Don’t Go to Grad School? | Response to Penelope Trunk

In a recent post on her blog, Penelope Trunk says a grad degree in the humanities, law or business is worse than useless — even if someone else is paying for it.  (She exempts what she calls “science” from her polemic.  She doesn’t mention engineering or medical degrees by name).  To make her point, she lists several of the common reasons for going to grad school as she understands them and explains the fallacy in each — a technique she calls “crushing” the defenders of grad school.  Her arguments are:

  1. Just because it’s free doesn’t make it worthwhile.
  2. Therapy is a more effective pathway to personal growth.
  3. There are no teaching jobs in the humanities, anyway.
  4. A graduate degree in the humanities makes you look like a loser that refuses to enter adulthood.

Wow.  That is crushing.  Given these hyperbolic generalizations, it seems reasonable to ask what sort of experiences Ms. Trunk actually has with graduate school, or what other basis she has for her arguments.  Is she citing some sort of longitudinal study?  (No).  Has she interviewed an extensive cohort of English majors? (Not at all).  Ms. Trunk does have experience with graduate school, which she describes as allowing her to acquire the skills she needed to land a job:

I went to graduate school for English. During that time I learned HTML which allowed me to get a job at Ingram Micro, a Fortune 100 company, managing their web site.

While Ms. Trunk’s own description of her experience seems to contradict her advice, she hardly looks back on her own grad school experiences fondly.  In my view, Ms. Trunk suffered from several serious misconceptions about graduate school that have yet to be corrected.  To wit:

  • She thought grades were important, and hers were poor.  Ms. Trunk makes several references to pursuing grades as a primary motivator for graduate students.  But that’s entirely the wrong way to do it.  It may be that her faculty advisors told her this, but in my experience the idea of grades is so deeply ingrained in the students that apply (and are accepted) to graduate school that even if the faculty DO tell them to ignore their grades, they won’t listen.   But I’ll repeat the advice anyway.  Graduate transcripts are irrelevant.  I agree with Ms. Trunk that there is just no point in going to graduate school to take classes for their own sake.  Those classes must serve some higher purpose.
  • She missed her chance at an “Mrs” degree, thinking that was “messed up.”  If grades were not her primary motivator, than it’s possible that her real Mission in graduate school was to find a husband with a secure income, which would explain why she tried to date her professors.  The empirical evidence seems to be that sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  If your primary motivation for returning to school is to find an intelligent spouse with reasonably good income prospects, some social standing, with whom you have some things in common, then graduate school might be extremely successful.  Especially if you treat that as an explicit goal.  It didn’t work out that way for Ms. Trunk, but it’s likely that her own self-perception of being “messed up” made it impossible for her to do anything but a bad job of it.  For example, she might have been more successful if she dated engineering grad students, instead of her own professors.  For the record, I met my wife when I was an engineering technology faculty member at a community college.  She was an undergraduate undeclared major on her 3rd (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at a college degree.  And no, I never had her as a student in my class.  [Note: Some Universities now have strict, albeit unenforceable policies, prohibiting romantic liaisons between faculty and students of any age.  On the other hand, they also typically have spousal tuition benefits.  I’m not advising the “Mrs” or “Mr” degree route.  I’m just saying that Ms. Trunk ignored this as a reason to go the graduate school that has worked for an enormous number of people, perhaps because it’s increasingly becoming obsolete, given the popularity of online dating sites and other social networking tools that don’t require student loans.]
  • She never could do math and so she probably wasn’t qualified.  While Ms. Trunk “scored in the bottom 20th percentile in quantitative reasoning” on her GRE‘s, that didn’t prevent her from acquiring practical skills related to technology.  She presented a paper at a Technology Conference and after dropping out of grad school a month prior to graduation, she began interviewing for jobs at technology companies in her native southern California.

Distance from her graduate experiences seem to have given Ms. Trunk some perspective on learning.  Her most constructive, positive advice is given here:

If you are thinking of going to graduate school, you need to understand that the process of discovering what value you bring to the adult world is a very hard process to endure. Because you are probably smart, and you like to learn, and most jobs are not about paying you to learn. You have to create that for yourself. The best thing I did is that I kept my learning curve very high even outside of school. I saw where the opportunities were, and I started learning in that area, trying to figure out where I fit.

But this is the most serious misconception of all.   By the time you arrive in graduate school, you should realize that there is no “inside” or “outside” of school.

It is all one, big career thing.

The fact that graduate school didn’t work for an aimless Ms. Trunk doesn’t mean that it won’t work for someone that knows what they want from it.  For example:

  • Want to become a faculty member?  Then find a faculty mentor that has successfully placed graduates into faculty positions.
  • Want to start a business?  Then find a faculty advisor that has successfully started businesses.
  • Want to become a published author?  Then find a faculty advisor that has successfully published books, articles, or whatever else.

Are you starting to see how this works?  The most important thing that happens in graduate school is the attachment of a protege to a mentor.

Unfortunately, most graduate school applicants don’t understand that when they apply.  Their experience is exclusively as an undergraduates, and so they naturally extrapolate those experiences into unfamiliar contexts.  They think they are applying to a school, or a program.

They are not.  They are applying to work with a mentor in the context of a whole knowledge ecosystem.  And the sooner they realize that, the better.

The most dissatisfied graduate students are the ones that fail to form a strong protege-mentoring relationship.

This still leaves open the question, “But what if what I want out of graduate school is something that no one has ever done before?  How do I find a mentor with a proven track record in something that doesn’t even exist?”

If that’s the case, then you find someone who has successful proteges that are doing things that no one has ever done before.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Go to Grad School? | Response to Penelope Trunk

  1. Pingback: Making Something Too Hard - Mutual Spiritual Affinity

  2. I am reminded of a quote by Mark Twain that was handed to me by a Hare Krishna monk at ASU my sophomore year;
    “Don’t let school interfere with your education.”

  3. Pingback: Advice to Incoming Graduate Students — Not Only Luck

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