August 24, 2012


Attention conservation notice: Posted because I got tired of repeating it to nervous new graduate students. You are not beginning graduate school at a research university. (Any resemblance to how I treat the undergrads in ADA is entirely deliberate.)

Graduate school, especially at the beginning, is an ego-destroying, even humiliating, experience. People who are used to being good at what they do get set impossible tasks by elders they look up to, and the students have their faces ground in their failures. Everything is designed to encourage self-doubt. This is not an accident. Graduate school is not just about teaching certain specific skills; it is about breaking down your old persona to make room for a new one, to turn out a certain kind of person. It has evolved so that authority figures make it very clear that the new inductees possess no accomplishments of any worth — but that if they work very hard, beyond ordinary expectation, they can emerge as the peers of the authorities, the only kind of person worthy of respect, members for life of the fraternity.

In other words: welcome to boot camp, maggots! It's a sad day for our beloved discipline when we have to take unpromising specimens like you — and yes, that includes you, I know your type — but maybe, possibly, just maybe, one or two of you might have what it takes to become scholars...

Graduate school is not, obviously, physically demanding. (For that matter, few of your instructors can pull off battle-dress and a Sam Browne belt; avoid the ones who try.) Our version of "Drop and give me fifty" is "Prove these functions are measurable" — or, perhaps more insidiously, "Really? What does the literature say about that point?" (Actual question at an oral exam in my physics department: "Explain how a radio works. You may start from Maxwell's equations.") But we are playing the same mind-games: removing you from your usual friends and associates, working you constantly, dis-orienting you with strange new concepts and vocabulary, surrounding you with people who are either in on the act or also enduring the initiation, and perpetually reinforcing that the only thing which matters is whether you excel in this particular program. This is an institution which has persisted over, literally, a thousand years by consuming young people like you and spitting out scholars with the attitudes and habits of mind it needs to perpetuate itself, and it is very good at getting inside your head.

There are many ways to cope with this, but what I would suggest is to remember, fiercely, that it's all bullshit. You are a bad-ass, whatever happens in school. It may have practical consequences, but it doesn't matter, and any impression we give to the contrary is just part of the bullshit. Hold on to that fact, internalize it, feel it, and let the stress and strain pass through you without distorting you.

You will still prove the theorems I tell you to prove, but you'll remember that this doesn't matter to who you are. If you decide to care about academia, it will be a conscious choice, and not the institution turning you into its means of reproduction.

Corrupting the Young

Posted at August 24, 2012 12:06 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth