Sunlit Water

July 9, 2006

Grad School: No Thanks

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 9:30 pm

I’m a pretty studious, academically-oriented guy.  I’ve always done well in school, gotten good grades, and enjoyed learning.  Because of that, a lot of people (primarily my mother, but others as well) seem to just assume that I’ll go to grad school and then into academia.  They see it as my destiny or something, and I guess I can see why given my public persona.  I’m generally kind of non-committal when people start talking like this, because I see no point in getting into big arguments over it, but I think these people are totally wrong about me.  I don’t intend to go to grad school, and I certainly don’t want to go into academia.

Not that there’s anything wrong with academia.  I think it’s great, and I’ve certainly enjoyed my time in college.  I’m sure it’s an excellent choice of career for a lot of people, many of whom are similar to me in a lot of ways.  I’m equally sure, however, that I would hate it.

I do like research, and if I were able to get a job where all I had to do was research and writing I don’t think I would mind it, but while such jobs exist, they’re even harder to get than most academic jobs and it’s not worth all the trouble for such a slim chance.  Most academic jobs, of course, also involve teaching, and that’s the real trouble for me.  Not that I mind teaching per se; if I had an interested audience and an interesting topic, I could enjoy it quite a bit.  That’s a pretty big if, though, and as far as I can tell it’s quite unlikely to be satisfied in an academic job search.  Plus there’s grading.  So yeah, teaching is not for me.  And because it’s so important to being a professor, a professor I will not become.

On the rare occasions when I try to explain this to people, it usually comes out as “no, I don’t want to go to grad school.”  This tends to lead a lot of misunderstandings, because people interpret that as prematurely shutting off a bunch of my options for no good reason.  As they often tell me, graduate degrees are necessary for a lot of career paths, especially to advance beyond a certain level.  That’s true, of course, but only because “grad school” is a broad concept and people mean different things by it.

When I say I don’t want to go to grad school, I mean I don’t want to get a Ph.D. and become a professor.  This is often what the people I talk to also mean, at least on some level; though they know there are different kinds of graduate degrees, this is the one they think would be perfect for me.  But there are many other kinds of graduate school, and those (particularly the ones that are also called “professional school”) are the ones that are important for career development and all that.  I’m certainly not shutting the door on that kind of grad school, and indeed it’s quite likely that I will someday go back to school in one of those subjects.  I just want to make it clear, by oversimplifying a bit, that the fall after I graduate is not going to find me enrolled in a Ph.D. program.

Some readers may be wondering why I’m so dead set against grad school and academia.  Partly it’s because of stuff like this, but mostly it’s because I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like and decided that that’s just not what I want out of life.  My dad was in graduate school for most of my childhood.  He had trouble with it and ended up dropping out, but that isn’t what led me to decide it’s not for me.  His problems were quite different from the ones I can see myself having, but I saw in his experience what it’s really like on a day-to-day level and it just wasn’t what I wanted to spend a major chunk of my life doing.  I’m sure it’s great for a lot of people, but it’s not for me.  And that’s not even considering the job market.

I know a lot of my readers are grad students, and I’d like to ask them some questions.  What made you decide to go to grad school?  How do you like it?  Has it been worth it so far?  I’ve pretty much made up my mind already, but I’d be interested to hear some other perspectives.



  1. For me it was an accident, Teo. I was in an undergrad program, in love with a schizophrenic in the year behind me who I thought would kill himself if I moved away for a job. So I applied for the MA program. By the time I got my undergrad degree, we’d broken up, but I stayed because many of my friends were staying for MAs.

    I know that sounds like a lame-ass reason to be a grad student, but it was in my first semester of my MA program that I suddenly realized why I hated school all my life: it was boring! Grad school was a real wake-up call, in that suddenly I felt my classwork was not useless. Suddenly I felt empowered to seek projects that could potentially change the intellectual landscape (at least a little). I also realized that there were underrepresented voices in academia, and that of historically white-trash Protestant chicks was one of them! So I stayed.

    I also really loved teaching. I am extremely passionate about what I do in the classroom, more than I am passionate about anything else in my life.

