6 Things I Wish They’d Warned Me About Grad School
So it’s that time again, when bright-eyed and enthusiastic graduate students head to their new schools. Here’s some things I noticed in my time in graduate school that I wish someone would’ve warned me about.
1.) You’ll burn out. While you love your field now, it won’t always be so. By the end of your degree, you’ll want nothing more to never read another 19th century French novel, analyze another Mozart symphony, or see the inside of another laboratory. This, though, is the natural order of things. Or, as my uncle wisely advised me, you’re only in grad school to get out. It’s been about a year before I’ve been able to think about actually doing something in my field again. It does fade, but if it doesn’t and you’re not able to function, it’s a good idea to find someone to help you with that.
2.) Everyone thinks they suck. As the graduate advisor of my old department so sagely put, the ones that don’t admit to it are probably hurting the worst. You feel like you’re on the edge of being kicked out, especially in the days when continued funding is like a Sword of Damocles. But, like another teacher of mine said, if you do the work, you probably won’t flunk out.
3.) In a perfect world, scholarship money and TA positions are handed out to everyone deserving. In reality, there isn’t money to go around anymore, and your lack of a scholarship isn’t a sign that you suck. (See #2.) I can’t say this one doesn’t still sting for me, but things work out for a reason—if I were stuck teaching music theory and intro to music classes, I don’t doubt I would’ve burned out worse than I did. I certainly wouldn’t have had the freedom to throw myself into the things I was interested in, either.
4.) Along with #3, nothing is guaranteed. When I started grad school, I thought I’d be teaching somewhere. Now? It’s looking less likely in the short-term. I don’t toss it out entirely, but I know I’d rather work in some other industry than teach the entry-level classes most new professors and adjuncts taught. I’d rather go back to tech support, or any other job, than adjunct. That’s not to say there aren’t pathways for academics outside of the Ivory Tower, though. You have to be prepared to make your own path, if one isn’t prepared for you.
5.) Take time for yourself, as my chair told me. It’s easy to obsess, and spending every waking moment on your work isn’t going to make you more productive. If anything, it’s going to make you less productive. Look at the people in your department—do they model this? If not, you might want to look elsewhere for your chair and committee. Healthy is as healthy does.
6.) Don’t try to work full-time or take on more than one job, if you can possibly help it. For most of my graduate school career, I was working 2-3 jobs. For every obligation you have outside of grad school (work, family, etc) is going to make it that much harder to finish on time. Yes, you can work full time and do grad school, but I’d strongly advise against it. Likewise, they tell women to start their families during grad school. In my generation, I know very few women in my particular field who’ve finished after their child is born. Yes, the culture needs to change, but it’s damn hard to balance everyone’s needs in graduate school without work or a child. With either or both, it becomes exponentially harder. So long as you know what you’re getting into and have a supportive partner, go for it. But be aware that it’s not going to be easy and that the system is going to be rigged against you.