Why I Love Grad School, or Please Talk Career Options with Your Daughters

The Empty ChairWhen I was 22, my undergraduate professors started to ask where I’d be going next. Everyone assumed it would be grad school. My art history professor, a supportive, wry-humored expert in Mexican art named Deborah Caplow, especially believed I would make a career for myself in art criticism and teaching. My future, cast in their words, sounded extraordinary.

I didn’t believe it for a second.

My parents had never sat me down and had a conversation about what sort of career I wanted—or even about what school was for. During my last quarter in college, my father finally invited me to the living room couch and informed me I should apply for specific openings at the company where he worked, an online automobile dealer. He recommended secretarial and call center positions. When I told him I was interested in copyediting, writing, journalism, or education, he ended the discussion. Permanently.

We never again talked career options.

Looking back, I would have expected my parents’ concerns to fall somewhere in this range of questions:

How is she going to support herself? What is her career going to be? Why the hell did we let her major in Liberal Arts if she’s not going to graduate school? Could we nudge her back toward a teaching certificate, which was what she wanted in the first place four years ago? Can we at least ask around and get someone in the education or writing field to point her in the right direction?

Quite the opposite. When I was 23, my parents’ concerns loomed primarily over my past: that I had left the Mormon Church, believed my professors’ “lies”, was dating a Thai man, and had influenced my brother to leave the faith, tempting him to Satan (an accusation my brother and I laughed over). I was a fallen woman, so what did it matter if I gained the whole world but lost my soul?

All I knew, at 22, was that I had to get the fuck away from my parents. They told me, sometimes on a daily basis, that I had brought evil into their home. I had been deceived by Satan.

Grad school, career—it all took a backseat. I applied for the lowest-level library job I could find, because I knew I would get it. When I did, I moved out.

So to be in grad school now, at 33, as a future college professor—it means everything.

To quote Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man, “I must come out, I must emerge.” Life has to be about so much more than survival. The expectations and judgment that others paste on top of our truest selves, our highest potential, has to be scraped away to get to the gold underneath. To be in grad school means that I have come out of my basement and into the world.

It means that I believe “even an invisible [wo]man has a socially responsible role to play.”

Do I believe I can do extraordinary things?

Still no.

But I believe that I can make valuable contributions to extraordinary things.

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