The Least Practical Argument for Graduate School Ever

Brought to you by The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

I see what this post wants to do and that it is in reaction to a now-common narrative about the woes of graduate school in this day and age. The woes are coming from a real place, one of tighter budgets, more students, and less jobs.

And as someone who has slugged through graduate school for a decade now (A DECADE!), I can easily speak to the highs of graduate school. Even in the shittiest, worst moments of this journey, I have not regretted going to graduate school. As the author of the Chronicle piece makes clear, there is no other intellectual space that I cherish more than the academic one (though, I must admit, Twitter rivals it for me these days). I feed off that charged mental space where people work together to better understand the world we live in by dissecting the past from which we have emerged (FYI: I’m a historian).

But even if there are golden moments in graduate school and, yes, we should acknowledge them, it does not cancel out much of what is terrible about the experience.

So, the normal caveat when talking about graduate school: it’s cushy. And I recognize that. You do get to set your deadlines (which is not as wonderful as it sounds), you do get to set your own schedule much of the time, you are engaging intellectually in areas you care about, you do interact with an amazing community of individuals, and you do get to pursue something you are passionate about (if you are in graduate school right now and you are reading this and you are not passionate about whatever it is you are studying, you must be in hell).

But let’s also be honest about graduate school. Many people (not including myself due to my husband’s income) live below the poverty level. They often don’t know if they will have a job next semester. And if they don’t, it’s not clear how to get health insurance. You cannot afford COBRA on the money you get in fellowship. Not if you want to eat, too. Health centers on university campuses are good for colds, not chronic problems.

Yes, we get to teach. But inside ever-increasing exploitative systems. Those of us lucky enough to teach our own courses are not called “Instructors” but rather “Assistant Instructors,” though we assist nobody. The latter title makes it legally easier for a university to pay you less. As Courtney pointed out to me, grad students are almost never allowed to unionize or fight collectively together for a better work environment. Since it is something that will go onto your CV and (supposedly) propel you forward in the job market, it is a luxury they bestow to you, not a grinding job. And grading, as I have said often, is basically its own ring of hell. As I have come to find out this semester, lecturing ain’t no piece of cake either. Neither is juggling your students and their problems. It’s time consuming and exhausting.

Look, there are plenty of people who have written about this. I have written about this in my worst, most depressed moments while in graduate school (I once compared it to drowning).

I know more people who struggle with depression and suicide inside of academia than out. I know more people who turn to pills and alcohol inside academia than out. If you want a rec to a great therapist, go to any academic department and ask around. I guarantee that almost everyone there will have a therapist to recommend.

[side note: As universities cut back on services, one thing that is being hit hard are mental health services on campus. It is harder and harder and harder to get an appointment and becoming more and more expensive, even on campus.]

Grad school CAN be fun. Some of my happiest times in the last decade are from graduate school. Nearly all the people I hold dear in my life outside of my family I have met through graduate school (though that is changing, too, because I have lots of friends that I’ve met on the parenting circuit and on Twitter – no joke). But certainly some of my lowest moments in the last decade also come from graduate school.

I get what the Chronicle is doing here in this article. But those reasons (“grad school is art school”) don’t exist in a rainbows- and marshmallows-happy land divorced from the ongoing pressure, constant fear of humiliation, and never-ending self-deprecation of the self-medicating and often-depressing world that is academia. The ivory tower casts long, heavy shadows.


4 thoughts on “The Least Practical Argument for Graduate School Ever

  1. The argument that working shitty adjunct work will pay off in the long run is more and more implausible. There are just not enough full-time jobs anymore, which means underpaid, no-insurance work is past, present *and* future. Ooh cushy.

    Some days I regret doing my PhD quite a bit. If I’d done a more practical degree, I’d be doing much better, financially. My life would doubtlessly be more comfortable… but then I wouldn’t be me, would I? WOULD I?

  2. Yes. The thing I come back to is that I wouldn’t be me. As far as political consciousness, thinking critically, etc. – things I hold dear – I learned that in graduate school. And I wouldn’t want to give that back. Does that make everything else worth it? I don’t know. Maybe ask in 10 years.

  3. Pingback: Graduate school is not puppies and rainbows. | From Austin to A&M

  4. Pingback: Graduate school is not puppies and rainbows. – The Cosplay Feminist

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