Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I was asked a question recently about being a graduate student. I became a grad student in 2002 and have pretty much lived in that mode ever since. Did I have any wisdom about living this life? Did I have something to pass on? The implicit question was much more like "how do you live on next to nothing and still concentrate on studying with an empty stomach and the threat of not having a place to live the next month?"

First a disclaimer: I'm not wise. Yeah, no. I run around most of the time finding the parameters of my world by bumping into things, stubbing my toes and occasionally, unknowingly, breaking glass ceilings. I think that last part is imaginary or wishful but hey, it's my blog.

But I do have some reflections on being a graduate student, if you'd like that. I'm getting pretty good at it. And by now I owe the government more than I could possibly pay back. The writing is worth something though.

First, you have to pick a profession. If you're doing a master's, you can be sort of fast and loose. Professional writing is close to English is close to English Education. At the master's level, much can be forgiven. And it's easy to take cross-curricular courses. Take things you like along with things you have to take. And don't be a morning person. Nobody likes a sunny bitch. I try to never be anywhere before 10 a.m. For the first year of my doctoral degree, I taught late in the mornings and then took my grad classes at night- the last one got out at 10 p.m. If this doesn't sound like fun, you may be an overachiever.

Make sure you look at the gradweb website- this is the line in the sand for the graduate college. The graduate college is run by people outside of your discipline who enforce rules set down by someone else outside of your discipline. Pleading, threatening and bribery don't work: I suggest you pick a strong advisor and sick them on the college. And meet every single deadline, or else.

Coffee is my friend. I've been sucking bean since I was 11 years old. I can still remember the shaking in my hands and the pulsing of caffeine through my body and every nerve ending sang an electric Bob Marley Star-Spangled wail. There was nothing like that feeling. It helps me to contextualize my studies. If I'm drinking coffee when I read or write or discuss a particular topic, it's likely that I'll remember it later when I need to; and it's likely that I'll be drinking coffee then too. For instance, I took a thermos of fresh-roasted nicaraguan with a bright high taste to every one of my statistics lecutres. I had a cup this morning when we met as a group to work on our final project. I would argue that smell and taste memory helped my recall as much as having my friend Tracy sitting next to me while we worked. Of course, this means that I can never give it up. Ever. EVER.

Poverty is as cultural as it is economic. This is true. Most of my students think I'm a middle class white chick. Some who have little or no experience in the world think I might come from a well-educated Northeastern family. It's hard to tell that I grew up very poor and that I continue to live a slightly lower middle class existance. I had to teach myself the culture and lifestyles of the middle class in order to assimilate. For instance, where I'm from, we say "Did you get enough to eat?" and that's a hallmark of a poverty-class family. Getting enough to eat means there has been bounty- either in hunting, fishing, gardening or from just plain hard work for money. In the middle class, you might be asked how something tasted. There will be more detail on quality and spices than on quantity since it's more often taken for granted that there *will* be something for supper. In affluent classes, the empahsis is on presentation and style- do the settings look right and was there a visual component that appealed to the diner?

The culture of a graduate student is one who exists often between those classes. We appear one way- as aspiring intellectuals who eschew worldly concerns like paying bills and tending to the care of our families, homes and lives. These things are rarely if ever drawn into conversation with one's professors and even among other graduate students. Funny how the person with whom you take so many classes never told you that they have children, or that they had to move because they couldn't afford the rent where they lived anymore or that because there is little available in the way of health insurance, they can't go to a chiropractor and that their teeth are slowly rotting out of their head. But at home and with families, the shroud of mystery surrounds and alienates the student. We have to fill our other roles as providers, housecleaners, dog walkers, child nose-blowers, and care givers to our families regardless of their composition. And we worry. We worry constantly about money, about schedules about paying bills and paying student loans and if we're ever going to to on vacation again. Our significant others may wonder when the economic nightmare is going to end even if they are completely supportive of your ideals. It just takes a toll after awhile. You become schizophrenic- swarming any seminar on campus that gives away free pizza during the week and then being expected to whip out some specialized vocabulary and insight into solving the world's problems at dinner parties on the weekends. My strategy is to find a sugar daddy who can afford to take you out to dinner once in awhile. I'll let you know how that works out. In the meantime, it's top ramen half of the time and greek yogurt when I can afford it.

