December 04, 2003

Jane Bast, Undeterred

'Natalie,' I said, bracing myself for the worst, 'I want to go to grad school.'

She let out a whoop of joy that rattled the walls. "That's great news," she exclaimed. 'You'll love grad school. I spent the best 11 years of my life there and I don't regret one minute.'

My eyes bulged. 'Eleven years?'

'And even though I still owe $70,000 in loans,' she said, 'every penny was worth it.' She handed me a cup of tea. 'Spoonful of sugar?'

'No thanks,' I said. 'I thought people pay you to go to grad school -- I thought a Ph.D. usually takes four years.'

Natalie laughed merrily. 'Don't worry about the time and the money," she said with an indefatigable smile. 'You're investing in your brain. A learned mind is the world's most portable skill set. No matter where you go, no one can take it away from you.'

-- Jane Bast, "Ignoring Good Advice"

Jane Bast, who does indeed seem "well versed in dramatic irony," offers a tale of graduate school advice in three acts. Dr. Bill Jeremiah issues a dire warning against the scheme, Dr. Natalie Poppins waxes enthusiastic over the plan, and Dr. Stephen Methuselah combines paternal kindliness with world-weary cynicism to pass the buck.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 4, 2003 01:00 PM

Is it just me, or do I get the impression that the main character in this essay will keep asking people what she should do about graduate school until she finds an answer SHE likes? Jeesh! How many warnings does a person need?!

Posted by: Cat at December 4, 2003 03:17 PM

Wow. Well, there goes the theory that students are still entering graduate programs in the humanities because they are still being encouraged to do so.

I'm still chuckling at the image of graduate school as "a nerd Utopia".

Posted by: Matilde at December 4, 2003 03:19 PM

The following is satire. The facts are true; the attitude is not. was my graduate career an aboration?

Best seven years of my life and positive cash flow. I paid for one class my first semester. After that, I was paid to teach and given, in my last four years, $50,000 tax free as fellowships (that's in addtion to tution remission and adjunct/GT pay for teaching). My school also covered 100 percent of travel costs to conferences. And if I did anything extra for the department (e.g. served on a committee), I was paid for that, too.

Is this not normal? Are there really people out there *paying* for a Ph.D.? Why would anyone pay for it?

Posted by: odd-man-in at December 4, 2003 03:23 PM

Wow--I can't imagine an article like this appearing in the Chronicle even five years ago. Maybe times really are changing after all.

It's surprising how many chirpy optimists I encounter who want to "get their PhD" without any understanding of what that entails, and who talk about it like it's some six-week pet-photography certificate they can earn in their spare time. Many aspiring grad students will be well served if that reputation for difficulty, selectiveness, rigor, and, yes, potential trauma becomes more widespread. Perhaps the general public would even regain a small portion of its respect for humanities professors...

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 4, 2003 03:59 PM

I'm on JVC's side on this one-- I'm surprised to see it, and I'm surprised also that it doesn't suck, as so many of those CHE first-person columns do.

Posted by: fontana labs at December 4, 2003 05:44 PM


You ask a good question when you ask:

"Is this not normal? Are there really people out there *paying* for a Ph.D.? Why would anyone pay for it?"

In fact, in surveying adr programs (which is something I did as a part of my interest in adr that got me into putting together my dividing line between legitimate and other programs was how the cash flowed. PARC and PERC, for example, have stipends for the students, some other programs do not.

Sheesh, here I am letting myself be seduced by some locals again into considering doing a little teaching on the side for another adr program (this one rigidly controlled for usefulness to the students). You can see the material left over from the last time I was talked into that sort of thing at

And my feelings about training in the field at and an article I quote (with permission) at -- I've already encountered education as an excuse to make money at the expense of others before, and turned away.

Anyway, I'm not about to compromise my day job, but teaching was like I imagine crack cocaine to be like ... in terms of an addiction.

But I wonder how I would be if I didn't like my day job, so to speak (I'm a b.v. rated litigator in an a.v. rated office, and I've got a great boss). Would I be thinking of trying to create more than part time? Would I be willing to compromise morally?

I don't know.

Heck, would I be blogging? I did an on-line journal for a while before their were blogs. -- and there are times I think of continuing, especially when I get e-mails.

Anyway, glad the link was useful when I posted Jane's article, though I'm sure everyone would have seen it anyway (it was in the free part of the Chronicle [g]).

Appreciate this as a place to come and read and think about ambivalent feelings. Not to mention typos and the lack of spell checkers in blog software.

Thanks to all,


Posted by: Steve at December 4, 2003 05:52 PM

Odd man in: no, it wasn't an aboration. But an aberration, maybe. (Or is it an abortion?)

Posted by: at December 4, 2003 09:43 PM

In the end, no matter how many times you warn an undergraduate about grad school, you will never be able to make them imagine how they will view this decision when they're thirty and forced to find a new career. Kids make all kind of mistakes, but most of them don't consume years of their lives.

Posted by: Frolic at December 4, 2003 09:44 PM

Namelss...thanx fer th spellling leson. Now, what about the substance of my comment?

