First-Person
March 16, 2004 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Tales of academe Newly-minted Ph.D.s describe their varied experiences on the academic job market. Most use pseudonyms. Many writers are remarkably bitter; some are not. Notable essays: the adjunct professorship as a career; teaching at a county jail; racism on the tenure track; and a series of columns by "Thomas H. Benton," who desperately tries to talk students out of entering graduate school, and then gives helpful advice to those who want to go anyway.
posted by Prospero (59 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
With less graduate students, I wonder if the world would still float.
posted by the fire you left me at 11:02 AM on March 16, 2004


I have a question, speaking as an English major who's thought of teaching in college, but in something completely different from English.

These tales of Ph.D. horror are always from us liberal arts types-- "Victorian poetry majors," to quote Benton's essay.

But what's it like on the science side of the business? Is it the world of happy learning that English grad students dream of, without the bullshit? Or is there some equivalent grimness?
posted by inksyndicate at 11:09 AM on March 16, 2004


As a graduate student in English literature, these articles scare the bejeesus out of me, as do all articles like them. Man oh man . . . . Grad school is definitely everything this guy says it is: scary, difficult, pressured, and arbitrary. It is also amazingly rewarding, nourishing, and fun. I don't recall ever being so simultaneously pleased with my lifestyle and work (small salary and all) and so freaked out about the future.

There are so many problems in the humanities academic job market . . . salaries that are too low make it hard for tenured faculty to retire; over-admission makes it hard for students to find jobs; lack of support for the humanities financially (in terms of the number of professors hired), mostly because all the money is in the sciences for many universities, even while many undergraduates receive humanities educations, contribute too. It's crazy!
posted by josh at 11:21 AM on March 16, 2004


But what's it like on the science side of the business?

Not one, but know some:

You spend an ungodly number of hours (ie, 60+) working in someone's lab, working your own research in where you can. Classes are even less important than in humanities. Finding the right professor to work with -- the right lab to work in -- is monumentally, vitally important.

You'll likely finish your PhD in three or four years, with a dissertation that's basically several research papers stapled together. You WILL have published, several times.

Your first job will be as a postdoc somewhere under someone else's grant. To get your own tenure-track job, expect to have proven grant-getting ability or *very* obvious potential -- they're not shelling out $50K for you, they're shelling out $200--300K for you and your lab.'

Or is there some equivalent grimness?

If you can't or won't do the work, you'll be weeded out (or will weed yourself out) quickly. People will see you even more as a resource, with fewer romantic sentiments about educating students.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:23 AM on March 16, 2004


as a graduate student in engineering, I'll second what ROU_Xenophobe says, though Ph.D. programs where I am usually take 5 years, sometimes more.

One benefit compared to humanities work is that as a science/engineering grad student, you're much less likely to have to pay your own way or be working full time (simultaneously) to cover tuition. This disparity is made clear right at the applications levels. Many schools (Harvard, UW, and BU are a few I've applied to personally) require, as part of your application, PROOF that you can fund the first year or two of your studies UNLESS you are going to the Science/Engineering school.
posted by whatzit at 11:29 AM on March 16, 2004


I do poli-sci, and it's unsurprisingly between the two extremes of English and hard science. Programs take about five--six years usually, with a big dissertation. You can still get your first job without publications *if* you're from a top-shelf program with a good record and letters.

Thankfully, there's an early weedout process where people who really just want to have erudite conversations over coffee run up against methodology courses and decide to pursue other goals. This helps students stop wasting their time in a program they don't really want to be in, which is a good thing.

Most people from good programs still get tenure-track jobs, but you might be on the market for two or three years to get one.

Though the political philosophy side of poli-sci is like English. If you're not from the top two to five departments in the subfield, your odds of landing a tenure-track job -- ever -- are slim.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:31 AM on March 16, 2004


lack of support for the humanities financially (in terms of the number of professors hired), mostly because all the money is in the sciences for many universities, even while many undergraduates receive humanities educations, contribute too. It's crazy!

That's not crazy. Lots of stuff in higher education is crazy, but not that.

Science departments aren't taking away university funds from humanities programs. They're bringing in enough money to largely cover their own expenses. Heck, in a lot of places, it's the overhead on science grants that ends up paying for a new position in the English department.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:35 AM on March 16, 2004


After graduating with an English degree, I spent years miserably trying to decide whether or not I should go back to grad school... I applied to a bunch of Creative Writing MFA programs; got accepted, and then had a big epiphanic moment where I realized that, instead of spending a couple of years going into debt while sitting through workshop after workshop (all of this eventually leading to being qualified to hop from adjunct job to adjunct job on a yearly basis), I could just start putting a lot of effort into freelancing. So I would up not going, and now I'm achieving the goal of getting out of the silly career track I'd drifted into after college, but with money coming in to me instead of hemorraging outward.

So, um, one more vote for thinking really hard about grad school before you go,.
posted by COBRA! at 11:39 AM on March 16, 2004


One of the nice things I have done is to tell a friend, a former student, that after his M
A in English not to go on for a Ph.D (for all the obvious reasons and also becauwse of his age)...he is now a doctor, specializing in Parkinson's disease.

