Monday, November 12, 2012

87. The financial rewards are decreasing.

No one working in academe will be surprised to learn that among the most common search-engine queries bringing readers to this blog are queries concerning money (see What Brought You Here). When the supply of workers exceeds the demand for labor, workers' wages tend to fall. This is the situation in academe. There are far too many PhDs produced every year for the academic job market to absorb them all (see Reason 55), and universities fill most of their teaching positions with poorly paid graduate students and adjuncts (see Reason 14). While the "glut" of PhDs seems to be slowly attracting more and more attention, it is in fact nothing new. The problem has existed for decades. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that the situation is getting worse. In January 2010, under the heading "Another Reason to Just Say No to a Ph.D.," Gabriela Montell posted an informative graph on the Chronicle of Higher Education hiring blog. It was the work of economist Michael Mandel, who used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to determine that the "real earnings for full-time workers with a doctoral degree" had dropped 10% between 1999 and 2008. Looking at these numbers, Mandel concluded, "there's no sense of a PhD being a desirable degree."

This is information that the public rarely sees. Note that Mandel found a 10% drop in the earnings of people with doctorates who were working (and working full-time). A growing number of people with PhDs cannot find anything but part-time work. The American Association of University Professors reports that part-time faculty members represent more than half of all faculty members in the United States. In June 2012, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce published a study [PDF] showing that more than 30% of part-time faculty members have doctoral degrees. (The Chronicle highlighted the authors' characterization of the study as a "dismal" portrayal of the life of a part-time professor.) And don't forget the thousands of Americans with doctorates who depend on food stamps to feed themselves (see Reason 83). Looking only at the salaries of tenured and tenure-track professors (who represent a shrinking share of the academic workforce) can leave you with a false impression of the economic advantages of having a PhD. With so many PhDs on the job market (and more arriving every year), there is little reason for universities or other employers to pay a premium to hire them. In monetary terms, the value of a PhD is steadily declining.

Monday, September 10, 2012

86. It is a state of being.

Graduate school is not school in any sense that you have experienced school before (see Reason 47). Nor is it a job, although a job is often part of the bargain (see Reason 7). Graduate school is a way of life. It is all encompassing. From the moment that you begin your existence as a graduate student, you have to worry about your courses, your labor obligations, your faculty committee, your reading lists, your comprehensive exams, and your thesis or dissertation. You have to worry about conferences, publications, and positioning yourself for the perilous job market waiting for you in the distance. You have to worry about competition (see Reason 2). And, more likely than not, you have to worry about money (see Reason 17). You don’t leave any of these worries on campus at the end of the day. They follow you home every evening, they tag along with you on your trips to the grocery store, and they loom at the back of your mind at the beach and at Thanksgiving dinner (see Reason 62). When you enlist in graduate school, you enter a new state of being.

Ironically, this totally engrossing and exhausting experience does not count for much in the world beyond academe. (For far too many people, it does not count for much within academe either.) Americans tend to define themselves by their careers, but graduate students don’t have careers. In the eyes of others, graduate students are defined by what they’re not. Your unkind relatives and acquaintances will call you a “professional” student to remind you that you don’t have a profession. Your work and your worries are every bit as real as those of anyone else, but somehow your “in-between” status renders you a non-entity (see Reason 30). While graduate school is consuming your life, others will regard you as if you were trapped in a state of suspension. Of course, you look forward to a career—a career in academe. But graduate school can only offer the hope of an academic career. It’s an extraordinarily costly roll of the dice. For about half of those in PhD programs, it does not end well (see Reason 46).

Monday, July 16, 2012

85. It is not a ticket to the upper middle class.

Even among the college-educated, there is a tendency to envision the life of a professor as one that includes tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, a book-lined office in an ivy-covered building, and a house in an upscale neighborhood with a fashionable European car in the driveway. The image is understandable, given how hopelessly entwined the academic world has become with relentless social-class striving. After all, education is regarded as a means to better oneself, and “higher” education represents the top rungs on that ladder of universal self-improvement. Certain schools, of course, are seen as better than others (see Reason 3). Those within the academic establishment are obsessed with status, as are those on the outside looking in. Consider the popularity of college rankings.

