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.


  1. I hear this question most frequently from people outside of academia. They essentially think that grad school is a slightly harder version of undergrad, and can't understand that I'm not taking classes anymore. Most of these people can't assemble an intelligible written sentence, but are making much more money than I ever will. But they're also more good-hearted than academics, so it's worth putting up with, even as it chaps my ass.

  2. Agreed. You'll get this question from family and friends, but almost never from your peers in university.

    The only one who might ask you this in university is your advisor or grad director, who'd only do so indirectly or in veiled form, eg. "are planning on applying for TT jobs next year?" or "when will you be submitting your manuscript to a publisher?"

  3. Unrelated to this particular "reason," but this blog seems like the result of somebody's adventures in graduate school when they really didn't think it through and didn't belong there, and now they need validation for making that mistake and wasting that time.

    Graduate school is right for certain people; for those certain people, all of these "reasons" are incredibly inconsequential because graduate school is the right thing, quite simply. The problem is that nowadays tons of people go through with undergraduate and graduate studies not because it's right for them, but because they think it's the right thing to do based upon someone else's success. Droves of teenagers and youths go to school now simply to go to school, not for any real practical reason, and it seems that's what happened to whomever is running this blog.

    While I suppose it's good to spread this knowledge to deter people who really don't belong in graduate school away from it, it's also not fair to present these "reasons" as faults within the system. Sure, the system isn't perfect, but most of these "reasons" point out why a particular type of person shouldn't go to graduate school, not why graduate school isn't right for certain people.

    1. So Anon 11:15, who are these people who should go to grad school for the "right" reasons? Probably not intelligence, since it appears that students' grades across North America are on the rise, and graduate programs keep popping up all over. Obviously there are enough smart students to keep up with the demand for grad school spaces.

      Maybe they're students who are financially secure before school (with a financially wealthy partner, from a wealthy family, lottery winner, etc)? They can stand years of low income.

      Maybe they're students that are unusually smart and talented? Top of their class, completed original research in their undergrad or earlier, etc? These folks might be smart but again, the job market looks bleak. All but the brightest stars will have trouble finding employment post PhD.

      I'm not really convinced there are "right" reasons to go into graduate studies. In a perfect world, it would be a beneficial choice for students looking for an intellectually and academically rigorous career path, and will be rewarded based on their choices. Right now, pursuing a PhD is a bit like trying to get into Broadway or into professional baseball; most people will be very disappointed.

      I do agree that this blog is partially intended to warn students from pursuing grad studies, and it's a position I completely endorse. There are many, many misconceptions about graduate school ("Having a PhD will make me even more employable!", "I don't know what else to do, so I'll keep going in school", "Being a prof would be super sweet") and this blog is one of several resources to help dispel these myths.

    2. What myths? People with PhDs, on a whole host of metrics, are in better economic, social, and employment shape than those from any other educational demographic. That's reality, not myth. I get it: your unhappy with your life. I suggest you look up the material conditions of those with only a high school diploma and reconsider. After all, they have vastly higher unemployment, far lower incomes, far less social mobility, far higher chances of being the victim of a crime, far lower chances of being insured, worse life expectancy, etc., than those with graduate degrees. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

      The incredible sensitivity to even the slightest criticism of this blog demonstrates what it's really for: not people who are thinking about going to grad school, but people who tried or are trying and want to whine endlessly that all of their dreams didn't come true. Guess what: that's grown up life. You don't get what you want. Everything does not end up just the way you dreamed. Sorry.

    3. Awwww, poor you. Nobody else here is asking for sympathy, but it sure sounds like you are. You are so very "sorry" for everything.

      You know what being a grown up is? It's taking stock of things you think are important in life, and when you find things wrong, figuring out ways to fix them. People who care about education in this country, which obviously is not you, can't avoid confronting the problems with higher ed today. Graduate students are on the front lines. And before anyone can figure out how to fix higher ed -- by which I don't just mean graduate school or "the profession" but how problems in these areas affect the quality of undergrad education, too -- we have to be able to talk about them. That's what we're doing here, and it's refreshing, because in most grad departments there's a culture silence and fear that prevent discussion.

      As far as statistics go, contingent faculty in the humanities -- now up to a whopping 70% on many campuses according to the AAUP -- earn less than people with merely high school diplomas. Sure, being an adjunct is better than working in a rock quarry, but we're not talking about an either/or situation here. And if you really think it's super awesome that the people teaching a majority of undergraduate classes are earning less than their students will earn in entry-level office jobs upon graduation, you clearly neither know nor care much about the value and future of education.

      I'm so "sorry" that talking about these problems seems to offend you so much.

