Study in the USA

Fear and Loathing in Graduate School

The Chronicle of Higher Education

I am told that universities have overproduced Ph.D.'s in some fields, and that administrators and tenured professors should share the blame for promoting such an atmosphere of dread. But department heads and advisers suffer as well under such a market-obsessed academic environment. I can only imagine the tremendous pressure advisers must feel as they shepherd their lambs toward those first elusive jobs. Department heads, too, presumably lose some sleep over how their placement records will influence their program budgets and ranking. The idea of rating college programs like pageant contestants is also a troubling one, and leads to the kinds of anxieties that I am describing.

Yes, it is important to know how cutthroat things will be for young scholars. We are active and willing participants in the marketplace of ideas, and markets breed competition. I will not stick my head in the sand.

But I am doing my best to focus on the tasks at hand: writing a strong dissertation that will hopefully advance new knowledge and spark debate, being a good teacher, learning from other scholars, and participating in the academic community.

I try to remember that before graduate school, I was lifting boxes for $10 an hour, and that Howard Zinn drove a forklift full time to support his family while pursuing his Ph.D. I have been fortunate enough to have had two institutions invest nearly half a million dollars in my education (when one considers fellowships, tuition waivers, travel grants, and health insurance). In a sense, these universities have also been financing the writing of my first book, and I doubt many first-time authors outside of the academy can claim to have received such a healthy advance. I have been able to live and study in New York, Paris, and Los Angeles.

But those are just the perks. More important, I have argued, written, read, presented, and had my logic torn to shreds. I have had the thrill of helping undergraduates realize that there is more to history than the textbook narratives they had in high school. I have lectured, been tested, changed peoples' minds, dealt with grade challenges (and students who seemed to lose a different grandmother every week), traveled, been published, seen my peers promote discussion in scholarly forums and national newspapers, learned when to play by the rules and when to push against them, formed lasting professional and personal bonds, and had my head filled with new ideas along the way. I have become a scholar.


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