Monday, April 19, 2010

Graduate school baggage

When bloggy discussion turns to graduate education, I feel myself to be in an odd position. I am newly come to the tenure track. My institution gives only bachelor's degrees, so I have no role in preparing graduate students. I do, however, need to figure out how best to prepare my students for graduate school, should they choose to go (and whether to encourage or discourage them, etc.). I have opinions on graduate education, based on my graduate school experience. Reading the recent posts here, here, and here have led me to some musing on that baggage, as well as my several years on the gypsy track before starting my current t-t position.

Graduate school difficulties
The things that made my grad school experience difficult fall into two categories. One is that the graduate program in my field was restarting after a bit of a hiatus. This meant that my advisor was figuring out the process at the same time I was going through it; I had no more advanced students in my area to look to and seek advice from; and the seminars while I was in coursework didn't form a very coherent curriculum. Students in other subfields talked about turning their seminar papers into publishable articles, which mystified me as my seminar papers all seemed to me to be very student-type work, not publishable at all, and often not well tied to my core interests. Figuring out what my core interests were posed its own challenges, but I think that's another story for another time.

The other factor making my graduate school experience was the graduate school administration. Not my department; I generally felt that the department, or rather the professors in it, was geuinely committed to my success and intellectual growth. The message I got from the graduate school administration, on the other hand, was that I should teach teach teach and somehow also finish my degree in 5-7 years. For example, I had to meet with an assistant dean to obtain permission, and the needed funding, to go abroad to do my dissertation research in my fourth year. "But we expect you to teach in this year," s/he said. "But if I stay here and teach, I will not be able to make any dissertation progress whatsoever," I said. We went back and forth for quite a while before s/he agreed--and taking the funding then meant I did not get it for my "writing year" later as I was supposed to. I became increasingly concerned in grad school, that the university's method of encouraging advanced students to finish was entirely punitive: grad students in their 5th year or more went to the end of the preference list when teaching positions were assigned; their funding was reduced or cut off entirely after a certain year; they had to pay more for their health insurance; and on and on. The premise seemed to be that a 7th-year or more student was a slacker who needed to be cut out of the feeding trough. This seemed to me to be untrue in most cases: students might have difficult advisors or be working on complicated projects, but the university simply didn't care. It became my belief that once a university admitted a person for graduate study, the university then needed to commit the necessary resources to help that person succeed, not punish him/her when support was most needed.

Things that were not difficulties in graduate school:
My advisor. We have always had a congenial relationship. He had a rather hands-off attitude about a number of things: he allowed me to flail around for a while as I tried to figure out my project, which I think was intellectual work that I needed to do myself. He did point me in the direction of sources and colleagues that proved immensely fruitful. I found that when I asked him directly for advice or something else I needed, he was forthcoming and generous--but I did have to askk. For example, we had met only irregularly for most of my time there, but I asked to meet more often when I was in the later stages of writing (because I needed the incentive of a meeting to produce drafts more quickly). We then met every week or two until I had a complete draft.

My fellow grad students were also helpful. There were few students in my subfield, but those of us who were there were supportive of each other, and have remained friendly. I became tied into a large network of students in other subfields in the department, which helped provide me with psychological support. A small group of us in different fields also formed a dissertation-writing support group for a while; we met each week and critiqued a different person's draft chapter, so that we each had to have a draft to show every 3-4 weeks. Like meeting with my advisor regularly, this provided a very helpful incentive to write, as well as useful feedback.

Summing up:
So, on the whole, my graduate experience was fine. I certainly did not have the kind of toxic advising relationship that has caused problems for other people. But by my 5th and 6th year, I was increasingly frustrated with the university's attitude toward advanced students, which seemed callous. Each new teaching assignment I got was further away from my area of specialty; I was tired of teaching sections of other people's courses; I was tired of feeling like less than a full-fledged adult. So I jumped at the chance to finish up and take a one-year visiting position when one was offered to me.

I think this post is long enough; I'll talk about transitioning from graduate school to contingent scholar later this week.

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