The Long Farewell To Grad School Friends

Last weekend, my spouse and I took a trip back to Grad School Town.  Since moving hundreds of miles away from campus a few years ago, we’ve made a few such visits so that I could meet with advisers and see the good friends we made during the two years we lived in town.  But those trips have become increasingly less frequent: about six in the first year away and two last year.  And this trip was, in all likelihood, our last.  It’s getting to that stage in the graduate school journey, and it’s more than a little sad.

Of course, it shouldn’t be unexpected.  You go into graduate school knowing that you and the rest of your cohort won’t be there forever — or shouldn’t be.  But you make friends, anyway, because you’re human and because these people are weird just like you.  You can talk about Marx and your funding anxieties and your love-hate relationship with your adviser and your dreams for yourself and for the profession.  And these people get it in a way that your family, your non-academic friends, and sometimes even your significant other, just don’t understand.  It’s a precious and, I think, unique relationship.  My friendship with my teaching colleagues is similar, I suppose, but there are other dynamics at work — families at home, professional aspirations, the need to put up appearances of expertise and confidence.  The great thing about graduate school friendships — when they’re good friendships — is that you can all be vulnerable and naive together.

And it’s sad when the inevitable break-up begins.  My cohort is entering year five, and while no one (I think!) is actually going to finish in what is supposed to be our last year, we’re slowly trickling away towards our own destinies.  My departure was a bit on the early side, but others have since followed: for extended research stays outside the country, for the opportunity to be close to a far-away spouse, etc..  And the process is now accelerating; a dear friend in the department is leaving for South America for at least two years, while other friends are applying for fellowships and grants that will take them away for a long time, if not for good.  Soon, we will have all scattered to the four winds.

It’s not the end of our friendships, of course.  I’ll see people at conferences, stay in touch with e-mail and the BookFace, and probably schedule vacations around friends (sunny South America is January sounds pretty good…).  My spouse and I have even talked about some day, 8-10 years down the line when I have tenure (!) and a sabbatical, we’ll load the kids in an RV and cruise around the hemisphere, staying with grad school friends at various idyllic college towns.  And I, in fact, do think that will happen.

But we probably won’t be all in the same room again.  Which is why I’ll always remember last weekend.  Everybody came out for one last round of beers together, one last chance to laugh about the ridiculousness of grad school together, one last time to encourage each other to stay after it, no matter how hard.  That’s what makes grad school so great, and what makes it so hard to leave.

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Not Recommended

Sorry to be away so long, but I’ve been busy getting pissed off.  As many of you know, it’s job application season, which is unpleasant in oh-so-many ways: crafting letters for jobs you know you aren’t going to get; dealing with registrars to get grad transcripts; finding enough stamps to send stuff to non-digital departments; etc.  And I can now add lining up recommendation letters to that list, thanks to Interfolio, cheap university policies, and the shirking of faculty responsibilities and commitments.

In case you don’t know, Interfolio — to which I will not give the satisfaction of a link — is a dossier “service” to which you have your recommenders send their letters.  Interfolio inserts the addresses of the jobs for which you are applying, and then sends off the letter.  All of this for just $20 a year, plus $6 for each package of  letters — or $12 for Priority Mail, $16 for 2-day, or $28 for overnight!  Isn’t that a great deal, job applicants?!  Applying for ten jobs will cost you only $80!  Unless, of course, you want to send things more quickly, or if you can’t send all your letters at the same time, in which case you have to pay for each letter separately.  The short of it is this: job applicants get to pay for the satisfaction of getting rejected.  Nice.

It’s my understanding that universities used to provide this kind of “service,” but that sort of perk has gone the way of the dodo.  Instead of working on behalf of their fee-paying students, universities have abdicated that responsibility through partnerships with Interfolio.  All the school has to do is send Interfolio a digital letterhead, and the for-profit does the rest.  As long as you pay them to do it.

Some faculty love this sort of thing.  Interfolio saves them time; all they have to do is write one letter, and the for-profit does all the rest.  And I understand this, to some degree; I’ve been told that some faculty write “hundreds” of recommendation letters, and simply changing the address takes up precious research and teaching time.  I get that.  I really do.  Except:

  1. It’s your damn job, faculty.  Did you not know that you’d have to write recommendation letters when you signed up for this gig?  It’s part of the program.  And it’s not as though the recommendation letter season is a surprise.  It happens every year at the same time.  Plan for it.
  2. Letters spit out by the Interfolio machine are obviously not tailored for each job.  The recommender may say nice things about the candidate and her/his work in general, but nothing about how the applicant is exactly the right person for this particular job.  Tailored recommendation letters, like tailored job letters, get the attention of search committees.  General letters don’t.  They may, in fact, hurt — general letters signal that the writer doesn’t feel that the candidate is worth the extra time to tweak the letter for the job.  Why would such an unremarkable candidate be worth an interview?

I have been assured that everyone is doing this, so search committees expect it.  I’ve also been patted on the head and told that I’ll understand this better when I’m older and have to write hundreds of recommendation letters of my own.

Maybe.  But from where I’m sitting, this is a racket, plain and simple.  Interfolio, the schools, and the professors are all getting something: money, lower budgets, and more time, respectively.  And job applicants are the ones who pay.

The bigger problem (for me, anyway), is that I can’t help but interpret the use of Interfolio as a signal from some faculty that they just don’t think I should be on the job market.  There might be something to this; I won’t finish my dissertation until this summer, and I know that’s a problem for some search committees.  But I fear that it might mean something more: that they just don’t think I’m worth the time.  My work isn’t interesting enough; my effort hasn’t been sufficient.  If I don’t deserve a proper recommendation letter, how I can I deserve a job?

It’s not all bad.  There’s actually just one recommender insisting on Interfolio, and I’ve been learning not to take these sorts of things too personally from said recommender.  The rest of my committee is willing to write individual letters, although I fear that it’s quite the slog for them.  And I’ve learned some important lessons that I’ll try to apply to make this better.  First, get my requests in a hell of a lot earlier; I usually shoot for two weeks, but I think a month might be more like it.  Second, be a bit more selective about the jobs and fellowships to which I apply.  If I can convince my letter writers that I (a) have a decent shot at a job and (b) really, really want the job, they might be more willing to write tailored letters for me.  The moon shots might not be worth it.  Anyway, I’ll try that next year.  For now: back to grating my teeth and wishing I knew some hackers who could destroy Interfolio.  Bastards.