If we are to believe the media commentary surrounding higher education, most graduate students will begin the new school year this fall with a sense of impending doom. Jobs are hard to come by, permanent ones even more so. Upon finishing our degrees (especially if they are in the social sciences or humanities), most of us will probably end up baristas or worse, will move back home.
The market for social science PhDs, like it is with many other professions, is tough, but the conventional wisdom seems to overstate it. In this environment, students have to make ourselves interesting and “hireable,” but we also have to find ways to enjoy the ride.
Upon deciding to leave my job in Ottawa, I applied and was accepted to two PhD programs in political science: one was in Ontario (and in English), and the other in Quebec (and in French). I did not choose to study in French because I thought it would make me more hireable and certainly not because I thought it would be fun, but rather because it was the best fit. It seems that going back to school and studying in French were the best decisions I could have made.
To be sure, it was not fun at the beginning – far from it. Ordering lunch in another language is one thing; debating metaphysics is quite another.
I quickly learned that one of the greatest barriers to mastering French, or any other language, is precisely what gives Anglophones our great advantage in this globalized world: the ubiquity of English. We have no idea the advantage this gives us. We can find news, information, journal articles, and entertainment in our mother tongue with great ease. The worlds of business and academia are at our fingertips.
When my mom and I got lost on our European road trip this summer and accidentally found ourselves in Germany, we had no trouble finding someone who could give us directions in English. But the flip side of this great advantage of being an English speaker is that having a conversation in French outside of class was surprisingly difficult; many classmates and students wanted to practise their English with me.
Unlike math, you cannot master a language from a textbook; it is a fundamentally social process. Frustrated by my silent first term, I hunted for allies in my French-improvement-process. I found an ally, Alejandro, from Colombia who was in a similar situation.
We long ago adopted a policy to only ever speak French even though English or Spanish would have been easier. This led to rapid improvement (I think), but also situations where we get stuck on an important word and resort to charades before moving on in the conversation. Alejandro once resorted to acting out leprosy during a chat in the library.
I have other allies, too, of course. Undergraduate students who visit me during my office hours help me with pronunciation and word choice, and my supervisor and other professors correct my written French (when I do write papers in French – students can write in either French or English at all Montréal universities).
The journey into academics has thus far been surprisingly fun, thanks in large part to the adventure (and many misadventures) of studying in another language. I’ve learned that it helps to stand out a little – people in my department know me if only because they recognize my accented French, and I have no shortage of people who will correct my French (in exchange for a similar favour for a text in English, of course!).
Who knows what awaits us on the other end of these long post-graduate programs, but enjoying the journey toward that end makes me worry a little less about the future. For those who enjoy books a little more than normal people do, the risks of being in school seem outweighed by the benefits.
Alison Smith is a PhD candidate in political science at l’Université de Montréal. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Schmeelk foundation, which supports Canadian students studying in their second official language.
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