At the beginning of November, I attended the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) conference in Toronto. Ironically, while the entire conference centered around the future of grad studies in Canada, there were a mere handful of graduate students in attendance to speak of, mostly a result of the rather uncomfortable strike going on right outside the meeting location’s doors. I did learn a lot during this conference (and shmoozed with a lot of Deans and NSERC granting agents, thank you!), but there was one bright, shining hour that made the whole session really worthwhile. And that was a lecture by Jorge Cham. Jorge is the mastermind behind the comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper”, available at PhDComics.com. If you haven’t visited this site and are thinking about grad school…you need to.
The lecture started by the introduction of Jorge, a rather slight, meek looking fellow wearing one of those portable microphone contraptions that are usually worn by motivational speakers and people who really, really try to “educate”. Faced with a room full of deans and upper eschalon faculty members was a man who made his living mocking the entire institution of graduate education. First words: “Whoa. A room full of deans…it’s like my worst nightmare!”
Whether he had intended his lecture for a more grad-student rich audience or whether he was just THAT brave, I’m not sure, but he spent the entire hour disclosing to his slightly aghast audience the plight of the graduate student. And there are many. Such as: the fact that grad students, as a bunch, are exceptional procrastinators. Why? Because we don’t want to do research. But WHY? Well, what do you expect? We have no set work hours, no determinable end point in sight, and very little input from the people supposed to be supervising us. Couple that with a motivation that dwindles ever more year by year, and the result is procrastination!
Jorge also touched on the fact that graduate students are a lonely bunch. Academia forces us to displace ourselves every degree, which, resultingly, means that we tend to be tetra or penta-annually nomadic. Not being able to put our roots down means we leave behind family, friends, significant others, and crappy apartments in every city we colonize and abandon. But we all have THOSE friends. You know the type. The ones who DIDN’T go to grad school? Who got a well paying, reputable job after high school or undergrad? And now have the show home and the trophy wife, the beamer parked in the front lot and the oh-so cute golden retreiver named Lucky? Yeah. We have those friends. Meanwhile, we, the same age, settle in for the night in our dank rental units with our bowl of Mr. Noodles and our self-help books. Yup, Jorge talked about that too. Thanks for reminding me.
I had never thought of an act of bravery as a mousy little guy standing infront of a room of obviously older, more “accomplished” people and simply telling it how it is. But this clearly was. Whether the future of graduate studies will change as a result of this conference seems vaguely unlikely. What is likely, however, is that what grad students go through personally as well as professionally, will stay the same. So do yourself the favour of learning the lifestyle.
Thanks for letting me procrastinate. I should probably go back to my research now.
oooooh! A candy! *armph!