Posted by: odd-man-in at December 4, 2003 09:50 PM

Oops. Sorry, odd-man, forgot to sign. Why would anybody pay to get a PhD? Well, here in Europe you usually have to pay something, grants not being quite as generous as in the States, nor jobs as abundant (you don't get any of those tuition-plus-ridiculous-salary deals here. Unless you find yourself a grant, which is extremely hard to do, neither tuition nor salary). Of course, university isn't as expensive in Europe, either, but anyway, it does imply a certain sacrifice. Which we are willing to accept.

That is something that strikes me about the difference with America, though. Even though our position as grad students is apparently much worse in purely economic terms, there is none of the Full Metal Jacket atmosphere which seems to characterize American grad school. Less money, yet more liveable. Funny, that.

Posted by: anna at December 4, 2003 11:05 PM

Well odd-man-in
Phds programs usually do pay something for their students, but differ on the length of payment. What usually happens is that programs will have certain guidelines to how long students will be supported, 4 years,5 years whatever. After that, any employment will not be guaranteed. Different people often take different amount to time to finish their dissertation.(usually longer not shorter than what departments advertise)
In departments with strong outside support,ie grants or coporate sponsorships will complement this by hiring students as assistants if the program cannot continue to fund them. In addition, when applying for grant money, things like salary, equipment, travel costs, etc are budgeted in advance. Once approved, pretty much the money has to be used for that purpose. Life goes on and sometime gets even better.(faculty may spring for a new laptop, bigger monitor, etc for students) For departments with fewer outside funding, their students sometimes get the shorter end of the deal since they are dependent on the unversity to support them. Thats when the horror stories usually begin.
In short, phd programs do support students. The question is for how long they do so.

Posted by: at December 4, 2003 11:20 PM

As to:

In the end, no matter how many times you warn an undergraduate about grad school, you will never be able to make them imagine how they will view this decision when they're thirty and forced to find a new career. Kids make all kind of mistakes, but most of them don't consume years of their lives.

Well, that is why I did not go on to grad school in econ in '79.

My GREs were pretty solid (e.g. my advanced econ was 8000 but the prof I TA'd for really did not see a future in academia for anyone.

So I went to law school. Now I'm wondering about that.

Posted by: Steve at December 4, 2003 11:25 PM

Oops, 800 not 8000

Posted by: Steve at December 4, 2003 11:26 PM

Re: comment 10
I definitely agree about the ridiculous salaries grad students get. I get tuition (but not fees) paid for by the school, and I get a salary that is a bit less than 2/3 of the minimum needed to live in this area (as a single person). Why am I doing it? Because, despite this, I'm having fun, and I have managed to get good parttime jobs (computer-based, from Canada -- I can't work in the US) in my field, and I work in the summer. One person in my department has already racked up $6000 in debt from one year of graduate school. I don't know how, since our expenses should have been more or less the same last year. But that I refuse to do. I might not save anything -- fine, I can accept that (although I actually managed to save about $2000 this year). I have money put away already (which I am not touching). But I'm not spending anything more than I earn in any year.

Posted by: wolfangel at December 4, 2003 11:43 PM

Re posts 10 and 14:

Ridiculous salaries? As in too high, or as in too low? I would have to say too low myself. Probably the most remarkable thing about moving from my alma mater to my current school was that, earning 150% of what I did before, I am significantly poorer because the city I now live in is so much more expensive than home (at this time I will point out that if an index says two cities have the same cost of living but EVERYONE who has lived in both says otherwise, there's something wrong with the index or its interpretation). This is the first time in 4 years that I haven't had money to go to the symphony, and that's at the $10 student rate. In El Paso I could afford to take a date to the opera, but at => $50 a person in Houston, that's just not going to happen.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 5, 2003 06:05 AM

Ridiculous salaries as in too low. Obviously.

Posted by: anna at December 5, 2003 07:52 AM

I thought the "2/3 of the minimum needed to live in this area" was clearly too low. The AAUP chapter here is trying to up the minimum salary by 50%, but I'm not sure if it would take effect retroactively (for fellows -- it would for TAs).

Posted by: wolfangel at December 5, 2003 10:36 AM

PhD . . . slowest ticket to a career in driving cab. Available at a university near you!

Posted by: Academy Girl at December 5, 2003 10:48 AM

When I was in grad. school I recall I made $795 per month. I lived in one of the cheapest cities imaginable (Buffalo, NY), and my rent -- shared with two others -- was $200 plus utilities, which in Buffalo can be pretty high. And when you added in food, daily travel costs, and miscellaneous stuff like renting a movie, the money dwindled pretty fast. And even if one were not religious, one prayed hard that the crappy car would keep running because one repair bill would essentially wipe you out.

I learned something very important: there is perhaps nothing more miserable than being utterly poor in a depressed city.

