May 30, 2003

Doctor Temp

Still, in a slow economy like this one, it can be difficult to land even an entry-level job. To those who feel stymied in their job searches or frustrated by the lack of openings, I recommend temporary office work as a strategy for breaking into a new field. Many graduate students are familiar with temping as a way to earn quick money during university vacations, but temping can also be a way to audition for a full-time job at the company of your choice. In fact, while some employers might resist hiring a seemingly overqualified Ph.D. for a full-time, entry-level position, they have no such qualms about hiring a Ph.D. in a temporary position.

-- Susan Basalla, "Breaking in as a Temp"

Susan Basalla, English PhD (Princeton) and co-author (with Maggie Debelius) of So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s, advocates temping as a way of entering a new field. The optimistic view of "conscious temping" is that, in Basalla's words,

all we need is a foot in the door. Once we're in the workplace, others realize that we learn quickly, have strong analytical skills, and are often excellent writers and teachers. We also have an unusually strong work ethic, although we tend to take it for granted.

No doubt this is sound advice, based on a realistic assessment of current employment trends outside the academy. It's rather less optimistic, though, than the main argument of So What Are You Going to Do With That?, which can be summed up as follows: "But, believe it or not, the same skills you need to success in academia -- researching, writing, and teaching -- will give you an edge in your job hunt" (pp. 4-5). Frankly, I guess I don't quite believe it, especially not after reading an account by one of the authors of this book in which she details her temping strategies.

So I can't help raising a couple of points of a more pessimistic character.

First, contrary to what some of the "leaving the academy" advice would have us believe, it seems clear that a PhD (a PhD in the humanities, at any rate) does not carry much weight outside the academy. And why should it, after all? As Jack Miles has argued, while "humane learning has many uses in the general marketplace," the "baroque peculiarity of American doctoral education produces an animal hyper-adapted to the baroque peculiarity of the American academic habitat" (the point is also made by Timothy Burke, who suggests that "most graduate study in academic subjects ... has no other use besides the reproduction of academia in its present institutional form.")

Second, it's worth repeating the point made by Miles and Burke and by some of the readers of and commenters at this blog: You don't need a PhD to take a temp job that might then lead to an entry-level position that might then lead to a career, you can do this right after college.

Now at some level (e.g., in terms of the unemployed/underemployed PhD whose rent is due) I think advice like that offered by Basalla serves a very useful purpose. Here's the deal: you may not be able to start even at the bottom, you may need to do temp work even to put yourself in a position to then apply for an entry-level job. So in pragmatic terms, I welcome Basalla's account, which is based on her own experience, which experience includes her own employment, "career workshops for graduate students" and the research and writing for a book on what to do with a PhD outside the academy. At some point (e.g., when the rent is coming due), there's no point in wringing one's hands in despair and wallowing in miserable thoughts of all that wasted effort and all those wasted years. If temping is your only realistic option, then what else can you do but choose temping?

But I want to emphasize that there's a bigger picture here, and that it's important to let people (especially current graduate students and those who are currently considering graduate studies in the humanities) know that this picture is not pretty.

Let's be honest about this: Hollywood is not recruiting English PhDs to work as screenwriters. And if you sign on with a temp agency (which is definitely a good idea if you don't have any other immediate options and the rent is coming due), well, let's be brutally honest about this and acknowledge that you will likely find yourself working as a secretary. As William Pannapacker put it in a letter recounting his role in the famous/infamous MLA showdown:

Last weekend, I spoke at the American Studies Association convention in Seattle on a panel called 'Organizing in the Trenches.'... I was the last speaker, and by the time I came to speak, I had lost my composure. I had just read Elaine Showalter's editorial in the 'MLA Newsletter' (Winter 1998) in which she compares the humanities to the sinking Titanic, and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of absolute betrayel by the leadership of my profession.

