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Misery, meet company...grad school style
January 25, 2010 9:50 PM   Subscribe

Is grad school driving you insane? Bask in the shared misery of more than two years' worth of comments from fellow burnouts at the end of this blog post.

As someone who had been chewed up and spit out by grad school (and am still stuck in it, though I'm bailing out this year), I found cold comfort in this post on Robert Nagle's Idiotprogammer blog.

The post appears to have been put up all the way back in 2004. The comments start in 2007, and continue, drip by drip, to this day.

I have to say that reading all these stories made me feel a whole lot better about my own horribly negative grad school experience, and it makes you wonder how so many of us can march into this mess so blissfully idealistic and ignorant of what's to come.
posted by hiteleven (126 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read a fair bit of this and agree with the insights. Many of the comments hit uncomfortably close to home when I recall my grad school days. Hlad I got the Master's degree, sad for a long time that I didn't finish the PhD, but overall now realize that the PhD was overkill and a waste for what I wanted to do in life.

That said, a quibble/rant with the layout, if I may? Dammit, I am so tired of the web site trend that puts nearly invisible, pale grey text on a white (or slightly paler grey) background. WTF is with that? Are you actually trying to hide the writing?

/rant
posted by darkstar at 10:16 PM on January 25, 2010


*Glad
posted by darkstar at 10:19 PM on January 25, 2010


I'm confident everyone who is now or has been in graduate school understands the unique suffering described in this link and can sympathize with them and with the OP.

And for those fortunate souls who haven't had the experience, I share with you the frightfully accurate At-home PhD Simulator, which I saw posted once at PhinisheD.org :

The At-Home PhD Simulator
  1. Give a $30,000 donation to the university of your choice, on your credit card.
  2. Go to the library and write. Write pages and pages. Every time you reach 50 pages, burn all of them. Repeat for several years.
  3. Take out an ad in Craiglist for someone to pretend to be your advisor. Set up periodic meetings with them where they read your drafts and give you the exact opposite of the advice they gave you three months ago.
  4. Adjunct a course at your local college. Give lots of written work. Submit everything you get to one of the online plagiarism detectors. Despair for humanity.
  5. After ten years, throw a dart at a map. Move where ever it lands for the rest of your life.
posted by TBAcceptor at 10:24 PM on January 25, 2010 [73 favorites]


Well, I think there's a big difference between humanities Masters and PhD's and ones in technical fields that's kind of getting glossed over.
posted by delmoi at 10:32 PM on January 25, 2010 [9 favorites]


Ugh. I respect Nagel deeply, however, I AM SO FUCKING TIRED OF THIS ESSAY BEING RAMMED DOWN MY THROAT.

I get it, most people who think they want a graduate level degree don't. But some of us DO, and some of us can cut it.

I've got a friend right now who has been unable to get letters of recommendations written not for any failing of his own, but rather because everyone he asks says that they don't think this is the right time to enter grad school, for anyone in either of his two fields. Which I think is a bollocks reason to deny writing someone a letter of recommendation.

WE GET IT - THIS WILL BE HARD - STOP TELLING US NOT TO DO WHAT WE LOVE DOING.

/rant
posted by strixus at 10:49 PM on January 25, 2010 [45 favorites]


PS, this essay pisses me off so much that I got up out of bed to post this reply, after hitting refresh on my phone browser while half asleep and going to check the weather for tomorrow.
posted by strixus at 10:51 PM on January 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, I think there's a big difference between humanities Masters and PhD's and ones in technical fields that's kind of getting glossed over.

If you check the comments carefully you'll find some for technical degrees (Museum Studies, Library Technician I believe). Admittedly the experience of getting such a degree is quite different, though, or at least it would seem to be.

From everything I've seen and heard about grad school, however, I don't think the anguish is reserved solely for humanities students. There seems to be plenty of problems in science and engineering programs as well...perhaps the job prospects are better, and the dynamics are different, but things are far from rosy.
posted by hiteleven at 10:53 PM on January 25, 2010


Strixus, if I could favorite your comment a hundred times I would.
posted by Bromius at 10:53 PM on January 25, 2010


Ugh. I respect Nagel deeply, however, I AM SO FUCKING TIRED OF THIS ESSAY BEING RAMMED DOWN MY THROAT.

Note that in my post I was more interested in the comments than in the Burke essay which begins the blog posting.

I know everyone has seen the Burke thing, I thought it was more interesting that the post itself has been kept alive for so long (which Nagle updating it over the years).

Also, for the record, I can "cut it" in grad school as much as the next person, save the politics that have sunk me...the fact that those who stay think that those of us who leave can't "cut it" contribute to its ugly, cult-ish atmopshere.
posted by hiteleven at 11:01 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


The one thing that I think grad schools could emphasize more to prospective students is that this is a weeding out process. Not everyone who starts a PhD, finishes. Completion rates should be available from the admissions office when you apply.

It's a gamble. Unfortunately, it's a pricey one, and it's one that ends to encourage a conflation of two separate internal models of education: intellectual merit ("I'm good enough to do this") and economic privilege ("I'm paying for this"). In the latter case, notions of privilege are encouraged by an undergrad process that is often biased towards the latter, and in which cutting a regular check (often by one's parents) more or less ensures, if not outright success, then at least lack of failure. Degrees are purchased by middle and upper class parents for their offspring. That's why you can have undergrads sitting in your office, expecting 'A's for poor quality work, and blaming you (as the 'service provider') for failing to cheat them.

This model does not apply to grad school, particularly humanities PhDs. (As Delmoi points out, there's a big difference with technical and also professional grad school). Just because you are admitted, is not guarante of success. When I look at incoming PhD students, I would say that at about 50% still do not understand how to do research, despite having completed at least two degrees. Some will learn in the months that follow, some will not.
posted by carter at 11:09 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oops. "For failing to cheat them"/"For failing to teach them." I must have cheating on the brain ;)
posted by carter at 11:11 PM on January 25, 2010


My vitriol wasn't aimed at you, hiteleven, but rather a very large subset of faculty in the humanities that for some reason have decided to discourage as many students as possible from even attempting grad school. When I told my MA committee that I was planning to apply to PhD programs, the reaction ranged from "DONT!" to "Consider other things first." It has been my experience that nearly everyone I know has had that same reaction when attempting to apply even to terminal masters programs.

This essay, its comments, and many others like it, are shoved in the faces of students (undergrads and MA's alike) who want to apply to PhD programs. They (we) are repeatedly told how miserable we will be, how bad the job markets are, that they are miserable jobs, that we will never make money. Some, like I said above, are actually deliberately stonewalling students from even applying, regardless of qualification or drive, on principle.

I understand that this is a backlash against the large numbers of students who drop out of PhD and Masters programs for one reason or another before completion - I understand that some people are genuinely unhappy in the academic system for reasons other than course work or research load or teaching load - I also understand that there is a major push back against the increase in the number of PhD's that are being produced when the number of jobs are decreasing. What I don't understand is why this has turned into an atmosphere of poisonous negativity aimed at any person who displays an interest in attaining a PhD, both before they apply, when they are accepted, and throughout grad school.

Somehow, if you turn aside from the path of the PhD, you are a better person in many professors' minds than someone who is determined to get one. They view those who leave the traditional academic path as somehow the "smart ones who got out" - and maybe some are smart for leaving for jobs they are happier in, or positions that are more lucrative. But some of us really want that university teaching job, or that research position, or the ability to research and publish without the stigma of not having those letters behind our name. Some of us are happy busting our nuts, being poor, and knowing we will have to move to the hinterlands for a job opening that may last only a year. Why? Because we really do want to do this. I understand this started as a way of telling students to be sure of what they wanted, and to know how hard this academic shtick will be, but it has turned into an acid bath that is eroding away not just the people who might be happier elsewhere, but also everything else in its path.

Yes, those comments are interesting. Yes there are horror stories of grad school. But I'm so tired of being told not to do what I love that my knee jerk reaction to any person who says "dont go to grad school" in answer to a genuine desire to attain a higher degree in a field is screaming blind rage.
posted by strixus at 11:19 PM on January 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


I always think it's weird when people argue about whether or not you should go to grad school as a general concept, when it varies so much by major and potential career. Yes, you can make a pretty good argument that, say, an engineer with a four-year degree might not be any better off. But if you want to be a scientist, that would be pretty hard to accomplish by any other route.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:20 PM on January 25, 2010


Yeah, some of us get really, really lucky with how grad school turns out... I hope this doesn't discourage folks from at least trying it out. You have to push yourself sometimes, and even if the environment turns out to be a bad fit for you, it's hard not to come out of the experience a better person. At worst, you'll have an appreciation for jobs in industry.
posted by spiderskull at 11:22 PM on January 25, 2010


Man.

Don't pursue grad school in something you don't love, period. Fine. There's a ridiculous assumption in our society that more academic education makes you more employable, and as someone who interviews on occasion - it's not true.

That said, grad school is a great time if you enjoy the subject, and don't require moving on to a position in academia. I only signed up for a masters' but I had a great time doing that. I have to think these unhappy people are just unhappy people looking for something external to blame it on. Maybe they just haven't realized that made a bad choice for terrible reasons, but sheesh!
posted by freebird at 11:28 PM on January 25, 2010


strixus, I think our experiences of grad school have been vastly different. In my case, my dept. actively encourages students to pursue MAs and PhDs even when it's painfully clear that such students will end up frustrated, penniless, burnt out, and largely unemployable.

The reasons for this are economically draconian to the extreme. PhDs are fully funded for five years (tuition, stipend, TA positions), while MAs have to pay their own tickets. The dept. has been upping the number of MAs it takes in more and more every year, yet the number of PhD spots available remains unchanged. It seems pretty clear that the dept. is using MAs to fund the PhD packages...worse still, our admins tell MAs whatever they want to hear to get them into the department, only for them to find out that their research options are much more limited when they get here. Also, the dept. has been pushing PhD students to go well past their five years of funded research, turning such suddenly poor folk into easy candidates for cheap labour.

In my case I sailed through the MA year, but the dreams of many of my fellow students were crushed without any hint of the cruel calculus to come. I got dinged on the second point I made, where they were suddenly unable to support my research interests once I got the PhD level.

In any event, I agree with those who say that you should live and learn by your own choices, but it doesn't hurt to be aware of the possible consequences of your choices.
posted by hiteleven at 11:40 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


"the reaction ranged from 'DONT!' to "Consider other things first."

My college professors straight up told me not to apply to graduate schools out of a simple feeling of moral obligation. Graduate schools churn out far more PhD's than there are jobs for. The whole set-up is morally reprehensible if you think about it, especially in the humanities. A PhD in biology will have plenty of non-academic professional opportunities, whereas a humanities PhD will actually block you from non-academic employment in some cases.

So I'd be pissed if my profs hadn't told me to avoid it.
posted by bardic at 11:42 PM on January 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


Also, for the record, I can "cut it" in grad school as much as the next person, save the politics that have sunk me...the fact that those who stay think that those of us who leave can't "cut it" contribute to its ugly, cult-ish atmopshere.

