The Graduate School Difference

This is the first in a series of posts about what to expect from graduate study.

Graduate school is fundamentally an opportunity—it is the opportunity to specialize your knowledge, the opportunity to find community in your academic interests, the opportunity to share your work and your perspective. Think of it as such early and often.

In both graduate and undergraduate study you are presented with a set of requirements; if you fulfill those requirements you will be rewarded at the end of your course of study with a degree. This idea of requirement, however, changes for most students as they transition from undergraduate school to graduate school. In graduate school the word requirement really comes into its meaning. It becomes clear that most of your requirements in undergraduate school were in reality, opportunities. You have the opportunity to read, the opportunity to write, and the opportunity to research. Ideally, undergraduate school is that first big moment of freedom and responsibility, but always within limitations. Undergraduate students benefit largely from an institutional guiding hand. If you’re anything like me, though you handled the responsibilities of undergraduate school relatively well, there was a sense of accountability to parents and to professors that helped to motivate your efforts. Graduate school, for me, was in effect what undergraduate school had only been in theory—an opportunity for complete self-governance.

If a professor requires you to read a book for class, what she or he is offering you is the opportunity to engage a text relevant to the issues constellating within the course.  It is an opportunity to dialogue and discuss with your classmates about a topic relevant to the world we live in. It is an opportunity to learn something new and to see yourself as something other than at the center of every episode of your life.  Reading books, being a vocal and active participant in class, writing LONG papers—these are all opportunities to exist in both the practical world and in the world of ideas. Taken often enough, these opportunities will lead you to something so much greater than a degree, they will lead you to a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing both the thrilling and the mundane moments of life as sacred.

As you journey through graduate study (or if you have come across this blog in an effort to choose a course of graduate study) think about the opportunities afforded you. Think about which, and why, and how many to take. Choose wisely because in doing so you will find yourself in the process of learning how to think. I submit that this is fundamental and worth your rigorous effort because “learning how to think,” suggested the late son of Massachusetts, David Foster Wallace, “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” That’s the big goal isn’t it? To be educated enough to shake our default mode of thinking, and to be able to choose how we “construct meaning from experience.” And just as I said earlier, the payoff for taking this opportunity is way more than a degree. The big reward for fulfilling the requirements of graduate study is that very freedom—of thought and choice—that we so romanticized when we set our sights on college in the first place.

Naeemah Kitchens, GRS ’13
June 5, 2013