The graduate student: a role that few outside of the realm of academia investigate. It is often said that graduate students are idealist perpetual learners afraid of the ‘real world.’
“You’re so lucky you chose such an easy career path,” quipped an acquaintance with me once. “All you do is talk to students, write papers, and read.” As a graduate student, you will be confronted with these remarks for years to come.
As one can already tell, this viewpoint is as uninformed as it is stereotypical. Many misunderstand the labyrinth of ‘hoops’ a graduate student has to pass through to achieve their goals. Whether the end result is to become a professor, a researcher, or to hold another job title, the culture of graduate school is enigmatic to most.
Even more puzzling is the role of the university instructor. To undergraduate students, the person lecturing at the front of the room is immediately identified as “professor.” On occasion, I receive e-mails that say “Dr. Brisson.” I will be one day, but it is wrong to assume that every instructor holds a Ph.D.. For the most part, undergraduate students are equally unaware of what the words ‘tenure,’ ‘dissertation,’ and ‘part-time faculty’ mean. Throw ‘graduate teaching assistant’ into the mix, and it becomes more puzzling.
In lieu of writing an entire book on the subject, here’s a list of terminology and a few definitions that might be helpful to a prospective graduate student.
The GRE: an exam that measures your aptitude in several areas. These include quantitative reasoning (i.e. math), writing, and verbal components. To summarize, this exam is irrelevant in its content matter for the majority of prospective students. It does give a general sense of how someone works under pressure, with most sections timed for about 30 minutes. I would not say that it allows for much creativity, save for in the writing sections.
On the test day itself, the examinee jumps through several hoops, including signing legal paperwork, being wanded by a metal detector, and having their photo taken. It’s an isolating environment which, in my view, aims to increase stress levels. I highly recommend eating a protein-rich breakfast, including eggs, nuts, and milk (‘brain foods’).
GTA/GRA-ships: ‘graduate teaching assistantships’ or ‘graduate research assistantships.’ Awarded to incoming students, this is a way that one can complete a Master’s or Ph.D. without worrying about the cost of tuition. Some programs include stipends and health care benefits. Depending on the university, these stipends can be quite inclusive or meagre. At most public research institutions, GTAs teach introductory undergraduate courses. They may also act as an assistant to a professor. Research assistants are usually employed in labs.
In my personal view, the word ‘assistant‘ should be removed from this title, particularly in the humanities. I don’t assist another instructor; I am the instructor. Though lesson plans are departmentally agreed upon, the way in which the material is taught is autonomous.
Teaching will either be a frightening or an exhilarating experience if this is your first time doing it. If you did not complete any education courses in your undergrad course of study, you could try substitute teaching to see how a classroom environment feels. Although college students are – for the most part – more docile than high school students, there are many similarities. To substitute teach in a high school, you need at least 90 credit hours accumulated within an undergraduate program.
Classes and The Program: this is the obvious expected component of the graduate student. You take, depending on your program, two to three classes per semester. Certain requirements such as readings and essays will pop up throughout the semester. As I am a humanities major, you will more than likely read a handful of books. Expectations at this point are to be able to be analytical and to postulate new ideas from synthesis of material. In earnest, this is the most exciting part of the graduate program. You will learn and grow in more ways than you expected. And to the naysayers, it isn’t easy. That’s the fun in it.
If you are not prepared to dedicate yourself to your subject in every shape and form, you are not prepared for a graduate program. Although many individuals are fantastic students, being a great student doesn’t make the cut. You have to have something beyond a love of going to classes. I’m in love with my subject, and I’m prepared to analyze it and make advancements in it for the rest of my life. There is no ‘maybe’ in graduate school. Passion is going to pull you through your exams, your dissertation, your doctoral thesis, and your publishing requirements.
Graduate programs each are structured differently. Some will not write a Master’s thesis, others will have a capstone project in lieu of an essay. Checking into different program requirements is your best bet. Personally, I will be completing a Master’s thesis, oral exams, and a defense.
The Inspiration: this is not terminology, though it is worth noting. If you’re still hesitant to apply to a graduate program, consult with a mentor. You’ll find that graduate school is academically challenging and incredibly inspiring. The quality of your work – no matter what your specialty – will ameliorate in unexpected ways. Your program will be tough, yes. You will have days where you regretted it because of your workload. But at the end of it all, it’s an incomparable experience. You will be making significant developments in a specialty that interests you, and that makes graduate study fulfilling.
Should you have any questions for me, feel free to list them in the comments below, or send me an e-mail, which can be found in the ‘about’ section.