How to Succeed as a PhD Student: Wisdom from the DGS

I had graduate school orientation yesterday (can’t believe I’m finally here!), during which the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) for the English Department gave us some advice that was altogether sobering, practical, and inspirational.  I’m pleased to say I was very happy with how cooperative and friendly everyone in the department seemed; I couldn’t have asked for a better fit in that respect. Here is some of the things I’ve “learned” from my initial days in my PhD program.

The expected advice (that it may behoove you to hear if you are applying for graduate school):

The availability of tenure-track jobs crashed during the recession and is yet to fully rebound. They showed us the statistics. Hiring reached a high point in 2008 with a steep plummet the following year. Since then, the job market has been creeping back up, but is no where near where it was pre-2008. Right now, only about 1/3 of people with a graduating with a PhD are able to find a tenure-track job the year after they graduate. I imagine this was especially dire news for those graduating in 2009, who entered their programs thinking that they would likely get a job as a tenured professor. It should be no surprise to anyone that there is a lot of negativity about the academic job market these days, just take a lot on the internet and you’ll find TONS of embittered bloggers and writers. The good news: it is on the upward trend now. And when you look at statistics based on percentage of recent grads who get tenure track jobs, having an article already published greatly increases your changes of being one of the ones who gets a tenure track job. This reinforces the point that in order to get a good academic job, you need to get your degree from a research institution with an influential department, because this is the type of school that will have the connections and resources to get you published.

Avoid graduate drift. It’s no secret that the retention rate for graduate students is far from 100%.  Getting your PhD is truly a marathon, not a sprint. My fear in applying for and attending some of the programs with more cutthroat reputations – where students are cut or have to compete among each other even after they are admitted into the program – was that it would inspire a sort of “sprint” atmosphere that would cause students to burn out early on in the program. Our DGS admitted that at her graduate institution, they cut half the class after the first year! Students would actually horde library books to keep them from other students in the program. Luckily, not the case here. They are actively trying to help students avoid that slump in the first place. The hard truth though? There’s no point in staying if you have done some soul searching and no longer want to be a graduate student – then it’s in the best interests of both the student and the program that you pick yourself up and move on.

Stay visible and don’t sequester yourself. I’m not in the introverted/loner camp, even though that is the stereotype of graduate students, but it is still good advice and something I’ve heard repeated over an over again. Just like most people need a life outside of their 9-5 job to be happy, graduate students need a life outside of graduate school. It’s best to take the approach that graduate school is your job, and teaching, writing, and taking classes is the work that you do. When work becomes your life, every inevitable failure, every criticism, and every unmet goal is a life crisis. Knowing you have friends and other reasons you are a valuable person with a fulfilling life is essential to staying afloat in graduate school.

The unexpected advice (stuff that I wasn’t necessarily expecting):

Don’t pour all your time into teaching. Most graduate students pay for their degrees by also teaching undergraduate classes. I’ve heard the criticism of both professors and graduate student instructors that they care more about their own research than their students. Unfortunately, that is the truth of successful academics. Our DGS warned us that it is easy to get carried away with teaching – perfecting PowerPoints and pouring tons of time and energy into making sure everything is perfect for class. However, she came out and said that successful graduate students prioritize their research above teaching. Those are the ones that get ahead and eventually get the jobs. She also said that if teaching is what you really love, you would be far better off leaving with your MA and teaching at a private school or community college. Graduate studies at a research university is about just that: research.

Curb your enthusiasm (but not too much). The “creative type” are often particular likely to get big ideas and bite off more than they can chew (I have been guilty of this from time to time). We have been advised not to get ahead of ourselves. Getting some big, outlandish idea has lead to many graduate students mulling over their dissertation for years beyond the expected time frame as they try to ponder out these ideas and synthesize them. In order to prevent this, our DGS recommended always seeking the advise of peers and advisors before embarking on some wild goose chase.

