Balance in Grad School: Challenges

Balancing in grad school require, first, recognition and naming of the extraordinary challenges one must face.  Grad school looks like college but does not feel like college.  You go to classes, take seminars, write papers, and work with professors, just as you did before and with great success.  After all, it was high grades and glowing recommendations that got you into grad school.  It was supposed to be more of the same only bigger, better, and more prestigious. What happened?  Why all this anxiety and confusion? Why is it suddenly so hard to write those papers and speak up in class with confidence?  Why does life feel as if it’s narrowing instead of opening out?  Maybe if we just work harder …

Grad school has an undeniable allure.  First, there’s the dream of a university position, both now and later on.  A teaching or research fellowship does constitute a paid position, even if you are still an apprentice and therefore, by definition, exploited.  You can still wrap your ego in the cloak of a prestigious research institution and nurse the hope that a regular, similar position will magically follow once you finish your dissertation, despite the terrible numbers reported on the job market.  Grad work allows you to stay in school, insulated from the economy and postponing the cold bath that comes with entry into the “real world.”  Moreover, there are tangible payoffs in terms of the work itself, which you love: you get to read, conduct experiments, write and publish papers, teach, all of which feed your spirit while buffing your vita.  What’s not to like?

It’s not long before reality begins to intrude.  After only a few weeks, you may begin to awaken from this sleep of reason.  The professors, who in undergraduate school basted you with interest, encouragement, and constructive criticism, now seem critical, skeptical, and demanding.  They often seem more impressed with your mastery of the secondary literature, which too often seems clogged with second-rate ideas, than with original thinking.  After dreaming of studying with the greats, you now despair of finding a mentor.  It’s baffling, bewildering.

Consider, however, that if brilliance and originality got you into grad school, they are  also what got your professors to the top of their field.  What are the chances that your brilliance and originality will coincide with theirs?  To gain and maintain the big-league reputations so vital to the continuance of their programs, grad professors must constantly generate and publish cutting-edge research.  The care and feeding of stardom is a more than full time job. There are only twenty four hours in a day, and grad professors are only human.  Few of them have the inner security or ego strength to set aside their own agendas and enter with wholeheartedness into the growth of their students.  Especially when they know, deep down, that these students’ work will eventually make their own obsolete.  They have the unenviable job of training the competition.  Talk about a double bind!

Think for a moment about the professors you knew in grad school.  How many seemed to be leading convincing lives?  How many were balanced themselves?  You may have known a few, either personally or by reputation.  Some had learned to be true mentors, mastering the arts of tough love and empowerment, guiding without directing, able to let go at the right time.  It’s an extraordinary sacrifice.

Meanwhile, most of us have to navigate grad school without true mentors.  We have to find our own way, working toward balance as best we can.  The good news is that this struggle, pursued with deliberate imagination, can become an invaluable part of our education.  It can make us strong and graceful.

Publish or Perish: It’s Not What You Think

We all know that in academia, publication is the coin of the realm, no matter what they say about teaching. The old maxim “Publish or perish” nails this harsh truth to the door.  But there is more to it than meets the eye, as I learned years ago from my undergraduate mentor, who gave me my first lesson in staying alive.

I met Peter Bien as a freshman at Dartmouth.  He was recently tenured, renowned as a teacher, famous for packed lectures and demanding assignments.  I was a hotshot freshman, infatuated with all kinds of arcane knowledge from quantum physics to Finnegans Wake and eager for a career in teaching.  I took his freshman seminar, where we read Ulysses, and the next year he invited me to give a talk in his course on the modern novel.

At the time I thought Finnegans Wake was the coolest thing ever written, and lecturing in his class would be like playing basketball with Michael Jordan.  I spent weeks generating nifty ideas, choosing evocative quotes, and diagramming narrative structures and cosmogonic cycles. (This was the 1960’s, long before Powerpoint).  When the big day came, I arrived at the lecture hall laden with books and notes and lugging an overhead projector. The talk went smoothly and ended with a burst of applause.

Professor Bien and I walked back to his office, he silent, I flushed with excitement. I expected some sort of acknowledgement, at least a pat on the back, but he said nothing.  Finally, I mumbled something like, “Well, that went well.”  More silence.  Desperate, I added, “I hardly expected applause.”  He turned to me with a faint smile.  “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t put too much stock in the adulation of undergraduates.”

Talk about a punch to the gut! This was my mentor and role model, a campus legend, and I was certainly one admiring undergraduate.  How could he say that?  Worse, how could he feel that?  He must have realized at once that I was way too young for this kind of truth offered straight up with no chaser.  He quickly added , “You must realize, and you will, if you get into this business, that your students are always coming in fresh and new, while you are always growing and learning.  It is important to subject your ideas to the scrutiny of your peers; otherwise you will never know if they are any good.  You need to publish in order to stay alive.”

Over the years this conversation has stood in my memory as a landmark.  Even then, Professor Bien led a very convincing life, balancing teaching and scholarship with fatherhood, citizenship, and spirituality. He respected his students too much to withhold the tough love that was intertwined with his passion for the material.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that scholarship is about more than making the grade or clearing the tenure hurdle.  It’s about feeding the fire of your curiosity and creativity to produce enough light and warmth to nurture your students, your community, and your own life as well.