Over the past few weeks, several of my former students have approached me asking for career advice. Some want to know if they should consider graduate school in the humanities, or whether law school would be the better choice. Others, having developed skills as non-fiction writers in the classroom, ask me about pursuing careers in journalism, and wonder how to secure internships and jobs down the line. I find these conversations a little difficult because on the one hand, I’d like to be as open and honest as I can with these students–both journalism and academia are trying and often unstable career paths–but on the other hand, I don’t want to discourage them from pursuing anything that they want to try out, especially so early in their careers.
I wonder if there are ethical best practices for guiding students through the initial stages of thinking about their writing lives both inside and outside the classroom, encouraging them to continue pursuing whatever writing practice they choose, but also being realistic about the professional writing landscape. In so many ways the community of working writers, journalists, and editors is a lively and enriching group. But I do think that I have something of a responsibility to at least share my own experiences in the professional writing world, if only to illustrate that it’s not always an easy road.
And old professor of mine, Peter Coviello, attempted to answer similar questions in an essay for Avidly, where he writes: “I assume that if you’re considering going to graduate school with any real seriousness you need not have recited to you the litany of reasons, from the Marxist to the Karmic, not to do so. If you cannot say those reasons off to yourself like beads of a rosary then perhaps you have not, in fact, given the matter enough thought.”
But if I don’t quite have a dog in this fight (whether or not graduate school is good for you is likely to depend upon variables too numerous and case-specific to generalize about with much non-polemical efficacy), still I do want to offer a small testament to at least one of the ways a graduate-school education might be of real human use to you. I’d put it, at its briefest, like this: one day, at some unanticipated juncture on the trajectory of your adult life, something cataclysmically bad is going to happen to you. It will be, in the ordinary way of things, shattering and unendurable. And when this comes to pass you may be startled to find that you have an extraordinary resource in, of all improbable things, the years of your graduate education: in the people you loved there, of course, but also in the ways you learned to think there, and in the worlds that, by loving and thinking and talking and fighting in that same shared space, you learned how to make together. That’s not everything you might wish for, after many costly and laborious years, I know. But neither is it nothing.
I’d love to hear what others think about having these kinds of conversations with students.