Tag Archives: graduate school

What Matters in a Statement of Purpose

I’m seeing an awful lot of SOP/grad school flailing going on on my various social media platforms, so here are some highlights from the workshop I ran for our students a couple of weeks ago along with the handout I distributed. All materials are the property of the New Economic School Writing and Communications Center.

First, a few statistics:

  • Of all of the students who enter any kind of PhD program in the United States, only 50% actually finish (Cassuto).
  • In 2010, a study followed 583 students entering various university PhD programs in Economics beginning in 2002. After 8 years, 59% had earned the PhD, 37% had dropped out, and 4% were still writing their dissertations (Stock 176).
  • Of the 59% who finished, 45% took 5 years. The remaining 55% took 6 to 8 years.

What does this mean?

  • Graduate school is a long-term investment that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
  • Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources in terms of stipend money and advising and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is that you will finish and get a good job, thereby boosting their completion and placement numbers and conferring additional prestige. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and GRE scores.
  • Your Personal Statement is the document where you make the argument for why you will be a good investment, demonstrating:
    • That you understand what advanced academic work in your field entails and that you have at least a general plan for getting through it.
    • That you have thought about your areas of interest and are able to describe the shape that your future research might take.
    • That you have done research on this specific program and understand how their specific strengths fit your goals.
    • That you have some idea of what you want to do with your degree (even though that may be a decade in the future).


  • Start writing early. Your personal statement will likely go through many drafts before you are ready to submit it.
  • If a school asks you to answer specific questions, be sure to do that. It’s crucial to show that you’re individualizing your application for each school and that you have thought seriously about their questions.
  • And even with a specific set of questions, you still must work to make your answers meaningful and unique.
  • Ask yourself the following sets of questions as you brainstorm.
    • The Field:
      • Why do you want to be a _____? Don’t think about why other people may choose this profession; why do you want that as your profession?
      • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the profession?
      • How and when did you learn about the field? Was it through a class, reading, work experience, or a professor? Is that story important to your story? What have you learned about it that has further stimulated your interest?
      • What particular path in the field interests you now? What are your career goals?
    • The Program:
      • Why do you want to get into this program? Don’t talk about Economics programs in general, but Harvard’s Economics Program or Stanford’s Economics Program. Maybe there’s a particular professor with whom you want to work. Maybe the school offers excellent research opportunities or teaching experience to graduate students. If you’re not sure, do more research about the school or talk with a professor or student.
    • Yourself:
      • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you and your story?
      • Are there details about your life that can help the committee understand you or that will make you stand out from other applicants?
      • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (i.e. economic, familial, physical)? Admissions committees are interested in unique personal narratives and evidence of having overcome adversity.
      • What personal skills or characteristics do you possess that would make you successful in the field? How can you show admissions committees that you have those?
      • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school and/or more successful in the field than other applicants?
      • What are the most important reasons the admissions committee should be interested in you?
      • Does your academic record have gaps or discrepancies you need to explain (i.e. excellent grades but poor GRE)

What Makes a Poor Personal Statement:

  • Isn’t specific or unique—relies on clichés “I have always wanted to be an economist” or “I have always dreamed of attending Harvard.”
  • Doesn’t indicate that you’ve researched the institution
  • Doesn’t indicate your past work that serves as evidence of your potential as a student
  • Rambles or includes irrelevant information

General Tips:

  • Tell a story—show what you want to say through concrete experience. Rather than “I have an adventurous spirit,” tell us about the service trip you went on with a group of strangers to India.
  • Find an angle—most people have “normal” stories, so a focus that makes yours interesting.
  • Be focused—if the application asks you to answer specific questions, answer them. If there are no specific questions, still maintain focus. Choose important qualities/characteristics and write only about those.
  • Be specific—do not make claims you cannot back up with experience.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Be coherent—the way you write indicates the kind of person you are. Someone who writes clearly is likely a sensible person.
  • Interpret material for your readers. Don’t repeat the material in your application—instead, explain how those experiences relate to the program for which you’re applying.
  • Don’t be afraid to be personal, as long as it’s appropriate.
  • Tell what you know about the field or profession. Share what you’ve already learned—refer to experience (work, research), classes, conversations you’ve had with people who work in the field, books you’ve read, seminars you’ve attended—and then show why you’re well suited to the profession.
  • Research the school.
  • If the school’s location provides a major geographical or cultural change, consider writing about that.
  • If there is a word limit, stay within it.

More, including samples, here: Personal Statement Workshop Handout

Why English and Rhet/Comp Graduate Students Should Consider Career Choices Abroad

If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be able to walk here from my apartment, I’d have…done…something.

