Tuesday, April 16, 2019

5 Kinds of People You Should Avoid in Graduate School


There are many positives to graduate school. In fact, despite my experiences, I’d still say it’s worth attending. However, every prospective graduate student should beware of certain people. As someone who entered graduate school in 2015 and is now in the process of writing my dissertation, I’ve seen just about everything that grad school can throw at you. Indeed, when I joined up, I was fresh-faced, optimistic, and in many ways, downright naive.

Though I still believe in the overall mission of graduate school and what it intends to accomplish, it’s also true that it’s certainly not the oasis of learning and intellectual betterment that I thought it was as an undergraduate. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the “real world,” warts and all.

To that end, I’ve decided to make a list of people you should watch out for as a graduate student, so that you’re better prepared when you come face-to-face with them. And hopefully, by spreading awareness of these issues, I’ll be helping to eliminate the problem at the source.

With that said, let's get started.


Disclaimer: Not all of this is based on personal experience. Much is based on what I've heard from other graduate students.

1. The Politician


The Politician is usually a fellow graduate student who, in person, is extremely cordial to you. Their interactions with you will be pleasant, and over time, you may feel that they are one of your friends. You’ll confide in them, and they will seemingly confide in you.

The truth, however, is that The Politician is always angling for personal betterment at the expense of everyone around them. They are kind to you because they want something from you, or think that you may know something that they can use to improve their standing within the department. What they tell you is rarely what they actually believe; indeed, they keep their true agenda out of the limelight, revealing it primarily via their actions rather than through what they say. 


It’s possible to be friends with The Politician, and to admire them to a certain extent. Some of them will still care about building an amicable working relationship with you, despite their priorities laying elsewhere. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can rely on them for anything substantial.

The Politician is difficult to identify. The easiest way to do so is to listen to what they say when they are around other people. If it is completely opposite from what they say when you’re alone with them, then you know that they are the type of person to change their views based on who’s listening, and thus, will shape their public persona based on whatever they think will get them ahead rather than on what’s right. 

2. The Sycophant


The Sycophant is like The Politician, though far more treacherous. The Sycophant is so dedicated to getting ahead that they have no time to act kindly to other graduate students. They will sometimes put on a happy face for graduate students they believe to be “on their level,” meaning those who have won a similar amount of accolades, but it’s never genuine.

The Sycophant is best identified by viewing how they interact with professors, and then comparing that to how they deal with graduate and undergraduate students. They will be extremely kind and caring to professors (and others in power), indeed, so much so that you might be fooled into believing that they are nice, approachable people.

However, in situations where The Sycophant has to deal only with “lesser” graduate students or undergraduates, all joy and kindness drains from their faces. They assume a cold visage, and either act dismissively towards or completely ignore said person. They also tend to be the kind of person that will try and sabotage fellow graduate students by throwing them and their work under the bus when talking to professors.

For this reason, The Sycophant is extremely dangerous. Their ability to fool professors into thinking they are kind and relatable builds trust, which The Sycophant then wields against those they deem to be inferior to them. The best thing to do if you come across this kind of graduate student is to avoid them completely, lest you wish to become one of their targets.

3. The Trust Fund Baby


The Trust Fund Baby (or TFB for short) is common in graduate school. Indeed, it may be the most common archetype. This is because most people who go to graduate school tend to come from some kind of wealth. It’s also why most professors tend to come from similar class backgrounds.

Unlike The Sycophant, The TFB is not inherently bad. If, however, you happen to come from a situation where you are not receiving an inheritance or other familial money of any kind, such as myself, they can be difficult to adjust to.

The TFB can be a genuinely kind person who you may become best-friends with, or they can be “The Sycophant.” In that sense, they run the gamut. Most I’ve come across are nice, though completely unaware of the privilege granted to them by their class statuses.

