Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A "Real" Graduate Student

When I was an undergrad, I did something that few, if any, other undergrads did: I traveled to and became involved with professional conferences within the field of education. While it is fairly common to find undergrads attending and presenting at regional writing center conferences, not once did I meet another undergrad at the 4Cs conference I've been attending for the past several years, nor the two MLA conferences in Philadelphia that I've attended (although in the case of the MLA conference, I attended only as a participant, not as someone who chaired panels or attended workshops; in short, I didn't meet much of anyone, especially because I was only there for a day; at the 4Cs conferences I was there for the entire conference, went to sessions multiple days, and ran into more people I knew). It was always a bit lonely attending 4Cs because, even though I knew several people and often hung out, went to dinner, or even did some sightseeing (usually alone), the undergraduate community is not really felt because it's assumed that undergrads simply aren't going, don't have the professional interest, aren't even really specifically encouraged to submit proposals. (I did anyway. Only at NEWCA have my proposals ever been accepted, although I have chaired several sessions at 4Cs.) There are, however, such wonderful things are Graduate Student Lounges, where at least theoretically grad students could go sit down for a while, relax, perhaps even network and meet other grad students. I thought things might shift a little when I entered grad school and I would feel more like someone advancing my career and becoming involved in "the academy." I was only partly right.

As it turns out, a "grad student" is more often defined as someone who is actually a doctoral student. There are grad students who are, like me, getting their Master's degrees, but I can't think of more than a handful - if that - of those whom I've met. I noticed almost immediately that grad students define their status in the year they're getting their doctoral degrees (i.e., first year, second year, etc.). Most Master's degree programs are designed to be done in a year or two (if one goes full-time, where "full-time" equals about 3 classes/9 credits a year). (In the past year, since I've begun my M.A., I've taken 8 classes/24 credits of the 12 classes/36 credits I need for my program, which is significantly faster than anyone else currently enrolled is the department.) If one is an M.A. student, it's a bit silly to identify oneself as a first year or second year student, since most students may only take a class or two at a time, and the programs tend to be a lot shorter, class/credit-wise, than the doctoral programs. One is in the process of getting one's M.A., and that's the end of it.

In my last year at SUNY Stony Brook, I began to look around at graduate schools and thought that I might like to get a Ph.D. or D.A. I applied to a bunch of schools' Ph.D./D.A. programs and, not really surprisingly or even disappointingly, got rejected. My GRE scores were pretty bad (not surprising), and my G.P.A. was right on the border (and in fact very slightly lower than "required" G.P.A.s). I did get accepted to two master's degree programs, though: Long Island University in Brooklyn, and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which quite frankly has a better program, and which is a bit more highly thought of. But LIU, aside from being much more local (and therefore closer to Chris), offered me various teaching and research assistantships, which so far have paid for six of my classes, and looks like will be paying for three or four more of my classes, thanks to this teaching fellowship I was awarded. (Most graduate programs tend not to offer assistantships or fellowships to their lower level graduate students - certainly I heard nothing from IUP about the possibility - so this is a good thing. I'm very glad to have the chance to be teaching a freshman writing class.) 

But because I've burned my way through the program so quickly, I'll be graduating this May, and once again am considering whether or not I want to apply to doctoral programs. There are a couple reasons why I'm hesitating, not any one of which is more or less important than another (and are therefore not in any specific order of importance):
  1. I'm getting tired of school, and feeling a bit burned out (despite a good G.P.A.; my grades haven't suffered because of my getting mentally tired).
  2. It's really a process, applying to a bunch of schools. And it costs a lot of money, depending on how many different programs to which I apply. Application fees add up really quickly.
  3. If I were to be accepted to a doctoral program, there's a good chance it would be out of state. And not only out of state, but either several states away or on the other side of the country.
  4. There are few doctoral programs in my field, so it's not really possible to just confine myself to one part of the country. Although I could, there might only be 2 or 3 programs in any one part of the country worth applying to. 
  5. It takes a long damn time. Even if I were to go at full blast, which I'm not sure I have in me at the moment, it would be 125% effort, which is about the amount of effort I've been putting into my studies since 2003. Adding another 5-7 years on that isn't really appealing right now.
  6. Grad school is expensive. (School period is expensive.) I may  or may not get funding. My teaching certification is only good for New York State. If I were not to receive funding, and if I weren't about to get a full-time job, I wouldn't be able to go, which would make the process even slower.  There is also the possibility that I would also have to convert my teaching certification to another state's, which may require more testing and/or classwork. 
  7. I'm tired of school; I'm tired of being poor. I want a job, one with a decent salary, benefits, and all of that. I've worked really hard since going back to school, and now I want something to show for it. Yet...
  8. "I don't know what I want to be/do when I grow up." This is a non-trivial issue. If I were certain that I wanted to teach at the university level, or if I were absolutely certain that I had enough interest in composition and rhetoric and would want the degree for myself because I wanted to be an actual expert in the field, then I would have less hesitancy. But I'm not convinced in either case, which gives me pause. But I feel I should try teaching at the secondary level for a few years (and if for no other reason than to see if I like it, as well as NYS requiring teachers to teach for two years, full-time, to get permanent certification) before moving on anyway.
  9. And one of the biggest factors is that I don't want to go somewhere without Chris, who has a job and career of his own. We're in a rather strange limbo; we've been dating 8 years, so there's a sense of responsibility. We're not married, so we're not tied to each other in that fashion, nor have we been only dating a few months. I would want his moral support, and his presence. Picking up and going out of state would be really difficult as it is, let alone if we both had to find work.
Last April, when I was at the 4Cs conference in New Orleans, I waylaid Harry and asked him for his input, attempting to explain (badly) my hesitancy in applying to doctoral programs. Since we happened to be out at dinner with a number of other doctoral students, we opened it up for discussion, and although everyone said that of course it was my decision, almost universally I was told that I most certainly should not put my career on hold for any one - not Chris, not anyone - and that I should apply and go get the doctorate. I tried to emphasize that I feel a sense of responsibility to Chris, but that got brushed aside. I'm not sure that any of them, Harry aside, is in any long-term relationship, which may have affected their response. 

Earlier this evening I read this article, which sums up the issue nicely: "The two-body problem in academe is absolutely brutal. For reasons I still don’t understand, it’s seldom addressed directly in graduate programs, so each new cohort discovers it anew. If the two halves of the couple are both academics in evergreen disciplines, and neither is a superstar, then the odds of them getting satisfying jobs within live-together distance are vanishingly small."

Right now, I'm inclined to apply to see what happens. There are two programs in the NYC-area that offer doctorates in my field, but only one that I'd consider applying to, but if I'm not entirely sure I'd actually attend if I were accepted. 

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