Yeah exactly. I gotta be honest and say that Strixus's comment struck me as a bit naive and arrogant. For the record, there are a *LOT* of people who could 'cut it' (whatever that even means, exactly) in grad school who either don't go or leave for a variety of reasons (which, in my experience, usually have absolutely nothing to do with their scholarly potential, their intelligence, or work ethic and more to do with the career outlook and the like). Honestly, I knew a lot of PhD candidates while I was an undergrad, had to take classes from them or with them (smancypantsschool) who were just...awful, bad teachers and bad scholars; their existence there was due to many things, 'cutting it' not really being any of them, unless by 'cut it' you mean having access to money, the ability to endlessly bean plate in an effort to try and say something resembling original, and possessing a penchant for a poopy nose.

STOP TELLING US NOT TO DO WHAT WE LOVE DOING.

Who is saying that? Do whatever you like. The essay is simply trying to point out that - as unfortunate or whatever it may be - we do not live in a world where the majority of people are able to ignore pragmatism completely in favor of desire. I love rocking. I would love to be a rock star, and play rock music all day. But I would not take out thousands and thousands of dollars in loans, spend a decade doing paperwork and survive countless existential crises for the off chance that I might land a regular gig in Denison, IA (and don't try to tell me that the work of a humanities PhD is significantly more far-reaching, more directly impacting and important to significantly more people than the regular audience would be at my gig at Cronk's in Denison).

Getting more school is a great idea in theory. But this is not the Romantic era; the traditional ivory tower model of academics, especially with regard to the humanities, is simply not sustainable.

(Not meant to universally criticize all graduate schools or people in them, nor to say that there isn't any value to many of the highest ed programs. Higher ed has been an incredible success and an incredibly important part of the, insofar as we have them at all, wealth and cultural depth we have as a civilization; however, as is the case with so many of our most valued institutions of late, much will need to change).
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:43 PM on January 25, 2010 [13 favorites]


(comment written during much relevant ensuing conversation commenter was not aware of)
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:46 PM on January 25, 2010


this is frustrating to me, as well, but:
This is why I couldn't get through undergrad programs (yes, many plural):
School ain't been for learning since before I was born, certainly not in a way that is meaningful if you take into account the 'test scores vs auto-didactic proficiency' factor.

School is for teaching folks how to swallow/defibrillating late-bloomers...and keeping grad students alive long enough to wield an axe (i.e. make more teachers/professors)...stop me if i'm wrong...stop me if i'm wrong...




not that i'm sour on the glory of actual education, mind you...
posted by es_de_bah at 11:46 PM on January 25, 2010


/sorry...still angry 'bout coakley...
posted by es_de_bah at 11:47 PM on January 25, 2010


I'm not sure if it is just a case of "cutting it," as much as "getting it." Based on Nagel's list of 12 misconceptions, he does not 'get' grad school. For instance:

Grad school is a volume-based business. You better be able to crank out a lot of essays and reconcile yourself to the fact that a large percentage of it will be mediocre or ultimately unimportant.

I disagree. You have to crank out a lot of essays that are top notch. They will be important as well, because they will be part of your learning experience and of who you are as a scholar/researcher. People who crank out top notch essays will be advance. People who don't, won't. Why should anyone who admits that they crank out crappy work be on the job market with the same qualification as a good researcher? Employers/customers are interested in the latter, not the former.

For instance if I went to dental school, and said "Dentistry is a volume-based business. You better be able to crank out a lot of fillings and reconcile yourself to the fact that a large percentage of it will be mediocre or ultimately unimportant" - that is not a dentist I want to meet.

I never figured out what it meant to “give a paper” at an academic conference. For the sciences, you didn’t actually have to write the paper, only conduct (or help with) the research. For humanities, it meant merely submitting an essay and having them agree to let you give a talk on it to 10 other academics (optimistically speaking).

QED.
posted by carter at 12:05 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


One thing that a lot of the comments miss (both here and on the Nagel article) is that grad students have families. And, if you come from an immigrant family where the parents have made huge sacrifices of finance and dignity to invest in your education, the decision to ditch or stick with grad school is no longer a strictly individual one. In cultures where family belonging takes primacy over individual identity, you have to take into account how other family members will see your decision and be affected by it. You can stick up your chin and declare that quitting isn't failure, but tell this to family members who have supported you all your life and invested all of their dreams of family uplift in you, and all they hear is SHAME. And when your parents go to events in their particular immigrant community and their compatriots ask them how their children are doing, they will feel SHAME SHAME. And when other, competing families in the same community boast about their highly-educated children, your family will feel SHAME SHAME SHAME.

Certainly, this isn't the universal experience of all second-generation immigrants, but this is the nightmare that plays on loop in the back of our heads every time that we grow weary of making good on the price paid by a previous generation.
posted by LMGM at 12:18 AM on January 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


2 thoughts:

In my field, just in the last year or two, top graduate programs have begun scaling back on their admissions rates to PhD programs. I think there's a general perception that there are too many candidates for too few jobs and that it's the responsibility of elite institutions to reign in the number of degrees they issue. If this trend is general, then a lot of this Angst is a function of poor administrative decisions. Successful students are off doing successful student things. Those who are struggling are seeking solace by ranting on the internet. If those folks had been tracked into other, less taxing careers, the overall impression would be that we have a healthy, vibrant academy. We still do, obviously, but the collateral damage it has been inflicting on the emotional lives of the merely adequate has been too high for too long.

Also, and more generally, I don't get why there's such a push to measure the success of graduate education by rates of placement in full-time, tenure track academic positions. Obviously the over-reliance on adjuncts is a horrible thing. But having smart, thoughtful and well read people working in various sectors of the economy and enriching our culture in all sorts of ways is a net gain. Not every scholar of pre-war German cinema is meant to be a professor, but a society that has scholars of pre-war German cinema doing all sorts of other things is an interesting and vital one.

Three things would fix the structural problems that have created such a mass of sad and angry people: tighter admissions policies to PhD programs, better funding for graduate education, and better post-degree career counseling, including an academy-wide decrease in reliance on adjunct lecturers.
posted by felix betachat at 12:24 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Don't pursue grad school in something you don't love, period.

Where were you when I needed you six years ago?

All jokes aside, everything that's being said in the link and here really boils down to this. If you have a consuming passion for your subject, that will get you through the heaping piles of bullshit that accrue in any academic setting. I see this in my program everyday. If you don't, you will be fucking miserable. I see that in my mirror everyday.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:31 AM on January 26, 2010


I'm in an MFA program, okay, LOL job prospects, but at least right now I'm getting paid to do what I like: read and make up stories.

(However, I hate where I'm living, so it could be that my dislike for this joyless and ugly city is keeping me from actual grad school discontent.)
posted by betweenthebars at 12:52 AM on January 26, 2010


All the discussion here about employability, job success, value for education-dollars-spent is a pretty narrow view of happiness. These arguments notwithstanding: nothing in life is as satisfying and exhilarating as the first time as a first author in Nature.

It. Is. Awesome. (i've only felt it vicariously, second-hand....)
posted by dongolier at 1:13 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I completed my Humanities subject PhD in 3 and a half years (in the UK). I only got funding for the second year of that PhD, but got by easily with seminar teaching and a note taking job. I had a dedicated supervisor and immediately afterwards landed a well paying postdoc position in a delightful European city.

You can all hate me now.
posted by leibniz at 1:20 AM on January 26, 2010


Reading the oh so tragic woes of all these burnt out people actually kind of made me feel uplifted. I know that might sound twisted or riddled with schadenfreude, but I don't take any joy in the fact that folks are upset about their grad school experience. What I do take joy in, however, is that there seemed to be a theme to most of the stories that essentially screamed "I did not really think about what grad school was like before I went there." That is unfortunate.

I worked for two years at assessing grad school, pinning down what it really was that I wanted to study, and getting the chops to get into a good program. I worked in a lab for free as much as possible until I eventually started to get paid a little (albeit certainly not for the number of hours I actually worked). I watched grad students come into the program and leave the program, and while I realized that grad school isn't for everybody, I also realized that it was definitely for me.

I wish more prospective grad students would spend some time researching grad school itself rather than whatever they plan to study there. There are a lot of folks in my program who don't seem to really care much about it. They go to classes, and show up at the occasional talk or lab meeting, but that's about it. That blows my mind. I can't imagine that just going to class a couple times a week would be a fulfilling experience at the graduate level. It's no surprise that there are lots of folks in college who don't really care, but doing an advanced degree is so narrow and specialized that I just don't know why anyone would think it's a good idea if it wasn't the special narrow thing that interested them to begin with. That there are people in grad school who are apathetic about something that they very intentionally chose to do is so weird to me.

I haven't heard anyone with this level of vitriol, but then real interactions with people don't have the same veil of anonymity. I do know a lot of people who seem headed that way eventually though. It's not like they're causing me any grief, but I always sort of want to ask them "Why are you here?"

If you want to go to grad school and have a shitty experience, I'm sure it's easy. In fact, if you want to go to grad school for anything but a very specific kind of experience, one which you've considered at length ahead of time, I can see it being enormously likely that you'll have a shitty experience regardless of how optimistic you are.

However, for a lot of people, graduate school is the only place where it's possible to do the sort of work they want to do. I'm here because I need the sort of resources that the university has to ask the sort of questions that I want to ask. I work a lot. A damn lot. But I really love what I do. It's what I like to think about anyway, and what I've liked to think about for years, since well before it was my job.

I wouldn't ever discourage anyone from graduate school, but I would strongly recommend that anyone considering grad school spend some time around a graduate department first. Get a feel for it. It's not that hard to see what the deal is. There are complex political machinations, sure, but it's not so cloak and dagger that you won't see how it works if you look for a while. If it seems like something you'd enjoy, go for it. You'll be much better prepared to apply to programs that are well suited to your interests than you otherwise would be. If it seems like more of a disparaging pain in the ass than it's worth, you've spent a few months now to save yourself and a lot of other people significantly greater amounts of time in the future.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:36 AM on January 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


I came in here to day I loved grad school. LOVED IT. I was very well trained by mentors who wanted me to succeed. I was never exploited or shit on. I was learning and socializing with a diverse cohort of very smart, very committed peers who in turn made me smarter. My advisor and the graduate director busted their asses to get me a job when I went on the market. YMMV.
posted by Crotalus at 2:22 AM on January 26, 2010


This post is *definitely* a metafilter hot button.

MeFi is full of assholes who think they are absolutely academic geniuses. Didn't finish that grad program...or didn't get into that law school...oh thats because of "X" or "X" or "X". Pretty much anything that isn't "I wasn't smart enough", "I didn't have what it takes to accomplish it", or "I think my problems, life, and struggles are so much harder than everyone else's".

Rather its "I'm so much smarter than ALL of the department including the advisors, profs, and other students." Sad, sad, sad. So many freaking geniuses here...and nobody loves them.