The TFB can be best identified through casual conversation. While you are struggling to make ends meet, they may say something like “my parents bought the place I’m living in, so luckily I don’t have to pay rent.” Or they will remind you about how they “don’t have any college debts." Others will outright say that they are receiving money from an inheritance, and thus, aren’t so worried about the disastrous job market. Most TFBs will be more coy, letting slip here and there that their parents are extremely wealthy.

The TFB can be difficult to deal with primarily because of how (seemingly) stacked the deck is in their favor. They usually come from money, so they don’t have to worry about funding to the same extent. They don’t necessarily need a job immediately, so they aren’t nearly as stressed about finishing the program. Because they don’t have to work as much, they are able to finish their dissertations on time, and thus, have a leg-up on the competition when it comes to getting tenure-track jobs.

There is not much to do about the TFB besides steeling yourself to the reality that they exist, and in quite large numbers. Like I said, they usually aren’t bad people. But they can be tone deaf. 

4. The Overseer


The Overseer is generally a fellow graduate student who holds some kind of position of power. They use their position to acquire power and influence for themselves, and lord it over other graduate students.

Unlike The Sycophant, who generally works in the shadows, The Overseer is very public about their agenda. They are the ones who faculty and administrators will go to when they need to hear about what graduate students are thinking and feeling.

As such, The Overseer is extremely dangerous. They can shape a department’s entire agenda based on their feedback, tailoring it to their individual needs and desires. Simultaneously, they can single out graduate students who they deem to be a problem, and thus turn faculty and administrators against them. For that reason, it would be foolhardy to ever try and confront The Overseer in a direct fashion.

The Overseer can be undermined by organizing against them. If they know that there is a vast majority who disagrees with them, they will shift their position so as to maintain their power within the department. This, however, is not a permanent solution. The Overseer will always be angling for ways to get ahead, regardless of what other graduate students want. The most effective solution is to try and contain their agenda until they leave their position of power.

Unlike The Sycophant, The Overseer isn’t always inherently a bad person. Some of them may genuinely think that they are doing the right thing for you and the department. Too often though, their zealousness and pride get the better of them.


5. The Gatekeeper


The Gatekeeper can be a graduate student, professor, or administrator that tries to put you down by saying that “you’ll never be good enough because of X, Y, and Z.” Most often, however, The Gatekeeper is a young professor who feels it’s their job to guard the boundaries of academia. They delight in imposing their will on people they deem to be below them, but act much like The Sycophant towards anyone they deem superior to themselves.

The Gatekeeper often feels that it is their duty to micromanage the affairs of graduate students, to an extent that can feel stifling and unproductive. Their directions to you are often haphazard, having no clear pedagogical origins. At the same time, The Gatekeeper always feels they are in the right. They can be narcissistic and tone deaf, often related to the fact that they tend to be Trust Fund Babies.

Most often, The Gatekeeper’s role in any department is to eliminate “problem” graduate students before they advance too far into the program. They do this by picking on students they think are intellectually inferior, slowly chipping away at their will until they decide to leave the program. They do this for a number of reasons, but they can be boiled down to these three: 1) they think that they are preserving the integrity of the profession by excising incapable students, 2) they wish to showcase their toughness and intellectual superiority to more senior professors, 3) they feel insecure about being closer in age to some graduate students.

The Gatekeeper tends to target either people of color, first generation graduate students, or people with more offbeat intellectual makeups. For this reason, they are deleterious to the mission of making academia a more diverse and inclusive place. The Gatekeeper is extremely dangerous to anybody who is a minority or is the first of their family to attend graduate school. Their classes/seminars should be avoided, and you shouldn’t work with them unless you have somehow gotten on their good side. Most graduate students I know, including myself, have had to deal with at least one Gatekeeper. You will never avoid them, but if you can, you should try to limit your exposure. 
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To close, none of the bogeymen listed above should prevent you from wanting to attend graduate school. Overall, graduate school is a great place to meet friends, study what you love, and practice doing real, potentially world-changing research. As with anything though, it’s best to beware of those who will try to prevent you from getting the most out of your experience. Hopefully this article will allow you to do that.

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