Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Self-Help for Grad Students

Strange and uncomfortable situations make me want to write. I was taking a short internet-daze break at work (since I didn't feel like driving somewhere to eat fast food), and these chellovecks walked up the stairs and started opening wine bottles on the conference table. They said nothing to me, even though I'm seated outside the offices as if I'm the receptionist. Maybe I don't look very receptive. Anyhow now they've got little sample cups out as if they're ready to give a tasting. Is someone getting married and testing out wines at work? Are they new clients who want us to be intimate with their wares before we market them to the free world? I'm intrigued anyhow, and so I have started to write on something I've been thinking about as I surf the net for grad school information, advice, and related funnies.

(Almost) Text:
I read a lot of blogs and articles about academia. None of them do I read regularly -- I don't bookmark or RSS the stuff, but every day I click on Twitter links that look interesting and always seem to end up somewhere semi-academic. A lot of these blogs end up having a link to some kind of advice column or funny articles about life as a grad student, or life as a pre-tenure associate prof. Most of these blogs and articles (and I haven't figured out why) are by computer science students and professors. They run the gamut from optimistic how-to guides (i.e. "How to survive..." "How to get into..." "How to excel at...") focused on practical information, to cautionary blog posts telling computer science students they'd better forget about getting any more degrees, to student's blog that are both funny and depressing in their portrayal of graduate student life in any discipline.

As a graduate student in the humanities (Holy shit I can say that now! [Holy shit, should I cease with the public cursing?!]), some things stand out to me as different among the graduate computer geeks and scientists. Science students and profs alike iter-and-reiterate how "brilliance" and "smartness" are not all that important in a compsci PhD program, or even in science. One article by a veteran professor cites "perseverance, tenacity, and cogency" as the three traits that define a successful graduate student in his field. He elaborates on each of these traits, and there are some useful practical ideas and advice on attitudes and expectations that apply even to students in the non-sciences like myself. However, he and others come back to the "you don't need to be smart" line so often, you'd think their programs were hurting like hell for new recruits. Or maybe they've just adapted to the new crop of young Americans -- willing to work and bang away at a thesis till they die, but not willing to sit still for an instant to get all enlightened and junk. Either way, I found the call for dummies a little startling.

I'm sure some dummies take English degrees now and again, but it seems to me that being unsmart in this discipline would make a PhD a prohibitive venture. There are very few seats in these programs, even at state schools. Candidates' profiles reek of l'air d'erudition, and it's all very frightening sometimes. If I didn't think I was at least a little smart I'd never entertain ideas of going into a classroom with the likes of them. Maybe the computers department (whatever it's called) is all about camaraderie and geeking out together with the latest RPGs and fluorescent energy drinks.

Another more positive (for them) difference I found between us and them is the sense of humor and openness they have about their discipline and all it takes to become a doctor of it. Do literature students have this humor and openness? I think they're mostly serious and desire some anonymity, at least in public academic blogging. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems that those of us who study an art that often deals in humor, irreverence, sex, and other fun should be a little more conversational about it. Not just the literature but the whole literature student or professor lifestyle, our complaints about it, our fears of it, our--

Context (or, over there):
"We can make custom bottle labels, we even have some custom bottle shapes."
"Can you make bottles shaped like the internet?"

--methods of dealing with it, our methods of even getting into it. As I mentioned, many of these blogging compsci folk tell us how they got where they are and think it necessary or at least helpful to reach out to students who would like to be where they are. Even when they have to be discouraging about a certain program or a certain type of student, they remain friendly in their delivery of this bad news. Perhaps literature is too competitive, and we don't want to share our secrets unless we want to scare the competition shitless? Even professors who have their tenure engraved in stone try to frighten us off. Some of them are well meaning, maybe others think we want to force them into retirement. The English department, after all, only has so much cutter, O my brothers.

Last year I blogged about how to do well on the literature GRE, partly because there is a dearth of published guides for this test (like the dearth of internet guides in everything else English), and partly because half the bumpkins who took the test with me looked scared stiff. (The other half weren't bumpkins at all but real competition with all like learned diction. One even wore an ascot.) I was not afraid that I would give someone else my spot by helping them with the test. I'm not yet into the thick of grad student life, but you can be sure I will continue to share my thoughts on it without paranoia, and I really can't wait to have useful advice to give to prospective grad students. It's a hard road, this getting in, and who doesn't go looking for help? So lately, I've just been a little disappointed looking for help with my next step, the PhD program and the application to such, since not many literature students are sharing.

What can you find out about our discipline online? The MLA has good articles on what's going on with teaching, some sites for academics publish articles on the "state of women" in humanities higher ed (mostly undervalued, sometimes "desperate"), abuse of adjunct faculty, etc etc. But none of this stuff is from a specific point of view, and it is not intended to prevent, diagnose, or cure any academic malaise you might be facing, especially as a student. So I've been looking at what the scientists have to say, and taking away the parts that might cure what ails me. Reading this stuff, I also see what all grad students have in common even if most of my kind don't like to talk about it.

Here is a useful and friendly "blog" by a compsci professor, wherein he shares tips on lecturing, getting into school, being successful at school, the academic job hunt, and academic blogging itself. You can apply most of this to whatever non-computer discipline you fancy:

A detailed PhD survival guide by a compsci grad student (some of it applies to all of us):

A depressing day-in-the-life of a compsci student that will resonate with procrastinators:

A general guide to grad studenting, not as useful if you're already in it, but offers some wisdom to those who are thinking about it:

The wine-bearing vecks took off. Things are back to normal on the second floor.

1 comment:

  1. In my never-ending search for the perfect English grad program for me, I look at who teaches there, the profs specialties, publications, etc. Then I compare it to my personal interests in the field.

    The other thing that I am finding utterly useful is my voluntary senior thesis. Not only is it giving my a fantastic writing sample for applications but I am also working very intimately with a professor with close ties to subsect of Literature that I wish to devote my life to.

    Since DePaul offers no PhD program, a good suggestion is associating with people of similar interests. Also, (this one is a little crazier) look into the universities attended by the profs that teach in the field of your interest. Oh, and when the grad school rankings come out every year, they do break down English into sub-categories. I was able to find the top 10 schools in the country for 18th-19th C. British Lit this way.


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