Should You Go to Graduate School?

Should I go to graduate school?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: maybe, but only if you have some glimmering of what you are about to do to yourself. Undergraduates coming out of liberal arts institutions are particularly vulnerable to ignorance in this regard. For four years, they’ve been asked to take chances, experiment, change course when it suits them, freely enrich their minds and their hearts. Most such students then approach careers with something of the same spirit, and generally, they should. Take some chances after you graduate, try different things. Why not?

Just don’t try graduate school in an academic subject with the same spirit of carefree experimention. Medical school, sure. Law school, no problem. But a Ph.D in an academic field? Forget it. If you take one step down that path, I promise you, it’ll hurt like blazes to get off, even if you’re sure that you want to quit after only one year.

Two years in, and quitting will be like gnawing your own leg off.

Past that, and you’re talking therapy and life-long bitterness.

It’s not because academia is so great that anyone denied it is forever shattered. Don’t get me wrong: as one of the lucky few to get into a tenure-track position, I am loving it. Every day is a hoot: this is a truly privileged situation. I love my job, and my job is my life, or a big part of it. But the problem here is that academia is also insidious. If its peculiar subculture suits your personality and your skills, then grad school is worth enduring.

If you and academic life are a mismatch, then grad school won’t help you discover that. It will just confuse you even more.

What you need to know first is that graduate school will almost inevitably suck. A lucky few have a great time. They’re the exception. For most, it will hurt. It will be humiliating. If you have suckled off the mother’s milk of the approval of your teachers until the point you arrive for your first graduate seminar, get ready to have a professor dislike you for no other reason than he or she disagrees with you. It won’t matter that you do all the work and do it well. You’ll be treated like a colleague inasmuch as you will be subject to the bruising ideological, intellectual and social conflicts that characterize academic life. Your views and actions will be taken seriously in that sense. But they’ll be taken seriously at exactly the moment that you most lack any platform to stand upon, when you lack any independent profile outside of your relationships with your professors and your discipline.

No one is going to pat you on the head and tell you how wonderfully smart you are for sassing them anymore.

That time of your life is over.

Graduate school is not about learning. If you learn things, it’s only because you’ve already internalized the habit of learning, only because you make the effort on your own and in concert with fellow graduate students. You learn because that’s what you do now, that’s your life. Don’t go into it expecting to extend the kinds of heathily collaborative relationships you have had to date with your teachers and don’t go into it expecting to extend the kinds of educational nurturing you have had to date. Graduate school is not education. It is socialization. It is about learning to behave, about mastering a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe.

Graduate school is cotillion for eggheads.

For all these reasons, graduate school is not something you want to experiment with. Think heroin–this is your brain, this is your brain on graduate school. Think Al Pacino in “Godfather 3”–just when you think you are out, you will be sucked back in again. Academia, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, is a total culture. It colonizes most aspects of your life. You are never not an academic–the little mental tape recorder is on all the time, or it had better be if you want to be good at this life. Anything is grist for my mill as a teacher and a scholar, and that is as it should be. Graduate school is, if anything, even more totalizing than this. It gets into your pores.

Somewhere in the back of your head, your dissertation or your oral exams will be burrowing outwards through your brain tissue with incisors of fear.

If you decide in your first year that it is not for you–indeed, suppose you conclude that you’re better than all of this, a broader, richer thinker who can’t be constrained by the ivory tower–you will still have to deal with the nagging fear that somehow, some way, you just weren’t good enough, that you couldn’t cut the mustard. That fear will almost certainly be wrong. Perseverance can get most students through graduate school. You should feel good about how well you know yourself if you decide to quit. But academia is a total culture. It changes your standards for what is good and what is bad, what is smart and what is dumb.

Independently evaluating academic life from within its confines is a near-impossibility.

