A couple of weeks ago, a blog post titled “I’ll Admit It: I Loved Graduate School” was making the rounds on social media. It’s written by David Hillis, Professor of Integrative Biology at UT-Austin, about his own positive experiences in graduate school. He notes that many of the blog posts detailing terrible experiences in graduate school come from the humanities, and says “ I expect that there are many happy humanities graduate students as well, who are also busily not blogging about their happiness.”
I’m one of those who had not previously blogged about my own happiness with regard to graduate school, but I’d like to go ahead and do that now. My own experience in graduate school is very different from Professor Hillis’, which is to be expected given our different disciplines. I’m about to begin the last semester of my terminal MA program and I think that the decision to go to graduate school is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. This isn’t to say that it hasn’t been difficult at times, or that I haven’t noticed the glaring difficulty of getting into a good PhD program and then the even greater difficulty of trying to land a job in this climate. My comments here should also not be taken as an indicator that graduate school is the right decision for everyone. There are enough posts on the internet that detail the very good reasons one should not go to graduate school, so I won’t bother to rehearse them here.
When I first started graduate school, I really had no idea what it would be like. The general expectation was that it was a more difficult, more specific version of my undergraduate program. In some ways, this has been true. You take a few classes each semester, and each of those classes is more specific (philosophy-related) and more difficult than your typical undergraduate class. They require more diligent reading, more preparation, and cover more difficult material. But these classes are much more rewarding than undergraduate classes. When you come to class, you have a greater expectation and opportunity to participate, to engage the material, and to advance your own argument than the average undergraduate course. These seminars tend to be smaller and longer than undergrad courses, and this allows you to get the most out of what you have read.
My favorite part about graduate school is the many different hats that you get to wear. You get to continue to be a student and doing everything that being a student involves: preparing for and going to class, writing papers for grades, learning from professors, etc. You also get to wear your researcher hat: those interests you had in undergrad that you weren’t quite able to pursue is now an expected part of your job. For me, this gave me a sense of autonomy - I get to direct my own research! - that just wasn’t feasible in undergrad when I was trying to meet the requirements to graduate.
This autonomy that comes with directing your own research, and effectively setting your own schedule (Not a morning person? That's OK, you can write at night.), is double-edged. While you can choose when you work, this can also have the unfortunate effect of blending together your personal and professional lives. My wife is a pharmacist, and when she is done working it’s fairly easy for her to transition out of professional mode. There might be some lingering stressors, but she no longer is concerned about her obligations at her job. For a graduate student, this can be very difficult if you don’t set proper boundaries. (Trevor Hedberg has written a series about a well-balanced academic life here and I highly suggest it.)
Teaching is another hat that you get to wear as a graduate student, and it is fantastic. It takes a completely different skill set to create an effective syllabus, to prepare a lecture, to grade assignments and give quality feedback. It engages you in a way that individual research and being a student simply don’t. As Ryan Fuller says (h/t Michael Cholbi), “When I solved [engineering] problems, I had to use my brain. When I solve teaching problems, I use my entire being." Teaching engages me emotionally in a way that research and being a student don't.
Perhaps the best part of graduate school is the camaraderie among fellow graduate students, and the support from faculty. While I made lots of friends during undergrad, there is something different about the relationships I’ve formed while in graduate school. It’s refreshing to find other people who are interested in philosophy as much as you are. Even more rewarding is that your cohort is often interested in different areas of philosophy, and you learn nearly as much from fellow graduate students as you do during class.
This has gotten long enough, but I’d just like to add a cheery note to all of these sad songs about how rigorous and stressful graduate school is. I’d be interested to hear what others who have gone through, or are going through, graduate school have to say.