Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: October 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Very Graduate Student Halloween

My favorite quote about Halloween is probably very un-intellectual. Unless, of course, you are one of those people who enjoys analyzing our world through the lens of pop culture like a pseudo-anthropologist/sociologist. It’s from what I could consider a new classic: Mean Girls: "In the regular world, Halloween is when children dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.

I don’t think anything anyone says about Halloween can top this. It’s just too true to not be hysterical. I mean, they can make anything sexy now. (See some ridiculous attempts here and here...although, personally, I kind of like the Sexy Ninja Turtle and Sexy Optimus Prime.)
But I found a pretty interesting Halloween quote this weekend in the Associated Press that made me think in that pseudo-antro/soc way yet again: “The NRF said more people plan to dress up for the holiday than ever before — 40.1 percent compared with 33.4 percent last year and the highest percentage since the group started tracking Halloween trends in 2003. ‘We expect 2010 to be the year of the costume,’ said NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis, who cites the poor economy as a possible reason people are investing in some fun.” So, if this is the year of the costume and more people are dressing up than ever before, I thought it’d be interesting to analyze the most popular costume choices of this Halloween, and maybe how a grad. student would fit into the trend. 

Last year, the two most popular costumes seemed to be Sarah Palin and Michael Jackson—homages (or satiric imitations) of two dead icons. Okay, so maybe Palin was just dying politically at the time and has probably since revived…but still. WOAH—Sarah Palin Zombie costume, anyone?

What are the trends we’re seeing this year?

1.       Nerds and Hipsters—Well, obviously, we’re in grad. school. We can’t dress up as nerds…that wouldn’t be a costume. I guess so of us could do hipsters, but I’ve met some very lovable hipster-like people in grad. school who I would not want to impersonate.
2.       Harry Potter Characters—Maybe it’s just me, but OMGI’MSOEXCITEDFORHPINNOVEMBER! The midnight showing will be like a pre-Thanksgiving break break from work.
3.       Jersey Shore Characters (particularly Snooki, Pauly D., and Mike “The Situation”)—What does it say about our culture that these are the famous people who everyone follows? I dunno…but I think making them into a Halloween costume might be a good step towards seeing them in their true “situation”—ridiculous caricatures of human beings. Although, I must say, they are entertaining. I mean, who’d want a reality TV show about me doing my homework 24/7? Nobody. I don’t even want to watch that. Plus, they make me feel better about myself!
4.       Lady Gaga—First of all, I have a confession to make. I am a “little monster.” But, even for non-Gaga fans, Lady Gaga’s decision to live life as if she’s constantly on an avant-garde cat walk makes her a perfect person to imitate for Halloween. Plus, I will always be indebted to Gaga. Learning the “Bad Romance” dance in between writing papers is what got me through my first semester of graduate school.
5.        Vampires—Twilight. True Blood. Any kind of vampire will do. I actually really dislike Twilight, but I know grad. students who really enjoy it for the same reason I like True Blood—it’s fun fluff to get your mind off of the intense work. Now, here are some tough questions: If people will be doing True Blood vampires, will this extend to Sookie the fairy? And, if it does, how will we be able to distinguish between Snookis and Sookies!?!?!
6.       Alice in Wonderland Characters—This is my choice this Halloween. When you feel like you’re going crazy in graduate school, a Mad Hatter costume is the perfect choice, isn’t it? (If I felt angry instead of crazy, maybe I’d go with the Red Queen instead.) People speculate that the upsurge in Alice costumes this year is caused by the recent movie with Johnny Depp…but I chose this costume last November. Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass is/are one/some of my favorite book/s, and any graduate school student dressing up as a character from this classic is probably secretly displaying their true nerdom.

Maybe I’m biased, but I’d say #6 is the best way to disguise your grad. student self this Halloween. Especially if you’re an English student, of course. You get to pretend you know everything about pop culture while secretly remaining true to your inner grad. student underneath. So many layers! Who wants to do a textual analysis of my costume!?

Monday, October 18, 2010


Even for those of us who don’t have grad. school senioritis, procrastination is almost definitely a recurring issue. I’ve noticed that even the people who always seem to be ahead of the game have motivation/procrastination problems at least once a month or so (you can tell so easily by Facebook status updates!). Since there is less and less imposed structure as you go higher and higher up the academic ladder, this is pretty understandable. In fact, even on grad. share, the theme that recurs most often in the advice section seems to be procrastination. There are different incarnations of the “I need to stay motivated and stop putting off work” question. Some deal specifically with paper writing, for example. Others deal with research, or how to say no to hanging out with friends without losing your whole social network.

