“Should I Go To Grad School?” vs “MFA vs NYC”

Jessica Gross: Hi, Merve!

Merve Emre: Hi, Jess! I’m very excited to talk to you about Should I Go to Grad School?, a collection of essays out this week from Bloomsbury on … well, whether or not people should go to graduate school.

Jessica: Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s give a little background: I’m a freelance writer, and in 2011 I graduated from NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, a year-and-a-half-long MA program within the journalism school. And you?

Merve: I’m finishing a PhD in English Literature at Yale; I’m also the film editor for the L.A. Review of Books and a freelance writer. But in a past life, I used to work as a consultant for Bain & Company (please, no Mitt Romney jokes), and shamefully reneged on an offer to work at Bain Capital to go to Yale. 

Jessica: No shame!

Merve: They sent me a very nice gift basket! I ate everything in it! And then said, “No, thanks.” So, some shame.

Jessica: Also, delicious. So, we’re coming at this anthology from perspectives that are similar — we both asked, “Should I go to grad school?” and said, “Yes!” — and different: your graduate work is in academia, and mine was an arts MA. This anthology read (to me, at least) to be focused more on academic graduate programs — PhDs — than a similar anthology that came out in February, n+1‘s MFA vs. NYC. But the publication of both of these anthologies in such a short time span begs the question: why now?

Merve: The essays in this collection are very upfront — almost militantly so — about the problems that besiege academia and creative writing today: PhD and MFA programs are costly; job prospects are dim; graduate student labor is not recognized as work; there is a huge opportunity cost to spending seven years toiling away on book you worry will never see the light of day. These are urgent problems. As many of these writers remind us, the only responsible thing for them to do is to warn students away from graduate school.

Jessica: What I found interesting, though, is that while this latest anthology was clearly inspired by these urgent issues — the word “job” appears close to 200 times, which is not quite once per page, but close — the parts I found most compelling seemed to comment on the universalities of life as a creative person rather than the particular question of grad school. Did you find that?

Merve: I think you’re absolutely right. There’s a way in which the title of this collection — Should I Go to Grad School? — is actually quite misleading. The real question this collection seems to be asking is: What do I want my intellectual community to look like? What kinds of conversations do I want to have and with whom? What role do institutions — the university, the little magazine, bars in the West Village — play in supporting that community? I think the best essays are the ones that avoid giving patronizing advice, or sticking it to the Stanford English Department, and tell stories about how the writer constructed his or her intellectual world in a joyful, productive way.

Jessica: Yes! I completely agree. For example, Meehan Crist writes that graduate school may change your life, though probably not in the ways you anticipate. That seems true of literally every single big decision you could possibly make: there are no blueprints to be had here, friends.

Merve: What you said reminds me of Peter Coviello’s meditation on how graduate school lets you create a shared language — a way of understanding the world — which you can rely on in difficult times. Are we allowed to shout out favorites? Because I think his and Namwali Serpell’s were my two favorite pieces.

Jessica: As I’m looking through to pick out my favorites, I’m noticing that many of the writers acknowledge having been extremely lost and floundering at some point in their professional lives or their personal ones — and, in many cases, both. There’s a sense in which graduate school takes on symbolic weight: it’s a Life Direction, a Decision that has been made.

Merve: I think the essays that show a certain degree of humility in approaching the question are far more pleasant to read, that’s for sure. And they’re also more specific; you get a sense for what the writer cares about as an intellectual pursuit, as his or her life’s work. But I’m also struck by how many of the essays written by PhDs and PhD dropouts give you very little sense for what they work on, what matters to them. Instead, they give you a lot of anger masquerading as criticism.

Jessica: So much anger!

Merve: This is a question I grapple with a lot: why does the nature of academic work make people so angry? I understand why the labor politics of the academy piss people off — they piss me off too — but why are people so angry about the specificity of the things we chose to study or our professionalized language? I don’t like jargon either, but I’m also not this bitter, this defensive about it.