Get work published, but not too many of your dissertation chapters. Publications prior to graduating with the PhD definitely put people ahead in this filed (the statistics don’t lie), however, those who publish too many of their dissertation chapters often find trouble finding a university that is willing to publish the work as a whole. The lesson: always be thinking of how you can get papers written for seminars published, attend conferences, and don’t waste opportunities!

To live alone or with roommates?

I’ve been MIA for a bit, but was because I was frantically packing and moving down to start school in the fall!

There was a time (after I watched Silence of the Lambs as a kid) when I vowed I would NEVER live alone. It was scary, and boring besides. Now here I am, just a few days removed from a life filled with constant roommates and little personal space, with my own apartment at grad school.

I debated whether to live alone or with roommates. During my childhood, I always shared a room and my first two years of undergrad I lived in tight quarters with 1-3 other people. My junior and senior year I lived in three-bedroom apartments with roommates, though I had my own room. Roommates bring down the cost of living a decent amount – you can share appliances and electricity bills so no one roommate has to pay for everything. If you’re friends with your roommates, there’s also the added social bonus.

In spite of the fact that I loved my roommates last year, there were a number of times that I opted to join them in a Pretty Little Liars marathon or an extra episode of Bridezillas when I really should have been getting work done. Occasionally, they would have guests over when I needed quiet to study, or they would be trying to study during my down time and I would feel guilty having friends over. And this was all the scenario if you got along perfectly well with your roommates!

When it came down to it, having a roommate you do not get along with can ruin an experience more than anything else. You can escape from a bad professor or a fellow student you do not like, but when you nemesis lives with you, there is no sanctuary. I like to think I am an agreeable roommate, but when someone is just mean-spirited I feel like I can’t relax around them. I also like to be able to make the calls like “I’m busy, I can do these dishes later tonight” or “I want to leave my painting supplies out on the kitchen table” and not have to worry about these choices inconveniencing or angering a roommate.

So, in the end I chose to live alone my first year of graduate school. I was slightly worried that this would lead me to not be “social” enough, but so far it hasn’t deterred me from getting out and meeting people. Now decorating the place is an entirely different story!

What is the difference between applying to MA and PhD programs?

This is a good question to ask yourself before you look into programs. Some programs offer direct-entry to the PhD program; this does not mean you will not have to complete the equivalent coursework of a master’s degree, but given satisfactory completion of master’s work, you’ll be allowed to progress to the PhD level with that department.

If you have a bachelor’s degree and you are deciding whether to apply to MA programs or directly to PhD programs, here are a few important things to consider:

  • Most PhD programs offer funding along with acceptance; this is not true of most MA programs.
  • Acceptance is more competitive for PhD programs. It is more comparable to the competition to get a scholarship than it is to admissions for undergraduate programs.
  • MA programs usually take 1-2 years to complete. PhD programs usually require 5-7 years past undergraduate (but actually completing the dissertation can take even longer than this statistic suggests).
  • Just because a school offers you acceptance to their MA program does not mean that you will have an “in” to progress to the PhD. In fact, many competitive schools do not feed their PhD programs from their own terminal MA programs.
  • If you are applying directly to the PhD with a BA, it is important to look carefully into each school’s directions for the application. Some will want to you choose the MA program on the application, but then indicate your intention to continue through the PhD in your personal statement. Others will have a specific option for direct-entry to the PhD.
  • Some schools will still consider you for their MA programs even if you don’t get into the PhD directly. While this can be a fall back, if you are not confident that you are qualified for the PhD program, there is no guarantee that your application will get referred to the MA program unless you apply for it.
  • While MA programs (in general) improve your pay scale and your qualifications for jobs, a PhD can actually over-qualify you for many jobs. Earning more money and/or improving your qualifications for any job that does not specifically require a PhD are not good reasons to apply to PhD programs.
  • Unless you eventually hope to get into a top-tier PhD program with your MA, where your degree came from matters more with the PhD than is does with the MA. If you’re a high school teacher and you go back to get an Masters in Education, in the end, the degree matters more than where it came from. This is unfortunately not the case with PhD programs; it is generally not worthwhile to pursue a PhD from a program that does not have the resources available for you to do research in your specific field and has limited success in finding tenure-track jobs for its recent graduates.

