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For Humanties Grad Students - Is it really this bad?


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Just read this: http://weblogs.swart...demia/features/

I am expecting graduate school to be different than my expectations, but this article really makes the whole process sound awful and extremely limiting/constricting, more than I want to believe. I know a few graduate students in the humanities, granted only in their 1st or 2nd years, and while they are busy with work they don't strike me as completely goal driven in the narrow-minded way this article suggests. They still have lives outside academia, and find time for occasional outside projects. For those with experience, what do you think?

Also, I am wondering if his whole argument that grad school forces you to pick only one narrow topic is more applicable to the more traditional top schools, like Yale/Princeton/Harvard. I'm under the impression that there are a lot of graduate schools that do encourage interdisciplinary exploration.

Edited by TransnationalHistory
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There was another thread about a blog which had a very negative view of grad school, and I'll say exactly the same thing here: this is one person's experience, in a particular time and situation. I'm not sure that the writer can generalize his experience to be a typical portrait of grad school. I'm not in humanities (though he includes social science in his comments) but I didn't have this kind of experience in grad school at all. Granted, I was doing an MA and it was in Canada; both of those facts would make my experiences different than the one he describes. But I don't find his comments about interaction with faculty and grad school as 'socialization' and not education to correspond to my experiences at all. I also think it's silly to say that a PhD doesn't allow for 'carefree experimentation' but medical or law school does. Is that a joke? The latter two have explicitly narrow purposes, viz. to train doctors and lawyers. It couldn't be any more constraining. Not that lawyers, in particular, might not have greater range of job opportunities after their studies, but that has little bearing on the constraints during studies.

It's true that academia will force you to narrow your focus, especially in terms of your dissertation. Just look up a few dissertation titles: many, if not most, deal with incredibly specific and sometimes arcane niches in a field. That's pretty universal, and only to be expected. You're not going to a write a great magnum opus encompassing all and everything and expounding a grand theory of everything.

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Just read this: http://weblogs.swart...demia/features/

I am expecting graduate school to be different than my expectations, but this article really makes the whole process sound awful and extremely limiting/constricting, more than I want to believe. I know a few graduate students in the humanities, granted only in their 1st or 2nd years, and while they are busy with work they don't strike me as completely goal driven in the narrow-minded way this article suggests. They still have lives outside academia, and find time for occasional outside projects. For those with experience, what do you think?

Also, I am wondering if his whole argument that grad school forces you to pick only one narrow topic is more applicable to the more traditional top schools, like Yale/Princeton/Harvard. I'm under the impression that there are a lot of graduate schools that do encourage interdisciplinary exploration.

I think the last few lines of advice seem the most widely applicable. Know the alternatives, know that you love it, know that you're entering into an academic community that is not always sunshine and sparkling hope. The rest seems (to me) like just another entry in the genre of bitter, tenured, fear-mongering.

My school doesn't expect you to sign your name in blood to any focus for a year or two, although by the first year of the PhD you're expected to have a rough game plan of the courses you'll take for your major focus and your breadth areas.

My own experience in these first two terms of an English PhD: The workload is a little taxing, but nothing I can't handle. I'm having a blast, enjoying the material and even the writing. I can't say the same for some of my colleagues, but many of them come from an MA at other schools-- graduate schools and departments all have their personalities, atmospheres, and ways of doing things. Part of your job as a potential graduate student is to research those atmospheres/personalities the best you can to find a place that works with your own style of scholarship. I'm not just talking about field, either. I'm talking about the ways that you handle stress, deadlines, and potentially competitive or isolating environments. Those students coming from other schools have had different professors, advisors, requirements, class arrangements etc, and they are adjusting.

So with each grad school and department differing, and the experiences of the students there differing wildly according to personality as well, the best thing you can do is gather information from a wide sampling of sources. Ask honest questions of those people and yourself, and then be honest in answering whether you truly need and want to do this.

