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.