Thank the lawdy lawd that metafilter exists so you can all high-five each other and talk about how brilliant you all are.

But oh...there are some people who actually graduated...and got the degree they wanted...and don't have to post AskMe questions about whether they should eat that half-rotted sandwich or not.

They just throw that shit away...not because they have more money than you...its because they are SMARTER than you.

dummies.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:54 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


They just throw that shit away...not because they have more money than you...its because they are SMARTER than you.

They will die and I will be still alive because my immune system is Rocky after the first fight in any movie with "Rocky" in the title that you care to name. This is how I console myself after not getting into that law school.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 3:01 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


hal_c_on I wish I could share your - optimism? - about Darwinism in the higher education sector - or anywhere in life, really - where the just, fair and strong receive their dues, and only the weak, craven and inferior are left on calcinating on the dark and excremental scree of 'civilian' life.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling that higher education - like anywhere else - is a somewhat more three-dimensional affair, where diligence, talent and intelligence can be punished or rewarded, dependent on a host of different factors, some within our control and some without.

But what would I know? I've never even applied for grad school, so I'm clearly not a member of the Elect like you.
posted by smoke at 3:18 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


For me, law school was three horrible years, great job (public interest law) afterwards, crippling loan debt afterwards.
M.F.A. was two 1/2 joyful years (helped to be an older student, as I could avoid some of the politics in the name of not really giving a shit), limited job prospects afterwards, but still happy, 'cause I'm doing what I love.
posted by angrycat at 3:41 AM on January 26, 2010


Gosh I'm sorry these folks have had / are having such tremendous problems, but it seems most of those comments reflect two problems - first, a pronounced lack of basic time management skills and secondly, interest in what they're studying.

I took a Masters in Quantitative Finance in 1998, part time over two years while working a front office position at Deutsche Bank no less. Managed to finish the programme on schedule with merit.

I scheduled everything, simply because I had to since I was expected to continue to pull my weight at the bank while pursuing my Masters.

So every moment when I wasn't working I was either in class, studying or on scheduled downtime. Having that structure established helped me properly manage my commitments at work around academic demands. And I always scheduled time for myself - do things with my girlfriend, see a show or just hit the pub. Without that schedule either work or University would have tried to dominate my life and that wouldn't have ended well - I would have been reduced to a quivering, reactionary mess, lurching from one self imposed crisis to the next.

I've been fascinated with the capital markets since I was kid, so taking an advanced degree in Quantitative Finance was the absolute best thing I could have studied. I sometimes had to tear myself away from the books to hit the pub, since it is such awesome a subject for me (and still is). The drop out rate for that programme was about 40%, and those who couldn't hack it were only there as they'd read about "quants" and thought by becoming one they'd make more money.

I applied the same time management system when I took an MBA, and it worked well, so well in fact that I submitted my dissertation (just last week) about two months ahead of schedule. And this time around I was jugging three part time jobs, doing a bunch of political speaking (UK at the Local Council level), organising our local community to fight our sleazy landlord and even found time to elope to Vegas and get married - all scheduled activities. If I hadn't scheduled and rigourously managed my commitments I would have totally messed up something and more than likely a little bit of everything.

Once again, I was motivated to take an MBA for my own reasons, not just to enhance marketability or spike the paycheque. So I tremendously enjoyed the programme overall and, like my first Masters, got far more out of it than I'd ever anticipated.

While at Business School I did run into many miserable folks who clearly detested every second of study and those were the individuals who either didn't manage their time well, or were studying for all the wrong reasons or both. Not surprisingly, many of those folks had to repeat modules or simply dropped out and some of those I'm still in contact with are very negative about MBAs or graduate school.

Now if you identify a problem you've really got to come up with a solution, so I'd first require Admissions to better screen, making sure that people aren't pursuing a degree primarily for financial benefit (yeah, fat chance of getting changed I realise …). Not good for the individuals, nor fellow students, or lecturers. The only party that gains anything from poorly motivated students is the University as an institution, since fees are often non refundable.

The other issue could be addressed by teaching basic time management skills. Whether or not this happens at grad school would be for another conversations but, like basic personal finance skills (sometime I constantly rail about) , time management is something that many very intelligent folks struggle with.

Interesting post - thanks - even though some of those comments are pretty sad to read. Hope those folks get to a better place.
posted by Mutant at 3:42 AM on January 26, 2010 [12 favorites]


I had fun getting my MArch, even though I was working for a living, had my first child, etc. Probably because I was old(er), and had already learned how to work, manage time, etc.
posted by signal at 3:57 AM on January 26, 2010


There are more talented, intelligent, and motivated people in academia than there are spots for talented, intelligent, and motivated people to fill. It's not a question of attitude, energy, or vigor. If you complete a degree and get a job, you are lucky; it does not mean that you're the next coming of Immanuel Kant.

Sorry, acid-tongued Ayn Rand fans!
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:35 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I had an excellent time doing my Masters degree up in Scotland. It was the best educational experience I've ever had I think. Then, after a year doing voluntary work for a year, I had a great three and a half years doing my PhD split between London and Scotland. All of this was fully-funded, so I didn't need to work a part-time job (although I was a bit of a pauper for a few years).

It wasn't an easy path, but it was a very rewarding experience, and has opened a job market that would be closed to me if I didn't have a PhD. To be fair, the jobs aren't brilliantly well-paid, but they are interesting and come with plenty of perks (travel, excellent working conditions etc). If I wasn't fascinated by the area I was studying, and driven towards a career in the area, it would have no doubt been a much harder path to follow.

It's much rarer in the UK for students to take out massive loans to fund their PhD work. In my field I don't know of anyone that has done/is doing a PhD that isn't fully (and quite generously) funded by government research bodies. I suppose the problem for many people is that they take out a huge loan, then HAVE to struggle on and finish their studies even if they hate it - otherwise they will have wasted their money. I guess that students here in the UK feel more able to simply drop out, with minimal cost, if they find they don't enjoy their studies.

Oh, and I do feel very lucky to have found a good job in a field I love.
posted by jonesor at 4:42 AM on January 26, 2010


One form of luck is to born into a society, where higher education is free and you just happen to study in times, when there are part-time jobs a plenty and the pressure to finally complete your Master's comes at your 12th year (because of a law change) of your studies. Also the various set of multidiscplinary skills and studies you have picked throughout the years make you relevant to job markets, whatever they are, and allow you to get a researchy job in whole another school while doing doctoral studies in subject you love, and you get paid for that. Career path? Just bouncing from a mushroom to mushroom in magic land.
posted by Free word order! at 4:55 AM on January 26, 2010


In the UK, in science, there are a lot of funded PhD positions. These are not like "US-style" Grad school - you're expected to be in the lab during working hours, you don't take classes (unless you want to or feel you should brush up on something), and you get paid a bursary for 3-3.5 years which usually isn't bad (10-12k? Something like that. Not big, but livable).

You still have to love your subject though. And you still go through hell during your second year when you wonder why you are doing this and living on a pittance whilst your friends who went into banking are earning grown-up money, driving cars, having babies and buying houses. Discussions over coffee about second-year-blues, impostor syndrome, conference deadlines, journal rejections, supervisors not turning up often enough (or turning up too often)... these seem universal. I came close to leaving in my second year but now I'm very pleased I didn't. Even if I don't end up pursuing the academic route after my current post-doc, the doctorate itself was a real acheivement. Not just academically - it was one of the hardest things I've ever done, encompassing some of the best and the worst times.
posted by handee at 5:20 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Poor little babies didn't get what they wanted so now they have to cry and complain.

I advise many PhD students. So far, my advisees have an 85 percent track record of securing tenure track jobs (in a field on the border of humanities ad social sciences) after they finish. All of them were fully funded -- paid to go to grad school. All have won major grants and awards. Same is true for the ones behind them. Oh, and 80 percent who enter our program finish with the PhD. Add it up and it's about a 20-30 percent overall attrition rate, but most of those are gone at the MA level.

It's tough. There's a high attrition rate. We give out too many PhDs for the market. But it isn't the prehistoric wasteland this essay makes it out to be.

Just because you fail at something doesn't mean no one else can do it either.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:26 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Put differently, poor little babies weren't smart enough, or didn't work hard enough, or chose a ridiculously obscure field or dissertation topic.

Good thing it's so easy to succeed in business, law, and medicine though.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:28 AM on January 26, 2010


I loved grad school more than any other academic pursuit I'd been involved in up to that time. Granted, my degree is an MPA, and I went part-time on the weekends. So it wasn't a "pure" academic program, and I wasn't involved in on-campus politics. That had to help.

But I was also working full time, and I had one kid when I started and three by the time I was done. And sometimes it sucked a lot. There was a lot of work to do, and it seemed like there was never enough time. But, I got it done, and did pretty well, grade-wise. And I graduated on schedule, and enjoyed doing my final research project.

I don't think grad school is that much different from a lot of pursuits in life. Sometimes people start things that they end up not liking, or not being able to do for a multitude of reasons. I think a lot of people get their identity and sense of self tied to closely to academia (and there are probably lots of people to blame for that) and the grad school flameouts become much more dramatic, consequently.
posted by Shohn at 5:29 AM on January 26, 2010


I too would say that grad school (for the PhD) was the happiest experience of my life. I got paid to study what I loved for 6 years. Wow.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:39 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


(*Second* happiest, after having a kid.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:43 AM on January 26, 2010


Has anybody ever figured out what a good target for a PhD program attrition rate is? A lot of these discussions seem to assume that the ideal is no attrition. But figure the average person getting a PhD starts it at 23 and takes six years, graduating at 29. (Note: I'm making up these numbers.) How many people are still doing the same thing at 29 that they were at 23? In the four and a half years that I've been in grad school, a lot of my similarly-aged, non-grad-school friends have changed careers.

Perhaps leaving grad school is like any other career change.

fourcheese mac says their program has 80% of its students getting its PhD; this seems like a reasonable target to me. There are always going to be some people for whom a PhD made perfect sense when they started -- but then something changes.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:43 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, madcaptenor, 70-80% at fourcheesemac's program get their doctorate. 85% of those get tenure track jobs. That means 60%-68% finish and get a job. Note that "tenure track" jobs aren't all created equal, of course.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:48 AM on January 26, 2010


60-70 percent completing the doctorate and getting tenure track jobs is about as good as it gets. But yes, most of those who attrit out of the PhD track do so well before they are ABD -- at least in a well run program. Granted, we're a top program at an elite university with full funding. Rule one of the PhD pursuit: if someone won't pay you to do it, you shouldn't be doing it. We have too many unfunded and underfunded PhD students, not just too many PhD students, in most fields.

I would bet the attrition rate in medical school is not much different. Of course, those who don't get tenure track jobs usually end up with some job related to their PhD, so it's not exactly like "no tenure track job = no career," just as not every law school grad winds up working for a major firm.

