Advice: How to Survive Grad School

Blessed are the med students, for they shall be rich much later.

Years ago, I taught English at Florida State University as a graduate student. A few former students asked me for letters of recommendation or advice, and I discovered that I actually had some to give. Here are the five biggest downsides I wish someone had told me about grad school.

5. The 20-page paper is no joke. Since graduate school (Master’s and Doctoral level) is designed to prepare you for the upper echelons of your field, professors introduce a torture device known as the 20-page paper/article. Ostensibly, you want to publish what you write, so the article serves as a dual purpose class assignment and potential publication in relevant journals.

But oh, how it sucks. I skated through undergrad pulling late-night paper writing sessions. At the end of my first grad semester, I tried to write a 20-page paper overnight and wound up staying awake for a full 24 hours. I never did that again. Even if you’re Girl/Boy Wonder Writer, I strongly suggest that you start gathering information early, and begin writing something, anything down at least a week before the paper is due. Shout out to the annotated bibliography!
Blessed are the TAs, for theirs is the kingdom of late-night grading.

4. Underappreciated, overworked student teacher. If you receive the mixed blessing that is an assistantship, be prepared to start caring about university politics. A student asked me once if I got to park in the faculty parking lots since I was a TA,  and I doubled over laughing.

You get no love as a TA: not from school administration, not from professors, and not from undergrad students. Try complaining to either group about having 60 papers to grade and 60 pages of paper to write? You’ll hear crickets chirping. TAs did the dirty work the professors didn’t want or figured themselves too learned for, got all the heat and hate from students who had to take our mandatory course, and none of the perks that came with professorship (since we hadn’t earned them).

3. Chill on the Superiority. I first realized the demi-god complex of graduate students when I had to check myself. Pursuant with my own home/black culture, I made all my students call me “Ms. Dara” to get some measure of respectful distance. It struck me one day that I had a student who was only a year younger than me. He could call me Dara; it seemed ridiculous to make him affix a Ms. to a peer.

For grad students, the word “Undergrad” becomes condescending, belittling, and synonymous with kid or dummy in its connotation. I said things like, “Oh, that’s an undergrad event. You don’t want to go there.” Still, the difference is palpable when you meet individuals who still think doing homework is optional. I hung out with enough undergraduates as a grad student to know that they are still people–not inherently ignorant or lazy–and they can be a lot of fun to kick back with.

2. Kiss and make nice. Graduate school is the ultimate test in networking. You have to kiss the dusty behind of someone who could potentially open up doors for you, but who also has the power to ruin your career before it starts. Profs can be arrogant megalomaniacs who refuse to acknowledge your presence or teaching rock stars. You will need to go to Christmas parties and pretend to care about Professors So-and-So’s kid’s piano playing abilities. Volunteer for sneeze-or-sleep-inducing tasks you don’t want to do. Don’t brown-nose, but do get brownie points.

Blessed are the genius professors, for they care not whom they offend.

Choose your mentors and major professors wisely, if you have that choice. Piss them off and they could hold you there indefinitely. I’ve seen it happen. It’s also a good idea to make “friends” with fellow grad students, because the lot of them like to commiserate, and you’ll need multiple people to complain to. Just don’t say or type anything you can’t mea culpa your way out of in five minutes. Gossip flies rampant around departments, and the last thing you want is to be the spreader or subject of rumors.

1. Don’t sweat the debt…but do. The worst downside of graduate school is the poverty and debt you are in. In regular life, making $13,000 a year classifies you under the poverty line. Students are, quite possibly, the poorest demographic existing because many make little to no money. Worrying about the debt you are accruing can age you prematurely, and you haven’t even finished yet! But do be mindful not to borrow more than is absolutely essential. The government still has severe bankruptcy restrictions for student loans that can make your life miserable later.

I’ll write another post sometime about how much I truly loved grad school. Are you a grad student? What advice would give newbies? 

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