Should You Go to Grad School?

A choose-your-own-not-so-adventurous adventure.

A general view during the college commencement ceremony for Westminister College.
Congrats on graduating. Now you have to decide whether to go to grad school or not.

Photo by Natalie Cass/Getty Images

Excerpted from Should I Go to Grad School?, out now from Bloomsbury.

1. Are you considering a Ph.D. program in the humanities, such as literature or art history; an MFA in a literary art, such as poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction; or something else, such as an MFA in a visual, musical, or performing art; a Ph.D. in the quantitative social sciences, lab sciences, or mathematics; law school; medical school; divinity school; etc.?

If you answered yes to a Ph.D. program in the humanities, go to 3. If you answered yes to an MFA in a literary art, go to 4. If you answered yes to something else, go to 2.

2. I might have advice for you if we meet in person, but my own experience won’t help you here. THE END

3.  Do you like teaching? For example, have you ever been put in charge of a room full of high school or middle school students? Did any aspect of that charge seem fun? If you led groups of your peers in college in any sort of educational activity—including nonclassroom activities, such as running a college newspaper or college radio station—did you like doing that? Do you wish you could do it again? Did you watch teachers in college (including teaching fellows) and think about how you could or would do what they did?

If you answered yes, go to 5. If you answered no, or not often, go to 6. If you answered I don’t know, because you’ve never had an experience that resembles teaching in any way, go to 7.

4. Do you expect that your MFA program will lead, as professional degrees (from med school, law school, education school) are designed to lead, to a full-time job (in this case, teaching)?

If you answered yes, go to 8. If you answered no, go to 9.

5. Are you willing to teach college students, correct their writing, and work on how they learn for five or six years, making only whatever the normal graduate stipend in your field is, while also researching and writing a book?

If you answered yes, go to 10. If you answered no, go to 11.

6. Are you willing to write a relatively specialized book with no guarantee that many people will read it? I mean really want, in the sense that you’re willing to give up nights and weeks and months when you could be dancing or traveling or painting or earning more money or playing with your children, in order to research and write a book that holds your interest and the interest of a few hundred other people but may never hold the interest of thousands (let alone millions)?

If you answered yes, go to 5. If you answered no, go to 16.

7. If you’ve never had an experience that feels in the slightest like teaching, you may want to find out how it feels before you sign up for four, or 40, years’ worth. Consider tutoring underprivileged or overprivileged teens, or try running a book group or a more ambitious DIY arts project, or volunteer to work at a museum. You may also be so introverted, so committed to solitary problem solving, that you won’t enjoy teaching. On the other hand, that same introversion may help you when it’s time for the dissertation.

Go to 6.

8.  Many jobs in creative writing now require that their applicants already have a book published as well as a graduate degree, and many graduates of elite programs never get full-time teaching jobs, especially if they’re restricting themselves to one region (e.g., the Northeast).

Go to 4.

9. Go look up the technical term opportunity cost, and be sure you know what a low-residency MFA program is (e.g., the one at Warren Wilson College). You can then compare such programs, which allow you to go on with your adult life against the full-time residential programs and make an informed choice about where to apply. If all you got from your program was time to write plus a couple of thoughtful peers, would that be enough?

If you answered yes, go to 14. If you answered no, go to 15.

10. Do you know what sort of book you might want to write in your chosen field? Can you imagine a title or an argument or a topic (or two or three) for yourself, right now?

If you answered yes, go to 12. If you answered no, go to 13.

11. It sounds like you’ve got something you’d rather do—a job that’s more rewarding, or a chance to make art that’s more liberating—than what the academy can give you right now. The opportunity cost of a full-time graduate program might be too high for you. Can you dip your foot in without total immersion?

Go to 16.

12. Do you know who else writes that kind of book, what thinkers, scholars, or writers you’d want to meet, to emulate, to shadow intermittently until you can learn how to do what they do? Just a few names (of people or books) will suffice.

If you answered yes, go to 17. If you answered no, go to 13.

13. It sounds like you might enjoy graduate school once you get there, but you probably need more focus, or more background, in your chosen field of study in order to thrive intellectually (not to mention getting funded, or getting in). Can you read more on your own? If your friends read or write what you want to read or write, can you organize an informal reading group? If not, can you take one class somewhere, or enroll as a part-time special student at an affordable rate (my former students have had good luck with that tactic at the City University of New York and at the University of Chicago, in particular), and then ask yourself the same questions again next year?