It's hard. It's *supposed* to be hard. It's for people who really know this is what they want to do. If you're smart, work hard, have street sense, and have decent social skills, an academic career can be followed methodically in many fields. English and Philosophy and other dying (er, changing) humanities fields are another story. I position my work (and my students) on the boundary between the social sciences and the humanities for a reason. It doubles the range of opportunities.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:17 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I looked it up, and med school attrition rates are indeed much lower, because the process is so pre-selective for qualified students and the demand so high for graduates. In law schools, it depends (as it does to some extent in the arts and sciences) on the ranking of the program. Low ranked law schools have attrition rates in the 20 percent range. The best have almost none.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:23 AM on January 26, 2010


WE GET IT - THIS WILL BE HARD - STOP TELLING US NOT TO DO WHAT WE LOVE DOING.

Yeah, this is what my friends were all saying pre-grad school. Trust me, it's not what they were saying when they hit the job market at the far end.
posted by Forktine at 6:25 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Some of you folks must have gone through some incredible graduate programs in order to learn how to start with "I did fine" and logically deduce "Therefore you all must be idiots." I am in awe of your skill.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:31 AM on January 26, 2010 [10 favorites]


Well, I for one am still saying it 20+ years into an academic career.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:31 AM on January 26, 2010


Put differently, poor little babies weren't smart enough, or didn't work hard enough, or chose a ridiculously obscure field or dissertation topic.

It sounds like you've had some really great opportunities and have the good fortune to work in a good place with healthy administration.

Surely you realize that your experience may not be representative?

On preview, Hi LastOfHisKind. Hi! *waves*
posted by device55 at 6:33 AM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not "idiots," but poorly advised. Not only did I do fine. My grad school classmates did fine. My students do fine. Students I know well in other top programs do fine. I am fully aware of the statistics. I think the problem is that "grad school" is such a vast category. People who go to top law schools do fine; people who go to lesser (or lower ranked) law schools do not. It's quite comparable in abstract terms. People who pay cash for PhDs are at a severe disadvantage from the day they start their programs (all that time working for money could be spent working on your career; and all that debt gives you fewer options at the other end). The single most important variable, always, is funding.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:34 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've been associated with four institutions of higher education. Two were in the Ivy Leagues; two were large state universities. One of the latter was poor, one relatively rich. None had a particularly good administration, actually.

I regret the "poor babies" language, although it amazes me to see such vitriol where people make the exact inverse of the analysis I am accused of making (as are others in this thread) on their own anecdotal experiential basis -- I failed, therefore grad school sucks. And you should stop believing in your dream of spending your life working on an idea or two that compels you, kids, because life sucks and the economy is shot and there are no jobs for PhDs (as if there were so many great opportunities along other paths a the moment?).

Time is worth money to many people, myself included. Getting to spend my young adult years *devoted* to something I loved intensely and developing myself into a world expert on the subject such that 20+ years on I get to choose my own projects, make my own schedule, and work on whatever compels me without much fear of losing my livelihood, have amazing colleagues and students, feel completely happy in my career choice (unlike most of my friends who went into business or law, in fact, rich as some of them are) was not sheer dumb luck. I was well advised (and grew up in an academic family, which surely was an advantage). But I hate seeing bright, motivated, creative people discouraged from pursuing the same path by rhetoric that is just short of apocalyptic. It's not that bad, really. And it's not so much worse than anything else. Success is a matter of hard work, dumb luck, and the kind of dumb luck hard work can bring, as well as being smart, focused, creative, obsessive (maybe), and very fluent with words. If you're an undergraduate and this is what you want to do, or an early grad student struggling with your decision, don't let this gloom and doom be all you hear. That's all I'm saying. You can have the career you imagine. Maybe. Be smart about it and realistic about it. Times are tough all over. They're tough in academia in particular ways, and may be getting worse for the foreseeable future. We still need smart, creative people to teach and do research or society is fucked.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:42 AM on January 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


I was on an MS -> PhD track, and decided not to go for the PhD due to some family obligations and general burnout. Now I'm doing research in industry, publishing slowly but steadily, working with an awesome team, and getting paid about eight times what I was as a grad student.

However my career options in this field are pretty limited -- there are institutional walls in place that mean I will never, say, lead a lab or be able to get my own funding. It's also, in a sense, too late: I have a kid now and we plan to have another, which means I certainly won't be able to go back to being a student until they're in school and my wife has tenure. And even then we'll almost certainly have to give up 2/3rds of our income.

I definitely miss being a grad student; my world seems so much smaller now. I definitely don't miss being poor and in debt, nor the politics, nor the feast-or-famine funding situation. Yet sadly, I look at my future and realize that I can't do this forever; my choice meant that I'll stagnate professionally in 5-8 years unless I leave research entirely. Like any major life decision there are hard tradeoffs to consider, and few will be able to make them without any regrets.
posted by xthlc at 6:54 AM on January 26, 2010


I don't have a dog in this fight, but isn't "poorly advised" the baseline state of the vast majority of grad students? The well-advised kind are the exception are they not? As an outsider I have had this impression clearly made by most discussions of graduate schooling.
posted by majick at 6:55 AM on January 26, 2010


But oh...there are some people who actually graduated...and got the degree they wanted...and don't have to post AskMe questions about whether they should eat that half-rotted sandwich or not. They just throw that shit away...not because they have more money than you...its because they are SMARTER than you.

I will keep this in mind the next time my PhD-educated friends attempt to feed me uncooked beans.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:56 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


fourcheesemac: my understanding is that the AMA pays attention and attempts to make sure that the number of medical school spots is near the number of jobs, while the ABA doesn't do the same with law school. I've actually heard people suggest that spots in PhD programs should be regulated the same way, by the appropriate professional societies -- but this is usually combined with rhetoric that suggests that a tenure-track job is the only worthwhile job for someone with a PhD, and so it's hard to take that seriously.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:57 AM on January 26, 2010


Blue Jello Elf: Beans can be bought in a can. You don't have to cook them. Your PhD-educated friends should know this.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:59 AM on January 26, 2010


Going back to school for my MLIS was a straight-up business decision (or gamble, if you prefer). My assumption was that getting the degree would a) render me more attractive to employers than my (film studies) undergrad did, and b) earn me more money when I did get hired. It took a few years, but in the end I was correct. I don't like to think about how I'd feel about the experience if it hadn't panned out financially, because good lord it was a miserable three semesters.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:00 AM on January 26, 2010


fourcheesemac: I realise that you have a lot of experience, but there are many people who are fully funded, who have excellent advisors and who can be hard workers who nonetheless flounder in graduate school. My advisor has a track record as good or better than yours, but I am in his lost 15%.

I know that I am a hard-worker and productive -- I just did a job where we were supposed to get 40 surveys in a certain amount of time, and I got 49 when my co-worker got 27 in the same time. But I do not work well or feel good without structure and companionship, both of which are nearly non-existent in academic research in my field, and there was nothing that could teach me this before I began a PhD.

The nature of the academic system is such that the qualifying work -- undergraduate studies -- can potentially bear little to no resemblance to the actually graduate work -- research. In some fields, it does; in mine, it does not. You could tell me this, but there was no way for me to grok this before going to graduate school and embarking on research. I don't regret going -- I've had learning and living experiences I never would have had otherwise, and I am looking at potential careers in fields far flung from what I would have considered leaving my BA (like agricultural policy -- I was raised in the city, I have a black thumb and I hate to garden, but I am fascinated by agriculture and the environment).

The basic advice still holds: do not ever pay for a PhD, and that includes going into debt for living expenses. You need to get full funding -- tuition and living expenses -- to make a PhD worth it. You will already have opportunity costs from lost potential income, and the earning potential from academic or non-academic career paths is not sufficient to make any debt worth it.

And it is also good advice to take time off to work after undergraduate to rest and to make sure that you are not going to graduate school to avoid the unknown -- and scary -- non-academic world.

But even having done this, not everyone will find that academic work is for them, and most will discover this only in the course of trying it. What we need to change in academic programs is, I'm afraid, attitudes like your own that failing to move into an academic career is a personal failure or that the person who does not do so could have done so if they had just worked harder/been a better person. This attitude is corrosive, and will keep people from being willing to question their committment to academic work to their detriment and the detriment of those around them.
posted by jb at 7:00 AM on January 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


The distinction 4CM makes above between top (meaning well-funded and with resources for advising, research, and travel) and lesser programs is really key. I chose not to finish my phd, but not due to any lack of support from my fancy-pants program. (On the contrary, they were willing to throw extra resources at me, if that would make the difference and get me finished.)

In contrast, people I've known at second or third tier programs competed with other students for scarce funding, taught large course loads as students, and received little or no support for overseas research and for going to conferences (you know, conferences -- the places where you make the contacts that will get you a job later; if your program doesn't offer support for this, you are at a tremendous disadvantage competing with people from well-funded programs).

Finally,

I've got a friend right now who has been unable to get letters of recommendations written not for any failing of his own, but rather because everyone he asks says that they don't think this is the right time to enter grad school, for anyone in either of his two fields. Which I think is a bollocks reason to deny writing someone a letter of recommendation.

Five bucks says that they aren't willing to write letters for your friend for other reasons, and are using the state of academia as a polite excuse. Much better to say "gee, not in this climate" than to say "kid, you were a crappy student and I have nothing nice to say about you."
posted by Forktine at 7:01 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


< Thanks for your thoughtful response.

You are right, of course, to be defensive when people paint all graduate school with the same waste-of-time-made-of-evil brush. It dismisses the very real possibility that there are worthwhile experiences to be had, which can lead to great opportunities.

The hard part is knowing when complaints are truly whining or when they are legitimate. In a forum like this, or in the linked article, we don't get the background detail to find out.

I graduated from an MFA program - fine arts are largely arbitrary. Sure you can couch your argument in contemporary crit, historical perspectives, or various political perspectives. Ultimately though your success in the department depends upon your faculty being on board with what you're doing (not 'liking' your work per se, but at least accepting it as valid). There are no outside, objective metrics by which you can determine that an art student has succeeded. Art history is full of outsiders and ne'er do wells who beat the academic system - who's to say that one particular student isn't on to something?

It's very easy for professors in this environment to gang up on a student and make her life hard because they feel like it. I saw it happen personally with a ceramics student (the venerable traditional ceramics instructor retired one year into my friend's studies. No one else in the department thought that it was OK to simply make pots, and basically forced my friend to become a sculptor. Some time after I graduated I ran into a lawyer who had successfully sued my former department over a similar activities; this student had been failed for no good reason). I personally ran into a lot of flack because I thought Photoshop was a pretty neat idea and could be used to make Rauschenberg-esque collages. If it wasn't done with a paintbrush or an intaglio press, it weren't arts. (I ultimately worked around and through the bullshit, graduated, and became a web and software developer)

It sounds like you and the people you work with are very dedicated to student success. That is awesome. There should be more professors like you. However not all of your colleagues in other places are nearly as noble.
posted by device55 at 7:15 AM on January 26, 2010


Well, I think there's a big difference between humanities Masters and PhD's and ones in technical fields that's kind of getting glossed over.

