Gatekeepers to "The Life"

December 11, 1998

When I began graduate school eight years ago the professors glowed. They radiated power. They were the gatekeepers to "The Life."

"The Life" was the whole culture of academia. It was tweedy, pipe-smoking, book-lined, wood-grained, autumn-leaved. One didn't make very much money, but there was the aura of culture, the trips to Europe, the little sports car, the wine and cheese parties, the crackling witticisms, the admiring students. The professors had it. And we, the graduate students, wanted it.

I was in love with something that hasn't existed for two generations, the cobwebbed stuff of old movies and novels. From my parents' row house in a former industrial section of Philadelphia, Harvard was Mount Olympus, and its professors were demigods. I longed to be one of them; I too burned with that hard, gemlike flame. A hand reached down, lifted me up, and I became the first in my family to attend college.

That flame is all but extinguished now. It gets harder and harder to gush at cocktail parties. The professors no longer glow. They have been stripped of tweed and flesh. They glide down corridors like allegories of pestilence and famine. Flowers wilt as they pass. They leave ghostly messages in my e-mail account. "Where is the work you promised?"

Sometimes it is hard for me to believe the change in my perceptions. Do things look the same to other graduate students? Sometimes it seems so.

In recent years Harvard's Office of Career Services has started an annual event for Ph.D.'s called "Career Options Day." It's a day-long series of panel discussions featuring former graduate students who have found success in fields of endeavor other than those for which they specifically trained. The panels cover careers in communications, international development, public policy, non-profit organizations and the arts, high-tech, biotech, consulting, and finance. The speakers are almost always superb. Polished. Full of life. Happy.

This is my second year attending Career Options Day. It is a guilty pleasure, for it is both a private and public admission that I have lost the faith. I am a heretic.

I enter through the back door. I take an inconspicuous seat in the back row. (The whole time I fear being captured by the school photographer.) I try to determine who else is there by the backs of their heads. Some of them look back at me furtively. I avert my eyes. I look at the panelists. There is a Ph.D in English, who now works as an editor for a famous publishing house. An M.A. in East Asian studies who is a television producer. An M.A. in history who is now a "Bioinformatician." A Ph.D. in American civilization who is the "chief knowledge officer" of a major consulting firm.

They all look distinguished. They emanate power and success. I lose control of my rationality. I see them as Valkyrie-nurses from World War I posters. "Lift me up from the battlefield. Bathe my wounds. Wrap me in white linen. Redeem me."

The panelists speak, but I do not hear their words. I hear the rising enthusiasm of their tones as the audience lifts them to ever greater heights of confidence. At the slightest drollery, laughter bursts forth from the front row and washes towards the rear like a wave. It reaches me, alone in the back corner of the room. A spotlight hits me. I laugh tentatively, and the mirthful wave flows back to the front row, gratified. It is the worship the hopeful owe to the powerful.

The cycle repeats itself as each new panel of former graduate students find themselves, not traitors or heretics, but the unexpected objects of adulation. They begin to glow.

I do feel privileged to be a graduate student at Harvard, which has the resources and the will to organize an event like this. They show us that we might find happiness by crafting our own lives outside the academic hierarchy. Career Options Day is the one truly subversive experience of my time in graduate school.

Over the next few days I engage in a frenzy of résumé and cover-letter production for the spring recruiting process. I target jobs in consulting, editing, academic administration, news reporting -- anything that offers hope. I leave the applications in a stack at Career Services. A sacrificial offering. I attend special seminars for Ph.D's on accounting, marketing, and finance at the Harvard Business School. I call my old, forgotten friends and ask them about their jobs. I pray to new, foreign gods.

Meanwhile, as my experience is repeated in every department, the professors don't know what's wrong with their advanced graduate students. "Why can't they seem to do any work? Why don't they treat us with laughing deference anymore?"

The answer is simple enough. A professor's authority is based on his or her ability to open the gates to "The Life." The graduate students all compete for the professor's favor, hoping to have the gates opened for them. But when the same students realize that the professor cannot, in fact, open the gates -- that he or she can barely even budge them -- the power and authority are ceded to those who have found salvation beyond the ivory tower. The sycophantic laughter of competing protégées is the true sign of power.

After a while, my thoughts return to my academic obligations. I respond to my e-mail. "Yes, I'm working very hard. The next chapter is coming along." I backslide into the rhythms of graduate school. My thoughts turn to the academic job applications I sent out last month. The Modern Language Association convention is in two weeks.

These days, when I sit in on a lecture, I see that the professors still glow for the new shipment of 22-year-old graduate students. So much hope and trust. They do not know what the academic system really is. The acolytes still believe in "culture," and in the power of their professors to open the gates for them. Laughter washes over the room.

Bill Pannapacker, a graduate student at Harvard University, is a candidate for the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association. He welcomes letters and can be contacted through his Web site at