Category Archives: Graduate Work

The Long and Winding Road

It took longer than expected.  Much longer.  Years longer, in fact.  But in May 2013, I finally put the grueling demands of graduate school behind me.  I am now Tinkering Primate, Ph.D.

chimp-graduation

Like this, but with a fancier robe.

Reaching this milestone was a momentous occasion.  As I and others have noted, those of us who embark on the journey to tack those ‘precious’ three letters onto our name must travel a long and winding road, and it is often hazardous.   Many who set out do not reach their goal, and some of those who do find that the road leads nowhere, so to speak.  In the framework of my colleagues who study cultural anthropology, grad school is a liminal stage: students are in essence standing in a threshold, no longer novices but not yet acknowledged as experts in their field of choice.

Now that I have crossed that threshold I am ostensibly a wiser person, with some degree of authority.  Thankfully, I’ve been able to put this newly-acquired status to good use, finding gainful employment that I plan to write about in a future post.  But first, I want to offer some basic advice, gleaned from my own experiences, to any potential or current graduate students who happen to stumble across this blog.

For those of you who have not yet set foot on the long and winding road…

1. Think about why you want to go to grad school and talk to people who are actually in grad school.

One of the main reasons I applied to graduate school was that I couldn’t find a job when I finished college (surprisingly, nobody was lining up to hire someone with a background in archaeology, cultural anthropology, and museum studies).

Open positions are hard to come by.

Open positions are hard to come by.

As it turns out, this is not a good reason to go to grad school.  I would have discovered this had I done some due diligence, but I was so preoccupied with finding something to do with myself that I didn’t think very far ahead — definitely a mistake given the amount of time grad school typically takes.  Talking to current grad students should, in my humble opinion, be a prerequisite for anyone thinking of embarking on this journey.  Their insight into funding issues, departmental politics, and other intricacies of the grad school environment can provide a valuable reality check to those as naive as I was.

2. Have some concrete ideas about what you might want to research.

“I want to study human evolution,” you say.

“What a noble ambition!” I say.

And it is.  But it’s not enough.  Or, rather, it’s far too vague a plan.  In grad school, you must produce knowledge in addition to absorbing it, so it’s important to have some specific potential research questions in mind when you start.  This will not only help you choose a school and find an advisor, but ensure that you have a basic roadmap to follow when you find yourself lost along the way.  This is not to say that you must be inflexible — plenty of people alter their research plans in response to shifting interests and other factors — but entering a program with the attitude that you are “interested in everything” about your field makes it difficult to even find the starting line.  In other words, don’t plan to figure it all out as you go.

If you are already in grad school…

3. Network!

Once you are in a grad program, you can’t network enough.  Making and maintaining professional connections is a crucial component of success (as my husband often reminded me).  For me, it was sometimes difficult: I was in a small department and at times was the only graduate student in my subfield, which meant opportunities to meet and become friendly with other grad students or scholars in my field were rarer than in most programs.  But my husband was right.  When I finally reached the point at which I was qualified to look for a full-time job, it was one of the people who had become part of my professional network that helped direct me to where I am now.  

4. Don’t put the rest of your life on hold.

It took me a long time to finish grad school, but I did a lot of other stuff along the way.  I got married, bought a home, got a dog, and had a kid.      

Here they are together.

Here they are together.

The reason I bring this up is that grad school can easily feel at once all-consuming and fruitless.  It’s easy to forget that life goes on outside the ivory tower, or to think that marriage and/or parenthood can or should wait until you finish your dissertation and get your career “on track.”  But the truth of the matter is that I’m incredibly glad I didn’t put my personal life on hold.  I would much rather snuggle with my daughter than my dissertation, and having one foot planted firmly outside academia helped me maintain sanity and perspective, and gave me that option.

So why am I still writing about graduate school as I approach the one year anniversary of my Ph.D. conferral?  Basically, because I have begun to realize that, as with child labor, memories of the pain associated with being a grad student fade over time.  If I am to give accurate and relevant advice, now is the time for me to do it.

And thus, with these pearls dispensed, I close the door of that threshold behind me.

The Grad School Blues

During my first two years of grad school, when I was juggling a full-time course load, a full-time teaching fellowship, and a ghost of a personal life, I got very good at managing my time.  Lunch breaks, train rides, and office hours became excellent moments to squeeze in twenty or thirty pages of reading about Neanderthal developmental patterns or orangutan conservation.  The couch in the department lounge turned out to be a great place to catch up on 30 minutes of sleep following a late-night paper-writing stint and an early morning section meeting.  I even got used to marathon study and grading sessions on Friday and Saturday nights.  It wasn’t always the most pleasant schedule to maintain, but there was nary a wasted hour in my day.  I was going full speed ahead all the time.

Nowadays, in contrast, I frequently feel as if I am drifting on a windless current, or straining against the inertia of an anchor.  Ostensibly, I still have just as much to keep me occupied: finishing the lab work for my dissertation, writing said dissertation, teaching undergraduate courses (more often as an instructor than an assistant these days), maintaining my newly launched blog, and spending time with my husband and friends.  And yet, I find that without the forcibly structured schedule of those first two years, entire days can easily disappear with nothing productive to show for them.

Part of this is due to my natural tendency to procrastinate (one which I have apparently been honing for many years; last year I discovered that my mother once called me “lazy” in my baby book).  But I think my current round of malaise is just as much about the future as the present.

When I started my grad school program, I did so excited to continue learning about anthropology, and eager to design and execute an original research project.  I confidently imagined my PhD conferral as the inevitable conclusion of a challenging but rewarding journey, hopefully followed by a career in a university or zoo setting.  I had no illusions of scientific grandeur.  I just wanted to travel the “normal” grad school path and emerge on the other side with a plan for my life.

Yeah, right.

The ugly truth about grad school, which I think many learn the hard way, is that the “normal” path is littered with countless unanticipated obstacles.  In my case, the 2 largest of these were
1. my original thesis adviser unexpectedly left for another university, and
2. I had to find an entirely new research project after bureaucratic changes at the site where I planned to do my dissertation work led them to rescind their invitation at the last minute.
These were not exactly small setbacks, and alongside myriad smaller problems and disappointments they illustrate that grad school for me has consisted of more “challenge” and less “reward” than I hoped.  This is not the first time I’ve had the Grad School Blues.

“But T.P.,” you’re saying to yourself, “that’s all in the past!  Now that the finish line is in sight, shouldn’t you be full of renewed enthusiasm?”

Perhaps.  But while I am looking forward to finishing my degree next spring, I also find myself reluctant to face the post-grad school reality of finding a job and putting my PhD to work.  Who wouldn’t be, when it is becoming more common to see articles lambasting PhD programs in general, and knowing the well-documented challenges that women in particular face when trying to balance an academic career with a family?

The whole prospect is terrifying.

When I take a few deep breaths, I have no doubt that my present bout of Grad School Blues will pass in due course.  I will overcome the troubles I’m facing in the lab and compose a scientifically sound dissertation.  And I will graduate next spring, future unanticipated obstacles be damned!

But let my experiences stand as a cautionary tale to any readers contemplating a PhD journey — make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!  As for those of you who know me personally, I’ll just remind you that homemade fudge is an excellent G.S.B remedy, and say thank you in advance for giving me a shoulder to cry on if the Blues should return again.