Sunday, May 02, 2010

Like Sands Through The Hourglass, So Are The Days Of Our Lives: Having The Courage Not To Go To Graduate School

You would think that May would signal the winding down of things at Zenith. In fact, as we all know, the liberal arts college has a tendency to crank things up toward the end of the year. Didn't spend enough of your budget? There will be a memo asking for suggestions on how to do that. Last year, when I was chair and everyone was in ex post crash-o mentality, we saved a lot of time via a memo telling us that departments and programs were prohibited from spending down at the end of the year, although how they would be able to sift legitimate from illegitimate expenses was not clear. ("Six skateboards? Why did sociology purchase skateboards?") Prizes and various awards must be given, and we will be solicited for the names of ever-more students to receive them. Committees that have been ruminating on this or that will be rushing legislation to the floor of the last faculty meeting. These motions will be greeted with suspicion by a great many people who haven't bothered to attend a meeting all year, and who will table them: "We can't hurry an important decision like this!" they will snarl.

Subsequently, many of these ideas will die on the Island of Tabled Motions.

In the middle of all this chaos, there are the former students who write to ask for recommendations. They've been cooling their heels in Teach for America and prison re-entry programs, toiling in obscurity as paralegals at Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and Doing Good Deeds in far-flung places. Spring has come and -- guess what? There's no summer vacation! You don't get to advance to the next level of work in the fall! Furthermore, since liberal arts colleges now specialize in ginning up nostalgia (and saving money, I presume) by holding alumni reunions and commencement on the same weekend in May, the recent B.A.'s thoughts turn lovingly to:

Graduate school. As Monty Python would say, "Run away! Run away!"

Frequent readers might recall that I was critiqued roundly in the comments section of this post for suggesting that people contemplating the PH.D. might want to evaluate their chances of getting an academic job more thoroughly prior to choosing a program that suits them only for being a college professor. "I'm gobsmacked that someone who calls herself radical could publish something so reactionary," wrote one of my kinder critics. My suggestion that any person contemplating the PH.D work for a minimum of three years post-B.A. to imagine the numerous other life choices available was also rejected by many. "Why would you hold back a talented person who knows exactly what s/he wants to do at the age of twenty or twenty-two?" is a collective version of what I was asked. "If I wait, I will be almost thirty when I get my degree! Too late to start a life!" others whimpered. The most heartfelt responses were some version of: "On what grounds can you -- and people like you -- deny me the opportunity to have something precious that you already have?"

I do not yet control the fate of the historical profession, much less the academy at large, and regulating the supply of jobs to meet the demand is the committee I keep requesting, but to no avail. Give me time, why don't you?

Seriously, let me say two things: I don't think there is anything particularly radical about encouraging people to get a PH.D. in say, history or English literature. It's not like you will be educated to join the IWW, after all (although if you go into sociology you might have a crack at it), or to redistribute wealth. In addition, as I will be 52 in a couple weeks, color me silly, but I don't think 30 is too late to change direction in life, voluntarily or involuntarily. One valued family member of mine is, in her thirties, embarking on her fourth career, and I would say that each one of them has made her a more interesting and productive person.

I also don't think any education, PH.D.'s in the Humanities included, is a waste, even if it doesn't lead you to the career you thought it would. Could be a waste of money, but not time.

However: the idea that life will pass you by if you actually take time to live it (as opposed to studying it, or acquire more education to enter life at a higher level than ordinary folk) is worrisome to some of us who watch talented people graduate from our universities only to return a year later to say that they want back in. I worry that it is a symptom of being part of a generation of over-scheduled overachievers raised to believe that the sands of time run quicker if you aren't writing a memoir about your alcoholic mother, starting your own film production company or scoring big time with your new band in those crucial twelve months after graduation. The concern seems to be that living life is an uncertain proposition at best, a huge waste of time at worst. Those of us who advise contemplation and acquiring experience outside the classroom are perceived by Generation Adderall as hopelessly out of touch.

Rather than seeing me and my colleagues as gatekeepers, however, I would like these hopeful young people to do the research themselves before embarking on this journey. In particular, in the comments section of my earlier post I was initially appalled, then angered, and then moved, by the numerous bitter remarks by commenters who claimed they had been lied to by their own college professors about their future prospects as scholars. Many claimed that they were told that they should go to graduate school, and that the cream always rises to the top in the job market. Such people said they were not told, prior to enrolling in the PH.D. program, that only 4 out of 10 of them would get a tenure track job, much less at a college or university similar to the one they had attended.

