Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Grad school for boys and girls

The manifestos against going to humanities grad school (which, like those against the skinny-models, are eternal) are often guilty of not differentiating between funded programs and non-, well-ranked ones and less so. But another angle they leave out, and that I hadn't really thought about until reading Matt Feeney's recent post and its comments, is gender. What difference does it make if the 22-year-old choosing between doctoral programs and whatever else is a man or a woman?

The 'plus' of being around undergrads that Feeney alludes to, then explains outright, is obviously somewhat gender-specific, as in, the presence of 19-year-old boys is of no particular advantage to most mid-20s straight women. Feeney writes of meeting his wife "when my dissertation was already finished... when she was a senior." This is not a situation I could imagine any of my female classmates finding themselves in. That said, the drawback of "'being poor through your late twenties'" (Feeney quoting a commenter) is probably a lot less pronounced for women than men. The market for well-read women who can make intelligent cocktail party chit-chat but who don't do anything that sounds too intimidating career-wise (and when I tell anyone what I study, and what my boyfriend does, take a guess whether it's French or astrophysics that gets the stunned silence) is surely greater than for our male equivalents. If the argument against humanities grad school is that it's basically a type of finishing-school, then that's in a sense an argument for grad school for women in urban areas looking to meet rich, possibly older, men.

Then there's the question of fertility, which for women we've decided ends at 21. Or, even if we're going with 35, grad school is reputed to keep women hostage till that age. Does being a grad student make marriage/kids in one's mid-20s less of an option? Or (as I suspect) is it just that the sort of people who go to grad school are the types who go to PhD programs are not typically the sort interested in either that young, or at all? Because plenty of couples are starting families on household incomes the same as mine without this being even a tiny bit tragic. If we the childless 26-year-old humanities grad students list income among the reasons we don't have kids, it's mainly because the people we know with kids make more than we do, either because they're already profs or because they work in a different field, and we associate having kids with already having a particular standard of living. And... if you're a girl grad-student who's parlayed your sophisticated non-intimidatingness into a hedge-fund beau, problem solved, assuming you're not dead set on taking that tenure-track job half a country away from Wall Street and are OK with teaching high school on the Upper East Side.

Then there's the question of ego. In my limited experience of the world, those who enter grad school imagining a future of tenure, wood-paneling, and nubile acolytes, those who enter grad school because It Is Their Calling, because they are Intellectuals, these are in virtually all cases men. On the one hand, having this attitude towards grad school makes you an annoyance to fellow grad students, and leads to severe disappointment when The Job they are owed isn't there. But! It probably helps in terms of getting through grad school not to dwell too much on the Plan Bs. But! It helps, if you're not actually a genius, not to go through life convinced you are one, and since most of us, male and female alike, are nothing of the sort, here, women may have the advantage.


Matt said...

Most of this seems quite plausible (especially the bit about dating undergrads, though only grad students who had come immediately from undergrad seemed very interested in that even among the men when I was in grad school) but I wonder if its generally true that grad school women would, in general, be happy enough to marry a rich guy and teach high-school (or something.) I suppose if it has the advantage of being rich and living in New York city than maybe it's okay, though of course it's only a small fraction of grad students who are in NY, and the grad student women I knew, mostly in philosophy, classics, and History and Sociology of Science (they were all in the same building) were pretty intensely intellectual and didn't seem likely to be easily satisfied with such an option. Now, as a second-best it's certainly not terrible, but most seemed pretty clearly set on academic life.

Phoebe said...


If you include universities near NY, that's actually many, many grad students - and then there's the Bay Area... As for grad student women thinking like this, I don't think very many do, and all I know are "pretty intensely intellectual" as well. I don't know of anyone having intentionally sought out a wealthy man - things just sort of happen as they do. But my point was that, if we're taking the (perhaps a bit beyond) realist view that post-grad-school, options within academia are severely limited even for the best and most motivated students, these women and their male equivalents could well be teaching high school regardless. Basically, if the idea floating around is that grad school=poverty, this is one example of why that isn't necessarily the case, even for those who don't get tenure-track jobs. It's not the route I'd want for myself, but this is about male and female grad students in the broadest terms.