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Wicken GS: Grad school: (pros and) cons

This, dear reader, is the column I have been putting off since I first started writing for The Herald.

Cynical, pessimistic and darkly sexual as I might often appear, I don't want to waste time and space grumbling about the plight of the graduate student. I myself am approaching the end of my seventh year of graduate school and my fifth at Brown. In that time, I have, among other things, studied some fascinating topics, met some brilliant people, made some wonderful friends and even had the occasional free lunch. Much, much more importantly, I met my wife on the steps of Sharpe House on our very first day. For this alone, I would do the last seven years all over again, though on replaying that particular day, I might not choose the same shirt that has had her mocking me for years.

On the other hand, I don't think that I could, in good conscience, recommend graduate school, especially a doctoral program, especially in the humanities, to another soul.

The prevailing culture of graduate school, if not always the experience itself, is one of misery and deprivation. Most grad students genuinely believe that theirs is a particularly difficult existence. I myself have been guilty of this. My theory is that this is partly due to the discrepancy between high seriousness and low stakes. One spends a lot of time racking one's brains about serious questions without anyone particularly caring about the answers. One can devote anywhere from two years to a decade on a dissertation, pouring all one's intellectual energy into the project, for the reading pleasure of exactly three people, two of whom will only pretend to read it.

Sadder still is the way in which the horrible process of academic professionalization encourages grad students to define themselves by their work. Conference rooms and seminars resound with the sound of socially inept people introducing themselves by their subjects. In one of the most heinous crimes against humor since the last time Dane Cook opened his inexplicably large mouth, I once heard a political scientist respond to a colleague's remark with, "You would say that — you're a comparativist!" The seminar room exploded with laughter, making me drop the free sandwich I was there for. You want no part of this.

Not only is graduate school the social and emotional equivalent of sitting through Rebecca Black's "Friday" video for five to 10 years, but it is also a financial mistake worthy of a National Football League player. But in this case, there are neither lucrative contracts nor opportunities to go clubbing with an automatic weapon in your trousers. At best, you will spend your 20s earning a meager salary — at worst, you will emerge from grad school in significant debt. For a long time, this was the model for law and medical students — borrow and scrape now to earn astounding amounts later. Now even law schools are telling prospective students that now is not a good time to apply. Let me reiterate — lawyers are telling impressionable people not to spend money they don't have. It's serious stuff — and what's the deal with airline food?

Most importantly, the academic job market is a mess of epic proportions. Qualified candidates outnumber full-time professorial jobs like moronic YouTube comments outnumber everything else in the universe. The chances of getting a real academic job in the humanities are now just short of the odds of spending a night in Seaside Heights, N.J. without contracting herpes.

Instead, those wanting to pursue a career in teaching and writing have to juggle multiple adjuncting jobs, rushing between campuses desperately, hoping against hope that they might one day soon find half an hour in which to plan how they might eventually find a whole week in which to do their own research. Worse still, getting by on these class-by-class appointments for too long essentially invalidates scholars in the eyes of potential longer-term employers. After all, why buy the milk when you can get the desperate and socially inept cow for free?

As I mentioned above, I don't mean to suggest that every second of graduate school is a waking nightmare. It's not. But the way in which academic work expands to fill all the time available to it tends to make one feel guilty even when doing other things. It's hard enough to have fun in the nuclear bunker atmosphere of the Grad Center Bar without miring oneself in self-condemnation. That's what Narragansett is for.

Oh, bugger it, what do I care what you do with your 20s?

Stephen Wicken GS, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the history department, firmly believes that there is such a thing as a free lunch but that there are only three or four of them out there, some of them guarded by political scientists.


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