What is getting a Ph.D. really like? The purgatory of grad school

This article talks about whether doing a Ph.D. is worth it. Graduate students self-inflict the purgatory of staying around campus years after all of their cohorts have left to pursue family, jobs, and careers.

What is getting a Ph.D. really like? Does grad school really seem as grim as people (including myself) make it out to be? Does anyone actually enjoy grad school?

Source: FlickR Creative Commons

The reality of doing a Ph.D. isn’t really what juniors think.  It’s not the research that is hard.  It’s not so much the money or strain on your personal relationships. The reality is that doing a Ph.D is quite enjoyable.  You feel that you have a purpose.  You can wake up and learn everyday.  You feel that you are a respected part of society. Everyone else is at office jobs, while you travel around giving conference presentations, saying big words, and implying you are the smartest person in the room at most social functions.

But the real thing that I think makes many grad students question whether it is worth it to get a Ph.D. is the sense that you have left your cohort behind.  Your friends leave, find jobs, and travel around the world.  They live in the ordinary world, doing practical things.

It’s the purgatory of still being a student late into your twenties, especially in the humanities where the length of degrees sometimes stretches into five, six, or seven years. It’s watching a young couple across the street climb into their car and purchase their first home, while you still take the bus and spend most of your time surrounded by undergraduates.  It’s the loss of freedom of mobility, following whatever teaching position might open up somewhere, someday.  It’s explaining to your spouse that children are out of the question for at least another 5-7 years. You feel that you are in purgatory.  You feel like your career as a professor will never begin. You feel like the only one on your path.

For example, I can remember having a conversation with one of my friends five or six years ago.  We both wanted to be professors.  It seemed like a long way away, and he left for the University of Toronto.  This seems like an eternity ago.  He is still in the final stages of his dissertation, and then will do post-doc research for two more years.  Then perhaps sessional appointments and then, I hope , he will find a job as a professor. It’s a long arc between that conversation and the final destination.

The point is that by the time you get there you wonder: Was it worth it to do a Ph.D.? Is the job of being a professor that great?

The long road to the Ph.D.: purgatory and grad school

In other words, your life becomes a bit of a purgatory.  Others have gone on to their careers.  But you are still here, building something. Not an employee of the university.  Not quite a student.  Not as permanent as the buildings, but close.  Each term new students arrive and old students leave.  Each cohort erases the last. But grad students simply don’t leave.  They stay until even their professors forget about them and are surprised to see them there, at the coffee shop, still writing their dissertation.  For six years.

The moment I decided that grad school wasn’t worth it for me

My last day at campus, I spent under a tree. The lawn was wet and so I sat on my book bag with a coffee balanced on a flattened root. I read Ezra Pound (I was writing a paper for a conference at Notre Dame the next month) and remember feeling not quite sad, but knew that my “life of the mind” days were coming to an end.

For the last few weeks, I had prolonged returning my three bags of books to the library.  They had been stacked by the door and I hadn’t used most of them all term. When I finally sent them down the chute, I knew that it was time to leave. My degree had been granted, thesis defended, and the campus empty. I had nothing to do here.

When I walked to the bus for a final time, I realized something that should have been much more obvious to a self-professed analyst of small details. My friends had all made this last campus walk.  And they had done it years ago. How had I let myself be left behind?

Look around your campus.  You will see the students in purgatory.  The older ones sprouting gray on their chins, bringing children on backpacks to school, and running from the waves of students at the buses to the empty archives. I had no more friends left.  The campus parties were long over (at least the ones I knew about), and the scholarships were gone.

It was just me.  On the third floor of the library, reading about Reformation burial practices as a way to understand the poetry of John Donne.  I never did understand that heretic. I just left. In what way is the prolonged stay at university an attempt to delay your real purpose in life? The garden is empty.  Come rejoin the world my friends.  The water is lovely.

An Optional Epilogue

I am riding a train through East Chicago.  I have delivered my Ezra Pound paper.  I lied to everyone and told them it was part of an ongoing project, something I would finish. Something I cared to finish.  You can barely see the giant Chicago buildings as the city is covered in rain.  As a Canadian, I can’t look away from the windows.  This is the great American city talked about in On the Road. Miles behind me, there is the empty campus of Notre Dame, stored up in the middle of a dark forest and long lake.  Beneath this old university, there is the dying town of South Bend, home to just about every great automobile boom and bust model, the most recent being the Hummer. Houses are for sale.  Taxis line up for a small trickle of passengers outside of the airport. A lone landscaper drives his dirty truck into a deserted government building to cut the lawn.  The taxi-driver thanks me effusively for the tip.  The university’s walls are covered with sentimental poetry about the glory of campus life, the pursuit of rivalry.  The halls are quiet.  And a fat young undergraduate gives me my room key.  He is very nice.  I like him and wonder why he is here, sitting at the front desk of an empty dorm-room in the middle of June, his friends on vacation in the city, and small world invaded by a bunch of modernist scholars. I return my key and try to be generous, but I have caught him reading. He wants to be left alone. I wonder if he is still there, reading and thinking, waiting.


Follow me on Twitter. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Up Next:

Chances of finding a job with a Ph.D. in English: Or, Snow storms, the University of Toronto, and the Gloom and Doom of the Ph.D. Crisis in the Humanities

Chances of finding a job with a Ph.D. in English: Or, Snow storms, the University of Toronto, and the Gloom and Doom of the Ph.D. Crisis in the Humanities