One can't help but believe -- even if you think, as I do, that you shouldn't take all your advice about going into the priesthood from a priest -- that there isn't some truth to the experiences they are reporting, so I did a little of my own research. And you know what? I think a lot of them were lied to, albeit by well-meaning people. I was further convinced of this by a conversation with a lovely young person who was given exactly the wrong advice by a university mentor: the best young intellects go straight from college to graduate school; prestigious schools in your field don't care about you taking time to think it over; there will be plenty of jobs in (x) field by the time you get out in seven years. Not one of these things is true, and (x) field is literally crammed with the un- and underemployed. Looking back at the records of the professional association in which (x) field is located, I count 16 jobs in that field advertised in the last 5 years, and 182 if you count the larger fields which might accept an application from someone trained in (x). There were, in the same period 537 PH.D.s produced in the larger fields for which a person trained in (x) might have applied. If you count the other people, in other fields, who might have enlarged the pool for the more general job descriptions, that is less than a 1 in 3 chance of obtaining a tenure-track job over 5 years on the market.

I am estimating, given the job market that existed prior to the crash, and given that state legislatures will continue to slash away at education budgets for several years to come (remember: the commercial real estate market is slumping like a warm ice cream cone as 5-year balloon mortgages start to come due) that out of the dozen or so students who have talked to me about the PH.D. this spring alone, there will be academic jobs for 4 or 5 at best.

Hence, paying some attention to those who claim they were lied to about their prospects, I have responded to this by advising talented undergraduates, right up front, not to go to graduate school. Not yet, at least. And when you are making this decision, take into account the following:

Regardless of whether you like this or not, or whether it seems fair, it is simply a fact that actual graduate school admissions committees at select schools will regard your application more favorably if you take a significant amount of time off. Two to five years, I would say. Want to do labor history? Be an organizer; spend one of those years as a day laborer or a factory worker. An anthropologist? Leave the country and learn a language. Learn two. Cultural studies? Try an advertising agency or tending bar on the Lower East Side of New York. Whatever you do, engage the world of paid labor head on, and try to marry your genuine interests with a determination to get out of your comfort zone. Use this time to read, far more deeply than you have had the opportunity to do as an undergraduate, to discover what field compels you in a deep enough way to make a profoundly scary, uncertain commitment to it.

Your choice to attend graduate school, and their choice to admit you, is not a mutual contract that is designed to benefit all parties equally. Too often young people who have succeeded in school believe that schools actually care about them. They don't. Then why do graduate schools pay people to attend? In part, because it is traditional to do so. But in the overwhelming number of cases graduate students constitute an indispensable pool of cheap labor. You earn your tuition and stipend by doing hours of work for what seems like a good sum of money at the age of 22; by the time you are 29, it doesn't look so good.

If your beloved undergraduate mentor is over age 65, you run the risk of getting really bad advice about graduate school. In fact, I would say that few of us over 35 are reliably in touch, with some exceptions. The first thing you should do is join the professional association in your field of choice. If your income is under 25K, it costs $45 to join the American Historical Association, $35 to join the MLA, $55 to join the American Studies Association. A one year digital subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education is $72.50, and Inside Higher Education is free! Hence, for under $125, a small investment compared to the loans you will be forced to take out in graduate school to eat and keep a roof over your head, you have within your grasp the best possible advice about the current state of the academic profession, the recent history of the job market, and the degree of risk you are running if you have your heart set on being an academic.

Read blogs: start with New Faculty Majority, the mother ship of up-to-date commentary about the high rate of underemployment among academics.

As for asking live people, your most important advice in this matter, particularly at a liberal arts college, is from the youngest members of the faculty, those who have been on the job market quite recently, and whose bright and capable friends are strategizing their lack of tenure-track employment. I pick out the SLAC as a particular font of poor advice in this matter, because it is here that the romance of teaching and scholarship tends to cloud the uglier realities of academic life, and it is here that there are no graduate students to set you straight as Professor Graybeard waxes eloquent about the beauties of a cultivated scholarly intellect. Your second most important advice is from all women, GLBT people and anyone in an interdisciplinary or ethnic studies field: there never has been a "good" market for us, and we tend not to think that our special experience of success characterizes the general condition.

And finally, when you are taking advice, do what sensible people do: consider the source. Check to see how many search committees Professor Graybeard has run, and whether s/he gives papers at professional meetings regularly. Does s/he contribute to the life of the profession by serving on committees of professional associations? Does s/he mentor graduate students of hir own, or sit on committees at nearby research universities? Is s/he on the editorial board of a journal? Does s/he publish? Thanks to Google, all of this information is available to you. If the answers to all, or most, of the above questions are "No" then this person may be well-intentioned, but is not a good source of advice.

Whatever you decide: take responsibility for your own decisions in this matter so that you don't waste a lot of emotional energy trying to figure out who to blame when the breaks, and the tenure-track searches, don't go your way. The damage done is not an education that isn't worth anything -- all education is worth something, particularly to creative and engaged people. It's the damage of low self-esteem and disillusion when you have drunk the academic Kool-Aid and -- through no fault of your own -- it doesn't work out.

