The madness of a grad student

June 19, 2008 at 11:23 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Megan McArdle on the decline & fall of the poor souls who sign up for PhDs. I’d like to bet that my friends in the ‘industry’ have met a few people who fit this description:

For the first time in their lives, the students are treated like adults. They are in the outer circle of an intellectual elite, treated slightly more like members of the club than time-consuming nuisances. Their classes are smaller, and offer actual conversation with some big name professors. Instead of textbooks, they start reading academic books written for academics, delving deep into the insider language of their craft. They start to feel like members of a special elite, privy to secret knowledge, cleverer than the normal run of people. They get not merely the feeling that they have learned things others haven’t mastered, but that they are the possessors of knowledge that others can’t master unless they, too, are initiates. They develop an amused contempt for anyone who is not in a PhD program. Oddly, they are more easily convinced of the competence of people with advanced degrees in entirely unrelated fields than, say, policy professionals.

There’s an additional effect in a lot of social sciences; graduate students tend to drift towards schools and professors whom they find ideologically sympathetic. They read some books that agree with them, and listen to their professors confidently smiting the arguments of people they didn’t like in the first place. After a year or so of coursework, they feel like able masters of a difficult body of material which proves, scientifically, that they were right all along.

Meanwhile, those professors are constantly challenging them–forcing them to jump a series of ever-higher hurdles, exposing their logical mistakes, breaking them down and building them up again in the mold of their school. At the end of this process, they are like movie Marines coming out of boot camp–they feel ten feet tall, tough as nails, and hungry for some action. This is generally when they start making total, and all-too-often extremely public, asses of themselves.

More character assassination here


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