Posted by: Chris at December 5, 2003 11:14 AM

I wish that the classist and racist comments about driving a taxi cab could finally, in this day and age, be put to a rest.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 5, 2003 11:27 AM

As to posts #8 and #12:

Well, one of my history TAs warned me about grad school. As a junior, I was waffling between applying to law school or grad school. I asked my TA about grad school. His response - "I graduated from U. Chicago in 1987 and came straight to grad school. It is now 1995. I don't have my PhD yet. That will probably be another 6 months to a year. You do the math."

That conversation pretty much cemented my decision to go to law school, and I thank my TA for being brutally honest with me. And yet I share the sentiment in post #6 - I "appreciate this as a place to come and read and think about ambivalent feelings." Those ambivalent feelings being my own. Somehow, after all these years - 9 years after that conversation with my TA - a part of me still thinks about going to grad school. I wonder why that is. Alas.

Posted by: an attorney who wanted to go to grad school but didn't at December 5, 2003 12:04 PM

Classist, yes. Racist?

And not even fully classist - the obvious point being that a person with a BS degree could start driving a cab immediately. If their career goal was not driving a cab, and the end result of grad school was driving a cab, then there is obviously a problem.

Posted by: Barry at December 5, 2003 12:08 PM

Odd-man-in, some people do pay for at least part of a Ph.D. program. The reason mentioned above was that support ran out. At that point, the student either has to find an alternate funding source, take out loans, or drop out. If the student is five years along, they might decide to pay for a year or two.

Add in the fact that many students haven't realized what their career prospects are, and you have a formula for some serious pain.

Posted by: Barry at December 5, 2003 12:11 PM

Posted by: Frolic at December 4, 2003 09:44 PM:

"In the end, no matter how many times you warn an undergraduate about grad school, you will never be able to make them imagine how they will view this decision when they're thirty and forced to find a new career. Kids make all kind of mistakes, but most of them don't consume years of their lives."

There are some students who, even if repeatedly warned, will go into grad school, only to regret it later. However, there are some who shouldn't go, and won't go, if they knew the score. The goal of letting people know about what really happens is to help that second group.

Posted by: Barry at December 5, 2003 12:12 PM

One reason I went to the (Ivy League) grad school I did was that I was promised support for four years. I went in at the start of the fourth year and was told they'd changed their policy -- I'd have to take out a loan. I was all set to quit (being far more interested in the courses than the hypothetical PhD, which even then I was suspecting might not be necessary to my life) but was persuaded by ever-helpful friends and family that I should finish what I started, not waste the work I'd put in, &c &c. So I stayed on, went into debt, and never got the PhD. [Insert long, impassioned rant here.]

Posted by: language hat at December 5, 2003 12:54 PM

I've been reading this forum for a while and think I might have a slightly different perspective to share. I'll say upfront that I'm ABD in a humanities discipline at Pretty Nifty U. in the USA, almost done, on the job market, and still fairly sanguine. Perhaps that's because no one in my department at PNU warned me about the dire consequences of my decision to go to grad school, or because a fair number of my older peers seem to be "making it", somehow.

The perspective I have to share: before I was in my current line of work, I was a professional musician (classical music). I have an MM from one of the very best conservatories in the US. Back then, we all knew that there was no guarantee whatsoever of steady employment when we finished. Often enough we took on substantial debt to go to school. Only the fewest of my compatriots, ten years on, have steady work. Most are freelancers, some have part-time teaching work. A few have found full-time teaching posts in academe, and only two (of sixteen) that I can think of from my studio have a full-time orchestra position, that is the equivalent of the tenure-track for the readers of this site. There are no blogs, so far as I am aware, written by freelance musicians. We accept the grim economic reality of our profession. We keep making music because that is what we have been doing as long as we can remember, because, sounds corny, I know, we need to. I don't think it's false conciousness. I too was a freelancer for years. I landed at PNU pretty much by accident; when I got there, I wasn't even thinking at all about what might have happen after I finish. My standard of living as a grad student was actually higher then what it had been before. I've kept playing as much as I can; maybe that's another reason for my even keel. I can always go back to the back of the freelance pool where I live.

I write this not to cast doubt on much of what I read here. My experience as a humanist-come-lately has taught me that there is a crisis in our universities and that there are too many PhDs -- too many qualified PhDs -- and not enough positions. I only wonder: if our teachers had told us, back then, to not under and circumstances go to music school, that there was no guarantee of steady work, in other words spoken to us in the tone that many here seem to recommend, few of us would have gone. And there would be that much less music.

Pardon the pathetic tone, as a student of critical theory I ought to know better, but I thought perhaps this perspective would be of interest.

