graduation

PhD Programs: In for the Long-Haul

I wanted to bring something up on my blog that I find myself explaining over and over again to people who are not familiar with how graduate school (at least in the humanities) works. Most people are astounded that my program is expected to take 6 years minimum, and many students stay longer than six years trying to find a job. Some realize the rigor of our programs, but can’t imagine how six more years of “being in school” could be worthwhile, let alone prepare someone for a profession. Others think of graduate students as evading  getting a real job, lazily hanging around school trying to extend their undergraduate days.

However, there is an important distinction between undergraduate programs and PhD programs that many people outside of academia do not realize: coursework is not the main focus of graduate school. Being a PhD student is a job. We are expected to teach university-level courses; we grade papers, design lesson plans, and instruct students just like any full-time teacher. As for the dissertation, we are essentially expected to write book on a topic in our field. This is not your undergraduate paper on [insert canonical text] times twenty, but an original piece of work based on years of research. The topic needs to be specific enough to be unique, but also relevant to the issues academics are thinking about (and maybe even what people outside academics should be thinking about). The graduate program provides us with the training and resources to write this dissertation, and this work serves the basis for whether or not we get hired in academia.

Six years to write an entire book while teaching university-level classes part-time all of a sudden sounds like an incredibly short period of time. Not to mention, PhD students still do need to complete coursework in their field. The goal of passing coursework is not simply a means of demonstrating intelligence (as it often is for the undergraduate degree), but real, hands-on training in the academic profession. We learn to write scholarly articles, present our ideas at conferences, and hopefully get those ideas published. That is a lot to fit into six years, and many students need more time to finish their dissertation and secure an academic job.

This is precisely why I don’t view PhD programs as a means to an end. While the undergraduate degree can serve as a badge of intellectual ability competence, the PhD requires teaching at the university level and producing a publishable book in an academic field. I do not think viewing a PhD program as a means-to-an-end of becoming a professor is a particularly gratifying view, or even the right way to view graduate school.

It is not profoundly different from starting one’s own business: the work is extremely challenging and requires a good deal of dedication and original thought. It likely requires a financial gamble in which you will be earning a lot less than you could earn for years, just for the potential reward of earning money doing what you love. The percentages of those who actually achieve that dream job they set out to obtain are disconcertingly low – and those who become millionaire CEOs or famous writers in their field even lower – but in the end those who are driven and competent will find other avenues of success. Maybe those who take on traditionally cynical views of academia will disagree with me and see a PhD in a humanities subject as a frivolous pursuit of a dying vocation. But really, has there ever been a time in human history when professions in the arts and humanities were easy for anyone to obtain and never came under fire for being impractical? Either way, if you do not view it as a means to an end, the journey will not be a loss.

 

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Graduate School Problems: The Impossible Reading Load

I’m often baffled by the quantity of reading assigned for many of my classes. I’m used to it after attending a rigorous high school and then a big research university for undergrad, but the standard seems to be to assign more reading than reasonably achievable for class each week. And by “achievable” I mean reading for full understanding – as in you could sit down and critique/wield the writer’s argument in a research paper.

I fluctuate between the belief that the other English graduate students are super-human readers who can devour written content at unthinkable rates and the more realistic notion that no one actually does the assigned reading in its entirety. For example, last week I was expected to read about 700-800 pages. This was an especially heavy load page-wise, but at least it didn’t involve the Middle English dialect of the Pearl poet, or the philosophy of Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard (previous weeks’ readings). So, here’s my confession: I didn’t read it all – not even close.

What I do is read with a “research lens.” Yes, for all you literary purists out there, this is significantly different than if I were to read for enjoyment or even full understanding. First, I hedge my bets on which pieces the professor is going to want to focus on class. More often than not, many of the secondary articles were assigned to give some historical background or some other tidbit of criticism that will not be central to the class discussion. Therefore, it’s important to know the take-away of each article, but not necessarily the subtleties of the all the references, dates, historical facts, etc. the article might mention.

You might ask – as I often have myself – why would the professor assign articles that she does not deem important enough to thoroughly parse out in class? The answers I have theorized are 1. the professor actually is a superhuman reading robot who underestimates her students’ abilities to read and discuss efficiently in the time allotted or 2. many of the secondary articles assigned are there to give the students a sense of the criticism out there on the topic, and to have a reference point to look back at if they decide to write a research paper on that text.

Theory is a little trickier. Some of it is so esoteric that you will probably not understand all its nuances the first time you read it. However, often the theory will be a focus of the class discussion, and the professor will expect you to be able to apply it to the text during discussion. So, when dealing with theory I usually take this approach:

1. Read any headings/subtitles. These help to situate your reading and keep you on track if there are any weird digressions.
2. If there are any identifiable introductions/conclusions, read those.
3. Then, I skim for passages in which the theorist takes a step back from examples and structuring his or her argument and attempts to summarize his/her position.

