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.



144 comments:

  1. Every so often I wonder if I ought to seek a professorship, and I wonder if my work as a computer programmer (rather than as a mathematician) has cut me off from this option. Of course, that likely isn't a bad thing...

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  2. It's sad but true. I work in a govt research office that gets a lot of academic applicants for jobs. PhDs with no non-academic experience almost never make the shortlist for interview. This is because we have no idea whether the person has the skills or ability to do the work. Even an MA grad with a couple years of relevant work experience fares better.

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    1. Not only that, they are other two reasons that make you avoid to shortlist him/her:
      1- If he/she claims for a right salary, your company would not be happy with that

      2nd- Why hiring someone better or equally qualified than you? As a PhD he/she just need some hours of practice he/she will be very good and may take over someone's else position :)

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    2. No reason at all to think the PhD better qualified. None.

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  3. When I was in school, I believed that "qualified" was linear. More education meant better qualified. A person with a PhD could do the jobs done by a person with a bachelor's, who in turn could do the jobs done by a person with a high school diploma, who could do the jobs done by a high school dropout. The reverse was not true. Hence you could never lose by getting more education. If the worst came to worst, you could always step down a rung on the ladder, so to speak.

    In reality, you cannot simply "be qualified". You must be "qualified at something". A person who has been a cleaner for 5 years is infinitely more qualified at being a cleaner than the freshly minted PhD in English. The PhD in English is not overqualified when she applies for a position as a cleaner; she has no qualifications whatsoever for that particular position. (This might not prevent the PhD from getting the job. Employers do take chances on totally unproven people; this is how everyone gets their first job). Now, people might scoff at these particular choices of vocations. If it helps you deal with reality, replace cleaner with "software engineer" and PhD in English with "PhD in software engineering".

    I also believed in a sort of hierarchy of subjects. A mathematician could do the job of a physicist who could do the job of an engineer. (Can you tell I have a master's in math?) For certain values of "could do", this is in fact true. But a mathematician who interviews for a job as an engineer might get asked why it's advisable in C++ to have a virtual destructor when a class has at least one virtual method. The mathematician might reply that he doesn't know such minutiae; he could give you five proofs of the pumping lemma though if you're interested. The job will probably go to someone else.

    I'm a bit ashamed that I could keep up such childish magical thinking for so long. It always amazes me when I see people older than me have the same attitude. Humanities professors who claim that "you can do everything" with an English degree because "it teaches you how to think"[1] - I'm looking at you. On some level it might be true, but having a theoretical ability to do something doesn't always translate nicely into having the actual ability to do that thing.

    [1] Suppose this is true. Why do we wait until college to teach people how to think? Shouldn't it be like the first lesson in the first grade? It'd save everyone a whole heap of time.

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    1. I think we also have a tendency to look down on people who do "manual labor", without appreciating how much skill it takes to do some of these things--and how much our lives depend on people willing to be paid to do such work.

      My wife has a cousin who I love to listen to, because he tells all sorts of fascinating stories about digging ditches, welding, and other construction things. I wish I had the time to learn how to do the things he does!

      I can't go to school to learn that kind of stuff, though, because I have these huge student loans hovering over my head; for that matter, I can't even consider entry-level positions in these fields. I probably could have done so, however, had I gone into them directly after completing my bachelor's or even if I had thought to seek out such work to earn money while I was in school (and thereby limiting my student loan debt somewhat).

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    2. "Why do we wait until college to teach people how to think? Shouldn't it be like the first lesson in the first grade? It'd save everyone a whole heap of time."

      There are a lot of things about our education system that are screwed up. Higher ed has problems because K-12 has problems. Any reform has to be bottom up, but that will never happen.

      In general, we're educating more people than we ever tried to before. Obviously that reduces quality at all levels. Inflation. Simple economic concept.

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    3. "Why do we wait until college to teach people how to think? Shouldn't it be like the first lesson in the first grade? It'd save everyone a whole heap of time."

      Indeed. Not to mention, it kind of casts doubts on how "prestigious" these colleges are if they're accepting new students that don't know how to think.

      For a really good take on that cliche, read the David Foster Wallace commencement address.

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    4. "Why do we wait until college to teach people how to think? Shouldn't it be like the first lesson in the first grade?"

      NO. Little kids are not ready to think. They are ready to practice and memorize. Trying to teach them to think actually teaches them that they can't think. They then start using strategies to fake it and you end up with brainwashed folks who think that all they need is a Ph.D. and the right PC outlook and they will get a good job, nice house and hot girl. Does not work.

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  4. My friend works with a guy with two BAs, two MAs, and a doctorate. Can't cut it. Known as the least competent guy in the office and is a laughingstock amongst his "less educated" colleagues.

    If you want people to be impressed by your degree, get a good one, get lucky, and stay in academia. Outside of the ivory tower, nobody's impressed.

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    1. Many of my collegues with Ph.D's in Computer Science work for IBM, Google, Microsoft, with very high salaries (I imagine, or they would switch). They are well-respected. You can't say it applies for all. (the univ. I'm talking about was at place 29 in this area in the rankings at that time)

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  5. Outsider here:

    A friend does a lot of hiring of engineers for a major tech company. The company looks for a BSEE from a select list of schools for new hires. A Master's can be a plus if the thesis/project is in an area of company concern. Otherwise, no great advantage. A Ph.D. is essentially disqualifying because the company's experience with such narrowly trained people has been poor.

    Ouch.

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  6. I recall during one of my final years in academia, just after being promoted to Associate Professor, it just felt like the walls were closing in around me with regard to career options. I either had to bail out or face 30+ years being trapped teaching my narrow STEM-based academic subject. So, I bailed.

    About 5 years after bailing out of academia and being employed in the "real world", I was suddenly quite employable, and I recall being offered several nice positions during that particular 5th year. And all of those job offers were the result of the non-academic connections I had made during those 5 years, from people I never would have met if I had stayed in the stifling halls of academia.

    Get out of academia now while you still can.

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    1. I didn't know about tenure until my junior/senior years of undergraduate studies, and I didn't fully understand it--and the only reason I encountered it was that my undergraduate college was looking for a math professor, and they faced the challenge of convincing a professor to work for the college, because it didn't offer tenure. (This change had happened several years prior, as part of an effort to stabilise their finances.)

      The funny thing is that, while I didn't know exactly what tenure was, even then, the idea of tenure chaffed me. I didn't like the idea of being tied to a single institution for the rest of my life, with other options also closed from me.

      Thus, your experience resonates with me. It's a pity that Academia is so exclusive, that it makes it very challenging to go back and forth between academia and the "real" world.

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    2. Few undergraduates have ever heard of tenure, unless they happen to come from academic families. The year I graduated from college, I learned that my German teacher from my freshman and sophomore years was leaving that college for another one. I couldn't believe that my college would willingly give up such a superb teacher, or that the professor himself would willingly leave a place where his students appreciated him so much. It wasn't until years later, married to an academic, that I came to realize that his departure was probably due to an adverse tenure decision that had undervalued his teaching skills for whatever other reasons they found more important. Tremendous loss for my alma mater; tremendous gain, I'm sure, for the college that then benefited from his services for the rest of his career.

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    3. Most students have no idea what an adjunct is either. I explain to them the difference in pay/benefits and the ratio of contingent to tenured/full time at the end of every semester and they are always, always shocked. Most of them assume because you have the title "professor" you are making at a minimum the equivalent of a high school teacher with experience, and probably more than that.

      Colleges have accomplished a miracle in PR to keep that quiet.

      Most students still think there is a positive linear relationship between degree attainment and income level, so they can't believe that a secondary or tertiary degree does not pay off.

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    4. STEM Doctor,

      I think you made the right decision not to continue being in that exclusive club of academia. Although I am only a undergraduate student, I could relate to what a PhD is since both of my parents are holders of them and have taught college before. Personally from my experience having to deal with some professors and what not, I never really quite understood their culture. Nor do I have as much respect to academia as professors as much as they aren't my personality. The big reason being reason 77 is my biggest pet peeve with them. I have felt offended to the point that I wish I did not talk to them. Also as I have heard people who otherwise think getting a PhD means more knowledge and more options, I feel its unbelievable that they are blissfully unaware- in short it does not.

