The literary event of the summer was without question the release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” For my part, I dodged the late-night release parties and costumed hullabaloo and picked up a copy in a bookshop in Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse station on the way home from work. Ten hours later I was finished, breathless and terribly upset, wondering how in the final book of the series everything would be resolved, and also questioning how on earth I could endure the wait until Book Seven’s release.
In that moment I couldn’t help but reflect on a few of the parallels between seven years at Hogwarts and the seven-odd years of graduate school. To assert that a graduate program takes seven years is apparently considered heresy by Woodbridge Hall, but as I’ve known so few who’ve finished in less time, it seems self-evident. Indeed, like so many Fred and George Weasleys, far more colleagues have left their programs to seek fortune and fulfillment in other walks of life than will ever match the increasingly narrow profile of a graduate school career envisioned by our deans and provost. With qualifying exams and my prospectus now behind me, I am not entirely unlike a sixth-year at Hogwarts, having taken my OWLs and facing two years to prepare for the NEWTs that will determine my future employment prospects.
Perhaps it is just cruel coincidence of American educational planning, but entering the fifth year of graduate school feels unnatural. After four years of high school and four years of college, four years here would have been the Goldilocks number. But this incongruence highlights the real source of my discomfort: It confirms that grad school is, in fact, a wholly different experience than all of my previous education. I came to Yale right after college, and if there was any mistake in doing so, it has been the temptation to experience grad school as a simple continuation of undergraduate study.
This view, that grad students are overgrown undergrads limping through a pathetic academic sequel called College Part Deux, permeates the Yale campus. I’ve had students who were surprised to learn that my parents don’t financially support me. The challenges facing graduate students are drastically different from the prototypical undergraduate idyll where parents pay the way — itself an elitist reduction of undergraduate life which was, I am very pleased, publicly and effectively challenged by last year’s struggle for financial aid reform. However, as we range in age from our early 20s to our early 40s, the life of a graduate student tends to be filled with concerns about spouses, children and the sudden dental problems that arise as one approaches the age of 30.
The failure to acknowledge the full adulthood of graduate students, and the misunderstandings between undergraduates and graduate students on this campus that accompany that failure are a dreadful sickness in the Yale community. I do not contend that either student body is to blame; rather, this has been the intent of a University administration that tries very hard to engineer the experiences of each of its several classes of students. Yale now overflows with programming designed to make the Graduate School more like a 13th college than ever before: a welcome-wagon of orientation events, mixers and the full services of the McDougal Graduate Student Center. The intentions of all of these programs are good, and mark immeasurable improvement over the spartan face of the Graduate School just 10 years ago. But these steps, the shift of financial and institutional resources to support the first years of graduate study, have come at terrible cost to the final years, and by extension, to the enterprise of writing innovative dissertations, a tradition on which much of this University’s academic reputation is based.
The model put forward here is that grad students are mostly like me — fresh out of college and single, people for whom few of the other complications of adult life have yet transpired. It is a model in which Yale administrators are deeply invested. Faced with a pay equity grievance, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler regaled me with a tale of a former student who had triumphed over financial adversity, but who, fortunately, had a wife working full-time to help him. Confused, I thanked my lucky stars that gay marriage hasn’t been banned in Connecticut and thought, well, maybe there’s hope for me yet. But now as I stare down my dissertation, a Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Test in its own right, I find myself very much in Harry Potter’s shoes at the end of “Half-Blood Prince”: As I creep toward Year Seven, how much longer I’ll have a school to back me up remains completely in doubt.
Evan Matthew Cobb is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. He teaches German 119 and is an organizer for GESO.