Friday, April 20, 2012

A post that would be called "grass is greener" if today's date didn't give the wrong impression

Among my peers who started out in Teach for America or similar, law school is this immensely appealing road to higher pay and not so many rowdy 8th-graders. Those who dabbled in this and that as recent college grads will, one after the next, end up in those post-bac pre-med classes, much to the chagrin of those of us whose parents inevitably hear that so-and-so's kid is doing one of those post-bacs, and, you know, never too late... Lawyers and law students fight over jobs for which a JD isn't necessary, wallow in debt, dream of academia. Grad students and academics fantasize (we do! I swear!) about pairing walking sneakers and pantyhose and commuting into an office job. Office workers are all, of course, delighted with their lot in life. I know people fleeing to as well as from MFA programs. A friend of a friend evidently didn't make as much of a go of it as anticipated with pastry grad school.

What I'm saying is, for every peer I know who's been on a direct and exhilarating trajectory since college, there are maybe five hopping around from productive pursuit to productive pursuit, not lost in the sense of rising at 4pm in the proverbial parental basement, but stuck with something of a wandering eye when it comes to careers. It can't help that whichever path you're on, your friends and family will be emailing you dozens of articles about why your choice was a foolish one.

On that note, there's another article telling grad students that they've made a terrible life choice. Early on in the piece that, if you're a grad student or prospective, someone has probably already sent your way, Katy Waldman assures us, or her bosses at Slate, that even though this is her frame for the story, she's not really considering grad school. "In real life, of course, I have a job that I like and a professional future I’m pursuing avidly." Waldman's essay, inspired by an online forum about grad-school admissions I'd never heard of but that's evidently a big deal, is a quasi-personal essay, and not merely a general think piece with a Slate-y personal hook. It's about self-reassurance. Waldman, a journalist, is telling herself that her Plan B, namely grad school, isn't so great, after all.

I know this impulse well, perhaps because it seems she and I have mirror-image Plans A and B, and I do this periodically regarding career paths similar to hers. What if, I sometimes wonder, what if I hadn't had that stubborn aversion to unpaid internships, and used a few of those as a launching pad for seriously pursuing a career in journalism? What about air-conditioner repair? Cue the scene where George Constanza is sitting on the floor of Jerry's living room, having quit and been fired from the very same real-estate job, wondering whether he might have a career as a talk-show host, jockey, or projectionist. "Probably a union thing." Cue Elaine sniffing her pen, at her office job, asking herself, "Is it too late to go to law school?" Immortalized on "Seinfeld," and as old as time.

As is almost requisite in don't-go-to-grad-school articles, there's not much specificity in terms of what's meant by "grad school." MA, PhD, something else entirely? Which discipline? Funded or unfunded? Entered into with career plans in mind, or as a way for socialites to bide their time? But the imprecision kind of works, because Waldman admits that when she thinks about grad school, it's not about a particular field or program, but grad school as a way of life. Waldman is then shocked to learn that grad school is not an intellectual summer camp, but rather a step in the lives of many ambitious young adults, with all the cutthroat competitiveness that entails. Wharton, alas, is not a drum circle, nor is a slot at NYU Law offered to anyone who kind of identified with "Felicity." Or something?

I'm not entirely sure I follow Waldman's premise, which is that there was, in genuine historical fact, a Golden Age, during which grad school really was an escape from it all, when Harvard and Stanford or whatever had open admissions, and could be a permanent life choice in its own right, a lifelong alternative to regular employment. "Going to graduate school," Waldman informs us, "is no longer a way of opting out of the endless search for a better job, the best job, any job. It’s become an element of—a strategy to be deployed in—that search." This Golden Age, as best I can tell, was not 1990 or 1970, or indeed any period of time, but rather a conception of grad school, a fantasy of grad school, Waldman herself occasionally finds persuasive.

Waldman, it seems, confuses her own personal disillusionment with the idea of grad school with a real-life shift in the function of post-college education.
As the obsessive chronicle of yeses and noes reveals, the process of finding a masters or doctorate program carries with it a sense of desperation—one actually reminiscent of the job search. In this rat race, the ivory tower morphs from a reassuring backup plan into a source of social and existential terror via its mysterious admissions policies.
Why "actually"? Why are we surprised that prestigious grad programs would be difficult to get into, or that this would be a source of stress for applicants? How is this specific to These Tough Economic Times?

