Monday, January 30, 2012

77. It attracts the socially inept.

Graduate school demands that you spend an immense amount of time alone (see Reason 69). It demands sustained interest in highly esoteric subjects. And it demands that you approach those esoteric subjects with the utmost seriousness. You can see how this environment would be attractive to people who are more comfortable in their own thoughts than in the company of others. This applies across academic disciplines. While some graduate students are involved in cutting-edge medical research, others are studying the subtle aspects of postwar Croatian cinema (see Reason 66). Oddly enough, the latter take their work as seriously as the former. Grad school can be compared to an endless fan convention at which all the participants cluster by genre or disciplinary interest, and where every individual is highly invested in a particular sub-sub-sub-genre.

In fact, graduate school is best suited for those who are fanatical, because devotion to one’s field (measured in terms of productivity) is what is rewarded (see Reason 38). The problem for most graduate students is that they are normal people. They do not thrive in prolonged isolation, and even though they may have an abiding interest in their subject of study, it does not amount to fanaticism. In the world in which they find themselves, however, they have to both co-exist and compete with the die-hard fans (see Reason 2). Earnest discussion of obscure topics, irrational in-group status jockeying, and competitive devotion may be fine for hobbyists at weekend conventions, but graduate school goes on for years. It does not take long to spot the odd characters who inhabit this environment, nor to see its effects on healthy personalities (see Reason 50). Keenly aware of the variety of people who manage to percolate through graduate programs, academic hiring committees rely on an old-fashioned test: how will a job candidate perform in a conversation over dinner?

Monday, January 16, 2012

76. There is a culture of fear.

The worst fears to which graduate school gives rise are fears about the future, which stem from both immediate concerns about funding (see Reason 17) and long-range concerns about the miserable job market (see Reason 8). But there is another fear pervasive in academe that runs counter to a central principle of modern democracy. It is the fear of speaking freely. Reason 75 saw the 2,000th comment posted on 100 Reasons, and all but a tiny fraction of those comments were posted anonymously. There is probably no American newspaper today that publishes more articles by writers using pseudonyms than the Chronicle of Higher of Education. Even Professor William Pannapacker, the patron saint of graduate-school realists (and a Harvard PhD), wrote his first columns warning people about graduate school using the pen name Thomas H. Benton. The author of a recent book about his experiences as a college instructor is known only as Professor X.

Why? Why are academics—of all people—afraid of writing (and speaking) honestly about their profession? Why do so many of those who do express themselves feel compelled to do so anonymously? The answer lies in the staggering power imbalance between academics and the people who employ them. That imbalance is so great because of the crippling realities of the academic job market. The consequences of offending your colleagues and superiors in any way can be dire, because until you have tenure (see Reason 71) your employment is insecure; you are easily replaced. For the same reason, untenured college instructors often endure humiliating working conditions (see Reason 14). For graduate students who have not yet been hired for their first real jobs, developing a fear of saying the wrong thing is an essential success strategy. If you decide to go to graduate school, you should know that it may be a very long time before you will be comfortable expressing yourself about subjects of considerable importance to you.