It’s just a little more than week away from the beginning of classes here at IU, and moving vans are disgorging futons and M.C. Escher posters everywhere in the streets of my neighborhood, out-of-towners are driving the wrong way down one-way-streets, and new graduate students are getting braced up for the exciting, arduous course of study they’ll be engaged in for the next few years. You’ve arrived! Congratulations. And for those for whom graduate school (or at least post-graduate life of some sort) is a small fluffy cloud way off on the horizon, it’s too early to think about grad school applications for next year. But it’s not too early to start worrying about the major life decision that those applications represent. Should I go to graduate school?* It’s time for the Come-To-Jesus talk.**
Please understand that I don’t know you, so nothing I’m going to say should be taken personally. You might be America’s Next Top Musicologist for all I know. It doesn’t matter. I give the Come-To-Jesus talk to everyone, because some in the biz are like those salmon you see jumping up waterfalls on nature shows, blindly seeking only to reproduce themselves. We all have an interest in putting behinds in seminar chairs, and it’s easy to lose sight of where our grad students are going once we’re done with them. I think we owe it to prospective graduate students to be blunt with them about the enterprise for which they might choose to consecrate their time, money, energy, youth, health, and happiness.
OK, so here’s the quick answer to Should I go to graduate school?, which I’m cribbing off of the Credo of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Possibly yes, probably no.
I am by no means the first person to say this. Read this.
There are so many bad reasons to go to graduate school and so few good ones. The bad ones include, but are not limited to, the following:
- sentimental and idealized notions of what academic life is like
- a desire to have people call you “Doctor”
- a feeling that it might be nice to teach, so long as the students aren’t too loud, stupid, crazy, or immature (in other words, just so long as it isn’t high school)
- confusing the experience of being in school with the experience of doing school work
- a secret wish to put off the evil day when you’ll have to get a job
Let’s take these in order. First off, (1.), everyone goes in with unrealistic notions about what it’s like to work in academia. We’ve all seen those movies where robed professors gesticulate with their pipes as they speak of learned matters and stroll down sun-dappled lanes. Colleges themselves do everything they can to encourage such notions. When I worked at Stanford I thought of it as an academic theme park — the Disneyland of the Life of the Mind. Everything—the rows of palms, the California Romanesque architecture, the sound of the bells drifting lazily over jogging-track-encircled lake, etc.—conspired to make you feel you were in a movie where someone a little sexier than yourself was playing a superior version of you, all having thoughts and poignant experiences.
And you probably did do some pretty cool things in college. Maybe you took an undergrad seminar and for the first time you felt what it’s like to participate in the free exchange of ideas. You felt your own thoughts kindled into life by a provocative reading or a fellow-student’s comment, felt the electrical charge of ideas awakening and flowing though you and through everyone else in the room. This is a real and powerful experience, and for me it is one of the highest and purest forms of pleasure. It is what I aim for (and sometimes even realize) in the classes I teach, and it is a powerful motivator. But it is easy for students to form the idea that this represents the totality of academic life, which it surely isn’t. It’s the point of academic life, but it isn’t what academic life feels like day-to-day. Sad to say, a professor’s job is just that, a job. You’ve heard the deconstructionist expression “there is no outside-the-text”? I’m here to tell you that there is no outside-the-job. Your relationship with anything you love to do will change the moment you start doing it for money.
2. Let’s say your name is “Gilbert McGillicuddy.” Have you ever secretly practiced writing your name “Dr. Gilbert McGillicuddy”? Or, god help us, “Dr. Gilbert McGillicuddy Ph.D.”? If so, check yourself. I know this sounds petty and stupid, but a lot of people are motivated by the thought that a Ph.D., of all things, will confer social standing. OK, two things. First, anyone with a Ph.D. who insists on being called “Doctor” outside of a strictly academic context is a pretentious fool; second, if you don’t insist on being called “Doctor” in your daily life, no-one will ever will. (Except your kids, mockingly.) Furthermore, no-one even really cares that you have a Ph.D. It’s sort of like being really into quilting or something: at best, it’s kind of cool in the sense of being a bit unusual and basically harmless.