Posted by: American Abroad at December 5, 2003 12:56 PM

What -- does *everybody* regret his or her decision to go to grad school? I sure as hell don't. I hate the system, hate that our job prospects are not great, etc. But I have the papers that say I can teach at any institution of higher learning (although, with no publications to date, I am happily limited to teaching-oriented jobs). Call me an idiot (and I'm sure many will), but I love what I do. When my undergrads ask me about grad school, I say I wouldn't trade it ...

of course, then I tell them that no one in their right mind should go unless paid to do so; that it can be the biggest deterrent to a happy family life or relationship, partially because of financial strains, partially because grad students not partnered by other academics are very often thrown into lesser-partner status because society really doesn't value what they are doing as grad students or what they plan on doing; that they will watch their undergrad peers' lives growing materially better -- not to mention the fact that many will have actual weekends and holidays; that they will barely scrape by on their stipends; and any number of other dismal things. But hell -- if they want to go, and understand that their lives will be dominated by academe for as long as it takes, and that it may be all for naught when it comes to employment in their field -- why not? There are lots of people who make crap choices that seem good at the time and end up changing careers. I do make it clear that they have to be reasonably competent at both research and teaching, even if their eventual interests push them more in one direction. And I strongly discourage people who I think would do more damage than good in the classroom -- wish I could do that for my students who are History Ed. majors. Haven't given a one of them a higher grade than a 'C', and these are the k-12 teachers of the future ... but that's another rant!

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at December 5, 2003 01:02 PM

Frankly, and not to discourage writers of this sort of blogs on the dangers of grad school - which I find really useful and interesting - I do not think there is a single would-be grad student who has thinked twice and not entered grad school because of reading one. In fact, I don't think they have tilted the balance even slightly for anyone.

Posted by: anna at December 5, 2003 03:37 PM

"thinked" indeed. Thought!

Posted by: anna at December 5, 2003 03:53 PM

ADM, I don't regret having gone to graduate school. I do regret not having been better informed about what was ahead of me, and that sad twinge I get when I write out a loan payment check every month certainly approaches regret as well. I love what I learned, and I love teaching--but I think aspiring grad students need to hear that it's not a good fit for a student who simply loves history or poetry and thinks that earning a PhD is the ultimate fulfillment of that love. It's also a career, and I think it's great that you balance your advice to your students to account for that.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 5, 2003 03:59 PM

Count me in with people who don't regret going to grad school.

What I do regret was not having a back-up plan, or even the sense that I might need one. As it was, I kept slowly draining my bank account while clinging to hope and now there's not much left. I actually was better off when in grad school!

Posted by: Rana at December 5, 2003 06:55 PM

I do regret going to grad. school. There were no blogs like this when I began, and no one was explaining the realities of the profession. What I regret most is that grad. school was the option put before me very early on during college, and so because of that I became rather myopic in my approach to my undergrad. education. And now, as I try to weigh whether to continue on this contingent track or do something else, I discover a huge gaping hole when I try to imagine what "something else" could be.

Many others have said this, so it's nothing new, but it is a daily shock nevertheless to realize, in such a palpable fashion, how utterly irrelevant and useless a Ph.D. in English is beyond academe.

But a Ph.D. doesn't limit one to driving a cab. It also allows one entry to Kinkos, Borders, Barnes and Noble, careers in video rental, sanitation engineering, lawn care, gosh, a whole range of things.

I'm far less depressed now.

Posted by: Chris at December 5, 2003 07:55 PM

Hey, another attorney! "Somehow, after all these years - 9 years after that conversation with my TA - a part of me still thinks about going to grad school. I wonder why that is. Alas." I know the feeling, though with me it was economics.

As for PhDs driving cabs, I knew a philosophy PhD in law school who drove a tow truck.

And I know a lot of law grads who are insurance adjusters.

Anyway, if I had known about PhD programs in business in '79, what would I have done?

Posted by: Steve at December 5, 2003 08:07 PM

I don't regret going to grad school. I do regret not getting out when the getting was good.

Posted by: language hat at December 5, 2003 10:19 PM

Here's one good reason not to go to grad school - you're gonna meet a lot of people like the guy up there who jumped like a good bunny and called people on this thread "classist" and "racist." These are only two of the very ugly "ists" you'll hear a lot (some of them will be directed at you; some at your professors, etc.) if you go to grad school in English or history. Wouldn't you be happier in an environment where people like this don't exist?

Posted by: Carmen at December 5, 2003 10:31 PM

Count me among the people who do not regret their decision to go to grad school. Fortunately I got through it without loans. At the same time, I usually discourage students from going to grad school. Too many see it as a continuation of college and do not recognize the career aspects. I always encourage students to take at least a year off to work and save money if they can. Learning the habits of 9 to 5 is useful because grad school is a job, not school, particularly once you start teaching. Having the habit of going to "the office" (subsitute library carrel, research desk, favorite place to write) from 9 to 5 helps you move quickly through the program and helps you have a balanced life. Unfortunately, grad school tends to be more of a 60 hour/week than 40. Most of the folks in my program who were straight out turned into drop outs pretty fast (MAs and see you later) because they simply had no clue what grad school was about.

As for the pressure or romance of grad school, my professors in college certainly encouraged it. Every time we read a book or article by an alum, they would be sure to point that fact out. They really did convey the idea that a PhD was the ultimate achievement. To a bunch of high achievers that was like steak to a doberman. Half my US political history seminar started in a PhD programs. One of us got a tenure track job and only 2 of us (out of 4 total) finished.

Posted by: Da vid Salmanson at December 5, 2003 10:45 PM

On the topic of money, here is the breakdown given by the AHA for humanities phd students.

