July 17, 2003

If You Insist on Graduate School, At Least Do Your Homework

Still, I have a mournful affection for students who remain confident of their ability to beat the odds. The young feel invincible and full of potential. And many universities view their naiveté and energy as an exploitable resource. The majority of graduate students exist to provide cheap labor for undesirable undergraduate courses and students for high-prestige graduate programs taught by tenured professors. It seems like the undergraduates are the only ones who don't know this, and they get angry when you tell them.

-- Thomas H. Benton, If You Must Go to Grad School...

In his "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" column (which I blogged about here), Thomas H. Benton made a compelling case against graduate school in the humanities. He now offers words of wisdom for those who insist on following this very risky pursuit. It's important to note that Benton is not encouraging and endorsing the graduate school option. "I believe that most would not choose to go," he writes, "if they were properly informed about the risks (the most notable of which is a strong probability of never landing a tenure-track job)." I agree. Though aspiring graduate students will readily acknowledge that they realize the job market is "tight," many have no idea of just how grim is the situation in many fields in the humanities.

Among the more cynical responses to criticisms of the ongoing overproduction of humanities PhDs is the caveat emptor line, which conveniently places the fact-finding burden on prospective students while absolving faculty and administrators of any professional or ethical obligation to supply these students with accurate information about employment prospects. What's disingenuous about this response is its pretence of a neutral information field: as if the undergraduate is situated somewhere outside the academy, from which position he or she gathers the evidence and weighs the options concerning various career paths: law school versus grad school; public sector versus private; entry-level position in a possibly unpromising field versus unpaid internship in a field that looks more promising; low-paying retail job now (just to make ends meet and maybe even make a dent in the student loans) versus another year or two of school for a practically-oriented degree or certificate. Well, of course liberal arts undergraduates do seek out information on any number of fields and occupations (though many of them go on to follow a career path that starts out as something random: just get a foot in the door somewhere, anywhere, and see where it leads [which is basically, and understandably, the advice given to humanities PhDs who are forced to leave the academy: and I guess I've already said enough about the sense of waste and futility that comes from realizing that this is what one could have, and should have, done in the first place]). But it's worth noting that undergraduates do all of this while still immersed within and under the influence of the specific culture of a specific place that is not a law firm, not a large corporation, not a small non-profit organization, not a government office, not a high tech marketing firm...but that is rather the academy. For students with a genuine aptitude and passion for advanced studies, the attraction of a life of teaching and scholarship is pretty much overdetermined, reinforced at so many levels by factors that range from the pleasures derived from study to the very partial (and very pleasing) perspective they acquire on what it means to be an academic to the explicit (and very flattering) encouragement they receive from professors whom they greatly admire. To be sure, there are many humanities professors who no longer encourage the best and brightest of their undergraduates to continue their studies in graduate school. But there are others who remain convinced, and who manage to convince their undergraduates, that "there will always be jobs for good people" or that "the job market has to pick up with the next round of retirements" or that something or other must give. And there aren't a lot of other voices, or alternative sources of information, within the academy to challenge what I think is the unwarranted optimism underlying such views.

In any case, as Benton realizes, some people will go to graduate school in the humanities. And if they are determined to do so, they should definitely read his hard-hitting advice.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 17, 2003 04:21 PM

the very partial (and very pleasing) perspective they acquire on what it means to be an academic

This bears repeating. Undergrads have very little real sense of what it is like to _live_ as faculty and there is little actively done to inform them. The numbers of students I have shocked -- complete with expressions of startlement and confusion -- by explaining that I won't be teaching next year because I am a part-timer making about $18,000 a year and haven't been rehired is astounding and disheartening.

I think it's good for them to hear it, though. Most have accepted that being an academic means driving an old junker and wearing interestingly funky old clothes; none have registered that one of their bright, cheerful young professors is working below poverty level and will be unemployed next fall. Consider it my small effort to destigmatize talking about one's meager income and prospects.

Posted by: Rana at July 17, 2003 04:58 PM

Thanks for relinking to Thomas' original column. Can't get any more hardhitting -- or accurate -- than that.