The advice gradshare members give varies widely not only from question to question, but from person to person. Most of the advice is, I think, very good. As long as you keep in mind that not every tactic works the same way for every person. For example, I had a friend who recommended writing in 45 minute increments, then taking a scheduled 15 minute break, and then going back to writing. This is supposed to increase productivity. A gradshare member recommended a similar strategy, only working in blocks of 25 minutes with 10 minute breaks in between. I know a lot of people who have said this strategy was a wonderful revelation. It does not work for me. I know that it takes me approximately  as many hours as I have pages to write when I have a paper. But when I sit down to write it, I can’t micromanage. I need to let myself go to Facebook when I feel like going to Facebook. I need to write when I have a burst of energy or a sudden epiphany. Sometimes that means I’ll write for an hour straight, and sometimes that means I’ll “waste time” for an hour straight. But that’s what I’ve realized works for me.

Same deal with turning off all forms of communication to the outside world. Many gradshare users recommend, especially for those of us who have trouble saying no to friends, turning off cell phone, email, etc. whenever you need to get work done. I, on the other hand, start going stir crazy if I don’t feel like someone else is out there. Sometimes at 4am when I am still working and I feel that I’m the only one awake in the whole world, I open up iChat or AIM. Sometimes I don’t even IM anyone. But just seeing that there are other people signed on and (potentially) awake allows me to concentrate on my work rather than on my (real or imagined) isolation.

The thing I have found most helpful, and something many gradshare users also recommend, is getting into a routine. This is the thing that has most helped me find a balance between work and play. For example, though there are sometimes exception, I have made it a rule not to work on whatever “my Friday” happens to be (this semester my Friday is Wednesday evening). Instead, I relax. My roommates and I have set aside Wednesday nights as time we share. During most of the week, they only see me leaving my room (what we’ve deemed my “hobbit hole” or “cave” for food. But Wednesdays are Battlestar Galactica nights (and dinners that begin with the letter B, like Breakfast or Burritos). So routine is good in my book.

But something gradshare users don’t mention, but that many grad. students nevertheless use as a motivation tool, is the energy drink. Whatever their drink of choice may be (maybe they want Red Bull to give them wings so they’ll fly through their work, or maybe they’ll pick up some Five Hour energy at their supermarket’s checkout counter in the hopes of avoiding that “two o’clock feeling”), most people have tried an energy drink. (Personally, I like tea. And sleeping a crazy amount of hours on my first weekend day. And then dealing with being exhausted the rest of the time. But I’m pretty picky, and I don’t think any energy drink I’ve sipped has tasted good enough for a full can/bottle. I don’t even like the taste of coffee!) So what are the pros and cons of this back-up plan? A lot of people site the crash that happens after you lose the initial kick, though some companies claim their product has no crash factor. But what about how to deal when your back-up plan is no longer a back up plan? Coffee every day is a pretty standard addiction, but what about coffee every morning and a boost of energy every afternoon? How many kicks does a grad. student need?

Is there any way around this problem? Are graduate students, or even students in general, or even adults in general, doomed to either perpetual exhaustion or caffeine/taurine/etc, addictions? Is there an energy drink that’s good for you? For example, recently there was a study that said having some coffee every day might actually be helpful in preventing Alzheimer’s and memory loss. Though there may not be scientific evidence, is there an energy drink that might be more helpful than harmful? Are there any other motivation/anti-procrastination tactics most people haven’t tried that they should?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"It's Complicated"

When you near the end of something, it’s pretty common to look back at the beginning and see how things have changed. Or, maybe that's just true for me. But now that I'm in the 2nd year of my MA, and looking ahead to my comps exam in the spring, I often simultaneously look back to last fall semester (my first here at Fordham), and even to the application process I went through during my senior year at Barnard.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that graduate admission is more complicated than undergraduate admission…by leaps and bounds. At least it seems that way the first time around.

First off, whether you’re applying for an MA or a PhD, the pressure seems greater somehow. Maybe it’s because you’re competing for fewer spots, and against only the most qualified students. Maybe it’s because most people who apply to graduate school tend to be pretty intense to begin with. But the thing that really makes the grad. school admissions process more complicated is the same thing that makes it hard, once you’re here, to meet anyone from outside of your department. Everything is so subject-specific. All of a sudden, from what was most likely a liberal arts education where you were encouraged to try every subject you were even mildly interested in, you’re asked to write a personal statement on why your subject trumps everyone else’s. And, what might be even more complicated, you have to explain why the school you’re applying for is better for you than any other school.