More than anything, I wish someone would have stressed this point to me before I applied. I mentioned before that the competitiveness of top PhD program is akin to the competition for a scholarship. You can imagine when you are applying to a prestigious scholarship, there may be many applicants who are qualified to receive the scholarship, but the selection committee only has so much money to offer to the applicants. Once the applicant pool has been whittled down to its most competitive applicants, it is the subjective process of judging personal statements and/or samples of the students’ work that ultimately determines who gets the scholarship. Admissions to a PhD program is exactly this: there are too many qualified applicants and not enough funding to go around. Therefore, “fit” is everything when it comes to getting accepted to a PhD program – not necessarily your GPA or GRE scores.

When I first sent one of my recommenders a list of the schools I was applying to, he sent me back an email commenting on how my list didn’t have any “back up schools.” At first I was offended – if he was writing my letters of recommendation, did he really think I didn’t have a chance at getting into any of the “top” programs? However, he ended up being completely right. Admissions to those programs was far more competitive than I originally thought, and getting into an MA program helped me keep my sanity knowing I still had the option to go to graduate school if I didn’t get into any PhD programs.

 

 

 

10 Things to do before you ask for Letters of Recommendation

photo credit: luciferhouseinc.blogspot.com

luciferhouseinc.blogspot.com photo

While these can definitely make or break your application, most people won’t rank them high on their application to-do list because preparations for your letters of recommendation start far before you pop the question to a potential recommender. Asking for letters of recommendation is the final step in a long process of networking.

The best recommendations will come from professors who know you and who truly support you in your higher-education quest, so while you want them to know you and your interests, it is also to your advantage to get to know them. Are they willing to take the time to give you thoughtful advice? Do they share your interests? What testimony could they offer of your academic ability?

Here are 10 things to do before you ask professors for a recommendations. Incidentally, these also won’t hurt your performance in class, either!

1. Go to their office hours.
2. Stay engaged in their class and make an effort to never be absent.
3. Ask their advice on how to improve your papers even if you are confident you’ll get an A.
4. Make sure you receive feedback from them beyond a letter grade, especially if it is not an advanced class.
5. Involve them in your decision process from “I’m thinking about it” stage to the “I’m ready to apply” stage.
6. Read something written by your professors. If appropriate, ask them about it.
7. Don’t dodge the question: “Do you think graduate school is right for me?” – ask it outright and be willing to accept the answer.
8. Try to get a research position with them or work with them more closely in an independent study.
9. Seek advice on which programs to apply to – and people they know in the field who you might want to work with.
10. Here’s an obvious but important one: always put a good face forward. Complaining about a grade or constantly asking for extensions are things you want to avoid at all costs.

Some of these may seem obvious, but you would be surprised to hear some of the wacky stories people tell about asking for recommendations. I knew someone who once asked a professor who had accused her of academic dishonesty for a recommendation. Really, what? Even if you have stellar grades, that does not mean that you made strong connections with professors. In the end, GPA alone is not enough to get you into graduate school if you have lackluster recommendations.

At best, your recommenders will push for you to get into certain schools where they know the faculty (I honestly believe this helped me get in to my program).

I got the worst Analytical Writing question on the GRE

Now, if you’ve ever taken the GRE or a practice test, you are hopefully familiar with the Analytical Writing portion. This section of the test gives you one of the great mysteries of the universe in a statement and asks you to argue for or against it using all the stores of knowledge you’ve accumulated in college.

What it is supposed to test is your ability to analyze a highly debatable statement and articulate a response quickly with pointed examples. Contemplating the issue, planning your response, and then actually writing it must all be completed within 30 minutes.

