GIFT

This summer, I have the extraordinary privilege of being a Fellow with the GIFT program here at Tufts University. GIFT is a clever acronym for Graduate Institute For Teaching and it’s really an amazing program. Every summer, fellows are chosen from amongst Doctoral Candidates university-wide to participate in the institute. Seminars are held in various aspects of teaching and pedagogy and are conducted by top teachers from all of the disparate departments.

So far, the seminars have been delightful and extremely applicable to my job. I’m learning

A pano of my book fort that I took to show the other fellows what my workspace looks like

A pano of my book fort that I took to show the other fellows what my workspace looks like

a lot about teaching, and I’m learning a lot about being a graduate student.

You see, this is the first time that I’ve encountered other Tufts Doctoral Candidates in the wild. This is the first chance I’ve had to have close contact with a group of people so very like me, but also incredibly different. Lunchtime chats are dominated by discussing the similarities and differences in our fields, what Quals are like, what it means to work on a dissertation or culminating project, and what we expect to do when we grow up.

And the food. I have to say this about being a Fellow: in addition to being a really cool title (tee hee… I’m a “Fellow”), it also comes with certain expectations. You work hard, you make sure to represent your department in the best light that you can, and you try your hardest not to get fat. They’re feeding us really well at this program and it’s definitely been a source of mid-day delight and end-of-day regret.

In all seriousness, having somewhere to be every day first thing in the morning is a welcome change of pace. I wake up, I have coffee, I dress like I care what other people think of me. I’ve worn two blazers this week and four different pairs of shoes. The isolation of graduate study is a really crushing beast to deal with and my involvement with this program has been pivotal to understanding several concepts which, in theory, I knew but which, in practice, I had yet to truly uncover for myself. Impostor syndrome affects all of us. We all have trouble doing one thing or another and that doesn’t reflect our expertise as professional academics, just our growth as humans. There will always be a student who you don’t quite know how to reach, but with the right support system you can better enrich both her experience in the classroom and yours.

The program is a lot more intense than I was expecting it to be and I have found that I’m exhausted at the end of the day (and certainly now, at the end of the week, I’m dragging to get through the last tasks I need to accomplish before I can rest a bit this weekend). It has been so very worthwhile already, though, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the program has in store.

Also, you’ve never felt like you’re in an incredible discussion until you’ve been in a room full of budding experts in fields from Theatre History to Theoretical Physics. Just saying, we’re pretty smart.

Back with a Vengeance

Hello, everyone! I’m back from a lovely one-week vacation to the South of our great land where I was able to accomplish several things (not the least of which being visiting my lovely little sister, and gallivanting around her place of employment… Disney. Yes, I know,

While I was in Disney this might have happened....

While I was in Disney this might have happened….

life is hard when you’re a Rosvally).

Today, I was back in the saddle hitting the ground running. I’m honored to be a Fellow at the Tufts Graduate Institute For Teaching program this summer and, as such, am participating in twelve seminars designed to help improve my skills as a teacher. I’m learning a lot already (today was the first day) and am overjoyed to be meeting and interacting with other graduate students from (gasp) different departments. It’s nice to have somewhere to go first thing in the morning; this kind of structure really kicks off the day right and is something that I’ve been missing in recent semesters due to coursework having come to a close. Dissertation work can be extremely isolating, and this Institute is really the perfect combination of socialization, enrichment, professional development, and personal accountability for me at this point in my graduate career.

As part of seminar this morning, one of our glorious presenters gave us a sheet of quotations about war meant to spark conversation. None of them were accredited (in an effort not to bias us) but after the exercise was over, he went down the list and let us know where each had originated. I was perplexed when he reached one axiom that we’ve probably all heard before: “all is fair in love and war”. The presenter attributed it to Shakespeare and then admitted that it’s been said by people ad infinitum the world over since the dawn of time and moved on.

I was dubious about accrediting this quotation to my man Will because, first thing’s first, the syntax really doesn’t scream “Bard” to me. Secondly, and this is where things get hazy, I wasn’t recalling it from any of the plays off the top of my head (this is often a good source of information but not necessarily definitive; while I can probably quote more than is healthy for a human being, I’m not going to claim an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire canon…yet).

