It took me five years of graduate school to realize that my study is a vocation. My thinking about this was prompted by finally reading A.G. Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life, which along with Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture and Elizabeth Corey’s “Learning in Love” make essential reading for anyone considering graduate work or a career in the intellectual world. Culling insights from those thinkers and from my own time in graduate school, I thought I would offer some thoughts for those beginning graduate school.
1. Study is your vocation. Take it seriously.
People inside and outside the academy tend to think of grad students as schleppy dreamers and eggheads who avoid real work, don’t make much, teach uninterested students, and meet the demands of uninterested professors. As Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy famously say on 30 Rock, “We might not be the best people, but we’re not worst. Graduate students are the worst.” I tend to think of graduate students as a class of humans who, according to a Peter Singer–style of argument, have less personhood than other fully capable adults (and possibly dolphins).
But joking aside, if study is our vocation, we need to take our study seriously. A vocation is, in its etymology, something to which we are called. It is of our own choosing, but in a deep sense it is not. In its deepest sense, a vocation is about love. A vocation to the intellectual and professorial life entails a love for the truth and a desire to share that with others whom you love, be they students or those who will read your writing. It means that something inside you yearns to know more about a particular subject, to motivate you to acquire that knowledge, and then to hand it on to those who could benefit from it. For those who believe in God, vocation is also about loving God, the One who is Truth itself. If you want to love God and others in this way, then do it well. If you do not, leave grad school.
2. Study will become the means of your sanctification.
Vocation is not only the way in which God calls us to serve him and others, but also the way by which God makes us holy. It is our means of sanctification. Going to graduate school is, in some ways, like heading off into the desert. As Sertillanges reminds us, “All great works were prepared in the desert, including the redemption of the world.” As a graduate student, you will spend much of your time alone and in thought. When the Desert Fathers left the splendor and noise of cities and went into the wilderness, they found not emptiness, but demons. In the silence of your study, you will find the same. They will not throw furniture at you (probably), but they will be there. You will frequently find yourself alone with your work, your anxieties, your insecurities, and your wounds. The only solution for these is to bring them before God, and to seek whatever priestly or professional help you need for their remedy. Study can—and should—be a form of ascesis, a means by which we are drained of our own pride and harmful desires. That is neither easy nor pleasant, but it is good.
You will also be reminded that study is actually hard work. The Dominicans are not joking when they talk about the wood of the desk as the cross we are called to bear. As it was for monks, acedia or sloth is a constant temptation. Remember that sloth is sadness because a good is hard to attain, and that the only way to attain the good is to do the hard work necessary. Likewise, advisers, colleagues, and students will provide occasions for humility and charity. The more humble you are, the easier those occasions will be.
3. You are an apprentice.
When we enter graduate school, many of us have the sense that we should be able to do everything we need to do right away. We forget that graduate school is a time of growth and maturation. We also forget that thinking, writing, and teaching are arts. Like all arts, they require apprenticeship. Graduate students enter into the instruction of men and women they admire to learn their craft. Good teachers and researchers do not spring like Athena full-clothed into the world; they are refined over time and constantly seek to improve.
4. Many other things are important outside your work.
Study may be your vocation, but it is not your Vocation. Your vocation is what you do; your Vocation is who you are. We hear that to the point of cliché, but it is important to remember. Your spouse, children, or religious brothers and sisters cannot be sacrificed for your work. If you find that you are becoming a bad mother or husband because of your studies, try to adjust your work or consider leaving grad school. Sertillanges reminds us not to forget our duties as men and women, which run deeper than the pursuit of knowledge. An intellectual who is not human is not a good intellectual.
It is also important to relax. There is much to be done, but you will work better if you are not working all the time. Going to the gym and watching movies with friends are as important as checking off items on bibliographies. The Sabbath was ordained for leisure and refreshment, and God knew what he was doing when he ordained it. Be attentive to what forms of media you take in. Sertillanges writes that you need “a zone of silence, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worth while.” Silence, physical and mental, is essential for your work. To put it another way, if all you do is read Twitter, you will learn to think in 140 characters or less. This will make it much more difficult to follow the writing of someone like Gregory of Nyssa, who thought in pages.
5. Cultivate gratitude.
Every profession has its attendant problems and difficulties, and graduate school is by no means excluded. We need to face these honestly, but facing them honestly does not require endless griping. If your work makes you miserable, find new work. No one is forcing you to remain a student and it is not worth five years of the prime of your life. But if you love it, then savor the moments when you sit in the sunshine on your porch with Plato or Augustine and think “I can’t believe that I get to live like this.” For, in the end, your study is your vocation, vocation is about love, and love leads to thanksgiving because it is good and is of God.
Nathaniel Peters is executive director of the Morningside Institute and a lecturer at Columbia University.