Applying for Graduate School in the Social Sciences: What on earth possessed me (possibly the spirit of Margaret Mead)

I am just going to admit it: I absolutely love school. I love sitting in classrooms, taking detailed, organized notes, engaging in heated debates over metaphysical ethical dilemmas, and that moment when you’re researching a paper you realize that it’s not a bore it’s, dare a say it, fun. Of course, the non-academic scene is wonderful as well, if not better, than the post-college world (especially since I’ve realized that in the real world Thursday night is not a weekend night, and you are expected to come into work Friday functional and not hung-over). Despite that disappointing setback, I do want to attend graduate school for my Ph.D., even if means I must continue to adhere to that ridiculous “Thursday night isn’t a weekend night” rule.

However, any graduate student, professor, or other academic will quickly inform you that you can’t simply apply graduate school because “you love school.” You must have some sort of grand scientific question that explores a troubling short-coming of a specific field while also contributing to the knowledge of the greater scientific community. If that wasn’t daunting enough, your research must also solve some greater global issue and ultimately improve the quality of education, government, society, and life. You are expected to sell your soul to some faceless institution, engage in wicked little diatribes with your cohorts, and try not to feel too stupid when meeting with your advisor. So you can’t just apply to graduate school, an inordinate amount of confidence is required before you even email the godlike, herculean professor who shares your research interests. No wonder I’ve taken a circumspect approach to this whole graduate school business in an effort to focus on how I must articulate what it is I want to do with life. It is during this journey of self-discovery that I’ve realized you must be not only self-assured, but also considerably unhinged to apply to graduate school.

I am half joking and half serious (probably an early sign of some psychotic, double personality disorder brought on my graduate school applications). If you attend a professional school other than doctoral (i.e. medical, business, law school), your path is clearer, but it is still be a difficult one. From what I’ve experienced, jobs in academia are incredibly difficult to obtain. Some opine that students who major in a liberal arts or social science are simply doomed when it comes to graduate school. Others, like me, would like to point out that doctoral programs aren’t a cake walk for ANYONE.  I have always advocated that you must, no matter what your field may be, gain as much relevant experience as possible. From the moment you step onto your undergraduate campus, you must be actively pursuing your interests and take any opportunity you can.  Today, the Atlantic posted an article called “What College Graduates Regret,” outlining a study investigating what college students regret most from their undergraduate experience. One might expect the most common answer to be “majoring in the liberal arts and not a STEM field.” Though that was a popular answer, the study found that the most common answer was that students wished they had gained more work experience and put “their knowledge to practical use while they’re still in school.” If you want to work for a internet start-up, you better gain some experience doing that in undergrad. If you want to attend graduate school, you should try to tackle a thesis project or submit a paper to your campus’s undergraduate research journal. That is all relevant experience.  So I am optimistic that liberal arts and social science students are not completely doomed. Students in these majors simply have to start gaining field-related experience as soon as possible. If their experience and goals lead them down the dark, ominous path (also known as “academia), no matter if they are in STEM or humanities, the journey will be difficult for all.

On a happier note (just kidding, it gets worse), once you do earn your doctorate and land that impossible-to-find job, you are clawing your way up the tenure ladder. You are constantly begging NSF, your department, and local well-to-dos for money. Not to mention you have zero time for an actual social life (and forget long-term, serious relationships, the only one you’re allowed to have is with your research. If you are a professor, the relationship is with some other deranged graduate student who is a shadowy image of you from a decade ago). After years of publications, conference presentations, and maybe a guest appearance on Discovery Channel, you end up teaching some intro class that people take as a requirement for graduation. You invest incredible amounts of time and effort, only to have students skip every class and then ask for paper extensions (whaaa, it was on the syllabus? Bro, can I have, like, one more day?). Of course, one small ray of light remains: you hope that to inspire a bright, ambitious student to use the knowledge you so selflessly gave for some greater good. Or maybe over the years you become disenchanted and you consider it a class well taught when people actually raise their hands to ask question, even if the questions are, “uhhh…is that on the test?” Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

So, my question is this: why do I, and countless others, want to go to graduate school? Is the abysmal job market that encourages us to hide out in an institution until conditions improve? Do we want to justify that pointless degree in Russian Literature and force others to take it seriously? Or do we strive to use academia to achieve some greater good? It is possible that the latter contains some sort of truth to aspiring scholars. Hopefully, all those Ph.Ds will go forth and positively improve and change the world. Or have a complete mental break-down, move back in with your parents, and plan you life around the next happy hour.


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