The Most Valuable Thing I Learned in Grad School
by Justin Harrison
The most valuable thing that I have learned in graduate school is that students don't need to be intimidated by other students or their professors. When I started my dissertation study, I came into a program that was much more "academically respected" than the institution from which I received my Masters degree. My first interactions with my new peers were extremely intimidating. They all seemed to be interested in areas that were different from my own, and I felt inadequate when I compared myself to them. I started to question my place in the program and the importance of my own academic interests compared to those of the other people around me.
I let myself fall into a state of intimidation that influenced the way I interacted with others in social settings and in the classroom.
However, I soon realized that my fears and feelings were unfounded.
After I had been in the program for some time, I realized that the people who appeared to be the most confident and outspoken in their interpretations of philosophical texts were often struggling in their classes and had numerous incompletes in previous courses. They were also confrontational in classes and monopolized the discussion time; relating everything to their microscopic areas of interest in philosophy. In my interactions with these students, I often came away emotionally frustrated and pessimistic about my teaching opportunities in philosophy.
Fortunately, at the same time, I also met a group of students that were focused more on understanding philosophy rather than inundating everyone with their ideas about specific philosophers. I quickly became friends with many of these students, and our relationships developed around philosophy as well as our personal interests and aspirations. Our friendships thrived in the educational setting because we were honest about our fallibility in specific knowledge areas in philosophy, and we desired to learn from as well as teach one another. Conversations with these students have given me encouragement to persevere and inspiration to maintain a positive outlook towards the material I study.
I would have to say that the most important thing that I have learned in graduate school is that it is important to forge relationships with optimistic peers and professors. Graduate study often leads to pessimism and loneliness as students work for hours in solitary study and spend time in their own minds focusing on the questions that they find important. During my own graduate career, I have relied on others that share common goals, and that can motivate me to continue studying and working towards a degree. I have moved past allowing myself to be intimidated by those in my program that act as if they know everything about philosophy. These people generally fail to produce academically, and they act as if their failure rests on misinterpretations of their papers by their professors. Instead, I now choose to align myself with the students who recognize their own proficiencies and are honest about their inadequacies.