Why go to graduate school? Self-Mastery

Dear Prospective Graduate Students,

One evening, a couple of years before I was set to go on the academic job market for a coveted tenure-track position, I gathered with about a dozen other emergent sociologists, brought together by our advisor for a monthly dinner and discussion about our ongoing work. These conversations were typically intellectual and perhaps political; we rarely spent too much time on the professional concerns we all should have been having as we collectively prepared to leave graduate school and enter academia, if we were lucky, as paid professors. This night was different, and as it wound down an anxiety fell over us as we contemplated the slim chances of our employability. Our advisor tried to console us by reminding us to trust ourselves and even the institution of academia. One graduate student, much braver than me, expressed in so many words what we were thinking: “Easy for you to say, tenured professor at UC Berkeley!”

There’s a lot of survivor’s bias when it comes to academia. It not only shapes the quality of advice we receive across ranks but also our capacity to receive that advice as good-faith. It’s all too easy to feel at risk of being gaslit by faculty who no longer understand, first-hand, what academia has become for graduate students. For what it’s worth, our advisor was totally right in having more faith in us than we had in ourselves, but even that now feels like an act of faith of a bygone era. This was pre-pandemic, after all. Now, we’ve reached the point of feeling, nay knowing, that no one really knows what will happen: will universities fall apart under the weight of neoliberalization? is this the last cohort of tenure-track faculty? will academia be reduced to a series of pre-recorded lectures, even after we’re dead?

It’s easy to get doomsday about academia (and getting doomsday has its purpose, as I hope you’ll see by the end of this blog), but that’s not a reason to avoid going to graduate school altogether. It is a reason to start asking some hard questions: On whose terms are you attending graduate school? What will count as time well spent there? What if you write a paper that lands in a top journal, gets a ton of citations, and no job at the end? What if your job is at a teaching school where much of the research you did simply doesn’t “count”? What if you don’t publish, you don’t end up teaching, and you still spent 12 years in grad school? Will you be satisfied if the “activism” you thought grad school would make possible just amounted to working alone and writing articles few will ever read? Would it have been worth it?

I didn’t really consider those questions when I applied to graduate school because, well, I was extremely ignorant of academia. I didn’t come from an academic family. I didn’t know what tenure meant, other than that it seemed like a really great thing. My main exposure to what professors came from watching them in undergrad–and watching movies like A Beautiful Mind (yes, I started out wanting to be a mathematician before turning to sociology). I barely understood what I was getting myself into–and the only words of warning came from my undergraduate advisor who told me that if I thought getting into graduate school was scary, just wait until I try to find an academic job.

When you get to graduate school, you might realize–if you are like I was–that a lot of stuff that you thought matters is actually meaningless in grad school. Grades don’t matter. How many classes you take doesn’t matter. Your final papers may not matter. You might even soon feel like you don’t matter. And as for those things that do matter? The reward seems to be just more hurdles, more expectations, more work.

So why go to grad school? Oftentimes, it comes down to intellectual interest: “I love ideas” or “I want to contribute to knowledge.” But that only gets you so far once you start dealing with grad school as an actual thing you do…and not just something that seems cool from the outside. On whose behalf are you pursuing knowledge? What kinds of ideas are worth pursuing, and at what cost to you, your health, and even your relationships with your family and friends? What happens when the life of the mind turns out to be boring, difficult, lonely, pointless, even treacherous?

In my view, there’s one really good reason to go to grad school, and it has to do with pursuing the life of the mind, but it’s more than that. Graduate school–perhaps more than any other arena within academia, so enjoy it while you have it!–offers the space, time, resources and community to support self-mastery.

What does this mean, exactly? Graduate students are often compared to apprentices in the feudal guild or monks in a Buddhist monastery. Putting aside the material austerity that these kinds of institutions evoke, they do share something important with graduate school: the emphasis is on the development of craft (whether a material craft, in the case of the guild, or mental craft, in the case of the monastery) that can only take place through a dedicated and deep practice of self-mastery. One enters these spaces not to become the next Dalai Lama or Michaelangelo (or the fame and fortune of becoming a professor…that’s a big joke) but to develop a life-long commitment to craft that provides an intrinsic reward for being able to transform the substance of life (mental or material) into something that is patently one’s own.