As I prepare to enter my seventh-and-final year of Dreyfus Affair Studies, contemplating what is even for graduates of top programs a bleak job market, I'm a ready audience for what-were-you-thinking pieces as you'll get. But this one doesn't have me convinced.


Miss Self-Important said...

GradCafe is a lot more self-esteem-friendly than most school admissions boards, like the ones for law and med school. I once blogged about the bad advice at GradCafe, but I thought it was wrong b/c it was so unrealistically positive, not b/c it was soul-crushing. Also, Waldman doesn't seem to distinguish b/w the sections dedicated to professional grad programs (MPPs, MAs in various professional things, etc.) and the academic programs. The latter aren't particularly career-oriented; they're mostly about how to get into a PhD program, not how to get out of one. People sometimes ask about placement rates, but they have no idea what they're talking about. They do obsess a lot over the date that schools send out acceptances b/c it's the only concrete thing they know, but the actual tone of the message board is not particularly anxiety-inducing; the people on it are the already anxious types who are probably calmed by it. Mountains out of molehills.

J.L. Wall said...

Ah, yes -- the GradCafe. I first encountered it, I think, when trying to figure out just what on God's green earth a "Statement of Purpose" was supposed to be/include/look like. (Still don't know, as it happens.) After very quickly realizing everyone there was as clueless as I was, I forgot about it until after I'd finished with applications -- and then used it as a time sink that reminded me that my impatient waiting was, in fact, fairly controlled and sane.

And as a recent college graduate/grad school enrollee (this makes me, I presume somewhat closer to the "target" of anti-grad school advice?), I found applying to graduate programs far less stressful than applying for "real" jobs -- in part because I knew I was far more qualified (in personality, at least!) to read books all day than to perform entry-level office tasks. But also because, if you apply to 100 grad programs, you are, after all, at least guaranteed 100 rejection letters -- and this is not the case when seeking gainful employment and was, for me, particularly bewildering.

I've just realized that as little as I knew about how to apply to grad school, I probably knew a lot more about how to do it than I did how to apply for other jobs. Strange. But not entirely unexpected.

Britta said...

I'm not sure how seeing a bunch of other people stressing neurotically is supposed to calm you down about your own neurotic stressing.

With grad school...I feel like you might see it as an escape from the real world, or as a highly competitive apprenticeship program for academia where only a very few will make it out successfully. I found applying to grad school stressful because it was what I really wanted to do with my life and I knew it didn't make sense to go if I couldn't get a funded offer from a top 5 or maybe top 10 school, all of which had acceptance rates of between 10% - 2%.

Phoebe said...


Just read (reread?) that post - it's excellent. So true, alas, re: the online pet-ownership scolds, and I can see how reading those alongside the grad-application forums would cause one's head to spin.

"Also, Waldman doesn't seem to distinguish b/w the sections dedicated to professional grad programs (MPPs, MAs in various professional things, etc.) and the academic programs."

Indeed. Normally vagueness in a 'don't-go' article is a failure to distinguish between funded and not, sciences and humanities, etc. Here, we're meant to believe that until she found this website, the author thought professional-school students were 'finding themselves.'

J.L. Wall,

If you're applying to grad school (of any variety) as a college senior or a couple years out, you probably have at least a vague memory of applying to college, and the process isn't so different. Meanwhile, with jobs, you have to consider all kinds of new variables (postings for jobs that have already been filled, openings you yourself have to create, etc.). I guess perhaps things have changed a bit, with these forums, in that there's no longer an excuse to apply 'wrong' (as I now know I did, in so many ways, yet things worked out OK).


"I'm not sure how seeing a bunch of other people stressing neurotically is supposed to calm you down about your own neurotic stressing."

Presumably it reminds you that you're not alone?

I think you're right that if you've long felt a calling to be whatever it is you're applying to a program to become, it's a different experience than trying to put off the real world. But I'm not sure what % even in these top programs felt such a calling. And it's stressful in its own way if you imagine grad school as an escape from the need to be an unpaid editorial intern or something, only to learn that these programs that pay you to read don't have open admissions. Although, again, I'm not sure who imagines this.