39.4 % paid out of their own pocket
32.8 % ta
23.5 % fellowships/grants

As for people going to grad school? It appears that there has been a general increase over the years since the mid-eighties. Look at figure 1.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 6, 2003 10:18 AM

I'm the guy on the other side of this. I first didn't go to grad school in 1980, next about 1986, and most recently in 2001. (And when I dropped out of undergrad in 1967, it was partly because I didn't want to go to grad school.)

There were multiple practical (financial / family) reasons why I didn't go. And also, I don't work well (understatement) in heierarchal, authoritarian groups.

I've doubted my decisions pretty much continuously, since most of my talents and interests are academic-like. Certainly I would be happier now if I'd gotten a PhD, tenure, and a string of research grants. (But then, look at the odds). And I'm sure I'd have been miserable during my time in grad school.

So now I'm trying to make it, with mixed success, as a freelance writer / scab adjunct teacher. There's no free lunch, really. Life isn't fair, etc.

Posted by: zizka at December 6, 2003 01:00 PM

Anna (comment 28) -- not true. I get a fairly regular stream of both "should I do this?" and "argh! I think I shouldn't have done this! now how do I get out?" email stemming from my grad school story. Most of the time I counsel them a bit and they go away without telling me the end of their story, so I don't *know* what my influence (if any) was.

But my sense is that yes, real stories from real people DO make folks think, and change their minds about their plans.

Now, I doubt that at age 22 I could have been dissuaded, because at age 22 I was a bloody arrogant young idiot. However, the right nudge two years later (after the auto-da-fe that was MA exams) could well have saved me two and a half pointless years. I didn't have that nudge, because in 1996 nobody was nudging.

If I help nudge others (and an email I answered this very morning suggests that I am in fact doing so), I'm happy.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at December 6, 2003 01:10 PM

Anna and Dorothea--

Well, these blogs have influenced at least one person. I'm a first-term graduate student in English, and I'm seriously reconsidering my decision to go for the doctorate. The probable length of time it'll take to get the degree, the slim chances of getting a post in a location me and my (non-academic) spouse like, and the overwhelming competition are all convincing me to rethink my choices. The fact that English departments are rapidly becoming cultural criticism departments isn't really helping either--I know it's pathetically naive to say so, but I came for the literature, not ivory-tower political "activism."

IA, Dorothea, and a host of other academic bloggers have helped me not feel like a failure for thinking about leaving, so yes, they've been influential on me.

Posted by: Seganku at December 6, 2003 02:04 PM

I'll say that this has convinced me not to go forward.

Back in '92, before my life fell apart, I was publishing a little, getting some credentials together and in a hot area (ADR -- see if the initials don't mean anything). Then things fell apart for me personally.

When I surfaced again, I got some interview requests (including one before the school announced the formal job search) but put that on hold since my wife had three more years to go to finish her CRNA.

Since then, the field has changed. The positions have been filled and the credential list that schools use has changed (dedicated LLM programs, etc. have made a big change).

I taught a couple post-graduate classes and really enjoyed them, so I've been thinking of doing a little more coursework, going back to "real" publications (I, er, did a lot of accessible writing* as a break from three-figure footnote style writing) and perhaps some cross-discipline stuff.

I even thought, about perhaps even adding a PhD to my J.D. (given my background and some sympathetic people I know, it would be possible to squeeze that inside of three years or so -- mostly working on a dissertation and a couple of books which I meant to get started years ago and which a retired law professor friend of mine and I have started to get working on again).

But I visit here and I go -- I must be insane. I have a real job that I love. I've already gotten a published Texas Supreme Court opinion that changed Texas law (and got me on the cover of the Texas lawyer). In 1992 I was in my thirties. Today I'm turning 48 this month.

Sure, teaching post grads was a lot of fun. But being a practicing lawyer means a lot of research, real debates (I get about fifteen summary dispositions of cases a year -- think of going head to head on your orals and only one of you wins) and I'm in an office with reasonable hours and people I like working with and for (ok, I'm lucky with the boss that I have).

So, I've been thinking. Got accepted, if I wanted it, in a program (it helps that my GRE verbal/math was 750/760), just got asked again to teach a little by a start-up program, and I'm starting to feel normal again, so I thought, just maybe.

But reading blogs like this has probably saved me from making the worst mistake in my life. I've decided not to burn at both ends -- working my day job and grinding out classwork at night -- or worse, just letting my wife support us while I plunged into school and teaching fulltime. Why endanger a job that I love for what is obviously an addictive dead end full of dispair? I've had enough dispair.

Thanks. You've helped at least one person a lot.



*hey, by the way, no matter what academics think, accessible writing isn't as easy as you might think. It took a long time before I could do it naturally, and I lost the ability completely some times. After Jessica and Courtney died I was approached to write an article about it, couldn't complete it without a bibliography and lots of footnotes. Same for the ABA one I did following Robin's death (luckily an editor saved me on the version that saw print, which won awards).