The analytical writing portion is essentially a philosophy paper written in the time span in which someone in the business world might craft a hasty response to an angry client. Descartes might have sat in meditation for a very long time to come up with “I think, therefore I am,” but you will have 30 minutes to BS your way to a 6.0 on the Analytical Writing GRE.

Based on the practice tests, I expected a lofty, distant statement that is so broadly controversial that one could come up with any number of examples in favor or against it, but not political enough to ruffle any feathers (i.e. you’re not going to see a political issue like: “Abortion should be illegal because…”). I assume the reason why they do this is because with specific political issues it’s harder to set aside biases and focus on writing the most strictly logical prose possible.

I was expecting to see something along the lines of:

“The meaning of a piece of art lies only in the viewer’s interpretation, the artist’s intention is irrelevant.”

(I made this one up myself, feel free to hire me if you see this ETS)

The defining characteristic of a GRE question is that the “truth” probably lies somewhere in between the statement and its anthesis, which is what makes it so arguable. However, for the purposes of this essay you can’t be wishy-washy. You have to set aside your personal feelings, pretend your in the debate team state finals, and argue for the sake of arguing.

This is why the “issue” I got is such utter crap. I first took the GRE when I was just a couple days away from moving away from my family to spend the summer studying in Spain. I had just finished a stressful semester of undergrad and had no time to relax before I needed to cram in some last minute studying for the GRE and pack for Spain. I was also deep in the throes of a quarter-life crisis over whether I should be going to graduate school or reconsidering my life and doing something more practical.

I don’t make any claims that this is an exact replication of the wording, but this is the gist of what I saw when the time started for my first section of the GRE.

“Professors are expected to be experts in their subjects, but without any real-world work experience necessary for their degrees, they grow increasingly disconnected from their students’ goals in receiving an education.”

Chances are if you are taking the GRE, you are pretty serious about going to GRADUATE SCHOOL. If you were going to law school, medical school, or getting your MBA, you would not be taking the GRE. Therefore, based on this fact alone, you probably find some value in the type of education you would be receiving in a graduate program. The GRE took the pivotal question of my quarter-life crisis and threw it in my face.

Now, the problem was not that I did not want or feel able to answer this question. It’s that the most crucial mistake a good writer can make on the Analytical Writing is feeling the need to supply an answer to the question that they believe is “right.” The reason I say this is because the answer to these philosophical questions is almost certainly in the middle of any extreme position you might take; sure, most subjects could really benefit from an instructor who has a wide variety of life experiences and perspectives, but what is the “real world”…corporate America? the big city? the Siberian wilderness?

Not taking a firm stance on one side or the other is a big mistake on the Analytical Writing. Forget the correct answer. Your job is to produce a logical and well-articulated answer. And this is where I miserably failed with this issue. I contemplated it for far too long. Then I took a judicial pro/con stance. I questioned the question. And then it cut me off in the middle of my final paragraph.

Ooops.

The second time I took the GRE, I did not have this problem. I tackled the issue without any personal investment whatsoever. That is the way it’s done, folks. Don’t let the GRE get you down.

To proofread or not to proofread? That is the question.

I have heard the dialogue on this hundreds of times. Proofread your papers – even one typo will discredit you!  I have regularly seen professors interject some warning on their syllabi and essay prompts that too many typos will result in a lower grade. Typos are symbols of laziness, or at worst, mistaken for a lack of understanding of the correct spelling or grammar. An unfortunately placed typo will confuse and even alter the meaning of an important sentence.

I have, for whatever reason, always begrudged the task of proofreading. Once you fully understand all the mechanics of writing and are able to wield them to powerful effect, going back and playing seek-and-find with autocorrect mistakes is the unpleasant brunt work of writing.  It is like the task of cleaning up the poop in the animal cages is to a zoologist. Necessary, but menial and not enjoyable.