Instead of going right into my genre piece about using the disciplinary associations to organize disparate groups, I embarked on a rambling, monologue on my own experiences, which those who follow the MLA elections and the Chronicle's on-line 'Career Network' know something about. Incoherent as I may have been, this was the one speech I have given in which the audience was really with me--not just in the sense of scholarly obligation, but on a real, emotional level.

At a cocktail party later that night, older people came up to me to say that they think the MLA president has compromised many of the ideals she once had, even to feminism. A surprising number of people roughly my own age and status thanked me for what I said. Mostly women, they feel intensely the bitter irony of having wasted eight years of their lives in preparation for becoming secretaries to 26-year-old MBAs.

Well, that's grim. But I'll call it gritty realism, because it strikes me as a fairly accurate description of a grim reality.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 30, 2003 03:57 PM

Dear IA,

Thanks for quoting me--I forgot all about that letter. Brings back memories of the GSC and MLA '97-99. It was the only time I really felt connected to my fellow academics--something like the "comradeship" of veterans (instead of all the divisive, careerist, more-pc-than-thou theoretical individualism). We wanted to shut down the MLA Convention. We wanted to die in some spectacle of defiance. We wanted to spill blood all over Elaine Showalter's Prada wardrobe. (If only we could find the CNN cameras!)

Re the column: I still get uncomfortable when pragmatism becomes the reason for compromising one's values. "Forget the needed reforms, we have to pay the rent today." But who am I to criticize--I dropped out of sight after my older daughter was born? Life is better, I'm on the tenure-track at a college I respect, many of the needed reforms have come to pass (at least inside the nearly powerless MLA and AHA), but almost nothing has changed "on the ground."

Things are worse than ever, but I think more people are willing to admit there is a problem (although the national media persists in calling it a "supply-and-demand" issue, in effect, blaming the victims). There are lots of us former temps and adjuncts working quietly and pseudonymously on the other side of academic divide.

Of course, that's little comfort for the new crop of temps with doctorates. As far as I can tell, the only hope for the profession as a whole--and academe is a reflection of the larger culture--is organized labor.

Organize yourselves. Harness your justified outrage.

Even if you fail, you can at least gain back some of your self-respect by refusing to be exploited.

In solidarity,

Bill Pannapacker
Assistant Professor of English
Hope College

Posted by: William Pannapacker at May 30, 2003 05:12 PM

I changed careers in 1974 after 4 years of graduate school. In part I decided to leave before I got my Ph.D., because I had an instinct that I would be more marketable without a Ph.D. than with one, and I was probably correct.

There are several comments I would make here after 30 years in the post-graduate school real-world job market. Not all will apply to all readers, naturally, but some might to some.

First, "secretaries" in the sense of female office workers who take dictation, screen phone calls, and schedule appointments, are increasingly uncommon. I would not envision a future career path in this direction. Keep in mind that word processing, e-mail, calendar tools, and phone mail took on in the business world as ways to eliminate "secretaries". It is only the extremely spoiled and unproductive business elite who continue to have personal assistants of this sort.

Second, the way to get a job in a new field is any way you can. You may find that working temps may be an introduction, but keep in mind that this is an unfortunate time to try to get any job, temp or full-time, in nearly any field. If one comes knocking, naturally, give it consideration. But also keep in mind that temps are in general poorly treated and more likely to be targets for harassment, since a complaint would need to be made to the temp's employer (an agency) about conduct of a person employed by the company that's a customer of the agency. Your best bet would be to hope for money out of the legal action in a case like that.

At one point I registered at a temp agency, had a typing speed of 50 wpm and was well rated at all the office applications, but never was sent out on enough assignments to make it worthwhile.

Writing skills can be marketable, though again in this job market there will be many, many applicants for a particular job. I transitioned from English grad student to the computer field by landing jobs as a technical writer; others have done this. Other jobs involving writing skills would be advertising copy writer, newspaper copy editor, PR writer, grant application writer, proposal writer, etc. If you've done writing as part of grant applications or similar work in the academic world, you have direct experience to point to.

