Grad School Blues Part 2: Or a (hopefully) helpful rant from someone who learned something the hard way

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First Year of Program: Check

Now, here I am. Tens of thousands of dollars into debt, having had a roller coaster ride trying to switch supervisors and legitimately minutes away from joining my student association so I can actually be heard and make some very necessary problems visible to the department and administration.

I’ve seen amazing job opportunities go by, the likes of which I had not seen during my two years outside of the academic system, and I have seriously considered just quitting and continuing on with my career as a community organizer. After months of reflection and considering how much money and time I have invested as well as looking at how much time is left to complete the program, I’ve decided to stick it out and do what I always do in times of strife: stick to my guns, take what I can from the experience, try to make a difference and try as most as I can not to compromise my values in the process.

On a brighter note, I ended up contacting the professor whose class I enjoyed the most and learned the most from and was lucky enough to have her take me on. As a supervisor, I know that she will push me, test me and make me work hard. Great, that’s what I’m paying for! She is also the first person in this whole thing to respond to my research topic positively.

I am not someone who is afraid of hard work, don’t get me wrong here, I love it and grow from complex situations. What I am ranting about is what was and is in some big ways at the core of the latest student strike: how the institutional and capitalistic/corporate culture of universities is overriding the teaching culture and rendering it hostile to the very people who are paying for its services while equity issues remain clearly not addressed.

Things I Learned (The Hard Way) to Keep In Mind:

1. Really ask yourself why you want to go to grad school. Are you really stoked about research? Do you want to become a Professor? Do you need this degree to help with you career’s upwards mobility? Talk to the people who have done what you wanna do. Ask them what it is really like researching/teaching/studying at this or that university. Research the schools you are applying to very carefully and think about making trips to speak with people in that department.

2. Apply to funds BEFORE starting grad school and maybe think carefully about the chances you have of getting ANY funding once you are in. Keep in mind that if you don’t get any funding, you will probably have to go into (more) debt AND work a job that will make focusing on your research harder and perhaps, less of a priority.

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3. You think your G.P.A. is good because it’s slightly above the required G.P.A. to apply for the program? Think again, look at funding opportunities and their cut off G.P.A. requirements. Then take a moment to think how far you are from that and if you have gone through the maze-like and sometimes (re)victimizing process of getting documentation for your extenuating circumstances. Still not close enough? STOP. Apply as an independent student and boost the shit out of your G.P.A. They look at the last two years of your studies for grants. Work the system before it works you: into massive debt and angry times.

4. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of supervisors and directors. If you have questions that are met with walls, ask again, ask someone else. It’s not going to affect them at all if you don’t have the answers you are looking for, but it may very well cost you (literally, something like $10 000 per question).

5. Don’t expect anyone to “care” about helping you navigate this whole new system. Even the people whose jobs you think it is to do so are probably not going to without some intense dedication on your part. Actually, watch how the students who did their bachelors in the department end up doing the best at all things grad student related. This is because they know who is who and know the lay of the land. Make friends with one of them maybe and trade secrets. Think about joining the student association, this will give you a chess piece beyond what may be perceived to be a pawn. Maybe now the department will see you as I dunno, one of the horse things and your voice might be heard slightly louder.

6. Don’t be fooled into thinking things operate in the straightforward manner they are “supposed to.” They don’t. This is about who you know, what you know, what you can do for people and most of all, how you use it. For example, I’ve been told four different stories about how to get another T.A. ship and heard some interesting stories about how those are sometimes used. Indeed, at this moment, the union is fighting for more transparent hiring policies. That’s a definite sign of something fishy right there.

7. If your career is seemingly on the rise (as mine was), maybe it’s not time to go to grad school. I’m sure you’ve heard everyone complaining about how many post-graduates don’t have jobs at the moment, how universities aren’t hiring full time staff anymore and T.A. and R.A. ships are on the decline (with unions fighting for better conditions). We all know the story of how most baristas and waiters in Montreal have university degrees; masters degrees included.

8. If you keep getting turned down for funding, grants, bursaries, awards, take a moment and read the letters of references your supporters wrote for you. They believe in you or they wouldn’t have taken the time to write those letters. If you need to, frame them and make a mantra out of what they list as your strengths. This helps fight the crushing feelings of constant rejection.

9. Quitting grad school doesn’t make you a loser. Sometimes, the school, the program, the timing, the finance, is all wrong. Never let the system define how you value yourself. That’s like walking to Mordor and enjoying wearing the cursed ring. The stakes here aren’t the future of Middle Earth and you are not less important than the department, the institution, or the degree. Keep that in mind, always.

*Arts and Social Sciences Graduate Schools seem to operate quite differently in terms of funding than Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, for example. My hypothesis is that this may be in due part to the current government’s attitude towards “committing sociology.”

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