Monday, September 6, 2010

9. It is very, very hard.

Notwithstanding the fact that intellectual expectations are falling, graduate school is still very difficult. In many graduate programs, half of the students who begin never finish. Courses require time and effort. Comprehensive exams require time and effort. Theses and/or dissertations require time and effort. After each hill that you climb, there is a bigger one waiting for you. Relationships with advisers and other faculty members must be negotiated and tended over a long period of time. All of this must be done while making ends meet. There are grants and fellowships, but most graduate students have to earn their living by working, either as teaching assistants, research assistants, or in a job not directly related to their studies.

The academic demands of graduate school require a certain level of competence, but stamina is even more important. The work is often tedious and lonely, and it is subject to constant scrutiny. That is not a condition unique to graduate school, but many of the difficult, tedious, and lonely pursuits in life come with a salary. Graduate school does not.


  1. It's hard but not necessarily because it's intellectually stimulating. I think a lot of the work the first couple years is designed to weed out the ones who aren't truly committed...

    ...the ones who remain should BE committed.

    1. If you ever have to ask yourself if it is worth the trouble, you do not have what it takes to persevere through the pure torture, which is grad school. Only a mature, serious and devoted individual who does not doubt himself when the going gets tough can earn a Ph.D.

  2. I have an MA and an MLIS. Sure, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it.

  3. I would describe grad school as more exhausting than hard. I took 1 grad class a semester while working full time; I quickly found that what I was learning was interesting but not worth the massive time commitment of time (also I felt as though I could pick some of it up on my own).

    Perhaps that graduate program was unusual. In my first master's program (where I was full time) I found almost every hour of it vital and interesting... Also I suspect that when you get to the stage where you're actively submitting articles/applying for fellowships, it could become extremely time-consuming.

    I think grad school is perceived as hard because of weed out classes that tend to be dry and theoretical.

  4. Sorry, 1:48. Neither an MA nor an MLIS is a Ph.D. As someone who has all three of these degrees, I know. I think this is something a lot of people don't understand about the Ph.D. It's *not* "like a master's degree, only more so" -- there's an order of magnitude of difference, especially in the humanities.

  5. In my program in the 70's less than half the people entering got PhD's, and the program only admitted people they thought could graduate (so some years they took 10 people and some years 25, depending on the quality of applicants). And I looked at the numbers for the previous 20 years, and discovered the same thing had been true - about 1/3 didn't get admitted to candidacy, and 1/3 of those didn't finish a thesis, and that was fairly consistent even by year.

    Also, even though they claimed that it was supposed to take 4 years to get a PhD, the average was really 5, and it was that low because every year or so they'd admit a super-star that got done in 2 or 3 years.

    And because there is now a lot more math to learn, that same program now says that it take 5 years (and I doubt that anyone gets out in 2 these days, no matter how stellar they are). So while graduation is likely getting harder in all fields, I suspect that the "4 years to a doctorate" has been a fiction for at least half a century.

  6. At least Sisyphus got ripped.

    1. So do field laborers.

      And I mean that as a compliment as much to honest, physical labor as to honest, intellectual labor.

      If you read/skim Foucault's doctoral book--he is one of the few accessible humanities theorists whose work is worth paying the money to amazon if not to grad school--you discover the parallels between the two types of labor in a historical context of madness.

      The farmer doesn't think about suicide.

      I'm about to enter my senior year as an undergraduate at my state flagship. I am by no means ripped, but I have developed an arrogance during the last few years with my own constant extra-curricular study. I come from abject poverty and attend university on a full-ride scholarship, but I take federal loans for spending money, like a sucker..

      I do plan on pursuing an MA at my university. That doesn't seem insurmountable to me. But I expect that attainment will exhaust my Kantian respect for academic literacy. I'll be the first in my family, make my mom proud, etc. Then I'll have it finished.

      This weblog has granted me the pessimism about grad school which I have about most things. Somehow I haven't developed it about my institution. Pannapacker writes about the psychologically vulnerable and their draw into a PhD. Ha. How can we talk about the bourgeois ethic but not recognize it within institutions which teach about myth but deny they propagate myth.

      I am glad, at least, that the poor and talented have a chance to attend a four-year for no cost to themselves (as have most of my old friends who chose not to assume a debt burden). At least there's that for the people born into the most ominous, if first world, circumstances.

    2. "The farmer doesn't think about suicide."

      This was written by someone who doesn't know any farmers.

      It's immediately disprovable by running a quick check on news stories about farmer suicides.

      What pretentious twaddle - definitely not worth paying any money for unless you want your head filled with romantic delusions.

    3. Kutner, Max "Death On the Farm" in Newsweek, 04/18/2014.

      Greenberg, Ilan "Why Are So Many Farmers Killing Themselves" in Modern Farmer, 12/03/2013.

      Capik, Cori "Are Farmer Suicide Rates On the Rise?" in AgFunderNews, 12/09/2013.

      The heavily leveraged nature of most agricultural activity leads to stresses not commonly found in most professions. When combined with unpredictable adverse weather conditions, capricious government policy changes, and especially unpredictable market and economic disruptions, the penalties exacted can be severe.

  7. I started in a PhD program only to find out that since it was started (1964), only 8 percent of their matriculated students actually got one. Part of this was the difficulty, part was lack of university resources, and part was just because there were a fair number of faculty that just enjoyed torture. Needless to say I was in the 92% that left, and none too soon!

    1. Why did people keep going to this program, or staying once they learned this?

    2. Why do people keep going to this program? Because graduate programs can and do misrepresent themselves. Because the relevant information may not be publicly available, or "spun" if it is, or dated.

