How Grad School Differs From Undergrad

The United States is diverse in many ways: it is a big country, with a few hundred million people, different kinds of geography and climate, regional accents alongside native speakers of probably hundreds of other languages, various customs, cuisines, and even styles of clothing. Education is unsurprisingly no exception.

great books
Before... (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Austin Reid Manny)

I just graduated, in May, from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a very unique establishment of higher education, even for Americans. For four years, all we did was read and discuss “the great books” of the Western tradition in an all-required curriculum.

There was a lot of philosophy and literature, plus mathematics and science, music, logic, languages… a very “Renaissance” education. No exams, no tests, not even grades (they actually do give grades, to be frank, but they do not reveal them unless a student specifically makes the request; I never checked mine). We wrote a lot of papers and original essays, and had amazing conversations. That’s what a good old fashioned liberal arts degree is all about. Ask any American, and they’ll find that sort of college experience to be very extraordinary. And it was.

Now I am starting graduate school, a master’s program in politics and international affairs at a pretty prestigious institution. It’s not in New Mexico, but in New England. Different. Very, very different. The location itself has an atmosphere that does not compare to Santa Fe.

The style of the education is much more in line with the regular fare here in the States. I actually get to choose my classes! We never had that at St. John’s – everyone always read the same books.

laptops in class
After. (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user tcoffey)

Plus, there are computers involved. Students bring computers to class (and take clickety-clackety notes while checking their Facebook pages – I always sit in the front to avoid getting distracted). Professors post things online for students to read or comment on. The readings are off a computer screen for the most part. Can you believe that? Back at St. John’s, I remember one student being admonished for having a laptop on the desk during freshman year. It was all about the text, and what we – as a group – could understand and gain from it, through dialogue and conversation.

Now it’s about “the real world.” My professors have “office hours,” and I have to make formal appointments to get to see them, fifteen minutes at a time. No more student lunch hours (which lasted a real hour, all sixty minutes), like we used to have back in New Mexico.

The students here are also of a very different kind. Of course, they are older, and almost all of them have work experience and time spent abroad, if they aren’t from outside the U.S. anyway. They are all very impressive and nice to talk to and all, especially the foreign students, of which there are a great deal. It’s wonderful. Only they’re not used to the same sort of intellectual, deep philosophical conversational style as I am. Or, to be fair, fewer of the students here, I find, are ready to engage in that sort of exchange. Who has time for that? And I admit that there is such a thing as over-engagement, especially when it comes to very abstract philosophical ideas. I guess I do miss it at times, though.

Well, it’s been a month and more since I’ve made it out to Boston, and I continue to be very excited and loving it, all in all, different category of conversation notwithstanding. In addition to continuing my education, there is a vibrant Armenian community here, and as a fellow Armenian I’ve been going to church, attending community events, eating some familiar food: the kinds of things I never got to do in four years in Santa Fe. This will be an enriching time, no doubt.

Meanwhile, I am left with a real sense of amazement and, yes, gratitude, that this country can offer so much in such very different ways. I hope to come out having made the most if it.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing! I didn’t have a chance to do my undergrad degree here, but as for grad school – you’re pretty much describing my lifestyle now with only one exception: I’m a in a tiny town and may opportunities which exist in Boston can’t be found in my Athens 🙂

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