In spite of the fact that I do often proofread my own work, some error or another usually slips past. (See my Writing Sample post for details) The longer my paper is, the more inertia I experience in going about the task of proofreading. Moreover, I find the process of proofreading my writing maddeningly inefficient. Once I am intimately acquainted with a piece of writing, my brain just corrects mistakes as I’m reading. Sometimes, I will go back to a piece I wrote weeks ago and wonder how a typo could have been so blatantly staring me in the face and I still didn’t notice it.

In order to effectively proofread my own work, I need to somehow alienate myself from what I know I meant to say. And that takes time and effort. I’ve even had professors recommend reading your paper sentence by sentence backwards to catch mistakes. If it’s a short response, ok, that’s possible. If it’s a 20 page research paper with gaggles of footnotes and citations? Forget it. That’s time that could be spent sprucing up my conclusion or tackling some or reconsidering that one paragraph that never quite felt right.

The other issue is that when you are a student, you are always working on a short deadline. On top of that, you probably have other papers due at the exact same time. You don’t have the luxury of having your editor go over your writing before it’s published. There is always more that could be done to improve a high-order concern. I feel that I can’t justify setting down my pen to read it over until the last possible second – and well, that means a few typos will sneak their way past.

After my fiasco with my writing sample, I went through a cautious phase. I decided that I needed to finish my papers in enough time to clean everything up. In effort to plan everything out and get it done early, my ideas ended up being too safe. I realized my frenzied writing process, scribbled in a coffee-induced haze, was an inseparable part of my critical voice. In my old ways, I would go up to the last minute reading articles, free writing ideas, scratching entire paragraphs, and rearranging the structure of my paper the night before it was due because a brilliant idea came to me. My polished typo-free paper lacked my signature lofty ambition.

proofreading

I know the arguments. You’ll say that if I get my priorities straight I should have time to do both – come up with a brilliant paper that is polished as well. Maybe this isn’t as big of an issue for others.  I do read my papers over before I turn them in.Yet, somehow when I do that last read-through of my paper before I turn it in I just don’t catch all the mistakes. It’s usually after I get it back and reread it that I realize there were a few awkward typos.

Is it laziness that leads me to disdain proofreading? Is it poor taste? Is it arrogance? I still haven’t quite found that happy medium where a paper is polished, but not too safe. The truth is I value wild ambition and big ideas over simple, clean, and buffed to a shine. Just take a look at my closet (but really, don’t). It’s not that I think a sloppy, haphazard paper is a good thing. It’s not. I’m talking about those persistent little typos that you just don’t notice when you’re in basking in the hyper frenzy of having put the finishing touches on an awesome paper at the last minute.

How much time do you leave to proofread your papers? Do you think the presence of typos in your writing detracts from how professional it sounds?

P.S. pardon my typos

The GRE Verbal Vocabulary: Just Memorize It

memorize_wordsOne of my great frustrations with the Verbal GRE was that there is really no way to truly do well on the vocabulary section without buckling down and memorizing those words.

Vocabulary has always been one of my strengths in both writing and orating. Not only do I read constantly just by virtue of being a literature major, but one of my concentrations in my undergraduate degree was the study and translation of ancient languages. The study of Latin and Old English as well as word etymology generally allows me to figure out the meaning of most English words in context. If I don’t know the meaning of a new word, I make an effort to look it up. I knew I was going to be rusty on the math, but my repeated failure on the vocabulary section of the practice tests baffled and frustrated me.

The reason I did not do as well on the vocabulary section as I had hoped was because the GRE likes to throw out “red-herrings” for people who know the roots of words. For example, if you know “pedantic” has some relation to teaching, but are not aware that this word has a negative connotation, this will hurt you more than help you. The GRE will purposefully tip you off that the correct word will have some relation to teaching, but pedantic will not be the correct answer because it is “the quality of being excessively concerned with minor details and with displaying academic learning” and context deems the word must be a positive quality. The GRE rendered my knowledge of word etymology practically useless.

