Saturday, June 09, 2007

Horror Stories

I've been reading some of the posts on surviving graduate school being collected at To Delight and Instruct and occasioned by a post on Reassigned Time along with a response from Academic Cog. Just as women who are pregnant can rely on friends and strangers to inundate them with every imaginable horror story concerning labor and delivery, so new graduate students can expect to hear every horror story about graduate school. My apologies in advance for scaring any prospective grad students.

One of the first and most shocking revelations for me in my transition from undergraduate to graduate school was the realization that I was no longer loved. My undergraduate professors loved me. I was a bright, enthusiastic, articulate student who looked forward to going to class, did all the reading, participated freely in rowdy class discussions, and sometimes wrote essays that weren't awful. What's not to love? My graduate school career began with a reception for the new graduate students by the faculty complete with sherry served in plastic cups followed by two hours of threats concerning grades, financial aid, due dates, satisfactory progress towards the degree, incompletes, defense deadlines, committee approvals, etc. It was demoralizing. What was even stranger was that these were the very same professors that had loved me just last year. I went to graduate school at my undergraduate institution and yet I felt as if I had fallen down the rabbit hole. It was completely disorienting.

Over time, this is how I've come to think about this change to the higher stress and more combative nature of graduate education as opposed to undergraduate education: it is because their aims and purposes are very different. While producing a broadly educated, articulate, confident, freethinking citizen and life-long learner may be the goal of an undergraduate education; the aim of graduate education is something very different. Graduate school is about training the next generation of college professors. It is about the perpetuation of the species, and questions of paternity and the fidelity of faithful reproduction come to the forefront and often overshadow other concerns about fostering creativity and instilling confidence.

When students ask me if they should go to graduate school my starting advice tends to be "Don't do it." I also often recommend they read these posts on Should I go to graduate school? and How long should I search for an academic position? before they commit themselves to spending a decade of their lives in graduate school.

I do realize how terribly disaffected and bitter I sound. I don't like this part of myself and on most days I do a good job of resisting it. But the fact that I have to resist this bitterness is also part of what should to be considered, because I'm one of the very fortunate few. I finished my dissertation, have tenure, like my students, like my town, have a partner with tenure at the same institution, and have kids too. If even the success stories are this ambivalent about graduate school, then it probably pays to be at least a little cautious.


  1. I love the pic. (I'm sensing a theme here with tentacled images?)

  2. Interesting! Especially the part about the broad education of the citizen. Perhaps this is why I do not fit any of the paradigms set out so far: my undergraduate institution was not focused on doing that, it was focused on preparing the next generation of graduate students. By the time you got your B.A., if you did it with good enough grades and so on to get into grad school at the place, why then the really hard work of grad school was already over. Grad school was fun.

    Still and all, I very rarely tell people to go to graduate school. Only if, after graduation they still visit me quarterly with their latest printouts from JSTOR in hand, wanting to talk about the Latest Developments, do I then realize they really are smitten and might as well go. ;-)

  3. I don't remember the sherry!
    Although I never made it to Ph.D. stage, and have never regretted dropping out of grad school (it was one of my most joyful decisions), I've often, bizarrely, done the opposite thing, Mr. LP, and coaxed and coached people to make it through grad school. Often these people find it emotionally harsh because they come from either a foreign or a working class background. But in my opinion, these are just the people who should be seeded in academe.

    I harbor a bizarre and romantic hope that just as a generation arose, in the eighties, whose experience with crack parents and relatives convinced them never to touch the stuff, so, too, a generation is arising who approach academia in a gentler way, seeing the way departments can devolve into pointless battles that are more about the boredom of the tenured than any substantial issue. I wonder if that is going to happen.

  4. P.S. I always hate it when they have sherry, and it is worse when they have it in plastic cups. It tends to mean bad news is coming, with manipulation in it, as in, we cannot hire our candidate because the President has chosen one for us, but at least we get to hire.

    My introduction to grad school was T.A. orientation. There was no departmental orientation and no food or drink.

    At TA orientation, though, the dean got up and said you may be teaching for the first time ever Monday and many of you will be teaching your very own classes. This is slightly scary and you may wonder whether you can do it. We are sure that you can, and glad you are willing.

    At the time I thought it was a good enough speech - helpful to me since it did address what was in fact my one question, can I really *teach* at this place. But now I realize what a truly classy statement it was in comparison to so much else I have seen and heard since.

  5. I'm only in grad school because studying philosophy at weekends is my hobby - and if I can pay the part-time fees to have access to a great professor who is enthusiastic about my project (and she is!), then I reckon its better value than spending those weekends on Playstation or something.

    But I feel sad for my fellow grad students who, unlike me, aspire to a career in the academic world.

  6. Nice post, and a bit depressing.

    I went to grad school because I didn't feel I had any other options. I had been working in "nonprofit social justice organizations" (I believe Castoriadis once said about the USSR "four words, all lies," my scare quotes indicate the same) but that was no longer tenable if I wasn't going to become single again. After that, applying for jobs didn't really work - "so, tell me about this union stuff you used to do?" - so I was working nights and stuff in really, really crap jobs. After my second failed unionization attempt, and given that my main hobby was books anyhow, I figured I'd try grad school. So far it works, I guess. (One form of waged labor corrects the abuses of another ...") Sometimes I wish I was qualified to do something else, because while this a pretty good job it's only pretty good and it's still a job ("... but does not correct the abuse that is waged labor.") The thing that most makes me nervous is that my partner and I really want kids and we don't want to wait anymore - we're starting to get a little old for that - but we don't have much money and I still have some coursework, then I think about adjuncting with kids and my stomach does a bit of a lurch. Anyhow, nice post and before I forget here's a link I keep meaning to tell you about -


  7. This passage from your post really got me:

    "It is about the perpetuation of the species, and questions of paternity and the fidelity of faithful reproduction come to the forefront and often overshadow other concerns about fostering creativity and instilling confidence."

    I found this was constantly at stake when I was in grad school, even though I often didn't realize it and blithely went about doing things that didn't exactly "perpetuate the species"...I was often frustrated when grad students seemed to be rewarded for simply writing a paper that was basically a slight permutation of a professor's research, but it seems like this mindlessly imitative strategy stalls once people start working on their dissertations.

    (And of course the expectation that people model their lifestyles after their professors is incredibly frustrating as well.)

  8. Im in my second year of graduate school. I wish I had realized how terrible each and every day in graduate school was going to be before I started. Never before have I ever had professors speak to me in such demeaning language. It is like I am going through military technical training school for the second time. At least the military paid better. After seeing this side of academia, I have reservations about becoming a professor.