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What I Wish I Had Known

The Ten Commandments of Graduate School over at the Tenured Radical got me thinking I should actually post my beginning of the school year thoughts. This Friday our department will be welcoming the new class of students at a Grad Student Retreat. As a bit of an ice-breaker returning students attending will talk about “Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Graduate School.” My first impulse was to go dark and sarcastic (as it always is) and say something along the lines of “I wish I had known to drop out immediately.” That’s not really true so despite its shock value, I’ll say something else. There’s always the safe, vague, cliche route, like saying “I wish I had known how busy I would be” which is maybe true but really boring and not very useful. I’ll probably wait and think of something on the spot, but here are some true and useful things I wish I had known:

How emotionally difficult grad school is
Like my other stages of education, I’ve made many good friends in graduate school and many of them have moved away, but what I think is the most difficult thing about grad school is that friends leave unexpectedly. There is no “senior year” after which you know people will scatter across the country. Instead, it is a constant stream of friends finding jobs or going to other programs, many times without much advanced notice. It’s always bittersweet, because you are happy to see friends succeed and get great opportunities, just as there are always new students coming into the program that may become great friends. But there’s a bit of a roller coaster feel to my emotions when it comes to the coming and going of friends.

An emotional constant, however, has been stress and guilt over things I “should” be doing. It’s another situation where I knew grad school would be different, but I did not really understand exactly how. There are still technical breaks in the semesters and over the summer, but those times are often when I need to get the most work done. Entering grad school, I certainly did not envision studying for comps on the way to Christmas parties or thinking about readings while trying to relax. I think I was prepared for the work (though that piles up very quickly), but I’ll admit that I do not think I was adequately prepared as to how much grad school infiltrates every part of you life (fighting this is an important thing too, but that’s a different blog post/one someone else probably already wrote).

How jealous I’d get
Money and material gain aren’t strong drivers for me, if they were I wouldn’t have chosen grad school. But I’ve been surprised by myself. It’s one thing to say money doesn’t matter, but it’s another thing to actually see the difference in lifestyle making a decent wage brings. Perhaps “jealous” is the wrong word, but it’s been frustrating to have to miss out on events like weddings and family events because I can’t afford the costs of traveling to them. $500 is a much greater barrier to traveling when that’s a third of your monthly pay (and when traveling from Nebraska, $500 is a laughably small total for a trip). I’m not trying to sound bitter but most academics are underpaid (given their skills and education) and the “academic lifestyle” doesn’t always feel like enough compensation.

How much I’d enjoy teaching
A positive statement, shocking I know. Applying to grad school was all about what place is a good fit for my research interests, but once I got a taste for teaching I realized how fun it is to watch students grow throughout a semester. Seeing a students’ “light bulb moment” is one of the more rewarding parts of grad school. As frustrating teaching can be sometimes, students can brighten up even the worst of days.

Published in Academia