Institutions, as well as individuals, have an eye toward upward mobility, which accounts for yet another case of academic terminology-inflation (see Reasons 35 and 38): so many colleges have rushed to reclassify themselves as “universities” that there are now community colleges with names like the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. It is a fad driven by the propensity of students, faculty, and administrators alike to see their institution’s prestige as a reflection of their personal identities. Ironically, the mass movement is leaving the name “college” to venerable and genuinely prestigious institutions like Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, and Dartmouth—a college with its own medical school.

Academics, of course, have traditionally done little to dissuade anyone from believing that they occupy a privileged social position (see Reason 25). Describing the “democratization of knowledge” that occurred in the mid-twentieth century, author Daniel Flynn argues that “blue-collar intellectuals proved as unsettling to the intellectual elite as the nouveau riche had been to old money.” The term “middlebrow,” he explains, emerged as “a slur” in a new “vocabulary to demarcate intellectual class.” Increasingly, academics have had to think in terms of “intellectual” classes when contemplating their vaunted status, because only a tiny fraction of them live the professor’s life as people like to portray it. The British literary scholar Terry Eagleton recently observed: “Most people I know in academia want to get out… everywhere I go, from Peru to Australia, people are very unhappy in what perhaps were once, you know, ‘the best days of one’s life.’”

Today, the tweed jackets are few and far between. Law professor Erik Jensen laments that professors are developing a new reputation for constituting “the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group in America.” This is, to some extent, the result of a change in attitude on the part of faculty members (see Reason 13). But the lengthening number of years that academics must spend in graduate school (and as adjuncts) in relative poverty and debt do not lend themselves to developing a stylish wardrobe, owning a house in a desirable zip code, or driving a BMW. At many institutions, professors occupy offices that are little better than those of their teaching assistants (see Reason 42). Many commute long distances because they can never hope to afford to live in the leafy neighborhoods near campus. Nonetheless, they are among the extremely fortunate who have jobs despite the terrible academic job market, the severity of which is now spreading rapidly from the humanities and social sciences to the hard sciences. Meanwhile, thousands of PhDs on welfare (see Reason 83) have yet to join the lower middle class.

A short time in graduate school will likely cure you of any false ideas that you may have about modern academic life, but false ideas are often what drive people to graduate school in the first place.

Monday, June 11, 2012

84. The politics are vicious.

 “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.” Endlessly repeated, the ironic expression has become a dictum on college campuses, though whether the stakes are actually low depends on your perspective. Virtually every work environment plays host to office politics, but academe takes politics to a new level. In most offices, the human scenery changes somewhat from year to year; people start jobs, leave jobs, lose jobs, and get promotions. In academe, unless you’re willing to give up your whole career—or you’re a superstar (see Reason 67)—once you’re ensconced in an academic office, you can’t leave. The senior faculty members are trapped by their tenure, and the junior faculty members are trapped by the tenure track (see Reason 71). Jean-Paul Sartre may as well have had a typical university department in mind when he wrote No Exit. Professors can rub elbows with the same colleagues for thirty years or more, which is plenty of time for minor grievances to grow into intense hatreds, for factions to form, and for battle lines to be drawn.

Because their fate is subject to the whims of the faculty, graduate students are often pawns in the petty wars that develop within departments. When professors scheme to undermine each other, they sometimes target each other’s graduate students, because the success or failure of a graduate student reflects on his or her adviser. If you are a graduate student, various faculty committees decide everything from whether you should receive funding (see Reason 17) to whether you have successfully defended your dissertation. Your progress, therefore, can be hindered not only by your own adviser (see Reasons 44 and 45), but also by your adviser’s rivals. Incoming graduate students are usually unaware of the hostile rivalries, and in many cases become aware of them too late for the knowledge to protect them. If you manage to survive the political minefield of graduate school, survive the academic job market, and survive the tenure track, then you had best hope that you get along with your fellow tenured professors, because they aren’t going anywhere, and neither are you.

