Post Academic

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.

Going to grad school, part 2: The intangibles

Following up on my post yesterday on the factors that went into my grad school decision, I wanted to discuss the intangibles that helped me make my choice.  Caroline’s post from earlier today on checking out the atmosphere of a department already addresses many of the points I wanted to make, but I figured I can give a concrete example of what she was discussing–plus, you can’t have a part 1 without a part 2.

The intangibles: I’d say that making a good impression cuts both ways.  For me, it was turning in a thoughtful, carefully edited application, which was a bit difficult since I was allowed to turn in my rushed, typo-filled undergrad thesis for at least one of my applications.  But once I was admitted to a few programs and schools started making their pitches, the initial vibe I got went far in my decision-making process.

I was accepted first to the obviously more prestigious school of the two between which I was choosing, though how I was notified was something of a comedy of errors and a not-so-smooth sign of things to come.  I received a call one day, much earlier than I expected to hear back from schools, asking me to fill out a form which would help the department push for a better funding package for me.  At this point, my antennae went up, and, despite trying not to jump to conclusions, got the sense that I had been accepted to one of my two top choices.  The staffer on the other end of the call then figured out that maybe the admissions chair hadn’t contacted me regarding my acceptance, but had to, in some unofficial way, suggest to me that I was indeed in.  As a result, I made a quick appointment to drop off the form (the school was local), in order to confirm that I was accepted to the program.

Unfortunately, this very first interaction was pretty much par for the course with some of the basic operations of this particular program.  The admissions chair, after having a nice recruiting lunch with me, pretty much neglected responding to me emails and calls, something to do with a spring break vacation in the desert.  Then I found out later that my funding package might have been stronger if the department hadn’t gotten the (wrong) idea that I already had outside fellowships.  And I also discovered years later through a friend of a friend that I wouldn’t have fit in at the school, since I seemed too conservative, being a Stanford grad and all–this was the most stinging slight!  That isn’t to say they didn’t try hard to recruit me and that people weren’t well-meaning and trying to be helpful: Despite the fact that the admissions chair basically wasn’t doing the appointed job, the dept’s best- known “superstar” was really generous with her/his time and probably talked to me about my decision more than anyone else had.  All-in-all, though, I didn’t get a great vibe about how things worked in this program, even though I was much more inclined to attend due to its innovative program and the great location.

In contrast, I didn’t really want to choose to go to UC Irvine, which I wouldn’t have heard of except that some of my college friends had taken summer school classes there to avoid the weeder bio lectures at Stanford.  But somehow, UCI had pretty much the best critical theory program during the heyday of critical theory and, of course, Jacques Derrida taught there (although my closest interaction with him would be having him sign my drop card, with him filling in the scantron dots to make sure I wasn’t going to turn it into an add card!).  UCI was pretty much the opposite of the other option: Despite seeming like a totally uninteresting place to live that was not unlike the suburb in which I grew up, the administration was really, really together, producing a generous offer, helping me with my residency status, setting up plane tickets for me to visit, following up with me on pretty much every matter, and answering every question.  And it passed Caroline’s atmosphere test too: The students and prospective students all seemed like nice people who enjoyed going to school at UCI, joined together, in no small part, because Irvine was a boring suburb.  Now maybe it wasn’t going always be like this after the hard sell, but, between the better money and the stronger intangibles, it wasn’t really much of a choice.

Being a 20-something contrarian, I was able to turn things around in my head and tell myself that the practical, safe choice was also the less conventional one that I couldn’t imagine myself making: I was passing over a “dream school” that everyone in the world knows for a university I had barely heard of (sell that one to the parents!), as well as moving away from my friends and one of the more ideal late-1990s cultural scenes to a proto-suburb.  But one thing I learned from the process all those years ago that I should keep telling myself now that it’s okay to find myself in a position I didn’t really foresee and envision.  Sometimes, the right choices don’t have predictable or manageable outcomes, but that’s okay.

March 4 Day of Action report: UC Irvine

Posted in Broke-Ass Schools,The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on March 4, 2010
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Banner at the Student Center

I just returned from the March 4 Day of Action event at UC Irvine, leaving just as the rally was turning into a march around campus. Since many of you reading this blog have some ties to UCI, I’ll try to set the scene for you. The rally, with speakers, was held by the flagpoles and probably drew 300-400 students, faculty, lecturers, and staffers. It was probably the biggest crowd I’ve seen at the flagpoles at UCI, but, then again, it also didn’t completely drown out the frats recruiting on Ring Road, either.   I’ll skip a general discussion of the speeches given, only to say that they really did get the crowd excited, that the recognition of race issues was a highlight, and that, while I admire student activists who can speak to big crowds (I know I couldn’t), it is important to stay on topic and get your facts right.

Protestors walking through the Student Center plaza

To stay on topic to what’s relevant to this blog, I was eager to find out more about how the budget cuts and tuition hikes have affected grad students, part-time faculty, and anyone applying for tenure-track jobs at the UC.  First, we can dispense with the latter, because there was no talk about unfreezing/unfrozen tenure-track lines.  It basically seemed that lecturer labor was recognized as the default education delivery system, rather than tenure-track faculty.  Confirming what I already knew, I found out anecdotally from a number of friends and colleagues just, one, how bad the job market is across a variety of disciplines and, two, how few opportunities there are to hang on to lecturing jobs, for those with hopes of making it through to the next job application cycle.

Students walking out of class in HIB 100. The protestors passed by the classrooms and shook homemade noisemakers crafted out of duct-taped soda cans and kind of beckoned the students out of class.

While hardly the *most* flagrantly affected demographic by the budget crunch in higher education, lecturers seem to have been impacted in very significant ways.  One of the lecturers who spoke explained how the effects of depleted budgets and shrinking enrollments trickle-down all the way to bottom of the totem pole, part-time faculty, many of whom are without benefits and saddled with student loans to pay off after graduating and few jobs to apply for, much less lined up:

1. Fee hikes have made college more expensive and difficult to afford for undergraduates;

2. Fewer undergraduates enrolling means smaller classes and/or fewer sections;

3. Fewer course offerings mean that there isn’t a need to hire more lecturers or part-time faculty to fill in the gaps.

The Humanities Quad as we've always wanted to see it: Full of student demonstrators!

What this chain reaction of bad also reflects is just how far the goal posts have moved for a lot of graduate students seeking their vocations in academia.  Somehow, many of us went from wishing for a tenure-track job at the end of the process, to hoping that there were enough well-suited jobs to apply for, to hanging on for lecturing positions that pay a fraction of the salary for the same amount of work, to not being able to even find the opportunity to have our labor exploited as part-time teachers.

Below is a link to Huffington Post’s March 4 live blog:

March 4 Day of Action live blog [Huffington Post]

All images from the March 4 march at UC Irvine, courtesy of Patricia Pierson.