Monday, July 18, 2011

64. Smugness.

Academe takes itself and its hierarchies very seriously, which is why where you go to school matters so much to the trajectory of an academic career (see Reason 3). The self-regard of institutions and the self-regard of those associated with them tend to go hand-in-hand. In an uncomfortably honest essay in the American Scholar, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz offers some indication of just how rigid the hierarchy is: “My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me.” And yet smugness is a problem throughout academe, even outside of the elite universities. In particular, there is a tendency among those pursuing or holding an advanced degree to think of themselves as being a cut above. What Deresiewicz says of “an elite education” also applies to graduate school: it “inculcates a false sense of self-worth.”

As Richard Vedder’s discouraging statistics demonstrate, the extreme seriousness with which academe takes itself does not seem to correspond with the actual benefits students acquire from either an undergraduate or graduate education. In fact, the terrible job prospects facing graduate students (see Reasons 8 and 55) may actually worsen the problem of smugness by leaving scholars and aspiring scholars with little to cling to beyond their academic credentials (see Reason 25). If you find yourself in a non-elite graduate program and inclined to look down upon the “less educated,” you should be aware of the low regard in which your Ivy-League competitors hold you. Any time spent in academe will involve unpleasant encounters with smugness, which can take subtle and grating forms. Sometimes it is anything but subtle, as in this particularly heinous example recently recorded on a commuter train.

Monday, July 4, 2011

63. Your friends pass you by.

For graduate students, nothing drives home the fact that graduate school delays adulthood (see Reason 12) more clearly than observing friends who choose a different path. You may enter graduate school with the belief that an extra degree or two will give you an advantage in life, but while you are concentrating on gaining an advantage, your friends are concentrating on life. They may never turn into millionaires—though that is far more likely in the real world than in the academic one—but they probably will pass you by. While you sit in a cramped living space working on your dissertation year after year, your friends will be working hard, too, but they will be earning salaries. They will also be buying cars and houses, getting married, and having children (see Reason 15). They may even take an expensive vacation or two. It can be hard to relate to old friends who live in a world increasingly different from your own, and even harder to make new ones (see Reason 50).

This is about more than keeping up with the Joneses—or counting on catching up with them after you finish your education. The lives of your friends are reminders of the true costs of graduate school, which can be much higher than you anticipate. More than a quarter of women in their early forties with graduate or professional degrees are childless. After years of graduate school, will what you have gained be worth what you have missed?