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Graduate School is a Cult

Thomas H. Benton asks: Is being in graduate school like being in a cult?

Nevertheless, understanding the varied social experiences of graduate school (student culture as well as formal instruction), as a kind of cult helps to explain why so many people cannot be dissuaded from staying in school — or working, year after year, as underpaid adjuncts — when it is manifestly against their interests to do so, when they sincerely want to get out the academy but feel impeded by irrational fears.

And hey, maybe treating graduate school as a kind of cult from which one needs help to escape might give rise to some unconventional new positions for all the unemployed Ph.D.’s.

Let’s say a mother finds an application to Duke University’s Ph.D. program in English under her daughter’s mattress. Obviously the mother is devastated. If she does nothing, in a year her daughter will be dressed in black and sneering in obscure jargon at the Thanksgiving turkey and Aunt Sally’s cranberry Jell-O mold. Where can a concerned parent turn for help?

To serve this need, former academics could reinvent themselves as counselors; they could coordinate interventions with the friends and loved ones of people who are flirting with graduate school, or who have been enrolled for several years but lack the will to leave, or who are trapped in dead-end adjunct positions. These "academic exit counselors" could foster the kind of loving, supportive environments that "academic captives" need to return to a normal life.

Of course, in some cases, tough love may be the only solution. And former graduate students and adjuncts could put together a traveling program for kids who still have time to turn themselves around. They could even make a documentary. It could be a nerdy version of Scared Straight: "You fancy-ass punks think you’re so smart? You think you know something about hegemony? I got a Ph.D., 50 grand in student loans, and I clocked 20 years as an adjunct. Now I’m here to tell the truth to suckers like you."

See also his piece counseling people not to go to graduate school.

By the way, I have substantially added content to my original Straight Talk about  Graduate School essay (which apparently is the most popular essay on my site).

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