Sunday, December 26, 2010

40. Faddishness prevails.

You probably associate fads with fashion and junior high school, but fads are very much a part of modern academic culture. Whole disciplines and sub-disciplines rise and fall in popularity, as do certain ideas and personalities, the influence of which will often cross disciplinary boundaries. The pernicious effects of this faddishness are most often felt by those who study something that is out-of-fashion at the time they enter the job market. The most savvy (if un-idealistic) graduate students will choose their programs of study and dissertation topics with an eye to what is fashionable. Just hope that your choice is still fashionable a decade hence.

If you have any doubts about academic faddishness, consider the French intellectual Michel Foucault (1926-1984), whose name and ideas have proven wildly popular in academic circles. To see just how popular he is, try a little experiment. Google the name “Foucault.” Now Google the name “Aristotle.” This is an imperfect experiment, given that there is more than one Foucault, etc., but the results should surprise you. Is it even remotely possible to consider the influence of Foucault in the same league as that of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)? You can almost be forgiven for thinking so after a few years in graduate school.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

39. You are asked to do the impossible.

If you have never seen a graduate-level reading list, you may be in for a surprise. The largest part of your reading load is usually assigned as preparation for your comprehensive (or general) exams, but individual courses also require a great deal of reading. Reading lists are so long that it really isn’t possible for anyone but the fastest readers to read the hundreds of books and articles that are assigned in a typical graduate program. Part of the high graduate-school drop-out rate is no doubt the result of well-intentioned students making this terrible discovery the hard way.

Enormous reading loads persist despite the overall decline in academic expectations (see Reason 6). The reading lists are so long in part because of the unbelievable volume of academic literature that is constantly published (see Reason 33) and in part because professors are reluctant to shorten lists to a manageable length in a climate in which long reading lists are considered de rigeur. The consequence of this has been the redefinition of “reading.” A successful graduate student quickly learns that to “read” a work of scholarship is simply to grasp its basic argument (usually made clear in the introduction) so that there is time to move on to the next book. Retaining what you have read even using this abbreviated form of reading remains a challenge when you are faced with a list of 200 or 300 titles.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

38. The tyranny of the CV.

Another example of terminology-inflation in academe (see Reason 35) is evident in the “curriculum vitae.” What in most other walks of life is referred to in standard American English as a résumé (an already pretentious three-syllable French word) is in academic professions referred to by an even more pretentious six syllables of Latin. (The former term, incidentally, is much older than the latter.) But the inflation does not end there. In most real-world contexts, résumés are as brief and to-the-point as possible, but the typical professor’s CV is pages and pages long. It is so long because it lists every paper that he has ever presented at a conference, every article, book chapter, or book that he has ever published, every class that he has ever taught, every grant that he has ever received, every honor with which he has ever been bestowed, and often every professional organization to which he pays a membership fee.

Of course, this means that there is now an expectation that a strong CV will be many pages long. Graduate students with an eye on the academic job market, therefore, have to start worrying about collecting items for their CVs early in their graduate programs. In fact, you will spend far more time in graduate school doing things for the sake of putting them on your CV than you will ever spend pondering what you are studying for its own sake. Unfortunately, if you want an academic job, you really don’t have a choice in the matter.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

37. The university does not exist for your sake.

While the modern university increasingly exists for the sake of those that it employs (see Reason 32), it still does a good job of creating the impression that it exists for the purpose of undergraduate education. There are too many parents paying enormous tuition bills for it to do otherwise. Modern campuses boast elaborate student exercise facilities, more and more comfortable student housing, and ever-fancier student-union buildings. The vast majority of the people who experience university life are undergraduate students, so it makes sense that universities work to enhance this experience. Part of the incentive to do so is the desire to produce happy alumni who will later contribute to their alma maters.

Although graduate students today tend to have much longer programs of study than undergraduates (see Reason 4), and therefore remain on campus much longer than undergraduates, they represent a smaller proportion of the student body. Furthermore, at any given time, a large proportion of graduate students are receiving funding from the university, rather than paying tuition to it. They will represent a far smaller share of the university’s alumni, and because most of them will presumably go into academe, they can’t be counted on to produce much in the way of alumni donations. There is little incentive for the university to pay much attention to the graduate student experience, so it typically doesn’t. As employees, teaching assistants (like adjunct professors) are impermanent, and thus are not among the university's stake-holding employees. It is an interesting experience to spend years of your life as an ancillary part of an institution designed to serve the 18-year olds who surround you every day.

Monday, December 6, 2010

36. “So what are you going to do with that?”

Once your listener has gotten over the initial perplexity caused by your admission that you are a graduate student (see Reasons 24 and 30), the next question will usually be, “What do you study?” And you will answer, “anthropology.” Then the next question will be, “Well, what exactly do you study?” And you will answer, “I study the use of body art among Polish metal workers.” And then the next question will be, “So what are you going to do with that?”

You know exactly what you hope to do with that. You hope to find a tenure-track job at a college or university where you will teach anthropology to generations of students, some of whom will go on to graduate school and write esoteric dissertations of their own (see Reason 29). For some reason, however, this is hard to articulate in a conversation. One problem is that you can see a certain absurdity in this cycle of which you are now a part. Another is that you know just how hard it is to get a tenure-track job, and you may not have a Plan B. As a result, this question, which you will face repeatedly, is always an awkward one to handle. Your answer will usually end up being something along the lines of “teach,” and your listener will nod, immediately grasping the absurd cycle himself and finding it even harder to relate to you than he did three questions earlier.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

35. Mumbo-jumbo abounds.

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which mumbo-jumbo has permeated academe. The problem is especially egregious in the humanities, but it exists everywhere in the modern university. Mumbo-jumbo takes many forms, but it is closely associated with the desire of far too many academics to be perceived as sophisticated at the cost of clarity or meaningfulness in the most fundamental sense. Four years before dissolving its Department of Physical Education completely in 1997 (by which time "P.E." lacked any connotation of sophistication), the University of California, Berkeley, renamed it the Department of Human Biodynamics. But terminology-inflation is only the tip of the mumbo-jumbo iceberg.

