Totally Uplifting Advice about How Not to Shoot Your Eyes Out in Graduate School

I’m a recent graduate of graduate school (by Jimminy, John Irving got the Gradual School part right!), so who better to write a blog post about how survive its terrors than me! Also, I’m acting out some fantasy wherein I write an academic advice column in the voice of a writer for my new favorite blog, The Hairpin. Their “Ask a Dude/Lady/Queer Chick/Clean Person” advice series is bloody brilliant, mate.

If PhD school—as I sometimes like to call it, since my grad school experience also includes a lovely three-year stint in MFA-land, which is pretty much the most magical place ever—doesn’t make you want to die, then you’re doing something wrong. Of course, wanting to die sucks, so my philosophy on making it through PhD school is sometimes you got to do it wrong, so life is still worth living. Seriously, that sounds insincere, but I stand by the heart of the idea.

So first—consider this a legal disclaimer—if you haven’t already started PhD school, you should most definitely think twice if you value things like time, money, self respect, and the ability to find a job. Not that you shouldn’t go, mind you, but you should know what you’re in for, both in terms of the physically painful jail sentence you’re committing yourself to (seriously, you are going to hurt yourself reading and writing) and the piss-poor job opportunities that await you. Yes, I’m a tenure-track-job-holding graduate, so you think I should be all, Rah-rah! Do it! It’s shagging awesome! But your parents or other callous relatives who may have snidely questioned if this is really what you want to do, alas, have a point. Just know what you’re getting yourself into and all. Also, it helps to realize that pretty much everyone in PhD school is really dogdamned smart, so it’s not as easy to be the smartest kid in the room as it used to be. You probably think this is true for everyone but you (I sure did!), but no, it’s true for you too. There may be some ego adjustment, and lemme tell you, ego adjustment, oh my God, she is never, never pretty. (See On Hiring and this and this and this—that’s right, the almighty Chronicle of Higher Ed says, “Just Don’t Go.” That’s like Nike switching their motto from “Just Do It” to “Fuck It All.” See the whole sack full of mess you are getting yourself into!)

So, anyway, how to survive PhD school by fucking some shit up (Apparently “fucking shit up” was my signature phrase in undergrad. I forgot all about it until an unlikely reunion last year.):

  • Prioritize.Yes, right out of the box this sounds like every piece of advice from ever. PhD school will make you realize that you can’t do everything. And by everything, I mean housework! I mean pleasure reading! I mean washing your hair! I mean being able to afford fancy things like food! I mean having the spare time to pamper yourself with luxurious, extravagant activities like shopping for food!

    Yes, I am saying you might not have time to wash your hair or buy food, not that it really matters because you won’t have any fucking money for shampoo or food. But smile! These are the best days of your life!

    So here’s what I think is important: Studying and saving up money to go out to eat and drink with your friends. You might think I’m encouraging  alcoholism, but really, I’m encouraging group coping, which is about as priceless a thing as there is. You may not have a lot of things, but you’ve got your fellow PhD school friends, which you may now feel free to call “colleagues.” Pin that to your thrift store tweed blazer!

