Grad School: One of Life’s Terrible Jokes

Even with all my privilege, finishing my MA program in Art History was the most emotionally draining experience I’ve ever endured. I can’t see into the future, so maybe it’ll be worth it then, but I can honestly say it doesn’t feel worth it now.

IMG_6268I loved school. Truly, loved school: reading, writing, anything that wasn’t math. History, literature, science, art, I’ll have it all please with a discussion and interpretation on the side, please. I was the student who got 97% on a test and was secretly disappointed that it wasn’t 100%. I looked forward to impressing my professors with well written essays on exams and found glee flying through the multiple choice sections. I was excited to go to graduate school. I thought it would be full of independent and challenging, but guided, learning on topics in which I was deeply interested. I was intent on continuing into a Ph.D. program. Instead, graduate school sapped me of any naiveté I had about the world of university. It stole from me my love of research. It squandered what energy I had left to be independent. I still believe knowledge is the most important and most precious resource, but academia can go to hell.

It has been my experience that the biggest and most evil joke of graduate school is thus: a program accepts you, so you feel you owe it something, but it gives you nothing in return. The program, the department, the faculty, they expect you to find your way to your degree through a veritable jungle of obstacles with no map, compass or supplies. I like independent study and tried for many, many, months to rationalize my department’s sheer irresponsibility when it came to their jobs as, “well, it’s grad school. We need to work on our own.” This is ridiculous. When you go to graduate school, you should have department faculty competent enough to send an email. Especially after you’ve already emailed them the same question 15 times.

In our Room of Art History, studying for the MA Comp.
In our Room of Art History, studying for the MA Comp.

Anecdotal, perhaps. Yet, I fought, scraped, kicked and screamed (sometimes, literally) simply to graduate. No, I wasn’t that student who took a mysterious 2 year medical leave. No, I didn’t try to write a thesis about something so obscure and bizarre that none of the faculty understood it. With a 4.0 GPA, a completed and approved thesis, and passed comps, it really beggars belief how difficult it was to get the system to work. I thought they wanted graduates?

My biggest mistake was that I tried to make the system work for me and that I was interested in topics that are outside the traditional realm of art history academia. Though I was punished in various ways, I won’t apologize for trying to craft a unique learning experience. Nor will I apologize for doing research out of their tiny, outdated box of Eurocentric art history. Times, they are changing.

As soul-sucking as graduate school was, my two and a half years steeped in the murky dark waters of academia did have some valuable lessons.

Marmalade helping me finish my thesis.
Marmalade helping me finish my thesis.

Namely, I learned that I put incredibly too much stock in what other people thought of me, especially professors. Wanting people to like you or be proud of you or being concerned with what they think of you, is not a bad thing. Yet, from the start, I let the opinions of faculty (probably because my high-school teachers were so enlightened) drive my academic career. In graduate school, my work never seemed good enough. Perhaps, if they had taken their jobs seriously, had treated the graduate students with respect, and hadn’t said the most asinine things, this wouldn’t have bothered me so badly. At some point, however, I realized that my work was good because it was good. Not because a professor told me it was.

That, dear readers, is how I survived. Your work will never be good enough for every faculty member. They live on the blood of depressed grad students. That’s why they keep grads around so long – to be human blood bags. There will always be another book you could read or point you could make. So I leaned in and fought my way out. After-all, what did I need out of grad school? I needed an electronic transmission from my university saying I checked the boxes. So I forsook any romantic notion of university and checked those innumerable boxes.

My workspace as a TA.
My workspace as a TA.

Graduate school changed me and it taught me. It made me a cynic; I am now aggressively throwing up crossed fingers whenever someone mentions my getting a Ph.D. Graduate school did me this favor, however: it taught me not to put my self-worth into something as arbitrary as a degree. I’m extremely proud of myself for checking my boxes, it was really hard work. I did quality research and wrote interesting papers, and the black-hole of graduate school can’t take that away from me. Academia is flawed, however, and that degree, as cynical as it sounds, is simply a tool to get me a (better) job. I am privileged enough to have had the opportunity to get that tool in the first place, and I don’t take that for granted. It’s the education you have to force out of the program that makes graduate school bearable; the small price to pay is just part of your soul. It’s the thirst for knowledge that makes a better person – not the number of letters behind the name. If my thirst is ever quenched, I’ll know I’ve gone down the wrong garden path.


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