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.