    4. I went to grad school because i love science and have questions. I learned i can teach as a side project. I am done F-ing off and will graduate in a few months. Glad i came. won do it again...likely wont use degree. physical chemist. y'all have fun with it as thats what life's about.

  4. Anonymous 11:15, you are out of your mind. Grad school is an insane Ponzi scheme. This blog beautifully exposes the realities of grad school life, which are true no matter how big of an academic rock star you are, and just because some people can survive (even thrive) in this system doesn't make it right. This entry is a perfect refutation of your claim. The author points out the numerous systemic barriers to completing a PhD in a timely manner: labor requirements, research requirements, the mind-bendingly insipid genre of the dissertation (required). None of these are whimsical choices of the author. These are ingrained practices common to most graduate programs.

    1. You seem pretty sensitive, there. Are you sure that, in fact, your opinion isn't colored by your own personal dissatisfaction with your own life and your own education?

    2. Freddie: A pointless ad hominem attack. Why not focus on what the poster is actually saying and not try to come up with psychoanalytical reasons to dismiss her argument out of hand?

    3. @Anonymous 9:58
      Because Freddie probably has/is working towards a PhD in Psychology and that makes him believe that the world is his patient, while ignoring the mirror.

  5. Great post. I heard that question for years and thank you for acknowledging that you sometimes really don't know when you'll finish and that even you are surprised at how long it is taking. I did finish but I later paid for how long it took me to finish. How long did it take me? 4 years after I took a TT job. My job involved a 4-4 teaching load, advising, committee work, conference activity. I was happy and grateful that the TT clock didn't start until I was finished. I worked nonstop on the dissertation during breaks and summers. One summer I went back to my university and immersed myself in the dissertation. How did I later pay for the delay in getting the dissertation completed? Although never mentioned during my probationary years, during my T&P evaluation there was reference to me taking "too long" to get my dissertation done and subtle slams on my character for needing 4 years to finish. (No one mentioned, however, my teaching and service loads). Please learn from my experience -- never ever take a job ABD ... it will likely be used against you.

    1. I'm astounded you were even hired ABD. I didn't think any universities did this any more. Even twenty-five years ago, more and more universities were insisting that their new tenure-track hires have degree in hand, precisely in order to avoid what you went through. Too many people failed to finish, and then got kicked out of their jobs because they didn't have their doctorate by the time someone thought they ought to. And as you've learned, no expectations are unreasonable as long as they're being applied to someone other than the hiring/review committee.

  6. Again-- who told you this was easy? Who told you that you get what you want in life? Who told you life was fair? Somebody lied to you.

    You know what's hard? Busting rocks in a quarry. You know what's unfair? Not having the social capital or prerequisite education to get into graduate school. You know what isn't that bad? Being a graduate student. The data-- you know, the actual facts-- tell us that Americans with graduate degrees are some of the most secure and fortunate people on planet Earth. That's reality. No, it's true. Going to grad school doesn't mean that people fall at your feet and proclaim your genius. It's not going to get you a lot of money, but then, since there are no jobs out there anyway, that's probably not in the cards for you no matter what you do.

    The truth is that you all bought into the idea that you are entitled to whatever you want. It's hilarious to see people talk about how much better it would be to go get a job, considering how many people are absolutely miserable in their jobs. The fact is that you're not happy because you bought into the idea that you're going to be rich and famous, and when you find that life is not some romantic dream, you flip out. Well: you're not going to be rich or famous. You're not going to write that novel or sell that screenplay. You're not going to be recognized as some genius. I'm sorry, really I am. But blaming grad school because you're unhappy is pointless. You're just going to drop out and move on to some other venture that you hate.

    Nobody ever promised you anything. Grow up.

    1. Get over yourself. Very few people criticizing graduate school "bought into the idea that you are entitled to whatever you want." They worked hard to excel at academic work with the very reasonable goal of earning the credentials necessary to qualify them for careers as professors.

      Nobody is talking about writing novels or screenplays or getting rich and famous or having people fall down at their feet proclaiming their genius. Possibly those are your disappointed dreams?

      Graduate schools aren't to blame for making anyone unhappy, but they are to blame for exploitative labor practices that dramatically slow time to degree for a majority of graduate students and effectively eliminate the need for colleges and universities to create permanent jobs for those same graduate students once they earn their PhDs.

    2. Freddie, writing a screenplay is a get rich quick scheme, same as forming a band or making a YouTube video that you'll hope will go viral.
      A screenplay might take 5 months,a dissertation takes easily 5 years and counting. No one goes into grad school expecting to be rich, much less famous. In grad school you talk bout tons of obscure theories which no one else knows or cares about. The PhD students I know are some of the most hardworking, smart and motivated people around (yes, some can be arrogant at times). And all these people end up frustrated with grad school, in great part because there is little public knowledge of all the socio-economic implications surrounding grad school, to those who aren't in it. This blog does a huge service to those considering grad school.