Posted by: JT at July 17, 2003 05:08 PM

In following many of the discussions on this blog, I have felt of two minds about a lot of the topics (especially tenure-related). But the use of grad students as cheap teaching fodder in programs where they have a whelk's chance in a supernova of getting a job strikes me not merely cynical but truly corrupt. (This is not to let off the hook departments that do place their students a bit better, since the system may still be unjustly exploitative at such places. But at such places there would at least be room for debate -- non-placing programs are simply beyond the pale.)

I wonder whether something can be done about that, and indeed done by adjuncts and tt faculty. Namely, start up a website dedicated to the honest tracking of placement information of the programs in various fields. If such a site earned a reputation for unblinking honesty, it could become a standard resource to which potential grad students would be preferred. (It should thus not be a general PhD/adjunct grumbling site -- if most of the people directing undergrads to the site would be tt faculty themselves, they may simply not want to pay attention to sites of that flavor.) Such a site could also identify egregious mismatches between any given program's placement record and its own advertising.

I can think of at least two big reasons why such a site would be helpful, above and beyond the general 'why you should think twice about grad school' stuff that is out there (e.g., on zizka's site usefully mentioned in a recent comments: http://www.johnjemerson.com/afford.htm ). First, it could apply pressure on the particular bad offenders here, and rightfully reward (with good press) the programs that do a decent job of getting their PhD's placed. Second, it would help overcome some of the 'but I'm different' mindset that has been noted on this blog -- namely, students who are convinced that they will beat the odds, even though most of them ought to figure that they are not exceptional among the population of grad students. The placement tracking site would not totally correct that mindset, of course, but at least it would invite some students to think, 'if I'm supposed to be able to beat these odds, why is it that the best program I could get into only places 20% of its students?'.

Such a site would need to be run by at least a good handful of people, and indeed probably a distinct handul for each discipline. But there seems to be a lot of energy out there in the blogosphere that could be directed at such efforts, and I don't see why it couldn't all be done anonymously, or as anonymously as any given participant wanted it to be. And it seems to me to be one thing that really could be done right now to start, even if ever so slightly, changing the system.

Posted by: JW at July 17, 2003 07:44 PM

This is an excellent idea. I believe there is something very like what you describe for the discipline of philosophy (someone please correct me if I'm wrong about this). My sense is that this would have to be done under the aegis of the relevant professional associations. I can't imagine departments agreeing to supply this information unless pressured/shamed into doing so by some sort of institutional body.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 17, 2003 08:05 PM

I recall seeing the faces of a few students when I told them what an average incoming Assistant Professor makes in the Humanities. Although it's nice to see that the couple in the Chronicle are very happy with their choices, it's hard to remain cheerful when one is wondering about next's month's rent, groceries, health insurance, etc.

The most responsible advice a faculty member can give a student who is considering graduate school in the humanities is the truth!

Posted by: Anna at July 17, 2003 08:09 PM


People outside philosophy may not know Brian Leiter, who runs the 'philosophical gourmet report,' a ranking of graduate programs in the discipline. Since his report is highly regarded (well, people care what it says, at least), he's been able to pressure departments to post detailed placement information on their websites. Granted, Leiter comes across like a complete prick much of the time, but this campaign is a great thing for people considering graduate school. ("oh, look, people get jobs where I'd hate to live...")

Posted by: Fontana Labs at July 17, 2003 08:22 PM

I've looked at the Leiter report, and it's an extremely good idea, well-implemented...

It would also be useful to specify length of time to placement. Not sure if it would be too much of a hassle to ask programs to subdivide placement rates by field--something that springs to mind only because some programs I can think of have 100% placement rates in some specialties, but do horribly in others.

Posted by: Miriam at July 17, 2003 10:56 PM

To some extent you could get the 'by field' placement by getting thesis topics of the people who are placed (and those who complete and who are not placed). I think philosophy departments, having been shamed by Leiter into including placement info on their websites, frequently have started to include this sort of information.

