That is not the purpose here. On the contrary, I want this page to inspire others to consciously pursue that path and maybe help others thrive. Doing a master's, and especially a doctorate, is not an easy decision. One should never do it because others are, or because one did well in the undergrad, etc. That's what I want to do this.
Now, what gives me the authority to talk about "surviving grad school"? Well, on the one hand, I think having both a master's and a doctorate (and being married to a scholar who also has both degrees) gives me a sense of vicarious experience to help others. In addition, I coordinate a master's program and I have a few doctoral students under my tutelage, so helping graduate students thrive and survive has become my bread-and-butter. I also have experiences working to promote initiatives to help Fulbrighters on their return to Colombia.
Making the Leap: Why, when, where?
The question about what to do with a doctorate has become a hotter topic in recent years. While I can't deny that it might take a while to set your feet on the ground after returning home or that things are dire in today's economy, some things are affecting almost everyone. However, it is always important to look at the bigger picture. The first question, naturally, is should I do a Ph.D.? Saying yes or no for some people might take a night or two of introspection. I think the first thing you should think about is whether you like to do research (a Ph.D. in particular is all about research) and if you see yourself pursuing that line of work for a very long time. I found an interesting website where the author talked about the choice of pursing a Ph.D., how to see oneself making a difference in the world, and even how old one should be to start one.
The age factor, for instance, may make a huge difference, maybe not so much about whether you do it, but where. I believe that younger scholars who are insanely driven but are not necessarily fully developed researchers might benefit from the emphasis on research education that universities in the U.S. or Canada may offer (some U.S. universities, for instance, require candidates to specialize in one research methodology). More seasoned researchers, who may incidentally be older, might benefit from Ph.D. programs where one goes directly on to the thesis stage, as is the case of the UK, Germany, or Australia. Then there is, of course, another question for potential Ph.D. candidates in regions outside of North America or Europe (with apologies to The Clash): Should I stay or should I go? Well, if you have the chance to do it abroad, take it! I had an amazing time at Illinois and I even had the chance to meet my wife there. However, if you choose to do it in your home country, look carefully at the faculty in your desired doctoral program. In certain universities abroad, you may have the chance to work with the Shaolin Masters of the field (not a bad proposition by any means), but in your country you might have what is also a good deal: someone who may have studied with said masters and learned their Kung-Fu there... and trust me, by working with the younger master, chances are you may also meet other Shaolin Masters!
The "Ph.D. Bug"
[NOTE: I wrote the next three sections originally in 2006... but I read them this year and they still hold true. So, I'm reproducing them here.] Those who know my trajectory well enough know that I arrived in Illinois in 2002, as a Fulbright student, to pursue a master's in education and "maybe" find academic training or "maybe" do my Ph.D. One of the unmentioned shenanigans of Research I universities (see May 1 blog) is the existence of this bug called the "Ph.D. bug." And unless you have vaccinated yourself against it (i.e. convinced yourself that there is no chance in hell I'll do one of those, or be in Law school or an MBA program), it WILL bite you. It's futile, don't say that you won't, that a Ph.D. is not for you. If you're in a Research I, it will bite you. And, if you're a Fulbrighter, you're doomed. Fulbright master's students are the biggest targets of the bug... ask me and a lot of my friends at the U of I. I think the score so far is: U of I Ph.D.: 150 Fulbright MA Students: 0!
But how does the bug work? You see, one of the interesting facts about Research I universities is that in some classes, master's and doctoral students can be together. There are classes restricted to master's, and restricted doctoral seminars, but you can find either in those. When you enroll in one of these (let's call them for now) "mixed" seminars, master's and doctoral students are faced with the same amounts of reading and expected to participate equally in the discussions and conversations. It is right there that the bug hits you: You start wondering, "If I can be with doctoral students in a seminar, and do just as well or better, am I Ph.D. material?" And trust me, doc students and faculty are like sharks: They can smell blood in the water, or in this case a master's student's indecision. And we'll... er... they'll do whatever it takes to have you join the ranks of the doc students. I have personally helped several Fullies make up their mind, and I had to go through that too. I admit, the pressure to go all the way is high, and as an international student, you have this "now or never" mentality [not too far-fetched, though], which adds up to the pressure. Doubt, fear, uncertainty, become part of the problem... and that's just wondering whether you should apply online or use the paper forms.
