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).