The Academic Rat-race
Some advice I’ve been giving to an unknown student asking me about how to embark on postgraduate study in a literary program:
Glad to help if I can. I’m sorry you didn’t make it into the PhD program; and I hope you may find some way to fulfil your expectations about literary studies eventually. You ask for some advice on how to do this. Unfortunately I don’t think I can give much advice. Of course the enjoyment of literature is one thing, so I would just say—go and read. And keep in touch with some literary community, either a reading group or an online social network of readers. But that’s by the way. Pleasure is one thing, work is another, and they get together only in the pleasure of working, which is not unalloyed pleasure. So I assume that you’re asking me about how to become a graduate student in literature, in an official academic programme, and embark on an academic career, in order to become, eventually, a teacher of literature or some other job connected with literature. Publishing, or journalism, or library management are other possible directions which might land you into some activity connected with literature, but I don’t know whether you are considering those, so I’ll stick to your question about getting some academic kudos in a university context. Well, as I said, I can’t be much help because I don’t know the specific requirements of the program you’re trying to access. Mind, my advice is this: be specific, be contextual, be practical. Much love of literature, or even much knowledge of literature, may help, but is not essential; it may also be counterproductive if it makes you lose focus on essentials. And the essentials are administrative essentials: literary, to be sure, but only of the kind that count in an administrative and academic context. So, if the entrance is determined by an exam, focus on the exam, on the syllabus or guidelines or whatever materials provide a clue as to what to expect there. If the exam is a real exam, with a guarantee of fairness, etc., and it’s the only requirement, then don’t waste time on other things. I take it that you are writing to me from the UK, I don’t remember right now. Different departments and programs have different requirements; for instance, here in Spain it would be helpful indeed if you had academic publications to your credit, and there would be no examination to enter the program. So everything depends on which are the actual requirements. Here in Spain the university context is based on mutual-help groups: so you really need to be working along a specific line of research with some well-established professor. It’s helpful for students to contact a professor whose line of work they’re interested in, during their undergraduate years, and then go on "under a protective wing" to the graduate programme, and work in that professor’s research team. It’s a fairly feudal system, but anyway, that’s the way it works here. I don’t know whether this is the case at your university, but contacts can’t do harm. Of course, if you approach a professor wishing to do research and graduate study in that line, etc., there must be some reason why you think the professor might be interested in your work and in helping you along. It’s a two-way relationship. Some students here get a grant in order to do their research in a postgraduate program, their Ph.D. and so on, and it is the research teams led by the professors who either propose or choose the candidates. I gather that you have finished undergraduate studies—or an M.A.? Your best bet would be to contact the teacher whose line of work you found most congenial there, and see if there’s any specific advice s/he could give you, or some clue on how best to enter the program, get financial aid, etc. Have you applied for any grants? All the information on grants and programmes should be on the web, though it may take some sorting through. Of course, if your marks as an undergraduate are poor, it may be useless to kick much against the wall, and it will be difficult to keep on track unless you can afford to register as a graduate student in some program with your own means, and do better there. Survival at university trying to get hold of a permanent post is tricky and trying. It takes much patience (sometimes an ability to put up with humiliation), and a determination to stick through many years of ill-paid jobs, intermittent contracts... many people find a living is easier to get elsewhere.
And how do you get academic credit before (and after) your Ph.D? Well, mainly through publications. Publications in journals, which might be the subject of a letter much longer than this one... or publications through conferences. Many people find this way easier, but it is also expensive: you have to register, travel abroad, etc., and that’s hard to do without the financial help of a research group and project—that is, once you’re "inside" things are easier, but it’s still hard, and then you’ve got to get in. Otherwise... well, you see, this depends on your financial situation, or your family’s, and I don’t know about that.
But conferences are also places where you can contact people working on the same thing, people who can give you useful information about jobs, publications, grants, research facilities... and as I say, it’s easier to land a publication in conference proceedings than in a journal; not that it’s worth that much, academically speaking, but it’s a way to begin. The really essential thing, though, is to "be around", to speak to lots of people, to the people who are in the relevant academic institutions and societies, to get information from them about academic requirements, jobs, financial aid... If they discourage you, you can try a little further down, in the next door. But face-to-face communication is always your best bet. Speak with the professors—and with the junior members of the departments, too, they may give you another perspective on the picture. And if you do decide to stay and persist at university, be warned... it’s a long-distance race, more exactly a long-distance rat race. And you may lose most of your love for literature in the process, or find that it has become a darker kind of love.
Well, good luck, and I’ll be around if you’d like to discuss these topics further. But remember: be practical, be contextual, don’t waste time, literature is long but life is short—and keep apart in your mind literature and life, and literature and work!