Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Few Words about Graduate School by Xun Yan

[Ah, I'm very excited that one more graduate student narrative has arrived. I'm so happy to share them with you. I don't know about you, but as I read these narratives, I remember my own experiences. Ah, all those bittersweet memories rush into my head leaving me restless and exhausted, somewhere between laughter and tears. I want to write my own narrative soon too, which might end up being traumatic and therapeutic all at the same time. If you would like to share your experiences please contact me at And if you want to read more narratives you can click on the label 'Letters from the Edge of Chaos' to read more of them. I for one cannot wait to read the next narrative.
Thank you very much for sharing, Xun. If it is any consolation, you are not alone in feeling the way you do. It seems to me that each year at graduate school comes with its own frustrations and rewards. I imagine the stress continues beyond graduate study, probably more intensely since the stakes are much higher. After reading these narratives, I'm kind of beginning to think that we need a support group, something like SLSESLGSSG (standing for Second Language Studies/English as a Second Language Graduate Student Support Group. Ha ha, I do not see that catching on any time soon. But hey, why are you laughing at linguistics and applied linguistics are full of abbreviations, why not SLSESLGSSG ^_^? Besides you can have a laugh or two trying to pronounce this as a word or you can play scrabble with these letters.) Joking aside, I really think The Edge of Chaos fits perfectly, but maybe that's just me. Anyway, without further ado, I leave you with Xun's narrative. The next can be you.]

A Few Words about Graduate School

Thanks to Beril, I’ve finally been pushed—after several failed voluntary attempts during the holidays—to reflect on my postgraduate life. Not that I want to write a novel or something, but I want to share some of my own stories and personal opinions on how to live (survive is too pessimistic) graduate school. This blog entry, I would say, is more suited for ESLers than graduate students from elsewhere; or only ESLers at Purdue may find it somewhat useful.
Easy on the transition
It is difficult to make a smooth transition from undergraduate school to graduate school, especially for an international student. I wonder if it is because I am quite used to the stress-free college lifestyle in China, but here I am in my second year at Purdue as a PhD student and fourth year in the States as a graduate student, yet still cannot simply have “fun” at graduate school. I don’t want to adventure into narrow-mindedness by describing graduate school at Purdue as a place of no “entertainment”. To put it in a relatively more objective way, (Purdue) graduate school is stressful, and teaching first-year composition plus graduate coursework is worse.
Though I doubt that anyone would be more inexperienced than I was/am, you might still find some resemblance between my first year experience and yours. I have no prior teaching experience when I started teaching ENGL106, a first year composition course at Purdue. This makes it easier—I hope—to believe that I spent forty hours per week on teaching. These hours include regular class hours, and tremendous time spent on grading and corrective feedback, material development and lecture rehearsals. In addition to all the efforts is the everlasting stress which teaching bestowed on me. As a newbie teacher, I was constantly overwhelmed by the teaching load; I needed to doze off in my office for at least an hour everyday or just sit somewhere quietly and be stressed out before I could pull myself together in front of a class of 20 students. After a while, that is countless nights dedicated to “teaching-related activities”, I became too comfortable working at night and absolutely eligible for a mascot for Purdue online writing lab if there is a contest or anything of the sort. But eventually, I made it through. I hope my real-life story could cheer you up and convince you, if you are likewise struggling your way through the first year, that you are much better than me or not alone at the very least.
About graduate study
Graduate students are busy and sometimes “desperate” to finish their coursework. Some cannot wait to bury themselves in their own research; others—and this may hold particularly true to international students—are under the pressures to publish in order to “secure” a job in the universities here in the States or back in their home countries; and we can always expect more diversity in terms of what graduate students do. So I am not sure whether the following scenario would seem any familiar to you, but it is what I experienced:
You first semester/year excitement (for some, the excitement lasts longer) urged you to take so many interesting courses that you couldn’t stop yourself from registering four courses or more the next semester. Then perhaps after one and a half years when you reach the point of your preliminary exams, you might have frequented courses offered in various departments, written numerous reflections and papers and been familiarized with big names and terminologies in more than one field. But you are still clueless of what you want to do with your dissertation, and your professors’ research areas do not really intrigue you. Then you start to reflect on all the courses you have taken, wishing for some possibilities, but only to find that the memory is not fresh anymore.
One thing is for sure: if you are not interested in your own research work, neither can you intrigue your audience. Some might say “don’t throw these cliché at me; who doesn’t know that.” But it is always easier said than done. And the way I found my research interest was to start early, constantly reflect, and maintain realistic.
It is true that PhD students have plenty of time to decide their research interests, but don’t take it for granted. Time fleets; two years can go by in a blink. And the toughness of Purdue won’t allow you to slow down. After each semester, it would be beneficial if you can spend some time reflecting on the “usefulness” of the courses you have taken. By this, I am suggesting you try to find connections between your interest and the courses you’ve taken. Otherwise, you may easily turn into a typewriter or a “paper machine”, writing nonstop without much going on in your mind.
Practicality is another reason why you need to constantly reflect on your study. Say you want to work on Item Response Theory in language testing, which usually requires huge samples. You may never find a standardized test which can offer you more than 1000 test takers, unless you compete with other 200 or so applicants for 10 seats in the ETS internship program, work hard to impress people and beg them later for their data, which—I doubt—is likely to happen. You should tailor your research interest according the availability of resources, such as professors of similar interests, relevant courses, database, etc. You should try to avoid studying something “fancy” at the cost of efficiency and effectiveness.
Anyway, words always fail me when I try to express my “love” for graduate study. What’s worse, I sound somewhat negative and whiny. But feel free to ignore my words if they ever sound any discouraging to you. 

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