Post Academic

The Grad Student Loan Trap

Posted in Surviving Grad School,The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on March 29, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionNow that people are getting into grad programs, they are wondering how to pay for it. Some schools are generous and offer fellowships or TA-ships. However, that might not cover everything, and you may need to get a loan. These tips can help you avoid winding up in debtor’s hell:

1. Set a budget to find out what you really need. What you need will depend on where you live. If your dream grad program is in New York City, your living expenses will skyrocket. Don’t forget to factor in moving costs and the fact that you may not be employed in the summers.

2. Turn to the school and the government first. Did you fill out a FAFSA? Good. You should receive information soon on how much the school can give you and if you are eligible for government loans, like Stafford or PLUS loans, that offer fixed rates.

3. Steer clear of private loans. This is your dream and you can’t turn it down. Okay. But you should still beware of private loans. Haven’t you read Dickens? If you don’t have time to read Dickens, read this article from Kiplinger, which describes how students get hooked by a teaser loan rate that can balloon later on.

More after the jump!

Tips to Squelch Ivory Tower and Grad School Gossip

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 23, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionWhy does grad school gossip (and academia gossip) seem worse than office gossip? Because, when you get to grad school, you assume that people are smart and above something so petty and nasty. But you’re in a closed environment, and people are going to get on your nerves.

The Tao of Grad School nails the circumstances that make the ivory tower so ugly sometimes:

Competitiveness + high intelligence + psychology background + neuroticism + poor coping skills + long distance relationships + insecurity + extreme stress mediated by a small, cohesive cohort predicts interpersonal disaster. (That was my awful attempt at a regression equation to predict grad school drama. But you get the idea.)

So, what do you do about gossip in the academic environment? Gossip is hard to stop, especially since it is often the glue that holds communities together. That said, you can reduce gossip and cushion its impact with these tips, which appear after the jump:

If You’re the Gossip

  1. Try to keep your mouth shut. Wasn’t that easy?
  2. OK. That wasn’t so easy. So, if you must say something, ask yourself if you would be willing to say it to the person’s face if they called you out on it. If you’re not, then don’t gossip about it.
  3. Accept that people screw up. Don’t be so hard on everyone.

If You’re the Subject of the Gossip

  1. Let’s repeat: Accept that people screw up. So you heard someone talked trash about you? It stings. It’s horrible. People screw up. If they apologize, accept it, and keep being friends. Some people gossip so they feel like they belong, and the need to belong occasionally overwhelms one’s common sense.
  2. What if they don’t apologize? Then they’re not your friend. Just steer clear and let them hang themselves on a long, gossipy rope.
  3. Don’t try to one-up a gossip. Fighting trash talk with trash talk will make you look bad. You don’t have to turn the other cheek, though; simply tell others the truth, and the gossip will be the one who looks bad.

The Tao of Grad School: Grad School Gossip
Image of gossips in the Altstadt in Sindelfingen, Germany, by Rebecca Kennison, from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Health care and/for the post-academic

In honor of the passage of health care reform by the House of Representatives (yes, I’m a big ol’ liberal!), I wanted to address how health insurance can be a day-to-day issue that affects grad students and, especially, post-academics without full-time employment.  I’m only aware of how the health insurance system works (or rather worked when I was a grad student) at UC Irvine, but the experiences I’m recounting that are my own and of people I know might reflect those of others elsewhere.  Some of memories are a little fuzzy, but I do remember how precarious things can be for grad students with nothing lined up after the Ph.D or M.A.

Health insurance for grad students can be quite good, at least if you’re a student in good standing and have no reason to take any time off or leaves of absence.  At UCI, health insurance came along with our fees and tuition, which were covered by the institution as long as we were on fellowship or teaching; there’s this whole thing about the school basically paying itself (at least that’s how I understand it) that always seemed to be absurd bureaucratic accounting.  Our health insurance covered a lot of things, including primary care, counseling, dental, and vision.  We had a big health center on campus, though it could take a while to get an appointment.  One notable blind spot to grad student health insurance was that it didn’t offer family dependent coverage.