Monday update: here's a post on the joint J.D./PH.D. from Karen Tani at Legal History Blog. While I wouldn't advise trying to jive the job market by simply attaining multiple degrees (and Tani notes that pursuing such a program is "not for the faint of heart") it is one direction for those of you with an incurable love for learning who are also sane enough to want flexible career options.


Luis said...

I guess I missed the other post in which you were bashed. I'll go back and read it later. For now, I'll just say you are absolutely right. I was originally a linguistics major, and I loved linguistics, but I didn't go to grad school in that discipline precisely because I learned what the job market was like at the time (and presumably still is).

Instead, I'm moving toward finishing up a Ph.D. in something else, with options that include not being a professor. Your advice to undergrads is spot-on. Keep on preachin' it, sister.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi TR --

Okay, while part of my brain processes possible connections between the IWW and a requisition for six skateboards, I'd like to contribute an additional point in favor of waiting a year, or two, or three (but probably not more) before grad school.

In my experience, the year off gave me time to realize that this was really what I wanted, or maybe even needed -- not the academic career, but grad school itself. I had unanswered questions. But more than that, I missed the intellectual interaction, being surrounded by other people who were interested in talking about ideas. I left my undergrad thinking I was done, but the year off had a wonderful clarifying effect.

On the other hand, waiting longer than two years (three, max) gives your profs a chance to forget who you are, so if you think you might be coming back around for a letter, dropping a line once or twice a year to say hi and let the profs know what you've been up to might not be a bad idea.

Susan said...

I think you're spot-on -- and thought you were spot-on the last time you wrote about this as well. I went to a well-known SLAC in your region of the world and waited 5 years before entering a PhD program.

I learned a lot in that time -- about how to work/deal with all sorts of people, about how I want to approach my field, about how I want to live my life. As I look around my program, the people who adjust the best are almost always people who took time off, who learned how to respond to a boss who didn't like their performance, who learned how to self-schedule and prioritize, and who figured out how to go after what they wanted (which assumes knowing what one wants).

I will be in my early 30s when I finish, and I'm ok with that. I want to be a scholar but I also know I have other skills and experiences that I could use to find a non-academic job if that is necessary.

The other, rarely mentioned benefit of taking time "off"? Getting to read whatever you want, whenever you want. I did a lot of reading, some it academic, some of it not, that has shaped how I think in fundamental ways. Had I gone directly from college to grad school, I wouldn't have had the time to do that, to refine my thinking outside of classrooms. Grad school can wait; it's not going anywhere. Best to develop oneself first.

Susan said...

p.s. I had no trouble getting letters of rec. I kept in touch with my profs -- an email here and there -- throughout my time working. They were great and, from what I hear, wrote wonderful letters.

Vellum said...

Good advice. I'm 27 and just starting my PhD this September, though I do already have an MA. I can't imagine not doing it, but only because I've done other things and know that this is what I want. When I was thinking about graduate studies at the end of my undergraduate years, it was suggested that I go take a master's. It may have been expensive (paid MA-only programs are really quite rare) but it not only reaffirmed my desire to do graduate-level research, it was also one of the best years of my life to date. I was told that, if you're going to do PhD studies, do it because you think you'll enjoy it. The job prospects may be slim (and there are things you can do to raise your chances of getting one when you get out, too) but if you're enjoying it then it can't be that bad a decision to go. Plus, given that I'll be well past 30 by the time I get my degree, I suppose I'd better believe that 30's not too late to start "living" ;)

Anonymous said...

I was one of your critics on the earlier post but I think a lot of these suggestions are right on, perhaps in part because you started with the admission that many of us graduate students are either getting incorrect or incomplete information about the realities of academic life.

On the point about waiting a few years, though, I still think there are some other factors to consider. I went to grad school straight from undergrad. There were some disadvantages to this, mainly in the fact that I was too young to recognize the signs that my experience in graduate school was going sour from the start. I knew graduate school wasn't undergrad in the sense that the process was about learning to do independent scholarship but I was still naive enough to think that somebody would step in if I was being failed by an advisor or by a program. Nobody stepped in so I figured it'd all be all right.

I also really could have done with a few years to do significant reading. I did not spend all of undergrad prepping to be a graduate student in the particular field I chose; I realized how behind I was once it was too late. It now turns out that some of the professors I'm working with have looked at those gaps and judged them to be a result of intellectual weakness and other moral crimes like laziness on my part rather than the product of switching fields late in undergrad and not having any relevant guidance early on in grad school.

Much of that might have been avoided had I waited.