Before you think that self-mastery is something that only Buddhists or artists should concern themselves with, remember that Karl Marx, one of the founders of modern sociology, located the capacity to transform the world around us not just as one of the unique indicators of humanity (i.e., people make tools, animals do not) but also one of the fundamental sources of human freedom. “Objectification,” close readers of Marx will recall, was not about turning people into objects as a mode of domination but rather about people transformation the world around them through their labor. “Objectification” meant bringing themselves into the world through their concerted craft–a way of experiencing the fullness of human capacity that is closed off in systems of production that emphasized deskilled and alienated labor.

Academia, for all of its terrible traits, remains a space that where the pursuit of craft as a practice of self-mastery is still possible (and, I would argue necessary if you want to maintain any semblance of work-life balance). In my field, the craft of sociology includes:

  1. Developing the capacity to ask creative questions that yield answers that move us forward in terms of building an equitable and inclusive society
  2. Developing the capacity for different writing voices, different ways of understanding evidence and engaging it, and different styles of ways of connecting data to theory that empower others to think–and to see themselves as thinkers
  3. Developing the capacity for ceaselessly recognizing and persistently interrogating the conditions of knowledge
  4. Engaging in the production of knowledge as a collective process, one that may reflect individual efforts but is not reducible to any individual effort

If that list reads like a list of qualities you’d like to embody as a human being, rather than an outline of an esoteric academic skillset, then graduate school will probably be an intrinsically rewarding space for you to grow and contribute. If those qualities don’t represent the kind of thing that excites you, that’s okay! There are lots of ways for us as humans to develop the craft of being human, lots of ways of fulfilling our potential, and graduate school needn’t be your route even if it is someone else’s route. You can be an artist, an athlete, an entrepreneur…all of these (and more!) can be pursued as full-time or part-time venues for human excellence that fundamentally revolve around the excitement and exhilaration of self-mastery.

It’s important, then, to gain clarity about what, exactly, it is you want from graduate school because the pursuit of self-mastery that graduate school allows is all-too-easily overshadowed by the ways that graduate student life is, well, quite terrible. You will likely be paid very little to take on some of the most crucial tasks of the university. You will experience the continued fall-out of academia’s unwillingness to recognize and reckon with itself as an institution of white supremacy. You will be probably asked to absorb the mental health challenges of others without the resources to process your own trauma. Depending on your social location, you might be bombarded with mentoring burdens before you feel even have a chance to catch your breath. You will often feel like you’ve been abandoned–even by your most engaged and well-intentioned advisors–to figure everything out on your own. You will spend a lot of time alone. When you aren’t alone, you may feel surrounded by faculty and fellow graduate students who are more interested in seeing one another as competitors in a zero-sum game than collaborating as co-mentors in a practice of craft. And at the end of it all, you may or may not have anything to show for it–in the form of a job, a publication, even recognition of your hard work by your friends and family. After all, graduate school is often at best misunderstood and at worst derided by those outside of this particular cult (and yes, academia is a cult).

I’m writing this not to scare you or dissuade you, but to get you thinking clearly and cogently about the stakes of what you are pursuing and the kind of struggle you are signing up for. If this sounds like a supreme waste of time without the promise of a very specific outcome awaiting for you at the end…please reconsider the urge to sign up for something that may ultimately be simply a source of continued self-doubt and self-frustration. The “life of the mind” is a space of dogged discipline that can be immensely fulfilling–but only if that is the kind of self-mastery that you find exciting and exhilarating. But academia can also be a space of supreme demoralization, harassment, and discrimination.

Recognizing that your academic practice transcends these nasty aspects of academia won’t make them go away, but it will keep you focused on the question that you will ask yourself over and over as you go through graduate school: is this all worth it? And if you do continue to answer in the affirmative, I hope you’ll also find ways not just to bask in the self-mastery that graduate school can provide but also make it easier for others to practice their craft, too.

Sincerely,

JDC

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