That's a good point. Whereas humanities graduate school can only be recommended to the independently-wealthy, James-Joyce-obsessed demographic, technical graduate school has much more going for it:
  1. Job hunt for the best 9-to-5 job you can find. Then ignore it, and take something at half-pay where you're never off the clock.
  2. Get on the computer and write. Write pages and pages. Remember that each page should be filled with equations, and note that while a typo in your text isn't the end of the world, a typo in your integrand renders the result completely worthless. Every 50 pages, test these equations with an experiment. If the experiment works you don't have to throw away that chapter.
  3. Take out an ad in Craiglist for someone to pretend to be your advisor. Set up periodic meetings with them. Odd numbered meetings are for them to suggest new experiments; even numbered meetings are for them to explain why it should have been obvious to you that those suggestions wouldn't have worked.
  4. Adjunct a course at your local college. Give lots of quizzes. Spend hours trying to distinguish the students who just made basic arithmetic errors and deserve partial credit from the students who don't understand the new material. Spend more hours trying to convince yourself that this distinction is worthwhile.
  5. After six years, throw a dart at a map. Move where ever it lands. Repeat at eight years, ten years, etc. or during any intervening recessions.
posted by roystgnr at 7:20 AM on January 26, 2010


hal_c_on I wish I could share your - optimism? - about Darwinism in the higher education sector - or anywhere in life, really - where the just, fair and strong receive their dues, and only the weak, craven and inferior are left on calcinating on the dark and excremental scree of 'civilian' life.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling that higher education - like anywhere else - is a somewhat more three-dimensional affair, where diligence, talent and intelligence can be punished or rewarded, dependent on a host of different factors, some within our control and some without.


smoke's post here is worth highlighting. I know that many of the comments on the blog post express an acute level of ignorance (you didn't know grad school would be hard? really?). But there are others with more tragic stories involving political, emotional, and economic failures.

I find it interesting that the more snide comments in this thread come from the people who believe that the system is pristine and perfect, and those that fail out of it have nobody to blame but themselves...as opposed to those who didn't make it, or did make it but don't feel as if their accomplishment puts them on top of the Objectivist bragging pile.
posted by hiteleven at 7:47 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Whereas humanities graduate school can only be recommended to the independently-wealthy, James-Joyce-obsessed demographic,

Uh, no. Even in English, the poster child of employment hell, good students coming out of good programs doing good work are getting jobs. There aren't enough of those jobs, and there are smarter economic gambles to make. But to say that you need to be independently wealthy is either hyperbole or ignorant.
posted by Forktine at 7:50 AM on January 26, 2010


Recommended additional reading: The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, by Louis Menand. (An excerpt of this book was recently published in Harvard Magazine as "The Ph.D. Problem.")
posted by Prospero at 8:12 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I also feel the need to highlight an issue that comes up quite frequently in the humanities...the paradox of trying to develop original research while at the same time conforming to exactly what everyone else is saying.

Quick story: last summer I was working on a proposal with a prof at a school that I was considering transferring to. The original subject that we'd come up with was exciting to me, in that it broke away from much of the current research going on in my field and explored an area of great interest to me. However, as I continued to work on this proposal, this prof became increasingly concerned about if I would gain admission and funding by those making the big decisions.

Eventually, the edits he/she proposed (trying to keep this anonymous as possible) whittled the thing down so that my proposal in fact turned into something that sounded exactly like the kind of work everyone else had been doing for years. Now of course there are advantages to that, but the major disadvantage is that I ended up sounding like just another anonymous grad school applicant sucking up to his superiors. Anything that might have made my stand out was gone.

I know that this is not the case for everybody, and that many people have great supervisors who push them in exciting new directions. And I also know that the pressure to conform has much to do with the pressure to be employable. But, really, it is this stuff that encourages use of terms like "ivory tower" to describe academia. It can be, in many ways, an exercise in agreeing with others as eloquently as possible...and nobody, as far as I know, prepares you for that experience when you're actually going through the application process.
posted by hiteleven at 8:26 AM on January 26, 2010


Beans can be bought in a can. You don't have to cook them. Your PhD-educated friends should know this.

I would have thought so too, but there I was, picking rock-hard beans out of my soup while they debated whether the recipe was "better this way" !
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:45 AM on January 26, 2010


fourcheesemac: considering that you've worked on music associated with the white working-class (country), indigenous groups, and popular music in general, it totally stuns me to see you reduce the complex contingencies of graduate education into a transparent, self-justifying meritocracy—moreover, that you dismiss its discontents as narcissistic whiners and de facto failures. I'm not saying this as some form of snark, but rather in genuine surprise; I really didn't expect that from you.
posted by LMGM at 8:49 AM on January 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


The root of the strong feelings here comes from two conflicting views of how the educational system is supposed to work.

In one outlook -- what I will call the naive outlook -- the educational system is supposed to educate people; you measure the success of the system by seeing if the students who pass through it finish up adequately educated. In the pure form of this outlook the system gets all the blame for poor educational outcomes: if kids these days have poor study habits and short attention spans it's the system's responsibility to find a way to educate the students, and the system's fault if it fails to do so.

In the other outlook -- the insider's outlook -- the educational system is mainly about certification and quality control; you measure the success of the system by the achievement level of those individuals that make it all the way through. In the pure form of this outlook the system gets none of the blame for poor educational outcomes: so long as best practices are adhered to the system can't be blamed no matter how many students fail to get educated.

It's very straightforward to read through the comments here and elsewhere and see who holds which outlook; the original post is clearly from the naive position.
posted by hoople at 8:53 AM on January 26, 2010


Seconding the "never do a PhD without funding" point. In fact, never do graduate school of any kind without either funding or a clear mapping between graduate school and increased lifetime earnings > the cost of grad school (including opportunity cost).

The "only if you love it" part should come with a rider -- only if you love it *and* if you're doing it out of love, you will not whine about debt and push for student loan forgiveness. Getting a degree in Useless is a luxury; one does not buy a Porsche and then complain about how expensive the maintenance is with demands that the public at large cover the maintenance of one's luxury car. Likewise, one should not get an expensive degree in Useless and then demand that the public cover/forgive the cost of that luxury.
posted by rr at 9:14 AM on January 26, 2010


hoople: with your choice of terms ("naive" and "insider") it's also pretty clear what position you hold. One could've called those categories "transcendant" and "machiavellian" to get the oppositie bias. I don't really buy the facile binary you're building here, but if I were to keep those categories, I'd use terms like "idealist" and "pragmatist" so as to leave room for people on both sides.
posted by LMGM at 9:14 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the other outlook -- the insider's outlook -- the educational system is mainly about certification and quality control

I'm going to strongly disagree with this. The true insider's outlook is that education, especially higher education, is a business like any other. Education of the students is distinctly secondary to the financial aspects. There is no other explanation -- none -- for the ability of professors to buy their way out of teaching via fundraising. Many excellently composed departments actually lean quite heavily on relatively unqualified instructors, lecturers and grad students to do the bulk of the educating.

An example of this is the core curriculum -- the second and third year classes -- where insight, expertise and the ability to communicate are absolutely critical to learning by the students but which many professors will have nothing to do with, preferring to teach 4th year classes (or teaching as infrequently as possible). This is very common even in (especially in, in fact) top 20 departments.
posted by rr at 9:41 AM on January 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


LMGM, to me that's just the reality. I have trained a fair number of working-class students at my elite university. Teaching at a big public university where I had many more working-class students just taught how badly they were being screwed.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:47 AM on January 26, 2010


Teaching at a big public university where I had many more working-class students just taught how badly they were being screwed.

Asking honestly here: doesn't that support other posters' assertions that this isn't a level playing field, and that it's not always an issue of poor little babies didn't get what they wanted so now they have to cry and complain?

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your argument, but it seems clear to me that a top program at an elite university with full funding is not the norm but rather far outside the norm, and arguing as though grad students in general have the same circumstances as your students is odd.
posted by lillygog at 9:55 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


it totally stuns me to see you reduce the complex contingencies of graduate education into a transparent, self-justifying meritocracy—moreover, that you dismiss its discontents as narcissistic whiners and de facto failures.

And I would insist that I am not doing that. The "complex contingencies" are best addressed by attending only a top program with full funding. That largely reduces the contingencies to a predictable range. Obviously, a lot has to happen in advance for that to be possible. But we will never address social inequity at the level of PhD admissions, and attempts to do so have proved *disastrous* not only for scholarship but *much more so* for the targets of that patronizing pseudo-largesse, underqualified admits selected solely for diversity reasons, without adjusting the structure of expectations and remedial training that can be needed to pull this off. I say this having one of the best records in my field for training minority and working-class students. We have to fix public K-12 education first. College education second. Then we can talk about the inequities of graduate education. If you can't write a coherent argument at the point of admission to a PhD program, you are being very poorly advised to enter one.

I do not think the FPP points to comments that exemplify a category of simple "discontents," who were all failed by the system. The system is failing people: there are too many PhD programs producing too many students for the available jobs, in part because it's penny-wise for universities to fund graduate students to teach undergraduates more cheaply than tenure-track faculty, creating a vicious circle that drives down the value of the PhD inexorably. It's reasonable to be discontented with that. But if you can't figure that system out and as a result set yourself up to reproduce it by attending a low-quality program with poor funding, again, you're being poorly advised. At some point -- generally the point I'd expect you to be at if you're smart enough and old enough to be applying to PhD programs -- you're responsible for making the smart choices for yourself.

I specifically left a large public university early in my career so I could fund -- fully -- a small number of really promising students from non-traditional backgrounds. I'd hold my own record up as an adviser to anyone's on that score, because you're right, I've devoted my scholarly career to the questions of social equity you raise.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:00 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


doesn't that support other posters' assertions that this isn't a level playing field,

Of course it's not a level playing field. Life is not a level playing field. Pretending that education is somehow not reflective of the broader social inequities of its time is naive.

This isn't public K-12 education we're talking about. No one has a right to earn an advanced degree that transcends either their ability to do so or the need for people with that degree.

*As* major social institutions go, graduate education in the arts and sciences is a far more meritocratic system than most. My sense is that most of graduate education's "discontents" actually precisely *haven't* seen much of the real world and its much more serious forms of inequity.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:05 AM on January 26, 2010


I think my confusion comes from the statement that as "major social institutions go, graduate education in the arts and sciences is a far more meritocratic system than most", right on the heels of asserting that "the "complex contingencies" are best addressed by attending only a top program with full funding".

I don't think anyone here would argue that the pathway leading up to "attending only a top program with full funding" is a simple, meritocratic system.

(Interesting to me is that I think I agree almost entirely with the bulk of your previous two comments, but was put off by what I read your initial argument to be, basically: "get into a top ten, well-funded program, crybabies".)

(To clarify further: I don't think I disagree with many of your smaller points, but rather the attitude of "stop complaining and figure it out for yourselves". That attitude does a disservice to a lot of people.)
posted by lillygog at 10:18 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


LMGM: my terms are clearly poorly-chosen, as they left you completely misreading my intent; I in fact think slightly more of what I called the naive outlook than what I called the insider outlook, and hoped that the choice of terms would indicate that.

