Back to School

By September 10, 2004April 11th, 2014The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, September 10, 2004

I’ve done more than a few dumb things, but I didn’t think a recent decision fit into the category of abject stupidity that has marked (too many) points in my life. My friends—at least, my academic friends —disagreed.

From their reaction, you’d have thought I’d told them that I was planning to ride a unicycle across the Arabian Desert dressed in a Dior gown.

Instead, what I said was that, after spending a dozen years as an editor of scholarly books and then another handful in college admissions, I was going to graduate school.

Now, I have a laundry list of good reasons. I’m readily able to rattle off the pluses on the balance sheet of life; but still, when I do that in the presence of people with advanced degrees, they come back to the one minus that they just can’t get around: I will be a graduate student.

What’s up with that?

As I settle into my new home and get ready for school to start, I’ve been trying to figure out why so many academics initially react to a somewhat responsible adult’s going back to school with such unqualified, unreconstructed horror, a reaction, I am old enough to realize, that has everything to do with them and little with me.

Are they, my friends, folks from across the academic disciplines and at varying points in their careers, suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome?

It does seem that for lots of people graduate school is a time of trials and tribalism: The rites of passage are often experienced as blood sport. Many think about quitting at some point; plenty actually do. Sniff around the edges of a university community and you’ll find a host of refugees from degree programs. If you want to see the face of depression—helplessness, hopelessness, feelings of guilt, irritability, the inability to think clearly, an overwhelming sense that life is not worth living—go to a graduate-student party.

It always struck me in college and even after—that graduate students were engaged in a magical, mysterious quest; there was something enviable about chasing a passion, about having to have ideas, about the lack of roteness graduate education seemed to represent. Perhaps, I suspect now, the things that I found so appealing are part of what make it vexing.

The main difference, I thought when I was younger, was that graduate students were so, well, grown-up. There’s the rub. What you hear most frequently when you talk to disappointed pursuers of Ph.D.’s is that they wanted more attention, more direction, more coddling. Those who come right from—or not long after—undergraduate degrees don’t really want to be treated like grown-ups. The switch from being taught in structured, bite-sized bits to being expected to master large hunks of information in a room of one’s own can feel overwhelming, like being asked to swallow the world.

Maybe that’s why, when you get down to it, so many of the general complaints about the process have specifically to do with advisers. When I asked a current graduate student in chemistry why she referred to her “boss,” she snapped: “Because he doesn’t advise me. He has never advised me.”

For those driven, self-directed few who go to graduate school knowing exactly what they want to study, I suspect the path is less rocky. But the unwashed, untutored masses, who know they are interested in a subject but haven’t had the experience or exposure to know which facet of study sparkles most brightly for them, are at a disadvantage. Sometimes, like at many other points in life, you just land where you land. Once you get started—with a topic or even a school—it becomes difficult almost to the point of impossibility to change directions. We all know scholars who did their graduate work on subjects that did not sing to them. It’s not a happy tune.

And then there’s the problem that it’s often not what you do, but who you do it for. No one outside of the U.S. government is more adept than graduate students at coming up with conspiracy theories. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the academic world is fair. If your friend’s adviser is more senior, more successful, better connected, better financed, it’s likely your friend is going to be in—guess what?—a better position. Life isn’t fair. Why should academe be? What grown-up would expect it to be?

Finally, is there anything worse, more demoralizing, than having to face up to the merit of your own ideas? Friends of mine who have gone into business have crowed about the rewards—and not just financial ones. It’s a lot easier to measure a pile of money than to have to stack up the qualities of your mind; there’s no quantifiable profit-and-loss statement at the end of the academic day. I recently read a review of a memoir by someone on a postdoctoral fellowship (basically, a way of extending graduate school) at Caltech, whose office was between those of Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. I can’t imagine a better way to feel worse about your own position in the intellectual firmament.

Perhaps graduate school, like youth, is wasted on the young. Which gets us to the paradox of my friends’ reactions. When they went off to study, they may not have been quite ready —may not have been old enough—to know better, but they knew themselves well enough to make the most out of the experience. Now, with the clarity of age and distance, it’s hard for them to imagine having submitted themselves to all that graduate school entailed—including the exploitation of being an overworked, underpaid teaching assistant. Besides, if you’re older, with a family and multiple responsibilities, it is harder to live the exploited life.

So when graduate students go on to become advisers of graduate students themselves, lingering and recondite resentment remains. Strangely, that doesn’t always translate into how professors perform as mentors to their own students. We’ve all heard some of them claim that they had it even worse. Graduate students today are more carefully selected and better financed, they argue. Fewer will wash out. More will receive stipends. Most if not all academics believe that they are recognizably different in their advisory styles than the mentors they had. But then, most of us believe that we’ll never turn into our parents.

As much as there has been a nod toward the “professional development” of professors, rarely are new faculty members given mentoring in how to be good advisers. The pressures of being a grown-up academic are not trivial. Graduate students can be pesky, self-important, attention-hungry annoyances. They also provide, let’s face it, an excellent way to outsource work. If you’re running a lab with many and complicated experiments, it’s in your interest to have people around who can do them for you. If your scholarship requires hours of library surfing, how much easier to have an army of minions. Once they are proficient, it’s not necessarily an advantage to graduate them as quickly as possible. While most professors may deny it, there can be a conflict in the interests of the adviser and the advised.

Of course, there are many, many dedicated teachers in our graduate schools (and many, many happy graduate students studying under them). But there are also those unresolved issues. A highly adaptive method for dealing with trauma is to suppress it—send it down, down, down into the subterranean emotional landscape until, like a mole, it no longer needs eyes to see. Besides, if you’re working on the cutting edge of academe, you’re looking forward, not back. Reflection on grad-school days long gone would be an exercise in not only futility, but boredom. Until. Until someone who is your friend, your colleague, your peer, tells you that she intends to go down a path similar to the one that so scarred and scared you. And worse, she’s old enough, you think, to know better. DON’T DO IT. It’s a flash of raw emotion, an emotional flashback. Then it passes. And you go back to being the grown-up that you’ve become, and offer her some advice.