Is grad school for fools?

In response to “The disposable academic: why doing a PhD is often a waste of time” (Dec 16, 2010) in The Economist, I penned (rather, typed) the following letter (embellished for your amusement):

The holiday season seems like an appropriate time to justify my choice of a PhD program, since I’ll be doing just that in my aunt’s living room in a few short weeks.  Who better to comment on the uselessness of doctoral degrees than an American pursing a PhD in Canadian Studies?

My love affair with Canadian Studies began—inadvertently but fortuitously—a few years ago when my partner encouraged me to attend McGill University (after I expressed my disinterest in in-state schools).  Although I had never been to Canada, I decided to follow in the footsteps of William Shatner and ship off to Montreal.  First, I took a detour to a castle in England as part of the Canadian University Study Abroad Program.  There, I made some fascinating friends who told me about their fair land, with its attendant oddities like Regina, Nunavut, and Anne of Green Gables.  After wrapping my mind around the fact that Prince Edward Island was not a fictional locale, I decided that I needed to know more about the mysterious place to the north (and combat some Ignorant Americanism), so I pursued a major in Canadian Studies at the BA level.

Fast forward to today, and I have just finished my MA in Canadian Studies with a focus on irony and nationalism in a World War II-era Canadian comic book, Nelvana of the Northern Lights.  I am now working on my PhD in Canadian Studies, researching power and citizenship as represented in political cartooning and cartography.  Maybe these topics sound esoteric and, frankly, weird, but I could not be happier with my academic pursuit of interdisciplinary cultural studies.

There are many, many articles that suggest that graduate school is a waste of time, particularly if you lack clear focus and a specific goal.  There are webcomics devoted to the difficulties doctoral candidates encounter with their advisors (such as Piled Higher and Deeper).  There are family members who will ask how your Post Hole Digger degree is going (thanks, Uncle Greg).  And there are people who are stuck in an endless loop of proposals, grants, unsuccessful experiments, rinse, repeat.  This seems like it can be particularly true in the sciences, where long hours in the lab seem to be the norm (whereas students in the humanities often spend more time grading papers!).  However, as Albert Durtch noted in the on-line comments, “Very few people in life are as lucky as PhD students. The luxury to work on something they like, expanding the boundaries of knowledge and learning a set of skills which will make a difference in their careers.”

I agree with Mr. Durtch: I love what I do.  I have the opportunity to teach, as a teaching assistant for history, as an instructor for a class on comic books and cartooning, and as a guest lecturer.  I get to write on topics from comic books to political cartoons to folklore and even, yes, letters to The Economist.  My advisor is helpful and supportive.  I can spend all day thinking and reading books, and that is okay, because it is my job.  As an international student, I pay higher fees in Canada, but I accept this trade-off because I have limited financial obligations at this time in my life (which is why everyone is getting cookies for Christmas!).

My partner, who is similarly afflicted by scholarly inclinations, is having a wonderful experience in his PhD program.  He works with internationally renowned, and very friendly, researchers who are his peers and his professors.  We recognize that the prospects for an academic couple with dreams of living in the same place can be slim and grim, but that is the case for many career paths.  Admittedly, we may both be over-qualified or under-paid in the future, but we would not change what we are doing now for the uncertain prospect of higher earnings.

A doctoral degree is a choice, just like any other career path or life decision (including cookies for breakfast).  Some people do not experience the blissful joy of working with an amazing advisor, reading interesting research, and gleefully synthesizing information that will be useful in their future teaching and publishing.  However, there are also people who have bad bosses, boring work, and dead-end jobs, with no clear means of escape.  It might be more useful to advise people who are limited or constrained in some way, rather than doctoral candidates who can leave their programs and do something else if they are dissatisfied with the process.

All in all, I hope that my letter encourages students interested in pursuing a higher degree to have faith for the future.  If you feel that a PhD will fulfill your personal, academic, and professional goals, you should not let anything stand in your way, regardless of how the statistics are presented.  Choose well and choose wisely, but there is no reason to doubt yourself during the process. On the other hand, if you are passing time or working with someone who takes advantage of you as ‘free labor,’ I agree that you should head for the hills—or, even, get a Real Job.


Amanda Murphy


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