So: poorly chosen terms, yes.

I don't know what other terms to use, though. I don't like your suggested idealist and pragmatist because I see two different ideals at work, making it unfair to label one of the outlooks idealist, no?

I do happily admit the distinction is more than a little facile -- hence the "pure form" qualifier -- but I do think it's a deep-enough difference-of-outlook to point out.

A big part of social life amongst chatterers like us is to hash out who's seen as the culpable figure when something bad happens (most popular discussion around the financial criss quickly devolves into arguments as to whether borrowers or lenders are more at fault).

In every educational situation there are generally two actors at play: the student and "the system".

When a bad educational outcome transpires the blame-assignment game begins. Is it the student's fault, perhaps because the student lacks smarts, street smarts, direction, motivation, time management skills, background knowledge, etc? Or is it the system's fault, for poor instructional quality, weak advising, faulty admissions policies, etc.?

In most concrete situations the blame-aasignment is relatively uncontroversial: a particular student actually is lazy and it's unsurprising when that student does poorly, or a particular instructor actually is a poor lecturer and it's unsurprising that his students on average fail to learn the material.

It's when people talk in the abstract that the you can see their outlooks come into view, in terms of whether they tend towards assigning blame towards students or towards the system.

In higher-ed in particular -- from which term I'd exclude the professional schools -- I think the tendency is towards the insider outlook, and the organizational decisions institutes of higher education make strongly reflect that bias. I don't see this changing much unless some outside event delivers enough of a shock to change things up.
posted by hoople at 10:19 AM on January 26, 2010


rr: you are probably completely correct in practice but I make an effort to be charitable to everyone, hence the discussion of ideals.

It's an interesting exercise to work through what a student-centered university would actually look like at the undergrad level.
posted by hoople at 10:47 AM on January 26, 2010


Well later today I was going to finish up my application to the Media Studies program at Syrcause but instead I think I'll go read 4chan. Are you happy Metafilter? ARE YOU HAPPY?!
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 10:49 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why on earth would a meritocratic system produce equal outcomes for all participants, with no gradation in quality or success between programs or universities?

I have students in my top PhD program who went to underfunded, second or even third rank undergraduate institutions and excelled at those schools. I've made a point of looking for students from those schools as a way of intervening in the non-meritocratic processes that lead to a funded position in a top program. Most of my current students do *not* come from schools as elite as the one at which I teach.

The problems lie so much earlier and are so much more substantial than is being acknowledged here. As I said, you can't fix American education by starting to notice its inequities when they affect 25 year old PhD applicants. As they do.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:49 AM on January 26, 2010


I don't think anyone here would argue that the pathway leading up to "attending only a top program with full funding" is a simple, meritocratic system.

Actually, I would say that it is more meritocratic than most pathways into middle class professions -- it's one of the reasons (and not a good one, I admit), that I went into graduate school: after going to a cheap, easily accessed state university, I was able to acheive acceptance into a fully funded PhD solely through my academic work. Having gotten access to any four-year university, whether you can go to graduate school is from that point dependent on your academic work. Yes, that can be affected by working part-time, but then you also take your education more slowly. concientious

For someone from a family with little money and few social connections into other middle class professions, the academic career path appears to be far more straight forward and acheivable than any other, precisely because its requirements are so clearly stated and the necessary networks (of your fellow scholars) are supplied as a part of your education. It is very unlike most jobs in the private sector that way.

--------

But returning to the current argument -- I think we have gotten ourselves into an unfortunate dichotemy. It is possible for someone to "fail" at graduate school with neither themselves nor the system being inherently flawed. Academic work is a particular kind of work that not all bright, hard-working people excel at or enjoy working at. If a student finds it to be a poor fit for themselves, this is not a failure of them or the system. But both sides -- the student and the system -- need to accept this.

There are parts of the system which are very flawed -- I think the teaching system needs to be overhauled and adjunct lecturing eliminated save for unusual positions where the adjunct is a professional who lectures part-time as an adjunct to a full-time position in their field. Having over-worked, part-time faculty is as bad for your students as it is for the sd faculty. I would also hire non-academic teachers for the beginning languages -- people who specialize in language aquisition, not frustrated literary critics or over-worked graduate students -- and pay them a decent full-time wage with benefits.

And while I'm still emperor of the worlds' university systems -- I would eliminate all sports except amature intra-mural sports, keep study areas open and warm 24 hours a day, put in healthy vending machines --

and decree that from now on, only those who wish to study need go. I'll make demanding a B.A. for a job which could easily be done by someone out of highschool (if only the company could be bothered to pay for training) illeagal.
posted by jb at 10:59 AM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Why on earth would a meritocratic system produce equal outcomes for all participants, with no gradation in quality or success between programs or universities?

Is anyone arguing that it would? I'm not sure we're having the same conversation.

I was prompted to comment by some of the early the "tough nuts, grad school's hard" responses, which seemed overly strong when, in many cases, students have received poor advising in their early twenties. And suggesting that students should just "figure out" how grad school works, without any nod towards context, while at the same time admitting that the very work you do is designed to supplant the poor preparation so many students do receive seems... at odds.

Obviously speaking just for myself, that sort of dismissive tone makes it more difficult to discuss the structural problems that, strangely enough, we all seem to largely agree on.

If we're following the same pattern I follow with most of my friends, this is where we disagree a bunch more about tone, only to later admit we agree on the basic facts.
posted by lillygog at 11:17 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


My sense is that most of graduate education's "discontents" actually precisely *haven't* seen much of the real world and its much more serious forms of inequity.

I have to disagree with you here. I've been in a small variety of professional environments, from low-level retail and food service jobs to a middle-class job in a mid-sized software company, and I have to say, none of my experiences -- nor those of others who I've known and worked with -- prepared me for the political nonsense and high school atmosphere of grad school.

Maybe I'm just in a bad dept., but really...I have worked with lousy and bitter managers, and company men and women who have forced me to jump through the silly hoops of corporate life, but I have never seen such bad behaviour from adults as I've seen in grad school. I have been lied to -- literally lied to -- right to my face, on a number of occasions, and have seen the same happen to others. I have seen professional relationships between students and faculty turn on a dime, based on some petty disagreement. I have seen true real friendships among students and/or profs...the kind where you can confide in people, express and accept sympathy, and say what you're really feeling rather than putting on a show to impress the crowd.

I come from an academic family as well, and the stories I share with my father meet with grim understanding...he was able to tough it out, though.

I would flip this argument, and say that those in academia who believe the "real world" behaves like their precious universities have little experience with it...perhaps they've read a lot of books about it, but not really experienced it.
posted by hiteleven at 11:24 AM on January 26, 2010


I find it interesting that the more snide comments in this thread come from the people who believe that the system is pristine and perfect, and those that fail out of it have nobody to blame but themselves...as opposed to those who didn't make it, or did make it but don't feel as if their accomplishment puts them on top of the Objectivist bragging pile.

In metafilter, I learned that this is called "confirmation bias".

But I don't understand how "you just can't hack it" equates with "the system is pristine and perfect".
posted by hal_c_on at 11:26 AM on January 26, 2010


fourcheesemac: your clarifications help nuance your argument, but the thread of your comments here slide between "the system's technologies of selection are not robustly fair or egalitarian…but *shrug*" and "the system is fair enough for me to declare that those who are abjected out of the system brought it upon themselves", and this seems incoherent to me. As lillygog pointed out above, one aporia here is your argument that getting into a top-ten school sufficiently reduces the problem of non-meritocratic failure (not a safe assumption, IMHO), which strikes me as a "let them eat cake" response to a very dysfunctional system.

I'm strongly skeptical of the claim that the humanities or social sciences are exceptionally meritocratic (or even adequately so); these disciplines function much more like a Gemeinschaft, with much of one's fortunes made or unmade through private relations, factionalism, the intellectual affinities of those who happen to evaluate you, and the interests of those with institutional power. I've sat on two job search committees as a student representative in the past, and I've been witness to the roles that chance, whim, and social networks play in selection; this is without even considering the various ways that discrimination sneaks into the discourse as "concerns" about the "lifestyle" or "personality" of the candidate. It's not that one's intellectual work is entirely accidental, but rather that it can be nullified or amplified based on many factors that are very much outside of intellectual work itself but still within the university system.

The example you give of securing funding for "non-traditional" students certainly shows your commitment to underprivileged intellectuals-to-be, but it also highlights the fact that—however deserving—we are still dependent on the at times mercurial interest and patronage of those already in power. It's a dependence that is as much precarious and humiliating as it is fortunate and redeeming.

Add to this the exploitative working conditions for PhD students at most institutions, and I think we have a situation where some complaint is valid.
posted by LMGM at 11:37 AM on January 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


Because "you just can't hack it" shows such a lack of nuance and sympathy that it can only come from that sort of over-simplified worldview?

In re-reading the thread, I appreciate more the comments saying that they feel the language of the original blog-under-discussion was too doom-and-gloom. But is the useful response then "buncha whiners!" or "crap, y'all were encouraged when you shouldn't have been, and let's address that".

And I'm completely glossing over the times when motivated, bright, capable students are screwed over by personality and politics completely outside their control, and the times when students' careers are ruined by poor behavior on the part of their supposed mentors.
posted by lillygog at 11:40 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Blerg -- in reply to hal_c_on.)
posted by lillygog at 11:41 AM on January 26, 2010


Fourcheesemac, you seem to be saying that a PhD program is worthwhile only if you attend a top-flight institution and work with a great supervisor, and that the problem with the current system is that there are two many mediocre programs producing mediocre candidates and graduates.

However, on the other hand, you blame everyone who complains that grad school didn't work out for them for not getting this advice. Yet how could they get such advice when the system is as dysfunctional as you claim? If there a thousand mediocre grad programs recruiting students with candy-coated talk, how are they going to hear the few amongst the crowd who can tell them the way things really work?

It's even more paradoxical to dismiss the comments on the blog post, then, since at least this is one source of (albeit imperfect) advice. It's also kind of ridiculous for others who agree with 4CM's view to also be of the opinion that one should pursue one's grad school interests despite what the naysayers say (since they seem to be partially correct).
posted by hiteleven at 12:19 PM on January 26, 2010


This conversation has turned stupid. I'm sorry I called the whiners babies, ok? They're VICTIMS. I get it. Punished by an unfair system that keeps literally thousands of middle class young people in bondage.

Get real.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:36 PM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


That advice, hiteleven, is ALL OVER THE PLACE. One could start by reading nearly any Askme thread on "should I go to grad school" -- there have been many.

The system is not totally dysfunctional. Ambition and hard work count for a lot more than luck, no matter where you start out.

Many of you seem to have PhD programs confused with Head Start.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:37 PM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


This conversation has turned stupid. I'm sorry I called the whiners babies, ok? They're VICTIMS. I get it. Punished by an unfair system that keeps literally thousands of middle class young people in bondage.

