graduate school wrecked my life, and (maybe?) I’m a better person for it

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time.

I’ve been hesitant to write about the topic of academia and graduate school because I didn’t want the blog to necessarily be about these things…there are several fantastic blogs about navigating the grad and post-grad school experience such as The Professor is In, Post Academic in NYC, and the excellent articles of Thomas H. Benton/William Pannapacker, to name a few.  I want the blog to cover more than the slings and arrows of academia, and since I’m not currently employed as a professor, it feels a little strange to write about that experience in the present tense. But, as the last decade of my life has been spent in that alternate reality known as the ivory tower, I decided that it’s okay to have a few posts that discuss its effect on my life, and its everyday fallout.

I want to emphasize that by sharing my experience I am in no way attempting to universalize the grad school experience here, or presume how one should feel about it. Everyone is on their own journey, and grad school is absolutely no different.  However, I am going to assert right now that I believe academia, as it currently exists, is a bona fide shit show in desperate need of reform and re-imagining. And graduate school, particularly graduate school in the humanities, is a deeply flawed, cannibalistic shit show that all too easily puts people into horrific, crushing debt, with no real job prospects at the end. (See http://theprofessorisin.com/ph-d-debt-survey/ for a detailed, comprehensive, and utterly demoralizing chart of graduate school debt.)

As I said, the experience I write about here is my own and only my own.  And I think about graduate school every day: Did I make the right choice?  Did I do grad school the “right” way?  Why didn’t I quit after that first semester/right when I got my Master’s degree/during any moment of level-headed sanity that I had?

First off, I believe that deciding to attend graduate school in the humanities demonstrates an untamed indifference towards the reality of our economy and job market. Concepts such as earning power, debt-to-income ratio, and delayed adulthood probably don’t carry too much weight for you, even if your goal is to land a high-paying, tenure-track teaching position.  I was such a young adult. The situation is so dire that William Pannapacker recommended that one not get a graduate degree in the humanities unless they have unlimited wealth, iron-clad connections in academia to begin with, or a very understanding partner/family/Super PAC willing to completely support you while you undertake this journey. (http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846)

It’s that expensive, it’s that hard, and there is absolutely no guarantee you’ll get a job after all of it, no matter how hard you work, how much you publish, or how glowing your student teaching evaluations are.

So I went to grad school, and I finished, and I even accomplished a few cool things that I am proud of. And that’s lovely. But it has forever changed my life for the worse. Let me list the ways that attending graduate school in the humanities seriously sidetracked me, and perhaps even lowered the overall quality of my life:

  • I have horrific debt. My debt is so large that the only way I can describe it is as a chronic illness that I live with, potentially until I die.  I must learn to live with it, accommodate it, and find a way to enjoy my life with its shadow always hovering over me.
  • I put in seven years between the ages of 26-33 of my life for this, and currently have nothing to show for it career-wise.  I was able to get some lecturing and adjunct jobs in my own department after I graduated, but now I live in a different city for my husband’s work, and I have yet to land any work that resembles what I did during my GTA/adjunct/lecturer days.
  • I utterly lost track of who I was, and tried too hard to be someone I wasn’t. As a true introvert, academia, like most other high-pressure, highly-competitive fields, tends to overlook and rush past those who aren’t constantly self-promoting and boldly hurling themselves into every next thing at the expense of their health, relationships, and sanity. After much reflecting, I realized that such hurling was not in my constitution.

For most people, graduate school sucks. They do not find satisfying work that even begins to pay off their debts and justify the years and effort spent earning their degree. But, having said that, there were undeniably wonderful things that happened to me as a direct result of going to graduate school:

  • Graduate school allowed me to meet vibrant, amazing people, make good friends, visit new places, and accomplish things I never would have if I hadn’t gone.
  • Graduate school taught me discipline: how to read tough books, write with complexity and purpose, and be part of a larger conversation with scholars, artists, and authors within my writing and teaching.
  • Graduate school pushed me creatively, intellectually, and socially in ways I never would have on my own; I have become a more vibrant, confident, and thoughtful person because of it.
  • I met my husband and started a new life with him.

The more I think about it, graduate school was for me was what my undergraduate experience probably should have been…..And if I didn’t go, would those things have ever happened for me? And furthermore, how can I say that graduate school wrecked my life if I acknowledge that I wouldn’t have met my husband? But good God, did I need seven years in debt-locked servitude to get there? Grad school is not a cure-all for becoming un-stuck in life.  It’s not a cure-anything.  I am now 36; losing the years between 27 and 33 means years of earning lost, missed opportunities, years of productive life lost.

I sometimes wonder if the cost of having gone could possibly be worth the journey I took. Yet, could we not make the same argument for other costly, uncertain adventures, like having children, getting married, and any other meaningful pursuits and goals? You can, but the advice I would give to anyone who asks is that grad school is an adventure probably better off unexplored. I believe that the essence of a well-lived life is to make choices and commit to paths that ultimately limit your overall possibilities–and learn to live the best way you can within the house you’ve built. But I don’t believe in burning your house down before you even lay the foundation. Because that’s what having gone to grad school often feels like.

For all the joys, achievements, and relationships I made on the journey of graduate school, I am grateful. But perhaps those victories were more my own than I previously thought; should I give graduate school credit for how I chose to navigate it?  I can acknowledge that I am a better person today than a decade ago, in many ways living a better life, but the cost feels staggering.  The real question I wrestle with is if I never get a job in the field I trained for, is the cost worth the life I now lead, and the person I now am?

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