In the sciences, sophisticated terms are necessary to describe extremely specific phenomena. Faced with an endless need to publish, academics in the humanities have also developed a complicated vocabulary, but whether or not it is genuinely sophisticated is a matter of debate. A complex arrangement of complex words can serve as a smokescreen for nonsense. In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal famously submitted “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”—an article intentionally full of nonsense—to Social Text, a journal published by Duke University Press that currently describes itself as devoted to “a broad spectrum of social and cultural phenomena from a radical perspective, applying critical theory and methods to the world at large.” After the journal accepted and published Sokal’s article (without subjecting it to peer review), Sokal revealed the hoax in an article published in Lingua Franca. The experiment had little effect, however. Articles with titles like Sokal’s appear constantly. If you find that you can’t initially write such a paper yourself, the Postmodernism Generator will write one for you. You can still build a career in academe on mumbo-jumbo, but before you give it a try, ask yourself if you can do so with a good conscience.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

34. There is too little academic publishing.

Ironically, while academic journals proliferate (see Reason 33), there are fewer and fewer opportunities to publish scholarly books. This is a major problem. To earn tenure in most any humanities department at most any research university requires publishing a book. At the most prestigious universities, it may require publishing two books. Therefore, on the part of academics, there is a desperate need for scholarly books to be published. However, university presses (generally the only publishers that subject manuscripts to peer review) are much like graduate students; they occupy a strange place within the university and find themselves near the bottom of the university’s priority list.

The staggering number of journals is actually partly to blame for this problem. Traditionally, the most reliable purchasers of scholarly books have been academic libraries, but as libraries spend more and more on journal subscriptions (some of which are outrageously expensive), they have less and less to spend on books. As scholarly book sales spiral downward, university presses are increasingly reliant on grants, donations, and university resources to stay afloat. They can publish fewer books, and the books that they do publish are printed in ever smaller numbers. (A total print run of 300 copies is not atypical for a scholarly book today.) But to see your manuscript in print at all is a formidable challenge. While the customers for these books are disappearing, the supply of authors who need to publish does not diminish. Out of necessity, university presses can accept only a small percentage of the manuscripts that are submitted to them. Assistant professors who cannot find a press to accept their work for publication will not be professors for long.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

33. There is too much academic publishing.

Everyone is required to publish. “Publish or perish” is the rule in a research university, where faculty members are expected to make continual contributions to their fields. A faculty member has no hope of acquiring tenure or getting a promotion without an ever-lengthening record of publication, but the pressure to publish is so intense that even graduate students are now expected to publish research. The job market being what it is, graduate students can be certain that their competition has a record of publication, so they had best have one, too.

All of this publishing has to appear somewhere, so there are now thousands of academic journals. The subscription fees for these journals (particularly those in medicine and the sciences) are a great financial burden on academic libraries. Amidst this enormous profusion of academic publishing—and the stress that it places on everyone involved—it is inevitable that sub-par research gets through the peer-review process and into the pages of academic journals. Sometimes even fraud makes it through. Because of the requirement to publish, academics (even honest ones) sometimes publish work that they themselves question the significance of. (Of course, questioning the significance of one’s work is a condition endemic to graduate school.) A more serious problem is that good work can go unnoticed in the relentless flood of published research.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

32. The university is an economic engine.

Universities ostensibly exist to educate, but after their massive post-World War II expansion to accommodate tens of thousands of students apiece, they needed to hire thousands of employees. Some of these employees are hired to teach (faculty members and graduate students alike), but a growing proportion of university employees are there to do something else. They are janitors, gardeners, groundskeepers, librarians, plumbers, coaches, secretaries, accountants, electricians, programmers, engineers, nurses, cooks, scientists, and administrators. Those employed in offices devoted to various “student services” amount to an impressive number in themselves.

A modern university is a small (or not-so-small) city teeming with activity. In their host communities, universities are economic engines that attract a continual supply of paying customers (students) and millions of research dollars, while providing employment for thousands. The students come and go, so the real university stakeholders are those with permanent campus jobs.  As the Economist recently pointed out, most of the growth in American universities has been in administration; almost half of the full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators. With so many stakeholders on campus who are not there to teach or to learn, the priorities of the modern university are naturally less and less attuned to the avowed purposes of higher education. At least until the bubble bursts (see Reason 27), one might do well to look for a permanent, salaried university job that does not require years of graduate school and the uncertainty that accompanies it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

31. There are biological consequences.

It is never entirely your decision as to when you will marry or have children, but to the extent that it is, there are some important facts of life to keep in mind. There is a price to pay for delaying adulthood and marriage (see Reasons 12 and 15) that goes beyond the psychological cost of graduate school (see Reason 10). For women, fertility begins to decline before the age of 30, and for men the decline begins in the late 30s. For women over 35, fertility-treatment effectiveness also declines.