November starts tomorrow, which means that job hunting season for new and expectant PhDs is about to really get going, and I am having bad acid flashbacks of weekends spend queuing up Interfolio dossiers and hoping I remembered to change the receiver’s address on each cover letter. I am hoping to stay put in my current job for a good while, and not only because I’m hoping to avoid crying in restaurants for a few years, but because I can honestly say that I am enjoying my job. Really, really enjoying it. And even though it wasn’t Plan A and even though I wound up here through a bizarre series of coincidences and chance encounters, I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up here rather than at one of the other places that offered me interviews (but didn’t offer me jobs). Now, I certainly can’t say that my experience is typical, but it’s enough for me to recommend that English and Rhet/Comp students (and all fields, really)–facing increasingly dire prospects on the US market–look at an international career as a viable option. Some reasons:

Travel, duh.

Some of my current satisfaction has to do with location and the thrill of travel. I made a pact with my spouse when I began my job search that–and this is the exact wording–we would not die in Waco. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can guess some of them. Cut to three years later, and I am at interviewing for a position for a university in Waco. And I interviewed for two more jobs that were in places very much like Waco but with different weather. For many, no doubt, Waco is a brighter prospect than Moscow, where the sun currently comes up around 8:45 am, but a couple of weeks ago, we walked from our 600 square foot apartment to Red Square on a chilly day in the rain, and I was overwhelmed with disbelief that this is my actual life. Different isn’t always better, but when you’ve felt yourself grow stale in a place, going somewhere completely different feels like a rebirth. You aren’t better, but just by virtue of changing your life so radically, you lose a lot of bad habits and pick up a few new ones. You find yourself challenged and engaged in ways that are completely unexpected. And you learn a little bit about surrender.

Working Conditions

Speaking in more practical terms, the set of conditions under which I’m working are quite a bit better than what I could have expected in the US. Though this isn’t a tenure track position, it’s a renewable contract with an institution that was willing to make a pretty considerable investment in getting me over here. I am getting paid at near the top end of what Assistant Profs make in my field in the US. I have a research budget. I got to design and teach my own literature elective my first semester here. I teach a 1/1 load alongside my Writing Center admin responsibilities. My students are Ivy-League caliber and turn their assignments in on time and have forever ruined me for teaching in the US. I have health insurance. I could go on.

Building Something New

I teach at an institution that is only two decades old in an English department that is only a few years old. For some, I think this would in and of itself be anxiety producing. And there are drawbacks. The building I work in is decrepit, though that’s largely because the school invested in world-class faculty on the front end rather than facilities. The former Rector had to, you know, flee the country under the threat of political persecution, but we have a new Rector who seems extremely qualified and energized about where the institution will go next. In short, the people who work here seem to think that they are involved in doing something extremely important and urgent for their students, their research field, and their country, and despite the specialization of the school, the English department is part of that. And that, to me at least, is so much more exciting than slotting into a long-established literature or writing program at a centuries-old universities where the possibility of making a genuine difference means working against entrenched interests and traditions.

This Writing Center is only two years old and is the first of its kind in Russia. The US model Writing Center is rapidly becoming a very attractive import for many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern universities. Not only does this mean that there are jobs out there but that international, multi-lingual writing centers and writing programs are becoming a new frontier for research.

International Colleagues

Which brings me, of course, to the fact that the American academic universe is pretty much hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And particularly in the areas of rhetoric and composition studies, there is a LOT of interesting work that could be done if there were more exchange of ideas internationally. There’s always some noise about the need to do so, but very little of it actually happens in practice.

And then, of course, there is just the stimulation of having colleagues from all over the world just down the hall. I work with people from Belarus, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy as well as Americans who have made their entire careers abroad. And I’m interacting with these people in a place where “Americanness” isn’t neither the default nor the goal, where we are all foreigners.


For the reasons discussed earlier, Americans with English and Rhet/Comp degrees are extremely marketable on the international market, especially if they can bring some ESL/EFL experience together with expertise in a content field. the TESOL jobs site and the International Writing Centers Association website are good places to look for openings. Be aware, however, that in addition to talking about your research and teaching, you will need to be able to articulate–both in your cover letter and in your interview–why you want to work abroad and why you want to work in that country specifically. The turnover rate among expat employees is high because people get homesick or have a change in family circumstances or whatever, and schools who pay for moving costs invest a considerable amount in their faculty up front. So you need to be able to argue for why you are a good investment.

I was warned before taking this job that working abroad could hurt my marketability if I want to return to the US. I have heard anecdotal reports that this is true, but the person I replaced had two job offers in the US, so take that for what it’s worth.


Working abroad is not for you if:

  • You are seeking the traditional middle-class American experience with children, extended family in easy reach, and steady, reliable employment. Granted, for many of us, this simply isn’t an option we can count on. But the truth is that going abroad means being uprooted, many times, potentially. And it means going long periods without seeing your parents or siblings or old friends. If you go abroad, you need to wrap your head around the fact that this isn’t study abroad. This is going to be your life, and if you have doubts, it’s best to grapple with them early on.
  • You shun hassles. I mean, I don’t know anyone who likes being inconvenienced, but moving internationally is a giant effing hassle in every possible way. I have had to deal with more paperwork than it took to sell our house (and most of it in a language I don’t read well). Shipping a few boxes of personal items and research materials has been an undertaking so grueling and expensive that I question whether it was worth it (probably not). And airports, man. Airports.

