What They Didn’t Teach Me in Graduate School

When I was in graduate school for English, my professors focused on teaching me content, as I’m sure almost everyone’s graduate program did.  I wish I could say they taught me to write, but they really just assigned writing instead of teaching it (that’s a subject for a different post, though).  They even talked about the profession: attending conferences, doing research, being a part of professional organizations.  My Master’s program was actually better at that than my doctoral program, but they were better at pretty much everything for a reason that I hope will become clear as this post goes along.

Not surprisingly, my doctoral program was designed for people who were ultimately going to work at a similar school, a research institution.  Thus, the focus was on writing papers that one could present at conferences, then turn into publishable articles.  When I was in the library doing research for my papers, I often saw the professor who ultimately chaired my dissertation committee there doing his.  In fact, I saw him in the library more often than I saw him in his office (or home, as we met there one time before I graduated).

I do not spend much of my time doing research for papers I plan to present at conferences or try to publish.  I do spend some of my time doing that (I just had an article on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas accepted for publication, for example), but the bulk of my time centers around teaching my classes.  Actually, I’m not sure even that is the bulk of my time, if I’m honest.  I don’t spend the majority in committee meetings (thankfully; I hate meetings).  No, I spend the majority of my time doing things I never thought I would be doing and that graduate school definitely did not prepare me for.

Let’s start with an extreme example:  On Saturday, we had nine students over to our house for most of the day.  They were using our kitchen to make 70 pies they were going to deliver on Monday as part of a fundraiser.  We’re going to the Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society) convention in Albuquerque next month, and we’ve been trying to raise money to go.  I didn’t help bake the pies, but I did go in and out and talk to them, and we certainly let them use anything we had in the kitchen that would help them along.  Last semester they made under 40 pies, and it took them all of one day.  They nearly doubled that because they could have more people help because they were able to use our space.

Not only have we allowed them to use the kitchen, but I’m the one who’s been managing the budget, booking the hotels, and ordering plane tickets.  I still have to calculate the parking and book the shuttle from the airport to the hotel in New Mexico for when we arrive.  Certainly, these are skills no one teaches in graduate school.

I also lead a trip to England every two years.  Thus, I have to calculate that budget, book all the hotels, reserve tour spots at a variety of locations, and buy the plane tickets for twenty students, two faculty members, our spouses, and my colleague’s son.  Oh, and I have to teach two classes associated with that trip.  Note that the class part often feels like the section that is added on.  It’s almost as if I’m a travel agent who is called upon to teach for a couple of weeks.

I also help with Admissions at our university.  I don’t travel to help recruit students, but I do work our recruitment events on campus.  Sometimes, when prospective students want to meet with a faculty member, Admissions contacts me and sets up an appointment for me to talk to them.  Lately, I’ve even been calling prospective students who have been accepted and talking with them about our program.  Granted, this borders on the creepy, but someone has to do it, and I seem to have developed an ability to do this.

I have done surveys of alumni to see what types of jobs our graduates actually get with an English major (the age-old question of our discipline), and I have presented that material to our current students to give them ideas of what they can (did that this past week, actually).  I have worked with students to try to set up internships for them.  I talk with students about their future and graduate school and whether or not it’s worthwhile for them to pursue that route (overall, it’s not, but it’s difficult to convince them of that).

I definitely did not learn any of this when I was working on my doctorate, but note what I said about my Master’s program being better than my doctoral program.  I had several professors at the Master’s level who had their doors open on a regular basis, and they talked with me about my future.  The graduate director had workshops on presenting at conferences, but he also talked about the field in other ways, showing us other avenues we might pursue (Rhetoric and Composition was just becoming well-known at the time, and he had a new hire come in and talk about it).  They might not have had me over to their house to bake pies, but they were certainly concerned about my life outside the classroom.

In fact, when I was hired for my first job, a private high school, my dissertation director was not happy.  Even though I was graduating into the second worst job market in higher education, he was not pleased I had gotten a good job because it did not match his vision of the profession.  The three most influential professors from my Master’s program were all quite happy for me.

Perhaps I’m wrong.  Perhaps I learned more about my current job and the wide variety of things I do for and with students in graduate school, just not at both of the graduate programs I attended. The difference between the two is clear: at the lower level, the professors cared about their students as people who would go on to do a variety of jobs; at the higher level, they expected us to follow in their footsteps and be just like them.  I’m glad I didn’t follow that route.


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