opportunity cost implies opportunity

I don’t want to belabor this any more than I already have, especially because as I said then, I counsel people against going to graduate school constantly. But Megan McArdle responded, and I just want to make a simple point. Megan argues that the problem with going to graduate school, rather than with trying to be a journalist or an artist or a musician, is that the opportunity costs are higher. Now I’d say that Megan seems to underestimate just how tenaciously many people hold onto such dreams long after they have become deeply personally injurious, but I’ll concede that going to graduate school has more in obvious, direct costs than trying to be a journalist in New York  City does.  But I refuse to use the term opportunity costs for a simple reason: it implies that people have opportunity.

I’ll again use myself as a representative example: I searched for a job for years, in two different states. I sent out hundreds and hundreds of resumes. I applied in all manner of fields, at all level of jobs. I applied for many jobs that paid barely better or the same as what I’m making on my stipend now. I was willing to move and applied to many jobs far away. I was willing to start at the bottom. I was willing to do work I found personally unsatisfying. I was willing to struggle. And I found nothing. I can tell you from conversations with dozens of grad students in person and hundreds online: this is a perfectly typical experience. Why, exactly, would I have stayed unemployed with nothing to do and nowhere to go, rather than to come here and teach and study? The only thing I cost myself was long-term unemployment. Period.

Now I have said again and again that grad school is a mistake for most people who consider it. I have said several times that it’s necessary to be ruthless about the refusal to take on student loans, and I also recognize that not everyone enjoys grad school as much as I do. (And I really, really do.) But at the end of the day, what Megan and others are telling grad students to do is to get a job. And there are no jobs. There is no opportunity for a vast number of people. This conversation is just one facet of the broad refusal of elite American media to recognize that telling people to get a job in present day America is like telling them it’s in their own best interest to grow wings.

In total, the people who deride graduate students for pursuing the academic lifestyle are saying this: you should get a job (which probably doesn’t exist), and if you actually find one and it ends up being an exercise in soul-destroying drudgery you should feel lucky, and you should abandon the life of intellectual stimulation, self-direction, and meaningful work that they themselves would not dream of abandoning. Who writes these essays? Tenured professors, journalists, professional writers, and others who themselves who get to work in such a way that their mental life is challenging and fulfilling. But they respond to the desire by others to live that way not only with denial but with mockery. And they do so in a way that constantly casts individual economic outcomes as the fault of specific people, rather than being the result of a system-wide failure of our economy to provide adequate work of any kind and of meaningful work specifically.

That is useful for economic conservatives who want to justify and perpetuate the current order. But it fails in even a cursory examination of our current economy, and it is not the work of allies. The best, most humane way forward is not to ask why individuals pursue secure and stable lives where their work has some degree of self-direction and intellectual reward, but to ask why our current order has become so immensely lacking in that kind of employment, and to contribute to the effort to spread those virtues more widely.


  1. Sincerely curious, was there a problem with your credentials or something? Did you not have much work experience? Unemployment among people with graduate degrees is something like 2% … I’m amazed that you couldn’t get hired after two years. Was this just out of undergrad?

    1. This was before I started my MA. I went straight from my MA to the PhD level. I took about five and a half years to finish my undergrad degree then kicked around Chicago for a couple years before coming home and being, eventually, a substitute teacher.

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