Guidance for Grad School

by: Alyssa Ruffolo

Dr. Maisel is a professor at Delaware Valley University with her Ph.D in Linguistics. She was kind enough to participate in an interview with me about her post-secondary education, more specifically her graduate studies and the process, her advice, and how she got to where she is today as a professor at Delaware Valley University. Through this interview I was able to gain an inside view of what graduate school is really like for someone in the humanities field, and learn some tips and tricks along the way as well.

Maisel: [I applied to several] graduate programs; one was the university of Pittsburgh and they offered me an assistant-ship and I took it. And for our assistant-ship we taught English as a second language and we taught at this language academy they called it.

Me: Did you do that during your studies, like you would take classes and do that?

Maisel: Yes they um… we would take our graduate work – I think everybody in the department did that who had an assistant-ship, so we would take I don’t know I think maybe three classes, and um… and then take our graduate classes so it was probably two of them- or three however long I was there, most interesting years of my life. It was just everything I wanted to do. People, students from all over the world were there and at the time the united states was friends with Iran so a lot of the students were from Iran.

Me: Really?

Maisel: And Thailand and Latin America so that was fun and we were young they were young so it was just wonderful.

Me: Wow that’s awesome.

Maisel: So my advice was take as many- as an undergraduate you know, explore your options you like if I hadn’t taken that anthropology class I don’t think I would’ve ever heard of linguistics and I just, I loved anthropology but I learned about linguistics through that. So I got a certificate of teaching English- it was called TOFL then, now its called ESL. [Then] I took a semester off to go backpacking through Europe…So I spent a couple months doing that, and then when I came back I was going to go to Mexico, just for a vacation and then come back and look for a job but I ended up registered with an employment agency on Friday an started working for him – he found a job for me right away I worked for the academy of natural sciences so that was also fun. But didn’t pay very well, so then I started working at a school in Philadelphia and then I went to Penn for my PhD.

Me: What made you go back for your PhD, just to…was it like an opportunity that was presented to you through the work you were already doing or did you just decide?

Maisel: No, I think I.. I don’t know I just always loved college campuses and I thought – I did take some classes – some undergraduate courses in French, but then I thought well I don’t want to keep taking courses that don’t add up to anything, so I decided to get a phd. I was working the whole time though I didn’t take off.

Me: What is your PhD in, is it in the same-

Maisel: Linguistics… So, linguistics is really interdisciplinary so I took classes in folklore and um when it came time to pick a focus, since I was working and married and anticipated children, so I thought I need to work smarter not harder and I met people that were you know 20 years after they did their dissertation and never finished it.

Me: Oh wow.

Maisel: And they would say well I’m ABD which is all but dissertation. Well that’s a big “but”, you know? So I didn’t want to be one of those people so I pretty much looked around to find a professor who was a decent human being and I thought you know I’ll work with him. And I like the notion of languages as codes, so his particular interest was Mayan languages so I thought, you know I like that and the one I did which is Q’eqchi it’s a Mayan-Indian language of Guatemala and Belize, and nobody had really done much with it so um, it was kind of fun because the whole field was open…So I had all this data and I wanted to see what interested me in it. I was just kind of looking at pieces of things in this language because nobody had done much work in it so anything anybody did was new, so it was interesting. It was like a big puzzle, which is what I like about it.

Me: How long did it take you to complete the whole thing? Then you have to write about it ,right? And then present that, right?

Maisel: It took me longer than most people because um I had personal issues and a baby so it took me longer than most people and I was working full time so, but then the school where I worked closed because of finances so I knew that I had to finish this dissertation- I was ABD you know so , but ABD is nothing when you’re looking for a job  so I knew that in order to have a job I had to finish it so um when I – it took me a long time because I had to do so much prep work in order to know what the language looked like you know because id dint know what I was looking at until we got done all that so I think that probably took a year and then um… once I knew what I wanted to do then that probably took another year.. but mine took longer than most because of my personal issues that were kind of a side rail but so..and I’m kind of glad because I probably would’ve never finished it but once my other school closed. Because I mean it was fun doing it so I didn’t – wasn’t desperate that I needed the PhD until I needed to get a job, which, nothing like like that to light a match under you! So mine was fun. [Plus] the university paid for our translator just to make sure we were translating it correctly.

