The introductory image to the infographic entitled, "The Long and Winding Road to a Ph.D"

How I’m Feeling Right Now, At This Very Moment, About Going to Graduate School in English

Kellen Aguilar Academia, Career, Graduate School, Humor, Personal Leave a Comment

'In the U.S., there are more than 20 million students enrolled in graduate school today. For many, the appeal of the 'life of the mind' - being buried in books and surrounded by the intellectual elite - is the ultimate fantasy. But many students setting foot on their new campuses for the first time are unaware of the severe drawbacks that await them. From the huge costs to the massive time investment and the dismal job prospects, the road to a Ph.D is long, winding, and full of pitfalls - something the establishment would prefer you didn't know about.'

In a couple of days, I will officially become a graduate student. By “officially” I mean that I will be sitting in a three-hour seminar on queer theory and queer cinema trying my damndest not to put my foot in my mouth by saying something stupid or insensitive or both while disguising the fact that I registered for the class, not because I am passionate about LGBTQ issues (I mean, I’m not not passionate about LGBTQ issues), but because I made the simple, if impulsive calculus that:

Course materials are all films (Movies cost less than books + I like movies) =

Better than seminar on Victorian literature

Perhaps I should have listened to the folks who told me not to go for a PhD in English. Perhaps I should have cut my losses after double majoring in English and History (a.k.a. double jeopardy) and become a police officer or an electrician or a sugar baby. Perhaps I should have majored in math (see above). But here I am and like all questionable decisions, ain’t no point in looking back.

Of course, “no regrets” would be great advice to follow if my hindsight bias was not 20/20. Sadly, it is. You will find this out below as I try to explain how I’m feeling right now, at this very moment, about going to graduate school in English.

“Gee, you sure like to read, don’t you?” — Proponent of Going to Graduate School

My descent into graduate school began when I was an undergraduate. I was encouraged to pursue a career as an academic by a professor while I was visiting her office hours to go over an essay I had written for her “Major British Writers to 1785” survey course. This professor had noticed my ability to string a couple of complete sentences and MLA citations together and singled me out as prime graduate school fodder. “I can definitely see you as a professor someday, Kellen. Have you ever considered it? I don’t encourage just any of my students to go to graduate school, but I can see that you have what it takes.” Wow, me, a professor? Cue montage of giving speeches at awards ceremonies, pulling up to my reserved faculty parking space in a brand new Range Rover, being worshipped by students as the “cool” professor, only working two days a week and three if I was really ambitious, with summers off and evenings spent feverishly writing the next Great American Novel™.

Consider my ego inflated. As a naive sophomore at the time, I did not have the humility or the self-awareness to ask myself critical questions like “Do I actually want to be a professor? What’s the job market like for professors? Can I be happy doing things other than professing? Why did I come to this particular professor’s office hours, again?” As a result, I did not give myself the space to reflect on my motivations for pursuing graduate school (if I had, I wouldn’t have taken so personally the admonitions from the director of my college’s career center to “go after something else. There are no jobs for humanities Ph.Ds”). My reasons for pursuing a “life of the mind” were entangled in simultaneous feelings of pride for being assured that such a life was possible for me and shame for not meeting my potential in high school. There were other external considerations too — being the first “doctor” in my family, wanting to satisfy others’ expectations of me and prove my doubters wrong, outcompeting others in a self-projected career rat race. But all of these “reasons” combined cannot overshadow the one justifiable reason for making the sacrifices that graduate school demands — an inextinguishable love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

“I cry myself to sleep, like, every night” – Graduate Student

A photograph taken at the University of Cape Town of all of the Mellon fellows who participated in the 2016 MMUF/UCT January Program. I'm dead center in the very last row at the top of the stairs. From the MMUF website: 'The intention of the January Program is to broaden American and South African participantsÕ understandings of the South African socioeconomic, racial, cultural, historical and environmental landscape through critical inquiry, reflection and debate, while connecting their insights to the mission of the MMUF program as a whole.'

A photograph taken at the University of Cape Town of all of the Mellon fellows who participated in the 2016 MMUF/UCT January Program. I’m dead center in the very last row at the top of the stairs.

Soon after my meeting with Professor Major British Writers to 1785, I applied to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship chapter at my college. The mission of MMUF is to provide underrepresented students (those historically disadvantaged by race) with the resources and training to become successful academics. Essentially, the goal of MMUF is to diversify the professoriate, which has been and in many ways still is overwhelmingly white. Being a mixed race person — white, Japanese, and hispanic — who could speak, read, and write, I qualified for the fellowship.

