No matter how well prepared someone is for starting graduate school, some surprising obstacles and challenges pop up along the path to that MA or Ph.D. I asked six graduate students what unexpected challenges they face, and their responses, ranging in topic from surprising fees to disillusionment with the grad school culture are illuminating.
When I was just thinking about graduate school, I prepared myself by talking to graduate students and professors and reading lots and lots of blogs. I came in prepared to work hard, to experience some difficulties, and to completely change my mind about what I wanted in the future. That served me well, but I completely overlooked one big issue – the frustration that comes from feeling like graduate school is like being stuck in limbo. You’re not quite a student, you’re not quite starting a career, you’re sort of in the middle ground. On the one hand, there are classes and research and professors to impress. On the other hand, there are teaching jobs to do, publications to publish, and a CV/resume to build.
The point really gets brought home when people start talking about money. In grad school, there’s no 401K in the near future, or any real savings, which for me are big markers of Adulthood and Financial Independence. Whenever I talk to people starting careers and families and going on fabulous vacations, I feel like an annoying kid chasing after the other kids in the playground – wait for me! I want to catch up! I want to play, too! And I’m not alone in this feeling.
I know exactly what you mean about feeling in limbo, and I remember it being exacerbated by the uncertainty of the job market so that I wasn’t sure that I was even working toward a job. The biggest unexpected obstacle for me was the physical toll that comes with that kind of stress, particularly in the final few years. A significant number of the women I know got tremendously (in some cases dangerously) ill the year we went on the job market, and student insurance isn’t always adequate for major medical expenses.
Many people experience the physical toll of stress, especially around qualifying exams, defenses, and job searches, and the lack of mental and physical health service support just exacerbates these problems. Most graduate programs offer health insurance, but the quality of that insurance can vary dramatically. It makes sense, then, that getting in the job market can create some real problems, but sometimes, just getting the thesis/dissertation completed can be a headache.
Cherrispryte got her MA last year while working full-time. Her undergraduate experience taught her to expect disaster/trouble at every turn, and with that in mind, she started her grad school experience:
So I was kind of prepared for/expecting anything. Except for one thing – my thesis. Because I did not research the thesis process to an infinite degree, I was absolutely blown away by the steps and procedures necessary to submit a thesis. My program had three options: 1) Do an internship and write an SRP (substantial research project, about 50 pages) 2) Write two SRPs 3) Write a thesis (about 100 pages.) As I was already working 40+ hours a week and was told that my job could not count as an internship, the first option was out. I initially signed up to write 2 SRPs, but as I had not finished my first one by the end of the semester, I asked if could convert “what I was working on” into a thesis, dodging the bullet of writing 50 pages in a week. So with that amount of forethought, I wound up writing a thesis, supposing that submitting the finished work would involve, you know, handing a final draft to my professors. No.
In addition to having my thesis read and signed by two professors and the dean of my school, there was a huge pile of paperwork necessary for submitting it, including several hundred dollars in money orders, and I collected probably a dozen signatures from various university staff before I could submit the thing. As this is an unusual option at my school, no one in the advising office (nor anyone else) was helpful, and the instructions on the university website were confusing, out of order, and in some places, flat-out out-of-date.
And secondly, and more vaguely, when I graduated, all that happened was I stopped going to classes. I’ve still got the same job, and while I’m applying to other places, it’s sort of half-hearted. So for the past few months, I’ve been dealing with this “I just worked incredibly hard and had this huge accomplishment and absolutely nothing changed” feeling that is totally overwhelming at times. Graduation at other points of life – from high school and college – comes with major lifestyle upheaval. This didn’t, and that has been really weird and hard and more than a little depressing.
But it’s not just finishing up and leaving the hallowed halls of Graduate School U. that can bring unexpected turbulence: starting graduate school may be a more difficult transition than anticipated due to changes in what is expected of you as a student, large moves, and differences in academic culture between institutions.
Marri Lynn, a Masters student at a university in Canada:
I had suffered from imposter syndrome and perfectionistic tendencies all throughout undergrad. As I moved to a new city and a new university for an MA, I expected more of the same old sinking feelings of inadequacy as esteemed mentors looked to me to deliver excellence that I felt I could not provide – despite my GPA suggesting otherwise. I was braced for this and felt prepared to battle these familiar demons. Instead, surrounded by professors and peers who did not know me well and could not get to know me well in the single year in which it takes to complete my MA program, I was faced with entirely new personal hurdles. A combination of feeling academically and professionally (but not socially) isolated while grappling with big project demands served to crush most of my academic “performance anxiety” by simple weight, but those forces also broke down the very drive to excel that had propelled me through an undergraduate honours degree.
