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.