Image by Flickr user country_boy_shane and used under Creative Commons License

Today is Halloween, of course, so I thought it necessary to explore the deepest darkest of our fears: the fears about grad school that haunt our dreams, wake us up at 3 in the morning, and generally fill us with the dread of impending doom.  I’ve taken a very unscientific poll of fellow grad students, both in person and on Twitter, as well as some of my faculty at Michigan State.  These represent our collective anxiety as we wander the halls of the grad school of horrors, the dark gloom gathering around us, the only sound our rapidly beating hearts….wait, what was that? Warning: this post is not for the faint of heart. Read on, but only if you dare….

  •  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The top of the list, it turns out, was trouble with advisors. So much of our lives as graduate students require the essential gatekeeper who is our advisor. Everything from which classes to take to meeting our program milestones are dependent on them. Getting money for school, letters of recommendation for job searches: all of it hinging on this one, fallible human being over whom we have no control whatsoever. No wonder we have anxiety about this relationship. I heard about weeks of nail-biting waiting for advisors to respond to requests for fellowship applications or just to get feedback about proposals and dissertation chapters. I heard a tale of one graduate student and his generally mild-mannered advisor who, when in the rare foul mood, would turn into a sarcastic, cringe-inducing bully on the bad days. The best advice I have for the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect is to try not to talk first and just watch: who are you dealing with today? And then, act accordingly.
  • Vampires: We all know them. They are the classmate who always asks to see our notes, asks us to read over their drafts, always have the personal crisis during the group assignment, and who never, ever reciprocate the numerous favors they ask of us. They are overly-needy and underly-helpful, and they are the ultimate time-suck. I can only recommend eating lots of garlic in the hopes that one can ward them off with the foulest breath.
  • Goblins: Goblins are known for their mischievous nature and for generally making things go wrong. They are the clarification on the homework that comes at 11 p.m. when the assignment is due at 9 a.m. the following morning. They are the seemingly easy assignment that is “supposed to” take two hours, but in fact takes twenty.  They are the technology that we are so excited to use with our students or in a presentation that fails to work in the most spectacular fashion. For goblins I recommend crossing your fingers, knocking on wood, and jumping up and down one foot at the same time. At least when things are going wrong, you’ll look so ridiculous that you can laugh in the face of it.
  • Witches:  Remember the witches in Macbeth? Their insistence in talking in riddles and asking questions sent MacBeth off in a very wrong direction. Sometimes in grad school, it can feel like we are interacting with those Shakespearean witches: it’s not always clear what is being communicated to us nor what is being asked of us. Witches manifest themselves in the professor droning on and on about a theory we are sure we should have heard of before, but at the moment we have no idea what in the world he means. Or it is the professor grilling us as our faces heat up and our palms sweat, never getting closer to the answer we are sure she wants us to have. The only way to deal with witches is to handle them the best you can in the moment, look up whatever it was that we didn’t know later, and, by all means, don’t kill the king and start a battle for the throne. No one needs that kind of stress on top of graduate school.

Who is haunting the halls of your grad school of horrors? What is your grad school nightmare? We’d love to commiserate with you in the comments !

[Image by Flickr user country_boy_shane and used under Creative Commons License]


5 Responses to Grad School of Horrors

  1. Katy Meyers says:

    My biggest fear: turning into a zombie. I’m always worried that I’m going to burn out. What happens if I spend five years on this degree and by the time I’m done it no longer appeals to me because I’ve overworked myself? What if I just shut down and can’t function in my classes? What if I lose momentum and can’t finish? I think we all see these zombies… the tenth year who just can’t finish and isn’t even working on their diss. The once promising fourth year who worked themselves to death and quits.

    • Katy, let me just say that this post is certainly an homage to the Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse post you wrote a while back. The zombie image is a really good one, because isn’t that how we feel sometimes? Especially after a long day at my computer, I walk sort of stiffly from hunching over my keyboard, and all I do is moan, “Coffee, more coffee, for my brains, brains….”

  2. WG says:

    The horrors never cease. Have you seen the 100 reasons NOT to go to grad school?

    Some of the worst things about grad school (like stress and constant uncertainty) follow you into an academic career.

    • While I appreciate open dialogue about the pros and cons of going to graduate school, I do want to say that I really enjoy what I am doing. I don’t agree with all of the criticisms on your list, and I don’t think I am deluding myself, for a variety of personal reasons that I don’t want to go into here. I want to also just emphasize that I intended this as a light-hearted post about some of the downsides of the graduate school life: a goofy Halloween post, really. Being critical of the mythology surrounding graduate school is also important, however, and I hope that our gradhacker community will continue to push on some of these issues in a more appropriate way, maybe on posts that don’t involve talk of goblins and vampires. Happy Halloween!

  3. Cory Owen says:

    What a great, whimsical piece with a lot of truth behind it. I think it is important to recognize the ups and downs of grad school. To be quite honest, the people who stick it out and get their degrees aren’t necessarily the smartest, but rather those with enough endurance to see it through. It is good to put things into perspective and realize that we all face encounters with the goblins and witches, but that we can rely on each other to get through it. ?

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