This I hope will at least give me a sense of what is going on in the theory and will help me know what to ask when the professor (usually) begins class by asking whether there were any questions about the theory or parts you struggled with.

Near the end of the semester, I am often working on papers concurrently with my readings for class. This means two things: 1. I already know what I am writing about for my semester projects and 2. my time is even more limited. When this happens, I usually have to resort to skimming primary texts and even quicker skimming on the secondary articles. Is this the trademark of a lazy student? Possibly. But I like to think it’s also the trademark of a student that puts an emphasis on research – which may pay off in the long run.

In the end, I am always prioritizing research. If I think any article or a primary text fits into my research interests, I read it all the more carefully. The rest of the game is keeping a mental (and perhaps a written) inventory on which readings have been suggested by the professor and what was discussed about them in class. That way, if I end up writing on a particular text, I can go back and read those articles and notes in more depth. Not doing all the readings in a given week also allows me more time to work on my semester projects – especially since it is easy to get bogged down in day-to-day work and forget about final papers until late in the game.

So, I think it is safe to say that regardless of what program you are in you will likely be assigned an insane amount of reading and will likely feel like you are reading at a slower pace than your fellow students. I try to keep out of the slog of feeling stressed and overworked by always reading with the lens of my research interests and, most importantly, prioritizing my readings based on relevance.

waiting for graduate school applications

The Waiting Game: Graduate Application Purgatory

So, I’ve been gone from the blog for a while. Sorry! Things got busy and I started doing some creative writing that took precedence over the blog, but since it is acceptance/rejection season for graduate school applicants, I thought I would share my story.

I do not remember waiting for responses to my applications fondly. In fact, it was not a good time in my life. Since statistics are really no comfort in this area, my hope is that a bit of anecdotal advice might give those playing the waiting game more realistic expectations of the admissions process.

At the time I applied, my understanding was that I would hear by March whether or not I had been accepted. As I found out, this is very misleading because it suggests that there is a day in March when the school sends out all their acceptances and rejections and then waits for the chips to fall. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In January, most of the admissions committees meet and decide on their top applicants. I’m not on an admissions committee (obviously), but I know they’ve been active because I’ve already been asked to meet with a “strong candidate” who was visiting. It’s fairly safe to say most schools have a good sense of the what this year’s pool of applicants has to offer by February. Then, schools have to make a gamble on how many students to accept, knowing that some will take the offer and others will decline it.

I know of cases where this has gone wrong on the institution’s end: they admitted a reasonable number of students – figuring maybe half will accept the offer – and nearly everyone accepted. When funding is involved, this is a huge monetary blow for the school that usually results in admitting fewer applicants the next year.  To avoid this pitfall, many institutions send out acceptances in waves. Their first-choice applicants receive acceptances, and they see how many of them accept or decline before they send out the next wave of acceptances. For this reason, you may not receive a rejection until very late in the game.

Other factors you may not be aware of can also factor into your schools’ decision process. For example, my graduate institution is making a switch in the program that will hopefully lessen the time-to-dissertation for their current students. In order to allocate enough money for this, they plan to have a very small incoming class next year. So, regardless of how great of a fit your application is, you may have applied to a particular school on a tough year. This is perhaps reason not to despair and to apply again.

For me, the panic ensued when I found out through the grape vine that others had already begun hearing back from schools at the beginning of February. One friend from my undergraduate program had already received acceptances and rejections from various schools by mid-February. Granted, I applied to about half the number of schools as this one friend (something I semi-regret, but that’s another story), but I still found it unnerving that I had heard absolutely NOTHING. Not a word from any of my schools.

Then I began to hear rumors that most schools send out acceptances in February and rejections in March. There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story either. Many schools send out their first wave of acceptances in February (i.e. the students that they really want to recruit). As it neared the end of February, I had received one rejection and no acceptances. I began to despair more and more. Chances of acceptance looked dismal, and regardless, I felt that I should have heard something by now.

Finally, a glimmer of hope came while I was taking the bus home one weekend. My phone rang and I recognized the caller ID as coming from the locations of one of my schools. I did not want to pick up the phone because the bus was near-silent with the exception of the muffled sound of music coming from a few headphones, so I let it go to voicemail, barely able to contain my excitement. I told myself that I would listen to it when I got home because – just in case – if it was bad news I did not want to break down on public transportation. Nevertheless, I didn’t take my own advice and listened to the voicemail on the bus: I had been accepted to an MA program with funding! This is the point where if I was in a musical, I would break out in song and the rest of the bus would join in.

This particular school was my form of a “safety school” because it was a terminal MA program (not PhD). The real benefit of this program was that it would be a stepping stone to future PhD programs, and since I was offered funding, it wouldn’t be a significant financial burden. Now – slight digression – many people will tell you that there is no such thing as a “safety school” for PhD applications, and this is partly true. Even a school that is not highly ranked as a graduate school in your discipline will still reject you if your research interests are not a good fit. Conversely, you might get into a top-ranked school and get rejected from all the lower-ranked schools you applied to just because your research interests happened to fit with a faculty member at that school.

