Of college and grad school.

I don’t think I talk enough about grad school on this blog. I mean, were you to just be perusing innocently through ye old archives, you would most likely think that I just live a life of excessive brunching, going on walks with the hubs, and pining for donuts. Otherwise known as “how female bloggers make the world look.”  But the truth is that I actually spend most of my days turning my brain into a PhD and turning my students’ brains into wrinkly masses of French knowledge, or so I desperately hope. I spend most of my days reading books replete with death and prostitutes, grading student work, and trying to make the difference between the imparfait and the passé composé exciting. That last one is obviously accomplished through a song,  and thank you former high school students for teaching me that. The apathetic undergrads I force to sing it thank you slightly less.

Lately I was thinking about the differences between college and grad school, between school as your life and life facilitate by your schooling. This realization came about when I was exhausted from my weekend so I just decided to sleep in till 10:30 on a Tuesday morning to be rested for my week. [If you are a parent with babies, I invite you to stop and yell soft expletives at the screen because I know that this is a childless luxury. But you do get to have soft squishy babies to squeeze and that is pretty awesome as well.] I woke up and one of my first thoughts was, This is how grad school is different than college.

Before I even go on, I should add that by “college” I am mostly talking about my college experience at a small liberal arts college, otherwise known as 4-year camp with harsh grades. It is its own world at these colleges, an all-consuming, friend-filled world of professor devotion, campus pranks, and utmost loyalty. I loved this world and I still think very fondly on it and all that it gave me.

In college, you have few responsibilities beyond yourself. Yes, you have a massive amount of work to do, and yes, you have all the other tasks that extracurricular fervor makes you do, but you typically don’t have to question where your food and shelter are coming from. The cafeteria and your dorm exist to suspend you in something not quite like childhood, but not yet adulthood. You often don’t clean for indeterminate amounts of time and if you pull three all-nighters in a row, you crash and burn like a solo ship in the sea. You pack every minute with tasks, scheduling meetings for obscene times like 10:25 pm, and sometimes you fall asleep at the library because you are so overwhelmed. Everyone, at every small college, in every major, is busy and stressed. And with good reason. Your life is ruled by deadlines and commitments, grades and transcripts, acceptance into societies or groups and letters of recommendation. After four years you heave a huge sigh of relief that it is over and then promptly grow depressed and nostalgic for college and all that it was.

In grad school, pretty much none of that is true. Are there grades? I think so… kind of. I have a massive pile of work and information to accumulate, but the deadlines are few and long and nebulous. Things like “I need to write a dissertation in the next 2-4 years” or “I will be tested on this massive comprehensive list of books come springtime so I should start reading.”  I read and write more than I could have even imagined during college, but it is more concentrated in one discipline. No one expects me to spend my semester on Shakespeare and WWII and Political Economy with a side of bowling. There are no extracurricular activities taking up your time and constituting a love-hate relationship in your life. Some poor representative from a grad student union keeps on coming to our office to try to get us to care/ join and we always try to find polite ways of sharing the truth which is: “Nothing you do or say can make me add some non-essential commitment to my life. End of discussion. Unless this includes free meals, and then by all means continue.” Because free meals becomes the quest of much of your energy. This isn’t college, which means grad school has to share mental space with rent payments, grocery shopping, waiting in line at the DMV, chores, and the myriad other things that make up Adult Life Time Fillers. Your responsibility isn’t just to your student self, but also to your students. I am painfully aware that I teach students who have sacrificed to be here, who are taking out loans and working, and who will spend years paying that off. If I show up to work exhausted from two all-nighters, I waste their money and their time. But then again, nothing on this planet could make me pull an all-nighter in grad school. Nope. Not happening. I would just instead look at my long yawning deadlines and work in nap time.

Because this is grad school, not college. The responsibilities are greater, but the stress is less concentrated. It is way less fun, but you sleep so much more. I’d say it is a fair trade-off.

Any other grad students out there? Or any college students who feel I have grossly misrepresented you?

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17 Responses to Of college and grad school.

  1. Kate says:

    well i’m in college. i have three roommates. we live in an apartment and cook for ourselves. we’re obsessed with free food and avoid unnecessary societies like the plague. we’re in love with naps and we juggle life. but maybe we’re just ahead of our time. 🙂 you seem to know us pretty well otherwise

    • Hannah says:

      You are indeed souls old beyond your years. ; ) But living off campus does simulate more real life than dorms, even though I have so many fond dorm memories!

  2. My undergrad political science just hosted a discussion panel on grad school, and they too definitely emphasized the stress of constant reading and the added difficulty of now having to be an adult and simultaneously devote yourself to school. But I hope it is worth it, and I am so excited for that upcoming chapter in my life! Il me semble amusé malgré les difficultés!

    • Hannah says:

      It is stressful, but still feels less intense than that crushing college intensity. Plus, like you said, it’s something I love and chose! Bon courage!

  3. E. Henry says:

    Thanks for summing up our little college so well. I miss it every fall especially. 🙂 And your definition of grad school sounds like what Scott went through, too. Spot on as always!

  4. As a fellow grad student…this was delightfully accurate. I giggled aloud in the office after reading “Nothing you do or say can make me add some non-essential commitment to my life. End of discussion. Unless this includes free meals, and then by all means continue.”

  5. Even in college, nothing could make me pull an all nighter. The closest thing I’ve had to an all nighter was my recent 3:30 pm to 4:00 am shift at the factory. I think I hate them 🙂

  6. Ris says:

    “After four years you heave a huge sigh of relief that it is over and then promptly grow depressed and nostalgic for college and all that it was” Um yes, exactly. Grad school definitely felt like more of a job, without many looming deadlines (other than, you know, graduating eventually).

  7. Jennifer W says:

    So I’ve been thinking about this a good bit. I would also note how strange it is to be a student and yet be in charge of other students. I’ve been sitting here all Fall Break (which I am grateful still exists for me) grading large stacks of essay exams and not working on my own essays.

    Next semester is my last semester of course work before my quals (I’m in the New Testament PhD program at Emory) and it hasn’t quite sunk in that those will be my last classes ever. I feel like all I’ve ever done is take classes. Not quite sure what the world looks like on the other side.

    Thanks for the great post!

  8. klyse3 says:

    The only thing gross about your representation of college students is the reality of it….

    And thanks for the commentary on grad school! I’m looking at grad programs for next fall and compiling all the advice/opinions I can find!

    Also, food. It is magical. And candy. Candy is good.

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