The misimagined life of the graduate student
Slumped over on the couch at 2 p.m. – on a Tuesday. A pizza box on the coffee table, a few beer cans on the end table. The sun peeks through closed blinds, just slightly obscuring the video game I’m playing. A dozen books are toppled over in the corner of my living room, but they can wait. The next deadline is a week away, and I’ve got nowhere to be.
Sometimes this scene captures the graduate school experience. But not always. And even when it does tell a bit of the story of grad student life, it doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it often obscures the reality of life as a grad student, which is much often closer to life as a gladiatorial contest marked by self-doubt, never-ending workweeks, feelings of inadequacy and aimlessness, and a vow of poverty.
As a counterpoint: it’s 10:30 p.m. – on a Saturday. Two dozen books have colonized my kitchen table and my empty coffee pot sits on the counter beside my empty tea pot. It’s the tenth day in a row of this. My eyes strain to read the words on the screen, and I’ve just typed “…but that position is untractable.” I must have meant “untenable,” but, at this point, who knows? The rain pounds outside, and the chill drifts through beneath my kitchen door. E-mails are piled up, phone calls need to be returned, and somebody needs to grade those papers. And, at some point, I need to feed myself.
It’s this second scene that comes closer to capturing life as a grad student. While the first sets the stereotype, it also sets, for many, the exception. The exception is funny, and it makes for good television and movies. But it’s the rule that makes for reality.
More than a first-world problem
It’s tempting to dismiss the troubles of the grad student as a first-world problem. I see it happen all the time. After all, it’s very much the case that many of those who get the chance to take on graduate work enjoy many privileges both during and after their time in the womb of academe. Most of us don’t spend our days lifting heavy objects or at risk of losing our lives on the job. Many of us who graduate land high-paying, comfortable positions – sometimes in very desirable locations. And taking extended lunch-breaks while strolling past mountain-strewn vistas isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours during the weekday.
So, given these privileges, when we complain about something – the long hours, the back pain, the self-doubt – a common response goes something like this: “Well, at least you’re not suffering like ‘X’.” Or “You should consider yourself lucky. Other people have to…” These statements trivialize and obscure some of the very real pressures and challenges faced by those who spend their lives in the academy.
The reality of grad school is more complicated than the hucksters who peddle the stereotype of the spoiled, whiny graduate student would have most people believe. For one, academic work never ends. Ever. Academics don’t finish their work – they just die one day. And if there is an after-life, I wouldn’t be surprised if Immanuel Kant is punctually at his desk there, peering into the nature of experience. There are always more books and articles to read and new ideas to work through, and breaks come to seem like a self-indulgent and counter-productive luxury, leading to a pathology nested deep in the problematic notion that any minute spent away from work is a minute of lost opportunity. This pathology pushes grad students away from breaks, and often leads to emotional, mental, and physical pain. One can injure a back lifting bricks, but try sitting in a chair and typing for twelve hours a day. Trauma comes in different forms.
When work is completed, it is subjected to criticism. The peer-review process, in any profession or trade that uses some version of it, is a critical safeguard of the integrity of that undertaking. It helps ensure high-quality work and progress. However, the criticism never ends. The tighter one’s argument, the more nit-picky and small the criticism. And when positions and arguments come to be extensions of yourself and your worldview, then those criticisms can’t help but seem very personal, cutting partially at the construction of your argument, but also partially at the constitution of your soul.
The competition that emerges during graduate school also contributes to a stressful and bizarre environment. Grad students become friends, a bit like trench-buddies watching one another’s backs in war. And yet these same people are in competition: for funding, for attention, for jobs. The moment of happiness for a successful colleague may also become the moment of self-doubt or self-pity. Half of the mouth forms a smile, saying, genuinely, “Good for her!” while the other half dips just a bit, wondering “Why not me?”
The job market that awaits grad students doesn’t help. There are fewer full-time positions than there used to be – in relative terms, if not absolute. And the trend of hiring contract-positions (sometimes called “sessionals”) at a discounted rate, often without benefits, is disturbing for those who pour their lives into reading, thinking about, and exploring issues they feel are important to themselves and, usually, the world. The sacrifices that go into years of extra education – such as deferred financial stability or employment certainty or damaged, even severed, personal relationships – may thus line an uncertain and often tortuous path. These are real costs to one’s emotional, physical, and financial well-being. Imagine climbing a deadly precipice, constantly looking down into a foggy abyss, with no guarantee that there’s anything at the top and with the feeling that you might have to climb back down, empty handed and alone.
And, finally, there are the other pathologies: the social stigma that is often aimed at “ivory-tower” academics who prove to be of “very little use” to a society, even though it’s rare to meet a parent who doesn’t hope their child will attend college or university. There is also the feeling that one will never be as good as “X” or “Y.” Here we meet the cult of celebrity and personality that often surrounds “big” academics, which is as disturbing as any such cult – whether it is in sports, entertainment, or any other industry. The aggrandizement of these individuals may seem to suggest that the limited spotlight of attention will never find its way – with its life-validating brightness – towards you.
A call to kindness
At its best, graduate school enlightens, inspires, and, sometimes, produces tangible and laudable outcomes that improve a society or some element of it. At its worst it can become a debilitating and mentally, emotionally, and spiritually constraining force. Usually, it falls somewhere in between.
Despite the stereotypes, the assumptions, and the half-baked gags from people who know nothing about life as a graduate student, the challenges of the lifestyle are often very real and quite serious. This is not to say that others don’t suffer or meet difficulty – perhaps much more and more often. Instead, this is a plea to follow the call to “Be kind – for everyone is fighting a hard battle,” a dictum sometimes attributed to theologian John Watson and at other times to one of the first academics, Plato.
Ultimately we all struggle, fail, doubt, and sometimes require the support of others. A healthy society is one in which the many and varied parts recognize the value in their diversity and make true on that recognition through the work of mutual understanding and assistance. But getting there means breaking down myths and half-formed ideas of what certain lives are like, such as the life of the graduate student, and replacing ignorance and misunderstanding with a deeper engagement with the reality of the hurdles, costs, and struggles so many of us encounter so often. Ultimately, the strongest structures are those whose pillars work together to support the weight of whatever it is they may be keeping aloft.