The takeaway here is that it’s not going to be a glorious experience for everyone or 100% of the time, but it’s a career path that is very seriously worth considering as an alternative to stringing together adjunct work, taking a 9-5 office job, teaching a 4/4 lectureship with no opportunities for research or career advancement, or even *gasp* a tenure track job in quite a few cases.

Dealing with Culture Shock – Don’t Isolate

Many experts describe culture shock as a psycho-physical phenomenon that presents in 4-5 stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation/Depression, Adjustment, Mastery, and Re-entry. One of my colleagues, however, thinks of it as something more akin to bi-polarity with fluctuating periods of enchantment/excitement and frustration/homesickness. So far, my experience has been conforming mostly to that latter model. It’s been mostly positive, but there have been some intense bouts of acute stress and anxiety that have sent me reaching for the prescription bottle in the last three weeks. The pattern that colleague described supposedly plays out over long periods, but the fluctuations have felt more rapid to me, cycling from high to low in as little as hours. This past week was especially difficult due to apartment search drama, about which I may say more if I can find a way to make it interesting.

There are, of course, ways to cope with the fairly inevitable sense of disorientation that comes from adjusting to a new environment, be it a new country, job, or school (or in my case, all three). But one of the hardest pieces of advice to apply, I think, if you are an introvert or have a history of depression (or both) is to resist the urge to isolate. When it’s difficult to communicate, when the environment is intimidating and draining, the pull of solitude is incredibly powerful. At least it is for me. Solitude is my way of recuperating and restoring myself. At my healthiest, it is the best, most effective form of self-care that I can practice. So, it’s difficult sometimes to recognize when I shouldn’t be doing it.

Moving to a new country and getting situated in a new job is definitely not the time to turn inward. This is a mistake I made early on in graduate school and one I’m trying not to repeat now. Intimidated by people who seemed so much smarter than me and an academic environment so different from what I was accustomed to or expected, I pretty much never went out. And it meant that while I had some friends, I felt cut off from the social life of my department most of the time. When you repeatedly turn down invitations, people tend to stop asking you to go out drinking with them. And that–rather than classes–tends to be where a lot of people do their bonding.

This is why three Friday nights in a row I’ve done the unthinkable and gotten half in the bag with nearly complete strangers instead of succumbing to the desire to go take a bath and fall asleep watching Netflix. This is why tonight I forced myself to stay at a party and make small talk for longer than was comfortable. And to my surprise, I haven’t regretted those choices, even when it meant racing to catch the metro before it closed at 1:00 am. I think perhaps it will take someone with a similar temperament to mine to understand what a big deal this is, how unnatural it feels to cope with the stress of moving into a new apartment and adjusting to a new set of students and trying to manage the various and occasionally bewildering differences between the US and Russia by seeking people out rather than turning inward.

I have never and still do not see my strong tendency toward introversion as a liability or a defect. If anything, it fosters a sense of autonomy that makes certain parts of this transition easier. But navigating this whole process does also require me to draw on interpersonal resources that I, and many like me, am not accustomed to developing or utilizing.

The Biography of a Dissertation Chapter

The Moscow move approacheth. I depart on Thursday with The Husband following a few weeks later. Blogging has been sporadic because I have heretofore been incapable of tackling creative problems more demanding than, “How many of these books and clothing items can I live without for a couple of months while I wait for our shipped items to travel to the other side of the planet and clear customs at multiple borders?” This, however, is a post I have been meaning to write, and there was a new development today, so I might as well go with it. 

I think even seasoned writers need reminders of just how intense and even repetitive the revision process can be for pieces that actually get published. One time when I was doing a revision workshop for a freshman comp class, I brought in the six extant drafts of my dissertation prospectus, each covered with advisor comments to make a point. The point was that at multiple points during the production of a successful piece of work, you are probably going to want to put your eyes out with a fork. This is normal.

In about a month, I’ll finally see my third article–which originated as a dissertation chapter–in print. Without a question, this is the piece of work I’m the most excited about, but also without question, it has been the most labor-intensive. In order to remind myself that I don’t completely suck and to show ailing grad students out there just how normal this sort of thing is, here is the story of how my beloved monstrosity was brought into the world.

July-August 2011 – During my first research trip to Boston, I made a significant finding that ruined my plans for the dissertation chapter I thought I was writing but turned into something way more awesome. In a sort of fugue state, I hammered out multiple drafts (probably 3-4) of a 14,000 word chapter in two weeks, edited the rest of my dissertation, and sent it all off to my co-chairs before my 5 week stay was up. I felt like a freaking god.

September 2011 – Co-chairs make a bunch of suggestions for small changes but deem the dissertation defensible. Graduate Advisor pushes for Fall semester defense in order to make it for certain job market deadlines.

November 2011 – Dissertation is successfully defended. Committee members note that because of the sharp left turn my research took in the summer, that chapter no longer really fits the rest of the project in terms of scope and methodology. They suggest publishing it as a stand alone article instead of including it in book revisions.

