Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On Grad School: Our Motto is "Catch up!"

Dr. Crazy's recent and much-admired post on grad school has Horace at To Delight and To Instruct collecting such posts. Since she and others have said more gracefully the important parts, what follows is a short response, in random bullet form.

  • I did not experience grad school as a process that broke down my entire sense of self and rebuilt it, a la the boot camp model. I didn't experience my professors as cruel, either; that may be because they weren't, or it may be because I was too oblivious to notice.
  • One of the biggest differences between grad and undergrad was that in grad classes, you were supposed to "get it" without being told. If a name was mentioned casually, you didn't raise your hand and ask but went scurrying off to the library to figure out who it was before anyone could figure out that you didn't know who it was. If a professor said, "Nice work. This should be publishable," he never gave any suggestions about how to make it publishable, or where it could be sent, or what conferences it might be suitable for, or anything else. If I had to identify an unofficial model for grad school, it would be "Catch up!"
  • Another motto would be "nobody cares what your problems are." This may sound heartless, but in retrospect, it prepared us for real jobs. In reality, as grim as it sounds, mostly people don't care if you're having a bad day, or you're depressed, or you just can't get motivated to do what you promised. They just want it done, and whining about it (which was semi-acceptable at lower levels) just wasn't acceptable. You could gripe to your fellow grad students about X or Y, but you were expected to suck it up, a useful talent--and policy--for later life.
  • Another useful thing to note is that you don't have to--and indeed shouldn't--express every opinion you have. I recall sitting in a class in Old English one time and being struck by an image in the poem we'd read for that day that I thought was quite beautiful. "Purple passage!" scoffed the professor, and the rest of the class laughed. My opinion didn't change (still hasn't--take THAT, Professor X!), but I recognized the wisdom of keeping my mouth shut. (And I've published more than he has, too, so there!)
  • Some theories and approaches are indeed transformative and will blow your mind. What they don't tell you is that some, well, aren't and won't. You can work your way through mind-bogglingly dense prose sometimes and discover genius, but sometimes that prose is just a cover-up for mind-boggling banality. The painful part is that both take equal time to read and decipher, and the critical fad significant critical paradigm of today may well be yesterday's news in a year or two. I've been out of grad school long enough to have seen this in action, so trust me on this.
  • Snotty, pretentious, PITA fellow grad students do exist. Avoid them, if possible, since they carry a negative energy that's hard to break free from.

    So, what's the short version? Grad school isn't a Vincent Price chamber of horrors. Keep your own counsel, take pleasure in and sustenance from the good friends you'll make, do your work, and believe that you can do it.

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