Because the road through graduate school to a secure job and income is such a long and uncertain one, graduate students have good reason to wait before starting a family. Of course, the longer people wait to have children, the fewer children they can have. And if they wait too long, it can be difficult to have any children at all. This is not an issue that usually crosses the mind of someone considering graduate school, but it should. The subject of a 2002 cover story in Time magazine, the grief that Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls the “crisis of childlessness” has affected a generation of successful people who made career a priority over family. To make matters worse, graduate school has the effect of putting off both family and career.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

30. You occupy a strange place in the world.

Graduate students not only occupy a strange place in the university (see Reason 10), they occupy a strange place in the world. Though it is meant to be only a transitional period, graduate school has become so drawn out (see Reason 4), that you may find yourself in this strange place for many years. How is it strange? It is strange in a number of ways. There is the relative poverty that comes with the knowledge that you could be doing something else. There are the real ways in which you are removed from adulthood (see Reasons 12 and 15), and there are the perceptions (fair or unfair) among others that you are not really doing what an adult should be doing (see Reason 24). There is the constant uncertainty of not knowing what you will be doing next year (see Reason 17) or what you will be doing when you have finally earned your degree (see Reason 8).

The sense of alienation that comes with being a graduate student is not only something that you feel. It is something that the people around you feel. People don’t know what to make of graduate students. They find it difficult to relate to them. Many don’t understand what it means to be in graduate school, and those who are familiar with academe often have vaguely (or even explicitly) negative opinions of graduate students. In popular culture, references to graduate students are few, but they can be quite revealing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

29. You may not start with plans to be a professor, but…

People often go to graduate school without any firm plans or expectations for their futures. For many, graduate school serves as what they think will be a temporary escape from the “real world.” Continuing their educations is a way of putting off career decisions or even adulthood itself (see Reason 12). However, once you have begun investing in graduate school and the academic enterprise more generally, you will discover that it is both hard to quit (see Reason 11) and takes a very long time to finish (see Reason 4). By the end of your graduate school experience, you will have spent a long time building a resume and acquiring a very specific skill set that is optimized for exactly one thing: being a professor.

This is something that you should consider carefully before starting a graduate program. Do you want to be a professor? If the answer is no, think twice. If the answer is yes, the problem is further complicated by the fact that the competition to become a professor at even the most modest academic institutions is fierce (see Reasons 8 and 14). So whether or not you can answer that question now, if in the course of your journey through graduate school you are able to resign yourself to the idea of being a professor (or some kind of college instructor), you will then be faced with the reality of the job market. There are a few jobs outside of academe that require a PhD, but there are not many. Would it have been worth it?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

28. Writing is hard.

In graduate school, you will be immersing yourself in a life of reading and writing, neither of which will be fun. For most people, writing of any kind requires effort, and writing well requires more, but academic writing is especially difficult. It is difficult because it is (rightfully) subject to scrutiny, and therefore every substantive factual assertion that you make in your writing will have to be based upon evidence that must be cited meticulously. You will seldom write a paragraph that lacks a citation, meaning that you will rarely have the opportunity to indulge in an enjoyable, free-flowing production of words unimpeded by constant pauses to consult sources and record attributions. Academic writing can be agonizingly slow.
Early in graduate school, you will probably be asked to write book reviews or other relatively short papers that require reference to a limited number of sources, but most of your writing will require a great deal of preparation before it even begins. Because your research contributions are expected to be original, you will have to acquaint yourself with the literature that has already been published on the subject about which you are writing. Then, you will have to find a way to incorporate the conclusions of your predecessors into your work before offering some kind of interpretation of your own—an interpretation that should be justified by evidence. Creativity—and one hopes that there will be some—has to be expressed within the template of what constitutes a sound academic argument. Scholarship is made better by high standards, but you should ask yourself if this is the kind of writing to which you want to devote a good portion of your life.

Monday, November 1, 2010

27. The academic bubble may burst.

When considering devoting your life—or at least a large portion of it—to academe, it is worth considering the big picture and the future of higher education. For decades, tuition has been rising higher and higher, with either parents or students (incurring more and more debt) expected to shoulder the burden. As the Economist recently pointed out:
College fees have for decades risen faster than Americans’ ability to pay them. Median household income has grown by a factor of 6.5 in the past 40 years, but the cost of attending a state college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state students and 24 for out-of-state students. The cost of attending a private college has increased by a factor of more than 13 (a year in the Ivy League will set you back $38,000, excluding bed and board). Academic inflation makes medical inflation look modest by comparison.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent over the last 25 years. Obviously, college costs cannot continue to devour a larger and larger share of middle class income indefinitely. Eventually, a point will be reached when people conclude that a college education is no longer worth the exorbitant ticket price. When a large enough share of the population believes that it has reached that point, colleges that are used to yearly increases in tuition income will be forced to make substantial changes. All colleges are vulnerable to changing economic conditions. Now that the consequences of the real estate bubble have become painfully apparent, more and more people are using "bubble" to describe the unsustainable growth in higher education. There are already too few jobs in academe for those seeking them (see Reasons 8 and 13). What will the situation be like if the bubble bursts?

Friday, October 29, 2010

26. Some graduate students are more equal than others.

If the salary list in Reason 23 hasn’t already convinced you that there is nothing egalitarian about universities, you should be aware that the situation within graduate programs is no different. Resources are limited, so when departments dole out fellowships, assistantships, and other funding to graduate students, some students receive more than others. When recruiting, departments offer multi-year funding packages to the students whom they would most like to bring to campus. In some cases, this is essentially a promise to provide support to students from the moment that they arrive on campus until the day that they graduate. Other students are offered less, such as funding for the first year with no guarantee of further support. These awards commonly come with an assurance that “most students” continue to receive funding for two, three, or four years (see Reason 17).

