To Apply or Not to Apply

Should the advice about going to graduate school be 'Don't go' or 'Look carefully'?

Brian Taylor

June 03, 2013

Advising graduate students can be hard work, but advising students who want to go to graduate school may be harder. Plenty of professors now say that students considering graduate school should pass it up. Such cautionary proclamations make up a new "Don't Go" literary genre for our time.

William Pannapacker, an English professor at Hope College, in Michigan, may be fairly credited with founding the "Don't Go" genre. He made a splash in these pages some years ago when he revealed his policy of advising most students against going to graduate school in the humanities. The latest "Don't Go" admonition is by Rebecca Schuman, a visiting assistant professor of German at Ohio State University, who recently advised in Slate that "when it comes to graduate school, you should just chuck the ladder before you try to climb it."

That's one way to face a poor job market, but it's a pretty despairing one. Although no one should mistake me for Dr. Pangloss, I do see some value in the institution still—so long as students have a wide and clear view from the outset of what they're getting into.

Pannapacker and I agree that no one should have to pay their own money to get a doctorate in the humanities. (I'd extend the caution to other fields, too; Ph.D.'s in the sciences also sufferfrom severe underemployment, for example.) Opportunity cost—the value of the time you spend getting a degree—is a high enough price to contemplate without actually paying out of pocket.

But if graduate education is to have any prospects in the United States, educators have to find a way to believe in its future. So when talented undergraduates tell me that they want to go to graduate school, my policy is to offer some education.

First, I actively discourage undergraduates from applying to graduate school—any graduate school—during their senior year. It's useful to step on the brakes and give yourself time to stop and think, rather than charge from one institution to another.

Then there's the sheer workload involved. Applying to graduate school properly requires not only reflection but also hard work. I estimate that the research, inquiries, clerical work (getting recommendations, etc.), and writing (ah, that personal statement!) equate to about one and a half college courses.

But the main reason I counsel waiting is because graduate school is professional school, not a concentrated version of an undergraduate major. Unless you're rich and want to do it for fun, you shouldn't go to professional school without a professional direction or goal.

More important, it's a bad idea to commit to a profession without ever having worked full time. It's pretty silly to spend $150,000 on law school, for example, before ever having had a self-supporting job. What if a would-be law student got a job importing rugs and discovered that she loved it? Perhaps she would skip law school entirely and make a different life.

Many undergraduates get edgy when I suggest a departure from a carefully plotted life course, but it's the job of teachers to create productive discomfort—and to help young adults gain comfort with ambiguity. Perhaps that would-be law student would still go to law school after her rug-importing job, but she might take different courses there if she knew that she wanted to return to international trade.

So, too, with graduate school. A career is the sum of one's experiences, and it's important to have a few of them as a grown-up before making a long professional commitment to a doctoral program.

For that reason, I hate the phrase "year off." Off from what, exactly? The phrase conveys a rigidity of purpose that discourages learning from experience.

It's also inflexible: The phrase implies that school is The Path, and that leaving it even temporarily is frivolous, even wasteful. I once stopped graduate school for a year to bicycle across the United States. I didn't read much American literature on the road, but the experience certainly improved my knowledge of American culture, and that helped me with my reading when I returned.

But even that argument is not strictly necessary. There doesn't have to be an obvious value to every minute you're alive. Your career is everything you do—there's no such thing as a year "off."

The main reason that prospective graduate students should step back and take time is so that they can assess the landscape. It may be blighted, but one may still choose to farm it. The pessimism of the Don't Goers has a basis, certainly, because it's mainly well informed. Many prospective graduate-school applicants will come to the same conclusion that the Don't Goers have, and walk away—but it's their decision to make. So they have to be informed, too.

My job, as I see it, is to provide that information, thorough and unvarnished. I'm always hunting for resources to help guide undergraduates, and I've lately found a good one: Amanda I. Seligman's recent book, Is Graduate School Really for You? (Johns Hopkins, 2012).

A number of good books out there offer advice on how to navigate graduate school, such as Gregory M. Colón Semenza's impressively comprehensive Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Others offer advice on how to survive the job market: Kathryn Hume's Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) is a fine guide. I recommend both of those books to students who are already in graduate school. (Note: Both are focused on graduate students in the humanities.)

Seligman's is the only book that I know of that's aimed at students facing the graduate-school decision. She covers the job market, of course, and pulls no punches, calling it "mostly terrible." Would-be professors, she frankly asserts, "must sometimes satisfy themselves with other careers." (She is likewise direct about attrition rates, a subject I'll be examining in another column.)

But she also asks and answers questions about graduate school itself. "Having a high tolerance for being alone," she advises, can bring both happiness and success in graduate school. Moving through the graduate-student life cycle, she asks basic questions ("How do graduate students finance their education?," "What is an adviser?") and vexing ones ("What makes a good adviser?").

When an undergraduate expresses interest in graduate school, I've taken to giving them Is Graduate School Really for You? as a reading assignment. After they finish, we have a long talk—about costs and benefits, risks and rewards, and what it means to go to school for a long time without knowing what kind of career you might find yourself in when it's all over.

Graduate school is not for everyone. But it's not for no one, either. It's not our job to send students to graduate school, certainly, but it's also not our job to scare them all off—unless we want to lay waste to a profession we ourselves chose against long odds.

As educators, it is our job to help students make educated decisions. Going to graduate school these days is a tough choice. Those who face that choice need all the help they can get.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at