Looking for previous columns in the Don’t Look Back in Anger series on the graduate-school experience? You can find them here.
All of the recruits were drunk before the appetizers arrived. The 21-year-old senior from Fancy East-Coast SLAC — the year's big “get,” we were told — had just professed his undying love to me, a 29-year-old in very low-rise jeans (it was 2006) with a lot to say about Immanuel Kant and Theodor Storm's novella Der Schimmelreiter.
Meanwhile, the 35-year-old ESL teacher — not as big of a “get” but one nonetheless — had just called our server a “bitch” and then spent 10 minutes lecturing me on why Romanian was a Slavic language. “Bulgaria … Slavic,” he insisted. “Romania … right next door. SLAVIC.” (Romanian, as you may intuit from its first two syllables, is a Romance language, and Romania is also “next door” to Hungary, which, last I checked, is not full of Slavs. But what do I know? I'm just a woman. Also, nobody had an iPhone back then.)
No matter what either of those guys did or said for the duration of our all-expenses-paid dinner at an upscale Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa, Calif., it was imperative that I keep placating them both. I needed them. By “I,” I mean my German department. And by “needed them,” I mean we hoped desperately they would matriculate to our doctoral program and save it from the certain disintegration that comes from underenrollment. If I didn't do everything in my power to seduce these guys (short of, you know, actually seducing them), life as I knew it would collapse, and it would be all my fault.
It made for an exhausting day.
I was just finishing my first year as a Ph.D. student in German at the University of California at Irvine. Ours was a well-regarded and well-ranked program full of some of the best faculty in the field. Yet we had to scramble to make up for our alleged “off-brand” name, which is why we’d flown in these prospective students in a transparent (the kids would now say “thirsty”) attempt to woo them. What we had initiated with rigorous seminar visits and generous(ish) stipend offers, we now had to close with a full-blown charm offensive. Graduate students like me — new, eager, and in the thick of it — were the all-too-willing weapons of choice.
On my own recruitment visit to Irvine the year prior, I'd been both confused and enthralled that so many people apparently thought I was smart. (I'd also been pretty stoked about the hotel's free hot-buffet breakfast.) The department chair handed me an envelope that contained a five-year offer of over $100,000 (just to attend school!!). A troika of current graduate students took me out for drinks to regale me with tales of February T-shirt weather. Everyone seemed singularly focused on me and my very smart happiness in a way that nobody ever had before, or ever has since.
What I didn't realize then, of course, was that even as a graduate program's faculty and students (especially the students) are pulling out the proverbial vermillion carpet and kowtowing to one’s every need and remark — as I found myself doing with new recruits scarcely 12 months later — they are also busy judging.
I chose Irvine with great enthusiasm (and received euphoric emails from my new peers). But when I showed up in September, I found out in short order that my new colleagues had also, during my visit, taken permanent and largely disapproving note of all sorts of things about me —my haircut, my choice of meals, my B.A.-granting institution (Some Other Fancy East-Coast SLAC), my skepticism of Los Angeles (I'd been living in New York for seven years and had affected its sense of cool superiority). Plus, I'd been annoyingly sober for the whole visit and hadn't hit on, or insulted, anyone.
By the time I figured all of that out and made amends — or at any rate, proved I was not at all cool and enjoyed California immensely — it was now my turn to judge silently and thirst openly. It was now my duty to crank out stories of January beach trips and save my department, and thus, myself.
The role of current students in the brief, heady cycle of grad-program recruitment (in humanities programs, at least) is a proverbial minefield. On the one hand, they are exactly the people who should be talking to their future colleagues/BFFs/frenemies/competition/spouses. Students are experiencing their programs right that second and are the best indicators of what it's actually like to be enrolled there.
On the other hand, for that very same reason, students are also the worst possible people to be talking to prospective grad students about the larger realities of academic life. Because at those moment of our careers, we are true believers. One measly year into my grad program — busily obliterating my eyeballs with 13 hours a day of mind-blowing reading, and riding high on seminars equally thrilling and exhausting in their rigor — I was fully invested in academe. I was a part of it.
Unless they're unusually savvy, graduate students in their first few years all believe that this initiation is simply what the rest of their lives are going to be like, so long as they work hard.
In retrospect, I feel dirty for luring as many people as I could into the Ph.D.-program fold, because I now know that I was beckoning them into a probable lifetime of contingency and alienation. In my defense, my boosterism was genuine — I felt like I belonged in the academic world at the time, and I naïvely thought I always would.
For what it's worth: The faculty in my doctoral program really were wonderful, and I'd still recommend them to anyone who, for some reason, still thinks getting a humanities Ph.D. is a good idea — it's just the small matter of those last few words. It’s not a good idea, regardless of where you go.
That kid from Fancy East-Coast SLAC? He's all grown up now, with a Ph.D. of his own, and even a job. Alas, even the undying love of yours truly was not enough to entice him to attend a state university. He ended up at a private institution, and it seems to have served him well. Still, for years after that visit, if I bumped into him at MLA, he would literally run away and hide, as if (ahem) the shame of his drunken recruit antics would outlive him. Little does he know that my own shame about that day — and the active role I played in trying to recruit him to academic life — will outlive us both.