You can get jobs by networking, which sometimes works, but once you've made your basic assessment of marketable skills, keep in mind that there are many on-line job boards such as or where you can set up agents to notify you of jobs that match keyword searches you set up.

None of these is going to work well in this job market, though, so be warned.

Finally, do whatever you can to get trained in computer skills. Certainly basic Microsoft Office, including Word, Excel, Power Point, etc. will serve you well. If you can find a way to get into training for certification like MCSE, this would be a radical step forward.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 30, 2003 05:22 PM

On the surface, the temp work "option" sounds a wee bit more hopeful than minimum wage labor, but there is a major problem: large groups of laid-off individuals from the corporate world are competing for these same temp jobs! Where does that leave the PhD when they are up against former middle-managers and desperate tech sector employees? If it weren't depressing, it would be sort of funny in an ironic way. First, we have a scenario where PhD's outnumber academic job openings. Now we have a situation where these same PhD's have to compete with 4 and 6 year degrees! You can't win!
Bill, the same arrogance exists in colleges of education. There is such a divide forming between full time professors and adjunct faculty, but few full timers seek to address this divide. Like you, I have found full time work, but remember all too well how I felt as an adjunct.

Posted by: Cat at May 30, 2003 05:24 PM

It's not clear to me that casual office labour is preferable to casual academic labour. It's presented as r&eacut;culer pour mieux sauter. But cat points out that some of those to whose dizzy heights you want to jump are down there scrabbling for the scraps with you.

Posted by: jam at May 30, 2003 06:00 PM

It's not clear to me, either. It is preferable only if it leads to something better. But that's the big "if"...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 30, 2003 06:13 PM

I don't know that it will be preferable. In my case, though, there is nothing in the academic arena available to me this year -- or at least it's unlikely that I'll find enough to live on. I've temp'ed before -- back when I was in high school -- so I know the drill. It feels a bit perverse, though; even then I remember thinking -- as I finished the day's work in an hour or looked at a vast pile of envelopes to be stuffed -- who does this on a normal day? If that was then, what will it be like now?

(Not that this experience is unique to me; several of the "how to succeed as a temp" books I've read this last week had a section specifically directed toward the question of "I have nothing to do -- now what?")

Posted by: Rana at May 30, 2003 06:22 PM

These points are all good reasons not to work as a temp, and that is something I would take very seriously. It's worth keeping in mind that the person who gets Ph.D. training and then decides to switch careers has certain qualities of courage and resourcefulness that others don't. Many years ago I ran across an old girlfriend from graduate school who had gone on to become a full professor -- one of the very few from my time as a grad student who'd made it into the tenure track. Her candid assessment of her situation was that she did it because, after looking at her capabilities, there was absolutely nothing else she could have done. (My private assessment, knowing her capabilities fairly well, would be to agree -- and I don't think I'd want to take her seminars, either.) That says a lot about those continuing in academics vs those leaving the field, a different perspective.

There are important issues of self-esteem here that are necessary to a job search, or a period of unemployment. You can't let yourself get stuck in the idea that the only thing you can do is temp jobs. There are in fact challenging jobs out there that require skills in writing, editing, research, and organization. If you think you've got to go out and get a typing job now, you may miss the circumstances that might lead to something much more rewarding.

This will all depend on your fanancial resources, other resources, like family, on which you may be able to fall back, the job market in your area, etc. However, I'm concerned that this discussion is focused on temp jobs as the only alternative.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 30, 2003 06:51 PM

Temping is somewhat analogous to adjuncting in the non-academic workforce, but as Susan's article notes, it can lead to full-time employment. So, going this route is a strategic move. It isn't that it's the only path, but that it is a path worth considering. One should use such a gig to develop one's skills and keep looking for full-time employment, either at the company where you are placed or elsewhere. Turnover is fairly high in the temp industry for this reason, unlike in academe where many adjuncts would be reluctant to resign mid-semester for a good job in the business world (even though they should have no such compunction).