But turn attention to the schools. Grad schools need suckers as fodder or there would be no jobs for those with tenure, Ph.Ds. Thus they do not close down depts . Now look at whatever state you live in. How many school within that state offer advanced degrees in the same subjects? Why? Assume 4-6 schoools with programs in any advanced field. Multiply by number of students in each program in each school in that state. Where are they going to go when completed with degree? schools increasingly use part-timers, mass lectures in many subject for at least the first two years--some even after, and states, running deficits, keep salaries low, give generously to athletic programs and mangerial staff (VP, pres etc)...and then of course the green cards working jobs in special fields...If you can't see a future in English Lit, do you now go into Computer Science? Yes, if you want to move to India.
posted by Postroad at 11:41 AM on March 16, 2004


The first rule of Grad School Club is (with very few exceptions) DO NOT PAY FOR IT.

With a very few exceptions, if you do not have tuition paid for and are not receiving at least a small stipend, one of the following is true:

*Your department isn't great, so you're unlikely to get a tenure-track job.
*Your record isn't great, and you probably won't be great, so you're unlikely to get a tenure-track job.

About the only exceptions would be good programs in a state U where state law limits the school's ability to offer free rides.

I'll go out on a limb and say that it's true for humanities students too -- there's such fierce competition for the jobs that they'll go to students from the great programs who are funding students, even if getting funded is harder.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:56 AM on March 16, 2004


The thing that I've found most true and most disturbing: experience in grad school can actually hurt your career prospects if you leave academia.

I went for a PhD in Linguistics straight out of college, not really sure what I wanted to do, afraid of the real world, and totally in denial about my future prospects in the field. After a while it became clear that I was too much of a slacker (which is an extremely relative term in grad school) to expect to succeed, and left after getting the MA.

It quickly became clear that employers regarded it as having been a waste of time -- they noted how I'd either spent three years getting an impractical degree that qualifies me for little, or tried and failed to get the terminal degree. It puts me in an unflattering light whatever way you look at it, even though it's the result of a lot of hard work and talent. I have routinely been passed over for good entry-level jobs in favor of kids right out of college, and even with a graduate degree I'm not seen as qualified to start any higher than that.

For me it happened in the middle of the dot-com boom, so I also missed the chance to cash in. But I'd say the same thing to anyone even in this market: wait until you know exactly what you want to do and what it's going to entail. The consequences of a mistake here are not trivial.
posted by Epenthesis at 12:29 PM on March 16, 2004


I bailed out of a PhD (took the MA instead) and by god it was the smartest thing I've ever done in my entire life. I've made more money & had more fun in the last few years than I would have in my *entire* life as a prof.

I really shouldn't have bothered with the MA, but it only took a year so it was pretty compelling -- and by the time I figured out that I despised my profession, I was already halfway done with the degree so there wasn't much to lose by finishing it.

...of course, I'm now trying to get *another* masters degree, so maybe I'm just stupid that way.
posted by aramaic at 12:33 PM on March 16, 2004


My advice to would-be PhDs is to go into a field for your love of the subject, and not for the job prospects. I’ve not met anyone who has felt that the job they ultimately got was worth the pain of the PhD program.

I know whereof I speak. I presented a paper on non-academic job prospects for Humanities PhDs several years ago. The paper’s online, but it’s badly out of date now. Little did I know that I left the academic market at exactly the right time to ride the dot-com wave into a sweet job at a Big Five accounting firm doing website editing. I then used that experience and on-the-job training to find what I believe is my perfect niche, as a sort of liaison between super-tech programmers and end users. It’s at a big-deal government website. Excellent pay, a 40-hour week, no weekend work.

My (now ex) wife mentioned in my paper is now chair of the computer science/math department at a medium-sized liberal arts college. I get paid about 50% more than her, for far, far less work. And I absolutely love what I do.

I’m not sorry I spent so much time and effort getting my PhD. It was a good way to spend a few years, studying interesting stuff and honing my writing skills. But I have no interest in going back into academia.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:56 PM on March 16, 2004


Grad school is definitely everything this guy says it is: scary, difficult, pressured, and arbitrary. It is also amazingly rewarding, nourishing, and fun. I don't recall ever being so simultaneously pleased with my lifestyle and work (small salary and all) and so freaked out about the future.

I have a Ph.D. in English literature (and except for a single rough semester, I enjoyed the whole time I spent in grad school). One thing that I wish I'd realized earlier in my academic career is that the value system of the academic environment (in which a job that doesn't involve college-level teaching is no job at all, and those who "leave" the academy are seen as failures in some way) is a value system that benefits only those who are well-entrenched in the academy, not those who are trying to make their way into and through it. I went through a couple of years of low-paying lectureships after getting my degree, and then finally took a corporate job--my income suddenly shot up considerably, the number of hours I worked each week dropped from sixty-plus to thirty-eight, and as a result I've been far more academically productive (conferences, papers, etc.) in the six months I've been at this corporate gig than I was in the previous two years I spent in a purely academic environment. I've had to pay to go to conferences instead of having a university to fund them, but with my current income I can afford to do this with no real hardship.

So if a tenure-track teaching job is your final goal (which mine may or may not be--I haven't yet decided, since I'm free not to have to decide), there are other, arguably more comfortable routes to take besides a series of visiting professorships and adjunct spots. I know some people that have been able to parlay a series of adjuncting positions into a tenure-track spot, but I have also known a number of people who have found adjuncting to be, by and large, a sucker's game.

