement out of the way.


Sisyphus said...

Damn I do go on!

If you have successfully made it through this entire post, congratulations! You get a cookie. May your perseverance serve you well in grad school.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Darn, you mean I wasn't supposed to spend all of grad school being a dilettante? Oh well, too late...

Eddie said...

OK, I must admit that I read probably 4/5ths of the post. But I agree with everything I read! Man am I glad I don't have to do grad school anymore. You will get through it, I promise!

heu mihi said...

"[Y]ou may discover that what you thought you loved isn't fun to study in the way we study things in grad school."

Exactly what happened to me! I thought I was going to do 19th/early 20th-c lit when I got to grad school. Instead, I became a medievalist. This is why I get so nervous when grad students are expected to have committed to a specialization before they even start coursework.

(Of course, I understand *why* faculty might want to encourage early specialization--see your own remarks about dilettantism--but it leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that I very narrowly missed not getting into my program....)

Sisyphus said...

eddie: only 4/5ths of a cookie for you! (If you are a wily one, you'll go find a really big cookie.)

Porpentine: were you able to combine a)dilettantism and b)finishing? Cause those two categories have not overlapped in our depts. grad students.

jb: I think all of my TAs in undergrad told me the same story --- perhaps as part of a shtick to get us to try reading areas we did not like, but still.

I think there is a very narrow and careful path to navigate between being focused and being too focused too early. Alas, I think it's just going to get weirdly too focused for incoming grads now.

Sisyphus said...

PS writing concisely takes more mental energy than I can put in on a blog, sorry everyone. I have such trouble editing down my work work and still having it make sense that I can't really do it after hours too.

Flavia said...

I *did* make it all the way through your post, but I have to say that a) I did practically none of these things (our program structure kinda required us to be dilettantes, because our orals involve 9 different fields which have to be spread somewhat reasonably across all centuries/genres), and b) I would have been totally scared as an incoming grad student, had I read your suggestions, but c) I think you're right about most of them--especially the workspace, the familiarization with the area, and the meeting of non-academic friends.

One thing about dilettantism: although I *liked* the generalist emphasis of my program (some of my peers did not), and I like it all the more now that I can talk about my colleagues at some length about, say, the novel of sensibility or Sam Shepard, it does mean that I still feel a little inadequate in my own field since I didn't spend my first two-three years grinding through all the critical lit (and the lesser-known primary works) in my field.

So, that's a trade off for many people, even if they don't have (too much) trouble getting done.