The English Department gets real about graduate school

Hannah Manning
Connector Staff

When Dr. Michael Black, a professor in the English department at UMass Lowell, was first thinking about going to graduate school the first response he got from other people was “no.”

But Black pushed forward through a master’s and a Ph.D. program, and considers himself lucky that he did not listen to those who told him to stay away.

Associate chair of the English department Dr. Jonathan Silverman held an informational panel on graduate school in O’Leary room 478 on Wednesday, Nov. 15. The panel featured several English department professors as well as Anne Apigian from Career Services and Dr. John Brown from the Graduate School of Education. Silverman said that the panel was meant to clear up misconceptions about graduate school, the biggest one including why students should go.

The panelists maintained that graduate school is both an opportunity to continue one’s education, but also for a student to professionalize themselves and hone their respective crafts. Some students, however, have different priorities.

“I went to grad school because I didn’t want to wear pantyhose,” said Margaret Dietz, an associate professor in the English department.

Dietz said that she found herself stuck between going to law school and pursuing a master’s in poetry. After some soul-searching and realizing how strenuous law school would have been, she ultimately decided on the latter.

“If you can easily get talked out of grad school, you’re not ready,” said Brown.

The reason that students should go into graduate school must come from “more from hunger than ambition,” as Dietz put it.

The experience, Dietz said, is far more important than a piece of paper at the end of the day.

In presenting their own experiences in higher education, the professors on the panel offered several nuggets of advice for students interested in continuing their studies after obtaining their bachelor’s degrees.

Dr. Keith Mitchell recommends that students reach out to their professors for help in applying to schools. He said that he will personally do research into a school’s program and determine if the student is a good fit for it. From there, Mitchell said, he will fine tune the letter of recommendation to more helpfully serve the student.

But once in grad school, Mitchell advised students to build community. As a graduate student studying comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he found he was one of two African American students in the program. Mitchell said there was hardly any support for him and the other student, and that he needed to scrounge around the literature and French department for resources.

“If you’re a minority,” Mitchell said, “you have to find support.”

Students may find support in their undergraduate professors and in Career Services. Dr. Nancy Selleck, who received her master’s at Columbia University and her Ph.D. at Princeton, said that she is currently helping a UMass Lowell alum who is pursuing her master’s at Boston University.

Selleck said that students should not feel nervous or hesitant to ask for help from their professors, even if they do not attend the university anymore. They are happy to help, and getting another set of opinions can make a difference. “Get lots of advice along the way,” Selleck said.

If a student does choose to look into graduate school, the panelists advised that they visit Career Services. Apigian said that the offices, located in room 105 of O’Leary Library and the fourth floor of University Crossing, will look at students’ essays and ask them questions in order to gauge if the student is actually easy for the responsibility.

As every professor on the panel attested, graduate- and Ph.D.-level schooling was a rewarding but grueling experience.

While graduate school lends opportunities for students to raise themselves in their preferred career fields, the panelists were in consensus that a student should only attend if they truly want to, and if further education will help them in their field. Along that vein of thought, graduate school is more for students who wish to become teachers than those who would like to be journalists.

Graduate school is not an option for those who are not serious about education, and some of the professors spoke about experiences that were not rewarding for them. Selleck told students about the intensity of the graduate program at Columbia, where a professor asked students to look at the person to each side of them. Out of those three people, only one of them would remain in the graduate program by year’s end. Besides that, Selleck found that she did not have the support that she wanted. She left for Princeton, and said that she found the experience to be much different than the one she had at Columbia.

Like Selleck, Black also went to two schools for his graduate education. He received his master’s from Temple University in 2008 and his Ph.D. at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014. The experience was often difficult. Black mentioned that he often lived off of rice and tuna for dinner, and had struggles with Temple’s graduate program about his area of study.

It was six long years of work for him.

“But here I am,” Black said. “I survived.”

Hannah Manning

Hannah Manning is the managing editor of the UMass Lowell Connector. A native of Haverhill, Mass., she is a junior working towards her bachelor's in English with a concentration in journalism and professional writing. She likes hockey, music and her fellow staff members at the Connector.

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