Is Graduate School a Job?

For some reason, I am mildly enamored with life advice/self-help essays and seminars. Maybe it is because these essays distill years of experience into highly concentrated, sometimes over-simplified advice. Maybe it’s because I like seeing how others interpret their paths to success, what they identified as holding them back, and what they think can lead everyone into a brighter tomorrow. Who knows. In any event, I recently got to see and read about two very different attitudes towards graduate school and whether it should be treated like a job, and I have no idea which one is right.

This is not a unique or a new debate. While in this case I am looking at graduate school, the same argument about whether or not academic careers should be treated like jobs has been raging and will continue to rage for quite some time. On the surface, the debate seems very silly: people get paid for working in academia, so it is clearly a job. Dig a little deeper, and the debate is, well, the debate is still pretty silly. The argument goes that a researcher’s passion for their subject must be all encompassing and that they must feel compelled to think about or read about or actually do work almost every waking moment.

Some people really do feel that passionate about what they do and that is great. However, this myth of the proper academic was born in a time when men were excused from household duties and it fell on the wives to arrange everything in the home and social sphere. Even now, I hear men in academia joke about how they need wives so that they can get more work done, but by and large, more and more people are beginning to accept that most people have concerns, duties, and sometimes even hobbies outside of their academic jobs.

So while I am ready to dismiss the idea that academic work should not be treated like a job, I find myself a bit more torn on graduate school. It’s not that graduate students do not have obligations, desires and concerns that require their time and attention outside of their research. Graduate students definitely do. It is just that graduate school is a long and arduous process. It is in a very real way a journey that tests one’s perseverance, stubbornness, knowledge, research skill, and interest, among other things. It is an opportunity for self-reflection and exploration. And heck, it allows a level of flexibility in schedule that few jobs offer.

On the one hand, I can see why treating graduate school like a job is a good message. I know that I advocate for utilizing time management that allows people to track their hours and really see what they are spending time working on. And I also advocate creating a clear schedule for those who find that structure beneficial. But I can also see why the job framework might not be appropriate: for all the bullshit tied with graduate school and academia, attending graduate school is still a unique opportunity to learn and grow. That learning and growth requires some flexibility and it requires some self-motivated interest or passion. Maybe that is not incompatible with the idea of graduate school as a job.

Lately I have been thinking about the “school” part of “graduate school.” People do not go to school just to expand their minds; school is sold as a place to improve one’s life, to increase one’s opportunities, to open new doors, to get a better job in the future. Graduate schools must recognize this and embrace it just as much as academia embraces the myth of the life of the mind. But I wonder if graduate students should not embrace it, too, and when possible, allow some flexibility and room for exploration.

9 thoughts on “Is Graduate School a Job?”

  1. It probably depends on the grad school, but mine certainly was a job and then some. I had to spend 20+ hours a week working on campus just for my grad assistant stipend (total privilege, and I couldn’t have even attended without it) but it had nothing to do with my research. Then another 15 hours in class and at least 15 hours each week reading/writing for those classes, plus at least a day or two a week out in the field for my own thesis research. PLUS there’s all the ‘informal’ networking which requires either money or a clean and organized living space. Add to that working at least 10 hours a week at another job to pay the bills that the GA position doesn’t cover. Don’t forget the competition with other students: keeping up with the Joneses so that your monthly dinner party for your subdiscipline cohort isn’t embarrassing! I dropped out because I couldn’t keep up with everything and after seven years I was burned out and couldn’t handle the thought of taking out another loan.

    In fact, I think it says something that the only students who made it with their MA from my department in under 5 years during the 7 years I was there a) were in a committed relationship where the partner had a decent job b) had spent a few years in an unfullfilling but lucrative-ish job and came to my social science department because “it seems like a fun career change”.

    Grad School is more than a job, it’s one’s life!

  2. Interesting – I’ve always viewed the whole “graduate school as a job” thing as a classed debate. As a graduate student from a working family, I generally feel guilty comparing my work to the arduous full time employment of my family members. Sitting around procrastinating writing my paper is an incredibly privileged position in contrast to the demanding hours and overwhelming workload of a mechanic, nurse, or farmer. Even when I work a ‘real’ full time job in the summer, I am amazed at how easy I have it at school when I am only required to be on campus around 15 hours per week. Granted, there is a lot of self-determined study time and never-ending teaching and academic tasks involved, but the work is not physically demanding or temporally strict. That to me positions graduate school as a privileged career choice rather than a form of paid labor.