I save money on groceries and things in a number of ways. Some even help the environment. It's way cheaper to roast your own coffee than to buy it in the store. I shop the farmer's markets and am growing my own garden- this experiment might be good or bad. I'll keep you posted. I buy frozen rather than canned food for the nutritional value and the cost. I cook at home a lot and eat out less- never eating fast food. Fast food is gross. Eww... but that's a post for another day. Plus, I'm becoming a decent cook. Poor Luke isn't a vegetarian so he's stuck living off of salsa and avocados. I do offer to try meat but I make this yuckyface when I eat meat and I think he finds it unpleasant. Oh well, tofu-bacon it is. There are free days for lots of activities, like the Okc Museum, Fred Jones Museum of Art, the zoo and many other places. If you're cute, you can also talk your way in for free. Ahem....so I hear.

Oh, and if you are lucky enough to get a graduate assistantship that teaches, be careful. They make assumptions about my salary, my position at the university, about who I might be (sometimes that's the red-haired bride of Satan), and how they hell they can get the best grade out of me. I'm lucky to be a teacher of some years. I don't run into the same problems as my younger and less experienced counterparts. Although I do very much like to bounce my student challenges off on others. Don't get me wrong; I get stumped just as often as anyone else. They're just more technologically and intrinsically stupider difficulties with teaching.

There are a lot of distractions at home. First off, lose the cable bill. I haven't had cable for 13 years now. I like television. No, I love television. When Luke moved in, he brought a 56" big screen television. We use it from time to time to watch Netflix. If I have cable, I won't do my homework. But I know I shouldn't bring my homework home anyway because there are too many lovely distractions here. I have to clean the cat box. I need to walk the dogs. The garden won't weed itself. The dishes are dirty; I can't possibly do that research paper while dust gathers in the inner corner of the liquor cabinet! Augh!

Oh yeah, and about summer and winter breaks: you don't get paid during them if you're a grad assistant. It sucks, but put back money and be regimented about it. I'm lucky to get a summer class to teach. Of course, I'm crazy enough to take 3 classes and teach 5 and take three in the summers. For the spring semester my load was equivalent to about 24 hours. The norm for English students is 12. And I still got all A's. However, I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who has a significant other of any kind. Luke would help me with things just to be able to spend time with me. Once he wrote out all of my household bills and I just signed the checks. I have no idea if they were right but everything got paid on time.

One of the most important parts of grad school is having a hobby, preferably related to physical activity. Seems counter-intuitive to engage in activities not pertinent to adcademe, but believe me, this will save your sanity. I run and do yoga. I walk my dog. I keep a blog and am writing to my grandma every week since she's in a nursing home. Training a mind in only one direction may seem like a good thing, but it's the diversity of existance that will ensure survival when the insanity of end of semester work kicks in. And walk away for a week every semester to clear your head and rejuvenate, even if it's just to go camping. Just trust me on this one.

The best thing a new graduate student can do is find balance. Balance between interesting studies and a personal life separate from work. Balance between starvation and overabundance. Between giving everything you've got to your studies and everything you've got to your other obligations and finding time for yourself. Balance between chateau briand and buttered rice. Between friends who understand exactly the context of what you say when you're discussing the intricacies of progressive era politics and education a possible future for teaching in the U.S. And before you know it, you'll be standing in a silly, floppy hat with a diploma, wondering what the hell you're going to do next.

Hey, got a question? Some topic you'd like me to write about? Shoot me a text at mindied@gmail.com

1 comment:

  1. I'm told that grad school is a huge relationship killer. The fact Luke is standing by you and is supportive of you is huge. HUGE!

    Some of what you write reminds me of my undergrad days. I was lucky enough to get a campus job my last two years which was also a full-time summer job. I learned to hold onto the extra from the summer to cover the deficit during the school year. Also, lots of ramen, mac & cheese from a box minus any milk, and plenty of pasta (sometimes with butter and cheese instead of sauce) and rice.