Then there are the students who are admitted to graduate programs and offered no funding at all. If they decide to begin the program, they will be expected to pay full tuition and fees, and somehow support themselves as well. Again, in these cases there may be a “promise” of future funding, but even making it through one year of graduate school without funding is a heavy financial burden. Those without assistantships (as onerous as they can be) are also frozen out of the teaching opportunities that are so important on academic resumes. Students in the same program, sitting in the same classes, and on their way to receiving identical degrees can have wildly different levels of financial support from their department. Consider the effect that this has on morale.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

25. Academe is built on pride.

A cynic might say that while most of the Western world runs on greed, academe runs on pride. And at least according to the Biblical narrative, pride is worse than greed; pride was the sin of the devil himself.

Academe is full of people who think of themselves as smart. In the “real world,” applied intelligence is often rewarded financially, but those who have chosen to spend their lives in higher education will probably never be millionaires. Academics tell themselves that they have given up on the financial rewards that would have come to them in a different line of work, and they are more than likely right. Instead of measuring their accomplishments in dollars, they tend to derive their self-worth from their intellectual stature. Some academics work to prove the point with an endless torrent of publications, but most at the very least settle into a comfortable satisfaction with their own intelligence. But pride is easily wounded. There are two especially negative consequences of the fact that universities play host to high concentrations of people who think highly of themselves but are not rich. The first is that universities create environments in which people are easily offended and quick to defend their status. The second is that campuses are pervaded with a nagging feeling of resentment borne by people who feel that their talents have been inadequately rewarded.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

24. “You are still in school?”

As you age, your relatives and family friends will begin to marvel at the fact that you are still a student. After spending so much time in the Ivory Tower, it is easy for a graduate student to forget just how small the world of higher education is in the context of the wider world. Academic culture is not universally understood beyond the hedges surrounding campus. It is sometimes hard for people—even well-educated people—outside of academe to understand the difference between a college student and a graduate student. Your Uncle Joe may assume that your parents are still paying your tuition (and for some of you that may be true). Whether it is true or not, the idea of a twenty-eight-year-old living off of her parents is not particularly flattering, even in an age of delayed adulthood.

With each passing year, this question becomes more and more awkward to answer. In a real sense, graduate school has the effect of pushing the trappings of adulthood further and further into your future (see Reasons 12 and 15), and this can begin to confound the expectations of adults who have known you all of your life. Furthermore, the longer that you spend as a graduate student—heavily invested in academic culture, but without the financial means to participate fully in the life of the middle class—the less you will be able to relate to the people of the outside world, and the less they will be able to relate to you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

23. There is a pecking order.

Just as there is an academic hierarchy among universities (see Reason 3), there is an academic hierarchy within universities. Some departments have a positive effect on university budgets by virtue of the money that they attract in the form of grants (see Reason 22). Professional programs of study such as law and business charge high fees and offer little or no financial support to their students, so they are also an important source of income for universities. Finally, there are the departments—namely those in the arts, humanities, and many social sciences—that are entirely dependent on the university’s general budget. From a purely fiscal perspective, they are drains on institutional resources. Perhaps not surprisingly, universities tend to lavish attention on the departments and programs that attract external funding, while trying to minimize fixed costs, particularly in those departments and programs that do not generate income.

The liberal arts were once—and perhaps still are—perceived as the core of the university. Philosophy, History, and English departments are often housed in stately old buildings at the center of campuses. But shining new science buildings and gleaming law schools just as often look down on the peeling paint of their venerable neighbors. The hierarchy of departments is most clearly apparent in faculty salaries. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average salaries for new assistant professors in 2009-2010 were:

Business                            $95,822   
Law                                    $92,033
Engineering                       $75,450
Computer Science             $72,199
Public Administration         $57,873
Physical Sciences              $56,483
Math                                  $55,186
Psychology                        $54,584
Philosphy                           $53,668
Foreign Language             $52,271
History                               $51,811
English                              $51,204

Keep in mind that these all represent people who have the same job title: “assistant professor.” The relative comfort of graduate students generally reflects the place of their respective departments in the hierarchy.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

22. The liberal arts do not attract investment.

Research institutions are increasingly dependent on professional begging. In part, this involves hiring development officers whose job it is to find benefactors and encourage ever larger donations from them. Even more important is grant-writing. Researchers apply for grants from either private or public entities (often the federal government) in the hope that their particular research projects will be funded for a given number of years. When a professor “wins” a grant, he or she can buy equipment, pay for lab space, and fund graduate student assistants. Grant-writing (like development) is now a profession, because it has become so important as a source of income for research institutions.

What does this have to do with the liberal arts? Apart from the sciences, virtually nothing. And that is a problem for the liberal arts. Money will pour into universities for medical, scientific, or other research that is deemed important either to the public interest, or to business interests with a stake in the knowledge produced by a specific line of research. While there are sources of funding for the non-science liberal arts (such as the National Endowment for the Humanities), they are minuscule in number compared to those available to other branches of academe. There is no doubt that there is a certain freedom afforded to math or philosophy or French professors who are not dependent on grants, but external funding is a reflection of the relative importance that society places on the various academic disciplines. It is indicative of the fact that many of the traditional liberal arts are increasingly out of place in the modern research university.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

21. Graduate seminars can be unbearable.

Imagine sitting with a group of classmates and a professor around a table. Each of you has read a different book about a given topic, and you will each report to the class about the book that you have read. You will diligently (or perhaps not so diligently) take notes on the books described by the other students and then give your own book report. After three hours, you will go your separate ways. The professor may or may not have said much, but he probably didn’t prepare anything to say, because he understandably has higher priorities than graduate seminars. Next week, you will all read a common book and try to talk about it for three hours.