January – February 2012 – I work with a committee member who is enthusiastic about that chapter to turn it into an article submission. It goes through a couple of additional drafts (we’re at like 7 or 8 now) in which I strengthen it’s claims, explain central concepts for non-experts, and completely rewrite the first third and the conclusion Because we are planning to submit it to a flagship journal with no length limits, I add a new section based on more recent reading. 

March 2012 – Major scholar in the sub-field gets wind of my project from a couple of sources and requests the article for a special journal issue to appear in Fall 2013. The special issue topic is a perfect fit for this research, and multiple mentors advise me to go ahead with it. 

April – June 2012 – I revise the article again to better suit the theme of the special issue and to speak more directly to the concerns of scholars in that sub-field rather than to a more general audience. I submit my “final” draft to the editor well ahead of the deadline.

January – February 2013 – Editor gets back to me with several suggestions and asks for the changes in six weeks. I go ahead and make them, and the editor is pleased with the results.

May 2013 – Editor has bad news: the amount of space available for the special issue was radically overestimated, and in order to keep costs in line, the journal is asking all contributors to get their submissions under 11,000. At this point, my article is 18,000, which is an absurd length, but I was so close to getting away with it. I am also in the midst of selling/giving away most of my earthly possessions, submitting final grades, planning another research trip and an international move, and having a nervous breakdown. This latest development becomes the topic of my next couple of therapy sessions, and for two weeks, I’m sort of paralyzed by the whole thing, unable to look at the article without wanting to cry.

June 2013 – I finally finish making the cuts, and admittedly, the article is better for it. I remove certain sections that were admittedly digressive and indulgent entirely. I streamline some paragraphs and remove extraneous examples. I combine sentences and paragraphs to say the same thing with fewer words. The very apologetic editor is again pleased with the results.

August 2013 – The journal editor (different guy, reads this blog apparently – Hi, Tim!emails me the publication contract and a list of minor changes that need to be made before the thing goes to press. This is what I’ll be doing on the 12 hour flight to Moscow. 

So that’s like 14 drafts or something. I don’t even know anymore. Because I’m a psycho, I save a lot of intermediate drafts (though not all of them) as new files. One day, I might print them all out and show a class to make a point. That point will be that writing and professoring are stupid things to do for a career if you want to keep your sanity. But somehow, sometimes, it’s kind of worth it. 

Archive Diving

The Mary Baker Eddy Library and Christian Science Publishing Society building with the Mother Church in the foreground.

This is the last week of my research fellowship at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, which will mean that I have spent eight weeks total here in three years and still won’t have seen everything I want to see. 

When I started my dissertation project, I wasn’t particularly interested in doing primary research. My strengths, I thought, were interpretive. Furthermore, since I was doing work on a famously reclusive religious movement with which I had no “in,” I figured it wouldn’t be an option anyway. So, I structured my project so that I wouldn’t need to rely on primary documents in order to make it work.

Then, I found out that said religious organization had put their church archives in a pretty new library, and THEN I found out that they were handing out money to researchers who wanted to come to Boston for a few weeks in the summer, and I figured it beat a few weeks roasting away in Austin. I didn’t make my first trip until I had most of my dissertation already written, but the staggering collection I had no idea was awaiting me wound up transforming my project in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. Using files that no outside researcher had seen in thirty years, I debunked a century-old rumor about Willa Cather that has served as the basis for a segment of scholarship on her work (the article will finally be coming out this fall). And it presented new avenues of inquiry that made it clear that what I thought was only going to be a single dissertation chapter could become a career’s worth of work if I want to keep pursuing it. So I came back and even though the weather is uncomfortably Houston-like right now, I’m certainly not regretting it.

This is my way of saying to grad students out there that even if you don’t do textual studies or historicism or anything else that typically requires an archive, you should consider making a trip. Other perks:

1. They will totes pay you.

The big libraries (Huntington, Oxford, etc.) will, of course, pay you a lot and let you stay for a long time, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to see what small archives might have holdings relevant to their interests. Archives are meant to be used, and archivists are interested in attracting researchers who will make good use of and publicize their holdings. 

2. Travel

One of the pleasures of making these research trips has been the opportunity to spend extended time in a new place (and one of my favorite cities). It’s like getting paid to take vacation. 

3. Uninterrupted time to work

My first stint in Boston allowed me to finish my dissertation in a 30 day fugue state in which I worked six hours in the archives and then went back to my garret to write some more. This time around hasn’t been quite so manic, but productivity increases fairly sharply when you no longer have the distractions of home. Plus, you have a quiet space where you are required to go for a set amount of time to work on your stuff, not grading, not revising your syllabus. In seven years of graduate school, I found pretty much no other way to achieve this kind of focus, and it helped me develop good habits that have served me fairly well when it comes to turning out articles. 

