The following is not an academic critique of the relics of enlightenment and purveyors of colonialist and modernist values that are higher learning institutions in the West. This piece might raise similar concerns but will do so by doing something rather ethnographic: I will tell you the story of my experience with grad school thus far.
That’s me on the right enjoying a free brownie at my Bachelor of Arts convocation. Those brownies were delicious. Even more satisfying was having finally finished my degree and having survived, thanks to some of the privileges I was lucky enough to have, all the obstacles thrown my way throughout those four years where, at times, debilitating disability and trauma tested my ability to pursue my studies with any kind of functionality.
Given all of this, after I graduated (survived), I took a break before diving right back into academia. This break meant working hard at a barely paying job while finding the strength to apply for unpaid internships where competition was incredibly high while clinging to my passions. I finally got a break and landed a decent job based on my experience and commitment to community engagement – all of which had been volunteer based.
Applying to Grad School
Applying to grad school should have indicated some problems right off the bat. There were puzzling requirements like taking standardized tests for institutions that produced my transcript to begin with.
I didn’t get into all the schools I applied to, but I had expected that. It didn’t help that I basically wrote in my letter of intent that my primary goal was that I wanted to learn more about my discipline and did not, as of yet, have a project fully formed in mind but had various strong research interests.
In grad school world, that’s a bad chess move. I suck at poker. Honesty is NOT the best policy in applying to these institutions which are basically looking to have to do as little work as possible to see you write a fully formed thesis that, if it so happens is amazing, they can claim some sort of ownership over.
Grad school began with a rather negative moment. During the first week, it was made clear whom had already obtained grants and bursaries and who hadn’t and that with my low end G.P.A. almost all the doors were slammed shut for any prizes and funding. Hopes crushed.
In that moment, I was also publicly “outed” as the student with the lowest G.P.A. in the room. EQUITY FOUL.
So, being the way I am, when I raised my hand and naively asked: “What does a student do in the case that their G.P.A. is too low to make the requirements?” I was met by what basically amounts to a: “Huh, I don’t know.” At about this time, I think my face turned to permanent grumpy cat expression for the rest of the seminar.
Things seemed to go from bad to worse as I met with my temporary supervisor who basically raised some flags about my plans to continue on towards a career as a professor, alerting me to the decreasing tenure track positions and conditions for part-time staff. As things at my job got really hard and emotionally draining, I found myself thinking about transferring to another school, maybe there the courses would be more interesting, the material more challenging and maybe I’d find a more receptive department.
Not so. I met with a professor who specialized in the research area I came to choose and she met me with the following warning: “My first piece of advice to give you about grad school is don’t go to grad school.” In the context of the conversation, I understood that she was referring to the current institutional environment as well as possible financial and professional opportunities.
So here I was, trying to understand how everything works but having literally zero time to do anything except work, do 1/3 of my coursework and try to you know, keep a sleeping schedule that would keep me healthy. I began applying to the few grants I qualified for and was taken aback that the school didn’t short-list me for ANY of them.
At this point, I am exhausted, disheartened and feeling like no one believes in my abilities and my “smarts.” It became clear to me that this whole G.P.A. thing is a load of crock. While I had been proud of my G.P.A. considering everything I’d been through as an undergrad, here I was being told there was nothing to be proud about.
This system in no way works to select students based on their capacity for producing critical and analytic frontier breaking work. In fact, it suddenly hit me, that if one is planning to go to graduate school, attending an easier and smaller university and obtaining a sky high inflated G.P.A. is far more important than going to a harder and more competitive school.
As I reconsidered what I could have done to boost my G.P.A. and how if I’d had the knowledge and financial resources those more difficult semesters could have been erased, it became increasingly clear that this system supports mainly those who have the resources to work it. This is something I’d always know intellectually, but experiencing it was a whole other thing: here it was, the breakdown of whatever privilege I was once had or thought I had.
I was a liminal student, an undesirable in many ways and couldn’t cut it anymore. Perhaps grad school was the limit of my academic upward mobility.
By the end of our second semester, a large portion of my cohort was seriously considering quitting, not because of self-doubt or fear of intellectual inability, but rather because the program and the funding opportunities were just not cutting it.