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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Reheated Takes

All the things I thought I knew about graduate school but clearly had no clue about.

May 21, 2018

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.

Several months ago, I attended an ultra-premium olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting party on the invitation of a friend who is a bona fide expert on those two particular liquids. He is a talented, creative cook with refined taste and a knack for recipe design. My approach to cooking, on the other hand, is one based on economies of scale, not unlike your high school cafeteria. Any oil or vinegar I was consuming came out of a large plastic jug from Costco.

Despite the fact that I am an unrepentant snob about many things, the world of high-end oil and vinegar had eluded me up to this point. When my friend invited me to swig some of the good stuff, I was, in a word, skeptical. One dixie cup in, however, and the depth of my cluelessness was revealed. His curated combinations were incredible, and it became immediately apparent that I had been completely wrong about every single oil decision I had ever made. Within hours I was proselytizing the good news of ultra-premium olive oil to friends and family. My prior olive oil philosophy, I told them, was one of my worst takes ever.

Confronting my own fallibility about olive oil was funny and liberating, so I began compiling a mental checklist of my other terrible takes, all of which have since turned into demonstrable proof of my naivete, short-sightedness, or stupidity. I catalogued my bad takes by topic: sports, politics, pop culture, and so on. Even mundane, everyday bad takes began to amuse me. I can’t help but laugh, for example, when I picture myself standing in a Target aisle last week, emphatically telling my wife, “Pfft, of course this frame is the right size for the photo, we don’t need to measure!” You see, we did, in fact, need to measure.

As my fascination with bad takes grew, I began to wonder: what were my worst takes about graduate school? This question is rhetorical, so please don’t rush to the comments section with links to my previous posts on this website. I remember going into grad school with a certain list of preconceptions, including some I imagine to be quite common. What was I totally, comically wrong about, though I didn’t know it at the time? And what should the next generation of grad students learn from my folly?

1. “Everyone there is going to be really smart.” While the memories of my last days of undergrad have faded somewhat, my 22-year-old self perceived grad school as simply another round of college for elite academic performers. Therefore, I reasoned, I was about to be around a lot of people as smart — and probably smarter — than me. During my six years of grad school I had the good fortune of meeting many very intelligent people. No grad school, however, can guarantee it will attract the smartest people. Since all are under some obligation to maintain a critical mass, they have a tendency to fill the seats using the available applicant pool. In hindsight, I should have known my original take was bad, for the reasons put most eloquently by Groucho Marx. (The fact that a bad take machine like me was going to be there was a real tip-off!)

2. “This is ridiculous, I’ll never use [class/theory/method]!” I probably uttered some variation of this take at least once per semester, only to be confronted, more often than not, with my own foolishness the following semester. It was easy, in true bad take form, to make snap judgments about the scholarly topics I came across and categorize them into ‘relevant’ or ‘not relevant’ buckets relative to whatever research direction I was pointed in at the time. Eventually I caught on and realized 1) those people recommending seminars and articles are ostensibly trying to help me; and 2) it was impossible to predict exactly where each project I had in mind would end up.

3. “People are really going to be excited about what I’m doing!” Grad school doesn’t entitle you to any special treatment. But, as a wide-eyed incoming master’s student who saw grad school as a place to set the world on fire en route to my ultimate academic goals, I didn’t anticipate the reality that not everyone would be as enthralled by my, uh, ‘scholarly insight.’ Frankly, even if I had had something interesting to say, who would care? My professors had seen hundreds of iterations of me come and go and, as previous GradHackers have explored, grad school doesn’t always translate well to people outside its immediate orbit. Luckily, I gained some perspective on my academic universe and tempered this terrible take before getting too obnoxious.

4. “This will be quick!” Wow, dude. Swing and a miss.

We want to know your worst grad school takes! Did you end up being way, way wrong about anything? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Peter Reed, under a Creative Commons License.]


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