The attribution was really a minor point and I didn’t want to hang the class up with something completely tangential to what we were actually talking about. However, the factoid kept wheedling me after we left seminar (so much so that I was inclined to look it up on my own and determine where this famous phrase came from).

Sure enough, I was right. It’s not a Willism. The first round of answers I got were mixed; some attributing it to English novelist and playwright John Lyly and some to English novelist Francis Edward Smedley.

Further investigation proved that both of these answer are, after a fashion, correct. The Lyly derivation is actually a paraphrase of a line from Lyly’s 1579 novel, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. Lyly actually wrote: “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war” (you can see where the paraphrase is a bit more elegant for today’s syntax).

pretty flowering tree I found on campus today

pretty flowering tree I found on campus today

Which left the Smedley question. How did he get mixed up in this? I looked into things a bit more and discovered that, in fact, the first appearance of the quote as-is was in the 1850 novel Frank Fairleigh by Francis Edward Smedley (who apparently, in addition to one of the funniest names in literary history, also had a flare for the axiomatic).

Neither of these people are Shakespeare (though, funny enough, Lyly is noted for having written pretty copiously for the child companies, popular amongst upper class Elizabethan audiences and notorious for “stealing” audience members from the adult companies such as Will’s). So there you go! While it’s often a safe bet to attribution quotable quotes to Will, it’s never a sure-fire thing (as proven by this, your little bit of pop up dramaturgy for today). I hope that your week is off to an incredible start! Mine certainly is.

You’re into the Time Slip

Time is a weird thing in academia.

The semester starts and things get nuts because you’re trying to fit in all the meetings that you couldn’t have while nobody was on campus over the “break”. You’re getting a feel for your classes, you’re trying to learn names, you’re working through your schedule.

Midterms happen before you know it and you wonder how it could possible be the middle

Pretty library I found recently!

Pretty library I found recently!

of the semester already. Also, you wonder why you assigned so bloody much writing because clearly you are a masochist and wanted to punish yourself with ALL THE GRADING!

Between midterms and finals, you wonder if you’ll ever see the end of the semester. You don’t have much time to wonder this though because, before you know it, you’re chasing down the last loose ends of the semester and looking forward to the much-needed break.

You collapse for a few days right after the semester is over only to realize that whatever “break” you’re on isn’t really a break and that you have a ton of projects to take care of that you were just pushing off until the end of the semester.

The worst part is that nobody in your real life understands why you tend to live cyclically like this. It’s like an eternal butterfly; going around and around its life cycle never truly getting the chance to fly as free as it wants to (….I guess until you wind up taking a sabbatical but that’s a dream that lives evermore in the distant future for me). You wind up having to explain and re-explain that no, you’re not really on a break. All this means is that you don’t have to show up on campus a couple times a week (though you will anyway to make copies, print documents, and rotate your library books). No, friends and family, that’s not the same thing as having “all this free time” to visit or goof off like normal people get to do on their “vacation”. What is “vacation” anyway? A state of mind? A state of being? Some Zen-like state achieved with yoga and too much caffeine?

The end of the semester is so close that I can taste it, but really all that means is an increased stress as deadlines pant their hot vapors down my neck. My plans this semester have had to be loose and flowing due to the inevitable red tape which comes with academic pursuit, and the summer is proving to be no different. There’s almost nothing relaxing about the prospect of what’s to come in the next few weeks.

Rows of green say Spring might JUST be here.... finally.

Rows of green say Spring might JUST be here…. finally.

This is (probably) punctuated by the fact that I’m planning a move to some undisclosed location in the general vicinity (undisclosed, mostly, because it’s so secret that even I don’t know where it is yet… ah the beauties of apartment hunting). It doesn’t matter how you slice it; moving simply sucks.

