Monday, April 7, 2014

The Loaded Meaning Of My Grad School Newsletter

It's been almost three years since I have left academia, and my happiness with my current life is so total that I rarely, if ever, feel bad about being gone from it.  However, there are strange, mundane events that have the capacity to trigger regret and bitterness in ways that I just can't seem to control.  One such event happened yesterday, when my mail contained the quarterly newsletter/magazine (it's way too glossy to be a newsletter) from my old grad program.  I was initially going to toss it aside, but for some reason started flipping through it, and I was powerless to stop the tide of ill-feeling washing over me.

I generally actually have very positive feelings about my time in grad school.  I made an amazing group of friends, learned a lot, broadened my mind, and lived in a place with plenty to do which also happened to be livable on a TA's salary.  There was even some sweetness to match the bitter taste in my mouth when I flipped the pages of the newsletter.  It was good to see the familiar faces of the professors, and sad to read the obituary of a prof whose classes I never took but knew well because he was just an all-around good person.

All the same, I could not get over the fact that I was holding in my hands a clear erasure of reality and the lived experience of so many people so close to me.  Turning newsletter's glossy pages you'd never guess that so many of the department's graduates are suffering so badly right now.  I don't begrudge my old department their need to promote themselves, and of course they want to project an image of success.  However, that newsletter was a vivd reminder that my grad program, like so many others, sent scores of its graduates straight into the maw of our Moloch-like academic job market, only to be quickly forgotten about if they ended up quitting the life or mired in contingent hell.

Everyone back there remembers the success stories, the students who have gone on to good jobs and impressive institutions.  Nobody remembers the failure stories, despite their mounting number.  One article focused on this year's crop of incoming graduate students, and as I looked at their faces, I wondered what they were being told about their chances, and whether my experience and those of so many other of my fellow graduates had simply been erased.  I get the feeling that such willful forgetting is happening in a lot of graduate programs, which will no doubt reap another bitter harvest in the years to come.


bmi said...

This is pretty close to how I felt, too. Me being me, I tend to read stuff like that and blame myself for not succeeding. But you are right--there was virtually no room for non-success in that magazine. The only sign I saw was the little placement sidebar that showed several PhDs teaching in contingent positions or at community colleges. It was dressed up like success, but I could tell that for at least some of those new PhDs, they were entering a lifetime of either disillusionment or uncertainty. I can empathize.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I can't hate them for it either, because they need to use publications like this to tout their success. It's all in the game, but it makes me wonder what kind of advice current grad students are getting.

bmi said...


On a somewhat related note, I think it is telling that the lost generation of PhDs entered grad school around the same time that George W. Bush came to power.

Unknown said...

I think the galling thing is that our capacity to read what isn't written is one of the hallmarks of this graduate education. --Debbie