Book Reviews

Book by Amanda Seligman
Review by Courtney McDermott
Academic Advising Center
University of Iowa

Is graduate school an extension of undergrad? A necessary step to getting that dream job? Is it really that demanding and what exactly does a graduate student do? Seligman attempts to answer all of these questions in her book. The preface clearly states how to navigate the book: each chapter is divided into questions about the chapter's subject. Questions range from: "Is it possible for a student to go to graduate school in a discipline other than one studied as an undergraduate?”; "What is adjunct teaching?" and "Can dropping out of graduate school be a good decision?" In Chapter 4: Coursework is Hard Work, Seligman sums up the purpose of graduate studies: "The central purpose of graduate programs is to create scholars who are capable of conceptualizing lines of inquiry and executing research projects that lead to new knowledge" (53). New knowledge is Seligman’s core argument for graduate school, because unlike undergrad, graduate studies are about innovation, new ideas, and being able to present those ideas to a small group of interested people. Often this leads to frustrations and dead ends, and Seligman notes that dropping out of grad school is not uncommon, and sometimes even for the best. Things happen: subjects die, advisors die, funding runs out.
Chapters open with personal anecdote followed by a series of questions that a precocious undergrad may ask (and need to know) about the graduate school process and culture. The book is an expansive overview of graduate school, a lexicon of graduate school terms, a Q&A on the processes, functions and institutional behavior of graduate schools that advisors may take for granted. For an undergraduate curious about graduate school, this book is a perfect guide. Seligman’s writing style is clear and concise, and the Q&A format of the book allows readers to search out the questions most compelling (or confusing) to them with succinct answers and explanations. The glossary defines terms ranging from ABD to terminal degree, which are essential for any potential graduate student to comprehend. Seligman’s book, though slight, spans a long timeline: from the conception of the consideration of grad school, to accepting an offer, dealing with the daily life of graduate school, to defending a dissertation and going on the job market. Often Seligman falls back upon “it varies from discipline to discipline” for her answers, without explaining how the defense—for example—might look in engineering versus psychology versus comparative literature. The book suffers, at times, from a lack of specificities, so the true enjoyment of the piece is reading the accompanying Voices sprinkled throughout the book. For a current graduate student (or recent postgrad) chapters 5, 7 and 8 (on Dissertations, Having a Life, and Jobs and Careers) prove to be the most useful. The Further Reading index is more tantalizing for current graduate students or those familiar with the process and culture of academia who want a better understanding of how to use the degree.

Overall, this is a useful reference for undergraduates playing with the idea of graduate school, especially if they are unsure what having a PhD really means. It is well suited for an undergrad journeying across unfamiliar terrain, because the book makes a number of comparisons to the undergraduate life, tailoring its language to this particular audience. This book is also necessary for anyone’s parent, spouse or friend who is asking: “what is grad school and why is it taking you so long to get that PhD?”

Is Graduate School Really for You? (2012). Book by Amanda I. Seligman. Review by Courtney McDermott. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 161 pp. $19.95. ISBN# 978-1-4214-0461-5

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