Slavic Languages Pre-Grad Intern Eric Pittman
My mentor was one of my former instructors who I had talked to on occasion, being unsure about what direction I wanted to take in the future regarding my education, career, etc. He later brought this program to my attention and thought it would be a perfect opportunity to get a better feel for what graduate school in the humanities would be like. With this overall goal of providing a glimpse into key aspects of graduate life we designed this program. My mentor and I went through three major areas that compose a graduate student's life: administrative duties, research, and teaching.
In regards to each of these areas I asked around our department, conducted my own independent study to get peoples' understanding and advice on it, and finally got personal experience in that area. The personal experience was the most helpful part of this program for me. It helped to have direction and guidance to help me know where to learn on my own, but the first hand experiences were something I couldn't get anywhere else. For example my mentor and I went through some of his drafts of published articles in order to better understand the publishing process, and I assisted my mentor in teaching some of his classes and lead one completely independently under his observation. Overall I feel much more aware of the intricacies of graduate student life. The course of this program has not only given me a big picture view, but I was also able to pick up a lot of the small stuff that's easy to overlook and usually isn't mentioned. Now I feel much more prepared for this undertaking.
The biggest surprise that I found was when we covered teaching near the last third of our program. I was first tasked with teaching one whole class while under my mentor's supervision, and I was amazed at the amount of work that was required. I had to familiarize myself with all the material of course, come up with effective ways to teach the material, and try to get the timing right so I could say all I needed to while not going over and at the same time leaving room for questions. I had to do all of this and more before I ever stepped inside of the classroom. It was an eye opening experience because being students at college we never get an appreciation for just how much work our professors put into each class. They usually just walk in completely prepared and familiar with all the material. Additionally all I was doing was preparing for a single class, while as a graduate student or faculty member I would have to be prepared for the whole course. This would of course include making the syllabus, picking a textbook or materials, and trying to plan each day's goal. In short, once again I never knew about how much work goes into each course and I definitely have a much better appreciation for it now.
After my first class I would occasionally teach segments or assist my mentor in the classroom and after each time I felt more comfortable with what I was doing. I'm extremely grateful because not many undergraduate students get experience with teaching and doing so has helped me understand this facet of graduate student life much better. Perhaps most important of all I learned that even with all the work that goes into it I still enjoy teaching, and so I can definitely consider that one of the positive experiences I would have should I choose to continue my education.
In addition to focusing on aspects of graduate life, my mentor and I also went over what I would be able to do after I got my degree. This included academia, the private sector, government jobs, anything that I could find out about or had questions about. Another huge revelation for me was the length and difficulty of the path to becoming a full professor. I had considered trying to become a professor before, it has a lot of advantages compared to other jobs: the opportunity to teach, to work with highly motivated interesting people, and of course not being locked into the standard 9 to 5 business hours. But as I found out it would be very difficult to obtain and the path there is a long and very insecure one. Getting a PhD, finding a university that will hire you, and then the long and arduous path to full professorship, all the while being pressed to the limit and not being sure if you are going to make it to the next level. I can see that my professors are obviously very capable people and I appreciate the work that they went through to get where they are, but this program helped me decided that this is not something that I want to pursue.
Related to this discovery was another equally important revelation. I was concerned about what kind of careers I would be able to get involved with if I decided to go farther and obtain a doctorate, but talking with my mentor enabled me to see that there really are a multitude of opportunities. Pursuing a PhD constantly narrows the field that you study, and knowing that I assumed that would narrow the amount of opportunities available as well. I also assumed that in the humanities getting a doctorate was basically consigning yourself, for better or for worse, to going into academia. My mentorship program was based in the Russian language department and so we looked at what options I would have upon completing graduate level study. Working for the national government as an instructor, working in diplomacy, academia, private sector consulting and translating, and analyzing foreign policy were only a few of the many possibilities that we examined. Perhaps most important of all my mentor suggested that I could look up what jobs alumni of particular departments actually ended up with to get a better even more practical feel for the possibilities. Not only will this give me a much better idea but it will also greatly aid me in discerning what graduate school suits me and my future career plans.
This program has been invaluable to me. We started out with the goal of helping me get a better understanding of graduate life in the humanities and I feel that we have more than exceeded that goal. I have an exponentially better feel for what life as a graduate student would be like and how I would need to prepare for it. I also feel that I have grown as a person with these new experiences and learned a little more about what I want from my life. The best thing this program has done for me though is given me more information so that I can decide whether or not I want to continue to graduate school and if I will be happy there. I would like to say finally that I sincerely hope this program continues at the University of Texas. I truly believe that the one on one opportunity it provides is one of the best ways to help students figure out what direction they want to take, and after talking with my fellow participants I know they feel the same way.