The fourth Royal Academy novel will involve graduate students, so I’ve been asking friends for anecdotes and input on the essence of grad studenthood. So far the overwhelming consensus is that graduate study is all about the search for free food.
Graduate students, according to my sources:
- Attend any artist’s opening that promises a buffet
- Sneak into any reception available
- Pick the fruit off ornamental plantings around campus
- Catch fish in campus water features and eat them
- Eat their study subjects
- Eat leftover pieces of other people’s study subjects
- Buy the undergraduates’ unspent food program dollars
- Buy past-date food in bulk and store it in the lab freezers
I knew graduate students who ate stranded marine mammals and songbirds that had hit the sides of downtown buildings. A vegetarian myself, I specialized in harvesting wild food from local mangrove swamps and riverside parks.
Another feature of grad student poverty in my day was inadequate living accommodations. The grad students who lived in houses without heating or plumbing, in an area where winter temperatures reached -40; the students who chose between having hot water or having air conditioning, in areas where summer temperatures reached 100F. People living on screen porches, in areas where it rained an hour a day. The grad student who spent her first winter at the University of Alaska living in a canvas tent.
Grad student poverty, being supposedly temporary and for the sake of greater things, did not depress my peers. It was high-energy, inventive and competitive, and my sources look back on it with nostalgia. I’m not sure it retains that aura of good fun nowadays, when the grad student may be more prone to wonder whether there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.