The Nine Circles of Grad School Hell

HELL-O to all of you out there in internet-land! Tis I, the “other editor,” the one who has gone pretty much AWOL for months as a result of being shackled to grad school, my first teaching gig, and the quest to find the most classroom-appropriate shrug (clothing accessory, not gesture, but more on that later).


But here I am, a survivor, much like Fresca Cola or the obscure members of Destiny’s Child (IE inexplicably still around, so someone somewhere must like me/Fresca/Kelly Rowlands). I have things that I’ve been dying to expound on that do not directly relate to my recent school experience, but I still feel it would be remiss of me not to clue you in on that barrel full of monkeys. Mainly because misery loves company, even in retrospect, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about How To Grad School it’s that whining about your school experience, even if you’ve loved every minute of it (you masochist), is key.

If you are one of those people who proceeded straight to grad school after completing your undergrad, you are a smart cookie. For those of us who took a few years to commit, getting back into the academic swing at a new school is a nonstop emotional roller coaster of joy (yay! my mind is still capable of coherent thought! my vocabulary remains intact!), insecurity (no? just me? okay), and fear (WHAT IF MY FINAL IS AT 8 AND NOT 9 AND I MISS IT?! BETTER CHECK THE SCHEDULE 500 MORE TIMES AND SLEEP AT SCHOOL JUST IN CASE). In short, Grad School is The Inferno.

The First Circle

Confession: As a teaching fellow, I have started to rely on abbreviations when it comes to the chalkboard, thanks to my fear of misspellings.

So, the first circle of hell is just this kinda nice but vague place that’s a rip-off of heaven where all the “good” but unsaved folks hang out. Obviously, that’s going to be any place on campus where you’d find a graduate Teaching Fellow or a TA. They’re good enough to grade all the papers, but not quite good enough to be taken seriously by anyone. Also, your department may straight-up forget you. Also, is your name Socrates? Not anymore! From now on you will be called Julius Caesar or Aristotle or Kimmy or any name that is not actually yours.

Sometimes you will be given a paycheck, but even that may have the wrong name on it, so make sure you look at it closely before you try to cash it because eventually Payroll will discover their mistake and ask for the money back but you already bought 5 cans of beans and a Calvin Klein dress on sale from Ross for 30 bucks soooooo you’re in trouble.

The Second Circle

“You got this” is probably the top phrase I heard from anyone and everyone last semester. That always seems vague to me. What do I got? A firm grip on a sapling in a hurricane? Yeah, I got that.

Circle 2 is all about the relentlessness of torrential winds, so I’m gonna call this the parking lot. I did not have a campus parking sticker last semester because I’m stubborn and poor, so my hikes to campus turned considerably chilly as we moved into December. The Second Circle really resonates with me because, while cold temperatures are one thing,  high-speed winds tend to make me unreasonably anxious and depressed, and also this part of hell is reserved for the lustful. What does a grad student lust after? A really nice parking space.

Apparently, a grad student lusts after said space so hard that she may or may not overthrow their moral standards and park in reserved spaces when they are tired and/or cold, which may or may not result in two parking tickets and a trip to a towing lot where said grad student may have to pony up $200. Dante never had to deal with this crap.

The Third Circle

This is not actually my car, but I’d bet you any amount of money that it belongs to a grad student.

This is where gluttons lie around in sludge, IE my car, which started out all nice and clean in August, save for the occasional water or green juice bottle. By December 15th I was up to my eyeballs in Chick-fil-A garbage and eating McDonald’s chicken nuggets for the first time in two years.

The Fourth Circle

I’m fine, really.

This is where you find yourself jousting with who you THINK are your fellow grad students who do things like finish their term papers a month before the due date, but actually you’re just fighting your own crippling insecurity. You’ll find yourself here the evening before a project is due, typically, crying over your inability to cite properly and your fear that your analysis of American Psycho is wrong, all wrong. Wait, did this just get personal? Oops.

The Fifth Circle

Forecast is windy today, with a chance of restless souls and hellfire.

This circle is for the angry people who fight each other on boats or pontoons or whathaveyou over the River Styx. Naturally, in grad school this equates to the war that you must constantly wage against technology– something supposedly meant to make your studies easier, but which instead makes you lazy, naive, and altogether too trusting (like the start of all relationships), which results in the loss of half your paper that should have been backed up, the unwillingness of the campus printers to release your projects, and the denial of your smartphone to reveal to you where you have stored your library PIN.

