Misadventures in Grad School, Reboot: I Suck

Friends! I am (temporarily) reviving my Grad-School Memoir project (my first two installments contained sensitive information about former drug addicts who have since turned their lives around and requested I take them down; I complied). This excerpt is about those beautiful (ha) early years of a PhD program: coursework and (of course) Impostor Syndrome. I’d say “I don’t think there’s anything sufficiently incriminating in here,” but I want you to read it, so: SENSITIVE INCRIMINATING CONTENT HERE EXPLICIT! CONTAINS CRYING!


From “Misadventures in Grad School 2: Reading While Crying”

Many of my detractors like to tsk-tsk at me for failing to mention how much I appreciated the part of graduate school where you get a stipend to study. “You are getting paid to do what most people consider a hobby,” they snip, and technically they are correct, though what your average book-clubber thinks of as “reading,” and what early-career PhD students do, are barely related. As I have said before, that’s akin to saying that hobby fishing is exactly the same as what they do on Deadliest Catch. Reading in graduate school is similar to this, albeit with a drowning risk that is usually metaphorical.

In my first quarter at UC-Irvine, I took three seminars: a Nietzsche class in the philosophy department where the professor was rumored to give every essay he received an A-minus without looking at it; a critical theory seminar with my department’s Chair on the Death of God and Return of Religion (+ some Heideggger!); and, finally a Comp Lit seminar in narrative theory, in which my primary discovery was that “focalizer” is not a word invented by Derek Zoolander.

As goes it in graduate school, to prepare for each three-hour meeting, we were given hundreds upon hundreds of pages of reading, and the undergraduate option of half-assing or avoiding it altogether was no longer viable, because PhD seminars consist entirely of intense, probing, fast-moving debate, some of which is brilliant and some of which is just jargon-riddled sleight of hand, but as a beginner you have no idea which is which and everything makes you feel like a dipshit. Even my NYU courses had been primarily lecture-based, so if I had a week where I didn’t feel like Bringing It (or Reading It), nobody would notice (not that that ever happened: I’m Supernerd!). PhD seminars can have as little as four people, and in order for them to be worth anyone’s time, every participant has to be ready to full-on hold forth on the day’s reading.

After years of undergraduate spacing-out and small-time MA dickery, PhD seminars were every bit as rewarding as they were harrowing. They were the kind of revelatory torture that the Officer hopes for in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” where a poor prisoner gets strapped to a massive spiked contraption for twelve hours, during which time his transgression (of which he hasn’t been made aware) is carved into his body. He doesn’t need to learn his crime with words, the Officer explains to an understandably queasy bystander: “Our man deciphers it with his wounds.” After six hours, see, “understanding dawns on even the stupidest ones.” Graduate seminar is a lot like this.

But in order to achieve that moment where abject torture turned into understanding, I plunked my ass in a chair and read things that hurt my brain, every waking second of the day. In my first year of PhD coursework, I brought my Hegel printouts to the gym and underlined them shakily on the elliptical trainer, and sometimes got so overwhelmed I wept—and I just read right the fuck through it, because there was literally no time for crying.Getting “paid to read” seems like it’s too good to be true because it is. The primary side effect of doing something you “love” as your job in graduate school is that once it becomes your job, you lose all autonomy about what to read and when, and as such most “love” is quickly displaced in favor of alternating exhaustion and abject terror.

The “reading and learning” part of coursework is actually secondary, however, to the socialization that takes place in seminar, for what one “learns” in class as a graduate student is not so much what the reading means, but how an academic is supposed to act: erudite, confident, comfortable with jargon, referential—sometimes, in the words of T.S. Eliot (who I realize wasn’t German, but he was a Nazi sympathizer, so that pretty much counts), “deferential, glad to be of use; politic, cautious and meticulous; full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; at times, indeed, almost ridiculous.” Yes, what constitutes correct behavior in graduate seminar often does look ridiculous to the outside world, and it is a set of laws unto itself, all of which are actually highly disputed. In Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten (one of my favorite books!), one of the only two courses given at the Institut Benjamenta—a school for butlers from which people don’t graduate so much as benignly disappear— is called “How Should a Boy Behave?” All of the seminars in graduate school might as well be called “How Does An Academic Act?” since that is what they really teach.

For example, some believe that first-year students directly out of undergrad have nothing valuable to contribute to the world (many are, after all, 22), and thus in their first quarter or semester should elect to “red-shirt” all seminars and simply listen and learn proper behavior from their elders. Of course, the extremely valid objection to this theory is that the grad students who seem wise to first-years are often the T.S. Eliot-style crackpots, “almost [or always!] the Fool.” In my first PhD seminar, which I dutifully “red-shirted” for two weeks (a proper amount of time as a 29-year-old with a Master’s degree, I reasoned), I listened intently to a classmate named Craig who seemed extraordinarily well-prepared, given that he showed up to every class with a stack of no less than ten books. Craig spoke with poise, gravitas and what I thought was insight on everything from Max Weber to yet more Heidegger.

Sometimes I’d even strike up a conversation with Craig before class, just to make sure I hadn’t missed the point of the reading. Completely missing the point (or believing you have) is a common phenomenon in PhD coursework: you walk in reasonably confident that you “got” whatever it is you just spent ten hours cramming down your brain-hole, only to listen to the professor and his three biggest sycophants start gabbing about what you are now fairly sure is a completely different book.

