The Magazine

And Gladly Learn

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

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.