Monday, December 26, 2011

75. You can make more money as a schoolteacher.

Imagine that you and your friend Sally graduate from college this year on equal footing. You decide to enter a PhD program in English, and Sally decides to become an English teacher in Mississippi. It will take your friend one year to complete the requirements necessary for her to qualify for a teaching license, during which time she will teach under supervision and be paid based on her “bachelor’s degree status as a first year teacher.” According to the National Education Association, the average starting salary for a teacher in Mississippi is $30,090. Meanwhile, you will be one of the lucky graduate students to be given a teaching assistantship with an annual stipend of $15,000. Unlike your stipend, Sally’s salary will likely rise significantly over time; the average teacher salary in Mississippi is $44,498. However, for the sake of simplicity, let us assume that both your stipend and her salary are frozen at their starting levels and that you (miraculously) receive ten years of funding as a teaching assistant at Generic State University (see Reason 17). After ten years, Sally will have earned $150,000 more than you have. She will also have a decade of seniority in her profession and a secure job.

At the same time—assuming that you are in the 49 percent of those who manage to finish a PhD in the humanities within ten years (see Reason 46)—you will have just been cut loose from your program and set adrift on the bleak academic job market. Chances are that you won’t land a tenure-track position straight out of grad school but will have to spend a year (or two or five) teaching as an adjunct (see Reason 12). In that capacity, you might be paid as much as $4000 per class, which would amount to $24,000 if you teach six classes in a year. (Of course, you may be paying for your own health insurance.) If, somehow, you do eventually beat out the formidable competition for a tenure-track job in English, you will then have a job with an average starting salary of $51,204 (see Reason 23). At long last, you might have a bigger paycheck than your friend in Mississippi, but, unlike Sally, you won’t know if you’ll still have your job in five years because you’re now on the brutal tenure track (see Reason 71). In any event, it will be years before you catch up with her in earnings. Now imagine that Sally works in California, where the average starting salary for teachers is $41,181 and the average teacher salary is $68,093...

Monday, December 12, 2011

74. Academic conferences.

The largest academic conferences can be highly depressing affairs involving thousands of participants and hundreds of desperate job seekers nervously waiting to be interviewed in hotel rooms (see Reason 55). Other conferences can be pleasant and collegial gatherings. In fact, the opportunity to attend regular professional meetings might be regarded as one of the “perks” of an academic career. Conferences offer an excuse to travel (and to cancel class), and a few departments still provide funding for their faculty members (and sometimes graduate students) to attend them. The ostensible purpose of an academic conference is to provide a forum in which scholars present and critique research. Rarely, however, is the emptiness of academe put on more public display than in the context of an academic conference.

To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals. At various sessions, speakers present their own research by reading aloud to an audience. Someone who has attended a full day of sessions will have listened to people reading for five or six hours. How well do you suppose the audience members are listening? They sit politely and at least pretend to listen, because when their own turn comes to stand up and read aloud, they would like others to extend the same courtesy to them. Sparks fly occasionally during question time, which can be mean-spirited or (less often) enlightening, but decorous boredom is typically the order of the day. The real purpose of the conference is to provide speakers with another line for their CVs, to which they all must add lines constantly (see Reason 38). Before you go to graduate school, attend an academic conference in the field that interests you, sit through a few sessions, and then ask yourself if it still interests you. While you’re there, get a sense of the anxiety among the attendees looking for work. For them, every conference is a gathering of competitors (see Reason 2).

Monday, November 28, 2011

73. Perceptions trump reality.

You really can build a career in academe by writing bogus nonsense (see Reason 35). You just have to persuade others to believe (or pretend) that your work makes sense and is—for one reason or another—significant. Others in your field will be willing to play along, because doing so allows them to rely on similar jargon and "theory" to produce their own work. In disciplines where research and scholarly production have little practical application, the value of scholarship rests entirely on the perception of its value. Where does the believing end, and the pretending begin? It is hard to say, especially with respect to one's own work. Some academics convince themselves of the importance of what they’re doing, others are plagued by doubt, while a clever few knowingly take advantage of a system that allows them to make a comfortable living.

In academe, perceptions often trump reality. The perception that there is a comfortable living to be made by anyone who earns a PhD provides graduate programs with a steady stream of applicants in spite of the realities of the job market (see Reason 55). Consider the academic hierarchy (see Reason 3), in which prestige matters much more than objective measurements of educational quality. If your university is perceived to be less than prestigious, you will be at a distinct disadvantage on the academic job market regardless of the merits of your work. Valid or not, perceptions have real consequences. When William James (quoted in Reason 70) referred to graduate school dropouts as "social failures," he was expressing a perception that can make quitting grad school a traumatic experience (see Reason 11). For decades, the higher education establishment has lived off of the perception that academic degrees are worth their high price tags. If the changing perception of real estate value is any indication of what is in store for academe (see Reason 27), it would be a good idea to think again about betting your future on an academic career, even if you're confident that you would make a successful charlatan.

Monday, November 14, 2011

72. The humanities and social sciences are in trouble.

Graduate students who receive funding from their universities are very fortunate (see Reason 17). To their universities, they are very expensive. Of course, grad students and adjuncts are cheaper to employ than professors, but universities are moving away from relying on tenured and tenure-track faculty to meet their instructional needs. More than three quarters of college teaching appointments are now held by graduate-student, part-time, and non-tenure-track instructors (see Reason 14). As a result, universities have come to regard graduate-student labor not as a bargain but as the norm, and they are beginning to identify which graduate students are the most cost-effective to keep on campus. Those in the humanities and social sciences are used to thinking of themselves as being inexpensive compared to their colleagues in the hard sciences, but when it comes to graduate students, it turns out that that is not the case at all.

In August 2011, Yale University released the results of a remarkable study of its own graduate school. Among other things, it found that even at Yale only 68% of those who had begun a PhD program in the humanities between 1996 and 2003 had earned a PhD by 2010 (see Reason 46). But most striking was a calculation of how much, on average, each Yale graduate student had cost the graduate school over a six-year period: $17,421 in the natural sciences, $126,339 in the social sciences, and $143,170 in the humanities. Graduate students in classics cost the university more than twenty times as much as graduate students in physics ($155,392 vs. $7,401). The numbers do not bode well for the social sciences and humanities. Disciplines that do not attract investment (see Reason 22) are looking more and more like unbearable financial burdens to the administrators of the modern university.

