Why You Should Go Back to Grad School
To weather the current economic storm under the eaves of some neo-gothic academic pile, studying Kirkegaard or parsing Lucretius is a tempting fantasy. I have the opposite problem: I’m defending my dissertation this week, and the dénouement of my own little drama approaches with the unsubtleness of a freshman comp paper. My grad school, a medium-sized Jesuit university on the East Coast, is far underrated in the almighty US News rankings; my undergraduate degree, taken in the last recession, is from the plebian state university that my family could afford, rather the expensive private school that a hiring committee would like to see. I’ve spent five years studying the “useless” subject of medieval history, and I’m definitely counted amongst the 15% of humanities graduates with over $50,000 in student-loan debt. Faced with a tough job market, I’m being realistic and considering that my future might be teaching in a private high school, going back to edit academic and reference books, or trying to make a living on freelance writing I’ve been doing to pay my way through grad school. But do I wish I’d gone to law school, like my father said I should have? Not for a second.
There seems to be a minor war going on against liberal education, and especially grad degrees in the humanities. The New York Times (and particularly Stanley Fish) are doing their best to convince the reading public that, outside of elite schools, nobody has any business studying arts and letters. For instance, one recent headline read, “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” I’m convinced this is reverse psychology, since the letters and comments on the Times site universally tell the writers that they’re a bunch of out-of-touch elitists, and that if the Wall Street business-majors had studied a little history, we wouldn’t be in this mess. In that spirit, I’m going to tell you why I’m glad I spent a significant chunk of my life in grad school, and why you shouldn’t hesitate to do so, as well.
First, let me dismiss the argument against my discipline being “useless”: One of my professors once told me a story about a UK colleague of his. Because universities there are so reliant on the government, they also have to put up with ministerial busybodies showing up on audits and asking what’s the use of a medieval history degree. In response, his colleague stammered something about being able to think broadly, analyze disparate data, and synthesize it into a coherent form. No, my professor said—you have to use their logic against them. The reason why medieval history (or philosophy, or literature) is important is because people want to know it. In other words, it’s justified by its market value. Chaucer, Milton, and Tolstoy put asses in seats—and that is all people like the auditor know on earth, and all they need to know.
In fact, if you want to talk practicality, the Master’s is the new Bachelor’s degree. With the cheapening and ubiquity of the BA, you need something else to say you’re truly educated. When I first went on the job market, I landed jobs in the New York publishing world because my MA said that, despite my state university degree, I could reason, I could write, that I was intellectually curious, that I wanted to learn new things, and that I can see a project through. While simply going to college used to be enough in the ’50s and ’60s, these days you need a little extra.
As we tell the new grad students at the beginning of every fall, the ostensible aim of an advanced degree is “professionalization,” that is, indoctrination into the norms of the lemon party we call academia rather than the personal development and fulfillment we chased as undergrads. Everyone who has been in grad school for more than five minutes knows that is bullshit. Even though older professors speak of someone “leaving the profession” in the same way that parents speak of their childless friends’ miscarriages, the fact is if you get a Ph.D and don’t wind up with a tenure-track job, you haven’t failed at life. In fact, those who don’t wind up happier and more fulfilled. As one colleague noted on a medieval history mailing list, “As a humanities Ph.D, I can take a massive amount of confusing information, sift out what’s important, and present it in a coherent way.” This is something no computer, and an awful lot of supposedly educated people, can’t do.
What about those of us who do want to teach college? Well, if you know anything about the academic job market, you know that the promised Baby Boomer retirements never materialized, and that college administrators, working with the same logic as corporate HR, have outsourced as much labor as possible to a hungry proletariat of adjunct professors who will work for less money and no benefits. The irony is that this is the very reason that more people need to go back to grad school, at least for Master’s degrees. You see, adjuncts can’t teach graduate seminars or supervise MA theses. More people going to grad school in the humanities—even if they’re only going to teach high school or are taking a year or two between their Bachelor’s and law school—means more jobs for those of us who do want to make academia a career.
Besides all that, grad school has been a great experience. If I hadn’t gone back to get my Ph.D, I’d have never went to Paris on a Fulbright grant, never have been able to fence at a 120-year-old salle des armes, and never sat in the reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale handling eight-hundred-year-old manuscripts. I’ve had fascinating late-night conversations over beers, trips to conferences in interesting places, and, thanks to my school’s generous funding, a smidgen of job security. I know that I can get up in front of a class and hold them rapt by making obscure historical events relevant to their day-to-day lives, translate a book from sixteenth-century Italian, and master a body of literature on an esoteric subject. These are things you don’t get to do in a cubicle.
On the “meeting fascinating people” subject, an advanced degree in the humanities may not bring you too much extra income, but it can help you meet someone who does. I haven’t taken this to the logical conclusion since I’m in a long-term relationship (with a political scientist) but I seem a lot more interesting to high-powered New York corporate-type women when I mention my Ph.D or passing familiarity with conversational French. It used to be (as Betty Friedan complained) that women went to colleges to meet boys with bright futures; in the post-feminist world, enlightened males shouldn’t have any problem writing and teaching part-time, changing the baby, and having dinner and a shoulder rub ready for their lawyer or executive sweeties when she comes home.
Many people believe in reincarnation; I think we only get one chance at this thing. Unlike a foreclosed McMansion or over-financed Ford Explorer, they can’t take your knowledge and experience from you. I knew that if I hadn’t gone back to grad school, I’d have spent my last days in a nursing home, toothlessly mumbling Latin to myself and wishing I’d at least tried to see it through. As a historian, I know the past is full of could-have-beens. And that’s what I’ve learned most from graduate school—to not let my life be one of them.
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