The fallout of all of this will be unlike any rage you have felt before, as the only two culprits of your misfortune must be yourself or your technology. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay.

Well, actually, probably not, because angry people end up in the Inferno, according to Dante, so I don’t know what to tell you.

The Sixth Circle

When your professor looks at you like this, you might not be on the right track with your argument.

This circle is reserved for heretics, IE grad students who have displeased their professors.

In hell, residents of Circle 6 are relegated to flaming pits or coffins or something, which is kind of how it feels when you’re in the hot seat of your professor’s office, trying to defend your incorporation of Rain Man into your argument about special needs representation on film, which eventually just devolves into a rant about how underrated Tom Cruise is as an actor, even if he is crazy. But you didn’t mean to use crazy as like, an offensive term! Well, you did, but only in reference to Tom.

Doesn’t matter, your professor does not like Tom Cruise.

Your professor does not like you.

The Seventh Circle

All I remember about Circle 7 is that there’s alot of blood and violence. I’m going to avoid the easy option of comparing this to any unfortunate female grad student’s menstrual cycle under stress and go ahead and call this the Rough Draft phase.

So many ideas thrown out the window, so much technological malfunction, so many discarded outlines. This is made even worse if you are indeed a TF or TA and find yourself attacking not only your own work, but that of others with a flaming red pen. To quote the great Marcus Brody, “the pen! The pen, it’s mightier than the sword.”

He speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom…

Word to the wise: pick a very simple paper topic, and perhaps passing through this circle will not prove quite so painful.

The Eighth Circle

“When I said ‘let’s see what’s cookin,’ this is NOT what I meant.” “I just thought we’d see what was goin’ down.”

I had no memory of what Dante saw here, so I had to look it up just now, and it’s the one with the flying monster and the bridges. Umm, I’m going to go ahead and call this your social life, in which you will have to deal with much unpleasantness in order to actually communicate with others. This is the circle for the frauds of the world (and therefore the underworld), which is a bit apt because it’s difficult as a grad student to discern just how much of yourself you want to share or withhold during the whole acquaintance phase with your fellow grads (and professors, I guess).

If you have impostor syndrome, like myself or any other grad student (or human), this is a difficult process, because

  • a) grad students tend to overthink… everything

  • b) the aforementioned everything becomes so much more SERIOUS in grad school, where you find yourself wondering if every book or movie you have enjoyed up to this point is sexist, racist, or some kind of ist, and you begin to doubt even your own preferences (DO I LIKE BUTTER ON MY POPCORN? I DON’T KNOW, DO I?!).

But your social life even outside of grad school isn’t safe, either. Though you will continue to appreciate your close friends (if you have them. But you’re a grad student, so this is questionable as well), your bonds will be tested as a result of your now limited time spent outside of academia (“what do you mean you can’t talk to me for 15 minutes because you’re READING?”) and the fact that now about 75% of your contributions to conversation will no longer revolve around life events, family issues, the nice guy at Starbucks who waved at you on his smoke break, the cute thing your cat did the other day, how endearing Emma Stone is in La La Land, the POTUS’s latest tweet, or whatever it is that normal people talk about these days. Instead, all roads will lead to whatever that term paper is that you’re working on, your professor’s weird accent, your insane reading list, and your overuse of words like “microcosm,” “tautology,” “hegemony,” or “performativity.” God bless your friends, really, because they’ve gotta ride the monster through this circle of hell right along with you.

“This isn’t what I had in mind when I said we should hang out tonight.” “Yeah, but check out that microcosm of lost souls down there.”

The Ninth Circle

Ah, the ninth circle, where Satan lives, where the absolute worst of the worst are frozen alive, unable to move. Obviously, this is finals week.

Just chillin’.

Perhaps you have procrastinated for so long that you are now frozen stiff with fear, or perhaps you are going as fast as you can and the air generated by your flailing limbs has culminated in rushing winds so frigid that your frantic pace itself has rendered you a block of ice.  You no longer know how to use your phone, except to possibly browse memes on facebook, your communication skills in general have devolved to the point that your friends and family consider you missing or possibly dead, and you are unable to leave campus in both the physical and mental sense.

But you know what? If that little whiner Dante can hack it, so can you, Fellow Grad Student. Just focus on that Beatrice of yours (and if you don’t have an underage hottie to moon over, there’s always that big ole glass of wine to look forward to).

I guess she doesn’t have to be Bea. I’d even settle for a Bea Minus at this point. Ugh, bad joke, Dante, don’t print that one.

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