Monday, May 14, 2012

83. It narrows your options.

We have become so comfortable with the idea that more education leads to more opportunity that it can be hard to accept the fact that there really is such a thing as too much formal education. As with everything else, there is a point of diminishing returns. After a while, graduate school begins to limit your options. Working toward a PhD takes so long (see Reason 4) and prepares you for a line of work that is so specific (see Reason 29) that it can leave you unprepared for work outside of academe. In most cases, a 35 year-old PhD is of less interest to potential employers than a 25 year-old with a few years of relevant work experience. More often than not, “overqualified” is just a nice way of saying “unqualified.”

Compounding the problem is the nature of the academic career path, which requires academics to “stay in the game” or risk never being able to return to it. After earning a PhD, you can’t, for example, work for five years in a non-academic job, and then expect to be hired as an assistant professor. If you want an assistant professorship but don’t get one straight out of graduate school, then you have to join the army of post-doctoral researchers (“postdocs”) and adjuncts moving from one temporary position to another until someone hires you for a quasi-permanent job (see Reason 71). And chances are that you won’t be hired as an assistant professor straight out of graduate school (see Reason 14). You’ll probably have to spend some time as an adjunct in academic purgatory, where the pay is so low and the work is so unstable that it can be a struggle to make ends meet. In 2010, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there were 33,655 Americans with doctorates collecting food stamps. Together, they could fill a stadium. The 293,029 Americans with master’s degrees collecting food stamps could fill Cincinnati.

Monday, April 16, 2012

82. Teaching is moving online.

No matter what ambitions people may have when they enter graduate school, they are likely to find themselves looking for academic teaching positions when they leave (see Reason 29). With a future of teaching and research in mind, graduate students come to imagine that their lives will be quite different from those of the “cubicle drones” to whom they like to compare themselves. But an academic spends very long hours at his desk. Classroom teaching is the one aspect of his working life that looks fundamentally different from what an office worker does, and even that--dramatized by an unfortunate recent episode in Florida--has lost much of its charm (see Reason 65).

Traditional teaching, however, is increasingly being replaced by alternatives made possible by the Internet. Academic job announcements posted by all kinds of institutions now routinely include references to course management software, distance education, and “virtual learning environments.” Because of the enormous oversupply of PhDs (see Reason 55), people who once envisioned themselves lecturing in front of classrooms are being squeezed into teaching jobs in which much (if not all) of the “teaching” involves sitting at a computer. Even those jobs are scarce, and may become scarcer in the future as technological advancements allow fewer professors to teach more students. In Wired, Steven Leckart reports the prediction of Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun that in 50 years “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.” In 2011, Thrun and his colleague Peter Norvig offered an online version of a Stanford computer science course in which 160,000 students enrolled. Whether or not Thrun’s prediction proves to be accurate, technology has already turned a sizable share of college teaching into cubicle work (minus, perhaps, the cubicle). That share will only grow.

Monday, April 2, 2012

81. Comprehensive exams.

American doctoral programs are divided into three major components: courses, comprehensive or general exams ("comps" or "generals"), and the dissertation. Some programs include an extra step, a battery of qualifying exams that precede comprehensive exams. (When master's degree programs were more rigorous than they are now, their structure mirrored that of doctoral programs: courses, comps, and the master's thesis. Only a few master's programs still require all three. See Reasons 5 and 55.) Of the three components, exams are often the least understood by prospective graduate students. It is difficult to make generalizations about comprehensive exams, because they are handled so differently from one department to the next, even within the same university. In one program, you might have to pass four five-hour written exams over a period of weeks, in another, three six-hour exams over a period of days. Written exams are typically followed by oral exams. In some programs, a high percentage of students fail these exams and consequently have to end their graduate studies involuntarily. In other programs, faculty members don't allow students to take exams until they are confident that they will pass. Regardless of their form or pass-rate, comprehensive exams are designed to be intimidating.

Theoretically, your courses familiarize you with the major works and issues in your discipline, and then exams test your broad knowledge of the field before you're allowed to embark on the dissertation (a focused study of a specific issue within your field). Your courses, however, are not intended to prepare you for your comprehensive exams. On top of your coursework, plus any work obligations that you have as a research or teaching assistant, you are assigned an absurd amount of reading by the members of your faculty committee (see Reason 39). You are expected to prepare for your exams by reading and “mastering” this academic literature. 