I had expected to be challenged academically, but in a way that would help me perfect my skills and yield increases in self-confidence and a sensation of having improved. Instead, the paradoxical ease and difficulty of this MA (familiar subject matter and approaches to it meets huge reading and writing expectations with no focus on developing the skills needed to tackle them) has left me feeling like I’ve taken one step forward but two back – and it’s left me unsure if I want to cross the next academic bridge.
Monikah recently finished her first year of a two-year master’s program:
One major obstacle for me was the fact of just how much the academic culture of my undergrad university [redacted Ivy League school 1] differed from that of my graduate university [redacted Ivy League school 2]. At [redacted Ivy League school 1], I was used to being around people who were very smart, successful, and interested in school, but not that interested in competition or one-upmanship; grades, rankings, and test scores were rarely discussed or used to put others down, there was no sabotage or ill will toward others’ successes, and I really, honestly felt like people were more interested in learning, growing, and thinking in new ways rather than being better than other or obsessing over grades. Coming to [redacted Ivy League school 2], where I find people to be more competitive, ambitious, and sometimes even ruthless, was a tremendous culture shock ““ having other people be so interested in my grades and academic performance seemed rude and intrusive, and I feel as if my goals and progress are always being judged according to criteria I don’t necessarily accept as important.
Now that I no longer intend to pursue a PhD (as most of the people in my program do and expect me to do), I feel especially rejected and judged, and I very much miss the culture of [redacted Ivy League school 1], where I feel like I would have received more encouragement to do what I loved and what felt right, and less pressure to succeed at a high level and pursue certain “acceptable” goals according to rigid traditional standards. I feel like I should have anticipated this, but I didn’t really, and definitely underestimated how much I would be affected by that difference.
And there are unique challenges to going to graduate school straight from undergrad. While most students in undergrad are in about the same places in their lives (non-traditional students make up an important but small group), the landscape of graduate school looks very different, with students at a variety of points in their lives and with a whole range of experiences under their belts.
Oportspangles recently finished her MA and will be starting her PhD coursework this fall:
It’s hard to talk about just one issue because so many things feed into each other, but one of the things I felt most challenged by was the age issue. I went straight into grad school from undergrad, and while I think this was the right thing for me to do, it’s intimidating as hell. I’m the youngest in my program – and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still the youngest for a couple of years – and my classmates range from just a year or two older than me to fifteen years older. So I look at them, people who’ve had years to think about what they want to study and know exactly what they want to do with their degrees, and I feel suddenly doubtful about my half-articulated research interests and the pressure to decide whether I will stay in academia after I finish my PhD. I worry about the dynamic I have with my professors, whether they think of me as an actual grad student or just an overgrown undergrad blundering her way through. I worry about whether, when I start teaching this year, my students will take me seriously. I feel a bit as though I have to make up for my age by producing perfect work, which, aside from being utterly impossible, is not a productive way to actually learn and improve.
I won’t say that these worries are completely unfounded. But these are the type of worries that become counterproductive very quickly. I did best this year when I acknowledged, “OK, I’m intimidated, but I’m just going to try anyway.” Your ideas and your willingness to express them quickly become much more defining than whatever factor triggers the feeling of intimidation.
Finding “your place” in graduate school can be tricky. These issues are compounded by the lack of women and people of color throughout academia, especially at the level of professor or higher, and a general misunderstanding or blindness towards these issues. Grad school can seem like a really “tuned in” place where people will respect and acknowledge the issues you find important, but it can sometimes fall short of that mark.
Welcometothelauracone, one half of the dynamic duo over at sugabutta, and a Masters student in a social science:
I thought that I’d be entering a community of like minds in a lot of ways: we’d have similar interests, or similar approaches. I picked a school that fit me politically and pedagogically, and have met great people and made fantastic friends. But the biggest issue I’ve had, which is also my biggest disappointment, is the lack of awareness around a lot of issues that I hold to be very important, and which are, unfortunately, a massive blind spot in academia: race and gender (what’s interesting is, because I go to a lefty school, class is often in the equation, but even then, it’s never personal – it’ll be about Marxist movements blah blah blah, but not about class in America, for example).
So my biggest problem has been the crushing moment when I realize my male fellow student has no concept of why it’s aggravating that he just called a girl “this bitch,” and then, even worse, that he got defensive and started explaining that he (a white, straight, cis man) grew up in L.A. with gangsters and this was just how they talked and it’s just his background, etc. Of the men I’ve tried to talk to about this, only one or two have ever understood me (and they have been gay, which implies they themselves have a different perspective already). For the rest, I’ve had to explain, alternately: rape culture, privilege, patriarchy as a system that hurts many people and not just women, feminism, third wave feminism, etc.
So my biggest obstacle has been that: the difference between academic thoughts on “academic” problems, and the politics of what I and many others experience regarding race and gender (and class) in everyday life. They can talk about the Zapatistas totally fine, but not about the life of an African American in this country. It’s really fucked up and detached.
How about you? What have been your experiences with academia? Do any of these stories ring true with you?