    3. Freddie makes a salient point that when you look at the larger context - the problems of grad students or PhD's are very much "middle class problems."

      Look at the lifetime earnings, crime (or victim of crimes) statistics, unemployment rate, divorce rate, single parentage, and a whole host of other "misery rate" factors and the data show conclusively that more education is better than less. Post-graduate scholars do better than bachelors only, better than 2 yr degree only, and so forth. The AVERAGE unemployment rate for all PhDs in 2009 was 2.5%. Average monthly unemployment rate overall was 7.9% in 2009.

      Now there are economics to consider - opportunity costs and law of diminishing returns. But 2.5 is a lot less than 7.9 no matter how you cut it. That's counting ALL PhDs - the subset of humanities may be a different story, we don't have that kind of data. But I wonder how humanities phd unemployment is compared to the overall population? There's a sociology, economics, or education dissertation for you. At any rate, the more education you have, the data show those people are several times more likely to find employment doing something, whether that is a function of the education or those persons' increased ingenuity for solving problems and being persistent, which the degree is only a symbol of, is up for debate.

      I often think academics need to take good long looks in the mirror, then look at what they do have, then use different points of reference to consider their situation in its entirety. They have it pretty nice depending who you compare to. A major factor to consider would be work hours. A tenured professor puts in fewer hours than almost any other white collar job paying that much. Even an adjunct working 2 gigs is putting in far fewer hours than someone else having to work two pt jobs, even though the total pay may be similar. Probably 50-60% fewer actual work hours.

      Even for a relatively low rate of pay, academics are doing work they *want* to do - that in itself is a luxury that should be factored in to the total economics of grad school.

      I'm not saying grad school and higher ed in general is not screwed up. It is. But I think what it suffers from is a different form of the disease that our entire economy suffers from. If you look at the whole economy - the same problems appear - less job security, more pt and temps where permanent positions once were, declining purchasing power, fewer benefits offered, etc...

    4. Aaron, you are crazy if you think tenured professors or adjuncts put in "less time" than any other profession. Are you only considering face time in the classroom and office hours or something?

      Really now. So for teaching only faculty I guess all those hours spent writing tests, grading, prepping lectures, researching new teaching methods, time answering incessant emails, and various other administrative and bureaucratic issues are not considered work time?

      And for tenured faculty the research and the conferences and department service and grant writing, mentoring students in the major etc etc. are also not to be considered part of their work time?

      I'm pretty sure that it works out to more hours on average than the normal 8hr work day job.

      I agree that some of what is going on around here is just complaining of the garden variety. But don't you even dare try to say that the job is easy or less strenuous than other jobs around.

      It really seems to me like the biggest problem with higher ed are the expectations that we should all come out of this as scholars and foremost experts in our field who do cutting edge work. It's just not possible for that to be true with the way that the graduate school experience is set up now. There are just too many of us, and not enough one on one training, and too many other distractions, and all the reasons that are being exposed on this blog and others.

      We are being trained to do something that a very small number of people really ought to be doing. I think a lot of the pressure would be taken off the system if either a much smaller number of people were admitted to grad programs, OR the grad program goals were structured differently eliminating the stigma of "leaving" the academy, and perhaps even making employment in any capacity the ultimate goal.

    5. "Aaron, you are crazy if you think tenured professors or adjuncts put in "less time" than any other profession."

      Depends how you handle it, but unless you're doing an insane overload, you should be able to get the work done in 40-50 hours a week tops. With the unstructured nature of academic work, though, it can stretch out.

      As a freeway flier adjunct at 2 colleges, I make about the same wage as I did as a salaried retail manager. Total compensation is probably a few grand less when you factor in health insurance, which I have to buy on my own. I often had to put in 12 hour days, 5-6 days a week doing that.

      You can parse the differences between those two ways of making a living, but I feel the unstructured time is worth the 5-7K less total compensation. I'm probably "working" on average 45 hours a week, especially during grading times, but this is what I like doing; it doesn't feel like work. Whereas when I clocked in at Mr. Big-box, I hated my life.

      "We are being trained to do something that a very small number of people really ought to be doing."

      I don't think so. In my discipline (history), there are fewer phd's produced per year than there were in the 1970s & early 80s.

      The financial problem is corruption and mismanagement within the system. There is more demand for college and there are more students than ever before. If you just look at the sheer number of students in college in the U.S. each year - there is literally no reason that there is no employment for instructors of foundational, required subjects like English, Math, History, Government, etc...

