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BAs are nice, but PhDs are forever

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APRIL 25, 2014

If four years of blood, sweat and tears put toward your degree weren’t enough, a good two hours of general commencement under the scorching, merciless May sun will surely be sufficiently painful for you to cross the collegiate finish line. Glide right across that stage as if you are on top of the world, and shake Nancy’s hand like the boss bitch you are — this title you’ve earned today, because it’s your graduation. You now laugh in the face of all-night paper writing and usher away any ill thoughts of waking up for a discussion section at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. All of this great fortune bestowed unto you — because you are done with school.

But what if, lo and behold, you are one of those lucky few who aren’t quite done yet? What if, instead of a mere 3 ½ hours, you have two, three or even four more years of higher education looming ahead? That’s right. I’m talking about grad school. It’s something I can speak little of from direct experience, instead deliberating at a distance as the stuff of nightmares, but also as an eventual destination I aspire to. Although this kind of conflicted, ambivalent attitude is one that seems to characterize all of my postgraduation prospects, the dilemma of grad school is one that lies at the heart of my love-hate relationship with school.

If you are like me, that last semester is dragging on and probably seeing some of your winningest feeble attempts at productivity in the library and participation in the classroom. In my senioritis state, I slept through a few more classes than I’d care to admit. I prided myself on discovering new and interesting loopholes in Microsoft Word so as to deceptively elongate papers and meet minimum page requirements. I was so ready to get out of school that tears of joy almost came to my eyes as I left Memorial Stadium after my general commencement. Almost. But then, a strange thing happened about a month or two after I walked — I started to miss it all. There was a void in my day-to-day life that I knew had once been filled by class and time spent around campus. As hard as that last semester was and as much as I hated it, I still loved being a student. It’s an occupation I sometimes wish I could inhabit forever.

Of course, if this is on the table as a possible route for you, presumably it’s something you’ve thought long and hard about and have come to recognize as an undertaking worth your while. For some, a bachelor’s degree is starting to feel like a compulsory, devalued certificate; a stamp to mark the top of one’s resume. A degree in the liberal arts (and herein lies my bias), although better than a high school diploma, doesn’t get one very far in today’s job market. This is why, for better or worse, young postgrads in my position are opting for doctorates in the humanities. The internal struggle of graduate school contemplation probably began in my third year when my favorite professor at UC Berkeley delivered a sharp and unrelenting warning against pursuing doctorates if we had any other avenue to explore as a possibility. Her ominous advice about the neck-deep debt we could find ourselves in eroded any naive fantasies I played with of becoming a professor of a subject for which I have passion. But, all cost-benefit analyses aside, if there is something you have a passion for and are sure it is where you want to make your career, perhaps that advice needs to be defied.

Whatever you do decide, it’s best to start preparing now for the future. One thing I’ve learned in the inbetween of undergraduate and graduate programs is that letters of recommendation may just be the bane of my existence. As much as quality matters in terms of letters of recommendation, quantity is also always a factor. I developed a great relationship with one or two professors with whom I felt very comfortable discussing referrals and recommendations. I’ve been hard pressed to find a third one for most of the applications I’ve been filling out (for some reason, arbitrary or just unknown to me, three is the magic number). The GSI who I mustered up the courage to ask agreed to write one for me, even though she seemed to have forgotten my name. The GRE is another preparation best sorted out sooner rather than later. For me, it’s absolutely necessary to take the test before the inputs and outputs of calculus retreat into the deep and inaccessible cavities of my brain.

If all of this talk of preparing now for the future is causing you more stress than relief, take comfort in the fact that you don’t have to go to graduate school right away. Many who end up there don’t go the fall after their graduation. If you are involved with a love-hate relationship with school, too, take the time after undergrad to figure things out and see if it is the next step you want to take. Perhaps you’ll find something else you love. But perhaps you’ll come crawling back to the libraries and cafes that enable your unhealthy love of studentship.

Max Rosen writes the Friday column on life after college. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @RosenMax.

APRIL 25, 2014