Dr. Quinn

a woman of words

How to Explicate a Graduate Program: Or How to Choose the Right Graduate School (Candied Land Post #3)

Adventures in Higher Education

Adventures in Higher Education

FIRST OF ALL, I can’t promise this post is really going to help you find and select the best graduate program. I feel obligated to share that at the beginning.  I am going to cover the basics — that is all you really need to know. Whether you are about to pursue your Master’s or Ph.D., the basics will, ideally, help you in either scenario. Ultimately, you are going to discover the best program or programs for you, apply to them, and then wait to see how the cookie crumbles.

And to be frank and honest (or frankly honest), this post is more of an exercise in creativity rather than a bunch of unsolicited advice. So read on, and I hope you are entertained….


If you are an English Major or hail from the Humanities, you might have heard of this word: EXPLICATE — as in “I’m going to explicate this poem.” Likewise, if you’ve come up the philosophy and religion ranks, you might have written an EXEGESIS of a spiritual or scriptural passage — as in “I’m going to explain and interpret this verse from the Holy Bible or Qur’an.”

[I’m not excluding you Math and Science or even Business majors. I know you examine and execute equations. For my purposes here, I am focusing on more qualitative, rather than quantitative, examples involving the explication process.]

So, have you noticed the common element in all of the words I’ve bandied about so far (the primary bandied words)?

EX Prefix

Etymology:  < Latin ex out of (archaically also ec ), corresponding to Greek ἐξ , ἐκ out of, Gaulish ex- (Old Welsh eh- in ehofn fearless), Old Irish ass, ess-, e-, Lithuanian , ? Old Church Slavonic izŭ (Russian iz). Before consonants sometimes reduced to ē.  (Oxford English Dictionary)

The prefix EX holds both Latin and Greek origins. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin EX can occur before vowels and h, also before c, p, q, s, t, and f. Hence explicate. The Greek origin and use of EX equals the Latin meaning, but occurs only before vowels — hence exegesis.

BUT the meaning remains the same – out of.

When you explicate a graduate program, much like explicating a poem or explaining a scriptural passage, you are unfolding and unrolling bits of information (a lot of bits, but still bits just the same): funding, degree requirements, job outlook, return on investment (ROI).

Ask yourself:

  • What will I get out of this program (or how will I benefit long term both personally and professionally by pursuing this degree)?
  • What will this program get out of me (or what will it really take to complete the program)?

A Side Note

Well over eight years ago, right around Christmas, December 23, 2005, I was making a short trip to the university where I would eventually complete my PhD. I was driving down I-75 in northwestern Ohio toward Bowling Green State University because I had a packet to drop off. In my mind, this packet had to be delivered in person. It was my application for the English Ph.D. program. About a month earlier, my Comparative Education class was closing for Thanksgiving break. I’d already been considering my future – with only one more semester to go before graduating, I had to think about job prospects. And in a passing conversation, my Comparative Ed professor recommended I pursue my Ph.D. in English at BGSU (where I was also completing my M.Ed.).

So, I did.

Fast forward eight months (most of which were a blur anyway – as is this case when you complete any degree at any level and apply for graduate school), and it is early August – the 10th – 2006. I am about to begin my first full semester in the BGSU English Ph.D. program. British authorities thwart a terrorist plot to blow up airplanes en-route from Heathrow Airport to the US. These 21 terrorists had planned to detonate their DIY bombs of soft-drink bottles and hand lotion containers filled with explosive liquids.

I remember this because it was the week before I was to begin my doctorate, I was nervous, and I couldn’t sleep. So I was up at 5am watching CNN and drinking Bigby (or maybe it was Starbucks) coffee. And the in the week following that incident, another terrorist plot was prevented involving a couple of Michigan residents and their few thousand cell phones, Mel Gibson’s drunk driving and anti-Semitic ramblings were captured on dash cam, and JoneBenet Ramsey’s alleged killer, John Mark Karr, was extradited to the US from Thailaind.

Then, my doctoral studies began, and the next four years are a blur. Each moment seems so poignant during the experience — I remember thinking how focused and detail oriented I had become while completing my graduate degree. But today I can hardly remember specific details of my graduate experience.

I thought I would remember it all.

THAT is what it is like to pursue a graduate degree. You are captivated by each tree, but you are deep in a forest.

Preparing Your Explication

When you explicate, you are smoothing out the wrinkles [so that you can prepare for what lies ahead]. You are unraveling many mysteries regarding the ivory towers and graduate education (especially the culture of higher education). You are attempting to make clear the meaning of what graduate work entails.

When you are deciding on the best graduate school for you, you need to approach the program information you find online as if it were a poem. Read the description and requirements out loud.

Yes – read it out loud.

Practice different ways of placing emphasis to get the most meaning. The program information is a form of written communication that is hardly considered a spoken art.

It lacks a human voice — it needs your voice to emphasize little details — such as “only 8 out of 400 applicants are accepted” or “a foreign language is required to successfully graduate.” (Things like that… I am embarrassed to admit this, but I completely overlooked the foreign language requirement for my program.)