      Until then, its wonderful that you had the courage to admit it. I know a lot of people in academia are too prideful to be in your position as I have encountered among professors Ive met. I could completely understand a lot of stories you may have about your not so good experience in academia.

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    5. STEM Doctor, what do you mean by your STEM based academic subject? Was it math, theoritical physics, biology, or engineering? Which one? Some STEM subjects seem to give you the same options as humanities. In other STEM subjects (electrical engineering for example), PHDs will get any job over an undergrad. Why do you lump all these fields into STEM?

      If we wanted to give practical advice, shouldn't we talk about not pursuing higher education in a specific field?

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  7. What a terrible article. Let's have just a bit of context, shall we?

    There were 44 million American on food stamps on a monthly basis in 2011. That is mostly because the economy is an unmitigated disaster but also because the eligibility threshold for food stamps has been relaxed a little.

    According to the recent ABC news article and Chronicle article this post cites, there were 360,000 people with master's degrees or higher on food stamps, out of a population of 22 million. 1.6%. There were 44 million Americans total on food stamps last year on a monthly basis, out of about 310 million. 14.1%.

    Now I studied history, so I'm pretty stupid at math. What's bigger, 14.1 or 1.6???

    Now, an argument can be made for not going on for the PhD based on these numbers. PhD holders on food stamp rolls increased about 3.5X. Masters holders increased about 2.5X, but that is in line with the overall increase in food stamp collectors from 2000-2011, about 2.58X.

    Nevertheless, the argument that more education is unhelpful is NOT supported by the statistics cited in these very articles, nor is the argument that graduate education a "path to foodstamps." People with master's degrees or higher make up only 0.8% of the population on food stamps. In 2000, they made up about 0.7% Good God, people, this is 5th grade math. If you chose a random person of the US population with a bachelor's degree or lower, there is a 15% chance he will be on food stamps. Do the same for a random person with master's degree or higher, 2% chance.

    The tragedy here is food stamps - people on them have jumped from 6% of the US population in 2000 to 14% now. If anything the stats show that people with advanced degrees have weathered our cataclysm of an economy far better.

    You could probably make an argument using the numbers that NEW degree recipients are far worse off than older degree holders were when they graduated, and that their likelihood to need food stamps is greater than it was for the older ones. But newsflash! this is the worst economy in 3 decades and possibly 8 decades (I'm not yet convinced this is worse than the double dip of 1979-83, but anemic growth numbers for the rest of 2012 and I'll be ready to say its worse).

    You CAN make an argument that your returns diminish after a master's, but I don't think a PhD necessarily works AGAINST you, but it doesn't help you as much as the bachelors did vs. high school or the masters vs. bachelor's.

    However, it is quite a stretch to suggest that more education puts you in a worse position in the economy than someone who has less. THAT is not supported.

    My great fear is that when (or if) the economy ever does recover, the academic market will not.

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    1. Did the ABC article (I don't see it linked here) include stats on just a bachelor's degree? You have "bachelor's or lower" linked together here, but as a category, that includes both the guy who got a bachelor's in econ at Yale and then went to work for Credit Suisse and the cast of MTV's Teen Mom. This blog has touched on the diminishing benefits of the bachelor's degree, but it's not actively trying to dissuade people from going to college - just graduate school. I'd be interested to compare (especially if we could control for pre-education socio-economic class) the likelihood of being on food stamps with a bachelor's as with a master's or PhD.

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    2. I would like to see that too. No, I just subtracted the master's and higher numbers cited in the article from the overall population, so that would lump in bachelor graduates with everyone else.

      Sounds like a good econ or sociology dissertation doesn't it? lol

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    3. For context, you can read the first 82 articles, which I highly recommend if you are confident that getting a PhD is generally a good idea for humanity students. Perhaps some will strike you as not so terrible.

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    4. "My great fear is that when (or if) the economy ever does recover, the academic market will not."

      Watch when the student loan bubble bursts.

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    5. 'a PhD is generally a good idea for humanity students."

      Maybe not, but the food stamp & poverty stats don't back up the claim that it is a *horrible* idea. Advanced education is not a path to poverty no matter how many anecdotes we cough up - it's simply not supported. Rather, those with advanced degrees that are poor are the exceptions. Ie: the woman the artcile references is much poorer because she is a single mom with two kids. That limits her options much more than her PhD.

      I will agree that there's limited utility beyond a master's.

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    6. Aaron, you're right that the Chronicle article isn't good, but the numbers it reported are pretty shocking. There were almost 10,000 PhDs on welfare before the recession even started.

      The article is also revealing (in a way that its author probably didn't intend) of the kinds of people who are getting PhDs. They don't come across as good decision-makers.

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  8. This is another excellent point, for a few reasons.

    One is that your non-academic career options become more limited. Time in a PhD is time necessarily not in the workplace gaining employment experience and skills.

    Another is changing preferences and research-related opportunities. You may start your PhD in a "hot" area or one that translates well into work, but then six years may pass and that may no longer be the case when you're actually looking for work.

    When I started undergrad, bioinformatics was a very hot field; if you knew some math, had a PhD in something mathy and could vaguely understand biology, you could probably find work in that area. This was around 10 years ago. Now you need a specialized PhD, relevant research and post-doc experience to begin to be considered for roles. Same goes with mathematical finance; PhDs in computer engineering could get jobs in finance if they could program in basic C++, now you've almost got to start at the undergrad level with a math/econ program.

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    1. C++ is by far the most important language skill one can acquire. It opens doors that no other language does. Whatever your specialty, it never hurts to be able to say to a prospective employer that you can also churn out code.

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    2. I know this isn't a subject of the blog, but as a mathematician who has some experience in computer programming, I would have to say this: C++ can open doors, but you'll have to ask yourself if you want to go through those doors opened for you.

      Currently, the work I do is in Python, although I've used C++ and Java in school (these were the languages used in my Undergraduate (minor degree) program, as well as a smidgen of assembler), I've only used C++ a little bit at work, and the inflexibility and opacity of the language, for what little I did with it, drove me nuts.

      Thus, I have avoided using C++ since then. For what it's worth, I try to avoid Perl as well. (For good reasons to avoid these languages, google for "Frequently Questioned Answers" and "Ancient Languages Perl".)

      Having said that, I would propose that learning to program can still be a valuable skill--I use Python, and have used PHP and JavaScript, and would like to use Common Lisp and Forth.

      My aversion to C++ and Java means that, since I have an interest in computer games programming, I'll basically have to "go it alone"; it also means that I'll have to do something tricky, like write my own Lisp or something, to program on the Android or iPhone. Sometimes, though, when doors are closed to you, the best thing you can do is build your own house, and see where things go from there...

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  9. I have 10 years in academia under my belt and 6 years of work experience in the "real" world. My MA degree took me 6 years because I was working the whole time. I loved that program and it was worth the effort it took to finish. If I quit my current job for whatever reason, there are at least 3 other fields that I could easily transition into with my work experience. That's not including any teaching or academic work that my MA might help me get one day.

    I feel lucky that I have the best of both worlds. I could start a PhD now if I wanted to, or I could turn my back on academia and pursue my non-academic career, which is what I'm 99% sure I want to do. I have friends who are 35 and have maybe one summer of non-academic work experience under their belts, and that's it. The job market is going to hit them hard. Ultimately it's a personal decision that we make, but academics could do a lot more to encourage students to get work experience outside of academia and remove the stigma from it. Instead they only seem to want to encourage the PhD option.

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    1. Ultimately it seems like it is the PhD track that has more stigma attached to it, and that any work outside of academia is a sign of prestige.
      ;-)

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    2. How's THAT for irony.

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  10. A couple of points:

    1) There may be even more PhDs eligible for food stamps not getting them than there are PhDs actually getting them.

