April/May 2005 (v7 i6)
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So you want to go to grad school
by Elizabeth Barksdale, Associate Editor

Every day, mysterious beings walk among you on campus. To an untrained eye, they look like everyone else, but they might as well be a different species. They're they few, the proud, the mildly pretentious. They're graduate students. Since some of you are probably considering going to grad school, I should prepare you by letting you in on some details the brochures will never tell you.

Classes. Okay, think of that one student you have in every class, the one who won't shut up, the one who's maniacally enthusiastic about course material, who really loves the class. You know the type. In grad school, about half of the people in your classes will be like this. Many grad students have this creepy tendency to actually enjoy learning. Some things about graduate classes are positive, however. For instance, since you're older, wiser, and generally superior than your undergraduate counterparts, you're better equipped to deal with rigorous challenges like making good participation and attendance grades.

Classmates. In grad school, you don't have "classmates." In fact, once you get in, you can officially start snickering when you hear undergraduates using that silly, juvenile term. In grad school, one has "colleagues." So you can call getting together for a boring, pointless group project "a meeting with colleagues." Getting wasted on cheap, nasty gin with fellow grad students can be called "drinks with colleagues." If you wake in the morning to find yourself somewhere in the outskirts of Pflugerville, squashed between the pasty naked flesh of three other lonely grad students, and all of you deny any knowledge of how you got there?well, that's "a double-blind research collaboration with colleagues." Wow, I bet you wish you had colleagues, huh?

Social Life. Nil to void. Though most grad students are over 21, and you can go bar-hopping, most of them are married with three kids or chain themselves in a lab or library all weekend. But every now and then you have the opportunity to patronize a mature, depressing bar for happy hour on a weeknight with your colleagues. Then you go home and read for six more hours.

Finances. You think you're broke now? Ha-hah! You ain't seen nothin' yet. My advice is to work for awhile before applying to graduate school. This could save you money as well as precious, precious sanity. And once you do get in, you have some options to help you out financially. You can be a teaching assistant, a research assistant, or various other jobs that allow you to use your knowledge and skills being some professor's grunt work monkey.

The secrets of TAs. Most TAs are grad students, but not every grad student is a TA. Teaching assistants are a special subset of the grad population. They can be divided into two categories: (a) nice, normal, hard-working people and (b) embittered, power-hungry lunatics who dream nightly of eating their undergrad students' vital organs for breakfast. The scary part is you can never truly tell which is which. Evil TAs only reveal their true colors to fellow grad students. Remember that essay you wrote for history class you thought was pretty decent? Tonight, the TA who graded it will probably carry it into a depressing bar to show it to his colleagues. He'll read aloud that paragraph on page 3 you were proud of, and all his friends will laugh heartily at your "insights" as well as your doodles of cannons, your rudimentary syntax, and your general stupidity. I used to date one TA who carried around his students' papers in a litter box because he believed this was extremely clever symbolism. Now he's finished his Master's and is unemployed. So fear evil TAs, but not too much.

Relating to undergraduates. Once you get into grad school, you may deign to keep associating with undergraduates. Realize, however, that to these young undergrads, you are not merely yourself, you are a Grad Student. Undergrad friends usually won't ask you how you are; instead they'll query "How's grad school going?" with a look of reverence and awe in their big, sweet, hopelessly nave eyes. And you must reply, "Oh fine, fine." Because you know they couldn't begin to understand your research. Or why you cry yourself to sleep at night.

Nervous breakdowns. Every Tuesday and Thursday, like clockwork. Be prepared. It's just a part of higher education.

All in all, grad school is a unique time in your life where you have the opportunity to explore vast amounts of knowledge, to exchange ideas, and to stifle the daily desire to decapitate yourself using a 10 pound textbook. But if I can do it, you can do it ? you should embrace a future of learning. But in the meantime, could you damn kids keep it down on the West Mall? Some of us are actually trying to think.
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