Posted by: JW at July 18, 2003 02:26 AM

"Consider it my small effort to destigmatize talking about one's meager income and prospects."

yes. this is important: radical honesty.
so here's what i've been struggling with:
should i tell my *undergrads* about my opinion
-- actually my conviction -- that the system
we're working in is *designed* to disappoint
and frustrate a majority of them (i'm speaking
of mathematics classes at a community college
-- "weeders" for big state u.; presumably
the facts on the ground are similar in
at least *some* other programs).

there are a lot of reasons *not* to.
students would naturally tend to take out
any resentments i stirred up directly on me
as the face of the system i'm denouncing.
and rightly so, to some extent: if i don't
believe in what i'm doing, hadn't i ought to
seek more appropriate employment? even if
i have an honest answer -- for example, that
i still believe in *mathematics* (the most
liberating of the liberal arts) and that indeed
though i've been betrayed by academe, government,
and even family, learning itself has *always*
served me well -- i'm certain to be misunderstood
(as every teacher knows -- right?) and after all
one of the many *attractions* of math classes
is the extent to which politics is irrelevant.
anyway, who died and made *me* a prophet, right?
on the other hand. . .but then. . .and yet . . .

Posted by: at July 18, 2003 05:42 AM

that was me, vlorbik, posting just now.
this silly box is supposed to've remembered
my contact info but somehow didn't.

Posted by: vlorbik at July 18, 2003 05:44 AM

vlorbik, at the community college level, the majority of students should continue taking mathematics; having good math skills will open up opportunities at the BS, MS and Ph.D. level. And good math skills will keep doors open which might otherwise be shut.

If advising people to get a BS in mathematics, I'd point out the job prospects there (dismal; those hired would the be the ones with a CS dual major). But I'd point out the opportunities which would be open to people with good math skills.

Mathematics is in a unique position; pure math is not marketable, but the ability to apply math to other things is usually marketable.

Posted by: Barry at July 18, 2003 10:42 AM

Another issue to consider is that many humanities depts. play very fast and loose with what counts as "placement." I for one would like to see a site that cuts through the obfuscating BS, and bureaucratic appeals to "paradigm shifts in the nature and defintion of academic appointments" (yes, when I was in grad. school, a tenured faculty member used this phrase) and defines placement as tenure-track placement.

Posted by: Chris at July 18, 2003 12:28 PM

>>I guess I've already said enough about the sense of waste and futility that comes from realizing that this is what one could have, and should have, done in the first place

See this is the sort of mindset I was gently trying to laugh people out of in my post on the "crisis". It's not waste and futility. I've heard the same proverb as "If you don't know who you are, the stock market is an expensive place to find out" and "If you don't know who you are, a boxing ring is a painful place to find out", so I don't know where it originated. But if you genuinely don't know who you are, then it strikes me that a university is a place which was specifically designed for the purpose of finding out. Nobody should feel ashamed of having spent three years doing their growing up; people should feel ashamed for not having grown up at all, which is the situation a lot of people are in when they hit the job market immediately after an undergraduate degree.

Posted by: dsquared at July 18, 2003 12:31 PM

On the question of what to tell students and in what degree, a good rule of thumb would be to begin by asking, "Who will benefit from this?" If the main or sole purpose of telling your students about the institution is to air your beefs rather than to help the students make an informed decision, I'd keep my mouth shut. If it is to help a student decide whether to go to grad school or not, I'd tell them -- but try not to be the sole authority for that information.

I think of it much like teaching in the classroom; sometimes you can build rapport with the students by telling them some of the "secret" reasons behind the assignment or activity -- other times benign manipulation is essential to their success, so you don't.

(All the students I've had "the conversation" with were juniors or seniors, interested in graduate school, and/or struggling with their own job prospects after graduation -- in other words, students in a position to appreciate and understand the information. I wouldn't have the same conversation with first years.)

Posted by: Rana at July 18, 2003 01:26 PM

First, a disclosure (this being my first post at IA): this site damn near convinced me not to go to grad school (I begin in history at a top5 school/department this fall) but Benton's latest article seems overly negative. And please, I know what I don't know. So easy on the reprobation.

First of my misdeeds, I don't have funding. Thing is, I'm changing fields, and though I've done some advanced work in history, I didn't expect any department to have that much faith in my abilities. So is that it, I just shouldn't go at all? I know grad funding is the first gatekeeper to professional success, but with knowledge of total department funding rates what's the harm (besides a bundle of debt) of trying a year?