But if I had waited I wouldn't have gone to graduate school. Not because I would have realized I didn't want to do this but because I did not grow up in an environment where living life for the sake of living it was a virtue. I don't think you're wrong on this point, Tenured Radical, and I recognize the value in what you say. But my experience (though I'm still young) is that this particular ethos only has purchase with a certain demographic. None of the grad students I know who are minorities or working-class knew they were going to grad school in college and then took several years off for kicks, even if that time off can be valuable. Such a move certainly would not have been tolerated by my father and family pressure to be seen as moving forward in life can be more of a determining factor than we'd like. (Here, I am not considering those who actively pursued another career and then changed careers. I'm talking specifically about taking a three-to-five year waiting period.) So my concern continues to be whether the suggestions you make in this regard would have the result of decreasing the already too small population of minority and working-class graduate students.

Anonymous said...

You know, I very much disagreed with the approach you took in the last post, and very much agree with this one.

They focus there was on things graduate programs could do to make themselves feel like they were being responsible, but they all seemed like bandaids for a festering wound, delivered with a combination of blame and patronization for those receiving the treatment.

Instead of extending time to degree by making students work in an academic bureaucracy doing work they may not have ever signed up to do, encourage them not to go. Instead of pretending that graduate programs can actually help these students, admitting that higher ed has a major problem that can't be solved without addressing larger structural issues is much more forthright.

These seem to me very different than the last post.

J.B. said...

Great advice. The same type of advice I give students when they ask.

Dr. Koshary said...

I believe I shall be saving this post for future reference, when prospective grad students seek out my advice. The original source will be cited respectfully!

Frogprincess has a worthwhile point also, about potential discouragement of minority and working-class students. However, I feel like they need to get the same warnings. They may need a longer session, in order to make clear that this is not a structural keep-your-place kind of emotional beatdown, but it would be crazy to keep them uninformed as to potential job prospects.

Kelly said...

Thank you for writing this. I'm a 5th year history PhD who took 3 years off before returning to graduate schools because I wanted to teach on the college level and the only way I was going to do that was by obtaining an advanced degree. Fortunately I also the research/writing conference end of things.

I want to add that in addition to the job challenge there is a substantial funding challenge, particularly for those of us who need to leave the USA to conduct research. Comments such as "just apply for funding" drift through the department halls and out of adviser's offices. What many older faculty fail to realize is that I am one of 300 applicants for between 5-15 fellowship awards. I can apply for funding until the cows come home but application doesn't guarantee award. In some ways the dried up fellowship market is a preview of what most of us will face on the job market - and it ain't pretty.

I'm scheduled to speak with undergrads at my university about "so you want to go to graduate school?" I intend to be honest and point to both of your posts and the recent articles in the Chronicle of Education regarding graduate school in history. I intend to be brutally honest about what programs are like, the challenge of funding, and the worse than dismal job prospects. If I alone dissuade someone from grad school they likely weren't ready to face the overwhelming challenges of a PhD program.

Unknown said...

Amen and amen. I waited five years for graduate school, largely because when I finished my undistinguished BA at a high-prestige SLAC I had no idea that I would want to go on. My undergrad major was in a very different discipline, one I enjoyed very much without having any aptitude for; I had barely taken any history classes and none of them really inspired me. Five years of working in the non-profit sector, left-wing politics and (mainly) restaurant work taught me where I needed to go. And all that real-life experience has been so very important to my scholarly work.

Potential grad students should know this: As I read application files for the grad program in which I now teach, all this is very much on my mind. I look for applicants with some background in something - anything! - other than being in school. And my experience so far is that the younger the grad student is, the less likely s/he is to finish the program in a timely way. So I don't know if not going to grad school right away requires courage so much as it requires common sense and a little research.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Koshary, I hope I didn't give the impression that these same warnings shouldn't be given to minority and working class students. They absolutely must be, especially since the further away one is from academia (i.e. no family members or close friends in academia), the less likely one is to know how little one may be paid as a professor, how long graduate school is really going to take despite what departmental guidelines may say, and the realities of the job market. I was referring specifically to the point about waiting a few years, which I worry might turn away people, who, for whatever reason, cannot conceive of taking time off when they have a clear end goal.

GayProf said...

It all sounds sensible to me, though I share frogprincess's concern about minority and working-class students' ability to wait a few years.

Now, where did I put that IWW application?

Anonymous said...

I would also like to add that not going to grad school doesn't change the enormous debt load of students leaving their undergraduate college. It doesn't change the fact that this is probably the worst economy in decades for inexperienced workers.

We've received bad advice from tenured academics, but also employers and parents who entered the job market during the 1960s and 1970s.

Many of the "best minds" of my generation went to Wall Street (ha), spent years in temp hell, or languished in grad school and adjunct work. It's been a frustration and a waste, and we still haven't seen the end of this or its effects.

I've known people with masters degrees working overnight at Target. I do not think regarding this as troubling is entitlement. It takes me more than two hands to count the number of friends who have depended on working as therapeutic staff support in elementary schools at some time or another, which is part time hours spread over full time commitments managing behavioral problems. These are hard-working, idealistic, caring people who burn out fast.

