The irresistible lure of life as a dilettante

February 23, 1996

Despite a room-mate from hell and classes with 100 other people, Kate O'Neill loves grad school in the United States

I have a sticker on my fridge which, paraphrasing an anti-drink driving campaign, reads "FRIENDS Don't Let FRIENDS Go To Grad School". It was given to me during one of those "what on earth am I doing with my life?" phases familiar to all graduate students.

These days, after nearly five years in a political science PhD programme in New York, I feel marginally well adjusted to graduate school culture.

Graduate school, as I think anyone would agree, is a period of intense socialisation into a particular academic culture. I have been swapping notes back and forth with a friend at Hull University, doing a PhD in law, about our respective academic "tribes". Apart from the obvious structural difference, that in the United States we spend two to three years doing general coursework and some pretty stiff qualifying exams in our field before even starting the dissertation, there are two features of the US system that I would pick out as defining my own experience here.

The first is scale. They say that everything in the US is bigger: when I first arrived at Columbia's political science department in 1991 not only did I have to deal with the transition to New York and that quintessential American college experience, the "room-mate from hell", but also with an entering class of roughly 60 other people, all as scared and lost as I felt, though of course this was not apparent at the time. Classes often numbered well over 100, and a meeting with a professor seemed about as likely as an audience with the Pope. This department is in fact somewhat atypical. Many other places such as Princeton admit only a few students a year and nurture them through the programme. Columbia, like many other universities, has come under increased fiscal constraints, to which it has reacted by increasing admissions, and introducing new programmes, such as a one-year masters in political science, to supplement the PhD programme. At the same time, demand for places is high. Despite the increasingly tight academic job market, many consider (with reasonable evidence) that a PhD gives them an edge in a non-academic market already flooded with MA holders.

That first semester, then, I spent pretty much in a state of panic, weighed down by a mountain of reading and the tyranny of grades, when a B+ spelled total disaster. I think the most valuable skill I acquired was advanced photocopying. I also learned to refer to what I do as being "in school", though I thought school had been left behind with A-levels. So much for the leisurely life of civilised scholarly exchange that I had imagined. However, things did get better. What seemed at first the programme's biggest drawback - its sheer size in terms of student numbers - turned out to be one of its greatest assets: the experience of sharing ideas and insecurities with other students has probably been the best part of graduate school. For example, following our comprehensive exams in international relations, which, incidentally, made my undergraduate finals look like a walk in the park, what has endured is not the particular nuances of the field, but the bond between me and the other members of my study group. The other thing that's big about grad school here is its cost for individual students. A year's tuition at Columbia runs to about $25,000 (Pounds 38.675), and fellowships are scarce. It is not unusual for students to emerge with $100,000 in debt on top of their PhD. Drop-out rates are high: of my entering class, about 20 are left.

These considerations, along with an increasingly competitive job market, lead on to my second point: that the amount of time I spend on the "professional", and possibly peripheral business of being a grad student far outweighs the actual time I spend on my dissertation. In fact, I generally feel lucky if I spend an hour a day on my dissertation. Unlike in the United Kingdom, private funding of university education is a big business. There must be thousands of private corporations, big and small, which dole out money according to their own criteria. Grant proposal writing is, like photocopying, a valuable skill. I have just completed four (last year I wrote ten), and explaining why hazardous waste management is the crucial problem facing humanity, and why I am the most qualified person to be studying it, is an exhausting task. Aside from teaching, generally part of our contracts, and sitting around complaining about life - another universal feature of graduate student behaviour - the "publish or perish" mentality kicks in early. Then there are professional conferences: David Lodge's novel Small World captures the flavour of these events very well, and, if you can avoid actually attending the sessions, observing the circus in action can be a lot of fun.

In the end, though, I have no regrets about coming here rather than taking up the place at the London School of Economics I was offered all those years ago. Apart from the fact that New York, even under three feet of snow, is a great place to live, the two years of courses I took gave me an invaluable grounding in my subject and a wide network of friends and fellow travellers. More than that, though, the academic culture over and above the immediate confines of graduate school has a lot to recommend it. Americans, perhaps contrary to the typical European image, place great value on higher education and the quest for knowledge for its own sake. For example, it is much easier to "go back to school" to finish a degree, take up a new one, or take courses part time, and there is a wide range of programmes available.

Yes, some of the fights are very bitter, and, as the saying goes, the stakes are often small, and, I have to admit had I known in advance exactly what I was letting myself in for I might have thought twice about taking this opportunity. What really wins out for me, though, is the chance to be a professional dilettante, to pursue the topics that interest me most, and eventually, some time in the future, to be paid for it.

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