So if I seem more frantic than usual, it’s probably because I’m trying to contemplate fitting my life into boxes and re-acclimating to a new office space with the most nominal possible break in my standard operating procedures. Oh and because summer isn’t summer anymore; it’s just “work and try not to melt while maintaining your own schedule because your meetings all happen on skype now rather than in person”.

The Warm-up

This is a drive-by to let you know that I’m not dead.

I wish I could say many things; aphorisms about how hard I’ve been working this week, comforting thoughts about how I’m nearing the end, or really just something poignant about the process I’m going through right now.

Unfortunately, they would all be lies.

The process is only beginning.  I’m just dipping my toes into the ocean that is studying for comps.  I’ve been working hard, but it’s only a warm-up for the big leagues that are ever so steadily coming my way this summer.

For that, this warm-up period is important.  You can never, ever, throw yourself into the

This was the amusing thing that happened yesterday when my comps pile for the day caved in on itself.

This was the amusing thing that happened yesterday when my comps pile for the day caved in on itself.

deep end and expect to swim when you’re plumb exhausted.  I took a break, but quickly found that that break wasn’t enough.  A good friend reminded me that fatigue is cumulative and yes, I just achieved an enormous step in this whole “becoming a Doctor” process (even though the next mountain is about twice as high and infested with Yetis) it’s no wonder I’m so damned tired.  Giving into this sometimes is only going to help me in the long run and I can study during the intervals between naptime, so long as I keep naptime under control.  In other words:    warming my brain back up to the idea of working is an important step.

It’s not pleasant.  I would liken it to those first few days at the gym pushing yourself into a brand new workout regime: i’s sweaty, uncomfortable, and no matter how good you know it is for you, you never want to go do it.  You wake up exhausted and sore the next day with only the knowledge that, in order to achieve your goals, you must do it again.  And again.  And again.

So I’m hitting it.  I’m holding myself to deadlines, I’m withholding the appropriate bribery forms (often times I have to physically walk away from my desk to keep myself from messing around on the internet instead of reading Greek tragedy), I’m keeping a proper scheduling (SCHEDULING IS IMPORTANT!  Nothing creates burnout like too much work crammed into an undoable amount of time!), and I’m making sure I eat and exercise regularly.

For that, I’m tired.  I’m stressed.  And I don’t see it getting better anytime soon.

This summer is just going to be another exercise in staying in the red and finding the energy.  But you know what?  Sometimes, you just have to get it together and muscle through.

If you need me, I’ll be buried under this pile of books for the next few months.  Don’t mind the occasional bouts of cursing, snoring, or drooling.

Pre-Conference Panic

At its best, conferencing is both draining and stressful.  It’s also wonderful, horizon-broadening, and fun; but we cannot forget the fact that it involves many particulars which can be disruptive to the life of an average graduate student.

I love to travel and flying is a special treat.  It’s probably good that I chose a profession which allows me to do so on a regular basis (since I’ve been in the PhD I’ve averaged about 2.5 trips a year for various things).  That said, it always takes me a night to adjust to sleeping in a bed that’s not my own in a city that’s not my own away from my schedule, desk, library books, and on the whole away from my life.

It can be very unsettling to attend a conference when your life is bustling and the things

A shot I took last year of the conference hotel.  Pretty snazzy, no?

A shot I took last year of the conference hotel. Pretty snazzy, no?

you’re flying away from to spend a few days in an actual manifestation of the ivory tower are large and stressful.

Which is probably why I’m having such a hard time this week.  I’ve so far managed to recover from every little blunder (forgetting my iPad at home, nearly missing meetings, making minor scheduling errors which could have huge rippling effects on certain committees I’m chairing, etc.)  The worst part?  It’s only Tuesday.  I have plenty of time to make all kinds of crazy mistakes which could impact my future as I know it.

I’m trying to be methodical to head off any chance of large error; my paper is already printed, I’ve done the majority of my packing, my packing list is composed, I’m creating my usual conference redundancies (kits to deal with paper loss, bad breathe, bleeding, spills, etc.).  Despite this, I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m going to forget something and that something is going to be vital to my future as an academic.

