Wednesday, June 6, 2007

What are you here for, again?

Over at Not of General Interest, Undine has a post on the unofficial motto of grad school: “Catch Up!” (I had thought it was Grad School: Where We Tie You to a Chair and Beat You With Shoes, or perhaps, The Ph.D.: Do You Want Fries With That? ---- but I was wrong, evidently.)

Anyway, just as I was getting at with my removing-the-training-wheels metaphor, Undine says grad students must be proactive in their studies and their shaping of themselves into scholars ---- that a casual mention of an unfamiliar name or event or school should be noted as something one needed to study up on oneself, not wait for the professor to contextualize, to which I say, Exactly! Only it helps if you explicitly tell incoming grad students that.

(Especially when you consider a trend toward being more and more explicit for our undergrads now, as in the writing-program style of modeling all the assignments, which was different from my English-major experience of being handed a prompt and told to bring back a paper.)

Undine also stresses the importance of cultivating a verbal filter and more restrained public persona — not every thought you have or trouble you want to bitch about is worth airing in public. And not only is this true, likewise you should consider the context of when you do speak and the power relations thereof. Airing your complete hatred or ignorance of, say, the eighteenth century, or psychoanalysis, in front of a professor who might be in charge of allocating future funding or otherwise helping your graduate career, is foolish in the extreme. Whether that prof is your advisor or someone whose class fills a distribution requirement (or is merely passing you in the hall), painting yourself as ignorant or lazy, or even self-deprecating, will only predispose them toward helping the “more worthy” grads instead. The walls have ears! Take your cohort completely off campus to do your kvetching and gossiping; that’s what bars are for.

Now, no one told me any of this --- in fact, the most common advice I got as an undergrad or MA student was “go away and leave me alone! I have research to do.” (usually this was said through body language rather than explicitly, but not always.) What saved me --- and what got me out of my first, unhappy program into my second --- was the book Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., by Robert Peters. I love this book! First of all, it is funny. And readable in a very accessible way. Second, it is so useful in revealing the structure of grad programs --- both their written and unwritten rules --- that I go back and reread it at least once a year, and dip in and out of it regularly (I reread it as much for a comfort ritual as for getting information now; I know some women in the hard sciences who similarly reread and rely on it). It starts with a chapter on what is grad school, is it worth it, and should you actually go, before even getting to the gritty details of applying and surviving. If you are a prospective student, and you are stupid foolhardy determined enough to actually apply for the experience of several long years on poverty wages with a very real chance of never getting the type of job that you have been trained for, then you absolutely should read this book beforehand; when I got to the “funding” chapter I was kicking myself at all the chances I missed. It includes a chapter on how to apply as well as one on how to improve your chances of admission.

It is just as important to consider politic (as in Machiavelli) and pragmatic aspects to how one should research and choose one’s future department, or dissertation topic, as idealistic ones. Furthermore, your personal behavior and interactions, as I’ve mentioned already, have serious repercussions on your future. The most important chapter of this book, to my mind, is “Playing Politics,” which begins with the subsection “Start Your Job Search on Day One” ---- it asserts that whereas undergraduates are granted excuses, somewhat like children, grad students are on probation ---- being tested for their fitness as future colleagues. The author tells the following story:
“John, one of my fellow biology students at Stanford, made the fatal mistake of getting a reputation among faculty as someone who wasn’t serious about his work — the greatest academic sin”
(I should note here that to research this book, the author interviewed hundreds of grad students from many varied disciplines, ---- English is well represented here although there is a strong science bent ---- and that the stories of defeat and despair, as well as success, provide many of the pleasures of reading, schadenfreude or otherwise)

Peters continues:
"Whenever he took a break from research, he practiced rock climbing on the sandstone walls of the biology building, shoeless, shirtless, and in cutoff shorts. When he ran into problems with his thesis, he could be viewed at all hours clinging precariously to the outside of the building. After he also began giving prolonged displays of shirtless juggling in the central courtyard, his future was decided. The departmental senate reviewed his academic progress, judged him inadequately serious, and he was exiled to a job in computer programming in which he made much more money than he ever could have as a biologist."
How can you not love this book? But seriously, he has many good points about the expectations for good graduate student behavior and ways to keep the faculty, other grads, and perhaps most importantly the secretarial staff, on your side. As someone who loves lists and time management crap, I especially appreciate his chapters about structuring one’s time and work space, and the chapter on the writing process and writing the dissertation was so important to me that at one point when I was young and stupid I assigned it to a comp class (they did not understand it. I might as well have given it to them in Arabic.).

However, while it’s amazing for learning how to navigate academic culture and politics and very useful in explaining how to survive and get a PhD, that’s only part of “what I came for.” It’s not so strong on the academic job market, or even the job market in industry, although he does have some science info (who have an industry to go into ---- I wish they had poetry factories and someone wanted me for a line foreman --- I’m sensing a Monty Python skit coming on ---) and it has nothing about being a professor or getting tenure. For that, I turn to the blogs. And here we are.


heu mihi said...

Nice post. On the "good grad student behavior" (not airing every opinion, not admitting ignorance, etc)--I think you're right, but I would add a caveat: Worrying *too* much about appearing serious and learned can create a stultifying atmosphere in which one is afraid to ask questions. I'm writing this partly because I realize that I gave advice that more or less opposes your on my blog a couple of days ago, and so this is as much to qualify my own comments as it is to add to yours. I certainly don't think that we should run around saying whatever crosses our minds. But my psychological and intellectual happiness were *greatly* increased when I realized that I wasn't expected to have everything figured out already. Obviously I was judicious in what opinions I expressed and what questions I asked, but it was still a huge step for me to realize that I *could* voice these things. ANd that my dissertation committee (the nicest people on the planet, luckily) didn't think worse of me as a result.

