Monday, January 25, 2010

Sugarcoating Costs Extra

fig. 1: a soothing photo, to blunt the impact of my words

[UPDATE: check the comments section for some views dissenting from mine.]

[SECOND UPDATE: comments closed b/c of persistent spammers]

So, I received an e-mail from a would-be Ph.D. student. It's not often that this happens, because I'm not an advice columnist, and anyone who reads my blog will know that I'm pretty confused most of the time. In other words, I DO NOT encourage e-mailing me for career advice. That's what Ms. Mentor is for, and I believe that the Chronicle pays her for her column. The best I can tell you is: be very, very good, and very, very lucky.

But I did open myself up for this one, what with the post that actually offered (unsolicited) advice on how not to write a grad app. So here we go, bearing in mind that you get what you pay for. This student had dug h-self into a hole as an undergraduate by clashing with a senior seminar professor, and had dropped the program, choosing instead to finish a degree in a related field. Now, s/he wants to return to grad school, but wants to know if the past is going to come back and deliver a bite in the ass. Like many people who write to complete strangers for advice, s/he seems to want reassurance that everything will be all right. Unfortunately, reassurance is not my job, and sugarcoating costs extra. Which is not to say that there aren't some serious issues to be discussed here. Some flava from the e-mail:**

Now, I’m in a pickle. Or maybe (hopefully) not. I’ve been accepted to a History MA program at an internationally respected and well-known UK University, where I hope to undo the wrongs of youthful folly. I think that my time away from the academic environment and some thoughtful soul-searching have led me to be less hotheaded and more mature than I was a year ago when I graduated. I have a sharper understanding of what it is I want to get out of my academic training and of what my scholarly goals are, and also of where my strengths and weaknesses as a student of history lie. I have no interest in pursuing a philosophy graduate degree, but want nothing more than to be a college professor. I caught the “lecturing bug” early on in college, TA-ing for professors in the Spanish department, and would love to be able to do it about a subject I’m genuinely passionate about. I love researching, investigating, debating, and writing, of course, but I think teaching is the part of a scholarly career that motivates my decision the most.

I’m uncertain about whether the blemish on my undergraduate record can ever be eclipsed by whatever I may achieve as a master’s student. I’m mostly just worried PhD programs in history (in the USA, Canada, or the UK) will take one look at my application and file it away under “D” for dilettante, desultory, and denied and leave it at that, regardless of how well I do in the MA.

What do you think? Will my patchy past get the better of me or is this just a momentary setback?

First things first, correspondent: ditch the pretentious language. Seriously. It makes you seem like a blowhard. You may or may not actually be a blowhard, but you need to create a good impression at all times, and that means developing a professional voice that doesn't sound like a nineteenth-century dandy. (In that same vein, you might also consider dropping the use of All Three Names.)

Now, to the substance: I myself clashed with my senior seminar advisor. Got a "C" in the class, if I remember correctly. A "C" can hurt you, but if stacked against a pile of much better grades in the major, it won't sink you completely.

The real mistake here was quitting. Anyone who's ever completed a Ph.D. or D.Phil. knows that getting in requires a certain level of Very Smart, but the main component in getting out with the degree is persistence.

That said, you've been accepted into an M.A. program, so have a chance to redeem yourself. This was also my plan (though in the U.S.), and it worked. M.A. programs in the U.K. were basically developed as remedial programs for students who wanted to go for a Ph.D. but didn't yet have the qualifications.*** Which is not to say that they're not difficult. It requires going in with the determination to be excellent. You don't complain, you don't backbite, you don't argue: you just work. You accept the fact that you will more than occasionally feel like the dumbest person in the room. You will work harder than you ever have before. Your starting point doesn't doom you; it just means that you now have no margin for error. And your earlier missteps may actually help you here. Looking up from the bottom of a hole you've dug yourself has a marvelously clarifying effect, as I've discovered on more than one occasion.

But here's the part of your letter that I find problematic:

"I want nothing more than to be a college professor."

