Andy Jones

The Willy Wonka model of grad school

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There are strong parallels between graduate school and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The five stages below track Charlie’s character development as if he were a graduate student working toward a PhD.

Stage 1: Excited anticipation

I congratulate you, little boy. Well done. You’ve found the fifth Golden Ticket.

When Charlie Bucket finds a golden ticket in a chocolate bar, he’s overjoyed. He can’t wait to see what’s inside Willy Wonka’s mystical chocolate factory.

Charlie is a prospective graduate student who’s just been accepted into his top-choice school.

Stage 2: Awe and disbelief

Willy Wonka: There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there, you’ll be free if you truly wish to be.

Charlie and Grandpa Joe are welcomed into the factory. They’re shown all the latest inventions, they meet Oompa Loompas, and they meet the charismatic Willy Wonka. The possibilities seem endless, and optimism is in the air.

Charlie is a first-year graduate student seeing academic research being performed and published for the first time.

Stage 3: Confusion

Mrs. Gloop: He can’t swim!

Willy Wonka: There’s no better time to learn.

While the factory at first seemed innovative and hopeful, the mood shifts toward confusion and a darker tone. Things don’t seem as perfect as they used to. Some kids disappear in odd ways, like turning into a blueberry or getting suctioned into the fudge room. Cracks start appearing in the walls, as Willy Wonka’s character is called into question.

Charlie is now a mid-stage graduate student experiencing the schlep of academic research. Some of his friends are dropping out, and he’s starting to question his own path.

Stage 4: Disillusion

Willy Wonka: Oh, yes. Well, I hope you enjoyed yourselves. Excuse me for not showing you out. Straight up the stairs. You’ll find the way. I’m terribly busy. Whole day wasted. Goodbye to you both. Goodbye.

Charlie wins! Or so he thinks. Willy Wonka has promised Charlie the factory, but Wonka takes it away at the last second. Charlie is disillusioned at this point, as his hero has let him down and it seems that this utopia was all a fraud.

Charlie is a senior graduate student. As a first-year graduate student, he had imagined himself feeling on top of the world at this stage. However, in reality he feels beat down and skeptical of the world.

Stage 5: Back to the “real world”

Willy Wonka: When they leave here, they’ll be completely restored to their normal, terrible old selves. But maybe they’ll be a little bit wiser for the wear. Anyway, don’t worry about them.

The factory tour is over, but now there is good news. Wonka has gone back on his decision and will now gift Charlie the factory. Charlie has won the game, but he realizes that the allure of factory is less significant than he once thought, and Wonka has a similar realization.

Charlie graduated. The lessons he learned from graduate school are not the ones he thought he would learn. They are important lessons nonetheless.