This essay is part of our back-to-school series. See the full collection here.
There is plenty to lament about the life of the contemporary graduate student in America. It’s depressing. It’s poverty-level wages…even after the PhD. It’s comical. Yet graduate education is sought after by hundreds of thousands of young adults every year, many of whom are bound for the perennially subpar academic job market. The whole matter seems to defy logic, reason, even sanity.
What could I possibly say to make this pathway brighter for those who choose it? That you should do it for the sheer love of learning? No. Learning is far less expensive. Credentialing, on the other hand, costs. That’s what graduate school and the PhD does.
I haven’t had the opportunity to mentor many graduate students, though I am proud of the accomplishments of the several I have. They occupy tenured or tenure-track positions at such places as Boston University, Baylor University, and the University of Chicago. (The professor is bragging already… get used to it. That’s what professors do.) What did I tell those students about success in graduate school? I dispensed far heavier doses of pragmatism and realism than idealism. Don’t agree with that approach? Fine—have it your way. (Good luck.)
First, getting in to the graduate school of your choice guarantees nothing about subsequent success. Admission is a stepping stone. You’re meant to keep moving, not relish the moment and status of “being in graduate school.”
Second, don’t borrow money to pursue a PhD. If you’re paying your own tuition, you’ve entered risky territory. Graduate school may mean poverty—that’s okay—but it shouldn’t mean debt. Borrowing is for the MD, JD, and MBA. If you aren’t offered tuition remission and a stipend or teaching assistant position, think twice.
Third, the smartest graduate students aren’t often the most successful graduate students. I say that not to encourage the dim but to give hope to those who don’t think they belong. Intelligence doesn’t lead to successfully completing graduate school and landing a job. Hard, focused work does. A photographic memory is not pivotally important. Learning how to write well is.
Fourth, there is little value to appearing smart. There is great value to becoming smarter. We are social animals, so it’s no surprise to see graduate seminars turn into opportunities to jockey for position by talking a lot, name-dropping obscure studies or literature, and generally trying to appear smarter than your peers. I encourage you to resist the urge to act in this manner. I’m not suggesting disengaging from the discussion—not at all. Rather, I’m counseling you not to evaluate yourself, or your peers, on in-class performance. When you’re seeking a job at the end of it all, it’s unlikely that anyone will care about how you did in any given course. They may not even give your transcript a second look. Instead, they’ll want extensive evidence of your proficiency at your craft. Transcripts can’t display that, and seminar performance won’t predict it.
Fifth, get a life—that is, a life outside of your graduate school experience. If you’re married, great. I was. Marriage established a schedule for my graduate student life. I no longer had twenty-four hours to do what I needed to get done. I had a fixed window of time to do my work, because I also had a relationship to build and reinforce. Boundaries are good for us. Not married? No problem. Find a community—a church is good for this—or build a set of friends that have nothing to do with your graduate student status. If you only hang out with members of your cohort or department, you will consolidate the difficulties of graduate school. You’ll gossip more, worry more about competition, and fret over signs of success more. If your entire existence—academic and social—revolves around the same people, it can be a bleak experience. I don’t recommend it. And it pays to remember: your professors should neither know nor care about your social life. They just want you to get your work done, with excellence.
Sixth, ask yourself: what do you want at the end of your graduate education? Some want a tenure-track faculty position at a research university. Some prefer the same at a liberal arts college. Others wish to go into the marketplace or public sector, working for a company or a non-profit organization. There is no end to the options. But it’s pivotal for your end goal to reflect your present reality. If you want to be a professor at a research university, you cannot afford to spend too much time learning the craft of teaching. (You will have ample experience later.) For now, it’s “publish or perish.” If you want a liberal arts college job, teaching experience—and instructional talent—will be helpful to develop. And if you want to work for the Census Bureau, for example, teaching is almost wasting time. The bottom line is that there are lots of good things you can do during your graduate school experience. But the shrewd thing to do is to major in the most pivotal activities and minor in the less central tasks. And those differ according to what you want to do when you’re done. One of the most frustrating things to watch is the process by which talented graduate students jeopardize their own goals by spending too much time on non-essential work. They are subsequently forced, by their own misappropriations, to adjust their goals to match their present reality.
Seventh, the graduate school experience will yield a consistent measure of unpleasantries and injustices. They will come in different packages. Some will be your own fault: a misstep, a forgotten task, an ill-timed word, an embarrassing event. It’ll happen, no matter how careful you are. Other difficulties will find you: a false accusation, a misinterpreted remark, slander by envious peers, or an arrogant professor’s cutting words, unethical expectations, or unwelcome advances. I won’t counsel you here on what the right thing to do is in each situation. I will simply tell you that tough things will most certainly occur, often through no fault of your own. They will require courage of you that you did not anticipate. Rise to the occasion.
Eighth, remember why you wanted the PhD. Even when you get to the end of the degree, you may find your goal in jeopardy. Your graduate degree may be worth less than you expected. You may find out that one or two publications was two or three fewer than you needed. You may find out your only good employment options are in Peoria and Bakersfield. Alternately, you may reach the pinnacle—the goal that seemed inaccessible. What will you find there? Adolescent, insecure, overworked adults with fragile egos, pursuing fame and fortune while signaling to the contrary. All this means that a perennial question you should ask yourself along the way is this: How badly do I want to be in this business?
Given all the cautions, obstacles, and tough situations that present themselves to graduate students, a ninth and final piece of advice begs to be remembered. It is this: Don’t delay your life. Don’t wait until you get a job, then tenure, to do the normal things that make life sweet. We live in a world where marriage is considered a capstone, something you do when you have it all together. My wife and I married so that we could get somewhere together. Children can’t wait forever, either. Remember the time-worn observation: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Professors who build their career around their own ego and cutthroat ambition tend to shrivel into something you don’t want to be.
There you have it—a series of blunt questions, unpleasant circumstances, and pragmatic realities. If you can navigate these with aplomb and still find in your belly a burning passion to read and learn and analyze and write, carry on with expectation and hope. The world, as you know by now, is very much worth exploring.