Sorry, friend. That's probably not going to happen. And that's not meant to be personal; it's just the facts. Even if you do finish the M.A., get into a good Ph.D. program, and finish the Ph.D., there aren't many tenure-track jobs out there. Those of us who do have TT jobs, and who are honest with ourselves, recognize the HUGE role that luck played in our employment. This year, I think there were eleven or twelve for medieval history. That's for the entire country. Half of those were shared with another field (ancient/medieval, or medieval/early modern) or regionally specialized. So that leaves about six jobs for medieval history in general. Nationwide. And a pool of about 90 applicants.**** Numbers differ by subfield, of course, but I'm fairly certain that the proportion of jobs-to-applicants is comparable in most fields: better in some (Asian history, right now), worse in others (20th-century U.S.? I'm looking at you...) Even a humanities major can do the math there.

While we're at math, here's a bit more: Most of the jobs that do exist for humanities Ph.D.s are adjunct teaching gigs that pay about $1,500-$3,000 per semester-long course. Patch together five of those a semester (sometimes this requires lots of zipping around from one community college campus to another), plus three in the summer and you've got an annual salary of about $20-30K, before taxes, for about a 50-hour workweek. While you're paying off student loans. So make sure to marry rich while you're finishing that degree.

Yes, you've heard this speech before, I'm sure. And you, like me, are probably confident that you will be the one to beat the odds. Who knows; you might be. But there are unemployed Ivy Ph.D.s out there who thought the same thing. And the real problem lies with a combination of ambition and motivation. "Catching the lecturing bug" suggests that what you really enjoy is holding forth for an audience about what you know. Nothing wrong with that, in principle. And gods know, there are worse motivations for going to grad school. But grad school and an academic career are more about what you don't know than what you do know.

Who knows? Perhaps a year or two in an M.A. program will help you discover a type of motivation and set of goals that will sustain you. On the other hand, working on an M.A. might help you see other career options more suited to your interests. Can you write well? Maybe you should be a novelist or an author of popular nonfiction. If you love the classroom, perhaps an M.A. and a job in a private high school might be for you. Maybe you'll fall in love with the library and decide to follow that as a career path.

In a nutshell: There's nothing wrong with changing fields or making a youthful error. Those things can be remedied, though it takes a great deal of work. But think of your motivations. You may discover something along the way.

See? This is why you should write to Ms. Mentor.

**If you e-mail me, those e-mails are mine. I won't post your name, but I reserve the right to post snippets.

***And, because they usually offer absolutely no stipends, they are also what our U.K. friends refer to as (I believe) "money spinners."

****Anyone out there run a search this year able to comment on this figure, which is based on the year that I went on the market?


Seamyst said...

I would include that, to my understanding, it is even harder for UK PhDs to get academic jobs in the US, due to the general lack of teaching opportunities for a MA/PhD student across the pond, compared to one in the US.

Anonymous said...

As an academic historian living and working in Britain, I think that it is only right to point out that M.A. programmes in history are preparations for M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees (rather than remedial courses). If your correspondent is determined enought to have applied and won a place on such a programme, he or she should be encouraged to take up the challenge of completing it and any later advanced degree he or she might want to undertake. Of course, it will be difficult to get an academic job after completing these further degrees whether in the U.K. or in the U.S.A. That is why this prospective postgraduate should exploit every opportunity that opens up during the courses to be taken. There is nothing to stop such a student starting a serious historical blog on which to publish her or his reflections on the work being done. It is an ideal place to compose and publish book reviews. By extension, if this postgraduate has any skills as a photographer and a writer, there are publishers in this country more than willing to publish local histories. As a Ph.D. student who comes across previously unknown or unpublished manuscript sources, these can (with the appropriate permissions from record offices or owners) be published in quite simple formats and used as evidence of schlarly work when seeking a job later. Pursuing one's dream may be tough but it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. There are, in any case, plenty of professions in which the analytical capacities of holders of doctorates in history are highly valued.

squadratomagico said...

I think I'm going to be sending every undergrad who asks me for a recommendation for grad school in the Humanities to this post. Thanks for the awesome, and brutally honest, answer to this student. You said everything I always try to say in person, but better.

