The Magazine

And Gladly Learn

Will you, won’t you, benefit from graduate education?

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
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When I sat for my SAT exams as a high school senior, I thought to myself, “This is the last standardized test you will ever have to take!” I had never considered myself an intellectual and was vaguely distrustful of anyone who chose the cocoon of the academy over the rough-and-tumble of the “real world.” Ten years later, I was sitting in a café in downtown Shanghai, gritting my teeth over the Princeton Review’s GRE prep manual. 

C. E. Stevens, Oxford history don, with student (1958)

C. E. Stevens, Oxford history don, with student (1958)

Looking back, it’s difficult to say how I’d ended up there. I had no cause to run away from the “real world,” where I had thus far excelled at being a professional version of myself, working in marketing and adjacent fields, none of which had anything to do with my undergraduate degree in political science. I loved my job at an esteemed advertising agency, where I got paid to sit in quirkily appointed conference rooms and brainstorm ideas for behemoth clients.

Once in a while, during a lull between conference calls, I would glance at the application for the philosophy master’s degree program at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, which I had printed out years ago and kept hidden in my desk drawer. It was a calling card from an alternate world, one where I sat cross-legged in the desert heat among sensitive scholars and connoisseurs of peyote, freely contemplating Spinoza and the Tao Te Ching. 

I wasn’t certain that I wanted to live in that world, but I was curious as to whether it was a live option. So I dusted off one of my mediocre undergraduate essays on Descartes and set about turning it into a passable writing sample with which to apply to philosophy M. A. programs. I solicited a letter of recommendation from an editor of this publication and from a couple of my undergraduate professors who kindly agreed to help, even though they hadn’t heard from me for the better part of a decade and weren’t sure they remembered who I was. 

Less than a year later, I bid farewell to the advertising agency—its PowerPoint presentations, cascades of emails, coffee, and cigarettes—and said hello to graduate school. I enrolled at Columbia instead of St. John’s, the Ivy League being a much more attractive proposition to my father, a key financial stakeholder in this gambit. 

At a philosophy department cocktail reception during my first week of graduate school, I listened as a second-year doctoral candidate described his tearful reaction to reading William James. I, too, have a tendency to cry over books. By contrast, it was tough to imagine crying over a PowerPoint presentation. Perhaps grad school, with its symposia, colloquia, coffee, and cigarettes, would feel like home in a way that the advertising grind never had. 

Two years later, during my final semester, I received an email from a stranger in Iran. His name was Masoud. He apologized for his shaky English, explained that he had found my contact information on Columbia’s online student directory, and sought my advice about applying to doctoral programs in philosophy at American universities. Masoud had a charmingly tentative way of describing his philosophical interests that suggested he had never spoken to anyone about them before—at least not in English. He referred to “the thought streams called ‘Continental Philosophy’ and ‘German Idealism’ ” as if they were mythical creatures that he might never encounter firsthand.  

Should I Go to Grad School? is not a volume I would recommend to Masoud or to anyone else seeking practical advice about the application process, financing, and so forth. It is not a cost-benefit analysis of tuition and the job market for people with letters after their names. (If it were, notes editor Jessica Loudis, “it would be much shorter and far more depressing.”) Instead, it focuses specifically on advanced degrees in the humanities and the arts, and so it is not for those considering law school, medical school, or business school. 

As its subtitle suggests, Should I Go to Grad School? offers no definitive answer to the “impossible question.” Instead, it presents a collection of personal reflections from artists, journalists, poets, and others, speaking to us from beyond the fork-in-the-road that demands an answer. Just as one doesn’t attend a potluck dinner hoping to learn how to cook, dipping into this anthology probably won’t get you any closer to figuring out what to do with your life.

For the most part, even those contributors who are most cynical about academia do not dwell on the list of reasons not to attend graduate school. Rather, they adopt the sober tone of a sex-ed instructor: I can’t responsibly encourage you to do this, but you’re going to do it anyway, so here’s what you need to know. Jessica Loudis quotes Heather Horn, who wrote in the Atlantic that “asking why young people keep entering Ph.D. programs is a lot like asking why young people keep moving to New York planning to become actors.” Clearly, forces are at play that override common sense. As Peter Coviello, professor of English at Bowdoin, points out, anyone seriously considering enrolling in a doctoral program is already perfectly aware of the reasons why it may be a terrible idea and should be able to recite that litany of warnings “like beads of a rosary.”  