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at May 30, 2003 07:40 PM

John Bruce,
Very good points (in both comments here). I certainly don't want to see temping as the only alternative. But when I read that the author of an upbeat 'You-can-leave-the-academy-and-prosper' book now recommends temping, I am not inclined toward optimism.

William Pannapacker is probably right that the only long-term solution is to organize. It seems clear that those now in a position to do anything aren't about to do so. But it is incredibly difficult to organize part-time workers in any field. And many people simply cannot afford to stick around long enough to organize: they are forced to leave the academy out of economic necessity.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 30, 2003 07:45 PM

I don't think organizing would help. Economically, organizing is a cartel, and indeed, tenure is a cartel, and the problem with a cartel is that there will always be players willing to find ways to cut prices and thus undercut the cartel. Tenure was a cartel that, as I understand it, has been maintained via each university's concordat with the AAUP. Fat lot of good that's done, because adjuncts are a way that universities can accommodate price-cutters, another word for adjuncts. Now, if the price-cutters want to form a cartel -- well, I think a group of Ph.D.s should be able to get the picture here.

My own sense is that the way to change the academic job market would be more direct, and more draconian. Recognize that the blood corpuscles of the current system are the teaching assistants. The tenured faculty prefer to teach graduate seminars, let's not belabor the reasons. Graduate seminars are money-losers, and you've got to find grad students to fill them. So you employ TAs to teach sections of the high-volume introductory courses, which are moneymakers (big time).

The TAs, who are grad students, attend the money-losing graduate seminars, paid for by the tuition credit they generate in addition to their subsistence cash income. In this way they serve to transfer the funds from the high-volume, high margin intro courses to the low-volume, money losing graduate seminars. Blood corpuscles.

The system has evolved in large part because TAs have been induced to serve as blood corpuscles thinking they will wind up like the tenured profs from whom they take graduate seminars. Many have commented in many places how little is done to educate TAs in their actual chances of winding up this way. Obviously there is a de facto benefit to this state of affairs -- it is in the current system's interest to keep TAs naive as long as possible.

The one cloud the size of your hand in this whole thing is the background effort to have TAs declared employees. All universities are aligned currently in resisting this. But a single class action suit that succeeded on behalf of TAs would force issues such as, but not limited to, minimum wage, benefits, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and so forth. No need to organize, simple employment law would kick in where it currently does not apply. The cost of each TA, or blood corpuscle, would increase by some multiple.

This would reduce the number of TAs hired overnight, because it would force the universities to pay them more, and would also destroy the economic rationale that creates the current Ph.D. oversupply. (This is a true tragedy of the commons, where the utility to each department of creating an additional Ph.D. far exceeds the impact to the same department of adding another surplus Ph.D. to the job market.)

At this point the need for adjuncts would skyrocket. They would have Ph.D.s and would still be able to teach lower-level courses at a cost advantage, replacing TAs, whose hiring would radically decrease -- also decreasing the number of unnecessary grad students and new Ph.D.s, also forcing many tenured faculty to retire.

I believe this is the strategy to pursue.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 30, 2003 08:27 PM

I see two useful ideas in the try-temping article. One is that temping is no longer an unusual way to get a job; it used to be stigmatized much more. The other is that, although 'the market' probably doesn't care if you have a humanities PhD, those accepted to a PhD program gain casual mastery of very useful skills. Judging from the prose and argument in the 'scholar blogs', it's so. Perhaps you don't know how bad writing is in the rest of the world.

I have read you (generic) writing, sadly, that you've put in eight years of pain on eighteenth-century Welsh prosody, and what employer will care? and I want to echo what others have said: the curiosity and detail and rigor that needed to be second-nature before you started writing the thesis are rare, and you shouldn't downplay them just because everyone in gradschool does.

I'm apparently about to shout "Win one for the Gipper!" but, you know, I think by and large you-all deserve more compliments than you hear or listen to. You can go out there and win one with eighteenth-century Welsh prosody tied behind your back.