Dr. S said...

I am going to write this comment before I read the post: GORGEOUS photo. I'm glad you have a beach in your life.

Juliette said...

I have to confess, I am hesitant about arguments that there's no point going into a PhD hoping to be a lecturer due to lack of jobs. There are no jobs in anything and if you want to be a lecturer, go for it, just be prepared with a Plan B in case it doesn't work out (and I speak as a currently unemployed recent PhD graduate - but that wouldn't stop me from doing it again).

And as another commenter pointed out, MAs in this country are not 'remedial programs', they are preparation for going on to PhD. And mine was funded on the grounds that I wanted to go on to a career in higher education as a lecturer.

medieval woman said...

That's so funny - people here refer to M.A.s as "cash cows"...

The problem I have is slightly more subtle - the "I want NOTHING MORE than to be a college professor" - I get this a lot from my undergrads. I once had a obviously insane kid say to me, "my goals are simple, I just want to be a professor. I want to be like you and teach. That's my humble desire." After I stopped the destructive rage this sent me into, I emailed back and said, "if you think all I do is SIMPLY teach, then I'd like to introduce you to the book/articles/student committees/recommendations, etc that I write ON A DAILY BASIS. I think they think teaching is simple because we (hopefully) make it look simple and effortless. That's the way I keep my students awake in class. But people who think that ANYONE can get a job these days without a research agenda of some sort are sadly mistaken. And to suggest that they "simply" want to teach is condescending in the worst way.

I think that the figure of the humble, honest, content, meager teacher of college courses/molder of eager young minds is even less a reality than the Sasquatch.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

First off: thanks, Dr. S! I got another nice one that same day, so look for that in a future post.

Now, to respond to the polite dissent (which I do welcome here):

1. Don't think I meant "remedial" as equivalent to "grad school for dummies." It isn't. In it's clearest sense, the word means "a remedy for deficiencies." Those might include those like my correspondent, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy, though substantial coursework in history. The fact that s/he got into an M.A. program suggests that the people reviewing the application saw something. It may be dollar signs (or pounds sterling, in this case), or potential. More likely, it's both. But people who run M.A. programs, whether in the U.S., the U.K., or Canada, know full well that not every Ph.D.-desiring person who they admit will have what it takes to go the distance. Hence my recommendation that the correspondent look at this as an opportunity to really prove h-self. As well as my observation that coming in at a disadvantage means a much harder road, and much less room for error.

Second, on the aspiration to be a professor: there's a lot of complaining in the profession that grad programs admit too many students, knowing full well that most won't get jobs. Juliette, I'm not sure if you mean "lecturer" in the U.S. sense, but here, the title refers to someone whose employment is contingent, from one semester to the next, or at most, from one year to the next. It's a hard way to make a living -- hence my numbers. And it has no security: at the beginning of this year, my department "non-renewed" half of our lecturers; next year, the other half are getting the axe.

What worries me most is the "I want to be a professor" thing. To be fair, the correspondent mentioned other motivations, but these were a bit pro forma (and believe me, I've had enough conversations like this to get a sense of it). The impression is one of "I want to have this job" rather than "I want to do this job." There's a world of difference there. If prospective grad students like my correspondent can make the shift (and some come to it as they go along) then they'll do fine. If not, they're headed for heartbreak and disillusionment.

Correspondent? Are you out there? Would you like to weigh in?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I didn't think the e-mail sounded pretentious at all. It just seemed serious, formal, and carefully written.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@CPP: I'm willing to admit that YMMV on this. And I'm willing to bet that this was a case of "err on the side of being overly formal."

Actually, going back and reading it again, it's *exactly* the style that people use when writing to professional advice columnists, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

hugo said...

Dear Notorious, I would slightly disagree with you here:
1) From my experience, most students who start a PhD right after their Bachelor’s degree lack maturity and a MA, whether in the UK or in the US, might help them get familiarized with research.
2) We need more passionate and talented people so I would not discourage anybody to undertake a PhD. That said, given the poor job market and the fact that it is unlikely to get better in the coming years, your correspondent needs to be prepared to:
- Have a plan B as somebody else suggested – there are plenty of opportunities for PhD graduates outside of academia.
- Work at an institution that does not necessarily “reflect” his/her skills and potential in order to avoid possible academic diseases such as whining (bearable at a moderate level) and bitterness (a more problematic one).

