Questions Your Family Has About Your Graduate Student Life — And Answers


“We have a good university right here in town. Why did you have to move so far away for graduate school?”
“What do you mean you have schoolwork over the summer? Classes are out!”
“You’re a student—how could you be busy?”

If you are or have been in graduate school recently, you may have heard these and similar questions from people unfamiliar with academia. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just easily give them the answers they crave? Now, thanks to Preston J. Werner, a lecturer in philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, you can, for he has created a “FAQ for Friends and Family of Graduate Students and Academics.” 

Here are some samples:

  • We have a good university where we live. Why did she move so far away to do her graduate studies?

Graduate studies is much more specialized than undergraduate studies. She is very serious about being trained by the best people in her preferred area of specialty as possible. Academics tend to have to be more flexible about where they live—such is one of the sacrifices we make in order to study and teach what we love.

To give an example: Perhaps you live in Iowa and you know that the University of Iowa has a PhD program in Philosophy. First of all, your family member or friend may have applied and not been accepted—positions in graduate programs can often be extremely competitive, and it isn’t uncommon for prospective graduate programs to apply to anywhere from five to 30(!) programs. But she also may have not even applied because the University of Iowa has specialists in certain fields—say, ethics, Wittgenstein, or whatever—but not in the fields she wants to study—say, Buddhist Logic or Environmental Aesthetics. She wants to go where the Buddhist Logicians and Aestheticians are, and that may be far away, unfortunately.
 
Getting into a good program is also very important for one’s job prospects (perhaps too important, but I digress…), so she may want to have gone far away to increase the chances that she can continue to study and teach what she is passionate about for a longer period of time.

  • He used to work while he was an undergraduate student. Why can’t he keep his job while he is in graduate school?

Well, first of all, if your loved one has a TAship, he does have a job. And it’s also worth noting that many TA contracts require that a student not have a second job. (Why? Well, my impression is that this is largely because students who try to work a second job get completely overwhelmed and suffer greatly in their studies.)
 
But there is a more important thing to say here, and I don’t think this can be stressed enough: Unlike undergraduate study, graduate study is absolutely a full time job. Things are much more intense, standards both of workload and of work quality are higher, and there is no clear sense of one’s work being “finished”. What I mean by this is that even when your loved one has completed the papers he needs to complete for his classes, he will also feel some pressure to submit papers to various conferences and for publication. The more one does this in graduate school, the better placed one is to get a job upon graduation.

  • She has completed her classes. Why can’t she move back home while she is working on her dissertation?

Most PhD students stay at their institution while they are working on their dissertation. There are a number of reasons for this. It is very helpful to be close to one’s advisor and other dissertation committee members. It is also very helpful to be around other grad student to commiserate and share work with. Perhaps most important, though, is that moving away would likely eliminate one’s ability to TA, which is her source of income and tuition waiver. Other things being equal, it just makes the most sense to stay around her institution while she is working on her dissertation, both financially and intellectually. (This isn’t to say, of course, that one should never move home while one is working on a dissertation. Everyone’s situation is different.)

You can view the whole list (currently 13 questions) here. Dr. Werner is accepting suggestions for questions to add to the list and supplements to their answers. You can leave those suggestions in the comments here, email him, or both.

Matthew Cusick, “Original Patriarch”

guest
8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

Questions like, “We have a good university where we live. Why did she move so far away to do her graduate studies?” blow my mind. Whoever this is, unless they’re some sort of uber-genius, is 23 or 24 years old by this time. A grown adult. Able to sign contracts, seek employment, own a gun (at least in the US), marry, divorce, buy a house. Why would you even ask a question like this?

In other words, the short answer to a question like this should be: stop stalking your daughter. And, maybe that’s partly why she left…Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

It seems weird to me that you think it weird that immediate family members would want to live near each other as adults. I know not everyone does, especially if they don’t get on, but wanting to do so is perfectly normal. It’s just a manifestation of the human desire to see lots of the people we love, right? Obviously, it’s *also* what an excessively controlling parent would say, but it’s hardly a strong sign that someone is excessively controlling.

I mean, there are whole cultures(!), even to some degree in developed countries (southern Europe for example) where it is normal for children to live with their parents well into adulthood.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  David Mathers
4 years ago

The original question isn’t really about what *both people* want. It’s really only about what the parents want. What the daughter wants isn’t even really addressed, except in Justin’s answer, as a rationalization, and a way of attempting to get the parents to empathize with their own daughter: “We want her to stay close to us. Why can’t she just settle for Generic Local University in order to satisfy our preferences?”

If this were a mutual thing, the parents would not have made an appeal to whomever this imaginary authority is. They and the student would already have had very long conversations with each other about growing up, about the costs and benefits, about trade-offs for the future, negotiating a shared compromise of preferences, and coming up with strategies for dealing with either the long distance or the sacrifice of ambition or some combination of the two. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the parents went fishing independently for an authority to give them an answer they could take back to their daughter, as a bludgeon proving their preferences ought to be regarded as primary.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

* sorry, not Justin. Preston.Report

Golguber
Golguber
4 years ago

“Over Christmas, I asked him to pick up some groceries, and found him an hour later in his room attempting to formalise the shopping list. That night he tried to split the dog into descriptive and normative sections. Who did this to him?”Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

Very practical, particularly for first-gen college/grad students. Thanks to Dr. Werner.

The question that I will always recall from my dear mother, who never went to high school (but one of the smartest people I’ve even known), was one she put to me with MA in hand and completing the PhD:

“Alan, what is philosophy?”

Flummoxed, I replied something to the effect about trying to find out the truth about all sorts of things. This punch in the gut showed how much I had isolated and alienated myself from my own family in pursuing my love of philosophy and my dream of becoming a professor. And to be frank, I never closed that gap.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Alan White
4 years ago

“…This punch in the gut showed how much I had isolated and alienated myself from my own family in pursuing my love of philosophy…”

I would bet the distance was already there to begin with. Philosophy doesn’t break relationships. It just clarifies which relationships are already broken.Report

recent grad
recent grad
4 years ago

The most common question / comment I used to get from family: “surely you’ll have no job market problems, you have always been a good student / you are so smart / you work a lot / etc.”
Yes mom, this is precisely how it works, everyone else is just lazy and stupid.Report