The People You Meet in Graduate School

Tweed jacket with elbow patches
You're going to need one of these.

We had the welcome luncheon for new graduate students yesterday.  Given that I probably did everything in my power to scare people about the experience last week, I thought this would be a good time to dispense some practical and hopefully light-hearted wisdom about how to navigate the first year or so of grad school in the humanities.  I welcome questions, suggestions, and pitches for guest posts.  Email sfdrafts@gmail.com!

On my very first day, our grad advisor told us that grad school was about learning to participate in a scholarly conversation rather than merely jumping through academic hoops like you did in college.  In some ways, the very skills and strategies that made you successful as an undergrad (and therefore got you to grad school in the first place) are skills and strategies that may have to be set aside.  After the first semester, you will quickly discover that no one gets a B in a class unless they really screw up.  There really aren’t any tests (unless you’re doing something statistically based or taking a language or linguistics class) to study for.  There’s just A LOT of reading to do and a batch of term papers to write at the end of each term.

(PRO TIP:  When registering for classes, look through each course description carefully and note the final project.  Do not sign up for more than two classes with an article-length (20+ page) paper due at the end of term.  I quickly discovered that two is the maximum number of long papers a brain can reasonably be expected to produce within a month’s time.  Even if you only wind up with two, you’ll want to start one kind of early.)

Participating in a conversation means learning to deal with people in entirely new ways.  Success in graduate school does depend on making contact with the professors who do what you want to do and convincing them to supervise your M.A. thesis, prospectus, or dissertation down the road.  Most people begin making contact by taking classes with these people whenever possible, and seminars can turn into a sort of obnoxious cocktail party, with everyone vying to make the cleverest comment.  If the professor is attuned to that sort of bullshit, he or she will usually try to diffuse the tension.  It doesn’t always work, but you have to love them for trying.

It is virtually guaranteed, however, that in every seminar there will be  at least one ringer, one fourth or fifth (or tenth or twelfth) year asshole who has read every book in the entire world and seems to go out of his way to terrify everyone else into silence.  This person takes a variety of forms:

The Prof’s Advisee: She has been working with the professor for the better part of a decade and has read all of her books.  They seem to always enter the room together and complete each other’s sentences.  The student knows or is able to anticipate her reading of every text on the syllabus and her view on every political question and can parrot those views back while still managing to avoid sounding like the sycophant that she is.  They may affectionately disagree on one or two things, but you can be certain that the student’s dissertation is basically the sequel to the prof’s book.

The Medievalist: He is taking Nineteenth Century American Novels because he needs to show range and this sounds like an easy class.  He thinks your field is scholarship-lite because you don’t have to know Latin or Anglo-Saxon or whatever.  He has almost nothing to say about any given text but oozes disdain from every pore.  The prof in this seminar hates this student’s living guts but doesn’t say anything because his advisor is a known tyrant and probably in charge of tenure review.  This student’s advisor, by the way, was on my Qualifying Exam panel, and he pretended to fall fell asleep whenever we finished with his stuff and moved on to nineteenth century slave literature.

The Theorist: He read Derrida as an undergrad and was a philosophy major or something.  He seems to pipe up with something like, “I think Habermas would say…” at every opportunity.  If you are lucky, this person will have a single-minded obsession with a particular theorist, and everyone (including the prof) start rolling their eyes at her every time he goes off on a tangent about the brilliance of Adorno and Horkheimer.  Otherwise, he’s just going to make everyone else feel inadequate.

The Paragon of Lefty Virtue: Whether she is a radical feminist, socialist, pacifist, vegan, or all of the above, this grad student is there to sneer at your tepid political commitments and police any and all comments about her specific areas of activism for insufficient radicalism and theoretical rigor.  She will tolerate no nuance when it comes to questions like:  “Religious people–maybe not the absolute embodiment of everything that is wrong with the world?”  You feel embarrassed in her presence both because she has read waaaaay more Judith Butler and Marx and Weber than you but also because she is a walking right-wing parody of a lefty academic.  In other words, this is what your deleted blog commenters think you are like.

So yes, some variant of this advanced graduate student will be making an appearance in at least one of your seminars this semester.  Unfortunately, you can’t clam up.  Many new grads make the mistake of staying silent in class for fear of looking stupid and spend the whole semester bitching about that person behind their back.  That takes you further away from the primary goal of graduate school:  learning to participate in a scholarly conversation.  So the trick is figuring out how to make a contribution without getting shut down.