So, I'm about ten years after my children started dying, though Heather survived and we added Rachel (it is hard to explain how many kids I've had since Win and I had five, but no more than three at once, the three who died, died from different causes and I'd rather not get into it all with strangers. But they look at 15-year-old Heather and 3-year-old Rachel and ...). But its like I lost ten years out of my life, my middle age and most of my dreams.

I'm glad I've been spared any more losses.


Posted by: Steve at December 6, 2003 04:54 PM

I do not regret going to graduate school. However, I do regret not pursuing a career alternative while in graduate school. It would have been worth the time to get a Master's in something more practical while simulanteously pursuing the Ph.D.

Posted by: A at December 6, 2003 05:16 PM

This seems to be fairly general rule everywhere these days -- don't put your eggs in one basket. Not just academia.

People have always said that, but it really seems that you really have to be thinking five years in the future much more so today, and making backup plans all the time.

Posted by: zizka at December 6, 2003 06:34 PM

Well zizka, i wonder why there are not more people doing phd/jd or phd/ma programs. These programs do not span any longer than traditional phd programs do anyway. There are of course some restrictions on your research areas. Some overlap is to be expected.
Seems to be a solution to the all-eggs-in-one-basket prblem. Wanna do a phd in history? Why not try a phd/jd instead. A phd in english? Try a phd/ma in journalism or management. People with the determination to finish a humanities phd will have the same ability to study management or business or law as well.
Given a choice, my guess is that someone with a phd in english and an mba will be a hotter prospect than one with just a mba.

Posted by: at December 6, 2003 07:09 PM

Oops that was me....

Posted by: Passing_through at December 6, 2003 07:10 PM

Passing-through (comment #37):

I think part of the reason grad-school applications increased during the mid-1980s was that many professors were advising their students to attend grad school based on the study-turned-folk-belief that the humanities were about to experience a "professor shortage." I was hearing this dire prediction expressed as fact as recently as the mid-1990s. If this chestnut has finally been cracked, then thank God; we just may have made a little progress.

Even so, it's terribly pathetic that the professor-shortage prophecy survived long after profs themselves should have been able to look around and see with their own eyeballs that it *wasn't true.* These are the people who are supposed to be able to read anything as a (*cough*) "text." Is it any wonder that the general public finds humanities professors both ridiculous and irrelevant?

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 6, 2003 07:41 PM

To be fair, humanities professors are not statisticians. Its unfair to expect them to critic/doubt empirical studies even if they run contary to what they see around them. Afterall, what one sees around is just anadotal evidence, not very accurate of the whole picture.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 6, 2003 10:04 PM

I do not regret going to grad school but I am VERY glad I cut out with a MS, and didn't stick around for the PhD. My MS has been much more flexible for the times I went "corporate". A PhD would have priced me out of the market, which is ironic given that the "market" pays more for a MS than academia does for an upstart PhD.

Posted by: Ellie at December 6, 2003 10:09 PM

It's interesting that almost all this discussion relates to the humanities (I am in the social sciences - geography and economics). Either things are worse there or they like to write about ti more (both perhaps). I really enjoyed my time in grad school and as an academic since then. The downside is that I have had to move all around the world a few times to get a decent job or funding. I did my PhD in less than 4 years because the money wasn't there to take any longer. Now we are being pressured to graduate new PhDs even faster at my current University because of funding constraints. This is a major problem here. But the key thing is you must want to be an scholar/scientist as much as an artist wants to be an artist. It must be the only thing you want to do. And you have to be reasonably good. Otherwise it probably is a big mistake... And once you get through the first two or three years post graduation the pay can be reasonable (depending on country and field ) - much better than most artists make! The sacrifices concern place and time and all they imply I think.

As an economist my view is that if students want to be a PhD then why should they be stopped from doing so. But a lot of people embark on careers with little good information and that is a problem. Hopefully the web etc. is improving that, but am not so sure. In the last few years however, the total US PhDs graduated has declined and less and less US citizens are getting them (I am a British/Australian citizen)....

Posted by: David at December 6, 2003 10:13 PM

Well David,
"As an economist my view is that if students want to be a PhD then why should they be stopped from doing so."

Most universities receive some form of public funding. Tax-payers therefore have a stake in what services they offer. If they are training too many people who in turn cannot make good use of their skills, thats an inefficienct use of resources. Some justification for reducing their numbers.

The thing is that in terms of payoffs, a phd pales in comparison to say an mba, jd or mpa. A phd in economics takes what, an average of 5 years. For somone who gets out from top-tire program, they can expect to make less than guys with mbas or jds from similar schools. Not surprising that there are lesser number of US phds graduating each year.

Foreigners are perhaps less familar with American culture/language and thus proberbly fare less well in MBA-type programs where the softer skills are perhaps more important than the harder skills. Thus more can be found in phd programs.

Posted by: at December 7, 2003 02:04 AM

Well David,
"As an economist my view is that if students want to be a PhD then why should they be stopped from doing so."

Most universities receive some form of public funding. Tax-payers therefore have a stake in what services they offer. If they are training too many people who in turn cannot make good use of their skills, thats an inefficienct use of resources. Some justification for reducing their numbers.