If you are still an undergraduate or just out of undergrad, go to 26. Otherwise, go to 16.

14. It sounds like you’re ready. Find out where the writers you like teach, figure out whether you could stand to live in the places where they teach for at least a few years, and figure out whether there’s any other program you’d like to consider even if you don’t much like the writers who teach there (e.g., it’s in your favorite city, your peer group is already there, or the institution may fund you).

Go to 20.

15. What else are you seeking?  A teacher who will take a special interest in your work, rather like what you had in college, especially if you attended a small and selective college? Professional connections that will help you publish the book you expect to write? Something else?

If you answered yes to a teacher, go to 18. If you answered yes to professional connections, go to 19. If you answered yes to something else, go to 21.

16. You probably liked school when you were enrolled, and you might miss it now. You may be less than totally fulfilled (who does feel “totally fulfilled”?) in your current job, whether it’s a job with a career track or something-I’m-just-doing-for-now. You might very well be right for any number of graduate programs—including an MFA—but not, as yet, for a Ph.D. THE END

17. Where do the writers or scholars you like teach? Do they teach? What do you know about the programs in which they teach? Go research those programs, at least on the Web.

Go to 20.

18. Some people in some grad programs in the humanities find a truly supportive, charismatic and yet intimate, ideally attentive mentor. Most don’t. The figure who likes your work most may not be the one whose work you like, and the people whose work you like may not be people you like once you get the chance to work with them. Can you live with a professional, slightly distant, but admiring relationship with mentors, teachers, and supporters who will treat you like a grown-up—and sometimes like a valuable employee? Or do you need something different?

If you need something different, go to 13. If you can live with that, go to 17.

19. Some MFA programs do very well in providing students with professional connections and clear avenues to publication; some don’t. Research the individual program—here gossip is useful, and campus visits (after you get in, if you get in) are invaluable—and research the genre, too: A program that gives literary novelists clear ways to meet agents and avenues into trade presses may do absolutely zilch for poets, and vice versa.

Go to 14.

20. Perhaps you should go to grad school. If you do go, you’ll be giving up years in which you could be doing something else, so you should think about what “something else” might mean, and whether the other things you want to do in your 20s or 30s or right now seem compatible with a time-consuming commitment to libraries, classrooms, and writerly discipline.

For me, “something else” turned out to mean going to lots of rock shows, traveling long distances to visit friends, doing a bit of amateurish music writing, wearing girls’ clothes to a dance club on alternate Sunday nights, and writing my own poems, all of which I found I was able to do while taking classes and writing a dissertation at Yale. I had the good fortune of meeting the love of my life and moving to New York City with her soon after I finished taking classes and started writing my dissertation. On the other hand, “something else” could have meant, in the mid-1990s, learning to play rock music seriously, finding a band and going on tour, doing a lot more music writing, doing a lot more cross-dressing, and working full-time on political campaigns. Going to grad school meant I probably missed my chance to do those things.

I don’t regret it—every decision has some opportunity cost—but I’m conscious of it; that’s why I treasure the year I spent on a fellowship (not a famous one, but a well-rewarded one) living in England and studying toward no degree. I found it frustrating, at times, to work alongside people who had literally never been out of school; and I found it helpful to work alongside people who had been in the workplace, the “real” (that is, the nonacademic) world, who could put the demands and the privileges of academia into better perspective.

What else would you like to do with your life besides write a book and teach college students? Can you do that while teaching and writing a book? If not, which one should you do first?

Go to 24.

21. What?

Go to 16.

22. Go ahead and apply. Line up your recommendations, bother your recommenders repeatedly as the deadline approaches, write a personal statement that shows how you see yourself in 10 years as a member of this profession, and remember that your writing sample—the work that shows what you can do—matters more than your statement. Don’t let any of it keep you up all night.

Go to 23.

Should I Go to Grad School? cover

23. Applying isn’t the same as getting in. You can always say no if they accept you, you can always reapply if they don’t, and you can definitely comparison shop. Find out how the advanced graduate students feel at the programs that want you (would they go there again?), and find out how they fare (whether they get jobs). Then find out whether they’re funded, and how well they’re funded. How’s your funding?

If it’s enough for you to live on, given your habits and your other resources, go to 29.  If it’s not enough, go to 28.

