Category Archives: graduate school

The Voice in the Fire

As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow

"Philosopher with an Open Book" by Salomon Coninck (c. 1645)

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.

If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.

A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.

With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, 9th gatea conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.

As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.

Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.

It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.

Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.

But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.

I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.

The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.

A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.

Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.

Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.

Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.

Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:

The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.

This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.

Listen. And seek the mysteries.


Surviving Graduate School in the Humanities: Should You Go and What if You Do?


“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Yesterday, I got an email from a former student asking for advice on whether he should apply to a PhD program in English. This is not the first time someone has asked me this, though I have mostly stopped answering because (1) people must learn for themselves and no one thinks his or her experience will be typical; (2) graduate programs generally present an unconscionably glossy face to prospective students; (3) in order to persevere in an academic career, it is necessary to develop a personal philosophy that allows you to put the work first; and (4) my own experience in academia has been highly atypical.

Still, I consider May 1 to be my 6th anniversary as a PhD in English. This remains, in spite of all my criticisms, one of the greatest (and surprisingly joyful) achievements of my life. So every year around this time, I take a day to reflect on the good as well as the bad—how far I’ve come and what I’ve had to overcome as a result of my long years in graduate school.

As part of that, I write this blog post from a place of deep sincerity, responding to the question: should I apply to PhD programs in English?

Graduate school, especially in the arts and humanities, is an existential riddle very few people solve to any degree of satisfaction. Its dimensions are so far-reaching and complex that many years can go by before those who have lived through it get any kind of clarity about what they experienced.

I might have understood a bit more, a little bit sooner, about my situation than most graduate students. As someone who spent a significant amount of time acquiring various academic degrees and certifications, I have always been studying something. I grew up in an academic household, have been incredibly lucky with finding good teaching positions, and have learned to handle “administrative prevarication” in ways that have allowed me to survive. Not everyone has this experience. In fact, my story is an exception to a very unpleasant rule.

Deep-seated career frustration, depression, and even suicide seem to be on the rise for graduate students. This would appear true even if we assumed that 50 years of back-page articles on dysfunctional academia and the perpetual ranting in the higher-ed blogosphere was inherently anecdotal. By 2016, however, we no longer have to wonder. Over the last seven or eight years, we have been getting a clearer sense of how broken graduate education is in the west. William Pannapacker (aka “Thomas H. Benton”) writes in “Just Don’t Go, Part 2” (2009) that graduate schools

play obfuscatory games with their placement records and rarely give students a realistic sense of what it is like being in graduate school — how it’s not all about the “life of the mind” as two years gradually turns into a decade of contracting horizons and growing desperation.

Of course, the lack of accurate information available to students about graduate school is not accidental; it’s an essential component of the academic labor system. Even assistant professors, who should know what’s going on, encourage their students to go to graduate school because it is professionally risky to do otherwise. One might be seen as “doing a grave disservice to the profession,” as one writer said to me in a tone of bureaucratic menace.

But of the many letters I received last month, the majority included some version of “Why did no one tell me?” and “What am I going to do now?”

More than a few confessed the depression they experienced in graduate school. Several mentioned thoughts of killing themselves, and — after a decade of reading letters by the thousands on similar themes — I was not surprised at all. It’s more than accumulated anecdotes. As Piper Fogg recently presented it in The Chronicle (February 20): “67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.”

These are actual numbers. And the reason Pannapacker remains one of my personal heroes is that his was one of the earliest and most honest voices to talk about the obfuscation that I and my fellow graduate students experienced firsthand. What once sounded like a conspiracy theory, fancifully attempting to explain why an English department could be staffed with 8 tenured faculty members and 38 adjuncts, now looks like reality.

There has (at least since the late 1960s) been a dearth of reliable data for most academic fields correlating graduate student health, subsequent career performance, and program funding. I suspect this is because acquiring such information was as difficult as asking someone to incriminate themselves in court. There is a reason the Fifth Amendment exists. The academic analogue might be labeled, “The Conspiracy of Silence in the Interests of Self-Preservation.”

It’s not hard to understand that, particularly in academic culture, speaking up at any point may ruin one’s already slim job prospects. Moreover, it is unwise to use language like exploitation, depression, long-term poverty, unnavigable bureaucracy, Machiavellian feuding, and misrepresentation when talking about what you experienced for close to a decade as you tried to get a PhD. People will tell you to keep your mouth shut and that’s largely good advice, at least from the standpoint of the strategic job search. Unfortunately, it’s not so great from the standpoint of mental health.

Maybe your experience was like mine: after two masters degrees, I completed a PhD in just over 3 years. And though I suffered some serious personal tragedies toward the end of my program, I was able to complete my work with a minimum of trouble. Compare that to Zoe Stavri who writes in her blog, Another angry woman, that her PhD program was “so indistinguishable from depression, that I am left wondering whether in fact depression is a feature rather than a bug.” Or Audry Watters, now a freelance writer and tech journalist, who received no support or leeway when her husband died in the middle of her PhD in comparative lit. On her website,, Watters explains why she quit:

I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics.  (“The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program”)

Historically, what could usually be found (aside from the highly suspect Bowen and Sosa Report in 1989) came from confessions made online by the disappointed and the overlooked—those who no longer had anything to lose, felt they had gotten a raw deal from the academy, and were unwilling to be complicit any longer. Sadly, more of these non-entities exist now than ever before. The upside—if such a word could even be used in this context—is that people like William Pannapacker are telling the truth—at least a version of the truth that teaches survival.