Fixing the academic system in some way would be better, for your sakes and that of eighteenth-century Welsh prosody, but I don't have a clue about that. Nor do I know what to do if the 'jobless recovery' gets even worse.

Posted by: clew at May 31, 2003 04:01 AM

One point that you have brought up repeatedly is that you feel you have wasted your time getting a Ph.D. since while you may have come up with some useful skills for whatever job, it is nothing at all in proportion to the time you have put into it. I think you are right, but you should remember that this is true of all job-switchers. If you spend 5 years selling oil-drilling equipment and then get a job selling backhoes you will find that you have no use for a lot of knowledge about oil-drilling equipment, your old customers and your old co-workers. I suspect that for good business jobs they will be aware of this.

Posted by: Ssuma at May 31, 2003 01:14 PM

I spent six years in grad schools developing skills and learning information that won't help me get a job out in the real world.

Many of my friends spent those same years developing skills in new media that also have little value in today's post-boom job market.

While they earned more money, I'm still glad that I spent the years reading interesting books, writing, and traveling in Spain, instead of desiging Powerpoint presentation for executives. I think a little perspective is in order, so that we don't get too bitter. The economy is bad, and plenty of people are forced to start over in entirely new fields. Believe me, it's not fun. I don't think, though, this situation is only faced by academics looking to leave the ivory tower.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at May 31, 2003 04:59 PM

Ssuma, you make a good point about time, but money is also a factor. If I spent five years selling oil-drilling equipment, I'd have five years' worth of (presumably) reasonable income in the bank. My first term as a TA begins this fall, and I'll get $3K a year. Which I'll accept gratefully along with my tuition waiver (the letter extending the offer to me took pains to point out how little money there is for TAs, and how fierce the competition is for the slots).

But now my puppy-like gratitude turns to pangs of guilt as I read John Bruce's sharp summary of the academic labor picture. Can anyone say more about the "background effort" to have TAs declared employees? Is this part of the general push towards unionization by grad students?

Posted by: rose at May 31, 2003 05:35 PM

Point well taken, AFoMO.

It may be worth suggesting at this point that academia is one of the few remaining fields people enter expecting a single-track career. Revising that expectation takes a bit of work. IMO it's worth it, mind you, but it's still work.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 31, 2003 05:36 PM

For rose, I did a quick google search on "teaching assistant" employees university, and among the numerous links was this statement from the President of the UC system that gives a snapshot of the issues as of a few years ago:

One barrier to unionization is in fact, as you've noted, the sheer numbers applying to be TAs. As a result, organizing will have only a marginal effect, and it interests me that in 1973 I was making $2800 as a TA (if my memory serves me), as opposed to your $3000 30 years later. Not much progress, it would seem.

I'm not aware of a current class-action suit, but I believe this would be the way to do it. There have been suits filed in other temp/contractor situations, and in situations where companies tried to treat employees they called non-hourly, and thus exempt from overtime, as de facto hourly employees. The rather nasty shock to such companies has been the sudden need to pay a lot of back overtime.

Attorneys, I am told, aren't creative, and most rely on "litigation kits" provided by other attorneys to file many lawsuits. At some point, however, someone is going to break new ground with the situation of TAs.

My advice to a new TA would be to get the best information you can up front on how many students in each specialty have gotten tenure-track jobs ove the past 20 years (vs total enrollment or total completed degrees), and also track that by dissertation director. I'll bet they'd REALLY hate that last one.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 31, 2003 08:58 PM

I can think of one angle for a class-action suit: if teaching assistants are employees (and the National Labor Relations Board ruled in November 2000 that the TAs at NYU are indeed employees), then one could argue (if one were a lawyer, which I'm not) that many universities have been and continue to be in violation of federal minimum wage law.

3K a year for a teaching assistantship is really outrageous. How many hours of work does this involve?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 31, 2003 09:40 PM

Well, I pulled $3K out of my memory; always a bad idea. Turns out it's (get ready) $3,802. So a thousand bucks more than John Bruce got 30 years ago (and thank you for the advice).

