Graduate school should come with warning labels

When I requested an application packet for graduate admission from the Georgetown University department of philosophy (Eek, I'm old -- when I applied to grad school for the first time -- not even college, but grad school! -- there were still such things as PAPER application packets.  Wow.  Also, I no longer have the faintest idea of why I was ever interested in attending Georgetown.) it arrived with a cover letter from the American Philosophical Association to the effect that, even if I got into a Ph.D. program in philosophy, and even if I excelled in that program, they could not promise me a job on the other side.

At the time, I was a bit taken aback by this overt discouragement to a potential applicant.  Do they think I don't know that?  I wondered.  I paid attention to the world of academia.  I knew what I was getting myself into.  It seemed a little paternalistic to try to warn me away, frankly.

Now, though, I appreciate the honesty of the Georgetown philosophy department and the APA.  Because not everyone who thinks about applying to graduate school in the humanities does know just how f'd up the job market is for college-level instructors in the liberal arts.  And even those who do know probably don't really get it.  Because if you're the kind of person who is in a position to even think about pursuing a Ph.D., you're the kind of person who's spent your whole life being exceptional, and it's difficult to imagine ever reaching the point where all of your peers are so exceptional that none of you are exceptionally exceptional anymore.  So you read the warning and assume it won't really apply to you, personally.  (At least, that's what I did.)

That doesn't mean the warning shouldn't be offered, though.  If you do go to grad school, especially for an academic degree in the humanities, you need to go in with your eyes as wide open as you can manage.  You need to know what you're signing up for.  You need to know, for instance, that it's a bad idea to go into debt to get a degree that might not be sufficient to get a good job to enable you to pay back those loans.  Because you can't make wise choices if you don't have a realistic perspective on your ambitions, and because in the event you go for it and it doesn't work out, the process of re-entry into the non-ivory tower world will be a lot less painful if you knew from the start what you're up against.  There are a LOT of embittered ex-academics out there, and I think one of the major reasons that I'm not particularly bitter even though I did wash out of academia is that I had some notion going in just how badly the odds were stacked against my success.

So now I believe that every institution of higher learning that accepts applications for M.A.s and Ph.D.s in the humanities ought to have a link to a warning similar to the one I got from Georgetown prominently displayed on the application website.  Most applicants won't read it, and most who do won't take it to heart, but it's still worth putting out there -- if only so that, when students and alumni inevitably face the reality of the abysmal academic job market, they might remember that it's a numbers game, and not necessarily a personal failure, that they can't find the position they've just spent their whole adult life preparing for.

I also think these websites need to have an additional, but not unrelated, warning link: (1) beware -- this will take years of your life at subsistence-level wages with no guarantee of a career when you're done, and (2) beware -- graduate school can be bad for your mental health.  I'm not saying that graduate school causes depression -- if you're the kind of person who goes to graduate school, you know well enough to be suspicious of the idea that correlation implies causation.  But for me, at least (and, from reading the Chronicle article linked above, it appears that this isn't just me), the pressure-cooker conditions of graduate school created the perfect storm to trigger the major depressive disorder to which I am genetically predisposed.  

The point isn't that you should avoid graduate school, even if you know you are vulnerable to mental health issues, but awareness is vital.  Grad students should know that they are at elevated risk for mental health issues and know what kind of resources are available to them and how to take advantage of them should the need arise.  They should also know that getting out of academia altogether is a legitimate option and, for some people, the best (or only) choice.

I have been grieving vicariously for a woman I never actually knew, but whose story has strong resonances for me.  She didn't make it out of academia alive, and some of her friends, bewildered and heartbroken by her death, have wondered whether she would have survived if she had escaped the profound pressures of academe and the academic job market.  Of course, none of us can know; none of us can claim to understand the depth of her suffering.  While I experienced severe and sometimes debilitating depression in graduate school, the one major depressive symptom I did not experience was suicidality (well, that and insomnia), so I certainly can't claim to know what she went through.

Still, as I wept for Sarah and those who loved her, I also wept with gratitude for the advisers who helped me reach the conclusion that it was time to get out, and assured me that there was life on the other side of the academy.  They were right.  And I breathe a prayer for those among the next generation of aspiring scholars who may face similar struggles, that they will have the understanding of mentors and friends and access to the help that they need to find a path that leads to life.


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