I leave for Baltimore tomorrow.  If you’re at the Comparative Drama Conference, feel free to say hi and ask me if I’ve remembered my pants.  At this rate, there’s the very real possibility that I might be living that particular anxiety dream.

Malaise

At the moment, my life is pretty much the picture of what I would generally describe as being “my ideal life”.

I’m involved in two productions: Twelfth Night (my group’s pilot experiment in communal theatre) is in rehearsal and I’m getting to do some awesome, wacky, fun things with some really neat, smart, talented individuals while simultaneously dreaming about a bright future on the Boston theatre scene; and Measure for Measure (my debut as a dramaturge which, for those who are keeping track, I’ve been working on actively since last June) is in its last week of rehearsal before it opens next Thursday.  I’m TAing one class

Rehearsal the other day; we have a show! From a script that I made! From Shakespeare!

Rehearsal the other day; we have a show! From a script that I made! From Shakespeare!

(Modern and Postmodern theatre) with a professor from whom I’m endlessly learning things and with whom it’s a pleasure to work.  I’m in a class that’s got me constantly thinking, constantly on my toes, and constantly studying for comps.  I’m keeping up on my awesome side-projects (Offensive Shadows has just started recording our episodes on Love’s Labour’s Lost which is a joy to discuss as it’s one of my favorite plays).  I’m living, eating, breathing, bleeding, and sweating theatre.

I guess call me a classic case of “grass is always greener” syndrome, but I’m so tired right now that I’m having trouble enjoying any of it.  I haven’t had a decent break in who knows how long and every time I do manage to eke out a few hours away from my desk that time seems to fill with unexpected trips to the theatre (which, don’t get me wrong, I love but aren’t much of a break for me).  What’s really got me shaken is the fact that’s is very early in the semester to be feeling this way; all of my big projects are on the distant horizon (with the exception of one lecture that I’m working on prepping; the first of two for my TAship this semester).  If I’m working like this before my projects hit the hot zone, where am I going to find time for my projects when I actually need to work on them?

I’m not the only one feeling like this either.  From speaking with some of my cohort, it seems that a general malaise has overcome Dance and Drama at Tufts.  I guess I could blame it on February; the long (but surprisingly so-far easy) Boston winter; or maybe the Genocide course that most of my colleagues are taking (nothing will make you feel awful about life quite like being bombarded with consistent reading about genocide).

out my window.  Nemo does not look awful.  Yet.

out my window. Nemo does not look awful. Yet.

To hammer home the point that all I do is work and there is life outside my apartment, I am currently hunkered down in my office while outside begins the great blizzard Nemo which some stations are predicting will be one of the worst in Boston’s history.  Most normal people I know have been given today off or have a half-day and this extends into tomorrow thus effectively creating a three-day-weekend for the gainfully employed.  I, however, took this opportunity to stock up on library books and non-technology research (in case we lose power) and plan to spend the next few days holed up on my sofa working.  With any luck, I may be able to plow through a bunch of my to-dos while the rest of the Northeast goes sledding.

…The one concession I will make to snow is the potential creation of a snow-tomaton in my near future.  Because making a snowman out of the accumulation from my driveway is way easier and more enjoyable than shoveling it out.

Here’s hoping accomplishment can bust through my malaise.  If not, I at least hope you have a good weekend.  Stay warm and dry!

Bah Humbug

It’s funny, but being in Graduate School has taught me one thing very very well: I know the fastest way to end a conversation.

With the holidays approaching, this is a particularly pertinent skill. Holidays mean parties, they mean family, they mean seeing people who have a concern for your life and who, while they may know and care about you, don’t necessarily talk to you every day of the year. That means you have to do the inevitable “life-news shuffle” which goes a little something like this:

Family Member: How are you doing?

You: Really well, and you?
Family Member: Well. What are you up to?
You: Oh, you know, in Graduate School… getting my [Master’s/MFA/PhD] in [_____].

When I was getting my Master’s, this was sure to develop into the dreaded:

Family Member: Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?

Or perhaps the even more dreaded…

Family Member: Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?

