Graduate School Delusions

Since I left academia, I have run into a few people who are afflicted with what I call Humanities Grad School Delusions. I can recognize them from a distance of forty paces because I was one of them once. I too believed the lie that all the baby boomers would be retiring any day now, so there would be a job for me in academe. I too believed the lie that experts in my field are in demand, so there would be a job for me. And I too believed that I was special and gifted, so there would be a job for me. It took many years for the truth to reveal itself.  Or, rather, the truth was always there, in plain sight, albeit crowded out by what my professors said and by the chicken coop of grad school. I had to leave the coop to realize that those who tend the chickens are usually foxes and wolves.

As I wrote in my last post, I try not to lord my experience over others (though academia gave me lots of examples of lording). I don’t tell anyone they’re stupid for going to grad school or anything like that. Hey, maybe it will work out for them. I sincerely hope so.

But I know it probably won’t, and I can’t stop myself from knowing what I know and thinking what I think and perhaps giving in too much to my penchant for being judgmental. On good days, though, I think maybe I am not actually a judgmental person. Maybe what seems like judgment is actually basic human compassion for people I care about.

At a recent social gathering, I was chatting with two people who are currently enrolled in a graduate program in a field closely related to mine (seems strange to say “my” field now). I could see them light up when they heard that I am a graduate of a nearby program. “Oh, she’s one of us! A kindred spirit!”

They asked me about my program. I told them I really enjoyed the coursework (I did!), but that everything after that, especially the dissertation, sucked ass (it did!). A look of concern came over their faces simultaneously, and they immediately wanted to know why. I gave them a basic run down of the reasons my program sucked ass after course work, including, but not limited to: the extreme loneliness, the difficulty of the advisor-advisee relationship, and the all-around humiliation and shame of the whole thing.

As soon as I told them this, I could see their faces light up again. The shadow of concern was gone. Why were they relieved? They were relieved because I was describing an experience that could never, ever in a million years happen to them!

“Oh! Our program [that we have been attending for only one year] is not like that! We’re not lonely! And our faculty members are wonderful and supportive!”

Thank God these two lucky grad students were smart enough (unlike me, obviously) to enroll in a better program, one that is not lonely or humiliating! I just nodded, of course. Who am I to burst their bubble? (And this gathering wasn’t really the place to do so anyway.) I suppose there’s always the chance that they’re right about everything.

But I have to admit scenes like this are turning me into a curmudgeon. I walked away from that conversation thinking, “Wait and see, children! Wait and see what’s in store for you.” And then I cackled to myself like an old witch.

I am a terrible person, aren’t I?

I am not wishing a bad experience on anyone, although my wishes one way or the other have nothing to do with what will happen to these two smart, deserving people. But I cannot help but feel that they simply do not know what they are getting themselves into. I wanted to say, “Come and talk to me in five to eight years when you’ve written a thousand drafts of some piece of shit dissertation that no one will ever read, and you’re broke and tired and too fat (or too skinny), and there’s no end in sight, and you’ve realized that no one will ever hire you. And if someone does hire you, you will most likely be a Lecturer with a 4-4 teaching load (at least) and considerable administrative duties. And this ‘job’ will quite possibly be a two-year, non-renewable appointment in a remote outpost in Iceland that will barely pay you enough to make your monthly student loan payment. Come and talk to me then, my pretties!”

But I can’t say that, can I? Because it sounds mean, like I am stomping on their dreams to live a Life of the Mind. “WAAAAA!!!! Things didn’t work out for me, so now I have to kill your enthusiasm for your ‘work.'” No, I don’t want to be that person.

Would I have believed anyone if they had told me the same thing ten years ago? I really don’t know. But there’s a chance I would have, and for that reason, I wish someone had told me. But no one did. So here I am faced with wide-eyed, eager grad schoolers that remind me of my old self. And what do I do? I let them continue in their delusions because people have to learn for themselves, as the saying goes. (Years of grad school, and I’m reduced, in the end, to clichéd expressions.)

Some time later, I was talking to a woman whose daughter has just enrolled in a PhD program in my field. I had just finished telling her about the horrible job market that I had encountered. She listened and nodded in support. Then she said, “Well, I think the program that my daughter is in will be better. From everything I hear, her field can only grow.”

WTF? I just stood there like a stunned deer. I should have said, “Actually, your daughter’s program is in the same field as mine.” But I didn’t. Why? Because what good would it have done? This woman has dreams for her child. Her daughter will be Dr. So-and-so someday, and no one will tell her otherwise.

Is there any better example of cognitive dissonance than participating in a ten-minute conversation about the horrible plight of job seekers in Humanities academic fields and then turning right around and saying, “But that won’t happen to my daughter”?

Is academia unique in producing and coddling this kind of delusion?

(I want to be clear that this believing-something-in-the-absence-of-all-evidence-to-the-contrary is not the fault of individual people like this proud mother or these well-intentioned grad students. This delusion is a product of academic culture, and it’s a product of the scary economic times we’re in.)

