The Six Stages of Graduate Education by William Pannapacker

More evidence our graduate education and academic labor system need substantial reform

The happiest moments of graduate school were getting accepted into a good program and the first year after my qualifying exams, followed by a slow descent into depression… and I was one of the lucky ones.

by William Pannapacker • Vitae – The Chronicle of Higher Education

full_03112014-metamorphosisI spent six years in my Ph.D. program. Looking back, I think the experience had six relatively distinct stages:

Application Year: “This graduate program will be great. I’ll get to study the things I enjoyed as an undergraduate, and they’re going to pay me enough to get by in an exciting new city. And when it’s all done, I’ll become a professor and get to write books and teach classes at a research university or maybe a liberal-arts college. I won’t be rich, but I’ll be comfortable, and I’ll be doing useful work without having to sell out.”

Years 1-2: “This is really hard. Everybody speaks in ‘theory’ all the time, and they all seem to know so much more than I do. And I’m taking on all kinds of extra work as a research assistant so I can pay my rent. How can I possibly read 2,000 pages a week, keep up with my research projects, and learn a second foreign language? I’m going to fail my qualifying exams. I feel like an imposter. Maybe I should leave.”

Year 3: “OK, maybe I can do this. I did pass my exams, and I won an essay prize and published a few things. Teaching sections for two different courses is hard, but I’m learning a lot, and I have plenty of time ahead of me. I’m enjoying reading books, gathering research materials, and thinking about my project, and I can make real progress on writing the dissertation in the summer.”

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William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English and Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and Faculty Director of the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative of the Great Lakes Colleges Association. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker.