If you’re interested in keeping up with all the ways in which grad school is a corrupt sinkhole that gobbles up money, dreams, and potential, your reading load must be as interminable and exhausting as, well, a grad student’s. The ever-cheery Chronicle of Higher Education, supplemented by blogs like 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School and other posts, offers plenty material for pessimism. Dissent is usually labeled naivete or denial. But, to me, the biggest bummer about grad school (and academia generally) is our collective eagerness to dump on what we do. After all, no one is making anyone go to grad school. If people go to grad school, stay in grad school, and finish grad school, it is presumably because they enjoy what they’re doing. I know I do. So, at the risk of being branded an out-of-touch optimist, I offer a list of 10 reasons why grad school–in the humanities!–is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made:
I have a sense of purpose. Because of the structure of the program, I’m always pretty clear on what my next step(s) should be. There are usually several goals I’m working toward, and those goals are complex and difficult enough that I feel justifiably pleased with myself when I accomplish them. And, particularly with regard to teaching, I actually feel like I’m doing some good.
The people I hang around with make me smarter. It’s more than just having remarkably smart friends (I had those long before grad school). There’s something particularly great about crowding together a bunch of people who are actively accumulating knowledge of the abstract and esoteric. The new things I learn every day are often properly weird (the long history of the jackalope, the plot of the Canadian novel Bear, the case for the USA’s founding by pirates, &c.) and thus properly awesome. And, trivia aside, I have to work at it–hard–to keep any sort of intellectual pace with my friends and colleagues. One could frame this as undue pressure, or unhealthy competition, but in my experience attempting to keep company with inveterate smartypantses is generative and exhilarating.
I have a job. Sure, it doesn’t pay much. But being a graduate teaching associate helps me develop valuable future job skillage, waives tuition, and makes ends meet. And, barring unforeseen weirdness, my job will last 6 whole years. In a nation where postsecondary education costs an ever-increasing bundle, during a time of economic recession, I don’t think I can stress enough how badass it is that I have a paying job with a certain amount of permanence and security and that one of the “perks” of that job is that I get a free education.
My work schedule is hectic, but entirely flexible. Yeah, I don’t really have time to be writing this blog post right now. But I can. It’s my call. And I can make up for the lost time at two o’clock on Saturday morning, or mid afternoon on Wednesday, or whenever seems best.
I have resources and benefits. Did I mention I have a job? My job also has insurance! Really good, affordably subsidized insurance that includes free visits to university doctors, cheap access to university dentistry and optometry, and free sessions with university counselors. I also get to use the fancy gym facilities, the big shiny library, and all the other institutional resources of a large university. Grad school might make you sick, tired, and crazy, but it also makes available the antidotes to those conditions.
I still get to have hobbies. I’m actually more caught up on pop culture than ever before in my (admittedly pitifully out of touch) life. At the end of a long work day, passive absorption sounds fantastic–so I’m able to talk knowledgeably about important topics like Mad Men, Girls, and Downton Abbey. I do some piano plunking here and some picture doodling there. I knit, slowly, and jog, slowly. I wouldn’t say I live a balanced life, but I do live an enjoyable one.
I’m fascinated by my work. Not only do I have a job, but my job is super interesting. I get to read stuff from and about the eighteenth century, which is the best and weirdest of centuries. I get to think about that stuff. And then, I get to write down my thoughts and see what other people think about them. It makes me stressed, obsessed, frustrated, and exhausted, but never, never, never bored.
I work in an environment that encourages me to be a better person. Have you ever worked in a place where racism, sexism, and homophobia are unremarkable commonplaces? I have. It sucks. Sure, the atmosphere and internal politics of academic departments aren’t perfect, but at least the people in them tend to be critical thinker types, and there’s a high level of awareness when it comes to systemic power imbalances and such. Not only is this environment a more comfortable one in which to work, but it also pushes me to be critical of some of the thinking I developed growing up in a very homogenous suburb, and to generally keep an eye on the ways I interact with other people.
Teaching has helped me feel like an adult. Maybe this sounds like a silly one, but I was 22 when I came to grad school and 23 when I taught my first college writing class. Especially in the company of my older colleagues, I felt very young indeed. Adopting an authoritative persona and learning to confidently and successfully instruct people who are, in many cases, not much younger than I am, has been immensely helpful in making me feel like the grown up that I now (at a full 24 and 1/2 years of age, thank you very much) properly am.
I am constantly challenged. I find that while my work gets more comfortable, it never actually gets comfortable. Sometimes I’m confronted with tasks that are just too hard for me to do successfully. And even when I am capable, I’m still aware of the ways in which I could be doing better. As I try to tell my students, the recursiveness of good thinking and writing and the impossibility of producing work without room for improvement is a very good thing. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do good work; it just means that you can’t stop trying to do better work.
If I had come to grad school to coast easily into a cushy job, I guess I’d be disappointed and disillusioned by the fact that I’m working as hard as I can toward an uncertain end. As it is, I’m getting exactly what I signed on for, and I think it’s good for me.