Monday, August 6, 2018

98. Your family pays a price.

Few people choose to become parents while living the life of relative poverty that graduate school entails. If you go to graduate school, in fact, there is a good chance that you will never have children (see Reason 31). For women, the likelihood of childlessness increases with education. The U.S. Census reported that about 23 percent of women with a graduate or professional degree between the ages of 40 and 50 were childless in 2012. When it comes to securing tenure, women who do not have children enjoy a significant advantage over women who do (see Reason 71). Childless men are hardly uncommon in academe either. Graduate students who have children have described the difficulties of being a parent in graduate school. Likewise, it is difficult to be the child of a graduate student for many of the same reasons that it is difficult to be married to a graduate student (see Reason 58). The demands of graduate school are tough on parents and children alike, not to mention the debt, job insecurity, and relocations that are typically a part of the bargain. When the television personality Dr. Phil McGraw was 12 years old, his father was a full-time graduate student. The family made ends meet by delivering daily newspapers on a 52-mile paper route.

Whether you have children or not, you are still part of a family, and you probably like your family. Your family members like you, too. They may even be encouraging you to go to graduate school. If that is the case, they are doing so with the best intentions, but they likely do not realize that they are nudging you toward a career that will take you (and keep you) far away from them. It doesn’t matter where you live now or where you go to graduate school, because the very few jobs available to you at the end of the graduate-school pipeline will rarely be where your family is (see Reason 16). The enormous time commitment required to earn a PhD (see Reason 4) means that by the time you settle into a permanent faculty position—if you are lucky enough to find one—your parents will be reaching the age when they can most use your help. After years in school, you won’t have much in the way of financial resources to help them. In the worst-case scenario, you will still be dependent on their money (see Reason 12). And because you probably won’t live anywhere near your parents, your children, if you have any, will be far from their grandparents. There is no flexibility in the academic job market, so if you need to give up your job to be closer to people who need you, it will mean giving up your academic career. Contemplate your priorities carefully before you plunge into graduate school. Academic life can be as hard on the people you love as it is on you.

Monday, August 7, 2017

97. It steals your future.

Billionaire Warren Buffet attributes his wealth to “a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest.” With savings and time, anyone can benefit from compound interest. Its effects are extraordinary. As investor JL Collins explains, “you’ll wind up rich” and “not just in money” if you simply spend less than you earn, invest the surplus, and avoid debt. Of course, money that you save when you are young has more time to grow than money that you save later. That is why it is so important to start saving money as soon as possible. Life is expensive. You may not be thinking about saving for retirement right now, but you should be, because retirement pensions have largely disappeared, and you will probably depend on your savings someday. Unfortunately, graduate students are much more likely to go into debt than to save money. This brings us back to Reason 1.

There is an adage: “He who understands compound interest will earn it; he who does not will pay it.” If you borrow money in the form of a student loan, you are obligated to pay back every penny that you borrowed plus interest. As a graduate student, even if you manage to stay out of debt, you are still not earning a proper salary at a time in your life when saving money could do you tremendous good. Worse, you are entering a profession for which there is a long period of apprenticeship (see Reason 4), in which jobs are scarce (see Reason 8), and in which highly trained people do extremely low-paying work (see Reason 14). Your wise friends outside of academe will have built up a nest egg before your academic career has even started (see Reason 63). Moreover, Social Security benefits are based on an average of 35 years of personal earnings, so a long spell in graduate school can eat into your future Social Security income. There is a perception that graduate school leads to a better life, but working, saving, and building wealth while you are young is a much more reliable route to success. Just remember to spend less than you earn.

Monday, August 15, 2016

96. Degrees go stale.

One of the cruelest twists on the arduous path through graduate school comes at the very end. As soon as you finish a doctoral program that took perhaps a decade to complete (see Reason 4), your fresh degree begins to age… rapidly. Doctorates are like bread; they go stale. If you have a PhD that was awarded more than a couple of years ago, and you’re still looking for a tenure-track job, then you have what is called a “stale” degree. In fact, if you do not have a tenure-track job within a year of finishing your PhD, then your chances of ever getting one begin to drop precipitously. Knowledge can become obsolete quickly, but that is not the issue here. The problem stems from the overproduction of PhDs (see Reason 55). In an age when colleges receive hundreds of applications for one job opening, eliminating the stale PhDs from the pool of applicants is a simple way to cull the herd (see Reason 8). Hiring committees justify this by reasoning that if you haven’t been hired after multiple years on the job market, then there must be something wrong with you.

Completing your PhD can actually put you at a disadvantage on the job market, because the best window of opportunity for securing an assistant professorship is in the months before your dissertation defense. This was among the findings of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Academic JobTracker project, a study of 2,500 tenure-track job searches from the 2013-14 academic year. (Incidentally, there is probably no better incentive to complete a PhD than the deadline that comes with a job offer. See Reason 46.) The Chronicle study found that only 47 percent of the jobs in history, 35 percent of the jobs in communications/ media studies, and 27 percent of the jobs in composition/ rhetoric went to candidates with a PhD more than one year old. To discourage people with stale degrees from even bothering to apply, some job announcements now specify that applicants be “new” or “recent” PhD recipients. Keep in mind that working in a non-tenure track faculty position will not prevent your degree from going stale (see Reason 14). No matter how much professional experience you accumulate after completing your doctorate, your toughest competition for academic jobs will always come from the endless supply of fresh and relatively inexperienced PhDs and ABDs (see Reason 81) who enter the job market after you. In academe, experience can work against you.

