html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Five years later. <i>Still</i> mad.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Five years later. Still mad.

This all but makes me cry. I wanted my Ph.D. I thought I was capable of one. But second grad school was awful. Some quarters, I cried every day for my twenty minute drive home. I left when I started being comforted by the thought that if I were dead, I wouldn't have to write yet another paper for yet another class that I wasn't very interested in, but had to learn from scratch because we were interdisciplinary.

So I am pissed to have my suspicions that I was a victim of the graduate group structure confirmed.
The basic identifiable difference between completers and non-completers, though, is their integration into the departmental community. Community integration is helped by forcing people to be on campus and interact - group offices and TAships especially seem to be good for students. If you’re detached from your department community (or your department doesn’t have much in the way of community to be detached from), you miss out not only on the bonding and fuzzysnuggles, but the networks of informal knowledge and aid.

Group offices? Community? Department? Fuck you, Graduate Group with professors spread out all around campus. Fuck you, no student lounge because we don't have a building. Fuck you, putting my environmental policy degree inside the ecology group instead of the political science group because you neeeeeeeeed for policy analysis to be a science. I didn't need for environmental policy to be a science; I have a real science degree. Fuck you, cramming us in with other grad students whose work was nothing like ours. Fuck you, scrounging for my own TAships in three different departments around campus. Fuck you, second grad school. You owe me a fucking doctorate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then, go back to grad school and get your PhD, lots of guys to meet there.


3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some quarters, I cried every day for my twenty minute drive home

This is a classic sign of depression and should not be taken lightly. SSRI's are the friend of many people.

(aside: law school was better? wow.)

lack of free ice cream complaint: where's the infrastructure blogging?

Also, any hint as to what you're going to do in Oakland?



3:52 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I will never never never go back to school. Twelve years of undergrad and graduate school was enough.

And, there aren't really single guys in grad school. In grad school, they're all married and all the female grad students are single.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pfft, that's BS. I have plenty of friends who met the woman they married in grad school. I have other friends just now leaving grad school who met their g/fs in grad school.

Didn't you say your parents met in grad school?


3:55 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

This is a classic sign of depression and should not be taken lightly.

It went away when I left.

I did law school and second grad school simultaneously. Law school was at least structured.

where's the infrastructure blogging?

I'm debating an extraordinarily unwise political post about very powerful water interests in the state. It would be a good post, though.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I have plenty of friends who met the woman they married in grad school. I have other friends just now leaving grad school who met their g/fs in grad school.

I truly did not meet single men at my grad school. Beside, they're all in their mid-twenties. I am not going back to grad school.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

I'm debating an extraordinarily unwise political post about very powerful water interests in the state. It would be a good post, though.

Is Cadillac Desert actually any good? I was trying to put together a story of what actually happened between Owens Valley and Los Angeles, but could never tell how much of the author's invective was grounded in fact vs. aesthetics vs. just having a political axe to grind.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Cadillac Desert is a fine introduction to Cal/fornia water, if you don't intend to work in the field. It is melodramatic and oversimplified, but a fun fast read. Not inaccurate, but definitely not about shades of grey.

If you are interested in recent Owens Valley stuff, I loved Storm Over Mono by John Hart.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may have recommended this somewhere before, but Wal/ton, Wes/tern Times and Wa/ter Wars is a good book about the Owens Valley, but definitely an academic one. It's probably best to skip the theorizing at the beginning and the end; the actual story and analysis read ok.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Requested from the library, eb. Thanks. How come you know about this stuff? I didn't think this was directly your field of study.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in the midst of new student orientation at a big env/ironmental school. So, my quick reactions:

Wow, that structure sucks. It sure is amazing how much difference a good departmental structure makes. UNC's CS dept is about the best I've seen. Much of it isn't rocket science to a good management person, there just aren't many departmental administrators putting thought into good management that also have the power to enact good management practices.

Beside, they're all in their mid-twenties.
And how. At 28, I'm significantly older than all the other entering students and most of the almost-done ones.

And, there aren't really single guys in grad school. In grad school, they're all married and all the female grad students are single.