To which I would reply (depending on my mood and where I was in my work) in either a good-natured way (“get a PhD and become a professor”) or an embittered way (“I don’t know, never have a real job I guess”).

Since I’ve been in a PhD program, very often the conversation turns a different direction.

sometimes, you just hold onto each other for dear life. Christmas last year. We are now both in grad school.

The minute I say I’m getting a PhD, people will usually ask “what in?” (which, by the by, is a flawed question anyway because while you are in a department for your PhD, you don’t really get a PhD in anything per say but rather have an area of expertise, so if they actually knew something about the higher education process they would stop using terminology that treats it like an undergraduate degree and thereby devaluing all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into this process with their anti-academic rhetoric… but I’m not bitter). When I tell them that my area of specialty is Shakespeare (usually I leave it at that because a) the specifics change weekly, and b) I don’t really want to have to explain hundreds of years of specialized history to someone who doesn’t entirely care about it), they immediately stop talking.

Conversation effectively ended.

The thing is this: most people don’t understand what it means to be getting a PhD. They don’t understand the amount of work that goes into it, they don’t understand the kind of work that goes into it, and they don’t understand the day-to-day realities of your existence. Moreover, they don’t really care. A distant relative asking you this question at a holiday party is small-talk; the same way we ask people what they do for a job when we first meet them. It’s a way to make conversation and supposedly human connection in a socially appropriate fashion.

And here’s the bad news: more often than not, people will think that “being a graduate student” means living off of loans and reading books all day without doing any real or meaningful work.

Get ready for the judgment. Get ready for the bewildered glances. Get ready for people not really caring about the intricacies of this very specialized field that you know a whole lot about and seems really important to you because you spend all day every day working in it.

The truth is, the real world doesn’t have a paradigm for understanding an academic lifestyle. The bench-markers are different. The measurements of success are different. The politics are different. There are a lot of things about this profession that are downright medieval (and, let’s face it, a lot of things that haven’t changed since the invention of academia by the Bolognese in 1088). Your relatives and casual acquaintances (and heck even some of your close friends) will know nothing about this and, moreover, will not care to know anything about this.

So how do you navigate that? How do you get through the holidays without letting them crush your academic spirit, completely staunch your work ethic, or turn you into a raging alcoholic?

You can choose to adopt one of several attitudes:

Attitude the first: You don’t understand me or value my profession and that’s okay because someday I’ll have letters after my name so HAHA to you society, what’s your job anyway? “A Consultant”?

these are my siblings. And these are the faces they make at nay-sayers. Go on, nay say. I dare you.

Attitude the second: You may not understand me, but that’s fine because I’ll be teaching your children about [your field] someday and, thereby, will have the power to mold and shape their little minds and bend them to understand and value me in the way my parents never did.

Attitude the third: I know something you don’t know and my life is better for it, so say what you want I’ll just smile here serenely and pour myself another glass of wine.

Attitude the fourth: My DEPARTMENT respects me and that’s all that matters!

Attitude the fifth: Yes, thank you for this lecture on how to live my life. If you don’t mind, I have some very pressing research on my desk about a life-changing development in [obscure field] that I really must return to. See you later; hope you don’t trip and fall into Dr. Evil’s shark tank.

No matter which of these options you choose, just remember this: their judgment comes from ignorance, not from any sense of validity or reality. They can’t know what you’re going through because they don’t see you every day. They have no connection to the world you live in and, thereby, their commentary is nothing but a fantastical expression of a perceived fairy-land where you sit on giant gilded lilies with your book and tea and do nothing but turn pages all day (if only, right?).

…and if all else fails, I know some undevelopable land and have an SUV that hoses out really well.

Office Hours, the TA, and you

Over the years, I have come to a certain conclusion: you never know how to do something until you have already done it.

For some things, this is less problematic.  For example: I didn’t figure out how to write a college level paper until the last semester of my Senior year of undergrad.  While it meant that I struggled through writing them for most of my career as an undergrad, it also meant that I had plenty of opportunity to perfect the style in my Master’s and I’m still learning things about how to write a paper (and look forward to continuing this learning throughout the course of my career as an academic).  Things that you, inevitably, will be forced to repeat have an acceptable learning curve.  Your first anything is going to be the sacrificial lamb which dies upon the altar of experience.

