In The Groves of Academe: A Report from the English Department and Some Thoughts on Graduate School

August 24, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 8 9 min read

Graduate school in the humanities, particularly a doctorate in literature, is not a life choice whose value and purpose are necessarily self-evident. Some people look confused when I tell them that I am getting a Ph.D. in eighteenth-century British literature. Most others respond with some version of, “What do you do with that?” What follows is a sustained answer to this question – the why and the ‘to what end’ of a life, or an interlude, in the groves of academe. If you’re wondering what the grad life is like, or why anyone chooses such a life, read on.

I went to graduate school, I’m now quite sure, because I enjoyed nothing more than reading novels, poetry, and plays, and because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and because they’d pay me to read books and take classes. Not much, mind you (especially by the standard of the starting salaries my friends were being offered by investment banks) but when you’re used to work-study wages and have a morbid fear of suits and cubicles, $20,000 a year (plus tuition, health insurance, free books and meals, a computer, language study, travel to archives abroad…) is a princely sum. Especially when it comes with access to one of the country’s most beautiful campuses, an excellent library, and astonishingly bright faculty and fellow students from all over the country and the world. Genteel poverty seems a small price to pay – and sometimes itself a gift – to be a part of such a community.

One of my pet theories is that the American top-tier university is as close as humanity will ever come to realizing a utopia, and Stanford, with its vast expanses of lawn, citrus, fig, and palm trees, flowering vines, and sun-tanned young people, even looks the Edenic, pre-lapsarian part. Certainly now, by and large, universities are in the business of giving students credentials and connections – that is to say, getting them good jobs in finance and business, getting them into the best schools of law and medicine. But if you forget the use-value of a BA from a top-tier university for a moment and consider the texture of college life, the utopian aspects appear.

The physical surroundings are usually beautiful or inspiring; your professors are bright and interesting and challenging, very often the top of their fields (Guggenheim fellows, Nobel laureates, Genius grant winners) – people who are defining the disciplines they teach; all of your basic needs (food, shelter, health care) are met, and even if you’ve got a campus job and take your coursework as seriously as possible, there still seems to be plenty of time for conversation, parties, intellectual debates, experimentation with sex and drugs (for those so inclined), and other extracurriculars of all sorts. You are free of your parents and not yet burdened by a “real” job, or paying back your student loans, or any of the other weighty personal and financial responsibilities that descend in adulthood. Through your peers and professors you are exposed to myriad cultures, philosophies, theories, and causes, and are free (theoretically, at least) to devote your mind and your life to any one of them, or (less dramatically) simply to take solace or pleasure from Buddhism or Plato or Kant or Shakespeare.

In sum, you are largely free from oppressive responsibilities, in a beautiful place, with unlimited access to gifted people and inspiring ideas. What could be better? And why wouldn’t you do it all over again a second time with the university itself footing the bill?

That was my thinking about graduate school. At least, that’s what I thought before I started and at the beginning of my time at Stanford. And I still hold my utopia thesis about undergrad. But it is not entirely true about graduate school.

As a graduate student, you go behind the curtain a bit more, and particularly as this relates to professors, it can be rather harrowing. I was fascinated when one of my professors told us about creating a persona: We needed, self-consciously, to fashion ourselves (appearance, theoretical approaches, research interests, even behavior and speech styles) in order to be successful academics in literature. He was only half-serious, I think. But with the persona theory in mind, I started noticing and remembering things: A very beautiful, young female professor I’d had as an undergrad, fond of mini-skirts, high-heels, and low-cut blouses, teaching something called Modernism and the Body – An academic’s Elle McPherson, as it were. There was also a Romanticist whose pale complexion, wild hair, large, dark eyes and volatile temperament seemed a quintessence distilled from the Brontes and Shelleys; A scholar of postmodern literature and culture interested in cuteness who embodied her subject ably in a pair of pigtails. Among the dix-huitiemeists, there was a pronounced preference for a rather Samuel Johnsonian turn. And I wish I meant only devastatingly clever quips and deeply humane acts of generosity (which I do), though I also refer to his apparent lack of interest in clean linen (in an era not particularly distinguished for such: see Emily Cockayne’s Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England) and his possible Tourette syndrome.