Just a thought. Maybe I should go back and edit my own blog....

gwoertendyke said...

yes, i agree with undine completely, re: catching up on your own and restraining yourself unless you're willing to go to the wall. reading and listening are the two greatest survival tips of grad school.

Earnest English said...

Reading this post made me sad to think how much of grad school I've done wrong! Totally wrong! Prudence would tell me I should've been more restrained. But though I probably would not have gotten into so much trouble, I probably would not have made it through. I would've found it totally stultifying to being playing a part that long.

I asked lots of questions. Not stupid questions that screamed "do the work for me" (usually), but good questions as in intellectual curiosity. And I believe that it's my questions that have garnered the respect of my faculty members. As well as my passion. But as AW says, I am willing to go to the wall on some things.

Sisyphus said...

JB, good point: just like how when we yell at an entire class of our students for bad behavior or unpreparedness and the good students totally overreact while the students who we are actually referring to remain oblivious or uncaring, I run the risk of silencing the insecure but smart grads while the assholes and the clueless blather on.

And both EE and JB, I should clarify that asking questions and engaging --- even tussling! --- with our profs is a valuable skill and should be encouraged in seminars. I was thinking more in the direction of differentiating oneself, behaviorally and verbally, from the undergraduates: if you're asking "what is realism?" or "wait, you used the word 'reify' ---- you must first explain the entire trajectory of what Marxism is to me," you need to do your own catchup reading. Or, more commonly, telling profs, "Dude, I hate all that jargon and theory stuff," which as grad students we don't have the luxury of writing off without understanding what it is and being able to explain articulately and like an adult scholar _why_ we are not using it.

heu mihi said...

Yeah, that makes sense. And I understood that that was what you meant. I think that, for me, a big part of my development in grad school was learning to differentiate the legitimate questions and comments from the illegitimate. In my first year or two, I felt that EVERYthing I said would be an expression of my ignorance and therefore wasn't worth saying. As I went on, I started to understand that a) we weren't expected to know everything, just yet, and b) that there were certain kinds of ignorance that are okay to express: not "what does [word] mean?", obviously, but things like, "Okay, we've been talking about the Mirror Phase in some detail here, and I think I have a handle on ---, but this one sentence of Lacan's still doesn't seem to fit into the bigger picture," or whatever. Questions, in other words, that show that you're doing your work but still not some help at certain points.

So I agree with you. Just wanted to elaborate for the sake of not scaring people like me into silence!

medieval woman said...

A great post and great comments! I think I've been blocking out a lot of my grad school experience (not that it's that far in the past for me!), but I think it's also about reading the environment you're in. I did an MA at a different school from where I did my Ph.D. and I realized swiftly that you need to be able to read the different environments. Kinda like using snow tires for winter weather or putting more freon in the car for that trip to the beach. Part of the environment is also reading the profs, office staff, etc. Over the course of many years you learn who you can chew the fat with and who you need to be careful about speaking to frankly with. Until then, it's best to tread a little lightly. And I'm all for taking your cohort out to a bar and not griping in the copy room!

Professor Zero said...

I agree with JB's first post, although I don't think Medieval Woman (the most recent comment, cited primarily for that reason) is wrong. Of course, I tend to oscillate between being too vocal and too silenced, and this is *my* problem. But:

In graduate school, we circulated a petition asking the university to give some minimal level of health insurance to TAs. I was surprised and shocked to find out how many of my liberal and lefty co-students would not sign, because faculty might see that they had signed, and not recommend them for jobs. Horrifying. Who wants to work with a person that paranoid, and lily-livered? Being too afraid, or two-faced, does *not* get people points with me.

Also: it seems to *me* there is so much emphasis on the importance of restraint now that people have gotten insipid. And in some cases it means they are passive agressive. It is *very* time consuming to have to work with people who will not give a straight answer to a straight question - or who will vote for a policy and then work undercover to undermine it. I would *far* rather they come out with their disagreements in the first place: then we can arrange things in a way that reflects the actual sense of faculty opinion.

I do not say these things because I like drama (I hate it), or because I find poor behavior acceptable. And I cannot abide griping. But I have no problems with personalities and opinions. I even like them. If I wanted to work in a corporate or military environment, I would.

All of this having been said ... I think I know where the advice about restraint comes from. It *is* wiser. I've got some assistant professors around right now who want to discuss and dissect everything in great detail and I just don't have time for it, and I'm not at their same stage of life, and they are opining on things of which they know very little. They're boring, and they haven't listened enough yet, and they make assumptions rather than look up facts - which, by the way, makes me wonder about them as researchers.

I guess just don't recommend taking restraint to ridiculous degrees.

Unknown said...

I just discovered your blog, and now that I've caught myself up on your posts I thought I would add a comment about a book I found helpful...

One of the best books I've read about the graduate experience is "Graduate Study for the 21st Century" by Gregory Colon Semenza. Although it primarily focuses on English/humanities, my husband, who is in the sciences, also thought it was useful. Semenza does a thorough job dealing with research, department politics, work load as grad students and so on. He also has quite a bit of info about the job search/market as well, and includes sample letters to send to publishers, search committees, etc.