graduate school

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?


Reading for a Different Kind of Job

I finally have a library card again. Among the things I learned in this last move: I have too many books. Even just my fantasy fiction collection (diminished somewhat from the boxes I left at my parents’) fills up a whole wide shelving unit. I don’t regret having those books; the ones I’ve kept are the ones that have some combination of quality, re-readable-ness, and sentimental value. I just no longer feel the need to own the books I read.

And I need to be reading more. Graduate school turns reading into a job. There were semesters in which I was responsible for reading 500+ pages of scholarship every week. Reading stops being fun. I grew up reading for pleasure, and still do occasionally. As a writer, though, it has to be more often than occasionally, and it’s seldom just for pleasure. I’ve written about this before, but it’s something I’m reminding myself of now that my family is settling into the new house and we are shifting gears for the impending start of the school year. Reading good books makes me want to write ones like them. Reading bad books makes me want to get more good books out into the world. Win-win.

I’m pulling some inspiration on this from my former teammate Mike Dariano. Mike is one of those few people whom I feel closer to in the social media age than I did when we were actually going to the same school. This isn’t because we actually share stuff; it’s because we’ve ended up with strangely parallel lives. We’ve both put in time as adjuncts and years of being stay-at-home dads. We both write. We both try and use wiles to keep up with younger legs on the ultimate field. Mike, though, is scads more organized than I am, and works much more consciously toward improving himself and his work. He’s blogged about his projects in reading more, buying less, using Evernote, and half a dozen other things. (I’m particularly enjoying his recent stuff about incorporating Stoic principles into modern life.) Mike also has a new e-book out on building reading into your life.

Which brings me back to the library. I had a library card in Minneapolis. I got it the first week we were back in the Cities from Ohio, largely because I needed a card to use the internet at the library (a necessity until I could get internet at the apartment). When the kids were old enough, we used the library card all the time to check out children’s books. It was rare for me to check out anything for myself. Part of that was the grad school reading=work thing I mention above. Part of it was the fact that getting a toddler and an infant through the library did not leave much leeway for the lone grownup to explore the stacks. These days, my kids are old enough to look contentedly at the books they’ve picked out while dad finds a few to check out for himself. (My seven-year old is a voracious and frighteningly fast reader.)

On Thursday, the three of us went to the library here in Round Rock. The kids got five books each. I got two for myself. The first was Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, which I’ve wanted to read for ages and have never gotten around to. The second is a book I randomly grabbed from the fantasy/sci-fi section. It has a gryphon on the cover and something to do with elemental magic. That’s as much as I can recall without having it in front of me. The grab-bag is sort of the point. Every trip to the library, my plan is to make one careful selection of something generally deemed worthwhile. There are swathes of the fantasy “canon” that I haven’t touched, and some literary fiction I want to get my hands on. The other selection will be something arbitrary. I expect there will be good books and bad book and many that fall into the range my mother calls “airplane books:” good enough to read when you’re stuck in a metal tube hurling through the sky. Mostly, I need to get more novel words (ha!) through my brain to keep my own figurative fields from going fallow.

My vague plan is that posts about these books will gradually replace my writings on #postac. I’ve said before that I’ never intended that Walking Ledges become a #postac blog. I still am one, but I’m not sure I will have new things to say about it every week. I’ll still keep my annotated postac page, and I’ll continue to write about my transition from teaching nominal adults to teaching people who aren’t yet old enough for a driver’s license. For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got some books to read.

NaNoWriMo vs. Dissertation

Round One! Fight!

Hello, December. Is it safe to come out yet?

November’s comparative blog quiet is owed to National Novel Writing Month (secondary sponsor: the passive voice). I spent the month writing (part of) a novel. I dutifully scraped together my 50,000 words despite having a conference paper to write and present, the holiday, and a rather ugly spat of job applications and rejections. gave me this fancy image as an award:

My winner's banner. Nifty or tacky?

My winner’s banner. Nifty or tacky?