  • Trust me when I tell you the following statement is totally true: “If I learned anything in grad school, it’s how to drink.” So, to contradict my above advice, I want to offer up this: keep your drinking under control so you don’t have to give it up, okay?You may have to dry out someday, but trust me, you most definitely do not want to do it in grad school. (Why, do I say “trust me”? It’s not like I ever tried this. I’m just guessing that when your entire social world revolves around functions that serve alcohol, trying to quit will suck mightily.) That old saw about everything in moderation is true. Just know what your moderation is. When I hit intergalactic battle mode studying for my comprehensive exams and basically lived as a shut in, I became very good friends with an off-brand of boxed wine that sold five liters of sangria for $17. I’d have one or two tiny IKEA tumblers over frozen blueberries a good 3-5 nights a week, while I watched the TV shows that came to take the place of face-to-face friendships. Ah, so sweet and so cold! Worthy of a William Carlos Williams poem, to be sure. Any more than my two tiny tumblers and I’d have trouble sleeping (you know because after more than two tumblers of wine, who the hell gives a fuck about moderation), which meant studying would be a right royal bitch the next day. But just a single tumbler full, and I could get back on the theory reading train right after my show was over, as absolutely thrilling as that was.
  • Don’t feel bad about neglecting things you feel obligated to do.In general, girls seem more concerned about keeping up their living spaces than dudes do—total socialization, I think, and not at all universal or essential, just a trend, methinks. It is totally okay to not vacuum for a month. Or ever. Unless it makes you sick, then by all means, keep yourself from getting sick. It’s okay to say no to just about everything. You may need to explain to your parents and those carefree first and second years that your world is falling apart and you need vast quantities of solitude to get your shit done, so you can’t hang out with them during your “free time” because all of your free time is dedicated to freaking the fuck out about this horrible, horrible situation you’ve gotten yourself into. Wow, it sounds a little like maybe you’re considering an abortion, but we all know you don’t have time to get laid. We’re talking about your entirely questionable choice to go to graduate school, sheesh.
  • Related: Figure out how to live simply. For me, product of the burbs that I am, this meant Sam’s Club, which was about as close to me as any other store and which allowed me to survive on shopping only about every two weeks. I think it saved me money, and it definitely saved me time. Frozen chicken breasts, frozen veggies, frozen fruit, boxed wine, fresh milk and giant bags of lettuce every two weeks. Tada! You’re almost eating like an adult! Living simply also meant learning how to go without washing and styling my hair every day. Good lord, the time I have spent in front of a mirror applying various burning hot tools to my poor tortured hair. There are way more important things than how your hair looks when you’re writing a paper about Ali G and The Merchant of Venice, which for some reason I chose to write about.
  • This rule is an extension of rule 1. I have placed it here for no good reason. Lacan talks about the return of the repressed. Or Freud, or somefuckingbody. (Freud first, then Lacan, then Žižek, and probably lots of other people, too. I really do know this.) Friendships and relationships become things you have to prioritize, too. At maximum peak stress out times, I was known to break up with whatever boyfriend I might have had. For sure, all my years of study have made me pretty damned good at quitting people, both of the romantic and non-romantic sort. So I’d use facebook to get that social-y feeling and yee olde telephoney to stay in touch on regular basis with like two people, plus my fam. If facebook keeps you from actually having to see the people you care about face-to-face, it counts as a time saver! Doesn’t grad school sound super fantastic? Did I mention qualifying for public assistance? Or that you can’t go bankrupt on student loans? In for a penny, in for your entire future financial stability, I always say.
  • Go outside. Look up from your book. Grow something. Put your hands in the dirt. Ride a bike. Watch a dog lose its mind with joy in the first snow of the year. Get lost in the woods (but take your cellie, okay! You don’t have 127 hours to spare, and you need both hands if you want to graduate before you run out of funding—unless, of course, you’re already good at typing with just the one hand). This place called “outside” helps you keep this thing called “perspective.” Life does in fact continue outside of books and papers! Breathe! There is dirt and air and sky and kids fighting in the street! There is life outside of this! (See also This Is Water.)
  • Related: Do whatever it takes to not burn out. This varies for everyone. Some folks throw themselves into vegan cooking. Some folks run. Some folks eat everything in sight. Some folks get student-rate massages at the rec center to work out reading cramps. Baby, whatever you got to do to still be in this thing tomorrow, do it. You know, but try to make choices that don’t totally sabotage yourself. For example, heroin is probably not a good choice.
  • Seek professional help. Seriously. Don’t wait until you find yourself crying halfway up, halfway down the stairs of your crappy townhouse, unsure of whether you should go up or down or whatever. Don’t wait until you break down in tears in front of the director of grad studies in the middle of a committee meeting. Your school probably has counseling services. They’re champs about scheduling things so that the waiting rooms are mostly empty, but I bet if you placed a hidden camera in there, you’d catch a solid majority of your department’s third years and up trotting in and out. A good counselor can help you deal with the above mentioned ego adjustment and talk you through reasonable strategies for surviving this bastard-ass gauntlet of merciless hell you’ve gotten yourself into. Also: Klonopin, the grad student’s little helper. Ask for it by name.
  • If you decide you want to do something else with your time, with your life, that is A-okay. The world will go on. You will go on. Everything will be just dandy. It might even be a whole lot dandier. A few words of caution, though: if doing something else is the route you’re destined for, it’s better (and much, much easier) if you figure this out sooner rather than later. Every year you spend in grad school is a year you’re not making money or saving for retirement, and holy cannoli, by the time you graduate, that wily honey badger will be sneaking up on you. Not to panic or anything, coz we’ve got some stellar first-rate Social Security that’s totally going to take care of everything. (Just kidding, you’re screwed! Just kidding, just kidding! The life of knowledge takes care of itself! You are doing something valuable, wonderful, and beautiful! You don’t need money because you will never retire!)

That’s pretty much it for the general stuff. You can figure out on your own your favorite study accoutrements (study chair? tiny electric dictionary? tiny-ass netbook?) and the study strategies that work best for you (take notes on a blog? back everything up to dropbox? master the interlibrary loan?). Good luck out there! You’re gonna make it after all!


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