The terrible job market facing graduate students (see Reason 8) has never sufficed to convince universities to reduce the size of their graduate programs, but their own bottom line probably will. In the long run, the study may result in positive change if smaller graduate programs relieve pressure on the job market. For those already in the graduate-school pipeline, however, program cuts will only worsen the funding and employment situation. In its report on the study, the Yale Daily News quoted English Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University: “It just doesn’t make sense for people to go to school in the humanities.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

71. The tenure track is brutal.

The more time that you sink into graduate school, the more invested you become in an academic career (see Reason 29), and the holy grail for job seekers on the highly competitive academic job market is a tenure-track appointment as an assistant professor. Unfortunately, an assistant professorship is only a temporary, probationary position that lasts a maximum of 5-7 years. Toward the end of that period, an assistant professor applies for tenure, which is (more or less) a guarantee of permanent employment. The requirements for tenure vary, but you are generally expected to have published at least one book (sometimes two)—a feat made ever more difficult by the realities of the academic publishing business (see Reason 34)—as well as a number of journal articles. Of course, you will also have had to have taught a full load of courses every year, performed your faculty service obligations, and done it all to the satisfaction of your students, colleagues, and administrative superiors.

What happens if you are denied tenure? You’re fired. That’s it. You may have a second chance to apply for tenure, but if you do not have tenure by the end of your probationary employment period, you will be cleaning out your desk and saying goodbye to your colleagues (who voted to fire you). By now you may be in your 40s, but you will find yourself back on the vicious job market, and with the stigma of having been denied tenure. At this point, you will likely have spent a decade in graduate school, perhaps a few years as an adjunct, and six more years as an assistant professor. And yet you will have been found unfit for the one job for which all of those years were spent in preparation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

70. It is unforgiving.

There are a few exceptional individuals for whom graduate school is a breeze, but the vast majority of grad students are regular people. In fact, most of them probably belong to a group described in 1903 by Harvard professor William James. In his prescient critique of graduate education, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” James identified those for whom an academic life is an end in itself. Because current standards are not what they were then (see Reason 5), the type of earnest-but-not-dazzlingly-brilliant student he described is now more likely to make it through graduate school (and even into an academic career) than would have been the case 100 years ago. Even so, graduate programs remain highly proficient (and efficient) at turning thousands of eager, hard-working people into “victims” who either drop out (see Reason 46), flounder for years (see Reason 4), or face underemployment (see Reason 14).

William James felt genuine sympathy for these graduate students, because he understood the seriousness of their situation. There is simply no obvious place to land if you stumble on the long, arduous road to an academic career. The term that he used to describe those left by the wayside was blunt: “social failures.” Remember that James had in mind the “failures” produced by graduate programs at Harvard; one can only imagine what he would say about those churned out by state universities. It is disheartening to consider what has not changed more than a century after James made his observations:

But there is a third class of persons who are genuinely, and in the most pathetic sense, the institution's victims. For this type of character the academic life may become, after a certain point, a virulent poison. Men without marked originality or native force, but fond of truth and especially of books and study, ambitious of reward and recognition, poor often, and needing a degree to get a teaching position… There are individuals of this sort for whom to pass one degree after another seems the limit of earthly aspiration. Your private advice does not discourage them. They will fail, and go away to recuperate, and then present themselves for another ordeal, and sometimes prolong the process into middle life. Or else, if they are less heroic morally they will accept the failure as a sentence of doom that they are not fit, and are broken-spirited men thereafter.
We of the university faculties are responsible for deliberately creating this new class of American social failures, and heavy is the responsibility. We advertise our "schools" and send out our degree-requirements, knowing well that aspirants of all sorts will be attracted… We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent…
The more widespread becomes the popular belief that our diplomas are indispensable hall-marks to show the sterling metal of their holders, the more widespread these corruptions will become…

If only he knew.


Monday, October 3, 2011

69. It is lonely.

In graduate school, you spend a great deal of time alone. Most academic work is the product of isolation. Studying, research, and writing are time-consuming solitary activities, as is the miserable drudgery of grading (see Reason 56). A longing for some sense of shared experience is probably what drives graduate students to coffee places, where they sit for hours in uncomfortable chairs, hunched over their laptops or over piles of ungraded papers. There, at least for a while, they can be in the company of others who are as alone as they are.

The loneliness of graduate school stems not only from the nature of the work, but from the way it alienates people from those around them. Much to their surprise, new graduate students discover that there is no intellectual community (see Reason 20) to mitigate the effects of their strange status on campus and in the wider world (see Reasons 30 and 37). They have no comfortable place in the social circles of either the undergraduates or the professors who surround them, and their relative poverty severely limits what they can do with friends who have regular jobs and incomes. The struggles and triumphs of graduate school are of no interest to friends and family members outside of academe. And graduate students themselves are so absorbed in their own work that they have little time or inclination (see Reason 2) to offer support to one other. Loneliness may be the single worst aspect of graduate-student life.

Monday, September 19, 2011

68. It is stressful.

Graduate school is stressful. Sometimes it is terribly stressful. Stress is virtually unavoidable in any kind of work, but there is a peculiar quality to the stress of graduate school. The worst thing about it is the fact that it is caused by things that really do not matter. No one’s life (not even yours) depends on your meeting thesis deadlines, on your comprehensive exams, or on your finishing a dissertation (see Reason 60). The world will not fall to pieces if you publish an imperfect article, or fail to publish anything. Apart from what it contributes to your progress down a career path, the substance of your work will probably have no significant effect on anyone. But the stress it causes you is very real.

