Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Grad school "camp"

Just discovered (via Invisble Adjunct), Jane Bast's ongoing Chronicle column on applying to grad school. In the current installment, Bast has a "realization" about the real purpose of grad school.

My eureka came when I realized that graduate school is not a summer camp for intellectuals; it's more like boot camp for future academics. The purpose of graduate school is to train students for a profession. It's like an apprenticeship of sorts, except for at the end of it, you're not necessarily going to find a job.

While I admire anything that tries to remove the misconceptions about the real nature of grad school in the humanites, Bast still has it wrong. I began my my own grad school saga laboring under the "summer camp" misconception (also despite warnings to the contrary). Of course, this particular misconception usually only lasts a few weeks into a doctoral program. During my first semester in a PhD program, my professors want to some lengths to disabused me of this notion, replacing it with the "boot camp" version: we were there to "become professionals" in the field of English literature. I was slightly disillusioned, but it made sense, and I felt like I could handle that new version of what I had undertaken.

Sadly, this, too is a lie, and probably a more pernicious one because people actually buy into it. In real boot camp, you are guaranteed a job, for life if you really want it, as long as you successfully finish the training. Boot camp may be grueling and dehumanising, but it is designed to turn green enlistees into effective soldiers, and It is run by people specifically trained to do just that. Grad school, as Bast notes, does not guaratee a job upon completion, let alone a career path. There is a well-documented gap between the skills taught (research, research, research) and those needed for the jobs most graduates can actually find (teaching, teaching, teaching). And the drill sergeants in grad school are notoriously uninterested in and often poorly trained for the actual job of preparing their students for their future profession (being necessarily focused on their own research in a publish-or-perish culture).

So what kind of camp is grad school? The embittered cynic in me wants to say "prison camp," but as broken as the system of graduate education is, that would not be fair. The best "camp" analogy (one that is conveniently timely) would be professional baseball's spring training camp. All sorts of people get invitations to spring training, and they have rather different experiences there. There are the actual major league stars, of course, who come to enjoy nice weather, meet their teammates, and maybe get some exercise (summer camp). There are the blue-chip prospects, who come to spring training as part of an arduous, but almost inexorable, journey to the big leagues (boot camp). But there are also lots and lots of players who come to spring training chasing a dream that has only a small chance of being fulfilled. These are the aging veterans trying to extend their careers, the competent journeymen looking to fill a niche on somebody's roster, the unrecognized talents who might excel if only given a chance, and a fair number of kids who are just fooling themselves that they will ever have a shot at The Show. This third group gets a couple weeks grace period at the outset during which their dreams seem attainable, but then the roster-trimming starts, and it gets brutal. Some get cut early and can still try to latch on with another team. Some are moved to the farm system, where they labor away in obscurity for another year and hope for another shot. Some, through luck and skill, even make it onto the Opening Day roster, only to get discarded a few weeks later when a star comes off the disabled list or the club makes a trade and has to free up a roster spot.

The point is, professional baseball -- like academe -- is a pyramid. The stars at the top have life pretty good (though they still grumble about management), but there is a large population beneath them who are getting by, hanging on, or just plain being exploited in order in the process of propping up the pyramid. Everyone goes into it thinking they are going to make it to the top, and being groomed for a life at the top, but only a small minority of them do, and the rest are basically filler to prop up the structure.

I wish Ms. Bast good luck at spring training.