Class / Power / Status

Letter to a Post-Graduate Student


A few weeks ago a post-graduate student approached me wanting to discuss her project. It happens to be on African masculinity and work. It’s a subject of interest to me. Our discussion was interesting too.

It was something else she broached, though, an apparently non-project related issue, that turned to be more troubling and exciting to my mind. It left me more unsettled since our talk, and deserving of further thought.

I was sent in search for answers in unusual books like ‘The Start-Up of You’ and ‘Lean In’ for a crisp and elegant to the unasked question of the post-graduate student. Unusual to someone who prefers Noam Chomsky, Tony Morrison, Amilcar Cabral, bell hooks, Steve Biko, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Frantz Fanon, and others in that drift. Self-help, or more precisely motivational ‘self-marketing’, books are ultimately unhelpful, even dangerous, for anti –capitalist, -racist, -patriarchal struggles because they turn social problems into problems of individuals. You fail because you are dumb, not because society is organised to reproduce the status quo. You can’t afford a decent life because you are not working hard enough, even though you spent your days digging trenches in the sun. You don’t have a university degree, not because university are part of a system which maintains the domination of the few over the many, and not because the education system is rigged against the poor, but because you are not motivated or talented enough. These are the books I went to for answers to the postgraduate students’ questions.

In my defence what she raised wasn’t part of the agenda, I’ve said to myself. I wasn’t prepared. It’s not my area of expertise. I’m not a career counsellor. She needs to do the work herself, find her own answer. How will she learn if she doesn’t make her own mistakes.

All of it is true. But it still left me unsatisfied. I needed – no, I need a short good answer.

The non-project issue she brought up was encapsulated in an example about an acquaintance of hers. ‘She has been working for less than 5 minutes. Suddenly she has got herself this nice car, and lives in this posh flat’, is how she put it. ‘She has only a bachelor’s degree’.

The question I knew she wasn’t asking was: ‘Why am I doing all this studying when could be earning money, getting myself a nice little car and living in a nice apartment? Why am I putting myself through all this pain?’

This was then about how one can know she is choosing well when faced with having to decide between money and further studies.

There may be many professors trained to answer these sorts of questions. I haven’t met any of them.

So I tried as best I could to respond to her. I told her about thinking hard as to whether she really wanted to post-graduate studies.

I told a story told talented people I know who had decided to forgo further studies and instead go into the corporate world in order to indicate that choosing the latter isn’t necessarily the better option.

I told her that lunging at the first offer of a high-paying job might appear great to a young person fresh out of university; but I asked her to consider whether it will still be so 20 years later when one looks back at what she has achieved and lost. Growing up means one loses some things along the way, certainly illusions about the world and one’s possibilities.

Several times I repeated how unavoidably definitive money is to capitalism. Regardless what radical intellectuals claim, in a world which we live, you are often judged on the basis of how much of it you have. Often you are even required to build your parents a house, support aunts and uncles, pay the school fees for nephews, nieces, and a few young cousins, and if you are fortunate, assist grandparents too.

In the end, I don’t think I was of help, really. She was probably more confused, and maybe more disheartened, after our talk than when we started.

Here, then, is what I think I should have said to the post-graduate student.

When you start out in your work life or about to embark on further studies, remember there are at least four possible paths.

(i) Money is definitely important of a good life. Like some very rich people you can decide to make it the central point of your life. No shame in being filthy rich. This is the goal life for many an individual around the world. Our society encourages this goal for riches. Indeed the world is arranged so that folk with money have the better things in life.

(ii) According to some, a good life essentially emerges out of meaningful career. Life purpose is central to employment in the minds of these people. There are even individuals like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Junior, Oliver Reginald Tambo, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Malala Yousazfai and others who will give up nearly everything, get gaoled, and rather be killed because of their causes. Although most of us think it’s noble, we don’t think it is for us.

(iii) Then there are those who find meaning while we are trying to get to the top of the job ladder we find ourselves on. Meaning follows money, we believe. We find purpose in getting the job done, finishing the project, or closing the deal; getting the position, establishing the business, running the show, or being number one. Purpose derives from getting work done and enjoying the fruit of our labour.

(iv) The last group of people are those who are fortunate never to go to work, as the saying goes, while earning an economically rewarding life. Their work is their hobby. They get paid or profit from pursuing their purpose. Highly paid sports stars like Michael Jordan, actors and directors like Charlize Theron and Steven Spielberg, talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, and others of such ilk tend to be common in this category. But there are also computer programmer and game inventors and such others who live in pyjamas until they start living in silk gown, sort of like in movies.

Remember these are some of the choices before you. How you decide is all up to you. Choose wisely.

2 thoughts on “Letter to a Post-Graduate Student

  1. I think this is a great answer. I am going to “borrow” it for the next conflicted graduate student who comes to me with the same anxiety. My responses are usually a lot messier – which may be useful for me, but I doubt that it helps my students live better with the sneaking suspicion that choosing a life of the mind is worthy pursuit.

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