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.