homeprev issuesexecpublic affairsSTAFFASA home

Things My Mentor Never Told Me

by Michael D. Schulman
North Carolina State University

For almost six years, I was the Director of Graduate Programs in a PhD-granting department. One of my responsibilities was teaching the Proseminar class for all new graduate students. The class was designed to introduce students to both the department and the profession.

After the first six weeks of the fall term, I noticed that many first-year students appeared tired and haggard. During group discussions, they expressed feelings of frustration about the difficulty of the transition from undergraduate to graduate education. Their expectations, based on being an ďAĒ student in an undergraduate program, were not congruent with the academic, personal, and time demands of graduate education. To address this problem, I developed a fictional letter that a stereotypical first-year graduate student might write to her/his undergraduate advisor. This letter is designed to stimulate discussion about problems, such as time and stress management, that new graduate students often encounter.

Dear Professor Jones:

My first year in Department of Underwater Basket Weaving at WHATSAMOTTA UNIVERSITY is just about over. It has been a strange experience. First, I would like to complement you and all the other PODUNK COLLEGE professors. Your courses prepared me well for graduate level work. However, some of the things that have happened over the last year were really quite unexpected.

As a student at PODUNK, I took five or six courses a semester. When I went to graduate school and found that a full load was going to be three classes. I thought this was going to be easy. It was quite a shock to discover that each graduate course demanded twice the work of any of my undergraduate classes and that all the demands occurred at the same time. The professors expected me to do nothing with my time except work or study for her/his course.

I survived the first four weeks of the year on coffee. Finally, by about the fifth week, my body and mind gave out and I slept an entire weekend. Why didnít you tell me that I was going to have to learn to manage time and to organize my schedule? I finally bought an organizer that I now use to schedule periods of study in the library, periods of time in the computer lab, periods for writings, and periods for mountain biking.

At PODUNK, you could walk into the department just about any time and find a professor who was available to talk to you. At WHATSOMMATTA, there are 30 professors in the department, but I still have not seen about half of them. There is one person who, according to rumor, comes into the office between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. only on Tuesdays or Thursdays, if there is a full moon. This person leaves messages for students and staff and then disappears. If I come to the office on Tuesdays or Thursday I miss half the faculty: if I come in on Monday or Wednesday, I miss the other half.

Not only are there more professors, but also their personalities and teaching styles are quite diverse. Let me tell you about the statistics professor. Professor Boris does not believe that any graduate student is worth anything unless the student is willing to devote 80 hours a week to the class. After the midterms, Professor Boris called the class a bunch of misfits unlikely to achieve professional success. It seems that it is impossible for any graduate student to be good enough for Professor Boris. About a week ago, I was working late and turned on the TV to relax before going to sleep. An old Dustin Hoffman/Steve McQueen movie was on, you know, the one where they are prisoners on Devilís Island. I went to sleep dreaming that I was on Devilís Island having to do statistics problems for Professor Boris.

The history of underwater basket weaving class is totally different. The professor loves all the graduate students: we can do no wrong. At the end of the class, we discovered that everyone received an ďAĒ or an ďA-Ē as a final grade. We realized that we couldnít figure out who had done well or who had done poorly, because we all got the same comments. Even the student who wrote what I considered to be a bunch of purple prose did well in the class. We all like Professor Barney, but wonder if we really learned what we really needed to know.

The best Professor was Dr. Dudley, instructor of the basic methodology class. Dudley was organized, direct, and critical. The first paper I wrote was returned ungraded with three pages of comments. I was told that if I wanted a passing grade, I had to rewrite the paper. I was angry initially, but realized that I had learned a lot. Professor Dudley really did right with the methods class.

When I became a graduate student, I looked forward to having an office. This was going to be great: no more having to carry all your books and materials around all the time. Well, my office is nice except for the fact that I share it with nine other graduate students. When one person wants to write, three others are dealing with undergraduates. I have given up trying to study in the office and have gone back to using the library.

I have learned to be both more hardheaded and self-critical; negative comments no longer cause me to doubt my self-worth. Talking with the older students really helped; they said the same thing happened to them and that things would get better after the first semester. They were right.

Michael Schulman can be reached at