Before I continue telling my academia stories, I will say that other people have talked about these issues in a much more thoughtful and broad-based way. As I was reading Critical Mass and some of the other blogs it links to, I found myself thinking, "Yep, that's true to my experience...uh, huh, it was like that for me, too." So these stories are by way of affirmation and by way of hearing myself talk.
I was a good student as a undergrad, but not a great one. I graduated from the University of Michigan with a 3.66 gpa, and had higher grades than that during the two years I spent at other schools before transferring to Michigan my junior year. My major at Michigan was Political Science, but I transferred in with so many PoliSci credits I took very few classes in the department. I devoted much of my time at Michigan to taking a second major in Women's Studies.
When I graduated, I went directly into the brand-new Women and Politics Ph.D. program at Rutgers. I chose Rutgers because the program was right up my alley, and because they offered me a fellowship package that would look pretty good even today, fifteen years later: four years of guaranteed funding, no teaching, full tuition waiver, a $10,000 per year stipend, and health insurance.
I applied to other top-tier schools, including Michigain, which was then ranked second in the nation for graduate PoliSci, and, although I was admitted to every school I applied to, nobody offered me funding to compare with Rutgers. Most schools offered me a one-year fellowship, and Michigan trailed the pack, offering me a teaching assistantship that paid $6,000. Since I'd been living in Ann Arbor for two years already, I knew there was no way I could live on that.
I told the UM professor who called to recruit me that I couldn't possibly attend Michigan unless I got better funding. I told him about the offers from other schools. He told me that the competition just to get into the program was so fierce that I was lucky to get a TA position, that many students were happy to pay their own way in order to earn a Michigan Ph.D. I told him that I couldn't afford to come to Michigan, in that case. He told me that if I didn't get my Ph.D. at Michigan I would never get a job. Recruiting through fear and snobbery: I guess it works on some people.
I felt sure I deserved more than Michigan was offering, but I wasn't at all sure I deserved the package Rutgers was dangling. I took it happily enough, but when I got to New Brunswick that fall and got to know the other students, it didn't seem to me that I was more deserving than they were. Many of them had better undergraduate transcripts; a number of them matched my all-99th percentile scores on the GRE; and several older students had real-world experience, having managed campaigns or done other paid political work before returning to school.
As I began my second year, I figured out why Rutgers had wanted me so badly. As we shared histories, I mentioned having gotten my A.B. at Michigan, and a fresh Yale graduate blurted out, "Oh, you're the one!"
"I'm the one?" I asked.
Turns out the department was using the Michigan graduate they'd recently recruited to try to convince Ivy League grads they wouldn't be taking a big step down by coming there. On my own merits, I probably didn't deserve the fellowship I got, but as a Michigan graduate, I was an investment for an ambitious university whose proximity to the Ivy League was a constant bitter reminder of its own inferiority. Several people, including a dean, told me during my recruitment visit that Rutgers had once been invited to join the Ivy League but had turned down the invitation to preserve state funding; this was clearly a comfort to them.
I left Rutgers after two unhappy years. I wasn't cut out for PoliSci, but it's also true that the Women in Politics program that had looked so good on paper was so poorly supported by the department that there were semesters during which no courses that met any of the program's requirements were offered. When I told my advisor I was leaving, she begged me not to formally leave the program, but to simply take some time off. She had been eloquent on several occasions about the definciences of my scholarly work, so I knew it wasn't me she wanted to hold onto. No, it was my Excellence Fellowship, which was a university fellowship, the best the school offered, and a source of prestige and external funding for the department.
When I first figured all this out, I was disillusioned and embittered. I had thought academic advancement depended entirely on one's own merit, and learning that it didn't left me wondering whether I had any merit at all. I'm less troubled now to know that academic success depends on the quality of your work and on departmental politics and on cultivating relationships with the right people and on doing work that fits with current trends, because none of that is unique to academia. It does seem to me, though, that I would only ever be any good at the quality-of-work part, so it's just as well I've never been burdened by much ambition.
I do wish there were a way to make sure young, naive students know that grad school is not just an extension of undergraduate work, but that more and different things are expected of one both in one's work and in one's dealings within the department. I suffered and failed at Rutgers partly because I had no idea how to make the transition, or even that there was one to make, and I was in over my head from the very first day. When I went back to grad school four years ago, I saw young students with fresh bachelor's degrees looking as lost as I had been back then, and more than one of them felt betrayed when, for instance, the department didn't renew their funding after one year. I remember an older student gently explaining to a small group of de-funded students that funding is used for recruitment, that the department feels little loyalty to continuing students. There are hard lessons to be learned in graduate departments, and it's too bad that so many students have to learn them through painful experience.Posted by Su Penn at June 29, 2003 11:43 AM | TrackBack