IA, I don't know how many hours are involved. The offer doesn't specify, but based on what I see my discussion-group leaders (all TAs) doing, it looks like they're in class 4 hours a week, plus a weekly meeting with the prof (another hour?), plus 3 hours a week in the office for students...that's, let's see, 8 hours/week x 32 weeks/year = 256 hours....$14.85 an hour.

If this is correct, it's more than I made as a clerical temp, and less than I made writing grants. But I suppose it would be more relevant to compare this wage against the salaries of hired faculty (I'll be checking the Chronicle's salary tables). Also, I'm not sure what hours I might be overlooking. Since the TAs are "discussion leaders" and not instructors, I don't know if they're granted class prep time (I do know they put it in, though--at least the better ones do).

Posted by: rose at May 31, 2003 10:23 PM

If those hours are accurate, clearly well above minimum wage.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 31, 2003 10:32 PM

In my day, TAs also had to grade papers, and there's definitely prep time. I would talk to experienced instructors, but there's usually a rule-of-thumb ratio of prep time to class time -- certainly 1 to 1, maybe more. If you are going to lead a section on Hamlet, you'd pretty well better know the text (unless you want to ramble on about how Bush is like Hitler or something, of course). It certainly took me and most people I knew 8 hours of work or so to do a conscientious job grading papers. There were also various tedious meetings prior to and during the semester.

I don't know what the standard load is for TAs now; my memory is that it was half time of a standard 3/3 class schedule, so it would be 2/1 for a TA as of 1973 at USC (based on memory). I actually don't think an unreasonable rule of thumb would be simply to call TAing a half-time job, so I would calculate 20 hours a week times 32 weeks is 640 to come up with a little over $5 an hour.

But the major issue here, as several have already pointed out, is that you may be committing yourself to a career path whose odds may not pan out. You are investing foregone income plus time under the assumption that you have a reasonable chance of getting a prestigious position that affords you extensive time for your own intellectual and personal pursuits, at a pretty good income, with a reasonable chance at having this for a lifetime if you don't screw up.

You, and every other TA, need to get a good picture of the actual odds. If your chances of getting a tenure track job when (IF) you finish your Ph.D. are only 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, you should carefully evaluate what you're doing now. And keep in mind that these ratios are for completed Ph.D.s -- see (again, see how easily you can get it) if your department will give you stats on enrollments in the program vs degree completions -- something colleges now are required to publish for undergraduate degrees. Factor that into your calculations as well.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 31, 2003 11:00 PM

John Bruce is exactly right about the need to get an accurate picture. Not that the department will necessarily be inclined to provide you with such information. One important group of people to talk to: ABD graduate students in the department who are very near to completion. Some of them may have gone "on the market" at least once; all of them will have a pretty good sense of the placement rates of recent PhDs from their own department.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 31, 2003 11:38 PM

At the University of Wisconsin, TAships are measured in percentages of a full-time appointment. My husband and I have both had TAships here, at the 33 1/3% level ("one-third time"), which is the lowest level at which one gets a tuition waiver.

The expectation is that the work of a one-third-time TA can get done in 13 1/3 hours.

My TAship involved near-total control (class planning, office hours, grading, some test construction) over a five-day-a-week introductory Spanish class, limited to (IIRC) 26 people.

David leads three discussion sections a week, and grades all work for students in those sections, just under 90 people.

I never timed my work or his, so I don't know whether we were under the supposed limit or not. Use data-point at your peril.

The 50% appointment I had the semester I left gave me two classes instead of one, all else the same.

I've already told my story about pre-waiver days, when a one-third-time TA having tuition withheld could expect to take home $65 a month.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 1, 2003 01:09 AM

BTW, I would add to John Bruce's excellent comments (being the person I am *wink*) that you also need to figure your chances of finishing the program at all. Grad departments won't want to tell you their attrition rates, and the bigger the department (and the more TAs it hires) the more they won't want to tell you -- but you need to know anyway.