Why is it so stressful? In grad school, the work is not only hard (see Reason 9), but it rests entirely on your shoulders and is constantly subject to the judgment and subjective standards of others. You perform it with little immediate reward and no certainty of any future reward (see Reason 8). And you do so in a competitive environment populated by people who are just as stressed as you are (see Reason 50). You have little money and perhaps a great deal of debt, and even though you are free to walk away, there is a price to pay for leaving (see Reason 11). It takes longer to complete than you expect (see Reason 4), and while you spend so much time on things that really do not matter, your life options dwindle as your investment in the great academic job-market gamble increases (see Reason 29). Rather than giving you an increasing sense of confidence, every passing year of graduate school can be more stressful than the one before it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

67. There is a star system.

Academe is more like professional sports than most academics would like to admit, especially when it comes to money (yes, money). Just as there are premiere franchises like the New York Yankees that can afford to pay players higher salaries than poorer teams, Harvard can afford a much more expensive faculty than its lowly competitors. Furthermore, in any given sport, different people who play the same position (i.e. have the same job) can earn wildly different amounts of money; superstars earn far more than “regular” players. Just as there are superstars in the sports world, there are superstars in academe, and they earn more than their colleagues. Interestingly, salary differences tend to be based on more objective standards in the sports world than they are in the academic one. Home runs, batting averages, and stolen bases are easier to measure than intellectual contributions, particularly in the realm of mumbo-jumbo (see Reason 35).

The academic salary structure seems to be designed to maximize demoralization. On every campus, the faculty members in some disciplines earn more than their colleagues in other disciplines (see Reason 23). But worse are the differences within departments, where young academics considered to be up-and-coming stars can be hired at higher salaries than those earned by their senior colleagues. Universities compete with each other for academic superstars no differently than teams compete for the best players. Considerable resources are expended in the effort to recruit (or retain) these few stars, even as competition among the masses of “regular” academics has left them accepting positions that pay little and offer next to nothing in the way of security (see Reason 14). Of course, discriminating between stars and everyone else begins in graduate school, where funding packages vary from student to student (see Reason 26). If you happen to be one of the stars, academe can be quite rewarding. If you don’t happen to be one, you will likely have the pleasure of working with some.

Monday, August 15, 2011

66. “Why are you studying that?”

When dealing with the “What are you going to do with that?” question, you at least know in your own mind what you hope to do, even if that is hard to articulate (see Reason 36). Unfortunately, the simple question of why you’re studying what you’re studying can be much harder to handle, because you often can’t answer the question to your own satisfaction, much less to anyone else’s. Why are you studying depictions of gender norms in Hungarian television commercials? Is it worth years of your life to be an expert on the “performative aspects” of anything? Does the world need its hundred thousandth dissertation on Shakespeare or the Civil War? Does it need its first dissertation on your arcane topic?

It is natural to find yourself asking these questions after devoting a long time to a dissertation. There is a reason that you’re asking them. All knowledge is valuable, but it is not all of equal value. Graduate school is terribly costly in terms of time (see Reason 4), a reality made worse when you harbor doubts about whether your work serves any useful purpose (to you or anyone else). Even in the sciences, this is not an uncommon concern, as this humorous parody suggests. If you are writing a dissertation for no other reason than to qualify for a job in academe, the effort may be in vain in any case (see Reason 8). So, why are you studying that? It is bad enough when you begin to suspect that you’re wasting your time in graduate school, but it’s worse when others begin to suspect it, too. For every person who wonders aloud about your studies, there are likely many more who wonder silently.

Monday, August 1, 2011

65. Teaching is less and less rewarding.

Anyone who has been at the back of a college lecture hall recently is familiar with the sight of row upon row of glowing screens. Some students are taking notes, but others are perusing Facebook, touching up their vacation photos, and playing games. From a student’s point of view, this can be distracting. From the teacher’s point of view, it is disheartening. Every day, you speak to a room full of people looking at computer screens without any idea of who is actually listening. Not long ago, it was easy for an instructor to tell if someone in her class was not paying attention, and she was not afraid to say something to students who fell asleep or leafed through newspapers in class. But with the proliferation of laptops and smart phones, the will to enforce attentiveness in the classroom has largely evaporated.

Students are spending a substantial portion of their (or their parents') life earnings to pay for the privilege of sitting in your classroom. As University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds has pointed out, they are, in fact, grossly overpaying for the privilege, which is inflating the higher education bubble (see Reason 27). As tuition rates skyrocket, it is perhaps understandable why students increasingly behave like customers to whom you should cater. They have, after all, purchased your services. Of course, in their minds, the important service that you provide is not imparting knowledge, but awarding credit. And they increasingly behave as if they believe that they should be allowed to spend their very expensive time in your classroom in any way they choose. As a graduate-student instructor or teaching assistant, the challenge of cultivating respect in the classroom is made all the more difficult by your junior status, of which your students are very much aware (see Reason 53). Meanwhile, standing at the front of the classroom, you are daily faced with their indifference.

With teaching comes the extraordinarily time-consuming and miserably thankless task of grading (see Reason 56). In fact, the first inkling you may have that a student cares about what is happening in your class is when you give him a grade with which he is not happy. This is when the behavior of a dissatisfied customer is most likely to present itself, and when you realize the sense of entitlement that now pervades the college campus. It usually begins with an email and escalates from there. In any case, it is unpleasant. That students expect high grades is not surprising when you consider that fully 43% of all grades awarded by colleges are now As. The New York Times has charted the extent of grade inflation over the past few decades in a revealing graph. This trend toward a situation in which everyone earns high grades (while sitting through lectures playing solitaire) makes grading all the more exasperating because it feels so pointless.

And whose work are you grading? You don’t really know. After Professor Panagiotis Ipeirotis of New York University decided to look for plagiarism in the work submitted by his students in an introductory course, 22 of the 108 students ultimately admitted to cheating. For his efforts to ensure integrity (and a subsequent blog post about the experience), the professor felt punished by students and administrators alike. (The episode, after all, did not reflect well upon NYU.) It seems that there are undergraduates willing to pay $19,903 per term for an education, while copying the work of others and submitting it as their own. Given experiences like that of Professor Ipeirotis, you may feel little incentive to concern yourself with student plagiarism, but at least it is detectable. Some students simply pay others to write their papers for them. A popular article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education last fall revealed the fact that whole companies exist to provide this service. The author of the piece—a man who writes students’ papers for a living—was quite blunt: “Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it.”