Now, you would think that a program designed specifically to help students become professors would perpetuate the ego stroking feedback loop that led me to apply for the fellowship in the first place.

Wrong. Mellon Mays introduced me to the bleak reality of academia. Beyond the stipends and the opportunities to present at research conferences and to publish independent research in a journal, one of the most valuable things that I got out of MMUF was an R-rated, tuck-the-kids-into-bed-before-tuning-in sneak peak at what graduate school and beyond is”really” like. Each summer that I was in the program, there was a mandatory “boot camp” that all of the current fellows had to attend (if “boot camp” calls to mind scenes from war films and shows where a bunch of doe-eyed grunts tap dance their way through basic training only to be utterly shell shocked at their first firefight on the frontline, then your mind is in the right place). Each boot camp was led by a graduate student who had formerly participated in the Mellon Mays program. The first summer boot camp that I attended was led by a graduate student from the mathematics department at the University of Arizona, who I will refer to as “Susan.” The first few days of the boot camp were straightforward. Susan led workshops on resume and CV writing, on gathering application materials, on contacting potential faculty advisors prior to applying to their institutions. The program coordinators — all tenured faculty members — attended the first two or three of these workshops with us and chimed in every once in a while. (During one workshop, the topic of “why” came up, as in “why do you want to go to graduate school?” When I explained that I wanted to make my family proud, one of the coordinators, a history professor, pointed out that “that’s not a good enough reason.” To be fair, he was right.)

The turning point came when the coordinators stopped attending the workshops. Their absence triggered a complete shift in Susan’s attitude. Where she had previously been calm and composed during our workshops, now, without the pressure of the coordinators in the room, Susan explained her situation in vivid terms: “My advisor hates me;” “I cry myself to sleep every night;” “The loneliness is unbearable, I don’t get along with anyone in my cohort;” “I haven’t told the coordinators yet, but I’m planning on dropping out.” Susan revealed the pitiful state of the academic job market, how there aren’t enough positions to accommodate all of the newly minted Ph.Ds that are produced every year, how universities have started to convert tenure track lines into part-time adjunct posts to cut back on the costs of hiring full time faculty. She told us stories of professors practically living out of their cars, working as contract labor without benefits at three or more universities just to make ends meet. It was no holds barred, it was doom and gloom, and it was punishing for my romantic pipe-and-tweed-coat visions of #justprofessorthings.

If Susan’s summer boot camp was miserable, then the second boot camp I attended was apocalyptic. It was led by a graduate student from the American Studies department at the University of Minnesota. I will refer to this student as Gabriel. As with Susan, Gabriel’s tone underwent a total transformation only after the coordinators stopped attending his workshops. In addition to all of the points made by Susan, Gabriel threw a spotlight on the toxicity of departmental politics, on the pervasive culture of racism and sexism entrenched in the university, on the unhealthy isolation that comes with being a person of color in graduate school. He elucidated the ways that even the MMUF coordinators engaged in subtle, oppressive behaviors. Like Susan, Gabriel confided that he often cried because of his abusive relationship with his advisor or the constant stress of the pressure to “publish or perish.” The tremors of doubt that had crept into my naive, sophomoric soul had by now turned into Fukushima level rumblings.

100 Reasons Why Not

I am grateful to Susan, Gabriel, and Mellon Mays for not holding back. I do acknowledge that both Susan and Gabriel were expressing their frustration and anxiety as people going through a frustrating and anxiety-inducing experience. The things they said and the manner in which they said them during their respective bootcamp workshops were colored by the stresses they were experiencing at that particular moment as graduate students (not to mention the absence of any moderating authority, e.g. the MMUF coordinators). To my knowledge, Susan did complete her program and, if asked about her graduate experience now, perhaps she would say that it was all worth it in the end. I know for a fact that Gabriel graduated from his program. If asked to reflect on his graduate experience five years from now, perhaps after completing a postdoc and landing a position as an assistant professor on the tenure track somewhere, I wonder what Gabriel would say?

Still, Gabriel and Susan’s dire warnings about academia are far from unfounded. Their openness about their respective experiences forced me to seriously confront exactly what it means to devote five plus years to getting a doctorate. Even a cursory search on the topic of the present and the future of working in higher education brings up despairing results. Below, I’ve culled a list of articles that address the various issues that pervade the academy. This is not a complete list and the discourse it reflects will certainly evolve over time, but I present these articles in order to showcase the sheer volume of ink that has been spilled in this discussion.

