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.