But grad school is kind of like E.T.A. Hoffmann’s horror story The Sandman, in which a hauntingly beautiful woman is actually a robot: things are not as they seem. Just as Craig was in truth a universally-avoided eleventh-year who had not even begun his comprehensive exams, much less his dissertation, and whose book-stacks were simply the portable version of his pronounced hoarding disorder (“phone books,” his roommate Keith explained to me at a party once, “our kitchen is piled eight feet high with phone books”), so is the idea that whatever angle the professor has decided to push on the reading is the only one, or even a remotely “correct” one.

Life in graduate seminar is not unlike living inside one of Kafka’s tiny parables: “I was stiff and cold, I was a bridge, I lay across a ravine,” explains the narrator, who may or may not be an actual bridge. One day, a pair of feet totters across him and stops in the middle, only to drive a walking stick as hard as possible into the narrator’s back. He turns to see who could possibly do such a thing: “A child? An acrobat? A daredevil? A suicide?” But that is his fatal mistake, because bridges can’t turn around. He loses his grip and plunges to his inevitable demise on the sharp rocks below. Like so many of Kafka’s stories, “The Bridge” is what Theodor Adorno called an allegory with no key, a fable with no moral, a lesson that isn’t really one. The quest to be a “real” academic, begun in grad seminar, is just like this.



11 thoughts on “Misadventures in Grad School, Reboot: I Suck

  1. Boy, your comments about socialization in graduate school really struck home with me. I recall (20+ years later!) the endless jockeying to make a point in The Most Excruciatingly Correct Manner Possible To Demonstrate My Full Understanding Of The Reading. Every single one of us was attempting to stake out our particular corner of the discipline as it related to the reading and God forbid someone got to make your point instead of you.

    In retrospect, I was very naive about the difference between being a smart undergrad and becoming a professional student of the discipline. I thought this was about further education and learning. What it is is learning to be a SCHOLAR, which is obviously (but not to me at that time) more than just learning how to do scholarship.

    In addition to this naïveté, going to graduate school part time (while working full-time), I never felt like I fully belonged with my particular graduate school cohort. Whenever I was at work, I felt guilty because I wasn’t spending all day reading. When I was in class, I worried about what was piling up on my desk in my absence. I found out much, much later that most of them were actually envious of me because I had a “real life” outside the department (not to mention a living wage).

    In my current work, I share a lot of information about the reality of graduate school, the academic job market, etc. with students considering further study after undergraduate school. One of the earliest resources I sent students off to read (and still do) was Tim Burke’s “Should I Go To Graduate School?” post on his blog at Swarthmore College: http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/tburke1/gradschool.html

    Relevant/Money Quote: “Graduate school is not education. It is socialization. It is about learning to behave, about mastering a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe. Graduate school is cotillion for eggheads.”

    And if anything, even with all the blunt language and snark, he’s understating things. That’s what I do my best to impart to students who are in the grip of grad school seduction when they show up in my office.


  2. This is so different than my experience in the UK. Basically, there is no such things as “graduate seminars”. Basically, they leave you to it. If you want to meet your supervisor then fine but mostly you just spend your time noodling around, reading and going to conferences. There are postgrads in my old department that I never knew existed because they never came in.


      • Now I have to read this book… I also did a phd in the UK and indeed there are no seminars (we had a first year introductory course, but very light-weight compared to what you describe). On the other hand, you are strongly discouraged from taking more than 4 years to complete. Indeed, I ended up graduating at the same ceremony with another student that I had never seen before in my life.


  3. so much of this & the comments resonates! How to behave, how to talk…it was all so excruciating! I was so shocked the first night of classes to discover what an outsider I was.

    But there were some really amazing seminar sessions too…

    Love to hate it, hate to love it.


  4. I feel very fortunate to be a part of a cohort of some really odd, hilariously immature yet frighteningly brilliant peers. Maybe it’s because I studied linguistics (a friend does critical discourse analysis and had to take a postcolonialism class in the comp lit program and it sounded JUST as you describe. IOW, horrifying). Maybe we were all really a bunch of jerks, but it became somewhat of a game to see who could make someone turn red from trying not to laugh. In our seminars, there was much chortling at names like Boner, lots of “that’s what she said” muttered at one another, and ridiculous emails and study groups. But yes, I agree with the reading part. Reading that makes your brain feel numb, reading that makes you feel nothing and everything all at once so that all you can do is cry at the enormity of it all.

    My friends all graduated this year/last year. I miss them terribly.


  5. Apropos of nothing at all, I remember reading that Ezra Pound, also a fascist dickhead (or was he just an anti-semitic dickhead? I can never remember) wanted Eliot to remove that bit about Hamlet from TLSoJAP. I agree, the self-pitying tone doesn’t belong.


  6. Having flashbacks to the one other grad I respected and feared looking stupid in front of and the extreme level of anxiety I had about speaking in class. By nature, I am a nodder (and smiler) and in one seminar, our prof took every nod and smile as an indication that I had something to contribute. I dialed it back considerably. It was a morose time for me. (loving the idea of a memoir)


  7. I really enjoyed reading this, as I do your other posts and articles, but I am fairly sure that T.S. Eliot was never a Nazi sympathizer of any kind (though I guess I could be wrong about this, if someone were to furnish a choice quote buried deep in one of his letters or something to disprove me…) Indeed, he helped and supported Jews who escaped the Holocaust and fled to England. But anyway, keep up the good work – I would buy your grad school memoir!


  8. This pretty much articulated my grad school experience!!! I will now hand this out to everyone interested in and currently enrolled in grad school. The thing is this was my Master’s terminal program, which does make me a little proud and makes sense why many of my cohort who were insane enough to pursue their Ph.D. said that they were ridiculously prepared (maybe even over-prepared for Ph.D). But it also made me go, uh-uh, no way, not doin’ this. As usual, your writing adds a necessary and honest perspective.


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