I burned out after one year of the Ph. D. program despite my desire to continue and do research and teach. But then, that was a long time ago and things have changed.
"The Impossible Decision"
April 23rd, 2013
The New Yorker
Graduate students are always thinking about the pleasures and travails of grad school, and springtime is a period of especially intense reflection. It’s in the spring, often in March and April, that undergraduates receive their acceptance letters. When that happens, they turn to their teachers, many of them graduate students, for advice. They ask the dreaded, complicated, inevitable question: To go, or not to go?
Answering that question is not easy. For graduate students, being consulted about grad school is a little like starring in one of those “Up” documentaries (“28 Up,” ideally; “35 Up,” in some cases). Your students do the work of Michael Apted, the series’s laconic director, asking all sorts of tough, personal questions. They push you to think about the success and failure of your life projects; to decide whether or not you are happy; to guess what the future holds; to consider your life on a decades-long scale. This particular spring, the whole conversation has been enriched by writers from around the Web, who have weighed in on the pros and cons of graduate school, especially in the humanities. In addition to the usual terrifying articles in the advice section of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a pair of pieces in Slate— “Thesis Hatement,” by Rebecca Schuman, and “Thesis Defense” by Katie Roiphe—have sparked many thoughtful responses from bloggers and journalists. It’s as though a virtual symposium has been convened.
I’m a former humanities graduate student myself—I went to grad school in English from 2003 through 2011 before becoming a journalist, and am still working nights on my dissertation—and I’m impressed by the clarity of the opinions these essays express. (Rebecca Schuman: “Don’t do it. Just don’t”; Katie Roiphe: “It gives you a habit of intellectual isolation that is… useful, bracing, that gives you strength and originality.”) I can’t muster up that clarity myself, though. I’m very glad that I went to graduate school—my life would be different, and definitely worse, without it. But when I’m asked to give students advice about what they should do, I’m stumped. Over time, I’ve come to feel that giving good advice about graduate school is impossible. It’s like giving people advice about whether they should have children, or move to New York, or join the Army, or go to seminary.
Maybe I’ve been in school too long; doctoral study has a way of turning your head into a never-ending seminar, and I’m now capable of having complicated, inconclusive thoughts about nearly any subject. But advice helps people when they are making rational decisions, and the decision to go to grad school in English is essentially irrational. In fact, it’s representative of a whole class of decisions that bring you face to face with the basic unknowability and uncertainty of life.
To begin with, the grad-school decision is hard in all sorts of perfectly ordinary ways. One of them is sample bias. If you’re an undergrad, then most of the grad students you know are hopeful about their careers, and all of the professors you know are successful; it’s a biased sample. Read the harrowing collection of letters from current and former grad students published in the Chronicle, and you encounter the same problem: the letters are written by the kinds of people who read the Chronicle, in response to an article about the horrors of grad school. They, too, are writing out of their personal experiences. It’s pretty much impossible to get an impartial opinion.
Last week, one of my college friends, who now manages vast sums at a hedge fund, visited me. He’s the most rational person I know, so I asked him how he would go about deciding whether to go to grad school in a discipline like English or comparative literature. He dealt immediately with the sample bias problem by turning toward statistics. His first step, he said, would be to ignore the stories of individual grad students, both good and bad. Their experiences are too variable and path-dependent, and their stories are too likely to assume an unwarranted weight in our minds. Instead, he said, he would focus on the “base rates”: that is, on the numbers that give you a broad statistical picture of outcomes from graduate school in the humanities. What percentage of graduate students end up with tenure? (About one in four.) How much more unhappy are graduate students than other people? (About fifty-four per cent of graduate students report feeling so depressed they have “a hard time functioning,” as opposed to ten per cent of the general population.) To make a rational decision, he told me, you have to see the big picture, because your experience is likely to be typical, rather than exceptional. “If you take a broader view of the profession,” he told me, “it seems like a terrible idea to go to graduate school.”
Perhaps that’s the rational conclusion, but, if so, it’s beset on all sides by confounding little puzzles; they act like streams that divert and weaken the river of rational thought. Graduate school, for example, is a one-time-only offer. Very few people start doctoral programs later in life. If you pass it up, you pass it up forever. Given that, isn’t walking away actually the rash decision? (This kind of thinking is a subspecies of the habit of mind psychologists call loss aversion: once you have something, it’s very hard to give it up; if you get into grad school, it’s very hard not to go.) And then there’s the fact that graduate school, no matter how bad an idea it might be in the long term, is almost always fulfilling and worthwhile in the short term. As our conversation continued, my friend was struck by this. “How many people get paid to read what they want to read,” he asked, “and study what they want to study?” He paused. ”If I got into a really good program, I would probably go.”
Thinking about grad school this way is confusing, but it’s confusing in a mundane, dependable way; you’re still thinking about pros and cons, about arguments for and against a course of action. Continue to think about grad school, though, and you’ll enter the realm of the simply unknowable. The conflicting reports you’ll hear from different graduate students speak to the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of judging lengthy experiences. What does it mean to say that a decade of your life is good or bad? That it was worthwhile, or a waste of time? Barring some Proustian effort of recollection, a long period of years, with its vast range of experiences and incidents, simply can’t be judged all at once. The best we can do is use what psychologists call “heuristics”: mental shortcuts that help us draw conclusions quickly.