      At the tuition rates where I teach - if an adjunct's class fills up the college grosses 400% profit (a 3 credit class costs about $425 * 36 students - $15,000+, adjunct stipend $3000). Even at the full time rate there is still considerable gross profit from tuition alone - around 120%, - this isn't counting property taxes and state & federal funding the college collects.

      The colleges are mismanaging their finances grossly. They spend money on administrators, luxurious grounds & facilities, technology etc... - it's the same problem that makes our health care so expensive.

  7. Freddie, you sound like a new or newly admitted grad student. Just give it a few years. This will all make more sense.

    1. Yep. I thought exactly the same.

    2. Ditto. Freddie is working pretty hard here to convince himself grad school was a good choice made with eyes wide open.

    3. Absolutely. Hilarious.

  8. These are the kind of people who regularly ask me when I'm going to graduate/ finish my doctorate:

    Relatives at every Thanksgiving/Christmas/wedding
    People I've just met
    Old friends from high school/college
    Former teachers
    My dentist (every visit)
    Friendly baristas
    Grad students I don't know very well
    Undergrads who figure out I'm not a "doctor"
    Anyone I haven't seen in a while

    The list goes on. It's the sort of thing that people start asking you as soon as you start working on a doctorate and then they never stop. It's not always the same people, but it's always the same question. The funny thing is that my answer was a lot more confident a few years ago than it is now.

  9. Freddie and the Anonymous at 11:15 sound similar: sock puppetry?

    I think people are catching on to the post-graduate scam; law school admissions are dropping according to the LS scamblogs; I'm guessing that even the anemic economic recovery is getting people to think twice about $40,000 in debt and ten years lost in grad school.

  10. The uncertainty about when you will finish is a symptom of something else that most people don't understand about graduate school and employment in academia: People in them actually have less control over their destinies than people who learn trades or train for other kinds of professions.

    The student who is less certain than she was five years earlier about when she'll finish will become--even if she does finish--someone who will have very little choice about where and how she will work. She can't pick a part of the country or world and say, "I want to work there!" or have any real idea of how long it will take to get a tenure-track job--or, for that matter, of whether she will get one.

    Is it any wonder that grad students and people in the academic world, particularly in the humanities, smoke more than other people? Or that we see eating disorders, binge drinking and other kinds of self-abuse among students who've been in grad school for a while?

  11. What are the raw odds of a PhD in the humanities or social sciences getting a job as a tenure track professor? In other words what is (roughly) the number of humanities/social sciences PhDs that are seeking tenure track jobs divided by the number of tenure track jobs that are on offer in humanities and social sciences? Is it something like 10%, or 1%, or 0.1%, or what? How does that number compare to the odds of a college basketball player entering the pros?

    1. Simple, if you're playing at a division III college, and you're barely a starter and already a junior, you know that you won't make it to the NBA or even the Euro leagues. In grad school, you can be a star, and that STILL doesn't guarantee you a tenure track job or any academic job for that matter.


    2. Okay 10:49 but I really was hoping to learn the actual numerical odds, rather than just a metaphorical comparison to getting into the NBA. It seems like the conversation gets heated and can easily approach hyperbole without the benefit of grounding in facts. If we at least knew the real odds then we would know how risky it really is, which would help to underscore the real sacrifice people are making compared to other professional choices. Does anyone have a sense of these actual numerical odds or where they can be found (not just anecdotal)?

    3. There are no statistics on this, and there never likely will as the facts would be very damaging to universities. You'll only ever get anechdotal evidence. Here's mine:

      Of the 10 PhD grads in my dept, two have landed TT jobs, one in a multidisplinary dept, the other in a bush league school. A few others are adjuncts, one went into a govt position, the other are MIA.

      I applied for a TT position once that had over 300 appliants.

    4. Facts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are helpful here, if universities are not. BLS finds that "over 70 percent of doctoral-degree holders work outside of colleges and universities." That should tell you something about the availability of academic jobs. Moreover, the data were gathered before the recession and include all fields, not just the humanities and social sciences. I would guess that, since the recession and within the humanities and social sciences, it's a greater percentage today -- that is of PhDs working in nonacademic jobs.

      And this is to say nothing of the increase in contingent faculty positions, often filled by graduate students, which vastly outnumber tenure track ones. When people ask the "When are you going to finish?" question, your answer should be, "Never, if I want to keep teaching, because the only way I can justify the salary and working conditions of an adjunct (or TA) position is to be 'still a student' myself, yet this is all I have to look forward to once I do finish -- adjuncting or taking a nonacademic job."

