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Name: Lauren Miller
College/ Major: Williams College ’15, Classics and Comparative Literature
How did you choose the college you attended, and what factors influenced that decision? “The college process” was a really tough period in my life —actually one of the toughest, second only to applying to graduate school. I felt like I had worked really hard in high school and therefore deserved to apply to the exact schools I wanted and go to whichever one I got into that I liked the best. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. It became very obvious that my parents and I had vastly different ideas about what the point of getting a college degree was. My mother in particular subscribed to a rather utilitarian approach to education: the point is to learn information and skills that you will then use in a job (which you will get when you graduate because you have those skills) and then you will use that job to make money, preferably a lot of it. When it came time to choose a school, my parents steered me towards Williams because it had a relatively strict liberal-artsy set of requirements that would lead to me taking the courses they deemed more “practical,” like statistics and economics. I felt pretty powerless to go against their wishes, because they held the financial strings. In some ways, I still wish I had put my foot down. I ended up loving Williams, and I miss it sometimes, even though I’ve only been gone for six months! There are many, many, many different reasons to go to college, and all of them are valid. But I do think of the college process as a defining time in my life so far, not because of how it turned out (it did eventually have a happy ending!), but because it made me determined to endeavor to pursue my interests and make my own informed decisions from that point on.
You’ve focused your educational career on the study of “Classics.” What exactly does this mean? Broadly, it’s the study of Ancient Greek and Roman literature and culture, but some departments also include the study of classical archaeology, papyrology, intellectual history, art and architecture, and philosophy. I focus on Latin and Hellenistic Greek poetry (so we are talking a roughly three-hundred year time period from 250 BCE-100 AD), and within that, my particular areas of interest are erotic and pastoral poetry.
Were you exposed to the study of classics prior to pursuing it at college? What made you passionate about this field enough to further your study? I started taking Latin my freshman year of high school with an eye towards learning SAT vocabulary (this is pretty hilarious because now I am now so deep down the rabbit hole that I’ve enrolled in a seven year Classics PhD program.) I didn’t really start enjoying it until my second year, when I discovered how satisfyingly cathartic it could be to copy down verb conjugations and noun declensions for hours; soon after that, we started reading poetry, at which point I was a Latin fiend. I always loved to read; but reading Latin was even more fun. Just figuring out how the words were working together to form a sentence was a puzzle in itself that you had to complete before you could even start thinking about bigger questions. When I got to college, my classics courses were the most stimulating classes in my schedule every semester, so I kept taking them, and ‘credits do a major make.’ Eventually, I ended up doing a double major in comparative literature as well. For me, literary theory has become an essential part of my work on classical literature; it enables one to think about pieces of writing from two thousand years ago (Roman poetry feels pretty far-removed from everyday life a lot of the time) in terms of a framework that is accessible to people in all humanities disciplines.
What would you like to pursue after graduate school? Is a PhD necessary if you choose to major in classics as an undergrad? My ultimate goal is to become a professor, so the PhD is necessary for pursuing that end. If you want to go into academia (and you should think long and hard about it before you do, because it is a crazy job market out there) then going on to graduate school is a must. Since I was pretty certain that I did want to teach at the college level, it made sense for me to go straight through from undergrad into my current program, but if you aren’t sure that’s what you want, there are lots of other fields that my fellow classics majors have ended up in — many go to law school, publishing, med school, you name it. Majoring in classics in undergrad is a lot like majoring in any other humanities discipline: you learn how to think critically, read closely, and write fluidly. These are skills that can you can choose to continue applying to Ancient Greek love poems, or you can take them and use them to write press releases. It’s very open-ended.
What type of person would you say excels in your academic field? Excelling in the field of classics requires an ability to bridge two very different modes of thought. On the one hand, you have to be able to memorize and recall large amounts of vocabulary, often words that don’t have English equivalents (do you know how many words I know for various types of women’s decorative headwear in Ancient Greek? or weird plants that don’t really exist any more? a lot). On the other, you also have to be able to take that right-brain knowledge and use it creatively, to make connections and observations that can lead to new and interesting ways of looking at a poem that has been analyzed over and over for hundreds of years.
Are there many women in your program, or in the study of classics in general? Any thoughts on the ratio or treatment of women:men in the realm of academia? To be honest, it’s kind of hard for me to tell what the broader picture looks like. UC Berkeley is known for being a very liberal, progressive program and seems to have a pretty even men:women distribution. Studying the ancients has historically been the pastime of rich white men, and there is still a long way to go in terms of diversifying faculty and students alike. That said, of the programs I’m familiar with, Berkeley’s grad student body is made up of the most wide-ranging set of social, economic, and racial backgrounds and viewpoints that I can think of.
Have you participated in any related internships or summer jobs? How did you cultivate your resume outside of school? When I was in college, I spent each summer bulking up my CV with classics-related things. Knowing multiple languages is a huge part of academic research, so I devoted a lot of time to that. The summer after my first year, I did an intensive Ancient Greek course at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York; the summer after my second year, I went to the Middlebury Language School and learned German; the summer before my last year, I went on an archaeological dig outside of Rome at the site Gabii, directed by University of Michigan. I also spent a lot of time tutoring high school students and TA-ing intro courses, both of which are great ways to get a taste of what teaching is like.
How is graduate school different (or similar?) to college life? Graduate school is really, really hard. That said, I love my program, and I love California, and I am pretty darn happy most of the time. To me, the biggest difference between grad school and undergrad is the huge amount of unstructured time. Sure, you have a lot of free time in college, but there are rehearsals or sports practice and club meetings and you have people around in your dorm and you’re in class a few hours a day. In grad school, you have class for a total of about 9 hours per week, and the whole rest of the time you’re expected to independently complete tasks and stay on track. It requires a lot of self-motivation, and the completion of the degree is so far away that it’s hard to feel like there are consequences if you do or do not do something.
What advice would you give a high school student or college freshman about pursuing a PhD? What early steps should they take? Personally, I think it’s very important to develop good relationships with professors in the department that you’re interested in early on. They will encourage you, recommend summer activities, and help you through the application process (which is really long and confusing.) Since they’ve gone through grad school, they know what it’s like, and they can also give you some perspective on the job market and the realities of going into academia. If you get to know your professors early on and let them know that you might be interested in grad school, they will be an invaluable resource.
What advice in general would you give a college student? Think hard about what you want. Maybe this is too pragmatic, but think about the day-to-day reality of what you want in your life. Do you see yourself spending seven years (and, to be honest, the rest of your life) making your way onto a campus every morning? Do you like to have something dominating your life, like grad school does? Or would you rather have a more regularly-scheduled job that allows you to have some separation and go home in the evenings? Is your main goal to become financially secure? How do you see yourself contributing to society? Is “contributing to society” a priority for you? Think hard about it. There’s no right answer, but whatever you decide, make it a conscious choice.