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I also think it's silly to say that a PhD doesn't allow for 'carefree experimentation' but medical or law school does. Is that a joke? The latter two have explicitly narrow purposes, viz. to train doctors and lawyers. It couldn't be any more constraining. Not that lawyers, in particular, might not have greater range of job opportunities after their studies, but that has little bearing on the constraints during studies.

Yeah, I found that part really odd. I can't think of anything less carefree or more all-consuming than med school.

Anyway, good to hear you a had a more positive experience. I know it's just one person's opinion, but given that they are writing from the perspective of someone who's made it (at least, in terms of tenure track at Swarthmore) as opposed to a bitter drop-out, it certainly made me pause.

Edited by TransnationalHistory
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Another blog about how horrible grad school is. How wonderful.

Did you guys know that the job market is bad? And that some people don't fit in? That you might have a shitty boss? You could feel overwhelmed and overworked? You might be making a mistake?

Welcome to life! These are issues everywhere you go. All the bitter ex-grad students want you to believe that grad school is the only place where things are hard like this, or these are the issues. Guess what, they aren't. These are realities in every field. Be aware of the pitfalls, but don't presume that every cranky poster with ablog account has some magical insight because they had a bad experience. Most of us have heard the speeches and been apprised of the risks. Ultimately we are going to give it a shot. I'd rather be an unemployed phd than some dick wondering how things could have been different if I had just given it a shot. Maybe I'll drop out in a year or less. Shit happens. But if we had everyone who had a bad experience in a given field write a blog, no one would want any job ever.

Edited by The Dudester
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Another blog about how horrible grad school is. How wonderful.

Did you guys know that the job market is bad? And that some people don't fit in? That you might have a shitty boss? You could feel overwhelmed and overworked? You might be making a mistake?

Welcome to life! These are issues everywhere you go. All the bitter ex-grad students want you to believe that grad school is the only place where things are hard like this, or these are the issues. Guess what, they aren't. These are realities in every field. Be aware of the pitfalls, but don't presume that every cranky poster with ablog account has some magical insight because they had a bad experience. Most of us have heard the speeches and been apprised of the risks. Ultimately we are going to give it a shot. I'd rather be an unemployed phd than some dick wondering how things could have been different if I had just given it a shot. Maybe I'll drop out in a year or less. Shit happens. But if we had everyone who had a bad experience in a given field write a blog, no one would want any job ever.

Amen! Especially the last sentence: spot on.

Although I do think that such blog posts are well-intentioned. I think the writers are trying to give open and honest advice about grad school from their own experiences. I think what they are reacting against is their perception that grad applicants are pollyanish and naive, and need a 'hard dose' of reality. Perhaps many do. I mean, this forum, especially during this period, is all about celebrating the triumph of acceptance and sharing the agony of rejection, and so it can sometimes seem like we're all hopelessly unrealistic, as though by being accepted to grad school we've 'made it'. But I think most of us do know how hard it will be, that half of us won't even finish our programs, that perhaps three-quarters of us won't find tenure-track positions, etc. That doesn't mean it won't be worth it. The whole question "Should you go to graduate school?" is really not meant to be answered by anyone but ourselves; certainly "short answer: no" doesn't do much good.

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i found this blog to be very accurate.

we had a student that was extremely talented. all As in her graduate work, an exciting research project, professors loved her. she found doing research abroad to be unbearably isolating and her particular advisor intimidated the fecal matter out of her. and he didn't even seem to notice, although everyone else did, because she had a near panic attack every time she had to meet with him. she quit post-comps, moved to los angeles, and started working in an animal shelter. she LOVES her life now. people didn't even know she could smile when she was in grad school, she seemed sarcastic and bitter but that was just (what people assumed was) her natural personality. now they see how happy she is and they all remark that she seems like a totally different person. and yet, behind her back, all anyone talks about is what a shame it is she quit, how horrible they feel for her now, how pathetic her life has become.

she's HAPPY! she's doing work she loves that, shock, actually matters. to her, to other people. there's a point to it. she lives in a place she loves doing a thing she loves and she gets to have a life and she feels fulfilled. and grad students and professors sit around and talk about how disappointing that is, as though being happy outside of academia implies some sort of hidden weakness they should have detected in her long ago.

