So You Want to be a Grad Student

By Giannina Ong

In the Spring, I was getting a bit discouraged about applying to graduate schools and graduate fellowships because my parents had assumptions about the value of continuing my education (and because I had just completed a quarter where I was over my head in 7 classes and extracurriculars). Real-life irony: I am literally going from telling them in senior year of high school that I did not want to go to college (a story for another time) to telling them that I want to commit the next 4-8 years of my life seeking a Ph.D. That might have fueled their doubt. 

Even I began to doubt this life path too after talking to my mother about it. She was right that the job market in academia, as I am going for a research degree in the humanities, is on the decline, and that once I have been fully trained in 4-8 years, there may be an even sparser amount of job opportunities. Utility was at the front of her mind: how could I market my abilities, and what was the point of getting a specialized degree?

Upon thinking about this point of pragmatics, I realized that my answer was the same as the reason why I am a triple-major, double-minor student-athlete with commitments to social justice and our community: passion. I am passionate about the subject I want to pursue in my future studies, just as I am passionate about everything I am currently involved in as an undergraduate. Even if my area of interest is specific and thoroughly immersed theory not easily translated to the “real world,” my passion will allow me to still change the world.

A professor, whose mentorship I appreciate dearly, encouraged me to at least apply, especially when this realization/fear hit that I would not be graduating into a job with a steady income, but looking forward to more education and stipended living. This mentor pointed out that I was going to grad school not because I could not find a job, but because I wanted to. And she’s right; I could with my skill set find, and keep, a job, as I’ve done before (i.e. in the period of time, I was not going to college), but would I be truly happy and fulfilled if I had never tried to continue my education?

For what it’s worth, my mother came around with my father’s logic and now fully supports my goals and dreams of entering and changing the academic institution. And I am now so fully set on going to grad school and becoming an academic that, for me, seeking a Ph.D. is no longer a leap of faith. However, every path is different, and if considering a similar path, I would suggest cruel honesty with yourself about your potential and opportunities, and if you can’t dish out the honest self-evaluation yourself, find a mentor who will.