Jessica: I strongly dislike jargon — I subscribe to the George Orwell school of language — but, for that reason, I simply avoid reading and writing it. I didn’t go into academia, and I write for a popular audience. The anti-academic anger reminds me a bit of Curtis Sittenfeld’s very funny tweet a couple months ago: “I get a Charlie-bit-my-finger vibe from people who claim Gwyneth assaults us w/ elitist lifestyle tips — I mean, does Goop open itself?” That said, I do think there’s validity to the worry that valorizing jargon over clear, widely accessible language (a) excludes too many people from valuable conversations and (b) could poison writing more generally. (If we really want to get Orwellian about it.)

Merve: Of course, but no one in academia is insisting that everyone outside of academia write for a scholarly journal. And the detractors can’t have it both ways; you don’t get to devalue academic work as “too narrow” and then worry that you — or people like you — are being excluded from valuable conversations.  I think your attitude is a much healthier one. If you don’t want to write to a particular kind of audience, then don’t. Write to a difference audience. But can I ask a slightly different question? Did you read Junot Diaz’s essay in The New Yorker this month, “MFA vs. POC?

He argues that his MFA program was “too white.” By which he means, there was almost no acknowledgment of, or writing about, racial identity, which ended up alienating the few people of color who were in his MFA program.

Diaz’s essay made me think about how Should I Go to Grad School? features only one essay by a person of color. The word “race” appears five times throughout the entire manuscript. Here’s my problem with this: many of my friends from graduate school, and many of my advisors, went to school to better understand how certain assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality had affected their lives and identities; how various social institutions had made them feel marginalized, conflicted, misunderstood. They went to graduate school so they could develop a language — or an art — with which they could understand, and perhaps even reform, these systems of power. But this perspective is nowhere to be found in the collection.

Jessica: You make an incredibly valid point, and I don’t have anything to add.

Merve: How about the question of payoffs? Do you think your MA program made you a better writer?

Jessica: Yes, it absolutely did. I think that before I went in, my craft was fine — I could construct a decent piece — but there was a crucial psychic piece missing. The writing I find the most exciting, rewarding, and satisfying is the kind that surprises me, where I don’t know where an essay will end up when I start it. To go there requires a kind of confidence or willingness to go off-script that, I can’t quite explain why, I didn’t have before grad school; after, I did.

This is feeling fairly pretentious as I write it, but I’m going to keep going. It feels, when I get into the groove of writing a piece, that something in my mind shifts — I can let the literal go and exist on a more metaphorical and analytical plane instead. And something about the room for, and encouragement of, experimentation and failure in graduate school enabled me to find that mind frame. Up until then, I had not experienced that in school, or at least not to that degree.

Merve: And what about the whole shameful business of networking? The essays from former MFAs seemed to endorse networking. The PhDs are, in general, very disdainful towards it.

Jessica: I don’t find networking shameful — I find it enjoyable! Let me clarify: I can be a bit introverted, so going to a so-called “networking event” is basically my idea of hell. What I like is meeting people in my field for coffee, one on one. Often, it’s not only helpful in a career sense (this person is now a new “contact”!), but in a creative and personal sense. I’m invested in my professional world of literary nonfiction, and meeting new people who are also passionate about it invariably reinvigorates me. Graduate school, I should note, was a vital source of “networking” or “making connections” in this sense.

Tangentially, the whole time I was reading this collection, I was thinking of answering the very question it purports to pose  — “Should I go to graduate school?” — from applicants to my MA program. When I talk to prospective students, the only thing I can do is offer the story of my personal experience, which is exactly what each of these writers did.

Merve: I agree. I spend a lot of time explaining to students how graduate school made me into a very different person than the person I would be if I was still at Bain or at Bain Capital. A much poorer person, for one. But richer in ways that, ultimately, matter more to me.

