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.
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.