Past your second year of study, you will no longer know how to. I don’t think you can again until you have finished and come out the other side with a Ph.D. I feel like I’ve got perspective again now, but it takes time and distance–and the clarity that comes from making it all the way through. If you quit in between, even when it is right and proper that you do so, even when you should feel triumphantly scornful of all academia has to offer you personally, your own yardsticks for achievement will have been so altered that you will spend years exorcising all the little spectres of doubt that follow you away from the ivy walls.

All of these dire warnings don’t even touch on the overwhelming issue of the job market.

That’s a whole different kettle of fish, and equally troubling, and potentially an equal disincentive to pursue academic training at this time. A Ph.D in the humanities is useful for one thing only these days, and that’s being an academic. I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I hope reforms will be possible in the near future. But that is the way it is for the moment. Take this issue seriously as well, but consider it independently from the other challenges that graduate work presents.

If you’re thinking you might want to pick up that Ph.D., then be sure before you apply. Take time away from college. That will tell you how much you want to be back in this life. Love your subject well before you ever start, because that passion will be tested mightily.

2 Responses to Should You Go to Graduate School?

  1. Mr. Rex says:

    I agree totally with this article. It is a total culture, and I’m glad you made it to the other side and got tenure.

    For those readers thinking to just ignore your advice, they should check out this blog, it’s about the aftermath of what you describe in this article: the decision to leave academia after spending many years doing the prep work necessary to get in, and the insecurity and difficulty of leaving after you’ve gone down the path.

    Think twice. Don’t be a fool like I was.

    Thanks for the blog, Tons of interesting stuff here (you have been very busy)

    Mr. Rex @

  2. Mike130 says:

    I agree with all of this, but only to the extent that one is entering graduate study with requisite academic experience to become part of the Borg of academia. That is to say, following a narrow path within the constraints of one field of study. Graduate school seems to be the place were requisites fail. The reality is that we live in a non-euclidean world and there is no straight line to the top. Like you said above, only perseverance will get you there (in some cases) and then what? At what cost?

    “Isn’t that the point?”
    Yes and no.

    In my opinion, specialization is the real trap here. The hazing MA/MS and PhD students endure in their programs is largely caused by the incestuousness of being so hyper-focused, so certain, so quickly. Many cohorts start quite young. “What does a 20 or 30-something know about prolonged focus in one area of anything, really?” I think this the predominant attitude of faculty at the graduate level, and the springboard from which education is administered beyond the Bachelor’s level. Ironically, I happen to agree with the attitude—I just disagree with how it is manifested. Graduate school IS currently about socialization, because I think it is approached by faculty from the perspective that study and research plays second fiddle to the ego of the eager young cohort.

    I also think many approach graduate school to learn for leaning’s sake. This is what leads to the aforementioned defeatist experience and makes attrition rates what they are. This does not have to be. One CAN attend graduate school to learn for learning’s sake (insert infomercial music here).

    MALS degrees offer a way out. In my opinion it should be THE WAY for 20 & 30-somethings prior to focusing in any one field of study. One can learn for the sake of learning and bounce from one discipline to another leaving the focused students to weather the hazing of their respective department. At the end, one has an academic MA that serves as a leveling point. Do I continue and focus? Am I satisfied here? If one does continue in a more focused area, nothing will impress (and irk) a graduate professor more than approaching something from interdisciplinary point of view. Professors at the graduate level want fresh air, not regurgitation.

    Of course, one of the problems with this strategy is the cost and time for the extra step. Also, the MALS since its inception has become the favorite pariah of academic system. It has no place in a society so insane with the fetish of specialization. Academia the very place where this attitude should be vehemently eschewed, is ironically the one place where it is rife! MALS students are a magnet for the snobbery of focused grad-students and many professors. (Naturally, this is a personal axe I am grinding here…)

    Anyway, college applications (for a BA) are now asking high school students what subject in which they may like to major. Individual disciplines are offering multiple MA degree’s in different areas of concentration at the same school! It is simply amazing—Going to college to become narrow-minded. This is the long standing joke about graduate school for which Derrida would have loved to see progress to this point. The tools of deconstruction truly lie within the four walls of the structure!

    Anyway that is my soapbox.

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