When I validated my novel, I couldn’t help comparing the certificate (there’s a certificate, too, that you can print out) with one I earned at about this time last year: the one that says ‘doctor of philosophy’ on it. The NaNo certificate is much more lively. The thought seemed worth developing, though. I present here a hasty compare-and-contrast of salient features of writing a dissertation and undertaking National Novel Writing Month. (Not included: the effects of either on my future employment.)


Caffeine is life for writers. I was surprised at how many of my co-NaNos preferred various kinds of soda or tea to coffee, though. I drank coffee more regularly in November than I had for…since I finished my dissertation, actually. One of my more vivid memories of my defense is that problems with the A/V setup took so long to resolve that my coffee was cold by the time I was able to start.

I also realized that I get more out of coffee than just caffeine. When I’m writing, really writing, I still need the brief pauses afforded by sipping a hot beverage. (Maybe that is why my characters spent so much time with tea or coffee at hand.)

“The only good dissertation is a done dissertation.”

As I mentioned many posts ago, I hit a turning point on my dissertation when I stopped worrying about obsessing with my research and instead chose to obsess with getting finished. It was a grander-scale version of the process most of us have gone through with a paper. You come up with something that is at least a little interesting, you gin up some ideas, do some research…and then you realize you have to submit the paper twelve hours from now, that it’s supposed to be 25 pages, and why did you think you would get any sleep anyway?

At some point in the dissertation process, your thoughts turn away from ‘what is best for this project as I envision it’ to ‘what will my committee sign off on.’ Some people hit that point earlier than others, but I think everybody who finishes reaches it. You tell yourself “I’ll fix that when I do the monograph” or “It’s not worth fighting committee member X over this any more” or “I really ought to research this properly, but I can get by with throwing the right citations into a footnote.”

NaNo is different, because it starts with this ethos. The goal is to get 50,000 words by hook or by crook. The writing coaches repeatedly advise you to keep your fingers away from your backspace key. You are supposed to keep everything, even if it’s bad. (One of my favorite write-in moments was “now we’re going to do an 11-minute sprint of total crap. The crappiest crap you can crap.”) Get the words on the screen. You can edit later.

And damn but some people get words on the screen. 1200 words in a fifteen-minute sprint. 150,000 words in a month. Who knows how much of it is crap? Who knows how much of it anybody else will ever see? Some people clearly write streams-of-consciousness. Others are just that fast. Just as some people struggle to get halfway, others write whatever they please.

The ethos of “wordcount first, everything else is just details” was one of the few things about the month that bugged me. Yes, there is a tremendous freedom in allowing yourself to just write. It is useful to shove your inner editor in a closet. Words in your head never mean as much to your work as words on the page. The obsession with wordcount, though, puts somebody who churns out 70,000 words of 90% crap ahead of somebody who grinds out 35,000 words that are only 40% crap. (See the next point, though—both of those writers will be cheered equally by their fellows.) Others rationalize heftier wordcounts by including blog posts, brainstorming, forum role-play, and anything else that involves typing. NaNo is a competition only to the extent that you’re competing with yourself, but sometimes the whole wordcount thing seemed too easily gamed to me. It is a structural element of the project. It still rubs me wrong…even though 50,000 words is such a usefully concrete goal.

A Community of Fellow Striver-Sufferers

Academia is competitive. Resources are too scarce for it to be otherwise, even though scholars rely on each others’ work. When you write a dissertation, you want it to stand out from—or at least stand comfortably among—the work of your peers and predecessors. At the same time, your fellow graduate students are usually the only ones who understand what you’re going through. They’re also likely to be most of your social group. With my cohort, at least, we all honestly wanted each other to succeed. That got murkier when we started gunning for the same jobs, but few things unite a community like suffering. The community developed organically. Anybody who passed their first semester and remained gung ho about the whole graduate school experience got funny looks. We traded in commiseration, and still do when we get together at conferences.

