How (Not) to Screw Up In Grad School

Prose, Privacy, and Pronouns


Who are I?

The question “Who are I?” combines the singular and plural, making a grammatical mess. But the combination nicely describes our book. Written by two people, it offers a single vision of graduate education. While writing the book, however, we discovered a tricky stylistic issue. We wanted our text to be punchy, easy to read, and written in the active voice. We also wanted it to draw on many of our own experiences, some of which come from Kevin’s life, others from Aaron’s, and still others from both. Given those ambitions, how were we to identify ourselves in the book?

First we tried identifying each anecdote with a specific author, but we ended up with clumsy sentences like this: “It was probably the wisest choice I (Doyle) made in my career.” Next we tried referring generically to one of us—“It was probably the wisest choice one of the authors made in his career”—but this was tortuous to read over many pages. Then we thought about using “we” throughout—“It was probably the wisest choice we made in our career”—but this came off as confusing and pretentious.

We therefore decided to write the substantive sections of the book in the first person, using “I,” “me” and “my” throughout. So, although there are two of us, we write sentences that read, “It was probably the wisest choice I made in my career.” This is ultimately a grammatical compromise in a situation where the English language provides no ideal alternatives.


Beyond making the book more readable, use of the first person provided another important benefit. Many of the stories we tell in this book are taken from our experiences as graduate students, mentors, and graduate chairs. Not wanting to embarrass anyone, we do not personally identify the people involved in those anecdotes. Everyone’s name has been changed and some details slightly altered to ensure anonymity. Using the first person helped in this regard, because readers would not be able to tell if they were reading about Kevin’s or Aaron’s experiences, thus giving our friends and colleagues greater privacy.

Gendered Pronouns

To increase the readability of this book, we consistently refer to some categories of people as “she,” and some as “he.” The people referred to as “she” include the supervisor, the dean, the university president, the external examiner, and random graduate students. The people referred to as “he” include department chairs, associate chairs, ombudspersons, administrative staff, and random faculty members. These attributions are arbitrary.

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This entry was posted on August 29, 2015 by .
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