The saddest, most tragic part is that only those who are tough survive. For example, I have survived because I love teaching so much, I’d do it for free and I’m ruthless about avoiding that eventuality. Others, whether through intensive networking or existing connections, survive through a kind of perpetual low-stakes patronage that can be like nepotism or hustling or just an exotic form of luck. But everyone agrees that academia shouldn’t be about these things. And, with the exception of Penelope Trunk, everyone agrees that a graduate humanities degree should not require the prospective student to have a trust fund as a prerequisite. As Alex Pang wrote back in 2004:

No one has born the weight of the decade’s terrible academic job market more than young Ph.D.s. Caught between a culture that insists they cannot leave academia, a system that doesn’t have enough room to allow them to stay, and a sense that Ph.D.s are not suited to nonacademic jobs and nonacademic jobs are unsuitable to Ph.D.s, they have too often found themselves deprived of opportunities and alternatives.

In a highly cited Chronicle of Higher Education column, “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult,” Margaret Newhouse mentions a number of unhealthy attitudes typical in this kind of academic culture, ranging from extreme perfectionism to overwhelming peer pressure to unrealistic career expectations. It’s useful to read her piece alongside a similar Chronicle post by Pannapacker in which the author summarizes Newhouse’s ideas relative to his own career:

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. As Newhouse suggested—perhaps more rhetorically than seriously—graduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.

Science writer, Gwen Pearson, also thinks of academia as a cult and writes that the “Alternative Careers in Science” workshop she is regularly asked to give at her university is called “alternative” because “They don’t mean becoming a music composer or a patent examiner; they mean getting a job that isn’t a professor in academia. Because, to them, anything else IS alternative, and, ergo, inferior.”

For many grad students, it seems that there is eventually a “looking glass moment” in which they wonder if they truly are inferior life forms and realize that their sense of self has been inexorably altered as a result of living inside academia. Sometimes this is what you’d want: you have acquired a range of implicit and explicit methodologies for leading an intellectually curious life. But just as often, it can be shattering: you feel unfit to be or do anything other than function as a scholar in a university setting. Most people stop at that stage and grieve for the life they could have had if they hadn’t gone into graduate study, for the deep sacrifices they were compelled to make by a broken system, and for the profound opportunity cost involved.

There is an immense amount of unfairness and dishonesty integral to higher education, at least right now in the west. And it goes without saying that reform is needed. But I think Zoe Stavri is correct when she notes that even though it’s obvious reform is necessary “none of this will happen, because the problems in our universities are the same as the problems outside of our universities”—which is to say that the entire concept of an “ivory tower” as a refuge from economic and political realities is nothing but a myth:

The thing about PhDs is they are a scam. On paper, they are studying a topic that you love, and becoming an expert in it, and generally contributing to human knowledge. In practice, what actually happens is the university gets a research assistant for three years, to work on a project that they want studied that is in some way related to a thing that interests you (but is actually whatever they could get funding for). The university doesn’t have to pay a penny for this research assistant: in fact, they get paid to have you there! I imagine it would be a whole lot easier if everyone just admitted that this is what is happening, but nobody does. And instead, the whole structure gaslights and emotionally blackmails PhD students. It shifts all of the problems we encounter as employees into personal failings: clearly we’re not interested enough in this topic that we supposedly chose, and if we cared enough, we’d want to do the work.

If you want to attend graduate school do not dismiss voices like these. Remember, these people—the ones passionately describing what were perhaps life-shattering experiences—are just like you. They love(d) something and want(ed) to be part of it. They are smart, driven, accomplished. And they were cast out of a system as soon as they ceased being functional parts of its hierarchy. By rights, they should be teaching someone like you at some college somewhere. But this is not how things worked out.

Consider further that Pannapacker’s hypothetical of what could happen to any (academically successful) PhD after graduation is a point-by-point accurate description of what befell at least two people with whom I went to grad school:

Everyone has told her that “there are always places for good people in academe.” She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there’s something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.

This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What’s left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?

I write this not to scare you but to open your eyes. Graduate school is wonderful. It is also hard. It can also damage you greatly. You have to be strong, steady, emotionally resilient, and willing to look at your years of study as valuable in themselves. No matter what people say, a PhD in an arts or humanities subject is not likely to be a strategic career move. You do it because you love it and you are too stubborn not to do it. Regrets are inevitable. However, if you love the work more than you love leading any particular lifestyle, you will be able to put the work first. This means before kids, before money, before love, and before the comfortable middle-class life someone else might be enjoying with your same degree.

Am I saying you have to be a poor monk in order to do this? Not necessarily; though, I’m not ruling it out. What I am saying is that the work must come before all other things. If you can have those other things, wonderful. But they are “in addition” not “along with” or “because of.” If you think it’s impossible to work outside a university setting, read Alex Pang’s excellent blog post about this exact possibility. But, above all else, do not assume that you will be paid or even regarded as anything but cheap labor after all your work and sacrifice.

Make the work your refuge. Develop alternate forms of income if necessary after graduating. And always take extraordinary steps to ensure physical health and mental stability. Contrary to popular opinion, academia is not for the weak. And those who “can’t do” certainly can’t survive in its highly competitive and unforgiving environment.


* NoteIf you are just graduating from university with a BA in an arts or humanities field and are wondering about what to do next, this is solid advice: