Dumelang, folks! My efforts to devote more time to this site in the new year have so far come to naught, but January isn’t quite over yet. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few months about my experience in graduate school with a view to what advice I have for others who might be considering a similar path. While this article draws heavily from my own personal experience pursuing a history Ph. D., I think it a lot of it might apply more broadly. So, without further ado, here are five tips that I think would have helped me discern and prepare back in 2014 and 2015 when I was wrestling with the prospect of a grad degree.
Tip No. 1: Take some time to think about what you want to do (1 year +). This is my number one regret. The semester I graduated from William and Mary, I was thrilled to line up a service year position through my church in Winston-Salem, N.C. That job, working mostly in the toddler classroom of a school serving kids with a variety of developmental needs, remains to this day the best job I ever had. Sure, I was paid only a tiny stipend and had a lot of trouble in my life that year (totally unrelated to the job), but every day coming into work I was absolutely sure that I was doing something unambiguously good and unambiguously necessary. It wasn’t specialized work (not the stuff I was doing; I wasn’t a teacher) and it had nothing to do with history, but it was intellectually stimulating. It demanded both compassion and the best of my problem-solving ability.
Part of the reason I elected to go that route had to do with discernment. I knew graduating was a big step and like a lot of people I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was interested in deepening my faith and hoped that in the context of a religious community I would make better decisions. I was considering seminary too.
I didn’t give myself nearly enough time. My job in North Carolina ended in June of 2015, and by August I was in East Lansing. Those milestones on my C.V. are misleading if taken on their own, however. I had to make the decision to apply to graduate schools a lot earlier: it was in October 2014, just five months after graduating, that I started narrowing down my list of potential Ph. D. programs, in December that I finished all my applications, in February when I got accepted to Michigan State. The deadline to commit to M.S.U. came around on Tax Day, April 15th, 2015. In other words, my year of discernment wasn’t actually a year of discernment; it was almost entirely occupied with the Ph. D. admissions process.
While I would still say my service year taught me many important lessons, it was hard to process them when I was already so firmly down the conveyor belt to graduate school. If I were to do it over, I would have found a way to stick around in Winston-Salem for another year, to test my resolve to re-enter the academic fray. I don’t think one year is enough time even if you are of a truly scholarly temperament.
Tip No. 2: Consider your values. Let’s get this out of the way while it’s still pretty early: grad school sucks. My suspicion is that this is true no matter what field you choose, and no matter where you go, to some extent. This isn’t to say that it’s going to be non-stop misery (if it is, you really shouldn’t stick it out; see tip no. 5), but as with any intensive training program, the good memories are going to be the parts that least feel like grad school. You’ll remember things like your first conference paper that went really well, your first time doing research in the field, or the first time you got accepted to a peer-reviewed journal. In other words, the times when you were taken seriously and affirmed as a practitioner of whatever it is you’re going to school for.
Grad school can enable some wonderful things, but pretty much any way you slice it you’re talking about a lot of work. Work means reading books about things you love, true, but it also means navigating the potentially byzantine requirements of your program, or, if you have an assistantship, having to grave seventy-five borderline incoherent undergraduate essays in the course of a weekend. It’s not attractive stuff. Add to that the fact that you’re at the bottom of a very complex and stress-inducing academic pecking order. You’ll constantly be confronted with your own ignorance even about things you thought you knew well, which is exciting sometimes and sometimes very, very, stressful.
I have never worked harder than the year I was dealing with my comprehensive exams. I didn’t give up, and I ended up passing and getting the dissertation research fellowship of my dreams—eventually—but it came at the cost of my mental and physical health. I had panic attacks regularly. I kept a horrendous diet and gained weight. I put off getting medical care for a minor but very painful complaint for fear of falling behind on my comps lists, even though I had quality health insurance through my school (not a guarantee everywhere, by the way!). So yeah, I won the victory. But it came at a steep cost.
The upshot here is this: if you don’t dominate grad school, it will dominate you. Go in knowing what you value, what kind of lifestyle you want to have and aware of the lines you don’t want to cross in pursuit of a degree. If you forget who you are and why you’re there, it’s easy to slip into the gaping maw of burnout. Keep grad school and your own self worth as far away from each other as you possibly can. Don’t concede an inch. If you hate the kind of person it’s turning you into, step back: assess what you value. Breaking into academia is like trying to be an actor in L.A.: if you define yourself by your tally of successes and failures, you’re not going to last long.
Tip No. 3: Don’t pay for it. I realize this isn’t an option for everybody, but within my field, reputable Ph. D. programs fully fund the people they admit for a period of years. I was doubly lucky in that I got accepted directly into a Ph. D. program without needing to obtain (and pay for) an M.A. first. Granted, I did get my B.A. in history, and I wrote a thesis in undergrad; I’m not sure M.S.U. would have accepted me if I had majored in something else.
