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I'm finally graduating! Was grad school worth it?


After nine years of grad school (two for the master's degree, seven for the PhD), I'm finally done! I am officially Dr. Cargile Williams, though there's not much reason for people to call me that beyond the initial congratulations.


Was it worth it? It's a bit too early to tell, but here's a short grad school wrapped:


Finances


I believe my first annual wage at UT Knoxville was around $15,500. It was unusual for me to get funding as a master's student, and that funding also covered health care and tuition costs. This was a tight but mostly doable income at a time when I could rent a room in a house for around $350-400. I could also regularly buy a carton of raspberries for $1.50 on sale. My parents consistently helped with larger expenses such as car repairs and paid for my phone bill and car insurance, but I managed well enough for two years.


When I started the PhD at IU Bloomington, I received $17,000 in fellowship money for the year. My parents bought a condo for me to live in, and I just paid the upkeep costs and taxes. At first, this was pretty cushy, but once I got a dog and decided to pay for some exercise classes and hobbies, I had to find a series of second jobs to supplement. Friends of mine who had higher housing costs found themselves without enough money for medical expenses, even with pretty good insurance.


After the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition organized and went on strike in 2022 (still not formally recognized as a union), my fellowship wages were raised to $25,000 for this past academic year. At the same time, the cheapest I've found raspberries in recent memory was about $2.50, and that was unusually low. Per the not-at-all-representative raspberry inflation index, that's at least a 1.67% inflation index. If my wages had kept up, I would have made at least $25,885 this year to match what I made when I started grad school.


Because of the significant financial support I have received from my parents (and primarily because of that) + the many fellowships and awards I received + the second jobs I took on, I have managed to walk away from grad school debt free. But I am also late to the game in terms of saving for retirement or other large-scale purchases.


Community


I've made some lifelong friends and work buddies in grad school, and I quite enjoyed my early years in both programs. I did my share of community building as a social chair and regular host of several holiday-themed parties, and I found solidarity with other students when trying to improve department climate.


At the same time, my list of graduate school horror stories is much longer than I anticipated. Most happened to my friends, and several were quite egregious. Some are still in the process of being resolved years later. Other longstanding feuds remain, alternating between cold wars and open spats.


I feel quite a lot of gratitude towards my advisor who has supported me in the good times and the rough times and who has also worked to resolve several of those ongoing issues.


The Work Itself


Once I decided to stop pursuing academic employment for assorted reasons, I had to decide if it was worth finishing the PhD. While I did waver in my commitment at several points, I did sincerely want to finish a project of the size and scope of the dissertation and practice undergoing intensive revisions. I'd like to write a novel and continue doing my public philosophy work, and it was good for me to prove to myself that I could take on even the most challenging writing tasks.


I also really needed to think through my own ideas about moral responsibility in order to stop blaming myself for every single possible minor infraction. My thinking on moral responsibility has come quite a long way since the start of the dissertation, and I'm very satisfied with the personal growth that this project allowed me to accomplish.


Mental Health


It's perhaps no surprise that graduate school is stressful and that there is a longstanding genre of articles discussing poor mental health in grad school. But the bulk of the stress I experienced was from primarily financial sources and individual actors who made the grad experience much worse than it otherwise would have been. The academic pressure was intense, but that would have been much easier to handle without the other sources of stress.


I know now that I can make it through just about anything and come out on the other side of it, but I have to say that I'm ready to find projects with a more restricted scope for the time being and to seek out situations that promote better mental and physical health.


Job Prospects


My first emotion after successfully defending the dissertation was relief. The second emotion was grief at some of the ongoing issues from my time as a grad student that have yet to be fully resolved and that could have easily been avoided in the first place. And now I'm back to the grind of the job market and to the pressure of finding a part-time job to support me while I continue searching for a job in a very difficult market.


I hope the PhD will help me achieve financial stability, but I also hope to find ways to keep philosophy in my life, whether through writing and doing public-facing work as a hobby or perhaps through a job at a public-facing philosophy or ethics institute. The PhD is an important key for being able to keep doing that kind of work.



I'll still be working through my feelings about grad school for quite some time, but I am celebrating my completion by walking the stage at graduation today. And, for what it's worth, I did write a pretty excellent dissertation. Time to savor my accomplishments for at least a moment and mark this transition to a new stage of life beyond grad school.



Photo Credit: This one really goes out to my Christmas cactus that has thrived and grown out of control after I unintentionally killed its predecessor. It bloomed not once but twice this year!

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