Victorian Horticulture, or How to be a Well-Rounded Grad Student

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement for the Humanities


Every professor has a mental list of “most teachable” texts, and for Victorian literature survey, mine included John Stuart Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women.” While 19th-century utilitarian philosophers aren’t the easiest sell in the undergrad classroom, the topic of Mill’s essay resonated with my all-female classes, and the students responded particularly well to Mill’s deconstruction of “female nature.” Mill notes:

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What is now called “the nature of women” is an artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. … A hot-house and stove cultivation has always been provided for some of women’s capabilities, for the benefit and pleasure of their masters.

Mill goes on to compare Victorian women to “hot-house” trees, with some branches sheltered inside, encouraged to “sprout luxuriantly,” while other branches are pruned away or experience “stunted growth” from exposure to frigid air.

My students responded well to Mill’s argument that the hyper-cultivation of just a few qualities and talents (aka “female nature”) repressed women’s humanity and hindered the development of their full potential.

So what does this have to do with Ph.D. study in the humanities?

Aside from the fact that John Stuart Mill is a highly teachable text, I often find myself thinking of this passage when I consider the hyper-specialization demanded by graduate study. When you enter a program of study to become an expert on something and a generator of new knowledge, your focus must narrow and sharpen, to the exclusion of many other realms of knowledge.

Just as competing intellectual interests get laid aside, students also place other things on the altar of graduate study: other (more lucrative) professional opportunities, geographical preferences, other hobbies and interests, and sometimes relationships with family and friends.

As difficult as these sacrifices are, they can also sharpen one’s commitment to Ph.D. training, and contribute to the sense of enormous pride students feel when they finally step onto the platform for their hooding ceremony.

Yet I still can’t get the image of the weird tree out of my head sometimes.

How can one acknowledge and develop a broad range of interests and talents while in graduate school? The mental and developmental tolls of specialization have always been an occupational hazard of doctoral training, and the tension is more intense than ever. Given the ever-shrinking number of tenure-track faulty positions in the humanities, there are now voices in the academy encouraging students to cultivate “broad career interests” and develop skills that will transfer to other job markets.

To put it mildly, these conflicting expectations—the focus that faculty demand of their doctoral students and the growing chorus of voices advising grad students toward broader forms of training—can be more than a little frustrating. Although I spend a lot of time promoting the benefits of an internship to complement Ph.D. study, I totally get it if a student (as has happened once or twice) responds with overt dismay rather than enthusiasm.

Finding a “middle way” has always been important for graduate students, simply to ensure that one maintains some semblance of a life (and sanity) during a Ph.D. program. Now that students are increasingly called upon to cultivate a similar kind of diversification, both in their academic studies and in job searches, it would be wrong—even cruel—to dismiss or minimize the increasing pressures that accompany these changes.

With these caveats in mind, I offer a few modest suggestions for helping to buffer the specialized mindset that can inevitably result from years of graduate study. It may be too early to develop a job-search strategy, or too challenging at the moment to juggle an internship or innovative research experience in addition to present obligations. But here are a few things you can start doing now, from the first year of graduate study:

Make time for things that give you energy. It’s easy to say that you no longer have time to pursue things you love that aren’t related to your studies. Volunteering for a cause you care about, taking a woodworking class, or training for a half-marathon may suddenly seem like trivial distractions on your way to a Ph.D. But consider that issues of time management are often really issues of energy management in disguise. In short: people make time to do the things they are passionate about. These things give them energy, and you may find (paradoxically) that setting aside one night a week to volunteer at the women’s shelter helps you to be more productive (not less) in preparing for your classes. And avocations have a funny way of turning into vocations—something that becomes evident if you talk to enough successful people.

Venture out of the bubble. If you take time to socialize with your fellow graduate students (which I sincerely hope you do) you will be richly rewarded with intellectual companionship and perhaps some deep lifelong friendships. If, however, you limit your social circle to academics, you are missing an opportunity. Do not get so comfortable in your milieu that you forget how to interact or communicate with people who do different things for a living (trust me, I’ve seen it happen). Someday, your ability to be charming with people from all walks of life will take you far. Do some things (such as volunteering, see above) that diversify your network.

Don’t lose perspective. It may be easy, as you immerse yourself further into a humanities discipline, to become enamored of academic celebrities and superstars and want to emulate them. While putting scholars on pedestals can inspire and motivate you in your training, it also puts you at a risk of embracing a very narrow notion of success. It may be helpful to remind yourself, occasionally, that while academics make vital contributions to society, there are built-in challenges and potential compromises for those who aspire to have broad social impact. Certain writers and theorists may loom large in your seminar classroom, but don’t forget that most people outside it have never heard of them. Spend some time with those people (see “venture of out the bubble,” above).

There’s some irony in using Mill—a guy who started learning ancient Greek at age three—as a jumping-off point for a reflection on academic and life balance. Yet the image of the tree (a vibrant, healthy one) can be a powerful metaphor for educating the whole person. Seek to branch out as a graduate student, but in a way that is organic—a natural outgrowth of your interests and passions—rather than forcing yourself into new directions because they are trendy or deemed marketable.