I’ve often joked about my decision to go through life with low expectations from now on in the hopes of being pleasantly surprised (rather than disappointed). My experiences in grad school have largely led to this rather cynical outlook on life (surprise, surprise). At the moment, I am currently involved with my third graduate department: the first was where I received my M.A. in history, the second was my aborted Ph.D. program in history, and the third is my not-quite-official M.A. in English. In each of these programs I was/am surprised by the number of people who leave me asking: “Where’s the Love?”
Let me explain. Grad school is rough–if you didn’t already know that, someone is sure to tell you many, many times. I often spend my days feeling like an imbecile, doubting my abilities, and trying to justify my very existence. The pay sucks (particularly as I’m not actually in a program now, so there’s no funding at the moment) and the workload is often insane. It is not a 9-to-five kind of job–it spills over into every moment of free time that I have. That said, it’s a hell of a lot of fun as well and I actually cannot imagine doing anything else. I’ve had other jobs, I’ve taken time off from school, but really, I feel at home in academia. But there are some students who make me wonder. Do they like their subject? Do they even like to read? Why are they going through all of this if they don’t love what they do? (And I know that a simple answer to the last question is that they do it because they can’t think of anything else to do, but I find this to be a lazy response and rather sad).
The reason I ask is because I have a gift for picking programs that are often dominated by people who seem to actively dislike what they’re doing. I’m not talking about the everyday complaining that everyone (and this includes people in the so-called “real world”) participates in at some moment or other. I’m talking about the people who can barely seem to sit still through a seminar. Who apparently already know so much about the subject that they have no need to respect their colleagues or professors, and who refuse to engage in discussions about their subject outside of a classroom. Closely tied to this group of non-lovers is the group of people who are so narrowly focused on their subject matter (which nevertheless seems to bore them to tears) that they have little or no time for any other subject. Perhaps this is my obvious interdisciplinary bias speaking, but I can find something to like in almost everything I study (and believe me, I wish at times that I didn’t because I might have an easier time picking a damn program). My literary interests are leaning more towards the Romantic and Victorian periods in British lit, but that doesn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying my American lit courses. As a historian I studied Russian and American Jewish history at the Ph.D. level, and predominantly 19th-century American history as an M.A. student. But within those areas I also focused on gender, Chinese-American history, environmental history, immigration, labor, cultural history, etc. I am always shocked when I hear fellow students who feel the need to go beyond mere disinterest to actively denigrating other fields of study. Then there are the students who are actually angry that they have to take qualifying exams, or participate in department functions/speaker series (particularly if they aren’t directly tied to their pet subjects), or who are asked to…gasp…demonstrate at least a basic reading knowledge of one foreign language (and I know that languages are not easy for everyone, but if it’s an integral part of learning–to be able to participate in a wider critical discussion–then isn’t that something that one should think of before signing up for grad school and a career in academia?).
I know that not all graduate programs are like this. I was rather spoiled by the camaraderie I witnessed in Apparent Dip’s geology grad program. Students had other interests to be sure, but it wasn’t surprising to find them “talking shop” at parties (which could get quite interesting as people imbibed more alcohol). They were never exclusive to outsiders, but one could tell that they loved what they were doing. Their excitement was contagious, and even though my geology background is rather removed (I finished college nine years ago one course shy of a geology major), I couldn’t help but get caught up in the fun. Because while they worked hard, and they definitely had bad days/weeks/months, AD’s colleagues also made it clear that it was fun.
This is the aspect of graduate study that I feel has largely been missing from my experience(s). I’m doing this because I love it. I love the pursuit of knowledge, I love talking about books I read or want to read, and while it might seem that I have a love/hate relationship with writing, I have to admit that deep-down I love that part as well. I thoroughly enjoy doing research. But where are the late-night conversations about theory/books/authors that no one has really heard of? Where’s the nerdiness? And let me make it clear, my Ph.D. program was the worst case–I should have taken a clue from the lack of organization when I visited the campus and the fact that I only met with 3 students. It was not a group of people who were excited about being in grad school. My english program is a huge step up. But there’s still something a bit off. And don’t get me wrong: I can deal with buckling down and just focusing on my work and getting to the next stage. But I miss the coffee-shop meet-ups. I miss conversations that you wish would never end. I miss the excitement of sharing ideas. Has anyone had a similar experience? Any words of advice on how to deal with wet-blankets within a program (or life in general)?