Grad School and its Discontents, Continued

Previously on Superplexa!:

I didn’t feel like a failure because I “only” got an MA. I felt like a failure because I turned into the one thing I’ve fought desperately my entire life to avoid: an externally-motivated, uninterested, fearful, image obsessed student-bot.

So how’d I get that way? As I said above, I can’t really tell what problems came from the structure of grad school and what things came from me. I also don’t have a coherent or cohesive analysis of what went wrong, but here are some things I’ve noticed as I’ve reflected on my experiences.

  1. Grades are still grades, whether you’re 14 or 24. I have to admit, this is one place where I think never getting a grade or report card until I started college was actually a disadvantage. I think the benefits of no grades so overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives that I wouldn’t change a thing, but still…it was a shock to my system. I went to a college where grades are assigned but not reported to students (though you can ask to see them), a grad school where grades are assigned like normal (though people don’t pay a lot of attention in grad school), and to another grad school where grad students are graded pass/fail and given written evaluations. For most of my classmates, I suspect that all this came as a huge relief from the incessant, in-your-face emphasis on grades at a lot of high schools. For me, it felt like suddenly be under secret surveillance. I could never quite leave the thought that I was to be graded behind me in order to focus on my work.Although rewards and punishments don’t take the same oppressively visible form they do can in primary and secondary schools (no one is going to to give you a gold star or send you to the principal’s office), grad school is entirely built around meeting (sometimes entirely unclear or unspoken) external standards. Don’t pass your prelim on the second try? You’re outta here. Don’t satisfy your committee at your orals? You’re out. Don’t write a paper that pleases your professor? You fail that class. Don’t get all your homework done? People think you’re not that serious about grad school and give you a bad time.
  2. The amount of work demanded of a grad student may in theory be doable, but it sure as hell sucks all the pleasure out of doing the work. I found this to be especially true when I was studying math. Math is not one of those subjects where you can get further faster by applying more pressure. Math requires both getting down in the nitty-gritty details, and stepping back to wait for inspiration to strike. You cannot force insight. But that’s what I found myself trying to do on a daily basis. When I sat down to do my homework, I didn’t see a set of interesting puzzles, I saw a series of nearly insurmountable obstacles. On the rare occasion that I did have an insight, my feeling should have been one of elation. There’s nothing quite like having it all fall into place. But I didn’t feel elated, I felt relieved that I had one more problem out of the way, and panicked because I still had so many others to get through.
  3. I genuinely wasn’t that interested in my field of study. It’s hard for me to say whether that’s because grad school sucked the fun out of things I loved or because my interests just weren’t deep enough to sustain me. I fell in love with math when I was five years old. You’d think that was a pretty abiding passion. On the other hand, I’ve come to realize that I get much more fired up about math education than about math, so maybe the passion just wasn’t that strong. I also never got to the point where I had a lot of choice about my work, since I left before I started doing serious research.
  4. In my first grad program, we had to take the prelim exam on the first day of orientation. A six hour long math test before you even got to meet your classmates, ugh! We were told that it didn’t really matter if you failed the first time around. It was just a chance to find out if you needed to do a little catch up work before taking the PhD level intro classes in some subjects, and you had another chance to pass the test in the spring. Little did I know, that was just talk. The truth was, if you failed the test, you were essentially a probationary student for the year, and some professors were going to make damn sure you knew it. Combine that with sexism on the part of certain professors and the two of us female students who failed the prelim were in for one miserable year. (She left after the first year, I left after two years.)
  5. Standards are often unclear. One of the things those of us who failed the prelim had to do was take a “proseminar” in which we went over every problem assigned on every prelim for the previous six years. Every problem! Then we sat down to take our prelim, and discovered that a different professor had written the test, and it bore essentially no resemblance to the tests given over the previous six years. I’m nearly positive that they lowered the passing grade so that I’d pass. Even though I was treated much better my second year (after passing the prelim), I never stopped feeling ashamed of the fact that I had to be granted a special exemption to be allowed to stay. It made me feel even more stupid than I would have felt if they’d just kicked me out of the program.
  6. I fell for the game. Most of the grad students I know are fairly unhappy, but I do know a few who seem to genuinely enjoy grad school. They seem to be the ones who are so thoroughly absorbed in their work, they don’t even notice all the insanity going on around them. I got totally caught up in the insanity. I couldn’t stop myself. I obsessed over doing well enough, and meeting expectations, and looking good. I suppose it didn’t help that all those expectations were rubbed in my face so much that first year, but I never could extricate myself from it.I also fell for the game in another way. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that you are nobody if you don’t have a PhD. The fear of being nobody kept me in grad school for way longer than I should have stayed. It sent me off to a second graduate program when I should have realized I didn’t want to be an academic, and I was way too burned out to give it a fair shake. It took three months of serious illness, incompletes in all my classes for a quarter (due to the illness), and four months of anti-depressants to wake me up to the fact that I was on the wrong path.

Does all that make  graduate school a non-Montessori environment? I’m honestly not sure, since no one has ever figured out what a Montessori environment for young adults should look like. I confess, my instinct to label grad school as not a Montessori environment comes from the fact that I associate my years in Montessori with a feeling of peaceful yet industrious contentment. I did not feel peaceful or industrious or content in grad school. I felt insane. There’s no guarantee that a Montessori environment for young adults should foster that same feeling of contentment, but when Montessori created her first Casa dei Bambini, she noticed that children became visibly peaceful, industrious, and content when engaging in certain activities, and she built her entire system around facilitating more of that contentment. I don’t think she’d approve of an environment that left people feeling insane. And if she approved, I’d have to disagree with her.

P.S. I apologize for the semi-incoherence of this post. It’s nearly midnight and I should be in bed, but I had to get this out of my system.


4 thoughts on “Grad School and its Discontents, Continued

  1. Sylvia Bozeman says:

    Thanks for sharing your reflections on graduate school. They reveal much about what is wrong with the system and why some parts of it don’t fit women and those students from the underrepresented populations in mathematics and science–African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and Native Americans. The rules and situations that you encountered seem to feed into existing stereotypes that make it very difficult for these students to join a community of learners as neutral participants and focus on learning the subject matter. It is sad that the administrations do not realize the heavy burden that is placed on students by such a charged environment. I hope that more faculty will read your comments.
    May you be healed of the damage.


  2. Indecent Cocek says:

    Your friend Sylvia says something key in her response. A “community of scholars” is exactly what I wanted out of graduate school. But it wasn’t what grad school wanted to provide. Some professors and some students worked at it, but the feeling was often centrifugal and isolating. A large part of that was the lack of communication about what was really expected. It’s as if at each stage of academic life, you’re supposed to figure out all by yourself, with little guidance about how to do it or how to weather it. (Did they take this model from those abusive private schools in Britain, where the elder students haze the younger ones? “If I had to live through it, so do you.” Please!) The few individuals who fight to provide information to people further down the chain are fighting an uphill battle. I do wonder if women and minorities have a harder time in grad school because they are taught that community is really important. And it just can feel so damned lonely.

    I do think the masters-as-consolation-prize is a specifically science/math attitude. Indeed, I fell into thinking that a PhD was the point, since I was raised by science folks. But most people outside the sciences realize that a PhD makes them LESS employable than an MA. I actually had to explain this to my parents when I stopped with 2 MAs, as they didn’t understand that it doesn’t work like in science.

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