Thanks for all the kind comments on my last post. Things are looking up. Sometimes drugs really do help.
* This post was edited to make clear distinctions between my personal experiences and personal conversations about grad school and my professional work as an academic advisor. Under no circumstances would I ever tell an advisee what they should do with their lives, or say “You should not go to grad school.” That’s not my role. — lauren
Work is busy, busy, busy and I’ve been thinking about how I could reframe my sad mindset about having lost something I love, and instead focus on new opportunities to learn that are available to me now. One interest that keeps pushing its way to the forefront is working with honors or high-achieving students.
This is new to me: I spent the last 5 years teaching in developmental programs for at-risk students, at 4-year and community schools. Most of my PhD studies the second time around focused on literacy instruction for struggling college students. I’ve spent my teaching career really interested in that trailing end of the bell curve, and believe deeply that most students are capable of success with the right support.
But now I get to work with the opposite end of the bell curve: students who were high school rock stars, or kids who just started college and are feeling that rush of “Ahh! This is what I was waiting for! This is my place! I’m really good at this!” These are my double majors, my smart asses, my “can I minor in Spanish AND do a certificate in entrepreneurship AND a double major in psych and bio? How about study abroad?” kids. These are my kids in the sense that, they are who I was as a college student.
I did well in high school, although I was by no means the smartest student in my large, suburban high school. I excelled in my AP English and Psych courses, although I fared poorly in chem and math. I went to college and just started getting As, and never really stopped. I discovered a talent for literary analysis and writing, and worked hard in classes that weren’t my strengths (including, cringe, College Algebra — but I pulled off an A, my first A in math ever, in life). I worked a PT job, played on the rugby team, and graduated summa cum laude. I was in the Honors college and thought it was an absolutely fantastic experience. All of this made me realize that I was a bit of a badass, and that’s what made me think grad school was right for me.
Now I’m talking to younger versions of myself, and I don’t know what to tell them. They’re excited about school. They love it. I love their energy and curiosity. I want them to have an amazing experience just like I did. And of course they’re already mentioning graduate school and law school. Of course, I don’t want to crush their dreams or spirits, nor is it my place to make decisions for them about what’s a right or wrong path. But I would like to encourage them to consider additional paths and alternatives to post-graduate education. I wish someone had made me aware of the many ways that high achieving people find success outside of a school setting. I’d like my students to see life after school as full of great options. Unfortunately, grad school is so much more appealing and sexy than the real world. I had a hard time believing that a day job could be as exciting or engaging as grad school, and I can imagine that my advisees will feel the same way. There’s an allure to the academy that’s hard to counterbalance with volunteering or whatever.
I had a former student-turned-personal-friend (not, not, not one of my advisees) email me a week ago: he’d gone on for an MFA and is considering a PhD in the same interdisciplinary field in which I hold my first Master’s degree. My comments to him were rather heavily not encouraging. I asked him to think about non-academic careers that he thought a PhD would prepare him for. I said, twice, that the academic job market is beyond abysmal, and that I question the value of PhDs in general and interdisciplinary degrees in particular. It was such a downer.
I speak much more frankly to personal friends than I do with my advisees. I’d like to have some suggestions for engaging and meaningful options to offer my brainy kids for them to consider alongside grad school. Seriously, quittas and post-ac-ers everywhere: what would you tell a high achieving college student to consider in addition to grad school? Especially a student strong in the humanities or social sciences (so, not going to med school)? Tell me, so I can tell them.