... but fear grad school

March 03, 2002|By Mark J. Drozdowski

RINDGE, N.H. - Spring semester is well underway, and college seniors across the country will soon face the prospect of beginning a career. With the job market in turmoil these days, many students are contemplating graduate school. Some might even think about the ultimate scholarly Holy Grail - the doctorate.

As a recent grad school survivor, I can honestly address the key question: Is it worth it?

I began graduate school when the word "millennium" referred to some science fiction show on cable. As a wide-eyed, naive youngster, I optimistically entered a doctoral program confident in my ability to conquer the obstacles that lay ahead. Yes, I was the chosen one, the new scholar on the block ready to emblazon his mark on the academic establishment. Tenure and the riches of university life were but a few years away. Sure, I could've pursued an easier, more lucrative route, such as the Peace Corps. But I was up for the challenge.

So off I ventured, and was soon enjoying the typical grad student existence. We all took courses, completed papers, attended a few seminars and even read a few books along the way (well, the jacket intros, anyhow). Everything was fine until I discovered that between the finish line and me stood a little task called a dissertation.

A dissertation is simply a lengthy, complex paper, ideally on some formerly unexplored topic, comprehended by as many people as can fit in your bathroom. It usually runs anywhere from 100 to more than 500 pages and can easily break a big toe if dropped spine-first. This document represents the final hurdle faced by graduate students, whose marathon includes the aforementioned courses and book jackets as well as teaching and surviving on a steady diet of macaroni and cheese.

Ostensibly, the dissertation tests your academic mettle, your ability to conduct original scholarship and your dedication to a chosen field. What it really determines, though, is your aptitude for writing unintelligible English, your tolerance for self-abuse and, of course, your appetite for processed, dehydrated cheese-based food.

Helping you navigate this academic maze is your adviser. This pleasant, supportive individual soon undergoes an amazing metamorphosis, becoming what you'd casually call a Minister of Suffering. The adviser plays a special role in your academic development, grooming you to take your rightful place among the next generation of dedicated scholars.

Your adviser heads the "committee" that collectively determines your fate. Having survived this process themselves, they're not about to let anyone off easy. Rest assured, you're going to experience the same pain they did years before. Sure, they offer words of encouragement, but don't be fooled. They're the enemy, plain and simple.

The first couple of years weren't all bad. Courses were fairly easy. But classes were smaller, so there was no escaping the professor's attention by shrinking in your chair and holding a book in front of your face. Everyone had to speak up. Most found it convenient to repeat what others had said two minutes earlier, only using different words. That's why all graduate students buy a thesaurus the first day they arrive on campus.

All the while, though, as you bask in self-confidence, you see that look on the faces of students further along in the program. The specter of the dissertation looms on the horizon. You know it's there. You feel its breath, sense its danger. Beware, for it has ruined better specimens than you.

When I did actually buckle down to writing my dissertation, one thought remained pervasive: Why? Why have generations subjected themselves to this? Why do thousands more each year enter grad school knowing that the academic job market awaiting them isn't favorable? Why, in fact, did I?

The best answer is that there's no more rewarding experience than creating something uniquely yours. Remember that a dissertation is, at least in theory, an original - and individual - contribution to knowledge. That's pretty powerful stuff. The bottom line is that you've left your signature, however small, on the world of scholarship and human understanding.

So when I finished writing, my committee read my work and gathered in my bathroom to discuss its merits. Thankfully, it received their blessing and I won membership in a new community. Perhaps I'll never join the full-time faculty ranks. If that's the case, then I won't consider these past several years time wasted.

If nothing else, it's good preparation for law school.

Mark J. Drozdowski, a recent Ph.D. recipient, is director of corporate, foundation and government relations at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., where he also teaches writing.

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