Me: With a degree in humanities, like a PhD in humanities, what other options do you have – it depends on your focus but – besides teaching, what is it usually teaching and research that you do after your PhD in humanities?

Maisel: I’m trying to think… I don’t know because I didn’t look beyond that. I am very fortunate that I got the jobs that I got. I mean one of my college roommates, her daughters both were interested in traveling. And the one was a peace corps worker in Mongolia and the other one got a job with the government – both of them I think when they got their jobs just had bachelors – both she traveled all over Africa and parts of Asia with the AIDs Foundation. What I’m getting at is I think people in humanities… I think the one was an English major and the other one… I know she was in the humanities whether it was sociology or something. So I think what I’m getting at is, I think both of them found what they found by kind of following one interest after the other.

But they both work for the government and they’re both in Washington D.C., so I guess I’m thinking a lot of the humanities – people do a lot of different things but a lot of the people I know who aren’t in teaching are in government work in terms of making the world a better place. So that’s two people I know of who didn’t go into teaching. I think you have to be willing to leave your neighborhood you know. I mean I was not looking – I thought when I was younger that Id want to travel all over the world but, you know once my life turned out the way it did I needed a support system for people to watch my daughter you know while I was working. When I came to Delval I could stay in my house and just work a half hour in the opposite direction , which I was very happy about at the time because I had a support system for my daughter. But I think people who want to do the kind of work you’re talking about need to think in terms of cities and maybe even other countries you know.

Me: You went all the way up to your PhD.; would you say it’s possible to do all of that without help from your parents or loans? Just say you broke off from your parents or you’re an independent.

Maisel: Yes. I actually made money in grad school I don’t know how [laughs]. I made more money in grad school than I did with my first job. It was free tuition with the assistant-ship, plus a stipend so I didn’t suffer at all. I like to eat out a lot so I did that, I mean I was not a suffering student. When you look for a master’s program you do not want to pay for it yourself. You don’t want to study dental surgery just to get an assistant-ship, but I think, \you don’t want to pay for it yourself. I know a lot of graduate schools will tell you what financial packages they have. Some of them are research, teaching – like a basic anthropology course or something, or you might research for the instructor.

Now when I got my doctorates I was already working I already had a job so I didn’t even look for an assistant-ship. That was then, but I know they’re still handing out money.”

I learned a lot from Dr. Maisel in this interview. One piece of advice I especially liked was “work smarter, not harder”. I think this is an important message for students who plan on going into graduate school to reflect on and keep in their memory as they search for schools and later go through those programs they choose. Time is money, and the more research and knowledge a student acquires when choosing a grad school and later a thesis or dissertation, the wiser the decisions will be that she/he has to make.

I also noticed that Dr. Maisel seemed to encourage the idea of going with the flow and following your interests and what you enjoy studying most. When speaking of her close friend’s two daughters, she said, “I think both of them found what they found by kind of following one interest after the other.” When I expressed my stresses and concerns to her about choosing the right master’s program and that I was unsure what I would go for if I ever got my PhD, she emphasized to me that this process is all about trial and error. In a way you have to choose a path, and if it fails then you start back at square one and choose your next route. I like this mindset and speaking with her definitely calmed some of the nerves I have been experiencing as a junior in college who is soon to go onto graduate school.

Another important point to note here is that she says with confidence that she did not struggle financially through school. She made sure to find a program that paid well, and because the university she went to was in a city, travel was cheap and there was always something to do to stay entertained. She says “you do not want to pay for grad school”. If you do your homework, you should be able to find free programs and some that even pay the students. Many of these programs come with a teaching assistant-ship or some other job/task that each graduate student is responsible for completing in order to have their education paid for.

Hopefully these tips will be as useful to you as they were for me. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the stories and experiences of Dr. Maisel as she studied in graduate school. I hope I will find the same success in choosing a master’s program, and if I do go on to get my PhD, find a mentor and dissertation that I enjoy as much as she did. When I asked Dr. Maisel if she would change anything if she could go back, she said no. I hope I will be able to say the same thing for myself someday; with Dr. Maisel’s advice I am sure I will.

originally posted: 2/6

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