Posts Tagged ‘Graduate Students’

I would guess that every graduate student knows at least one professor who is socially awkward.  In sociology, socially awkward professors must also deal with the irony of a life spent studying human behavior and social interaction.  While I have long been aware of the potential for awkwardness, I have considered myself fairly competent in social interactions relative to other graduate students.

Until I started writing my dissertation.

These days, social interactions with professors and other graduate students are rare.  When they occur, I find myself struggling to form complete, grammatically correct sentences.  In the event that I am able to speak a coherent sentence, it is typically unrelated to the sentence that follows.  The recognition of my increasing awkwardness does little to ease the transition.  I can see the return of Phaedrus but I am helpless to stop it.

To be fair to my dissertation, I have neither been on fellowship nor attempted to write a dissertation until this year.  Thus, the possibility remains that my decreasing social skills are the result of the decreased social contact that spending eight hours a day alone in a room allows.  On the other hand, during my failed interactions I have sometimes found myself thinking coherently about my dissertation.

In four months I will be done with my dissertation and will once again have daily interactions with students and colleagues.  With luck, this will reverse the onset of social awkwardness.  Considering the lack of social skills exhibited by some sociology professors, however, I have to wonder whether the process is truly reversible.  Perhaps they too once considered themselves fairly competent in social interactions relative to other graduate students.

Until they started writing their dissertations.

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A recent Inside Higher Ed post summarizes research by Susan K. Gardner, an assistant professor of higher ed at the University of Maine, on graduate student attrition.  Gardner interviewed students and professors in six departments and found that the faculty members largely blamed attrition on the students.

The top reasons faculty members cited were that students were lacking (53 percent), the student shouldn’t have enrolled in the first place (21 percent) or the student had personal problems (15 percent). …  “Not everybody who starts their Ph.D. is going to finish it and some are just not up to the job,” said one.  Several talked about students who lack enough drive.  “Some of them are not willing to work hard enough. …  I think it’s a lack of focus,” said one.

Reading this section of the summary, I recalled all of the times that professors in my program have noted that grad school is a marathon, not a sprint.  This platitude, however, appears to come with a few caveats, such as NIMC (not in my course) and NWYFCFMG (not when your funding comes from my grant) – as you may have noticed, some caveats are catchier than others.  For these professors, graduate school is a marathon when you are working on things for others and a sprint when you are working on things for them.

In my first year I was called into the office of a faculty member who closed the door and proceeded to ask what was wrong with me.  Apparently, halfway through my second semester the professor could already tell that I was deficient.  From my perspective, I was enormously successful.  I had made it through the first semester while completing my work and maintaining a healthy social life that allowed me to protect my sanity and prevented me from being overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done.  My only explanation is that this professor noticed I had slipped comfortably into my marathon pace, sprinting only when I fell behind due to procrastination, and wanted me to specialize in sprinting.  Another first year student was an excellent sprinter and left, completely burned out, after our second year.

Six years later I’m still here, alternately sprinting to finish dissertation drafts and then slowing to recover.  I was the first student in my cohort to find a job and one of two who will be graduating this year.  I think my professor meant to give me a pep talk that would cause me to pick up the pace, but looking at the rest of the pack I saw no reason to do so.  The funny thing is that if I had taken this advice I probably would have produced a better paper in the class but I’m not sure I would be here today.

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