Explaining Grad School to Your Family


I have been home, staying with my parents for the holidays, for about a month now. While I love trips home, it is always a stark reminder that grad school is even more confusing for those who have no experience with it. As a first-gen student, I have often had to explain parts of academia to my family since heading off to Washington for my undergrad. But they’ve known people who have gone to college before. Grad school, especially a PhD? Not so much.

Over the past 8 years (yikes!) of grad school, I’ve had to do a lot of explaining of what I’m doing and why over the holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and am happy to answer their questions and explain things. Given that it is the holiday season again, and schools are going in to winter break, many other first-gen students at all levels will be returning home and probably facing some of the same questions that I have. And so, I’ve decided to put together a handy guide to help other first-gen students like me navigate the holidays.

Isn’t grad school just undergraduate but harder?

Despite the fact that we take classes, we are much more than students. Grad students are both student and instructor and researcher. And we are expected to do all these things at the same time—progress is measured by how well you do all, not just one.

Wow, you’re getting paid to be a student? Must be nice!

I am not getting paid just to be a student. I am contributing to the school through teaching and research. It is compensation for my labor. I am doing the same thing as a professor, just on a smaller scale.

Isn’t your dissertation just a big paper?

A dissertation is a book length examination of an original idea. But I also have to know the entire history of the idea and be able to situate myself in the scholarship. It is not just a paper laying out the idea and why it is important but an intricate display of why and how I came to be an expert in this topic.

How can you teach undergraduate level courses? You’re just a student!

No, I am an expert in my field. By the time I start teaching I have a Bachelors and am on my way to a Masters in the subject. Also, it is not student teaching where I have someone ‘advising’ me every day in the classroom. I get observed maybe once a semester but for the most part I am expected and trusted to do this on my own.

When you get done, can you get a job at your former institution?

Institutions want their graduates to go out in the world, not stay within the same walls that granted them their degrees. A mark of ‘prestige’ in academia is having others want to benefit from your education

Why is it so hard to get a job?

If a person with a PhD wants to get a job in higher education, rather than industry (which is really only an option for STEM PhDs), it depends on a lot of factors. Universities don’t just have open calls for professors—each position has to be approved by university admin. This is why institutions can’t just hire their graduates, among other things. In many fields, there are also more people applying for jobs than there are jobs.

And everyone’s favorite…

When are you going to be done?

Its not really up to me. I can finish something but it has to go through many levels of approval and editing before I am actually done.

I hope everyone has a fun, relaxing, break that is actually a break.