Sunday, March 13, 2011

More of Me Telling You What You Don't Want to Hear

And again, another advice request, along the lines of "Should I go to graduate school?"

I have, perhaps justly, been accused of being far too snarky with these questions, mainly because I have no idea whether any individual should go to grad school. That's a personal decision, with complex factors involved.

Illustration: The future is unclear.

But let me start off with the short answer: Should you go to graduate school? Not unless you absolutely have to.

And now, to unpack that, in handy bullet points that reflect the letter-writer's reasons for considering grad school, and will likely resonate with others contemplating the same decision:**
  • You've done the corporate thing, and decided you'd be happier out of that, even if it means working as a barista as you are currently doing (You see how this correspondent is playing to my weakness? Baristas make it possible for me to do my job without killing anyone, and I love them all unconditionally). I respect that: If your current job is making you miserable, then do something that makes you not miserable, and screw anyone who thinks you're "trading down." Only you can know that. But you'd really like to pursue a particular semi-obscure area of academic study, which you think will be better than both of those things. Here's the problem, though: If you left the first job because you were, as you say, "overwhelmed with the politics," then academia is probably going to present similar challenges. The politics are different, but they are very real, they're impossible to avoid in the long run, and they will, from time to time, wear. your. ass. down. You need to know that.
  • You're thinking about going back to pursue a passion from your early university days that you shelved for a more "practical" major. Again: Hooray for pursuing passions. But do you need to go to grad school to do it? Does it need to be how you make your living? I've often called myself lucky for having a job that allows me to get paid for doing what I love, but I've recently heard some convincing counter-arguments that when you make what you love your job, you stop loving it so much. It's something to consider. Can you do something that pays the bills, and make this the non-vocational thing that you look forward to when you're not working?
  • You'd like to make a career out of this, but are concerned with job prospects. And you're right to be concerned. Job prospects are bad, and getting worse, and even the jobs that are there aren't what they're cracked up to be: stagnating wages, states rescinding pensions, faculty unions under attack, increased teaching load (see my previous post) -- and that's if you're one of the dozen or so people in your field nationally*** who is both lucky and good enough to land a tenure-track job.
So, here's the question, in a nutshell, that you need to be asking yourself:
If I spent 6-10 prime income-earning years working towards a Ph.D., perhaps going into debt to do so, possibly being treated like a recalcitrant teenager (right or wrong, academia's a hierarchical world) by professors 10 years younger than me, and at the end of that, there was no job and no hope of one, and I'm back to slinging lattes again... would I consider it time and money well-spent? Would I be happier than I am now?

See? Notice the lack of snark? I think I've grown.****

**This, of course, all leaves aside the question of whether you can even get into grad school, about which I have even less of a freakin' clue, so don't ask.

***Yes, you read that right: a dozen or so jobs for the whole damn country each year -- and that's being optimistic. And probably about 100 highly qualified people competing for them. We won't even talk about where in the country you'd "like" to work, because I'd fall down laughing.

****Okay, maybe a little snark in the footnotes, but it's at least marginally constructive. Now: where's my cookie?


squadratomagico said...

Here: a spicy ginger snap and a latte.

Comrade Svilova said...

Currently a barista part-time, working in the non-profit sector part-time, thinking about grad school in cinema studies / media -- at least it's hip, right?

What I struggle with is that I took all of those assessments and worked with my Career Development office at school, and the answer was Loud and Clear: academia was the *only* field I was a match for, and this is with me going into the testing hoping/expecting that the arts, film production, and non-profit sector work would rank high.

Since then, given the work I've done at the non-profit as well as giggs in the arts and film production, I'd have to agree that these are not fantastic matches for me. So I really struggle to figure out what field(s) I should explore as Plan Bs. I absolutely love studying film (and media).

But I look at the job postings and it seems pretty grim. Thanks for the food for thought.

pixie658 said...

Having worked as a government employee, as a manager in the beauty industry, as a retail salesperson, as a makeup artist, and now as a PhD student and TA, academia is the most political of them all in my experience. Mostly it's because everyone is the "top of the class," so things get crazy. Sure, we aren't stabbing each other in the back for commission or to move up the ladder, but it's fill of narcissists and people whose entire value system does not align with mine. I'm thankful to only have a couple years left in my PhD program. I'm ready to go back into industry. Hell, I'm just ready to not feel guilty for not studying while I'm watching a freaking movie with my family.

