Friday, February 24, 2012

Guest Blog: Amanda Seligman on the Question of Graduate School

Thanks to Amanda Seligman, Associate Professor of History at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for sharing her thoughts about an enormous decision many undergraduates and adults face: Should I go to graduate school? For more insight, I recommend her recent book Is Graduate School Really for You? The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or PhD (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

Should I Go to Graduate School?
Amanda I. Seligman

            Imagine the student in my office: smart, disciplined, organized, and chipper. “Professor Seligman, I love studying history, and I would like your advice. Should I go to graduate school?”

            How should a responsible college instructor respond to this question in the twenty-first century? For folks in STEM fields, this question is not quite a no-brainer, but it is close. Graduate students in the sciences for the most part have their educations financed by their advisors' grants and can readily find work in industry, government, or education when they graduate. Women slip out of the pipeline more often than is healthy for the future of science, but that fact only encourages scientists to encourage more of them to enter the field.

For scholars in the humanities, the answer is not so clear. Many of us count ourselves fortunate to make a living teaching history or literature or language or writing. We love our fields and our daily labors and know that we are lucky to be able to piece together a living at a time when academic life undergoes a fundamental reorganization that has left all too many of our talented, passionate colleagues at the wayside, many burdened by the kinds of debts that place us firmly in the lower tiers of the 99%. What should we say to a promising student who wants nothing more from life than to emulate our own paths?

            For many humanists, the only responsible move is to dash the dreams any student bold enough to ask this question. A “just don’t go” approach wins the day: professors explain to students the difficulty of the work, the crushing costs, and the terrible job market, concluding with the advice that anything would be smarter than pursuing a graduate degree in the humanities. Some keep copies of Thomas Benton’s 2003 polemic “So You Want to Go to Grad School” to hand out to their aspiring junior colleagues.

            Although I realize that the odds look bad for many of the potential graduate students who sit in my office, I cannot bring myself to crush their aspirations. It seems to me that using a cold economic calculus to decide a person’s life course is contrary to the philosophical impulses that inform humanistic inquiry. Our disciplines teach us to value the good life, beauty, pleasure, social contributions, and personal satisfaction, not just the money in our pockets.

Instead of saying “just don’t go,” what I do is to explain to my students—firmly, sympathetically, and impersonally—what the landscape looks like. In my undergraduate history methods class I show students examples of theses and dissertations so that they know what the object of graduate study is. Then I watch their horrified faces as they realize that they have to “write a book” if they want to be a professor after all, and I count myself as having accomplished something when they confide to me that I scared the, ahem, “crap” out of them. When students come to me for individualized advice about graduate school, I describe the shape of the job market. I tell them that they should go to graduate school if they love the work for its own sake and if they can get someone else to pay for it, without having the expectation that it will “pay off” in the end.

            It is not the work of faculty members to dictate to students what they can and cannot do. It is our work to give them the tools they need to make sound, reasoned, and informed judgments about their own life paths. It seems to me that we should indeed tell students what the world looks like—but trust them to make their own decisions about whether graduate school is right for them.

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