Unfortunately, some things you really can’t go back and re-do.

As part of my job, I am required to hold office hours.  While this sounds horribly official, what it truly means is that I make a promise to the students that I will be in a given place (i.e. my office) at a given time (i.e. my hours) and at their disposal to answer any questions they may have about the class, their work, their grades, or the universe in general.

So far, none of the students have taken advantage of this.  I go, I sit, I wait, I bring work

A grading session from my Master’s. Yes, sometimes it really is that bad.

which inevitably doesn’t get done because I share the office with many colleagues who tend to want to talk and visit (which, don’t get me wrong, I do as well), and I mark time until I can go home and actually get some work done.

And I wonder, why am I sitting there alone when this is a golden opportunity for some undergrad to grill me about all of the questions I know they should be asking especially if they intend to go on to graduate school?  Why can’t they see that this is a gift, a precious commodity of connection which they could be cashing in on in order to better edify and prepare themselves for the life to come?

And then I remember: when I was an undergrad, I never went to office hours.  In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of out-of-class interactions I had with professors who were not my advisor (even the professors who had the most profound impact on my academic career and/or personal development).  This is not to take into account that I’m not even a professor; I’m a TA.  I never even spoke to the TAs when I was an undergrad.  They were like some sort of weird mutant minion creature that the professor had cooked up in vats to do his bidding because he was too busy working on his latest book project to grade our finals.  They didn’t warrant making eye contact with much less speaking to.

Ah, the certainty of youth.

Alright, let’s set the record straight: a TA is a teaching assistant.  It’s an individuals hired by the department to help make the professor’s life easier.  This individual knows the subject matter, but perhaps doesn’t have as much in-class teaching experience as a tenured professor (but then again, who does?).  That doesn’t necessarily mean that this individual isn’t smart, capable, and desperate to answer your questions.  In fact, it probably means that the individual ischamping at the bit to get a chance to pass on something valuable.  A TAship is often the first in a long series of steps towards becoming a real professor.  We all serve our time observing, working in a supervised environment, and doing a bit of grunt labor so that we too, someday, can have the coveted job of molding young minds.

The TA’s office hours can be extremely helpful if you find yourself struggling with your writing, understanding an assignment, understanding the course material, or even the college experience in general.  Think of the TA like a friendly neighborhood spiderman: the TA is closer to the undergraduate experience and so is more likely to remember what it’s like, the TA knows the library resources really well because she spends her days digging through them, the TA is excited about whatever it is that you’re studying and would love an opportunity to pass on some wisdom, knowledge, or advice, and the TA works closely with your professor and so knows what is expected of you/the class in general.

Think about the possibilities for a moment.  Instead of turning in a paper that you think may be what the professor wants, with a little advances planning you have someone to ask!  You can better understand course expectations!  You can learn what a comma splice is and why people keep writing in the margins that you’re making them!  You can improve your grades with better communication, pointed questions, and a little bit of diligence!  The TA is there to help, not laugh maniacally while marking down your work for something you did but didn’t think to ask about, so think to ask about it.  How can you use this person to your advantage?  This MVP can bat for your team if only you would take the time to ask her.

So love your TA.  Embrace your TA.  Don’t worry about being bitten by your TA and turned into a radioactive creature of the night… unless your TA actually does glow in the dark and has weird freakish horns, green skin, and eyes without pupils, then you might want to worry.

 

The Secret

This morning via twitter I was asked a question that I cannot, in good conscience, allow to pass without blogging an answer: “What are some things no one tells you about Grad School?”

Buckle those seatbelts, folks.

The fact is that this is precisely the question which keeps me blogging.  There is so much that I didn’t know when I started this crazy thing (now my life) which I didn’t even think to ask about.  You know it’s going to be hard work, you know it’s going to be a serious time commitment, but I continue to prove to myself (again and again) that even if someone could have possibly described to me how very much toil went into being a full-time graduate student, I would not have believed them.

