“Academia Eats Its Young”: Should I Go to Grad School?

*Should I Go to Grad School? is edited by Jessica Loudis, Boško Blagojević, John Arthur Peetz, and Allison Rodman.

I’ll begin this review by summing up what is essentially the thesis of this book and the only solid answer to the unanswerable question of whether or not to go to grad school if your work is in the humanities—it depends on the person. Some people are born to get a PhD and others are not, and many people struggle with the decision on whether or not to go, but this book cannot make the decision for you. It can only offer the perspectives of forty-one people who either went or didn’t, and how their lives have turned out.

The essays are from a variety of careers in the humanities, but most of them are writers. There are also artists, professors, linguists, academics, filmmakers, historians, and James Franco. Some of them use their essay to rant about the broken promises of academia. Some of them have nothing but praise. All of the essays are valid, thought-provoking, and give the questionable something more to mull over in the journey toward a decision.

I bought this book in 2014, read about half of it, and decided that I was going to grad school. More recently—with graduation on the horizon—I picked it up again and finished it. And now…I’m rather undecided again? This may be due to the flip-flop, representative approach in editing the pieces as they switch from yes to no in equal turns, but it also could be due to the inherent difficulty in deciding what I really want to do with my day-to-day life since my revelation that I can write for the rest of my life and be happy no matter what. This book has given me many points to think on, but it hasn’t made the decision for me.

Many of the writers bring up excellent points that are incredibly relevant today. Most people try to get a higher degree so that they can become professors, but tenure track positions are disappearing as the poorly-paid adjunct jobs rise. They mention the crippling debt that can accompany getting a degree without scholarship, fellowship, or funding. Undergraduate degrees are already expensive, and graduate programs often double that cost. Many of the people cite that the experience they gained socially was more valuable than what they actually learned academically.

Overall though, it seems that what was most valuable about grad school for those who did attend were the connections that could be gained. And, really, that’s what higher academia is in America. It’s name-dropping and occasionally sounding pretentious and trying to sound like you know what everyone is talking about.

Essentially, the question this raises is this: if you don’t want to be a professor, what does an MFA do for you? In the sciences, higher degrees are becoming the status quo where every entry-level person has a bachelor’s degree and if you want to stand out you have to up your game. The humanities are different. You don’t need a master’s to write books or paint, because those are individual and creative outlets. If you want to learn and study then maybe, but that can also be done without the structure of an academic program.

Many of the authors treated graduate school as almost a last resort or an escape from reality. It was an excuse to go away for three years and write that novel they wanted to or study artists, but it’s unclear whether or not they could’ve just done that on their own with some success. It raised the question of uncertainty and fear for me. Do I want to go to grad school because I’m afraid of working outside of school? Am I afraid that I won’t make it? Do I just want an excuse to read and write for two or three years?

In the end, this book made me reevaluate my goals and what I want out of life. What I’m left with is a general sense of a future, a flow chart that takes many paths and eventually leads to a ‘job’, and more indecision than when I started the book. This isn’t necessarily bad because it’s forcing me to come to terms with who I am and my long term goals and how grad school might help or hinder them. I want to own a house one day (a lofty dream for a Millennial, I know)—would student loan debt prevent that from happening? What kind of jobs could I work if I don’t go to grad school? How would a master’s degree change my career options?

Some of these questions are the type that require research and talking with an academic advisor, but for now I have a reasonably simple solution. I’m going to apply for some grad schools with great programs and funding, think through the future, apply for jobs in markets that sound interesting to me, and I’m going to write no matter what else I’m doing. And that sounds good enough for me.

If you’re thinking about applying for grad school, wondering about the state of academia, feel as though you’d like to pursue further learning in the humanities, or just need some opinions from people who have been there then pick up a copy of Should I Go to Grad School? It won’t give you a direct answer, but maybe it’ll help you pick a path. Either you go or you don’t, and any decision will influence your life in unpredictable ways. Although the future may be uncertain, this book provides examples of what getting a master’s degree is like and where it can take you, while also giving voice to the possibilities of a life without academia.

In the end, the decision is yours.