Graduate School

Job Prospects and Work Culture

Leaving Academia

I would urge a healthy skepticism of anything one reads about working in higher education, positive or negative. Oftentimes, the negative stuff crosses the line into sky-is-falling hysteria. Perhaps, like the people who say that The Last Jedi ruined Star Wars even more than the prequels did, the critics are a rabid, vocal minority. Generally speaking, I think those who have had a negative experience are more likely to opine about it than those who have had a positive experience (case in point — I haven’t even started graduate school yet and I’m already complaining about it). But ultimately, at least in my view, it is easier to come to a more honest commitment to a life as an academic only after the bitter red pill of reality has been swallowed.

Gap Years Are a Thing

The official branding of Kellen Aguilar Consulting. Kellen Aguilar is an experienced writer, web and graphic designer, and educator.

During my gap year, I began offering consulting services through my website. This gave me several opportunities to learn new, marketable skills and to earn some additional income in anticipation of moving across the country for graduate school.

I completed my undergraduate in May 2016 and I am about to start graduate school in September 2018. Between these two dates, I kept myself busy by working in public relations, interning as an editorial assistant at the Los Angeles Review of Books, teaching myself HTML, CSS, and WordPress, building a professional website, taking on clients as a web and graphic design consultant, doing freelance editing and photography, and teaching writing and ESL.

I believe that flexibility is an important life skill, but especially in relation to a career. While I prepared my graduate applications for the November and December deadlines, I continued to build my portfolio and learn new skills to make myself relevant to the job market. This way, if I discover partway through graduate school that the life of an academic truly is not for me, I will at least have something to fall back on. Perhaps I can become a copywriter, or go back to public relations, or work in communications. If I come out of my program with a “consolation master’s” (which is still a master’s degree no matter how you slice it), I can earn a teaching credential and teach high school English. Meanwhile, I can continue to offer consulting services in web and graphic design, photography, writing, and editing through my website.

As someone who is prone to anxiety and worrying about the future (where my Virgos at?), having this safety net has been essential to my peace of mind. At the very least, I will have a foundation from which to search for jobs. There are a great many costs involved with making the decision to go to graduate school, not least of which is the opportunity cost of spending five or more years becoming increasingly specialized in a niche subject. I figured that if I prepared, I could ensure that I would be able to absorb those costs should something go awry. And something almost always does go awry.

The Plan As It Stands, Interrupted By a Downright Terrible Bonus PSA

Surprise, surprise — I have many doubts about pursuing an academic career in my field. I’m 24. In a perfect world, I will work through my program without any severe setbacks and graduate in five years. In my fifth year, I’ll apply pre-dissertation defense to the one job opening for Americanists nationwide being offered at the University of Minnesota or some other place with equally pleasant year-round weather. My application will be so damn good that it will eviscerate all the other 650+ applications, no contest. My personality will be so irresistible that the department will bring me into the fold like a veteran colleague. My path to the top will be guaranteed. I’ll buy my Range Rover. I am so friggin’ awesome.

Now, allegedly, the world doesn’t revolve around me. Okay, I’ll settle for an ideal world. So again, I’ll work through my program and graduate within five or six years, no setbacks. After that, I’ll shoot for a post doc — another one to three years. At that point, I will be in my mid-thirties with no adequate savings, no full-time job, and no benefits. God willing, I will land a tenure track position at an R1 university, but I’d be happy at a four year liberal arts college too. I’ll keep my nose to the grindstone and pass all of the milestones — visiting professor, assistant professor, associate professor. After a cool eight years, give or take, I’ll go up for tenure review — the culmination of years of blood, sweat, and schooling. If I’m admitted to the proverbial Promised Land of full professorship, I will be in my mid-forties to early fifties. If I am denied tenure, I can consider myself kicked to the curb. I’ll have to move on to another school, another state, another slog. (This actually happened to a beloved professor of political science at my undergraduate and provoked quite an uproar among the students; many suspected that the cause for the professor’s tenure denial was his political differences with the president of the college.)

If that’s the ideal world, reality probably isn’t that much worse, right? (*crickets*)

The ten million dollar question, then, is: Should I, should you, should anyone bite this bullet? I’ve been told by well-meaning advisors that the value of getting a Ph.D lies in the privilege of being able to spend one’s twenties grappling with intellectual problems and producing knowledge. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t concern myself too much with the things I hear about the academic job market, that the ship will right itself, that I can’t predict what will happen in coming years, that an older generation of professors will retire out and their tenure spots will be up for grabs. I’ve been told that I will be the exception. I desperately want to believe these things, and I’ve made a good show of appearing like I do.