I’ve attempted to portray a realistic picture of the life of a Grad Student via this blog; the triumphs, tribulations, successes, failures, and everything in between.  But let me take a moment now to summarize these findings for you in hopes that it will help prospective Graduate Students, those spending their last “sitting duck” summer (i.e. have been accepted to a program and are making final arrangements to arrive and begin in September), or those who simply desire a better understanding of what it is that being a full-time Graduate Student actually entails.

First and foremost, consider yourself warned: you will work.  In fact, you will do so much

one of *those* people

work that you will become one of those people.  Those people who cancel on social gatherings because they have to stay home and work.  Those people who realize that they haven’t actually talked to a real person all day except for the poor undergrad library clerk.  Those people who, when they finish their primary gotta-do-it-now list, start in on their secondary should-do-it-soon list.  Those people who seem to subsist on caffeine and happy thoughts rather than sleep and positive reinforcement.

Prepare to become a machine.  A machine concerned only with your research.  How can you twist this weekend vacation into something you can write a paper about?  What do you find interesting about your hobbies and are those elements at all related to your work?  You will become single-minded; and that’s good.  It’s important.  Without a certain degree of tunnel vision, you would never be able to get through this crazy little thing called grad school.

You will become extremely stressed out about things that only a small subset of the population will comprehend.  Things of utmost importance to you, things which define your very existence for a week, a semester, a year, will be meaningless to those whom you care about the most.  They will not understand.  You will try to explain it to them.  They still won’t get it.  Make friends with your colleagues, they are your only hope for salvation.

You will need to find ways to satisfy yourself with small victories.  Most of the projects which you will work on will be long-term.  What this means is that, unless you find some method of self-validating during the process, you’re in for many years of banging your head against a wall and losing sleep over something which will only give by millimeters in any measurable length of time.  Without validation, you will not survive.  Figure out what you need to do to make yourself feel happy and fulfilled at the end of a long, tiring day of doing seemingly nothing.

You will be expected to know things that you’ve never been taught.  And no, it’s not fair, but it’s the way it is.  Find a way to understand what these things are, and how you can at least keep yourself from embarrassment (…nobody will tell you what these things are, by the way, that’s also left to you to discover).  Find a mentor.  Find someone on the faculty with whom you can speak candidly and with whom you feel comfortable enough to ask the awkward questions behind closed office doors.  They will understand exactly what you are going through and be able to give you the coaching you will desperately need.

my idea of a “day off” when I was getting my Master’s

This is a job.  This is your life.  This is what you are doing for the next two, three, four, five years.  It’s worthwhile, and will get you somewhere that you want to be.  If you don’t believe that with all of your heart; if that mantra isn’t something that you can turn to and depend on in your darkest, most stressful hour; quit now.  If you’re not excited by your work; if this is just something you’re doing to see some letters after your name or call yourself by a fancy title; you are never going to make it.  It takes passion, courage, creativity, the work ethic of Hercules, and the liver of Bacchus to survive grad school.  If you don’t think you’re up for it, you’re right.  If you’re lukewarm on whatever it is you’re studying, you will never be able to make it through the harsh times in store for you.

However, if you’re still reading this, if you’re still excited about buying books in September, if despite these warnings you simply cannot wait to get your hands dirty in the fall, you will find that Grad School is the most thrilling, fulfilling, and exciting adventure you can have.

And, in the interest of opening dialogue with my peers, I encourage you to blog, tweet, facebook, or somehow document your experience.  Get your story out there.  Answer questions.  The more of us doing this sort of thing, the greater a resource we can provide for the generations after us (including, by the by, our some-day students).  In the digital era, there’s no reason that we have to sit alone at our desks all day without anyone to sanity check for us.  Let’s have coffee; let’s keep each other afloat; if (after all) we’re not cheering for each other, then nobody else is gonna.