My advice to graduate students writing proposals:

1. Make your proposal specific. If they have their finding aids online, go through them and figure out which items you think you want to look at. You can change your mind when you get there. Barring that, get in touch with an archivist and ask them if they have anything relevant to a particular aspect of your project. Specificity lets them know that you at least have a plan and won’t just flounder around and waste time when you get there.

2. Show them you understand your field. Most graduate students writing fellowship proposals are used to pitching their projects very broad, and that is perfectly appropriate if you are applying to a big general library like the Huntington. But if their holdings are fairly specific (as they were in this case), it’s helpful to be able to drop the most important names in that sub-field. For me, it meant showing that I had at least read the central texts and major academic historical treatments of this movement.

3. Tell them how you will publicize their work. Most archives are looking to get the word out or at least show that to their donors what their collections are generating. Whether it’s a chapter or a conference paper, suggest how you might present the research you do there to an audience of your peers. 


Why Did My Calling Have to Be This?

So it’s time I come clean and just say it:  I took a stab at the job market, and nothing happened.  It’s really ok.  I have a year of funding left, which means a luxurious 18 months in which to turn a merely defensible dissertation into an awesome dissertation, send off some articles, and generally get my house in order while taking another stab at the market next fall.  I made a promise to myself this summer that I would spend no more than two years on the academic job market before looking for opportunities elsewhere, and I am, for the most part, still committed to that.  At this point in my life, I am ready to leave the “student” qualifier behind and start making grown-up money.  I am not in any way enamored with the prestige that a university job confers, and I am open to considering a number of different career options in and out of education.  On some days, I’m even pretty sure that a high-powered academic job isn’t for me:  that the politics of university department are too oppressive, that jumping on the tenure track treadmill will require too many sacrifices, that I’m not sure how much longer I want to wait before reproducing, etc.

Then weeks like this one happen.  After an awkward first day, my class gradually begins to warm up.  They start asking interesting questions and propose provocative topics for their first writing assignment.  I spend an hour after class discussing Dante and C.S. Lewis and fantasy literature with one student.  Meanwhile, I’ve been emailing back and forth with an archivist at a research library that I want to visit this summer as she helps me identify holdings that I can reference in a fellowship application.  On the bus Monday, I got an email from her notifying me that the papers of a 1900’s female journalist I am interested in have just been made available to the public, and I think I may have squealed audibly, as this was quite possibly the most thrilling news of my month.  As I complete the funding application, I find that I am fantasizing–a little prematurely–about spending day after day walking to this library and devoting hours to perusing its holdings.  I can’t think of a single thing I would rather do this summer, and I’m sure that a little part of me will die if I can’t pull it off.

In short, I fucking love what I do.  I don’t love the low pay, or the uncertainty about where my career is going from here, or the students with shitty attitudes, or the colleagues with the shitty attitudes, or the ridiculous pressure to tailor research topics to the frustratingly narrow standards of “marketability,” or even the prospect of starting the tenure clock.  But during weeks like this, suddenly it all really seems worth it.  Maybe it’s just that I’m coming off a fellowship, where it was pretty much me and my computer in a daily staring match, and I’m remembering how much I love really working, how much I love my on-campus routine and just the experience of being at a university all day.  But all of a sudden, I’m sort of feeling like, “Dammit, I would really miss this if I did something else.”

When I read Historiann’s post on graduate school as a form of self-mortification with quasi-religious implications, the part of me who wrote this post last summer goes “Yeah,” and another part of me goes, “No, that’s not really it at all.”  In some ways, I am sort of attracted to the aura of sophistication that an advance degree confers, but in many other ways, I am just a huge dork who loves this crap and actually believes that what she’s doing is sort of important, even if no one ever recognizes it.  So in some ways, the analogy with religious vocation works.  Both academic and monastic life are about committing oneself to a belief, something you are willing to sacrifice a tremendous amount of personal comfort for.  And yes, there is a certain degree of masochism in that, as well as a certain degree of smugness.    But ultimately it is also about a kind of guileless love and naive belief and a willingness to put up a whole lot of bullshit in order to make that love the center of your life.

It’s a kind of sincerity that isn’t always easy to own up to at a time when irony seems to be the default mode of looking at just about anything, and as someone who has always prided herself on being responsible and pragmatic and adult about things, I’m hating myself just a little bit.  I’m reminded of an application essay I read recently in which the student talked about her complex relationship with her parents.  Her father was always the practical sort who was happy having a normal middle-class job and spending time with his family and taking pleasure in stability.  Her mother, however, was a former Navy pilot, skydiver, and documentary film maker who frequently sacrificed sleep and mental health in order to pursue her interests and follow her dreams.  The student always identified more with her father, having witnessed and resented the ways in which her mother’s aspirations impacted her life and always vowed that she would pursue a practical, remunerative career path.  Then she discovered that she loved acting, that she was outrageously good at it, that she never felt more at home, more herself than when she was on stage, and she went “Well, crap.”  Because there is nothing certain, nothing practical, and for most people, nothing remunerative about pursing acting either in college or as a career.  And yet, she writes, she feels she has to take it as far  as she possibly can.