Now, understand that if you're being told you're ripe for a doctorate that's a compliment. People here (as I said in a previous blog) like to praise talent only ifthey see it. We're not cheerleaders, we're not Paula Abdul in American Idol(i.e. we won't say nice things just because that's what you want to hear), but we're not Simon Cowell either (although some committees can have a professor who makes Simon look like Santa Claus!). If you feel that you can go all the way, or if you feel that your adviser cannot wait for you to be a doc student, there might be something about you that might help you succeed. However, you should be true to your heart. This is a decision that will primarily shape the next 3, 4, 5 years of your life and most likely the rest of your career. Make a sound decision. Here are some suggestions:
Talk to people. Other graduate students (in and out of your department), your adviser, other professors you've taken classes with. Ask for an honest opinion. It's better to be told you're not ready for it before you start applying than when you're starting to write your dissertation! Also, universities have career services offices and counselors. Ask for an appointment and bring your concerns. It's not an easy decision, but don't corner yourself.
Look at what you want out of your career. Does a Ph.D. fit what I want to do? That's a big question you must ask yourself. That might finally decide what gown you'll wear on graduation day.
Again, be true to yourself. Whatever you decide, make sure you know well why you did it. Whether you stay or leave, do it the right way. Again, remember that those close to you might not understand at first (it took my folks some time to assimilate my decision, but they -as they've done so many times before- supported me and gave me all their energy and love), but eventually they'll understand that it's for your best.
So, you chose a research university... what now?
There has been one topic I've kind of wanted to talk about, since from my own experience at Illinois it's worth being told about when you're choosing schools for a master's or a doctorate. When I chose Illinois, I was well aware of its reputation and the fact that I was a top-notch school. What I didn't know was the existence of the term "Research I University" and the consequences for students enrolled in such universities. So here's the scoop on what that's all about and what it means for you:
The term "Research I" is actually coined by the Carnegie Foundation, and it refers to schools that offer more than (I think) 150 doctoral programs. The ones offering less than 150 are called Research II. Then there are those that only offer Master's degrees. Although I recently read that Carnegie had come up with another, more comprehensive, classification, this one is highly popular and sooner or later it becomes part of the everyday lingo, especially in fields like social sciences and the humanities.
Now, being a bit sarcastic, sometimes I wonder if "Research I" is a term professors use to justify those 3 books you have to read for the following class plus the subsequent report about it and the fact that you'll have to spend a whole afternoon in the library [By the way, I said I was being sarcastic, not that I was joking!] or lots of time sitting at a coffee shop]. The bottom line is, the expectations for graduate students at Research I universities are very high and faculty here are very straightforward about it, and that brings about the constant bump-and-grind atmosphere that surrounds you as a student. One of the first things I had to learn to live with was the high amounts of reading. In fact, learning to skim and scan reading materials become very important skills to develop, so please when they talk to you in reading comprehension classes about skimming and scanning, pay attention. That will be the difference in terms of how long it will take you to finish your readings, and remember to multiply any numbers I provide about pages to read by at least 3, again not kidding.
I don't bring up these numbers to scare people away. You just need to know that Research I universities are mostly concerned in, yes, research. For some folks (like me), that's perfect. You get the chance to work with some of the best in their fields and get your feet wet. But some people have more practical goals for their degrees. Let's say, for example, that you do want to get a doctorate in education, but you're not so crazy about research or being a university professor. Knowing what kind of institution you're applying to is important. Do your homework and ask around A LOT. And, if you decide to enroll in a Research I university, know this: You'll probably come out well prepared, but the faculty are gonna beat you up (intellectually speaking, of course) in the process. And trust me: They know that they're beating you up day in and day out... but then again that's for your own good. So, what do you need to know in order not only to survive but thrive in a Research I environment? Here are some tips:
1. Get involved. U.S. universities in general, and Research I in particular, provide students with lots of chances to partake in the academic and research community. If you can get involved in research, do it as soon as you can, even if for free at first. Try to get your work known. Submit papers for conferences. Some universities have Graduate Student Symposia [I presented at 2 of those], and that's a good chance to learn the tricks of presenting.
2. Get to know the faculty. Research I faculty are awfully busy, but if you request for an appointment to discuss a particular issue of your interest, they will open a space for you. However, be careful. Faculty here have a very low tolerance for brown-nosing, so be respectful without being overly flattery. They already know they're "big names," they don't need you to remind them. But they will demand respect. So, it's always customary to e-mail them and ask for a meeting. Do refer to them as "Dr. so-and-so" or "Professor so-and-so," especially when you introduce yourself for the first time. Some are very laid-back and don't mind if you call them by first name eventually; some won't say a word but it's well-known that graduate students don't call them by their first names. Relationships with faculty can range from very respectful professional courtesy to strong friendships. Faculty refer to you as "graduate students," but many of them know they are breeding their future colleagues, so any form of camaraderie is simply their way to welcome you to the academic circle.