So, needless to say, getting into any graduate at this time was a much-needed relief in this harrowing process. The one gray lining (as in the opposite of a silver lining) was that if I went through with the terminal MA program, I would have to think about reapplying for PhD programs again in a year. ONE YEAR. However, because this post is about silver linings and not gray ones, let’s say that an MA program would also be a benefit because it would give me more time to figure out whether the PhD was something I really wanted to pursue.

February came and went and I had not heard back from many other schools, except for maybe a couple rejections. All this time, I was desperately checking the “search” feature on the Grad Cafe website, which I hesitate to relate because if you do this it will drive you to insanity. This site allows people to post when they receive an acceptance or rejection from any graduate school. Never before has a device of the internet been so arbitrarily torturous to the minds of so many hopefuls. I warn you that it is a terrible thing to see twelve ecstatic people posting “OMG MY DREAM SCHOOL! Accepted w/ funding” for your #1 school while you sit at your computer screen knowing that you did not receive one of those acceptances. Ouch.

Then, one night when I was sitting at my apartment, I received a strange Evite from someone I did not know at 12:30am on March 1st (I actually went back through my horribly disorganized inbox to find this). When I opened it, it said “PhD Recruitment Event” and I had a serious WTF moment, because to my knowledge I had not been accepted to any PhD programs. (I like to think this was a hilarious miscommunication in the department that these Evites were sent out before the official admissions letters, but it was ok because this definitely indicated an ADMITTANCE).  Later that same day (if you’ll remember it was 12:30am so this was technically the same day, though within normal business hours) I received my official admittance letter, which confirmed that it was not a cruel joke. Bang the happy drums!

March is late for a first round of acceptances to go out, but in this case it did happen. If you take one thing away from this story: it’s not over until it’s over. You could receive a call from admissions mere days before the April 15th deadline to tell you that you have been taken off the waitlist. In fact, I was just talking to a friend in my cohort today who had this happen to him. He was visiting another school he had been admitted to in April when he received the call that he had been taken off the waitlist. Also, once it hits mid-March, it’s appropriate to email schools that have not gotten back to you and inquire about the status of your application. Many of the official rejection letters I received did not come in the mail until late March, but when I emailed the schools, they let me know that I had indeed been rejected. This sucks, but it’s better to know that you are for sure not on the waitlist at another school before you make your decision.

There also exists the possibility that you could get accepted to an MA program at a school for which you applied for the PhD (well, only if you don’t already have an MA). This happened to me with the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago. Generally, this is the case with schools that have a strong enough reputation that people will pay for a terminal MA. It is kind of like a courtesy admittance in the event that you are not high enough on the list to get funded, but they still think your credentials are good enough for them to accept your money. Unfortunately, this is often not a viable means of getting into that school’s PhD program down the road, though it may get you into a good program at another school.

While I will say I am extremely happy to have been accepted at my current school and I love the program here, one last bit of very disappointing news came when I was not accepted to my alma mater.  This really came as a shock to me because while I had been advised that it was generally not the best idea to get all degrees from BA to PhD from the same institution, no one ever indicated to me that I would not be given the opportunity. My initial thoughts were: many of my advisors/recommenders played influential roles on the admissions committee, so how in good conscience could they encourage me to apply to graduate school and recommend me to other schools if they did not want me in their program?

The truth is that many admissions committees right now are hyper-aware of the dismal job market and are making decisions that they feel will best-equip their students to find academic jobs. Unfortunately, having all three degrees from the same institution is rarely a “plus” on a job application. I try my hardest not to take that one personally because I know it was not a matter of whether or not my professors though I was suited for graduate school, or else their recommendations would not have gotten me into a PhD program elsewhere. Still, it was very disheartening to hear that I had not received acceptance from my alma mater. I probably cried the hardest at that one just because I was insulted.

So, here is a story of waiting and woe in Application Purgatory, and ultimate deliverance. I hope that it will give those out there playing the torturous waiting game some hope that they might still receive that acceptance letter, and even if that does not work out, that you should not take it personally and try again next year if it is your dream. Good luck to all those applying and please feel free to ask questions!

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Feeling Stressed in Graduate School vs. Feeling Stressed in the “Real World”

I often wonder, why are graduate students so stressed? Or perhaps more accurately – why has stress (whether or not there is good reason for it) become such a fundamental part of the graduate school experience?

People in the business world have to make deadlines, compete for promotions, and deal with terrible bosses. They sometimes do challenging work, sometimes do mundane work, and sometimes have to work late. Many, many people don’t enjoy their jobs. Nonetheless, there is no doubt people associate graduate school with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

How many times has a relative or acquaintance responded with “oh, I could never do more school!” when you confess that you are willingly subjecting yourself to attending more classes and writing more papers after obtaining your undergraduate degree?