The thing is that in terms of payoffs, a phd pales in comparison to say an mba, jd or mpa. A phd in economics takes what, an average of 5 years. For somone who gets out from top-tire program, they can expect to make less than guys with mbas or jds from similar schools. Not surprising that there are lesser number of US phds graduating each year.

Foreigners are perhaps less familar with American culture/language and thus proberbly fare less well in MBA-type programs where the softer skills are perhaps more important than the harder skills. Thus more can be found in phd programs.

Posted by: at December 7, 2003 02:04 AM

Actually, regarding an MBA, something that bothers some of the Academy of Management types (I run a website for the AOM's "adr" section at btw) is that a couple of studies show no net improvement in income overall for those who get an MBA.

A real problem with JDs is that there is massive overproduction. Having a law school is a profit center for the university -- even a fourth tier, rated 201 out of 200 sort of school will generate a couple million a year in profit, of which the university is allowed to keep about half as administrative expenses (Texas Weslyan's law school is right now in a fight with the university which wants to take more, and makes a good example). The "average" J.D. makes less than the "average" nurse or teacher. Of course the top 25-30% of them do much better. But J.D.s pass the bar and start completely useless.

On the other hand, PhDs in economics are placing well, more money if they are willing to teach in the business school than the econ program, and "on average" they make more than the mba or jd grads.

Not that with preserverance people can't work their way up. I've seen people go the claims adjuster/paralegal/staff attorney/law firm route.

Currently, the best "on average" return on time and expense is the PhD in business. That is why the PhD project focuses on it. Visit for the program's concept and execution, but that program works.

Of course the "top ten percent" sort of group in lawyers does better than the top ten percent -- at least in gross terms. A normal b.v. rated attorney (top third or so the MH listed attorneys which is about one third of all JDs who've passed the bar exam) is usually making around $190k a year according to good statistics. But that means 2400 or more billable hours (which takes about 3000 on the job hours -- you can calculate the hours per day and week -- when you think billable hours, think in-classroom teaching hours).

Anyway, just some reality for comparison.

Posted by: Steve at December 7, 2003 09:03 AM

Jane Bast--are you out there?

Why ARE students of your generation still considering grad school in the humanities?

What do you think of the professors who give you dire warnings vs. the ones who tell you how wonderful grad school is?

What do you really want/need to know?

Posted by: THB at December 7, 2003 09:33 AM

I don't regret having gone to graduate school--I'm having a great time as an academic, and it suits me to be one--but I do wish I had known more about what it was like before I went. Maybe it's because this kind of advice wasn't very available then--many of my own undergraduate professors got their doctorates in a different era than the post-70s careerist-apparatchik moment and as professors in a small liberal arts university, didn't have a full sense of how things had changed. Maybe it's because I was stupid or not paying attention.

For whatever reason, I thought that I was going to be extending the things I really loved about being an undergraduate--I simply didn't grasp that what I was doing was a narrow process of socialization and professionalization instead. If I'd known that, I probably would not have been quiet as naive or feckless about walking into a number of bear traps.

So my first goal in giving this kind of advice is to arm my own undergraduates and anyone else who wants to listen with a foreknowledge of the conditions and structures of graduate student, to make sure they go warily.

But also I do want to call down fire and brimstone on any student or anyone who talks about getting a doctorate just because it's there, or because they love learning, or because they want to challenge themselves, or because they think of themselves as really smart and a Ph.D as the only way to externally confirm their intelligence or whatever. There's a class of motivations that are by any standard in error.

It's rather like a scene in Heinlein's Space Cadet where a young candidate for the Space Patrol is asked why he wants to be in the Patrol, and finally sheepishly says, "Well, people look up to someone in the Patrol." The training officer says sharply, "You'll find better motivations--or quit". I want to help any potential Ph.D in the humanities or social sciences discover whether they have the right motivations--basically to get into a comfortable academic post, to be a professor, and only secondarily to produce knowledge and learn--and if they can't summon that clarity of motivation to avoid graduate school.

Now the disadvantage to this is that if I succeed, I'll be chasing away some of the kinds of people that I think could help save the profession from itself--but much as I'd like to see a wider variety of desires and a clean, healthy passion for knowledge and learning come more fully into bloom, it's not fair to keep mum and lure some people in. Many of them will be happier and even more accomplished in some other career. It's the same dilemma I have with advising current graduate students about how to negotiate the pitfalls and dangers of academic life--the responsible thing to do is to tell them about things as they are, and warn them where necessarily--but that effectively accepts and normalizes any number of pathologies as "natural" conditions.

Grapple, grapple.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 7, 2003 10:12 AM

I don't feel the same ethico-professional quandary as TB does above. For me there is really very little to grapple with. My responsibility, first, last and always, is to the individual rather than the "profession," or the "discipline," or academia as a whole.

It's important, perhaps, to take note of the degree of contempt toward itself that the "profession" can breed in its own.

