Why I am in Graduate School

As a first semester doctoral student I am terrified at what the future holds. I am in this weird purgatory-esque setting where I am between two worlds. As teacher and student simultaneously, I am floating around trying to find my way. I am constantly bombarded with stories, articles, books, and blog posts about the abysmal job market, the destruction of tenure, and the abusive adjunct experience. I came to graduate school because I love books. I knew the market was bad and that graduate school would be a daunting task, but I love books. I love to read them, hold them, talk about them, think about them, write about them. I am not worried about a stinking job market. I will cross that bridge when I get to it. I have always questioned myself and wondered if this was the right attitude, or did I set myself up for a great deal of pain and regret. However, last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education I read the article “Fear and Loathing in Graduate School”, and it validated for me the reasons I decided to attend graduate school in the first place. 

The title of the article plays on the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, (HB, to use Bayard’s system), which is about two men travelling through Las Vegas high on innumerable drugs. The Amazon review describes the plot by saying, “the drug-a-delic duo stumbles through Vegas in hallucinatory hopes of finding the American dream (two truck-stop waitresses tell them it’s nearby, but can’t remember if it’s on the right or the left). They of course never get the story, but they do commit the only sins in Vegas: “burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help.” (Amazon Review). I thought this was kind of fitting as a description of the journey through graduate school as well. You feel disoriented while searching for something that seems impossible to find. You do what you can in hopes of capturing this elusive tenure track faculty position. People kind of tell you how to get there, but you still must forge your own path. As scary and overwhelming as the entire process is, it is something I am drawn to do because I cannot imagine doing anything else. As Semenza says in Graduate Study for the 21st Century, “You should become a professor because you are completely obsessed with your subject and the skills it demands and because you believe it is the single most important thing you can pass on to other people. Nothing else will do” (38).
Mark Braude, the author of the article “Fear and Loathing in Graduate School” says that one should pursue graduate work because they are passionate about their field and want to learn just for the sake of learning. As Semenza states, “if you find yourself lacking the energy to read a George Eliot novel on your own, leave graduate school now” (80). If you do not feel that graduate school is something you want to devote all of your waking hours to, you should not do it because sometimes passion is the only thing that will push you through when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and wanting to give up. As Bayard reminds us in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read we will never be able to tackle all of the knowledge that is out there, but we must situate ourselves and let our voices be heard even if we haven’t read the books. I believe it is our duty as graduate students to enjoy the process, learn all of the things we came to graduate school to learn, and remember the passion that brought us to graduate school in the first place. I am planning to follow Braude’s advice and focus on the things I can improve. Braude says, “I am doing my best to focus on the tasks at hand: writing a strong dissertation that will hopefully advance new knowledge and spark debate, being a good teacher, learning from other scholars, and participating in the academic community.” Ultimately, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the work I have undertaken, but it does not matter. I can only work as hard as I can on the things I can exercise some kind of control over.
The comments at the end of the piece were very telling of the sometimes bitter and disheartening responses that students encounter when deciding to enter graduate school in the humanities. I cannot let those things get me down. Braude channels both Bayard and Semenza when he says, “I worry—when I should be writing.” We all must be writing even when we are afraid that we have nothing to say.
About Steve Mentz 650 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

12 Comments

  1. That’s a great post, Regina, & you do a nice job bringing together Semenza, Bayard, & Braude. Without in any way dampening your idealism, I wonder if we also can think analytically about it: a love of what we do & of literary culture is an essential tool for entering into graduate school and the academic world, and we also have to train ourselves to use it actively. As you note at the end of your post, sometimes that’s as simple as just committing yourself to your writing.

  2. Thanks Tara! Dr. Mentz, I agree with you about actively preparing for the academic world. It is all about hard work and dedication. Semenza reminds us of this with his Eliot quote, and Braude says something similar when he discusses being focused on the task at hand. We must be active participants in the academic culture of our respective departments. We have to enjoy the process and focus on the task at hand without getting lost in the negativity sometimes associated with pursuing an academic career in the humanities.

