Are you smart enough to go to graduate school?

One friend’s response to my “I am leaving academia” speech was “Why did you come to grad school at all? Why have you stayed in the program this long?” I kept thinking about this question and came up with what follows.

In a word, I came to graduate school by inertia. There were three sources of inertial energy.

First, my academic environment back then. At some point in the last two years of college (a research university), my professors started saying “You are smart enough to go to graduate school”. I thought their research agendas were fascinating because I am (let’s face it) a nerd. I was flattered to hear that I was smart enough to potentially be like them because I was young and insecure.

Two of them were young assistant professors who had just recently been in graduate school and on the job market.  They were young, passionate about research, and friendly. Their practice was to tell the smartest students in each class that they were good enough to go to graduate school. Don’t worry: we’ve kept in touch and they have changed their views on this over time. They are now very cautious about telling all smart people to get a Ph.D, and even then, they say they recommend getting some real-world experience and researching all programs extensively before making any decisions.

Older professors also thought that Ph.D was the way for me. They paid attention to my honors thesis, invited me to the department seminars, introduced me to professors who gave talks. All this attention because they thought I was smart enough to be like them. The “enough” part made me feel like I had accomplished some kind of mission.

That brings me to source number two: myself. I admire the graduate students who, in addition to their  academic genius, have exceptional talents, like running 10k races in less than 45 minutes, playing a musical instrument like a pro, being parents or creative writers. I am not multi-talented. I am not even very outgoing or physically attractive. For a long time, I have felt like I just have  my intelligence and academic achievements. I have always been a good student, and now I was hearing that I was finally good enough. So I, like so many of you, fellow bloggers, saw in graduate school a safe step. By then, I knew how to be a good student and how to show it. I enjoy learning, but back then I also enjoyed “winning” in school. To me graduate school was the ultimate school challenge, the Everest. Plus, I was trying to work in the real world and didn’t know how to make my usual strategies (preparedness, study time, research) compatible with the winning strategies of the corporate world (team work, boldness, confidence, instinct). I honestly didn’t even think about what graduate school meant in terms of a life decision or a career decision. I think I just wanted the safety of the classroom.

Finally, my family. My father went to graduate school; the first person in the family to do so. My mother is a teacher. In my family, academic achievement was equivalent to personal achievement. Successful parenting meant having children who did well in school, and to me this meant that being a good student for the longest possible time was the best way to get my parents’ approval. Unconsciously, of course. I have only younger siblings and younger cousins, so I am programmed to “set an example” for them. If I am smart enough, then they all are too. I will be the first woman PhD on both sides of the family, and I don’t know why yet, but I feel a special kind of pressure because of that. It’s like I am proving that our family is progressing, or something.

I had a specific and very different dream for myself. I wanted a postacademic-world job. I had wanted the same thing since I was 15 years old, and I walked away from it because I didn’t stand up for myself; I didn’t dare to jump or be free. I let inertia take over and landed an offer of admission to Top-Notch Research University (TNRU).




  1. crocodiliapi

    I know this feeling well. And good to hear that some professors are changing their tune these days. Kudos on standing up for yourself and your dreams now. Good luck with the transition and welcome to the post-academic party!

  2. Vashti

    I can relate to pretty much everything you write here. I’m really glad to have one word for what I’d always described far less succinctly: inertia. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Ron Brown

    Hi. Seems like we had quite similar experiences in the path to grad school and what academics meant to us. I went through a lot of the sorts of things you’ve blogged about. It can be reassuring to see that one is not alone, huh? I went through this crap several years ago, though I made my bail out in my 1st year. Still, though, I had already invested so much of myself through undergrad, and so much of my identity and reasons for living within the academic framework, so it was devastating.

    I wasn’t planning on writing about this sort of stuff until recently I got into a book called “The Bullpen Gospels”, about a professional baseball player who had gone through struggles in the minor leagues that closely paralleled that of myself and many others in grad school. So I started writing about it on my blog in a series called “The Grad School Gospels”. Then I started looking around to see if any other grad students had written on this set of issues – i.e., that many grad programs simply do not foster the sort of auspicious future we assume they do; that by virtue of being high-achievers who often largely self-identify if their academic success (which, at student age, is the top personal socioeconomic measuring stick we have to go by), grad students could be particularly vulnerable to vicious personal breakdowns and disillusionment, and really, that the grad school academic path can in many very meaningful ways be cult-like – insular, separate from the rest of the world, difficult to leave, difficult to recover from, etc.

    Keep up the great work. The more people like us who spread the truth that people can’t afford to non-critically assume that research academics grad school is a responsible, auspicious move – it definitely can be, but not always – hopefully the less quarter life crises, grad school entrapment, and post-grad breakdowns there will be….

  4. Joelle Freeman

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I have a masters and I am working in industry now, struggling with the decision to return for a PhD or commit long-term to this career path. Although I do not have the family pressures to continue my eduction, the entire academic community is structured to educate future college professors, as so eloquently described by Mr. Robinson here.

    There are pros and cons associated with either choice. I am afraid that my current career path may not be intellectually challenging or rewarding enough, and that I would be wasting my capabilities. However, I am afraid that a career in academia would be excessively challenging and beyond my capabilities. I already had a psychologically trying experience just pursuing my master’s degree. It is nice to commisurate with others with similar experiences. Ron, I would love to read your Grad School Gospels when you publish them.

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