A wearying discussion in the media today attempts to answer a single question: “Should I go to graduate school?” Its yes-or-no structure provides an accurate hint as to what a reader can expect from this debate: polarized answers based mostly on the author’s experience.
The situation is about as bad as it sounds; those who dropped out or failed to achieve a tenure-track job write blistering objections to the entirety of academia, while offering inane or impossible advice. One of the worst cases is Ron Rosenbaum’s cranky Slatearticle titled “Should I Go to Grad School? My Story.” It features a stock photo of a woman staring despairingly at a pile of open books and characterizes the “academic mindset” as “the sort of tin-eared arrogance that would consign to the dustbin on no good authority 35 eloquently tormented lines of self-reflection by one of the greatest characters in world literature [Hamlet]—a character defined by his penchant for introspection and self-reflection—on the basis of a half-baked theory.” Rosenbaum’s personal story of success outside of academe amounts to a series of lucky breaks, a classic case of being in the right place at the right time with the added benefit of a kind of innate talent for journalism. Still, it is almost as unsettling to advocate for graduate school in light of some of the facts about the job market, the length of graduate studies, and the quality of life common to graduate students.
It is thus that Joshua Rothman finds himself “impressed by the clarity of the opinion of these essays” in his New Yorker blog post, “The Impossible Decision.” Unlike the other authors of advice articles, he is willing to admit that he just doesn’t know whether you should go to grad school. “I’ve come to feel that giving good advice about graduate school is impossible,” he writes. “It’s like giving people advice about whether they should have children, or move to New York, or join the Army, or go to seminary.”
Rothman’s article makes the claim that the decision to go to grad school is less a career or education decision and more a philosophically fraught existential choice. He borrows George Eliot’s term, “a fragment of life,” to drive this home. The value of graduate school is particularly difficult to judge because of the sheer scope of our lives—both in breadth and depth—that it alters; decisions like these are always thorny to evaluate because their meaning is dependent on how our lives ultimately end and what the final consequences of our decisions are. In other words, they must be seen in the context of the entire life to be rightly understood. And yet, even at the end of our lives, these choices won’t necessarily be any more transparent; human beings’ legacies after death are just as difficult to judge as their major decisions in life.
Ultimately, the grad school decision is obscured in the “perfectly ordinary ways” that all of life is, to some extent. In Rothman’s words, “I’m aware that there are too many unknowns. There are too many ways in which a person can be disappointed or fulfilled. It’s too unclear what happiness is. It’s too uncertain how the study of art, literature, and ideas fits into it all… And, finally, life is too variable, and subject to too many influences.” Perhaps the only defining difference is that PhD programs allow us to choose, in a single decision, a way of life that promises to span a large chunk of our limited number of years, require much of our energy and ability, and radically transform our daily lived experience. Most other life paths require a series of decisions in which the next decision may be completely obscured or unknown, and so you could find yourself accidentally, but nonetheless profoundly, fulfilled by your career in journalism without ever having consciously made one single, fraught decision to become a journalist. Graduate school, however, is easy to frame as a single choice (in some cases, literally the press of a button that says “I accept”) and thus seems to be a qualitatively different kind of decision altogether, “an existential quandary” rather than a mere “career conundrum.”
Looking at it another way, though, it is precisely because of its particularly existential nature that the decision to go to grad school is not a single, all-encompassing choice, but a series of choices that happen almost moment to moment for the duration of your life in grad school. Accepting the offer of admission to a PhD program does not doom you, nor is it some kind of once-and-for-all salvific transformation that will automatically lead you on the path toward tenure. Grad school is a life that must be lived, and thus continually chosen, in a way, by a host of small, mundane gestures: picking up a book to read, submitting a paper for a conference, typing the next word of your dissertation. You can continue to do these things, or you can simply stop and pursue some other way of life. This perspective may not make the decision between graduate school and some other option any clearer in individual cases, but it does save the decision from becoming unduly saturated with existential dread by the media, friends, and parents.
Should you go to grad school? Weigh the options, seek advice from trusted professors and friends, work out the things that will imbue your life with meaning and bring you satisfaction, and then decide for yourself. But don’t make the decision even more difficult than it already is; avoid things like the catalogue of existential horror that is The Chronicle of Higher Education’s advice section.