Maybe we teach it to them

This post was originally published at Peachleaves blog

This article has been making the rounds of my Facebook peer group.  It’s a thoughtful piece that puts a lot of effort into describing the conditions and causes of the current graduate school dilemma.  I don’t think I agree with his conclusions (though I certainly haven’t any better ideas) but the initial attraction for me was encapsulated in the last lines of the second paragraph:  “Go [to grad school] if you feel that your happiness depends on it—it can be a great experience in many ways—but be aware of what you’re in for. You’re going to be in school for at least seven years, probably more like nine, and there’s a very good chance that you won’t get a job at the end of it.”

It’s relieving, though sad, so see that written out so baldly.  Unless you have friends or relatives who have completed a PhD – and sometimes even then, since the landscape seems to have changed greatly in recent decades – you really have no way of knowing what the whole shenanigan is going to be like.  (I remember, upon receiving my acceptance and a sweet phone call from the then-department head, asking her whether she thought I could complete the program in three years.  LOLFOREVER.)  And your civilian peers don’t really have a way to know either.  As I’ve progressed through several stages and phases of interviews and employment since informally leaving academia, I’ve encountered seemingly limitless disbelief that anyone could leave the soft cushion and certain future of the ivory tower.

It’s hard to explain without sounding bitter.

I have frequently said in conversation – maybe I’ve said it here, too – that I think our undergrad students suffer simultaneously from tragically low self-esteem and just as tragically inflated self-entitlement.  There are always exceptions, but generally the  students who complain that meeting the basic requirement will only earn a C grade are the same students who believe themselves fundamentally incapable of doing better work.  I don’t usually see this as laziness or ignorance,  but as a failure on the part of some system, somewhere. . . some grand narrative is slithering through secondary schools, whispering to students that they deserve exceptional treatment but cannot do exceptional work.   I think so because of numerous lessons and conferences in which I had the opportunity to see a student light up, pleased and surprised and embarrassed that their own analytical powers brought them to know something they didn’t already know.

But with my poorly informed expectations laid in front of me by that article opener, I can see how much my own peers and I labor under those same twin limitations.  I mean, what but arrogance can buoy the assumption that years of labor will garner us grants or jobs or prestige, even as repeated rejection and experience deflates and defers those hopes?  And who is more self-abasing than a graduate student, who continues to reapply under the assumption that last time, the work just wasn’t refined enough, the transformation into Desirable Candidate not yet complete?

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