Monday, February 08, 1999

12. Adulthood waits.

The Lewis Hine photograph of a boy studying at the top of the page captures at least two aspects of the graduate school experience. First, there is the boy’s concerted solitary concentration on the book that he is carefully reading. He is following his finger from line to line, a measure seldom employed when reading for pleasure. He is reading because he has to. But the photograph also captures the subject’s youth. Children go to school. As college has been dragged out longer and longer, the socially acceptable period for study has lengthened, but it can still feel strange to explain to someone that you are a student—even a graduate student—well into your twenties or thirties. Notably, the young boy photographed in 1924, with his necktie carefully tucked into his buttoned-up shirt, is more formally dressed than virtually any college student—and the vast majority of graduate students—whom one would encounter today.

Another image, the May 2010 cover of the New Yorker magazine, also captures a pair of graduate school realities. The first is the terrible job market for new PhDs and the very real possibility that your childhood room awaits you after graduation (see Reason 8). The second is portrayed in the look on the graduate’s parents’ faces. They do not share his pride. To them, their adult son looks disconcertingly at home amid his boyhood surroundings. Graduate school, like modern-day college, can act as one more extension of “youth,” in part because it dramatically stunts your earnings in early adulthood, but also because it keeps you in close proximity to the juvenile trappings of the modern college experience. Unfortunately, aging will not slow down to indulge you in your studies.

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