in search of mastery

[estimated reading time 14 minutes]

i have had many questions from students and friends about grad school. there’s a massive amount of writing about student experiences in doctoral programs (almost all horrendous and that’s definitely what i could add to the mix, though i’m not sure there’s much point as i think it’s mostly already been said — the system is broken and it needs to be fixed but the system is self-perpetuating and has existed this way long enough there’s not much hope it will fix itself and the whole foundation of western employment, especially educational employment, is based on a framework of lies perpetuated by universities and colleges so it’s a mess propped up by industry that may never actually collapse as it rots more thoroughly from inside). but there’s far less about what it means to go to grad school.

having had the odd experience of going to post-undergraduate degree programs in several different universities (and receiving three degrees from these experiences), i guess i’m in a unique position to offer a commentary on that middle stage of postsecondary education, the masters. i don’t have a masters of science so some of this may only apply to graduate programs in arts/education but i suspect it’s generalizable because i’ve done plenty of work in science fields not as a graduate student and i see very little difference in either culture or approach and those are the main issues there.

the biggest problem with graduate school can be summarized as the mashup between two issues — one is the “notice me, sempai” of anime fame, everyone fighting to be noticed and praised regardless of the personal sacrifice and humiliation and self-denial that requires by artificially-deified figures. the other is the meaningless separation by experience rather than ability that happens at all levels of postsecondary (and secondary) education but is more pronounced in graduate school and a far larger problem there for one simple reason — students are far more experienced and capable than in undergraduate programs as a general rule so they’re much closer to the level of their instructors on average but the instructors are no more likely to recognize that proximity or equality and this leads to a huge amount of conflict that can be summarized in one hateful word — pride.

perhaps, though, it is best to start at the beginning. how is university education structured? i use the words “university” and “college” interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings. but what i mean is a postsecondary institution that awards degrees (ba, ma, phd, etc) at all the typical levels — associates’ degrees are optional but they’re realistically meaningless in a modern context, anyway. yes, there are science and business and other degrees but it’s not really important to worry about what kind of degree at the moment, just that there are multiple levels — realistically three, four if you include the pre-bachelors’ degrees that should probably have been eliminated many decades ago as useless in a context where undergraduate four-year education is a bare minimum for most employment systems and anything less is a pure waste of time, money and effort. there are some exceptions but it’s hard to find a meaningful one.

after high school, unless you don’t qualify yet, in which case there are some other questions, though this post probably isn’t for you if you don’t qualify for undergraduate education — you’re not likely thinking of a masters program at this stage in your life unless you’ve already at least thought about beginning undergraduate study — you begin a bachelor’s degree. this can be in any discipline and they’re usually pretty flexible. this is theoretically a four-year program but can be completed much more quickly or slowly depending on how many extra courses you take, how many you fail and how many times you switch your major/minor (or even faculty in some cases, which i did more than once along the way — did you know i went to music school?). after four years, there is often an option to take a fifth (or partial-fifth) year to do what’s called an honor’s degree. this is like a bridge between undergraduate studies and graduate studies. if it’s not required for your graduate program of choice, it’s a waste of time and money. if it’s required, there’s usually an exception that can be made. if there’s no exception, you can consider it a part of the application process and put up with it or look for another graduate program. i didn’t have to do it for any of mine — in one case because they didn’t care, in another because it was waived because of my experience, in the third because i submitted an equivalent to the honor’s research thesis that was ungraded but demonstrated the extra courses were just a waste of time for me and i was ready to start graduate school — they wanted me in the program and that was all the justification they needed.

the second stage (and in many countries it’s literally called that, second-stage studies rather than masters — france and germany come to mind but others exist, too, where this is the naming convention) is the masters’ degree. there is a naming issue here that i should get out of the way before continuing as you may have noticed it. the names “bachelors’”, “masters’” and “doctorate” are antiquated and meaningless at this point. the placement of the apostrophe in the name is even more meaningless but the difference is that calling it a “bachelor’s degree” implies a single individual doing it and a “bachelors’ degree” implies multiple people doing it simultaneously. both are the case and i see no reason for this to be an issue. i prefer “undergraduate” and “graduate” and “postgraduate” as names for them but i try to make sure everyone is understanding my point so i switch for clarity (ironic, isn’t it?). masters programs vary in length from a single year to several fulltime and can span the better part of a decade of parttime study. this also varies by location but if you’re studying in english you’re probably doing it at a modern american or canadian institution where this is pretty standardized. if you’re studying in english somewhere else, you’re making a mistake. if you’re studying in another language, this varies wildly and it would be best to remember i’m speaking in particular of the north-american system and these ideas might not apply to your situation — though if your english is good enough to read this you’re probably thinking of studying in north america and that’s likely wise if you’re going to study somewhere, though studying in general might not be the best choice, as you will see. it wasn’t for me.