Sure, you might have done this for your college applications. But this gets pretty rough when it comes to grad. school. Because, all of a sudden, not only is each school different from every other. But each department in each school is different from every other department in the same school. And, even within a single department, different specializations can be stronger than others, or student support may be stronger than research opportunities, etc. etc. And that is why the new grad. school rankings are so confusing.  How are you supposed to rank a program, let alone a school, when there are so many variable factors? The new method  adopted this year may be trying to solve this problem in a good way—by showing the range rather than a certain number—but that ends up making it even harder to interpret the results. If a school is in a range between 13 and 43...what does that mean? In the end the rankings feel completely arbitrary. Added to the fact that your real experience really cannot be predicted by a number anyway (e.g. as an undergraduate, I hated the first school I went to which was technically ranked higher than the school I transferred to and loved), these rankings end up meaning absolutely nothing in my eyes.

So, here’s my solution everyone. And I think you're gonna love it! Remember when Yale’s undergrad. Admissions Office came out with their amazing video campaign, “That’s Why I Chose Yale”? Well, I think every single grad. department and every single school should make one of those. Because musicals are a much easier and “funner” way to decide what school you want to go to, and to understand the pros and cons of each institution and program.

And I’m only half kidding.

Monday, October 4, 2010

To Network or Not to Network...That is the (Virtual) Question


"Facebook was more than just a means to learn about friends professionally and colleagues personally: It became a way to publicize the issues each of us felt deserved advocacy". --Heather Wolpert-Gawron (teacher)



We've all heard about the dangers of social media, about the (often unnamed) “bad things” that can come from putting yourself out there too much…I even referred to this kind of indirectly on this very blog. Typical warnings include: “Google yourself,” “Be careful what you put on Facebook,” and “Social networking sites can take over your life and eat your brain!” Wait, no. That last part is zombies (a newer obsession that threatens to take over your life. Personally, I still don’t get how that one happened. Though I recommend Plants vs. Zombies as a good procrastination tool).


But social media has had such a boom in the past few years that not just students, but educators of all ranks and types (from middle school teachers to college administrators) are starting to get involved. Seminars that teach how to harness the power of social media are now a common occurrence. McGraw-Hill (most of you have probably owned several of their textbooks) even held a large-scale a conference on the future of social media, where they decided that a main draw of using these tools is to “engage” previously distant students. (Apparently it’s all so much easier when they can care right from home!) 

Organizations, including educational institutions, are also using these sites to more effectively advertise…schools and other organizations can now reach out to students much quicker and, potentially, on a much more personal level. 

The transition from using social media exclusively for, well, social activities to using these sites for educational and professional goals is still mid-process. Many schools (especially below college level) still keep the sites blocked on public computers, and those threats I mentioned earlier are still often mentioned (though many of the same institutions who used to participate in this kind of criticism of social networking are now getting involved themselves). 

But this is all really from the educator’s or professional’s point of view…what else (besides warnings of inappropriate photos) is important on our end?

Well, if companies use these sites to market their new products and educational opportunities, you use them to market yourself. 

Yes there’s LinkedIn, the most obviously professional social networking tool. Artists have YouTube videos and MySpace pages (in fact, they’re pretty much the only ones who still have MySpace pages), some people have professional Twitter pages, and many people have blogs related to the field they plan to go into (like book review blogs). These are all great ways to turn social networking to our advantage.

But even the big one, Facebook, could be used beneficially. Even if you don’t limited profile everyone in sight, as long as you’re just a little careful about what you put up, Facebook can actually be a great professional networking tool as well. 

You don’t believe me, huh? I’m going to try to convince you. I’ll start off with a question: isn’t work always better when you get along with the other personalities? When  you feel like you get along with your coworkers personally (this should be applicable to any kind of working environment)? 

As students, Facebook makes it easier to connect to organizations and events, both within and outside of Fordham, that we might be interested in and that can broaden our networks and our opportunities (like GSAS's professional development series, or something like The Americas Society). And, specifically as graduate students, I think Facebook actually plays a pretty important role in helping to create a feeling of community for each cohort in a situation where, unlike undergrad., a lot of people don’t take the same classes and don’t live in university housing. This makes it harder for us to build a community, and Facebook helps us do that, letting us get to know our classmates a bit faster than we woud if we just had 2 hours of class with them a week and then lost all contact. And this cohort is the beginning of our professional network, right? Even if you don’t end up going past an MA or if you don’t become a professor, these people will probably still remain a part of your professional network in some way or another. And won’t it be nice, 10 years down the line, to be able to call someone your “friend” instead of just your “colleague?” So I say thanks, Facebook, for making “friending” a verb, and making personal relationships an important part of professional relationships. To me, this merging of personal and professional is the best part of the new social media phenomenon.