And don't undersell the value of a humanities Ph.D. in a non-academic environment, either (as conventional wisdom these days counsels you to do): with the right preparation, employers can be convinced during the interview process that the possession of such a degree is evidence of a rare and useful skill, in and of itself, and will compensate you accordingly. This advice is doubly true if you're from one of the Ivies, or a school of similar stature.
posted by Prospero at 1:15 PM on March 16, 2004


I am halfway through my MA in Sociology in a University where there wasn't a grad program before I started (there were a few before me, but I was the first in a newly minted program).

My experience has been pretty unique: being one of two (right now), there is no cohort, and thus it is fairly isolating. The faculty acts like my defacto cohort, with everyone giving me some great opportunities to design course work, teach, do research etc.

I am in Canada, and from everything I have seen, there is going to be a shortage of Canadian profs (in all fields) within the next eight years, so I am going to go for it, irregardless of the pains I am likely to experience. It's worth it - I love what I am studying, and I can't picture doing anything else.
posted by Quartermass at 1:24 PM on March 16, 2004


Another ABD here: wanted a PhD in linguistics, found out 1) it was going to take far more money and suffering (not to mention sucking up to profs) than seemed reasonable and 2) I didn't like teaching (so there was not much point becoming a professor), and bailed with an MPhil. Never regretted leaving. But for those embroiled in the academic life or considering it, for heaven's sake start reading Invisible Adjunct, your one-stop shop for all issues related to graduate/adjunct life. (Um, you can scroll down past a couple of frivolous entries at the top of the page right now; try Debates over Unionization or Lecture versus Discussion, and check out the stuff in the right-hand column.)
posted by languagehat at 1:35 PM on March 16, 2004


Prospero wrote One thing that I wish I'd realized earlier in my academic career is that the value system of the academic environment (in which a job that doesn't involve college-level teaching is no job at all, and those who "leave" the academy are seen as failures in some way) is a value system that benefits only those who are well-entrenched in the academy, not those who are trying to make their way into and through it.

This was absolutely my experience when I decided to become computational linguist instead of a (would-be) professor of German. My profs treated me like I couldn't cut it in the academy.

Really chapped my ass. If an undergrad went to one of my profs asking why he/she should major in humanities, the prof would have gone on about how the general skills developed in this education would benefit the student in any career.

But when I chose a non-academic career (one for which my Ph.D. in translation studies was absolutely necessary, by the way), they had exactly the opposite reaction: why bother with the humanities education if I'm not going to do exactly what they do?
posted by tippiedog at 1:44 PM on March 16, 2004


ROU pretty much has it down for grad life in the sciences. A complete AMEN to the funding issue - if you are going in to a science PhD program, you should not pay A CENT. Everything should be paid for, including health care and stipend. You're going to be working hard enough to deserve it.

Interestingly enough, unlike several other subjects, a masters in any life science (neurosci, bio, physiology etc.) is a total waste of time unless you're using it to boost your resume for med school. You can't do real research in an MS program, so the academics won't respect your science, and there's no gain from a job skills perspective.

Now, as to whether to get a PhD at all - there's no other way to be a scientist (unless you want to do clinical research with an MD). Even if you want to work in industry, the guys who get the juicy projects in the company labs will be PhD's. The guys who get the VC funding for their biotech proposals will have at least one PhD author. If you ever want to run high level experiments that affect the course of science, get thee to academia!
posted by synapse at 2:15 PM on March 16, 2004


I am in Canada, and from everything I have seen, there is going to be a shortage of Canadian profs (in all fields) within the next eight years

They've been saying that about every country's professors for decades, and yet the big die-off that we were promised still hasn't materialized.

prospero, tippiedog: some of that is because when we're training grad students, we think we're training future colleagues and collaborators and coauthors. so someone who really leaves academia is, sort of, wasted effort on our part. prospero's case sounds different, and indeed it might be smart for an ABD student to take a regular full-time job while finishing the degree, or in lieu of post-PhD adjuncting.

on preview: synapse, another reason to get an MA/MS in a hard science might be to get paid better as a public-school teacher, or similar.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:20 PM on March 16, 2004


ROU - Don't pop my bubble of self-delusion!!!
posted by Quartermass at 3:07 PM on March 16, 2004


Compelling articles. Computer Science grad student here, but I'm doing it for fun and I'm trying to do a subsequesnt BFA (my undergrad is also a computer science) in drawing and painting. Then there is a whole grad program at the college here in computer design. I'm just doing it for fun- it takes some of the pressure off that way. I'm working at the same time. I try not to be too motivated by money, but it is a necessary evil. Plus, those ivory tower types can kiss my ass- I'd punch them in their puffy red faces for fun. Though that is just between you and me.
posted by pissfactory at 3:51 PM on March 16, 2004


Dropped out of the PhD, took my Master's. After I got a well-paid, 40-hour/week gig in journalism, I dropped in to see an old prof of mine in the English department.

"Don't you find the industry very exploitative?" he asked, concerned.