It's hard, hard, hard to make it on an hourly wage. We pursue advanced degrees because we know we can do better and more rewarding work than fit into a corporate flow chart at $11 an hour. We understand the value of education and training.

The reality is that the competition for a middle class wage is extremely intense at the same time those jobs are being cut.

This is the effect of our national economic and labor policies.

Which is not to say opportunities aren't out there. They are. But good advice is tough to come by and the odds are long. This is something that another degree will not fix. It merely prolongs the problem.

Dechant said...

For what it's worth, we're both working-class and an academic family, so I guess I've had the talk in increments over the years from my dad... and my friends... and if my mentor would get his head out of baseball for a second, I'd have it from him too.

But I still want this more than I want any other career, and to hell with the hardships. So I'll never have a fancy house. I won't miss what I don't know. So I'll get stuck teaching composition. Someone's got to do it, since our high school English teachers have given up completely. (This was true in '04, anyway.) So I'll -- gasp! -- have to teach at a community college. Given how some four-year and graduate-capable institutions treat their students, I'd rather work in an environment where my students are encouraged to come to me with questions. Bring on the deluge.

If there are absolutely no jobs, that's what civil service exams are for. That's why I get to hone my editing skills and maintain my relationships with people on the publishing end of things (mostly writers at this point). That's why I don't put my head up my rear when I get back to my B.A. (interrupted by disability).

We're not all stupid! I promise! Especially those of us who really haven't got the luxury of extensive time off. (We know time is money, you see.) We are, however, the ones who won't have trips to Tuscany or internships under our belts so much as call center jobs and food service. Please keep that reality in mind.

Sign me
Writing Between Dials
(and Doing a Damn Good Job)

Anonymous said...

I often disagree with you, TR, but boy do I agree with this post. I hope many Zenith undergrads are reading it. I think it's my duty as a tenure-track faculty member to try to talk students out of graduate school as a first step. I always feel as though they don't quite believe me, though. As though they think I'm delivering some kind of gatekeeping speech designed to inspire them. Maybe I'm doing it wrong.

My worry is always that when I talk about the financial reality of graduate school, I will disproportionately dissuade students from lower SES backgrounds. Perhaps those students SHOULD be disproportionately dissuaded (for their own sakes, and for their families'), but there are obvious discomforts surrounding that idea.

-Anonymous from Zenith

squadratomagico said...

Just adding another voice of support to frogprincess' very important addendum to this wonderful post. I think encouraging minority, working-class, and first-generation students to take time to work, travel, etc., would be helpful, but always with the recognition that not every individual has the resources (financial and social) to follow such advice. I'm a working class first-gen.-college Zenith graduate who did travel widely and experiment for 2 years before beginning grad. school. But I did so through support from my social group and my own wage-earning, not with much help from my family. In their case, it wasn't so much that they wanted career momentum (since they really assumed this was an MRS degree), but that they are people who believe firmly that they should not take up too much space in the world. Traveling for a year involved a certain kind of daring, of taking something from life, that they would never have conceived as a plan. I'm not explaining this very well, but it has something to do with the sense of ease and of rights that is lacking in a certain kind of working class family like mine. They always felt un-entitled, even to things that didn't actually demand entitlement.

Doctor Cleveland said...

This is an excellent post, TR, and excellent advice.

I don't tell students not to go to graduate school, but allowing students to make up their own minds means giving them enough information to make up their minds.

I also find that advising students about graduate school works better the more questions I ask them. Asking them why they want to get the degree, and why they want to be a professor, and what attracts them about teaching, really helps me give more effective advice. (I've known undergrads who don't understand research as part of the job, for example, and aren't interested in it. They need to understand what options a non-publishing PhD has.)

gwoertendyke said...

Good work, as usual, TR. I'm a particular fan of this:

The concern seems to be that living life is an uncertain proposition at best, a huge waste of time at worst.

And Professor Graybeard and his/her romance (tho I confess to seeing a "he" here) is a tricky thing, the stuff of desire and myth and hope.

The responses are fascinating too given that the market has seen a 50% drop in the last two years, right?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add to comments on class and minorities.

I generally agree with these kinds of grad school warnings - but I have some concern about what it will do - demographically - to the next cohort of grad students, and TT-seeking jobhunters.

The bad market speaks differently to different people. I am a 1st-gen high school graduate and a PhD scholarship provides for me a greater income than that of my parents. From my experience, first out of the race to grad school and beyond when the market looks grim are students whose background makes them doubt their career choice. I have seen wonderful young researchers leave academia before they're even on the market because they identify with those who lose out, not those who succeed. At the same time, other grad students in my department come from such overwhelming privilege that they have never questioned their career choice, nor I imagine, have any reason to fear being without food and shelter. (And for what it's worth, Anonymous - I am much better at living below the poverty line than others in my cohort...i think of it as an advtantage. Seriously.)