As varied as its accounts may be, this anthology is for a specific audience: people, like me, who have the luxury of entertaining the do-what-you-love mentality and exploring the titular question from the angle of self-fulfillment. We hear from Amy O’Leary, who, as a listless twentysomething disenchanted with her job at a Minnesota newspaper, saw grad school as a “thick, expensive balm that would calm my anxieties and channel my energies into something that looked like success.” The lure of graduate school as a socially acceptable holding pattern for smart people who don’t know what to do with themselves is a common theme throughout these essays, variously described as “a fig leaf to cover up nakedness” (Ross Perlin), “a ritualized shortcut of privilege” (Sarah Marcus), and “a place to hide .  .  . where the thickness and tensile strength of a single ID card is all that separates you from the thinking vagrant” (Michelle Orange).

Grad school was not predestined for most contributors. Nor was the decision to attend grad school impulsive. (The application paperwork alone precludes a whimsical approach.) Rather, grad school was a place where they wound up, a pit stop on a meandering journey toward a life well-lived. Professor Coviello points out that many potential upshots of graduate school—sharpened critical thinking skills, valuable interpersonal relationships—are not exclusive to academia: “Live a vibrant, vital sort of life,” he says, and these benefits will manifest themselves with or without an accompanying degree. This book is for people who are wondering: If I attend grad school, what will my life look like? And if I do not attend grad school, what will my life look like? Its contributors, for the most part, are evaluating the counterfactual: If I had not attended grad school, what would my life look like? 

Even with the benefit of hindsight, the answer is unknowable. That’s the thing about forks in the road. I can’t know how my life might have played out if I’d chosen tea rather than coffee this morning, let alone where I’d be today had I not gone to graduate school. But I can say with near certainty that I would have missed out on the following:

Sitting with my classmate Richard in a campus coffee shop until closing time, while he patiently explained Heidegger’s metaphysics until I “got it” enough to wade through an oral presentation the following day.

Attending a seminar with Robert Stalnaker, a visiting professor from MIT who would often quote himself during class—not out of arrogance, but because it is nearly impossible to discuss modal logic without invoking the work of Robert Stalnaker. 

Falling in love with the shy, tattooed man who sorted faculty mail in the philosophy department.

Having my heart broken by the shy, tattooed man.

Giving a presentation on Aris-totelian syllogisms at a conference in Arizona, after which the keynote speaker asked a polite, thoughtful question that amounted to, “So what?” and I told him that I didn’t really know.

Academia is often treated as distinct from the “real world.” But as anyone who has spent a couple of years studying modal logic will tell you, the “real world” is itself a slippery notion. Among innumerable possible worlds, you sometimes exist as an advertising and marketing professional, sometimes as a philosopher in the desert, and sometimes not at all. 

In my case, I learned that it is possible to straddle multiple worlds: I worked part-time at a branding agency while pursuing my degree, keeping one foot in the “real world” and the other in academia, “a world where unpack is what you do to a text and not to a suitcase” (Michelle Orange). I struggled, sometimes, with the balancing act, arriving at the office with eyes bloodshot from Boolean algebra or diligently replying to work emails while doing my best impersonation of a young woman paying attention to a lecture on John Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism. For the most part, however, work and school buoyed each other in positive ways: The former gave me a paycheck, while the latter forced me to think with logical rigor, a trait whose usefulness extends far beyond the ivory tower. 

Should I Go to Grad School? left me with one piece of advice to pass along to my Persian pen pal, Masoud: “Do not, under any circumstances, pay for an advanced degree in the humanities. If necessary, continue applying until you secure funding” (Stephen Squibb). Beyond that valuable nugget, I’m not sure I can tell Masoud anything that will help him decide which world to inhabit. But he seems already to have figured it out. “At the one hand,” he wrote to me recently, “I have seriously decide[d] to become a philosopher and at the other hand, I have not much money. So it doesn’t matter for me how difficult it is. It must be done.”

Abigail Lavin is a brand strategy consultant in New York.