Benton's recommendation of applying to 10-15 universities seems downright ridiculous. I was 4 for 5 on admission and 0 for 5 on funding. My thought is, if there are 15 schools where you are a good fit, you're area of study is probably over-developed already. Besides, I've never met a faculty member who wanted to write more than 5 recommendations, much less 15.

As for not being powerless in the face of potential graduate departments, does Benton remember the abject humility that an applicant feels toward established faculty members? Too often faculty would respond to inquiries such as those Benton recommended with canned half-answers and unwelcoming attitudes (these attitudes suspiciously change after admission). The grad school search can and should be handled differently by most applicants, but keep in mind that thesis completion, outside employment, investigating backup plans, and just plain lack of money often impair our side of the process.

Moreover, graduate departments may want more students than will successfully complete degrees, but in many ways it still seems the glut of students interested in grad school works against new grad students (just as it does for new PhD's.)

Comments very welcome.

Posted by: cooma at July 19, 2003 04:19 AM

Vlorbik: your feeling of teaching a weeding-out course may not be unfounded. When I was a TA I helped my advisor with Business Math courses that were designed to disqualify a certain number of students from doing a business degree. Maybe the best thing you can do is to give grades as much as possible on their abilities. If you start mouthing off your opinions, you will probably not be asked to teach more courses. I did not understand why your cc should care whether they graduate more math majors than the state U wants to accept.

I would not talk to your students much about math being a liberal art. Most of my students are doing a joint degree with business or computer science and just want to get a job after they graduate. Only a few students are really interested and I've talked to them about further education in office hours.

As Barry indicated, math departments can attract students by having applications to business etc. This usually results in teaching pretty uninspiring classes. The modern language dept. at my institute does a similar thing by teaching conversational language for business. Physics and Chemistry departments seem to be suffering as they are now seen as difficult liberal arts which will not help much in getting a job. Where I am at, the Physics dept. is trying to diversify into IT and financial math, but it looks like they will suffer big cuts or closure in the long run.

Posted by: ds at July 19, 2003 07:32 AM

Hm. Physics, Chemistry, and Math are now Humanities too. World conquest seems in our grasp.

Posted by: zizka at July 19, 2003 11:34 AM

As a graduate student (anthropology) who will be going on the job market in the fall, I'm more than a little aware of the problems that you present. Trust me, dude. But just how disingenuous is the 'caveat emptor' thing? I agree that the 'pretense of a neutral information field' is just that - a pretense, and a problem. But is this a problem unique to academia or to much of the world? From the tone of the piece I felt as if everywhere /but/ the academy was some sort of safe haven in which young people are given lots of unbiased information about their future and encouraged to think seriously about it. It may be true that the playing field is tilted inside the undergraduate college, but this is only to say that it, like everything else, if part of a world which is itself often less than just.

Posted by: Alex at July 19, 2003 12:04 PM

Alex, I think that is a good point. At least when I was in grad school I knew what I was doing, had a clear overview of expectations (with regular evaluations) and was doing something I liked -- not things always available out in the "real world" (a phrase that bugs me!).

On the other hand, I do think it is useful to offer some counterweight to the idea that going grad school is the same thing as being an undergrad (it most certainly is not -- I went to an intensive, seminar based small liberal arts college and I was still not prepared for the character of graduate work) and that it is a "safe" or "easy" way to ride out a bad job market. As Tim Burke once put it, you don't go to grad school because you like the idea; you go because you are driven to it by who you are and what you believe -- because not going is not a real choice for you.

Given this, I think that carefully applied discouragement is not necessarily a bad thing; it weeds out the diletantes (sp?) and the undirected -- both things that work against you in grad school anyway, let alone afterward.

This doesn't mean pretending you didn't enjoy it if you did, however -- more that you present all sides, including the positive.

Posted by: Rana at July 19, 2003 02:23 PM

cooma: I, too, found much of Benton's advice to be unrealistic. Frankly, I didn't follow any of it. I did everything wrong. I went to a grad program in English in 1988 because I didn't want to get a "real job," and I liked to read books (talk about being clueless). I had no funding my first year, had applied to only three schools, and went to the only one that accepted me. I was miserable. I was also extremely successful. I quickly impressed several professors, was awarded a full teaching assistantship my second year which was re-funded for the following six years, was accepted into the PhD program without even applying, and got a pre-doc. So, who can say?