NaNo is not competitive. At all. The closest thing to competition comes during sprints or word wars. Having the highest wordcount for a sprint might get you a piece of chocolate or some amiably jealous congratulations. That’s it. Everybody cheers for everybody. Gung ho attitudes are pervasive. As much as the participants love writing, NaNo seems to me as much about the social activity as the work itself. I feel comfortable putting it in the same category as, say, CrossFit or Tough Mudder: it is a shared individual experience. We give each other advice and encouragement. We attempt something challenging (see the next point). It is social. Ultimately, though, we’re doing it for ourselves, as individuals. Twenty people in a gym doing complicated push-up routines is not so far from twenty people furiously clattering away at their laptops in a coffee shop. It’s a cultivated, inorganic experience…a kind of manufactured community. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun—I am not certain I would have gotten my 50K without the support of the folks I was writing with.

Writing. A lot.

In one month and by wordcount, I wrote an equivalent to about four chapters of my dissertation. Depending on where you put my “start” date for dissertating, I averaged about two chapters each year. With the dissertation, of course, there were many thousands more words of brainstorming, planning, and notes. There were pages of footnotes and bibliography, conference papers extracted and reworked along the way. A dissertation, on the humanities side of things, is an enormous pile of work and words.

In that respect, NaNo isn’t so different. The work is not the same. Rather than research, it is about persistence and watching a little bar graph go up. Some people work in manic weekend sprees, others manage a steady, workmanlike pace of 1500-1800 words each day. I was somewhere in between, breaking a thousand words each day but making up the difference with a few long Saturdays and Wednesdays. However you slice it up, NaNo involves producing a substantial word pile in a rather short amount of time.

A dissertation, though, is not just a word pile. It is a finished piece of scholarly work, crafted with varying degrees of care and haste over the course of many, many months. The words are hopefully all in the right places, and the right placement matters more than the quantity. For NaNo, 50,000 words is the only benchmark. My 50,000 are from all over the probable novel, and do not come close to completing it. As much as writing is writing is writing, the ways in which NaNo and a dissertation count as “a lot” diverge considerably. (As they should.)

Validation by an Impersonal Machine

Do you want to see how you’re doing? Copy-paste your draft into the handy word counter/novel validator. (Do this before the very last minute, because it counts words a little differently than most word processing platforms.) The website will plot your progress on a bar graph. Hopefully those bars will climb up to and eventually top the steadily ascending gray line that tells you what “par” is for each day. When you’ve convinced the site that you’ve written 50,000 words, it will take you to the winner’s page, where you can get yourself various icons, certificates, and swag.

Validating a dissertation is more personal. Slightly. I say that not as a knock on my committee—it was an awesome group of scholars who had important feedback and guidance for me along the way. In the last stages of convincing the University that I deserved a degree, though, those committee members were too often reduced to the names and signatures needed for forms. So many forms. Then I had to submit the whole thing electronically, anyway. It was an uploaded document rather than a copy-paste, but still…

I will say that, whatever the future of my incomplete manuscript, I feel more satisfied by my NaNo project than by my dissertation.

…but it might just be the coffee talking.

Get a Job, You Schlub!

The other day, a friend of mine posted this article about why people with PhDs don’t just leave the soul-sucking, sub-living wage world of the adjunct. It’s a brief piece, one focused mostly on the short notice adjuncts have when taking jobs and the feelings of obligation to their students (and sometimes institutions) that prevent them from abandoning a course mid-semester. What’s missing from the article is just how hard it is to quit.

Quitting is tough because all through grad school, we get a variation on the Game of Thrones truism: “You win or you die.” As long as you can stake a valid claim to be a player in the game—even if you’re more Karstark than Stark—you’re not dead. Leaving is failing, even if failing in this case means “failing to be exploited by a system that simultaneously turns your hope and your desperation against you.” Who sets out to fail? We wanted to be professors because we had professors we loved, because we love teaching and/or our fields. For an adjunct, quitting academia is like breaking up with a fiance/e who keeps refusing to set a wedding date (or just keeps pushing it back). Even if your friends are all telling you to break it off already, your emotional investment keeps you plugging away, dreaming about flowers and centerpieces and organ preludes.*

The other bit that makes quitting tough? What else are we going to do when we’re out? No matter how many odd jobs we’ve held during or interspersed with our studies, it’s hard to build a foundation for an alternative career while trying to build the foundation for the one you expect to be your lifelong occupation. Even if you smuggle the education section to the bottom of your resume, you’ve still got that “PhD” stuck there, begging for explanation. In my case, where I’ve even gotten to the interview stage, it’s usually the first or second thing to come up. An enormous amount of education, a small amount of relevant experience…this is not a formula for an easy job hunt. Given the choice between months of unemployment—remember that adjuncts typically don’t get unemployment insurance—and a crappy job, most of us will stick with a crappy job.