And the extra dimension of a program description and its requirements — and I insist upon this — is that the words and expectations cannot be divorced from the professors who execute them.

When you explicate a program, then, determine how you will fit in with the professors of the program. Therefore, your explanation of the program includes your discussion, your internal tennis match, of the artifice and craftiness of your future colleagues. Your research will reveal how your future educators will deepen or cheapen your Master’s or Ph.D. experience.

Finally, as you follow the explication steps below, remember to look up anything you don’t understand:  an unfamiliar word, a place, a person, a myth, an idea. Because there is a difference between a qualifying exam, a preliminary exam, and an exit exam. [In the Humanities, all 3 involve essay writing, by the way…]

Look up words you do understand to help you articulate connotations. There is attractive vocabulary for your specialization – extremely beautiful and useful words – sort of (assistantship, inquisitive, brown-nosing, stipend contracts, enjambment, and service come to mind). Learn those words. Become a dictionary addict. Make nice with the Oxford English Dictionary. Make friends with the program’s secretary, your local wine or beer retailer, and the campus cafeteria/student union service workers. It is the individuals outside of the program, just as much as those within it, who can impact your entire learning experience.

The Steps You Should Follow

While seemingly absurd, just take a crack at these suggestions. If anything, it will slow you down and give you pause before you launch into your endeavors.

How to Explicate Your Ideal Graduate Program(s):

  1. State, very literally and in one or two sentences, what the program is about and what you will do upon graduation. Do not scare yourself with “deep meaning.” Start literally: “This graduate program is about English – specifically writing. And I will probably end up A). teaching freshman undergraduate composition, B). teaching graduate level rhetoric and composition students, C). primarily researching and publishing, D). doing none of the above, E). doing all of the above.”
  2. What is the emotion of the program? Remember: because most program descriptions & requirements are about you and the flaming circus you will stumble through for 4 years, they are often expressions of straightforward expectations. Examine these expectations closely. The only emotions involved will be your own — agonizing feelings of inadequacies coupled with delusions of grandeur. (Well, that is what helped me get through it all at least — believing I would be the most famous and brilliant rhetorician. Right up there with Aristotle.)
  3. Look at the program. This means sift through its web content. Describe the web pages – their design and web content. For instance, are the program website pages sparse? Are there pretty pictures? Can you easily find information? In this case, form dictates life: sparse information online may mean little support in reality. No need to move hundreds or thousands of miles away to discover you are in the wrong program.
  4. Listen to the sounds of the program. Does it sound interesting? What do the words sound like? Are they smooth, or harsh, or lilting, or dull? Do they move you to apply quickly or to slowly retreat and look at other programs?
  5. Determine the program’s organization. Be prepared to be surprised. A program may seem to suggest one thing at first. Until you are committed in the middle of a horrifying or magnificent research experience — you could be persuaded of its opposite upon first glance. Look closely. And talk to current graduate students in the program. Your conversations with such individuals will help you delve deeper.
  6. Be very alert to word choice. A program description uses simple words that may conjure images of happy days spent studying – with no financial worries. Try to substitute another word for certain words. Instead of “students are expected to complete 60 credit hours of coursework” try “federal loan recipients are expected to complete costly credit hours of courses work.” [I know – fairly pessimistic. But try replacing that with “your monthly student loan payment will be $700+ a month for 30 years” – because that could be the reality after years of undergraduate and graduate studies]. Remember: Return on Investment – ROI.
  7. Be alert to repetitions of any kind: a repeated word, a repeated phrase, a repeated idea, punctuation, part-of-speech (OK, I realize that is pushing my analogy here), syntactical arrangement. Repetition serves to emphasize — usually what is expected of you for 4 years but also by the end of the 4 years — graduation!
  8. Figurative Language: You won’t find much of this. Program descriptions are quite literal.
  9. Meter: Run if the program description is versed in iambic pentameter.
  10. Theme: take a stab at it. Go ahead. 🙂 Don’t turn corny or glib. Good programs record hard-won and sometimes devastating “truths” about us: in order to pursue a graduate degree (especially when the job prospects are grim in some fields) may require you brush aside common sense and stride into graduate life with pride and hubris.

An Alternate Approach

Or you can chuck all the advice and simply choose the university nearest you. Never underestimate the importance of convenience – or the cost of living. Just  learn all of the information from steps 1-10 once you’ve been accepted into the program.

(I didn’t quite do that — I DID choose the university closest to me, for a number of different reasons. But I still had a fairly good idea of the program requirements.

Just keep in mind that you will most likely work for an institution similar to your own. I use football to help me understand this. I attended a MAC institution, so I appreciated that it would be difficult for me to compete for and obtain a job at a Big Ten or Ivy League School. But that wasn’t my goal in the first place.

Determine your goals and attend the program that will help you reach those goals.

However, if you are attending a MAC school, for example, and you do want to work at a Big Ten, then make sure you can compete with the other applicants.

Don’t let anything prevent you from pursuing your goals.)

Plain. Simple.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on November 3, 2013 by in Candied Land, Composition, English, Graduate School, Rhetoric.
%d bloggers like this: