Bad Grad Habits

Graduate school is many things: an odyssey of the mind, a way to turn reading from pleasure into indentured servitude, a miserable trek toward an even bleaker destination… Okay, so it’s not all wine and roses. To the extent that it is, the wine is cheap and a means to an end, the roses probably already starting to wilt. Anyway. I come to bury graduate school, not to praise it. Erm, wait. I come today to write about three bad habits I took with me to graduate school…ones that graduate school made worse.

Letting My Life Revolve Around Deadlines

Grad school forced me to improve my time management, but mostly because it filled my days so completely. I’m a habitual procrastinator. Part of that is the way I work—especially with papers, I legitimately build them in my head before writing them fairly fast. A good bit of it, though, is just procrastination.

When you’re reading 300 pages per course per week, there’s not much leeway for procrastinating. (There’s room for skim-and-bluff, though.) Instead of encouraging working ahead, graduate school pushed me (and many of my friends) to think of work as some horrible steeplechase of deadlines. With dogs chasing us. You see the deadline in front of you, hear the dogs behind you, and clamber over as best you can so you can get to the next obstacle. (Don’t ask me how the dogs get through the obstacles. The dogs, unlike the snakes, are a metaphor.) For all the work, there’s little opportunity to plan ahead. Come to think of it, the situation is also analogous to working in a restaurant during rush: there’s always something to be done and you just hop from task to task.

It’s not a healthy way to live over the long term. More importantly, thinking about life this way can screw you over when it comes time for the dissertation. First, you might not have been thinking much about your dissertation while you were reading hundreds of pages every week. Second, you suddenly have a deadline of (depending on your program) seven years. The dogs are still chasing you, but you’re in an open field now. Maybe you forgot your compass and maybe your advisor neglected to give you a map. You just pick a direction and start running…

This one has been tough to get over. I had decades to orient my work to deadlines. I’ve had to practice setting medium term goals and being mindful of them. It’s definitely still a work in progress. (As evidence, I point to my 88% complete novel draft that’s been mostly sitting since April.)

Assuming My Work Speaks for Itself

The meritocracy problem: I went into graduate school believing that the way to succeed was to do great work. That was it. There wasn’t a recipe. You just did quality stuff and it would, I don’t know, get out there somehow. I thought that 95% of finding success was being good at your job.

In the early years of my doctoral program, the emphasis was always on work. Write good papers. Be useful (or at least clever) in seminar discussions. Be an active presence in the department. Essentially, keep being good at school. That wasn’t a problem for me. If I hadn’t been good at school, I wouldn’t still have been in it. I read (almost) everything I was supposed to, got my papers in on time, and expected that the next steps in the process would happen on their own because I was good. Academia was a meritocracy and the best work would inevitably achieve the best results.

By the time I was dissertating, I had been disabused of this notion. I’d been to enough conferences and seen enough of my friends enter the market to understand that doing good work was, at best, 50% of finding success. The rest was some combination of hustle, luck, and connections. I understood that, but I didn’t really believe it. Not until I started applying for jobs.

I can safely say that I am more over this one now than I was when I graduated. I know, for example, that if I want my blog or my novel to get traction beyond my immediate community, I will have to throw time and money at getting it out there. Being on a different kind of job market has also helped. Nobody is going to look at my resumé and decide to hire me on the spot. They have to know to look for it, which comes back to the hustle and luck bit.

Winning Arguments Rather than Solving Problems

Man, grad school, you were awful about this. Seminar rooms are too often gladiatorial arenas for pedants. Graduate programs fill them with smart people who are used to being smart, used to being right. Then the professors usually turn the students loose on each other. Sometimes it’s more egalitarian; the professor participates in the melee, too. Admitting you are wrong is too close to admitting you are stupid and don’t belong, so it’s hardly ever done.

I was lucky enough to be involved in programs where most of us liked each other. We were friends rather than competitors. And it was still pretty bad. The worst days were the ones where we dealt with anything written before about 1960…which nearly always meant “written by a powerful white male.” (Early German ethnomusicologists, I’m looking at you.) We’d argue about how much we could or should excuse via historical framing. We’d argue about whether historical framing was a legitimate excuse at all. We’d talk and talk and talk in great spirals that never went anywhere except away from the text in question. We rarely came around to the question of “what can we learn from this and use to develop our own work.” All in the service of winning arguments. (Related: 80% of conference paper “questions.”)

I’m far more cognizant of this problem than I was when I finished grad school, but I still struggle with it. Comment culture doesn’t help—I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen (or been) the one trying to reason a true believer around to a different point of view using all of the rhetorical bludgeons graduate school builds for you. Grad school encourages us to pick apart arguments. We find the holes, force them wide, and rush once more unto the breach. We’re led to operate at a remove from the underlying problem.

As a teacher, this is also the habit I’m working the hardest to correct. Winning an argument with a student won’t help either of us. Winning arguments seldom builds knowledge. I’m working to keep myself and my students focused on figuring out what the actual problems are so we can work on solving them.

So. Three bad habits made worse by graduate school. I continue to wrestle with them. What about you, readers? Postac, altac, or still in, what sort of school-amplified habits are you trying to shake off?

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