Whether you’re thinking about pursuing an advanced degree or are already a student yourself, you will most likely encounter two versions of the nature of graduate school, especially if you’re a liberal arts student.
The optimists will tell you that you’re making a right decision because you’ll become an expert on a given subject, which will broaden your horizons, and prepare you for the future. The pessimists will tell you the opposite, that it’s a waste of time since it doesn’t hold any intrinsic value or prepare you for the ‘real world.’ Neither of these views is accurate or representative of what graduate school is like and what it can provide you. A particular problem with these two views is that they tend to be considered mutually exclusive, when in reality, both of them hold some truth. Nonetheless, these two sides express terribly skewed perceptions of what knowledge, authority, and status are. The reality is that, like most things in life, you are the one who ultimately assigns a value to the education you receive.
People who enter graduate school do it out of the love for a subject or field, or out of sheer interest in the career options it promises. Both of these are acceptable reasons for embarking on this perilous journey, but things become complicated when expectations of what you will receive clash with reality.
You’ve heard the warnings, grad school is going to be tough, it’s going to test your resistance to criticism, and your perseverance, but many other challenges are seldom told to prospective students. For example, you won’t be told how incredibly arbitrary criticism is. How you are trained to think and write like your instructors. No one will tell you about how you’ll be taught to be both terribly harsh with yourself and confident at the same time, a terrible contradiction that will confuse many. Similarly, you won’t be told how the people who will be guiding and instructing you are not authorities you should accept unquestionably. You will be told by them and others that only they know best. You will start believing that they hold an incredible amount of knowledge, which arguably they do, but it’s a very narrow and limited expertise. Most importantly, you are not warned that in all likelihood, while most of your professors will be respectable researchers, they may not necessarily be good teachers and mentors, this is especially the case for prestigious ‘research institutions.’
The truth is, academia is not a path to greatness, it is only one path out of many to become a connoisseur of a very particular topic. The mistake academics, students, and we as a society keep making is that we fail to see the untapped potential of the skills gained through rigorous study, dedication and critical thinking. We need to rethink how we treat subjects such as the naturalist movement or analyses of war in film and media and instead see them as ideas that don’t just bounce back and forth in an echo chamber of intellectual babble, but instead as ideas that hold real value in learning about the human experience.
Graduate school is not really about the misguided notions your teachers and colleagues keep repeating like a broken record, it’s really about being able to spend a couple of more years learning about a topic in the hopes to fulfill some sense of meaning. The harder yet more exciting part is finding a way to positively share those experiences and insights with the world around you after you’ve received your diploma.
We sometimes forget work and school, albeit different in nature and purpose, are still activities we do to achieve a better future and attain a sense of fulfillment. To better understand what the ideal way we should approach work, I recommend the book How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric. It provides real insight as to what we should really keep in mind when making life changing decisions regarding our work life.