I didn't stop laughing for days.
posted by rdc at 3:58 PM on March 16, 2004


I don't understand. Whats wrong with getting a PhD? It is a path to very specialized knowledge on a subject which can be translated into new research and products which helps grow the economy and increase the economic welfare of everyone. That is why we always talk about "brain drain" with smart educated people coming to the USA from around the world which makes this a better place. Should we discourage people from getting PhDs then?

Also what about teachers, I thought we had a shortage of teachers in America, why are only 1 in 5 PhDs getting teaching positions?
posted by stbalbach at 4:44 PM on March 16, 2004


Whats wrong with getting a PhD?

There's nothing wrong with getting a PhD. It's just not a guarantee of any future returns that would make all the time/money/energy worth it. In a lot of cases it's far more worth it for foreign students to come study here and take their degree back home where it is much more a guarantee of the good life.

Also what about teachers, I thought we had a shortage of teachers in America, why are only 1 in 5 PhDs getting teaching positions?

One doesn't get a PhD to teach at a level below college. That may be the end result, but that's like building a house only to decide the front porch is the only place you want to live. There is no shortage of college instructors, especially in the humanities, and therein lies the problem.
posted by dness2 at 5:05 PM on March 16, 2004


I know nothing about the good and bad of tenure track positions. But, doing a technology-related phd at MIT, I can say for sure that I wouldn't swap with any of my friends who are making 15x the amount I do. Most of these friends are past graduates of the school.. and they are divided into two groups - those that came here to have their phds as a way of earning a lot of money after getting out and those that like me are here for the fun of it. The first group's happiest day was when they were done and left for the 'real world'. The latter group went on to either be unhappy in highly-paid jobs or do things that largely pay not nearly that well but keep them interested.
It's not that I would refuse a set of beautiful houses scattered around the world and flying first class; I'd love that. But it is not what makes me tick or why I'd change what I do. And so, in considering what to do after I finish, I look not at "should i do a career in industry or academia?" but at what can I do that would be the most fun and where I could contribute the most while at least maintaining the same standard of life that I have now (that of a grad student with a stipend).
In this context, a tenure-track position is not about making it to tenure, but using that time to get lots of research done... and if they don't want me afterwards, perhaps it's time to move on? why should an academic job be guaranteed to begin with? without this carrot on a stick i think many people would be much more inclined to do what they consider important during their years as faculty rather than spending all their time in departamental politics.
posted by bokononito at 5:07 PM on March 16, 2004


There is a shortage of profs in Canada. My dad's a prof at Carleton University. They've got six positions coming open in the next year and a half and have not had one suitable applicant (that is, meeting ROU_X's criteria for being able to get grants).

Science is publish or perish, true, but more important is your ability to attract funding. The days of automatic government research grants ended in the eighties.
posted by bonehead at 5:13 PM on March 16, 2004


I'm a tad over a year into my PhD (in science, plant ecology), and things like this do concern me. I don't really want to go on to be an "academic", and hang around in the University system - I took on the PhD because (a) I love science, and the field I am studying and (b) they offered me a stipend plus top-up scholarship for 3 years before I found a real job!

Quite frankly, when I'm finished I'd be happy to be a gardener, a park ranger, or run a nature retreat - But I'm concerned that if I ever make it through this thing I will be overqualified for just about anything but a carreer pumping out research paper after research paper!
posted by Jimbob at 5:14 PM on March 16, 2004


rdc - A well-paid gig in journalism? Do tell. (I'm a freelancer not making any money)

Boko's post, and others', are reinforcing my initial belief that science grad students have all the fun.
posted by inksyndicate at 5:48 PM on March 16, 2004


An Economicds PhD asks "How will it sell?"
An Engineering PhD asks "How will it work?"
A Humanities PhD asks "Do you want fries with that?"
posted by spazzm at 6:22 PM on March 16, 2004


Economics. Sorry folks.
posted by spazzm at 6:22 PM on March 16, 2004


With apologies in advance for a long post --

Those of you wondering about the academic track might pay particular heed to this woman's story from the set of Chronicle articles linked in the FPP:

Harder than forfeiting the lifestyle perks is battling the demons of shame that seek to remind me that I have given up academe for something less worthy. "Don't you feel a duty to carry on your adviser's intellectual genes?" a friend and young professor at a nearby college once asked me. "If you're smart, you end up in academia. There's really no other place to be," one of my graduate professors cautioned me.

Now, she got her degree in evolutionary biology. The view of the lab and the classroom as the destination of the truly intelligent is perhaps more prevalent in the sciences than it is in the humanities. In my department there was plenty of lip service paid to the idea of a fine Life of the Mind outside of the ivory tower. But that masked the real feeling -- rarely so honestly put as in the piece quoted above -- that those of us who wound up leaving just didn't have the same stuff as those who found their place in the universe of tenure-track full time professorships.

I can say this because I was briefly one of those people: I acquired a junior position through a combination of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and because my enthusiasm for teaching fit the needs of a school where all the faculty carry a heavy load. My dissertation was unpublished, and I believe unpublishable -- I was prepared to scratch most of it and do a new book to get tenure. Many of my Ph.D. peers envied me greatly -- and although I knew that it was just good fortune that I had gotten where I did, I so loved being able to inhabit the "professor" identity that I put up with a number of standard academic job dissatisfactions (it was a lousy place to work on the whole, save for the fact that it was at the end of the day teaching literature, which can be a lot of fun).