3. Be always ready to go the extra mile. Most doctoral students (especially) have to work while they pursue their degrees. Going the extra mile means be ready to work overtime if necessary or to do more than you might be supposed to. A strong work ethic and that trooper spirit that comes with going the extra mile are highly appreciated by faculty and that will in turn help your reputation as a grad student and might help you find more funding in the future.
4. The race is only with yourself. One huge difference between undergraduate programs and graduate programs is how one conceives competition. At the undergraduate level, there is more competition in terms of GPA or ranking, and students might make a bigger fuss about an A or an A minus, for instance. At the graduate level, although you are still competing for scholarships or funding, there is that feeling that you're working to improve yourself, not to prove you're better than the others. After all, if you made it to grad school, you've already proven you're academically successful. You get those A's for your satisfaction and sometimes even bragging rights [An A-plus will always be something to crow about!], but that won't be the measure of your success.
5. Network, network, network. Probably one of the biggest lessons about grad school I have learned so far has been the importance of networking and making strong relationships with your classmates. Although in graduate school the concept of a cohort is almost non-existent [unless you're in law school, med school, or the MBA], you take classes with a lot of people from all walks of life. Remember what I said about what you look like in the eyes of the faculty? That applies to your classmates. They, too, will defend their dissertations and find jobs. Make sure you maintain those contacts. That might come in handy in the future.
6. Life happens in grad school too! One of the biggest mistakes one can make is to think that their life is on hold or stand-by while in graduate school. Nothing could be farther than the truth. What you just did is leave your country and resume your life elsewhere, at a very different pace from those in what we call "the real world." Newsflash: Grad school is part of the real world, and those things that happen to folks out of grad school happen to us too! I still have to pay rent and my phone, I've had a girlfriend, and I have to go grocery shopping in between my thesis, classes, and my quals. Friends of mine in school have gotten married and had babies, others become uncles, aunts, and even grandparents. A beer tastes the same here than elsewhere (although they won't charge you 7 bucks for a Corona on campus as they would in Chicago!). My point is, graduate students can have fulfilling lives and fun from time to time. We're busy in our own terms and sometimes work 9-to-5 too... although in our case it might very well be 9 PM to 5 AM!
7. Have friends everywhere, on and off campus. One big mistake people make is to stick to their small circles of friends and never leave them. A secret to my success (survival?) in grad school has been having friends who are not in education. People outside your department keep you with your feet on earth. Plus, it is exciting to hear what others do and to have someone enjoy hearing about your work with a sense of novelty. In the same token, meet people from other cities/countries. My circle of friends includes people from Argentina, Venezuela, Turkey, the Netherlands, Russia, Puerto Rico, Korea, Taiwan, Lebanon, and so on. Remember that you might NEVER have the opportunity to learn so much about the world as you will in graduate school. Seize that opportunity. In that same token...
8. Think outside the box. Aside from meeting people in other departments or from other countries, enjoy the diversity and chances for creativity campuses offer. Go to a library that's not in your field, go to cultural events, get to know what other areas are up to. Two of my papers have been in communications (at Kentucky) and Latina/Latino studies (at Illinois), and I treasure the experience of learning about what those fields are doing.
One final thing you should know about your survival:
9. Your friends and family might NEVER understand what it is that you do, but they'll love you regardless! Trust me, the most dreaded questions your folks can ask you (and they will) are,
"So what's your research about?"
"What's your thesis/dissertation topic?"
"How's your writing coming?"
"What is it exactly what you're doing in graduate school?"
And, of course the pièce de resistance, "When are you graduating?"
It might take people forever to understand why a Ph.D. might take 6 or 7 years... add to that the fact that for international students that might imply explaning it in your native language, and that thickens the plot dramatically. But remember, your friends and family are proud of you anyways. Plus, that also keeps you down to earth, because you'll always be the person they knew before you became "Dr so-and-so"... and that's cool too!
Facing the Intangibles
There's a famous saying in the U.S., "There's no such thing as a free meal." It kind of applies the same to (especially) a doctorate. True, some graduate students need to take up thousands of dollars on loans to get their MBAs or go to Law school, but many are also blessed with scholarships, fellowships, or assistantships to pursue their degrees. Many international students manage to pursue their degrees that way. But it is not the economic costs of a Ph.D., for instance, that I'm concerned about. It's the other costs of a Ph.D. for thousands of international students all over the U.S.
