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).

Monday, January 17, 2011

43. Attitudes about graduate school are changing.

The Economist recently noted that “whining PhD students are nothing new,” and that is certainly true. Graduate students have been unhappy with their lot in life for generations. But the headline over that Economist article declaring that “doing a PhD is often a waste of time is something new. The difficult employment situation resulting from degree overproduction—the “glut” of PhDs—has been recognized and discussed in academic circles for a long time, but it is only rarely discussed outside of academe. For one thing, graduate programs hardly go out of their way to warn prospective students about the stark reality that will face them if and when they ever finish their degrees. But there seems to be a change in the air. Perhaps there are finally too many people trapped on the academic treadmill for the problem to be ignored any longer.

As the crisis in graduate education comes to light, cultural attitudes about grad school are taking a decidedly negative turn. Media outlets (most notably U.S. News & World Report) have benefited enormously from the graduate-school mania of the last few decades, which may help explain why systemic problems in higher education have not received more attention from the media. Job insecurity is at least partially to blame for the extreme reluctance of academics and administrators to criticize the system upon which their livelihoods depend.

However, in 2003, Professor William Pannapacker (writing under the pseudonym Thomas H. Benton) bravely published a piece entitled “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the major trade journal of American academe. The Chronicle deserves credit for publishing that essay, and the series of Thomas H. Benton columns on the problems of graduate school that followed it. A recent installment was entitled “The Big Lie about the ‘Life of the Mind.’” The comments posted by readers of those columns reveal the heartbreak and disappointment of so many who are products of the graduate-school machine, as does this open letter to Thomas H. Benton. Over the past two years, attention has also turned to the stability of the higher education establishment itself, with academic insiders like Joseph Marr Cronin and Howard Horton and law professor Glenn Reynolds comparing the “bubble” in higher education to the hyper-inflated housing market before the real-estate bust (see Reason 27). Meanwhile, economist Richard Vedder has pointed out statistics that suggest that college has proven of little practical use to millions of college graduates, and has more recently considered graduate degrees.

There seems to be a new cultural awareness of the negative aspects of graduate school. Appearing in 2010 was Adam Ruben’s book, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. Generally speaking, the details of grad-student life have never been on the cultural radar, so the decision of a major publisher like Random House to publish the book is telling. Another cultural indicator is the Xtranormal viral video posted in October 2010 depicting an earnest undergraduate asking a professor for a letter of recommendation to accompany her graduate-school application. The professor tries vigorously to dissuade her. The video is humorous, but draws on the genuine pathos that permeates academe (and seems to have inspired a subgenre of similar videos). An even more recent video (produced commercially)—styling itself as an “honest” grad school ad—is a blunt and vulgar commentary on graduate school and graduate students that drips with derision. Its humor is of the mocking variety.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the writers of the Simpsons were ahead of the curve, pointing out some of the sad realities of graduate school (with a touch of mockery) years ago. If graduate school continues to get this kind of attention, maybe it will have the positive effect of reducing interest in graduate programs and eventually relieving some of the pressure on the PhD job market. On the other hand, it is hard enough to be a graduate student in a world that scarcely notices that graduate students exist (see Reason 30), and it will be far harder if the popular culture comes to perceive them as dupes. The zeitgeist seems headed in that direction.

Monday, January 10, 2011

42. Your workspace reflects your status.

Facilities vary greatly from one campus to another—and from one department to another—but office space is in short supply on nearly every campus, and graduate students tend to be among the last to be allotted workspace. For students who have not been awarded funding (see Reason 17), there is typically no workspace provided at all. For graduate students so fortunate as to have a desk on campus, it will likely be in a room shared with several graduate students, and just as likely to be without windows. Some people manage to work in these spaces, but the grumblings of your office-mates (see Reason 20) can be as distracting as the environment is discouraging. It is no wonder that graduate students spend so much time dragging their work from one coffee place to another.

This might seem like a minor inconvenience, but you may be in graduate school much longer than you anticipate (see Reason 4), and a dispiriting workspace can wear on you over many years. The subject is lampooned in a promotional video for Adam Ruben’s recent book, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. (That such a book exists should give you pause.) When you are sitting in a basement breathing stale air and listening to the unrelenting sound of toilets flushing through the wall, your place in the university is made quite clear to you. Moreover, your lowly status is not lost on the undergraduates who come to see you during the “office” hours that you are required to keep as a teaching assistant (see Reason 41). At the end of every day, when you return home to the humble quarters that you probably share with others (because there is no other way to afford the rent), your status is made all the clearer.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

41. Teaching is your first priority.

If you are lucky enough to have a job as a teaching assistant, you will be told by your department that your studies are your first priority. This is ridiculous. If you were a football player, it would be a bit like your typical Division I coach telling you that your studies are your first priority. The coach, at least, will usually have the decency to wink while telling you this. Graduate-student teaching assistants, however, are told the same thing by people with straight faces, some of whom may even believe what they are saying. Try to tell the three hundred students whose papers and exams you're grading that your studies are your first priority. For that matter, go ahead and try to prioritize your studies when you have a class to teach five days a week. Don’t forget that your students will be filling out evaluations of your teaching performance at the end of the term, and that these will be part of both your future funding applications and job applications.

The irony is that teaching is not the first priority of the permanent faculty members, because their tenure and promotion depend on research and publication. Their situation is not much better, but at least they earn a salary. For graduate students, teaching has a way of becoming a full-time job, even though it is supposed to be a part-time job. Yes, you have to answer to your professors, but you also have to answer to your students, and the latter greatly outnumber the former.