As the crisis in graduate education comes to light, cultural attitudes about grad school are taking a decidedly negative turn. Media outlets (most notably U.S. News & World Report) have benefited enormously from the graduate-school mania of the last few decades, which may help explain why systemic problems in higher education have not received more attention from the media. Job insecurity is at least partially to blame for the extreme reluctance of academics and administrators to criticize the system upon which their livelihoods depend.
However, in 2003, Professor William Pannapacker (writing under the pseudonym Thomas H. Benton) bravely published a piece entitled “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the major trade journal of American academe. The Chronicle deserves credit for publishing that essay, and the series of Thomas H. Benton columns on the problems of graduate school that followed it. A recent installment was entitled “The Big Lie about the ‘Life of the Mind.’” The comments posted by readers of those columns reveal the heartbreak and disappointment of so many who are products of the graduate-school machine, as does this open letter to Thomas H. Benton. Over the past two years, attention has also turned to the stability of the higher education establishment itself, with academic insiders like Joseph Marr Cronin and Howard Horton and law professor Glenn Reynolds comparing the “bubble” in higher education to the hyper-inflated housing market before the real-estate bust (see Reason 27). Meanwhile, economist Richard Vedder has pointed out statistics that suggest that college has proven of little practical use to millions of college graduates, and has more recently considered graduate degrees.
There seems to be a new cultural awareness of the negative aspects of graduate school. Appearing in 2010 was Adam Ruben’s book, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. Generally speaking, the details of grad-student life have never been on the cultural radar, so the decision of a major publisher like Random House to publish the book is telling. Another cultural indicator is the Xtranormal viral video posted in October 2010 depicting an earnest undergraduate asking a professor for a letter of recommendation to accompany her graduate-school application. The professor tries vigorously to dissuade her. The video is humorous, but draws on the genuine pathos that permeates academe (and seems to have inspired a subgenre of similar videos). An even more recent video (produced commercially)—styling itself as an “honest” grad school ad—is a blunt and vulgar commentary on graduate school and graduate students that drips with derision. Its humor is of the mocking variety.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the writers of the Simpsons were ahead of the curve, pointing out some of the sad realities of graduate school (with a touch of mockery) years ago. If graduate school continues to get this kind of attention, maybe it will have the positive effect of reducing interest in graduate programs and eventually relieving some of the pressure on the PhD job market. On the other hand, it is hard enough to be a graduate student in a world that scarcely notices that graduate students exist (see Reason 30), and it will be far harder if the popular culture comes to perceive them as dupes. The zeitgeist seems headed in that direction.