Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why You SHOULD Go to Graduate School

Hey, so a couple of years after writing this, I'm out of academia!  Temporarily! Maybe!  Check out my new blog, focused on my interests in weird fiction, experimental music, and generally all things so post-academic that they're not academic at all, over at

I spent a good chunk of last night strolling through the excellent blog, 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School.  I'm reading it from a particular perspective - about a year and a half after finishing grad school, now with a couple of years of good employment under my belt and a slow, tentative sense that everything might actually work out okay.  I think the blog is great because much of what it highlights is simply facts about graduate school that, apparently, people don't necessarily enter into it fully aware of - the amount of work, the need to be truly fanatical about your intellectual interests, the difficulty of writing a dissertation.  But particularly in reading the comments, it strikes me that as factual as it may be, it's obviously set up to emphasize negative possibilities, and encourages a tendency of certain people to generalize their own experience to an entire institution.  So I just want to take a second to say one thing:

I spent six years getting my PhD, and it was the best decision I possibly could have made.  Therefore, GRADUATE SCHOOL IS OBJECTIVELY AWESOME and everyone should do it.

I'll show you the life of the mind.
Okay, kidding aside. I had a great time in grad school, and I knew many other people who did as well.  There's no denying there are a larger number of people who have a negative, or just a more complicated, experience - but I think it's just as important to attract the right people as it is to warn off the wrong people. Maybe if I present where I came from to have such a positive experience (and what I'm beginning to suspect might become a good career, but who the hell knows) it'll help people make the right decision at least as much as having a list of warnings about potential negatives.

I should note two very important caveats - so important that for some readers, they will invalidate everything that follows.  First, I come from a comfortable middle-class background.  My parents are by no means wealthy, but they gave me some help during undergrad and grad school.  I had a tuition scholarship as an undergrad, and worked for the very minimal spending money I had, but my folks paid my rent.  During grad school, they paid my phone bill for a year or two, they used some leftover frequent flyer miles to buy me a plane ticket to do research once, and they fed me well whenever I got home for a visit. These little helping hands, along with the knowledge that if worst came to worst I at least wouldn't be starving to death, were both substantively and psychologically invaluable.  Not to mention that, finances aside, I come from a loving, stable family that was never anything but a source of strength.

Second, I went to grad school on a pretty generous fellowship.  I didn't have to teach for the first year of grad school or for the first year I worked on my dissertation.  I still ended up having to struggle during my final (sixth) year, when my funding fell short - I had to pick up jobs as a parking garage attendant and a line cook, and also a sizeable chunk of debt. Between the financial struggle, finishing my diss, and looking for a job, the stress nearly drove me insane. But it's hard to overstate the advantage I had thanks to those two years of having nothing to worry about but (ahem) taking 15 hours of classes or writing a book.

Still, I knew people in similar situations who didn't do as well as me, and I know people without those lucky breaks who did as well as me or better.  So, without further ado, here's some initial food for thought.

You Should Go To Graduate School If:

You Love to Read.  Many people in grad school complain that they can't keep up with the volume of reading, and that they of course have no time to read for pleasure.  This was not my experience.  I read almost everything assigned for the first four years of grad school (I slacked off a bit towards the end).  Moreover, even in the middle of grad school, I had a stack of books next to my bed all the time - dumb novels, light nonfiction, nonmandatory academic works, whatever.  I didn't necessarily finish these books, but I picked them up because they gave me genuine pleasure (and more than a few times, inspiration).  For me, the greatest part of working on a new project is the library trips, archival searches, and following the trail from one reference to the next.  I literally get a little shot of adrenaline every time I learn about a volume that seems like it's going to be useful to me.  I think this helped me avoid a lot of the issues of procrastination and fear of failure that people have issues with in grad school - I never procrastinated (at least not on academic work - grading was another matter) because I genuinely enjoyed the work.

You Love to Talk (And You Talk To Win).  As I write this, I'm home with my family to celebrate my grandmother's 90th birthday (Happy Birthday, Granny!).  Every time my brothers and I get together, it's basically an unceasing argument that ranges from joyful to collaborative to just barely on this side of civil.  This is tiring for other members of my family, but the alchemy of our relationship is no doubt largely responsible for my attitude to something like a seminar, where I'm pretty fearless about stating my position, but also well used to the idea that being wrong isn't the end of the world.  Most of all, it's second nature to me that debate is a form of cheap entertainment where the line between personal commitment and a kind of abstract intellectual gamesmanship is always shifting, but usually more on the side of the latter.