News from the Front…

A few brief updates to make one large update…

First: I wrote a guest blog for gradshare.com, you should go check it out!  While you’re there, poke around gradshare a little bit.  It’s a great project; basically a wiki for graduate students by the graduate community where folks can ask questions/post advice either anonymously or semi-anonymously.  That ability makes it a wonderful forum for those awkward questions that we are so bad at asking each other (you know, the ones that uttering could kill your career if someone overheard them).  I’m a firm believer in transparency within the academy and truly hope that projects like this can help move towards a profession no longer run behind closed doors.

We’re all in this together.  Really, we’re future colleagues.  We’re going to be peer reviewing each others’ work.  We’re going to be compiling volumes of each others’ papers for publication.  We’re going to be listening to/speaking with each other on conference panels.  Why shouldn’t we talk about the uncomfortable bits of the profession?  Why shouldn’t we support each other in this incredibly stressful career we’ve chosen to enter?

Through the years, I truly hope to see more forums like gradshare.

Second: I just finished reading this book (Surviving your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School by Adam Ruben PhD).

A confession; there were parts of the book which struck me as laugh-out-loud funny.  I definitely sat in the coffee shop chortling my way through the middle of the volume while desperately trying not to laugh too horribly loudly.

However, that being said, the rest of the gook left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.  Dr. Ruben has a PhD in molecular biology and, as his outlet through his PhD, he performed stand-up comedy.  Much like this blog is my way to express my discontent, discernment, and discombobulating, it seems that Dr. Ruben worked through his via his act which then produced this book.

I will be the first to admit that I write a lot of negative things on here.  However, for every realistically negative and hyperbolic hypercompensative remark I make, I’d like to think that I also say something positive.  I truly believe that I blog the highs and lows of academia, no matter how high and how low those get.

Well… Dr. Ruben got the lows part, but he failed to mention the highs.  Reading this book was like bashing the skull of the academy into the ground repeatedly while screaming “TAKE THAT, JERK!” at the top of one’s lungs when academia was already having a particularly bad day anyway.  I’m not saying that Dr. Ruben’s observations aren’t based in truth, but he takes that truth to such an alarmist extreme that it often moves past the realm of “funny” or “sad” and into “bullying”.  If the academy was a person, I’d call Dr. Ruben’s book slander and be tempted to sue him for libel of character.

In the words of the immortal Edmund Kean (well, attestation of the quote is debatable, but someone else has done the legwork on that): “Dying is easy, Comedy is hard”.

I worked the New York stand-up circuit for a while.  Trust me, I know how difficult it is to be funny.  But humor isn’t always just taking something to its ridiculous and negative extreme (though, granted, sometimes it is).  After reading Dr. Ruben’s book, I wasn’t left wondering about my own life choices.  Instead, I was left wondering about his.  If he truly had such a hideous, horrible, no-good, very-bad time in graduate school, then why did he do it?

Sure, plenty of people get into the PhD having no idea what they’re in for (I would argue that this is anyone and everyone who goes for a PhD, I certainly fell into this category), but nobody says that you have to continue if you’re truly that miserable.  Depending on your field, the rate of attrition is approximately 20% – 30% (higher for mathematics and physical sciences, lower in the humanities).  Plenty of people enter into doctorate living, decide it’s not for them, and leave.

The most important thing for a graduate student to remember while doing her PhD is that THIS IS YOUR LIFE.  It’s not a piece of your life, it’s not something you can just do then do something else afterward, you are training for the rest of your life.  While you are doing so, you are incurring a great deal of debt, stress, and personal strife.  Why would you sacrifice so much for something if you weren’t absolutely in love with it?

Now, I will grant you, I have my bad days.  I, in fact, have my awful days.  But never, since I started, have I ever once thought that I would be better off doing something else.  The

problems I have, while large problems and really tough to deal with, are problems that I would rather have than any other problems in the world.

So, if you must, read Dr. Ruben’s book… but do so with the understanding that a) he’s not a stellar writer, b) he’s not a stellar comedian, and c) if his life were truly that miserable, he should have done something about it other than complain.

…though his commentary on dealing with undergraduate students is dead-on.