Jeremy M. Carnes is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Ball State. He will be starting his dissertation in the fall, where he plans to research early 20th Century American imperialism in print culture artifacts, including modernist little magazines and periodicals as well as early comic strips and comic books.
I remember the precise moment that I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I was a junior at Ball State. I had decided that I wanted to learn more about American Modernism, so I had periodic meetings with Dr. Deborah Mix where we discussed some novels and poems one-on-one. During one meeting, we were discussing Willa Cather’s novel, A Lost Lady, and some of the defining features of American Modernism and modernity when I realized that I could have talked with Dr. Mix about this era of American history and literature for hours (in fact, over the years, we did talk about this stuff over many hours). As I finished my undergraduate degree at Ball State, I saw the time and care offered to me by Dr. Mix and, slightly later, Dr. Patrick Collier. These two professors especially showed me what it means to pour time and effort into students and research. The time Drs. Mix and Collier spent with me and my work over the years spurred me into graduate school all the more.
And over the course of those years, I learned a few things about graduate school–some of which I had heard before (and mostly ignored) and some of which I was completely clueless about (oftentimes to my own detriment).
First, let’s talk about applying to graduate school. Let’s set up a foundation on which we can begin this conversation: applying to graduate school is not a fun process. There are stacks of forms, hundreds of questions, and even a test (or two, depending on the program). By the end of it all, you’ll never want to read your writing sample or statement of purpose again, you’ll never want to enter your mailing address again, and you’ll never want to think about those GRE scores again. This process forces you to think about your identity as a scholar in ways that you may not have done yet. It’s hard. It’s stressful. But, it is immensely valuable and is something you will continue to think through, change, and refine as the years go by. And after you make it through all of this, the worst part, at least in my opinion, finally comes: the waiting. It’s a bit torturous and will probably end in a few rejection letters. It’s the reality of the beast that is academia. When I was applying for master’s programs, after waiting what seemed like 30 years (it was only about 3 months), I was rejected from five programs and accepted to two. It took me a long time and a lot of conversations with Drs. Mix and Collier for me to realize that I was not a failure. One thing everyone applying to graduate school has to try to understand is that a rejection letter does not mean that you are a failure or you are not ‘good enough.’ These programs are fiercely competitive and are looking for a specific kind of student. If we’re being honest, a rejection letter could be one of the best things to happen to you. I’ve met plenty of people that dropped out of their program because it was not a good fit for them. It’s quite possible that the rejection letter is saving you from that same uncomfortable situation.
Next, let’s discuss the reality of being a graduate student. It’s stressful. It’s hard. It’s demanding. You will have times where you’ll feel like you’ll never sleep again. You will feel like you’ll never get everything done, more than once (and most likely multiple times each semester). But when you get to the other side, you’ll realize that you’ve learned more than you would’ve thought was humanly possible. Given this reality, my biggest piece of advice is to really take time to think about whether or not graduate school is what you want to do. It can’t be something you feel like you have to do. You’ll be miserable. You might make it through, but you’ll probably hate it. Graduate school requires 150% effort, and it’s a lot easier to give that effort if you want to be there. It’s a different world from college as an undergraduate. I wouldn’t even really compare the two. People joke with me about how I am only continuing in graduate school because I want to be a college student forever. That’s not necessarily untrue, but I think there is a vast difference in the way my friends and family think about my status as a college student versus the reality. Graduate school is much more demanding. If I didn’t want to be there, I’m not sure I could do it.
Finally, let’s talk about the bleak reality, the one that no one wants to really think about but no one can stop talking about: the job market. It’s brutal. It is especially brutal for those wanting to continue in academia. So let’s clearly state what none of us want to hear: going through graduate school, dealing with the stress and lack of sleep, dealing with the work, pushing yourself to read, learn, and think in ways you never thought you would be able to, none of this necessarily translates into a job in academia.
If you want to continue in academia, there are two main things you’ll want to do (this advice comes less from me and more from the handful of professors I’ve talked with over the years): volunteer and publish. Be involved in your program. Be involved in societies and organizations you are interested in. Be a part of graduate student caucuses (most major organizations have these). Get to know people, both at your university and beyond. However, be aware that doing this stuff can only get you so far. To be competitive on the academic job market, you’ll have to publish. In his book Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, Gregory Semenza notes that a competitive person on the academic job market will have at least two academic articles published in reputable academic journals. The newest edition of this book came out in 2010. The job market has not improved. In reality, a competitive individual on the job market might have as many as 3, 4, or even 5 academic articles published. This means extra work beyond your classes and your service. The best way to do this (and I’m still working on this continually) is to write a little every day. Get ideas on the page and go from there.
If you are not necessarily tied to the idea of a future academic job, there are other options for those with graduate degrees. Oftentimes you might hear these referred to as “Alt-Ac” career options, meaning alternative to academic careers. If this is something that you’re interested in, my biggest piece of advice would be to really think about where you are applying. Some programs don’t focus on alt-ac career options much at all, which would mean even more leg work for you. There are programs out there that do work with students in thinking about alt-ac career options. Talk with people at the schools you’re interested in about these options. See what sort of work they do with students interested in alt-ac careers. Apply to schools where this choice would be valued. Finally, don’t count anything out. I know people who’ve finished graduate school and now work at the UN, at nonprofit organizations both big and small, and some who have gone on to work for corporations. You’ll have a skill set more advanced than many around you. Play it up. Tell employers about it.
Given all of this information (and it was a lot, I know), there is just one more thing I want to say about graduate school. While it will be one of the most challenging periods of your life in a professional sense, it will also be one of the most rewarding. You’ll never have the experiences you have in graduate school again. You won’t have the same amount of time to read Kant or Homi Bhabha for fun (“fun”), you won’t be surrounded by a community of peers dealing with similar pressures like this, and you won’t push yourself in the same ways you do in graduate school ever again. It’s terrible and awful and fun and exciting and stressful and hard and amazing. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Soak up all you can.