For a while, as a HS student, I quested my preference for the humanities following barrage of low-quality news stories about the unemployability of arts graduates. I came very close to embarking on what would have been, for me, a decidedly unenjoyable professional program because there was no one in my life who had a BA, let alone 'done anything' with it.

Like others who have commented, I know my academic work is a lot better for having sold my labor to get through the 4 years of my MA and am now in a much better position to get through a PhD. But more importantly, I am eternally grateful to those teachers and faculty members who convinced me that there as no 'secret key' that i was missing.


Ben said...

Amen. I have never advised a student to attend graduate school in my discipline (English), and I doubt that I ever will. This makes me a little sad, since I teach at a type of institution that caters to the sorts of students (working class, rural, first-generation college students) that the academy could use more of rather than less. But the fact remains: advising someone to attend graduate school in the humanities should be a prosecutable offense.

Dr. Crazy said...

Frog Princess beat me to it on the issue of working-class/minority students. Jumping off of that, what I'd say about your "take 3-5 years off to do a regular job that isn't school" advice is that while such advice is not bad in itself, it does assume that students have had a certain kind of residential, privileged undergraduate experience that did not involve regular jobs.

My students, primarily in the first generation in their family to attend college and who are often solely responsible for paying their way through college, have *already* worked those bar-tending, construction, teacher's aid, factory, insurance company, nursing home, library, human resources, retail, call center, administrative assistant, paralegal, etc. jobs. And that's just off the top of my head, as a list of jobs I know actual students of mine in the past 5 years have worked. So while I feel like it's entirely right that I give them all of the information out there about the problems in higher education, the likelihood of PhDs being able to secure full-time employment, etc., I do think that it would be a bit out of touch for me to tell them that they need to "experience what it's like to work a regular job" when they've already been doing so for years.

Anonymous said...


The objections to your previous post were based on the fact that you said you had absolutely no sympathy for people who chose to attend graduate school in spite of the (in your view) obvious fact that their job prospects were extremely iffy. If you are now prepared to concede that these people got catastrophically bad advice, that is a plus, and I suppose I have to congratulate you. Of course, none of this will help the folks who are years down the road and have to give up all hope of a steady salary, having children, etc. But the bottom line is this: Nobody should go to graduate school. Ever.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I believe that FP's point about minority/working-class students is valid, but not universal. Like Squadrato, I'm a working-class SLAC grad who took a year off before (unexpectedly) heading back to grad school.

The difference in my experience, I think, was that my family, while not the professorial "class", believed in the value of higher education, recognized that this was where my talents were, and wanted me to pursue it. They couldn't do much financially for me, but the emotional support was there.

Dr. Crazy said...

@Notorious: I think there may be some difference between working-class/minority students based on where they attend undergrad, too, i.e., SLAC (esp. a selective or elite slac) vs. Regional State University (non-selective, you go there because it's the lowest tuition and you can commute, etc.). My students come from the latter group, and that makes a huge difference, I think, in their experiences during undergrad, in the level of family support they have (whether emotionally or in terms of money), as well as in how they need to be advised about career paths and graduate education.

Tenured Radical said...

Or there may be tremendous differences in families within class strata. I think everyone who asks me to attend to this is correct (and the attention to students who have worked their way through school is right on.) But I would say that students might want to have good reasons to resist the push from family to go straight through with their schooling too.

Vellum said...

@Dr. Crazy -- I'm one of those students who spent his five undergrad years working those jobs (swimming pool and hot tub installation, fire extinguisher maintenance, news footage archiving, koi pond digging) but I have to say that the year --gosh, is it two now? ugh-- two years I've spent working a full-time job and not going to school were/are so very, very different from that experience. I guess it's because research and writing are what I love to do, and even though I'm getting to do them full-time, it's still not as enjoyable as doing it in a purely academic setting -- hence why I'm going back. I guess what I'm saying is that it is different, working while at school and working full time to do nothing but support yourself. Whether those jobs I had at school were "real" or not is debatable, but I'd still recommend to students taking a year or two off from academia before taking the plunge into PhD studies.

Dr. Crazy said...

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that students of whatever background may not benefit from taking some time off between undergrad and grad school. I just know that for all students that's not necessarily feasible path for whatever reason in terms of their specific circumstances. So, I'm reluctant to say that *as a rule* everybody should take time off, and I don't actually believe that people who *don't* take time off are at this huge disadvantage *because* they didn't take time off in between.