    I think deciding one doesn’t want to go to grad school is totally honorable. There’s too many people competing for just a few jobs, and many of them don’t realize they hate the work. They don’t like research or teaching, but they’re sticking it out to get letters after their name (or something, haven’t figured out what the carrot is for some). Realizing that you don’t want the job is a good reason not to pursue it.

    I wouldn’t be as dramatic about it as Easily Distracted, but I have noticed that some of my colleagues aren’t happy in grad school. I am, and I’m lucky to be in one of the programs rated highest in the country for happiness of grad students, but my friends and I are not everyone in my program. There are some who say things like, “You know what? I’ve learned that I don’t really like reading as much as I thought I did,” or “I just have no clue what I care about intellectually.” Those people may not finish, and, as ED says, it will be hard to do something else. But if you can see that coming, turn down a different road, by all means, and everyone you know will still love you.

    Comment by A White Bear — July 9, 2006 @ 10:24 pm |Reply

  2. Thanks for the support. It sounds like you’re one of the people for whom grad school is exactly the right choice. I’m pretty sure I would be one of the unhappy ones.

    Comment by teofilo — July 9, 2006 @ 10:30 pm |Reply

  3. I think part of the problem is that, for some people, constant reading and academic work are assumed to be inherently pleasurable, important, and fulfilling. That’s really not true for most people, not any more than constantly doing mathematics is inherently pleasurable, important, and fulfilling. The people who love either one? You can see it in their eyes. But people who don’t really love it get pushed in because they’ve always been taught to associate a humanities Ph.D. with “success.” I feel oddly lucky that my family never thought about this as a career option for me.

    Comment by A White Bear — July 9, 2006 @ 10:44 pm |Reply

  4. I decided to go to grad school because (a) I realized — before really settling on a field — that being a professor was the career I was most drawn to, and (b) I became fascinated with a subject whose only career option, really, is academia.

    Currently, I’m in the unusual position of doing a quick (and, if truth be told, lightweight) doctorate (not a PhD, but a DMA: “doctor of musical arts”) in a field that’s only of secondary interest to me (piano performance), as preparation and career insurance before starting my PhD in my field of primary interest (music theory, a fairly traditionally academic field).

    I’ve got to admit, I’m having a great time. I’m in a program that allows me to teach music theory to a lot of undergrads, which has been really rewarding. Academically, I’m really lucky to be doing reconnaissance, so to speak, on my field of choice while not yet fully being a member of it. I feel like I have every reason to expect to fly through my PhD when I start it in 2007, because I’ve managed to soak up a lot of grad-school savvy before starting the program that will lead me directly to the career I’m after.

    Without going into great detail, I have to say that a lot of the criticisms in the post you linked simply don’t ring true. They sound like the bitterness of someone who had a shitty experience. There’ll always be the risk of having a terrible experience in a nasty department with a fascist dissertation advisor, but grad school itself is not to blame. By doing one’s homework before going to grad school, one can often avoid programs that have some of those flaws.

    As far as teaching, I’m honestly not sure what you mean when you say that (I paraphrase) having an interesting topic and interested audience are conditions that are unlikely to be fulfilled. If you got a PhD and a tenure-track job, you would presumably have to teach some relatively non-specialized classes to a diverse group of undergrads, as well as upper-division classes and graduate seminars on specialized topics to interested students. This is par for the course. As a mere grad student, my teaching experience is limited to the former, but it’s been great. I was horrible at it when I started, but with 5 semesters’ worth under my belt (and good advice and gentle supervision from professors who are fine pedagogues), I’m pretty good at it now. I would have no hesitation, at this point, about teaching classes ranging from freshman surveys to grad seminars. No doubt you would attain the same comfort level eventually. It takes patience, but the ability to teach effectively is a skill that naturally develops in people who want to attain it.

