Sad Grad Lit
And what it suggests about "success" in the academy
Want, a 2020 novel by Lynn Steger Strong, begins with the protagonist’s morning routine. Elizabeth is up at 4:30am to run, followed by a few hours catering to her husband and young children’s various whims, then an arduous commute to the first of two demoralizing jobs. All the while, she contemplates her impending bankruptcy filing. The mood is bleak:
I take two trains to get to work and neither of them runs well...I often get no seat and stand, trying not to grab hold of close-by arms or shoulders as the train turns hard, stops short. I try to read a book but fall asleep if I’m sitting and almost fall over if I stand.
I have no idea how Want ends, though, because my partner staged an intervention at approximately Chapter 3. Why on god’s green earth, he wanted to know—I’m paraphrasing a bit here—would you pick up a book about a recent PhD grad whose academic aspirations are being slowly dashed, day by miserable day?
This subject matter would, presumably, be depressing for any person at any time, but I was in a particularly vulnerable place. It was the August of my final year in a PhD program, and I was in the midst of preparing my academic job application materials. A small-to-medium part of me (depending on the day) was terrified of ending up in Elizabeth’s shoes.
Want is a classic example of the genre my friend Chloe brilliantly calls “Sad Grad Lit.” This is a more crowded category than one might expect. In recent years, The Life of the Mind introduced an “adjunct professor of English in New York City with little hope of finding a permanent position.” Chemistry documented a PhD student “wracked with ambivalence”; Disorientation told of a different PhD student whose “years of grueling research” left her with little to show but “junk food addiction and stomach pain.”
Several friends and I, each in various stages of PhD completion, browsed a bookstore together last month. As we wandered through the aisles pointing out titles to each other, it emerged that each of us had dabbled in Sad Grad Lit. Assuming we are not alone, what should we make of this apparently masochistic tendency?
Perhaps, on some unconscious level, we pick up Want (and others of its ilk) with the hope that it will inoculate us from future heartbreak. Normally, I spend a large chunk of my waking hours worrying about worst-case scenarios, in the misguided hope that the very act of worrying will prevent catastrophe – or at least make it hurt a little less when it comes, because I expected it. Following that logic, wouldn’t it be better to read about catastrophes that might never have occurred to me on my own, thus expanding my repertoire?
Maybe it’s a form of narcissism. We’re drawn to characters who remind us of ourselves, or the selves we most fear becoming. As depressing as their stories may be, we can relate to the Sad Grad protagonists, and there’s some comfort in recognition. It’s our lives, and our friends’ lives, but rendered artistically with humor and/or pathos.
Then again, maybe we read in search of clues: what did [protagonist] do to end up broke, unemployed, and/or adjuncting? If we know where they went wrong, surely we can skirt the trapdoors that line our own path. And we can reassure ourselves that we would not be so careless.
Now seems like the right time to mention that I graduated with my PhD last month. This milestone, as milestones are wont to do, put me in a reflective mood. In fact, my original plan for this post was to list the 5-ish things I wish I’d known at the start of grad school. That way, the next time an aspiring student asks me for advice, I could point them here and save myself 30 minutes on the phone.
Alas, the main takeaways I emerged with are decidedly un-actionable.
My real-life Sad Grad story ended happily enough: drinking champagne with my family, secure in the knowledge that I’m about to begin a dream job in my field. It could be tempting for me—and perhaps others observing from the outside—to attribute that happy ending to my work ethic, or intellect, or creativity.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an attempt at false modesty, where I aim to convince you I’m not all that smart, hard-working, or creative. The point is that those personal qualities are not what separates me from my Sad Grad doppelgangers. Intellect and drive are table-stakes in the PhD game.
Instead, what separates me is mostly luck, coupled with privilege. I was accepted to a department with generous funding, within the richest university in the country. I picked a research topic that connected me to unusually supportive mentors. The reviewers assigned to read my article were in a generous mood. The hiring committee was especially interested in finding a family scholar. Sociology departments haven’t faced the cuts many humanities departments have. And on and on.
The academic enterprise is no closer to a meritocracy than any other industry. There are gatekeepers whose tastes matter and change unpredictably over time. Vast resource inequalities partially dictate the number of hours one can spend on the activities (i.e., research) that matter most for future employment. The quality of one’s work is a necessary but insufficient condition for success.
Like I said, not exactly actionable, at least for the student who aims to avoid a Sad Grad story of her own. But for those of us who occupy—or will soon—less vulnerable positions, perhaps there are some learnable lessons.
Sadness is likely inseparable from grad life in its current state. A host of structural and cultural changes in higher ed and the economy writ large mean that academic job-seekers in many disciplines are searching for the proverbial needle amidst hay. The promise of an economically tenuous post-graduation future looms over the PhD years. Insufficient funding; neglectful, exploitative, and even abusive relationships with advisors; and—especially over the past two years—social isolation make matters even worse. The statistics on grad student mental health are, in a word, sobering. Sky-high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality characterize those working toward the PhD.
Clinging to the narrative that the fittest (aspiring) scholars will survive can only make grad school sadder. Instead, those of us with power should avoid perpetuating the myth that hard work and talent are all that’s required to reach one’s academic dreams. We should strive to be someone else’s luck: offer the supportive advising, distribute the exciting opportunities, put in the good words. And we should work toward a system in which individual privilege (based on race, class, gender, and other qualities) is not a prerequisite for success.
In the meantime, I suspect there will be no shortage of Sad Grad Lit coming off the presses. Precarity and tragedy make good stories, and misery loves even fictional company.
New resource: In totally unrelated news, the talented Stephanie Waldrop has just launched a very cool website on cognitive labor (which I had the pleasure of being interviewed for!). It features interactive exercises like the “plan a party” feature and is especially worth sharing with the people in your life who (ahem) never read the text-heavy articles you send them.
 In a slight variation on the theme, there’s also Sad Grad (Advice) Lit. Sample titles: Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to go to Grad School; So What are You Going to Do with That?; and Dissertation Without Tears.
 Though I contemplated renaming this newsletter The Dr. Daminger Dispatch, I’ve restrained myself. For now.