Disclaimer: This post is not about the politics of humanities Ph.D. programs, the ethics of these arrangements, or whether you should go to grad school in the first place. But if you haven’t already looked into this and you’re thinking of going to grad school, you need to do your homework on this stuff. Start here.
A few days ago I had a nice phone conversation with a recent college graduate who was thinking about applying to Yale’s Film Studies program. Talking to her reminded me of my first year or so as a grad student at Yale, and what I remember most is just all-consuming confusion — the ubiquitous sensation of doing the wrong thing, and, worse, of not knowing what the right thing was.
In a way, the conditions of my entrance into grad school virtually guaranteed this. The only professors I knew were the faculty at my liberal arts college (where we didn’t have grad students). They were wonderful, but we didn’t really have heart-to-hearts. I’d never actually known a grad student. I hadn’t done my homework as well as I should have. I went to grad school because I liked college, was good at it, and thought it sounded cool to get paid to read. Simple as that.
I was 23. It can’t be that unusual.
And, disastrously, I was the first grad student to enter Yale’s Film Studies Ph.D. program, and the only one that year. Meaning I was a cohort of one. The faculty were generously solicitous, but they were so far removed from my own station that I think my constant missteps were baffling and sometimes exasperating to them.
Not all grad students are like me. As I quickly learned, a lot of them know what being a grad student is all about, have done their research, and understand how to navigate academia. This post is not for them. This is about the really basic conventions and etiquette of what it means to be a Ph.D. student.
If all this sounds like BS to you, you should ignore it. I hope you do, actually. But I think it’s only fair to have the option of knowing what the conventions are before you decide to flout them.
- Most people who enter humanities Ph.D. programs want to be professors. Laugh if you want, but I didn’t know this. I thought, you know, you’d read a lot, maybe intern in summers, and emerge as, say, a writer or an archivist or, sure, maybe a professor. Not so. The measure of success at most humanities Ph.D. programs is whether you get a job as a professor — preferably tenure-track — and your actions will be judged against this benchmark.
- The minute you enter grad school, you’re a professional. Grad school is not college, or at least not college as I experienced it, i.e., a special personal journey of exploration and wonder and alcohol. You’re at grad school to be professionalized into academia, and your behavior is expected to reflect that.
- Your fellow grad students are your colleagues, not (necessarily) your friends. You’ll make good friends, of course you will, but relationships with most other grad students will be more like coworkers than buddies. So if they don’t come to your party, say, or don’t want to hang out after class, don’t be offended. That’s just not what it’s about for a lot of people.
- You are supposed to go to all the departmental lectures, screenings, colloquia, etc. This stuff is not a fun extracurricular activity that you can hit or miss depending on your interests. Your attendance is expected and your absence is noticed. It’s part of being a good colleague.
- Pick your classes according to the following criteria, in descending order of importance: 1) The professor is someone you want to know and might want to work with; 2) your seminar paper might come in handy for your oral exams or dissertation research; 3) you’re interested in the topic.
- You primary, and often only, class assignment will be one 20-page paper, due at the end of the semester.
- Faculty hierarchy goes like this: endowed professor, full professor, associate professor, assistant professor, and everything else, including visiting professor, instructor, adjunct professor, research professor, etc. You have tenure if you’re an associate professor on up; otherwise, you don’t. You may want to note this if you’re considering taking a class or working with someone, because you’ll want to know whether that person is permanent.
- Have something to say when someone asks you what you’re interested in. And that thing can’t be “twentieth-century American history” or “English literature,” even if that’s true. It should be something like “race and the body in Puritan theology.” There, use that.
- It is no longer self-deprecation time. That’s charming, but it’s over.
- Start applying to conferences and getting ready to publish as soon as you’ve written a seminar paper. I know, right? Intimidating! Here’s how you can comfort yourself: Go to an academic conference and listen to the papers. Your stuff’s just as good. You know it is.
- There is likely one professional association for your discipline. For film studies it’s SCMS; for American studies it’s ASA; for literature and languages it’s the MLA. That’s the conference you’re supposed to go to and those people are your colleagues.
- Subscribe to the relevant listservs and RSS feeds. That’s how you know about calls for papers (CFPs) and what other people are working on. For example, I subscribe to two H-NET listservs, the American Studies Association RSS feed, and this feed of CFPs.
Honestly, the smartest thing you can do immediately after starting grad school is to pick out a nice-seeming older student, buy him or her a beer, confess your ignorance, and ask this person what you should know.
There are a million other things you should also know about research habits, job-market preparation, productivity, and writing. These things are admirably well-covered in places like ProfHacker, GradHacker, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed. (I’d recommend Lifehacker, too.) But this is the stuff that will get you in the door and through your first semester or so without embarrassing yourself. Unlike some people I could mention.
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