A photo of a sign posted in the halls of the English department at Texas A&M University before a meeting about graduate students. The sign reads, “Things some of us [grad students] have overheard or been told in this department: ‘Graduate students don’t have rights.’”
People who know me are probably really sick of me bitching about graduate school. Really. But I do it because I feel like I am surrounded by a culture that either has decided that higher education is completely worthless and professors are lazy, freedom-hating communists, or that graduate school is this perfect wonderland in which you can be creative and carefree, and where everything is wonderful if you just work hard enough and have enough passion. And both of these are so obviously, ridiculously wrong that I, a pacifist, am inspired to commit violence.
I don’t talk to conservatives if I can help it, so that former viewpoint is often one I only hear coming out of politicians’ and family members’ mouths. I’m going to assume all my readers know better than to think that higher education is bad. So let’s address the latter view. The Chronicle ran this awful article today entitled “Graduate School is Art School,” which tried to convince readers that going to graduate school for the humanities is, like, just THE BEST.
By far the worst argument is actually the first one the author makes. She writes,
1. You get to teach. Yes, enforced reading and grading of undergraduate papers is akin to sadism or abuse, like minimum-security confinement. (It’s significantly worse than I anticipated, to tell the truth.) But teaching is otherwise exhilarating and fun. You have the opportunity to give young adults—right at the moment when they have opened back up a bit—the gift of your attention. They will occasionally have realizations during the course of your semester with them. This is significant work.
They also surprise you on a regular basis. You can encourage them to see meaning everywhere they look, to be curious, to see language as a secret code filled with intrigue and mystery, to be willing to make mistakes. It’s a rare kind of opportunity.
Oh for fuck’s sake. You get to teach? Is that a joke? Look, I love teaching. In fact, I love teaching freshmen composition (that class every graduate student teacher has to teach, and most loathe). I do! But I also know that teaching a class is a fucking service I provide, for which I deserve to be compensated fairly. GATs (graduate student teachers) are not. Period. When I worked as a GAT at Texas A&M University, I made $1,100 a month. I taught one class, and I was expected to make a syllabus, prepare and deliver lectures, come up with assignments, and grade at least 4 essays per student per semester. Technically, I worked “20 hours a week.” In reality, if I was being fair to my students, I worked 30-40 hours a week. On top of my full-time graduate course load. Often, I had to be unfair to my students. To top off the shitty pay, you were not allowed to have another job. In the first couple weeks at my program, a student was told that if he didn’t quit his part-time job at a book store, he would be kicked out of the program.
When I left the department, they were increasing the teaching load from a 1/1 (1 class in each semester) to a 2/1 (2 classes in one semester, 1 class in the other semester), without increasing GAT pay at all. When the English Graduate Student Association (EGSA) talked unionizing, the department made it clear that that sort of thing was unwelcome. This isn’t abnormal. Most universities are very anti-union, particularly for their most vulnerable instructors, like GATs and adjunct instructors. As scATX points out:
Yes, we get to teach. But inside ever-increasing exploitative systems. Those of us lucky enough to teach our own courses are not called “Instructors” but rather “Assistant Instructors,” though we assist nobody. The latter title makes it legally easier for a university to pay you less.
The thing is, universities don’t even bother to hide how much they screw over GATs. They tell us, “It’s part of your education! We’re doing you a favor by making you do a valuable service for us for a pittance.” And, just…no. GATs are doing a job, for which they deserve to be fairly compensated. And when universities are transparently taking on more GATs, because they can’t even be bothered to fill their classrooms with poorly-paid and non-unionized adjuncts anymore? Even though taking on more graduate students is patently irresponsible, when the market is so flooded that a humanities PhD candidate has a 1 in 5 chance of getting a tenure-track job? You are not valued there as an employe, and the university wants, point-blank, to make you work as much as possible for as little as possible. That is not exactly a creative, nurturing, and rewarding environment. And it’s not any better for the undergraduate students you teach than it is for you as a student and teacher.
I love teaching so much that I am currently an adjunct at a Texas community college, where I make $1750 per class, per semester. That is goddamn miserly. I would be a better teacher if I was offered health insurance (a healthy teacher is far more productive), if I had enough money to pay for gas and car repairs (I’ve had to cancel classes because I couldn’t get there), if I had less stress because of unpaid bills and lack of food (I can’t grade on an empty stomach). This is not an exciting or rewarding job for me anymore, because I can’t ignore how much I am being exploited by my university. I can’t ignore an empty pantry, or the bills piling up, or the endless letters demanding I pay back my extensive student loans. That shit affects how much I can enjoy teaching. That shit affects how well I teach. And it was worse when I was a graduate student, taking out thousands in loans because my stipend simply didn’t cover it.
Short answer: Teaching without fair compensation is a reason not to go to graduate school.
But don’t worry! This article is full of more stupid and simplistic arguments!
3. You get to have an audience for your (sometimes substandard) work. And a smart audience to boot. You have peers, colleagues, and mentors who take your creative work seriously, offer you earnest assessment, try to guide you, and, although they are horribly overworked, often try to give you what you need and desire.
Where else can you get such exquisite attention for your writing as you do in graduate school? Outside of this setting, you would be sending your work to your mother, who would say, “it’s very nice, dear.” Or you would present your work to some highly eclectic writing group, which includes at least one person who would like to discuss his most recent UFO sighting.
