“Don’t Go to Graduate School”

gradschoolArrrrrrrgh….. those infuriating words….

It seems like every few months some disgruntled graduate student writes a piece on why graduate school is a terrible idea and why earning a Ph.D. is financially worthless.. In fact, one just came out the other day on Slate. A disgruntled visiting professor of Germanic Studies at Ohio State writes:

Don’t do it. Just don’t. I deeply regret going to graduate school, but not, Ron Rosenbaum, because my doctorate ruined books and made me obnoxious. (Granted, maybe it did: My dissertation involved subjecting the work of Franz Kafka to first-order logic.) No, I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.

To Dr. Schumann, I’m sorry that you had such an awful time in graduate school. I’m sorry that you can’t find the job you want. I’m sorry that your life is so utterly disappointing. You are right: you didn’t ever belong in graduate school. However, your empty and disappointed life has nothing to do with mine or anyone else’s.

As a guy that’s about to earn his own Ph.D., (not in literature, I learned my lesson in undergrad), these articles annoy me to no end. I regret nothing about my graduate career. In fact, it was the best thing I ever did in my otherwise miserable and pointless life (well, my life isn’t that bad, but slugging amps around the country and hounding record distributors for payment pales in comparison to studying developing world health…

and, seriously,

How fucking rad is it for a piece of trailer trash like me to be DR. LARSON??).

Probably unlike the author of this article, I worked shit minimum wage jobs. I know that most of America lives in an awful state of (institutionalized and structural) insecurity and that social mobility is but a fantasy. In 2013, one of the best ways out of the cycle of hourly slave labor is education. Sure, a lit Ph.D. is no guarantee you won’t have to work at a grocery register, but not having a degree is pretty much a guarantee (for most people) that you’ll do nothing but. No offense to the uneducated, but education allows one to surpass a lot of society’s challenges.

Having an education means that you know something about something that other people don’t. Even if you don’t apply your vast knowledge of 14th century German poetry, you know how to do important things like read and write which, in my experience, most Americans have trouble doing with any level of proficiency. You can make arguments. You can think. Importantly, though, you have a self-esteem that comes with knowledge, which is a far cry from the misery and self-loathing that comes with being on the bottom of the ladder (been there, done that).

What this writer (obviously) lacks is flexibility. She demands a tenure track academic job in an age where the entire tenure system (rightfully) is being called into question. Tenure is valuable and necessary to academics, but unfortunately, many don’t see that.

A friend in Kenya rightly pointed out “if no one will give you a job, you just have to make one.” It could be pulling fish out of the water and selling it, becoming a poorly paid journalist or creating a new start up, but, faced with the alternatives (starvation), something has to be done. Anyone with a Ph.D. has the skills to do just about anything they want.

When I first went to undergrad (after being homeless), people like the writer of this article on Slate told me not to. “It’s useless, you won’t be able to get a job anyway.”

I wanted to go to graduate school when I finished undergrad and people told me “It’s useless, you won’t be able to get a job, anyway.”

I considered going back later and was told “It’s useless, you won’t be able to get a job anyway.”

Wow. See a pattern?

Consider the source, though. I found that the people who throw out such nonsense are those who are happy to wallow in a pit of inactivity, passively waiting to be given exactly what they want. You find them in bars, working at local record stores for less than minimum wage, at music shows and anywhere else that will allow them to do absolutely nothing and let them get away with whining about it.

It’s a generalization (and a rash one), but, face it, we all know people like this. They tend to pull down everyone around them instead of encouraging their friends to do something and enjoy life and celebrating them when they do. Those, in my opinion, are the worst types of people.

For me, going to graduate school was a satisfying and enriching experience. Even if I have to do nothing but dig ditches for the rest of my days, these 7 years of doing nothing but reading books and interacting with interesting an engaged people will have been worth it.

So you know what? To hell with the haters. Spend less time on the hate, less time whining about how unfair the world is and more time figuring out what to do. Most of all, don’t discourage others from pursuing their dreams.

There are lots of things that people can’t do. You don’t know what you can’t do until you try to do it.

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About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

9 responses to ““Don’t Go to Graduate School””

  1. Ralph says :

    Not having an education does not always mean working the checkout counter, but I get the point.;)

    I think you are spot on with your observations about PHDs telling people not to go to grad school.

  2. Pete Larson says :

    No, you are very right. Plenty of people who don’t have educations achieve all kinds of personal or financial success, but then they’re usually not the types to wait around for it to come naturally.

    Likewise, an education isn’t a guarantee of success, though it can make it a lot easier.

  3. Pete Larson says :

    I just don’t get people that try to discourage others from doing what they want to do. It’s helpful to discourage people from doing heroin, for example, but I’d never discourage people from going to school or trying out a new job. That’s just not what friends are for.

  4. John says :

    Well said. Grad school can obviously be a waste of time in certain circumstances (i.e., your major is something really esoteric that there really isn’t a demand for), but overall it’s a good experience. I think a lot of people fail to understand the importance of networking while in grad school. No one is going to drop a job in your lap when you graduate with your “I’m super smart” piece of paper. You need to hustle, bottom line. If you’re not willing to do that, you might as well not bother with the degree at all.

  5. Ralph says :

    I concur. Don’t know if I mentioned it, but I am now an employee of our Mideast division. Six months per year in Saudi

  6. Jennifer says :

    This is so true. After high school, many of my friends convinced me that college was a waste of time. Unfortunately, the reverse held true – instead of spending my early adult life in school I was wasting my time going to a shit minimum wage job which felt akin to slavery. My pay raises were in pennies, not dollars. I feel like years of my life were stripped away before I finally woke up and went back to school; now, I’m achieving my dreams, dreams which otherwise would have been unattainable if it weren’t for the networking and rigorous academic program I’ve been in.

  7. stumpwater says :

    Awesome! We will all be a lot better off if we stop valuating every life experience in terms of how it will enhance our bank accounts. And I do not doubt for a second that you will continue to use your skills to improve the state of humanity. You rock even harder without the amp, Dr. Larson (now let me buy my old Marshall back from you, please?)

  8. Christopher says :

    I feel like most of these articles come from people in the humanities, and I think that’s not a coincidence. It is entirely possible that they’re right about the value of “going to grad school” or “getting a PhD” . . . in any field that they considered doing so in. Certainly, academia is a lot more competitive and a lot less universally tenured than it used to be even in the sciences, but the whole “all the profs are adjuncts, their workloads are insane, and they barely make more than minimum wage” thing seems to be distinctly a humanities phenomenon.

  9. Pete Larson says :

    I think you’re right. I am certainly not one to dis on the humanities at all, but you have to go into it knowing that the job market is really poor and expect to be flexible coming out.

    It’s not like the humanities can’t teach one useful and marketable skills.

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