Faculty share the inside dirt on grad school

Peter Gillette

Lawrence professors Gina Bloom, Mark Frazier, Joy Jordan, and Monica Rico shared their recent graduate school experiences to a small crowd of students on Tuesday evening in Downer’s Barber Room.The event, sponsored by the Career Center, aimed to give students more information on what graduate school is really like from those whose experiences are fresh and timely. Panelists shared amusing anecdotes and words of wisdom about their school experiences, relaying the good, the bad, and the bitter aspects of academia.

Bloom, Assistant Professor of English, spoke first. She was sure she wanted to attend graduate school for psychology, but then decided she would rather pursue postmodernist poetry. She came upon this realization by taking a year off from school to refresh her mind, then reading lots of scholarly work in various fields.

Bloom constantly stressed the benefits of taking some time off. When she went to pick graduate schools, she discovered that her interests changed. She chose the University of Michigan over the State University of New York at Buffalo. Today, she specializes in Renaissance literature.

She advised undergrads to “go right to your professors and say, ‘What are the top departments in the country?’”

To illustrate the competitiveness of academia, Bloom mentioned that she was accepted to two schools—after applying to 10. “And I consider that to be a pretty good ratio,” she said.

Frazier earned his B.A. in American History in 1985, then received a fellowship to teach English in Korea, where he acquired a love for Chinese culture. After spending some time as a journalist in Washington, D.C., Frazier decided he wanted to pursue his studies of China but could not decide which discipline would best fit that study.

Frazier also stressed that his time off let him formulate his thinking and explore his interests and also let him develop skills such as interviewing.

After spending some time honing a research project—something Bloom jokes that you can “easily fake at first”—Frazier settled on the University of California at Berkeley.

He says that good faculty interaction is key, and that students should make sure that the professors they want to work with will be accessible and will not retire too soon. Other than the importance of their recommendation letters, this mentorship is important.

Jordan agreed whole-heartedly: “A good mentor can do a lot more for you than be just a professor with a brilliant mind,” she said.

Jordan, Assistant Professor of Statistics, graduated from the University of Indiana with a B.A. in Math because U of I had no statistics program, something she never really thought of.

Although she applied to math programs all around the country, the people at University of Iowa sat her down and told her, “You’re not a mathematician…you’re a statistician!” She eventually attended Iowa.

The lesson of this anecdote was to start early in the search for graduate school. Jordan had applied for the wrong field, but had done so soon enough to recover.

Jordan, by contrast, did not pause between undergraduate and graduate school. “I just wanted to keep learning,” she said.

Rico, who received both her B.A. and Masters’ from the University of California at Berkley, shared poignant examples of her graduate school experience, especially the insecurity that she, like many, experienced.

During her second year in graduate school for history, she talked to some of her female colleagues with whom she had attended dinner discussions led by a distinguished professor. Rico admitted to the women that after those dinners she would often go home and cry.

To her surprise, the other women sympathized, and in fact had been similarly stressed out. “I thought these women had it all together, but we all spent our first year weeping!” Rico joked.

Rico, who is one of the active forces behind the Center for Teaching and Learning at LU, spoke about the importance of getting timely, accurate, relevant, credible, and customized information. Talk to recent grad students, she said, and don’t apply to schools simply for prestige’s sake.

“Rankings matter to a larger degree for law schools or medical schools, but not so much for humanities. It’s important to zero in on the quality of the department,” she said.

Current information is very important: “Departments can change a lot in 15 years…There are programs that are super right now that, 20 years ago, sucked,” she said.

Above all, the panelists stressed the importance of discovering individual interests, and doing things for the right reasons, not just to fit in or attend a prestigious school.

And as a final warning, all cautioned future grad students to look for programs that treat their grad students well, as far as teaching load and payment is considered.

Rico summed it up when she said that prospective students should ask themselves, “What kind of department will help me become the kind of academic I want to be?” and then try to hone in on an inspiring area of research.