Based on my experience in the “real world,” the 9-5 working schedule was both overwhelming and relieving. I would come home at night and simply be too exhausted to do what would normally constitute “me time.” Unless I had a specific event organized with friends, I was considerably less interested in going to see movies, meeting up for a drink, or simply hanging out at someone else’s house. I was generally in bed by 10:30pm after a glass of wine and some TV. Even on Fridays, I was at times too exhausted to go out with friends. At the office, dealing with the added stress of customer service in addition to getting work done often made for a harried and taxing 8 hours of work.

However, for the most part these stresses did not follow me home at the end of the day (except for the tiredness). If I wanted to go to bed at 10:30pm, no unfinished work would prevent me from doing that. I could sit down to a nice dinner without worrying that I should be getting something done. And if I wanted to be a lazy bum and watch TV for the entire evening, I also had that choice.

The fundamental difference between the “real world” I experienced and graduate school is that the “work” follows you everywhere – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You could sit down and relax at the end of the day, but you could also start reading those 200 pages you have due in a few days. Even if you procrastinate the work, it still hangs over your head like a shoulder angel shaking its head in condemnation. Moreover, the work is never finished because you are almost always given more to do that is reasonable to accomplish in the allotted time frame.

All that being said, I think a large part of getting through graduate school is asking yourself why you chose this system and figuring out how it can work for you. I chose this system because I enjoy the work I do in graduate school more than I did the work at a marketing firm. I also would rather sit through three hours of class than a three hour business meeting. Of course, this sometimes depends on the class, but in general I’m here because I enjoy discussing English literature.

I also prefer the scheduling freedom. This can be a conundrum for many graduate students because although the 9-5 schedule is more rigid, it is also an excuse for why work was not completed outside of that time frame. If you don’t have something important done by 4pm, you know you have to work extra hard in the last hour but in graduate school it is easy to fall into an endless cycle of putting things off. But when it comes down to it – I would rather accept the challenge of scheduling my working hours and my free time rather than having them scheduled for me.

If I prefer to work out in the afternoons and study from 7-10pm, I can. If I’d rather sleep in later and stay up later, I – to some extent – also have that choice. People in the corporate world usually do not experience this type of freedom coupled with this type of responsibility until they own they are high up on the rungs of business. If you owned your own business, you may have the flexibility to set your own store hours, but your work would most certainly follow you home every day.

Like everything, this lifestyle has the good and bad elements. They key difference I always try to remind myself of is that I had a choice whether or not to come to graduate school. I could be sitting in an office job right now making $30K a year with prospects for promotion. But I gave that up to be here.

Scheduling my time is more stressful and at times I let it get the better of me. I believe it is safe to claim that graduate students are more stressed than people in entry-level corporate jobs. However, if you are doing something you are passionate about – it should also be more rewarding.

Choosing Graduate School Programs

When it comes to choosing graduate program, I like to believe there are three important categories to consider.

FIT, FUNDING and FEASIBILITY

While there is no foolproof way of boiling down the multitude of factors that go into choosing a graduate program into a science, if a school fails in any one of the above categories, chances are it is not worth applying to.

First, let’s have “the talk” about FIT. When I first came up with a list of graduate programs, I’ll admit I didn’t have a clear idea of how to approach the idea of program fit.  If you haven’t had the talk, then someone needs to sit you down fast and explain that getting into a funded PhD program is not like getting into your undergraduate institution. You can have a 4.0 college GPA, graduate with honors and a 90th percentile and still not get into a program if the admissions committee does not see your interests as a proper fit for your program. Getting into a funded PhD program is subjective, like getting a scholarship. Even if you have top credentials, there’s no doubt that fit is one of the most important things to consider when considering graduate programs.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get down to the reality about fit. The tricky thing about program fit is that it is not always something that you can riddle out at the time you are applying. You could find a school that, based on your internet research, is the perfect fit for you, but unbeknownst to you the faculty member you are interested in working with is looking to leave the university to pursue another position. You could also be entirely convinced that you are going to write your dissertation on [very specific and scholarly subject] and think it is only worthwhile to apply to a short list of programs that you believe are your “perfect academic fit.” In reality, you don’t know your interests quite as well as you thought you did and you just missed out on the opportunity to increase your odds by applying to a broader range of programs in your field.

Ultimately, you are not the arbitrator of “fit.” The admissions committees are – and you cannot always predict what they are thinking to a degree of accuracy. Here’s what you CAN do:

- If you can, get in contact with faculty and graduate students. Worst case scenario, they do not respond or give you a lukewarm response. Best case scenario, they can give you a better idea if you would like the atmosphere at the school and whether your faculty member of interest is taking on new students.

- Realize that your personal statement and writing sample are not meant to pigeonhole you into a narrow topic within your concentration, but rather to serve as an exercise in your ability to articulate a set of interests appropriate to study at the graduate level and execute that type of thinking in an academic writing sample.