PS: Thanks for your blog, which I enjoy reading.

Anonymous said...

I should like to make some points in favour of your correspondent. This person, female or male, has apparently had enough determination to apply for and be accepted upon an M.A. programme in another country thousands of miles from her or his, his or her, homeland. He or she has identified one of the potential problems with his or her record as a first degree student and overcome it. I think that deserves praise. It is not surprising that, when thinking about a future career, some of the jargon and phraseology used on both sides of the Atlantic, has been adopted in writing to you. You should not infer from that usage that this person is unsuitable to go on to take an M.A. course or a Ph.D. degree in America or in the U.K. It is better to encourage such a person and to be generous to her or him in going forward rather than expressing scepticism. You were hopeful and ambitious ten or twenty years ago. Who knows whether this person will make it? I rather hope she or he does.

Juliette said...

Notorious, my only experience is of the UK, but yes, that sounds like more or less what I understand as the job of 'lecturer'. Believe me, in my current position, I am fully, painfully aware of how difficult it is to survive in this profession and I have Plans B and C still up my sleeve. But when I graduated from my BA, I realised that pretty much any job I actually wanted was going to have pretty bad odds and that was several years ago - right now it's even worse (apparently we crawled out of recession this morning, but not by much).

Having said that, another commentor pointed out that wanting to teach is not the same as wanting to be an academic/lecturer. It is certainly worth pointing out to potential PhD students that teaching is only haflf the job, if that, if teaching is their chief motivation.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I don't think it's a problem to *want* to be a professor. That's the only reason I went to grad school. You do have to know that your chances of getting that job are exceedingly poor. But myself, I think that wanting to be a professor is the ONLY reason to go to grad school (at least in history); that's one of the very very few positions that *requires* a Ph.D., and it's not worth doing the degree unless it's to accomplish something that requires it. (I'm sure some will disagree with me, but that's my take on it.)

Of course, the unfortunate reality is that you probably won't get a job as a professor, and therefore you need also to go against the grain of the program and look for every opportunity to get experience that will translate more directly into interesting employment when you're done, which is a little frustrating. Oh, I should add that you also need to understand what a professor DOES, per medieval woman's excellent comment - that's a huge problem I've run into with students (I think especially if they go to a SLAC or other undergrad institution.)

About numbers of applicants in the pool: I think they're higher, especially by now. Someone I know applying for a US history position got a letter saying there'd been 450 applicants. A medievalist friend of mine was one of 225 applying (granted, it was one of those medieval/something else positions, but still, I think there'd be at least 150 applicants easy for the straight medieval positions - more possibly, if it's a "good" job).

Bookbag said...

A friend of mine met with a student yesterday re: graduate school in the humanities, and he asked me what he should tell her (his inclination was to scream at her, "noooo get out while you can!") and I recommended he tell her to take a year or two off after college and take an internship or job in the field she identified as plan B (publishing, public history, whatever) so that in the likely scenario she had to give up on the tenure track dream, she'd have experience in that field on her CV and contacts who could perhaps help her find a job.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm puzzled as to why so many people think I'm disparaging the M.A. in history. I've gone back and read the post, and I don't see it. Here's the relevant passage, as I see it:

M.A. programs in the U.K. were basically developed as remedial programs for students who wanted to go for a Ph.D. but didn't yet have the qualifications. Which is not to say that they're not difficult.

And again: remedial DOES NOT EQUAL stupid. It means there are deficiencies that need to be remedied. My characterization came out of a conversation with a senior faculty member at one such institution: "As we expanded graduate education in Britain, we found that students in most schools didn't come in with the language training, especially Latin. So the stand-alone M.A. was invented to give these students the training that they lacked in their undergraduate careers." Or something much like that. And yes, he used the word "remedial" too -- and not in a value-loaded way.