    2) In the state where I went to grad school, teaching assistants were easily eligible for food stamps based on their income, but were barred from the program because of their student status.

    There is much more academic poverty than anybody wants to admit.

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    1. Grad students were not allowed to participate in any aid programs in the state I did my PhD in as well, even though our income levels would have qualified us. I had to get a retail job for the last year of my PhD program (along with student loans) despite being fully funded.

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    2. I had to pay regular visits to a food bank before I finally came to my senses and quit. During that time, I applied for food stamps, too, but didn't qualify because of my "student" status, despite the fact that I was TAing and adjuncting on the side (and still making less than 20k!) just to get by. Meanwhile, the university regents gave themselves a big fat raise that year.

      Needless to say, that was the last straw for me.

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    3. Shame is a huge part of academic life, too. No one who aces her way through school all the way to a Ph.D. is prepared for unemployment. No one who grows up experiencing one academic success after another, and whose family members set their expectations accordingly, has an easy time explaining to them why she's so poor.

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  11. PhD degree alone will limit your options. PhD coupled with an MBA will expand all the doors. I saw many CEOs of engineering companies have both PhD (to show their expertise) and a MBA (to show their management skills). It is a powerful combinations.

    If you are working as an adjunct in an university that offers a MBA program you may want to take advantage of your employee tuition remission benefits.

    Get out of academia and switch back to private sector when you still have the chance. The almighty $ is the key of putting food on the table, not your expert knowledge in some folklore.

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    1. A lot of us got into this mess by thinking that getting one more degree was a good idea. School can turn into an addiction that you need to walk away from.

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    2. Ok, let's stop right here and mention that not all graduate degrees/work experience combinations are the same. A lot of people think that having a bunch of impressive graduate degrees will impress people enough to get into any job. They won't.

      If you already have extensive work experience (and the contacts and know-how that comes along with that), then a graduate degree will strengthen your career. But this is because you'll likely choose a course of study that related to your previous experiences. Those PhD/MBA holders probably got one degree first, built a successful company or something, then got the other one to enhance their knowledge ane experience. They also likely had a job waiting for them or knew exactly how to get one after they were done with school.

      Contrast this to a student to gets a graduate degree, then can't find work (lack of experience? incorrect experience?) and goes back for another post-grad degree. Will doors open for them? Probably not. But they will have an impressive wall of diplomas.

      When people say getting a grad degree/combination of degrees will make you successful, they generally don't distinguish between these cases. Which is too bad, since a lot of people buy into the second story, thinking they'll turn out like the first.

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    3. Exactly this! Great observation, JMG.

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  12. I never have understood exactly what an MBA knows that anybody with "real world" experience running a business doesn't already know.

    The MBA just looks like one more meaningless credential that is purchased at great cost to provide entry into "the club".

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    1. In Asia you can get an MBA without having a previous degree.
      The only qualification is "life-experience".

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  13. This is an interesting one, given that going to grad school can actually broaden your options if done in a certain way. I have an MA in a Humanities subject and it has really has opened doors for me. In my experience it's viewed as a positive thing by a range of employers, if it comes with relevant work experience as well.

    It's the PhDs that employers don't know what to do with. A lot of employers still see PhD as "Professor Training Degree", and they don't get why you want to work with them and not be a professor. They're skeptical about hiring someone who's been in school for 30 years and who might jump ship as soon as a hypothetical TT job opens somewhere. Meanwhile the TT job probably wouldn't want you anyway, because the 2 years you spent working at Decent Regional Corporation shows a "lack of dedication" to academia. I know many people who loved their PhD experience so in that sense it was the right decision for them, but I don't envy them their position once they graduate and try to find work. Being "versatile" and "selling yourself" only goes so far.

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  14. Since I do have a history degree, what I've been thinking lately if we're playing a bit of the "things were once better than they are now" game? I'm not convinced that the market for advanced degrees in the humanities was ever good.

    I mean, in the 19th/early 20th centuries, it would have been more lucrative to learn how to make bigger artillery cannons, design a better blast furnace, or make better watertight seals for passenger ships than it would to study Socrates. There were fewer PhDs but there were fewer places for them to work too.

    I wonder if today we just don't have a larger scale of the same problem? During the 1960s and 70s there was a shortage of PhDs because of the massive expansion in colleges, but that may have been a relatively short golden age.

    Kind of like the cowboys. For about 15-25 years, cowboys were low-paid but somewhat autonomous and in high demand because of expansion in the cattle industry. But not much later they were just one step above migrant farm worker, only marginally better off than sharecroppers.

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    1. It's true that the job market has never been good, but it takes longer than ever to get through graduate school. That has made a bad situation worse, because people are hitting the market (and arriving at tenure-decision time) at increasingly vulnerable points in their lives.

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    2. The University is also changing (in ways not favorable to new PhDs).

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  15. It's rather ironic that PhDs face the same dilemma that professional athletes face: They're really not trained to do anything else. So, once they leave the athletic or academic arenae, they have a difficult time.

    The difference is that some athletes, at least, make a lot of money before they reach the point of leaving. (What some of them do with that money is another story!) On the other hand, most PhDs are deep in debt.

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  16. The Ph.D. does limit your options. There's no way around that. Although....if you do have at least a little non academic work experience, you can take the basic skills you picked up in grad school--with a lot of retraining you have to pay for yourself--and morph them into non-academic skills. For example, some PhD students (not most) are good writers and editors. But most writing that pays is very niche-specific. So, if you choose to go in that direction you'll have to get retraining. No easy answers. It's just best not to earn a Ph.D.

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    1. This is a good response. Where I work we get a lot of applications for copy editing jobs from PhDs who have written plenty of papers and taught composition classes for years, but they don't have any copy editing experience. It's true that their skills can make them good copy editors, but they need training in that area first before they can get this kind of job. Retraining, as you note, is needed.

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    2. Aren't there some fairly entry level copy editing jobs available? I would think this is a skill ike many others that can be learned on the job. Sometimes I feel like employers think their precious jobs are so dang special when in fact someone as exceptional as a PhD holder could easily do them and they've certainly already completed enough school/training already! It's unfortunate that it's so darn political and such a game out there. No way should many of these people with PhDs go wanting. And no, I don't have a PhD myself--far from it. I have only a BA and barely got that--I'm not much for school. Can you tell I don't like BS? And we know school has a lot of that and you don't even get paid to put up with it (or get paid nearly enough). When I think of what it would take to get a PhD and then I think of how too many of them get treated, it just makes me sick. From my experience, the people with PhDs were definitely a "cut above" the average Jane or Joe--smart and basically decent people. Did they always have the best people skills? No but they weren't that bad either (the ones I've known) and definitely no worse than many others'. At least you can say something to them and they usually get it unlike the average person out there. That counts for a lot if you ask me.

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    3. Anonymous 6:34: Of course there are entry level jobs available. However, these aren't entry level positions that I'm talking about, these are contracted positions for people with 5+ years of copy editing experience, as specified in the job posting. The PhDs with no experience are applying for these jobs because they've been told stuff like "having a PhD means you can write well, think well, and research well." Well, sure. It can. But it doesn't give you the work experience you need to take advanced level positions.

      Any company like mine would be happy to train you to do this work on the side while you're doing something else for us, but usually that's in an entry level position, and I haven't had any PhDs apply for entry level positions as long as I've been here.

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    4. At my organization we have hired many PhDs over the years who didn't technically have the work experience for the position but they were smart, dynamic, capable, and fast learners. They were great coworkers for the most part too. But a lot of them quit their positions to go and adjunct somewhere for 1/4 of what we were paying them, if that, because they got excited that it was suddenly their chance to get back into academia. I've kept in touch with many of these people and it never went anywhere for them, and they were all looking for jobs again. And that is how a PhD narrows your options, it takes someone who's usually smart, focused, and articulate, and makes them feel as though their only real option in life is to find a TT job. It's like people I know who go back to their terrible boyfriends/girlfriends over and over again. They think they have no other options.

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  17. This may be the most important point on the whole list. Grad school paints you into a corner. You don't even realize it while it's happening.

