A Black Balloon Publication ©
By Mikael Awake

According to a highly dispiriting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "the percentage of graduate-degree holders who receive food stamps or some other aid more than doubled between 2007 and 2010."

But wait. At the same time that a greater percentage of people with graduate degrees are literally standing in the bread lines, we're also seeing increased numbers of applicants to those same graduate programs. Each year that I was in graduate school, 2008-2011, my department chalked up a new record in applications. By the time I graduated, the application rate had nearly doubled since the year I'd applied.

So if the post-graduation options for people with MFAs and PhDs are getting grimmer, how come so many people are still rushing to get them? And how come I rushed to get mine?

One answer, as framed by science writer and psychologist Maria Konnikova, is that, in times of uncertainty, people tend to make practical decisions. We get less creative about what to do with ourselves when we're scared. Konnikova writes that there exists an "implicit bias against [creativity] relative to practicality under conditions of uncertainty." Which is a clunky way of saying: when the going gets tough, we play it safe, go back to school, get an advanced degree, catch our breath, figure it out later.

The comments section of the Chronicle article, which was edging on a thousand at last count, seems to bear out Konnikova's psychological insight. Dozens of (admittedly trollish) posters chided the welfare-reliant adjuncts in the article for choosing to study unprofitable disciplines like literature and film instead of practical sciences like physics, engineering, etc. In these tough times, the commenters seemed to be suggesting, you should have made a more practical decision. And who knows: maybe they're right. Of my graduate school peers, many are now jobless, or had jobs briefly and then lost them. At least one is on welfare, while others dived headfirst under the protective awning of another graduate program in an adjacent discipline.

It's completely batshit to think of the decision to get a degree in creative writing as being a "practical" impulse, but that's how I remember my own headspace when I was applying. And statistics seem to suggest that I wasn't alone. Turns out my decision to study creative writing was anything but creative.