Susan said...

The Girl Scouts are selling outside my supermarket these days...

SInce I'm in a politics on steroids situation right now, I'd echo your comment on politics.

Anonymous said...

I recommend that all folks thinking about big career changes read Your Money or Your Life
It will help them answer the question on how to take measured risks instead of just risks.

Anonymous said...

I think this is really good advice. I recently left the corporate world for grad school (not because I couldn't take the politics, but because I couldn't stop thinking and plotting about grad school and it seemed like time). I'm insanely happy about the whole thing.

And if, at the end of my degree, I spend a few years adjuncting, unable to get a job? Then I will be content to go back to the corporate world, in some fashion. In the meantime, I'm just trying to enjoy the process of earning this degree I spent so long coveting, and I'll address everything else at the right time.

Dr. Koshary said...

Bookmarked for future reference, when students start asking me this question. (If I ever get a job, and thereby have students.)

I laugh my ass off every time I hear someone say that they entered academia to get away from office politics. The irony is almost physically painful.

test said...

As someone who recently completed a Phd, I hope everyone who is thinking about entering a graduate program receives this sort of advice. I actually just told someone thinking about a Phd the same thing. I find it appalling that graduate programs don't give you such information when you apply. For my part, I worked the entire time I did the Phd, so I don't feel like I bet my life on the academic career, and don't have the feelings of bitterness that I encounter with many of my colleagues. But I do feel their pain.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

bwwm, I don't think I'd go as far as you; that is, I don't think it's a grad program's obligation to warn all applicants away. Can you imagine any other professional program doing that to all applicants? How would that work anyway? "Dear [Applicant], thank you for your application to our program. We have received all materials, and will inform you of our decision by April 5. But you should know that this is an utterly ridiculous thing that you're doing."

If undergrads come to me personally, I do tell them. I also get the feeling, however, that they're not really listening. So I just say it again and again.

test said...

I don't mean that they say that it's a stupid thing to do. Rather, they could say something like "you should be aware that 10% of people who complete PhDs get tenure track positions. It is therefore important to also bear in mind other career possibilities as you go through graduate school." It's evidently not the school's mission to guarantee a job to anyone. But pretending that most people do get academic positions, or playing on incoming students' misconceptions to increase enrolment and therefore income, is at best head-in-the-sand denialism, and at worst, manipulation.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

bwwm, I still disagree. By that logic, just about every professional training program would have to put the same disclaimer on their applications. We do not mislead our students. We do not tell them that they will get a job if they finish the program -- that would be a flat-out lie. We do not even tell them that they will finish the program if they start it. And if they ask us (as my correspondent did), we are brutally honest with them. any career field. "You didn't warn me that employment prospects are bad" is not the same as "you told me (or strongly implied) that I'd get a job." That's a big difference there.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Sorry, blogger cut off some of my last comment. The sentence that begins with the italicized "any" should read: "Individuals have a responsibility to try to find out as much as they can about employment prospects in any career field." Or something like that.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I agree that it's on the applicant to figure out what the employment prospects are like in any given field (not just academia). But if applicants are going to do that work, departments should be more transparent about those prospects. I don't mean that departments necessarily have to send a breakdown of the employment for all grads of the department and how many drop out etc. to all accepted students, but I think it would be reasonable for departments to make accurate employment statistics more available for those who seek them out. Because I think it's very different for a given applicant to see stuff about the terrible job market in general, and to find out what the graduates of a specific department they're considering are actually doing. Even if you read all the stuff about the terrible job market, if you're an applicant and the specific departments to which you're applying don't accurately represent that department's job market success (or lack thereof), I think it's way too easy to say, "The job market sucks, but this department has a good track record." (I'm thinking here of the listings of "recent placements" on a lot of grad department web pages, which I think are totally and utterly misleading. And lots of departments don't track their graduates in any formal way, I sometimes think so they have plausible deniability about academic employment rates.)

Sure, it's still on the individual to find out their chances. But schools are implicated in that process. I take bwwm's point more to be that grad programs should pay more attention to, and give more support for, alternate career possibilities, rather than assuming everyone who enters a grad program is going to (or even wants to!) become a professor.

