Breaking Grads

How an awful grad school admissions site exposes Gen Y’s job-search angst.

Male University Student Sitting at a Desk Using a Laptop Computer
As the obsessive chronicle of yeses and noes reveals, the process of finding a masters or doctorate program carries with it a sense of desperation—one actually reminiscent of the job search

Photograph by Digital Vision.

In my alternate life, I am applying to grad school. Not so much to individual programs as to a singular gleaming citadel called Grad School that perches above the workaday world, winking at passersby. It has a library and dining halls and courtyards filled with colored leaves. Unless those leaves are surfboards or cross-country skiers. I’m not picky about location.

In real life, of course, I have a job that I like and a professional future I’m pursuing avidly. But Grad School represents the life of the mind. It makes worries about grown-up responsibilities like money and promotions and rent melt away. And for a lot of twentysomethings, it’s a safety valve as well as a fantasy destination. That more of us have turned to tertiary education in the face of an anemic job market has been well documented. And because the federal government allows people to put off paying their debts while in school, enrolling in a grad program has become a strategy for coping (at least in the short term) with undergrad loans—counter-intuitively, perhaps, because of course many of those grad students incur further loans while deferring their original ones. The Educational Testing Service reports that in 2011, 800,000 people took the GREs, a 13 percent increase from 2010 and a record high. In a recession-plagued economy (and careerist society), Grad School stands for hope.

In my alternate life, acceptance will come via a friendly email from Grad School’s Admissions Office, delivered mere moments after I submit my application. In real life, though, the Grad Cafe is puncturing my illusions about what grad school could represent for a young adult eager to take a time-out from the neurotic competitiveness of real life.

Grad Cafe, “an online community for grad and potential grad students,” has 64,380 members, plus however many users—like me—sneak around the discussion threads and blogs without signing up. The point of the forum is to allow people in the throes of the graduate admissions process to give and solicit advice. For instance, I recently learned on Grad Cafe that POI means “professor of importance,” and that if you miss a call from the area code of a school to which you applied, you should not necessarily phone your admissions officer immediately (though you should not necessarily not do so, either). But the site’s big draw is its results page, which lists in meticulous detail who got accepted, rejected, or waitlisted where; how they were notified; and when they received the news. (Occasionally it also catalogs test scores and grade point averages.) This information is volunteer-only, and there’s no surefire way to verify its accuracy short of hijacking every mail truck from Chapel Hill to Berkeley, but the litany of hopes realized or dashed is weirdly, mesmerizingly awful.

There’s something Sebaldian, as a grad student might write, about Grad Cafe’s endless archive of admissions results, especially because the information presented seems either useless or counterproductive. Toward the end of February, a friend spent a miserable week thinking she’d been shunned by her top choice program because an anonymous user on Grad Cafe reported an early acceptance from the same school. My friend was heartbroken—until her own acceptance arrived. Strangest of all, with her result in hand, it was suddenly important for her to deny that she had ever been enthralled to anything as “dumb” as the Grad Cafe. When I asked whether she intended to post the news on the results survey, she looked at me like I was crazy. Only gunners do that.

A different friend, unmoved by the previous year’s data, noted that what the extra information really did was create a tier of faux-expertise that then seemed essential for anyone looking into the application process. If you can’t reel off how and when your favorite school notifies its chosen ones, he suggested facetiously, maybe you’ve underprepared in other ways. Maybe you’re a poor fit for your dream program. You should probably just crawl into a hole and die.

There’s a theory that technology eventually subverts whatever rational ends it’s supposed to promote. Grad Cafe seems to have been created to relieve anxiety, either by providing helpful information or just by puncturing the silence that lies between submitting an application and hearing back. Needless to say, it fails miserably. What could be more stressful than a screen full of useless data that one nonetheless feels compelled to master? What is more counterproductive than throwing a grad school applicant with no sense of perspective into an online mosh pit of other grad school applicants with no sense of perspective?  

The scrum at the Grad Cafe indicates that my generation’s safe space has been transformed into just another gold ring. As the obsessive chronicle of yeses and noes reveals, the process of finding a masters or doctorate program carries with it a sense of desperation—one actually reminiscent of the job search. In this rat race, the ivory tower morphs from a reassuring backup plan into a source of social and existential terror via its mysterious admissions policies. And the manic scrutiny to which sites like the Grad Cafe submit such policies only aggravates the problem.

Kristin Williams, assistant vice president for graduate and special enrollment management at George Washington University, has noticed forums like Grad Cafe sprouting up in recent years. “They’re a combination of self-help and angst-venting,” she explains, “a sort of group therapy.” While such sites offer fellowship to rejected applicants, they often contribute to the misinformation already swirling around graduate admissions, hinting at a supreme secret behind the curtain that Williams says isn’t there. “The actual process is time consuming, but it’s not that difficult,” she told me. “Schools try to be transparent about what you need to do.” She ascribes the “urge to over-think” in part to twentysomethings’ desire for control in a topsy-turvy economy: “It may be that people used to higher levels of confidence are desperate to make sense of it all.”

Or maybe they’re addicted to anxiety. The physiological reaction to stress isn’t so different from the jangly anticipation you feel waiting for a reward. Plus, stress legitimizes our undertakings, telling us that our actions are meaningful and high-stakes enough for their outcomes to make us nervous. This is especially true for dread around selectivity and competition: If hundreds of other people aren’t going after our choice, we reason, that choice probably isn’t worth pursuing. Perhaps Grad Cafe’s ambient anxiety provides a new type of validation for seekers of advanced degrees, trading on the #humblebrag trope of the over-caffeinated workaholic, who may be stressed precisely because he is so busy and important.  Of course, there’s an even more powerful reason why the graduate school process has become a cauldron of anxieties. According to the most recent report by the Census Bureau, Americans holding higher diplomas in 2008 made an average of 26 percent more income than those with only bachelor’s degrees.

Grad Cafe is depressing because it exposes a dismal truth: Going to graduate school is no longer a way of opting out of the endless search for a better job, the best job, any job. It’s become an element of—a strategy to be deployed in—that search. The escape I dreamed of is only an illusion. Airy academia will not save me from the grind of being an adult. Rather than magic citadels where you can weather the recession and mute its related stresses, Grad School is now part of a larger calculation—one in which love of learning defers to crummy real-world concerns, just like in the rest of post-college life.