While you spend hours and hours assigning increasingly meaningless grades to work of increasingly dubious origin, your students are also grading you. How would you like a job in which you are subjected to 50 (or 100 or 200) performance evaluations every ten or fifteen weeks? If you teach at an American college or university, that is exactly what you can expect. Student evaluations have turned the tables on college instructors. If you are a graduate-student instructor, an adjunct instructor, or a junior faculty member, your continued employment depends upon favorable student evaluations. As a classroom teacher, how do you satisfy your students in an age of unprecedented distraction? To one degree or another, you have to entertain them. You know that your job depends on it, and you also know that your students will post anonymous evaluations of your performance on the Internet. (In how many jobs does that happen?) The causes of grade inflation are not hard to figure out.

More and more teaching and grading are required of graduate students (see Reason 7). These obligations greatly reduce the time that you have to complete your own academic work (see Reason 41) and thus prolong your time-to-degree (see Reason 4). Of course, teaching at the college level is the career aim of most people in graduate school, even if they had other plans when they began their programs (see Reason 29). Whether you are lucky enough to secure a tenure-track appointment, or if you find yourself working as an adjunct (see Reason 14), this is what you have to look forward to in the modern college classroom. Before you go to graduate school, sit in the back of a lecture hall and think it over.

Monday, July 18, 2011

64. Smugness.

Academe takes itself and its hierarchies very seriously, which is why where you go to school matters so much to the trajectory of an academic career (see Reason 3). The self-regard of institutions and the self-regard of those associated with them tend to go hand-in-hand. In an uncomfortably honest essay in the American Scholar, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz offers some indication of just how rigid the hierarchy is: “My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me.” And yet smugness is a problem throughout academe, even outside of the elite universities. In particular, there is a tendency among those pursuing or holding an advanced degree to think of themselves as being a cut above. What Deresiewicz says of “an elite education” also applies to graduate school: it “inculcates a false sense of self-worth.”

As Richard Vedder’s discouraging statistics demonstrate, the extreme seriousness with which academe takes itself does not seem to correspond with the actual benefits students acquire from either an undergraduate or graduate education. In fact, the terrible job prospects facing graduate students (see Reasons 8 and 55) may actually worsen the problem of smugness by leaving scholars and aspiring scholars with little to cling to beyond their academic credentials (see Reason 25). If you find yourself in a non-elite graduate program and inclined to look down upon the “less educated,” you should be aware of the low regard in which your Ivy-League competitors hold you. Any time spent in academe will involve unpleasant encounters with smugness, which can take subtle and grating forms. Sometimes it is anything but subtle, as in this particularly heinous example recently recorded on a commuter train.

Monday, July 4, 2011

63. Your friends pass you by.

For graduate students, nothing drives home the fact that graduate school delays adulthood (see Reason 12) more clearly than observing friends who choose a different path. You may enter graduate school with the belief that an extra degree or two will give you an advantage in life, but while you are concentrating on gaining an advantage, your friends are concentrating on life. They may never turn into millionaires—though that is far more likely in the real world than in the academic one—but they probably will pass you by. While you sit in a cramped living space working on your dissertation year after year, your friends will be working hard, too, but they will be earning salaries. They will also be buying cars and houses, getting married, and having children (see Reason 15). They may even take an expensive vacation or two. It can be hard to relate to old friends who live in a world increasingly different from your own, and even harder to make new ones (see Reason 50).

This is about more than keeping up with the Joneses—or counting on catching up with them after you finish your education. The lives of your friends are reminders of the true costs of graduate school, which can be much higher than you anticipate. More than a quarter of women in their early forties with graduate or professional degrees are childless. After years of graduate school, will what you have gained be worth what you have missed?

Monday, June 20, 2011

62. You have no free time.

To an American with only two weeks of vacation per year, the idea that a graduate student has no free time must seem absurd. Not only do graduate students have considerable control over their daily schedules (see Reason 61), but the academic calendar is marked by long breaks at Christmas, in the spring, and in the summer. However, whatever time is under your control is time that you could spend working. For some reason, awareness of that fact makes it hard not to feel that you should be working all the time. When doing something other than working, you may experience a feeling uncomfortably akin to guilt. This is one aspect of the tyranny of the dissertation (see Reason 60). Academic work has a way of burdening your mind on every weekend, every holiday, and every vacation. There is no end to the workday. You are never free.

Of course, your work is more than a mental burden. It is real work. Graduate-student labor obligations (see Reason 7) can consume most of your time during the academic year, making “vacations” precious work opportunities for the research and writing that you have to do in order to graduate. When you are teaching, it can be especially difficult to balance the obligations of your job with obligations to yourself (see Reason 41). Because there is no blueprint for research and writing, figuring out how much work you “need to do” is a process of discovery. There is no limit to the amount of time you can devote to any single work of scholarship, but there is an expectation that you will produce many (see Reason 38). The fact that you have no free time is made worse by the misconceptions of those around you who are (understandably) unaware of the taxing nature of graduate school.


Monday, June 6, 2011

61. Unstructured time.

At least since the Industrial Revolution, most every institution of human life has been organized according to a schedule, because there is a general understanding that productivity and efficiency are hard to maintain without one. Most of us tend to be more disciplined when we must meet the expectations of others (such as a boss) than when we are left to our own devices. While graduate school certainly has its share of scheduled obligations, the life of a graduate student is not typically regimented by the forty-hour workweek, the eight-hour workday, or the half-hour lunch. But relative freedom from the clock creates the problem of unstructured time.

In graduate school, you have to manage your scheduled obligations (courses that you are taking, courses that you are teaching, grading, etc.) on top of the immensely time-consuming tasks of reading, researching, and writing for which there are no set schedules. This is why graduate school requires an unusual degree of self-discipline that most people do not possess (see Reason 47). The organization of modern civilization (with all of its faults) tells us something about human nature. You shouldn’t despair if you are not an expert at managing unstructured time. You are human. But graduate school is a solitary business. It can easily devour ten years of your life. Ask yourself if you would do better in a collaborative setting with clear schedules and expectations.