Academic conferences these days usually feature a panel on “non-academic” employment. I’ve stopped attending these. They’re a useless gesture, tending to highlight a small klatsch of of folks with PhDs who have carved out lives outside the professoriate. Just, you know, not very far outside the professoriate. (The organizers are no doubt limited by the need to draw panelists from within the professional society…or actually pay presenters for their time.) I went to one of these panels a year ago in which half the speakers worked for universities. One of them even still taught courses every other semester or so. (The other half of the panel? Somebody who worked for a foundation and somebody who worked for an early music publisher.) This was the precious outside I was so interested in? Never mind that the panelists had taken spectacularly idiosyncratic paths to reach their current positions, most of which seemed to involve knowing somebody who’d been able to offer them a job at the right time. The tl;dr version of these panels boils down to “Look, here are some people who did it! You can, too! If you want to, you crazy person.” Who, precisely, is that supposed to help? And how?

As for me, I’m still working on carving that idiosyncratic path, hoping that I can either strike up an acquaintance with the right somebody or get my foot in the right door to get out of this application-rejection cycle. Just remember that no matter how stupid it might seem to stay on the Academy’s Skid Row, leaving can feel just as stupid.

*Aside: my partner and I had an extended discussion about wedding music well before we even considered getting married to each other.

Of Dreams, Carrots, and Towers

If it wasn’t for disappointment/I wouldn’t have any appointments
—They Might Be Giants, “Snowball in Hell”

Sometimes I miss being asked about my research. Not many people have asked since I defended my dissertation and earned the right to start signing my e-mails with “Dr.” The reason I don’t get asked very often is tied to another question: “did you apply for {insert tenure-track musicology job}?” Last year, the answer to that second question was almost always “yes,” with the exception of a few searches whose early deadlines I missed. This year, my answer will be “no.” When I was finishing my undergraduate work, I thought that professors had the best job ever: flexible schedules, the chance to work with smart young people, the vague but appealing “life of the mind.” I went to a small, selective liberal arts college and my idea of “adjunct faculty” began and ended with the applied instrumental teachers who held down performing jobs and usually had studios at several of the local colleges.

Ten years later, I know a hell of a lot more about adjunct faculty. I’ve been one of the now-ubiquitous adjuncts. Most of the academic workforce in higher education operates off the tenure track. Even so, the tenure-track job I dreamed about when I began graduate school is still dangled before graduate students and contingent faculty like the carrot before the donkey. With a little luck, the right shift in the winds, and a precisely-timed lunge, the donkey can snatch the carrot. The smartest, hardest-working donkeys have a slightly better chance at the carrot than the rest, but only slightly. You have to be a pretty smart, hard-working donkey to get through a doctoral program in the first place.

The chase for the carrot goes on. My friends and I compare notes on which programs write the most respectful rejection letters. We do our best to cheer each other’s successes. With conferences and publications, that’s easy. As a generation of scholars, I think we’re doing fascinating, worthwhile work. When it comes to jobs, though, it’s harder to be earnestly enthusiastic about friends’ success. The odds are good that you applied for the same position, the same fellowship, the same grant. When that happens, you have to be a better person than I am to avoid shading happiness at a friend’s success with hints of jealousy and disappointment. Living in academia is like living in a small town: everybody knows everybody, and even friends step on each other’s toes for want of space to move.

