At one point or another we’ve all found ourselves stuck at a crossroads contemplating if we’d chosen the right path. The end of this month will find me in my second year of graduate school. As the new school year approaches, I cannot help but reflect back to my previous academic year, which proved to be one of the most trying experiences in my collegiate career. In hindsight, the entire experience should not have been as daunting as I perceived it at the time, but hindsight is twenty-twenty as they say. Throughout the duration of my first year, I cannot count the amount of times I questioned my decision to come to graduate school. I endured several moments of a deep longing to leave the program all together. Feeling alone in my thoughts of fear, regret, and dissatisfaction, I later found that I wasn’t the only one who harbored these feelings of indecision with regards to our graduate program.
Just last week a close friend of mine, Amy*, voiced her concerns about returning to our graduate program. She told me of her overwhelming unhappiness while being in the program, her dislike for the uncertainty and disorganization wrought upon us by our professors, and the sense of disinterest and lack of enthusiasm caused by the unending demands of academic busy work. Where as I chalked up our shared experience as the “First Year Blues,” Amy made it clear that there were more serious structural inadequacies at work. She didn’t think it was worth it to continue in a program where professors were not held accountable for their teaching responsibilities and there was no oversight from our chair or the department as a whole. Thus each class was its own nation and each professor a dictator; bureaucracy went unchecked.
BACKGROUND: A MEETING OF THE MINDS
Amy and I entered the program together last Fall and, over the past year, we have loosely stuck together in that awkward way that busy social introverts find time to interact with each other before the next crash of assignments and all-nighters pushes us back to our hovels–the dimly lit desk in my bedroom, to be politically correct.
It was not until our second semester into the program, that Amy and I truly became close and bonded over our similarly distressing experiences within the program. Everyone else seemed to be carrying on as though nothing was wrong with the way our professors operated autonomously from the department and graduate school’s regulations; but more on that later. Amy, however, was just as disturbed as I that our professors wielded such a force of vampiric power over our academic future yet rarely handed back graded assignments. For Amy, our experiences this past year left her on the fence in trying to decide if she should return to our graduate program. We had both been through the wringer and I agreed that she was completely warranted in her complaints toward our department.
The most hazardous flaw within our department is its lack of clear organization. On more than one occasion we showed up to the first day of class and the professor was without a syllabus. During the semester, our instructors would promise to send out-of-print or hard-to-find readings via email or blackboard only to forget until the night before our next class. The worse case was a Philosophy and Literature course in which the instructor waited until the same morning of our class meeting to upload the assignments and behaved indignantly when we informed him that we did not complete the reading.
There were also several occasions in which the professors would show up late to class; one of our professors did not show up to class until almost 2 hours after his session was supposed to begin. The few of us that did stay behind in the classroom to catch up on work were then subjected to a 30-minute lecture in which he attempted to cram a week’s worth of readings into one speech. It was insulting, to say the least, when he was upset that we could not stay after class to finish the lecture.
One of the worse examples of further disorganization came when one professor decided to add and remove some of the course assignments nearly half way through the semester. This would not have been so troublesome in other circumstances, but in this case we were not provided with a new syllabus reflecting the changes and neither were we provided with a new grading rubric to reflect the new assignments being added. To add more difficulties to the situation, almost all of our professors were roughly two months behind in returning our assignments. Hence, my cohort and I blindly wandered through the semester without an inkling of our academic standing in each course. We could not be sure if our work was satisfactory or below average and thus had no way to gauge if we were headed in the right direction when we began to work on our midterms and final papers.
It was a mess to say the least.
NO DEPARTMENTAL OVERSIGHT
I know what you’re thinking though: Why not report this behavior to the department? Trust me, we did! We were told to hold steady and that it would all sort itself out. As is the rule of thumb with the trickle down effect, the lack of organization within the department meant that there were no checks and balances put in place to ensure that professors were doing what they were paid to do. Toward the end of the academic year, we all heard the same threats from our department chair, late grade submissions from our professors were not going to be tolerated this year.
When the end of the semester came and we still had not received grades from some of the professors almost two months after handing in our final papers, we began to CC the department chair to the emails we were sending to our instructors. This was done after three other email correspondences went unanswered. It was only after the department chair emailed the guilty parties and CC-ed us students to the email that we finally saw a reply from our instructors with the most unlikely excuse of technological malfunction as the reason for their late submissions and lack of response.
To date, Amy is still on the fence, even with our fast approaching first day of the Fall semester. When the grades were finally released, she had made out well in almost all of her classes except one. The same professor who changed our syllabus assignments midway through the semester had given her a firm “D” to go along with the “A’s” she had earned in her other two classes. When she contacted the department chair, in disbelief at such a low grade, she was once again told that it would work itself out and that she should just take the course again, with the same professor. A proverbial slap in the face since the professor was not questioned even after all of the evidence of his unprofessionalism was brought to the attention of the department chair. From Amy’s perspective, our department seems like a lawless Western. Nothing I could say would dissuade from going or convince her to stay. I asked her once if it would not be best just to stay another semester and see if maybe it gets better. But she rightfully reminded me that it is not worth enduring a situation that she knows will make her unhappy.
I want her to stay for my own selfish reasons: because she is a part of my graduate school family and I could not imagine being unable to see her expressive face across the round table during class sessions; a face that hid no emotion from our professors, be it awe or disbelief. I have come to depend upon our weekly chats in which we would both express our disbelief at Dr. So-and-So’s latest exploitation of our positions as new graduate students. I have come to appreciate her blunt honesty and ability to admit when she was stressed out from the week’s assignments, because she made me feel as though I was not alone in my thoughts. If she does go, I will have lost a friend for sure, but if she stays there is still the unanswerable question of whether or not she will be happy with her decision.
A ROSE GROWS FROM A CRACK IN THE CONCRETE
I learned more last year than in all my undergraduate years and I met more people and attended more relevant events than I likely would have done on my own. Truth be told, I need these crazy, insensitive, demanding people as much as they need people like me to keep enrolling in the program. I see that I am receiving an education in African American literature that is rarely found with such legitimacy at other schools. I am sure that in my trials and tribulations, I will leave this department as an enlightened scholar of Black literature with a stamp of approval from some of the most renowned scholars in my discipline. The possibility of this idea alone is enough to keep me interested.
Not all graduate, medical, or law school programs are unbearably stressful, though one should go into these programs expecting some stressors to occur. It is simply how you cope with these stressors that matters the most. I tried group therapy with strangers and found that this was a waste of my time, but the simple presence of other people in my program and my ability to talk to them has done more than group therapy could ever have accomplished. Find your coping mechanism, be it a friend or a meditation routine and use it every opportunity you get.
For me, there are roughly three to four other people in my cohort who I feel comfortable with and who I also consider my friends, though my friendship with each is unique. My friendship with Amy was simply a little more special because I made her acquaintance first and we come from similar undergraduate backgrounds. I have made an effort to become involved in my department’s graduate student association with the intention that I will try to encourage this new incoming cohort to band together as a family–advice that we did not receive from the last cohort. I hope it works, but I hope more that I can see Amy again across the roundtable from me and then again across the stage at our graduation five years from now. Hope is alive and well.
I also hope that anyone out there who is contemplating leaving their graduate, medical, or law school program will read this and find some solace in this post. Know that it is okay to leave a situation that does not make you happy, we are millennials after all and we are known to eke out our success and happiness in the most unlikely places. But if there is an ounce of your countenance that still thinks that you may want to give it a chance, then shoot the shot! Even if you miss, you’ll never walk away wondering, what if?
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those people involved