What is Graduate School Like?

Last Updated on September 13, 2023 by Robert Porter

Is pursuing a Ph.D. genuinely worth the commitment? Graduate students often grapple with this question as they witness their peers advancing in personal and professional spheres while they remain anchored to academic pursuits.

What's the essence of a Ph.D. journey? Do the grim narratives surrounding grad school, some propagated by us, truly reflect its nature? Is there anyone who actually relishes their time during this phase?

Contrary to popular belief, undergoing a Ph.D. is not as daunting as most assume. The challenges aren't necessarily the research or the financial constraints or even the strain on personal ties. Surprisingly, many find the Ph.D. experience quite fulfilling. It imparts a sense of purpose, offers daily learning opportunities, and bestows a societal respect. While peers are confined to routine jobs, Ph.D. students often engage in enlightening conference talks, flaunting their expertise and establishing their intellectual dominance in various gatherings.

However, a lingering doubt for many revolves around the sensation of being "left behind." Watching friends progress in conventional paths, witnessing their global adventures, and observing their practical life milestones can induce a sense of stagnation. Especially in fields like humanities, where Ph.D. durations can stretch for more than half a decade, this feeling gets accentuated. Witnessing contemporaries buy homes or start families while you're still associated with undergraduate environs can be taxing. The anticipation of the elusive professorial role seems never-ending, adding to the feeling of being in a career limbo.

For instance, a conversation with a friend from years ago resonates with me. Both aspiring to be professors, our paths diverged as he embarked on his academic journey at the University of Toronto. Now, as he's nearing the end of his dissertation and contemplating additional post-doctoral research, the timeline from our initial conversation to potentially achieving our shared dream seems vast.

Ultimately, when that elusive professorial position is finally within reach, one can't help but reflect: Was the Ph.D. journey truly worth it? Is the professorial role as rewarding as envisioned?

Navigating the Ph.D. Journey: Between Graduation and Prolongation

Embarking on a Ph.D. journey often feels like you're caught in a continuous loop. While peers progress in their professions, you remain, crafting a legacy. You're neither a university employee nor precisely a student. You're a constant amidst changing batches of newcomers and graduates. Yet, Ph.D. students persist, sometimes to the point where even professors lose track of their tenure, only to spot them occasionally at a campus café, engrossed in their research even after several years.

The Day I Realized a Ph.D. Wasn't My Path

My final day on campus was marked by solitude beneath a tree. The damp grass forced me to sit on my bag, with a cup of coffee and Ezra Pound's words for company. I was prepping for a conference presentation at Notre Dame. It wasn't sorrow I felt, but a realization that my intellectual pursuits were nearing their closure.

Procrastination had kept me from returning piles of library books for weeks. As I dropped them down the return chute, the weight of finality hit me. With my thesis defended and the campus echoing silence, there was nothing tethering me.

Boarding the bus that last time, clarity struck - a realization most grad students eventually face. My contemporaries had already taken this metaphorical journey, and I was trailing behind. How had I missed the signs?

Take a moment and observe any campus. You'll spot the 'students in limbo' - slightly older, maybe with streaks of gray, balancing parenthood and academia, or delving into niche research corners away from the bustling student crowds. For me, campus events had faded, funding had dried up, and familiar faces were scarce.

Isolated on the library's third floor, I delved into Reformation burial customs to decipher John Donne's poetry. But the understanding remained elusive, and a pressing question arose: was this prolonged academic tenure a way to evade my true calling? The university's garden might seem empty, but the world beyond beckons. Dive in, it's a refreshing journey!

An Optional Epilogue

Traveling by train through East Chicago, the backdrop of my recent Ezra Pound presentation, the city's skyline shrouded in rain is barely visible. Though I hinted that my paper was a work in progress, in truth, I wasn't sure of its future. As a Canadian, the allure of the iconic American landscape, reminiscent of tales from "On the Road", holds me captive.

In the distance lies Notre Dame's tranquil campus, nestled amidst a vast forest and expansive lake. Below its prestigious grounds, South Bend's history tells tales of automotive highs and lows, with the Hummer being its recent memory. Homes bearing "For Sale" signs, taxis awaiting a sparse crowd at the airport, and a lone landscaper tending to an abandoned government building depict a town in transition.

The university's walls echo nostalgia with verses celebrating campus life and friendly rivalries. Yet, the halls bear a contrasting silence. Handing over my room key is a young undergraduate, engrossed in his reading. Though initially warm, he seems to crave solitude as our interaction progresses. My mind often wanders back, pondering if he remains there, immersed in his literary world, patiently waiting for what's next.