  3. Hi Regina, enjoyed the post! I like how you emphasize participating in the academic culture of our departments and enjoying the process. It’s so easy to get caught up in the macro and forget the micro. Sometimes I find myself preoccupied with CFP abstracts and panicking that I’m not getting out there enough, or networking, or building a big fat CV or that I haven’t published yet, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Sometimes I overwhelm myself into doing nothing. You’re right, though, that we need to get all those little things done, enjoy the passing conversations and remember to focus on the work we’re currently doing, even if it isn’t ultimately a part of the grand plan.

  4. I am scared of graduate school, too! My MA professor told me that graduate students are all masochists and I have been horrified ever since. I have read Middlemarch on my own, so maybe I can safely say that I belong here. Semenza has helped me a lot already in terms of organization. It’s a big thing for me and usually prevents me from writing as cleanly as I would like.

  5. great post. it definitely helps to hear that we’re all in this together. it’s easy to forget why we came to graduate school in the first place. but thanks for reminding me that i love books too!

  6. Lovely post. It is a good reminder for all of us that, yes, grad school is a ton of work, yes we are all overwhelmed but also that we chose to do this because it is something that we love. It is all we can do to just get the work done, because later on we can perhaps pass on our love of books, and our passion for learning to our students or even our friends and family. Thank you for the reminder that I am not alone in being overwhelmed but doing this because it is what I want to do.

  7. Regina, thanks for your honest and thoughtful post! Learning for the sake of learning is something I think most of us in the humanities have as an inborn value; we certainly aren’t in it for the money. Maybe my brain is just overwashed with Shakespeare this week, but I thought of Coriolanus. He seems to lead for the sake of leading, born to it, and not particularly interested in the contingencies of his position. We’ve talked about the pitfalls of the “ivory tower” in other classes. I guess for us the contingencies that bump up against our blissful place in graduate school are the forces in society that marginalize people. Social injustice is probably one reason why many of us are seeking to learn how best to teach writing and literature in ways that confront and disrupt margins. To be of the Academy but not absorbed into it. I guess I’m wondering: does that sense of loving books have to be a guilty pleasure? (my answer: no!)

  8. Let’s talk a bit tonight about the role of departmental communities in fostering the kind of connections and shared commitments you all have assembled here. I also think we might want to expand a bit on the role of idealism / love of books in our professional lives. The idea of Coriolanus as a model leader is interesting, though, I have to confess, a bit frightening. “He is their god; he leads them like a think / Made by some other deity than Nature, / That shapes men better; and they follow him, / Against us brats with no less confidence / Than boys pursuing summer butterflies, / Or butchers killing flies” (4.6.91-6).

  9. Laura, your comments on how our love for and inborn value of books need not be a guilty pleasure and how we often may also have a more social goal in studying literature (such as how literature and writing can “confront and disrupt margins”) brings to mind the historical movements of neoclassicism–in which rhetorical education was closely tied to citizenship and was a socially responsive endeavor—and the more liberal individualism that emerged (or re-emerged) with Emerson and Thoreau. I, too, think that we can individually merge these two often juxtaposed ideologies in our own approaches at graduate school, even possibly using our own (non-guilty) love for books to constantly reignite and push forward that more global goal.

  10. I must confess I have not read a George Elliot novel yet in my graduate career nor plan to. However, if at any time I must read something outside of my area of interest (or field as we graduate students like to say it), I would not let that disagreeable experience ruin my love and passion for literature. If anything, every book I must read adds to my voice and what I have to offer to the literary world.
    Graduate studies for me is a means to an end. I have learned to “force” myself to read entire novels and works of literature for enjoyment and to critically have something to say as I regurgitate it onto a midterm or final paper. However in the end, what I have to offer my students in my field is significantly enriched by approaching that field from the works surrounding it (much like Bayard’s suggestion).

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