    5. There's no shortage of "rankings" offered to the public as "objective" measures of graduate program or institutional quality, but they're designed to bring people into the system. Where are all of the objective measures of graduate program outcomes?

      They're hard to find for a reason. The posts on this blog are riddled with links to disheartening information. (Take a look at some of the articles in the right sidebar.)

      Here's a cut-and-paste from an R. Vedder article mentioned in #43:

      "Consider the following. Looking at BLS data for 2008, over 10,500 persons with Ph.D. or professional degrees were employed as “cashiers” (excluding gaming); over 27,400 were retail salespersons; and well over 4,700 were hairdressers, hairstylists, or cosmetologists."

    6. In his syndicated column, Thomas Sowell recently mentioned faculty "resistance" to publishing graduate program outcome information:

      "Now, 50 years later, there is a long feature article in the February 17 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education on the chronic over-supply of historians. Worse yet, leading university history departments are resisting demands that they keep track of what happens to their students after they get their Ph.D.s — and inform prospective Ph.D.s of what the market is like.

      If any business operated this way, selling customers something that was very costly in time and money, and which the sellers knew in advance was almost certain to disappoint their expectations, academics would be bursting with indignation — and demanding full disclosure to the customers, if not criminal prosecutions.

      But The Chronicle of Higher Education reports 'faculty resistance' to collecting and publishing information on what happens to a university’s history Ph.D.s after they leave the ivy-covered walls with high hopes and low prospects.

      At a number of big-name universities — Northwestern, Brown, and the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill — at least one-fourth of their 2010 history Ph.D.s either are unemployed or their fate is unknown.

      At Brown University, for example, 38 percent of their 2010 Ph.D.s are in that category, compared with only 25 percent who have tenure-track appointments."

    7. This is an excellent question, and I would first, not put too much stock in a national review article.

      There isn't a great amount of data, but I think it's not quite as dismal as some say, although one has to seriously consider the oppotunity costs lost. There is much more bang for your buck in other fields.

      This indicates over the past 3 decades phd's in history were produced at a rate of about a median of 900-1000 per year from while jobs for them were "created" at a rate of about 750-850 per year.

      I'd say a rough estimate is about a 15-30% oversupply per year of minimally qualified candidates per job in the history field. 15% in the good years, 30% in the bad, maybe more in the bad years.

      This is all pre-recession, mind you. But my anecdotal experience is that everyone I know that did the following things DID find a TT or Full-time equivalent job at SOME institution (university/college, community college, in some cases private academies or charter schools, etc... - 1) finished their PhD in a reasonable time, 2) published something, 3) extended their search nationally - literally everywhere, 4) were persistent over 2-4 years. This is coming from a lower-tiered PhD program.

      Now someone with that level of education in an in-demand field would have his or her pick of jobs. You really have to question the costs of that level of education if that is what you need to do to find a job when a bachelors would give you similar income level options without those restrictions.

    8. I, for one, don't care if it's the National Review or the New Left Review that does it, I'm just glad that *somebody* is bringing some attention to the scandal.

      Keeping track of PhDs by voluntary surveys or some other means is not complicated. There is no incentive for most departments to do it, because it would reflect badly on their programs. They like to name a few places where past graduates are now working without offering any numbers.

      Those 15-30% degree overproduction figures sound too rosy to me, but even if they're right, it's MUCH worse than that in any given year, because you're competing with the people who didn't get hired last year (not to mention previous years), plus the people whose contracts end this year, etc.

      The same people re-enter the market every 2-3 years, because they work on contracts. If you go on the job market for the first time, the other new PhDs are only part of your competition.

      By the way, if the history department at Ivy League Brown University (home of Gordon Wood) is only getting 25 percent of its new PhDs into tenure-track jobs, what does that tell you?

    9. I was warned (and stupidly, stupidly did not listen) by a professor before entering grad school that the number of TT positions available for people in our field of academia (Russian literature) was 5 -- across all of North America and Western Europe, which are fought over by the hundreds of new PhDs each year and those from previous years.

  12. I think that those people who asked me this question were actually envious of what they thought that grad school extension of undergrad life. Thank goodness I've finished since I had enough of having to answer that question from people who were almost always not in academia. When I did ask I often asked them to clarify what they meant and it became obvious that they thought that I was taking classes and shouldn't have not be doing that anymore?? The worst time was during the time that I was writing up my thesis as I was working as well as writing. As Anon. mentioned earlier
    " Most of these people can't assemble an intelligible written sentence, but are making much more money than I ever will."
    Yes and yes..and irony of it was that it was usually asked by lawyers who were making far more money than I'll ever make. They were convinced that my life was something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel/art house movie.