The problems with health coverage would come later on for students who were running out of teaching and funding towards the end of the Ph.D. process.  It’s part of a chain reaction of anxiety that could become a vicious circle:


Academia and Mental Health: The New Obsession With Cornell

Posted in Process Stories,The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on March 21, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionColleges are not known for fostering mental stability. It seems as if the world has just discovered this fact following the latest Cornell suicides. These tragedies seem to be in the news because there a part of the cycle and easy to fit into a narrative. “Oh, Cornell. So bleak. So competitive. And the gorges! My gosh, the gorges!” It’s as if students don’t commit suicide anywhere except Cornell.

What’s more important to discuss is that, on a campus, both students and professors can lose it quickly, especially when there’s no clear system regarding how to handle a problem. For example, most students assume you go to the student health center to get some condoms, not to get some counseling.

And what about the grad students and the professors? From grad school to tenure, the process is isolating. The lack of a regular schedule can take a toll. Not getting regular feedback, a la performance reviews, can take a bigger toll because you may have a distorted perception of how others perceive you in a department.

What Not to Wear: Grad School Edition

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 19, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionSomeone over at the “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” forum asked what you wear to grad school classes. This is a fascinating question, as many people wind up in grad school because they really, really do not want the trappings of a hamster world job, especially the uniform.

So, what do you wear?
A suit is not necessary, although there will always be one person in your cohort who opts to dress like a cast member on Trump’s “The Apprentice.” Nothing wrong with that, but don’t let him make you feel like you forgot to read a dress-code memo.

Then I can wear a T-shirt, flannel, and jeans? That’s the real dress code, right?
No. Grunge is dead. You need to be presentable, especially if you are teaching. The goal is to look more together than the people you are teaching. In some cases, you need to look older than the people you are teaching so you can project authority. Even on days when you aren’t teaching, you still need to polish up slightly because you might run into students on campus. Save T-shirts for Fridays, and wear new jeans, not old ones that are riddled with holes.

What about tattoos or nose rings?
The good news is that grad school allows for some personal expression, so you can show a little tattoo or facial hardware, as long as you look organized otherwise. If you look like you might ditch your class for a biker gang mid-semester, your class won’t respect you. (Then again, they might respect you, but for reasons totally unrelated to your teaching.)

Anything else I need to know?
Your smell matters, big time, possibly more than your look. Eau de Grad Student can get a little funky, like a combo of ramen and unwashed socks. You’re busy, and you may have a stack of papers to grade, but always take a shower before you mingle with the public. Otherwise, Rate My Professors might need to add a “stinky” face.

Maybe a Silly Question … [So You Want to Go to Grad School?]

This is one way to earn the respect of your students. Image of Republic of Texas Biker Rally by Dustin Ground of Austin, TX, from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Surviving Grad School: An Increasing Number of Empty Chairs

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 14, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionOne of the best parts of grad school was a weekly tradition we had called “Victorian Lunch,” where grad students picked up take-out meals and ate outside on UCI’s campus. The lunch probably should have been called “Novel Lunch,” as I wasn’t even a Victorian, but the topics were up my alley. Of course, the lunch wasn’t all about academic subjects, and I picked up plenty of practical advice, some of which I wish I knew before going to grad school.

In fact, I believe it was my former advisor, Homer Brown, who told a fascinating story about his first class in his first year in grad school. He admitted that the professor instilled fear into the hearts of the students through a simple exercise, one that you should probably try if you go to grad school yourself:

1. Look to your left.
2. Look to your right.
3. Take note that both of those chairs will be empty by the end of the year.

The genius of the exercise was that everyone would be gone, yet the person in the middle could still cling to the fact that she might be the exception.

Last week on Post Academic (3/7-3/13)

Posted in Housekeeping by Arnold Pan on March 14, 2010
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Here’s a little recap of the week that just ended at Post Academic.  Every Saturday or Sunday, we’ll try to tout some posts that might have been overlooked or that have cycled off the front page from the early part of the week.  Thanks for making it another good week!

* We pass along some great resources for media jobs, freelance work, and academic jobs you might not be getting this year.

* We think about what prospective grad students thinking about their decisions should be thinking about.  Caroline covers mentors and department culture, while Arnold addresses money matters and good/bad first impressions.

And, remember, don’t forget to spring forward on Sunday and change your clocks accordingly!

Some more annoying personalities you will meet in grad school programs

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Arnold Pan on March 12, 2010
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Since Caroline’s earlier post was such a big hit, I wanted to get in on the fun and identify a few other common grad student personality types to add to her list.  You can read whatever meaning into “more” you want, whether as “some more” or “more annoying,” depending on what you can tolerate and can’t.