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All the bitter ex-grad students want you to believe that grad school is the only place where things are hard like this, or these are the issues. Guess what, they aren't. These are realities in every field. Be aware of the pitfalls, but don't presume that every cranky poster with ablog account has some magical insight because they had a bad experience.

Yeah, but the point is that this isn't just a random guy with a blog, nor is he bitter about academia--he admits it actually worked out great for him (I mean, hard to argue with tenure-track at Swarthmore)

@Strange Light: That's a really interesting anecdote. I also know of someone who dropped out after a year of dissertation research, and now is very happy as a chef. He has no regrets about going to grad school--he feels he got a lot out of his time there and he's still an avid reader, it's just the end result wasn't for him. But I don't have the perspective of people in his department, so that's interesting to see at least in your example.

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Yeah, but the point is that this isn't just a random guy with a blog, nor is he bitter about academia--he admits it actually worked out great for him (I mean, hard to argue with tenure-track at Swarthmore)

@Strange Light: That's a really interesting anecdote. I also know of someone who dropped out after a year of dissertation research, and now is very happy as a chef. He has no regrets about going to grad school--he feels he got a lot out of his time there and he's still an avid reader, it's just the end result wasn't for him. But I don't have the perspective of people in his department, so that's interesting to see at least in your example.

I'm railing against the genre more than the specific writer. It is quite obvious that school isn't for everyone. And it is for some people, but only to a certain level. And I do agree with StrangeLight that because someone decides that academia isn't for them does not make them deficient or a failure - they just figured out what works for them. But this whole genre of blogs about how awful grad school is just becomes so tedious when they repeat all the problems as if they were the only ones to suffer them, or as though all of us applying are ignorant rubes unaware of the risks. The fact that they are making so many complaints while being so happy with their new life is even more suspect. Every couple of days someone posts a blog telling everyone how it really is, but completely overlooking the fact that most of us applying are aware of the dangers of this path, and we need to find out if it is right for us or not, and the blog cannot be our only information in making that decision.

But even those who go to grad school and quit to become happy elsewhere are actually better off for having attended; they discovered it wasn't for them. The people who went and found the whole experience awful and soul-destroying can go on with their lives knowing that academia is not for them, and in fact the trials of a PhD program often makes them realize what really makes them happy and what is truly valuable to them. If nothing else, the attempt helps direct them towards future happiness. The Chef and the girl at the animal shelter both were still improved by the experience, because they were able to figure out what to do with their lives. These kind of blogs overlook this fact. And also want to offer a told-you-so to anyone who fails in grad school, even though the only way to truly know if it fits or if you will be one of the rare successes is to actually try.

Edited by The Dudester
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I think a lot of his characterization of grad school is accurate but maybe a little overblowen, except the interaction between profs and your fellow cohort which is merely generalizing his specific experience. I love grad school, but you will find yourself regularly doing things purely in the name of professionalization, et al. The work load at times is pretty insane, especially like right now when I have a bunch of grant proposals due and am traveling 3 out of 4 weekends this month with three seminar papers looming at the end of April, and then beginning my thesis research this Summer. I rarely read books all the way through. I am constantly having to gut books just so I can get my course reading done in time to go to the archive or work on actual research reading. Its much more about pulling arguments out of works as quickly as possible in order to get onto the next one. All this comes down to is that Grad School IS A JOB. Sometimes it sucks, but if it works for you (like it does for me), most of the time it is amazing. Also, you do have more opportunity for experimentation as an undergrad. While you can change your focus as a grad student, it comes with a lot of extra pain, like learning a new historiography, having to build up a whole new source base.

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Another blog about how horrible grad school is. How wonderful.