I have some further thoughts about deluded thinking in scary times, which I will discuss in my next post, tentatively titled: The Graduate School Chicken Coop and How It Is Just Like a Real Chicken Coop, Only With People Instead of Chickens.

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7 Responses to Graduate School Delusions

  1. recent Ph.D. says:

    What I love about the post-academic blogosphere is that we can actually be more or less honest out here. And I hope — probably against the odds, but nonetheless … — that more and more newbie grad students, like the ones you were talking to, and would-be grad students find their way around here and LISTEN TO WHAT WE WOULD TELL THEM IN PERSON if we could.

    When I was back in that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed phase of newbie grad studenthood, like you, I would have totally turned my nose up at someone like my current curmudgeonly self. Because I would have taken their words as a reflection of failure on the part of the speaker, without recognizing that the speaker may have done everything right (indeed, could have been better at the whole academic game than I might have ever hoped to become) but that it didn’t matter. Or, I would have taken their words as a personal affront, a criticism of my own abilities, a challenge to not be like them.

    But, out here in the post-academic blogosphere, there is nothing that any newbie/would-be grad student should take as a personal affront — and everything to affirm that we, like them, ten years ago were the ones who thought we would be “different.” In the intervening time, we did do everything right. And it didn’t matter.

    I think hearing it this way might have mattered to me back in 2001, if such a thing as a post-academic blogosphere had existed back then, because it wouldn’t have been personal. Hearing it again and again and again from all sorts of different people in different programs all around the country? That might have started to resonate, maybe not enought to make me quit but enough to proceed with much greater caution …

  2. JC says:

    “I am a terrible person, aren’t I?”

    If you are, then so am I. I have the exact same thoughts when I wind up in these conversations … seriously, when I read this today I thought “I could have written this, word for word.”

    Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it either. The myths about academia are so pervasive that there’s just no way you’re going to convince them that academia isn’t perfect. Like you said, you’d just be the bitter meanie who’s stomping on their dreams. And it’s easy for them to rationalize away the negative information if they’re just hearing it from one person in one conversation – “oh, she’s just mad at our department, but my advisor is a million times better than hers.” Or “when’s the last time he was in the grad lab? He just doesn’t work as hard as me.” As recentPhD says, the culture of academia and the personal relationships with fellow grad students make it easy to discount our criticisms.

    It’s harder to ignore the chorus of us out here in this blogosphere from different disciplines and programs who are saying these things. I’m at least optimistic that we’re doing some good by talking about this publicly, so the information’s at least out here for people to find if they need it.

    But yeah, when you’re confronted with the “ohhh, this won’t happen to *me*, I’m going to do everything right and then it will all work out for me” attitude, it’s a bit hard to keep from thinking snarky thoughts. Especially when they’re in their first or second year, and you can see the post-coursework road stretched out ahead of them. We’re only human, after all…

  3. Anthea says:

    No you’re not a terrible person…since I could say the same thing as you and JC. I think that we have to keep on saying these things, keep on talking until those who entering PhD programmes with same myths/delusions… wake up. As JC rightly points out these individuals who we’re referring to are only in the first and second year of their programmes. I think what we recognise as igorance of the horrible reality that faces those PhD students is widespread…and will hit them. Perhaps they’re telling you that “oh, it it won’t happen to me” because they really mean that they DON’T want it to happen to them. Yes, this is true too but sad…they may not want want to realise what’s happening since its always easier to bury one’s head in the sand, as an ostrich does, than face the hard facts of what the post-PhD world for the majority of us.

  4. thedustbiter says:

    No, of course you’re not horrible! You’re realistic. Unfortunately, that is not a quality that academia values when it comes to this particular topic.

    I tend to be fairly honest with newer and other academics that I talk to about what I think about graduate school and its uses. I’m not quite at the place where I want to tell people not to go, but I do think it’s important to be realistic about what going means, and what is likely to (not) come out of it.

    Like recent Ph.D., I never would have believed me many years ago. In fact, one of my recommenders basically told me everything I’m now discovering (though the other two gave the baby boomer speech) and I didn’t believe much of what she said. But, it’s helpful for me now that I’m going through this to look back on those moments when people were honest with me. I think it’s provided a tiny bit of cushioning, and reassurance that there’s nothing wrong with me for not wanting this, and for the distinct likelihood that it wouldn’t work out even if I did.

    So, I’m honest, in a gentle way, because even if they don’t believe me now, it might be to them useful later.

  5. William Pannapacker says:

    Thank you for writing this essay.

  6. Julie says:

    Yeah, not horrible at all. I think we’re all there, those of us who have left. I hope that now that there are more of us in a place people can actually see, the conversation will be more accessible to people. (When I started grad school in 1996, we were excited about Netscape and graphical interfaces. There was no blogosphere.)

    I don’t think it will change people’s minds, necessarily. It probably wouldn’t have changed mine. But maybe it will give them a better context when they hit the inevitable troubles. They’ll know it isn’t them. I didn’t know that, not for a long time.

  7. Geoff Worsley says:


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