(Law schools have to report their employment rates, actually, and are currently getting a whole lot of crap for being disingenuous about them, so it's not a crazy suggestion for other grad programs. Of course, I'd also argue that Ph.D. programs are actually not professional programs in the way JD and MBA programs are, but I still think they need to be more transparent about the specific outcomes for their students.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

To put my comments in perspective: I'm coming at this from the middle of the pipeline. We are an M.A.-granting institution. So we get the starry-eyed undergrads who want to go to graduate school. Our M.A. students (and applicants) range from those there for a stepping-stone to a Ph.D. program to those here for an enhancement to their Social Science teaching credential to returning adults just interested in following up an interest they never did when they were younger. And many of them change from one to the other over the course of their few years with us.

I want to emphasize that any time a student starts making academ-ish noises, I let them know the hard facts, down to the numbers in my particular field, which I track every year. And once the students get here, they have a mandatory meeting with the grad advisor, in which she reinforces it. But I don't think that a blanket disclaimer could work, since so many grad programs like mine are so diverse.

That said: I have a friend finishing up in a cognate field in the Humanities who told me that she AND her advisor were both shocked that she hadn't gotten any interviews. Apparently the adviser had told her (or really believed? strongly implied?) that all their graduates had gotten jobs in the past. Lesson: grad advisers have the obligation to keep informed of current conditions so they don't unintentionally mislead their students.

But bwwm's suggestion that we are manipulating our students? I strongly object to that. We're doing everything we can to keep them informed once we understand that they're thinking about an academic career, whatever point in the process that may come. What they do with that information is up to them.

thefrogprincess said...

I've weighed in on these debates before. Notorious, I think you have to take yourself out of this conversation. I have no doubt that you do as you say you do, but your approach is far from universal. I tend towards the "manipulated" school. At the end of the day, each graduate student is responsible for the decision they make, but I think we have to get real and acknowledge that grad institutions have a vested interest in not spelling out precisely how bad the market is. (There's a lot of cheap labor to be had.) I'm also at one of these institutions that believes (and states out loud) that all its students get good jobs. I've had no success this year. Haven't really talked to my advisor about it, which tells much of the tale itself, but the advisor said to me numerous times over the years that good students always get good jobs. To my questions about the job market, hir response was always "how should I know?" I have colleagues whose professors are supposedly "the most with it/in the know professors" who are shocked that their students are having problems. I also heard more than one version of the forthcoming wave of retirements story when I was researching grad school.

So while I appreciate that you yourself are having these conversations with your undergrads, these conversations are not always being had and even if they are, the message coming out of prospective grad departments often bears little resemblance to the facts on the ground. And by the time one finds out that there's a lot more to the "recent placement" listings than meets the eye, you're three or four years into the program.

Anthea said...

Good advice I think. I must (this word would be underlined/highlighted/put into bold) say that academia is all about politics. I have to agree with Dr Koshary that I have no choice but to laugh internally (and ask myself the rhetorical question...are you kidding me?) that people fled to academia to get away from office politics. Who are they kidding?? I've worked in a wide variety of work environments and those in academia are the worst that I've ever experienced!! I suspect probably because people are arguing over access to very little in terms of resources. I hate to say it but it’s 'a rats in a barrel syndrome'.

I worked both in the academic world and outside of it before and during my PhD. So, while I understand the bitterness of my colleagues at the end of grad school on finding out there wasn't any guaranteed success but I, unlike them, didn't bet my life on getting a job at the end of it. I think that someone who is thinking about grad school needs to go into a PhD programme with their eyes open and not be wearing rose tinted glasses..which I think many of them are wearing.

J. Otto Pohl said...

The job market for humanities is bad in North America. It is also bad in Europe. But, that is not the entire world. At the institution I am at now they are trying to double the faculty in both history and philosophy. So it is possible to get a decent job with a Ph.D. if you are willing to go overseas. I think I am probably on the cusp of an impending trend because there are lots of unemployed history PhDs in the US and no jobs there.

Shobhna said...

As a student from a third-world country who has every intention of going to the US for a PhD in Archaeology (currently in my Master's in Ancient History), I must say your post scared and dejected me a little. On the other hand, I happen to know a lot of people who are pursuing their PhDs in the US, who are from my university here, and who seem to have positive things to say. And yes, like you said, at the end of the, there must be the practical realization in every applicant that they may not get jobs after the completion of their PhD. But honestly? I wouldn't even mind that. I love my field so much, that I'm willing to give 6-10 years to it, and then come back to this country and work as a high school teacher, if I have to.