Tuesday, August 4, 2009

So you think you want to go to graduate school

Lots of people toy with the idea of going to graduate school, but as we know, only a self-selected few actually do. And those who do wonder constantly if it is the right thing to do. I'm no exception. I think about whether I've done the right thing with my life a lot. I've been chasing this Ph.D. for 8 years now. In January 2001, I began to make up the deficiencies I had in my undergraduate record. I thought I'd get my masters. If all went well, I'd get my doctorate.

I wondered if I was smart enough. (I am.) I wondered if I had what it takes to stick with it. (I do.) I wondered if I would enjoy the job I got when I got out. (I believe I will.) I wondered if it was as bad as some people made it out to be. (It is.)

About a year ago, when I was in the middle of one of my blue funks, I conducted a survey of graduate students (which I still haven't properly analyzed), and got input from the people who've been here about whether they would do it all over again. Most would, but most were unhappy about some facet of the way their graduate experience had gone. More than a few were disillusioned with academia. If I can be given a little room to extrapolate here, I'd say that most clearly loved with the work, and clearly were not in love with what it takes to do that work. And that made me realize something about the people who do succeed in graduate school. We don't give up when the going gets tough, or when the going gets really tough, or when the going get ridiculously, unbelievably, inconceivably tough, or even when you-really-should-have-brought-a-lawsuit-over-this-shit-already tough.

Graduate school reminds me of marriage that way. The relationship starts off in this idealized, I'm-just-crazy-about-you way and over time it becomes more and more strained until one day you come to your senses and realize that the way you're being treated isn't ok. Not in your book. Not in anyone's book. So yeah. An ability to tolerate the intolerable because there is no other path leading toward your goals--that's what it takes to be a successful grad student.

I understand now what J meant when he said he would tell people to do something else if you could, but if you can't do something else, then, dig in and get comfortable.

So, yes, people in grad school are smart. Being smart is the least of your worries. Do you have the other traits necessary to succeed in grad school?

Are you tenacious? Can you stick with it when you hate your advisor, when nothing is going right with your work, when your committee is convinced you are a moron, and when nightmares of having to pay back those student loans wake you up in the night? If not, stay away.

Are you self-motivated. No one is going to hold your hand in graduate school. No one is going to make sure you are working. If you need a coach just to get out of bed in the morning, join the gym. No one is going to cheer from the sidelines to spur you on. Maybe your mama, but certainly no one you work with.

Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Self-awareness is extremely helpful. If you don't know already, graduate school will gladly point your weaknesses out to you.

Are you thick-skinned? Can you stand people yelling at you? Because professors will. They will say things to you that cut to the bone. You will be amazed that these people can say these things and live with themselves. Trust me, their comments may hurt but they are doing you a favor by saying them.

Can you work alone? Graduate education is, by its very nature, singular work. No one is going to be there when you are in the lab night after night after night. This is your path. Remember?

Confidence. In fact, I would say that most graduate students border on narcissistic personalities. We believe in our abilities. Usually, we have the stuff to back up that faith.

Are you ready for the hard realities of life? Because I'm going to tell you, you aren't nearly da shiznit as you think you are. Most smart people are used to being the smartest person in the room. In graduate school, everyone is smart. Most of them are smarter than you. You will feel stupid around these people...for a very long time.

I have heard many people say that a graduate degree is "just a piece of paper" and "it really doesn't mean anything". I can't even address how wrong these people are. Graduate school is a gauntlet and you really can't begin to understand how much that paper represents until you have done it yourself.

I'm still wondering 8 years later whether I did the right thing.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Failure 2.0

I just returned from a three-week field research excursion with my nephew. I really didn't know him when we got in the car. My objective on this journey was to get an idea of the man this kid had turned out to be. We had a lot of conversations, he and I on our 7000+ mi journey. At one point, he and I got into a discussion about something...I can hardly remember what at the moment....and my nephew made a sweeping, unflattering characterization about black people. Something along the lines of "all black people are lazy."

I told him in no uncertain terms that all black people are NOT lazy, that the same could be said of white people in general terms, and of him in particular, and, you know, that he sounded incredibly, undeniably, idiotic.

In his most incredulous voice, he said to me, "You act like I'm racist." He explained that in the neighborhood he had lived in in Louisville while he went to school--a neighborhood that was probably 50:50 black:white and probably a heavy on the poverty (it is a college area, after all)--that THOSE blacks were lazy and not trying to improve themselves. Clearly, this was meant to portray that he wasn't racist about ALL black people. In his mind, somehow, it was acceptable to be racist about those poor lazy black people in his neighborhood in Louisville.

I didn't point out (although I should have) that he was, in fact, a college dropout...that his life lacked any direction whatsoever...that despite being given an opportunity that most of the world would kill for...HE was the one who wasn't capitalizing on this incredible opportunity that his parents had made available to him. I didn't say that. But it was dancing on the end of my tongue.

I did explain to him that not everyone was able to attend college nor had the aptitude for it and some of THOSE people had to live in his neighborhood because their economic reality, so while he had to slum it for a bit to sacrifice for a college education (in an apartment that his mother was paying for and tuition that his father was paying for), there were others that had risen as far as they were likely to go and for them--this was a decent life. They were not lazy. They were not trying "not to improve themselves". They were living out an alternative life path that--even if it didn't live up to his standards--didn't mean they weren't trying. To call those people stupid and lazy was petty and irresponsible.

Now I am the first to admit that my nephew has some serious misconceptions about the world and is in rather deep denial about himself. When I informed him that the apartment he complained about (and that his mother bought for him) cost 3X the cost of my mortgage, he acted like I must be some sort of supreme failure. He has a fairly well developed sense of entitlement all right. More than I am used to seeing in any of my college students I complain so bitterly about.

But looking at the larger issues here, I can't understand what it is that makes us look white and black people in exactly the same circumstances and only see the negative in the black people? What is it that makes us blame black people for their plight? What is it that makes us look down on black people at the same time as we co-opt their language and sense of style? What is it that makes us look at poor black people and forget that their poverty might have more to do with keeping them down than a lack of ambition? What is it that makes us not see an angry Harvard professor, but a black man out of control in a high-class neighborhood?

When it comes to this, it isn't just my nephew. I think it is a white cultural thing. White people are conned into thinking (by everyone from television news to hip hop artists) the black community glorifies the gangster-slum culture.
If his status ain't hood, I ain't checkin' for him
Better be street if ya lookin' at me
I need a soldier
That ain't scared to stand up for me
Known to carry big things, if you know what I mean

Destiny Child, 'Soldier'
Even in the younger generation where friendships are much more colorblind, they still see the general population "out there" as fitting those old stereotypes. And I just don't know how chipping away at one false premise at a time one person at a time is going to make any difference at all. It is important to me that my family do what it can to stop the perpetuation of white supremacy in this country. And I thought that in that one little bit of real estate that I might actually be able to effect change.

And that's what I was trying to do. Only I was trying to do so without tearing the kid to shreds. My nephew is trying. He just extraordinarily protected. And I'm not sure my message came across as well as I'd hoped. But while my nephew sat there, incredulous that I was calling his racism racism, I sat there wondering why the hell I didn't have a better grasp on how to tell a white person that their privilege was showing.