So you want to go to graduate school. I don't blame you; jobs are thin on the ground, books are awesome, and to quote Terry Pratchett, "in times of danger you spend the day sitting very quietly in a building with very thick walls". But academia — even in this mild form — is more than just reading books and hanging out at coffee shops all day. Graduate study requires a unique kind of resilience, drive and tolerance — and that's all needed just not to kill your undergrads when they haven't done the required reading again. Completing your study or thesis work will require reserves of inner strength that you didn't know you had.
Believe me on this one. Because I have some serious qualifications: I have a Masters and just graduated from my PhD program, complete with ridiculous floppy bonnet and multicolored robes straight out of a clown dress-up box. My husband is an academic. Hell, most of my friends are academics, who are also finishing up their doctorates, and our parties are a bunch of post grads and professional brainboxes comparing notes on conferences, grant applications and whether the myth of the free afternoon tea is actually true. I know this world well.
Academia differs from country to country — if you're choosing to do graduate study in the U.S., for instance, you're far more likely to be funded by your institution than you are in the UK — but certain core truths remain the same, no matter where you're studying: supervisors are alternatively pains in your ass and the greatest beings in creation, nobody in admin ever answers emails, everybody has a caffeine problem, and you're going to regret your choice at least once. Are you ready to find out if grad school life is really for you? Here are nine ways to tell.
1. You Don't Want To Go Just To Avoid The "Real World"
Post grad study is not a fun "time out" from adult obligations. It is an adult obligation — it just doesn't come with a 9-to-5 schedule or (probably) much money. Graduate school IS the real world, with added footnotes and extraordinary pressure. And, admittedly, the possibility of a lot more free food (though the cost of that free food is at least 42 percent of your sanity).
2. You're Prepared To Change Your Ideas Many, Many Times
You're likely contemplating grad study because someone — an adviser or peer — said that your past work could be the basis for Something Bigger. News flash? That first kernel that led you to grad school will probably be transformed into something unrecognizable by the time that you graduate. Be ready for your ideas and beliefs to be challenged every which way.
3. You Can Handle Being Told That You Don't Have A "Real Job"
Rule one of graduate study: non-academics will likely not understand what the hell you're doing, and thus constantly wonder when you're going to actually enter the "real" work force. If you think that you can get through this sort of condescending rubbish without committing murder, then you're psychologically prepared to become a grad student.
4. You're Up For Dealing With The Academic Rat Race
If you're attending grad school in order to get a job in academia, you need to be prepared for the truth: very intelligent people are not necessarily also scrupulous, moral or charming people. Your peers in academia want to get ahead, the academic race for jobs is strong, and they will trample you if they have to. You've got to be capable of chasing the same things and coping well with rejection from journals, postdoc positions and god knows what else if you're going to cut it in this world.
5. You Work Well In Relative Isolation
Grad school is a very different socially from your undergrad experience. That horde of party-going chums you had while you worked on your B.A.? They'll be replaced by serious-looking, sleep-deprived types who occasionally cross your path in the library. You will form some very deep friendships with these people, but most of the time you'll be on your own, with your idea and your books and your despair.
6. You Think That Your Passion For Your Subject Will Grow After Prolonged Study
If you can stay passionate — or become even more passionate — about your area of study, you're going to survive graduate school. Unfortunately, many of us don't know the exact shape of our passion and how long it will last when we start graduate study. What looked like a solid, passionate affinity for your subject area may dissolve after a few years' pressure. But if you're convinced you're in it for the long haul, you're probably ready.
7. Your Area Of Interest Really Does Require In-Depth Study
This is a tough one. You can be absolutely besotted with a particular argument or line of thinking, but that doesn't mean that it is worth the effort of many years of work. A good supervisor should be able to make sure this doesn't happen to you, but leads do dry up, and sometimes what you thought was a rich vein of study just doesn't lead anywhere productive. Do your reading beforehand — because enthusiasm isn't enough to get you through an entire graduate program.
8. You're OK With Having Your Friends In Other Industries Earn More Money Than You
Graduate school is usually not a financial honeypot, and you're probably going to have to keep your expenses low. This may grate on your nerves a bit when your friends who work in other fields are getting their first proper paychecks and start to do things like take out mortgages, go on expensive holidays or pick up other luxuries you can't afford yet.
9. You Want To Share Your Knowledge
Grad school — particularly in the US and especially in the humanities— involves a big teaching component. It's very rare that graduate students can spend their time just hitting the books; they also have to give their time to students. You'll have a much better time if this doesn't come as a surprise, and if you're enthusiastic about pushing your own knowledge into other, younger brains. If you're the kind of person who can barely address a cashier without freaking out, learning how to teach may take some figuring out. You'll be fine, though. Because the most important component of assessing whether you're ready for graduate school is this: if you believe you're ready, you're ready.