Strangely enough, this kind of delusion is particularly potent in people who grew up in academic families. We should know better, right? We know that academic life isn’t all The Dead Poets Society, because we saw Mom freaking out about tenure and Dad bitching about committee work. But we might also form the notion that academic work is the family business and that non-academic work is somehow infra dig. This delusion can become particularly toxic if we come to believe that there is no enjoyable or honorable way of making a living outside of academia. This is not only completely wrong, it’s also a great way to ensure that your graduate school life will be a living hell, because you will be placing an intolerable burden on your success or failure in school. If you’re doing your quals, then the stakes aren’t just passing or failing your quals, it’s being able to stay in the Elysian realm versus being cast into the outer rings of Hell. Which means that the so-called Elysian realms themselves quickly become Hell. It’s funny how hard it is to see this when it’s happening to you.
3. If there’s one phrase I never want to hear again, it’s “I just want to teach at a small liberal arts college.” This is usually accompanied by something to the effect that research is OK, I guess, but teaching is what I really want to do. This is ass-backwards; it’s like buying a piano because you want the bench. If research is just what you do in order to get certified to teach, get an Ed. degree, teach kids, and forget musicology!
But then a lot of the time it’s not that we want to teach, pure and simple; we want to teach people who are exactly like us. Why not teach high school? Ugh . . . I hated high school. So you ask yourself, where can I work where no-one will expect me to be writing books and stuff, but where I can teach smart cute middle-class low-maintenance kids? Ah, the liberal arts college! Like they’re just giving those jobs away. Like you’ll never have to be a productive scholar at a place like that. Like your students will ever be low-maintenance. As the Gift of Gab once said, shatter that dream at a rapid-ass speed.
4 + 5. Ask yourself this question: do I like being in school, or do I like doing school work? Everyone likes being in school. What’s not to like? There’s always something fun to do and an endless supply of entertaining and attractive people to do it with, you get to read books and listen to music and get credit for it, and you don’t have to wear a stupid paper hat or a nametag. Being in college is almost but not quite like having a job. You have a certain minimal structure to your days (enough to keep yourself from becoming completely neurotic), and the various exams and assignments are sort of like the things you churn out for work — but let’s face it, the stakes are lower and you’re held to more forgiving standard. In the workaday world, if you pulled the kind of nonsense I routinely have to countenance in my classes (late papers and missed exams, Facebooking during lectures, strolling in late and hungover), you’d be fired. And there’s a difference between having a C on your transcript and being out-of-work and having no money to make your rent. School is great! Who wouldn’t want to do this forever?
But nothing comes for free. You want to stay in school for 5-10 more years? Maybe you’re telling yourself you’ll be out in five. Hm, we’ll see. But start counting the costs. The money you pay for school itself is for now the most obvious cost. But there’s also the opportunity cost, which is far more insidious. You’re what, 21, 22 now? The world is your oyster. You have your youth, your health, a degree from a good school, lavish quantities of energy and potential — you can do anything, write your own ticket. You go to graduate school, do an MA, and now you’re 25. Still young, still full of potential. You might decide to go onto the Ph.D.
But if you never contemplated whether you like school work or just like being in school, this is the point where you can just float along year after year, not really making a lot of progress (because this was never your thing to start with, not really), and suddenly (hey how’d that happen?) you’re in your mid-30s, no longer quite so young, healthy, and full of potential. What they never tell you is, the road narrows as you walk it. With each passing year your current options are more firmly determined by what you’ve done in previous years. What are your old classmates doing now? They’ve bought houses and got married and have families and are well along some career path which maybe you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself but which is important for them, and meanwhile you’re still a student. This is OK is that’s what you’ve truly chosen for yourself—if you really want to accomplish something you must make sacrifices, there is no other way—but if all you’re doing is putting one foot in front of the other, not choosing your path in life but passively following the course set by an original decision you never really thought through, you can find yourself in a bad place, a small ledge perched high up and without anything to hold on to. You’re a grownup now, coasting into middle age, getting fat and losing your hair. The cute fun people you used to hang out with are long gone; you’re living alone in a small apartment filled with books you don’t want to read and surrounded by the leavings of a project you have long ago stopped caring about. You have a crippling load of debt and you don’t have any experience you can parlay into any other career. You are stuck with your decisions now, and even if you hate what your life has become, you can’t see how you can get out of it, because to quit now would be to admit that you have squandered your adult life on a delusion. You can’t quit and you can’t stay — a truly hellish situation. Only you will quit, because at some point you’re going to have to write that dissertation, and if you don’t have it in you what else can you do? And at this point you become The Bitterest Person In The World.***
This doesn’t have to be you. Look into yourself. Really ponder. And if you’re thinking about going into graduate school for the wrong reasons, be honest with yourself and just walk away. Please, seriously.