I didn't take time off between undergrad and grad school, and I *was* at a disadvantage when I started grad school, that is true. But I think it was less because I had no time off in between than because I had gone to a fairly crappy program for undergrad and so I was behind people who'd gone to better schools (a) and because I was completely clueless when it came to academic culture and conventions (b). No amount of time in between would have solved those particular problems: what solved those problems was the mentoring that I got in graduate school.

Vellum said...

I think it's fair to say that there aren't any rules for recommending grad school -- only a long list of considerations to be made in making the decision. Maybe what we should be doing is compiling a list of questions to ask students thinking about grad school to help them make their decision an educated one.

Anonymous said...

I think it's also important to keep in mind that in some cases, as it was in mine, choosing to go to grad school, as opposed to medical school or going into a business field as my father really wanted, is the act of resistance. Taking time off may be one indulgence too far, depending on the specific situation at hand. Going to graduate school right after college isn't always a lazy slide-in; sometimes, it's the only way forward.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Let's just say for the sake of argument that--all else being equal--the chance of obtaining a tenure-track position in your field of graduate studies is 25%. I really do not understand all of the hand-wringing and moaning and groaning about how this is some kind of outrage!111!1!ELEVBNTY!11`1!!

What percent of minor league baseball players make it to the majors? What percent of orchestral musicians make it onto a big-city orchestra? What percent of artists make a living off their art? What percent of novelists make a living off their novels? What percent of Hollywood hopefuls make it from the floor of the coffee shop to a feature film?

There are no guarantees in life in any profession, and tenure-track positions in academia are rightfully seen as highly desirable. Accordingly, there is tremendous competition to obtain those positions. It is of course wrong to lie to young people about these facts, but there is nothing intrinsically dastardly about them.

Anonymous said...

I hate to keep going on about this but I must say it again, in response to Comrade PhysioProf. What you're saying may be true but nobody is packaging the chances of getting a tenure-track job as something akin to getting your script made as a feature film. If there was widespread knowledge out there (and not just found on blogs of people already in the know), that being a professor was as likely as writing a New York Times bestseller, then we wouldn't be having this conversation. But that information is not out there: I still have never once been told that I have less than good odds at getting a tenure-track job b/c the professors at my institution don't believe that their students won't get positions.

Janice said...

Good insights as usual, TR. In our field of history, I'd say that the chances of obtaining a tenure-track job of any type is less than 1/10 odds. Far less. And that can mean people with Ivy League and Oxbridge degrees, too, despite what their advisors might be pitching.

That said, I've served as a graduate coordinator for a terminal M.A. for many years and I do try to advise students that pursuing this for an academic job is a real outside chance. I give the tough love and point out the alternatives that some of our students have made work (Gov't, K-12 Teaching/Admin, Library & Archives) but that every single one has had to work hard and receive some amazing good fortune to have these happen.

The students who tell me that they want to have a tenure-track job right here at our Regional Comprehensive (and can they do that without leaving town because they have a family, now)? They're the ones who make me cry as I have to disabuse them of their dreams.

Kelsey said...

I fully support your message TR. I am a little confused by the concern about suggesting that working-class/minority students take time off is unfeasible. Perhaps it's my own class blinders, in which case I'd like to better understand the issue. I came from a middle-class family (teacher and police officer parents) and worked my share of hourly jobs during high school and college. After college I worked for 5 more years before going to grad school.

As Vellum pointed out, that work was very different (project management in the non-profit sector as well as some other admin/mgmt type work and retail stuff) and made me sure I wanted to go back to school. Moreover, it enabled me to pay off (most of) my college loans such that I could go to grad school w/o debt. Again, this may be my own blinders, but I worked with people from a variety of class and racial backgrounds and can't see how any student (at least 8 years ago) of any background wouldn't be able to get and benefit from similar job experiences (and pay off loans as necessary). I didn't have family money to use to travel or work at unpaid internships. My parents still don't totally get why I'm in grad school or how it works (and don't get me started on my uncle who always asks when I'll start earning real wages). Please educate me about how and why this wouldn't be viable or beneficial for anyone, regardless of background. I am sincere in my interest in seeing beyond what I think must be my own blinders about this matter.

Mary Siegel said...

I absolutely agree with you.
I am currently in my third year in a BFA playwriting program, and my advisor maintains that while grad school is great, it is a much more effective approach to go out and have some life/world experience before going to grad school.

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm going to post over at my place about the not taking time off thing, since what I'll write will be sort of specific to me and to the experience of the students I've advised, and since this wasn't the whole point of TR's post, with which overall I thought was great, and so what I have to say seems like a tangent that doesn't really belong in the comments here. So anyway, expect a post over at Reassigned Time, if you're interested.

life_of_a_fool said...

As several people have pointed out, students have varying levels of exposure to work and the responsibility that goes along with it, and I agree with the concern that sending working class or underrepresented groups off to work might mean they never come back.