yes. i’ll take a brief interlude between paragraphs to say this here. while it wasn’t the largest mistake in my life (and i won’t get into what was), the most stupid decision i ever made was going to university. that’s not to say it’s a bad decision for everyone — it’s usually a very good decision. but it’s not a universal one and not everyone should do it. this isn’t about intelligence. it’s about what you want to get out of the experience. i wanted something in particular and didn’t realize i could never get it. so i started and spent thousands of hours, tens of thousands of dollars (hundreds, probably) aiming at something i couldn’t possibly achieve because it wasn’t just a set of degrees. it was approval from a system that was never going to approve of me. so the whole thing was a ridiculous failure and i regret it — wholeheartedly regret it. but for most people they can achieve their goals and university is an excellent place to go if it has a good chance of giving you what you want at the end of the day. better to be aware of its possibilities and limitations, though, before you walk through the door or you could end up like me, looking back at decades of fighting with a system for a result that wasn’t possible in the first place and wishing you’d done something else with your young (and not-so-young) life.

the third stage is doctoral work, aiming for a phd (or equivalent) and this has been thoroughly expressed in blogs and books as an unmitigated disaster while remaining required for entry to academic teaching at most institutions. i won’t go into detail about my doctoral experience other than to say this definitely describes it as accurately as possible. if my undergrad and grad time was a waste, my doctoral work was more of the same. after doctoral work, most people either become instructors or researchers, hoping to be classified as the elusive “professor” when the institution decides to shift them from lower-class to upper-class citizens. this can take years or decades. many never get there. but that’s generally the goal and desperate desire of all academics (including me). it’s usually a pipe-dream. try not to make this your goal. you might succeed. but it’s like climbing a mountain without shoes or clothes on in an acid rainstorm — you might in fact reach the summit but at what cost to yourself?

having the terminology out of the way and the path fairly clear, let’s begin with a story. this isn’t a story about being a grad student. it’s a story about what happens while being a grad student because departments tend to pull this kind of shit and get away with it — you can’t leave because you need the degree and you can’t complain because you need them to be happy with you so you can go on to your next degree so they can pretty much treat you however they like and there are no consequences. many decades of this being engrained in the collective psyche of those with power in universities has made it endemic.

i began graduate studies pretty young at a canadian university. it was my first time formally in grad school but i’d taken various graduate courses before so i knew what i was in for — i thought. i got the coursework and it was just as mindnumbingly stupid as undergraduate work — if you think graduate studies are the answer to the boredom of nothing in undergrad being either intelligent or intellectually-stimulating, i promise you it’s not. if you think undergrad is hard, grad school will be about the same. if you find undergrad courses blatantly and painfully boring and simple, the answer to your problem doesn’t lie in academia — it lies in independent research and that’s something you won’t get to do much of until you’ve long passed doctoral studies. what i didn’t bank on was the culture shift from undergraduate to graduate. as a grad student, i was finally given the opportunity i desperately (perhaps too desperately for my own good) had wanted all along — having a formal teaching position. i’d had informal teaching jobs with the university before and real ones outside the academic structure in various fields (mostly programming, oddly enough, though that’s how i paid for my university studies so i guess it’s not surprising to those who actually knew me at the time). but this was the first time they were actually going to endorse me as an instructor and students would take classes with me.

anyway, i was teaching basic language skills to undergrads. i had a bunch of sections of a first-semester language course for non-native-speakers and we did conversational drills and reading practice. it was lots of fun. i love teaching language beginners, though this may be no surprise to you if you’ve ever seen how i spend a lot of my day even now. it was fun. the classes were slotted for one hour and some students left when the class was over but i did extended lessons and individual practice with those who wanted to stay longer and these often extended two or three hours after the official end of the class. i did some private instruction, too, of course — free, as you expect, though i doubt the university cared one way or the other. i just wanted to spend my entire waking experience teaching students. so i did as much as i could.

