I don’t wanna grow up, Part II: Grad School. Still cool.

01Oct06

Note: the below article was written in August of 2006 and is just now being posted as an attempt to catch up on everything.

For Part II of my thoughts on growing up and becoming a grad student I’d like to share thoughts about being young-but-not-that-young (henceforth referred to as ‘YBNTY‘). I mentioned in Part I that part of being YBNTY is having time on your side financially. Other parts of being YBNTY include practicalities (finding a job/grad school/place to live), ‘the big picture’ (“What am I going to do with my life?”), and trying to figure out whether it’s weird when elementary school kids touring your college ask if you’re a professor. It’s the latter that I’d like to talk about. That really happened to me, by the way. I didn’t know what to say, since the kid didn’t know what a graduate student was.

Actually, I remember being that kid. It wasn’t actually that long ago. Back in those days high school students were cool because I thought high school was just like Saved by the Bell. Well, it’s not. Especially in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Bummer. But that’s okay, because by then college students were cool because I thought college was just like Animal House.

Well, to be honest, I’ve never seen Animal House and didn’t expect college to be anything like it. In fact, I thought college would be a lot more like… well… the library. And that thought was actually kind of cool. However, it wasn’t like the library (except the libraries, which were quite true to form). In fact, it was actually more like Animal House. And and that, again, was a bummer.

You can see where this goes, right? I discover PhD Comics and then think grad students are cool, but then I become a grad student and it’s not–bummer, and so forth. Only the thing is, at some point it must break down. I mean, nobody ever talks about how cool it is to be emeritus. Maybe at some point it’s no longer cool to be … ‘cool’.

In fact, it’s quite possible that there is a phase transition at which one no longer uses words like “cool” and “bummer” and decides to no longer be ‘YBNTY’. I imagine people who reach this phase transition no longer make cool acronyms like ‘YNTBY’ to avoid the bummer of writing out complete thoughts. I, for one, have not reached this point and have even been known to include the word “dude” regularly into my conversations. (I hear the British think that’s a very cute American word.)

It seems like grad school is the point where one is forced into a lingual turf war between those who have used words like “cool” long enough to feel like they own it and those that are actually young enough to use such hip vocabulary. This mirrors the actual turf war between theoretical physicists and yuppies that occurs in Starbucks across America. It is a bitter and gruesome battle where the disputed real estate is demarcated by cups of water on one side and mocha frappucinos on the other.

You see, being a ‘cool’ in grad school isn’t about being able to use the word “cool” or being able to sit at a table with the cheapest coffee (which is still overpriced by an order of magnitude). It’s a social balance between being grown-up while getting away with acting like an undergrad.

This, of course, is where the Stanford phrase “sketchy grad student” comes from. There’s a Stanford tradition where freshmen are not ‘officially’ members of the Stanford community until they are kissed by a senior under the first full moon of the academic year. This tradition has turned into an all-out smooch-fest known as “Full Moon on the Quad” that involves live music, streakers, and several tables of complimentary mouthwash (didn’t read about that in the prospectus, did you?). My absolute favorite memory at Full Moon on the Quad was watching male graduate students trickle out of the Varian physics building to sneak into the event like ants converging on a picnic. Those are “sketchy grad students.” Undergraduates avoid sketchy grad students the way kindergardeners avoid the opposite gender’s cooties (though a recent PhD comic depicts the converse), treating them as some different subspecies (homo sketchus-graduatis) with whom dating would dilute the gene pool. My favorite sketchy grad student now writes for the Stanford Daily, though he appears to have given up on fooling anyone that he’s an undergrad (homo alchoholis).

Anyway, this is all frivolous, but it’s worth remembering that even sketchy grad students were once cool undergrads. In fact, they may even have been cool grads at some point. Sketchy undergrads, however, turn directly into sketchy grad students.



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