I continued to be miserable as a grad student, but I discovered I loved to teach. I passed my disseratation area exam, and after writing about fifty pages of the thing I quit the program and six months later got a full-time teaching job at a community college where I am now tenured and making a damn good salary, all things considered.

I tell anyone who asks me if they should go to grad school in the humanities how miserable I was in my particular program and how abysmal the job market is, but how wonderful teaching is. I would not tell you not to do it, but do be ready to seek out options other than being a professor at a university as your goal; the sad reality is that probably won't happen (as you know from reading this blog). Good luck.

Posted by: cindy at July 19, 2003 04:09 PM

Adding on to what Cindy says...

Knowing whether you prefer teaching or research is pretty important. I've foolishly tracked myself into teaching-focused positions, but teaching was never what drew me to grad school nor what kept me there. There are other ways, I believe, to satisfy the teaching urge than getting the PhD; I'm not so sure about the research (at least in history).

Posted by: Rana at July 19, 2003 06:48 PM

Alex -- I doubt that anyone here is claiming that the grad school business is worse than , for example, the used car business. Just that it's far more similiar than they'd earlier believed it was.

There's no one whatever, as far as I know, with an institutional or economic interest in wising up entering grad students. Only they and their families will benefit if they are well informed. Entering grad students are by definition dispersed, ignorant,and unprosperous. An uninformed market which, furthermore, can't afford to buy good information. Thus they're in the sucker group, along with people who play the lottery, pay usurious interest on loans, buy shoddy, heavily-advertised merchandise, etc.

Posted by: zizka at July 19, 2003 06:49 PM

It should also be stressed to those considering a Ph.D program in the Humanities, that many do not finish for a variety of reasons. If a student has the facts concerning a docotoral program and still wishes to enter one, then hopefully, he or she will take the necessary steps to alleviate BIG disappointment at the end especially if the ultimate objective is to land a permanent teaching position.

It would be very useful for graduate programs to have seminars/workshops that explore alternative options beyond academe for employment. Some have already started this which is a step in the right direction.

Posted by: Anna at July 19, 2003 08:43 PM

"Moreover, graduate departments may want more students than will successfully complete degrees, but in many ways it still seems the glut of students interested in grad school works against new grad students (just as it does for new PhD's.)"

They do indeed. There is no glut of applicants for most grad programs in the humanities, except at the top, top programs. But even Harvard and Yale are reducing admissions because they can't get enough qualified applicants. Most grad programs are approaching open admissions for anyone with a B.A. If you don't get a fellowship, it means the grad school will put up with the damage you'll do to their reputation if you can pay your own way. If you have to pay for grad school, you are a second-class citizen; everyone will know it and will treat you accordingly.

Posted by: Former Admissions Worker at July 20, 2003 10:44 AM

I am so baffled by this whole discussion. I think ive fairly well immersed myself in the discussion of Phd YAY OR NAY for months now in the hopes of making a decision that for me is very likely about 2 years away (I am starting a Masters in English this fall).

But at the end of it all, dire warning aside, I still want to go. I dont expect to come out of the other end of it with a sunny career in the four year university of my choice. Id be tickled and happy to find a comfy spot making decent dough in a prep school or community college. Is that too much to ask too? Because I am not picky. I am already a teacher, already have a masters degree in teaching and would think I would be quite an asset to a prep school or community school because of that.

I want the PhD cause I want it. I am a grown up, have been through jobs and etc. Its an experience I want to have. Like skydiving. Testing my limits, etc.

Posted by: Argh at July 20, 2003 11:06 AM

I've read many reports that claim the Ph.D. to be a distinct liability for acquiring a position teaching in private schools. I realize it sounds counter-intuitive, but the reasoning against hiring Ph.D.'s for private school teaching is similar to the general criticisms heard about hiring Ph.D.'s in business: e.g., too individualistic, prima-donna-like, poor team members, arrogant, etc. And if one adds to these the fact that the kind of training one recieves in a Ph.D. program in no way prepares them to relate to and teach kids, the prejudice makes some sense.

Also, the majority of private school hiring in the Unitied States is conducted by two head hunting firms located in NYC, both of which act as clearing houses of sorts, and they are ill-disposed towards Ph.D.'s.