    1. That’s a whole different thing to me. It’s like comparing a carpenter and a programmer who telecommutes, and saying the programmer isn’t really “working” because he sits around the house all day instead of getting out there and making something real.

    2. I agree with you to an extent. Mainly, I feel like grad school, regardless of whether it’s a job or not, is a really privileged position to be in. This year, I’ve become close to a really awesome  gal who has a lot of friends with “a better educational pedigree” than mine so to speak… Some of them really get my hackles up, because they say stupid stuff to people with “lowly” public school educations like myself  and make assumptions about intelligence all while being, at times, completely blind to their own advantages often brought to them not by brainyness but by their parent’s money. Anyways, although some of these people have been super annoying, it has been sort of a route to realizing that although I am middle/working class, a woman, etc, being where I am today is a really huge privilege. I feel like I am sort of on a tangent here, but I just think it’s something that people kind of lose sight of when seeking post-grad degrees and I don’t think we should. TL;DR We (speaking super broadly) pretend we got here by virtue of  our brains but in reality it’s a little bit about our brains and much more about socio-economic factors.

    3. I definitely agree with you that graduate school is a privileged position, and I think that the sheer amount of work that people in jobs such as nursing or farming should be respected (even though it often isn’t).

      I do think, though, that the amount of work you do in graduate school is dependent not only on the field you’re in, but the program you’re part of, as well as your own aspirations with it. I’m going to be getting my PhD in a field in which it is very likely I will not find work. It is extremely competitive. Therefore, in order to stand out from the crowd, I have to work incredibly hard, pour myself into papers, do lots of conferences, etc with no guarantee of that actually all paying off in the terms of I get money.

      I’ve always viewed collegiate work as a job. I know this meant I approached my undergraduate study differently than a lot of my colleagues. I was extremely focused on my schooling, with basically everything else playing second fiddle. That focus also helped me stay motivated, and it helped me to get some impressive things on my transcripts.

      Now, I think it bears saying that my first graduate semester did not feel as strenuous as the end of my undergraduate studies. However, I’m expecting it to pick up as I progress, and I think it is also partly because the program I’m in is (while fairly well-acclaimed for a MA program in the field) pretty easy in comparison to a lot of places. I’m expecting my free-time to disappear when I go to a PhD program.

      But I also don’t want to claim that people who work those strenuous jobs are somehow “less than,” or that their work is not as strenuous. I think that they are very strenuous in different ways, with very different demands. I have a lot of regard for people who can work those sort of jobs.

  3. I haven’t attended grad school, but based on observations of (many, many) friends who’ve gotten advanced degrees, I think the flexibility and self-motivated work are both big differences. For example, recently I didn’t send a card to a friend for several days after having filled it out because I needed to buy stamps, and the post office where I live is closed when I leave for work, and also when I get home. I just feel like such a hostage to my work hours that I sometimes dream about the self-directed open-ended nature of full-time study.

    But then again, I get to clock out completely when I leave the office, and leaving work on a Friday afternoon is the best feeling ever!

  4. I know when I left grad school with my Masters, I treated those two years as a job because I needed to pad my resume so I had experience when entering the corporate world.

    I tend to think it is a job in terms of experience — the work you are doing is professional level and you are expected to do professional-level things like publish and attend conferences.

    Now in terms of the work you do as a grad student and that whole process, I think it’s worth-while thinking of it as a job. Having done both the corporate world and grad school, I think if I were to do grad school again, I would think of it as a job if only to keep my sanity and to begin thinking of my research as a career, and not school.

  5. It’s an interesting question. It is certainly not a job in the “Go to the office from 9-5 and come home aspect, but I know that when our teenagers are whinging about doing homework we tell them “This is your job right now, and you have to do what you have to do to get the job done.” I know it would certainly help a lot of students if their family and friends treated grad school as a job, and not just as “extra college.”

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