Engineers, chemists, economists, and biologists, you may safely disregard this. Everyone else, pay close attention.
Don’t go to graduate school.
It may be tempting, especially during a recession, to consider graduate school a safe (and temporary) harbor from the economic storm. But if you start a Master’s or Ph.D. program, you might find yourself in over your head very quickly. I should know: In the fall of 2007, I entered a Ph.D. program with great enthusiasm, and dropped out of it three years later, with equal enthusiasm.
To be honest, I actually enjoyed a lot of my time in graduate school, from the self-direction to the slow, undemanding pace of academic life. I published an article, I got good teaching reviews, I attended departmental cocktail parties. I was doing everything right.
Yet I wasn’t happy. With each new book and each new paper I wrote, I felt increasingly disappointed with my work, and myself. The more I immersed myself in academic culture, the more alienated I felt from it. The prospect of attending even one more academic conference—even if it had an abundance of free wine hours—seemed less like a professional obligation and more like a prison sentence.
Eventually, it dawned on me. I’d gone into graduate school expecting an education. That is, I wanted a continuation of my undergraduate studies, both in terms of the breadth of my studies and the vagueness of purpose that’s really at the heart of a liberal arts degree. After all, a bachelor’s degree prepares you for a future career mainly by certifying that you show up to your classes, meet most of your professors’ expectations, and can handle basic human interactions—i.e., you are neither dumb nor psychotic.
But grad school is relentless career training. Occasionally, you learn something that might tangentially come in handy someday, like how to hold the attention of a room full of undergraduates for an hour at a time, or Latin epigraphy. Mostly, though, you gain intensely specialized knowledge about a sub-sub-subfield that will never be useful outside of an academic setting. My big, years-in-the-making project was proving that the Frankish king Charlemagne produced a certain law in the year 794 as opposed to 801.
There are also plenty of practical drawbacks to graduate school. On average, grad students in the humanities spend about eight years working on their degree and will graduate with $23,000 in debt. They earn much less than their peers: grad students in English or history earn around $13,000 and biology, $16,000, whereas the average starting salary for a new college graduate, on the other hand, is about $47,500. Less than half have comprehensive health insurance, and almost none have any employer-funded retirement plan.
On top of that, there simply may not be enough jobs waiting for all those newly-minted Ph.D.s out there, even the ones who have done everything they were supposed to do. According to professional academic associations like the MLA, less than 40% of all students admitted to graduate school in the humanities will end up working as a tenured professor, which is the one and only position that a humanities Ph.D. explicitly prepares you for in the first place!
So yes, it takes an intense and focused interest to succeed in graduate school, and yes, you have to accept the fact that you will be irrelevant to all but a few fellow scholars if you are even successful in your field. These are the intellectual drawbacks, and they’ve been endlessly debated for as long as the modern Ph.D. program has been around.
But you’ll face the practical drawbacks of graduate school—the near-poverty, the poor health care, and a job market that’s as insecure as manufacturing and construction—nearly every day, whether you’re shopping for clothes, nursing a toothache, or planning for your future.
And in the end, the combination of intellectual soul-searching and financial hardship had sapped my will to stick it out. I no longer wanted to study medieval history, to write massive tomes of scholarship, or to give lectures about Western Civilization to rooms full of undergraduates. Instead, I just wanted to own a house and have a primary care doctor and do the hundred other things that the academic life would never allow me to do.
When I went into graduate school, I would have considered such an attitude nothing short of selling out. But then, I also thought that there was no such thing as life after school.
The point, I suppose, is that if you know that you’ll never, ever lose that single-minded, cultish zeal for your particular field of study, then maybe you’ll survive graduate school. If not, there’s no shame in considering other options. Though you’ll save yourself some grief by deciding that grad school isn’t for you before you start, rather than three years in. Trust me on that.