Ask a Humanities Grad Student

by Anne Helen Petersen

It’s that time of year — when people the world over start thinking about whether they should apply to grad school. You put out some feelers, you tell your family it’s a possibility, you make long lists of the cities you’d be willing to live in once you quit the job you’ve been thinking about quitting for two years. You’re ready to become the lady (or gentleman) scholar you always dreamed you’d become.

I know it’s this time of year because I’m receiving about a dozen emails a week asking about my own experience: what my program was like, if there’s a future to the discipline, how much debt one should be willing to accrue.

Actually, that’s wrong — those are the practical questions your parents would be asking if they were still vetting your schools for you. Instead, these people are asking about potential research topics and the various scholars I worked with — and whether Austin really as is as sweet as people say it is. Ideas! Lifestyle! Isn’t that what grad school is really about?

Historically, yes. And to some extent, it still is today. But those first questions — the culture of a particular program, the future of the discipline, and whether there will be a place for you within it — have become paramount.

For today, I’m going to focus on the two most important questions for you to consider:

Do you really want to go to grad school? Or do you just not want to do what you’re doing now?

Here’s what grad school looks like, at a distance, in your daydreams, when you’re in a crappy job:

– Constant mental stimulation.
 — Filled with people like you, or at least with similar interests to you.
 — In an awesome college/city town.
 — A place to find a sweet grad school boy/girlfriend.
 — Teeming with challenging scholars who will make you a better thinker, writer, and person.
 — The straight path to professorship.
 — Peppered with truly outstanding vacations.
 — A good thing to tell people/dates/relatives you’re doing.
 — A chance to teach inquisitive young minds about your scholarly passions.
 — A way not to be stuck in said crappy job.

Here’s what grad school looks like, from close up and way too personal:

– Intermittent mental stimulation.
 — Filled with people who are probably very little like you and are by turns a) cutthroat, b) neurotic, and c) passive-aggressive.
 — In an awesome college city/town that you don’t get to see much of because you’re always working
 — Peppered with sweet vacations, the bulk of which you spend grading, studying, or writing.
 — A place to use OKCupid to find grad school boy/girlfriends, in part because they’re the only ones who can understand your crazy life/school mix.
 — A chance to teach apathetic first-year students basic concepts about a topic that you know a lot about … and tamp down the paralyzing despair when they half-ass most things.
 — Teeming with professors who have checked out, don’t answer email, and haven’t modified their graduate syllabi since 2001.
 — The way to maybe, possibly, after several years on the job market, become a professor.

Granted, there are some fabulous things, such as the following:

– You get to spend almost all of your time thinking about things that YOU LOVE. Ideas YOU LOVE. People and places and events that have always fascinated you. Or, at least that’s the case once you’re done with coursework and have moved on to your own research topics. The first two years are filled with a lot of reading about things that you do need to know, but don’t necessarily love knowing.

– If you like to read and write, you get to do a lot of that. That is your job.

– If you feel inspired by teaching, you also get to do a lot of that. Even apathetic kids can be fun to teach, mostly because there’s usually one who thinks you’re the greatest. Teaching also gets your adrenaline pumping: I love the feeling right before the first day of class, or when you’re about to start a big lecture or get a good ol’ fashioned Marxist debate going.

– Grad students can be weird (I’m weird!) but I also learned that weirdness can be awesome. Neuroses needs friends. Grad students really like to drink. It’s not all despair and bibliographies.

– You are (90%) in control of your own schedule. You can do things like make doctors’ appointments and stay up late. Sometimes you spend the entire day at home in your pajamas. Awesome or disgusting, depending on your outlook.

– You will find at least one professor that you really trust and admire, and this professor will be your friend and mentor for life.

– Your life’s work will be to learn and to help others do so. That sounds cheesy, but it is the f-ing point of graduate school, and phrased that way, it is authentically awesome.

The problem with the entire situation, then, is that it’s broken. There aren’t enough Ph.D. slots for the people that are admitted to Master’s programs; there aren’t enough professor jobs for those accepted to Ph.D. programs. There are other options — adjuncting, going into the private sector — but those options are either highly exploitative or don’t necessarily require the degree that you just spent two years and $50,000 working toward.

I’m not trying to be an asshole downer who goes through the process and then tells everyone else not to follow me. I’m not trying to encourage a club only for rich people who can afford to attend without accruing debt. I loved grad school; I love teaching. And people aren’t going to stop wanting to go to grad school, and schools aren’t going to stop needing Ph.D. students to teach giant first-year classes for cheap. The academic system needs graduate programs in order to survive. But you should be fully aware of the realities of grad school: its beauty and its blemishes, its few remaining promises and its increasing pitfalls.

There are a lot of us here at The ‘Pin who either have been/are currently in humanities grad school. We want to answer your questions: when to go, when to quit, how to find a program, how to make the case to your loved ones, how to make the money situation work. We won’t always agree or even have an answer. But we have many opinions.

If you have a question (300 words max, please), email us.