5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although "group structure" can be a factor, I think the basic problem is that most people enter grad school having almost no idea what academics actually do. That was my experience--I knew it was about research and writing papers, but I didn't know how that translated into concrete day-to-day activities. That's not necessarily different from any other occupation, but most people know less about being a professor than about being, say, a carpenter. So the learning curve is especially steep. I think that class plays a role here: if someone in your family went to grad school, then you probably know a lot more about it than you would otherwise.

But even so, many of the tricks of doing well in academia are fairly subtle, so it's hard to pick them up just by watching what others do. Even if you see what they're doing, you may not understand their underlying thought process, which is the important thing. Integration into the departmental community can help you to figure out these things, but there's a caveat--you can also pick up bad habits from your fellow travelers.

Basically, grad school is a tricky business. No one talks about the attrition rate, but it seems to be quite high. I think there's plenty of blame to go around... so you shouldn't feel too bad if it doesn't work out.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Both my parents have Ph.D.s, and my mom was a professor. I didn't go into it ignorant. But their stories of grad school, where grad students worked and studied and played together were very different from what I experienced.

I don't feel disappointed in myself. I feel pissed that the situation could be so bad.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How come you know about this stuff? I didn't think this was directly your field of study.

The Wal/ton I read as an undergraduate in a history class and I've ended up reading (or "reading") a fair amount of environmental history in grad school, partly because some of the more important works in one of my exam fields were environmental histories, and partly because other people in my program specialize in it.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to say that most people go into grad school ignorant. But what they know at the outset can be pretty different from the reality. My parents have PhD's too, but I never really understood from them just how hard it is to come up with an interesting and original idea.

I think academia does give you some amount of freedom to overcome a bad situation. Then again, I probably haven't seen just how bad things can get...

9:41 PM  
Blogger Wesley said...

Take it from someone who just finished their Ph.D.: never, never go to graduate school.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Congratulations Wesley! That's awesome. It is too late to warn me away from grad school, but perhaps our warnings can save an innocent child.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa. This topic is unbelievably relevant to me right now.

People in my interdisciplinary graduate program are generally quite successful in spite of the lack of infrastructure, because the department is quite close-knit, socially speaking. It is only recently that I have figured out that the reason that I'm in the minority of unsuccessful students in this department is because my colleagues are not really my peeps (um, sort of like kindred spirits in Anne of Green Gables, if you ever read those books as a kid). I mean, they're all really nice and stuff, but I have not made one single solitary friend-for-life of the kind that I made in college or in first graduate school, and I am definitely not plugged into the social network of students.

And now I think I'm on the verge of tears, too. I don't want to flunk out of my PhD program because of social isolation.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Oh sugar. I'm so sorry. Bad grad school is SO HARD. I have no advice. I'm still mad I didn't finish, but I've felt a million times better since I left. Sweetie, I so hope that you find an easy path.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind words. Wow, my last comment was kind of uncomfortably self-centered, wasn't it? I think I should do a better job of saving that kind of material for my own languishing blog. I guess I just wanted to say, hell-to-the-yes, the thesis of that book and your post ring so, so true for me.

Twelve years of tertiary schooling, huh? No wonder death was looking like an attractive option. I feel beaten down just clocking in at 9 years, with maybe 2 more ahead of me.

12:58 AM  
Blogger billoo said...

Megan, could I just add to your words.

This talk of a "community" is such rot that I'm staggered by those who still believe it is true (admittedly, my experience is only that of friends and family at British Universities).

I don't know, I think a significant proportion of the people there are self-centred and often quite petty. Community? do me a favour!

I think the whole Ph.D thing is overrated and often more about a very narrow definition of 'intelligence'.

What you say,quirkybook, sounds all too familiar. And I think the *real* networking starts after a Ph.D. and job placements.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Noel said...

Wesley said...

Take it from someone who just finished their Ph.D.: never, never go to graduate school.

Megan said...

Congratulations Wesley! That's awesome. It is too late to warn me away from grad school, but perhaps our warnings can save an innocent child.

I'm surrounded by people who are enjoying getting their PhDs. Please accept your lousy experience for what it is -- your lousy experience -- and not the general indictment of grad. school that so many (here and other forums) seem to want to make it.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Qbook, I didn't think you were self-centered. All I heard was the Hell-to-the-yes.