This is a minor detail and by no means universally true. It is usually amusing – like people who look like their dogs – and can be instructive in its way. But it is also part of a larger culture of self-importance, self-indulgence, and cultivated eccentricity that can get old: not showing up for office hours and exams, forgetting to send job letters, taking students failings personally and walking out of seminars after yelling something nasty at the class or an individual, attending to matters of personal hygiene in lectures, falling asleep in conference seminars, mystifying the requirements for a seminar paper or dissertation chapter and then becoming enraged when these mystified requirements are not met, asking for changes to a paper and then asking for just the opposite in the next version, using graduate students as pawns in professional rivalries – to name a few generalized examples of the unsavory side of professorial eccentricity.

There are actually worse stories outside of the English department about professors who use graduate students as handmaidens and valets (to pack their bags, chauffeur, entertain guests, do laundry…) but I’ve never heard those tales first-hand. I also once heard (what I will call a legend) about a professor (English, I think) who, when asked about her sexual preference, replied simply: “graduate students.”

But these are not my tales to tell. And, as far as occupational hazards go, the dangers of being yelled at irrationally and occasionally forgotten are mild, I think. Especially when what you get as recompense is a great deal of time in the presence of intellectual brilliance. There is some saying about exceptional people and how one is willing to tolerate in them behavior that would not pass in individuals of lesser personal and intellectual magnetism. I forget the exact words, but the notion, however expressed, is unapologetically elitist and perhaps only evidence that I have been in the groves too long and have had my brains addled. I do not think so.

Intellectual virtuosity can be breath-taking – as breath-taking as listening to Beethoven’s 5th or 9th or seeing a Vermeer in person or Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, or whatever it is, man-made or natural, that you might find completely arresting and captivating. The best professors have minds as agile and flexible – as wonderful to behold in motion – as the bodies of professional athletes. I am waxing, I know, but part of the attraction of graduate school is the faint hope that by proximity to and tutelage from such minds as the best professors have, that we too, we novitiates, will ourselves one day be virtuosos and priests of knowledge.

This is not the case for most. There is a lot of attrition in graduate programs, and even if you do make it to the end and get the degree, many are rewarded for their pains with joblessness, or a “hardship post” (there are many mythical worst places to get a job, the one I know is Southwest Texas Christian Women’s Technical Community College), or a string of adjunct positions that make for a gypsy-esque, migrant existence (a year here, a semester there – no job security and often no benefits). The English department at Stanford claims a 90% job-placement rate for its students – if they’re willing to go on the market three years in a row. Stanford also has the advantage of being a very small graduate program and so it has fewer students to place.

Getting a job is a yearlong process and extremely competitive and grueling. In the fall you consult the jobs list and see what’s available in your field (Medieval, Renaissance, sometimes Seventeenth-Century, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century British, Early American, Romanticism, Nineteenth-Century British, Modern British, Anglophone, Contemporary American, Theory). All of the fields have further refinements (poetry, drama, novels, Victorian, Modernism, Asian American, African American) and subtleties of periodization (long 18th Century, versus 18th Century and Restoration, for example), and this means that the first year you go on the market there may not be any jobs in your particular area of expertise in the country. Of course you’ll try to sell yourself for jobs that you’re almost a fit for, but it’s hard when there’s another candidate (or a hundred) who do exactly what a given university is looking for.

You submit recommendation letters from your dissertation committee, a job letter summarizing your dissertation, your research interests, and why you’d be a good fit for the school, your CV, and a writing sample (for some schools it is as much of your dissertation as is finished), and you wait. In November you hear if you’ve gotten any interviews at the MLA Conference in December (the Modern Language Association is the professional organization for professors of language and literature). The MLA takes place immediately after Christmas every year, and if you’ve gotten any interviews, these consist of your being examined on anything and everything by three or four faculty members from the school to which you’ve applied (usually your teaching interests, your dissertation, and some form of thinking-on-your-feet questions about your period).

Of the ten or so applicants interviewed for a particular position at MLA, usually three are chosen for a campus fly-back. These three are flown to the campus sometime between February and March and give a lecture to the entire department faculty. After all of the candidates have completed their visits, the faculty vote and the candidate with the most votes is offered a job. This job offer comes sometime in the spring – or, it doesn’t. And then you do it all over again the next fall, and perhaps the next after that too. And that’s not even getting into fifth-year reviews and tenure proceedings once you’ve gotten a job. Alternatively, I am told, one can go into consulting, think-tank and non-profit research, marketing, high school teaching, and archival and curatorial work, but I don’t know how often or easily these happen.

“Good work if you can get it,” one of my undergraduate professors called university teaching – and that “if” clause is not to be underestimated.

