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The secret lives of graduate students

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, February 22, 2009

Spring is technically just around the corner, and everywhere people’s minds are turning to love – which those cynics among us might put in heavy scare quotes. Last week, British tabloids reported that a thirteen-year-old boy conceived a child with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend; days later, they reported that the father might also have been a sixteen-year-old, or possibly a fourteen-year-old (no word yet whether all four will appear on Maury Povich, though). Closer to home, Bristol Palin gave her first interview to Fox News, during which she said that “everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it’s not realistic at all.” Her mother, meanwhile, had some unofficial advice for everyone: “Hey, don’t get pregnant. Well, get beyond that when it happens, and then you deal with it.” And here at Notre Dame, debates over dating, hooking up and the contravention of parietals have broken out in panels, Letters to the Editor and dining halls. Even the “Info 4 Life” posters in the library bathrooms take time out of their story about E-Reserves to wax romantic.

But lost among the tales of leprechaun love and freshman lust is the graduate student population. After all, we graduate students are just as entitled to think about how we are or aren’t spending our extracurricular time. So it’s time to take a good look at the dating life of graduate students – an examination that, by the way, will remain thoroughly academic (i.e., hands-off) for all you non-graduate students out there (see du Lac, p. 126).

Eighty-hour-a-week jobs tend to affect your personality after a while, and graduate school is no exception. Whereas doing finance or i-banking in Manhattan turns even the most staid professional into the fratboy type (though recently, manic-depressive would apply just as well), the long, lonely hours planted in front of a book or a Bunsen burner can sap the extroversion from anyone. Instead of caring about corporate law or Natty Light, though, scholars-in-training direct their energy toward their own area of research; their social side, so badly underused, fuses with their professional side until they start to exist exclusively as extensions of their topics. Parties turn hopelessly academic after a few hours – I once witnessed a group of theologians take turns trying to recite the Nicene Creed as a parlor game of sorts. And, for the sake of full disclosure, I’ve been known to make a Charlemagne joke or two.

Are you trying to have any meaningful interaction with one? What you might not realize is that when you get beyond small talk with a graduate student, you’re not only talking to them, you’re talking to their library (or laboratory) as well. So if you, say, go on a date with a psychologist, you’re really also dating Jung and Freud and Pinker; with a historian, let’s hope you like Foucault, Hegel and/or Marx. I understand that students of literature are contractually obligated to utter the words “postmodern” and “Sylvia Plath” at least six times an hour. Of course, many of these people are also training to become lecturers and discussion leaders, which means that they will someday be required to hold forth as a supreme authority for about an hour at a time on their topic. Some manage to conceal this side of themselves successfully; others see any social interaction as a chance to practice.

But, the lack of a dental plan notwithstanding, graduate students actually have a pretty good life. They get a steady paycheck, they get summers off and they get to pursue something that, hopefully, they really like. They also get to share their passion with students and with their scholarly peers – and occasionally, such interactions (the latter ones) lead to real romance. After all, who else is suited to understanding all of the personal and professional sacrifices and demands of graduate school and the academic life but another scholar? In fact, graduate students like this life so much, they signed up for it. So in case you feel like graduate students are so pitiable that they need a hug, well, first of all, they aren’t, and second, see du Lac, p. 126.

Darryl Campbell would like to remind everyone that, in the words of Marc Cherry, “It’s a satire!” He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.