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.