Lately I have been reading multiple articles off of the internet from publications such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Chronicle of Higher Education that discuss the failings of attending graduate school in today’s economy. The writers of these articles have voiced their opinions concerning the merit of attending a graduate study program and how it usually doesn’t economically play out in favor of the student. There are no jobs, achieving tenure is almost impossible, and by the time you are finished with your course of studies, ten years (give or take) of your life has slipped away from you. The former student is left wondering if the experience was “worth it,” after they re-emerge into the non-academic life, with a PhD, but without a paycheck.
I am a former graduate student, and I am contemplating applying for PhD programs. The aforementioned concerns have surely crossed my mind, as they would cross any rational being’s mind, when it comes to “how am I going to feed myself after all of this is said and done?” However, these have never been my top concerns when considering advancing my education to the highest level. I have other concerns that have motivated my decisions towards saying “Yes. I do want to become a PhD.”
I am a 30-year-old, partially Hispanic female from a smack-dab-in-the-middle of the middle class family. Concerning the other people of my family who are of my generation, I am the only person who has attended graduate school, let alone the only female of our family who has gained a Master’s Degree since emigrating into this country over 100 years ago. My ancestors were mostly illiterate, in both their native and newly acquired English languages. The men worked with their hands mining coal, repairing diesel engines, bootlegging alcohol, serving in the military, and butchering animals. The women had children, assisted in the bootlegging, washed other people’s floors to make a buck, and aside from attending to their own children, watched over the children of others just to get by. They lived almost eight people to a room in the cold water flats of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Hoboken, NJ. When I think back to all of the physical effort that went into making sure that someday, a person like myself, descendant from these struggling, hard working people, could have the opportunity to not have to wash a floor or mangle their hands in hard physical labor, I do not second guess my decision for applying for a PhD program. I owe it to them. I owe it to myself, to my past, my family’s past, and to my future and my family’s legacy.
I am not going to question if it will be “worth it”; it is worth it. Through my efforts I extend the upwards and outwards history of my family. We went from illiteracy to complete literacy, we went from no education to the highest level of education. All of the monetary reimbursement in the world could not make up for this achievement. In fact, from my perspective, the money is inconsequential to the actual achievement itself. Our progeny can look back and say that in the face of all hardships and obstacles, we defied the odds. From the actions of my ancestors I am reassured that as long as one has two hands, money can always be made. So the concerns of gaining tenure, turning a big paycheck, these things are not important to me. It is the achievement of the goal that is of the utmost importance. To reach a higher intellectual understanding of the world around you, this is the essence of a graduate program to me.
I think that many people forget this when the weight of the struggling economy is bearing down on their shoulders. I admit, it is hard to keep one’s eyes on the horizon when the land directly in front of you is threatening to collapse into an endless chasm. I’ve been there, or more rightly, I am there. I am midway through life, barely employed, no health insurance to speak of. I am lucky that my apartment is rent controlled and I have a partner that understands my mindset and foots half the bill. I keep in mind that the struggling economy is not my fault, I did not gamble with the lives of others in the stock market. But I cannot let the consequences of the poor decisions of others shape my view as to what I strive to achieve, when I know that that achievement will not only influence my own life, but the lives of those to come after me. I refuse to allow the worries of a struggling economy to stunt my intellectual growth, after I and others have worked so hard to get to this point. I will not allow these worries to overshadow the fact that the people of my family lost movement in their hands from toiling with small parts, risked arrest, and had to send their own children to the kibbutz in South Jersey so that they, themselves, could travel for work, so that one day a person like myself could gain the experience of achieving the highest degrees of study.
But it’s not only my family that I do this for, it’s not only for my family that I want this. Growing up in the inner city, the odds were against me. It is not an easy task to come of age in a middle to lower class neighborhood in the greater New York City area. As a child I watched those closest to me get involved in gang violence, a way of life that made it to my doorstep. I watched that type of violence as it tried to destroy my family, as it tried to eat away our souls and the very fibers of our being as well as everything that our family had accomplished in the past. One incident that comes to mind, which will paint a better picture as to what I experienced to further make you understand why education, at its highest level, is necessary for a person like myself, is when, at 18 years of age I had to chase a Latin King out of my parents’ basement at one in the morning. Why he was there is inconsequential, the fact of the matter is is that that person was in our house, unbeknownst to us, and with him he brought his culture of violence and hopelessness. After the police were called, this man was forcibly pulled out of our basement, shirtless, with a Puerto Rican flag tattooed on his chest. My family is of Puerto Rican descent, my father being the first generation to be born on the continent. The scene which was set in front of me was that of my parents in the pajamas, confused, frightened, and looking utterly violated, the bald-headed police officers who surely had to deal with this sort of thing on a nightly basis, and this shirtless man with the flag of our nationality poorly scratched onto him, where he wore it like a red-badge of courage, defiant, angry, and pathetic. This could be viewed as a cultural crossroads of a kind. What a person like myself could or could not be. Could I be my parents, who did their best to educate their children and others, people who have struggled through adversity to make sure that I would never turn out like this person, covered in filth from hiding in a basement? Or could I be this person, filled with anger and hate from the poverty, destitution, ignorance, and hopelessness that he allowed to be forced upon him? My parents ensured that I had received up until that point the best education possible, and for that reason, aside from my anger, my fear, and my confusion, which I most likely shared with our intruder, I chose the former. I came from the same area as this person, walked the same streets, yet I possessed something that he did not have that would influence my decisions for the rest of my life: knowledge. He allowed the actions of the outside world, a world filled with discrimination and prejudice towards people of our background, shape his view of himself. He played into the statistic. He allowed it to consume him. I could not allow that to happen then, and so I cannot allow that to happen now. When one comes from the privilege of never having to experience the full understanding of what ignorance can lead to, it is easy to say that furthering your education and graduate school may not be of any high importance, but when you experience the consequences of a life void of education first-hand, you realize how the gaining of those degrees, no matter what the obstacles may be, determines what side of reality you stand upon. So, it is my responsibility, not just to myself or my family, but to those who have experienced the same life as me, to further my knowledge of the world around me, to enshroud myself in it and then share that intellectual fabric with others. This is worth more than money.I am disappointed that the articles that I have read concerning the merits of a higher education have not discussed the points I have made throughout this piece of writing. Have we forgotten what academia actually means, what it represents, what it is supposed to further? For me, achieving a PhD would show that my family and any person who shares my background “made it”; we beat the odds of every statistic that said we would lead a life of ignorance and poverty. Having a higher degree, no matter how much money one makes, creates a culture of intelligence among anyone you welcome into your circle. The destitution and anxiety of poverty are not allowed in, for we are not intellectually poor. Those who come after me will have a standard to live up to, one that is not determined by monetary income, but by the respect for the knowledge one acquires, in whatever subject area they choose. For all of these reasons I will say “Yes,” a graduate program is completely worth it.