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?