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The Point of Grad School is to Learn to Say “No”

The word

A few weeks ago, I discussed how I discovered toward the end of graduate school that mentoring is a fantasy. In short, what I mean by this is that in any advising situation both parties often have expectations of how the relationship will work and that these expectations do not always align with each other or with reality. I came to this realization after one of my dissertation readers suggested I add a bit of Heidegger to my project. (If that sounds like the set-up to an academic punchline, well, it’s Friday, right?) Eventually, I declined, and my reader didn’t bring it up again.

As I’ve reflected on this event again recently, I’ve come to a new realization, summed up neatly in this post’s title: the point of grad school is to learn to say “no.” Let me explain.

When I was finishing my undergraduate work, I found myself looking forward to grad school as an opportunity to stop writing research papers where I reported on others’ thoughts and instead began creating interpretations of my own about novels. I was a little bit surprised, then, to get to graduate school and find that I was even more reliant on citations of other scholars’ work than I had been as an undergrad. When was I going to get to do my own work? (I’ll go ahead and head off the comments by pointing out that this was clearly a mistaken view of how scholarship works. But I think it’s a feeling shared by many starting grad school.)

A clear example of not getting to set my own direction came with the lists of books that I was reading for my oral exams. Each time I chatted with any faculty member who would be sitting in on my examination, he or she would add another four books to my list. Not only was I not setting my direction, but I just couldn’t read it all. And so I rebelled a bit, halfway through my prep. I simply started erasing books from that list. My committee members could add more the next time I saw them, but I quickly discovered that they never really noticed that I had taken any away. Problem solved!

For years, I’ve shared this story of my orals lists with graduate students, seeing it as an inside tip to lighten their workload. In connection with my last post, however, I’m just now realizing that while I did make less work for myself, I wasn’t getting away with something on the sly so much as I was doing what I had wanted to do all along: decide for myself what I needed to know and say “no” to what I didn’t. Three years later, this is exactly what happened in the Heidegger conversation with my dissertation reader. In both cases, what perhaps matters most is that I had learned enough to say “no.”

In the end, this is what graduate school is all about. Training you to know when you are done and when you don’t need to do any more. I offer this not as evidence of any great perspicuity on my part. (It’s taken well more than 5 years to have this realization, after all.) Instead, it’s an effort, as so much of ProfHacker is, to make visible the hidden assumptions of work in academia.

Of course, knowing that the ultimate goal of grad school is to empower you to say “no” doesn’t give you permission to start refusing to do anything (à la Bartleby). But recognizing that this “no” is the endpoint of things may help current graduate students give credence to their own intuition and prepare advisers to congratulate them when they do. After all, all of us can benefit from doing a better job saying “no” on occasion to service commitments or to our “yes” habit.

Was learning to say “no” an important part of your graduate training? How did that happen for you? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Just say no / Quinn Dombrowski / CC BY-SA 2.0

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