Moreover, the GRE does not like to use words that you might be acquainted with from reading scholarship or literature, or else they will pick a definition of a more common word you might be less familiar with. The moral of my story is that unless you are a dictionary-memorizing word whiz, a working knowledge of vocabulary will not help you get top scores on the GRE.

Once I deigned to get out the flashcards and start memorizing, I saw immediate improvement on the vocabulary sections. In fact, more often than not I would get perfect scores on the vocabulary parts of the practice tests. Become acquainted with the way that works best for you to memorize. I’m a visual learner with a photographic memory, so I would write the words alongside their definitions in as close proximity as I can. Flashcards were useless to me because it is harder for me to link the words with their definitions in my mind since I couldn’t pair the words visually with their definitions. However, a lot of people find flashcards effective in memorizing mass amounts of words.

A daily routine of memorizing words is the easiest way to do well on the Verbal GRE. Don’t rest on your laurels and assume a good working vocabulary is enough to succeed on the GRE. Set down that Charles Dickens novel you’ve been reading to build your vocabulary and pick up the flashcards.

20/20 Hindsight: What I would have done differently on my applications

They say hindsight is 20/20, but if we could go back and do it all again, would it really turn out perfectly?

road_not_takenAs far as graduate school applications go, it’s perfectly normal to go through multiple rounds of applications before getting into the right school (I just made that sound like dating, but it is kind of a learn-from experience deal). Seniors in high school go into the undergraduate application season armed with their GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and not much else other than a resume of extracurriculars. For graduate school, you truly have to sell yourself on paper. Your statement of purpose could make all the difference in whether you get that acceptance letter – and that leaves a lot of room for improvement on a second go-round.

I will not be participating in the 2014 application season, but looking back I could have made some improvements on my applications. All is well that ends well, but if you are applying this year here are some things I wish I would have known in hindsight.

Things I would have done differently:

  • Done more to research my own fit for a program before I went ahead and applied.  I could have, in some cases, narrowed down my list and in others, broadened it.
  • Contacted persons of interest from the schools I was most interested in before I applied. I didn’t even know this was an option at the time. If the only faculty member who shares your interests isn’t taking on any new students, you have your answer about whether the school would be a good fit. Best case scenario, they are excited to work with you and even push for you during application season.
  • My statements of purpose(s) were in some ways too narrowly focused on a concentration within my discipline. I thought this might be an asset, but it may have closed some doors to me that may have been open to someone more versatile.
  • Finally, I would have looked more into funding opportunities at schools. I’m pleased with the PhD program I will be attending in a month and feel it is an excellent fit, but I can’t help but feel I could have had leverage to ask for a better funding offer if I would have gotten even better funding from other schools.

Things I would not have done differently:

  • Studied more for the Subject GRE. I didn’t crack open a single practice book or read about test strategies and my score was crap. However, less than half my schools required it and the one that gave me the best offer did require it. So go figure.
  • Apply to a “back-up” MA program. Not realizing how competitive the admissions process actually is, I resisted applying to a program that 1) was not in the top 20 and 2) was not direct-entry to the PhD.  I ended up applying and was really glad to have it as an option in the end cause it was a close call with the PhD programs.
  • forkDoing whatever it took to come up with the best writing sample. In the two weeks leading up to my first application deadline I sent my writing sample to a professor for him to read it over. I was expecting a few offhand comments, but he ended up sending me back pages of written advice and working with me on multiple new drafts. It took a lot of time and stress, but his help probably got me into the program I’m currently attending.
  • Make a spreadsheet to organize all my applications. Boy, did things get confusing in the end and I had multiple panic attacks that I had forgotten to send my transcripts. Referring back to my spreadsheet calmed me – and probably saved me from making some more dire mistakes.

If you are a graduate student, what would you have done differently on your applications and do you think the outcome would have been if you had the chance to improve your applications? If you are applying again, how much is “hindsight knowledge” will be an asset in a second round of applications? I’d love to hear other responses.

Response to the Wall Street Journal’s “Who Ruined the Humanities?”