24. Are you now a college undergraduate or a recent (within the past year) college graduate on a traditional collegiate timetable (i.e., straight from high school to college as a full-time student all the way to your degree)?

If you’ve been out of college for more than a year, or if you took any time  off during college, or if you started college as an older-than-usual student, go to 22.

If you are now an undergrad, go to 25. If you just graduated from college, having completed a traditional timetable, go to 26. If you do not hold a B.A. or equivalent  first degree, go to 27.

25. Do you have legal or other personal reasons for remaining a full-time student without a break in your education? For example, do you want to remain in the United States but can do so only with a student visa?

If you answered yes, go to 22. If you answered no, go to 26.

26. Many people in Ph.D. programs, and a few in MFA programs, choose to leave before completing their degree or find themselves just unable to complete it. Many of them leave at the master’s degree point (typically one or two years in), and many others wish they had. If you make it all the way through a Ph.D. program, or go on the teaching-job market with an MFA, you may then face a choice between taking a job at the University of Undesirable Remote Location, and X, where X equals what you would do if you left academia.

That means that in order to get what you can out of graduate school, and not regret your decision, you’ll need to know some possible values of X. You need to know what you would do if you weren’t in school in order to know whether to stay in school. You need to know what you would do if you weren’t a professor in order to have some clue what you’re willing to give up—in location, time, and energy—in order to be a professor.

If you’re still an undergraduate, or if you’re just out of college and less than 24 years old, you probably don’t know. Come back in six months to a year, and keep in touch with your favorite professors. You will want them to remember you next year. And, since they know you, you should trust them more than you trust me. THE END

27. You will need a B.A. or equivalent first degree for selective graduate programs in almost anything, though some MFA programs may not require them. Carole Fungaroli wrote a good book in 2000 about how you can, and why you might, go back to school full-time at a selective college as an adult, and it’s still worth a look now. THE END

28. Do not take out large loans in order to begin graduate study in the humanities. Top Ph.D. programs will always fund you if they truly want you, as will most of the best MFA programs (Columbia University is the only exception I know). This is due, in part, to the fact that large schools need people to teach undergraduates, and graduate students are cheaper than faculty. If you can pay your own way, try to find out whether the program really welcomes you and views you as a good risk before you begin. Otherwise, apply again next year. I know of several successful professors who had to apply to top grad programs more than once. THE END

29. Cool. Do you really want to do this? Do you know what—in time, friends, and attention to nonacademic projects—you will be giving up?

If so, go to 30. If not, go to 26.

30. OK. Stay in touch with your nonacademic friends and with your nonacademic interests; you’ll need them. Visit the schools that let you in, if you can. Meet grad students and senior faculty. And calm down. This is what you want to do. Most important, you can spend more time reading what you love.

Do you have other people (children or adults)  who  live in your  house or depend on your  care? If so, go to 31. If not, go to 32.

31. Being responsible for others while being a grad student is tricky, but it can be done if you’re organized and if you ask for help when you need help. People have made it through dissertations and on to fine jobs while their kids make it from infancy to afterschool musicals. Find out what resources your school has for parents or other caregivers before you go.

Go to 32.

32. You have a few years ahead of you in which, first and last, you will be expected to learn and study books (and articles and stand-alone poems and paintings and cars and websites and live recordings and scores, etc.). Start multiple projects; build up as many notes as you can that might become projects or courses or essays or stories or poems or plays five or 10 years from now when you will have less time. Remember that you are, or will be, writing a book.

Go to 33.

33. Graduate school in the humanities need not be a reboot of your life, but it is a chance to reorganize. It allows you time and resources, much more than you would get elsewhere, to read and to write, even as you learn

to do other things the institution wants you to do (teach undergraduates, manage money, organize a conference). Remember that it’s a gift. An annoying, demanding, mazelike, beautiful gift.

Go to 34.

34. Jonathan Richman wrote a great a cappella song called “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste,” and Galaxie 500 covered it by surrounding the vocal line with fuzzy, dreamy guitars. The first version’s all about frustration and independence, the second about collaboration, about wistful, almost reluctant interdependence. Why bring up these two songs? Because the slogan and the chorus have opposite meanings in them, though the moral import is the same. For some people, going to graduate school would be letting your youth go to waste. For others—and I was one of them—it would be more wasteful not to go. THE END

Excerpted from Should I Go to Grad School?, out now from Bloomsbury.