these took place in various classrooms scattered across the campus. my usual classroom for them that particular semester was in the basement of the physics research building, actually. it wasn’t a lab, just a conference room with desks and i guess it was free in the friday 4-5pm slot so that’s where it was. i had another session in another room in that building during the week but this is where the drama happened. the drill was simple. go to the department office and collect the key to open the room just before the class time. after class, return the key. this way, if another instructor had to take over, they could get in the room. practically speaking, the rooms were never actually locked and i think the total number of times i had to use a key was less than five that whole semester. like i said, they weren’t labs. there was nothing to steal and most classrooms were just open all the time so students could walk in and study in an empty room as long as no class was scheduled to happen there. but i went and got the key every time because it was in another building and if i got locked out for the class we’d be screwed and i’d end up having to do listening drills in the hall. which i actually did end up having to do years later because of a stupid organizational problem with keys. but that’s a whole other story.

the office was officially open 10-4, i think. maybe 10-5. but i went about 330 and got the key then walked to the physics building and entered my classroom (without having to use the key, as usual). i got everything prepared for the students and taught the class. after class, about a dozen students stayed and had questions and wanted help and i worked with them until just after 7. i was exhausted and starving. it was a friday night and the department office was closed. there were no classes scheduled for the weekend and the office wasn’t going to open until 10 monday morning — i had a seminar at 8 monday morning in the same building so i was going to be there anyway. i put the key in my pocket and drove home. monday morning, i walked in, put the key through the deposit slot in the door of the department office, went to my seminar and thought nothing more of it. that afternoon when i went to collect the key (a different key for a different room) to teach my 3pm class, i was told my class had been cancelled and i needed to speak to the department chair. so i stood there and waited for them (i can’t remember who it was but it was someone who decidedly hated me, i can guarantee, which is where most of this problem begins — personal issues being far more important in academia than actual thought).

eventually, they opened the door of their office and invited me in. they said i had broken an important regulation related to my teaching contract — i was confused. what had someone accused me of doing? playing favorites? giving bad grades to people i didn’t like? (these were extremely commonly-practiced exercises in that department and every other academic situation i’ve experienced but they are expressly forbidden, which i believe just encourages them to happen more in a world were entitlement is the norm and academics experience it more aggressively than most others.) no, i had taken the key out the building. of course, i had to take the key out the building to get to the building where the class was and this regulation had been written to prevent people walking away with department keys, costing a lot of money and effort and likely locked rooms when classes were scheduled to begin. i understood the point of the rule in general, though i never understood why the rooms could even be locked in the first place because, like i said, there was nothing in any of them so they should have just been doors without locks. that being said, i told the chair this and they said i didn’t just leave the building but left campus with the key friday and brought it back monday. i told them the department office was closed, it was late friday night, i was exhausted and halfway across campus and was going to be in the building monday morning two hours before the office opened anyway — not to mention there were no classes scheduled in that room on the weekend and, perhaps more than anything else, the room was open all the time and i don’t even know if the lock actually worked on that door because i never had to use it and most in that building i’m pretty sure didn’t.

they said it didn’t matter why and i was suspended from teaching for a month. i said i would protest it to the head of the faculty and they replied i was welcome to do that, which i assumed meant they’d already spoken to the head of the faculty and explained they hated me and wanted to teach me a lesson and this was a good excuse and the head of the faculty approved. but i was prepared to do it anyway. it was unnecessary, i discovered. when the students were informed what had happened, they took matters into their own hands. the next day, over a hundred of my students showed up at the department office to complain they had to write exams, i was willing to teach and provide extra help and the department was going to get them lower grades — failures in their courses in many cases, i suspect. they wanted their instructor back and i was happy to do it. the department was displeased. they wanted to hurt me and this was not how they expected it to go. by the end of the day, my teaching schedule was restored and the students were back to normal. at the end of the semester, i was informed i was not going to be offered any more teaching for the duration of my graduate degree and would likely not be offered teaching positions after graduation. i didn’t ask why. i knew. emotion is the driving force in academia. qualifications are usually required but they’re secondary in importance.