Did you guys know that the job market is bad? And that some people don't fit in? That you might have a shitty boss? You could feel overwhelmed and overworked? You might be making a mistake?

Welcome to life! These are issues everywhere you go. All the bitter ex-grad students want you to believe that grad school is the only place where things are hard like this, or these are the issues. Guess what, they aren't. These are realities in every field. Be aware of the pitfalls, but don't presume that every cranky poster with ablog account has some magical insight because they had a bad experience. Most of us have heard the speeches and been apprised of the risks. Ultimately we are going to give it a shot. I'd rather be an unemployed phd than some dick wondering how things could have been different if I had just given it a shot. Maybe I'll drop out in a year or less. Shit happens. But if we had everyone who had a bad experience in a given field write a blog, no one would want any job ever.

EPIC post is EPIC.

Seriously I can't think of any other field or profession (***especially*** the humanities--which I am in) that publicizes their woes so willingly.

Do you see blog posts by the janitor who broke his ankle the first year of his D1 football scholarship year? Do you see diatribes about how hard life is doing what--ahem--you chose to do, from the secretary working overtime raising several kids?

Honestly I sympathized with a lot of these types of posts when I first started researching grad schools because there is a lot that goes on in grad life that is unfair or even straight wrong, but enough is enough. If you don't like it, get out. If it's hard, save the energy you'd expend complaining to tens of anonymous internet readers and work harder.

Really I don't know why academics--again, what I am aspiring to be--think they are the only ones whose working conditions are shitty.

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I also want to post this for some refreshing contrast: http://www.placehack...s-phd-students/

The writer is not in the US so take it with a grain of salt, but at least the moral of the story isn't that you have little chance but to be destroyed by grad school. I'll take tips on how to maximize your time rather than horror stories designed to demoralize any day.

Edited by KRC
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As I replied earlier, I don't agree with much of the blog post. However, to repeat, I think some of it is a reaction to the perhaps overinflated hopes and dreams of prospective and actual grad students. These forums are manifest proof of it; I highly doubt there is a forum somewhere out there for prospective janitors to commiserate about the hopes and disappointments of the application process. Warranted or not, I think we've all applied to grad school because we think we're special in some way and can contribute to knowledge of ourselves and the world; most of us hope to become professional academics and tenured professors, which is an 'elevated' societal status. Some of us, I dare say, believe we're going to become famous or well-known, if not in the world, then at least in our fields. The 'downer' blogs seem to be trying to counter that overinflation of optimism.

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As I replied earlier, I don't agree with much of the blog post. However, to repeat, I think some of it is a reaction to the perhaps overinflated hopes and dreams of prospective and actual grad students. These forums are manifest proof of it; I highly doubt there is a forum somewhere out there for prospective janitors to commiserate about the hopes and disappointments of the application process. Warranted or not, I think we've all applied to grad school because we think we're special in some way and can contribute to knowledge of ourselves and the world; most of us hope to become professional academics and tenured professors, which is an 'elevated' societal status. Some of us, I dare say, believe we're going to become famous or well-known, if not in the world, then at least in our fields. The 'downer' blogs seem to be trying to counter that overinflation of optimism.

I think those people that are able to attain "'elevated' society status" have managed to overcome and not give as much as a damn about the crappy parts of graduate and academic life. I'm sorry I can't/won't apologize for people that approach a career with that level of naivete, entitlement or tendency to take irrelevant minutia personally. Something tells me the people that have drastically skewed views about what to expect as an academic would have those views whatever their profession.

Like I said, giving tips on "how to succeed" as in the link above seems to be far more edifying than painting such an awful, complaint-laden picture as most of the blog posts similar to the OP do, even if some of the tips could be misguided or wrong.

In any case, here's to a better grad experience for all <lifts glass>

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It feels like all we read these days is how bad grad school is, how there are no jobs, how academia sucks....