Posted by: Chris at July 20, 2003 11:59 AM

"If you don't get a fellowship, it means the grad school will put up with the damage you'll do to their reputation if you can pay your own way. If you have to pay for grad school, you are a second-class citizen; everyone will know it and will treat you accordingly."

I know some people don't want to hear this, but it's true. Do not go to graduate school without funding. My undergraduate mentors were, ahem, a little bit naive about a lot of things pertaining to grad school and the job market, but on this point they did not steer me wrong: if they don't offer you a fellowship, you don't go. Or, to put it another way, an offer of admission without an offer of funding does not count as an offer of admission.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 20, 2003 01:54 PM

I don't believe in private education, but if I were going to send a child to a private school, one of the things I'd hope I'd be paying for would be better-qualified teachers. I've thought about the matter carefully, and I'm going to say that in 9/10 cases, a PhD with college teaching experience is a better teacher at the secondary level than a BA/MA.

There's a lot of self-loathing aired here, but I don't doubt that the willpower and knowledge required to complete the degree are rare and are marks of distinction. Many of the better private and public schools do have many teachers with PhDs. There is, however baseless you may feel it is, a privilege associated with the PhD not held by the MA (or ABD). People are impressed by teachers with the credential.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 20, 2003 05:36 PM

Argh -- I don't think people are necessarily doubting that a PhD may be a useful or even desirable credential to have. What we are doubting is that possession of a PhD is necessary for some kinds of work, or that having one will increase the odds of getting employment in academia.

In the first case, it may be _nice_ to have a PhD, but one can become employed without one, meaning that there must be some additional value (perhaps personal) attached to the PhD that makes the financial and personal sacrifices acceptable.

In the second case, having a PhD is essential -- but everyone else has one too, so mere possession is not enough. Again, you need to ask whether the cost of obtaining one is worth the reward. If one's anticipated "reward" is a tenure-track job, the cost may well be too expensive, as those rewards are scarce. If it is personal enrichment ("It's an experience I want to have") only you can decide whether the degree comes dear or cheap.

A related problem is that many new graduate students are like the people in the previous entry -- they think only of the rewards -- and short term ones, at that -- and fail to consider the costs, either because they are naive or simply ignorant. Hopefully, we can correct the latter, at least, and that's what I think these comments are about.

Posted by: Rana at July 20, 2003 06:17 PM

Fie, Zizka; math, physics, and chemistry may be liberal arts - math certainly claims three of the seven, and keeps its fingers in another three - but they aren't humanities.

Had I been a humanities major, I would have tried saying that in a dead language.

Posted by: clew at July 20, 2003 06:26 PM

Eheu, Zizka -- fortasse mathematica atque physica atque scientia medicamentorum artes liberales sunt -- mathematica tres de septem adserit, et tres amplius attingit. Sed isti non humanitates sunt.

Posted by: JW at July 20, 2003 06:51 PM

You mean that "liberal arts major" and "humanities major" are NOT, like "lead guitar player" merely two synonyms for "unemployable", but actually have separate meanings? Hm.

Posted by: zizka at July 20, 2003 08:36 PM

I would be careful before discouraging all who don't receive funding from accepting the admission to a graduate program. There must be enough evidence of those who enter their programs without funding, do well, and then receive good to good enough financial support for the rest of their graduate careers. I'm actually one of them. In my first year I was awarded a measly RA-ship, mainly because I was the only grad student with command of the foreign language necessary for the research project. From year 2 - on, my studies were sufficiently - fully covered each term. So who knows?

Posted by: David Marshall at July 21, 2003 03:02 PM

David, I am sure that there may be a number of folks like you out there. But one of the overall themes of this blog & its commentators has been: if you want to go to grad school, take a minute and do the math. Among the factors that need to be considered are at least the following:
(i) the likelihood of completing your degree, and within what timeframe;
(ii) the likelihood of your getting a decent job, once you complete your degree, and just how decent a job it will be (in terms of pay, of course, but also in terms of teaching load, location, and other quality of life issues);
(iii) the opportunity costs of pursuing a PhD.