One of the more well-understood heuristics is called the “peak-end rule.” We tend to judge long experiences (vacations, say) by averaging, more or less, the most intense moment and the end. So a grad student’s account of grad school might not be truly representative of what went on; it might merely combine the best (or worst) with how it all turned out. The most wonderful students will be averaged with the grind of the dissertation; that glorious summer spent reading Kant will be balanced against the horrors of the job market. Essentially, peak-end is an algorithm; it grades graduate school in the same way a software program grades an essay. Sure, a judgment is produced, but it’s only meaningful in a vague, approximate way. At the same time, it raises an important conceptual question: What makes an experience worthwhile? Is it the quality of the experience as it’s happening, or as it’s remembered? Could the stress and anxiety of grad school fade, leaving only the learning behind? (One hopes that the opposite won’t happen.) Perhaps one might say of graduate school what Aeneas said of his struggles: “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.” Today’s unhappiness might be forgotten later, or judged enriching in other ways.
This kind of thinking, in turn, makes you wonder about the larger purpose of graduate school in the humanities—about the role it assumes in one’s life. To some degree, going to graduate school is a career decision. But it’s also a life decision. It may be, therefore, that even older graduate students are too young to offer their opinions on graduate school. Ten years is a long time, but it’s still only part of a whole. The value of grad school hinges, to a large extent, on what comes next. The fact that what comes next is, increasingly, unclear—that many graduate students don’t go into academia, but pursue other jobs—might only mean that a greater proportion of the value of graduate school must be revealed with time. Grad school might be best understood as what George Eliot, at the end of “Middlemarch,” calls a “fragment of a life,” and
the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval.
You never know how things will turn out. Experiences accrued in one currency can be changed into another. Ambition today can fund tranquility tomorrow; fear today can be a comfort later on. Or the reverse.
The breadth of grad school, in other words—the sheer number of years it encompasses—makes it hard to think about. But, finally, it’s challenging because of its depth, too. Grad school is a life-changing commitment: less like taking a new job and more like moving, for the entirety of your twenties, to a new country. (That’s true, I think, even for undergraduates: grad school is different from college.) Grad school will shape your schedule, your interests, your reading, your values, your friends. Ultimately, it will shape your identity. That makes it difficult to know, in advance, whether you’ll thrive, and difficult to say, afterward, what you would have been like without it.
The philosopher L. A. Paul, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes these sorts of big life decisions eloquently in a forthcoming paper; she calls them “epistemically transformative” decisions. Sometimes, you can’t know what something is like until you try it. You can’t know what Vegemite tastes like, for example, until you try Vegemite; you can’t know what having children will be like until you have children. You can guess what these things will be like; you can ask people; you can draw up lists of pros and cons; but, at the end of the day, “without having the experience itself” you “cannot even have an approximate idea as to what it is like to have that experience.” That’s because you won’t just be having the experience; the experience will be changing you. On the other side, you will be a different kind of person. Making such a decision, you will always be uninformed.
We don’t, Paul writes, really have a good way to talk about these kinds of life-changing decisions, but we still make them. It’s hard to say how, exactly, we do it. All she can say is that, in order to make them, we have to do something a little crazy; we have to cast aside “the modern upper middle class conception of self-realization [that] involves the notion that one achieves a kind of maximal self-fulfillment through making rational choices about the sort of person one wants to be.” From this point of view, when you contemplate grad school, you’re like Marlow, in “Heart of Darkness,” when he is travelling up-river to find Kurtz. “Watching a coast as it slips by the ship,” Conrad writes,
is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out.’
We make these decisions, I suspect, not because we’re rational, but because we’re curious. We want to know. This seems especially true about graduate school. It’s designed, after all, for curious people—for people who like knowing things. They are exactly the people most likely to be drawn in by that whispered “Come and find out.”
* * *
In a narrow sense, of course, there’s nothing about these skeptical thoughts that should stop me from giving advice about graduate school. And when students ask me, I do have things to say. I point them to data, like the chart published in The Atlantic last week, which shows the declining reliance of universities on tenured faculty. And I tell my own story, which is overwhelmingly positive. I may not have finished (yet), and, like any grad student, I had my moments of panic. But I loved graduate school, and I miss it. In particular, I miss the conversations. Talking with my students, I found and expressed my best self. The office hours I spent in conversation with my professors stand out, even years later, as extraordinary experiences. I wish that everyone I know could have them, too.
But, talking to my students, I’m aware that there are too many unknowns. There are too many ways in which a person can be disappointed or fulfilled. It’s too unclear what happiness is. It’s too uncertain how the study of art, literature, and ideas fits into it all. (I’ve never forgotten the moment, in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” when Herzog thinks, “Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas. I even know which ones”; Herzog knows everything except how to live and do good. And yet what he knows is so extraordinary. As a grad student, I led a fascinating and, obviously, somewhat ironic discussion of that quote.) And, finally, life is too variable, and subject to too many influences. A person’s life, Eliot writes, also at the end of “Middlemarch,” is
the mixed result of young and noble impulses struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.
I’ll give advice about grad school if you ask me to, and I’m happy to share my experiences. But these bigger mysteries make the grad-school decision harder. They take a career conundrum and elevate it into an existential quandary. In the end, I feel just as ignorant as my curious, intelligent, inexperienced students. All I really want to say is, good luck.