Then it fell apart; a heavy teaching and advising load left me little time to research and write, and I had misread my contract (I was working there while finishing my dissertation, and was led to believe that I was being granted an additional year before tenure review. The wording in the letter was ambiguous, and I was foolish enough not to consult a lawyer or a senior colleague), and when I found myself unprepared (not enough published) for an unexpected review, there was no mercy, although everyone agreed it was just an unfortunate mistake. I was teaching on a satellite campus, and thus didn't really know the faculty who were voting on my case. Luckily, I had a "terminal year" due me, which left me time to make plans.

This isn't a sob story: I have an excellent job now, and I am working on nonacademic writing which I care about as much or more than the research that I labored on in an uninspired fashion as an academic. But I miss the teaching so much that if I could afford it I would go and teach high school (and may yet). Moreover, a very shallow and insecure part of me believes that, because I no longer work in the Sacred Grove, my mind has been weighed and found wanting. (And, damn, it sucks not to be able to check books out of University libraries. You just try doing independent research on an oddball subject without those privileges!)

My point is this: the academic career track is a dangerous path for people (like me) who venerate learning and have powerful fantasies of the professor's life, but who never got a grasp on the nuts-and-bolts of how to generate and turn out publishable research. Go in only if you can truly say that you will love the learning for its own sake; or if you are willing to develop a very clear plan for making your way and getting the position you want. It's not that it takes a lot out of you, as many say. It's that it gives a lot to you that you give up if and when you leave.
posted by BT at 6:25 PM on March 16, 2004


science grad students have all the fun.

Yeah, I'm not even sure it makes sense to talk about science and humanities grad students as if they were playing in the same league. This dichotomy keeps coming up at Invisible Adjunct, too; humanities students moan about the iniquities of the system, and scientists say "What do you mean? Things are great!" I mean, the idea that you shouldn't pay a penny for a graduate education would evoke gales of bitter laughter in humanists if they could take time out from filling out loan applications and wondering if they'll ever be able to pay them back.
posted by languagehat at 6:26 PM on March 16, 2004


Oh, and ROU_Xenophobe --

prospero, tippiedog: some of that is because when we're training grad students, we think we're training future colleagues and collaborators and coauthors. so someone who really leaves academia is, sort of, wasted effort on our part. prospero's case sounds different, and indeed it might be smart for an ABD student to take a regular full-time job while finishing the degree, or in lieu of post-PhD adjuncting.

In the case of many humanities departments, there's no longer a realistic expectation that most grad students will find full-time employment. It's a myth not discussed openly. But except in the cases of high-powered departments (Ivies etc) and/or those who do a responsible job holding down admissions to only a few candidates a year, many departments are knowingly admitting more Ph.D. candidates than can be reasonably expected to find full-time positions. In some cases (such as my alma mater) the discrepancy borders on the comic. One often figures this out only after a few years toward one's degree.

I'll admit that it's the student's responsibility to learn about that risk beforehand. But the question of faculty "wasted effort" feels pretty different from that perspective. Also --again in the humanities -- teaching grad students is a vehicle to course reductions and getting to develop your own research by teaching it in seminars. Faculty who get to teach and advise grad students have more time for their own research than faculty who do not, so again, the "wasted effort" is mitigated. Advising DOES take time and work, but not as much as teaching that extra 50-student section of Intro to Brit Lit.
posted by BT at 6:42 PM on March 16, 2004


Someone please just say something nice. Pleasant, la la la la la, flowers and bunnies and kittens and lollipops.

I have been having one of those weeks- those jump out the office window weeks. I am in Education, so it is triple scary for me.
posted by oflinkey at 7:11 PM on March 16, 2004



posted by inksyndicate at 7:16 PM on March 16, 2004


Oh, thank you inksyndicate. I needed the baby seal.
posted by oflinkey at 7:36 PM on March 16, 2004


Young aquatic mammals always seem to do the trick, don't they?
posted by inksyndicate at 8:00 PM on March 16, 2004


the academic career track is a dangerous path for people (like me) who venerate learning and have powerful fantasies of the professor's life, but who never got a grasp on the nuts-and-bolts of how to generate and turn out publishable research

Yup. And that's two powerful failings in graduate education.

One, we know full well that people get attracted to academia because they remember their experiences with advisers and such -- when I'm feeling snotty, I phrase it as "because they want to have erudite conversations over coffee." But, unsurprisingly, erudite conversations over coffee are a small part of the game, and a lot more of the game is spent with plain old, boring, just-like-everywhere-else work. You can get around this to some extent by throwing actual research at people early on and telling them that if you don't like doing this, well enough to do it 30+ hours/week minimum for years on end, QUIT NOW and stop wasting time pursuing a graduate degree you don't really want. Break down, crush underfoot, and grind into dust any fantasies of the professorial life they might have, so they can decide on the realities.

The other problem is in not professionalizing students early enough and hard enough. You can try to do this with classes or seminars on it, or by working discussions of professional matters into core classes -- but it won't really work. The thing you need to do is build a grad-student culture of professionalization, where the departing and dissertating teach the newbies, and that's real damn hard to build.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:16 PM on March 16, 2004


I mean, the idea that you shouldn't pay a penny for a graduate education would evoke gales of bitter laughter in humanists if they could take time out from filling out loan applications and wondering if they'll ever be able to pay them back

My advice to those people filling out loan applications for a humanities grad program would be simple: Quit while you're ahead, or at least less behind.