I think the key - where possible - is to get some experience working in the field in which you want to pursue your degree or at least using this time to get yourself ready in productive ways. This is hinted at, at least, in some of the suggestions TR makes in the post, but I think needs to be explicit -- especially for the working class/underrepresented/students with less academic cultural capital. It may take different forms for different people in different fields in different places, but some version needs to be there.

One of my undergrad professors suggested taking time off. This was excellent advice and I probably should have listened. However, had I done so, I probably would have been waiting tables or something along those lines. Good for maturity, life experience, etc., but I probably never would have gone back to school. Because grad school/academia was not a life path I was familiar with at all, and because I didn't know enough to use that time productively.

I wouldn't have had the luxury (or wouldn't have known how to make it happen feasibly) to travel extensively, and I may or may not have had an opportunity to work in my field. But I at least could have read more in my field, or found other ways to engage with it, that would have helped me more than only working in the "real" world *and* might have kept me tied in enough that I would have been more likely to go back. For students like me, at least, these connections and ideas of how to use time off need to an explicit part of that discussion. "Taking time off" sounds like a luxury that many can't afford; thinking of that time as a way to progress towards your chosen career (or realize that career isn't what you want) is a more useful way of thinking of it.

(and, I agree: great advice!)

Anonymous said...

OK, so does this mean that recent PhDs should go ahead and give up on the job market? Is waiting around for a tenure-track job just throwing good money after bad (even though we're obviously not making any money period)?

Jonathan said...

Sage advice. I tell any student who approaches me about working with me in our PhD program to consider the situation and only come with his or her eyes open. I also point out that they should be very concerned if other mentors and potential graduate advisors don't tell them the same thing. It's not an awesome recruitment strategy but it's honest and my students arrive knowing what's up. That said, there are always the few students who know exactly what they want and go straight through and that's fine too so long as they understand the gambit going in now.

There is only one place I would disagree: apart from its job listings, I do not consider the Chronicle of Higher Ed a very reliable source for educating someone about the academic job market. They have a vested interest in sensationalizing academic unemployment and transforming it into a personal problem (apparently well-handled by confessional essays) rather than the structural problem it is.

Grad School Drama said...

"Regardless of whether you like this or not, or whether it seems fair, it is simply a fact that actual graduate school admissions committees at select schools will regard your application more favorably if you take a significant amount of time off."

I am not a historian, so perhaps, while the job market seems equally bleak, the admissions process may be different. If the above is true, why are there an overwhelming number of direct-from-undergrad first-years in various programs? I do believe that the time off rule was once true in the Humanities, but I have trouble believing it considering what I am seeing (and the fact that my optic is particularly directed because I took a LOOOONG time off).

Is this just History, then?

Ben said...


I agree with you that no one should expect guaranteed employment anywhere, and that over the years there has been a great deal of naivete from some academics who expected a 60's-era job market to be the norm, but I don't hear any of that here. What everyone seems to be saying is that we have a professional and ethical responsibility to inform our students of just how brutal the academic job market is, and will continue to be, and that too many of our colleagues have failed to meet that responsibility.

As far as your comparison to baseball players or violinists, my response would be, what percentage of MD's become doctors? What percentage of JD's become lawyers? What percentage of MBA's get jobs in business? Because, in terms of the types of professional preparation we go through (earn a BA, go through an intense grad school admissions process that functions as a screen, end up with a professional credential after several years), academics resemble physicians and lawyers far more than we resemble baseball players or screenwriters. And, once upon a time, even if academia was the least lucrative of the classic professions, a PhD at least presented odds of getting a job that were similar to other similarly credentialed fields.

So the question is, why, over the course of forty years, has academia come to be a pipe-dream job akin to screenwriter or astronaut? There are lots of answers to this, and I agree with you that some of those answers (i.e., it presents a highly desirable lifestyle and therefore is competitive) are not occasions for hand-wringing. But some of the other answers (state governments slashing budgets, graduate programs over-producing PhD's for their own selfish reasons) definitely are occasions for hand-wringing.

Look, it's tough all over. I'm in my early thirties, and the majority of my friends, in fields ranging from medicine to law to visual arts to finance to civil service, are underemployed relative to their credentials. Such are the times. But only in academia do I see that roughly half of my friends with terminal graduate degrees in their fields can't find full-time employment.

And yeah, maybe to some extent they "should have known better," and hell, maybe they even "had it coming," but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't talk about a. how to advise our students more honestly, and b. what might be done to improve the job market in general.

Anonymous said...

So . . . what do I do if I'm already in it and don't want to quit? LET'S TALK ABOUT IT AT THE LITTLE BERKS, HUH?

Old Doc Huck said...

I much appreciate your warnings. I give them too but it's so rare that anyone in a community college is thinking that far into the future. When they are, I recommend not going to graduate school until and unless they understand the job market.