- Use internet research to make broad assumptions, but not very specific ones. For examples, if you are interested in American literature and a school has very few Americanists, chances are it’s not the best fit for you. On the other hand, I wouldn’t try and read the minds of the admissions committees and then figuratively put all your of your eggs in the basket of a few schools.

Next, you have to consider FUNDING. There’s a sheet in which people report their funding offers from various school on The Grad Cafe, but I can’t find it right now. However, it’s important to consider before you go spending the money on applications: how much money are you will to spend (or go into debt) for your degree? If you don’t get into a PhD program, are you willing to pay for an MA? Does the school offer competitive funding packages that are reasonable for the cost of living? If you are an international student, it is even more important to look into what funding is available for international students. It’s also possible that applying to more schools that that offer good funding package could put you in a position to barter for more funding if yo get into more than one program. Even if you get accepted to your top program, you won’t have any room to ask for more money if you get no other offers with higher funding packages.

Finally, there is FEASIBILITY. Feasibility is twofold: can you reasonably get accepted to this school? and if you were accepted, would you be willing to live and study there for the duration of the program? If you have a B- GPA and a 65th percentile GRE score, rejections aren’t guaranteed, but it might be advisable to seriously consider whether spending the money and time on applications is a worthwhile endeavor. If you would be unhappy moving to the location of the school, maybe that $100 application fee would be better spent elsewhere. If you have a spouse or family to consider, take their opinions into consideration if the relationships are important to you. Applying to “top programs” that really aren’t feasible is a waste of your time and money. You wouldn’t apply to a job that comes with a 5-7 year contract at a place where you would not want to live, won’t offer you enough money, and doesn’t fit your credentials. Consider the same with graduate schools!

writing sample

Tips on Writing a Thesis or a Writing Sample

Writing a sample for graduate admissions or thesis can be a daunting task and much of what you do learn, you figure out in hindsight.  At what point do you graduate from writing a “good paper for your grade level” to the expectation that you will contribute something insightful and original to your field? Moreover, when do you stop writing to the preferences of one particular professor and start writing for an admissions committee, a conference session, a publication?

These questions are not easy to answer and part of the experience is figuring it out as you move forward. However, submitting a paper for graduate admissions or your department’s honors committee makes the stakes pretty high the first time around. Although things worked out in the sense that I got into a good English PhD program and have Distinction on my diploma, the process has humbled me with the realization of all the things I could have done better – and that others did do better than I did.

Here are a few nuggets of advice that I learned from writing a writing sample and honors thesis.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

A subject of inquiry that is too general starts as an open door for research and quickly turns into a thesis tidal wave that knocks you off your feet. Unless you are a leading scholar in the field, chances are that your knowledge of existing scholarship is not sufficient to tackle a big, philosophical question that has stumped your field for decades. Even if you are a brilliant super-genius prodigy, you still have to consider what you will have time accomplish AND what you can make a case for in the page limited allotted.  More likely, you would end up 1) with a “middle ground” thesis that is more contemplative than a direct, focused claim or 2) leave wide gaps in your research and your rationale. Think small scale, think specific, and think achievable based on time constraints.

Avoid the dreaded “compare/contrast” thesis.

I like to think my attraction to this type of paper was borne out of being compelled to pull multiple texts into one paper for literature survey courses just because they were written in the same time period. One thing that I really never realized until graduate school is that it’s hard to move beyond “useful observations” and into real criticism when you structure papers this way. Not only do you have to give a convincing context for comparing multiple primary texts, but you also have to come up with a more substantial claim than “hey look, I noticed this historical pattern.” Again, does the scope of your research really encompass enough to make that claim? Stay away from this by coming up with a specific argument that you can illustrate clearly – and choose texts based on their relevance to your argument, not because they might have once been a good combination for a survey course paper.

Peer review is your friend.

I’ve fallen prey to this logic many times: advice from your advisor is superior to that of your peers because your advisor > your peers. Well, for one, your advisor may be more a experienced researcher, but that does not mean her opinion is the only one that matters. Professors get busy during the semester and while many of them genuinely want to help their students, sometimes they do not have as much time to put into critiquing your work as you would hope. There are two very good reasons why you should peer review. 1) Getting a second opinion can never hurt, but too often writers tend to accept the advice of their academic superiors without question. Peer review allows for a more open discussion and equal exchange of ideas.  2) Reading your peer’s work offers perspective on your own. What are you doing less effectively than your peer? What are you doing more effectively? Answering these questions will help you as much as it will help your friend.

Ask critical questions.

Your advisor could give you anything from super-detailed criticism to general words of wisdom. To get the most out of working with your advisor, you have to come to meetings with her prepared. Comb your paper with a critical lens and come up with some direct and specific questions to ask. Stay away from, “is this section good?” or “do I need to revise my this part?”. Instead, come up with questions like, “I’m concerned that my reading of X doesn’t fit with my later interpretation of Y, do you think that point is effective?”. You are more likely to have a productive conversation with your advisor if you come in prepared.