Monday, May 23, 2011

60. The tyranny of the dissertation.

The image of Sisyphus eternally moving a great weight uphill has already appeared in Reason 9, and a similar image accompanies Reason 50. Another appears here, because the experience of Sisyphus is so much like that of the graduate student. There are many weights to bear in graduate school, but the greatest weight of all is the dissertation. In academe, a person who has finished everything necessary to complete a PhD except for his dissertation is known as an ABD (“all but dissertation.”) People complete years of coursework, write and defend master’s theses, pass written and oral comprehensive exams that require hundreds of hours of preparation, and even pass exams in foreign languages that they did not know when they started graduate school, and yet they find themselves as permanent ABDs, because the last mountain proves just too steep to climb. 

What makes the dissertation so terrible? First of all, it is long. It is much longer than anything the typical person has ever written in his life. Worse, however, is the kind of writing it entails (see Reason 28). You cannot begin to write a dissertation until you have done a great deal of research, and every day there is more research to consult in every academic field. The entire project is on your shoulders alone, yet the finished product must satisfy a whole committee. Then there is the added pressure of knowing that if you want tenure someday (assuming you can land a tenure-track position), you will have to turn your dissertation into a book (or write a different book from scratch) that a university press will actually publish. Unless you have a fellowship or you’re amassing debt, you have to write your dissertation while somehow making a living. As the reality begins to dawn on you that you might never find a tenure-track position, you will be tempted to abandon the great weight and move on, but the burden may remain even if you do (see Reason 11).

Monday, May 16, 2011

59. You pay for nothing.

Graduate school is expensive. For the privilege of being a grad student, you pay tuition—unless your tuition has been waived as part of an assistantship or fellowship. Some grad students choose to pay their tuition with money from student loans, but given the state of the job market (see Reason 55), that is not the wisest approach (see Reason 1). With support from fellowships and assistantships, some students can make it all the way through grad school without paying tuition. Others run out of funding before completing their degrees. When you start graduate school, it is best to assume that you will be paying tuition at some point, even if you have been lured into a program with what looks like a generous funding package (see Reason 17).

What does your tuition buy? Early in your program, you pay for courses in the same way that an undergraduate would. Typically, a certain number of course credits are required to graduate, as are a certain number of “thesis credits.” What is a thesis credit? Nobody knows. You are ostensibly paying for the privilege of writing a thesis or dissertation, for using the university library, and for the (often distant) supervision of your adviser. You are, in other words, paying for nothing. Of course, if you’re not paying tuition because you’re working as a teaching assistant, you're probaby getting behind on your writing, which means that you will be taking more thesis credits next year. As time goes by, you can accumulate dozens and dozens of thesis credits. By the university’s reckoning, they are worth tens of thousands of dollars. What are they worth to you?


Monday, May 9, 2011

58. The one-body problem.

When both a wife and her husband have PhDs, the difficulty of finding two academic jobs in the same place creates “the two-body problem” (see Reason 48). But it takes only one PhD to a complicate a marriage. When one member of a pair makes the long journey through graduate school to a terminal degree, the stresses of that process are shared by both. Moreover, graduate students not only have little income (see Reason 12), but they also tend to be in debt (see Reason 1), so marrying a graduate student often means supporting a graduate student. Once that student has finished his or her academic program, a new problem appears.

For those who received doctoral degrees in 2003, it had taken a median span of 10.1 years to progress from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate. Imagine that you marry someone while you are in the early stages of a doctoral program. In the time that you spend working toward your PhD, your spouse may go through a series of promotions into a nice position at his or her company. Upon graduating, you will be thrilled to land a job in your specialized field on the other side of the country (see Reason 16). Your years of work, after all, have been spent in a discipline in which few jobs will ever open, and in an extremely competitive academic job market. Unfortunately, your spouse’s company is in an industry that has no presence in that part of the country. Do you ask your supporting spouse to abandon a position (and salary) that has also been the result of years of work, so that he or she can follow you to an entry-level position?

Monday, May 2, 2011

57. Rejection is routine.

No one likes rejection, but everyone encounters it. Graduate students encounter it frequently. You often feel the sting of rejection before you even start. Just to get into a graduate program, you have to pass through the gate-keeping admissions process. You can be admitted to one program, while being rejected by three others—and those rejections can linger in your memory longer than you might expect. But that is only the beginning. Once you are in a graduate program, you will find yourself applying for fellowships, assistantships, grants, conferences, research awards, travel awards, and all manner of funding, not only to keep yourself afloat, but to add lines to your all-important CV (see Reason 38). Some of those many applications will be rejected, and some rejections hurt more than others. It does not help that you are in competition with your colleagues (see Reason 2).

Then there is the problem of publishing. In the publishing business, the overwhelming majority of what writers submit to publishers is rejected. Of course, academe requires that you publish. Unlike regular publishing, academic publishing is the result of the peer-review process, which involves the time-consuming subjection of your work to the evaluation of independent experts (one hopes) who help editors decide if your work is worthy of appearing in an academic journal, or as a book published by a university press. Peer review is important for maintaining the quality of what is published as academic research, but the process can feel quite arbitrary, especially from the writer’s point of view. Academic writing is tremendously taxing (see Reason 28), so when your work is rejected (as it will be), the feeling can be quite discouraging. After experiencing years of various kinds of rejection as a graduate student, you then place yourself on the academic job market, where rejections greatly outnumber job offers (see Reason 55). All of this is to be expected in an environment in which far too many people are competing for the same opportunities, in the context of an academic hierarchy defined by exclusivity (see Reason 3).

