The perils of graduate education

It's expensive. It often leaves you, on net, worse off financially than you would have been without the degree. And it makes you stupid.

The stupidity, thankfully, is only temporary. But while it lasts, it sure is painful to watch.

This post grows out of a conversation I had recently with someone who deals regularly with graduate students. I was relating an exchange I'd had with an interviewer, a PhD economist, who'd asked me about my MBA. "Well, while I was getting it, I thought I knew everything," I told him. "Sadly, that turned out not to be the case."

The interviewer laughed. "Everyone thinks they know everything when they're in graduate school." He paused. "You're lucky you got over it. A lot of people never do."

To judge from the number of people who think that their PhD makes them an expert in, well, everything, he's absolutely right.

Anyway, this led my friend, also a PhD, to diagram the predictible course of a graduate student in a social science program. The first few years are a heady experience, particularly in a PhD program--as a lowly MBA, I had sort of the cowpox version of the deadly disease.

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.

The new graduate student's lack of humility is a stunning thing, perfect, seamless, and unbreakable. They begin issuing their opinions to anyone who will hold still on the assumption that the benighted masses have just been waiting patiently for a clever graduate student to explain How Things Really Work. This is humiliating enough to watch when they are boring people who agree with them. But when they start getting into arguments, other people begin shuffling uncomfortably in empathetic shame--particularly those of us who have weathered this delayed adolescence ourselves.

The new graduate student, bolstered by the opinions of their professors, tends to become extraordinarily indignant at the notion that anyone would challenge them. Since no one without a graduate degree could possibly have mastered the requisite knowledge, disagreement becomes a sign of willful malice. They stride forth confidently into arguments with professionals armed with the three books they have read on the topic, the opinions of their professors, and enough arrogance to power a high speed monorail between Moscow and Vladivostok. That's when they get their asses handed to them. Even worse, they are often too dumb to recognize this has happened; at the nadir of the disease, they are simply constitutionally incapable of recognizing that a slot at a good school is not the same thing as omniscience.

The problem is that the professors whose ideas they are parroting, the authors of the books they have read, have honed their beliefs against the harsh grindstone of academic and political debate. Their professors thoroughly understand the canonical works of the other side, and can defend, at length, the subtle judgements that led them to reject their conclusions. The graduate student can usually only walk through one or two rounds of a lengthy rehash of these arguments before they are forced to fall back upon "My professor says that Mr. A is right and Mr. B is wrong."

Unfortunately, there are few topics of great interest in which all the authorities are on one side. In economics, the subject with which I'm most familiar, trade and asset price controls are among the very few topics of which this could actually be said. So even if Professor Z is extremely eminent and smart, the odds are very good that at least one Nobel laureate holds exactly the opposite view. If the graduate student is unfortunate to be talking to someone who has read the views of that Nobel Laureate, the precipice of humiliation yawns before them. Watching someone go through this, even if they agree with you--perhaps especially if they agree with you--is the emotional equivalent of fingernails on the world's largest chalkboard.

The question we debated is: is it worth talking to graduate students in this stage? Can one take the ones who share one's ideological convictions quietly aside and advise them to wait a few more years before unleashing their newfound brilliance upon a waiting word? Can one, through gentle and respectful argument, convince the less ideologically congenial ones to behave like adults? Can one save them from the usual course of disillusionment, which is repeated humiliation at the hands of people who are not quite as dumb as they had assumed?

We were unsure. So I am throwing the question to my readers, many of whom have either been graduate students, trained same, or worked with them in the immediate aftermath. Is there hope? Or must everyone suffer as I did when I discovered, with brutal shock, that there were still a surprising number of people in the world who knew more than I did?