Don’t become too attached to your writing at the expense of expanding your ideas.

Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I’ve put the effort into writing a full paragraph or section out in complete, well-phrased sentences, I get lazy when it comes to revising them. And I don’t mean checking spelling and grammar – I mean revising at the structural and analytical levels. This can lead to what I call “Frankenpaper:” a paper that includes patches and fragments of writing and ideas that were part of an earlier draft but don’t flow with later, more developed ideas. The best way to avoid “Frankenpaper” from the start is to free-write by hand or make a detailed outline to get your ideas out before you starting actually parsing out a full draft. You’ll be more likely to amend your writing if it isn’t all typed up in neat little paragraphs. If you get a brilliant idea after you’ve done the bulk of your writing, don’t hesitate to annex entire paragraphs and sections and rewrite them. Rewriting is never as difficult as it seems and it may even save you time in the long run struggling to make a paragraph work that, in the end, just doesn’t fit.

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My New Graduate School Roommate

So, in my post “To Live Alone or with Roommates?” I expounded on the new-found joys of living alone. You can clean, cook, shower, and sleep on your own time with no one to distract you or inconvenience you. After three weeks of living alone in my one bedroom apartment, I’m already looking into finding roommates for next year. It’s not just the fact that sharing a space can lower costs by over $100 easily. It’s that living along can be, well, lonely.

I currently have a bipolar relationship with living alone now. Sometimes, I’m loving leaving my painting supplies out and knowing that I am the sole arbitrator of the air conditioning/heat temperature. The next I’m desperate for some interaction with anyone or anything.

I’ve made an effort to schedule the occasional study date with a friend or to invite people over for wine nights or accept invitations to meet out for a drink. Yet I miss the laid back interactions of having roommates. I miss having someone to talk to without having to call them on the phone or drive/walk across town. So, while I’m going to enjoy whatever benefit there are of living alone for the rest of the year, I’m definitely looking for roommates for next year.

This is also why I made the big decision to get a pet to cohabit my one-bedroom apartment with me. A lot of thought went into this, but it was still a difficult decision. My roommates and I had an adorable panda bear hamster last year in our apartment and even though he was small, nocturnal, and not very cognizant of himself as a social being, I loved having him around.

This time around I had a strict criteria for what I was looking for in a pet and I had a good idea of what would or wouldn’t work:

A favorable work to rewards ratio.
By “work” I mean the amount of effort, training, and cleaning the pet requires, and by “rewards” I mean how social, loving, and friendly the pet is. A dog for example requires a lot of training, attention, and effort, but once the work is accomplished a dog is one of the most (if not the most) attentive, loyal, and rewarding pets. Conversely, a fish requires little to no work, but also provides little in the way of rewards. Both a good and a fish would have a good work to reward ratio, however, because both animals give as much as you put into them.

In my opinion, most exotic pets have an unfavorable work to rewards ratio. Your boa constrictor might require a ton of space, a lot of money, and gruesome live feeding requirements, but that animal will never love you and appreciate you like a dog or a cat. Some people get a lot out of the act of caring for animals like this – if you do, good for you. But I wanted an animal that was social and pretty well-domesticated.

Sociable.
There are certain types of animals that know when you are sad and purposefully try to comfort you. They respond to you coming in the door and, given the choice, they would run to you rather than away from you. While I liked to hold our little hamster last year, I had no delusions that the animal was cognizant of my presence and preferred being out to being in his cage running on his wheel. I could get another pet just to be a little source of responsibility and enjoyment, but that type of pet wouldn’t fill the void that being alone all the time creates.

Not particularly noisy.
I am easily annoyed by repetitive noises that I cannot turn off. I don’t mind the occasionally woof, meow, or other noise, but I’ve learned that I have a low threshold of patience with little dogs that yap at every sound or birds that squawk incessantly.

Appropriate for my living conditions.
Unfortunately, this one ruled out a dog. Not only does my apartment not allow dogs, but even if I could find a place that allowed dogs, I would be seriously limited as far as future rental places are concerned. Plus, a large to medium sized dog would probably not be happy in a one bedroom apartment with no yard. So even though I’ve been a “dog person” all my life, I felt a dog was better saved for when I get my first house.

This also meant that the pet could move with me into another living condition with roommates. The landlord would have to allow it, but also my future roommates would have to be willing to live with it.

The Verdict:
I decided to get a cat from the local shelter. Now, this flew in the face of years of dog-loving, but I’d seen and interacted with friends’ cats and found that they could be loving and social creatures as well. And frankly – a cat’s reputation to be more independent and aloof is not a bad thing when it comes to fitting into the graduate school lifestyle. I have a bit of an irregular schedule, which might mess with a dog’s feeding times or being able to establish a routine.