Get real.


And I'm sorry some of us pricked your cozy worldview with reasonable objections, and I'm sorry that you have to exaggerate though objections to make them sound incorrect...though since you're inside the academy yourself, your reaction should have been predicted.
posted by hiteleven at 1:48 PM on January 26, 2010


fourcheesemac: what important social institutions do you see as considerably *less* meritocratic than graduate school in the arts and sciences?
posted by hoople at 1:57 PM on January 26, 2010


Fourcheesemac, if you could ratchet the pugnacity down a couple notches it'd be easier to hope for a less stupid discussion here. The framing of this post is deep into GYOB territory, and that's part of the reason this hasn't been such a productive thread — because: On the one hand, you're completely right about the whininess and self-justification of a lot of the dropouts' comments, but on the other hand, this is not at all evidence in defense of the supposed meritocracy of the existing academic job system, as you seem to want to make it. It's perfectly easy either to mock or to sympathize with the rationalizations of ex-grad students, and either way there's no reason at all that this would justify such a complacent defense of the corporatized university's labor practices.
posted by RogerB at 1:59 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Graduate school is all about hard work, love, dedication, perseverance, time management skills, and some luck. A lot of the commenters on that post failed in one or more of those categories, which doesn't make them failures. Grad school isn't for everyone, but what is?

Graduate school is not easy. No one ever said it was easy, at least not to me. It's not supposed to be easy. It is supposed to break you down and mold you into an academic; that is how it is designed. I do find it irksome when people assume it will be easy, as many of the people in that thread seemed to think - a fair amount of annoyance over not getting winter break, not getting real world experience, being irritated by coursework (which is not really the biggest component of a PhD by any means), people who want more "me" time, people who are bored - I don't understand what they thought graduate school was going to be like before entering. All those things were obvious to me when I came into this, and I chose it anyway, because I love academia. If you're planning on becoming a researcher, shouldn't you... I don't know, do some research into what that life might look like before plunging in?
posted by k8lin at 2:46 PM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


fourcheesemac: This conversation has turned stupid.

Considering how you entered this thread and how you're now exiting it, you're in no position to be deploring the level of discourse. I've studiously avoided ad hominem and dismissive snark, so I'd like to hear where my contributions have made this conversation stupid.

The system is not totally dysfunctional. Ambition and hard work count for a lot more than luck, no matter where you start out.

Well, first of all, luck doesn't really count for anything here; instead, it's something that affects how and whether your attributes (such as ambition and hard work) count. Secondly, I've been arguing that there's a lot more to it than a simple binary between personal qualities and blind luck.

Many of you seem to have PhD programs confused with Head Start.

Again, I just don't understand how a person that does what you do could also produce a sentence like this.
posted by LMGM at 2:49 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Many of you seem to have PhD programs confused with Head Start.

Really? That's honestly where you think everyone's coming from? Again -- we seem to be having different conversations. And yeah, hyperbole, yay, but I can't tell if you're actually interested in having a discussion.

RogerB, I like your summary -- it seems pretty fair and even-handed to me.

Thanks for the discussion, all... but this kale isn't going to cook itself.
posted by lillygog at 2:49 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the most surprising thing for me is that, despite what you think of these people and their choices, many of them appear in or on the verge of being in a state of severe depression...and the response of many is to call them whiners and losers. I mean, really? That's your reaction to people in despair?

Note Mutant's response, where he is critical of these people, yet entirely sympathetic. Others might want to take note. For crying out loud, someone even added their own trollish comment to the end of the blog post.
posted by hiteleven at 3:41 PM on January 26, 2010


and don't have to post AskMe questions about whether they should eat that half-rotted sandwich or not.

Bwahaha!

How is it that among my circle the process of getting a PhD seems to have rendered so many previously competent people incapable of knowing how to hang a painting, program their phone, or have a reasonable conversation with anyone with whom they disagree?
posted by small_ruminant at 4:51 PM on January 26, 2010


"Many of you seem to have PhD programs confused with Head Start."

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by bardic at 5:39 PM on January 26, 2010


Every time I read one of these discussions about grad school, I'm reminded of a quote from a book I read when I was in my feminist-pagan phase that compared grad school with jail or the mental hospital. The gist of it was that they're all designed to place people hierarchically in a system. In jail or the mental hospital, the inmate has inferior status to the rest of society, but in grad school, the inmate has superior status. But with grad school, the fear is always of being cast out.

My grad school experience had some fantastic points and some really suck moments. I'm not sorry I did it, but I'm not sorry I left when I did (with a terminal degree, without debt, and out of academia, thanks). Saying that I left for a happier life still marks me as a loser with people whose egos are invested in the correctness of the system that provides them with value based on their strong investment in it.

Personally, I'm happy for people who did well in grad school and got their degrees and went into the system. But I'm not surprised that a lot of people in their early 20s don't know what they want or need careerwise and end up lured into grad school because "that's what smart people do". After all, college professors are exactly the people who were successful in the system in the first place. Of course they're going to feed the machine that produced them, with the best of intentions. It's not their fault that a lot of people aren't suited to grad school or academic life.

(Also, it's oddly disconcerting to see a blog post by an acquaintance end up on the blue and even weirder to realize he's quoting someone else you know through completely different circles. The internet is a small world sometimes.)
posted by immlass at 5:44 PM on January 26, 2010


Which is to say, you might be a great advisor in real life, but in virtual space you genuinely come across as the last person any aspiring PhD candidate should want to work with.

In my experience getting an MA (which was generally positive, fwiw) the graduate students really appreciated the few professors (mostly younger ones, but not always) who were willing to go out on a limb a bit and suggest that the PhD candidates should have things like, I dunno, health-care and a living wage. But I didn't really fault the other professors who just felt like it was an impossible battle to try and get the administration to treat graduate students better. That really wasn't their job.

What would have been nice was just more transparency up front. Something like a mission statement that said "Look, we're bringing you in to do the grunt-work of teaching intro. level composition courses and surveys, grading, and departmental bullshit, and we're really not going to devote a lot of resources to helping you write a disseration that will actually land you a job because honestly, we've got no fucking idea what hiring committees at other schools want now that English departments are the catch-all for cultural studies, gender studies, race studies, film studies, etc., and we're too fucking lazy as a discipline to actually think about what our future holds, but for a few years of your life you get to read books and try out new ideas and attend some great parties and we'll give you a little money to do so. Oh, and bottom line, we're a top-ten program but be aware that we accept 15-20 PhD candidates per year when we only place about two people into tenure track positions every year, if we're lucky. Like we said, we need you to teach the courses that the real faculty don't want to sully themselves with."

Yeah, that'd suffice. I figured out the game early on but there were some bitter special snowflakes out there who took longer to come to this realization.
posted by bardic at 5:49 PM on January 26, 2010


A highschool my extended family sent one of their kids to has an interesting program going on.

They give each incoming student a standardized portable computer; all reading assignments and textbooks are online, and all assignments are submitted to some centralized system they have running some custom-built software. There's also some schoolwide calendaring system that is automagically filled-out for each student based on the classes they're enrolled in (essentially as I understand it each teacher inputs the schedule and syllabus for the classes they teach).

So essentially all the secondary organizational tasks are handled for the students -- they don't have to get the readings, record when the assigments are due, remember to bring their assignments with them, and so on. They just have to actually learn the material, or not.

From what I understand it was initially more than a little controversial -- a lot of parents concerned it was somehow making things too easy, or somehow failing to teach organization skills -- but from my understanding it's turned out amazingly well: aside from the obvious results (like fewer assignments not-turned-in) there have been a number of follow-on effects (absenteeism is down, b/c students would skip class to avoid embarrassment for having forgotten a paper; achievement gaps across socioeconomic strata have narrowed, since no one is skimping on study materials).

College admissions rates are flat (most kids go to college, but the overall quality of school into which they're admitted is flat), but anecdotally performance on getting to school college is apparently up a bit (perhaps because they've been exposed to what being organized is like, and thus have an easier time devising appropriate schemes).

It's a private school so they can afford a program like this, but it's definitely an interesting datapoint; from what recent graduates tell me most undergraduate schools don't really do anything comparable in terms of scheduling and coordination. I guess to some it might sound like head start high school but there's no pleasing everyone.
posted by hoople at 6:01 PM on January 26, 2010


What a lot of grad students don't realize - and are perhaps not experienced enough to understand - is that graduate advisors are essentially management. They are bosses. They set the priorities for the research, act as the accountability agents for the organizational mandates, evaluate progress and, ostensibly, provide guidance, training and encouragement, etc. as you work more or less independently on the agreed-upon goals.

Something else a lot of grad students don't realize - and are perhaps not experienced enough to understand - is that a lot of bosses, both in academia and in the corporate world, are terrible managers, and their incompetence thus makes the work experience ten times harder than it needs to be for the worker.

That's something that many grad advisors also don't understand or want to recognize. That, essentially, when a grad student washes out, it's sometimes not because the student wasn't cut out for grad school. It's that maybe the advisor isn't really cut out for their management role.

It wasn't until I got out into the business world, worked with other managers and worked hard to develop my own management skills that I could look back and see just what a truly abysmal manager my grad advisor really was. If I ever went back to grad school to continue on and get the PhD, you can damn well bet I'd be doing a hell of a lot more vetting of the advisor than I did when I was 21 and just getting out of my undergrad program.
posted by darkstar at 6:19 PM on January 26, 2010


It can be worse than that though -- with an older prof you might have someone who has decided not to stay up-to-date with emerging trends in your field, to the point where he or she might give you exactly the wrong advice in terms of writing a good dissertation, let alone one that will make you a good job candidate.
posted by bardic at 6:33 PM on January 26, 2010


(Not that all older profs are like this.)
posted by bardic at 6:33 PM on January 26, 2010


So how much of this is precisely targetted to the humanities?

I don't even want to think about continuing my education in engineering past [four years]. Maybe if I'm working at a corporation that wants to pay me to go back to school.

I still feel a little bit guilty every time I tell someone I'm not going to grad school; they seem to heavily insinuate that since I'm in the honors college and will have to do undergrad research that I should stay in the scholastic arena for another four years. yeaaaah no.
posted by rubah at 6:50 PM on January 26, 2010


I cannot speak with direct knowledge of the engineering fields, rubah, but it's always been my impression (from the physical sciences) that a Master's degree is considered a very respectable degree in engineering. It would depend on what you're hoping to do, of course, but it might be worthwhile to talk to your profs to get their perspectives on what is actually expected in your field.

Another option that's helpful is to look on Monster.com or Careerbuilder and search for the kind of jobs you want to do. Look for what kind of degrees they consider the minimum and what they are looking for in their Desired/Preferred candidates. That should be pretty indicative of where you should be aiming if you want to get one of those jobs in the near future.