  13. As someone who's been in grad school for the past 5 years, pursuing a humanities Ph.D., hoping to 'finish' next year, and been ABD for what seems like forever, my humble take on the blogpost from whence all these comments sprang is that this is a reflection of stuff I honestly didn't know when I started grad school.

    At no time did I see grad school as an extension of undergrad, especially since I did a Masters degree before beginning a Ph.D. But there are many things I didn't know and now that I do know them, I would still make the same decision to do what I'm doing. But that's not for everyone and potential grad students - especially in the humanities need to know what they're getting into.

    Having done my undergrad degree in another country I really don't know about the prep one gets for grad school here in the United States if such a thing even exists. But I do know that looking back, I wish someone had given me a manual or even a handbook with just a few things to consider before taking the plunge. I doubt it would have changed my mind but the knowledge would have been good.

    I say all this to say that based on the above comments, I feel some persons may have misconstrued the intention of the blog and that's understandable given its name. A more suitable title may be "Things to consider before going to grad school. After this, you can't say you weren't warned." It's a little wordy but I'm an English major........

  14. PHD = "piled higher and deeper" (everyone knows this)

    ABD = "all but done" (some don't seem to know this)

    Never, never, ever, ever accept an academic teaching position when you are all but done. I watched the poor non-STEM faculty at my little liberal arts school get abused constantly (in terms of pay, prestige, etc.) when they were ABD. I cannot imagine what possessed them to accept a faculty position before finishing their degree. They must have enjoyed pain.

    It is far better to just bail out of the academy entirely and get a real job than it is to prolong your pain & suffering as an ABD non-STEM faculty member at middle-of-nowhere college.

    And if you are a STEM student, it is better to leave the academy with a Master's degree (also known as the consolation or door prize) than it is to leave "all but done". At the very least the Master's degree will give you an incrementally better salary at a real job. And it provides closure.

  15. Correction: ABD = "All But Dead"!

  16. Law student, eh? Started thinking about that future job yet? May I make a suggestion? Check out JD Match in between the papers and exams. I work with JD Match and it’s a great step for any law student looking for an AmLaw firm job and a little weight off their shoulders.

  17. This website is basically satire. The self-conscious irony evident in each entry is both briliant and satisfying.

    Anyone who does not recognize the rhetorical skill displayed in these entries is probably a poor writer and definitely a poor critic.

    Relax, sense the humor, use this website as the catharsis it's intended to be. 'It's every soldier's prerogative to complain,' yes?

  18. 'All but done'? Really?

    ABD = All But Dissertation
    One is ABD once one finishes all coursework and passes exams.

    1. ABD = All But Dissertation = All But Done = Did Not Finish = All But Dead (as far as an academic future is concerned).

      It's in your best interest to make the ABD phase as brief as possible (not that anybody seems to be able to do that anymore). It takes years to get there, but for all practical purposes it's a worthless milestone. More like a millstone than a milestone, really.

  19. These entries get more and more painful to read and closer to home as we get closer to #100. I am just about to finish, and this "When will you finish?" question stresses me out more now than it did when I was drowning in research and writing. I want to be able to just say "I graduate in May!" but instead I give this laundry list of all the little things I have to do between now and then, as if anyone cares.

    And then there are people who continue to ask this AFTER you've finished. A friend of mine finished 3 years ago and now works in industry and people still ask him when he will finish, or what classes he's taking next semester. He's 35 and hasn't taken a class since he was 27, before he became ABD. People see you as a grad student forever, I think.

    1. Good point. The question will continue to be asked long after you graduate. I still get it once in awhile from people who I told that I finished three years ago. Their memory of me being a grad student obviously is stronger than their memory of me telling them that I finished.

      The other question you'll get long after you finish is when are you going to starting working at the university, even if you have no interest in that line of work or are gainfully employed in a non-academic job.

      People will ask this thinking that it's a matter of simply dropping off a resume at a university and the president saying "We need good people with a PhD. You start tomorrow at 7am, sharp!"

    2. Oh, yes, and a variation of the "When are you going to start working as a professor?" is "When are you going to start working as a professor at [name of the place where you got your Ph.D.]?"

      My relatives love that one: "Why doesn't Grad U hire you? You did such a great job there as a student for all those years. I'm sure they can find a place for you! Are you sure they have your resume?"

      No amount of explanation that "it doesn't work that way" helps.

  20. International StudentMarch 14, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    "The members of your faculty committee decide when you’re finished."

