Ode from a withered graduate student

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MAY 08, 2013

Like most people of my generation, I found the answer to my current predicament summed up in a series of 30 beautiful GIFs on The author’s name was Jessica. My name is Jessica. Ryan Gosling was there. I love Ryan Gosling. And the article was called “What Grad School Is REALLY Like.” Well, I too am (was?) in grad school. The piece was practically tailor-made for me, so I scrolled down the list, nodding ever more vigorously in agreement as the statements rang truer to my own lonely, dark (though Ryan Gosling-less) situation.

Why go to graduate school? Jessica (the author) wrote, because “Knowledge is pretty freaking cool.” “Yeah,” I said back to the computer with the petulant bleat of a 4-year-old being asked if she preferred Fruit Loops (with marshmallows!) over that chicken feed that Kashi is marketing as cereal. Duh. Of course I like knowledge. Of course I like Fruit Loops. Of course I like knowing that Bart Simpson said his first girlfriend’s (another Jessica) hair smelled like Fruit Loops. Knowledge is the best. But grad school is, sadly, not just about knowledge or sugarcoated cereal.

Here’s my story. I went to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate. I loved it. Save for the all-nighters, printer jams (real and imagined for excuse purposes) and chronic whiplash from looking for the correct classroom in Dwinelle, my time as a double major in English and history was exhausting but fulfilling. It was challenging but creative. I wanted more, and I had no employable skills, so I thought the doctorate program in history would at once satisfy my intellectual curiosities and provide a stable means of living for a prolonged period of time. Despite what the bachelor’s degree I have hanging next to my Hanson poster might suggest, I was very naive.

Graduate school is not your undergraduate education. It is not necessarily about the expansion of knowledge. It is not wholly concerned with your own imaginative ideas about how to make the discipline more accessible or, at the very least, more fun. It is, fundamentally, a trade school. You are there to learn an industry, to make contacts, to produce content that becomes almost absurdly niche and to spend an exorbitant amount of time figuring out who in your class has the required reading out on reserve so you can passive-aggressively get it back. Needless to say, I don’t have many friends in the graduate department. Then again, I don’t know how many friends they have either.

Studies show that the attrition rate for doctoral programs is about 40 to 50 percent. Part of this reason may be that graduate students retain some of the highest rates of depression and suicide. In 2004, UC Berkeley polled more than 3,000 graduate students and discovered that nearly 10 percent of the respondents had “seriously considered committing suicide in the past year.” Even more troubling, 18 students actually attempted suicide. So, the question becomes: Is graduate school worth it?

Speaking of worth in monetary terms, it absolutely is not. The national student debt now exceeds $1 trillion. For most graduate students, their time of study is funded, but because federal policy now “requires graduate students to pay the interest on their loans while still at university or let it build up until they graduate,” the debt only grows more crippling as job prospects for postgraduate employment lessen every year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I knew this going into my program. I knew it was a lonely venture, an intellectually-gutting experience and a sure sign of an empty wallet. I had seen the shriveled, crestfallen looks on my English GSIs’ faces as they read Keats with all the passion of a dead sloth. They were the very thing Keats was writing about. They were in grad school, “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” and “Where to think is to be full of sorrow.” I knew and saw all of this and still entered, blindsided by the romance of knowledge and the pursuit of some noble dream.

But, that’s all it ever was — a dream. The reality of graduate school, for me, was the realization that meaning in life does not arrive in the form of an advanced degree or that super fancy velvet hood they give to doctoral graduates. Meaning in life does not blossom via rigorous, deconstructive intellectual analysis. There is worth in study, and there is value in the act of resurrecting the past from dust-covered pages or routinely pipetting test samples. But if you’re thinking of going to graduate school right after college, heed this suggestion: Before you study life, you should live some of it first.

Contact Jessica Pena at 


MAY 10, 2013

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