By my senior year of college, I could fly through my assignments and earn A’s on half-assed work. I could effectively balance bar-hopping and writing essays, and working part-time jobs and cramming for midterms. I knew that grad school would kick it up a notch, and I was ready for the challenge. However, I had forgotten what it felt like to try and not succeed, and I wasn’t quite as prepared for my self-esteem to take a beating.
I admit to not putting 100% into my academic efforts in college, but that was because I didn’t need to. I was writing papers with a buzz on and taking finals hungover, and still made Dean’s List. I knew that grad school would be different though, and I fully intended on being a legitimate scholar.
If you are considering grad school, you are probably doing very well in school. By senior year, you’re probably breaking the curves and tutoring your friends. You probably stand out in class for having thoughtful ideas and a firm grasp of the subject matter. Newsflash: Everyone in Grad School has gotten used to being a star scholar.
Often, PhD students and MA students will be mixed into classes together. I went from taking Shakespeare classes with business majors who didn’t know the definition of “iambic pentameter” to listening to a PhD debate over which folio edition was most likely the Bard’s original manuscript. WTF? My thoughts exactly.
Because college often mixes students of all different academic backgrounds, there’s a lot of information that slips through the cracks, even in a university setting. There were certain things that other MA students took for granted that I’d never been taught. A lot of research methods that PhD students had been using for years were completely alien to me. Even more embarrassing (for an English major, especially): I’d never written an abstract. Of course, writing an abstract was one of my first assignments in grad school.
I spent longer writing my first two-page abstract (a response to a critical article by one of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars in academia) than I did writing a ten-page research paper in college. Imagine my disdain when I received a “check minus” and a “Please Revise” comment on the damn thing. My professors in undergrad had always complimented my writing style, but my graduate professor tore apart my abstract. Comments like “wordy,” “colloquial,” and “strive for active verbs” littered the piece that I’d struggled with for hours.
As I continued through the semester, I continued to be disappointed with myself time and again. I ended up rewriting almost every abstract I wrote for my graduate Shakespeare class, and even my revisions usually didn’t get a higher mark than a “check.” Once a straight “A” student, I got a “C” on an easy response activity because I had two grammatical errors that involved a comma and a semi-colon. I had research paper proposals torn to shreds, and I was told to completely redo entire assignments for various reasons.
Of course, by the end of my grad school career, I was working with the same professor who had given me my first “check minus.” As my thesis advisor, she constantly reassured me that my writing style had become more polished, and the rest of my committee also complimented my word choice and tone. In the end, I stuck it out, and I improved, but it was never easy to handle harsh criticism and see my work take such a beating.
I’m not going to tell you that I finished grad school without a considerable amount of tears, rage, and near-nervous breakdowns. Still, I completed the degree and expanded my knowledge of English literature. Looking back, I think I may have been too sensitive to the negative feedback I received time and again, but that just goes to show that grad school isn’t for everyone. If you are planning on moving on, I suggest you grow a thick skin and check your ego at the door.