    This is the worst part! I am ABD right now and I am worried about the power my committee can have to hold me back. Even if you have done everything you are supposed to do, the committee can delay things, even if it's not done maliciously. People can be busy all of a sudden or get sick or take new jobs. I think the hardest part about academia is surrendering control to others. They decide when you finish, whether your work is good enough, whether you go to this conference or that one etc. I think this is fine when they are provided good and constructive feedback, but many times it seems academics use grad students' lives as a site for asserting their own power in the profession.

    1. The faculty committee decides when you are done. When you enroll you are finished.

  21. This is an interesting post. I found that faculty are a big cause for delay. Sometimes they don't read chapters, delay prelims, call for pointless revisions. It's all weird. I like to write and research. Always have, so I didn't find the actual writing of the diss that bad. I published most of it. Kind of fun. It was all the other stuff that caused endless delays.

  22. Though I'm not quite at the stage where I'm extremely behind and won't graduate on time, I know many of my peers who this post would speak directly to. A group of my fellow grad students and I are writing for a blog with a similar concept: We're just getting started. But we've added you to our blogroll and looking forward to reading more!

  23. I notice how much this blog is bombarded by pro-academia people that don't have even the decency to be critical, either they are daughters/son of academia people thinking it is about time to follow a family legacy or just that their depression really shows in those comments. Either keep the good work of this humble blog, it gives me so much comfort while I try to convince myself to finish my assembly line Ph.D. Thanks!

  24. I'm sure people like me pop up from time to time to make this observation, but I think its remarkable how much of the grad school critique applies to law school. You may be aware of the "scam blog" movement, a group of blogs by law school graduates attempting to educate future generations about the realities of both law school and the job market (or lack thereof) that awaits them.

    Law school is relatively short, and probably a lot more fun, but you end up with a $100K to $200K debt to repay when you graduate. The odds of landing a desirable job are similarly long. The law school equivalent of a tenure track teaching position is a job with a big law firm or government agency, the sort that pays enough to accommodate those $1,000 a month student loan payments. Of course, such jobs are very scarce and the competition is fierce.

    And its very interesting to read about attempts to make grad schools publish placement results. This is something law schools do, BUT, they use it as an opportunity to lie! They spin the statistics to tell a very misleading story, and there are currently several class action lawsuits against 30 or so law schools for this very thing.

    We have our own Freddies too, and they are very frustrating. These "personal responsibility" types sincerely believe that it is the student's fault for failing to see through the bullshit stats, failing to appreciate that they were being lied to, failing to "research" the job market, etc. Does it matter to the Freddies that the prospective students (known as 0Ls) are 18-20 year olds with no worldly experience? Not at all. They are "adults" and should know.

    And, then we get the hostile 0Ls. These are the people who have just decided to enter law school and they are convinced that anybody warning them away is just a loser. Not like them!

    Anyway, I enjoy this site, it makes me feel a little better about having not gone to grad school. Any of you who think you should have gone to law school, don't worry about that either.

  25. I have a question about law school. Can't you open your own practice? That's something that you can't do with a humanities Ph.D.

    I've always thought a J.D. had it better because he could go private. Is that also a falsehood?

  26. It's half-false. In theory, you can open your own practice. However, it is going to be extremely difficult to actually earn money this way. For one thing, the market is saturated, and paying clients are very hard to come by. For another, fresh graduates don't actually know how to practice law in a way helpful to clients. Fresh graduates know a lot of background and foundational material, but they need on the job training to learn how to apply those in real situations for real people. In other words, lawyers need mentors and those mentors come in the form of employers. Without a mentor, you're at a serious disadvantage.

    1. Gotcha. I had a similar response from a guy who runs an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) construction firm. He said that a new guy with an HVAC degree from a community college is not too useful; it takes five years working with an experienced man to learn enough to be worth hiring. So he hires new guys and eats the cost of training as a part of doing business.

      Can you get work as a public defender or a prosecutor? Or are they saturated as well? I know the work is unpleasant on either side, but still. It beats nothing.

    2. You REALLY don't want to be a public defender. Some of those guys are guilty and they don't forgive their representation for not keeping them out of jail.

      As either a public defender or public prosecutor you will learn things about your "fellow man" that will absolutely turn your stomach. I knew a public prosecutor who had an anecdote about a prison riot. That story still makes me ill every time I think about it.

    3. Even those public sector law jobs that used to be quite plentiful have become scarce as hen's teeth. They used to be the consolation prize of the legal profession, but now that opportunities to practice long-term are becoming increasingly scarce and debt is hard to pay off, they have become the golden goose.

      Also, it is very true that criminal law changes your outlook on humanity. The prosecutors/defense attorneys I know are some of the most jaded people you could imagine.

