Should You Go To Graduate School? Well, Consider the Advantages

Good day, readers!

Today’s text is a recent interview in the New Yorker with the Canadian author Sheila Heti. It is excerpted from a recent book, Should I Go To Graduate School: 41 Answers to An Impossible Question.

Admirable book. These are weighty questions, and it’s nice to know there’s an anthology asking a bunch of writers, artists, and professors what they did.

But, see, the interview gave me pause. And here’s why.

Heti’s answer is, basically, no. She says she never considered graduate school, that her life as a writer is structured around the kind of interesting and intelligent questions that one finds in graduate school, and thus she felt no need of official advanced study.

Except. In mid-interview, in response to a question along the lines of “isn’t graduate school valuable for the socialization process” she suddenly says that she attended theater school and learned playwriting. Now, this was apparently prior to gaining an undergraduate degree. Still…isn’t studying playwriting exactly the kind of professionalized training in the arts and humanities that graduate school provides? (In those disciplines—and the book, interestingly, is only on those disciplines.)

So…isn’t it a bit disingenuous to say she never felt the need? It seems she did feel the need. And got it fulfilled, through a program–she just didn’t do it post undergrad. The interview is carefully structured so that a summary answer might read “no, you don’t need graduate school; your intellectual interchange can come through writing and socializing with writers and other artists.” But the data provided indicate a slightly different path.

Why do I care? I think my concerns tie into the kind of social capital issues I’ve discussed in earlier posts (of April 30 and April 22, 2014, to be specific). Heti portrays a world in which giving parties for artists leads to socialization, networks, and interesting conversations. Implicitly, she is talking about sharing a world with social and cultural, if not monetary, wealth. To quote: “I remember telling my grandmother about [artist and writer] isolation, and she said, ‘Have regular parties at your house.’ I think that’s how she and her mostly Jewish, communist, artist friends socialized back in Budapest.” But it sounds as if she wouldn’t have had the initial nucleus without the play-writing program. (Or her grandmother’s advice.)

In my own experience, graduate school not only provides a valuable structure and socialization, it simply provides many more forms of knowledge and contacts than one has without it. Moreover—and maybe even more importantly–it also provides a kind of badge of intellectual proficiency; an intangible proof of capacity and interest that is increasingly needed because, sadly, our society is not only increasingly separating into the economic haves and the economic have-nots…it is also increasingly separating into those with higher degrees and those without. (My calling this does not mean I approve of this development. It’s injurious to democracy, even. But do increasing degrees of separation exist? Oh, yes.)

I’m also concerned because I think telling such a narrative to young people might lead them to a naïve decision. Yes, graduate school is expensive and the financial investment may not pay off. But the forms of intellectual and social capital it provides, while intangible, are real.

The interviewer, Jessica Loudis, gives voice to, I think, a common feeling on the part of those considering graduate school: “people regard doctoral programs as a kind of insurance policy; a way of guaranteeing that they will be able to read and think about the things they care about, at least for a few years…. people project these sorts of fantasies onto grad school.” Crucially, this is said apologetically, as if the people having these fantasies are, maybe, wrong.

I don’t think they are, frankly. It is a kind of insurance policy, and it does function as a haven for thinking about what you care about. At least in my book. Now, the world is full of interesting things to cogitate about postgrad too. (That’s what Retaining the Meta is all about!) But don’t knock having an outward symbol as a marker of an inward reality.


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