I was more desperate to get out of the actual small town I grew up in than to get out of this metaphorical small town of academia. Like a small town, academia can be comfortable, familiar. My dream lived there. I walked around Minneapolis feeling dissatisfied that my coursework was filled with Continental theorists. I would, I was sure, develop ideas that could elbow their way into the western body of thought alongside Deleuze and Bourdieu and Adorno. I’d use my work in comparative studies to beef up my credentials for musicology positions. I’d make time in my schedule for my kids, even if it meant staying up late and getting up early.

Eventually, nobody had to dangle a carrot in front of me, because I’d made my own carrot, held the stick in my own hands. Although it was much more miserable, it wasn’t that different from my teenage internet romance, where I’d been in love with the idea of being in love rather than with the person I was exchanging letters and books and cassettes with. As I trudged through my dissertation, I had to sell myself on the idea of being done with my dissertation. I finished it in part to spite my only intermittently-supportive institution, in part because I’d already sunk years into my PhD, and in part because I’d sold myself on that idea of being done. Being done would make everything better.

Being done did not make everything better.

I graduated in December. Because of some quirks of academic scheduling and a particularly odd adjunct position I’d taken, I wasn’t teaching in the spring. I took care of my daughter and sat on my hands and waited for something, anything, to come back from the applications I’d spent October and November sending all over the country. I was miserable. I had begun to understand some of the consequences of my mutually laissez-faire relationship with my advisor. My CV was far too thin to insulate me from the chilly job market. I told myself that I’d chase the one-year positions that begin to be announced in the spring. I told myself that I’d get an interview invitation any day now…

…I told myself that I was worthless, that I’d thrown away seven years of my life chasing a degree that was going to get me something between jack and squat. After a decade in graduate school, I was somehow even less employable than I would have been straight out of undergrad. I’d made my wife work full time through our kids’ preschool years, made her live 1200 miles from her family. I was convinced I was failing my family. Late one night it got so bad that I cried for an hour, great wracking sobs that I couldn’t stop. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been alone. My wife helped me get through that night, and the days that came after.

In March, I went to a conference, hoping it might renew my enthusiasm (and because I had a paper to present). I heard more interesting papers than I’d heard at any previous conference. The society members were supportive. They understood my research and some were excited about the way it fit in with their own work. It was the best conference experience I’d ever had. A week later, I was more convinced than ever that leaving academia was the right next step for me. My peers at the conference were all gunning for the same jobs I was. None of us were optimistic about our immediate futures. The early career professionals committee meeting was filled with too-familiar laments, even though my fellow scholars were excited by and committed to their work.

I admire and respect my friends who are staying inside. They are doing fantastic things in the classroom and in their research. I wish they didn’t have to fight the system so hard to do them. It is inspiring to me that they can draw so much strength from the love of their work, even when they’re shoved on yet another committee or have their course load jerked around for the umpteenth time. I’ve realized I don’t love the work enough to put up with all the rest of it.

Giving up a dream is hard. It’s hard even when you know that giving it up is the right thing to do. It’s hard even when you know the dream isn’t really your dream anymore. Graduate school gets inside you like any other sixty or seventy-hour-a-week job does. It becomes a huge part of who you are. It had become a part of me that I didn’t like, but I couldn’t just cut it away. There are parts of academic life that I enjoy, parts that I’m good at. Ultimately, though, they’re not enough. The calculus of happiness is all wrong. (The financial calculus isn’t any better.) When I was busy sliding down the post-defense slope, none of the things that slowed me down came from the work I had done or thought I wanted to do. That dream of my favorite professor’s life was the thing pulling me down, even though it had shrunk from teaching at my ideal program to teaching anywhere with a reasonable salary and benefits. To get out of my hole, I had to let that dream go.

It would be a better story if this revelation had come in a cinematic beam of light, or while playing with my kids, or while noodling around on the piano. It has been slower than that, an ongoing process without any narrative tidiness. I want to make my life with my words, which is good. Writing is satisfying, and it feels right to me in ways that academic work never quite has. Starting over was, I think, the right choice. But it is still starting over. I apply for entry-level positions while keeping my eyes open for those elusive jobs outside academia where my degrees might help. The doubts don’t go away.

I’ve got dreams to chase again, though, and I like my new doubts better than my old certainties.