On Graduate School Orientation

A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.

On graduate school orientation

You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.

This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.

Just breathe and listen.

I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.

I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. One guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite.

Your turn to describe yourself and your scholarly agenda arrives. You manage to describe you previous major (American studies), your previous work on religion and the arts, and your interests. It is a good enough introduction, and you didn’t pass out or throw up. The professor leading the orientation prods you to say something about your summer. Weren’t you in Belgium?, he asks. You mutter that you were because your husband was studying with computer science faculty for a couple of weeks. You mentioned your husband, and you worry. You hope it will be okay. It is okay, until it isn’t.

The rest of orientation focuses on required courses and the Department’s expectations.  You are frightened. You take notes in a girly notebook that draws attention, not the good kind. There are more men at orientation than women; some of them appraise you. It makes you more nervous about your choice to go to graduate school. As soon as you get home, you throw away the beloved notebook. It made you happy, but now, it seems like a liability. Your fears about being judged “not serious enough” overwhelm you.

(Oh sweetheart, I wish I could tell you that you don’t need to worry about being judged, but this is the only beginning of the gendered bullshit you’ll have to deal with. Let’s not worry about that now, okay?)

As orientation trudges on, you draw inside yourself more. You think about your appearance. Your long blonde hair, your cheerful affect, and your clothing. You begin to pick apart your appearance as a way to control your emotions. (This is a terrible habit that you still haven’t broken 12 years later, but you are working on it. Hard.)

At some point, orientation is over. You smile and make small talk with the other students. Most of them seem nice. What you don’t know is that many of these people will become not only your colleagues, but also your friends. You’ll take classes together. You’ll disagree and debate. You’ll agree. You’ll rail at previous scholarship. You’ll lament the field.  And you’ll have so much fun.

What I want to tell you today is that you’ll survive orientation. You’ll call your mom on the phone, and she’ll convince you not to quit before you’ve even started. You’ll take her advice because she’s right.

What you need to know is that the other graduate students are just as nervous as you are. They just hide it better through smugness and/or condescension, though you are pretty good at hiding your nerves too.

More importantly, these other students are not smarter than you. You are not dumbest person in graduate school, even though you think you are. Listen to me, you are not even close to dumb. All of the students are smart, but all of you are smart about different topics. That’s okay. It is actually preferred. Your strengths are yours, and their strengths are theirs. This is how you all learn from one another. And you will learn, more than you could imagine. Savor those moments while you can.

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