There are so many things to be depressed and psychotic about while in the midst of the pursuit of academic-hood. Pondering the grimness of it all, I ran across one of the many despair-mongering (though generally outstanding) blogs called 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School. I especially like reasons No. 28, "Writing is hard," No. 38, "The tyranny of the CV," and my absolute favorite, No. 56, "Grading is miserable."
In my estimation, 96.4 percent of the observations and advice on that blog are spot on. I will not, however, reiterate what most people who read this publication already know about graduate school, which is some version of the following: I heard, through the grapevine, that when a tenure-track job opened up in my department recently, there were very near to 450 applications. OMG.
Instead, I would like to offer 10 reasons to consider attending graduate school and, further, to consider even enjoying the time you spend in pursuit of your doctoral degree.
The key to enjoying the experience is simply shifting your perspective: Think of humanities degrees as no different from art-school degrees. No sane art students expect to have thriving and profitable careers making the art of their dreams within a couple of years after graduation. Art students go to school to improve their art, to receive input from those they admire, to find a mentor, and to be in a community of the like-minded. Careers are possible, but no one counts on one.
In a sense, humanities scholars are artists. The work we do is highly creative. Why pretend otherwise? There was a time, near the dawn of man, when you could expect to graduate with only a few conference presentations on your CV and get a full-time, tenure-track job. That time is over. If it helps, just pretend it was never thus.
So here are your reasons:
1. You get to teach. Yes, enforced reading and grading of undergraduate papers is akin to sadism or abuse, like minimum-security confinement. (It's significantly worse than I anticipated, to tell the truth.) But teaching is otherwise exhilarating and fun. You have the opportunity to give young adults—right at the moment when they have opened back up a bit—the gift of your attention. They will occasionally have realizations during the course of your semester with them. This is significant work.
They also surprise you on a regular basis. You can encourage them to see meaning everywhere they look, to be curious, to see language as a secret code filled with intrigue and mystery, to be willing to make mistakes. It's a rare kind of opportunity.
2. It's a good time! Working 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in an office is way less fun and creative than graduate school, and the much-higher compensation of corporate work is, in my opinion, often not worth it. I worked in offices for some years before I returned to graduate school. It felt like maximum-security confinement. I know that's true for you, too, or you would not be reading this article.
3. You get to have an audience for your (sometimes substandard) work. And a smart audience to boot. You have peers, colleagues, and mentors who take your creative work seriously, offer you earnest assessment, try to guide you, and, although they are horribly overworked, often try to give you what you need and desire.
Where else can you get such exquisite attention for your writing as you do in graduate school? Outside of this setting, you would be sending your work to your mother, who would say, "it's very nice, dear." Or you would present your work to some highly eclectic writing group, which includes at least one person who would like to discuss his most recent UFO sighting.
Work in an office job and what you'll find is that your boss, however decent, is, by necessity, a very nice, highly civilized task master. You do what you are told—period.
4. Graduate school works. If the point is to turn you into someone who can teach and write about literature, history, or philosophy, graduate school works. When I started this process, I held two contradictory thoughts: First, graduate school seemed like an unreasonably and unnecessarily long process, and, second, there was no way I would ever know enough, or be proficient enough, to engage students.
Eventually, I realized that it really does take that long to absorb and process the material and techniques necessary to become proficient. I never dreamed I'd be able to do what I can do now. It is a sort of maturation process, which, by definition, takes time. (Especially for me.)
5. You can choose and then prioritize your own work goals. If you work at an office job, your personal goals are really not important. You actually have to cover them in a veil of secrecy. But in academe, you don't have to hide. Most graduate students do want to professionalize, though others do not, and there's no shame attached.
It's true that the professionalization aspect of doctoral study can, depending on your personality, make you feel desperate and miserable. I personally was so seized with terror at the number of achievements mandated for a successful venture onto the job market that I found I was having a hard time moving forward at all. So, temporarily, I stopped applying for grants and submitting papers to journals. I went back to the basics and feel much calmer.
6. Graduate school is like a rite of passage. If you make it to the other side of your Ph.D. (or even just your first couple years of teaching), you feel enriched and empowered. You feel strong (although also perhaps jobless). You did what you were not sure you were capable of doing: You stretched yourself.
Like Navy Seals training, you have fully integrated yourself into something that is significantly more than a job. Jobs can be easily discarded. Scholarship is a community and a way of life. Of course, you may now be promptly ejected from your community, post-graduation. There's no use denying that exile hurts. But here's the upside of rejection ...
7. You very likely won't get a tenure-track faculty job. Sure, that's a negative in one sense, but there's another side to this: Profs work like dogs. You know that feeling that you cannot possibly get done in graduate school what must be done? Deadlines are bearing down like a train while you're tied to the track and there's a vise grip wound tightly around your head? Imagine that feeling for the rest of your life. Or at least another decade, until you get tenure—if you get tenure.
Besides an extraordinary array of teaching, service, and advising duties, imagine writing grant proposals month after month, year after year, and trying to continually promote yourself. Self-promotion is exhausting and humiliating.
If you don't get a full-time job, there's no reason you can't still work for a university in non-tenure-track or staff positions. You'll get full library privileges, free classes, fascinating speakers, and a tenth of the pressure. Good God, that is sounding better by the sentence.
Still, I won't pretend I don't want a bona fide full-time job. I do. But I've shaped my hopes and expectations to incorporate an array of alternate possibilities. That helps my psyche a lot.
8. Like most people, you will eventually die. And it will happen in a relatively short time. If you spend eight years reading, writing, teaching—and getting paid for it—rather than 40 years, the truth is, it hardly matters. And you have been extremely fortunate. You can compare yourself to tenure-track professors, who are a rapidly shrinking minority, or you can just be in the midst of your own experience, whatever it happens to be.
(Here is where I would have placed reasons No. 9 and No. 10 if I could have actually come up with two more reasons.)
Your mentors may try to convince you (as mine regularly do) that graduate school in the humanities is a professional school and that you should spend a lot of time on professionalization. But if 85 percent of graduates are barred from entry into the profession, then this is simply a well-meaning dissimulation. How can you have a professional school for a profession that, in a certain sense, does not exist?
So graduate school is art school. To see it for what it is, we have to both learn and unlearn what it means to train as a professional: "To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees." Go to grad school (only if you receive full financial support from your doctoral department) to make art, to see in new ways, and to participate in the great Midrashic project that has value in and of itself.
Eliza Saavedra is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate (with full financial backing from her institution) in the humanities who teaches and writes in New York.