Even in humanities, it remains the case that if you're unfunded -- and especially if you've never been funded -- you are not likely to get a tenure-track job. Tenure-track jobs, thin on the ground in the humanities, are going to go to the funded students of NotYourSchool who were busy publishing and going to conferences while you were teaching. So why waste your life on it? Go and pursue something else as a career and English lit or whatever as an avocation.

I'll admit that it's the student's responsibility to learn about that risk beforehand.

I disagree. Departments ought not to accept PhD students they don't think they can place. Period. Doing so is exploitative and immoral. At a bare minimum, they owe it to the students who aren't likely to get a job to wash them out with a terminal MA so they stop wasting their time.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:24 PM on March 16, 2004


Wow. Such unremmitting pragmatism. Not exactly a little pink basket of Bloomsberries, are we?
posted by Opus Dark at 8:41 PM on March 16, 2004


unremitting

*sigh*

Now where did I leave my sunlit divan?
posted by Opus Dark at 8:43 PM on March 16, 2004


Departments ought not to accept PhD students they don't think they can place.

Exactly. But I was of voting age when I went to grad school -- the fact that my department engaged in what we might both agree was "exploitative" was something that I take responsibility for having looked into beforehand. I wasn't trying to let grad departments off the hook --- only noting that students who take their place in a big department which can't nurture them are not asking all the right questions when they apply.
posted by BT at 8:46 PM on March 16, 2004


I got my acceptance letter this week... (University of Pennsylvania, PhD program in cognitive neuroscience).

I spent the last year working as a research assistant here, and it really does seem like the humanities must be a completely different world. Everyone here is very happy to be here and departing people seem to have no trouble at all finding positions...
posted by dmd at 10:51 PM on March 16, 2004


Everyone here is very happy to be here and departing people seem to have no trouble at all finding positions...

Part of it is that people understand that science is hard, and sometimes boring, and that there's math. This pre-emptively weeds out a lot of the people who might otherwise want to have erudite conversations over coffee. People don't always understand that a poli-sci or English program is going to be hard, is going to involve drudgery-like work, and that there might be math (or other forms of formalized methods) lurking there, often for good reason.

(put differently, science programs tend to select for people who are going to take it seriously, who have a better idea what they're in for, and are already viewing it more-or-less pragmatically)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:17 AM on March 17, 2004


Mrs. Alumshubby is now working on her second Master's degree. The first one was in reading education; this time it's in educational administration (she wants to be a principal when she grows up). She's been fortunate that her own mom is funding her education (must be nice, sigh). She still ponders from time to time whether she wants to continue on to an Ed.D or Ph.D. (I, a college dropout, am appropriately awed!!)

She hasn't actually published in a journal at this level, but she's cross-pollinated a lot of her school project work into her school district because she hobnobs with curriculum-resource teachers and school principals as well as classroom teachers. She can use the schools she's responsible for as a real-world lab of sorts, with useful war-story feedback to use in her education classes. Also, having helped to deal with a fair number of problem teachers (and an admin or two) over the last five years, she already has a pretty good real-world picture of what life would be like as a principal or AP in her district.

If anybody wants particulars, I can see if she wants to participate in this thread.
posted by alumshubby at 5:45 AM on March 17, 2004


ROU, I don't think the problem is that humanities graduate students come into grad school not taking the challenge seriously -- rather, the problem is that, no matter how seriously you take your work, the odds are that a job market that is so selective as to be semi-arbitrary willl simply spit you out anyway. At my graduate program, a high-powered Ivy, no one has come into it looking for the aforementioned erudite conversations. Everyone is extremely hard-working. Nobody coasted through their undergraduate work to somehow get a place in graduate school. Yet despite their extremely hard work, the system, which is broken, is not creating space for the people it trains.

The problem isn't that people don't take the _work_ seriously; it's that they don't take the _risk_ seriously, which is a separate issue. One's success can have nothing to do with one's work ethic. The reason humanities students have trouble finding jobs isn't because they haven't taken the work seriously, it's because there is actually a crisis in the job market in the humanities. Too many professors who aren't retiring aren't making room for younger professors. Too little funding for the humanities (based on the idea that the humanities can't 'make a profit' for a university--something they've never done anyway) makes positions scarce. And the way that schools deal with these problems is by expanding graduate enrollment, which helps in the short term but only makes it worse down the road.

I like the professional responsibility argument more: the 'industry' of humanities academics needs to take steps to fix what is obviously a malfunctioning system. Obviously, overly optimistic graduate students have to take responsibility for their choices. But I don't think that the real issue here is that people who can't find jobs in humanities academia are dilettantes. The problem is exactly the opposite--that apparently no amount of hard work, intelligence, and commitment can guarantee you a job. Graduate schools and universities ought to acknowledge that the system itself--the *market* in the job market, with its set of incentives, its sources of information, and its ratio of supply and demand--is out of whack and get about fixing it.
posted by josh at 6:31 AM on March 17, 2004


There is a shortage of profs in Canada.

