Hyperrhiz 21

Grad School Lit Review

Liz Owens Boltz
Michigan State University

Diana Brandon
Michigan State University

Citation: Boltz, Liz Owens and Diana Brandon. “Grad School Lit Review.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 21, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/021.let05

Abstract: graduate school is an experience that is difficult to explain to those outside of academia, both in terms of the experience itself and in terms of students’ rationale for pursuing (and continuing) advanced graduate study. The prolific, expressive, and creative work of graduate students appears not only in publications, conference presentations, and posters, but also in the humorous but accurate memes they construct across global platforms crossing cultural and departmental barriers. These creations provide a particularly authentic depiction of life in graduate school in that they come directly from graduate students themselves. In this artifact, we present a meme-based lit review that weaves conventional scholarly verbiage with internet memes to illustrate the experience of graduate school, addressing current debates about the cost of education and the value of a graduate degree. The review explores issues commonly faced by graduate students, including time management, alcohol use, mental health concerns, financial struggles, sleep deprivation, stress, and working with advisors. We use a traditional (albeit abridged) format of a literature review to structure the document, exploring each aspect of graduate school with written text supported with references to scholarly and popular literature. We also enhance each topic visually with a relevant internet meme. In conclusion, we incorporate a “What people think I do” meme, constructed by the authors using a bricolage of existing meme references, to illustrate gaps between common perceptions of graduate school and the actual experience, and to call attention to stereotypes perpetuated by popular media.

Keywords: graduate education, memes, social media, literature review.

Graduate School: A Review of the “Literature”


Grad school is a complex and multidimensional construct that educators and researchers alike have struggled to fully define. In addition to formal publications and conference presentations, a good deal of  the prolific, expressive, and creative work of graduate students manifests in the less formal sphere of internet memes that span global platforms and cross cultural and departmental barriers. The lived experience of a graduate student is multifaceted and tied to physical, mental, and emotional needs. This listicle explores four such topics: Finances, Time Management, Mental Health, and Physical Health.

On Finances

Graduate tuition rates are at an all-time high (US DOE, NCES, 2016), and students experiencing financial struggles are two to three times more likely to exhibit anxiety or depression (Schmidt, 2016). Although some studies suggest that a graduate degree increases earning potential, this increase varies widely by discipline and certainly does not guarantee job placement (Burnsed, 2011; Otani, Akane, 2015). Many graduates end up teaching as part-time instructors -- and some adjuncts are paid less than campus support staff without college degrees (Patton, 2012). Combined with the increasing elusiveness of the coveted tenure-track position and the additional expenses of graduate school not typically covered by stipends (e.g., conference funding and travel), these factors leave many graduate students poor, disillusioned, and regretting their life choices (Schuman, 2013).  

(Reddit.com, 2015)
(itsthelitchick, 2016)

On Time Management

Effective time management is difficult when deadlines are ubiquitous and the nature of work changes from semester to semester -- with many grad students being switched from one teaching assistantship to another, or from a teaching assistantship to research assistantship. What some academics call procrastination, others call “actively engaging in the disruption of traditional academic narratives via social media” (Shit Academics Say, 2015).

(Shit Academics Say, 2015)
(mansplained marxist, 2013)
(karen1771016, 2012)

Mental Health

Graduate students experience chronic sleep deprivation, anxiety, relationship troubles, and increased rates of depression and burnout exacerbated by living in near-poverty. Recent studies suggest that nearly a third of graduate students experience serious depression at some point in their studies (Schmidt, 2016) and that academics tend to face a higher risk for mental health concerns compared to other professions (Else, 2017). It is important to note, however, that grad school is all about “the journey” -- even though that journey can be an exhausting one. With 70% of graduate students reporting that they would not feel comfortable speaking with their advisor about mental health concerns (Schmidt, 2016), grad school may often feel like “simply walking into Mordor” with Gollum as one’s tricksy advisor.

(Meme Maker, 2015)
(Ashton1248413, 2012)
(@crayonelyse, 2016)

Physical Health

Although many scholars have (anecdotally) noted a correlation between grad school and increased alcohol consumption, empirical evidence supporting a causal link is still preliminary. The few studies that have investigated alcohol use in graduate school indicate that the majority of graduate students drink, and that many do so several times a week (Waring, Petraglia, Cohen, Busby, 1984) -- a finding that is not surprising, given the demonstrated link between stress and increased alcohol use (ScienceDaily, 2011).

(Gabe87, 2012)
(PhDComics, 2011)
(mannyz29, 2012)
(ShitAcademicsSay, 2018)

Conclusion & Limitations

The ubiquity and variety of of resources dedicated to illustrating the grad school experience in meme form help to articulate the realities of the graduate student experience in ways not captured by formal articles and publications. Still, these resources would be complemented by empirical research addressing the physical, mental, and emotional health of graduate students today. Additional methodologies--beyond this exploration into meta-meme-analysis--could be used to explore these issues with greater rigor and depth.

(@crayonelyse 2017)


Grad School is hard.


Burnsed, Brian (27 June, 2011). Understand the Value of a Graduate Degree. US News & World Report. Retrieved from usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/2011/06/27/understand-the-value-of-a-graduate-degree

Cendrowski, M. (Director). (2007). Big Bang Theory [Television Series]. United States: Warner Brothers Television.

Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery (2006). The Most Interesting Man in the World [Television Commercial]. United States: Euro RSCG.

Else, H. (2017). Academics 'face higher mental health risk' than other professions. Times Higher Education, (2320), 9.

Herek, S. (Director). (1989). Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure [Motion Picture]. United States: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Otani, Akane (20 February, 2015). When a Graduate Degree Just Isn't Worth it. Bloomberg. Retrieved from bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-20/when-a-graduate-degree-just-isn-t-worth-it

Patton, Stacey (6 May, 2012). The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/

Schmidt, Peter (12 November, 2016). New Insights on What Psychologically Rattles Graduate Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from chronicle.com/article/New-Insights-on-What/238399

Schuman, Rebecca (5 April, 2013). Thesis Hatement. Slate. Retrieved from slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2013/04/there_are_no_academic_jobs_and_getting_a_ph_d_will_make_you_into_a_horrible.html

ScienceDaily (19 July, 2011). Stress and alcohol 'feed' each other. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110715163216.htm

Sheerin, K. (Producer). (2009). Ancient Aliens [Television Series]. United States: Prometheus Entertainment.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2014 (NCES 2016-006), Chapter 3.

Wedemeyer-Strombel, Kathryn R. (17 October, 2018). Why Does Graduate School Kill So Many Marriages? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from chronicle.com/article/Why-Does-Graduate-School-Kill/244796/