Philip Nel > Shameless Self-Promotion > About > "My Life as a Grad"


In June 1996, an edited version of this piece was published on AOL's "College On-Line" pages. The webmaster of AOL's site informed me that the audience for this essay would be college juniors and seniors trying to decide on their next step in life. The notion was, in her words, to provide "stories from the front" in order to give undergraduates an idea of what choosing a certain professional track might entail. So, in writing the piece, I directed my comments to anyone considering graduate school in English.
"My Life as a Grad"
 
by Phil Nel

       On my fridge is a yellowing news clipping my mother sent during my first semester of graduate school. It reads, "The academic job market will soon go from bust to boom." Above the headline, mom has written the encouraging words, "A JOB FOR PHIL!" I've seen similar clippings from other papers, also yellowing, on the refrigerators of other graduate students in English here at Vanderbilt. It's now nearly four years later (one year before I graduate), and -- as much as I'd like to share mom's optimism -- my chances at getting a job as an English professor seem slim. In fact, I'd very much like to circle the phrase quoted above, send the article to its author, and include a note that reads "Oh yeah? When?"

       But I'm not writing to discourage you from applying to graduate school. I'd rather not advise: your next step is your decision, and any advice and articles on "current trends in employment" -- like the one on my fridge -- only mean so much, and may very well turn out to be wrong. Instead of advice, I'd like to offer some perspective. If you're thinking about graduate school in English, this is what led me to choose it and this is what it's been like for me.

       In the spring semester of my junior year of college, I made the decision to apply. I'd majored in English and Psychology and, that semester, I decided to do the Honors English program my senior year and began toying with the idea of graduate school. I was good at English, enjoyed reading novels, and I thought to myself, "Hey, I could do more of this." At that moment I became aware of my destiny! The previous sentence is a lie: I didn't decide in that moment, and I wasn't always sure of my decision. Indeed, my reasons were mixed -- my thoughts ranged from "I don't know what else I'd be interested in doing" to "I'm really interested in the study of literature." Be this as it may, of the possible careers I could envision, becoming an English professor seemed the most appealing.

       Where do you apply? Ask professors in your English department, look at graduate school catalogs (our library had them on microfilm), and then send off for catalogs and applications of your own. After you receive the results of those applications, where should you go? Well, I can't tell you where, but you ought to consider the following questions: How much money are they offering? (If they give you money, then they really want you.) How many courses must I teach each semester? (One per semester is optimal.) How many people are in the program? What is the job-placement record of this program? Do I really want to live in Nashville for five years? (OK, that last one was personal.) And, if you can, visit the campus and/or talk with current graduate students in the program to which you have been accepted. If you like, ask them the above questions.

       What has graduate school been like?

       During my second week of graduate school, I remember sitting in a seminar on the Enlightenment and listening to the class discussion whiz by around me. It was all I could do to keep up with this group's conversation; to come up with something to say was beyond me. I felt very humble. To be honest, I felt very stupid. After class I realized that, when I was an undergraduate, I could count on being one of the better students in any English class. Not so in graduate school: this is where the better -- and best -- students go, and I was only one among many.

       But, like most things in graduate school, I soon caught on. After a semester or two, I found that I could stay in the conversation with greater ease; and, when I audited a class this past fall, it was all I could do to restrain myself from jumping in to the discussion.

       Of course, once you catch on, the task changes. Or, put it another way: the challenge remains constant; the nature of that challenge changes along the way. Most graduate programs in English take five years; Vanderbilt structures those years like this. For the first year, take four seminars each semester, a qualifying exam, and receive an M.A. During the following year and a half, take three seminars and teach one course each semester. Indeed, from this point on, teach one class each semester. Now, for the next year, it's time to study for -- and take -- comprehensive exams! (For those who haven't kept up with the math, we're now in year 3, part 2, and year 4, part 1.) From the end of exams until the end of the program, it's time to research and write the dissertation. (Size and color may vary. Check your graduate program for details. Contents may settle during shipping. Etc.)

       To return to the various joys (or not) of graduate life, here are a few reflections on teaching undergraduates how to write in English. Teaching began as the bane of my existence and has become the reason for it. Let's begin with the bane: arrogant undergraduates who think they know all there is to know, and grading forever-and-ever-amen. My first responses to these concerns were ill-conceived: not wishing to stifle debate, I encouraged both asinine and adept students; wanting to be fair, accurate, and helpful, I spent over an hour grading each paper. Fortunately, teachers can learn too, and -- in time -- I learned how to turn these problems into assets. Students who I once would have found irritating I now enjoy having in class because friction promotes debate: the key is to marshal these students' energies in a constructive direction. In terms of both grading papers and preparing for class, teaching still is a monster that devours all the time that I give it. However, I've learned to control the monster's diet. I time myself when grading, and limit the time that I take to prepare for class.

       And, as I said, teaching has come to be my reason for continuing graduate work. When other tasks seem daunting (such as, say, writing a dissertation) or I doubt the value of what I'm doing (will anyone ever read what I write?), I think of the teaching that I do. Because there's always the chance -- however small -- that I'm making a difference in someone else's life. Teaching students to read, write, and think critically helps them to think about and act in the world around them. And, regardless of what field they go into, they'll need to know how to communicate their ideas effectively. But more than this, I enjoy the process of learning. I try to choose stories, novels, plays, articles that ask students to rethink assumptions about themselves and the world. Fiction can encourage imaginative engagement with ideas and experiences that may have seemed foreign before. It can make the strange familiar, or the familiar strange -- and in so doing, cause thought, reflection. Or, at least, I hope so.

       What more can I tell you? Graduate school is academic study and teaching. But it's also a chance to be with people who share your interests. In what other profession could you spend an hour discussing the oppositional construction of whiteness in Melville's Moby-Dick? In what other profession would you do this for fun -- say, over drinks, at a party? Of course, social interaction can lead in other directions, too. Ask my fiancée -- who, yes, just happens to be a graduate student in English at Vanderbilt.

 

For a second opinion on whether you should pursue a Ph.D. in the Humanities, read Thomas H. Benton's "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 June 2003), "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 Jan. 2009), and "Just Don't Go: Part Two" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 Mar. 2009). Brian Croxall's "The Absent Presence: Today's Faculty" (27 Dec. 2009) is also worth a look.

For a third opinion, read James Mulholland's "Neither a Trap Nor a Lie" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 Mar. 2010).

 


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