Life goes on once you're in grad school; it may move at very different, sometimes frantic, paces, but it moves on nonetheless. However, everybody else's lives do too. And there's where the intangibles begin. I'll speak for myself. Doing my master's and my Ph.D. cost me: Missing 3 weddings, including my sister's; not being the best man in 2 of those weddings; the birth of some of my cousin's and close friends' babies; lots of birthdays in my family; and the birth (I was in Bogotá teaching a seminar when they were born) and the first two years of my twin nieces' life (that's the reason why I actually dedicated my dissertation to them!). And at least I was able to see my family every couple of years. There are international students who must leave their wives and children behind, and not see them again until they finish their degrees. In some cases, even find out about their newborn babies on Skype! There are some fortunate enough to have their families visit several times, others only once, and many never get to host their families or celebrate their graduations with them (In 2004, I witnessed one Ph.D. graduate that had no onejoin him at the ceremony, in one of the happiest days of his life!). In addition, the pressure is always there, if you're not careful enough you can get sick or even worse.
I hope I'm not making the doctoral program sound as if it were a battlefield. I just wanted to point out that sometimes people outside of the program might pass judgment on us, or even think that we just want things to be this way, and that we don't try hard enough to go back home and that we'd rather be piled up in snow up here than having a nice meal in warm weather. However, we know that it's bigger than that: Not all of us come from super-wealthy families and sometimes travel is expensive. Our funding is enough to have a good life here, but not one of luxury. It is hard enough for us to deal with those intangibles and we know that those memories can never be recovered, no matter how many dvd's and mementos they send you, those of us who are here pursuing and working hard for our dreams know that all that comes with the territory. Deciding to pack your bags and go to graduate school means that you will miss some highlights of those you love back home. As I said, they'll offer you a cheaper ride, not a free one.
However, there is a silver lining: You are also living great memories no one else is. I've visited great cities in the U.S. and met amazing people from all over the world. Ask yourself a question: How many people in the world do you know that gets to hang out (and party) with people from over 60 countries on a regular basis, some of the brightest in their fields no less? True, a weekend barbecue with my folks is pretty awesome and super fun (almost priceless), but an afternoon on my own at the Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco is a decent consolation prize. It's gonna suck not taking my nieces for a stroll at a shopping mall in Medellin, but I know a long walk down the Magnficent Mile in Chicago will cheer me up. Plus, I don't have my family in the U.S., but one thing we international students learn is that you can make up a "family" of your own. I cannot do as much as I wish for my little sister, but I have a bunch of younger "siblings" that I take care of day in and day out - and they take care of me, in their own bizarre ways. I have a "family" in C&I, where my advisor and the faculty sometimes are sometimes like surrogate parents and uncles/aunts, and my classmates are another form of family - and like my cousins in Colombia, they like me even though I'm one of the loudest and most eccentric people they've ever met. One nice thing of the "family" grad students start becoming is that what happens to you, good or bad, becomes a big deal for those close to you. There's a sense of camaraderie that comes with being "on the same boat." So, my advice to those of you that might be considering graduate school as your new life: Be aware of those intangibles. You'll miss some of the best things that will happen to everyone else, but you will also live some of the best (and craziest) moments in your life, and I can assure you you'll have a lot of stories to tell... like that time when you climbed up the Alma Mater all dressed in orange that day of the NCAA championship game back in 2005... on, you weren't in Champaign that day? Well, you'll tell me all about what the wedding was like and how tasty the cake was and I'll tell you what it's like to walk around in a city where 30,000 people are dressed in orange and blue!
Let me share some articles and websites that might be illustrative:
I stumbled upon Dr. Greg Mankiw's blog, which featured several sites with tips and suggestions regarding graduate school.
The Atlantic recently published a more uplifting piece about what to do with a humanities Ph.D. It actually provides a much broader palette about life after the dissertation. And this applies to other fields: I have two very good friends, one with a Ph.D. in Physics and another with a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering, making a pretty penny as financial analysts, for example.
I recently joined a very interesting initiative at Georgia State University, Conversations in Doctoral Preparation. They hold webinars on different topics related to the path to the Ph.D. I think those webinars are worth checking out. I recently gave a seminar related to my experiences during the dissertation stage. Here is the video!