The Grad School Dilemma

Image from the recent student protests in London (via SomeDriftwood).

Note: I hope I don’t get in trouble for posting this. If you are on an admission committee and reading this, please remember that this is my own musings on the alleged state of academia, and not an indictment of anything or anyone. As a new grad, I’m just trying to sort out all of the conflicting information into something coherent.

Whenever someone asks me what I am doing during my year off after undergrad, I usually tell them that I’m taking care of my ill father full-time and “trying to figure out grad school stuff.”

The first part is definitely true, but much of my grad school research has consisted of reading depressing articles about why I should not go to law school (excessive student loans, soul-killing, etc.), why I shouldn’t go for a PhD in the humanities (the end of tenure-track jobs, becoming the university’s slave, yadda yadda), and why I should probably just give up now on ever having a career that is both emotionally fulfilling and pays enough money to keep me living indoors. But I still want to become an overeducated intellectual snob, because that sounds fun too.

Last night I stumbled upon the work of Thomas H. Benton (a pseudonym) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a well respected publication on all things academic. Benton essentially says that doctoral programs in the humanities are often more harmful than beneficial, and that the “life of the mind” is essentially a big fat lie. I’d suggest reading all of this article, especially if you’re in need of a good cry.

Here’s a snip from another piece:

Graduate school may be about the “disinterested pursuit of learning” for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now. (via The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010.)

And another:

Scenarios like that are what irritate me about professors who still bleat on about “the life of mind.” They absolve themselves of responsibility for what happens to graduate students by saying, distantly, “there are no guarantees.” But that phrase suggests there’s only a chance you won’t get a tenure-track job, not an overwhelming improbability that you will.

Some professors tell students to go to graduate school “only if you can’t imagine doing anything else.” But they usually are saying that to students who have been inside an educational institution for their entire lives. They simply do not know what else is out there. They know how to navigate school, and they think they know what it is like to be a professor. (via The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010.)

Well that is some seriously depressing shit, now isn’t it? And let’s not forget the entire law school scamblog world, a collection of blogs exposing the underbelly of unemployed/underemployed J.D.s, massive student loan debt, and the idea that law schools are just another money-making machine.

So what is a student who has planned on grad school all along to do?

Honestly, I have no idea. For me, grad school has always been a beautiful dream full of fascinating books, lively discussions, and long nights of writing and black tea. Maybe that’s naive of me, I don’t know. But wouldn’t it be nice?

I am still following through with applications and interviews, but not without trepidation. On one hand, I want to write off the warnings of Benton and others as bitter old fogies who exaggerate the problems within the system, but at the same time I fear that this might actually hold truth. Having only completed an undergrad degree and still being something of a stranger to the grad world, I can only speculate. But all of this talk is discouraging, don’t you think?

If being a professor/professional reader of books is now a pipe dream, then I guess we have to figure out where to go next. I know that plenty of people are still happily employed in academe, but the MLA’s estimate that only one in five English grad students will get a tenure-track position is frightening to say the least.

I don’t really have any grand point to make with this post, other than to say that the post-undergrad world is confusing. I am learning to navigate, but still have a long way to go.

And now, for a cheerful unicorn chaser:

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: you are brilliant, and the earth is hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

– Paul Hawken (via Yes and Yes.)

Maybe that good life we’ve always dreamed of is still within reach – who knows? For now I suppose the only thing to do is go forward with what information we have and hope that we’ve made the right decision.

Readers: What are your thoughts on grad school? Anyone there right now or getting ready to go in the fall? Whaddya think?

[Edit: Just so you know, I definitely do not regret getting my degree in history, nor am I resentful towards the field. I am totally enamored with the humanities, which may be why this whole decision is so fraught. Also, it’s easy to get pessimistic, you know?]

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4 thoughts on “The Grad School Dilemma

  1. Having witnessed the student riots in London, I can relate to all this discouragement. It’s become obvious that all educational institutions are for-profit businesses, even the ones which are registered as charities (so as to evade taxation; in the UK, most of them). Middlesex (UK) exemplifies this new managerial university, which axed its Philosophy department despite it being the highest rated in the country and to the outcry of intellectuals worldwide in a roundabout attempt to get more government funding.

    I know professors (tenured and otherwise), graduate and doctorate students, and professional academics, and they’re all feeling equally disparaged by both the soul-sucking politics/financial issues surrounding academia.

    We’re all confused, but some of us are hopeful. At this point I’m waiting to see if things will get worse before they get better, but my cynicism hasn’t stopped me from applying to and getting excited over my prospective graduate programs.

    1. Oh, and if you’re interested there’s a book, Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, which wonderfully addresses the societal and financial predicament of students in late-capitalism (‘Western’ countries post 1995ish).

      1. Sweet, I’ll have to check it out! I like your attitude of tentative excitement/hope (is that an accurate description?); with any luck this whole thing is just a momentary dip in an otherwise upward trajectory of academia, but that remains to be seen.

        Also, I’ve been meaning to ask: were you at all involved in the London protests? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

      2. Sadly I wasn’t involved (it was my exam week) but a few friends were, and I indirectly know Alfie (who suffered a brutal head injury from some over-zealous cops and became something of a martyr). Everyone I’ve talked to who was there said they were kettled in for hours and charged by police horses. The main theme seemed to be “peaceful students meet violent coppers”.

        Tentative hope, somewhat shameful excitement; my personal giddiness at going to grad school is somehow disconnected from the seemingly sorry state of academia. I’ll probably need to face that at some point…

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