    But let me finally say this. My dad is a professional musician, and naturally he’s often asked by his students whether he thinks they should go into music as a career. He tells them that music as a career is not simply for people who want to do it, but for people who HAVE to do it. For me, music and academia are coextensive, but in your case I would suggest that my dad’s advice is almost universally valid for academia in general. The whole PhD process and tenure-track job search (not to mention the process of earning tenure) are a particular set of challenges that I think are only valuable to those who specifically desire them for their own sake. The money is shit, and the prestige isn’t what it used to be. Now, since the moment I realized it was my path, I haven’t seriously questioned it w/r/t my own personal self. But if you feel that you don’t HAVE to do it, it seems like that’s a valuable intuition to trust.

    Long comment, sorry. Hopefully I’m making sense.

    Comment by Chris B. — July 9, 2006 @ 10:49 pm |Reply

  5. Long, but interesting. You make a lot of good points. My thing about teaching is, I think, mostly just a personal idiosyncrasy of mine that I’m very uncomfortable talking to people who aren’t interested in what I’m saying. Obviously, as you say, not all teaching is going to be like that, but inevitably some is, and while I’m sure I could get used to it in time, it just sounds hugely unpleasant. But again, that’s just my own deal and surely not representative.

    I like your way of putting it that it’s for people who have to do it. I’m quite sure I’m not one of those people, which is why I’m not willing to put up with the process (even though I probably could do it).

    Comment by teofilo — July 9, 2006 @ 11:06 pm |Reply

  6. I totally get your thing about not wanting to talk about some particular subject to people who aren’t into it. Since music theory is a particularly hated subject among a lot of undergrad music performance majors, I’ve certainly taught my share of disgruntled, uninterested students (and holy shit can those kids cop an attitude). This is, of course, in addition to a great number of smart, interested, delightful students.

    Being in that particular kind of teaching situation requires a willingness to be the cheerful asshole who, though doing his or her best to make the subject material palatable and interesting and comprehensible, doesn’t make any excuses for it and insists that it be learned by all. Since I firmly believe that music theory should be learned at a certain level of competence by all music students, I’ve learned to be that asshole when necessary. This sustains me through difficult moments. And, I’m looking forward, more than I can possibly tell you, to the time when I get to teach graduate seminars on topics of my own choosing.

    It sounds like you know your own mind. Few qualities could be worth more. Do you have some guilt or uncertainty about the decision not to go into academia? Or is it just that you’re wondering what to say to those who ask why you’re not planning to do it? Otherwise, if it’s not your bag, I don’t see why you would worry about it any more than I worry about my decision, for example, not to become a CFO, or something.

    Comment by Chris B. — July 9, 2006 @ 11:21 pm |Reply

  7. It’s mostly because, as I hinted in the post, I am experiencing a certain amount of family pressure to go to grad school. It’s not so much that my parents have their hearts set on me becoming a professor or are living their dreams through me or whatever, and they would be upset if they thought I was interpreting them that way, but more that they genuinely believe academia is the perfect place for me and think I’m being stubborn and unrealistic by disagreeing. I’ve finally got my mom convinced that it’s better to at least take some time off after graduating, but she still sees it as “doing something before grad school” while I see it as “beginning a career.” So that’s pretty much where the post is coming from.

    Comment by teofilo — July 9, 2006 @ 11:39 pm |Reply

  8. I don’t know that I can really respond without writing a series of posts – which I’ve considered writing for a while, as I’ve always been ambivalent about grad school and ambivalent about writing in detail about that ambivalence – but I take you to be saying more that you don’t want to be a professor, than that you don’t want to go to grad school.

    Being a professor is certainly not for everyone, and it’s certainly not for me, but I’ve met enough people who’ve begun professor-training late enough in life to realize that it’s probably better to change your mind after deciding not to go to grad school than it is the other way around.

    Comment by eb — July 10, 2006 @ 1:31 am |Reply

  9. That should probably read “later in life.”

    Comment by eb — July 10, 2006 @ 1:32 am |Reply

  10. Yeah, that’s pretty much it; I wouldn’t mind going to grad school if I could do something other than be a professor afterward, but for the disciplines I would be most likely to go for that’s just not a realistic expectation. And the opportunity cost is so high.