6. The Networking Name Dropper

Kind of a hybrid between The Disciple, The One-Upper, and The Gossip.  Like The Disciple (just more fickle) in his idolatry of the latest, greatest theorist.  Like The One-Upper in that he will explain why your favorite theorist pales in influence and significance to said latest, greatest theorist, if only because he has met the latter at some conference where your paper wasn’t accepted.  Like The Gossip in that he will tell you all about it.

Annoyance Level: Depends on how much you enjoy inside baseball.  At the very least, you might find out some interesting stories that might encourage you to indulge your inner Gossip.

Danger Level: Low.  He’s just not that into you.

How to Handle: Just let him find someone more interesting and more networking-worthy to talk to, which might not take too long.  He’s probably just as eager to stop talking to you as you are him, if only for different reasons.

7. The Passive Aggressor

Academia is full of very nice people, some of them maybe too nice.  The Passive Aggressor wants to be your friend and probably is, so you might not notice when low-maintenance go-with-the-flow guy becomes high-maintenance drama-king who justifies it by feeling bad about it.  What’s worse is that The Passive Aggressor Grad Student can grow up and become The Passive Aggressor Professor, whose obsessive conflict avoidance and shilly-shallying might actually eff things up for someone.

Annoyance Level: Varies.  But when you find fault with someone who tries hard to be faultless (and might be faultless), you’re probably pretty annoyed.

Danger Level: Sneaky high.  You probably won’t notice you’ve been embroiled in a friendship with baggage until you’ve actually invested in it and it’s too late.  Before you know it, The Passive Aggressor might have turned you into The Downer.

How to Handle: After a while, you’ve gotta figure out the cycle and break it.  Or else, try to out passive aggressive them until they can’t put up with you.

8. The Perpetual Grad Student

If grad programs gave out Letter Jackets, this guy would be wearing one (along with whatever was in fashion when he started grad school that has long been out-of-date).  He’s the late-bloomer version of the big-man-on-campus, who spends too much time on the department listserv in flame wars or giving too much unsolicited advice to the new batch of students.  (On the other hand, pot might be meeting kettle here, considering that Post Academic might just be a glorified version of such a hypothetical listserv.)

Annoyance Level: Low.  The one thing about The Perpetual Grad Student is that he is usually very earnest and idealistic.  Unless he’s The Creepy Perpetual Grad Student who stays in school to hit on the new grad students and the undergrads he teaches.

Danger Level: Not high–so long as you don’t become him!

How to Handle: Try to find things to talk about that aren’t related to school and department politics.  Anyone so obsessed with grad school is probably obsessed with something else.

As Caroline wrote earlier, a lot of these personality quirks are fostered by the culture of grad school and, in many ways, out of anyone’s personal control.  Indeed, in the spirit of full disclosure and semi-self-awareness, I’ve probably gone through phases where at least some aspects of all these types have applied to me in varying degrees during the grad school process, arriving now at some combo of The Downer (who wouldn’t be after being on this crappy academic job market) and The Perpetual Grad Student.  And you can probably find something good in most of these personality types, since being idealistic, overly persistent, too nice, and overachieving aren’t necessarily bad things in the right context.  They’re just not as fun to write and snark about!

Students at Victoria College, 1910, William James (not that William James), Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.  Image from Wikimedia Commons.

5 Annoying Personalities You Will Meet in Grad School Programs, and How to Cope With Them

Posted in Absurdities,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 11, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionBoth in and out of the ivory tower, you will meet people you don’t like, and you will have to get along with them or learn to avoid them. Here’s how to handle certain personality types:

1. The Disciple

The Disciple is a workaholic in disguise. Even at parties, no matter how much you liquor her up, she will still keep chanting the mantra of her chosen theoretical bent.

Annoyance Level: High. Do you really want to talk about Barthes all night long?

Danger Level: Low, unless you’re around when she finally has a nervous breakdown.

How to Handle: The annoyance level is high because her chanting will drive you nuts. However, if you change the subject tactfully and successfully, you might find a fun person underneath the work obsession.

2. The Downer

If the Disciple’s mantra is “Foucault, Foucault, Foucault” or “Lacan, Lacan, Lacan,” the Downer’s mantra is “my mentor sucks,” “my students suck,” and “this party sucks.” Oh, yeah, and everything sucks.

