First Year of Program: Check

Now, here I am. Tens of thousands of dollars into debt, having had a roller coaster ride trying to switch supervisors and legitimately minutes away from joining my student association so I can actually be heard and make some very necessary problems visible to the department and administration.

I’ve seen amazing job opportunities go by, the likes of which I had not seen during my two years outside of the academic system, and I have seriously considered just quitting and continuing on with my career as a community organizer. After months of reflection and considering how much money and time I have invested as well as looking at how much time is left to complete the program, I’ve decided to stick it out and do what I always do in times of strife: stick to my guns, take what I can from the experience, try to make a difference and try as most as I can not to compromise my values in the process.

On a brighter note, I ended up contacting the professor whose class I enjoyed the most and learned the most from and was lucky enough to have her take me on. As a supervisor, I know that she will push me, test me and make me work hard. Great, that’s what I’m paying for! She is also the first person in this whole thing to respond to my research topic positively.

I am not someone who is afraid of hard work, don’t get me wrong here, I love it and grow from complex situations. What I am ranting about is what was and is in some big ways at the core of the latest student strike: how the institutional and capitalistic/corporate culture of universities is overriding the teaching culture and rendering it hostile to the very people who are paying for its services while equity issues remain clearly not addressed.

Things I Learned (The Hard Way) to Keep In Mind:

1. Really ask yourself why you want to go to grad school. Are you really stoked about research? Do you want to become a Professor? Do you need this degree to help with you career’s upwards mobility? Talk to the people who have done what you wanna do. Ask them what it is really like researching/teaching/studying at this or that university. Research the schools you are applying to very carefully and think about making trips to speak with people in that department.

2. Apply to funds BEFORE starting grad school and maybe think carefully about the chances you have of getting ANY funding once you are in. Keep in mind that if you don’t get any funding, you will probably have to go into (more) debt AND work a job that will make focusing on your research harder and perhaps, less of a priority.


3. You think your G.P.A. is good because it’s slightly above the required G.P.A. to apply for the program? Think again, look at funding opportunities and their cut off G.P.A. requirements. Then take a moment to think how far you are from that and if you have gone through the maze-like and sometimes (re)victimizing process of getting documentation for your extenuating circumstances. Still not close enough? STOP. Apply as an independent student and boost the shit out of your G.P.A. They look at the last two years of your studies for grants. Work the system before it works you: into massive debt and angry times.

4. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of supervisors and directors. If you have questions that are met with walls, ask again, ask someone else. It’s not going to affect them at all if you don’t have the answers you are looking for, but it may very well cost you (literally, something like $10 000 per question).

5. Don’t expect anyone to “care” about helping you navigate this whole new system. Even the people whose jobs you think it is to do so are probably not going to without some intense dedication on your part. Actually, watch how the students who did their bachelors in the department end up doing the best at all things grad student related. This is because they know who is who and know the lay of the land. Make friends with one of them maybe and trade secrets. Think about joining the student association, this will give you a chess piece beyond what may be perceived to be a pawn. Maybe now the department will see you as I dunno, one of the horse things and your voice might be heard slightly louder.

6. Don’t be fooled into thinking things operate in the straightforward manner they are “supposed to.” They don’t. This is about who you know, what you know, what you can do for people and most of all, how you use it. For example, I’ve been told four different stories about how to get another T.A. ship and heard some interesting stories about how those are sometimes used. Indeed, at this moment, the union is fighting for more transparent hiring policies. That’s a definite sign of something fishy right there.

7. If your career is seemingly on the rise (as mine was), maybe it’s not time to go to grad school. I’m sure you’ve heard everyone complaining about how many post-graduates don’t have jobs at the moment, how universities aren’t hiring full time staff anymore and T.A. and R.A. ships are on the decline (with unions fighting for better conditions). We all know the story of how most baristas and waiters in Montreal have university degrees; masters degrees included.

8. If you keep getting turned down for funding, grants, bursaries, awards, take a moment and read the letters of references your supporters wrote for you. They believe in you or they wouldn’t have taken the time to write those letters. If you need to, frame them and make a mantra out of what they list as your strengths. This helps fight the crushing feelings of constant rejection.

9. Quitting grad school doesn’t make you a loser. Sometimes, the school, the program, the timing, the finance, is all wrong. Never let the system define how you value yourself. That’s like walking to Mordor and enjoying wearing the cursed ring. The stakes here aren’t the future of Middle Earth and you are not less important than the department, the institution, or the degree. Keep that in mind, always.

*Arts and Social Sciences Graduate Schools seem to operate quite differently in terms of funding than Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, for example. My hypothesis is that this may be in due part to the current government’s attitude towards “committing sociology.”

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.

pam brownieMy undergrad

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.

336440_10100882836001507_257420957_oGrad School Begins 

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.