Notes on the Grad School Experience

This essay is part of a series based on my own experiences and observations as a graduate student in the U.S.A.

When I did my first* go at graduate school back in my mid 20s, I was angry that I wasn’t getting the education that I thought I would get when I enrolled. I was angry and so full of fear about so many things while I was doing my MA, in full blown mid 20s resistance mode, that I often mistook what graduate school really was and why I had originally decided to pursue higher education instead of producing work on my own (as I had been following my undergraduate studies). There were other reasons for how I felt, but I placed a large percentage of the blame on the program because I felt like it wasn’t offering me what I wanted, which resulted in further unhappiness and isolation. I didn’t feel confident enough to reach out to professors to speak with them about my concerns, nor did I do anything productive to communicate how I felt or what I needed.

Needless to say, looking back on that experience, it was mostly my fault for not recognizing that graduate school wasn’t there for my own personal emotional needs. It was there to refine me as a scholar and intellectual and because I came into the program not realizing what my aim was, I wasn’t able to make the most of the experience. This isn’t to say that I failed out of my studies. I earned A’s, but grades aren’t really the point in grad school. I realized long afterwards that those within the program who excelled knew exactly why they were there and approached the experience as one would approach a job opportunity. They knew how to network, they knew what they needed to study, they knew what they were doing, and they also very much knew what the program could and could not offer them. I didn’t. I expected other things. I didn’t recognize what I needed to be doing on my own and I didn’t recognize that I myself wasn’t ready for graduate study. I became bitter about my experience and I bitched about it for years, thinking that others might care. I was ungrateful for the experience I had even though I learned so much during my MA.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t take that experience back, though I would try not to go into debt. I often wonder how many others in their mid 20s who enter MA, MFA, or even PhD programs face this experience while pursuing their degrees, especially if they come straight from undergraduate studies with the expectation that graduate school is just an extension of undergrad. This isn’t to say there aren’t people in their early 20s who aren’t masters of all of the skills needed to succeed in graduate school. There are. Some of the very people who were quite adept at the grad school game had come straight from undergrad. But they are the exception to the rule, as a colleague of mine in my current program observantly pointed out. Most likely they have either been groomed for graduate level work prior to entering a program, or they’ve been taken under the wing of a mentor who is helping them steer their way through the nebulousness of graduate level work in the Humanities. They are the anointed ones, the rest of us are grist for the mill.

I’m sure there are graduate and professional programs, especially those in STEM fields, that provide focused structure, a direct end goal, and are easier to navigate, but graduate school for those in the Humanities does not. It provides one the knowledge and training to become a professor; something that the majority of students entering these programs will most likely never become.

*Technically, it was my second attempt. The first attempt was stymied due to the NY state legislature’s last minute egregious tuition hike for all out of state students attending public institutions of higher education the year I had intended to enroll.