As I understand it (or at least this is the case in the humanities), there are two factors that are contributing to this:

(a) Canadian teaching jobs pay about half the salary of American jobs on average (due in part to the strong American dollar), so Canadian students are all looking for American positions. Based on my knowledge of what my colleagues in the sciences are earning in assistant professorships, I suspect the discrepancy between Canadian and American salaries in those fields is even greater.

(b) Canadian hiring policies for higher education state that Canadians get preferences over foreign students, within reason. Otherwise Canada would be overrun with American Ph.D. students willing to teach at a reduced salary, just for the experience. But a Canadian that can be hired at a Canadian school will most likely be able to get a position at an American school, and will take the American spot because of (a), above. So the Canadian position goes unfilled.
posted by Prospero at 6:39 AM on March 17, 2004


Thank you Prospero for the validation! Considering that I will *never* go route (a), and that I don't really care what Canadian University I end up in, so long as I can continue to research and teach a subject I love, I think I will make out fine.

I went to a professional confrence recently, and a prof told us hand wringing grad students: "the people who complain about publish or perish are the people who don't really want to be here. If you love what you are researching, and you are doing the research properly, you will not have any real problems finding work, or moving up in the system, because if you love what you are researching, you will do whatever it takes to get published."
posted by Quartermass at 7:06 AM on March 17, 2004


I like the idea that math and formalized methods are the only thing that seems to equal hard work - as if writing is easy for everyone. You can't just hold the equivalent of an erudite conversation over coffee on paper and hope to get through grad school. Surely you realize how hard it is for some students to work their way through a sentence. For about half of all students everywhere, I think, the mechanics of writing is at least as hard as math or stats. And by contrast, stats can be done by computer now, even if you have to know the logic behind what it's doing for you to take full advantage of it. The catch is that communicating your ideas is ultimately more required than anything - such as, say, knowing how to work SPSS - to get through grad school and to get a job afterward. (I also think you belittle the world of non-statistical oriented thinking here, regardless. Good theorists have to be as precise in their writing as anyone, even more so. I can read theory journals and feel the pain. Logic and math are highly related anyway, or so I've heard.)

Meanwhile, if you're looking for erudite conversations, metafilter is a very good place to go, at least a quarter of the time. You can have coffee with that too, or a soy latte or whatever, or in jonmc's case a fried snicker bar, etc.
posted by raysmj at 7:18 AM on March 17, 2004


This may not be the place for it -- I'm deciding whether to take it to AskMe -- but: how about j-school? Anyone want to chime in about the journalism gradskool experience goes, whether it's helpful or not, et cetera?
posted by Vidiot at 8:39 AM on March 17, 2004


ROU, I don't think the problem is that humanities graduate students come into grad school not taking the challenge seriously -- rather, the problem is that, no matter how seriously you take your work, the odds are that a job market that is so selective as to be semi-arbitrary willl simply spit you out anyway

That's one of the problems, and to be sure the major problem. But not every department is a high-powered Ivy department -- there are a lot of grad programs out there, in a lot of second- and third- and fourth-tier schools, and you do see people who go into humanities (and poli-sci!) programs because they can't think of anything better to do, and they liked college. There are also any number of people who aren't doing fabulously well in their program, and hate doing what the program tells them to do, but for whatever reason can't see that they're going to keep doing these things they don't like if they graduate and somehow get a job.

But you tend not to see that, near as I can tell, in science programs. People seem to have a better idea of what to expect, so people who won't like the program self-select out before they (don't) send in the application, and they seem to be more willing to tell students "You're not cutting the mustard and you won't get a job. You can stay and finish your MA if you want, but then get on with your life."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:12 AM on March 17, 2004


Too little funding for the humanities (based on the idea that the humanities can't 'make a profit' for a university--something they've never done anyway) makes positions scarce

The implication here seems to be that science programs are taking away money from humanities, but on the global scale I don't think that's true. I suspect that if you took science lines and gave them to humanities, you'd find that you'd shortly have to take away the lines anyway because the grantflow in would drop and there wouldn't be money for the lines.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:15 AM on March 17, 2004


I like the idea that math and formalized methods are the only thing that seems to equal hard work - as if writing is easy for everyone.

I wouldn't and didn't say that. There's going to be things in a Victorian poetry program or a comparative lit program or a history program that are going to be downright hard -- not just do-the-work drudgery, but really and no-shit intellectually challenging, and, if it's some kind of methodology, not obviously and immediately important. In poli-sci, these are usually methods courses. I assume there are similar courses / requirements / experiences in most all graduate programs; I just have no idea what they might be.

I just meant that people seem to viscerally understand that science is hard -- there's math, and there's long hours, and there are big weird words. People don't seem to always realize that English and history and poli-sci programs are hard too, and get shocked when they find out that there's more to it than just reading and appreciating some nice poetry, or than going to Brussels and chatting with Eurocrats about the good life. Which is part of why science programs don't have the same problems that humanities programs do -- their pool of actual applicants is much smaller and more focused than the pool of applicants to humanities programs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:26 AM on March 17, 2004


Based on the purely anecdotal evidence of my own graduate career, I'd have to say the absolute easist program has to be art history. My roommate, a budding art historian, would look at me sweating over Hittite and Old Irish, laugh in a mocking but friendly way, and say "You know what you have to learn in art history? How to sweep your arm in front of a painting and say 'Notice the diagonal!'" And it wasn't just bravado -- I never saw him doing a lick of work. Schmoozing seemed to be the major requirement for the profession. (Apologies to any hard-working art historians here; I describe only what I have seen.)
posted by languagehat at 9:48 AM on March 17, 2004


Who wants to chat with Eurocrats? In what world? That said, yes, much of the material you will read in, say, an EU course will tend to be very tedious, and hardly any students expect that coming in.