So there are some very bad reasons to go to graduate school, and they can fuck up your life. So are there any good reasons? Yes. This gets back to the question of whether you like school work or just being in school. You need to like school work; you need to have an itch in the brain that you just have to scratch; and your desire should be such that you are willing to undertake the path to its fulfillment even knowing all the scary stuff I just told you about. And your desire has to be, pardon the loaded word, pure. Not purely pure — no-one has really pure intentions. Relatively pure. There should be something self-sustaining about your scholarly interests, a sense that they are directing you as much as the other way around.
One of the 20th century’s great Zen masters, Kosho Uchiyama, had something he called the “seven points of practice” — i.e., the seven big things to be very clear on when committing to a life as a Buddhist monk. Being a Buddhist monk and being an academic are at least similar in the ratio of training (high) to eventual income (low). Most of these points aren’t relevant here, but the first one is. “Study and practice the buddhadharma only for the sake of the buddhadharma, not for the sake of emotions or worldly ideas.” Buddhadharma means Buddhist teaching and practice — basically, you can substitute the word “musicology” and the sentence works in the present case.
If you want to study musicology because you hate your job or want to seek refuge from the workaday world in academia, that is study for the sake of emotions and worldly ideas. If you want to study because you think it is more honorable and prestigious to be Dr. So-and-so than just regular Mr. So-and-so, that is also a worldly idea. If you want to study because you want to feel the happiness you felt as an undergrad, that is studying for the sake of emotions. Don’t get me wrong: when I started graduate work in musicology lo these many years ago, I had all these questionable notions in my head, and many more besides. If my 22-year-old self walked into office hours for advice, I’d probably say “don’t even bother.” Or at least, “You’re going about this all wrong. You have all these emotions and worldly ideas!”
What I didn’t know then that I know now is this: when you build your academic work on emotions and worldly ideas you will find it a shaky foundation. Indeed, I dropped out of graduate school for a number of years because I needed to take a step back from myself and discover a firmer foundation — the ideas I wanted to pursue for their own sake. But the deal I made with myself when I got back into graduate school was that finishing my Ph.D. was going to have to be enough on its own. The job market didn’t look so great and I knew I had to be reconciled to the idea that I might not actually gain anything from getting a Ph.D. Once I really owned that thought, I felt happy and free — I was able to get down to doing what I have since been able to do. I was able to practice musicology for the sake of musicology. That was a better foundation for me than the deluded notions I had when I got into the biz.
Another thing: around the time my father died (which was about the same time I decided to go back to grad school) I understood that life does not start when you graduate, or when you get a tenure-track job, or when you get tenure, or at any other point we’ve decided is Important. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you’re living your life now. Live it wholeheartedly. I’ve posted Alan Watts’s reflection on this at least once before, but I can’t emphasize enough how completely, profoundly true it is. It’s the hardest thing in the world to keep this truth in mind as we are actually living our lives, so we have to remind ourselves, over and over again. So I’ll post the same little animated clip, made by the South Park guys to accompany one of Watts’s KPFA lectures.
*I’m talking about relatively impractical fields like musicology here; obviously, your calculation will be different if you’re thinking about getting an MBA or a JD.
**This is the spiel I find myself repeating many times ever year, so I’m writing it down in hopes that I can just say “go read this blog post” and be done with it. But of course that’s not really how it works. This is why distance learning is never going to replace the old-fashioned college experience. You need to hear someone say it — someone who is talking to you at a particular point in space and time.
***From Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” strip about graduate school.