Of Undergrads and Grad Students: A Tale of Naivete and Angst

It’s that time of year again. All around the world, wide-eyed undergrads are anxiously preparing their applications for graduate school, and at the same time, grad students everywhere are settling into the drudgery of all semester. It’s funny, I’m generally not a big Facebook user, but I’ve been using it to keep up with people since I moved to Japan, and you get an interesting sense of the changes in general mood from reading the things that people write and share.

First, the undergrads. Oh, the undergrads! I remember those days all too well—they feel like they should go to grad or law school because it’s just something that one does after they get a B.A., if they’re not “short-sightedly” interested in getting a steady job right out of college. They think it’ll distinguish them from the rest of the pack. And you know, some of them are right. But the vast majority of them don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, neither in terms of grad school itself nor in terms of the careers that doctoral degrees eventually lead to. The video above is pretty amusing to a current grad student—in it, the professor lists just about every complaint or concern that people have about getting a Ph.D. in the humanities (or the social sciences, in my case—which to be fair, is less dire). And the undergrad gives just about every naïve response that we can all remember thinking when we were … well, naïve. I think it’s pretty hilarious.

They actually have a version specifically for Political Science. I think the video above is funnier and more accessible–I also don’t quite agree with the complaints in the PoliSci one and find it to be a little bit overblown. It makes me want to tell the prof to quit whining. But if you want to hear a selection of gripes of political scientists, go for it:

Also, I would just like to note that law school is not the same as graduate school. If you think these two things are interchangeable, you probably shouldn’t be applying to either.

Anyway, I abhor this notion that you should just get a degree because the degree is some type of justification in itself. Maybe. Maybe you really like learning and just want to spend your 20s delving into a subject. But do you *really* like learning that much? I tend to suggest to my students that they instead imagine what they want their daily life to look like when they’re “grown up.” How challenging do they want their job to be? Do they want to be able to finish a day of work and not think about it afterward, or would they rather have a more flexible schedule that basically requires them to work all the time? Do they want to choose the city/state/region/country that they’re going to live, or are they ok with living anywhere? Do they like structure, or do they thrive in an environment that requires them to be constantly creative? Do they like to work with others or are they more comfortable in independent, solitary work environments? Are they thinking of having a family? What kind of standard of living would they like to have?

It’s amazing how many undergrads don’t even know what professors do—much less what their graduate student TAs do, and they’re basically signing up for both, or at least the latter. I suppose it can’t be helped. Hindsight is always 20-20, and if you knew everything before you did it, life would be a little backwards. Such is the opportunity and the tragedy of being young.

So, now the grad students. Oh my goodness, what a whiny bunch of people. Yes, it’s a challenging life that puts a whole lot of constraints on you while also limiting you to a fairly narrow band of potential success. Yes, you work really hard and nobody gives you any feedback on how you’re doing (much less positive feedback), which makes you constantly riddled with self doubt. Yes, you occupy a weird sort of limbo between the student and the employed and your job prospects are dubious (or perhaps just vague in the case of the more qualified/lucky). Yes, there are politics. Yes, grading and teaching are terrible because they suck up your time and because you’re constantly horrified by academic and personal interactions with students that make you wonder what they were doing in their previous 12 years of education. There was a post that went viral a couple of weeks ago on Not That Kind of Doctor, a blog by an assistant professor of Canadian literature on the “five stages of grading” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) that really gets at the heart of the grading angst—and the fact that it was so popular among grad students further confirms that.

Yes, I get it. Yes, it could be better. But you know, it’s actually a pretty good life—and it could definitely be a whole lot worse. As a good friend used to say when we were taking our field exams, “It ain’t extraordinary rendition.” It isn’t even being an assistant professor. Your peers in the “real” working world have lots of complaints—and a lot of the worst things are all in your head (anxiety, self-doubt, etc.). If you think of it as a job, it’s a not-terribly-well-paying but fairly good one. You do get paid to learn. The work is often (or at least sometimes) interesting and non-back-breaking. Your time is full but flexible (and really, if people are really honest with themselves, I would venture to say that a lot of people have quite a bit of free time on their hands). You can determine what you work on, within certain limits. If you study international things, you can get people to pay you to live in other countries. You meet interesting people—not all of them are brilliant, but most of them will be better informed and, frankly, less annoying than your average person. In bad economic times, graduate school is a good place to be. And if you do reach the pie-in-the-sky that is a tenure-track job at a decent university, you’ll be safely ensconced in one of the last bastions of permanent employment. Oh, and in the future, you could use your skills to improve policy or maybe contribute to the pursuit of knowledge or something, if you believe in that sort of thing. ;) Hey, if all of these other people are killing themselves to be where you are, there’s probably *something* redeeming about it.

But I complain too, of course—sometimes quite a lot, since the last couple of years have been quite the uphill climb for me. I just think that it’s good to poke fun at ourselves a bit and realize that it’s all a matter of perspective. So, in that spirit, I’d like to close with a collection of clips from The Simpsons about grad students:

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