When the historian Jacques Barzun turned 100 in 2007, the New Yorker published a long piece by Arthur Krystal on the occasion of his birthday. It included a description of the Columbia University undergraduate colloquium taught jointly by Barzun and English professor Lionel Trilling from 1934 to 1975. To quote from the article:
“It was awe-inspiring,” the historian Fritz Stern, a 1946 alumnus of the Colloquium, recalled recently. “There I was, listening to two men very different, yet brilliantly attuned to each other, spinning and refining their thoughts in front of us. And when they spoke about Wordsworth, or Balzac, or Burke, it was as if they’d known him. I couldn’t imagine a better way to read the great masterpieces of modern European thought.”

You may be under the impression that you will experience something like this in graduate school. Unfortunately, you almost certainly won't.

Monday, October 11, 2010

20. Few ideas are exchanged.

Perhaps the single greatest disappointment for new graduate students is the realization of how little graduate school resembles a community of the life of the mind. To suppose that five percent of your time interacting with other people in your shared academic setting will be devoted to genuine intellectual discussion is to make a generous estimate. That is at the outside edge of what you can reasonably expect, and most of those conversations will go on between you and your professors. One of the factors that suppresses discourse is the fact that your peers are your competitors (see Reason 2). Another is jadedness. Another is just plain tiredness.

With your fellow graduate students, you will complain about teaching, complain about funding, and complain about department politics. You will share insecurities even as you try to hide them. You will hear a great deal of bragging, usually under a veil of pretense that is easily seen through by everyone listening, and sometimes responded to in kind. You might even enjoy a few warm conversations in the context of shared experience, but you will rarely hear anything from your peers that makes you think. You may hear nothing of the kind at all.


Friday, October 8, 2010

19. These are the best years of your life.

Whether or not your young adulthood does in fact turn out to be the best part of your life by one measure or another, these probably are the years when you will be the healthiest, most energetic, and most capable of taking on challenges. This is the time to try, fail, and try again, to explore your options and discover work that you enjoy. Some of that energy would certainly serve you well in the energy-draining atmosphere of graduate school, but is that where you want to spend it? You really are only young once. Do you really want to start down the graduate school track from which it can be so hard to remove yourself? (See Reason 11.)

You can start a graduate program after you have tried something else first. For that matter, you can try two or three or four things first. In the process of giving something else a chance, you may discover your life’s calling and settle into a livelihood long before you would have finished graduate school. Having secure employment and income in your twenties gives you more flexibility when it comes to starting a family than you would have if you were to emerge from graduate school at 30 without any savings, and quite possibly in debt. Moreover, if you choose to start graduate school after working and saving for a few years, you can give yourself a monetary cushion that will improve your standard of living in graduate school and give you some peace of mind, which is a rare commodity among graduate students.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

18. Fellowships are few and far between.

It would be interesting to know when and how the word “fellowship” came to replace the word “scholarship” for graduate students, but that is what a fellowship is. It is money that is given to you, to use toward your studies, that does not need to be paid back. Fellowships are wonderful; there is no doubt about it. A fellowship, unlike an assistantship, is not a job; it is essentially a gift of money that comes only with the expectation that it will further your studies. A fellowship can buy a graduate student precious time to focus on preparing for comprehensive exams or on writing a thesis or dissertation. Some fellowships are designed to support travel to foreign countries for research or language acquisition.

For most graduate students, these are rare opportunities. Fellowships are awarded by the government, private foundations, and by universities themselves, but the number of fellowships is small relative to the number of graduate students. If all graduate students were funded solely with fellowships, then the average time-to-degree would be a fraction of what it is now. Of course, if all graduate students were funded this way, universities would have no teaching assistants, and the current teaching model could not be sustained.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

17. Funding is fleeting.

Those of you who have been accepted to graduate school with multi-year funding packages (i.e. guaranteed economic support in the form of teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships for a given number of years) should count yourselves fortunatethat is, unless you would be happier doing something other than going to graduate school. Those funding packages can be hard to turn down, and even harder to give up after you have begun a program of study if you do decide that you would rather be doing something else (see Reason 11); also consider what you could be earning in another line of work. 

For many people, however, it is nearly impossible to plan their way through graduate school from the time that they begin their studies, because their funding situation changes from year to year, or term to term, and they have no way of knowing what the next year holds for them. Some departments at some universities are able to support all of their graduate students all the way through their programs. Other departments have extremely limited funds for graduate student support that are rationed severely. Most departments fall somewhere in between. It is hard to plan your life when you do not know what you will be doing from one year to the next. Economic uncertainty while you are in graduate school (quite apart from the situation that you will face upon graduation) can be a major stress, building as the years go by.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

16. Where you live will be chosen for you.

While you may have some part in choosing where you will attend graduate school—admission committees will have their part in the choosing as well—you will have very little choice in the matter of where you live after you complete your graduate education, at least if you plan to remain a professional academic. This is because there will be so few open positions for which you will be qualified at the moment when you enter the job market (see Reason 8). Remember that most faculty openings (especially in a sluggish economy) are the result of faculty retirements, so your job prospects will depend on your graduation coinciding with the retirement plans of someone whose position will be replaced. When budgets are tight, retirees are often not replaced at all.

