My Take on “Things Not to Say to a Graduate Student”

Early on in my blogging, I started to write something about the questions that I was tired of hearing since starting graduate school.

Just before Christmas, I discovered that someone beat me to it.  Ben Deaton’s Things You Never Say to a Graduate Student was shared by one of my classmates, and within a day, approximately 30% of the students in our program re-posted it.  (That’s a very rough estimate.)  But clearly a number of us felt like we could relate to at least something in the post.

Since I’ve been wanting to write something about this anyway, and there is a decent amount of overlap with Mr. Deaton’s perspective, here are my thoughts on what he had to say with some additional musings and pictures of cats on textbooks.

Graduate School is as Similar to College as College is to High School

When I was in college I ran into a high school classmate who was finishing college a year early and going right into a graduate program at a university that just happened to be where a substantial portion of our high school class was going to college.  I said something along the lines of, “That’s kind of funny that you’re going to be back with a bunch of people from our school.” Her response was “But they’re in college. I’m going to be in graduate school.”

At the time it struck me as being obnoxious and kind of snotty, but I now get her point. (Although I still think she was kind of snotty about it.)  Graduate school is a very different experience from college.  And having been in both a masters and a PhD program, I can tell you there’s a big difference there, too.  I don’t like explaining that to people because I can’t figure out how to say it without trivializing their experiences.  But Ben is very straightforward in his blog, and is able to do so without sounding at all condescending. Why is it so hard for me to do that?

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B thinks he’s smarter than everyone.

Ben’s first thing not to say: “You must be so much smarter than me.”  Oh right, that‘s why I feel uncomfortable emphasizing the difference between college and grad school.  I’ve gotten responses like this from enough people that I often avoid mentioning that I’m working on my PhD when I meet someone. Of course doing so just makes it worse, as it usually results in an awkward conversation like this:

Person I’m just meeting: So what do you do? (which is a crappy question to begin with, by the way)

Sarah: [trying to downplay it] I’m in school.

PIJM: Oh, cool. What are you majoring in? (I admit that I do find it flattering that they so quickly assume I’m a college student)

Sarah: Actually I’m in graduate school.

PIJM: Like a masters degree?

Sarah: Actually it’s a doctoral program.

If I don’t get a “oh wow, you must be really smart” type of reaction, the second-most common is “Good for you!” I have no idea how to respond to this. “Thank you” seems most appropriate, but… weird. I know that about 95% of the people who say this are genuine and mean something like, “That’s really awesome that you’re doing that.” (I suspect the other 5% are trying to quickly shut down the conversation because they are afraid you’re about to launch into a 20-minute monologue about your dissertation on The Influence of Barn Swallows’ Mating Habits on Architecture in 17th-Century Germany.*)

*I do prefer these people, however, to the people who proceed to ask, “What are you studying?” and then cut you off and/or wander away before you finish a single sentence.

“When are you going to graduate?” I was so happy to see this included, as it is the most common question, and it sucks to answer. There are some goals that can’t be perfectly planned out on a timeline. “When are you going to get a job?” “When do you think you will finally lose twenty pounds?”

That being said, I know pretty much anyone who reads this and also knows me in person is going to worry that they’ve asked me this. Yes, you have.  It’s okay. Just don’t ask again.  Safer questions, if you’re interested in my progress: “So what are you working on this semester?” or “Anything new at school?” Believe me, if a graduation date is in sight, everyone will know.

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See? Matilda is in no hurry to graduate.

“Aren’t you tired of being in school?” I have to say that I have not heard this very often. It usually comes in a more indirect form like, “Oh, I could never go back to school.” But more often, I hear, “Oh, so you’re one of those perpetual students.” To me, a “perpetual student” is someone who collects degrees. The person who already has a masters degree in psychology and then goes back to get two more in art history and zoology (which I would totally do if I had a way to fund it and live on more than a student stipend). “Perpetual student” also sometimes has implications that you’re hiding out in school to avoid the real world. But choosing to get an advanced degree as a means to get the job that you want is not avoiding the real world. If anything, it’s a decision to delay a lot of gratification that the real world and a real job can offer (i.e., buying a house, going on trips, actually having paid vacation time to go on trips).

Which ties in quite nicely to Ben’s next thing…

“Do you have such and such holiday ‘off’?” What Ben says about there being the potential to work all the time is absolutely true. Yes, my schedule is more flexible than having a 9-to-5 job (which is why I can get away with firing off several blog entries on a Thursday afternoon).  But having undefined working hours means also having undefined nonworking hours. And choosing to spend a Thursday afternoon doing fun things means that I will be working on Friday evening or Saturday afternoon.

Which brings me to my final thing not to say to a graduate student:

At 5:30pm: “Hey, we’re all going out to [fill-in-the-blank with preferred fun activity] tonight. Come with us!” Actually, it’s okay to say this. Just understand that there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be able to say yes. It could be a day where, at 5:30 pm, I am still in my pajamas, have been working on research for six hours straight, and will likely continue to do so for six more hours if someone does not intervene. On those days, these types of messages are very, very welcome.  But it also might be a day where I decided the afternoon would be best spent painting my nails and watching four hours of Alias, and now I really need to spend the rest of the night working on a paper; however, had I known there were more enticing options for the evening, I would have decided to be more productive earlier on in the day.  Because as much as I enjoy procrastinating by watching Michael Vartan and Bradley Cooper, it’s way better to see friends. Plans that are made even further in advance are even better; I might be able to get things done so I can spend all of Saturday not working. Because it’s good for me to see sunlight, too.

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It is also good for me to get out of the house so I might take pictures of something other than my cats.

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