So you’ve decided to earn a PhD in English, huh? Whether you’re beating the boss level of English degrees (having already rescued the princesses at the BA and MA levels) or you’re just warp whistling your ass straight over the Masters and are now panicking through the floating fireball ship that is your post-comprehensive exam candidacy, grad school at the PhD level is nothing to scoff at. Is nothing at which to scoff. Fuck. Look my point is, before you actually go all Dr. Faustus on us and sell your soul to the academic devil, let me impart up on you some time-tested wisdom, from someone who’s been in grad school for seven years and in all that time still hasn’t managed to adequately explain to her grandpa why in the hell it’s taking so damn long.
Everyone will laughingly say you’re still in college. Ha! Hahahaha! I get it! I’m still in college because I go to a college, hahahahaha! HA YOU’RE SO FUNNY HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA wait now I’m crying when did I start crying. I mean technically speaking, you’re not wrong. I am enrolled at an accredited institution of higher learning. But I swear on my 2nd dissertation chapter, if you jokingly suggest I’m a college student I will take the binders and binders full of syllabi, assignments, grades, and handouts from the sixteen sections of college courses I’ve taught, run them through a shredder, intricately braid the shredded pieces together into one long paper rope, break into your house one night, and gleefully tie it around your neck and watch with a maniacal glint in my eye while you slowly asphyxiate.
I may look like a duck and quack like a duck, but I’ve also spent the better part of a decade teaching classrooms full of ducks so I’m not a duck, damnit. Not anymore. I’m a swan or something. A BEAUTIFUL SWAN!! YOU HEAR ME, WORLD?!
Everyone will assume you’ve read everything ever. Not everybody is quite this myopic about what it means to be an English grad student. But a fair chunk of the population will hardly let you utter the first few syllables of “I’m getting my PhD in English” before excitedly interrogating you on all literature from the last 100 years (which is a cruel joke on those of us getting our English degrees in literature that’s 400 years old or older). “So you’ve probably read…” Nope, I haven’t. “Well surely you’ve read…” No, haven’t read that either. “Well then you HAVE to have read…” NO. SEE, NO. SHUT UP, NO. Here’s a Greek mythology metaphor for you: You know how Cassandra refused to let Apollo make sexy-times with her, so he placed a curse on her so that she could predict the future but nobody would ever believe her? I absolutely cannot make someone understand how I read so much and yet have read so little. And your gape-mouthed shock at my not having read the entirety of the Library of Congress only serves to make me feel like a dolt who’s spent half her life just smashing her face against pages that happen to have words on them. Now please stop recommending books to me that you think I’d like because “you’re into that English stuff”; I have a dissertation to write and panic attacks to survive.
Everyone will assume you’re always mentally correcting their grammar. One of the benefits of studying English that’s older than the English we speak now is that I’m acutely aware of the evolution of language. For that reason, I could give a flying Chaucer’s ass whether you’ve said “good” or “well,” “ain’t” or “aren’t,” split your infinitives, or ended your sentence in a preposition. I have no interest in chiding you for text speak either, because what’s awesome about language is that evn if I talk liek dis, u still no wat I’m saying, rite? OMG. I’ll laugh on the outside but die on the inside if you ever say to me “PhD in English, huh? Guess I better watch my grammar around you!” thus reducing my entire career down to the functional equivalent of spell check. I use bad grammar, I turn nouns into verbs with reckless abandon, I type “LOL” at least seventy-five times a day depending on how many hilar memes I’ve seen on Reddit, and I’m generally of the opinion that “proper” English is more racist and classist than it is objectively correct. That said, yes I will edit your essay/personal statement/cover letter because I’m quite good that that.
Your sense of the Gregorian calendar will disappear entirely. When I say “next year,” I mean next September. When I say “in the spring” I mean in January. When I say “summer break” you should take me to the hospital immediately because I may be having a stroke; those words are nonsense. “I’m so excited for summer break!” makes about as much sense to me as “I’m refrigeratoring a squirrel!” or “Chicken nuggets, go bang on a corn’s ear!”
Your sense of guilt will never disappear entirely. Are you taking a shower right now? Shame on you; you should be reading for your next dissertation chapter. Have you just rammed your car into a brick wall and are currently in a drug-induced coma while the doctors determine if there will be any permanent brain damage? Wow, I guess your priorities aren’t where they should be. The cruel irony of having this never-ending guilt is that it’s paralyzing enough to actually make you not do anything for large swaths of time. Or maybe it’s just me that lies curled up in a fetal position on the couch trying not to think about the 100 pages of stuff I have to write in the next eighteen months. But I kind of doubt it.
You will need to progressively shorten the explanation of what you do. Which is not to say that the general public isn’t smart enough to keep up while you explain the intricacies of whatever archaic and painfully precise thing you’re studying. It’s that ethically speaking, the Geneva Conventions should really include “sitting through someone explaining their dissertation topic” as a form of unconscionable torture. Your dissertation is your baby, your precious, your special little thing you’ve coddled and snuggled and wrapped protectively in your arms for years. But like actual human babies, you always think yours is much cuter and more precious than everybody else does. Figure out your perfect elevator pitch (the 30-second explanation of your thesis you could toss out in a short elevator ride), and you might be surprised by how much a) people are interested, and b) people get it.
You will dread the day your Amazon Prime Student account expires. As a grad student, my Amazon Prime account is the gift that keeps on giving. I can get books I need delivered in two days for free, as many times as I like, forever and ever, until I’m finally done with grad school. OH NO WAIT, I CAN’T. Because the draconian secret society of cloaked wizards that decide these sorts of things at Amazon Galactic Headquarters on a planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse have determined that four years is quite enough college, thank you very much, and after four years you should either graduate or commit seppuku for bringing shame on your family for staying in college any longer. My Student Prime account expires this year which means membership cost will double. Yes, I know. “Um, first world problems much? You poor thing, having to pay a whole 99 bucks a year to get shit conveniently delivered to your door faster than should be physically possible. Boo hoo.” To which I reply, “Oy, c’mon. Why you gotta be like that? Geez.”
Your drinking schedule won’t be compatible with most of your friends’ drinking schedules. Based on when you teach, your heaviest drinking night of the week might end up being on, like, Tuesday. You may be ready to go out and hit the bars on Sunday night after a long weekend of grading papers, but you can’t call any of your 9-5 M-F friends because they have “normal jobs” and are “respectable humans” with “decent prospects for a happy and fulfilling future.” Which means you end up spending large chunks of your social time with either fellow grad students or the surprisingly large number of pizza restaurant employees you call friends. Why do you know so many people who work at pizza restaurants? “But wait Katie, not all social time has to involve drinking!” You may feel compelled to argue. Doesn’t it, though? You did hear me tell you I’ve been in grad school for seven years, right?
–Katie Sisneros had more to say on this subject than she had anticipated.