Monday, September 21, 2015

95. Academics are unhappy.

You know that today's graduate students are unhappy when the Wall Street Journal can refer (and not entirely facetiously) to the world's best-positioned graduate students as Harvard's Les Miserables. If the discontent experienced in graduate school were only a temporary condition to be endured on a path to a better life, then it might not be so bad. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of unhappiness among those who make it all the way through graduate school, and not just among the thousands of PhDs living on welfare (see Reason 83), or the thousands burdened by crushing debt, or the thousands working as barely paid adjuncts (see Reason 14). (The plight of adjuncts has turned so tragically absurd that it's now fodder for the Sunday comics.) There are also, of course, those who have suffered through the devastating humiliation of being denied tenure.

And then there are those for whom everything worked out. Yes, a great many academics who not only found tenure-track jobs (see Reason 8) but managed to survive the long road to tenure (see Reason 71) are surprisingly miserable. For some, their unhappiness began as soon as they were tenured; the Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the phenomenon of post-tenure depression on more than one occasion. For others, an unshakable sadness took hold much earlier in their careers. The culture of fear (see Reason 76) that pervades academe ensures that the deep unhappiness felt by so many academics is rarely discussed openly. More often than not, it takes an observer working outside of academe to bring the subject to light.

The miseries of academic life are on full display, however, in fictional depictions of the university. Over the decades, those depictions have grown darker. Edward Albee's 1962 play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" put academic torments on the stage. Countless novels put those torments on the page. As most academic fiction is written by academics, it is worth considering the source. In fiction, academics have found a way to describe their professional environment without jeopardizing their jobs. In Faculty Towers, Elaine Showalter notes that since the 1970s professors portrayed in academic novels have "become more and more grotesque figures, full of self-doubt and self-hatred." Why is this so? In his review of Showalter's book, Joseph Epstein offers an answer that outlines the trajectory followed by idealistic graduate students:

When young, the life ahead seems glorious. They imagine themselves inspiring the young, writing important books, living out their days in cultivated leisure. But something, inevitably, goes awry, something disagreeable turns up in the punch bowl. Usually by the time they turn 40, they discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive; the collegiality is seldom anywhere near what one hoped for it; there isn't any good use for the leisure. Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.

As it is, society permits some academics to live (and die) in genuine poverty, but the ranks of the miserable in academe extend far beyond the financially insecure. Academics are unhappy, and even students are beginning to notice.

Monday, October 27, 2014

94. It warps your expectations.

Graduate students develop unreasonable expectations, but over the course of a long spell in graduate school those expectations swing from one unreasonable extreme to another. They go from expecting far too much to expecting (and accepting) far too little. Not everyone enters graduate school with the intention of becoming a professor, but after a while it becomes clear that an academic career is virtually the only career for which graduate school prepares anyone (see Reason 29). Once that realization sets in, graduate students begin to imagine a future in which they have jobs like those of their advisers and the other professors who surround them every day. They can hold on to this expectation for years. It seems perfectly reasonable, perhaps even modest, but it is actually quite unrealistic. You could argue that it is wildly unrealistic. As Professor Emily Toth (aka Ms. Mentor) patiently explains to a confident graduate student looking for affirmation: "No matter how talented and accomplished you are, you probably will not get a tenure-track academic job. Ever."

Eventually, reality dawns on even the most optimistic graduate students. They see what happens to others on the academic job market, and then they start to experience it themselves (see Reason 55). This is the point at which their hopefulness turns to desperation, and their expectations sink to such depths that they––by the tens of thousands––accept college teaching jobs for which they receive ridiculously little compensation. Graduate school has funneled them into adjuncthood (see Reason 14), and they quickly learn to expect extremely low wages in return for their labor. Adjuncts are routinely paid less to teach a class than their students pay to take it. In fact, the income of a part-time adjunct will often be less than half of a teaching assistant's stipend (see Reason 53). You can see just how meager adjunct earnings are by exploring the Chronicle Data website. Needless to say, this kind of academic employment comes without job security, insurance, or retirement benefits. Why are people, including thousands of people with doctorates, willing to subject themselves to this? Because they don't know what else to do. After years of living in a dream, they are desperate to stay in the academic game (see Reason 83).

