Thinking about grad school?

Then you better consider the grading, the undergrads and the lost weekends.

Julian Switala

So, what are you doing after you graduate?
This is a question which all undergraduate students must ask themselves. Knowing what graduate school entails is something every undergraduate should know before even picking up a GRE prep book.
Some, like William Pannapacker, an English professor at Hope College in Michigan, are cynical and pessimistic, claiming in a Chronicle of Higher Education article that students considering graduate school typically “received high grades and a lot of praise from their professors, and they are not finding similar encouragement outside of an academic environment,” meaning they “want to return to a context in which they feel validated.”
Additionally, these students “are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate — and frightening.”
Although I admire the critical nature of Pannapacker’s analysis, I decided asking a graduate student at the University of Minnesota would be better than merely believing Pannapacker’s sweeping assertions. I sat down with Courtney Gildersleeve, a graduate student in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University, to get a perspective on what it’s like to be a graduate student.
She described her schedule as pretty busy, saying that she works most days of the week, typically takes only one day off, and goes to the office on weekends. In addition, she claims that it can be “tricky to balance teaching and being a student.”
Of course, being a TA is time-consuming given the amount of hours required to attend class, proficiently do the readings so as to be of help to undergraduates and talk with professors about the syllabus, not to mention all the papers and tests that must be graded and then entered into computers. Throw in uninterested and ignorant undergraduates, and it would seem that being a TA may not be worth the hassle.
None of this should be concerning if one truly loves to teach, like Gildersleeve. She says she loves working with students and that the CSCL department is accommodating and understanding given it “focuses on pedagogy,” as opposed to other graduate departments, which have different focuses like research.
Another significant change is the transition from an undergraduate existence to a rigorous graduate course of study. Gildersleeve noted how “your first year [in graduate school] is tough and requires a lot of adjustment.” The main difference she described was that being a graduate student is like a “weird limbo space” in which “you’re not an undergraduate, but also not a professor,” meaning that you “have to work with both groups of people in certain ways.”
Admittedly, this isn’t necessarily applicable to all experiences, but she provided helpful advice to anyone who may find themselves at a graduate school. At times, she said, it can “feel like you’re in an ocean and can’t swim anymore.” But she noted that “reaching out to people in your program and finding your community” is an excellent way to create a support network that eases the transition into graduate school and makes the experience much more enjoyable and manageable. In short, she says, “You have to be more proactive.”

Julian Switala welcomes comments at [email protected]