In my 20 months as Division chair, I have seen the departure of several male junior colleagues for graduate school in Manila and abroad. It may sound like no big deal, but to any young man few years out of college or who hasn’t lived abroad previously, starting graduate school far from one’s comfort zone is daunting. Like any mother hen, I did the usual “let’s have a serious talk about your academic career” and “what the University expects from you” routine with each one of them. A walk through choices of graduate school and programs, housing, fellowship applications, return service obligations, University clearance -- this process takes a lot of time before they can finally board the plane and begin the next 2-4 years away from the demands of teaching.
I also take time to celebrate this important transition from a teacher to a student. Like I had been toasted and feted with gifts of winter clothes, shawls and Philippine native accessories when I left for the US in 1996, I want my soon-to-depart colleagues to feel that I am as proud and hopeful of their success. The scarf, hat and gloves essential for cold weather upon landing; a set of flannel sheets; a chapter or the entire Lonely Planet to inspire travel; some coins or singles for when they get hungry in between airport transfers. Along with these, I drum up the following tidbits of wisdom and advice, which I hope they will take to heart:
1. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Getting the degree is the end and be all of this journey. There are plenty of distractions in the form of additional courses, internships and “rackets” (moonlighting) that may provide ready cash or added skill. But at the end of the day, the faster you can finish the degree the better, so you can go back to and really start your career.
2. Your dissertation is not your magnum opus.
Statistically, fewer than half of students who start Ph.D. programs graduate, and fewer still complete their dissertation after gaining an ABD status. This is a valuable piece of advice given to me by Professor Chris Bosso at Northeastern, which I repeat like a mantra to my young colleagues. Toil on and get it done.
3. Socialize and build friendships.
A scholarly life is not spent in solitude at the library. Make friends, go out for drinks or coffee, finagle an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner or Labor Day weekend barbecue, have your meals with somebody, go on a road trip and to school-sponsored activities. Aside from a diploma, earn memories of this important phase because this is the only “end stage student experience” (if in a Ph.D. program) you’re ever going to get.
4. If program has optional foreign language courses, take them.
While English remains uncontested as scholarly language, speaking another language helps in strengthening one’s specialist training. Spanish, Bahasa, Japanese or Chinese-- these are handy for any specialist building a career in the region.
5. Your written English and your undergraduate/graduate training is not as good as you think.
It is both humbling and a liberating experience to have somebody critique your work for what it is. It pays to take criticism constructively and grow from it. This may require some serious brain re-wiring, but you’ll appreciate it down the road when you write your 200-page dissertation or tome.
6. Immerse yourself in the culture of the place. Don’t be the snob foreigner or the homesick nationalist
It’s normal to long for the fish sinigang using batuan (sour soup) but the clam chowder is equally interesting to the palate. Join a parade, watch the fireworks, attend a folk concert, visit the local museum, try the food at the local hangout. Every locality, no matter its demographics is a place of interest. You will be happier and more well-adjusted if you learn to appreciate what your host community has to offer.
7. Save money, but don’t give up the opportunity to travel.
Being in graduate school is synonymous with poverty. There are plenty of innovative ways to stretch your budget without necessarily living on a perpetual diet of canned goods and cheap fast food. If you are abroad, treat it as likely the only chance you’ll ever have (given the difficulties of applying for a visa). Ponder about which places/cities you want to see; plot how to get there the cheapest way during school holidays; team up with friends for road trips together. Travel enriches.
With misty eyes, I send them off. But not with a last minute reminder to send progress reports and copies of grades. And a postcard to adorn the Division bulletin board.
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.