Let me say it again: I think the M.A. is a GOOD THING. Especially in medieval stuff. You're right that it is a nice bridge into the world of grad school. And for medievalists, it allows us time to do that all-important language work that few undergrad programs prepare you for, but that are so essential to being successful in a Ph.D. program.

It also allows you to not only mature, but to overcome flaws in a record. It's a second chance, which is what this correspondent is looking for.

But it's also a wake-up call that being an academic, even at a 3-4 state school like mine, requires copious amounts of research, publishing, committee work, grant writing, etc. It also generally includes being very talented and enthusiastic in the classroom. Correspondent has this last, it seems. But if that's 90% of the motivation, but only 40-60% of the job, there's going to be a poor fit here.

Historiann said...

I've read through your great advice post and the comments, and for the life of me I can't see much disagreement of substance here. Some of your commenters disagree, but more in tone or emphasis than substance. Your main point isn't to discourage your correspondent--it's to let hir in on the fact that just "wanting nothing more than to be a college professor" isn't enough, and that the odds are long. You provide the necessary context for understanding why this is the case, and how a Ph.D. student can think about alternative careers. (The commenters seem to agree with you here, which is interesting, since you and your commenters offered the same advice as Tenured Radical a few weeks' back--namely, be flexible, and think about public history or other career paths--and her commenters took great umbrage with her.)

I agree with Squadratomagico--this is a great post to bookmark and send to all prospective Ph.D. applicants.

FrauTech said...

hugo sez "- Have a plan B as somebody else suggested – there are plenty of opportunities for PhD graduates outside of academia."

I'm curious, assuming you're talking an MA here and not an MS, what are the opportunities? You talking like, the same opportunities available to anyone who doesn't even have a BA? Landscaping? The pitiful copy editor or journalism markets?

Letter writer says, "I have no interest in pursuing a philosophy graduate degree, but want nothing more than to be a college professor. I caught the “lecturing bug” early on in college, TA-ing for professors in the Spanish department, and would love to be able to do it about a subject I’m genuinely passionate about. I love researching, investigating, debating, and writing, of course, but I think teaching is the part of a scholarly career that motivates my decision the most."

I think getting more education in a topic you're not passionate about IN ORDER TO TEACH is not a good idea. My locality offers some options to teach community college without any advanced degrees. If you can't hack it there, probably not going to get much further in teaching for higher education.

I agree with Notorious "It's a hard way to make a living -- hence my numbers. And it has no security: at the beginning of this year, my department "non-renewed" half of our lecturers; next year, the other half are getting the axe. "

It's easy when you're 18 or 22 or 26 and just starting college having limited job/survival experience to think you'd be happy making crap for pay as long as you love your job. Once you get into "the real world" of paying rent and bills and surviving on your own dime, it can get real irritating very fast when you feel even more poor than you did as a student. When you are a student, even a working student, you might be broke but you know what the next year will bring. And when you graduate, and you can't get the job you wanted, and the only jobs you can get pay less than your student jobs, suddenly you are bitter and angry. The "i wasn't expecting a job" four years ago becomes you feeling bitter and entitled now. To wondering why you can't even make a living even though PEOPLE WARNED YOU.

Unless you know, your backup plan is working at Walmart and you're fine with minimum wage and no healthcare. Then go right ahead.

Coyote Rose said...

Oh because i can't help but jump into the fray.

As a current MA student applying to PHD programs, I think everything you said is right. In fact you were kind of nice about it. My Advisors have beaten me over the head with the fact that getting a professor position out of graduation is akin to winning the lottery. One of my adjunct proffies handed me a a 2-inch three ring binder full of a associate professor rejection letters. He had probably 100 letters in there, 5 from one college. They do this to make sure that i know what i am getting into when i take this risk. I've been told if i can imagine doing anything else- i should be doing that.

For those who say "I just want to be a college professor," what i hear is "I really want to teach but i don't want to teach snot nosed high school students who don't give a shit." I love how they assume college freshman are better. They like the idea of teaching, and to be honest if they really love teaching they should go teach high school or middle school- where there are actual jobs to be had. And it doesn't cost 80K to get the degree to do it.