    The academy teaches you to value what it values, but those things are meaningless in the real world. Totally useless. It's great that you studied Old English for eight years or whatever. Your little advancement of human knowledge is awesome (in all seriousness), but how is it going to help you put food on the table if you don't win the academic job lottery?

    Incoming grad students hear that kind of question and turn up their noses, but they're clueless. It's not until they have a tidy little stack of rejection letters that it starts to make sense. By then it's too late. You and a horde of other clueless people put all your eggs in one basket, but the basket isn't big enough. Not even close.

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    1. It isn't even a basket. It's bag with a hole in the bottom. And the eggs are rotten.

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  18. On a related note:

    New Normal: Majority Of Unemployed Attended College
    By JED GRAHAM, INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY Posted 05/17/2012

    "For the first time in history, the number of jobless workers age 25 and up who have attended some college now exceeds the ranks of those who settled for a high school diploma or less."

    http://tinyurl.com/7hzqfs7

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    1. Makes sense since so many more people attempt college than ever before - more than 50% of graduating seniors will take college classes somewhere, about a third to half of them will graduate with an associates or better.

      Another indication that a lot of what we're talking about has to do with our cataclysmic economy.

      Delete
    2. I disagree, Aaron. I think it is the other way around: our economy is cataclysmic because we sank so many resources so thoughtlessly into schools, colleges and universities. We didn't face reality for decades and now it is catching up to us. Our economy is bad in large part because so many of us have no job skills we can sell on the international market.

      Delete
    3. Socrates,

      I think you would have a tough time arguing that the jobs crisis in the USA has to do with too MUCH education.

      Actually I don't think it's a question of too much or too little, it's how we distribute the education resources. Very inefficiently to say the least. IMO, we are spending the right amount of money as it stands, but in the wrong ways.

      Again, humanities are not the cause of the problem since that is not where much of education funding goes. That's why I always discount the arguments like, "oh, we've got too many anthropology majors!" etc...

      Humanities and social sciences are not the major problem. I actually looked at stats on this - in the University of California system - the proportion of students graduating with lib arts degrees has been stagnant since 1980, except for psychology - the only field in liberal arts with growth outpacing overall growth.

      The degrees that have exploded are applied sciences and business/marketing/advertising. Hard sciences are also mostly stagnant - although pure mathematics and physics have taken a dive, so much so that some schools are closing their physics departments. Also foreign language degrees have declined, again many schools have closed their German, French, Italian departments, etc...

      But the problem is NOT "women's studies" etc... - those types of majors are actually less popular than there were circa 1980, proportionally speaking.

      So I think we speak with a lot of condescension toward students. Most of them ARE seeking practical degrees, at least what they think are practical - nursing, criminal justice, kinesiology, etc, etc...

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    4. Yes, the problem in large part is the money--and to some degree, the illusion of money--we're pumping into the system. By forcing interest rates artificially low, and offering easy loans for schooling, we're opening a door for being able to pursue education with little thought on how that education will be used, or even useful, after graduation.

      By pushing student loans, government has also skewed the perception that all we need to have for prosperity, is to get a college education--which is true, except for those who succeed without...and is also true, until we glut the market with lots of degrees of all sorts!

      Delete
  19. I first came across this blog while I was applying to grad school last year and I completely wrote it off as a bunch of whiners who don't have what it takes to make it in grad school. The anecdotes people gave seemed far-fetched and unbelievable.

    But now that I'm in grad school, I completely understand this blog and am thankful that it exists. I absolutely regret my decision to go to grad school, and the fact that it narrows job opportunities outside of academia is one of the main reasons why. I'm in the humanities, and my program doesn't teach us how to market ourselves outside of academia because they're too busy preaching about how "the skills you learn in grad school are transferable and universal!", which is far from true.

    I'm seconds away from dropping out. I'm still in my early twenties so I figure that it's not too late for me to get out of academia and do something else with my life. Another thing I'm trying to figure out is if it's academia as a whole that I hate or just the program that I'm in, but it seems like switching to another program wouldn't even help.

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    1. I did switch programs 3 years ago because I thought that the program wasn't a "good fit," but the new program was just the same.

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    2. Hit the road Jack,
      And don't you go back no more no more no Hit the road jack and don't you go back no more

      Delete
    3. Some programs are better than others, but you're on the same hamster wheel everywhere. Only the super-elite universities offer their grad students any sense of security, but even Ivy Leaguers know that they might have to spend their careers teaching in Utah or something. You're lucky to be seeing the light after only a year. If you stay in, it'll be the same nonsense for years to come.

      Delete
    4. It's not just about "having what it takes to make it in grad school." Thousands of people get through grad school just fine--only to find that the jobs they've just spent ten years training for don't exist. If you're seeing the light already, at this early stage, follow your instincts and find another path. It's definitely not too late.

      Delete
    5. If you have any interest in the subject at all I would recommend you cut your losses and enroll in your state university and get a BS in Mechanical Engineering. It is a good, basic starting step for many industries. Later, after a few years of work, you can add a Master's in ME, or Naval Architecture, or Petroleum Engineering, or whatever field you have made a career in - but let your firm pay for the Masters.

      As for an advanced degree in the Humanities, just look at what the Liberal Arts colleges think of their own degrees! What does miserable pay, poor working conditions, lack of benefits, and poor/nonexistant career prospects say about the institutions themselves? How can anyone respect the institutions, the degree, or the professors who are a part of these scams? Or how can you even maintain your self-respect while being a part of it?

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    6. I was in this position when I first started my PhD program a few years ago. I also thought that the issue with my program/university/advisors/city I lived in was all about "fit," and seriously looked into transferring somewhere else. I ended up staying for more than three years, figuring that it would be best to take the opportunity to boost my language skills and to save some money before my escape. However, being in the game for that long made leaving about as difficult as chewing my own arm off -- which was surprising, because I felt like I was "faking it" for years, and I already had my mind made up that I did not want to be there.

      While quitting was by far one of the best decisions I've ever made, I really wish that I left when I saw those first warning signs in my first year -- or maybe even in that first semester. Sure, I was in a field where I did pick up some (sort of) marketable skills that I wouldn't have been able to earn otherwise, but I often wonder how my life and career path would have been different had I left sooner. But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

      Delete
  20. Anon 10:27:

    Get out now while you can. Seriously. The longer it takes you to get out into the real world and gain real, marketable skills, the worse you will be off in terms of lifetime income, financial peace and security, and general happiness. Only a very few win the academic lottery, and chances are you'll end up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as an adjunct making $22,000 a year -- at best. Get out now.

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  21. I second the above comment. Leaving academia is hard. It's like leaving a religious cult, or leaving the Communist Party. But the longer you stay in, Anon 10:27, the harder it will be.

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  22. "....or leaving the Communist Party."

    In China, being a Party member helps you get in with the new corporate management crowd. As it does in Cuba.

    You want something totally useless, Scientology asks for a lot of money and gives nothing in return.

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    1. Scientology gets you massive connections in entertainment. They own some very expensive property in LA.

      Delete
  23. Student:
    "Oh academe don't treat me this way/I'll get my PhD some day" Employers: "We don't care if you do/'cause its understood/a PhD just ain't no good" Student"I guess if you say so/I'll take my degree and go"

    Where's Ray Charles now that we need him?

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  24. Most people have developed a variey of interests by high school and the early college years. Why not develop one of these interests that has a potential for a stable, well-paying career into a college major at the undergraduate level? Honestly, this evaluative process should be well along by the junior year of high school for most people.

    I think what we have in the Humanities grad school train wreck is a group of people who obtained a BA in the liberal arts, realized their undergraduate degree was essentially useless from an employment viewpoint, and have compounded their error by going to grad school in the same subject! Going to law school is also a dead end and getting an MBA without prior work experience is ill-advised also.

    There is a lot of change and turmoil going on right now, which is also creating a lot of opportunity. But not for people with their heads in the sand.

    It may hurt the humanities graduate's ego to back to school to get a BS in an in-demand field, buy why? Two or three more years to complete an in-demand degree and you actually have a future ahead of you. And you still have that initial degree - they aren't going to take that away from you.

