When I’d finished speaking, the dismayed young man, who only a few moments ago had been so full of idealism about his future plans, said in exasperation, “Surely there must be something good that you can say about graduate school!”
“Yeah, sure … I’ll bet I can think of something,” I stammered. “Umm … you get to read a lot. On average, you’ll read 150 pages per course per week, actually. In some courses, the number will be much higher — like 800 pages. Say, what’s the prescription on your glasses right now, anyway? It’s going to get worse, you know, and quickly. Then there’s the serf-like treatment from professors. The university is, in many ways, still very much a medieval institution….”
He was still staring at me. Whether there was more surprise or chagrin in his expression, I couldn’t tell. I could tell I wasn’t helping, however, so I withheld further comment on the subject of graduate school for the duration of our conversation.
He did get me to thinking, though. Had my graduate school experience been so bad, really? No, but some rather blunt advice from a number of professors had helped a lot. What could I say that would be truly helpful to someone who was planning to enter a graduate program, particularly one in the humanities? “Turn back, now!”, came immediately to mind, but only as an ironic stock response. What came to mind later were some questions that those contemplating a course of graduate study should ask.
1. Is this degree totally necessary?
This question applies mostly to people who are considering doctoral level study. Honestly, think long and well about your goals in life, particularly your professional goals. If there’s any way you can live with yourself without learning absolutely everything that anyone could learn about Tunisian ceramics, Yugoslavian folk songs, the expansion of the railroads in the American west, the Republic of New Iceland, or whatever topic it is that never ceases to fascinate you, then you don’t belong in a doctoral program. If your ideal profession is one you possibly can do without any kind of advanced degree, then you don’t belong in a master’s degree program either. Get your career started and then get the degree when it becomes a precondition for promotion — assuming the subject of the degree applies to your job, that is.
2. Are you absolutely sure?
Again, this applies more to those (usually uniformed) people who are considering doctoral study. Doctoral programs in the humanities and even in some sciences can take as much as six, eight, sometimes even 10 years to complete. The competition will be hard, the intellectual demands (in a good program) will be fierce, the material gains will be both meager and slow in coming, while the professional gains will be greater but still slow in coming — and that’s even if you’re good at what you do and gain the respect of your colleagues. If you’re employed as a teaching assistant or research assistant, you will find yourself in the difficult position of trying to balance those duties with your own studies without compromising the quality of either. This can make for long hours and eventual burnout. In short, you’re looking at years of demanding work before there is any payoff, a massive exercise in very delayed gratification. Be sure that the course you embark on is toward your vocation, in the divine sense of the word; your calling. If you aren’t sure, don’t go.
Then there are the horror stories, some of which you may have heard. They tell of programs into which students seem to vanish like so many Greek triremes down the gullet of an academic Charybdis, never finishing their degrees but never really leaving the whirlpool that is the graduate college, either. I assure you that these stories contain far more truth than they should. The key to survival is time management, which brings me to the next question…..
3. Do you have any hobbies?
Did you answer “yes?” Oh, dear. Sorry to hear that. Well, forget them. You won’t have time — not if you want to finish before you start drawing a pension, anyway. Put the guitar, aerobee, weights, oil paints, yarn, or whatever else you once used to bring both joyful purpose and purposeful joy to your leisure hours into storage. You will see them again some day — after you’ve deposited that thesis.
4. Do you find impoverishment appealing?
The correct answer to this question is, of course, “yes.” Most graduate departments — outside the sciences, anyway — pay their graduate assistants a pittance. It’s not so much a living wage as a survival wage, the university’s kind way of saying, “If we could get away with paying you less without getting sued, we would.” Conditions have been made worse for state universities in the last year by the financial difficulties plaguing most state budgets, prompting the effected state universities to freeze salaries for everyone and eliminate some planned new hires, even new “hires” of graduate students. These facts just go to demonstrate that whoever said that graduate school was the “place to hide” in a weak economy was profoundly mistaken.
Worry not, though. If medieval Franciscans could endure abject penury, so can you. You won’t need new clothes for five years anyway, right? You already like rice and pasta, and limes are a great, cheap way to avoid scurvy.
5. Do you like to waste your efforts?
As you have no doubt already gathered, the correct answer is “no.” If you’re going to bother writing a 30-page seminar paper, do it well enough to submit the thing to a journal when you are done. Make sure it’s up to professional standards of your discipline; consult all the necessary style books. Don’t just do the work as an academic exercise. Find original topics, and make your work a real contribution to one of the scholarly discussions of your field. Your time and effort in your class work should contribute to your long-term professional growth.
In the course of your graduate career, you will probably encounter the conference phenomenon, which Camille Paglia once famously derided as the one thing that symbolized everything that was wrong with academia in America today. That she was correct in her assessment is something that American academia has yet to acknowledge, though, and things being as they are, you’ll want (and need) to present papers at conferences while you are still a graduate student. Be on the lookout for “calls for papers.” Be choosy about these conferences. Avoid any conference that announces that it was “organized by graduate students,” because the people who look at your curriculum vitae someday will ignore them. Shoot for the real thing, big conferences organized and attended by respected, established figures in your field.
Finally, develop early a clear idea of your big project, whether it is a master’s or doctoral thesis. The clearer your goal is and the earlier you set it, the sooner you will achieve it.
6. Whither gaze the eyes of your soul?
Yes, the verbiage is a trifle archaic, but the question is as serious as they come.
Whatever field you’re in, it’s very easy to turn the work into a Golden Calf. In academia the danger comes in the form of the tool you use — your intellect — and the object of your work — knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up,” Scripture repeatedly and rightly warns. “In much knowledge, there is much sorrow,” is another piece of scriptural wisdom that comes to mind.
The most important aspect of Paul’s injunction that “whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do as if working for the Lord and not for men,” is the “for the Lord” part. Direct the gaze of your soul to the One who both made it and saved it from its own worst self, and the vicissitudes of graduate education will be like so many waves beneath your feet. Let your gaze waver and … you can swim, right?
Copyright 2002 John D. Martin. All rights reserved.