Monday, April 25, 2011

56. Grading is miserable.

If Dante had been familiar with graduate school, he probably would have added a level of Hell to his Inferno. The condemned would sit for all eternity and read one mediocre essay after another, meticulously correct every mistake, agonize over every grade, and then throw each graded essay into a fire. Grading is the most onerous and time-consuming aspect of being a teaching assistant, but it is the reason that teaching assistantships exist (see Reason 53). The most important role of the graduate student in the modern university is to relieve professors of the burden of grading. It is mind-numbing, unrelenting, and utterly unrewarding.

Teaching assistants stare in envy at undergraduates taking an exam, because for those students the brief ordeal will soon be over. For the TAs, it is just beginning. It can take days to grade a written exam, and grading papers is worse. There are few things more discouraging than finding yourself at two in the morning reading the forty-third paper in a row on the same subject when you know that there are sixty more to grade. You will be handed another pile of papers after this one, not to mention the midterm exam and the final exam. To grade conscientiously requires a draining degree of sustained focus, and after all of your effort, you know that only a few of the students will give more than a minute’s attention to the comments that you have painstakingly written with your aching hand. And none of this work moves you one inch closer to finishing your degree.


Monday, April 18, 2011

55. There are too many PhDs.

The reason that there are so few jobs to be found in academe (see Reason 8) is not because there are too few colleges, universities, departments, or programs. If anything, there are too many. The problem is that the number of available jobs is vastly outnumbered by the number of people applying for them. There are simply too many PhDs produced every year for the higher education establishment to absorb them all, despite the absurd degree to which it has absorbed them into jobs that have nothing to do with traditional research and teaching. Today, universities hire doctors of philosophy to be in charge of their dormitories, alumni associations, and police departments.

Colleges benefit from this situation, because there are so many well-credentialed people desperate for teaching positions that they will work for very little money. This would not be such a problem if the world outside of academe had more use for people with PhDs (see Reason 29). The fact that it does not is why there are so many people with doctorates who now find themselves working in part-time temporary teaching positions with no benefits (see Reason 14).

A new report from the American Association of University Professors describes the situation:

In all, graduate student employees and faculty members serving in contingent appointments now make up more than 75 percent of the total instructional staff. The most rapid growth has been among part-time faculty members, whose numbers swelled by more than 280 percent between 1975 and 2009. Between 2007 and 2009, the numbers of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members and part-time faculty members each grew at least 6 percent. During the same period, tenured positions grew by only 2.4 percent and tenure-track appointments increased by a minuscule 0.3 percent. These increases in the number of faculty appointments have taken place against the background of an overall 12 percent increase in higher education enrollment in just those two years.

Meanwhile, the number of people clambering to fill these jobs continues to increase. In November 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that 49,562 people earned doctorates in the United States in 2009. This was the highest number ever recorded. Most of the increase over the previous decade occurred in the sciences and engineering, but the NSF’s report noted a particularly grim statistic for those who completed a PhD in the humanities: only 62.6 percent had a “definite commitment” for any kind of employment whatsoever. Remember that this is what faces those who have already survived programs with very high attrition rates; more than half of those who start PhD programs in the humanities do not complete them (see Reason 46).

The PhD has been cheapened by its ubiquity. While students in traditional PhD programs at research universities now take upwards of a decade to complete their programs—as they struggle to fulfill the labor requirements of their teaching appointments—others are swiftly completing accredited PhDs online. These degrees do no carry much weight in the academic hierarchy (see Reason 3), but they do increase the number of people calling themselves “doctor.” One might not think that illegitimate colleges or “diploma mills” pose much of a threat to the integrity of degrees, but consider the fact that hundreds of federal government employees purchased fake degrees and successfully parlayed them into promotions and higher salaries.

Perhaps most scandalous is what legitimate research universities have done to devalue the PhD, which is now awarded in fields ranging from hotel management to recreation and (most ironic of all) higher education administration. In the meantime, universities continue to lower standards for graduate degrees. The traditional American master’s degree—which once required a minimum of two years of study, the passing of written and oral comprehensive exams, as well as the writing and defense of a thesis more substantial than many of today’s doctoral dissertations—has been dramatically watered down. Will it be long before the PhD suffers the same fate?

For graduate students, it takes longer and longer to earn degrees that are worth less and less. And after the years of investment required to obtain those degrees, they are met with a job market with little to offer them, even as the popular culture is increasingly inclined to mock them (see Reason 43).

Monday, April 11, 2011

54. “What do you do for a living?”

For most people, this is an easy and straightforward question to answer, but for graduate students it proves surprisingly tricky. When someone asks you what you do for a living, you can answer, “I’m a grad student,” but you will feel less and less comfortable saying this as you get older (see Reason 12). A variation of the same response is, “I’m working toward a PhD in psychology,” but this has a way of alienating your interlocutor even more effectively than the first answer does (see Reason 30). In either case, you have not really answered the question. Perhaps you are living off of student loans, but it doesn't feel very good to admit that. Or maybe you are working as a teaching or research assistant.

Telling someone that you are a teaching assistant does not feel very good either, especially when you are 27 or 30 or even older (see Reason 53). Some TAs—more than likely with a hint of guilt—try to avoid the problem by answering, “I teach at XYZ University.” That sounds better at first, but the almost inevitable follow-up question undermines your attempt at evasion and makes the conversation even more awkward. The fact that such a simple question can be so hard to answer underscores the strange place of the graduate student in the world. It is made all the worse by the fact that this limbo tends to last for an excruciatingly long time.

Monday, April 4, 2011

53. Teaching assistantships.

There is something inherently humiliating about being a teaching assistant. This is true despite the fact that graduate students desperately want and need teaching assistantships for funding (see Reason 17), that they compete with each other for TAships (see Reason 2), and that TAships are often the only way for graduate students to acquire teaching experience. And it is true despite the fact that TAs generally have a much closer connection to their students (and their students’ performance) than professors do. In the end, a traditional TA is exactly what the job title describes: a “teacher’s helper.”

