So You Want to Go to Grad School: Part III...Are You Sure (It's Okay If You Don't)

So you want to apply to grad school? Are you sure? You read PART I: On Deciding to Apply and PART II: On How to Apply. Maybe grad school isn't the right decision... This post is the third of a series offering advice to potential and current grad students. Some of the details may be particularly useful to students pursuing history degrees, especially food history. However, most of these tips are applicable for other humanities and social science degrees.

In my earlier posts I have both emphasized that grad school provides a great opportunity to explore topics you are interested in studying further. Parts of it can also really suck so the soundtrack for this post, to add a big of levity, is Reel Big Fish's Everything Sucks.

I started pre-pre-school when I was 2 years old. At 27 years old I am in the final months (fingers crossed) of my PhD. I have spent the past 25+ years as a student (and have never taken a year off). During those years I have also worked in a surf shop; taught people how to surf; made and sold personalized dolls; interned at a music magazine;  worked at a green architectural consulting firm; spent summers farming in Ireland and France; worked as a house manager and also as the manager of all of the house managers for university residential life; been a research assistant; TA'D 13 semesters; been an adjunct prof for 3 semesters; been a lacrosse coach (for the university varsity level and all of the youth levels from age 8 through 23) and also train other coaches; baked and decorated at a wedding cake and special events bakery; and also worked a bunch of other random jobs. Still-- MOST OF MY LIFE HAS BEEN SPENT AS A STUDENT.

Why am I emphasizing that most of my life has been spent as a student?

It's because when I am giving advice about grad school, it is from the standpoint of someone whose life experiences are grounded in academia so my advice will be skewed that way.

Make sure when you are deciding to go to grad school you also consider the perspective of people who decided NOT to go to grad school. 

When undergrads ask me for advice about their future, I have realized that I often offer them advice about how to prepare for graduate school because that is the world that I know. Each of us has our own areas of "expertise" but when students are wondering what to do with their futures hearing about graduate school might not be the best thing for them.

Below is a list of other things to consider before deciding to go to grad school:


2. I have found that a lot of my peers and I went to graduate school because we always did well in school. No matter what was happening in my life when I was younger, school was a place I received positive feedback. School was a structured environment that validated my sense of self... that is UNTIL GRAD SCHOOL. 

Even though I had attended challenging private prep schools my entire life and a highly respected university for my undergrad, I mostly received positive feedback in school environments. In graduate school, especially after your MA, most of the feedback that you will receive is quite critical. Even if it is constructive criticism, it will primarily be about what you did wrong, oftentimes served with little sugar. 

If you are of a sensitive nature, especially if much of your sense of self predicated on understanding yourself as a successful student, graduate school could be devastating. Growth is painful and graduate school will push you to grow in new ways. 

(Second song of this post's soundtrack, R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts)

I am an emotional person and I know this about myself. I prefer to receive feedback through email so I can privately cry, then ignore it for a few hours, then approach it again with a hardened heart and a pragmatic nature. After meetings where I know I will receive feedback, I schedule in "crying time" afterwards. I hesitate to admit this very personal fact about myself, however to act as if graduate school does not provoke a strong set of emotions would be to lie.

I have found it especially harmful that in academia (and honestly other arenas of the world), many of us pretend to have "everything together" and are encouraged to be poised. I am not advocating that we have an emotional free-for-all, but rather I would encourage us to be honest about some of the difficulties that we face in academia. Pretending that we all "have it together" promotes further feelings of isolation for both our colleagues and ourselves. 

In my next post I will provide a series of tips for surviving grad school, however, I want to emphasize that while emotions are unavoidable, most of us feel "imposter syndrome" and self-doubt, and many students struggle with mental health and depression (see PART I: On Deciding to Apply ), a key to surviving grad school is YOU CANNOT LET GRAD SCHOOL BE YOUR ENTIRE LIFE.

If your entire sense of self is reliant on your work as a graduate student, every comment and critique will be devastating. You are so much more than your work. Surround yourself with friends and family and pets and hobbies. Your supervisors (hopefully) want to push you to produce the best work that you can-- and doing this work can be REALLY HARD. You need to have other things going on in your life so that your emotional and mental health is not tied just to this work. 

3. You don't have to go to grad school to continue your education. Much of grad school consists of independent studies that you do by reading and learning on your own. You can read and write outside of the confines of academia. 

Academia provides a certain kind of structure/ framework for learning about the world. And I have loved some of that! But you don't have to be in school to access all of this knowledge.

A bonus of grad school is that you walk away with a degree that makes your studies culturally legible.  

4.  It's hard to turn it off. And you work really hard for what financially can be very little payoff:

I have friends that work part time at restaurants and bars and spend the rest of their time making their art (this is obviously more possible in a city with cheap rent and a low cost of living in a country with universal healthcare). I have friends who work 9-5 in office jobs (some like their jobs and some hate their work) but when they leave the office, they are done. "Non-work time" is their time. With graduate school, when you make your own schedule it is possible to never be working or WORKING ALL THE TIME.

At one point I was working 5 side jobs and doing my studies/research and paying tuition and "living like a grad student." 

IT IS NOT WORTH GETTING INTO DEBT FOR A HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCE GRADUATE DEGREE. This is my opinion but since you do not have a guarantee of a job at the end, accruing debt does not seem worth it.

Going to grad school provides you will some fascinating life experiences but is not necessarily a great economic decision. It is also the kind of job that is hard to leave at 5 pm.

5. You could spend a lot of time building a CV for a kind of job that doesn't exist.

Try to set yourself up for a life outside of academia by the end of your degree. Otherwise you might have a CV full of list items that hold little relevance outside of academia. Your professors have probably spent most of their life in academia so get advice from non-academics and people who have left academia.

When you are in the final months of your degree, getting rejection letters from tenure track jobs, and holding your breath while you await news about postdocs, you might really start to question what every sacrifice was for. 

Every bit of pain to your ego, your caffeine addiction, and the fact you have more knowledge than anyone ever needs to know about something so specific (yet men you meet at cafes and bars still want to mansplain your work to you)-- well all of that just becomes something to laugh about. 

If you do go to grad school, try to not work 7 days a week ( a trap I fell into this past year or so). Be efficient with your working hours (easier said than done). And try to not let grad school be what defines you.  If you aren't enjoying at least some of this process, then it is not worth it. Because even if YOU LOVE SCHOOL and YOU LOVE YOUR TOPIC, there will still be moments you hate it. 

Go to grad school... don't go to grad school...
Life is a series of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Look forward to future posts about how to survive grad school!


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