Noel, I saw and envied people who were having a good time getting their Ph.Ds. But considering that half of all people who enroll to get Ph.Ds, don't make it and get damaged in the process, it is a high risk activity.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Noel said...

Half don't make it?! I'd love to know what the split across disciplines is. I'd guess about 80% in my field (Computer Science) at my University get theirs.

Alternatively, $60 will get you a very nice doctorate from Khao San Road in Bangkok. It is a considerably cheaper and easier option, and I'm doubtful it harms one's job prospects outside of academia.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Wesley said...

Thanks Megan.

Noel, you're right, everyone's graduate school experience is different, and many people, even some from my program, enjoyed it.

But the fact that you are coming from the hard sciences and I am not (political science) probably explains much of the variance. I've met very few humanities/social science graduate students who were happy in their program.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Noel said...

Wesley, interesting hypothesis. From reading others bitchin' about grad school there are three things that stick out about PhDs in squishy subjects (I don't know if these are true; just my impression from others' comments)

1. The dept is populated by people who can't function outside academia

2. The standards of measurement are subjective

3. They feel they have no employment prospects outside academia

None apply to me. I'd feel pretty unhappy with grad. school if they did.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

And I think the *real* networking starts after a Ph.D. and job placements.

I'm pretty certain you're mistaken, there. There's very, very, very many ties made between grad students in well centered programs, which is not to mention the importance of collaborating with influential investigators AS a grad student. Got my undergrad advisor his tenure-track job; same with my current advisor.

I've already extracted promises of employment from my two most motivated group-mates, should they ever become CXX of any company.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Dan Hoak said...

An excellent book on the same theme: “Disciplined Minds” by Jeff Schmidt. Dr. Schmidt earned a PhD in physics from Cal-Irvine and worked as an editor at Physics Today for nearly twenty years. After writing the book, he was promptly fired.

In the book, he focuses on the experience of graduate students in physics, and how that professional degree program — like all other professional degree programs — is more focused on selecting those candidates who conform to a behvioral pattern than those candidates who would make the best scientists.

My favorite chapter was “How to Survive Grad School With Your Soul Intact", which includes long quotations from the Army manual on resisting interrogation as a POW.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with grad school is that for too many it's the socially acceptable choice for people good-at-school but unsure of a future path. Which in and of itself is no big deal. But the real price is the opportunity cost: extensive travel, volunteer work, pursuing creative outlets full-time are much easier pulled off in one's 20s than at any other time. To waste those precious years not having it work out with grad school is a loss to regret...

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm, sounds like any attempt at grad school for my fourth career change in my approaching mid 40's is a non-starter then... doesn't sound like it works for the slightly anti-social curmudgeon.

So look on the broite soide of liffe, kids! y'all have saved me from that.
Sometimes college sounds a whole lot like a pain induction experiment, to see who can take the most abuse... Each successive level with more pain.


12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But try to keep things in perspective. As far as I can tell, lousy grad school is no worse than any other lousy work environment. If you're a grad student, remember that *they don't own you*. Feeling powerless seems to be a common experience in grad school, but that's not necessarily the reality. You shouldn't be afraid to take initiative. If you really run out of options, then quit.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I've never had a job that was as crushingly disappointing as bad grad school. Perhaps I've been lucky.

But in grad school, you're paying them. They have the obligation to make it a set-up that leads to the education you are buying.

Also, I think that if a job is awful, you have some idea of what a job is supposed to be and you don't take it completely on yourself. You think it is the boss or the assignment or the work environment. I think students, especially the eager students who continue to grad school, are much more likely to assume the fault is a personal failure, and not a combination of personal factors and the structure of the program (and mean professors).

1:53 PM  
Blogger Scott Lemieux said...

I'm sorry to hear about your personal experience! That definitely seems right to me. It's hard to finish without being part of an intellectual community, for various reasons.

