Separate But Equal: What I Wished I’d Known About Academia Before I Went to College

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

—United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

I’m David. I was the smart kid in high school who got abysmal grades because I thought high school was stupid. I went to college and graduated with even worse grades because I thought college was stupid. I was right. I was also very wrong. This is my story.

To give you a bit of context I should tell you that I’m in my mid-thirties. I, like every other middle-class kid of my generation, was told over and over again if I didn’t go to college I would be flipping burgers and my life would shit. If I did go to college, I could get a job and get a house and get a wife and get a dog and get some kids, and get, and get and get, etc. While on the surface this makes sense, it’s a gross over-simplification of a far more complex problem space such that it might as well be a lie.

Simply having a college degree isn’t enough to get you a job. Moreover, if you’re able to land a job, it’s entirely possible it’s going to suck. You’re going to be doing something you don’t really want to be doing, day in and day out, for a paycheck that probably won’t feel like enough. Yes it’s true that on average people with higher education earn more than people who don’t. It’s also true that earning enough money to not live paycheck to paycheck has a positive impact on a person’s quality of life. The thing is, though, simply having a bachelors degree is not a significant market differentiator. There are bazillions of other people with degrees from SUNY whocares or CalState noname. As such, spending tens of thousands of dollars for the sole purpose of getting a slip of paper because you think it will somehow act as a passport to capitalist nirvana is makes no sense.

Understand, I’m all for education. In fact, I recently earned my MA in Philosophy, and am working towards an MS in Computer Science. If you take away anything from this article it shouldn’t be that I’m anti-college or anti-education. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that going to any institution of learning for the sole purpose of getting a degree is dumb if that degree won’t provide you with a significant advantage in the job market. Yet this is exactly what I did, and in the dumbest way possible. Feeling that it was a bit of a scam, my younger self elected to do the absolute minimum to earn that slip of paper. I didn’t see what difference it made getting my degree from Stanford or University of Phoenix, and I definitely didn’t see the necessity in getting good grades when the diploma would be the same regardless of my GPA (to be clear, this is the part where I was wrong).

Later in life, I decided to go back to school because there’s something I want to do and I needed to significantly enhance my realm of knowledge in order to do it. Unlike before where I was attending college because I wanted to get a diploma, I’m here now because I’m endeavoring to learn. The road has been a long and arduous one, due in no small part to the decisions I made as a teenager not to apply myself in school. Let me be clear, choices I made when I was fifteen years old has directly and negatively impacted my present academic career. It turns out it does matter where that slip of paper comes from, and unless you get into one of the right places from the start, you’re going to have a hell of a time getting into one later.

Because my academic performance was so abysmal at my undergraduate institution, I knew it would be next to impossible to get into a reputable PhD program. In fact, I was damn lucky to get into the terminal Masters program I got into, which was a large public university known more for being among Playboy’s top party schools than for academics. The goal was to perform well there and move up to a PhD program. My GPA was perfect, my GRE scores were acceptable, my LoRs were (as far as I know) glowing in description of me, and my writing sample superb. The only acceptance I got was into a MS program at the same school. Ego bruised, I vacillated between telling myself I sucked and blaming ‘institutional bias’ for my lack of acceptances. Despite objectively knowing how hard it is to get into graduate school, it still stung – particularly because applying to PhD programs is such a costly endeavor.

A few months later I attended a well-regarded academic conference on the nature of consciousness. It was exceedingly expensive but well worth it because I learned one particularly valuable lesson: the reason why it is so difficult for a student at a ho-hum department to move up into one that’s stellar is because the student at the ho-hum department has no way of knowing what she doesn’t know, and what she doesn’t know is evident in her work.

For example, she might not know the subtle differences between five different departments who all offer a PhD in X. I’m not just talking about different methodologies or schools of thought, I’m talking about personalities. Who are the people running these labs? The top tier of any academic discipline is a fairly small world in which there aren’t that many degrees of separation between any two persons. In applying to PhD programs, you are seeking entry into that small community and your success depends not only on your work, but on whether or not you can convince people to work with you. If you are at a department that is underfunded and/or considered to be Siberia by the movers and shakers of your discipline, you’re going to have a hell of a time professionally socializing with the very people you need to pick your application out of the pile of thousands and green-light it for admission. Imagine: Professor Plum at Dinglehut University feels strongly that the literature on ‘mirror neurons’ is a giant waste of time, which he mentioned offhandedly at an event at well-regarded Walnut-Log U. Knowing this, when it comes time to submit applications, the students at WLU are able to craft a writing sample specifically for Professor Plum in a way that a student at Ho-Hum State can’t. Moreover she doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know so she unwittingly spends time and money on an application package that has a diminished chance of success.

It’s also quite likely that, coming from a ho-hum department, she doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know about her field. Underfunded departments are ones in which there are often too few professors, and barely enough money to offer a minimum of classes each semester. This translates into a lack of diversity of knowledge in what the student is exposed to. While she will likely get all of the foundational knowledge, it’s unlikely she’ll even be made aware of bleeding-edge theories germane to her area of interest. Even if she somehow is made aware, she’s going to have to teach it to herself because she’s at a department that can’t afford to offer a class on the subject. When it comes time to apply to a PhD program, her application, juxtaposed against the applications of students who have been exposed to a wider range of knowledge, will likely be rejected. This despite the fact that she is bright and a good student. From the perspective of a PhD looking for someone to help her with her research, who do you think she would pick? The applicant that has demonstrated knowledge of the work being done in the lab at present, or the applicant who hasn’t?

In effect, what we have is a university system that is ‘separate but equal’. Separate in that departments that are well-funded and well-regarded are able to provide far more for their students than those that aren’t. Separate in that access to these departments, while somewhat merit based, is limited to those individuals who care enough about school when they are teenagers to be competitive (or to those who have very rich parents, see the Yale admissions scene for an example). This in turn makes them competitive for well-regarded graduate programs, and so on. Equal in that there is access to higher education to a large segment of the population regardless of income level or high-school performance. It’s a bit like comparing the days of two people who have to run a bunch of errands, one who has a car and one who has to take the bus everywhere. Both have the means of accomplishing their tasks, but the person with the car has a much easier time in doing it, and as such, has time and opportunity the person taking public transit doesn’t.

The point of all this isn’t for me to bitch about academia or lament my place in it. I’m damn lucky and I know it. Not many people get to pursue higher education full time at this stage in life, or get to perform interesting research with wonderful people. The point is that I learned something about how this world works and I wish I could go back in time and tell all this to my younger self so I could’ve saved myself the trouble of having to work extra hard to learn on my own all the things I don’t yet know I don’t know. I wish I knew then that it doesn’t just matter that you go to school and get a diploma. It matters that you are there for the right reasons, and what you do while you are there.

One comment

  1. Celia says:

    So true. Thanks for sharing this — I also missed out on what college could be until mostly *after* my first master’s degree!

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