But I think EU scholarship - to give just one example - shows a tendency to be more tedious than it needs to be. It's as a group came together and decided, "We'll keep the Europhiles out. That'll show 'em!" And I say this as someone who made it all the way through Weber's "Economy and Society, Part III" and a guide to it without ripping my flesh apart. I actually enjoyed it, on the whole, despite a friend's assuring me that Max was the Antichrist. Difficult may sometimes equal tedious and boring, but there should be limits. And the social sciences should not fear so-called real world relevance. They should be more inter-disciplinary and creative and open, etc.

The problem, I think, may sometimes be the way in which these programs are not only perceived, but advertised. Making them more tedious than necessary doesn't help. Showing that they are by nature inter-disciplinary and and require great skill and a huge breadth of knowledge would be be better. The hard sciences have, by contrast, made getting into the kingdom, or inner sanctum, very forbidding. They get the same respect here that the priestly castes Weber talked about did in Europe - at least, in some parts, until talk turns to evolution and genetics. And then you have, what? A social and political problem.
posted by raysmj at 9:59 AM on March 17, 2004


That said, yes, much of the material you will read in, say, an EU course will tend to be very tedious, and hardly any students expect that coming in.

But it won't be tedious! Apart from the historical-interest, where-people-are-coming-from stuff like Weber, what you're likely to be reading are interesting arguments about how political institutions work, and why institutions get chosen over other possible institutions, and how nations combine their own collective interests while protecting their own private interests, and how and why different nations get chosen for entry when, and why they pitch their bids when they do, and why different sets of conditions get imposed on different nations on entry.

The problem is more that people, having never or rarely been exposed to the actual arguments about these things, find them tedious instead of interesting. People get exposed to the actual work, which tends -- like in any field -- to be a bunch of narrow, highly focused articles on different aspects of the various interesting things, and that in poli-sci often gets sidetracked into issues of methodology (mostly because so many people do such godawful jobs at inference, statistical, qualitative, or otherwise), and that are harder to read than your old undergrad textbooks written for undergrads... and they turn off.

I'm sure there are analogs in other fields.

The weird thing is that, often, they don't say "This is not what I want to do. I'm outta here." Hell, I've known people who completed their PhD, taking an extra two or three years to do so, disliking what they were doing, and knowing full well that they didn't want to go into academia.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:51 AM on March 17, 2004


Humanities and social sciences grad school is all about being in the club, and the club is much smaller than the number of slots. You are inducted into the club as a exceptionally promising sophomore or junior undergraduate at a leading college, and one or more of its leading faculty carefully shape your senior-level research and networking, introduce you to the important advisers at the important programs (and there are only a few in each discipline), and help you strike the deal (dissertation topid, admission and fellowships) with one of them. Club members, assuming that nothing goes awry, can expect a tenure track position 4 to 6 years later.

Some people know they aren't in the club, but love the subject matter and are comfortable knowing they're very likely to have to seek careers outside academia, or accept a non-career lifestyle in academia (adjunct, etc.) More power to them, although they're pretty foolish to actually borrow money to do this. (You can still get fellowships if you're not in the club.)

What's amazing to me is that there are lots of people earning PhDs who don't even know that the club exists. They patiently work away, telling anyone who'll listen of their dreams of academia, while members of the club (assuming they're in programs which have any club members in the first place) try not to break their hearts with the truth, that unless they win the academic equivalent of the lottery, there's no hope for those dreams.

The other thing that non-club members don't know is how massively important speed is. Faculty award tenure-track spots to people who are going to be highly productive scholars -- nothing demonstrates that better than completing a PhD in 5 years, and nothing is a better judge, jury and executioner of one's prospects to do so than having taken 7 or more years to finish.
posted by MattD at 11:31 AM on March 17, 2004


ROU: I am a PoliSci PhD. I have, as noted, read Weber extensively. Me and Max are tight! In any case, the EU literature was quite tedious in part, I think, because so much of it was presented with barely enough real-world context. And the names for many theories are so freakin' clunky.

Neo-functionalism is just not sexy, can never be even remotely sexy, unless you can put faces and a narratives to theoretical discourse in some fashion. Maybe getting a new name would help too. Of course, then you do run the risk of attracting the soy latte chatters, if you're afraid of that. You just have to stress that it still takes a broad range of skills and knowledge to fully grasp the subject matter. That was more or less my point.

Meanwhile, I should stop chatting. I'm looking for a job - both, for the record, within academia and outside of it.
posted by raysmj at 11:56 AM on March 17, 2004


Well, make that a PhD *candidate,* AB but Almost Finished With D. Sheesh.
posted by raysmj at 12:02 PM on March 17, 2004


« Older Originally,...  |  Gas prices are out of control ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments