Campus Wildlife Encounters: The Grad Student

As a new school year gets underway, one enigmatic creature will be reappearing on university campuses across the country: the graduate student (scholasticus laboriosus). Frequently mistaken for their cousins the undergraduates (scholasticus iunior) and faculty members (scholasticus beneficiarius), graduate students make up a vital part of the university ecosystem. Let’s learn a bit about the typical grad student’s habits and habitat, and what to do if you encounter a grad student in the wild.

Facts and Figures

Scholasticus laboriosus can be found year-round all across North America, though the size of their communities varies wildly depending on each region’s and university’s support systems. Within universities, graduate students are broken down into clan-like groups called departments; graduate students often form family-like units of 2-4 within departments, called cohorts.

There are a few physical characteristics that will help you identify a graduate student: the dark bags under their eyes; the semi-permanent expression of existential dread on their faces; the hunched back, otherwise unusual in creatures their age, from carrying several pounds of books for years on end. Clothing can also help you identify whether you are in the presence of an undergraduate or graduate student: while both can be found wearing old band t-shirts and leggings, the typical graduate student will do so only on weekends or holiday breaks. When undergraduates are present on campus, graduate students usually dress in slightly worn professional clothing, often 3–5 years out of fashion.

Graduate students are incredibly flexible creatures. They can create functional habitats out of any space, from rented house to shared basement apartment to library cubicle (you can often find a graduate student napping on a library couch using a stack of undergraduate papers as a pillow). This resourcefulness is necessary, since graduate students can rarely find a livable wage in any North American habitat.

Graduate students can carry up to 30 pounds of books on their backs, sometimes for half a day, as they trek from classrooms to offices to libraries and back. They can be highly possessive of books and territory alike, preventing fellow graduate students or faculty members from looking too closely at their data or becoming highly agitated when someone else is occupying their favorite window seat in the coffee shop. In the more collaborative departments and cohorts, graduate students will share territory and books, and even give each other feedback on their written work. Research shows a strong correlation between these positive, collaborative relationships and less terrible mental health, which is a constant danger for the graduate student population.

Graduate students are foragers by both nature and necessity: campus events with free food are great opportunities to spot grad students, because the fruit and veggie trays supplement what is often an otherwise nutritionally questionable diet. Since graduate students are cash-poor, their typical diet consists primarily of coffee, coffee house pastries, rice and beans, pizza (sometimes part of the free food at department meetings), noodles, and on the weekends or while grading, bottom-shelf alcohol. There is a subset of vegan graduate students; the only real difference in their diet is the lack of cheese. Like their cousins the vegan undergraduates and vegan faculty members, the vegan graduate student will usually inform you of their dietary restrictions during your first encounter.

If You Encounter a Graduate Student

Chances are good that if you spend time on a university campus, you will encounter a scholasticus laboriosus. Typically graduate students are docile, and your interaction with them should be pleasant. However, graduate students can be very easily provoked if one of their triggers is activated. These dos and don’ts will help keep your interaction positive.

Do:

  • Wear a mask. Graduate students put up with a lot of bull, and many of them don’t have good health insurance. Do not give them one more thing to worry about.
  • Purchase coffee or a meal for the graduate student. A well-fed graduate student is less likely to become skittish, and as stated above, graduate students will always be excited about free food.
  • Bolster the graduate student’s self-esteem by confirming that they deserve to be in their graduate department, that they are smart and capable. Relationships between faculty and graduate students, though close, are often fraught, and these positive comments will go a long way toward rebuilding whatever emotional damage has been wrought by the graduate student’s most recent feedback from a professor or advisor meeting.
  • Follow their lead. If the graduate student responds to your opening “how’s it going?” with complaints, let them complain and validate their feelings, whether you can confirm the truth of their situation or not. If the graduate student is feeling good about their life that week, then celebrate with them. Don’t bring realism where it isn’t wanted, and don’t bring false positivity when complaining or venting is needed.
  • Ask what the graduate student is researching, and act interested in their answer. Asking a follow-up question will put you on the graduate student’s good side indefinitely.
  • If you are an undergraduate student of the graduate student, read the syllabus.

Don’t:

  • Ask when their grades will be posted, if you are an undergraduate. Grading is the lowest priority on a very long to-do list; it will get done when it gets done.
  • Ask what they’re working on if you’ve asked more than 2 or 3 times already. Write it down the first time, so as not to give the impression that the graduate student’s work does not matter or make sense.
  • Ask how their writing is going. If it’s going well, the graduate student won’t want to jinx it. If it’s going poorly, asking this question may send the graduate student into a spiral, which will make the writing situation even worse.
  • Ask them to join any kind of committee or group that requires a time commitment of greater than one hour per month. This will only lead to feelings of guilt for the graduate student.
  • Speculate on what kind of job the graduate student will be able to get after they finish their degree. This is just hurtful, and the graduate student cannot be held responsible for whatever action they take against you if you do so.
  • Ask when they’re graduating. Just…don’t.

If the graduate student becomes agitated by your presence, the best course of action is to stop talking, buy them a coffee (or alcoholic drink, depending on the time of day), and walk away. Allow a cooling-off period of between 24 hours and 6 months before you approach the graduate student again.