Thursday, October 31, 2013

Andy's Brain Blog Advice Column: Should You Go to Graduate School?

Around this time of year legions of students will submit their graduate school applications; and, if I close my eyes, I can almost hear the click of the mouse buttons, the plastic staccato of keyboards filling in address information and reflective essays, the soft, almost inaudible squelching of eyeball saccades in their sockets as they gather information about potential laboratories to toil in and advisors to meet. So vivid is the imagination of these sounds, so powerful are the memories of my experience, that part of me can't help but feel a rill of nostalgia flutter down my spine, and possibly, somewhere, deep down, even a twinge of envy. I remember, as a young man, the heady experience of the application process: The shivers of expectation; the slow-burning, months-long buildup of excitement; the thrill of embarking upon an adventure of continuing to do work that you loved, but with new people to meet, new places to discover, and new worlds to conquer. For those about to undertake this journey, I say - Good fortune to you.

However, even in these times of expectation and excitement, I cannot refrain from advising caution; for I once knew a man in a similar situation, who, at the height of his powers, tried his hand at graduate studies; but, rather than augmenting his already considerable gifts, led to the most horrific of decays. So great a man was he, that to think of him is to think of an empire falling. This may smack of hyperbole; but the great promise of his early years, followed by the precipitous decline upon his entry to graduate school, do suggest the tragic dimensions of which I speak.

In his youth he was a hot-blooded hedonist, snatching at all pleasures as he could, carelessly, almost impulsively, like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at driftwood. During these years his life was one of wild debauch, filled with wagers and duels, wine-soaked bacchanalias and abducted women. Endowed with Herculean stamina and the unchained libido of a thousand-and-three Don Juans, every muscle, every sinew, every fiber of his being, was directed at vaulting his pleasure to its highest pinnacle and beyond. A dark aura of raw sexuality exuded from his being; the wellsprings were perennial which fueled his twisted desires. He wouldn't have known an excess if he saw one - his lusts were of such depravity they would have eclipsed even de Sade's darkest fantasies.

The nonstop orgies of his early years eventually petered out, however, and one morning he awoke to find himself in extreme want. Abandoned by his mistress, his fortune squandered, he eventually decided that applying to graduate school would be the best option; after all, styling himself a freethinker and an intellectual, the pursuits of business and politics seemed inadequate, even vulgar. A life of the mind, he concluded, was the only one for him, and thus did he eschew the red and the black in favor of the white labcoat of the researcher.

Among any other trade this man would have been happy, motivated and fulfilled, perfectly at home among the elegant rakes of any other era; but ambition denied withered him; his incessant studies dried up the springs of his energy; and melancholy marked him for her own. Instead of a life of health, vigor, and adventure, now he whittled away his days in a dreary, windowless room performing the most perfunctory and mind-numbing of tasks. Instead of using his masculine touch to awaken hundreds of young maidens into womanhood, now he could only practice a crippled eros that repeatedly failed to take wing. Poverty, alcoholism, and overwork became the staples of his life; his last years were clouded by religious mania; and, misunderstood and forgotten, he spent his final days in utter squalor, dying much as he foresaw - like a poisoned rat in a hole.

Limerick Intermezzo

There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool:
"You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won't pee, you old fool."

My friend's story, though extreme, represents the experience of no small number of graduate students. It is not uncommon for the typical graduate to spend the prime of life in an environment he detests, doing work he abominates, with the energy that should go into the flower instead remaining in the leaves and stem. Frustration, disappointment, and monotony become his bywords. The great expectations he begins with, the intoxicating freedom of his new schedule, are all too quickly transformed into feelings of ennui and despair; the hot blood that once coursed through his veins gradually congeals into cold slime. He criticizes his program, his field, his advisors, all the while oblivious to the fact that he is a willing coauthor of his own misery. He manages to project a certain nonchalance, he gets along agreeably enough with his friends, but his most private moments - if not spent in a haze of wine or the arms of some debauched wench - are torture.

And yet - I have known a few individuals who persevere even under the most sordid of circumstances, who, even in the face of the most formidable of challenges, manage to live bravely, even joyfully. They are impervious to the most depressing of environments and the most hateful of colleagues. For these resilient few, their passion lifts them above the waves that would drown the merely indifferent; the iron in their souls allows them to withstand blows that would crush the weaker-willed. (I do not count myself among their number, but then again, I have never had the desire; I have been more than able to make up for any defects of personality or intelligence though flattery, intimidation, bribery, and blackmail.)

Let he who is considering graduate school, therefore, take stock of his weaknesses, and of his strengths; let him calculate the risks; let him understand that persisting in anything that leaves him feeling enervated and worthless is not the sign of some tragic hero, but the mark of a fool - it is the first step on the path to spiritual suicide.

If, by chance, he does have many years of happiness, let him rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many.

1 comment:

  1. A movie worth watching if considering graduate school is "PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper)" here Apart from being one of the most entertaining movies you could purchase for 5 bucks, it is also one of the most informative. It is based on the PhD comics by Jorge Cham, and while the movie is a comedy, it is an incredibly accurate depiction that exaggerates less than most might think. This is especially true if you are going into wet science, and to those people I say, "Darwin help you". Understand the daily grind before you commit your career to it, and if your answer to the question, "Can you imagine wanting to do anything else for a living?" is not, "No", then, you should probably reconsider.