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”

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