Annoyance Level: Low. Who doesn’t love a good pity party? Frighteningly enough, many of the Downer’s complaints are legitimate.

Danger Level: Medium. When you wake up from your pity party, the problem that caused the party will still exist.

How to Handle: With the isolation that comes with the ivory tower, every grad student has the potential to become the Downer. Introduce the individual to sunlight, suggest possible solutions to his problems, and remind him that the world will not stop spinning if he doesn’t get a tenure-track job.

3. The One-Upper

When someone says, “Oh, you got an A? Yes, he gives everyone A’s. I got an A-plus,” you try not to punch the person in the face.

Annoyance Level: High. A talented one-upper can diminish all your accomplishments with a single chunk of snark.

Danger Level: Believe it or not, low. A One-Upper just likes to make you feel bad, but if you ask her to prove she’s better than you, she will chicken out. That A+ she’s talking about is cover for a few B’s. Guaranteed.

How to Handle: Don’t even try to fathom this person’s insecurities. Comfort yourself with the fact that she will eventually get put in her place. Suggest therapy if you’re feeling bold and can find an exit quickly.

4. The Gossip

The most entertaining person in the department, bar none! After talking to the Disciple, the Downer, or the One-Upper, the Gossip will seem like an oasis since the Gossip actually smiles and laughs.

Annoyance Level: Low. As long as you aren’t the subject of the gossip.

Danger Level: High. Especially if you are the subject of the gossip.

How to Handle: Be nice to the Gossip so she doesn’t take anything out on you, and don’t reveal any information in exchange for a juicy tidbit. And keep your voice low. You don’t want anyone else to hear your yakking.

5. The Drama Queen

The Drama Queen can be male or female. Like the Gossip, this person is charismatic and might seem fun at first. Professors and grad students alike adore him. He charms (or sleeps) his way into everything instead of working hard like everyone else.

Annoyance Level: Off the charts if you’re the only person to see through the charade or if the Drama Queen is banging your advisor.

Danger Level: Double that. A bad reputation is the very least you could catch from this person.

How to Handle: Avoid at all costs. Do not get caught in the spider’s web. The Drama Queen may go far, but hold your envy in check, and don’t waste your energy envying him. A Drama Queen doesn’t have any substance to back up his style, and he has a long way to fall.

Anyone in academia has a few of these personality characteristics. Downers and gossips in particular lurk within, always waiting to emerge at your next social gathering. (For the record, I am one-half Disciple and one-half Downer.) By learning how to tame these tigers, you will be ahead of the game when it comes to professionalizing yourself and preparing for the tough terrain of job applications and interviews. You’ll encounter these personalities over and over in the future, but coping with them is a critical job skill.

Michelle et Christine avec des amis, Paris 1972, Francois Mativet. Image public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

The Schools May Be Broke-Ass, But You Don’t Have to Be

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionThe HuffPo college section unleashed a flood of education-related financial woe yesterday. The Broke-Ass Schools this time include Syracuse, Penn State, and Maryland. The stories focused on undergraduates who found themselves in schools they can’t afford, but the lessons apply to future grad students as well. If you get accepted, don’t sign on the dotted line right away. Take a long look at the aid package the program offers.

Ask how long the package lasts. PhD programs often provide some form of fellowship; MA programs, not so much. Even the PhD program fellowships last only a year or two. As for teaching assistantships, if you get one, that’s great. But you should also ask how long these assistantships will last, as the school might cut you off if you don’t get finished in time.

Compare the aid package to the cost of living in the area. UCI had subsidized student housing, so making the rent was easy, but that’s not the case for all schools. And there’s more to your budget than rent. For example, when I arrived to grad school, I had been accustomed to Nashville prices, not Orange County prices, and my budget changed drastically. Speaking of budgets …

Set a budget, and make sure it is one you can stick to. People with fancy tastes don’t belong in grad school. Just do whatever it takes to make sure you don’t wind up tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars in debt.

Anyone with a PhD or MA in the humanities cannot expect to make the kind of money that will erase a massive loan. There are too many risk factors involved. For example, you might get a job offer when you’re done with your PhD, but salaries vary wildly from school to school, especially when you compare public and private systems. You simply cannot predict where you will end up, so it is wise to play it safe.

Image by Sten from Wikimedia Commons.

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