In many cases, preparing for exams proves worse than actually taking them. Months of anxious anticipation and intensive study are accompanied by the unease of not knowing what, exactly, is most important to glean from your reading. Passing your comprehensive exams means "advancing to candidacy" and acquiring the dubious distinction of being ABD ("all but dissertation"). Because the exam phase is so draining and bears so little resemblance to what comes next, the achievement of passing can quickly turn bittersweet. Making the transition into the dissertation phase requires a jarring pivot from frantically consuming academic writing to frantically producing it. For many, the nerve-wracking experience of surviving comprehensive exams leaves them without the energy necessary to complete a dissertation (see Reason 60). It is safe to say that most of those who drop out of doctoral programs do so after passing their comprehensive exams (see Reason 46). Their ABD status does them little good anywhere, even within the walls of academe.

Monday, March 12, 2012

80. “When will you finish?”

Of all of the awkward questions that you are asked in graduate school, this one is the cruelest. It is also the one that you are asked more often than any other. Whether asked innocently (as it often is) or laced with judgment (as it often is), the question presents the same problem. Other questions are awkward because it is hard to hear yourself answer them honestly, but this question is awkward because—until the very end—you don’t know the answer. And because everyone around you is just as surprised as you are at how long it is taking you to finish (see Reason 4), the question becomes more awkward as time passes. Eventually, what people really mean by this question is: “Why haven’t you finished yet?”

So why haven’t you finished yet? For one thing, you probably spend more time fulfilling your labor obligations (see Reason 7) than you spend working toward your degree. For another, academic research and writing are tremendously time-consuming (see Reason 28), and you’re locked in an arms race with your competitors to produce as much of it as possible. The conference papers and published articles that you keep adding to your CV (see Reason 38) are distractions from your dissertation even when they spring from research related to your dissertation. Meanwhile, the dissertation itself is like a mountain that grows taller as you climb it (see Reason 60), especially when you know that any hope of future tenure rests on your being able to turn it into a published book (see Reason 71). To complicate matters, you have to negotiate all of this while in a highly unstable financial situation (see Reason 17). The work is yours alone to do, but no matter how much you do or how well you do it, you don’t decide when you’re finished. The members of your faculty committee decide when you’re finished. Until they do, this relentless question is a nagging reminder of the time that you have already spent in graduate school, the time that you have yet to spend in graduate school, and the exhausting uncertainty of it all.

Monday, February 27, 2012

79. The tyranny of procrastination.

The problem of procrastination in graduate school is, in part, a problem of perception. When you could be working anytime and all the time (see Reason 62), it can feel like you’re procrastinating when you’re doing anything else. Reading for pleasure, spending time with family and friends, cooking, exercising, and even sleeping (see Reason 78) are hard to enjoy when you’re saddled with the feeling that you should be working instead. Of course, if what you’re doing has the slightest appearance of procrastination to you, it may well look that way to someone else. In the event that your department can only fund half of its graduate students next year (see Reason 17), you don't want to be the one that your departmental chair sees sauntering into a Tuesday matinee as she happens to drive by the movie theater.

But there is also real procrastination. We procrastinate when we are faced with tasks that we do not want to do. Graduate students are masters of procrastination. You can hardly blame them for their reluctance to dive into a pile of ungraded freshman essays (see Reason 56), but they are often just as reluctant to dive into a day of writing. That is because academic writing can be profoundly unpleasant (see Reason 28). Sometimes they procrastinate by turning on the television, but more often than not they create diversionary work for themselves by reading one more book, looking up ten more articles, or spending an extra week in the archives -->all in the name of “research.” Sitting down and writing is the only way out of graduate school with a degree, but the great difficulty with which so many graduate students approach this task is your first clue (and often their first clue) that they don’t actually like what they are doing. Unfortunately, procrastination simply prolongs their misery.