So far, my kitty has been getting along wonderfully in my apartment. I had to do a bit of problem solving on issues like where to place the litter box in a one-bedroom apartment, but so far the challenges have not been insurmountable and the rewards have been great! (More on this to come later…)

stress_graduate_school

5 Ways to Relieve Stress in Graduate School

So, I’ve talked about being overwhelmed in graduate school and feeling stressed, but not exactly about how I attempt to cope with it. The problem that graduate students have that those in the working world do not (unless you own your own business) is that the bulk of work is expected to be done outside of typical working hours. Moreover, the nature of the work is that it is never truly done until the deadline has passed. This is not unique to graduate students, as designers, artists, and journalists will know, but it is an element of graduate school that makes the work more stressful.

If you are in graduate school, you were probably always a “good student.” Good students usually experience an existential crises when we find ourselves with more work than can reasonably be accomplished in the time allotted. We are troubled by the irony that doing better actually means not accomplishing all of our work, but rather prioritizing some projects over others.

While these are life skills that need to be learned, graduate students at times still struggle with the second crisis. When to put down the book, when to go to bed… The art of setting work aside is at times more important to success in graduate school than studying that extra hour or adding that extra paragraph on your paper. We have proven we know how to be “good students” simply by virtue of getting into graduate school, but we have not proven we know when to put academic work aside.

It is one thing to say PUT YOUR WORK DOWN. It is another to actually go and do it. However, I truly believe in order be a happy person (and not an frustrated, stressed, unhappy graduate student), you need to learn when to set your work down and come back to it tomorrow.

Here are just a few things that I’ve taken to doing whenever I am super stressed and bogged down with work:

1) Cooking
The best part about cooking as a hobby is that you need to eat anyways. Cooking your own meals can be fun, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding in the sense that you get to eat what you create. It is also less expensive and more healthy than eating out. Before you go to the grocery store, plan your meals and choose some fun and tasty recipes to try. Once you have the food purchased, you’ll be more likely to set aside that paper you’re working on come dinner time and relax while learning a valuable life skill. Even better? Invite friends over for dinner!

2) Exercise.
“Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people don’t [abandon their graduate studies in a fit of frustration].” It’s true; moderate exercise gives you more energy, keeps your body healthy, and puts you in a good mood. You could go for a run, or if that’s not your cup of tea, you could see what your institution’s student gym has to offer in the way of group classes and equipment. Another reason to be happy: being a graduate student often comes with a free gym membership :)

3) Decorative artwork.
I’ve recently become obsessed with decorating my apartment. Now, art has been a talent and hobby of mine for a while, but you do not have to be a good artist to enjoy some DIY crafting projects. Look at Pinterest. There are tons of crafts that are fun and produce awesome decorations for your place. I’ve posted some examples from my apartment to get your juices flowing.

 

 

 

 

 

4) Changing locations.
There will be times when unfortunately, you will not have the luxury of taking an extended break from your work. We all try not to get to this point, yet it is an inevitable part of the equation of academic work. These are often the most stressful times: when we feel trapped into a marathon of work with no breaks. If you can’t put down your work even for a quick run or to cook a meal, try moving locations periodically. If you’re getting frustrated in your apartment, try moving to a more public place like a coffee shop, where the buzz of activity around you can help you calm down and realize that yes, life does go on outside of your current research paper. Conversely, if you are in a public spot and you find yourself getting increasingly tired and distracted by that laughing group of freshmen in the corner, trying moving back to your private place of residence where you can put on your most comfortable pair of sweatpants and grab a snack to rejuvenate yourself. The key is not where you study, but the act of switching it up throughout the time you’re working.

5) Make friends outside of graduate school.
Graduate school friends are great for having partners to study with and chances are you’ll have ample opportunity to interact with them in and outside of class. However, any group of people going through a stressful time together (i.e. the final weeks of class) tends to commiserate. I find that having friends who have nothing to do with my graduate studies help me remind me of my long-term goals (not just immediate goals) and provide helpful distractions from the world of graduate studies. They can be friends from college you can call or Skype with – or new friends in town that you meet through a swing dancing club or a volunteer group. However you see fit – make these friends and make an effort to stay in touch with them!

grad_school_overwhelmed

Feeling Overwhelmed in Graduate School

I’m writing this post because I have had 2 weeks of graduate school (one week of registration/orientation and one week of class) and this is the first time I am feeling truly overwhelmed. I went to my family’s lake house for Labor Day weekend to relax and enjoy some time with my family and my boyfriend, and am now en route back to school. The drive is only partly done (I’ve made a pit stop), but in all it should amount to over 6 hours of driving.

I knew which readings I had to do for class based on our syllabi and I made an effort to get these done at various points before I left or during my trip. In total, I had to read one novel, three scholarly articles, one 62 page “theory book” (as I’m going to call it), and a 646 line medieval poem. And that doesn’t count the two articles we were supposed to discuss last week but are really going to discuss this week, so I might have to refresh my memory on what they said. I approached all my readings and – I must admit – understood them to varying degrees. The poem I’ve studied before and know well. The novel was understandable if boring, the “theory book” was comprehensible, but some of the articles pretty much baffled me at first reading.