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    1. Most schools don't take second bachelor degree's applicants. For those that do, you are not eligible for any federal grants or any free money.

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    2. I've never heard of any school that won't admit someone seeking a second bachelor's. Any state university should allow it.

      It probably is true that you are no longer eligible for things like Pell grants, but loans are still available, if you want to go that route.

      Delete
    3. "Most schools don't take second bachelor degree's applicants. For those that do, you are not eligible for any federal grants or any free money." Not true.

      Some schools don't take second bachelors' applicants. Many do, it's the nature of the business.

      In fact, on rare occasions a fully funded 2nd BA/BS is awarded as an honor. My college used to have a program whereby every year a new graduate was awarded the opportunity (and costs) to attend St. Andrews (Scotland) for a second undergraduate degree.

      Some programs exist that 2nd BA/BS applicants are eligible for - it depends on the program and sometimes on the institution administering it. I will admit that there are 'fewer' resources available but fewer > none.

      Delete
  25. I once looked into doing a second bachelor's degree in accounting, after a BA in a foreign language and long years of underemployment, and was told by the department's undergraduate advisor that people do it all the time. (I ended up not pursuing it, for personal reasons.) Yes, you might have to find some creative financing, but you might also find a real job at the end of the tunnel. And it won't take you another whole four years, either, because you won't have to repeat all the general-education courses you took the first time around.

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    1. "I once looked into doing a second bachelor's degree in accounting, after a BA in a foreign language and long years of underemployment..."

      (sigh) You too, huh?

      Delete
  26. Outsider here.

    A second BA in accounting is unnecessary. All the post-BA student needs to do is earn enough accounting credits to qualify for (and pass) the CPA exam. In some states, like California, the accounting credits can even be earned at a distance.

    If the student really, really wants another degree, a Master of Accountancy would probably be a better idea than a second B.A. An even better bet for those with the knack for penetrating obscure regulations would be a Master of Science in Taxation.

    These degrees sell well and there's no reason to think that will change.

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  27. We must have reached some kind of tipping point. Did anyone see 60 Minutes on Sunday night?

    "Dropping Out: Is College Worth the Cost?"
    http://tiny.cc/gixpew

    The academic job market is bad now, but imagine what it will be like if public confidence in higher education starts falling.

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  28. Can I ask a somewhat unrelated question?

    Do you all feel that somebody who gets, say, an MPhil in English at a British university in his/her mid-twenties would experience a severe narrowing of job opportunities (outside academia, I mean)? I've wanted to do that my whole life and have avoided thinking about it because of the current job market (I have a full-time job now and am paranoid about giving it up), but I think I'd regret not doing it. I just wonder how much damage two years of studying medieval literature would hurt me if I decided to pursue a career in law, business, publishing, etc.

    Sorry. I know this isn't about me, so if you find such diversions annoying, please just ignore me!

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    1. You don't want to go through life regretting that you didn't do something. On the other hand, if it were to cost you a lot of money, it might put you in a tough financial situation. It's not going to help your career any, and I suspect that you wouldn't enjoy it as much as you think you would, but you'll never know unless you try.

      If you're just looking for a way to live in England for a while, then going the student route is one way to do it.

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    2. I don't know how the British system works--would it be possible for you to pursue the degree part-time while you continue to work? That way, if you have trouble making a career change after you have the degree, you'll at least still be employed.

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    3. Just do the degree part time and keep your job. Giving up your job for the degree is a bad idea, because the chance of it paying off financially is very slim. However, if it's your dream to do it, you should absolutely find a way to do it. I pursued my MA dream and it definitely paid off for me.

      As far as it affecting your career prospects - if you're a stellar candidate with a great work history and excellent references, I doubt it's going to hurt. It's never hurt anyone I've seen in my field, which is one of the three you listed above. We tend to say "oh, you also have an MA in Basketweaving Studies? Interesting". And that's about it.

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    4. The HR seat warmer who sees your resume will round-file it because s/he doesn't know what an MPhil is.

      This happens, even in academia, to DPhils as well.

      Delete
  29. Philippa,

    I can appreciate you wanting to get an advanced degree in medieval literature for your own edification, but why would you want to do it now as opposed to later, perhaps even after you have retired? Why not study the subject on your own until then as an avocation? Also being employed gives you the means to visit historical sites and libraries important to you on the continent as well as the UK. What if you get the degree, then can't find a job at all? That pretty much impacts being able to travel to further your interests.

    I don't know about the UK, but American universities often have an uncanny ability to take a subject the student is intensely interested in and to turn it into pure drudgery. Does the school you want to attend have an exceptional professor you just must study under? If not, I honestly would take a deferment until later in life and circumstances change.

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    1. The UK system is much more research intensive and there is much less, and in some cases, no, coursework involved. It's really just a 1 to 3 year dissertation writing degree. That said, many people go mad writing their dissertation, so there is still a chance that Philippa will be overwhelmed - just not by the drudgery of coursework and TAing. I second your recommendation to put this off until later in life if she can't keep her job during the degree.

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    2. The downside to putting it off until later in life is that, later in life, you might no longer be equal to the task. I'm in my mid-fifties--not ancient by any means--but I simply no longer have the mental energy (or the memorizing capacity, which is a big part of formal study) that I had in my twenties. If I had really wanted a graduate degree, and had waited until now to do it, I'd be regretting it. So, Philippa, hold off for a while if you need to, but don't wait forever!

      Delete
  30. Aaron, I'm replying to your post up above.

    I don't think that it is too much education; it is too much schooling. I think it is also a question of proportions. How much is too much? I would say one degree in Gender Studies is too much, as it is, as our host says, a degree in pretense.

    I do agree with you completely that there is a huge disparity in distribution. We need a complete overhaul in our society: agriculture, industry, education, government. Education would be a good place to start.

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    1. Socrates,

      There's also a question of freedom. I teach history, so we offer some of those classes that "studies" students take - ie: "international studies" students have to take a certain amount of regional world history classes.

      I must say, the upper level elective classes that fill up the fastest are African-American history, Women's history, and Military history, especially war and society. Every time, those classes fill up and they are not required specifically under any degree plans. So there is a market for those subjects.

      Do we want to start assigning students their courses of study or do we want to allow them the freedom to choose on their own and then respond to the market? The latter IS what's been happening. The former is what the Soviet Union did.

      In the end, what the discussion we need to have as a society is how to define "education" and what exactly we want it to accomplish. Our inability to do that without hyperbole is a major problem.

      Delete
    2. Of course the studens should be allowed to take courses that interest them. The problem is that what should be a few lectures on a subject or, at most, a course has become a major all by itself. We are asking the taxpayer to fund an undergraduate degree in "Africana" or "Women Studies" when statistically the loans will never be repaid. And then we ask the taxpayer to fund a graduate degree in the same subjects. Then the taxpayers - a lot of whom work two jobs to keep their family cared for - are taxed again for food stamps and other welfare payments for these doctorate holders who can't find jobs at graduation. This situaion is unsustainabl.

      Maybe the answer is to require two majors for those people who are interested in degrees that are essentially hopeless from an employment viewpoint. After a certain number of years in the workforce and when their undergraduate loans are paid off the non-indebted students can apply for graduate school? I would imagine there would be a significant reduction in grad school applications.

      Delete
    3. Psychology, Business, Marketing, Finance, Advertising, Nursing, Criminal Justice & other applied sciences. Those are the degrees that have skyrocketed in the last 20 years. I repeat, those are the majors that students are seeking and that is where funding is going.

      Not the "studies" degrees or liberal arts. "Studies" degrees have actually declined in a proportional sense since the 1970s, when they were somewhat more popular.

      For whatever reason, people want to put the blame on Anthropology, Art or other "useless" subjects. But they are not the cause of recent problems with higher ed, as they have not proportionately increased and do not suck up much funding, relatively speaking.

