They sat us down and began to explain the ins and outs, the rules of grad school. I had been here before. I was an undergrad here, so it was all familiar yet new and different. Another student turned to me and asked, “So is there anything I should know?” I just looked at him, then I said, “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.” The professors droned on.
THE FIRST RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS YOU DO NOT HAVE A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRAD SCHOOL
THE SECOND RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS YOU DO NOT HAVE A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRAD SCHOOL
THE THIRD RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS IF SOMONE FAILS THE QUAL, SLACKS OFF, FAILS THEIR CLASSES THEIR CAREER IS OVER
THE FOURTH RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS IT'S UP TO YOU AND YOUR ADVISOR
THE FIFTH RULE IS ONLY ONE DEGREE AT A TIME
THE SIXTH IS NO OUTSIDE FRIENDS, NO RELATIONSHIPS
THE SEVENTH RULE IS YOUR DISSERTATION RESEARCH WILL GO ON AS LONG AS IT HAS TO
AND THE EIGHTH RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS IF THIS IS YOUR FIRST YEAR IN GRAD SCHOOL YOU HAVE TO SUFFER
The first year was hell: classes, teaching, grading, research. We'd be there until all hours of the night. We'd pull all-nighters. The professors blathered seemingly nonsensical things that even they didn't sometimes seem to understand. Even if you could catch them to talk to them outside of class, you wouldn't be talking to the same person; things that make sense in the classroom don't make sense in the world.
4 am you wake up in your office doing homework. 11 pm you come to on your sofa working on grading. 2 pm you nearly fall over dosing leaned against a door frame in the building. 1 am you wake up in the middle of a conversation you don't remember starting. 7 pm you wake up face down in your Chinese food. If every time you wake up in a different place at a different time studying a different thing, could you wake up as a different person?
It was the end of the first semester. My advisor calls a meeting, me and his two other grad students. He starts going on about the value of research, the importance of dedication. “This isn't a vocational school, and this isn't job training. You are not your politics, or your family, or your friends. You are your research. Where you are now you have no idea what your dissertation will be like. Right now you are foolish, naïve, unwashed masses of the world. It's only once you don't understand everything that you can start to learn anything.”
Suddenly he turns to us. “If you died today, what would you wish you had done?” “Win a Nobel,” “write a textbook,” the others bark out without even thinking. I wonder where he hides the bell. “This is bullshit,” I say. “What do you mean I'm ignorant, I'm supposed to be confused? We started this research together, remember?” Unperturbed, my advisor looks back at me. He motions to the others, “Look at them. They're ready. They've given themselves over. They are not the warm little centers of their universe. They're a couple of space monkeys ready to be shot into space. You think this process is about you and me? You think you know me? This is not about you and me, and you had better forget what you know, what you think you know, about you and me.” I stormed out.
At the beginning of next semester my advisor tells me to come with him to a job fair that's being held on campus. It's teeming with students about to receive fresh bachelor's degrees, ready to join the working world, ready to start “real life”. After passing through the crowd and listening to what's being said, he comes up and taps one on the shoulder.
“You from this university?” he asks.
“Um, yes,” comes the reply.
“What was your GPA? Let me see your resume.”
The guy hands it over and replies, “It was good.”
“Well...it was a 3.9.”
“And now you just want to cash in, right?”
“Okay, yeah. How'd you know?”
“Because someone like you could go a lot further. You're not going to find anything interesting in the working world. You're just doing it for the money. It's time to go for your dreams. I've got your resume here. I see you took a class in my department. You got an A. Well, guess what? One call and I can get that A turned to an F. There goes your GPA and your degree. You'd be fired. It's time for you to apply to a PhD program. Now that I have your resume I'll check up on you. If you're not accepted by next fall I'll ruin your career.”
The would-be applicant meekly skittered off. I turned to my advisor and said, “That was crazy. You could get fired, and you could screw up that guy's life. What do you think you're doing?” He replied confidently, “Tomorrow will be the best day of that boy's life. His breakfast will taste better than any breakfast you or I have ever had. He will now have a reason to fulfill his potential.” It almost made sense, in an academic sort of way.
By mid semester, my advisor has a new project he wants us all in on. It's very abstract. Who knows when or if it will ever be completed, and what's more it seems like total nonsense. He says there's also no funding. We'll all have to support ourselves with other positions. He says it's the opportunity of a lifetime. “This is too much, I don't want this,” I tell him. He responds, “No. You have to do it. You will do it. Just like before, I'll drag you kicking and screaming, and in the end you'll thank me for it.” I just stare at him. “Don't you have anything to say?” he asks.
I still can't think of anything. I can't think at all. I can't think and yet I know. I know that this is insanity. I know I'm tired. I need to sleep. I need to feel. I need to spend time with friends and family. I need to get back in touch with my life. I want it now. I want life. I've tried grad school but now I'm ready to have a near life experience.