Now, during my pit stop I happened to check my email – out of habit more so that for any practical reason – and found two emails from professors I received some time during the last couple hours I was driving. They’ve asked us to “prepare questions” on the readings. Ok, so no papers to turn in, but something I arguably should arguably take the time to sit down and prepare – maybe come up with quotations that point to places in the text I want to discuss. Moreover, for some of the more flowery and theoretical texts (this was most of them, actually) the “questions” actually just alerted me to how little I understood the finer points of the theory.

So now I am faced with another 4 hours of driving in which I can think about the fact that I have these “preparations” I probably should put some time and effort into, but I can’t because I’ll be driving. Oh – and there’s a freaking time change. So an hour will be lost in limbo and I have a 9:30am class tomorrow. Also, my computer decided now was a good time to “forget” all of my passwords.

*Cue feelings of despair, desperation, and overwhelmed-ness*

This is a feeling we all experience whether it is when starting a new job or going to a new school for the first time. The company I used to work for had a saying, “Fake it till you Make it” that we used whenever requests from clients started piling in and we did not know where to begin. In the academic world this amounts to taking a step back, realizing that not everyone understands these highly theoretical articles the first time they read them or knows how to approach them, and then doing the best you can.

The first thing I always want to do is blame. My instructors weren’t thinking about the fact that sending an email less than 24 hours before class would screw people over who were working through very busy schedules the night before class. But then again, they were probably enjoying their weekends as well and my situation is probably not the norm.

I know I won’t have time to prepare beautifully crafted answers to these questions and it is a bummer that my instructors sent those emails so late in day because as a first year student I would have liked more time to prepare. I may not even have time to come up with any clear answers at all. However, reviewing the questions and at least thinking about them will prepare me to consider responses from other more seasoned graduate students in my classes when we discuss it.

Take a deep breath, maybe write down some of your frustrations, and fake it ’till you make it. For me, writing is cathartic, but do whatever works for you.

personal_statement

Advice from a Writing Consultant: How to Write a Personal Statement

I worked at the Writer’s Workshop at my undergraduate institution, and we saw a LOT of personal statements for everything from scholarships to job applications. The personal statement, although intended to be a chance to express yourself through writing, is actually a very a formulaic piece of writing.  Although there are a few instances where an admissions committee might be interested in a creative statement (for example, the undergraduate essay prompts from the University of Chicago), most personal statements are merely exercises in which an applicant demonstrates that he or she knows what the admissions committee is looking for.

One of the biggest pitfalls of the personal statement is that students think they know what an admissions committee wants to hear, but they really waste precious space discussing things that won’t earn them an acceptance.

Here is some general advice on what to include (and what not to include) in your personal statement:

1. You do not need a “hook” like you may have been taught in middle school. No quotations, no “I loved to read since childhood.”

2. The only exception to the “no personal stories” rule is if you have a specific instance of something that got you interested in your field of concentration (i.e. after reading X piece of theory, I began to think about Y, which lead to the topic of my undergrad thesis etc.)

3. If you mention something on your CV, your personal statement must answer a question that is not evident just by reading the CV. Your CV gives the AdCom a laundry list of your experience, publications, relevant course work etc, but it requires the AdCom to interpret why a particular experience is important. For example, your CV says “taught Writing 101,” your personal statement should say “Writing 101 prepared me to balance teaching with my graduate studies by…”

4. The hardest part: finding a balance between being too specific and too broad. Use your research experience and interests as examples of the type of work you can do, not as the only topic you love and want to research, or are capable of researching.

5. As much as you may think that blaming your undergraduate institution for not handling your transfer credits as you hoped might help compensate for a less-than-stellar GPA, expressing any negativity is one of the worst things you can do. I once had a student come to me with an application for an education program in which she spent most of her statement berating the institutions she attended and their educational systems. Every institution has its organizational issues. These are things you challenge after you’re in, not when you are vying for one of just a few spots in the club.

6. Answer the question that is on their minds directly: are you a good fit for this program? You can talk about how special you are until you are blue in the face, but the reality is what one AdCom member finds relevant and interesting may not impress the next. But program fit is the question they are all trying to answer. If you can answer that effectively enough to convince them and you have the grades and letters of rec to back up your claims, you may have just earned yourself an acceptance.

Further Reading:

I can’t post this article because the link I have to it is through my student subscription, but if you can access it, check out “The statement of purpose in graduate program applications: Genre structure and disciplinary variation” Samraj & Monk, 2008. They bring up a very interesting point – that the success of specific content strategies in personal statements is a “semi-occluded” genre (i.e. there is little to no numerical data, and most of it is confidential). It is worth a read if only for the testimonies of Admission Committee members, since these serve as a good reminder of your audience.