      Delete
    4. There's a reason that "For you psych majors..." is a put-down. A huge problem in higher education is the low quality of dozens of majors, especially a lot of those that are supposed to be practical, like business, criminal justice and education. At most schools, you don't have to be real bright to get a degree in half the curriculum offerings. If you graduate, you get an expensive piece of paper that shows that you showed up to most of your classes.

      Delete
    5. Anon 8:33 -

      You said: "We are asking the taxpayer to fund an undergraduate degree in "Africana" or "Women Studies" when statistically the loans will never be repaid. And then we ask the taxpayer to fund a graduate degree in the same subjects. Then the taxpayers - a lot of whom work two jobs to keep their family cared for - are taxed again for food stamps and other welfare payments for these doctorate holders who can't find jobs at graduation. This situaion is unsustainabl. [sic]"

      If the students are getting loans for their education, the "taxpayer" isn't footing the bill. Also, public-assistance programs make up less than 1 percent of the federal budget, so the "taxpayer's" contribution is pennies a year. If you want to complain about taxes, don't point the finger at gender-studies majors. Put the blame where it belongs - corporations and the wealthy who dodge taxes that we have to then make up for.

      Delete
  31. I'm leaving my program. How do you deal with job references? I've been teaching in my department for the last few years but I highly doubt that I can use anyone in my department as a reference. I have had jobs outside of academia but most of those jobs are from three or four years ago so I'm not even sure if those references matter.

    Academia really is a cult. Leaving academia is seen as an awful thing to do by people inside of it. Why can't academia be viewed as a career option just like being a carpenter, plumber, middle school teacher, etc. is? The stigma surrounding people who leave academia is ridiculous.

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    1. If you do a good job at teaching the dean you reported to should be willing to give you a good recommendation. Ask him. He may be ready to bail out or retire as well. The teaching experience should be be one of your main points: that you enjoyed working with young people and conducted a classes where they were eager to attend and contribute. You feel you earned their respect. You made yourself freely available and often advised them on other aspects of undergraduate life. (If true, of course)

      Do not put down or disparage the school you went to. Be honest. You enjoyed studying the subject but you want a better future for yourself, your spouse and your children.

      The person interviewing you really wants reasons to hire you. Basically, find out what work they need to have done and show them that you can do it.

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    2. I wouldn't worry about a reference being 3 or 4 years old. I've used old references successfully, and presumably you've kept in touch with these people. You not only get the person talking about what a great job you did, but that you've maintained that relationship all those years says a lot.

      Delete
  32. Man. So. Much. To. Say

    In a few words: I enjoy this blog because it shows a different perspective on academia. I do think that some of the opinions on here are a little too biased. Not every academic program will suck your soul away. Your experience and the experience of others are unique and should not account for all academic programs. Please share your experience but please be careful when you put down all academic programs based on your own experience. Academia will not limit your job options. YOU WILL. YOU MAKE YOUR LIFE. GO GET IT. Good luck.

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  33. My goodness people. Getting a MA or PhD does not narrow your job options to just Iowa or Utah. Seriously...I know where your notion is but be honest with yourself...do you think those are the only places with jobs? How the hell did I get a job in California (one of the worst states for education right now) right out of a MA program? How? Oh and yes my job is in academia. Was I lucky? Yes and no. The tunnel is not as dark as you think it is.

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    1. As someone who was born in Utah, went to graduate school in upstate New York, and then moved back to Utah after completing my work, I almost take offence at the "You'll work in Utah" cracks.

      Almost.

      You see, the point of this "crack" is that you can end up living in a place where you absolutely do not want to be. I might love living in Albany, except for the politics. I might hate living in New Orleans (I wouldn't know--I have never visited there). I might like living in a little town like Ithaca, New York, or Ephraim, Utah, or Topeka, Kansas...for a little while, until I decide that I yearn for my family, or wish for something different, or whatever.

      And Academia cuts me off from a choice of where I want to live, for two reasons: first, the jobs are so scarce, I'd be lucky to find something; and second, once I find a Tenure Track position, I'm not going to want to let go of it...so I'm not going to even have the ability to easily change where I live.

      This is as true for the small-town-country person trapped in a big-city institution, as it is for a big-city-person trapped in a little itty-bitty town out in the middle of nowhere. (If anything, I'm probably a medium-size town person. I like a bit of city, but not too much...)

      Granted, many career options have ways of cutting off choices like this, so it's a case of "choose your poison", but you should be aware of how academia cuts off your choices, before you commit fully to it.

      Delete
    2. Very true. Your point is pretty much the substance of an earlier reason (looks like #16). You hear this complaint a lot (with the name of a different 'bad' place dropped in every time). You can get stuck somewhere where you don't want to be.

      The funny thing is that there's probably always someone who would love to be teaching where you are even if you hate living there. The academic economy doesn't allow any freedom of movement.

      Delete
    3. I think you're missing the point. Having a PhD narrows your options outside academe. Most prospective employers don't see a PhD on a resume as anything better than an MA. In fact, a PhD says that you trained to be a teacher and are possibly going to jump ship as soon as that TT job offer comes along. Worse yet, employers will see the degree and think that you are an overqualified egg head, and uninterested or incapable of performing non-academic work.

      Delete
    4. I agree with this, but I think the bias against post-graduate degree holders is especially magnified by the lousy economy we're in right now. Sure, skills and experience are more likely to get you a job (and even, once upon a time, talking about "transferable skills" worked!), but it's definitely a buyer's market for employers right now. I really wonder what this blog and the majority of comments would look like if we weren't all swimming in the vast toilet bowl of a major economic recession. I doubt that it would be that much rosier, but on the other hand, a down economy narrows everyone's career options and outlook across the board.

      Delete
    5. If I wanted to live in Boston, it would be easier if I was in biomed. If I wanted to live in New York, it would be easier if I was in finance. If I wanted to live in D.C., it would be easier if I were in government. If I wanted to live in Houston, it would be easier if I were in oil & gas.

      It's hard to get "any" kind of job you want anywhere you want, no matter the field. Although in academia it is more extreme.

      Delete
    6. "I really wonder what this blog and the majority of comments would look like if we weren't all swimming in the vast toilet bowl of a major economic recession."

      If that were the case, then you'd see a lot fewer commenters here saying, "It's just as bad in the real world." The recession made the overall job market look like what the academic job market has looked like for decades, while turning a bad academic job market into a disastrous one.

      Delete
  34. Incorrect - er, transgressive - grammar, vague statements, and unanswered questions. Yup, you must be an academic.

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  35. It's an empirical question. You don't need to guess. If you are in a program already, do your research. You can actually count recent graduates who got jobs (even if your department conceals job placement data, try to network the info out of people or just use plain old google). Determine:

    1. What percentage of recent grads got academic jobs
    2. What type of jobs (temporary/PT, FT but non-tenure track, TT, research only, teaching only)
    3. Type of institution (SLAC, CC, R1, etc.)
    4. Job candidate characteristics (subfield, temperament and prestige of advisor, number of pubs and pub types, personal demographics)
    5. Geographic location of job

    Be prepared for your department to release data that is outdated (counts a VAP gig that ended two years ago as current employment) or just plain wrong. Cross check.

    This should give you an idea of your chances.

    If you'e a prospective, getting this info is much harder. Good luck.

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    1. You'd be nuts to reply on job placement data from a dept. If you're lucky, they'll have some anechdotal data for one of the lucky ones, but nothing telling the real story for the majority of grads who trot off into the sunset after graduation to be never heard from again.

      Delete
    2. You would not believe how much some departments doctor their placement data.

      Delete
    3. Exactly. "Placement" can mean anything the department wants.

      Student was already teaching at a CC while working on their Ph.D. and continued at the CC after graduation? Placement.

      Crappy VAP that'll end in a year? Placement.

      Student was brought on somewhere as a spousal hire? Placement.

      Student was hired "by nomination"? Placement.

      Student was boinking her advisor and, upon graduation, got a lectureship in the same department, like at my grad program? Placement.