Your junior status in the classroom is painfully apparent to both you and your students. It is made all the more obvious when students come to visit you during your “office” hours (see Reason 42). It is hard for students not to harbor doubts about the quality of what they are being taught by someone so low in the academic hierarchy, and it is hard for you to remain there for so long. Teaching assistantships pay the bills (or at least some of them), but the reason that you often find yourself still working as a TA in your 30s is because of your work as a TA. What began as an apprenticeship has become a job of drudgery upon which the university depends (see Reasons 7 and 41). Being a TA requires an extraordinary amount of time—time that you cannot devote to doing what you need to do to graduate—so the indignity tends to last for years. The jobs that make it possible to be in graduate school make it difficult to escape from graduate school.

Monday, March 28, 2011

52. Your adviser’s pedigree counts.

Nowhere does it matter more where you go to school than in academe. Higher education takes itself and its hierarchies very seriously. You will find it hard to compete—in an extremely competitive academic job market—against people with degrees from the Ivy League and the quasi-Ivies if your degree is from Generic State University (see Reason 3). But it is not only your own pedigree that you have to worry about. Graduate students at even the toniest universities have to make strategic decisions to maximize their chances on the job market. To that end, few things are more important than choosing an adviser.

For graduate students interested in an academic career, Professor Lennard J. Davis recently offered some excellent advice in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That advice included the following:

I tell my students to plan their dissertation committees with the job search in mind. They should pick professors who not only are skilled in the field of the dissertation, but who also have national and international reputations. Letters from those professors will count a great deal. And as these things go, letters from full professors will count more than letters from associate professors, and so on down the line.

Note the emphasis on reputation and hierarchy. Professor Davis, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is refreshingly honest and would make a good adviser for that reason alone. Even better, all of his degrees are from Columbia. Unfortunately, the most understanding professors with the time and willingness to shepherd you through a graduate program are rarely those with the biggest reputations and most fashionable credentials. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

51. You are surrounded by undergraduates.

Most everyone who works in education experiences the strange phenomenon of growing older while students stay the same age. Graduate students experience an even stranger phenomenon. While still students themselves, they age in the presence of fellow students who remain 18-22 years old, year after year after year. As a graduate student, you encounter undergraduates every day on campus. It is more than likely that you have to work with them. And because you can’t afford to live anywhere else, you probably go home to a neighborhood (or even an apartment building) that is full of them. They surround you constantly. In fact, in ways that seem more distressing over time, your life is very much like theirs.

It is not much fun to live in a sea of undergraduates unless you are an undergraduate yourself. Their unavoidable presence and carefree ways are a constant reminder of your delayed adulthood (see Reason 12), even as their feeling of relief and accomplishment at the end of each term is a jarring reminder that your own work does not end with finals week (see Reason 47). You may not be much older than they are, but they can make you feel much older than they are. And then one day you discover that you are much older than they are. Perhaps most bothersome of all is their collective sense of possibility; they know (or at least live in the belief) that a world of opportunities awaits them, while you see more clearly every year that your prospects are becoming fewer and fewer (see Reason 29).

Monday, March 14, 2011

50. You are surrounded by graduate students.

A graduate student in his first year of a PhD program was disappointed that his classmates scattered to the four winds as soon as their unbearable seminar meetings were over (see Reason 21). Not yet knowing any of his fellow students, he expressed his disappointment to a tenured faculty member. The professor responded without the slightest hesitation: “There is nothing to be gained from the company of graduate students.”

Graduate students are not bad people, but they are often unhappy people for a variety of reasons (see Reasons 1-49). Graduate school can produce real friendships and even marriages (see Reason 48), but it is rarely experienced as a community of people working together. Instead, grad school throws people together who are fighting their own lonely way toward degrees, often in direct competition with each other (see Reason 2). It is what they share that makes them unhappy—alienation from the real world, unsatisfying work, terrible workspaces, tiny paychecks, ballooning student loans, and constant uncertainty over what awaits them at the end of their long road through graduate school. Being surrounded by unhappy people is hardly a recipe for happiness.

Monday, March 7, 2011

49. There are few tangible rewards.

When you build a house, paint a painting, bake a cake, or clean a room, you can step back and see what you have accomplished. Whether you work alone or in a team, being able to contemplate the finished product of your labors is a satisfying experience, a reward for your work. When that labor is further rewarded by a paycheck, it is all the more satisfying. Many modern occupations come with few tangible rewards but at least provide an income. Graduate school offers little in the way of either.

Instead of being able to see the work of your hands or the product of your ideas, you can reflect upon the thousands of hours that you spent reading in preparation for your exams, and how quickly the impractical things that you learned in the process slipped from your mind the moment that you completed them. You can meditate on the hundreds of thousands of keystrokes that produced the tens of thousands of words that you typed while staring at an ephemeral image on a screen. After a few years in graduate school, you can print out hundreds of pages of text that you have produced, but looking at a neatly-stacked pile of paper is hardly inspiring. (Would your writing inspire anyone who reads it?) After several years, when you are finally handed a piece of paper in recognition of your efforts, you can step back and contemplate your empty bank account.

Monday, February 28, 2011

48. The two-body problem.

Graduate school tends to delay marriage (see Reason 15), but if you decide to go to graduate school, you will likely spend many years as a graduate student among other graduate students. Not surprisingly, grad students sometimes fall in love and marry each other. They can be a great support to one another as they together go through the struggles of grad school on a shoe-string budget, but their marriage has created what in academic circles is commonly referred to as “the two-body problem.” It is hard enough for one human being to finish graduate school and secure an academic position; you can imagine how hard it is for two people.

Let us say that you marry a fellow graduate student and both of you manage to complete your PhDs. (The fact that you have each other’s support may make that more likely.) Now it is time for you both to find jobs. First of all, there are very few jobs (see Reason 8), and the available jobs are probably nowhere near where you are now (see Reason 16). Having spent years of your lives devoting yourselves to your respective disciplines, you are both heavily invested in your fields. At the same time, neither of you is better qualified for anything other than being a professor (see Reason 29). You will be very lucky if either of you is offered an assistant professorship; you will be extraordinarily lucky if both of you are. In that unlikely event, if you are offered a job in Texas and your spouse is offered a job in Minnesota, which one of you is going to accept the position? Academic jobs are so precious that there are married couples who work hundreds of miles away from each other, but do you really want to do that? An alternative is to move with your spouse and hope that you will land a job within commuting distance of your new home. Another is for one of you to start from scratch in a new profession.