Monday, February 13, 2012

78. It takes a toll on your health.

Graduate school is hard on your mental health (see Reason 68), but it is also hard on your physical health. As a grad student, you spend a long time in relative poverty, and healthy living and poverty seldom go hand-in-hand. Your diet is more likely to consist of cheap processed foods than wholesome fare. Your bus rides are especially crowded during the flu season. Your workplace, the college campus, is a notoriously effective environment for the spread of illness. You spend most of your time sitting. And if you are lucky enough to have health insurance, it probably leaves you at the mercy of the student health center.

Especially harmful is the effect that graduate school has on sleep. When you’re faced with a combination of unstructured time (see Reason 61) and endless work (see Reasons 39 and 62), you’re often working when you should be sleeping. On those occasions when you have to meet a deadline, the situation is only made worse. How much sleep do you suppose a teaching assistant gets during a week when she has to read, comment on, and grade 100 undergraduate papers? In college, you might have been able to get away with too little sleep and eating poorly, but your body can only take so much. Graduate school can easily drag on for a decade (see Reason 4), and in the meantime you’re not getting any younger.

Monday, January 30, 2012

77. It attracts the socially inept.

Graduate school demands that you spend an immense amount of time alone (see Reason 69). It demands sustained interest in highly esoteric subjects. And it demands that you approach those esoteric subjects with the utmost seriousness. You can see how this environment would be attractive to people who are more comfortable in their own thoughts than in the company of others. This applies across academic disciplines. While some graduate students are involved in cutting-edge medical research, others are studying the subtle aspects of postwar Croatian cinema (see Reason 66). Oddly enough, the latter take their work as seriously as the former. Grad school can be compared to an endless fan convention at which all the participants cluster by genre or disciplinary interest, and where every individual is highly invested in a particular sub-sub-sub-genre.

In fact, graduate school is best suited for those who are fanatical, because devotion to one’s field (measured in terms of productivity) is what is rewarded (see Reason 38). The problem for most graduate students is that they are normal people. They do not thrive in prolonged isolation, and even though they may have an abiding interest in their subject of study, it does not amount to fanaticism. In the world in which they find themselves, however, they have to both co-exist and compete with the die-hard fans (see Reason 2). Earnest discussion of obscure topics, irrational in-group status jockeying, and competitive devotion may be fine for hobbyists at weekend conventions, but graduate school goes on for years. It does not take long to spot the odd characters who inhabit this environment, nor to see its effects on healthy personalities (see Reason 50). Keenly aware of the variety of people who manage to percolate through graduate programs, academic hiring committees rely on an old-fashioned test: how will a job candidate perform in a conversation over dinner?

Monday, January 16, 2012

76. There is a culture of fear.

The worst fears to which graduate school gives rise are fears about the future, which stem from both immediate concerns about funding (see Reason 17) and long-range concerns about the miserable job market (see Reason 8). But there is another fear pervasive in academe that runs counter to a central principle of modern democracy. It is the fear of speaking freely. Reason 75 saw the 2,000th comment posted on 100 Reasons, and all but a tiny fraction of those comments were posted anonymously. There is probably no American newspaper today that publishes more articles by writers using pseudonyms than the Chronicle of Higher of Education. Even Professor William Pannapacker, the patron saint of graduate-school realists (and a Harvard PhD), wrote his first columns warning people about graduate school using the pen name Thomas H. Benton. The author of a recent book about his experiences as a college instructor is known only as Professor X.

Why? Why are academics—of all people—afraid of writing (and speaking) honestly about their profession? Why do so many of those who do express themselves feel compelled to do so anonymously? The answer lies in the staggering power imbalance between academics and the people who employ them. That imbalance is so great because of the crippling realities of the academic job market. The consequences of offending your colleagues and superiors in any way can be dire, because until you have tenure (see Reason 71) your employment is insecure; you are easily replaced. For the same reason, untenured college instructors often endure humiliating working conditions (see Reason 14). For graduate students who have not yet been hired for their first real jobs, developing a fear of saying the wrong thing is an essential success strategy. If you decide to go to graduate school, you should know that it may be a very long time before you will be comfortable expressing yourself about subjects of considerable importance to you.