      The only placements that count are ones that students got after actively applying through the job market. Unfortunately, there are plenty of circuitous ways to land an academic job that have nothing to do with your ability, but rather who you know (or who you're shtuping) that departments include among their "placements." The figures along won't tell you much. You have to dig deeper to find what those figures actually mean with regard to your likelihood of getting legitimately placed.

      Delete
  36. One of the things that has made me so cynical over the years has been watching the kinds of people who succeed in higher education, and the kinds of people who often fail. Some of the worst offenders when it comes to spouting gibberish and laying out shallow, nonsensical arguments thinly veiled in big words are the ones who get ahead, while workmanlike academics who produce good, sensible material (stuff that people might actually still be reading a generation from now) are stuck in the shadows. If you're not a good showman, it's easy to get left behind fast in academia.

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    1. This is my experience as well. Of the PhDs who came through my program, the only two that landed a TT job were far from the most stellar teachers or reseachers - and the last persons I thought would have had such success.

      Delete
  37. My guess is that it's roughly 10X better to have a STEM Ph.D. than a non-STEM Ph.D., at least if you're looking for a job outside of higher ed.

    The big article in NATURE last year about science Ph.D.'s made it pretty clear that the situation for them is bad too:

    "By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured... Figures suggest that more doctorates are taking jobs that do not require a PhD. 'It's a waste of resources,' says Stephan. 'We're spending a lot of money training these students and then they go out and get jobs that they're not well matched for.'"

    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472276a.html?success=true

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  38. Over on the Sell Out Your Soul blog, James Mulvey writes about one of the search engine queries that someone used to find his blog: "Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life."

    That says a lot.

    Sell Out Your Soul (what a title!) is one of several sites that offer career advice to people leaving grad programs without a job:

    http://www.selloutyoursoul.com/
    http://versatilephd.com/
    http://phdcareerclinic.com/
    http://alternativephd.com/
    http://lifeafterthephd.com/

    That's definitely not all of them. Something is seriously broken in a "knowledge economy" where so many of the highly educated don't know what to do with all the education they have!

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  39. As you get older, you get less flexible (psychologically, not just for practical reasons). For example, when I was in my 20s, I'd happily crash at a hostel while traveling overseas. Now in my 30s (after a whole lot of nights in hostels), I have to say that the thought of doing that again has ZERO appeal to me.

    When I started grad school in my early 20s, I thought that I would be happy living or working just about anywhere. Big city? Sounds great! Small town? Why not? Overseas? Yes!! It was exactly the kind of flexibility that you should have if you're looking for an academic teaching post.

    Now that I've had to make a cross-country move for a job to a place where I knew no one and where I had no connections of any kind, and am now about to make another move for yet another job to the same kind of place, I realize that I've outgrown the naive "flexibility" of my 20s. That doesn't change the reality of my situation, though. It just makes everything harder.

    The career itself isn't flexible at all. It feels like a straightjacket that moves me around at its will.

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    1. In my high school class we had a lot of kids whose parents were nuclear scientists at the town's only industry. You just knew they were going to go the full Monty doctorial route in college. Several skipped their senior year of high school altogether. Where did they wind up? For the most part in back-water states so remote they have to pipe in sunlight. One insufferable Duke graduate wound up in the Dakotas someplace. Karma is a b****!

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    2. Amen to all of this! Anonymous 4:50, my husband and I have been through what you're going through, five times now. Three of his first four teaching jobs were non-TT (although in all three cases, of course, he was assured at the outset that they would probably become permanent . . . ). The one TT job turned out to be a horror in so many respects, I was actually glad when his contract wasn't renewed. He's now in his fifth job, and was tenured here two years ago (finally, at the ripe old age of 55)--but we're overseas, in a country where we don't speak the local language or belong to the culture, far from our children and from most of our worldly possessions, which are in storage in the US. But you've got to earn a living somehow, so here we are. Yes, flexibility is a very helpful trait in academia, but there does come a point where you wish you didn't have to be so flexible any more. "A straitjacket that moves me around at its will" sums it up perfectly.

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    3. I hope that kids out there thinking about grad school are reading this thread, and I hope that people married to people thinking about grad school are reading this thread. This is what you have to look forward to!

      April W., it makes me so sad to think about your situation. I really wish you and your husband the best and hope that something good comes out of all your moving around.

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    4. Thanks! Actually, we're pretty well resigned to it by now. There have been good things about every place we've lived, we've met terrific people, and we have a huge stock of bizarre experiences that have become permanent family jokes. It isn't all bad, but as Anonymous 4:50 pointed out in the first place, it can be very, very wearing, and people should know before they enter grad school that this just might be their life.

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    5. Many spouses wouldn't be as willing to do all this as you've been. This is exactly the sort of thing that can, and does, break up relationships.

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    6. A lot of spouses find failure less and less attractive as the years pass and no tt-job comes in.

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    7. I suppose it says something about the two of us that our marriage still exists after all these years and all these turns of fortune. (Either we're really devoted, or just oblivious by now.) Having each other to rely on has been a huge comfort, needless to say. But it's also needless to say that academic life does strain a relationship, and we've certainly seen plenty of them break up under similar circumstances. See Reason 48: The Two-Body Problem.

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  40. OVERLOOKED: Salary Structure and Litigation.

    I have read numerous blogs and news articles reviewing the problems with PhDs being rated as overqualified for anything but a handful of academic, industry or government positions (we all know the story: too many mouths to feed). All such attempts to explain the problem never touch on what you will get from any employer: colleges and companies have fixed salary structures.

    In academics, many of these are collective bargaining agreements with unions, others are dictated by the government. In private industry, these salary structures are attempts to make companies litigation-proof so that fewer salary-discriminiation lawsuits can be filed against them.

    That being said, were an "overqualified" candidate to be hired, a company would be required per their own rules to pay them a salary in excess of the funds they have allocated. I have run into this myself when applying for several industry positions. I have even offered to sign a salary grade waiver, which was declined in every instance. Even when I looked into teaching high school chemistry and biology, the district salary structure would have required them to pay me more that the superintendent of schools. Overqualification is mostly about money.

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    1. An excellent point. Having a PhD in Field X does not mean that you're overqualified for a job in Field Y, but rigid hiring systems categorize people by highest degree attained. You end up being disqualified because you're "overqualified" on paper.

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    2. Aside from high school teachers, I don't know what companies have such salary rules, especially if they are non-unionized. Maybe you can provide examples.

      In my experience as a non-academic employer who gets applicants with PhDs for jobs, "overqualified" usually is a nice way of saying that the person has ample academic credentials but lacks the skills and experience needed to do the actual work. It also is used to describe someone who is likely to bring a lot of ideological baggage into the workplace.

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    3. And that is why we need LESS regulations. Too many laws costs jobs. Discriminations should be OK as long as you are not receiving federal funds.

      Ron Paul for President!

      A Slashdot Reader

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    4. It's depressing to read AWOL's comment, because it is exactly that kind of attitude that I fear encountering with my PhD in the real world if the academic life doesn't pan out for me. Know what's really sad? Knowing what I know now, I think I'd have the same attitude if I were a non-academic employer taking job applications from PhD's.

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    5. Reply for AWOL: I have many examples, but I will cite a couple. I applied for a research associate position at Pioneer Hi-Bred. I only wanted to have some "industry experience" so that I would have options open for industrial jobs. My credentials put me outside of the salary range allocated for the project and I would technically have experience seniority over my boss. I cannot be hired for a research director position though simply because I have not been one previously. Catch-22.

      Also, I applied for a post-doc position at Kemin foods. Same story: I would have been senior to my boss and HR thought that might be a source of conflict.

      When I first got my degree in 1997, all companies and universities were spewing the same HR rhetoric: must have 4-6 years of post-doctoral experience to apply. Community colleges would not touch PhDs with a 10-foot pole. I spent years doing temp contract work until I had enough experience. The year that I had 4 or so years of experience, everyone changed to a "within 2 years of your degree" rhetoric. With fixed salary schedules, they could not afford to hire PhDs with 4-6 years of experience. Hire 'em cheap, work 'em hard.

