(Read anon messages from bottom to top!)
I don’t know about unnecessarily discouraging. I’m more inclined to think of it as realistic! Of course some people are more temperamentally suited to academia than others. And there are certainly academics who are in their field for the love of the subject. In fact, I’d guess that the vast majority of academics are probably pretty into what they’re studying. That’s great! More power to them.
But the fact that these people exist, and in great numbers, doesn’t really change any of the points I made. I mean, I love medieval art history. Love it. I could talk about manuscripts and grotesques and hellmouths and Roman arches until I keeled over and died. That’s the reason I wanted to get into academia, to share that love with others. I didn’t know the path in front of me. And judging by the dozens of messages I’ve received since posting the “Just Don’t Go” article, I wasn’t the only one.
See, there’s a story we’re told, if we’re the so-called “bright” students: you like medieval history? There’s a place for kids like you! Work hard in school and after college, you can go get an even higher degree in an environment where everyone cares just as much as you do, where professors exist to personally guide you to a deep and nuanced knowledge of your particular subject, where people love to learn for learning’s sake, and haven’t given up on curiosity and passion for a job behind a desk. But you have to try. You have to try really hard. More than that, though, you have to be “bright”.
And if you’re the kind of kid I was (the kind of kid most grad-school bound college students are), this was the carrot at the end of sixteen years of education, a magical land full of open books and fascinating topics, where your professors were all C.S. Lewis. It isn’t until you’re standing on the edge of your senior year, all your applications in hand, that so many of us hit a wall. That wall can be made of “holy fuck it costs how much?” or “what do you mean, there’s no job security?” or “but I thought I did really well on my GREs”, or “maybe I would be happier as a playground salesman”. Whatever it is, it knocks the wind out of you. Because suddenly there are doubts, and while doubts aren’t bad things to have crop up when making big life decisions, the feelings of worthlessness that invariably accompany grad school doubts absolutely are.
It’s rare that someone looks at academia, shrugs, and decides it’s not for them. That’s not the story that we’ve been told, after all. See, the people who pass on grad school are the ones who aren’t smart enough to cut it. Damn, we thought you were one of the bright kids. Our mistake. They’re the ones without the balls to just ~follow their dreams~ and sink thousands of dollars they don’t have into a career path that will very likely never pay them back. If you had real passion, you wouldn’t care about money. Most of the undergrads on the academic path do, to some extent, draw self worth from their academic performance, and have been encouraged to do so since they were knee-high. That’s the biggest and best lie that academia has: not in higher education equals not smart enough equals not good enough.
Do most undergrads know this while staring Ph.D-ward? No, of course not. How could they? Some do, of course, and go on anyway, and maybe you, anon, were one of them. But frankly, horror stories from people drowning in Ph.D and masters degrees, whose self-esteem was too knotted up in academia to step away, are far more common.
And on a more personal level, I’m really glad that you have no debt. That’s seriously great, and you must have worked hard in the applications process to find such a generous art history grad department. But you are in the minority. Saying “eh, well, the pay isn’t great, but it’s what I love” is something you can do because you’re not up to your neck in loan payments! Most graduate students, scholarships or no, have taken out loans, and substantial ones. They don’t have the freedom to just shrug and take whatever pay they get for their passion, because even a moderate amount of debt—let’s assume 40 grand—will take years to pay back on a typical art historian’s salary. And let’s not forget that you have a life outside student loans! Other shit’s going to start piling up: car payments, hospital bills, rent, all that jazz. That’s a serious stumbling block for a kid looking to get into academia!
As for your relationship with your department, that—honestly doesn’t sound like a good time to me, but if you’re satisfied, then great.
What I’m trying to say, anon, is that while you don’t have much invested in pleasing some abstract establishment, many many academia-bound students do, and they deserve to know what’s waiting for them. You put it best: it’s hard, and it’s unfair, and there aren’t many jobs, and it’s not going to make you rich. If, after learning that, they still want to pursue an academic career, then that’s wonderful. At least they have a clear-eyed view of their profession.
But if students begin to wonder if academia might not be for them, for whatever reason, they ought to get another heaping dose of the truth: whether or not you go to grad school has no bearing whatsoever on how smart you are, how curious you are, how passionate you are, or how dedicated you are to the things you love.
Undergraduates don’t hear that often enough, and it would save us all a lot of fear, doubt, and self-loathing if we did.