On the flip side, I’ve been fortunate to have mentors (as distinct from advisors) and people in my life who have been honest with me and to whom I have have been honest too — those involved in the Mellon Mays program, my research mentors, family, friends. These people have never shied away from telling me like it is — whether about my professional goals, my research focus, my edgy, controversial opinions on Game of Thrones. For this, I am grateful.

Let me interrupt these ramblings with a short PSA:

{Scene: Fade in, black and white. Nifty Fifties-esque jazz tune plays softly in background. Sparse bedroom, very neatly kept. A bespectacled, bookish young man sits at a desk pouring over a tome-like copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed.}

OFFSCREEN VOICE {cross between the cadence of Morgan Freeman and the bass tones of the Allstate Insurance Guy}: Hey there, Sport!

{young man looks up, surprised and confused}

OFFSCREEN VOICE: Yes, you! Put that massive doorstop down and let’s talk about honesty. Honesty is a virtue. Honesty is good. We’ve all told small, harmless white lies, but for the most part, each and every one of us is capable of being a good, honest person.

YOUNG MAN: Even me?

OFFSCREEN VOICE {laughing in avuncular tone}: Yes, Junior, even you. You seem like a real wit! I bet you regale all of your friends at parties with your insightful readings of tv shows and your ability to quote from Shakespeare at length!

YOUNG MAN {flattered}: Shucks, mister. Well, I guess it’s true. I did read Stranger Things Season 2 as an exploratory contemplation of childhood trauma. Oh! And I can quote the entire opening soliloquy of Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summ-”

OFFSCREEN VOICE: And I bet you’re thinking of applying to PhD programs in English! Or worse: History? {woman shrieks}.

YOUNG MAN {with obvious optimism}: Indeed! I’ve been told I would make a swell professor some day by my own English professor!

OFFSCREEN VOICE: Now, Junior, that’s quite the compliment and you should feel honored, but don’t let it all go to your head! Make sure you do your homework on what the path to being a professor entails. Research the job market, find out from others who have been through graduate school what it’s actually like. Before you take the leap, be honest with those well-meaning people who are telling you to go graduate school. If you are having any misgivings about chasing after the academic dream, express them. Pay close attention to how people respond to your honesty. Do they pretend like they didn’t hear you and continue to press you down a path that you’ve made clear you are apprehensive about?

{Cut to YOUNG MAN nodding affirmatively}

OFFSCREEN VOICE: Do they shrug off your concerns without fully addressing them?

{Cut to YOUNG MAN nodding vigorously}

OFFSCREEN VOICE: It’s important to find advisors who will acknowledge your concerns, support your interests, and reciprocate your honesty. Those encouraging you to go after an academic career should be transparent about the sacrifices — time, money, mental health, relationships — you will have to make to get there. But above all, be honest with yourself. Why do you want to go to graduate school? Can you achieve the life you want without the Ph.D? Are your motivations for pursuing academe extrinsic (to get a job, to impress others) or intrinsic (a strong passion for a particular subject, an openness to the experience)? The latter is, let’s be honest {wink wink, cue comedic drum riff}, the only reasonable motive for doing something as unreasonable as devoting your twenties to the academy.”

YOUNG MAN: Gee, thanks mister! You really put this whole grad school thing into perspective for me! To quote from As You Like It: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

OFFSCREEN VOICE: I’m not sure how that applies to this situation, but you got it, Sport!

{Wipe out, roll credits}

Well, now that I got that out of my system…

While I am concerned about what graduate school will do for my career, I am open to the experience of being a graduate student. I am enthusiastic about furthering my education, about living on my own in a new city, about starting a new chapter in my life. Because I am fully funded by my program and my tuition is waived, I can even persuade myself that it is financially advisable to go to graduate school (by the way, you should only go to graduate school for a Ph.D if you are fully funded and your tuition is waived). If I complete the required coursework, I can leave with a master’s degree (if nothing else, it will make a pretty ornament at the top of my resume, the gold star to my professional Christmas tree) that I would otherwise have had to go into debt for. I imagine that will be my Rubicon — deciding whether to cash out on this train that I’ve been riding since my sophomore year or continuing on it past the literal and figurative point of no return.

Time will tell.

'In the U.S., there are more than 20 million students enrolled in graduate school today. For many, the appeal of the 'life of the mind' - being buried in books and surrounded by the intellectual elite - is the ultimate fantasy. But many students setting foot on their new campuses for the first time are unaware of the severe drawbacks that await them. From the huge costs to the massive time investment and the dismal job prospects, the road to a Ph.D is long, winding, and full of pitfalls - something the establishment would prefer you didn't know about.'

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