Furthmore, I do and don't see the MA as a remedial program. I assure you the MA program is almost as hard as a PHD program. For me i could have gone MA or PHD program after my 2 years off from undergrad. I choose to do MA because i wanted to bring up my GPA (from a 3.28) so that i could get into a better PHD program. Also i wanted to make sure i could really do this, and i didn't have some idealize notion of what a PHD program was like. Plus when you do apply to PHD (i've been told) having an MA makes you look better because they know you can do the coursework and that you can do the research and finish.

thefrogprincess said...

Notorious, I largely agree with your thoughts here and I also like the way you lay out what exactly it means to be an adjunct and how unstable a life that is. I read a blog the other day where the blogger considered adjuncting a necessary entry-level position (and not a place where many a career has gone to die). So the message still isn't getting out there. Too bad "Invisible Adjunct"'s blog is down and hard to find online, eh?

As for Historiann's comparison to TR's post a few weeks ago, I think the difference is this: Notorious is being honest when it counts, i.e. before a person enters graduate school, and she doesn't assume that people who only have undergraduate experience are told this information, which certain commentators did over at TR (even if TR didn't herself at the beginning) and then used against graduate students who are coming to grips with a situation that may bear little resemblance to what they were promised.

tenthmedieval said...

I meant to join in this conversation yesterday but for some reason Blogger didn't like me. I just wanted to add some UK perspectives. Firstly, job titles, more or less, balance like this:

UK lecturer = US professor
UK assistant lecturer = US assistant professor
UK teaching associate = US lecturer
UK teaching assistant = US adjunct

That said, there are still big differences; a teaching assistant would never be expected to run or staff a whole course alone, there would always be full faculty in charge somewhere, for example.

Then the M. A. I think, Doc. N. that people have taken umbrage at your use of the word `remedial' because it implies some deficiency that needs making good. You say, twice:

M.A. programs in the U.K. were basically developed as remedial programs for students who wanted to go for a Ph.D. but didn't yet have the qualifications.

But no-one has those qualifications; no-one comes out of a degree with palæography or medieval Latin here (do they in the US?), and it's that sort of research training that the M. A. provides here. It's not a delaying step but the next step forwards. (Though it does therefore act as a kind of filter to give people an idea of whether they want to do research for real or not.) Some Ph. D. programs here have a Masters as their first year, and if you do well enough to continue you can add two more of pure research to make the doctorate; but mostly they are stand-alone. So the person who said `preparatory' is much closer to the mark I think. Furthermore, York's M. A. actually has a really good name, it's a highly interdisciplinary school they have there and full of skills teaching, so if your correspondent is in there they've impressed somebody.

tenthmedieval said...


Er, thirdly (sorry), job numbers. The last thing I applied for in the UK interviewed 7 out of a pool of 120+ applicants (and no, I wasn't one). The last thing I applied for in the US did first-round interviews (which the UK doesn't really do) of 17 people out of 160 applicants, and second-round of 6 (and I was one of the first round only). There were, er, four things I could apply for in the UK last year and hope to get, and I think five in the US, but of the US ones one of the searches was shut down without appointing. This year, however, there have already been as many plausible posts for me in the UK as there were for the whole of last year, so who knows? I work early, so the numbers of applicants for high medieval posts and the number of available posts is likely to be larger, but from my experience the number of available posts in medieval history, at least, is about the same UK to US but the pool of applicants smaller in the UK. That said, people from the UK can apply to posts in the US and hope to be interviewed, whereas only the very top-flight US scholars can hope to interview in the UK because we're so fixated on research over teaching here.

Lastly, when one of the anonymi says:
There is nothing to stop such a student starting a serious historical blog on which to publish her or his reflections on the work being done. It is an ideal place to compose and publish book reviews.
I just want to say, indeed, there is nothing to stop them, but my experience is that it won't help at all, especially in the UK, and such a person would be much better advised to put all spare energy into achieving old-media publication. Sorry.