Unless you have received some inside information, there is little way for you to guess where the job openings will appear in any given year. You may be in graduate school in sunny Southern California, and be quite happy there, but the only job announcements for someone like you, whose specialty is eighteenth-century French literature, are for positions in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Idaho. Every other job seeker in the country (and perhaps beyond) with a PhD in your specialty will apply for those three jobs, and because you have devoted eight years of your life to the subject and you aren’t ready to jump into something completely different, you will, too. And if you manage to land one of those jobs, you may very well spend the rest of your working life in Alabama. The job market will determine where you live.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

15. Marriage and family usually wait.

There are married graduate students, and there are graduate students with families, and the love and support offered by these loved ones is no doubt a great boon to someone in graduate school. However, if you do not begin graduate school married and with a family, you may very well finish graduate school unmarried and without a family. The reasons, more than anything else, are economic. By going to graduate school, you have more than likely either consigned yourself to relative poverty or to debt, and neither condition is ideal for starting a marriage or family.

Should you be one of those who finds a mate who is willing to support you financially and emotionally through graduate school, then you are fortunate; such patience and sacrifice are admirable qualities in a spouse. However, this will probably not be the case for most graduate students, for whom both time and money are in short supply. Raising children on a graduate student stipend must be nearly impossible for anyone in the humanities or social sciences. Furthermore, when and if you do finish a PhD, you will probably have no significant savings, and you will only now (nearing age 30) be entering the uncertain job market (see Reason 4). To wait until you are settled and securely employed before starting a family is a sensible decision, but one that can require an extra long wait if you choose to make your way through graduate school.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

14. Adjuncthood awaits.

As a direct result of the unceasing flow of new PhDs entering the job market every year, there is an oversupply of people qualified to teach at the university level. As in any other industry, when the supply of labor is low, wages tend to rise, and when the supply of labor is high, wages tend to decrease. As would most any business in a similar situation, colleges and universities have taken advantage of this oversupply. Instead of hiring full-time faculty members with expensive salaries and benefits, colleges can hire part-time instructors on short-term contracts. These instructors typically receive no benefits apart from what they are paid on a per-course basis to teach. In the language of American academe, they are called “adjunct” professors.

After spending the better part of a decade, and perhaps more, working toward their doctorates, many people find that a PhD is a ticket to a part-time job. Or, just as likely, it is a ticket to multiple part-time jobs that have to be held down simultaneously just to earn enough money to cover the bills. These jobs, moreover, are not guaranteed to last beyond the current quarter or semester, as universities tend to hire part-time instructors according to the vagaries of their ever-changing budgets. The life of an adjunct professor trying to make a living was described in 2002 by the Washington Post. So, once you have your PhD in hand, how likely are you to find yourself in an adjunct position? According to the American Association of University Professors, more than half of all faculty members hold part-time appointments, and 68 percent of all people teaching in colleges and universities in the United States hold non-tenure-track positions.

Monday, September 20, 2010

13. Respect for the academic profession is declining.

Anyone who has seen the NBC sitcom “Community” can attest to its unflattering portrayal of community college faculty members and administrators. The public image of what were once called junior colleges does not seem to be improving, despite the fact that today community colleges hire for their faculties hyper-educated scholars. This is in large part the result of the extremely competitive academic job market (see Reason 8), which has squeezed people with hopes of teaching at research universities or four-year colleges into jobs at community colleges. So, it is interesting that a program like “Community” should have appeared at a time when community colleges were hiring instructors with PhDs from Harvard and MIT.

Obviously, the rise in the quality (or at least in the quality and quantity of the credentials) of the permanent faculty members at colleges of all kinds is not the only trend affecting academe and its public image. Part of the growing disrespect for—and ambivalence toward—higher education is a result of the slackening of academic standards for students and the proliferation of college course and degree offerings in subjects viewed (fairly or unfairly) as frivolous by the public. Part is bred by familiarity; as more and more adults have had at least some college education, they have less reason to view universities with the reverence inspired by the unknown and unattainable. Part of the disrespect is fostered by the higher education establishment itself, which by means of “adjunctification” (see Reason 14) has made work for professional academics insecure and unrewarding. And part of the disrespect stems from academics themselves, who have helped to dismantle (for good and for ill) the aura that once surrounded their profession by, for example, dressing more and more like their students.

Friday, September 17, 2010

12. Adulthood waits.

The Lewis Hine photograph of a boy studying at the top of the page captures at least two aspects of the graduate school experience. First, there is the boy’s concerted solitary concentration on the book that he is carefully reading. He is following his finger from line to line, a measure seldom employed when reading for pleasure. He is reading because he has to. But the photograph also captures the subject’s youth. Children go to school. As college has been dragged out longer and longer, the socially acceptable period for study has lengthened, but it can still feel strange to explain to someone that you are a student—even a graduate student—well into your twenties or thirties. Notably, the young boy photographed in 1924, with his necktie carefully tucked into his buttoned-up shirt, is more formally dressed than virtually any college student—and the vast majority of graduate students—whom one would encounter today.