Monday, June 23, 2014

93. There is no getting ahead.

Graduate school attracts highly ambitious people, despite the fact that academe is a terrible environment for highly ambitious people. How so? There are precious few moments of forward progress in an academic career. In academe, there is no getting ahead; there is only survival. If you survive your comprehensive exams (see Reason 81), survive your dissertation (see Reason 60), survive the job market (see Reason 8), and survive the tenure track (see Reason 71), then you can hope for exactly one promotion: from associate professor to full professor. That's it. The academic career ladder is very short. Unless you happen to be among the tiny cadre of academic superstars (see Reason 67), there is little hope of moving from one institution to another to improve your lot. If you earn tenure at an institution, you will likely never leave it. The "honor" of serving as department chair is a burden, not a privilege. For traditional academics, even moving "up" into administration has become difficult, as there is now a professional administrative class within higher education.

Of course, academe is supremely effective at frustrating your ambitions long before you find yourself (if you're very lucky) in a quasi-permanent academic job. In a recent poignant essay describing his frustration with the process of trying to secure a tenure-track appointment, Patrick Iber remarked: "Of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market." At the time he wrote those words, Dr. Iber had a PhD from the University of Chicago, a book contract with Harvard University Press, and a visiting lectureship at UC Berkeley; he was in a far better position than most academic job candidates. That does not make his painful experience any less real. On the contrary, it highlights the profound professional disappointment experienced by highly accomplished people throughout academe. There are now nearly 3.5 million Americans with doctorates (see Reason 55) but only 1.3 million post-secondary teaching jobs (see Reason 29), and the oversupply of PhDs is becoming a crisis in the rest of the world as well. A Norwegian newspaper has called it the academic epidemic. Legions of graduate students spend years of their lives preparing to compete for jobs that are few in number and promise little opportunity for advancement. The academic world is one in which ambition is rewarded with disappointment millions of times over.

Monday, January 13, 2014

92. There is a social cost.

As you grow older, you begin to appreciate the value and rarity of genuine friendships. Graduate school is hard on friendships, and so is the academic life that follows it (see Reasons 14 and 29). In many ways, graduate school is inherently alienating (see Reason 30), leaving you out-of-step with friends who follow traditional paths into adulthood (see Reason 12). It places tight constraints on your financial independence, as well as on your time (see Reason 62), and it often requires you to move far away from friends and family. On a more fundamental level, it requires you to devote yourself to things of no interest to anyone around you (see Reason 90), let alone to anyone in your wider social circles. The concerns that cause you tremendous stress in graduate school can appear hopelessly petty to those on the outside. Meanwhile, as you move deeper into a world very different from that of your friends, you will find it increasingly difficult to understand and relate to their experiences (see Reason 63). In addition to all of its other costs, graduate school can cost you your friends, and that is a higher price than you might think.

To make matters worse, academe does not provide an environment conducive to forming new friendships. Not only does it attract difficult personalities (see Reason 77) and pit them against each other (see Reason 2), but the academic job market routinely moves people to places where they have absolutely no personal connections to anyone (see Reason 16). Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one professor noted that in 20 years he had never heard a colleague introduce another professor as "my friend." After describing two friends who broke down in tears "just about every single week of their graduate school careers," a different professor wrote of a colleague "who claims that he hasn’t made a new 'friend' in the academy since 1997." As difficult as it can be for academics to develop personal relationships on campus, they often have surprisingly little opportunity to form friendships outside of their college or university. The Chronicle has covered the fear of "social death" experienced by faculty members contemplating retirement: "One still highly productive faculty member well north of 70 summed up the struggle well when he said, 'It’s not about the money. I just don’t know what I’d do in the morning. I don’t have any hobbies and I don’t have any friends who aren’t here. This is really all I have. Does that make me pitiful?'"

Monday, September 9, 2013

91. Downward mobility is the norm.

The term "downward mobility" describes the phenomenon of falling into a social class lower than the one into which you were born. If you go to graduate school, it is quite possible that you will experience this kind of economic downward mobility (see Reason 85). But there is another kind of downward mobility that you will almost certainly experience if you survive graduate school and land a teaching position: academic downward mobility. As a general rule, when you complete a PhD, you can only expect to be hired by institutions that are less prestigious than the university at which you earned your doctorate. The authors of one of four recent studies on doctoral prestige and academic career prospects reported: "Across disciplines, we find that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality." That is why the prestige of your graduate program is so important. In academe, prestige is the coin of the realm. The more prestigious your degree, the more options you have on the academic job market (see Reason 3 and Point 2).

While you are suffering through the poverty, loneliness, and indignity of graduate school, it can be hard to imagine an academic environment worse than the one in which you already find yourself (see Reason 50). If you have the good fortune of being hired for a full-time faculty position, you might have a better paycheck than you had in grad school, but it's just as likely that your new institution (where you may spend the rest of your career) will have lower standards, a greater number of ill-prepared students, fewer resources, and less name recognition than the university at which you completed your graduate work. That last item (name recognitionmay sound trivial, but in a business in which prestige is so important, the status of your institution can strongly influence both your sense of self-worth (see Reason 25) and your quality of life. Moreover, your professional identity becomes closely associated with the institution at which you work. For almost every graduate student contemplating an academic career, there is a real sense in which the view forward is a view downward. There are people with Harvard PhDs teaching in Lubbock, Bakersfield, and Tuscaloosa (see Reason 16). Where might a PhD take you?