If you can secure funding for it, liberal arts graduate school is an amazing place to spend a few years of your life. While academic job prospects are few and far between, the focus and environment of grad school create a truly unique learning experience. Here are five things I wish I’d known before starting my studies.
1.) It’s a hyper-specialized world.
Forget the broad strokes surveys of Western philosophy that are the mainstay of undergrad programs. Grad school is a niche realm. Get ready to learn about radical feminists of the eighteenth century or the literary symbolism of the closet (an actual course, taught at my actual grad school). Some of the course topics are so esoteric that you’ll wonder if your professors played Mad Libs to come up with them. You’ll be exposed to perspectives and interpretive frameworks that never would have occurred to you.
Your critical thinking skills will expand as Foucault and Lacan become dinner conversation. If you have a niche interest in your field, it will be respected and nurtured. Make it your thesis, a process that consists of one to five years of fanboy-or-fangirling out. Dig into the archives. Present at some grad conferences. You’ll never have this much time to focus on your interests again, so enjoy!
2.) Be prepared to teach.
Most grad students are Teacher’s Aids (TA) at some point in their career. It’s your university’s way of simultaneously offering you funding and gifting its professors with cheap labor. Whether you have a smaller tutorial section or a full class to manage, you’re likely to face a few rows of blank faces. Teaching offers a chance to learn those real world skills that elude most graduate classrooms: how to get people’s attention and how to explain things clearly. This is the time to bring in the YouTube videos, practice drawing explanatory charts on the board (it’s harder than you think!), and work on those pop culture comparisons.
Having your students bring in discussion questions is an invaluable teaching trick as well they’ll show you which parts of the material the students do and don’t understand. A funny thing will happen when you teach. You’ll start to realize that, impostor syndrome aside, you really do understand some things. The learning process has happened to you without you knowing it.
3.) More proximity to professors is a good and bad thing.
Ever had a professor speak at you from a stage in a gigantic lecture hall? Grad school is a much more intimate experience. You’ll be in small classes and working closely with a thesis supervisor. Professors are more comfortable with their graduate students, and will open up about their research, their (very smart) meandering thoughts, and their academic journeys. They’ll be interested in hearing about yours, too, and they might just show up to class with a book to lend you because it matches an interest you’ve told them about.
In an interesting deviation from the undergrad experience, you’ll get invited to professors’ houses for parties that feature teachers and students alike, both getting drunk. Most of their antics are benign it’s kind of funny to watch your prof fall down but be on guard for creepy behavior. The upside of this informality is that it’s easier for students and professors to build genuine connections.
4.) You’ll go to the same pub over and over again.
Yes, it’s the one right next to campus. You’ll most likely find it to be hilariously decorated and full of people with backpacks. After class, you’ll go there with your grad school friends to have uncensored versions of your classroom discussions, accompanied by a beer. When a speaker or special guest comes in from out of town, your whole department will take them there for a communal drinking experience. Whenever there’s a sports championship on, you’ll go there with a big group to watch it. Whenever there’s a birthday, three guesses where the party will be. You won’t mind too much because after a while, it will feel like home.
5.) Close study quarters make the heart grow fonder.
In graduate school, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who share your specialized interests. When you’re not in class, they’ll all be there in the study room, or the library, or whatever tight, book filled space the students in your department utilize to get their work done. In that close knit space, you’ll meet some truly wonderful people to have costumed theme parties, drink wine, and partake in the art of recreational complaining with. You’ll borrow each others reference materials and procrastinate by sharing YouTube videos.
You’ll also have involved conversations about whatever you’re majoring in, because if people like the subject matter enough to study it in graduate school, it’s part of their everyday lives. Romance is a real possibility, too. A number of my professors were married to each other, and a handful of couples (and hookups) emerge from each department like clockwork.
Melanie Bell, MA is a Canadian who currently teaches and writes in San Francisco. She attended graduate school in English/Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal. Learn about her work teaching personality types at Berghoef & Bell Innovations.