Friday, September 07, 2007

Unsolicited advice

A year into a grad program, I feel qualified-ish to answer Rita's question about going into academia. Not that she asked me, but I have been asked this by other people in a similar situation. As is the case with anything, I do not know what people should do with their lives, thus the "ish." An extra "ish" for being just one year in. But here we go:

There's a spectrum of readiness for grad school. Some people know from early childhood that the one possible thing they could do in life is study and teach about illuminated manuscripts. Everyone in their family since the Renaissance has studied these manuscripts; their ancestors prior to that were creating them. Never so much as pausing to take a coffee-shop job, they go from college summers working in libraries' special collections straight on to grad school.

Unless this sounds familiar, you're bound to be less than certain about whether grad school is the way to go. But for those with the qualifications and interest, but without a priestly calling, how to decide? The way I'd go with is to think of all the things you might do, and then, if grad school is the one that sounds best, do it. If not, don't.

There are several problems with presenting academia as a calling, something I've often heard done. For one thing, grad school does not begin and end with being a smart undergrad with a passion for a specific subject. You actually have to go to school, do the work, and otherwise do things beyond just basking in your specialness. This is as it should be, it's how you learn. I would imagine that if you enter grad school believing yourself to have been chosen in some divine way--as opposed to the usual way, by an admissions committee-- you'd be more likely to be disappointed than those with a strong interest plus an understanding that whatever it is you decide to do for a living will involve proving yourself from time to time, unless you happened to win the Nobel Prize in utero, or have the last name Windsor.

The other problem with this approach is that it implies there are no rewards to grad school other than the spiritual connection you have with your subject. As with any job one has freely chosen, finding the work stimulating is its most important aspect. However it is simply not true to say that this is all grad school has going for it. It involves a certain amount of prestige, the company of intelligent people, and, depending on the fellowship situation, may well pay better than a whole range of interesting-sounding entry-level internships, and is probably far more likely to lead to higher-paid work in the future. Not high, but higher. Again, while it would be ridiculous to go to grad school if you did not find a particular subject worth devoting a great deal of time and thought to, it should not be presented as the ultimate sacrifice.

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