Writing Personal Statements Online

The Culture of Graduate Study


Every graduate department probably has one—someone you hear about and maybe even witness in your first year of study. Someone who lives on coffee and cigarettes and socializes vigorously, perhaps even earning a storied nickname such as “the Professor” or “Rasputin.” Or someone who is reclusive and rarely seen, spiriting around the hallways or labs mostly at night, writing secret little notes that are crumbled and quickly stuffed into trouser pockets as you walk by. What these someones have in common is that they are graduate students (perhaps only allegedly) who are endlessly working on their dissertations.

There’s an old joke about a student being admonished by his professor: “No, I’m afraid students can’t get tenure.” Some grad students hang around long enough that they don’t seem to get that joke. They receive several extensions on their dissertations, perhaps even get part-time university-supported work teaching or doing lab research, and yet they never seem to finish what they claim is a legitimate and active dissertation, and instead become the stuff of puzzled ridicule and whispered legend.

How can such a thing happen? Quite simple: In graduate school, you are responsible for your own education. Hence, you can manage it well or you can squander it. Although graduate programs certainly do push their students along and support them, they also include a great number of hurdles than can be difficult to clear. Some sobering realities about graduate education follow:

  • It typically takes 2-3 years to complete a master’s degree and 5-6 to complete a PhD, and for some students it takes longer.
  • During your graduate study, your sources of funding from the school may change from year to year and sometimes might even be in jeopardy.
  • By comparison to undergraduate study, there is far less attention to grades and far more emphasis on a long-term, meaningful, publishable project. Despite less emphasis on grades, some grad students do fail their comprehensive exams and are ejected from their programs.
  • Your relationship with your advisor is one of the most important in your life, with all the paradoxical trappings that can come with complex relationships: mentorship, competition, collegiality, distrust, empathy, partnership, unfairness, kindness, acquiescence, and even break-up.
  • Your teaching assistantship may throw you to the lions and expect you to teach your own class with virtually no supervision, or you may spend much of your assistantship fighting with the Xerox machine and processing grades from a class of hundreds of students.
  • Often, your advisor is struggling to get tenure just as you are struggling to probe relevant literature or gather data. The two struggles don’t necessarily coalesce, and yours is readily viewed as the less meaningful one.
  • If you’re attending grad school on a university or national scholarship, you may be looked at with some suspicion by your peers and the faculty, or you may be held in higher regard than others, with elevated expectations.
  • When you reach the dissertation stage, you may spend a year or two gathering data about a bad hypothesis, or you may write a chapter or two and be told by your committee that you must throw them out.
  • Your living circumstances may be very different from what you experienced as an undergraduate, involving a sprawling city or a lonely little Podunk built around the university.
  • Your peers in graduate school may range in age from 21 to 50+, with diverse experiences that include marriages, divorces, children, multiple degrees, work in industry, publications, international travel, or a series of failures or successes beyond any that you’ve ever experienced. These peers become your social world and often your only support network.

Certainly, the picture is not always as grim as this, and many students relish their time in graduate school—in fact, some call it the best time of their lives, especially those who attend graduate school after some unsatisfying time away from education. However, there is also plenty of evidence to back up the argument that things go poorly for many. One 2004 article from The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that 40-50 percent of students who enter PhD programs do not finish.

To explain these numbers, despite the absence of national studies on the problem, research from institution-specific studies still reveals some noteworthy trends:

  • Women drop out at a higher rate than men.
  • Minority students leave at a higher rate than white students do.
  • Americans drop out more often than international students.
  • Students leave humanities and social-science programs at a higher rate than those in the sciences.

Considering these disappointing trends, one would think that graduate scholarship winners don’t fall into these patterns. But, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education article cited above, even scholars who are awarded graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation finish their PhD programs at about a rate of 75 percent, which is only slightly higher than for other science students in doctoral programs.

The purpose behind presenting these realities, of course, is both to help inform your decision-making process and to help you consider, if after serious self-reflection you decide graduate education is for you, the most effective way to compose your personal statements and other application materials. Being more informed about the culture of graduate study will both help you be more prepared and help you to be taken more seriously as you apply.