Another image, the May 2010 cover of the New Yorker magazine, also captures a pair of graduate school realities. The first is the terrible job market for new PhDs and the very real possibility that your childhood room awaits you after graduation (see Reason 8). The second is portrayed in the look on the graduate’s parents’ faces. They do not share his pride. To them, their adult son looks disconcertingly at home amid his boyhood surroundings. Graduate school, like modern-day college, can act as one more extension of “youth,” in part because it dramatically stunts your earnings in early adulthood, but also because it keeps you in close proximity to the juvenile trappings of the modern college experience. Unfortunately, aging will not slow down to indulge you in your studies.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

11. There is a psychological cost for quitting.

Just as there is a psychological cost to be paid for being a graduate student (see Reason 10), there is a cost to be paid for quitting a graduate program without a degree, or without the degree that you started out in the hope of completing. The causes of the discomfort are partly social: the pressure of explaining to others why you did not finish, the concern that others will perceive your not finishing as a failure, the expectations (real or preceived) of disappointed family members and loved ones, and the problem of explaining your foray through academe to potential employers. Other causes are internal, including disappointment with yourself for not completing something that you knew you were capable of completing.

The tragedy in this is that quitting may be the smart thing to do, but fear of the potential consequences can prevent you from doing so and prolong your time in graduate school, raising the psychological costs ever more. The longer that you devote to a program, the higher the cost of leaving can be, even if leaving is the best choice. Professor Timothy Burke of Swarthmore College has colorfully described this phenomenon. And for some of those who do successfully make their escape from graduate school, feelings of regret and incompletion can linger, irrationally burdening even people who go on to successful careers far from the Ivory Tower.

Monday, September 6, 2010

10. There is a psychological cost.

Without question, some people are better suited for graduate school than others, and a good attitude goes a long way in making any challenge more manageable. However, spending years of your life developing skills and acquiring knowledge that may prove of no practical use to you in the long run is taking a kind of risk. Uncertainty hangs over graduate students’ heads, as does a looming and never-ending parade of unfinished projects and deadlines.

Perhaps the hardest part of being a graduate student is not being something else. You occupy a strange place in the university; you are not an undergraduate to whom the university at least ostensibly caters, and you are certainly not a faculty member. You are a strange combination of student, teacher, apprentice, and employee. Meanwhile, most of your friends from high school and college who did not choose to go to graduate school will be living very different lives. Chances are that they will be living like “adults” long before you are, and you may never catch up to them in lifetime earnings, no matter what their professions. Money is not everything, but you feel it when you don’t have it, and unless you have a trust fund or benefactor, while you are in graduate school you probably won’t.

9. It is very, very hard.

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

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

8. There are very few jobs.

After the massive post-war expansion of American higher education, academic departments became increasingly dependent on graduate-student labor in order to maintain a research focus while educating undergraduates. Universities require every faculty member to produce a steady stream of publishable scholarship (see Reason 33), meaning that the time professors have to devote to teaching is limited. To meet their teaching obligations, universities need a steady stream of graduate students in all of their departments to serve as teaching assistants. Some graduate students actually graduate (see Reason 46). As a result, there is a steady stream of newly minted PhDs walking, diploma-in-hand, out of every department of every research university in the United States.

Having spent as many as ten years (or more) studying, teaching, and researching as graduate students, most new PhDs want to put their skills and knowledge to use in the university setting that they know so well. They are often in their thirties when, for the first time in their lives, they are finally qualified to earn a regular salary in their chosen profession. But there are only so many regular faculty positions to be filled. Open positions are usually the result of retirements, but there are never as many retirements as there are new PhDs (see Reason 55). This means, of course, that more and more people are constantly competing for fewer and fewer academic jobs. The problem has been compounding for decades. This is why some Ivy-League PhDs find themselves working at community colleges (see Reason 91), and why many PhDs find themselves in temporary teaching positions (see Reason 14), often earning less than they once made as lowly teaching assistants.

7. Labor demands are increasing.

If academic expectations are dropping, why does it take so long to earn a degree? Part of the explanation has to do with the labor demands that have become a part of the typical graduate student experience. As tuition rates rise, making it increasingly imprudent to go into debt for the sake of earning a graduate degree, it has become increasingly important for graduate students to self-finance their way through graduate school. And as the job market becomes more competitive, it becomes increasingly important for graduate students to be able to demonstrate that they already have ample teaching experience upon graduation.

In order to secure tuition waivers, earn enough money to live modest student lives, and acquire teaching experience, graduate students hold teaching assistantships. These assistantships can include total responsibility for courses (designing classes, designing and grading all assignments, preparing lectures, and teaching up to five days per week, i.e. doing what professors used to do) or being responsible for grading the work submitted by students in large lecture courses taught by professors. Whatever form these assistantships take, they tend to require a great deal of time. Grading 100, 200, or 300 papers multiple times per term is time-consuming, especially for someone trying to be a conscientious evaluator of student work. Add to that the time required to sit in on lectures (if you don’t happen to be giving the lectures yourself) as well. And don’t forget office hours. And answering emails from students. And the occasional make-up exam. Then there are your own classes, assignments, and that little thesis or dissertation that you are supposed to be working on.

6. Intellectual expectations are falling.

Ironically, as the average time-to-degree increases, more and more graduate degrees require less and less work. Consider master’s degrees. While master’s degrees were once generally designed according to a two-year model and required the completion of a substantial thesis, today one-year non-thesis master’s programs abound. Universities will be happy to charge you tuition for such degrees, and faculty will no doubt be happy to graduate you without having to read drafts of your thesis, but you will have probably done less to earn that degree than someone who earned a master’s degree ten years ago. This is a secret to no one, so the real consequence of this development is the devaluation of master’s degrees. Everyone’s degree is worth less than a degree was worth in the past. And the trend will probably continue.

