How Graduate School Changes the Way You Explore Ideas

Grad School

Postgraduate education offers its own set of benefits and opportunities. In an Ideas in Progress episode, host Dr. Anthony Comegna and Reason magazine’s editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie discuss graduate school and the academy.

Dr. Gillespie’s journey in journalism began after completing a Bachelor of Arts in English and psychology at Rutgers University. After a few years working as a journalist in New York and New Jersey, he accepted a place at Temple University to pursue a Master of Arts in English with a concentration in creative writing. 

It was the most exhilarating intellectual experience of my life up to that point and since that point, if I’m being fully honest.

–Dr. Nick Gillespie
Nick Gillespie

He took his interest in English further and attended the State University of New York at Buffalo under the tutelage of revered scholars of American literature. However, the atmosphere of the academy during this time in the late 1980s changed. When George H. W. Bush was elected in 1988, Dr. Gillespie felt there was a message being given from the academy that students needed to be more serious about being left-wing and progressive.

“I realized I probably was not cut out for academia given my ideological leanings . . . which were very libertarian, very anti-conservative as well as anti-left-wing,” Dr. Gillespie said.

A piece of advice that stuck with him from his professors when applying for programs was to choose a graduate school that will pay you.

“They said, ‘it doesn’t reflect whether you’re a good person or even if you’re very smart, but it does reflect the willingness of that institution to make a bet on you’,” Dr. Gillespie said.

After he completed his PhD, he accepted a role as assistant editor at Reason magazine and moved to Los Angeles. He had long been a subscriber of the magazine, from late high school up to the present day. The magazine’s commitment to analytical thinking, a respect for learning, and an interest in iconoclasm drew him to this position.

“In high school I started considering myself libertarian with a small ‘L’,” Dr. Gillespie said. “I did that throughout my college years and when I was working in New York as a journalist. And then when I got to graduate school . . . I started realizing that I was libertarian, that it was a rich and diverse alternative intellectual history, and I started to get serious about being a libertarian thinker.”

Dr. Comegna and Gillespie examined the belief that can often be perpetuated in the academy that if an individual completes a PhD and doesn’t teach at a university then they have failed. This belief is untrue, they said, and displays the rigidity of the system.

There are a couple of distinct elements of attending graduate school that make it particularly unique, Dr. Gillepsie argued. You enter into a discourse community, in which you engage in a community of ideas that have grown over generations of thinkers. It also teaches various kinds of methodologies and approaches to learning that can be useful in a range of professional settings.

However, if the academy is the path a student wishes to pursue, it’s important to not be too disheartened by the scarcity in jobs.

There is always a sense that academia is in decline or is about to crumble . . . and that’s always true. But it’s also true that if you’re good at what you do, there are lots of opportunities. If you’re a grad student and you write and publish a lot and go to conferences and are into your work, you will do very well in academia. There will always be a place for people who are productive and insightful.

–Dr. Nick Gillespie

For the full episode (Episode 32: Academic Non-Academia), visit SoundCloudiTunes, or Stitcher. Each Wednesday, we release new episodes from our Ideas in Progress podcast on divisive topics with contemporary thinkers.

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