    Comment by teofilo — July 10, 2006 @ 2:03 am |Reply

  11. Going to grad school also creates a weird block about applying for nonacademic jobs, in that, until you die, potential employers will say, “Obviously you don’t really want this job. You just failed to become a professor and you’ll always be miserable here.” And while on one hand, that’s close-minded, on the other, it’s true.

    There’s simply no way to go from teaching your own classes and organizing your own time around your own thoughts and research to doing what someone tells you to do. Even if you’d rather have a boss, even if you hate self-guided work, you’ve been doing it for five years.

    I had some glitches with getting teaching this summer, and suddenly applying to office jobs was really weird. I honestly don’t mind the work once I get into the groove of it, but for the first time in a long time, I had to answer to someone else about everything I’d done in a day. Such a weird feeling, that was, and I kept saying, “Grad school has made me unfit for other work.” I never thought that would happen.

    Comment by A White Bear — July 10, 2006 @ 8:18 am |Reply

  12. Sometimes parents/adults say “You should go to grad school” when what they mean is “I see talents/inclinations in you that I think could be best met by grad school.” (You like to debate things – obviously you must want to be a lawyer! etc.)

    One way to combat this is to not engage the question – just give a concrete example of what you DO like: “You know, I really enjoy working with people of different ages,” or “I really like outdoor work” or “I really like the challenge of puzzling out riddles.”

    If they’re just on their own private kick about What You Should Do With Your Life (which probably has to do with what they didn’t do with theirs), this tactic won’t work. But if it’s coming out of love and care for you, and their well-intentioned, perhaps somewhat fumbling notions of how to guide you toward work that will make you happy, then this tactic will give them better data to work with.

    It’s also true that saying even the silly little stuff will help you articulate what type and kind and variety of work interests you. You don’t have to know what the anticipated career is right off the bat — “I like puzzles, and therefore I Will Be A Cryptographer.” A person who likes puzzles could end up as a medical diagnostician or a crossword creator or a computer programmer or a psychologist or a stone mason or who even knows what.

    Not that you have said you like puzzles. (I had another thought about your mention of research jobs, but this comment is too long already.)

    Alternatively, you can say “It’s interesting that you say that. What specifically makes you think grad school would be a fit for me?” which requires some care in the delivery or else it comes off as snippy.

    Comment by Witt — July 10, 2006 @ 6:09 pm |Reply

  13. I think you’ve pretty much nailed it, Witt, with the first paragraph of 12. That’s exactly what my parents are doing. Your suggestion in the second paragraph is good, but the problem for me is that I don’t really know what I do like, at least not on such a concrete level. I may do a “what should I do with my life?” post later to sort of flesh out that issue.

    Your other suggestion is also good, and I’ll keep it in mind for the next time this comes up.

    Comment by teofilo — July 10, 2006 @ 7:46 pm |Reply

  14. I have done more than my share of grad school, thinking that I wanted to be a professor. Some of it was super rewarding. Bad grad school, though… Oh man. Bad grad school is utterly miserable. In retrospect, I would say to only go to grad school when you affirmatively want to and to know a lot more about your potential schools then I did. You have lots of time.

    I think you’re in good shape just by asking these questions, which I didn’t until way too late.

    Crotchety advice:
    If you do work for a while, don’t let your standard of living creep up. That’s a ratchet and it’ll trap you just as surely as grad school. You can live comfortably when you’re in your thirties and start to notice the quality of your mattress.

    Comment by Megan — July 10, 2006 @ 9:31 pm |Reply

  15. Don’t worry, there’s not much chance of my standard of living going very high given the kinds of jobs I’m looking at. And thanks for the advice.

    Comment by teofilo — July 10, 2006 @ 11:03 pm |Reply

  16. téo, the best advice I received about applying to grad school is:

    If the answer to ‘Do I want to do this?’ is ‘Maybe’, the answer is ‘No.’

    Sounds like you’ve made a good decision here. You don’t need letters after your name to live the life of the mind.

    Comment by Cala — July 21, 2006 @ 11:07 am |Reply

  17. Thanks for the support, Cala.

    Comment by teofilo — July 21, 2006 @ 11:25 pm |Reply

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