      Why do people stay once they're in the program?
      One, they've probably already spent a lot of money or are obliged to stay because they accepted department or university money or money from some external funding source. Hence they're committed to at least a semester. If they've spent this money themselves then they may want to try to chase the sunk cost, "because it only costs that much more to wrap this program up."

      Two, it looks really bad on your record or resume if you get into a program and then quit. Most of the resulting questions and aspersions will be against you, not the program.

      Three, the attractiveness of leaving a program may be dependent on what alternatives are available. If you lose a year because you couldn't go into something else *right away* then it's your record that looks bad. In fact, all you have to do is quit without having a job lined up, and you could wind up becoming one of the long-term unemployed.

      Four, the costs of transferring (if at all feasible) will probably include lost time, "make-up" courses because of (sometimes extremely subtle) differences between programs, and having to navigate a whole new department or institution.

  8. I wonder what field the blog author is in...

  9. This doctorate is the hardest thing I've ever done! I will be six years working on it, when I graduate in less than a year! What a sense of accomplishment I already feel. Still, I have a LOT of work yet to do, so off I go. For those still in a doctoral program, hang on. For those contemplating such an experience, go for it! Good luck, all!

    1. When I finished my doctorate I thought: wow, this was really hard! But then I began publishing articles...and looking for jobs, and then teaching while publishing articles, and then teaching while conducting research and writing articles and writing a book manuscript...and now that I have just finished revising my book manuscript with a contract and a tenure track job and teaching full time and conducting research, I can say that graduate school was a breeze.

  10. I dropped after first class..COMP SCI M.S. soo hard compared to undergrad OMG

  11. I think that learning to play Scruggs-style five string banjo was harder than making it through graduate school, but I'd still rather be teaching than spending 300+ days in a van on the road playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" for the 600th time.

    1. ...and having some obsessed nutcase cry out at every venue, "THAT'S NOT HOW EARL PICKED IT!"

  12. "but many of the difficult, tedious, and lonely pursuits in life come with a salary. Graduate school does not."

    Speak for yourself. I made a $15000 investment into grad school for an 18 month M.A. program. I immediately got a low-paying but amazing 6 month internship in the exact field I wanted. A year later, I was on contract doing something similar making $10 000 more a year than I was with just an undergrad. Now, just under 2 years from finishing, I have a permanent gig where I make $20 000 a year more than I did with a B.A. in a related field, with excellent job security and benefits and it's only going to go up from here.

    I should also add that I've always worked my a$$ off at everything and I think that if you really, I mean really, apply yourself, you can make it happen.

    Also, high-five to the above banjo player. Yes, banjo is harder than grad school, but again I think anyone can learn banjo if they really apply themselves.

    1. When I play banjo, I don't have to deal with:
      a) arbitrary changes to comprehensive requirements
      b) sabotage from "fellow" grad students
      c) hidden fees and penalties assessed by the university
      d) whole sections of library research materials going missing
      e) competing against academically dishonest students
      f) false accusations from sniping professors
      g) theft of intellectual property
      h) clique exclusion
      i) unexpected cancellations of required courses
      j) arbitrarily imposed changes to plans of study and dissertation
      k) loss of funding owing to administrative mismanagement
      l) loss of lab space owing to departmental mismanagement
      m) faculty that need subtitles
      n) repeat fees because of administrative screw-ups
      o) "we have lost your records"
      p) cancellation of financial aid b/c filing incompetence
      q) thesis advisors who purposefully misguide you
      r) English not spoken here
      s) TAs bent on ethnic boosterism
      t) obsolete material
      u) faculty turnover
      v) Catch-22
      w) department cover-ups
      x) failure to pay for work done for department / university
      y) "team" projects that are nothing of the sort
      z) lousy lecturers

      There are more, but I've run out of letters.

    2. Deja Vu. I started my doctoral program part-time at age 51 and though I would be through by 55 since they transferred most of my master's credits. I was 58 when it was granted. My chair left and that was an excuse for the rest of the committee to bail out. The university kept charging tuition for "continuing dissertation support" for two terms while I struggled to find a new committee. I had to change the subject. That meant even more time and more tuition. Since then, I have been slowly getting my tuition back. I produced a Webinar for the university and have received four alumni development grants (for presentations at national meetings). If I live to age 90, I will break even.

  13. ^ much lols a'many

    1. I experienced EVERY ONE of the issues listed in a SINGLE M.S. program.

      Yes, it's funny, but more "what the fuck" funny than amusing.

  14. I submit that most of what now makes graduate school "very, very hard" has less to do with the intrinsic difficulty of the subject matter (no matter which field is considered) and much, much more to do with faculty and student interactions, the intrusiveness of left-wing/"liberal" mindsets and policies, the growth of bureaucratism, the growth of the "litigious society," changes in the self-conceived mission(s) of the university, the university's response to "globalization," national and global economic changes (including the self-impoverishment of the First World), and changes in public perception of the value of education.

    A lot of these are responsible for the increasingly nightmarish quality of life to be had outside the academy as well.

  15. Everything in this list has been right on the mark. I would add that the very lack of job opportunity at the end of graduate school is one of the things making the process so difficult. If schools could see graduates going out and getting decent jobs, their would be incentive to increase "production". But with the lack of good job opportunities, there is no reason not to keep students around for decades. It's better to have students disappear, than have them earn a PHD and end up in a low level teaching job or completely out of the field. The drop outs can be attributed to personal failure while the institution has to take some blame if graduates end up in bad situations.

    I have read that around 75-80% of starting medical school students end up as practicing physicians, and the entire process only takes 8 years. So a student can endure med school and count on a $200k a year job, or spend 10 years in Sociology grad school and still end up making $20k. Students thinking of grad school in social science really have to love the subject....