Graduate school and the follies of youth

Thomas Hart Benton (a.k.a. William Pannapacker) has a new column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed in his ongoing “why you shouldn’t go to graduate school” series: “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’.” The key paragraphs, for me, are these:

[T]he problem is that there is still almost no way—apart from the rumor
mill to which they do not really have access—for students to gather
some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate
of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most
important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct,
lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions).

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way.
It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and
socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the
life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing
the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and
networks that could enable them to do anything but join the
ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate
students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any

The column has spawned an epically long comment thread. Some of the commenters are in wholehearted agreement with Benton; others complain that grad students aren’t babies and shouldn’t be regarded as pathetic dupes who don’t know what they’re getting into. I agree with that up to a point, but if my own case is any indication, it’s not just a matter of knowing what one is getting into. Sometimes knowing all that still isn’t enough.

I went into grad school with my eyes about as open I could have opened them. I’m the daughter of two academics, and I grew up surrounded by professor-types. I knew firsthand that you could spend years on the market without finding the kind of job you were “supposed” to get. I knew firsthand that tenure didn’t prevent burnout or depression. And I knew, though I was probably in denial about it at the time, that the academic lifestyle could play hell with your personal life. When my cohort arrived for our orientation to our Ph.D program, we were all told in no uncertain terms that the job market was horrific and we should be prepared for the worst. I can’t fault my program for that, though I did hear the “all those baby boomer profs will retire eventually” line from at least one person, and I don’t think I ever saw cold hard data on placement rates.

But. I was a smart bookish kid who’d grown up seeing pretty much only one career path for smart bookish people. I didn’t think there was anything else I could do, apart from a vague idea that I might go into publishing. When I went to my much-admired undergraduate mentors to ask for letters of recommendation, one of them said “Ordinarily, this is where I give a long discouraging speech and tell the student not to go to grad school. But you’re one of the very few exceptions.” (And who knows, maybe he would have been proved right. I only went on the market once. But that’s neither here nor there.)

And, most of all, I was 22 when I went to grad school. The early twenties are not years in which you think ahead in any great detail. I didn’t consider where I’d end up living; a life of extreme frugality seemed adventurous instead of anxiety-making; health insurance wasn’t on my radar yet; and I hadn’t reckoned on the loneliness factor, either. And at 22 I thought I’d be the one who’d beat the odds. Probably everyone thinks that, at that age.

In a way, I was exceedingly lucky to realize that I couldn’t imagine being happy in a faculty position. It meant I had a reason to get out, and it gave me something to say in response to the people who said “You’re leaving? But you’re so good at this! What a waste!” I just knew I had to get out or be miserable for the rest of my career. It would have been much harder if I were still trying to piece together adjunct work.

The ironic thing is that I still believe in the life of the mind, as long as “life of the mind” doesn’t mean “life of the brain on a stick” (TM Bitch Ph.D). I just want to rescue it from anyone who thinks it can only happen within the sacred confines of a tenured position.

6 Responses to “Graduate school and the follies of youth”

  1. Rana says:

    I just want to rescue it from anyone who thinks it can only happen within the sacred confines of a tenured position.
    Very well put.

  2. Amanda, thanks for leading me back to your previous post and the “Sara Bradshaw” column. I wish I had read them when they first came out, which was the very month that I was starting my first blog and going off to interview for a job in an isolated, rural town! It’s likely that I did read the Bradshaw column, but it probably went right by me, because it seemed to be mostly about dating (lack of), which I wasn’t interested in. I missed the significance of the crucial bit you quoted then about the behavior of colleagues with families at home and closed doors at the office. I am far from the only person (woman) I know who has thrived in grad school but ultimately left academe because the compromises about place became too much to bear. And hear, hear! to your last line about the “sacred confines”!

  3. Meilee says:

    I’ve been saying for six or seven years now (four of those spent adjuncting post-degree) that I could and should be looking for work outside of academia, but only after five rollercoaster years on the academic market and coming *this close* to landing a tenure-track position can I happily and healthily say “I quit.” The brainwashing that goes on in graduate departments may not be a conspiracy, as some of the commenters say, but that doesn’t mean the brainwashing doesn’t occur nevertheless.
    Also, I can’t stand that UM English still has me listed as having been “placed” at Trinity as if it were a TT job. Bull. I’m an adjunct working at my undergrad alma mater. I loathe their misrepresentations of job placement, I am angry that they won’t change it even after I complained about it to various chairs/secretaries/Web designers there three years in a row, and I know for a fact that many of the other listings are just as bogus. I don’t blame the department for my lack of a job, but I do hold them accountable for being honest in their self-representations to prospective students!

  4. brd says:

    It has been way too long since I’ve read one of your postings. I don’t know about grad school. I waited until I was in my 50’s for that and am ambling through a course at a time. I do know lifelong and life wide learning. And that, doesn’t come with a degree, but it is quite delicious.

  5. Megan says:

    Late to the party, but here nonetheless.
    I keep thinking about going back for a PhD. I’m 28. I worked for two years before getting my masters, and it’s been a little over two years since I got my masters. It’s not that I want to teach, or don’t, but I don’t really think that I’ll stay in academia once I get a PhD and that has me wondering if I should go at all…

  6. Amanda says:

    TE, yes, though I think the “colleagues with families at home” phenomenon isn’t confined to academia; I’ve experienced other versions of it since. I’m starting to think it might be part of the larger culture. One more way I want to change the world: reverse the social isolation that people seem to take for granted as a side effect of adulthood.
    Meilee: sympathies, congratulations, and good wishes! I also wish our program would be less selective and less obfuscatory about how it reports what people do after they finish. They don’t say anything about those of us who’ve gone on to other careers, either, and they should, even if it’s hard to keep track of where people end up.
    Megan, I think you’re almost certainly in a better position to know what you want out of a Ph.D program than I was. If you can get fully funded, and if it’s related to other career goals, and if you have an exit strategy and it doesn’t take you too many years to finish (opportunity costs and all that), then it might be worth it — though (depending on the field) you’ll probably still encounter pushback from people who’ll assume you’re training for the One True Career as a professor at an R1.