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.