In some ways, I’m not sure that we really choose our vocations or our dreams.  To a certain degree (mediated by biology, cultural background, family history, economic status, etc.), they choose us, and there is something profoundly weird about realizing that your vocation conflicts, to a certain degree, with your notions of what constitutes a healthy, productive, and socially responsible adult life.

TPYMIGS: The Busiest Person in the World

One of the things I loved about the response to my post on The People You Meet in Grad School was the number of individuals who were willing to admit (either in comments or email) to being one of these people.  Grad school and academic life both attracts and breeds particular types of personality dysfunctions, and being honest with ourselves about which ones we identify with is probably the first step to growth, or so I’ve heard.

I’ve been examining another academic specimen of late, and that examination has sometimes been a self-examination. The Busiest Person in the World is the person who breezes by in you the hallway.  If you try to catch zie’s attention, zie will say “I’m sooooo sorry, I just can’t talk right now” and then spend the next 10 minutes telling you how busy zie is.  The thing is that this person doesn’t necessarily have an observably fuller schedule than you.  You may be taking a similar course load, attending a similar number of conferences, teaching the same number of sections, and have similar family responsibilities, but TBPW (I’m all about the acronyms today) seems to live at DEFCON 5.  Zie is always sleep deprived, always barely making deadlines, but it would never occur to you that incompetence is playing a role here.  Because TBPW has turned harried exhaustion into performance art, a monument to zie’s commitment and passion and a reprimand to everyone who isn’t as tired and overworked as zie is, because clearly you all just don’t care or try hard enough.

I think there are various reasons why people engage in this behavior.  Some crave the sense of righteousness that comes from being a martyr to one’s work.  Some are addicted to adrenaline and can’t seem to finish a project or a semester without the catharsis of barely getting everything done on time.  And some are conditioned to think that the appearance of exhaustion grants them favor in the eyes of their colleagues and relatives.  I tend to occupy the latter category, coming from a huge family that always has too much going on, in which most members own their own businesses and yet rarely take vacation.  Everyone is late to everything because OMG, SO BUSY, and idleness is a kind of sin.  Before I started going to counseling, I used to sit around thinking of stuff to tell my parents so that I wouldn’t look like I was wasting my time.  We aren’t just that way about work either.  Overextending oneself, staying up all night to create a Martha Stewart Experience on holidays or birthdays was how you showed your love as well.

So let’s go over some red flags here, shall we?

Frequent illness and refusal to take time off. I’m not talking about people with actual chronic health problems.  I’m talking about people who come to work incubating streptococcal bacteria or norovirus.  Students are frequently terrible about this.  I love the ones who sneeze and drip and look miserable in my general direction as they hand their assignment in, proof of how much they sacrificed in order to make the deadline (this is a big reason why I don’t do late penalties or paper submissions anymore).

Poor time management that borders on self sabotage. TBPW often spends more time complaining about how much work they have to do than actually doing it.  This is especially true if zie is addicted to the adrenaline rush of having to stay up all night to complete a project or working up to the very last second.  Though they may not realize they’re doing it, TBPW may have a preternatural ability to orchestrate the conditions for an all-nighter or a panic-fueled rush to the finish by finding 1400 things that MUST BE DONE NOW before a big project can even be started, by obsessing over small details at the expense of big picture concerns, or by refusing to set reasonable priorities.  Zie’s philosophy seems to be that if it didn’t come close to killing you, it didn’t really count.

Radically underestimating the amount that can be accomplished in a set period of time. My boss’s book was due to the publisher on Wednesday, which meant we had to get it in the last FedEx shipment at 7:00 Tuesday.  At 9:00pm Monday night, he expressed the desire to edit the entire 500 page manuscript in the twelve hours left before he was supposed to hand it off to me for final proofreading (yeah right) and formatting.  He was also sick at the time and had spent the past hour editing a single photograph, an obsessive moment that I’ll cop to enabling (and sharing).  He asked if I would also be able to read the entire thing through for editing problems between 9:00 am and 7:00 pm (in addition to converting all photo files to TIFFs, re-paginating the manuscript, re-doing the Table of Contents, updating the captions list, and printing out three copies of the thing).  I actually said “no problem” without irony.  It’s been quite a week for both of us.

Constantly talking about how tired and overworked zie is. This behavior is especially insidious when it includes belittling the experiences of other people in earshot.  I was once in the vicinity of two colleagues, both of whom are parents, who had a 20 minute conversation, with many single and childless people listening in (we were in the writing center break room at the time, so there was hardly an expectation of privacy), about how women without children just don’t have their priorities straight and have no idea what being busy is really like.  Now, I have nothing but respect for graduate student and academic mothers and what they have to go through, but this behavior still struck me as gross.  Those of us in the throes of TBPW-dom are doing performance art, and this sometimes makes us assholes.  If someone is doing this in your presence, don’t compete.  Politely express concern for their exhaustion, but don’t play the game.  Even if you win, you lose.  If you got 2 hours of sleep, they got 1.