anyway, this wasn’t the only (or most negative) experience i had in grad school. i was accused of racism (by a white person), summarily kicked out of classes for expressing an opinion that had been requested (three times), escorted from a building by armed security guards because they didn’t believe i had a right to be there on a weekend (twice and the third time this was attempted i just sat on the floor and eventually they went away), had my teaching privileges suspended because i was accused of making a mistake in a class (which i didn’t make but even if i’d made it was so minimal in terms of the actual content of the course i don’t know how it could have been relevant to anyone — it was about the name of a country changing and i was accused of using its old name, which i’m pretty sure i didn’t, though it wasn’t a geography course and nobody even bothered to suggest i was doing it intentionally — this seems like the kind of mistake instructors make all the time and isn’t really a big deal) and had the contents of my computer account erased multiple times because they didn’t like them — why the department cared that i was reading old russian poetry in my spare time and had a bunch of pdfs in russian in my account, i have no idea, though this was the first cause for concern and i have no idea what they thought those files were — perhaps they thought i was a soviet spy a decade after the collapse of the union but i never imagined anyone would react to cyrillic in bad-quality scans of old books with such venom and panic — this is how many people in the west react to written arabic now, though, so i guess it’s more predictable in hindsight. this was a new issue to me at the time. now i know this ridiculousness is frequent and expected in grad school.

why am i telling this story, though? to scare you away from grad school? no. not in the slightest, actually. i think it’s probably good for you to go there but i want to make sure you have your head on straight about what it means. it’s not an academic mecca. it’s not going to be educationally or intellectually stimulating. it’s a high-emotion romantic-comedy with aging hormonal players trying to feel more important and a bunch of young people who are being suppressed while trying to be noticed against each other. it’s a constant land of competition and these people act like children, especially the professors. that’s not universal but it’s pretty common, far more than required for a majority, likely at least 80%. these are the people who got picked on in high school for being nerds. now they’re taking their revenge but it’s not on the people who picked on them. it’s on others who haven’t quite achieved their level of power and recognition. i’ve heard graduate school depressingly referred to as “nerds having a civil war” and that’s perhaps unfair. i think it’s closer to “nerds having multiple simultaneous family feuds” but i suspect you get the idea.

you will go to class and the prof will talk to you like you’re six. you might know more than they do about the topic. you probably do. i certainly did in just about every case. but that doesn’t matter. you’ll be treated like a child because if you do anything other than sit in worship you’ll be hated. and hated is bad. because this isn’t a place for free expression. it’s a place to gain recommendations and favors because you’ll need them if you want to succeed in academia.

it’s also a place of vendettas and bitterness and payback. it’s a land of sabotage (both of projects and careers). if you’ve ever seen vindictive primary students or junior-high bullies at work, you’ve got a pretty good framework for how the minds of academics in most institutions work. and work is possibly the wrong term for what goes on there. hard work is generally shunned by both students and instructors. partying is constant, drug use daily and accepted, drunkenness a qualification to walk into the building and cleanliness barely possible.

you can do excellent work in grad school. it’s possible. i think i achieved it and i definitely know others (quite a few) who did. but it wasn’t because of grad school. it was despite grad school. if you want to do research, work as a professor and have a happy life as an academic, grad school is a requirement. it just won’t likely be a very pleasant one. it is, however, often only a year or two of your life and that’s something you can survive even if it’s hell on earth. which, for me, it was. if you get to the end and they hate you, though, that’s probably the end of your academic career. so be prepared to spend a year or two pretending your profs are deities with limitless knowledge who are always right. challenge authority at the cost of your future.

so grad school is pretty shit. if you didn’t notice, it’s probably because you were either too high the whole time or you didn’t care the profs didn’t know anything and you were treated like a child. is it a worthwhile investment for you? that’s something only you can answer. but having done it three times and been trapped by the rivalries, personalities, brutal and bitter grudges and emotional tirades and absolute childish thoughts and behavior of professors and other students, i can honestly say the system isn’t just broken. it’s broken beyond repair. enter at your own risk. you’ll likely need to go. but keep your distance both emotionally and critically whenever possible. don’t engage. and don’t inhale. thanks for reading!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.