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.