Should You Go to Grad School? Taste the Bitterness

Great piece in Slate that fits nicely into the relatively packed genre of recent works on the decision to go to grad school or not (which is probably just a subgenre of bearish pieces on academia).  The bitterness just drips off the page, from the title (“Thesis Hatement: Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Turn You Into An Emotional Trainwreck, Not a Professor”) through to the end.  Here is just one awesome paragraph:   

So you won’t get a tenure-track job. Why should that stop you? You can cradle your new knowledge close, and just go do something else. Great—are you ready to withstand the open scorn of everyone you know? During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: You will no longer have any friends outside academia.)

I’m fairly ambivalent about my decision to go into grad school and then to double-down by ultimately staying within academia (and it didn’t help to hear tonight at dinner from an extremely successful lawyer who doesn’t b&lls^&t people that I would have been a great and very highly-paid lawyer).  But right now I’m one of  the 4-pack-a-day smokers among the 6% who survive small-cell lung cancer (see the Slate piece to get this reference).   So life is good.  And I love so much about my job and the human capital I’ve built.  Yet I wouldn’t – and don’t – advise students to follow my path.  Too many chances to fall off (or be pushed off) that path or to be extremely bitter and/or broken mentally even if you make it to the promised land.  And let’s not even get into the personal wreckage one might face even in the promised land when creative destruction comes to higher ed.  But if you must go to grad school, choose economics or something in the sciences that will give you more fungible capital.

6 thoughts on “Should You Go to Grad School? Taste the Bitterness

  1. As one of those who got a job, got tenure, got promoted to full, and have an endowed position, I would give the same advice.

    It makes me sad to be on a search committee and see all of the promising PhDs who will never get a tenure track job (or even an offer to interview). It makes me sad years later when some of those same applicants are looking for temp work and their CVs reveal a long list of temporary positions, lives of driving between campuses several times a week to just to make rent. Those of us who made it have a good life. But the process of graduate school and the tenure track often changes us in ways that are not positive. A few years back, I read a piece where someone identified the academic personality type as being that of an “aggressive loner.” We can perform on cue but often prove socially autistic. We live in a world where the coin of the realm is one’s capacity to become and remain fluent in concepts, methodologies and debates that are of no interest to anyone other than our colleague-competitors, most of whom we will rarely interact with in meat space.

  2. “After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job” Wrong. It can take longer than 4 (took me 10), or it can take fewer (the last 6 people I hired.)

  3. “Too many chances to fall off (or be pushed off) that path or to be extremely bitter and/or broken mentally even if you make it to the promised land.”

    Of what professions that pay well, either in money or other things of value like time and freedom, is that not true? You cannot predict success and you cannot say for certainty that if you do A today you will have B 10 or 20 years hence. So do those things, or that thing, for which you have energy and passion. All the rest will take care of itself.

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