Employment Guide: Do you have what it takes to be a grad student?

By Oliver Bateman

Once you reach the point at which your rejection letters have started arriving before you can even finish your applications, it’s time for a change. Our foolproof two-question test will help you determine where to go from here. Once you reach the point at which your rejection letters have started arriving before you can even finish your applications, it’s time for a change. Our foolproof two-question test will help you determine where to go from here.

Question 1: Do you enjoy sleeping late, not paying rent and investing untold hours in your Madden 2012 dynasty?

If yes, move home with your parents and focus on drafting those can’t-miss prospects that will lead the hapless Cleveland Browns back to the Super Bowl. If no, proceed to question 2.

Question 2: Do you enjoy sleeping late, splitting a minimal rent with a bunch of roommates and occasionally reading a book?

If no, go back to question 1. If yes, prepare for the big time: graduate school.

See, the halcyon days of just sitting around your rat-hole apartment, blowing off “cake” classes and concocting elaborate excuses for the more serious ones are going to come to an end. So will the hardgaining, marathon Call of Duty sessions and late nights with a six-pack of 40s and a six-pack of $5 pizza pies. It’s about to get real, friend.

But before that, you need to pick a university. This is incredibly important, because at cocktail parties, cotillions, debutante balls and the like, you’ll be asked to boil down eight or nine years of grueling work in the form of a one-sentence answer to this question: “So where do you go to school?”

And if you say something like, “Oh, I’m studying advanced studies at SUNY-Binghamton,” you’ll undoubtedly elicit the following riposte: “Hmm, that’s nice. I know someone/have a cousin/have heard of a person getting his Ph.D. in that very subject at [the far more prestigious] Northwestern University.”

It almost goes without saying that you’re going to want to be able to stick it to those one-uppers. There are plenty of decent state universities with fully-funded, well-respected graduate programs — but who cares about them? It’s a little-known fact that you can pretty much go to any one-year unfunded master’s program at a “big name” school, and all it’ll cost you is $50,000 worth of student loans (mostly private student loans that you have to repay while in school, but who’s keeping track?).

These programs — cash cows for most of the places that offer them — will give you all the privileges of answering the aforementioned cocktail-party question with something awesome-sounding, without all the years of writing and research you’d need to slog through if you committed for the long haul at somewhere like Maryland-College Park.

Let’s say you don’t take this route, though, and instead prefer to save the megabucks and enroll in a competitive Ph.D. program that will actually pay you to attend classes and teach the millions of rheumy-eyed, hangover-fighting undergraduates who would gladly answer “yes” to the first question in today’s column. What then?

Well, this one’s a bit tougher. Unlike in undergrad, where a simple skim of the Sparknotes for “The Mill on the Floss” was sufficient to ensure that you were the best-informed person in the class, you’ll need to up your game. With sufficient prodding and a good enough head of steam, you might even find yourself reading an entire chapter of a book every few months or so (introductions and conclusions only — you’re crazy but you’re not stupid!).

On top of all the reading, you’ll find yourself forced to talk out your posterior about any number of abstruse subjects. Since most of your peers will be doing the same, it’s more or less a wash. Furthermore, you can finesse any difficult interrogation by name-dropping some other scholar’s work:

Other student: Have you ever read Tomjones Omni on exchange value? It’s essential.

You: Yes, I think I’ve heard somewhere else about how essential it is. Jonas Ruggleteapot’s first three essays on post-literacy are also quite important.

Other student: Ah, I recall possibly reading those. Very important. But you simply must read Kamperland’s critique of post-literacy.

You: I believe I have, and it was most likely thought-provoking. What about Dusselbrahaus?

Other student: Certainly. Izod-Lacoste?

You: Very cutting-edge, much like Van Heusen.

In addition to curating these long lists of “relevant” scholarly works — few of which ever need to be read, or are — you’ll be hard at work on a thesis or dissertation. As tempting as it might sound, you can’t finish one of these magnum opuses merely by cutting-and-pasting a handful of Wikipedia summaries together and calling it a day. No, you must produce “original content” — but even this herculean task can be rendered manageable. Check this out:

Other student: How is that thesis coming along? I’ve written five pages.

You (lying): I’ve already written it and submitted it to five refereed journals. Also, I already have a job offer. Oh, and next week I’m going to appear on TV for some reason.

See what you did there? That other student was trying to put the screws to you, and instead of admitting that you’d spent the week slacking off, you just lied. Since most of your career as a serious graduate student will consist of “smoke-and-mirrors” productivity of this sort, cultivate the fine art of deception as soon as possible.

This brings us to the most significant difference between your life as an undergraduate and your career as a Ph.D. student: Since there are way more things you’re supposed to be doing, you’re going to have to spend far more time not doing them. A lazy Sunday spent on the couch watching Peyton “Overrated” Hillis and his hapless Cleveland Browns lose another game is kid stuff — as we wrote earlier, you’re in the big leagues now. We’re talking weeks spent alone and indoors without a single accomplishment to show for it, and only a soul-crushing sense of guilt to sustain you in your procrastination.

So we leave you with one final question: Do you have the intestinal fortitude to shirk your work indefinitely, passing the time by reading those oh-so-hilarious Ph.D. Comics — a webcomic where the central “joke” is that the characters are also shirking their graduate studies and thus experiencing soul-crushing guilt for doing so — and trying to evade the “invisible hand” of our great nation’s crumbling, fatally flawed service economy? Because if you do, more power to you. It’s a jungle out there and whatnot.

Oliver Lee Bateman is the president of the Moustache Advising Service of America, which is the place to go if you’re trying to pick up the pieces of your so-called life. If you’re looking to eat/pray/love, or maybe just to get kissed, get wild and get over it, click your way over to moustacheclubofamerica.com.