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How not to go to graduate school

Those whom the gods choose to destroy, they first send to graduate school.

 That would be the gist of my commencement address, should any university be so unwise as to invite me to speak to the graduands.

There are many different programs and many different disciplines, so I would stress that my comments are aimed at anyone thinking of a Ph.D. in the humanities or the social sciences, with the thought of eventually looking for work as a professor. Anyone out there with these aspirations needs to understand that there are a few good ways of going to graduate school, and many bad ways; and virtually nobody within the academy has any interest in helping you sort out the first from the second.

 In light of my own experience, then, I offer this advice on how not to go to graduate school.

I graduated from McGill in 1993 with a B.A. in philosophy. I hadn't given much consideration to what I wanted to do with my education or my life, and maybe eventually going on to either law or journalism school was about as creative as my thinking got. Bored and broke, I took a job working in a fish market for minimum wage. It was a rotten job, essentially a performance-art demonstration of Bertrand Russell's maxim that work is of two kinds: altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relative to other matter, or telling other people to do so.

Desiring neither to alter the position of matter nor to require other people to do so, I slapped together a late application to an M.A. program at the University of Toronto, begged for some quick reference letters, and was duly accepted at the end of July. Four months after my university education had ended it began again, with no real direction or purpose save the bourgeois expectation that good things eventually happen to smart people who follow their bliss.

And at first, I certainly enjoyed being a graduate student. What's not to like? It is endless summer for eggheads, with a straightforward reward structure: read a lot of interesting books, talk to a lot of interesting people, and spend a great deal of time drinking and hanging out. Write it up all smart-like, and someone will give you an A.

I did well, and as a falling stone follows gravity I dropped into the Ph.D. program. There was still no firm plan of study, no pressing research project. I just liked the lifestyle, and doctoral work brought more of the same but now with scholarship money, some teaching, and a hint of status.

I continued to do well enough, but had trouble jumping through some of the tighter hoops. It took me three tries to get a thesis topic and committee together, and I thought -- a lot -- about quitting and doing something more productive with what remained of my twenties. But quitting would only bring its own worries to the table. My big problem was that while I had no idea of what I wanted to do in philosophy, I at least thought I knew that I wanted to do philosophy. Quitting would only inscribe the same question on a much bigger blackboard: what to do?

Taking the path of less resistance, I stayed. I finally settled on a topic and a supervisor, and submitted my thesis a respectable 5 1/2 years after I had started. In hindsight, I was pretty lucky. I had a supervisor who took his professional duties very seriously. He dragged me through the writing of my thesis, forcing me to write, revise, and write again, until I had enough material to pass as a thesis. Then he told me to submit it and get out.

Not everyone is so fortunate. There was one student in my department who was pushing 40, a decade into his program, and who owed close to $100,000 in loans to U.S. banks. Today, I routinely run into people in my Ph.D. cohort who are under the illusion that they are going to finish their degrees, 12 years after they started. They are encouraged in this belief by the university, which tells them they are some of the best and the brightest, by professors, who like them and genuinely wish them well, and by family and friends who equate leaving with failure and who are not sufficiently acquainted with the fallacy of sunk costs.

The fact is, nobody wants you to quit graduate school. Certainly not the university or your department, for whom graduate students are a source of public money and of cheap labour. Professors are reluctant to tell their less capable students to quit, partly because it smacks of condescension, but also because it does not reflect well on them.

Besides, if you tell a student, six or eight years after you admitted her, that maybe she isn't cut out for the biz, she might rightly ask: why didn't you tell me sooner? Yet quit is what most of them do, eventually. Attrition rates at the doctoral level in Canada are very high, with only 45 per cent of humanities Ph.D. students pursuing the degree to completion. The social sciences are only slightly better, with a completion rate of about 55 per cent.

For those who do stick it out to the end, average time to completion has been going up steadily since the 1960s. In his book The Creation of the Future, Frank Rhodes, a former president of Cornell University, wrote that doctoral education is one of the most wasteful of all activities in the university: 

All too frequently, Ph.D. students are allowed to drift, neglected by the faculty, while serving them in useful but lowly functions in teaching and research. The intellectual wastage, individual frustration, and personal financial loss this attrition involves are a personal tragedy and an institutional reproach that cries for amendment.

It is enough to make you howl. Or Howl: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by grad school, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the library at dawn...

Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the only reason to do philosophy was if you are bothered by philosophical problems. This is a useful maxim that applies to every academic discipline, and which every prospective grad student should write on the back of their hand.

Because in the end, the path to succeeding as a Ph.D. is straight as an arrow:

1. Figure out what problem in your discipline bothers you. 

2.Ask yourself if you are willing to commit the time, money and energy to solving it. 

3. If yes, do some research and figure out where the best work on this problem is being done.

4. Apply to that department, and get in.

5. Once there, pursue your problem with single-minded dedication. Forget about becoming well-rounded in your discipline, turn down opportunities to teach, and go only to select conferences where the heavy hitters in your area will be.

6. Start writing as quickly as possible, and publish your results as soon as you have them.

7. Hit the job market with a thesis, some publications and a solid research project ahead of you.

Simple, sure. The problem is that most people do some to none of this. I certainly did not. Instead, like many of my cohort I got sidetracked into the penumbral areas of academic life: teaching, reading, coursework, student unions, journalism, university service. These are the sorts of things that are rewarded within the university and give the illusion of being relevant to your professional development. They aren't.

If you ever finish your thesis and hit the academic job market, no one cares if you were departmental union rep or served on the academic senate or won the graduate teaching award.  This point cannot be overemphasized: the only thing that matters is that you finished, that you published, and that you will continue to do so for years to come.

 The mistake most students make is to treat graduate school not as preparation for academic work but as a way of extending undergraduate life. They enrol in M.A. and then Ph.D. programs because they like being students and because they enjoy reading in their discipline.

But doing something because it is enjoyable is not a job; it is a hobby. The graduate-school bill of lading says that if you can manage to stick around long enough, your hobby will turn into a job and you'll suddenly get paid for doing something that, for the better part of a decade, you have paid to do. Hardly anyone reads the fine print, which notes that this promise will be fulfilled for something less than one candidate in five.

A friend of mine once got some excellent advice from one of her professors, after she approached him to ask about getting a letter of reference for an M.A. program. He told her that there were a lot of interesting ways for a smart young woman to make her way in this world, and that maybe graduate school wasn't one of them.

More professors should have the courage to give their best students similar advice. More than likely, pursuing a Ph.D. program will leave you some combination of broke and unhappy. There are more pleasant ways of being ill-paid in this world, and more remunerative ways of being unhappy.


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Reader Comments (1)

Good structured info, what about thesis proposal writing what can you advice about it?

February 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

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