Good luck!
posted by darkstar at 6:57 PM on January 26, 2010


I cannot speak with direct knowledge of the engineering fields, rubah, but it's always been my impression (from the physical sciences) that a Master's degree is considered a very respectable degree in engineering. It would depend on what you're hoping to do, of course, but it might be worthwhile to talk to your profs to get their perspectives on what is actually expected in your field.

It might be better to ask people in industry about industry and people in academia about academia.

From an industry point of view, it's hard to justify any graduate level education from any school that is not a serious brand name (Stanford, CMU, MIT, ...) and certainly not a PhD unless you have a very serious specific interest (and preferably that interest translates naturally to data processing, networking, and other financially-strong areas).
posted by rr at 7:07 PM on January 26, 2010


It might be better to ask people in industry about industry and people in academia about academia.

Well, yes, that's why I suggested looking on job posting sites. Job postings are by "industry people" and offer a fairly clear expectation of what kind of degrees are required/desirable for the kinds of jobs rubah might want to do.

Good point about the kind of schools. It really can make a difference in a resume/interview. That kind of thing isn't communicated in a job posting and you'd need to talk to someone in your desired field/sector to get those kind of insights.
posted by darkstar at 7:20 PM on January 26, 2010


All this talk about bad advisers reminds me of a great metafilter post from last October, with great advice for creative people. First on the list was "ignore everybody." This goes for advisers in graduate school as well. "Great ideas have lonely childhoods" is also relevant. Sure, get influenced by your adviser and your classmates but please take all of their advise with huge grains of salt. If you are seriously studying the field, there's a good chance that your instincts (about what the field is going to look like down the line) are going to outstrip your advisers anyways. When I hear people talking about their advisers giving them the wrong advise on what kind of dissertation to write, I'm thinking, why would you let someone else plan the project that you are going to immerse yourself in for years. I love doing graduate work but the idea of writing a dissertation based on someone else's vision makes me really queasy.

http://www.metafilter.com/86080/The-only-people-who-can-change-the-world-are-people-who-want-to
http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/ignore-everybody
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 7:50 PM on January 26, 2010


The nature of the academic system is such that the qualifying work -- undergraduate studies -- can potentially bear little to no resemblance to the actually graduate work -- research.

It is a common misconception that undergraduate studies are the qualifying work for graduate school. I suppose it's more true for a Master's program (but not a funded one) than for a doctoral program, but no one who makes the admissions decisions is under the impression that success at undergraduate coursework qualifies an applicant.

While GPA and course selection factor in to whether or not you get into/get funding at grad school, they are by no means the most important criteria. No advisor worth his or her salt would considering accepting a student with good grades but nothing else. Granted, if you mean to include research experience and close relationships with faculty members under the umbrella of 'undergraduate studies,' that's a different story, but (at least to me) 'undergraduate studies' connotes coursework and little more.

Saying that I left for a happier life still marks me as a loser with people whose egos are invested in the correctness of the system that provides them with value based on their strong investment in it.

I don't think many academics would consider you a loser for taking a terminal Master's and splitting. If you burned someone in the department by departing unexpectedly after sucking up some of their funding, I could see them harboring a grudge, but in general, I think most folks in academia realize that it's not for everyone.

It's not leaving grad school or deciding not to go to grad school that raises the ire of those who have chosen academia. It's the bitching about how broken the system is, the whining about how the unfeeling machine that is higher education robbed some poor soul of several years of hard work, and the claims that grad school is a terrible pursuit.

I'd be hesitant to tell anyone that they "just can't cut the mustard," but the fact of the matter is that some folks are just ill-suited to graduate school. There is a real possibility that some people can't do it. Not because they aren't smart enough or socially adept enough or politically aware enough, but rather because they're unwilling to make the compromises required to succeed in their chosen field.

When those people bitch about how much grad school sucks, it pisses off those of us who are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Yeah, the system is fraught with inequality and pernicious bullshit, but so is pretty much every system. If it's not for you, that's cool, but it's silly to assume that because you couldn't work the system that it's broken.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:39 PM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I've got one terminal grad degree under my belt. I've also plodding around toward some other graduate work. You can't make sweeping judgments that the entire system is bad or everyone that leaves is lazy/stoopid. Here are the reasons I've noticed that people leave grad school.
• Some people bomb out of grad school because they didn't belong there in the first place.
• Some people leave because of a bad program or exceptionally crappy advisor.
• Some people leave for personal reasons that are largely unrelated to their specific program.
• Some people leave because they figure out that academia's not the gig for them.

If I compared that to reasons why people leave a non-academic job/career, it would be about the same
• Some get fired because they are a bad hire or poor fit.
• Some hate their boss.
• Some leave for personal reasons.
• Some get a better gig.
When people leave a job no one is running in to judge it. Also, no one is saying that all jobs are bad simply because not every person is successful.

Hey, we all want to be the most special snowflake, but deciding to change career paths makes you pretty normal. It's doesn't have to be some huge drama. Sometimes the career you picked when you were 22 doesn't turn out to be perfect.
posted by 26.2 at 12:32 AM on January 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


it's silly to assume that because you couldn't work the system that it's broken.

I do think the system as I experienced it is broken, seriously, but not entirely in the personality cult way that a lot of people seem to think. There's a lot more single-individual power problems in grad schools because of the mentoring advisor situation, but the cult aspect is way worse in teacher ed for primary and secondary education. And by the "cult aspect" I mean the "you are part of a noble calling and should put up with low pay, shitty working conditions, etc." bullshit that a lot of grad programs and education programs spout.

The brokenness of grad school is that it is a job and people don't, or at least didn't when I was an undergrad back in the 80s, tell you this. You're making some serious sacrifices in hope of a particular outcome, and most kids coming to grad school straight out of college hardly have the life experience to understand what they're committing to even if they were told. But I wasn't, really. I was told I was smart and I liked history and research and I should teach. Turns out I love history and research and I hate teaching with the fire of a thousand burning suns, but it took me a few years to figure this out. My advisor was a fantastic woman and I'll always respect and adore her for the world she introduced me to, but I really wish she'd been more upfront about the career and professional requirements. I don't think she deliberately did me or her other students wrong; in fact, I think she did the best she could for all of us, sometimes going beyond the call of duty with her professional career/life advice. This is why I say "the system is broken" because when people do the best they can and the result isn't very functional, that's the system.

Given the way the humanities departments in universities are looking now--more adjuncts, fewer tenure-track jobs--the career situation for humanities grad students is different and probably worse than it was when I was in grad school. I suspect most professors aren't any better equipped to help students with the transition from undergrad to grad school and the non-networking aspects of the job of grad student much better than they were 20 years ago. I suspect they're worse equipped and know it, because university life is changing so radically. We didn't have the University of Phoenix as a competitor when I was looking at becoming a professor.

So I am, in fact, quite sympathetic to the idea that grad school needs some fixing in the humanities: that prospective students need to get out and get a job before going, that schools need to be upfront about grad students being employees (with commitments to pay and benefits), that someone, probably undergrad institutions or maybe both undergrad and grad schools, tell undergrads who are considering grad school about the career issues even if the undergrads don't get it. But career advising is focused on jobs outside academia and academic career advising is focused on networking (useful, but not all undergrads need to know). Career advising for grad students falls between the cracks. A certain amount of grumpiness about bad career advising is warranted without agreeing that special snowflakes are correct in their despite for an institution that viciously done them wrong.

YMMV, my $0.02, etc. My anecdata about the sciences suggests the situation is different there because of funding and the likelihood of getting an industry job--although I'm also told that comes with a different set of compromises sciences postgrads don't expect.

I don't think many academics would consider you a loser for taking a terminal Master's and splitting.

You, sir, are a better man than a number of my more insecure academic acquaintances. (My actual friends are secure enough not to feel this way.)
posted by immlass at 7:56 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I've been looking through PhD comics and can't help linking to this.
posted by anniecat at 8:17 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Graduate school is broken for several reasons. Primarily the problem is that it is non-deterministic; people doing equal work will encounter vastly different outcomes depending up factors out of their control. Aside from that, a process that drives large numbers of people to dispair, suicide, and occasionally murder is broken upon inspection. Humans acting positively do not do that to each other. My personal opinion is that the tenure system itself perpetuates this culture of abuse and I'm looking forward to the forces of reform causing it to go away.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:29 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, because getting rid of job security and eliminating decent working conditions for even the luckiest few is the perfect way to create a better culture in any workplace.
posted by RogerB at 12:34 PM on January 27, 2010


people doing equal work will encounter vastly different outcomes depending up factors out of their control.
Yep. Just like every other job on the planet.

Aside from that, a process that drives large numbers of people to dispair, suicide, and occasionally murder is broken upon inspection.
Large numbers of people are driven to suicide? Hmmm. That's not how I remember grad school. Homicide? Are there lots of students killing other academics? I missed that somehow. Is there any statistically significant difference between graduate school students and people in similar socio-economic circumstances in terms of depression, suicide and violent crime?

I'm not saying grad school isn't grind, it is. But it's not a more horrible grind than selling cars or scrubbing toilets.
posted by 26.2 at 1:54 PM on January 27, 2010


"But it's not a more horrible grind than selling cars or scrubbing toilets."

But you make more and might even get health insurance if you scrub toilets.
posted by bardic at 6:30 PM on January 27, 2010


But you make more and might even get health insurance if you scrub toilets.

And here we're back to the distinction between well-funded and other grad programs. When I was in grad school, I not only received health insurance (something few non-union janitors receive, in my understanding), but was paid a stipend of something like $18,000 a year.

That's about the same as earning $9/hour for a 40 hour week, which is probably what a lot of custodians get paid. Except that I didn't work 40 hour weeks -- I taught a section or two, went to a couple of classes, and otherwise could schedule my time however I wanted.

Oh, and in exchange for filling out an application I could be certain to receive extra money to go to conferences, or to travel (within the US or internationally) for research, both of which could be quite loosely defined and no one cared if I padded a week or two of personal travel onto those paid trips. And, to top it off, I had access to subsidized housing that was safe, convenient, and well-maintained.

So unless janitors are being paid to hang out in coffee shops and complain about their advisers, or to read amazing books, or to travel to meet other people in their field -- in other words, to get paid to be trained to take on well-paid and well-respected positions in their field, while being expected to work very limited hours -- then no, you are making a really offensive and ridiculous comparison.

All that said, at less well funded programs, my impression is that grad school life is quite rough, financially.
posted by Forktine at 9:08 PM on January 27, 2010


I'd make about 9 bucks an hour if I actually worked 40 hours, but really it's more like 80. I still think it's a sweet deal. However, I am lucky to have a kickass advisor and a supportive department.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:25 PM on January 28, 2010


I make about $4.25 an hour, realistically (70 hour weeks, 50 weeks a year, which is actually is a low estimate). But I didn't become an academic to get rich.
posted by k8lin at 10:30 PM on January 29, 2010


Also, to clarify, it's awesome. I don't mind the low pay and the sacrifices I made to be here. That is part of the package; I knew that coming in. It works for me. That doesn't mean it works - or should work - for everyone.
posted by k8lin at 10:32 PM on January 29, 2010


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