Why I Went to Grad School Part I: Vanity’s Temptation

Why I Went to Grad School Part I: Vanity’s Temptation

Photo credit: Jessica A. Hutchins

Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
–Simon & Garfunkel, “Bookends”

By Jessica A. Hutchins

I did not always want to be a Ph.D. The obsession did not strike me until halfway through the last year of my B.A. During childhood and adolescence I always wanted to be a writer, a career that seemed impossible since I had never ever met a professional writer. My parents actively encouraged and discouraged this impulse, recognizing my passion and talent but fearing that such a path would lead their daughter into certain starvation.

As an undergrad, I held fast to the belief that success at school would directly translate into a successful life. My brash naïveté told me that the English Romantic poets had gotten it right, that writers were possessed of sacred insights and that I belonged among their ranks. Meanwhile, my anxious pragmatism argued that what I needed more than anything was A Job that would pay for the necessities of adulthood that I could not yet even imagine. Becoming a college professor appeared to be a viable compromise: I could indulge my lifelong love of books while pursuing a respectable profession. Eventually it also occurred to me that teaching the next generation was a genuinely noble pursuit, but that was not part of the original attraction.

When the professor I most idolized suggested that grad school would be a good option for me, I immediately committed to the project. That mentorship went something like this:

I am walking up a staircase on the way to my philosophy class at the same time as the professor. While making small talk he asks, “Have you thought about going to grad school?” My reply is a meek affirmation, to which he responds, “You should.”

That was it. The decision was made. I had been implicitly invited into the profession by a scholar I admired, a scholar who had translated Heidegger and thanked Derrida in the acknowledgements of his books. Nothing could have been more satisfying to my intellectual vanity.

In the following months, that mentorship deepened as this professor became the advisor of my undergraduate honors thesis, steered me toward the discipline of Comparative Literature, and finally wrote a letter of recommendation for my graduate school applications. He had done his job perfectly: 1) he identified a promising student who might carry on the academy’s mission, 2) he supported the student up to and through graduation, 3) he set the student on the path to post-graduate study and an academic career.

I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at an extremely prestigious Midwestern university, but could never overcome the feeling that I was not supposed to be there, that I was a fraud. I believed that I would not have been accepted there if not for my mentor’s letter, that essentially the school had taken me in because of his reputation and not because of my own accomplishments. By Thanksgiving, I had stopped going to classes and had taken a leave of absence from my program. I did not return. It felt like the most colossal failure.

Fourteen years later, having earned a Ph.D. from another (slightly less) prestigious Midwestern university, I realize that while my passion for the degree was sincere the initial motivations were misplaced. In my first attempt at grad school, I had not been prepared for the hard work and focus that would be demanded of me. Instead of developing new skills to meet the challenge, I grew cynical about my mentor: I decided he must have told everyone that they should pursue grad school, or that he had simply been wrong about my potential.

I can now see that grit and determination are more fundamental to success than intelligence or talent. Shattering the illusion of my own sacred specialness, which felt like failure at the time, was a necessary prerequisite for completing the degree. I had to learn to stop seeking approval from others, I had to learn to keep working even when the task seemed impossible. My Ph.D. desires may have begun life on shaky grounds but they have been transformed into solid feelings of pride. I have satisfied challenging degree requirements and can rightfully use the title of “Doctor” although I rarely do. More importantly, I have begun to overcome the obstacles of vanity and self-doubt that I created for myself along the way and have discovered a resilience that I never knew I could possess.