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, take 2 Chill Pills and make an appointment with a massage therapist or a therapist of some variety.  You are a danger to yourself and others.  If you find yourself in the same office or house as this person, give them a wide berth, and woe betide you if this person happens to have some immediate supervisory capacity over you.

Certainly, there are times when work piles up, when the midnight oil must be burned due to no failing of our own, but so often this sort of stuff becomes competitive.  When we start taking too much pride in the physical and psychic scars we bear from our efforts and even begin lording them over others, we become toxic colleagues and teachers and toxic to ourselves.

Photo Credit:  mirjoran, Flickr Creative Commons.

Working and Playing Well With Others

We now resume our series on grad school survival by addressing Jadey’s question about how to get along and maybe even actually make friends with other graduate students.  This is one of those questions that’s actually refreshing to get, because I frequently feel like I am the only person on earth that has trouble establishing and keeping a more or less functional social life.  Like most nerds, I am frigging awkward around my peers, and tendency toward introversion usually means that I have no problem staying in on Friday nights watching The West Wing and talking to my guinea pigs (and possibly my spouse).  I often suspect that I am a rather odd duck indeed.  But graduate school seems to attract my kind, so you would think making friends among people who read Renaissance poetry for kicks wouldn’t be so hard.  But, in fact, it frequently is.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice:  stay in contact with or try to meet people who aren’t in graduate school. I haven’t been so good about this one, but my younger sister and her new husband recently moved into town, and I’ve been reminded how refreshing it is to get together for margaritas and a round of Settlers of Catan with people who aren’t boiling in the same fetid stew that is the Ph.D program.  It’s not that other graduate students aren’t wonderful, fun people to hang out with.  It’s just that you are all operating in an alternate reality, and it is extremely beneficial–mental health-wise–to get regular exposure to another perspective.

But when it comes to building friendships or good working relationships with other grad students, the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard is this:  resist the urge to think of the other grads in your program as your competition. This is going to be especially hard for you if you are in one of those sadistic programs that ranks their grad students every year or admits more M.A. students than there are spots in the Ph.D program, turning your first two years of grad school into Survivor (except you took out loans and put your future on hold to be there). But even if you aren’t in that sort of situation, it can be tempting to ruminate on the idea that these people are going to be applying for YOUR JOB when you’re all on the market in a few years. This is irrational.  The grad students in your department are no more your competition than any other grad student in your field in the rest of the world.  They are no more your competition than the people who graduated from college with your major.  Yes, on some level you are sort of competing, and yes, the pool is smaller, but there are going to be thousands of people applying for the jobs you’re applying for, so the person in the cubicle across from you isn’t really your biggest problem, and neither is the person who beat you out for the “TA of the year” award.  The only difference between that person and the thousands of other grad students who won their department’s award is proximity. Direct your outrage about your job prospects toward the dysfunctional university system, or better yet, channel your energy toward writing a really good thesis, and quit obsessing about the so-called golden children in your program.  Though we all still like to pretend that academia is a meritocracy, no one really knows why any particular person gets a job.  In terms of their impact on your professional future, the golden children matter about as much in the long run as the person who beat you out for Class President matters to you now.

Instead, think of the person in the cubicle across from you as someone who may wind up blurbing your book or writing a recommendation to the tenure review committee.  Think of this person as someone you might go to for candid advice about an article you’re working on or to help organize a panel for a big upcoming conference.  In other words, think of them as your colleagues.

Collaborate when you can, whether that means co-authoring an article or putting together a dissertation writing group.  Some fields are more congenial to collaborative work than others, but taking advantage of opportunities to work with other grad students even in the most informal way can be an excellent way to learn from each other and develop a network of people that you can call on in the future.  For example, myself and two other grads formed a little peer mentorship group at one point, concurrent with our first solo teaching assignment in the English department.  We got together once a month to get feedback on our teaching methods and just vent in general when we needed to.

Don’t ask people how their dissertation/prospectus/M.A. thesis is going unless they bring it up. This is a sensitive subject.  You may think you’re saying it out of concern or interest, but you may also be saying, “I just want to check and see if I’m doing better than someone at the moment.”  No matter how you ask this question, it’s bound to provoke a slight sense of hostility.  Also, think about how you feel when your parents’ friends from church ask you this question and you have to stammer out something that a) makes it sound like you’re doing something with your life, and b) doesn’t sound like you are plotting the feminazi-queer-socio-fascist-kill-whitey-revolution.  That’s right, you hate that.

Do stuff outside the lab/library/writing center/TA office.  During my third and fourth year, I had a tendency to look at my writing center hours (especially when things were slow) as “social time,” since we would often just be sitting back in the break room complaining about working in the writing center.  That is a sad, sad fact about my life, so do as I say, not as I do.  Go out for pizza and beers.  Invite people over to watch So You Think You Can Dance or something where no one will be tempted to name-drop a French theorist.  Then resist the temptation to name drop a French theorist.