Work in an office job and what you’ll find is that your boss, however decent, is, by necessity, a very nice, highly civilized task master. You do what you are told—period.
Graduate school or your mother! Those are your only options! Look, I’m not saying that being a writer and researcher outside of academia is easy, but it’s not impossible. I have many colleagues and smart people willing to read over my work and give me guidance. I have many readers who provide me with encouragement to continue doing what I do. And I don’t think I’m an aberration.
Yes, “real” jobs are often not creative. They don’t offer you the kind of research freedom you have in grad school most of the time. But grad school is also full of “do what you’re told to do” moments. Half the research essays I wrote for my program were about shit I did not care about. Because I was forced to take classes in medieval lit, Romanticism, and French. They didn’t even offer classes I desperately wanted, like science fiction courses and fan studies courses. Hell, they only offered one popular culture course while I was there. So, I found grad school really limiting.
Even though grad school is significantly cushier than what I do now, because in grad school I’d have access to library resources and student loans, I would not go back, precisely because I know I would be limited in what I could research. Now, I just live at poverty level and write what I want, when I want. In graduate school, I’d be living at poverty level and writing what I had to based on limited course selection and what my professors thought was “appropriate” for university study. For free. At least I get to get paid for my writing sometimes as a freelancer.
Short answer: Graduate school and academia are not as free and creative as advertised, and you can often do your work outside of them.
6. Graduate school is like a rite of passage. If you make it to the other side of your Ph.D. (or even just your first couple years of teaching), you feel enriched and empowered. You feel strong (although also perhaps jobless). You did what you were not sure you were capable of doing: You stretched yourself.
Ugh, this reason is the worst. See, there’s this attitude within the confines of academia and graduate school. According to this attitude, graduate school is a rite of passage; it separates the wheat from the chafe. It separates the strong from the weak. And what people mean by that is, if you fail at graduate school, it’s because you’re weak, or not passionate enough, or you don’t have enough drive. But let me tell you something: these claims are stupid and ableist. Most people in graduate school deal with the stress of the experience by abusing alcohol or drugs, or by becoming unhealthy workaholics. Almost all of my friends (and myself) at Texas A&M used alcohol in a manner that was completely unhealthy. We joked about it, but we all knew it wasn’t actually funny. There was a woman in my program who just didn’t sleep, so she could get more work done, and she almost passed out in class in front of me because of the exhaustion. And we were encouraged to be more like that. To tamp down the stress, deal with it however, and just work harder and more. We did have access to some mental health resources, which was good, but we were rarely encouraged to go use them. And since we were all competition, not just colleagues, not everyone (including myself) felt comfortable opening up to each other. We were all pretending it wasn’t killing us, so to admit otherwise was to expose your weak underbelly to someone who wanted to beat you at the grad school game. Not a good idea, even if you were friends, in an environment where friends became enemies at the drop of a hat. (Seriously, I could never keep up with who stabbed who in the back, or who was talking about who to professors, or who was spreading malicious rumors about who, or who was no longer friends with who, in my department. It was exhausting.) The department pitted us against each other, and pretend as we might, we were all influenced by that. We all competed for the same funding, and the same fellowships, and the same conference grants. My victory was almost always someone else’s defeat, and that shit is personal in such a competitive environment.
So if you are miserable and depressed in your program? (And almost everyone I knew personally enough was.) You’re on your own. If you’re lucky, you can find non-backstabby friends. If you’re not, you can’t get too personal with most of the advisors. You may be able to find a therapist on campus that you like, but usually no one will tell you that resource exists. You won’t find professors who will give you a lot of slack for issues like depression or exhaustion. (I did find some sympathy my last year, but it was because [TW] my stepdad waved a loaded gun at me. That was a pretty extraordinary circumstance.) And you’re told that if you aren’t succeeding, it’s because you just aren’t strong enough. And that ableist crap is something you’ll hear from pretty much everyone.
So yeah, I guess it’s a rite of passage. Or something. But so is publishing a book, or getting your first freelance article published, or getting hired to do your work somewhere that isn’t a university. Graduate school is unnecessarily stressful and inaccessible. You are not weak or not-dedicated if you don’t go, or don’t finish. There are other ways to do the work you want to do, and a PhD doesn’t prove much of anything, except that you got a PhD. If you don’t want to work in academia, I can’t imagine why you would subject yourself to the undue stress and exploitation of a humanities PhD program.
This is not to say, “Don’t go to graduate school.” I’m glad I got my M.A. Hell, I think I might eventually go back (to a less limiting program) and get another one in sociology or something. But you should not go to graduate school thinking it’ll be this creative, nurturing space in which smart people congregate to do smart things. Go with your eyes open. Make sure you make and keep friends outside of academia and grad school. Make sure you have the emotional resources you need to stay healthy. Remember that work is not more important than taking care of yourself. Remember that you shouldn’t do things for free, no matter how good they look on your CV. Remember that you deserve to be fairly compensated for the work you do.
Even if you do those things, you’ll probably be bitter in the end. Most people are.
Short answer: Remember that graduate school is temporary, a means to an end. If you let it be an end in itself, you’ll likely find yourself deeply disappointed.