Lessons Learned From A Worn-Out Graduate Student

I stood at my professor’s door knocking. My watch read 11:00 a.m. and I had just driven two hours north in order to discuss a 30-pager on heresy in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, since my speciality is film history, I don’t particularly fit with either the film or history departments, but my program is nestled within the history department, so heresy in the Middle Ages it is. On top of this awkward scenario, my job requires me to live in a different city two hours south of the school so I have to drive up north once a week. The profession I’m choosing to pursue, that of a film archivist, is quite small. Jobs are rare, and graduate programs are even more rare. I love what I do, so I choose the struggle. Though, after a year and a half of discouragement, setbacks, and minimal intellectual stimulation, I’ve begun to think that maybe the struggle shouldn’t be this rough?

It was after the third knock with no response that I threw my arms up and thought to myself, “This is the last straw.”

As I sat in the library, having toned down my irritation, I decided to reflect on my current state of affairs and the direction I want to pursue. Clearly I was unhappy. This was not new information. I’ve only really enjoyed a very small percentage of my time in graduate school, which is confusing because isn’t graduate school meant to be a place where a student broadens their knowledge on a subject to the point where they eventually pioneer an aspect of the field? At least that’s my understanding of what a master’s thesis entails. I opened my journal and began jotting down thoughts. I wanted to define the problems within my program to better understand my expectations, and what is expected from a post-baccalaureate. I believe it’s important to reflect on problems to understand whether or not it’s you that’s the cause, or if it’s just a flat-out crummy situation.

Unreliable faculty is the No. 1 indicator that the program itself will fail you in your pursuit to enter whatever field you’re interested in. Generally a graduate program is spanned over the course of two years, a short time in comparison to your undergraduate degree. You need to be on point 100 percent of the time, and so should your professors. After all, they’ve agreed to be a graduate faculty member, they’re there to advise, mentor, and help you succeed. Not showing up for a scheduled meeting looks bad. Not being available to help a student turn a mundane research paper into a decent, critical analysis looks worse. After all, my potentially poor essay mirrors how informational the three-hour lectures were. Unreliable faculty snowballs into an overall poor report card of students, faculty, and the organization of the program itself. No one can succeed without motivating the other.

Furthermore, in regards to unreliable staff, always check to make sure no one is going on sabbatical. A whole year passed in my program when the director decided to finally inform us that he would be taking the following year off to pursue his own research. The very same year that I would be researching, and writing my own thesis. Why had he not mentioned this, or at least the idea when I was in the process of applying? Shortly after this announcement, there sat an email in my inbox informing me that the department chair himself was also going to be on sabbatical. Along with another professor who would have been my thesis advisor. Three in a row. Leaving during my most vital year. It had to be a stroke of bad luck, right? Or maybe it had to do with the lack of management and communication occurring in this “notable” program. All I know, and what I’ve learned, is that you can’t succeed in graduate school if there’s no one there to teach you. Pretty simple conclusion, right?

Aim high when applying to graduate school. I chose to pursue a program in Washington State because I could only afford in-state tuition and it’s the only program with my field in my state. Looking back, I should have taken a year to work, saved up, and studied elsewhere, but that’s not the choice I made. Unfortunately for me, the career I desire requires a master’s degree. So here I am, working towards a master’s in a mediocre, poorly designed program. Graduate school is a completely separate entity from your undergrad. The effort, interest, motivation, and work done throughout comes from your passion on the topic within, and the inspiration exuded from your mentors. It’s important to pick a university that will help you maintain this level of interest despite the exhaustion and course-load.

Looking more internally, know your goals and passion, then stick to them. Especially if you’re interested in a very niche topic. Advocate for yourself because graduate school isn’t just about the degree, it’s about understanding your interests (a.k.a. yourself) on a much greater, professional, and scholarly level. Part of my degree requires us to seek out an internship in order to have something on our resume, and gain hands-on-experience in the field. I had been working in the field for the past three years through unpaid and paid positions, meaning I could aim high in my internship pursuit. I received a paid internship (rare) at an institution I actually hope to be part of someday, an institution that looks great for the university itself. I applied myself, worked hard, sought out an opportunity not presented to me upfront, and was able to snag it. “Well, maybe you’d be more interested in taking part in this (different) internship?” my professor suggested. At this, my mouth fell open. In no way had I ever expressed interest in his suggested opportunity. If I am to spend 300+ hours doing grunt work to earn required credit for the program, I sure as hell was going to do grunt work with material I was highly interested in.

It wasn’t until I stopped to think that I remembered that the internship he had proposed was in association with the university, and they were in need of students for the summer. It had absolutely nothing to do with my aspirations, and everything to do with keeping good ties with this participating institution. Let me give you an example of the stark difference in both internships: My internship is the Manchester United of internships whereas the proposed internship my advisor suggested was the hometown, rec league of internships. For a team not even associated with soccer. That is how wide in contrast these two opportunities were.

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Part of your graduate application process should also be to schedule a meeting with the head of the program to lay out your interests and goals. Be sure to have some of those in the first place. If your director makes you feel small, or doubts your passion, turn and find a different program. Of course graduate school will broaden your horizons, and no you don’t know everything about the profession, but that doesn’t make you any less interested in what you’ve told them. Nobody’s job is to tell you what you like and don’t like.

Why did I not put my hand up in the beginning, and calmly say that this program wasn’t for me? That’s a question I’ve begun to ask myself. At 24, living with family, unable to work a full-time job so I can be of use in class discussion, with no savings accounts, I wonder if I made the right choice. Graduate school is difficult, messy, expensive, and an overall pain. Is it necessary for my career? Unfortunately yes. Before applying to graduate school, I absolutely urge you to look into the potential program itself. We live in an on-demand culture, and as twenty-somethings in our generation, we’re pressured to do it all, do it big, and do it now. Sometimes taking a step back before we follow through with a life changing pursuit is hard, but immensely important.

If I’ve learned anything in this process, it’s that patience is key in our early 20s, and in general. We can’t possibly achieve it all on the spot. It’s a process. It’s absolutely okay to postpone career moves for a brief time in order to solidify your confidence in your choice. Better to postpone than rack up a two-year tuition bill for a program that doesn’t meet your intellectual need. In an undergraduate degree there’s time to sort through possible foci. When it comes to graduate school, apply when you know what it is you want to do, and don’t settle for the easy opportunity. Graduate school is a time to push yourself to limits that are challenging to reach. With the right program, you’ll have the necessary help to get you where you want to be.

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