Why Grad School Is A Trap

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Disclaimer: This article applies to those pursuing MA, MS or Ph. D. degrees. Those pursuing MBAs, MSWs, and other programs of the sort may find themselves relating to aspects of this article, but I do not have the experience with those programs to say for certain what people in those programs experience.

For most of my time in college, I had no idea where I was going or who I wanted to be. I was a typical undergrad—I stumbled from major to major until I found one that I was okay with. I trudged through most of my college years scraping by, putting in half-assed efforts during the week and partying on weekends. That was, until my senior year when my calling finally came to me: I was going to be a professor.

It made perfect sense for me. I took a class to fulfill a major requirement and ended up absolutely falling in love with the material. After that the choice was clear; this is what I was meant to do. I had to go to grad school and study this subject further. Suddenly I loved learning, and I loved having intellectual conversations. I wanted to work on the weekends because I had finally found my passion. I applied to grad schools in a fury and when I finally got into to one of my top choices it was one of the happiest days of my life. My dreams were finally coming true.

Or so I thought.

Because the truth, as it almost always is, is far more complicated. Partially because…

1. It’s not what you expect it to be

A lot of people apply to grad school expecting it to be just like college, and I thought that I had an advantage because I never believed this—I knew that grad school was going to be higher level, and I was ready for it. I was ready for the research, the work, the next-level thinking. I applied to grad school expecting it to be an experience full of intellectual conversations about topics I cared about, classmates who became my best friends, and papers about subjects I genuinely enjoyed writing about. And to an extent that was totally true. You do become close friends with your classmates, because you bond over your mutual suffering. Grad school friends can be great, but most of your conversations revolve around grad school, which means…

2. You alienate people who are in “the real world”

Those same people who apply to grad school and just expect more college also expect that they will still spend their weekends with their friends, keeping the same Weekend Warrior role that they had in college. These people are wrong. Grad school becomes your entire life, and if you’re fortunate enough to become a Graduate Lecturer or Teaching Assistant, all you want to talk about are your classes and your students. So for people who aren’t in that world, conversations become very boring. Your family doesn’t care about how hard your methods class is or that funny thing one of your students said in lab the other day. Neither does your boyfriend or the girl at the bar. And this makes sense, considering the mantra professors throw at you through the whole experience…

3. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle

Grad students tend to envy their peers that simply clock in and clock out of their jobs, because even if they don’t love it, at least they get a break. Now, I’m the kind of person who bends over backwards for others. So I still answer student emails at 2:00 AM because that’s how I am. But even if you aren’t like me, you still take your work home with you every night, because your research never stops. You rarely have time to think about your own projects during the day, so they become your leisure time. Academic conferences become as good as vacations, and you begin to wonder if you joined a cult. All of this is made worse by the fact that…

4. They expect you to stay in academia forever

Professors see anyone who comes into grad school as the future of the field, and some of those students are. Some people want nothing more than to be a college professor—for a long time I thought that I was one of those people, but when I began to question that I had to keep it to myself, because saying that you might want to take the elevator down and leave the ivory tower is not a notion most academic departments want to entertain. The more graduate students they land in good academic jobs, the better the department looks, the better they look. So if they have a lot of students getting their Master’s degrees and jumping into the workforce, it doesn’t affect them as positively as sending a recent Ph. D. to a Research 1 institution.  But this all makes sense when you consider that, in many ways…

5. Academia is just like any other profession

I came into grad school thinking that I didn’t care about teaching, and that all I cared about was research. That changed when I got my own students. I adore those kids, and would do anything for them to succeed. Which is why I was surprised when I found that the people around me didn’t share the same feelings. Our students pay our bills, but to many academics that’s all students do. At the end of the day, academics are trying to build their reputations and work their way up the ladder just like everyone else. They have bosses to please, deadlines to make and plenty of office politics to deal with.

All of this said, I’m not trying to talk anyone out of going to grad school; I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into. Educating young minds is a noble thing, but it’s far from the only thing professors have to deal with and for many, unfortunately, it isn’t even a priority. But if this article hasn’t scared you off, we’ll be happy to have you join us. Let’s commiserate over coffee. TC mark

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