Just another way you can put in a lot of time and effort and end up with little, if anything, to show for it.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 1, 2003 01:11 AM

It's hard to know what to say in response to everyone's hard-won experience and advice. First of all, thank you for serving it neat, no chaser. Mmmm, bracing!

I didn't think I had many illusions coming into this (I'm almost 40, returning to academe after 17 years of not-overly-remunerative life in the business world), but I guess I still had a couple teensy ones. Not so much about faculty salaries or post-grad placement stats--I figured it was pretty grim, although perhaps not THIS grim--but more about the long-term future of the humanities in academia. Between higher ed's increasing reliance on contract labor, and Stanley Fish announcing the irrelevance of theoretical work, and my goldfish looking a little lean...

Fortunately, although I love research and writing, and the scholarly life in general (just like everyone else here, I'm sure), I don't necessarily have a professorship-or-bust attitude. What breaks my heart is realizing how few of my fellow students, the serious ones who are going on to grad school and who are counting on becoming professors and having families, are aware of any of these issues. I e-mailed a list of scholar blogs to a little elite circle of school chums and they're all shocked at what they're reading. Honestly, no one talks about these things on campus, at least not to promising undergrads.

You can be sure I'll be talking with the department about some of the issues raised in this thread, and doing some more digging around for information on employee status for TAs.

Posted by: rose at June 1, 2003 02:05 AM

I was chatting with my wife about this thread, and she more or less told me to GO BACK AND TELL ROSE and any one else lurking who may be in the same position:

Be extremely circumspect about trying to get the info that I've outlined (and others have agreed you should have). Anyone who walks up to the Graduate Studies Chair and asks for statistics on how many graduate students in each year have achieved a Ph.D. within 6 years; or how many Ph.D.s in each specialty receive tenure-track jobs in a given year; or (aarrrgggghhh!!!) what the placement rate in tenure track jobs is for Ph.D.s working under a particular dissertation director -- BE WARNED. DO NOT WALK UP TO PROFESSORS AND ASK QUESTIONS LIKE THESE. My remarks were a combination of excessively consumerist-idealistic and a little bit tongue in cheek. It would be a most interesting project to compile information like this, but if the powers that be in any university department thought a TA was seriously working on such a project, I think the TA would stop being a TA in fairly short order and not necessarily understand why.

The issue is that graduate studies are a bit of a scam, and nobody really wants to face up to it. I would say to tenured faculty who teach graduate seminars and are lurking here, your consciences should be bothering you, and you know it.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 1, 2003 02:59 AM

Good point, Mrs Bruce. What I have in mind is more an informal chat with ABD graduates students. "So how do you like the program here?" "And what about job prospects?" These are the people who are most likely to be honest. If they tell you everything is rosy, then fine. But if they tell things are grim, take heed.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 1, 2003 03:56 AM


Thanks, Mrs. Bruce. I certainly don't want to be the sacrificial lamb.

Posted by: rose at June 1, 2003 04:12 AM

Not a scientific sample, but a telling anecdote: when my husband left grad school for law school, the schools that accepted him not only volunteered but even trumpeted information about their placement rates. Okay, these were really "good" (ie top-ranked) law schools, with very high placement rates. But he left a really "good" (ie top-ranked) graduate program, where nobody ever talked about placement rates, and with good reason. The very fact that they don't volunteer this information should serve as a warning.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 1, 2003 04:24 AM

A note on "temping." There are a couple kinds of temps, just as there are different flavors of professors. One kind of temp work-- the one we're probably most familiar with, or imagine when we hear the word "temp"-- is very short-term, on the order of a few days or a week: the regular staff person is sick, so you call in a temp. But the second kind, which Susan is talking about, is much longer-duration: a company has a six-month project, but doesn't want to hire permanent people for it, so they hire "temps." That longevity is what makes the strategy of starting at the bottom even remotely viable.