First, do as mom says and consider the source.  Advanced students in graduate school who show up in seminars that they don’t really need to take are, I guaran-god-damn-tee it, having a lot of trouble finishing–or even starting–their dissertations.  So yeah, this person may simply be trying to make themselves feel better at the expense of some noobs.  Furthermore, you have to remember that these students aren’t the fully fledged academic experts they may seem to be.  They may know more than you, but they aren’t perfect in their knowledge, and many of them can’t, for some reason, think critically about the ideas they parrot back from books.

The best thing you can do with these individuals is to strive to learn what they know and then raise the level of the debate.  You will quickly find that not everyone is as well-read as they pretend to be and not everyone understands theory as completely as it may seem to someone who hasn’t read it at all.  So, during this first semester, you will want to begin making a list of stuff that you need to read that isn’t on any of your syllabi, though in a future post I would like to put together a list on this blog to get you started.  Experienced humanities grads:  post your “must-reads” in comments or email your list to me if you have time.

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11 thoughts on “The People You Meet in Graduate School

  1. Thank you for this! The grad school advice in general is so helpful. However, is the blazer REALLY necessary? I hate office attire – is there some leeway for grad students to wear alternatives to business dress at events? Do you know anyone who could help me out with this?

    1. Thecait, I will try to cover attire sometime this week, because no one ever talks about it! But just to address your present concern: No, the tweed jacket is NOT MANDATORY. In fact, academics are notoriously poor dressers.

  2. I had a PhD student who knew everything in my first course as an MA. He terrified me, and I think I spoke once in that class during the whole quarter. It set a bad precedent for the rest of my MA classes, and I only shook my fear of talking in class when I moved to a different program for my PhD. One of the things I’ve realized is that there will always be people who know things you don’t know, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they know more than you, or that what you know isn’t valuable. My advice to new grad students is to not be intimidated when other people talk about things you haven’t read or aren’t familiar with. You’ve probably read things they haven’t or could provide a perspective they don’t know.

  3. I am starting grad school in a couple of weeks and I’m probably a mix of Person A and Person D – my apologies to *everyone*. I got a bit too much positive reinforcement in grade school. But re: speaking up, please god yes. Whenever I was being Ms. Chatty Van Lotsofopionions in my undergrad seminars, what I really wanted was people to talk *with*, not at (eventually found some!), and I was miserable when I realized I was just being intimidating (working on it).

    Which leads me to my grad school quandry… other grad students. I hope to find a few gloriously nerdy and domain-compatible friendships, but I’m going into a small program in a small department and working/socializing with others is always more of a challenge than I’d like, especially in close quarters under stressful conditions. Advice, insight, always appreciated.

    1. I don’t have any advice at all… but your post is a bit scary in that I could have written it! I am also person A and D, trying to find people in class to talk ‘with’ instead of ‘at’ and about to enter a small program in a small department! Good luck, and let me know if you figure out how to do make these “gloriously nerdy and domain-compatible friendships” as that is my goal as well!

    2. Have a party – free food and alcohol will make a good impression on most grad students!

      (You think I’m kidding, but no… social activities involving food and talking and drinking usually go over well. If you’re more timid, bring cookies to campus now and then.)

      1. My sister suggested that the best way to keep my apartment clean would be to have frequent dinner parties. 🙂 Instead I’m just having frequent plumber/maintenance drop-ins…

        I’m a teetotaler* and have some pretty strong social gatherings anxiety (both my own parties and other people’s), so I think this is a good suggestion, just not for me personally. Cookies, though, I can do.

        I’ve been at my new institution for a few weeks now, and I am very fortunate to have been given desk-space in a small shared office for a multi-disciplinary research initiative, which means I’m interacting with people from different areas and backgrounds but with shared interests, and lately I’ve been parlaying some of the work relationship stuff into outside-the-office hanging out. This is a special opportunity, however, so not something I can recommend easily to others. Ah well. My general strategy is just to take opportunities as they come.

        *Fwiw, it’s not that I think other people shouldn’t drink, but that I cannot socialize comfortably with anyone, especially a stranger or new acquaintance, who is intoxicated (not an inevitability of drinking, of course, but a reasonable likelihood for some, in my experience).

  4. Yep… this is pretty much it. My first-year required class as an MA was the History of Rhetoric and of course there were like three Ph.D. students who had read absolutely every piece of literary criticism ever. It was extremely intimidating to talk in class because you’d say something that you thought was clever and one of those people would “ask a question” (read: try to show off) that was stuffed with so many obsolete words and references to obscure critical theory that you had no idea what they were even talking about, much less how to answer the “question.” Once people settle in and stop trying to prove their literary penis is bigger than everyone else’s, it’s not as bad, but those three folks, man, they kept it up ALL year.

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