The Great Grad School Debate

Over at, a sort of fun interactive infographic with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” decision tree to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school:

The question of graduate school isn’t really one question, since grad school is said in many ways:  there are worlds of difference between grad school in the humanities, in law, and in business, for instance.  In contrast to the infographic, I am going to talk here exclusively about grad school in the humanities.

I don’t have Siri on my iPhone, but I can imagine what she would probably say (read it with her voice in your head):  “What is wrong with you, you stupid fracking idiot.  The fact that you are foolish enough to ask a computer this question is proof that you should not attend graduate school.  You must be stupid, stupid, stupid.” (If you have Siri, ask her and let me know what she says…).

For my part, the answer is unequivocally no, and there really isn’t much to debate.  When people ask me this question, my first move is to refer them to the seminal essay on the topic, by William Pannapacker.  If that doesn’t beat the fatuous idealism out of them, then I bring out the big guns.  Even without the Coming Avalanche in higher education–even if the abysmal status quo were to continue as is–I would still answer with a big fat no.

One of the principles I try to live up to is Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati–loving one’s fate.  For him, this meant cultivating an attitude of radial affirmation:  saying yes not only to all of the slings and arrows that beset your own life, but to all of the suffering in the world, and letting go of the reflex to regret and resent; to not only tolerate the dark side of existence, but to celebrate it and even come to love it.

My experience with graduate school has tested my commitment to this principle more than anything I have yet encountered (partly because I’m lucky and have yet to suffer any of life’s great tragedies).  Many times, in the middle act, wandering in the wasteland of the dissertation or exposed to the black winter of the job market, I was driven to despair, and the thought lodged firmly in my mind:

As I saw my peers outside the academy moving on with their lives–advancing in their careers, making adult money, buying houses, having children, and, like, not always being poor–I began to feel stuck, caught in a state of arrested development, scratching at my life and trying to get into it, a fly lamely bouncing against a thick pane.  Graduate school and academia ruin lives.  I came to believe that I had seriously screwed up my life.

So my policy became this:  if undergraduates express an interest in going to grad school for e.g., theology, I essentially tell them:  “You haven’t thought this through.  Let’s talk.”  And so you have to give them The Talk.

This is partly a guru gambit:  you tell the adept to turn away from the spiritual path, that it is too demanding and requires too much sacrifice.  You tell him this not necessarily because it is true, but to test his resolve.

But it’s partly driven by realism:  economics, statistics, and opportunity costs.

If, however, the adept persists, then, according to the infographic:  “The great gate of grad school opens before you. You are given a pallet of Ramen noodles as a door prize. The end.”

Above I said that graduate school pushed me to despair and regret.  But that is not how the story ended.  I was extremely lucky to land a position at a school I want to be at, in a place I want to live, with students I want to teach.  I won.  And though “luck is the residue of design”–though I busted my ass building the machine I had little reason to hope would ever fly–I fear that all the luck in the world may not be enough to carry future graduate students to safety.  As a mentor of mine with a deep knowledge of the economy said, “You may be the last generation to get into academia.”

So if you do go, remember this:  the job market is not about you.  It’s about an academic persona that you will create in order to be selected by the lottery that we call the job market.

What Do You Think?