Another thing that works in favor of this strategy is that the conventional bureaucratic technologies for job recruitment and personnel sorting-- the application to the HR department, the formal interview, etc.-- have for some time been undercut by a growing informal network, in which people get jobs, and indeed find out about them in the first place, through some indirect but personal contact with someone in the company. The Institute for the Future, where I work, has a very small staff, and a much larger penumbra of advisors, affiliates, and other Baker Street Irregulars who are brought in to work with us on specific projects, who have expertise is certain areas, etc.. Some of them were employee #200 at Sun or Apple, and can afford not to be interested in a full-time job. Others evolve into full-time employees. (That's what happened to me.)

So the breakdown of traditional, formal mechanisms for finding jobs in the business world make strategies like temping your way into permanence more viable.

All anecdotal evidence I've heard recently is that the job market is screwy and getting screwier. Here in Silicon Valley, some companies now have the nerve to demands years of technical and managerial experience for internships, and are described in language like, "A great way to hone your C++ skills while you look for a permanent job!" At least a few places think that in this market, they don't even have to pay workers. Fortunately, this attitude is still the exception rather than the rule, but it's one of those outliers that tells you something about how the center is shifting.

Posted by: askpang at June 1, 2003 06:33 AM

Haven't read the article in question, but in addition to long-term temping there is also "temp-to-perm," in which you take on a temp job that is really a tryout period for a full-time position. My husband's landed a couple of full-time jobs that way.

Beware of one thing, however: ASK about any employment contracts (NDAs, non-competes) BEFORE you accept turning your temp job into a permanent position. One rather slimy place my husband worked sprang a disgusting piece of legalese on him the day AFTER they hired him. He left.

In re: asking about grad departments... I'd do this during the application process, if I were you. You're less likely to be a marked person for it (who remembers all their applicants?), and it should serve as a brilliant weed-out tool -- if you get hostility or a runaround, you can be pretty sure it's a school or department you don't want to be in.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 1, 2003 02:11 PM

Actually I found the original article in the Chronicle a little too glib for my tastes, and it definitely fuzzes over "temping" vs "contracting". A "contractor" is very commonly a highly experienced IS person who bills at a rate that will take into consideration the short term of the job and the lack of benefits -- a typical contractor rate will be from $40 to $100 an hour depending on specialty and demand. To get this rate you pretty much have to have a number of years of solid, referenceable skills in the precise area you are working in, and often specialized certifications.

It's a little bit dishonest for the article to include this type of work as something you can do to transition out of adjuncting. In fact, I would say the article is a piece of hack work, intended mainly to sell to the editor, rather than to inform.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 1, 2003 04:04 PM

"One important group of people to talk to: ABD graduate students in the department who are very near to completion. Some of them may have gone "on the market" at least once; all of them will have a pretty good sense of the placement rates of recent PhDs from their own department.:

-Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 31, 2003 11:38 PM

You can also ask them about the attrition rate, to get an accurate picture of your chances of getting a Ph.D.

Posted by: Barry at June 2, 2003 04:07 PM

My program -- very highly ranked in my field, at a top-tier school -- doesn't distribute placement information to students, unlike some other departments which place the info on their websites. (Naturally, we have an informal grapevine, but it's not too reliable. I could tell you most of the people who've gotten jobs the past few years, and give you precise statistics about my advisor, but that's all -- and I used to be fairly well plugged in.)

What's odd is that our faculty does get placement data of a sort; I once found myself in possession of handouts from the great Fall Department Meeting (a prof had written notes to me on the back!) and discovered a list of all the department's students (that is, those whom the Dean of Students knew about) who had gotten tenure-track, full-time term, or related-field jobs in the past year. Of course, there was no effort to calculate what percentage of admitted or graduating students these people made up.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at June 3, 2003 06:56 AM

Yes. It's amazing how people quickly fall off the map when they don't have a clear "success story." I'm aware of the people who got tenure-line positions (because we are all envious of them) but what happens to the rest of us is rather a mystery.

Posted by: Rana at June 3, 2003 06:04 PM