For almost anyone seriously thinking about pursuing a PhD, the values of these variables should lead one to re-think -- not necessarily to abandon it, but just to think it through carefully. But for someone who has not gotten a fellowship offer from a fairly high-end program, the values for each of these variables gets worse. That person is less likely to finish, because they have no guarantee of support; they are less likely to get a job at the other end, both due to that lack of support itself and also because, frankly, that lack of support will be a professional stigma on their applications; and their opportunity costs will be all the greater, because they will have to take on even larger loans than the average tuition-waivered grad student. So if the calculation is iffy enough for someone admitted with support, it becomes all the iffier for someone without it. Now, that doesn't mean that some folks can't beat the odds ... but the point is being aware of just how stark the odds are.

Posted by: JW at July 21, 2003 03:41 PM

Good points, JW, but perhaps we should clarify what is meant by "promise of support." At the institution I went to, first year admits were not allowed to hold TA-ships, the reasoning being that they would have enough on their plates without adding teaching duties (though some readerships were available for those who really needed/wanted them). I was offered a combination of grant and loan to cover that first year, as were most of my cohort, but that still involves debt (less than for some, but I am still paying it off at $100/month). I was fully funded (mostly through TA-ships) for every year thereafter.

This was the most any institution offered me; should I have not gone? Perhaps, since I am now unemployed, four years after graduating, but I don't think that one can give a clear answer that fits all people and all institutions.

This doesn't mean that one shouldn't take such variables into account, of course, as you point out.

Posted by: Rana at July 21, 2003 03:57 PM

Rana, you're clearly right that there are levels of support here. In the case that you descrive, I think it would depend on just how much grant support and how secure the promise of TAships or other support down the line is. As you describe it, I'm assuming that you (i) got at least a tuition waiver (and maybe a small stipend?) and (ii) had a reasonable expectation of full support for at least a few years down the line. I would think that that would count as 'having support'. But I do know of cases where people have seriously considered going to schools with _no_ promised support, just the chance to compete for a handful of TAships. And I would strongly discourage anyone from attending grad school under such conditions.

Posted by: JW at July 21, 2003 04:12 PM

I have a PhD in Mathematics from a top school. I would not recommend a PhD in Math to anyone. It is quite hard to get a job now (academic or industry), except if you have additional skills and training. I have a good job because I'm also good at software development. For those who love math, I'd say go into Statistics. Even in the current slump, a PhD in Stats is very marketable.

Posted by: RW Cox at July 21, 2003 09:01 PM

From Rana's commentary: "Undergrads have very little real sense of what it is like to _live_ as faculty and there is little actively done to inform them."

I seriously have no intention of telling my undergrads what the life of a prof is like. First, I don't want them envisioning me walking around in my underwear. And second, I don't want them to know that I had to shovel out part of my own overflowing septic tank before the Honey Bucket guys would consider pumping it.

When I was in college I idolized my profs and thought they either sat at home in front of a large stone fireplace in a smoking jacket, ascot and with a pipe, or they were shrink wrapped every evening so they would be fresh in the morning.

Posted by: John Lemon at July 22, 2003 01:50 AM

And can I rain on everyone's parade here and ask why this blog is filled with such negativity? Don't any of you like your jobs, even given the pay? In general, I'm quite happy with what I do and realize I could be making lots elsewhere (and have been offered to do so). Having the summer off is great because it frees up time to shovel your septic tank.

Posted by: John Lemon at July 22, 2003 01:52 AM

And can I rain on everyone's parade here and ask why this blog is filled with such negativity? Don't any of you like your jobs, even given the pay? In general, I'm quite happy with what I do and realize I could be making lots elsewhere (and have been offered to do so). Having the summer off is great because it frees up time to shovel your septic tank

In response to John Lemon's post,in order to stay in academe, a permanent job is necessary as 1400 per course doesn't cover the overhead costs like rent, groceries, health insurance, etc. This blog has been supportive for those of us who truly feel like we are alone because we haven't *made it* (read landing a permanent job). It is an eye opener for those who want to continue their graduate studies and for those who continue to seek a permanent position that allows them to enjoy the *summer's off* (though calling it a summer off is debatable).

I apologize if you find this post too negative, but painting a picture of a rose without the thorn is unrealistic.