Meanwhile, foreign language requirements are being dropped or watered down, theses are getting shorter, and grade inflation is rampant. In fact, the range of “acceptable” grades in graduate programs has shrunk to such a degree that grades have been rendered effectively meaningless. In many programs, to be given a “B” in coursework is to be politely informed that you are not fit for graduate school. Students no longer benefit from the feedback provided by an honest and effective grade scale, because professors feel compelled (often for compassionate reasons) to assign inflated grades. In a purely intellectual sense, there is less and less to be gained from graduate school in and of itself.

5. Graduate school is not what it used to be.

Grad school is not what it was, because college is not what it was. Before World War II, about five percent of Americans had college degrees. College was not a common experience, but something enjoyed by a minority of people who had access to the privilege of a college education either by virtue of their social standing or because they were genuinely bright. Colleges drew from a small segment of society and could be quite demanding of their students. Latin and Greek were often required subjects. After the war, as American higher education was “democratized,” state-supported colleges sprung up by the hundreds. As more people graduated from college, more jobs required college educations, and hence the demand for higher education grew. Graduate schools had to produce more and more faculty members to staff the expanding centers of higher learning.

Standards, of course, had to conform to the demands placed on institutions of higher education. Latin and Greek were no longer requirements, and just as the genuinely bright or socially established were no longer the only ones with access to college, graduate programs had to grow to include people closer to the middle of the bell curve to meet the demand for new PhDs. The days of wildly expanding job opportunities in academe are long gone, but the large graduate programs are still around. Graduate students today may be above-average in many respects, but they do not represent, generally speaking, the intellectual elite, and modern graduate school requirements reflect this.

4. It takes a long time to finish.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, it is taking longer and longer for students to earn graduate degrees (or undergraduate degrees, for that matter). The traditional model of a four-year bachelor degree, followed by two more years of study for a master’s degree, and finally an additional two years of study for a doctorate is long dead. The average time-to-degree for students in PhD programs is in many cases now in the neighborhood of ten years.

Ten years is a long time to remove yourself from the “real world.” As you are continuing to pursue higher education, your friends will be advancing in their careers, buying cars, taking out mortgages, and starting families while your quality of life will look a lot like it did when all of you were in college together. When you do finally earn your PhD, quite likely at some time in your thirties, you can start applying for jobs with starting salaries that your friends were earning when they were fresh out of college. The graphs that depict an increase in average earnings for increasing levels of education do not all take into account the years of income lost to earning those degrees. A decade is a substantial part of your life.

3. Your pedigree counts.

Where you earn your degree matters. It isn’t fair. It probably shouldn’t be this way, but it is. You will find it very hard to find an American academic who does not openly champion egalitarian principles and a belief in equal opportunity, but academia is not an equal opportunity business. If you graduate from Harvard, you will have an easier time moving along the academic path into graduate programs—and into an academic job—than if you graduate from Cornell. If you graduate from Cornell, you will have an easier time than if you graduate from Notre Dame. If you graduate from Notre Dame, then you are better off than if you had graduated from UC Davis, etc. This applies whether you are earning a bachelor’s degree or any kind of advanced degree. The actual quality of graduate programs may or may not have anything to with the reputation of the university in question.

Pride gets in the way of seeing this clearly sometimes, but the academic hierarchy is absolute and unforgiving. The various magazine rankings are only a reflection of a reality that existed long before the rankings did. The consequences of this hierarchy are real. There are only so many jobs. By the time that the Harvard PhDs have found tenure-track jobs across the United States—largely at the state universities where most of the jobs are—there are only so many jobs left for the Yale PhDs, the Princeton PhDs, the Stanford PhDs, the Cornell PhDs, etc. It is a long way down the list before we get to the University of Kentucky PhDs or the Michigan State PhDs. Those schools at the lower end of the list are now hiring Ivy-League graduates for their faculties, because the Ivy League alone produces so many PhDs that the academic market is saturated.  Where do you suppose all of the PhDs churned out by humanities programs at state universities end up? Some of them are working the night shift.

2. Your colleagues are your competitors.

Your fellow graduate students—at least those in your discipline—are your competitors. They are your competitors for funding while you are a graduate student, because you will compete with them for teaching assistantships, research assistantships, fellowships (both internal university awards and external awards), travel grants, etc.  When university budgets are tight, as they are now, all of these things are in shorter supply and higher demand than usual.

When you graduate, you will compete with these same people for very few jobs. The more closely your work resembles that of a given graduate student peer, the more likely that you will be in direct competition with that person. So, the very people with whom close association would theoretically most benefit your own research are those who are most likely to be competing with you for the same scarce resources. This does not encourage cooperation, morale, or friendship (although these can develop in spite of the circumstances).


1. The smart people are somewhere else.

If you think that going to graduate school will allow you to spend your days in a community of the enlightened, consider the axiom that it is unwise to borrow money that is difficult to repay. To go into debt for a graduate degree in the humanities is to go into debt for a credential that, at best, will qualify you for a job with a relatively low starting salary in an extremely competitive job market. Meanwhile, you will have removed yourself from the job market to pursue this degree, so don’t forget to add up the years that you will have incurred debt when you could have been earning money. But surely people in graduate school would be too smart to finance their educations with debt…

According to “The median additional debt [the debt that graduate students pile onto the debt that they acquired as undergraduates] is $25,000 for a Master's degree, $52,000 for a doctoral degree and $79,836 for a professional degree. A quarter of graduate and professional students borrow more than $42,898 for a Master's degree, more than $75,712 for a doctoral degree and more than $118,500 for a professional degree.” This is not intelligent behavior. The smart people are somewhere else.