Am I allowed to say that I had a great grad school experience? :)

2:19 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Of course! I'm happy for everyone who did.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

For those still in/considering graduate school, when I was thinking about grad school I read this book and it seemed like it would have been useful had I actually gone:

2:33 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hmm, didn't wrap the link. Anyhow it's _Getting What You Came For_ by Robert Peters.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did a masters before moving to a different university to do my PhD. (And I think that Megan did, too?) So presumably, we both liked first grad school well enough to continue onto second grad school. Either that, or we're masochists, which I don't think is true for me, at least.

All that to say that yes, I know that graduate school can be rewarding and fun and engaging and all sorts of good things. Which is why it's even more disappointing when it's NOT those things.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Megan said...

But in grad school, you're paying them. They have the obligation to make it a set-up that leads to the education you are buying.

Okay, that's true, and in that sense grad school is different from a regular job. But it's also different from undergraduate education, in that you have much more freedom and responsibility to choose your own path. Is it possible for grad school to be a smooth ride? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it... I think you have to expect trouble along the way.

Still, if you were paying out of pocket, that sucks. Resource shortages are hard to overcome. Social dysfunction is also really bad, if you're forced to work in a large group.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

yk, I'm totally down with more responsibility. If I thought that the bulk of the problem was on my end, or was some vaguery like 'the research results were no good", I would be disappointed but not angry.

But, that institution was paid by me and by the state of California to educate me, and I was capable. They did not arrange it in the way that is known to produce successful and happy graduate students. The way it was set up made what should have been a benefit to me and to society a miserable experience and there is no good reason for it. They cost all of us the results of my research and they cost me a goal I've always held. I'm pissed, cause it didn't have to be like that.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Yes, it is possible for it to work smoothly to produce successful students. Noel and Scott just said so.

4:59 PM  
Blogger bobvis said...

I wonder if these support structures are any less important in real jobs than in graduate school.

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saw this a little late but it's a really interesting discussion. I just finished a Ph. D. in History this past Spring and I'm definitely not going the academic route.

My $.02:

There were points when I really hated grad school, but I DID finish and even won the department's dissertation award.

I didn't have much community at all. I would actually suggest that people go to much bigger schools, so they have a better chance of meeting people with similar interests or even just decent people. In my department, which was quite small, one of the students went psycho and began to take out his bitterness about various imagined slights on one of the faculty members (he wanted to be the professor's only student as opposed to a number of students) and younger faculty members who had grudges against this older faculty member egged him and others on. Seminars were hellish, since it was the same methodological games being played over and over again, I learned absolutely nothing from my fellow grad students and ended up training myself. My advisor was a smart guy, but largely content to let me forge my own path.

By my 5th and 6th years in the program, things had calmed down for the most part, largely because new students who simply hadn't been around were coming through and things relaxed, but by then the scars were in place.

What got me through was the fact that I did have funding. So, I'd say that as important as community can be, not much can substitute for a cold hard cash commitment on the part of your department or program.

At the same time, however, you need that community interaction to really integrate you into the profession down the road. The nasty slams I'd encountered for three straight years before leaving the country to do my research really made it difficult to talk with other academics without crouching in expectation of a barrage of abuse ("only 65 year old white men read those books"; rolling of eyes and loud sighs; "your subfield is dead").

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great story, and yes I recognise the signs.

I did a masters in history in the UK. A part of me wishes I had gone on and done the doctorate, but I didn't find the right area of focus. Jobs were also very hard to come by.

But DeadWhiteEuropeanMale history, although very out of fashion, includes some of the most interesting history.

Because (assuming you are working in Europe or North American subject areas, and also Australia and Latin America and South Africa) DWEMs did, in fact, actually make most of the history.

And 'dead' subfields of history, like Diplomatic History, are actually some of the most widely read (Margaret MacMillan's book on Versailles for example). Look at what Niall Ferguson has achieved from the narrow field of Economic History.

I know, you'll never get tenure being Robert Dallek or Nial Ferguson.

But there is so much amazing stuff out there.

What I like about history (I also have a computer science degree) is that it really trains your mind to probe and think deeply about things, and to constantly test evidence against hypothesis. And also to see a B-S argument coming a mile off.

If you have any more thoughts to share you can find me at

lbsgrad2003 (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk



1:32 PM  

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