Monday, February 21, 2011

47. It requires tremendous self-discipline.

Graduate school is not like college. Perhaps so many people go to graduate school because they are mistakenly under the impression that it is. In college, you go through a tidy progression of classes from one term to the next, each having a beginning and an end, neatly punctuated by mid-term exams, final exams, and regular paper assignments. While hundreds of other students march through similar routines all around you, you follow a set class schedule from day to day until, finally, you take your last final exam in your last class and walk away with your diploma. (In the mean time, you probably have some fun, too.) In the United States, graduate programs begin with coursework, but classes designed for graduate students are different from those designed for undergraduates and can be extremely unsatisfying in comparison (see Reason 21). Classes are smaller, so the feeling of shared experience is diminished from the outset. As you enter the isolation of preparing for your comprehensive exams, that shared feeling all but disappears. If you pass those exams, then the real isolation begins.

Imagine a day when someone says to you, “Write a book.” This will not be just any kind of book; a thesis or dissertation is the product of tedious research and the most laborious kind of writing: academic writing (see Reason 28). You must write this book while fulfilling your basic obligations (like paying the rent), carrying out your obligations as a teaching or research assistant (which makes paying the rent possible), and satisfying the expectations of your potential future employers by adding as many lines to your resume as possible (presenting papers at conferences and publishing articles). If you don’t receive funding from your department, then you will either have to hold down a different kind of job or sink into debt (see Reason 1) as you research and write. For all intents and purposes, you are on your own throughout this process. Some people are adept at managing unstructured time and multiple obligations at once, but graduate-school attrition rates (see Reason 46) make it clear that some people are not. Given how long it takes for most of those who do finish to finish (see Reason 4), it is probably safe to say that most people are not.

Monday, February 14, 2011

46. You may not finish.

Presumably, very few people start graduate school with the intention of dropping out, but graduate school attrition rates are depressingly high. In the humanities, they are painfully high. A study by the Council of Graduate Schools found that only 49 percent of those who start PhD programs in the humanities finish within ten years. (The best numbers are in engineering, where 64 percent finish in ten years.) A fraction of graduate students take longer than a decade to finish their degrees, but the vast majority of those who haven’t finished within ten years never will finish. So, even in the fields with the lowest drop-out rates, one third of those who start a PhD program never complete it.

Graduate school is difficult (see Reason 9), and some of this attrition is the result of students being unable to pass their exams or write acceptable theses. Their inability to do so may have as much to do with their work obligations (see Reasons 7 and 41) as with their academic potential. Some graduate students crack under the pressure of demanding professors (see Reason 44), while others cannot muster adequate self-discipline under the supervision of lenient advisers (see Reason 45). In many cases, money becomes an issue, and it is arguably much wiser to drop out of a program than it is to go into debt. Life simply gets in the way sometimes. For all sorts of reasons, spending the better part of a decade in a state of financial insecurity (see Reason 17) and prolonged “youth” (see Reason 12) proves untenable for many people. Unfortunately, there is a cost to be paid for quitting (see Reason 11). Anyone considering graduate school should consider the attrition statistics soberly, and then consider the bleak job prospects for those who finish despite the odds.

Monday, February 7, 2011

45. Nice advisers can be worse.

If you suffer under a tyrranical adviser (see Reason 44) who expects you to meet high standards and strict deadlines, you may rise to the occasion, produce outstanding work, and graduate in a reasonable amount of time. Of course, what today counts as “reasonable” is a very long time (see Reason 4) and you may still find that there are no jobs waiting for you at the end of an arduous journey through graduate school (see Reason 8). Nonetheless, there is something to be said for advisers who push their students through the various stages of a graduate program and then push them out the door with a degree.

The sooner you finish, the better. Graduate school delays adulthood (see Reason 12) and the longer you devote to a degree, the longer you will be without a salary. And there are few things more discouraging than sinking years of your life into working toward a degree that you never finish (see Reason 11). Having an adviser who offers you maximum intellectual freedom while allowing you to work at your own pace is an advantage if you are exceptionally organized, disciplined, and focused. However, if you are not, that kind of generous leeway can be detrimental to your chances of finishing in a timely manner or finishing at all. People tend to be most productive when they have expectations to meet and a schedule to follow. Ironically, it is often the kindest advisers who are the most averse to imposing strict expectations on their students, leaving them to rely on their own far-too-often insufficient self-discipline.

Monday, January 31, 2011

44. Advisers can be tyrants.

The most important relationship of your graduate-school career is that between you and your adviser (or in some departments, “major professor”). “Adviser” is an understated way of describing the person who is your academic supervisor, your advocate within the department, the primary assessor of the quality of your work, the person who will decide if and when you can take your qualifying exams and/or comprehensive exams and if and when you are ready to defend your dissertation, and—if you happen to be serving as your adviser’s teaching or research assistant—your boss. Your adviser will be the principal decider of whether you pass your exams and defense, and thus whether you will ever receive a degree. Choosing an adviser is not to be taken lightly, but the choice is not entirely yours. Research interests, departmental politics, and who happens to be available and willing to "advise" you will all play a role in determining who your adviser will be.

Tolstoy wrote that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and one could say that every tyrannical adviser is tyrannical in his own way. The worst abuses may occur in the laboratory sciences, where graduate students often perform the painstaking labor that results in the papers published under their advisers’ names. Foreign students whose student visas are dependent upon successful progress toward their degrees are especially vulnerable to demanding advisers who determine what “successful progress” is. Hopefully, most advisers will never go so far as the dean at St. John’s University in New York who has recently been accused of turning undergraduate scholarship-recipients into her personal servants. Less newsworthy are the common disheartening experiences of those whose research questions or conclusions have been dictated to them by their advisers, who have had to re-write their dissertations three times for no good reason, or whose fate is in the hands of an adviser who is simply a miserably unpleasant person (see Reason 25).