I recently read Lee Siegel’s Wall Street Journal article, “Who Ruined the Humanities?” and was prompted to write a response as someone who not only majored in the humanities for my B.A., but am pursuing a degree in English literature at the graduate level. If you haven’t had a chance to read the article yourself, I highly suggest taking a look. The thrust of Siegel’s point can effectively be summarized in the article’s subheading:

“Of course it’s important to read the great poets and novelists. But not in a university classroom, where literature has been turned into a bland, soulless competition for grades and status.”

newspaperSiegel’s disillusionment with the state of humanities in the American education system echoes the complaints of many students who feel academia ruins good books. I regret to report that I have had a number of teachers who have failed to enchant their students with the subject of literature. At worst, some fostered a sense of fruitless competition between students, encouraging them to dissect novels and reduce the power behind their writing to textbook dryness.

It is no wonder that former humanities majors have been outpouring into the fields of communications, advertising, and other more “practical” studies. Literature majors studying literature in isolation from other fields are a dying breed, Siegel informs us, “Never mind that the preponderance of English majors go into other fields, such as law or advertising, and that students who don’t major in English can still take literature courses.”

Far from a sign of the failure of our academic system, Siegel sees this as a saving grace, preserving the inherent value of literature so it cannot become corrupted by dissection in the classroom.

“No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature.”

To some extent, he’s entirely correct. A dry lesson dilutes the rhetorical power of a well-written piece of literature – of that there’s no doubt. But isn’t there more going on in the university  classroom than teaching kids to love reading? To suppose that any student can develop superior analytical writing skills just by picking up a copy of Ulysses is a suspiciously privileged view. Not every student has the social advantage of being able to sit and read selections from the English Literary Canon after school.

Where I disagree with Siegel is in his grand assertion that the study of literature as a college major is failing because it doesn’t offer students any value beyond the experience of reading books. His argument hinges upon the idea that what literature has to teach, it does so inherently – it cannot be taught in a classroom.

Now, a number of comments on the Wall Street Journal’s website have already poked holes in this argument. Learning about critical theories of literature and the historical circumstances in which a novel was written not only adds a new dimension to the way we think about books, it calls to mind questions that go beyond the page. There’s a big part of that understanding that comes from contextual knowledge and discussion in the classroom.

My advanced classes at the university level have changed the way I write, think, and communicate. There are different levels of understanding one can glean from literature. You can pick up a poem by William Butler Yeats and appreciate the sound and cadence of the poetry, but someone who is educated in Irish history, mythology, and mysticism will have a different relationship with Yeats’ work.

There are a few works that have changed my perceptions of the books I read and the media I watch, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Derrida’s deconstructionist approach to language. They have permeated my approach to reading novels in an important way, if not a strictly pleasurable way. If learning about literature in the classroom has destroyed Siegel’s enjoyment of the classics, it has heightened my appreciation of them.

But that is not the point I want to make. I understand my appreciation for the classroom study of literature may just be another subjective judgement in a world of critics. My true appreciation for my education in literature came after a year of working at the Writing Center at my undergraduate institution. Students came in with all different types of writing: everything from philosophy papers to scholarship applications to personal statements. I was amazed at how many brilliant students had difficulty articulating their ideas.

Not every English major is the most eloquent, brilliant writer. However, I do believe that humanities students are pushed to new levels of analysis and most importantly, of articulating that analysis. When it comes to writing a personal statement for a scholarship or even a lab report, you would be surprised how many non-humanities students struggle to describe their own ideas concisely and articulately.

I truly believe my writing skills have helped me get internships over people whose majors were more suitable for the position. I’ve worked in the engineering, IT, and marketing industries, and in every job situation my ability to communicate helped me get the job and market my skills when applying to scholarships and other positions. I even passed up a full time job with upward mobility to pursue my graduate degree.