You Love to Write.  I went into grad school with a lot of writing experience already under my belt, including fiction writing as a teenager, a stint as a paid professional music critic, and some relatively unsuccessful attempts to get going as a freelance journalist after that.  Most importantly, I think, I was passionately (weirdly, freakishly, illogically) committed to the writing process of academic papers at the high school and college level.  I recently unearthed some papers I wrote during high school and . . . honestly, they're kind of spooky.  I didn't have any idea at the time of how good I was, but I was good.  I actually got accused of plagiarism during high school, simply because a particular paper I turned in (on the history of Stonehenge) was, basically, too good.  This is not to say that I'm some stunning stylist - most of my writing is very straightforward, but it flows logically and my grammar is pretty impeccable.  Writing is second nature to me - I write fast, I write reasonably well, and I write constantly.  I continue to publish various forms of nonacademic writing, from fiction to essays, on top of my academic work (Most recently, both an essay and a story in Steampunk Magazine Number 8).  Academic writing is without a doubt a particularly onerous genre - but I'm sure it's doubly so if you aren't already A Writer to begin with.

You Are Strongly Self-Motivated.  Not entirely self-motivated, mind you: this isn't the equivalent of being an entrepreneur.  Grad school gives you structure: a good number of deadlines, and a hierarchy of people you need to please.  But nobody is going to give you specific steps along the way to meeting those deadlines, and the standards are so open and unclear that you can drive yourself insane if you're not primarily motivated to meet your OWN standards.

You Participate in the Happy Delusion that Intellectual Work Matters.  This may be the most important one. So many of the entries on the "100 Reasons" blog either focus or depend on the presumption that the activities of graduate school are nothing but meaningless hoops to jump through - that reading and writing papers and passing comps are just stumbling blocks to keep people from getting cushy jobs.  I know that a lot of people enter grad school with a true idealism about the life of the mind, and I'm not sure how I managed to keep mine from turning into cynicism, but that is what seems to happen to many people, and I think that makes the experience infinitely worse.  If you lose the sense that you're participating in the truly grand ongoing project of advancing knowledge and improving society, all the little bullshit is that much more likely to weigh you down.  Maybe the reason I dodged the bullet is that I have a very clear sense that intellectual work is fundamental to the progress of social justice, which is the core source of meaning and motivation in my life.   (This, by the way, is the more generous reading of the idea that being successful in grad school requires being 'fanatical' about your topic.  I think the dismissiveness with which 'fanatics' such as myself are treated in that entry reveals more about the author than is perhaps intended).

And Finally,

You Should Go To Graduate School if You Are an Intellectual. There is a distinction that I often return to between academics and intellectuals - academics are people who, for any number of reasons, have chosen to pursue careers in academia, and set about methodically fulfilling the requirements to succeed in the field.  These people may enjoy the work, but it's not core to their being.  Intellectuals are those who are enthralled with the life of the mind, to the point where they can't imagine not being deeply involved with it, regardless of their professional position or priorities.  Being driven by passion doesn't by any means guarantee success, but, at least speaking from my own experience, it goes a long way to muting the suffering that seems to haunt many grad students.  If you've seriously considered any other options on your way to choosing an academic career, the chances are good you've made the wrong choice.

(This is also a decent place to point out that the main other career option I'm aware of for ambitious people deeply curious about the world is journalism, and that I have a huge amount of respect for a lot of book-length works written by journalists.  But if people have issues with the job market for PhDs, journalism might not be an attractive alternative).

I feel great empathy for those who dive into grad school and have their expectations disappointed, especially for those who get screwed over to one degree or another by maladjusted faculty.  But I think it's important to emphasize that these are matters of fit more than some inherent evil of graduate school.  I sure didn't love being poor, it was incredibly hard work at times, and I'm still not completely stable job-wise two years after graduating, but going to graduate school was a fantastic decision for me, life-wise.  Almost every faculty member and fellow student I worked with was a fantastic person.  It has given me a mission in life, allowed me to meet amazing people, and at least conceivably put me on the path to some truly significant contributions to the world.

I went to school with a good number of people who felt and feel the same way . . . but also, admittedly, people who didn't.  I'm just a little mystified when people interpret their disappointment as either a) a failure on their part that left them scarred or b) some indictment of the graduate school system as a whole as exploitative and evil.  People spend a lot of time finding their path in life - sometimes their whole lives.  Getting upset because the one you chose when you were 23 didn't end up carrying you all the way through a happy and productive career is completely counterproductive.  Moving on and finding your real self isn't made any easier by holding on to resentment of those who already have.


jass said...

Great Post!

Helping Hands

Celia E. said...

Good stuff! Thanks for posting.