How to Keep Grad School From Destroying You

Few people leave grad school in better shape than they enter it, argues G. M. Trujillo Jr., who offers advice for anyone who plans to enroll or is considering it.

September 16, 2021
 
 
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Grad school might destroy you. That’s the most important thing I would tell my pre-Ph.D. self if I could.

In my field, philosophy, incoming cohorts of students usually number around five. By my estimation, four of those finish the degree. Maybe two get stable employment in academe. In other words, the odds are against you getting a job. (Never mind the odds of getting into a program that funds you well.)

Even worse, few people leave grad school in better shape than they enter it. Grad school often leads to poor mental health. Grad students get exploited because universities know that grad students are transient and can’t organize easily. After all, the administration holds the funding lines, visas and standards for performance reviews. Hair loss, chest pain, mental breakdowns, the end of long-term relationships, the beginnings of chronic health problems -- I’ve seen all these in many grad students across various disciplines. And they’re more pronounced in first-generation, disabled, queer, nonwhite or nonwealthy students.

But I know my pre-Ph.D. self. He wouldn’t take these warnings as reasons to avoid enrollment. And maybe that’s for the best, as I was one of only 6.5 percent of Hispanic Ph.D. recipients in philosophy in 2019. Sometimes we make decisions with our heads, other times with our hearts. And advice to the heart should aim to mitigate potential damage, because it can’t change anyone’s mind. So here’s my advice to my previous self and anyone going into grad school.

Consider who gives you advice. If you ask advice of professors at Ph.D.-granting institutions, you’ll find survivorship bias. You’re talking to someone who made it. That’s unusual today. Try to track down people who teach at community colleges, who left academe after the Ph.D. or who failed out of programs. Otherwise, you’ll get only selective advice, largely from people with pedigree and luck on their side.

Worse, many senior professors don’t understand the pressures of the saturated job market today. In philosophy, it used to be OK to stay in grad school for a decade, learn multiple languages and come out of the program when advisers deemed you “ready.” Now, decade-long funding lines don’t exist, and part-time jobs can’t pay rent. Additionally, in this publish-or-perish world, it’s taken for granted that you’ll have a few publications while on the market your first time, whether or not you’re “ready.”

Recognize that academe isn’t a meritocracy. Pedigreed professors have connections to pedigreed professors. If you don’t have this luxury, everything will be much harder.

But that doesn’t mean you should give up. If you know that success isn’t about who you are but rather whom you know, then get to know other people. Minimally, hang out with people in your program, and look for opportunities with grad student governments that are campuswide and interdisciplinary. When drama swells in your department -- and it will -- you’ll have refuge elsewhere.

Additionally, go to conferences. Many philosophers have horrible habits of simply reading their papers in their presentations and being jerks in Q&As. So going for intellectual stimulation shouldn’t be your priority. Rather, it should be networking. Attend talks by the best people in your field, and try to find friends. That will carry you farther than valid arguments and inscrutable research.

While you network, observe the culture. People judge you initially on soft skills -- walking and talking like an academic or doing things like knowing who publishes what styles of scholarship, pitching your research in 60 seconds and asking questions that help the presenter rather than devolving into personal rants. Every discipline conducts business a certain way, and conferences can help you learn this. Even if you choose to buck the trends, you’ll do so on your terms -- not because you don’t understand conventions.

Plan an exit. Finish your first year, no matter what. It will take at least that long to understand the game. But after you see what academe is like, you’ll probably be uncertain whether you want to continue or even whether you can. You may feel trapped -- all the momentum of your life has been carrying you forward to finish your degree, but the system of academe is hurling you toward a brick wall.

One way to feel better is to find an exit. Consider internships in related industries that can help you transition into other career paths. Or build skills and earn certificates that will connect you to opportunities in private industry. You’ll probably have summers during which you have relatively little work. Rather than stew in anxiety, use a bit of that time to invest in yourself elsewhere. For example, I kept up with my teaching license, and other grad students I knew learned programming or consulting.

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Don’t ignore your free time, though. Savor it. The flexibility you have as a grad student is unmatched, but the anxiety of completing the program, applying for jobs and contending with others can suffocate enjoyment. If you’re tired, then rest, and don’t feel guilty. But don’t be afraid of a little productive procrastination that can enrich other aspects of your life.

Be a whole person. It’s not always the best who finish; sometimes finishers are just survivors. So take care of your body and relationships, not just your mind. As you age through and past your 20s, yearly checkups with your physician will help you monitor your health, and cleanings at the dentist will help prevent emergencies. Find ways to keep up with this, and manage your health through eating well, sleeping consistently and getting some exercise. Don’t ignore the body, or it will wither and break.

Similarly, relationships and connections to your community are crucial. The most grounded people I met in grad school joined recreational sports leagues or volunteered with church groups. For the people who flourished, academe was only one facet of their lives. That made crises less destructive, because even if these students’ academic careers flopped, they knew they could still be virtuous friends, productive volunteers and fulfilled human beings.

Life will happen. Many of my grad school friends and I faced the deaths of loved ones. Many of us split with long-term partners. So staying healthy and rooted in a community can help you when the storms of life pour and howl. If you let grad school cut your roots, you will fall harder.

Know you will be OK. My words are unvarnished, but you can’t prepare for what you don’t expect. So I hope sharing these lessons will help you prepare and thus be able to relax. Look, no one cognizant of the world feels great these days. And the trials of grad school are really the trials of maturing on a dying planet with a polarizing political atmosphere. Escalating crises in higher education add to this.

But whether you get into a program, finish the degree or get a job, all will be OK. Not everyone makes it to the pros, but at least you played the game. No matter what, you’ll find life wherever you are. And the world -- in sore need of smart, considerate people -- can always use your skills.

Bio

G. M. Trujillo Jr. is assistant professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Louisville.

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