Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seriously, folks: write to Ms. Mentor

Dear Recent Correspondent: I'm flattered that you think I know enough about the academic world to advise you on whether or not you should give it a go. Really, I am. But though I sometimes offer unsolicited advice on what to do in the archives, or how to construct a book proposal, I only do so because I have experience in those areas. I sometimes even make general statements about the job market and what might or might not be good reasons in general to try for a Ph.D. and an academic career. But I am in no way qualified to tell anyone what to do with their life in particular. These are important decisions that are best pronounced upon by people who really know the situation, not by some random person on the internet. You do not even know my name, much less my professional qualifications or my relative degree of sanity. You might as well ask a magic 8-ball.

So, if you e-mail me such questions, chances are that I won't respond, and the weightier the decision, the less likely I am to dole out advice. If I do respond, here's what you'll likely get:

  • Snark. See this post as a good example.
  • Advice worth the price you paid for it:

    Still want advice? Okay, here it is: Yes, you may indeed be crazy to consider dumping your secure (one assumes) job and going for a career in academia because it's a long (5-10 years), rough road, far from everybody makes it through, and even those who do face dim employment prospects, often with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans. Yes, it's a good thing -- a great thing, even -- to have a fulfilling career. But as previous posts here and elsewhere have noted, going to grad school is far from guaranteed to result in a career of any kind. There is no magic formula of X motivation + Y level of work = Z outcome. You might end up with the result you want, which would be great (career satisfaction! regular paychecks!), and we'd all do a happy dance. Or you might end up unemployed and in debt up to your eyeballs. Do you love your chosen field so much that simply the process of getting the education would be satisfaction enough, even if there was no job at all on the other end of it, and you had to restart your old career, or begin a new one, in your mid- to late thirties?

    Most importantly: if, as your letter strongly implies, you have a family depending on you and your current job for part or all of their financial support, then they're the ones you need to be talking to, because they will be the ones making the sacrifices. And that, my friend, is the best advice I can give you.

    That, and: Plastics.

    Comrade PhysioProf said...

    Here's the dealio: To succeed in academia, you've gotta be somewhat hard-working, extremely persistent, moderately talented, and LUCKY. If you are not willing to engage in a long-term career plan whose success hinges in large part on factors that are 100% out of your own control, then don't do it.

    If you are willing to roll the dice, then go for it. But don't come crying all WATB if your luck doesn't pan out, cause you've been told.

    Academia is not a career for someone who wants to know that if they put in the hard work, they *will* get the reward.

    Anonymous said...

    Uhh, Notorious, old friend?

    I probably shouldn't challenge you on your own blog, but was that snarkier than necessary? Ms. Mentor doesn't know your correspondent either. Your correspondent may not know a whole lot of professors in real life. And anyone who reads your blog can tell that you are an academic who has thought long and hard about graduate school, the job hunt, and job-related issues.

    (Don't tell Peter I started a sentence with "And." Next thing you know I'll be wildly and fearlessly using adverbs to hunt the straw dog. Enough with the parenthetical, already!)

    Back on topic: If I was contemplating grad school, I'd think your opinion on this topic (though not the be-all and end-all) would probably mean *something*. I would think so particularly if a) I had been out of school for a few years and thus no longer in frequent contact with academics or b) I was currently in school, but all my profs had last been on the job market twenty years ago.


    Grad School Drama said...

    I did it... but my only attachments are my dog and cat (and oh how they've suffered, lots of time home alone, inconsistent affection, witnessing the random breakdown upon not finding the *right* sized paperclip, etc.). But, I have no regrets. I'm glad, however, that I made this decision for myself and that I was sure before leaping (sure that I was ready for whatever the consequence). As for the experience, in the ever-wise words of my dearest friend's mother: "You must love it."

    As for reaching out to grasp for guidance... I get it... but, really, don't you already know what you want to do? Really?

    Notorious Ph.D. said...

    @ CPP: very concise. I should just post that.

    @ Martha: If anyone has the privilege of calling me out, it's you. I can only say in my own defense that this post is a response to my bafflement that increases with each of these e-mails I get. Up until now, I've been following the prudent course, which is: ignore the e-mails, and figure that, if the person in question has been reading my blog (or anyone else's) for a long time, they will have gotten the message that CPP sums up so nicely. But that doesn't seem to be the case. And if you peruse the grad student blogs (which I do), there's still a lot of shock out there at how bad things are, even with a Ph.D. So I'm responding in part to that. As for my tone: I have noticed a bit of crankiness creep, so your point there is well-taken.

    GSD: I think that you make a good point -- before asking for advice, one should ask whether they are looking for confirmation of a decision that's already been made. That may or may not be the case with this correspondent, but it's surely a point worth considering.

    Fie upon this quiet life! said...

    Ha! If anyone wrote to me asking for advice about whether or not to go to grad school, I'd write back one word: "No."

    It's not that going to grad school in and of itself is bad -- quite the contrary. But you're right. I put in nine years of my life (3 MA, 6 PhD), and I have 100K in student loans, and I'm unemployed. Thank God I have a supportive husband. If I didn't, I'd be living with my mom or on the street. I have had adjuncting gigs, but the pay is dismal, and I had to resign from the one place I've taught at for the last three years because they don't pay enough to cover the cost of my daycare expenses now that I have two kids.

    So if the only reason a person wants to go to grad school is to learn -- well, by all means, go. If you want to go for a job... well. Don't count on it. In fact, figure against it. I'm 34 years old. In the business world, I would be mid-career. In academia, I'm a baby. But if I don't get a real job soon (after being on the market unsuccessfully for three years), I'm going to have to figure out something else. And being 35 and looking for your first "real" job?? Well, I wonder if anyone will even take me seriously.

    Anonymous said...

    What I find so upsetting/distusrbing about this (and one previous, a while back) response to a letter writer is that in the rest of your blog your tone is so POSITIVE and SUPPORTIVE: of other bloggers, adjuncts, colleagues, students. If I were a struggling would-be grad student in your field (rather than a tenured prof in a completely different field), I too might write to you for advice. Would it be so hard to respond with "I can't comment on your particular situation becau,se I don't know you personally, but see my entries and for my general view on grad school and "Plan B"s. Best of luck with your decisions." ???

    Personally, I'm a bitch, but I don't write a NICE blog and even I can manage generic responses to emails from random people.

    (Sorry about the rant. I usually enjoy your blog.)

    Notorious Ph.D. said...

    Anon 10:06, I understand your reaction. I can only say that there is a real person behind this blog and, like all real people, I am positive and supportive at some times, irritable at others.

    Historiann said...

    Blogs exist to serve the interests and needs of the proprietress. My blog answers e-mail questions publicly because I'm a bossypants who likes to pretend that I know more than I do. Notorious is much more modest.

    Lecturing a bloger about what she *should* be writing aboit or about her "tone" or "language" looks pretty suspect to this feminist blogger.

    Don't like what you see? Stop reading!

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