Siegel sits in judgement of the classroom treatment of literature from the high seat of a literary purist who, having achieved his advanced degrees in the humanities, now presumes that he developed his eloquence and literary discernment outside the classroom. Maybe he did – but if so he ignores the reality that to achieve that, one must have a relatively affluent and learned home environment. Moreover, he lumps thousands of teachers’ approaches to literary studies into one great failure that has soiled the average American’s appreciation for literature. According to Siegel, understanding the full depth of classical literature “requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

I disagree. The greatest thing I was ever taught by my literature and history instructors was not just to enjoy literature, but to question it. Who wrote this and why? And how did it come to be that I am reading it now? The ability to answer these questions allows a student to make broader connections about the relationship between language, culture, and communication.

I’m not saying that non-humanities majors do not encourage students to think critically about their subjects and empathize with other cultures. I’m also definitely not saying that everyone can and should be a humanities major. I’m saying that what the humanities have to offer still has value in our education system.

Yes, there are misguided teaching approaches out there – just as there are in every subject. However, I do not think that the humanities are “ruined” or even necessarily declining. We are in an economic recession and people are naturally worried about getting jobs and having a marketable resume. One could say the humanities died with the fall of the Roman Empire, but here we are today studying the authors of our own language and era. The role of literature in the classroom is merely changing. We have the opportunity to promote non-canonical texts and the voices of minority authors in the literature classroom. When it comes to education change is not always bad, sometimes good, but always inevitable. In the meantime, I will continue to study the humanities.

What’s in a Rank: How important are grad school rankings?

ranksHow important are rankings when it comes to choosing a graduate school? While most would agree that rankings are an important factor for graduate schools, it’s no exact science. There’s also no clear answer to many of the difficult questions that come up over rank.

So I didn’t get into a top-20 program, but I got into a graduate program that I like and is offering me funding. Will my degree be worth it?

I got into a program that is highly ranked and another that is not ranked as high, but that I feel will be a better fit. Should I pick the higher ranked program regardless?

The answer to these questions will depend on which program you are applying to and how great the disparity in rank actually is between the schools you are considering. The graduate program rankings should be an indication of the resources available to students, the strength of the faculty, and the credentials of the currently attending students at a particular school. That being said, just because a school has multiple noble prize winning alums and adds a little badge of prestige to your degree that doesn’t mean that it will be your best chance for success.

When it comes to graduate school, department rankings trump overall rankings. Even if a school has a well-respected undergraduate program, that doesn’t mean that is has the particular graduate program you are looking for. Industrial Organizational Psychology, for example, is a smaller but rising field and the top-ranked graduate schools aren’t the usual assortment of Ivy Leagues and big public research institutions. Be especially careful to look at specialties within programs as well. While a school might rank highly in English Literature, that doesn’t necessarily help you if they have an strong department for American Literature and you are looking to study Medieval Lit. So, yes, rankings are important – but you also need to do your research. The US News website‘s graduate school rankings are a good place to start.

grad_rankAnother controversial issue is your “fit” for a particular school. Part of this process will arbitrarily be decided for you by the admissions committee. If they don’t see a place for you in their program, you won’t have the option of deciding whether that school is a good fit for you. However, because the process is highly subjective – and honestly often a crap shoot – you may find yourself with acceptances to multiple schools that have very different program atmospheres. Now is the time to ask yourself:

What time of support does this program offer its students from faculty and advisors? Does the program encourage a collaborative or competitive atmosphere? Is the location of this school somewhere I am willing to live?

If you can determine that a particular school just isn’t the right fit, it doesn’t matter how highly their program is ranked. Sometimes, waiting another year for another round of applications is the better choice than going to a school that you have a gut feeling you won’t be happy at.

In today’s academic job market, it’s important to keep rankings in mind, within reason. Where you earned your degree can make all the difference in getting an academic job. The answer won’t always be easy. However, if you research your programs, contact faculty of interest, and reach out to current students at the school, chances are you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of how successful the program is and whether or not you could see yourself as a graduate student there.