One thing I felt was missing from many of the essays in this collection is a sense for how f*cking fun graduate school can be. As someone who used to spend 16 hours a day telling clients how many water coolers they needed, graduate school felt like a much deserved reward — professionally (so many smart people!) and personally (so many smart people who wanted to talk about the things I was interested in).

Jessica: Yes! I often really miss graduate school. Some of the MFA vs. NYC essays touched on that sense a little more, I think.

Merve: The essays I was most annoyed by all complained about how graduate school was not some Shangri la of intellectual thought; these writers — many of them sad, young, literary men — seemed taken aback by the fact that graduate school came with responsibilities. (“Getting coffee” came up as one of these arduous tasks. So did reading for class.) But I’m confused: what did they think they were getting themselves into?

Maybe this is one of the points on which MA/MFA programs differ dramatically from PhD programs. Did you ever think of what you were doing as “work”? Did you ever understand yourself to be an employee of the university? 

Jessica: Oh, not at all. In no sense.

Merve: This is all making me wonder how useful it was to group all of these essays together in one collection.

Jessica: MFA vs. NYC felt more coherent to me, even though its second half disintegrates a bit — and perhaps that’s because it was so focused on a particular type of graduate school. Of course, detractors found it too insular: who cares about MFA programs and NYC besides the people involved? Which brings us back to the point we made at the beginning of this conversation: this collection is only ostensibly about graduate school in a literal sense.

Merve: Yes! Let’s get back to that. I think that’s why it’s so powerful to end on Jessica Loudis’s interview with Sheila Heti. It brings us back to the central question: how should a person be?

Jessica: In that interview, Loudis points out that often people project fantasies onto graduate school, and hope it will reconcile their current selves with the people they hope to become.

Merve: She’s absolutely right. And I think waking up every morning, to put one word next to another on a blank sheet of paper, changes how you think about the power that language can have in building the world around you.

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. And for her part, Heti, who never considered going to graduate school, describes her own seemingly incredibly successful project of creating an invigorating, involved artistic community for herself. Some people need graduate school to find or learn how to create that; other people don’t. I did.

Merve: I did, too. But now I’m ready to get out. So someone hire me, please.

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5 Comments / Post A Comment

thegirlieshow (#5,285)

I’m so glad you mentioned Junot Diaz! I love that man.

highjump (#39)

THANK YOU for bringing up the whiteness of the ‘should I go to grad school?’ collection. I picked up a galley of this at work, scanned it for that issue, and put it back down. There are serious problems with grad school right now, but getting coffee and reading for class are not those issues.

teachateacha (#6,615)

This conversation between the MA/PhD has some sweet moments of honesty, but it’s fairly ridiculous as a review of these books or as a discussion about the merits of grad school. If you went to a PhD program you should have SOME idea that you’re going to be teaching. The conversation above mentions nothing about wanting to be an educator, caring about higher education, or having any interest in learning about a discipline so you can one day teach it. And comparing these degrees as if they’re similar at all is not really very helpful. Comparing an MA in journalism and an MFA in fiction? Each has their own histories, their own problems, their own pro’s and con’s. And I won’t even get into the night-and-day differences between the MA Journalism path and the PhD literature path, almost none of which the conversation illuminated. Lumping every humanities graduate degree together is just playing into the anti-intellectual forces in this country that have de-funded and de-valued so many aspects of the arts and humanities in higher education that has led us to the current crisis of too many jobseekers, too much contingent labor, too many stagnant wages, and too many myths about higher ed.

kthkskddn (#2,342)

@teachateacha I think many people who pursue an advanced degree don’t do it because they want to teach–rather, they see it as a necessary evil for pursuing their research interests?

Merve (#6,620)

@teachateacha You’re absolutely right. I didn’t mention teaching mainly because it didn’t come up that often in the collection and, when it does, it’s fraught with issues about how graduate student labor is/isn’t recognized and compensated. But I should have been clear that teaching is, for many of us, one of the great joys of higher education. (I know it is for me.) And the best essays in this collection model how it is we should be teaching — with attention, care, generosity, and kindness.

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