Emily returns to Yale for the new academic year.
I’m writing this on the train to New Haven, during my weekly commute to Yale University. Today is the day of my first class of the year (yes, they call them ‘classes’ here, not ‘lectures’ – feels like being back at school again!), and I’m easing my way back into the rhythm of the university year.
There were a lot of surprises, like ‘lectures’ being called ‘classes’ and ‘university’ being called ‘school’, when I first arrived in the US almost exactly three years ago. And in fact, doing a PhD in the US is quite unlike anything you’d do in the UK —so perhaps I should start by explaining exactly how it works. In the UK, the standard route to a PhD is to do a Master’s degree first (normally 1-2 years). Depending on the university and your programme of study, you can find yourself doing anything from taking lectures again to writing a Master’s thesis, to a combination of the two. Once you’ve completed the MA degree, you then move on to your PhD, which will typically be 3 years of in-depth research on a single topic and end with a dissertation.
But what about America? Well, the first difference is that you don’t have to have a MA degree before you start the PhD. The PhDs here look frighteningly long – five years is the standard – but that’s because the first two years are really the equivalent of a Master’s degree (some programmes even award you an MA or MSc on the way). You spend these years taking courses to fulfil the requirements of your programme. Last year, for instance, I took a survey of ancient Greek literature, Latin prose composition, and a fantastic course on the theory of translation, among many others! Your third year is then spent doing what they call ‘qualifying exams’ – exams that require you to know a broad range of Classical literature, so you can both translate ancient texts and talk about them, as well as being able to specialise in your chosen area. Once you’ve passed these, you’re officially ABD – ‘all but dissertation’. Then you ‘just’ have to write your six-chapter book and you’re done!
I’m entering my third year – which means I’ve got a year of qualifying exams to look forward to! So a lot of my time at the moment is taken up with revision for the first round of exams that start in 3 weeks. But I also have a couple of classes this year, too. Most third-years have to help out in teaching undergrads (that’s another difference from the UK), but I received a fellowship this year which means I can take classes instead. So I’m doing one on ‘Technologies of Knowledge’ – the different ways knowledge has been put into technology, right from papyri to digital media! – and one on Cleopatra, another of my favourite classical women (see my post a couple of weeks ago).
But it’s not as simple as just choosing courses straight off the bat. The first two weeks of the semester at Yale are known as ‘shopping week’. It’s a fantastic idea (though its name gives you a sense of the more business-like orientation of education here in the States). For the first two weeks, students ‘shop’ the classes they’d be interested in taking, testing the waters, checking out the syllabi, and generally assessing whether it’s the class for them. Most professors won’t teach anything too rigorous during the shopping period, knowing that about 40% of students won’t be returning; instead, it’s an opportunity for them to showcase their subject and persuade students that it really is worth learning. It’s one of my favourite times of the year: students rushing around from class to class trying to fit in the fourteen different subjects they’re shopping; professors eloquently and persuasively displaying their expertise for all to see. And with classes that range from Infinity to History of Food to Great Hoaxes and Fantasies in Archaeology, you can understand why many students are at a loss to choose. Yale is at fever pitch during these two weeks, and it’s a fervour that’s driven by the thirst for knowledge – the idea that you can learn anything and that any knowledge can be yours. It just all depends on which class you choose.
So if I told you that I’m going to be spending much of my first day back at Yale shopping, now you know – I’ll be spending more time in the classroom than at the department store. After all, who would trade in a class on infinity for a pair of shoes?
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.