There are other dark aspects too, that come earlier. Studying for qualifying and university oral exams can be devastatingly isolating. I think it’s a line in Shadowlands that says something to the effect of “We read to know that we are not alone,” but I assure you, in month two – or four, or six – of being immersed in the Cavalier poets, Ranter prophets, Milton, Bunyan, Behn, Swift, Fielding, Smollett, et al, you come to know a loneliness of the most rare exquisiteness. You might also find yourself sobbing a lot about how stupid you are, living on a diet of coffee, red wine, cigarettes, and proprananol, not getting out of your pajamas or brushing your hair, and sleeping badly with dreams of your teeth rotting and falling out. I generalize, of course.

And even when the exams are over, there’s a lot of angst and self-hatred among Ph.D. candidates. This probably owes more to self-selection than the atmosphere of graduate school itself, but there’s something to be said for nurture in this case too. Literary scholars are ultimately critics and an atmosphere of relentless criticism, can be, well, relentless, as well as somewhat absurd. One of the fall-back ways to generate your own original critical take on a literary work or concept is simply to take issue with someone else’s reading: “Blahblahblah’s account of Romantic sensibility fails to account for __________ and fatally neglects to consider_____________” or some such. And students and professors use this same technique on each other in seminars and lectures. In the style of negative campaigning, there is a tendency to attack or show-up others’ readings of things and thereby to show oneself as supremely clever. There is a slightly disgusting general tendency to perform cleverness – when a speaker’s point or question is not to get to the crux of a literary work but instead to announce to all in attendance his or her superior smartness. And then there’s the famous jargon – acculturation, narrativity, aestheticize, dialogism… And the continued fondness in literature departments for theorists like Freud and Marx. It can feel petty, ridiculous, and vain – not about literature or history or culture at all, but about petty ego-driven bickering and self-aggrandizement by silly, small-minded people, of which you are one.

I realize I have said very little about literature itself and it is worth mentioning how literature changes when it becomes the object of professional study. I think the ideal way to imagine becoming a professor is to think of yourself as a living counterpart to libraries and archives – a person who becomes a receptacle of knowledge about a particular historical period and its literature. It is your job to animate this knowledge, keep it alive, add to it if you can, share it with students, and impart it to the next generation of scholars (if you get that far). You have to have faith in the importance of the literature and history you choose and you have to be willing to spend a lot of time mentally there. It’s odd and anachronistic and hard to explain to those who don’t do it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember yourself why you do it. You also have to keep caring because there’s not much in the way of praise or material gain to keep you going if you lose faith.

There are transcendent moments – when you feel you’ve gotten a novel or a poem – figured out something true that no one else has said; or an afternoon squirreled away in a rare books room looking at, say, an early nineteenth-century folio of etchings and biographical sketches of “remarkable person” (i.e. dwarves, giants, gypsy queens, cross-dressers, political and religious radicals, a “pretended rabbit breeder”) and are utterly absorbed and content. But there are other days (more days, I find lately) when you are full of self-doubt about your intellectual and dispositional fitness for the scholarly life, and doubt about the worth of your research, and the worth of the profession altogether. Sometimes you feel tired of the pressure to have a clever and unique take on every novel and poem and play that you read (and also to remember other people’s clever and unique takes on them), and books become sources of anxiety and potential humiliation rather than of pleasure, instruction, or escape.

Horace counsels to seek truth in the groves of academe – and there is certainly some to be had. I have encountered great and instructive minds and literary works in my time in the groves, and though it has brought me no wealth or glory, and may well not get me a job, it has been and is a luxury and privilege. For all of the folly and absurdity to be found in academe, there is something mystical and sanctified and rarefied as well – something I am glad to have known.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. "We needed, self-consciously, to fashion ourselves (appearance, theoretical approaches, research interests, even behavior and speech styles) in order to be successful academics…"

    Don Dellilo captured that idea beautifully in White Noise

  2. It's funny, because "White Noise" came to mind immediately. Perhaps the professor in question was borrowing?

    Thanks for the great read, Emily. Keep your chin up.


  3. Emily: Have you seen "The History Boys?" It would seem to speak to your condition. But I've found in your previous posts that you naturally approach literature in the same spirit in which it's been written, which is both rare and important; I have no doubt you'll land a job.

    And by-the-bye: This post should be required reading for those considering grad-school in the humanities.

  4. You've just succinctly pointed out many of the reasons I dropped out of graduate school. Perhaps History is different, but I can't imagine it being that different. Thanks for this post.

  5. you have rotten teeth dreams too?? so good to hear!
    –lauren (5th year in PhD/last semester of coursework/starting to compile orals lists)

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