And finally, recognize that ultimately, not everyone in your program is going to be your bosom friend. As in every work setting, you will click with some people more than others.  Hopefully, you will find at least one person with whom you can discuss the multitude of personal and professional crises you are going to be facing, but also know that you won’t be able to trust a lot of people with that sort of thing.  Figure out who is a friend and who is a co-worker, a distinction that feels sort of odd since graduate school occupies that limbo space between college and the workplace, where peer relationships are dramatically different.  Also remember that both types of relationships are worth having.

Essential Grad School Reading

As promised, I’ve tried to narrow down two centuries of theory to a list of fourteen essentials in the fields of historical criticism, feminism, African-American and post-colonial studies.  These are the works you are most likely to encounter in graduate coursework in the humanities.  Some of them will probably be assigned at some point, but going ahead and reading at least parts (no one expects you to read the entire Marx-Engels reader in your first year, or ever really) of some of them in your fleeting moments of downtime really would be an excellent use of that time.  Other grads/profs can add their favorites in comments, but I didn’t intend this list to be encyclopedic.  It’s more of a survival guide than anything else.

Hegel–I would just go check out a Hegel reader of some sort and read a few excerpts.  If nothing else, you should be able to talk about the “Hegelian view of history,” which influenced guys like Marx and which guys like Nietzche and Foucault later revised.  In brief, the Hegelian view of history was proto-Darwinian, asserting that the trajectory of human history was toward greater and greater levels of improvement.

Marx–You will eventually want the Marx-Engels Reader for your personal library.  I guarantee you will see it assigned in multiple grad seminars. You should go ahead and read a little of it your first year, so that you can shut up The Theorist when it becomes clear that he actually doesn’t know what commodity fetishism is.

Nietzche–I think of Nietzche as semi-optional but certainly recommended reading for anyone who “does history” in some form.  Nietzche says absolutely batshit stuff at some points, but his answer to the Hegelian view of history is important for understanding more essential figures like Foucault.  If you see a Nietzche reader in a pile of free or cheap books, I’d pick it up.

Durkheim/Weber–Both are important figures in the field of sociology, though most folks in literature will get through grad school without having to read them.  Consider them essential reading if you are interested in the impact of economics on culture (Weber especially) or religion.  Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of my favorites.

Foucault–If there’s one theorist that you should start reading pretty much immediately, it’s Michel Foucault, because he turns up absolutely everywhere, and I think citing him in your term papers is mandatory (I kid, I kid).  You can start almost anywhere, but I wouldn’t jump head-first into The Birth of the Clinic or Archaeology of Knowledge without a bit of prep.  Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality,Vol. I are actually fairly accessible and are good introductions to his methodology.

Derrida–Derrida is definitely essential reading for revolutionizing the way we think about language, but don’t be ashamed if it takes you forever just to read a sentence.  I recommend small bites of Of Grammatology when you’re feeling particularly spry.  Eventually you’re going to cheat and just go read his wikipedia page for an overview, but you should give it the good old college try.

Freud–You are also going to want the Peter Gay edited Freud Reader for your personal library at some point.  It’s another one of those that will come up a lot. even though no one really cites him directly all that much anymore, he’s essential background reading if you want to understand Lacan or foundational feminist theory.  (I’m not putting Lacan in here, because just…ew.  But yeah, you’ll probably see him assigned as wella t some point).

Butler–Now we’re really getting to the good stuff!  Judith Butler is one of the founders of modern feminist theory, and you will want to pick up Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter once you’re tired of all the dead white guys I just listed.

hooks–bell hooks is essential for taking feminist theory beyond the study of white ladies.  She is also an essential voice in the field of feminist pedagogy.  Read everything eventually, but pick up Ain’t I a Woman:  Black Women and Feminism ASAP.

DuBois–I’m grouping these more thematically than chronologically, if you haven’t yet noticed.  DuBois is an essential voice in African American studies and in the study of race in general.  Along with William James, he was also central to pragmatist philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century.  And he’s refreshingly readable.  Get The Souls of Black Folk for your personal library.

Gates–Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s The Signifying Monkey is also a core text in African American studies and a really great read.  I would read DuBois and have a working knowledge of Derrida’s basic (hahahaHAHAHAHAHAHA…I crack myself up) ideas before reading it.

Said–The Palestinian theorist who described the Orientalist (a white Westerner who studies the Orient) gaze and more or less founded post-colonial theory.  Start with Orientalism and read Culture and Imperialism at some point.

Anderson–If you do anything in post-colonial/ethnic/area studies, you are going to hear Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities mis-quoted a whole lot by your fellow graduate students.  Go find out what it actually says.

Spivak–Gayatri Spivak may be the most erudite theorist alive right now.  She translated Derrida for sweet Baby Jesus’s sake.  A Critique of Post-colonial Reason is essential reading in the field of post-colonial and ethnic literatures, though it is indescribably dense.  You might check out her article “Can the Subaltern Speak” first, and my Amazon search tells me that she co-wrote a book with Judith Butler!  How cool is that!

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.