Posted by: Anna at July 22, 2003 09:26 AM

John, can you explain to me exactly what people like me, Rana, IA, and Chris have to be positive about?

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 22, 2003 11:31 AM

John -- I love my job -- but I don't have it any more, and this year's job search produced nothing to replace it. I would keep doing it if I could, but so far I've had nothing but part-time and temporary positions. The most any of them paid was $36,000; this year I am squeaking by on $18,000. I am looking at looming expenses, including health insurance, and my family life has been put on hold.

I do love my research and teaching -- but I'm having a hard time reconciling that love with the need for a paycheck for food, rent, etc. There's a difference between loving the vocation and hating the system in which one practices.

Hence the "negativity."

Posted by: Rana at July 22, 2003 02:38 PM

John: like Rana above, I like my job. I doubt there is another professional arena in which my ethical, political, historical, and aestehtic interests could be so engaged on a daily basis. But the conditions under which I -- and others on this list -- work are abominable, not to mention ethically reprehensible. So why stay? I will admit that my love for the work is not what keeps me in the job. What keeps me in it is the fact that I have nowhere else to go. At 42, with a savings account that would make many undergrads laugh, and so far in debt that I will be dead before I am debt free, the prospect of re-credentialing myself is fantasy.

I recognize that I made my bed, but that doesn't mean I have to keep a smile on my face as I lie in it.

Posted by: Chris at July 22, 2003 03:01 PM

My solution (I have a social science Ph.D.): I married a physician.

Posted by: Binky at July 22, 2003 07:37 PM

Does he have a friend:) I am joking of course!

Posted by: Anna at July 22, 2003 08:17 PM

Okay folks. I've posted extensively on this on my blog. Click my name and you shall be whisked away to a land of tough love.

Posted by: John Lemon at July 23, 2003 02:16 AM

Probably Lemon is more satisfied with his position than the adjuncts, and complaining less than they are, because he is in a **different position** than they are. Just a hunch of mine.

Posted by: zizka at July 23, 2003 04:38 PM

Sounds reasonable to me.

Posted by: Rana at July 23, 2003 05:05 PM

I know I'm responding to an old conversation here, but I can't help reacting to Argh's comment about "being happy to find a nice comfy spot in a prep school or community college." I heard a lot of people in my department talking that way when I went back to grad school in English after years as a part-timer, and I always tried to tell them gently, "There are no nice comfy spots in the community colleges." I once taught in a department with only three full-time faculty members; the other 79 of us were part-timers, many with Ph.Ds. And where I teach now, even the full-timers can teach as many as 16 credit hours per semester--and those are composition credit hours! They may not be suffering like the part-timers, but frankly even the full-time jobs don't look so cushy to me, when I see eveyone hauling around their tote bags stuffed full of student essays.

Posted by: Su at August 11, 2003 11:56 PM

iam dina roberts i grad from high school and i cant even get a job and i have to be on ssi so i think kids that dont go to school should be on ssi and they should not get job s till they grad from school its not fare get it

Posted by: at September 9, 2003 06:03 PM

quoting ... I have a PhD in Mathematics from a top school. I would not recommend a PhD in Math to anyone. It is quite hard to get a job now (academic or industry), except if you have additional skills and training. I have a good job because I'm also good at software development. For those who love math, I'd say go into Statistics. Even in the current slump, a PhD in Stats is very marketable.

end quoting ...

Ok, lets talk some vastly different things.

If you want to get a job, and don't care what field it is in, re academics, you can always get a PhD in business. Currently there are still more openings than grads.

I learned this while teaching a class (I got solicited to teach as an adjunct for a specialized class one semester, not like I have much academic exposure otherwise) and the dean of the business school was whining how the last seven offers they made (at over 100k a year) had been turned down by new grads who went elsewheres.

Then I started looking.

The degree actually takes three years, start to finish, in most programs.

Only pre-req is being able to handle some simple calculus.

... what got me going on this post was that the Math PhD noticed that statistics is a hot field compared to math. What he probably did not realize is that many stat profs are actually economists or others who got on the tenure track by offering to teach statistics. Getting the foundation to teach through advanced stat is about a two semester travel, or less, depending on your background (assuming math skills to begin with).

Posted by: Anon Again at October 25, 2003 10:21 AM