      How much longer can the US rely upon the altruistic nature of their scholars? We accept heavy debt to complete our education only to receive small salaries and inconsistent employment. I teach college full-time as a staff member (not faculty) and serve as my division chair, yet I make less than newly-hired teachers at the high school down the block and have to receive state assistance. That's rather humiliating. Something has to give.

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  41. Ironically, neither a PhD nor experience teaching college qualifies you to teach in a public school. It might take you 8 years to get a PhD, but you still don't have a teaching certificate. If you want one, it's more school for you!

    There are districts that will hire teachers without proper credentials in "emergency" situations, but you usually have to get your credential eventually.

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    1. I'm considering this as an option.

      I don't know about all states, but in Texas those credentials are easy to get if you already have a bachelor's degree. One option is go through a university where the programs take 3 semesters, or a year and a half. That would be the most expensive route. The universities argue their training is better.

      Every region has its own credentialing academy, and there are also some private companies that offer them. Generally it costs $3500 + books to certify for a STEM subject, bilingual, or special ed; $5-6000 for any other subjects, both take 6 months.

      Bilingual or English as a second language is by far the most in demand teaching area. I saw dozens of those openings in my city alone.

      A PhD wouldn't be completely useless. Districts do pay stipends if you have one (not much, maybe an extra 2-3K a year). It would probably help you quite a bit though if you had aspirations to get into the administrative side.

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    2. @Aaron, if you already have a PhD (or nearly have one) and you're considering teaching high school, then more power to you, but if you're thinking about going to get a PhD now just so that you can teach high school later, then I don't get your logic.

      If you're one of those people who's desperate to hear people call you "doctor," then maybe you should get a doctorate in education. That's a whole lot easier and faster than getting a PhD.

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    3. Anonymous,
      Hold up now… I am working on my EdD from a long distance learning university. I have completed all of the coursework and am now working on my dissertation. I have been working on the first three chapters now for four semesters. I am working whenever I can (with a full time job and two children), but the professor is slow to get back with me and when he does, he is very vague about what he wants. Please do not go into your EdD thinking that it will be “easy”. I am a grade school teacher who desires to go into administration and would also appreciate the pay raise (since I can barely pay the bills on my teaching salary alone). At this rate, I am going to have such a high student loan that it will never pay off. Please do not look at the EdD as lesser or easier than the PhD. I have many friends who have gotten their PhDs in a much quicker and easier route than mine.

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  42. My going to grad school created a lot of expectations in my family that made it feel impossible to quit even though I probably should have. That was one of the ways that grad school "limited my options." It was something that I didn't think about before I started.

    At some point in grad school I developed a fear of looking outside the academic box when it came to planning my future. I think my family is more concerned about my finishing the PhD than in what I do with it, but in my own head I'm having a hard time thinking about how to apply for a non-teaching job. I've been doing this for too long.

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  43. I'm considering quitting, I already have my MS in chemistry and I'm feeling depressed and bitter about academia. I'm talking to an Army OCS recruiter this week.

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    1. Run, don't walk, to the nearest USAF recruiter. They would quite possible have an opening as an officer in your field. Later they might even send you to medical school on their dime if you are interested. GO. NOW.

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    2. Yes. Take your MS and run. You will enjoy a lot more job flexibility. If you want intellectual stimulation, get some smart friends and read a book. A PhD is becoming an obsolete thing in the job market. It is a trend that has been growing for the last 20 years or so. Also, scholars in economic hard times are luxury items.

      Despite all the "we need more" yapping you hear from government and industry, there will simply be more visas issued to bring over foreign PhD's. They will accept lower salaries. This trend has depressed salary growth for scientists and engineers since the early 80's.

      I had a position at a vet school back in 2002 when the state budget collapsed. All non-tenured employees were cut or bought out with early retirement packages. The department I left behind consisted of 70% foreign nationals, yet I went without a job. But that's another issue with academics...

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  44. I'm starting my OCS packet next week after talking to the recruiter. The hardest part is hearing my mom begging me to reconsider and to stay in the program, telling me stuff like "Think of the good things about it". Boot camp seems like a vacation.

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    1. Good luck with it. If you hve second thoughts still check out the USAF!

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    2. When boot camp sounds more enticing than staying in grad school...that is a good sign that you need to leave.

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  45. I know I'm coming late to this party, but I just discovered the blog this morning. I wanted to add a quick 2 cents to the conversation. I decided to leave academia on the cusp of boarding the English TT market merry-go-round (I went on the market one year, then had to change for personal reasons). As part of the career transition, I took a staff position with my unit that allowed me to still have student interaction (even teaching a class or two per year) while taking on and learning development and communications. One of my duties was to advise undergrads considering grad school, and I shared the realities this blog shares as well as my own personal story (I was shocked to learn very quickly that employers saw my degrees as a detriment that made me unemployable -- that wasn't the flavor of koolaid I had been drinking all those years). There were a number of undergrads who responded by telling me that obviously I just couldn't cut it and why should they take the advise of someone who dropped out of academia? I often wonder what's become of those students now...

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    1. "Advice" was autocorrected to "advise." My apologies.

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    2. Completely understand this. I am an undergrad, who was once in love with my social science major until one day I started to question it, but never said a word. I was afraid (imagine that at the undergrad level! Can't imagine being in grad school and feeling this way) because my department is so small, I knew that if questioned the BS the professors would turn against me. Well, to make this short- I did my research and became disgusted that the great professors that I had, never said a word of what awaited grad students in this market. Sorry, but your interest in myths will not get food on the table.

      Now, I feel so bitter and resent how stupid and utterly navive I was in thinking that I would go to the best grad program in the country and get loads of funding and get a TT job. Of course that would be me! and those that couldn't cut were weak and well, stupid. What's so sad is that people feel this way!

      Hell, I have class with them and heard them! I even told my own friend what I knew and yet, she was still considering applying to a grad program that didn't promise funding to any its student. So, she would be living term to term if she was lucky and even if was promised aid, it could be cut if those funds were cut from the department!

      My own friend was drinking the koolaid, so it doesn't surprise me that total strangers would disregard what you said. Because that is what grad school is for the social sciences- a lie. They use the few success stories and make you believe that it will be you and that those that fail or quit were damaged in some way. I am so glad that I know better and change what my path, even though I am so invested, I am getting a double major in something that will get me a job. To prospective students out there, do your research and if someone like jengonyer tries to warn you listen very carefully. You're lucky that someone is trying to tell you the truth. I didn't have that, I saved myself and couldn't imagine having to find out the hard way.

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  46. I haven't read all the comments but I know how it's difficult for grad school graduates to get jobs, but shouldn't it be even harder for someone with a bachelors? Is getting a masters the best option because it's more than a bachelors (a common degree) but not as long as a doctorate? I'm planning to get an MBA but I'm not sure about a masters in something else.

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  47. This is the best reason yet... The job market is not kind to those who are overeducated and underexperienced. A PhD prepares you only for a specific and highly competitive career. Anyone interested in a PhD, do yourself a favor... Get a job after undergrad for a few years first. At least that way, when you don't land one of the 15 TT positions available in your field upon graduation, you have some skill set to fall back on. It doesn't help that everyone's advice is the same: "You have to go to school now while you're still young, or you'll never do it." Well... Youth is also a great time to explore your options and develop some real marketable skills.

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  48. I really feel this is true. I'm already a graduate taking up my masters because the powers that be forced me to take it. I'm also a licensed teacher with a very high score from the exam.

    And yet when I apply for a teaching job, no one wants to hire me. I have a feeling my ongoing graduate studies is a factor here. I mean, I'm supposed to have all the qualifications they need, maybe even more. But why is it that no one is responding to my resume? No one has ever called me for an interview; it's like the master's degree in my resume filtered me out of their options.

    And remember when I said that the masters degree was forced upon me. That's another problem; I'm not really passionate with this damn degree. So I don't really think I'd wanna teach this subject in the near future.

    Plus, I can't even apply for jobs I would've wanted to apply.

    It's very frustrating, but what can we do? That's how it is.

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