5⅔ Things I Didn’t Realize About Grad School until I Left
Ah… grad school… The place where you think that you’re the only person crying in the shower. In grad school, you eat Foucault for breakfast! Along with a side of impostor syndrome, anxiety, a dash of depression, and of course no actual breakfast. While it’s rewarding and transformational, can we also acknowledge the exhausting routine: 6:30 wake up to beat the train and find a parking spot, to teach from 8:00 to 10:00, office hours from 10:00 to 12:00 while you huddle over your $8 soup like Sméagol over the Ring, then you take your own classes from 12:00 to 4:00, when you rush off to tutor for a few hours to support your soup habit, then back to class from 6:00 to whenever in the evening, and spend the rest of the night in the library running on coffee and cookies?
This website talks a lot about having a plan, writing it down, and checking in with it. In the picture, you’ll see the Bridge to my Enterprise, where I keep track of my goals and time. Since you already have tons of resources on this website, I won’t spend any space here discussing that. I also won’t spend time here enumerating the many wonderful aspects of my program and University of South Carolina degree.
As a current grad student, you’re already sold; you don’t need a commercial. Instead, I’ll give you…5⅔ things I didn’t realize about grad school until I left.
- #1: I Thought Grad School was School
It’s not. It walks like school and quacks like school. However, the danger is that you finish and still only have a G.P.A. and degree to show for it.
Grad school is a misnomer: call it “The First Stage of My Career.” I made the mistake of taking a full load of classes each semester, because when else would I get the opportunity to take such amazing classes with such prolific professors for free! Mistake! I should’ve taken a full load for the first three semesters and then spent the last three semesters pursuing my own reading lists, writing my obsessions, working closely with mentors, and submitting for publication. At a certain point, grad school becomes about what you can produce for the world, not how many classes you can balance. That crazy-ass schedule in the first paragraph would have been completely different if I’d known this. My C.V.-building contributions to the industry would have been different, too.
- #2: I was Soooo Independent
Grad school gives you the unique opportunity to work closely with mentors, but I was too “independent” for that. I thought that asking for help was a sign of laziness, even though I’d always encourage my students to ask for help. I wasn’t sure how to build relationships with people who I so respected and admired. To be honest, these are still some of my hang ups. It’s difficult for me to step over that office-hour threshold and say, “Man…what’s up with John Berryman?” But it’s not about asking for help. It’s about putting yourself in a situation that allows you to achieve beyond your knowledge and abilities. And it’s about building relationships with the people who are pouring into you. That’s only fair, right? Not to just take from them, but to instead build with them.
- #3: Make Friends Outside of the University, Too
How else will you know what Kim and Kanye are up to? How else will you know what regular people talk about? (Hint: It’s not dead philosophers.) How else will you maintain sanity and perspective?
- #4: Take More Shots=Make More Baskets. Part 1
This means read more books, write more poems (if that’s your work), and apply for more shit. All of this also aligns with strategically taking fewer classes and following your obsessions in tip #1. Do more of that thing that lights your fire and protect that time with the fierceness of a Tyra Banks smize. Those steps, those shots are what this time is really for. You are after all, in Grad School The First Stage of Your Career.
- #4 Again: Take More Shots=Make More Baskets. Part 2
Foundations, the government, organizations, etc. are giving away all kinds of shit. Just giving it away! If you’re eligible for funding, publishing, travel, or anything, apply for it. It’s part of being a professional. Make a list of opportunities that fit you and assemble your team, which will change based on what you’re applying to. The team who would give the best feedback on a Fulbright application to Colombia might not be the team who would give the best feedback on your teaching philosophy for the job market. Should any of these team members be your peers? Hell, no! …or maybe only as proofreaders. That’s like watching 7th graders give each other relationship advice. (Yeah, girl! He loves you!) Refer back to #2.
- #4 Revisited: Take More Shots=Make More Baskets. Part 3
If you read part 2 and told yourself how you’re not ready to apply and that you’ll take some time to get ready, you have effectively shut down your possibilities. You are the reason that you won’t have what you want. No is part of the job. Out of the bucket-full of Nos you will undoubtedly receive, all you need is one Yes. Don’t be the person who tells yourself No, applies for one thing, and when you don’t get it, uses that one thing as proof that you’re not ready. It’s a numbers game. If you take more shots (for which you are eligible), you’ll make more baskets.
- #5: Keep Track of What’s Really Important
Eat something healthy. Drink water. Sleep. Go salsa dancing. This is how the migraines stop. You have to take care of yourself or there is no book. You have to take care of yourself or there is no degree. You have to take care of yourself or there is no career. Worst of all, there is no you. Don’t let grad school take all that wonderful you out of you.
Candace Wiley was born in South Carolina, graduated with her BA from Bowie State University, an HBCU in Maryland, her MA from Clemson University, and her MFA at the University of South Carolina. She is co-founding director of The Watering Hole, a nonprofit that creates Harlem Renaissance-style spaces in the contemporary South, and she often writes in the mode of Afrofuturism, covering topics from black aliens, to mutants, to mermaids. She is a Vermont Studio Center Fellow, Lighthouse Works Center Fellow, Fine Arts Work Center Fellow, Callaloo Fellow and former Fulbright Fellow to San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, a town that was founded by West Africans who had escaped from Cartagena slavery. (The people have their own language and customs that trace back to the Bantu and Kikongo in West Africa.) Her work has been featured in Best American Poetry 2015, Prairie Schooner, The Texas Review, and Jasper Magazine, among others. She is currently on faculty at Clemson University and is now living, writing, and helping direct The Watering Hole from her Greenville home in South Carolina. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @iamcandace1.
This blog is part of our fall 2018 Professional Journeys series. Check back all week for new blog posts from graduate alumni. Don’t miss the Professional Journeys webinar on December 7, 2018. For more information and to register, go to https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/27754265653869057.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Email GRADprofdev@sc.edu.