  27. Outsider here.

    There are a fair number of jobs for new law graduates even now but most opportunities for new non-Yale/Harvard/Stanford types are located in "flyover country". Worse, these jobs pay in the mid- to lower mid-five figures. Not enough to justify relocating when the new J.D. owes $150,000 to Sallie Mae.

    Question for 8:17...what is an "assembly line" Ph.D.? I thought that one big criticism of the Ph.D. process is that it ISN'T an assembly line with clear goals and deadlines?

  28. I wonder if the author of this blog will discuss the law school scam.

    Google "shitlaw" and you'll see how bad the job market for lawyers is. $200K in student loans is slavery.

  29. I know this isn't exactly the right post for this, but here is a link to a story about a lawsuit being filed by an Art history professor who was denied tenure at the University of Louisville, Louisville! because she didn't produce enough "creative research."

    Mind you, she was teaching 8-9 classes a year, served on numerous committees, mentored many undergrads and grads, and STILL managed to publish two peer-reviewed articles. And we are talking about a non-top tier university in a relatively low profile location!

    1. Oh, and btw, this is particularly for those outsiders who seem to think we have it made, or that it is just like any other job. I think in any other job this sort of performance would have been considered above and beyond the call of duty and rewarded. If this is how jobs are everywhere, then we have a serious problem with how we look at work in this country.

    2. I think we've all had the experience in a workplace where the people who do a lot get no recognition, while the people who do little get promoted.

      In my experience in the army it happened all the time.

      What I wish this issue would expose - is what the leadership of the universities see as their mission. Clearly, service to students is NOT part of it as Prof. Britt's experience shows. There is a HUGE disconnect between what the public wants from higher ed and what higher ed administration prioritizes.

  30. I was sitting in a coffee shop yesterday when the barista asked a customer sitting at a table with his laptop, "So when are you gonna be done with school?" I didn't hear what he answered, but I heard her say (somewhat meanly), "Well it'll probably all be for nothing!" The guy that she was talking to looked too old to be a college student, so I assume that he was in grad school or something.

    At the table on the other side of me was a woman in her last year of law school, which I heard her explain to someone who recognized her, walked over to talk to her, and immediately asked her when she would finish!

    I heard both of these conversations in a span of ten minutes.

  31. As somebody who has been working on a Ph.D. way longer than I ever thought I'd be, I've had a lot of time to ponder why it has taken me so long to get done. Here are a few thoughts.

    1) When you're a grad student with no money, simple things take forever. I have to take the bus or walk to buy groceries, so every trip to the store turns into a 2-hour ordeal. I have to go shopping a couple of times per week, because I can only carry a limited amount of stuff home. Walking to campus and back takes forever, going to the post office takes forever, laundry takes forever... One of my friends took out a student loan just so that he could afford to keep his old car. His TA stipend was only enough to cover his rent and food (true for me, too).

    2) Doing too much at the same time is bad. I find myself in this situation all the time. I'm working on a paper for a conference, trying to get my TA grading done, trying to write a few paragraphs of my diss (which always gets bumped down the priority list because other things are due next week or whatever), trying to get a hopeless fellowship application in the mail, writing letters of recommendation for students because TA's like me know them slightly better than their profs, and so on and so on... I completely understand that profs have to do a lot of the same stuff, but it seems to me like this would all be a lot easier with a quiet office, a quiet living space, and some wheels to get between them. Maybe I'm dreaming.

    3) It's hard to do things that you hate doing. I can't tell you how many people promised me that I would get to the point when I hated my dissertation. I didn't believe them, but they were right. Now I'm at the point when even simple things that I have to tweak here and there in the dissertation are not getting done because I just can't bring myself to deal with them. I know exactly what I have to do. I know how to do it. I just can't make myself do it. It's stupid to let this happen, but it's like I have some kind of mental paralysis.

    4) When everything looks depressing ahead of you, it's hard to move forward. I've been pretty close to finished for a long time now (oxymoronic, I know), so I've been looking at the open job postings for a couple of years. Once you see how specialized most of the postings are, you realize how few jobs there are and the kinds of places where the jobs are. It's not pretty. The thought of finishing after all of these years and then not getting hired is hard to swallow. It seems better to stay a grad student for a while longer, so I dilly-dally.

    None of these excuses sound very good when somebody asks me when I'm going to graduate.

    1. I hope some light in the tunnel appears for you, but I know it's hard to figure out what to do other than keep the status quo.

      In my case I either need to be in a different department, or quit and do something else, but either choice is just so hard to make the move toward. Starting in a new department will set me back another 2-3 years (I've already transferred once), and applying for jobs outside academia is baffling and difficult for me. I don't even remotely know what sorts of jobs I'd qualify for or that I can make a convincing argument to employers for.

      Sadness all around.