What's interesting to me is that I had a terrible experience in my Master's program, and yet now I am going back for more. However, it was partly my own fault. I graduated from college at 21 and applied for grad school thinking I wanted to be a professor. I didn't understand the whole specialization thing, so I did the most logical second step: I told each school exactly what they wanted to hear. If they specialized in 18th century British lit, say, I said that I was mad for Milton. As it happened, I ended up at a school where 17th century American was all the rage--and I hated it. Only belatedly did I realize that not only was I not interested in that topic, but that I was more creative writer than academic writer at my core. Oops. I graduated anyway, but not before I was completely fed up with the obligatory ass-kissing of professors. As an MA student, I was given no mentor, and no guidance whatsoever. I was forced to beg, BEG for people to be on my committee, and was so desperate I had to get one committee member from another department just to graduate. Was it their fault or mine? I wasn't who I advertised myself to be. I also had unrealistic expectations about grad school, like the article states. It's true---at 21, I thought it would be like my undergrad, but more fun. I wish!

That's why I think it's better when you know what you're in for. That's how you can be one of the "happy few" he mentions in his article. Yes, you can read dozens of articles about how bad it is---but at the end of the day, the corporate world can be much, much worse. Yes, you have to suck up to professors and you are at the bottom of the academic food chain--well, it's better than spending 8 hours a day at a job you loathe. In my case, I am thrilled to have another crack at grad school, because this time I know what it takes. Oh, and I actually knew what I wanted to do this time. For the next 5 years, I get to study literature, write stories, and teach. And I will break even, not going one cent into debt. To one person, a TAship is slave labor for the university. To someone like me, a TAship is priceless job preparation and experience, as well as a means to pay for my education. A fair trade off, if you ask me.

I do admit, though, that the academic jargon gets annoying. Seriously, who on earth actually ENJOYS sitting around discussing critical theory??? Not me.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm railing against the genre more than the specific writer. It is quite obvious that school isn't for everyone. And it is for some people, but only to a certain level. And I do agree with StrangeLight that because someone decides that academia isn't for them does not make them deficient or a failure - they just figured out what works for them. But this whole genre of blogs about how awful grad school is just becomes so tedious when they repeat all the problems as if they were the only ones to suffer them, or as though all of us applying are ignorant rubes unaware of the risks. The fact that they are making so many complaints while being so happy with their new life is even more suspect. Every couple of days someone posts a blog telling everyone how it really is, but completely overlooking the fact that most of us applying are aware of the dangers of this path, and we need to find out if it is right for us or not, and the blog cannot be our only information in making that decision.

But even those who go to grad school and quit to become happy elsewhere are actually better off for having attended; they discovered it wasn't for them. The people who went and found the whole experience awful and soul-destroying can go on with their lives knowing that academia is not for them, and in fact the trials of a PhD program often makes them realize what really makes them happy and what is truly valuable to them. If nothing else, the attempt helps direct them towards future happiness. The Chef and the girl at the animal shelter both were still improved by the experience, because they were able to figure out what to do with their lives. These kind of blogs overlook this fact. And also want to offer a told-you-so to anyone who fails in grad school, even though the only way to truly know if it fits or if you will be one of the rare successes is to actually try.

I totally agree. It's a free country. People should do whatever they want. I hate the bloggers who take it upon themselves to tell young people (or older people who want a change in their lives) what to do. We all have access to job statistics, failure rates, etc.

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I totally agree. It's a free country. People should do whatever they want. I hate the bloggers who take it upon themselves to tell young people (or older people who want a change in their lives) what to do. We all have access to job statistics, failure rates, etc.

"It's a free country"? How could bloggers, by giving their opinions, possibly force anyone not to go to grad school in such a way that this statement would be relevant? I am befuddled that some people equate the expression of opinions with forcing other people to do things. What a lazy response to an idea you don't like!

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"It's a free country"? How could bloggers, by giving their opinions, possibly force anyone not to go to grad school in such a way that this statement would be relevant? I am befuddled that some people equate the expression of opinions with forcing other people to do things. What a lazy response to an idea you don't like!

That's awesome.

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