Forever Student Syndrome

Graduate student life has many upsides. You largely make your own schedule. You can do most of your work from any location. And you still get student discounts at the movies. But you do not want to be a graduate student forever. The life of the mind is an alluring idea, but at some point you will want a job you can explain to your relatives, livable salary, and a retirement account.

With little oversight, no standard timetable and vague requirements, even students who want to finish their degrees in a timely fashion have difficulty completing their programs on-time. I call this affliction “Forever Student Syndrome.” This disease can strike anyone. You may even know someone right now with the aliment! They might not even know they have it! The great danger of Forever Student Syndrome is not knowing you have it. You feel like you are making advances in starting your career, but you are actually only delaying the beginning.

Much like the body’s four humors, those afflicted with Forever Student Syndrome lack a balance between academia’s building blocks. Being a graduate student is a combination of a student, professor, and employee. The key to being successful is progressing through the stages of your program as a student and striking a balance between research, service, and teaching while being an effective independent worker. The biggest danger of falling into Forever Student Syndrome is the feeling that you need to be perfect. Do not worry about perfection. Do good work, finish, and move on.

Though most Forever Students have a mixture of problems, I will briefly describe the main types: the Sloth, Student, Researcher, Committee Member, and Adjunct. Though obviously exaggerated, the descriptions below stem from my graduate student experience. At different times during graduate school, I have noticed parts of each one of these Forever Students in myself. You will likely also find yourself in a position as a Sloth, Student, Researcher, Committee Member, and Adjunct, or may have already. The trick to avoiding Forever Student Syndrome is recognizing the affliction and changing your ways to find balance again.

Content to watch another episode of Judge Judy rather than sit down and write, the Sloth is the most obvious kind of Forever Student. Finding any excuse to avoid work, aside from pressing deadlines, the fact that they will not begin to think of finishing their degree in the next few years paralyzes them in the present. Unlike other Forever Students, they understand that their behaviors are not beneficial. Often an early stage graduate student, they feel like there will be plenty of time for work, later. The Sloth may not be adequately prepared for treating the program as a career and may treat graduate school as a means to extend the college experience and avoid the workforce. The Sloth will likely regret their inaction later in their program, if they make it through.

Another early stage Forever Student takes every course offering they can find. A love of learning drove them to graduate school. They find comfort and self-worth in report cards. Often a nice revenue source for the department, they resist ending coursework. Afraid to leave the structure of the classroom that has comforted them since their elementary school, the Student continues searching for their professors’ approval. Feeling they need to take every relevant course offered in their field and reluctant to closely read the course requirements, they pick courses exclusively based on their interests, leaving their program of studies to another day. The Student may also get held up when faced with comprehensive exams, feeling they must master ever detail of the preparation before continuing, further delaying their candidacy.

Always with their nose in a book, the Researcher went to graduate school for a love of learning and a distaste for small talk. Their lengthy publication list looks impressive at first glance. A closer look, however, reveals a number of smaller publications of questionable value. Book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and other acts of free labor with the hope of gaining some vague sense of “exposure.” Afraid of missing “something,” the Researcher feels that they cannot begin writing their dissertation until they have collected every last bit of their materials. Constantly on research trips and endlessly submitting Interlibrary Loan requests, they must find and read every piece of writing on their topic. Even that tangentially related article from the 1931 edition of the Rhode Island Review of Boats.

Eternally swamped with meetings, the Committee Member is well-respected within the department. A master of friendly chit-chat and warm smiles, the Committee Member seems like the ideal student. The inability to say the word “no,” however, bogs down the Committee Member’s day-to-day life with endless time spent discussing the number of faculty parking spaces or how to facilitate a quicker time to degree for graduate students, without actually having time for their own degree. The more enterprising Committee Member may even organize a campus group or event, while the less motivated only find themselves attending the university’s professional development workshops. All of them. Believing that constantly being “busy” is a sign of productivity, the Committee Member pads their resume with impressive service, but resists actually doing their work. After all, they have a day full of meetings on campus tomorrow.

The Adjunct spends half their time in the car driving between colleges to teach intro-level courses and hold office hours out of their car. The most sympathetic of Forever Students, they may feel forced into the endless procession of temporary teaching positions because of financial and family obligation. At first, gaining teaching experience and making a wage that nearly covers basic living expenses with no benefits or job security feels like the beginning of a career as a professor. Quickly, however, the constant course prep, endless emails, and piles of papers to grade overwhelm any hope of finding time to do any researching or writing. After years of being the starving artist, the Adjunct may find a permanent position at a teaching college impressed with their experience. Or, more likely, continue starving as they continue hoping for their big break.

At the core of Forever Student Syndrome is a lack of prioritization. In graduate school, I have learned that important and urgent are not the same thing. While all graduate students will encounter periods of their program in which they fall victim to being one type or another of a Forever Student, maintaining balance allows you to continue your progress and avoid catching a serious case of Forever Student Syndrome.

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