The Case Against Grad School

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BART [mocking a man with a ponytail]: Look at me, I’m a grad student. I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year.
MARGE: Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They’ve just made a terrible life choice.

                                                                                           —The Simpsons

JACK: We may not be the best people.
LIZ: But we’re not the worst.
JACK and LIZ [in unison]: Graduate students are the worst.

                                                                                           —30 Rock

Mocking the idea of graduate school is a pastime enjoyed most, it seems, by grad students themselves. That’s true for me, at least, having recently completed a Master’s of Fine Arts program and masochistically relishing every joke about the usefulness of those extra three letters on my resume. The feeling among many fresh out of grad school, especially in the arts, is equal parts accomplishment and ambivalence: “Well, I’m glad I did that. What the hell do I do now?”

April Bernard makes a more measured case against graduate school in “Escape From the Ivory Tower” (excerpt only available online) in the Fall 2008 “Ways of Learning” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Actually, to say she is “anti-graduate school” is not entirely accurate; rather, she provides sound reasons why graduate school isn’t for every person–or every discipline. Speaking from her experience with an unfinished English PhD from Yale, Bernard describes the tedious seminars, sexist milieu, and post-structuralist myopia that characterized her time there.

Bernard’s essay doesn’t brim with the same elitist contempt for her own students as Lynn Freed’s infamous anti-MFA screed, “Doing time: My Years in the Creative-Writing gulag” (subscription required) published in Harper’s in 2005. Rather than penning a haughty manifesto, Bernard advances an argument about pedagogy, teasing out the reasons why the humanities aren’t always best served by the kind of highly specialized postgraduate study brought to bear on other fields, such as science or business.

The essay serves as a reminder that education can be found outside the classroom, and good writing beyond the workshop. For her own part, Bernard has made her peace with academia: By publishing poetry and fiction, she’s secured a job teaching writing to undergraduates, circumventing the advanced degrees that retain their stranglehold on the faculty hiring process. Based on her wit and nimble prose, I’d say her students are lucky to have her, even without that almighty graduate degree.

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