I will say this though: I’m not sure how I would have coped over the past four years if I’d had the additional stress of taking out loans on my mind. With the academic job market as difficult as it is, I chose M.S.U. in part because I didn’t want to end up in debt for a degree that might not result in a career.
Definitely explore your options for getting the degree you want while spending as little money as possible. When you get accepted to schools, really do your homework on the funding packages they’re offering you. Also, remember to factor in cost of living. Anyone who reads my poetry knows I have a love-hate relationship with the state of Michigan, but one thing that’s really great about going to school in East Lansing is the low, low, low cost of living, particularly for housing. If I had entered a Ph. D. program in a big East or West Coast city, I wouldn’t have to deal with the angst of being stuck in the Midwest, and probably would have been offered more money. But the extra thousand dollars or so would not have offset the astronomical expense of living in those cities. I don’t feel nearly as squeezed at M.S.U. as I would at other schools, and that’s a non-trivial thing.
Tip No. 4: Cultivate your village. This goes back to tip no. 2, and it’s crucial to keeping yourself sane. It’s almost impossible to succeed in grad school without a set of people to fall back on and encourage you through the gauntlet. I am blessed with a wonderful network of people from high school, college, and beyond (in addition to my family) who have provided this support consistently and with aplomb. I am eternally, eternally grateful to them and often think that the part of my dissertation I look most forward to writing is the acknowledgements. They remind you (and you’ll need the reminding quite a bit, if you’re like me) that the stakes aren’t as high as you think they are, that there’s life beyond campus. That you are valuable, regardless of anything you might do or fail to do in pursuit of a graduate degree.
While it’s definitely beneficial to have people in your immediate grad cohort you can vent with, who understand exactly what you’re going through, it’s just as important to keep in contact with people who don’t have anything to do with your chosen field. It can be hard to maintain relationships like that, of course, especially as the golden years of college fade further and further into the distance, but it’s worth the effort. Not only is it important to get away from the tunnel vision school stress tends to induce, but talking to people far removed from your situation can also grant you an important sense of perspective.
If this account of grad school sounds overly negative, remember that all paths you might choose to take have their own trials and tribulations. No, grad school isn’t fun, but if you want to be a historian, being a historian is great fun, and that’s where the road ends up. You might get jealous of some of your friends on the outside, but you might also realize how much you would hate their career path. Grad school entails a lot of uncertainty, for sure, but would you trade that uncertainty in for consistent boredom? I can complain about Michigan until the sun falls into the sea, but grad school lets me go to South Africa too, which more than makes up for it in my book. Not everyone has that. Which is a great segue into tip no. 5:
Tip No. 5: Remember that life is long. Speaking as someone who’s reached the ripe old age of twenty-six, the thread that’s bedevilled me through the first three years of graduate school was a lack of perspective. Take the question that started this: should I go to grad school? A logical but problematic reading of that question would presume that graduate school is either a “good thing” or a “bad thing” for every person: is grad school “right for me”? I’m here to tell you that you can’t work out in advance what your experience is going to be like. It’s for the long haul—if you do an M.A./Ph. D. combo, you’ll be in for almost a decade—and you’re guaranteed to have some of the greatest ups and downs you’ve ever experienced.
At the same time, if you’re in your twenties like me, you’re probably in for a wild ride no matter what you do. It’s hard for me sometimes to figure out how much of the crap I’ve gone through in grad school has actually been because of grad school and how much of it’s just part of growing up.
Again, if you go, don’t let grad school define you. Even when you’re feeling most stressed, there’s always room for grace: get lost in the woods, strike up a random conversation, get involved in a community organization. Take it one step at a time, one week at a time, one day at a time, and you’ll be surprised how far you can get. If you pay attention to how much you’re learning in life rather than just in school, even if you end up working in a totally unrelated field, those years won’t go to waste. They haven’t for me.
Not everybody should go to graduate school; I’m a firm believer in that. If you can see a clear path to a career you love right now, without a graduate degree, don’t waste any time thinking about it. But if, when your soul is at its most calm, you find yourself longing for something that requires a degree, it’s unlikely that anything else you might do can scratch that particular itch. That’s when you realize it’s not just a desire but a vocation; it calls out to you in the middle of the night, even when you wish it would shut up.
Thanks for coming to my TED talk. Leave a comment if you’re considering graduate school and have additional questions, or if you’ve taken the plunge and have a different perspective to share
but too many times we skip over
the things we really don’t much enjoy.
i would rather be anywhere else, yes,
but life is happening in this library
even this late at night—comedies and
tragedies are being written, maybe
even my own—the sweet and sad thing
is that professors don’t really do their
writing in places like this.
i will—inshallah, inshallah, inshallah—
as i was saying—what i’m trying
to say is i will graduate from this.
i don’t know what it will be like,
but it won’t be like this.