Posted by: Chris at December 7, 2003 11:27 AM

"Now the disadvantage to this is that if I succeed, I'll be chasing away some of the kinds of people that I think could help save the profession from itself--but much as I'd like to see a wider variety of desires and a clean, healthy passion for knowledge and learning come more fully into bloom, it's not fair to keep mum and lure some people in."

Yep. That's exactly the dilemma. Jane Bast may be this kind of person, and if so, it's the academy's loss if she decides to go elsewhere. But I couldn't recommend that she pursue a PhD in English.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 7, 2003 11:32 AM

Some not so good motivations :
1. Hopeless Romantic, "life of the mind"

Some good ones:
1. Genuine interest, curiosity
2. Higher potential earnings

The problem is with people going in with the Romantic ideal of graduate school and academia in general. Academia is a business, not like a traditional for-proft business, but closer to a non-profit business. There will be politics, rivalries, back-stabbing, etc that comes with the job. Does anyone really think people who work in the Red Cross dont have to deal with issues similar to any other for-proft company? The earlier people combine the Romantic idea of academia with the practical realities the better.

Med school applicants ususlly have spent time helping out in hospitals. Hopefully when the time comes for applying to med school, they will have, in addition some real idea of wanting to help others, a sense of practicality of what the life of a doctor is like. This may take away some part of the nobel idea of medicine, but I believe it makes for better doctors. Perhaps the best advice for students wanting to enter the humanities is to shadow current professors,tenured and un-tenured. Its not just doing research, but the daily pressures they have to face.

We dont expect doctors to love healing the sick so much that they are willing to work for little pay and benefits. We expect some compassion, a cetain level of skill and a certain amount of ethics. We dont expect them to treat people for free. Why should academics be any different?

Posted by: Passing_through at December 7, 2003 11:33 AM

BTW, in response to '-why are there so many humanities majors blogging about how bad things are-' (that is a paraphrase quote) ...

First, humanities majors, expecially the English and equiv. types, communicate more readily.

Second, as far as I can tell, things are the worst in the humanities, skills are less portable into well accepted job tracks.

Econ PhDs do database upkeep. Business PhDs DBAs, etc., go into business. Hard science PhDs do get hired for research.

Music, they expected exactly what happened, and they play, not write (as in play instruments, not as in "goof off").

As a result, the constant trend of writing about things seems to apply to the MLA conference and people majoring in that area.

Not to mention, the huge focus Universities have put on writing and the complete dislike of teaching writing many profs have -- creating adjunct pools like no other area.

Posted by: Steve at December 7, 2003 08:27 PM

In regards to grappling. If you have a student who turns in work on time, is sure about the decision, and already has a decent idea for a thesis topic, tell them to go for it. You might tell them to try out a terminal masters at a second tier institution. They will be well-funded coming from Swat with any sort of credentials and can get their feet wet and see if they like academia. Then, when ready for the PhD program they will get a brand new funding clock. It is kind of a scam, but it works. And, because they have to apply again, they have to decide positively. Less chance of long term continuation for the sake of continuation.

At the same time, if they are perenially late with work, are naive about office politics, etc. etc. tell 'em to get a job and come back and talk after a year.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 7, 2003 11:53 PM

On the subject of why people go to grad school -- this may not make a great argument for going, but I'll share anyway ...
When I was a graduating senior, the undergrad History advisor held a meeting to talk to us about job prospects for BAs in History. He flat out said that the women really had only 4 choices for finding future support: marriage, a JD, a teaching credential, or grad school. This was in 1986, mind you. Marriage was out -- ADM had never managed even a serious dating relationship at that point, and she was absolutely certain she couldn't entrust her future to a man, even if one were interested. JDs cost money -- ADM worked her way through the parts of college not paid for by Pell and other grants for the economically disadvantaged. Teaching credential -- as in, kids? Ugh. Grad school? ok, if they pay me.

So they paid me and I went. That said, I'd been running tutoring sessions at the local community college for a couple of years, had had a research assistant job editing for a new faculty member, and the Noted Medievalists at the U had included her in graduate meetings for the previous year and they and the grad students were grooming her for a career in academe. Except for the bits about competition, departmental politics, how grad seminars actually work ... oh well -- c'est la vie.

Turns out, even though I went for the wrong reasons, I ended up doing what I'm really good at. The skills and languages I acquired in grad school made it possible to land a couple of decent industry jobs (and a well-paying -- as much as some new profs -- exec assistant position). Funny thing is, I was given different personality tests in those jobs -- and tested out as a teacher-type with some field marshal overtones ;-)

For me, this has taught me a couple of things. First, don't limit your own options. More importantly, though, I realize that one of the things that makes professors mentors is their ability to see potential and encourage it. I'm glad I was encouraged (although a bit more warning about the dark side would have been welcome), but will also make sure students know that there are other options out there.

Oh -- just a bit of advice on the ones who really want to go. Help them to get jobs at the tutoring center and maybe as exam readers or note-takers for survey classes. If they don't like that, they really have no business in grad school in the Humanities.

Posted by: ADM at December 8, 2003 10:20 AM

From a hard science person (mathematics, really)... Yes, jobs are a lot easier to come by in the sciences -- both research and teaching jobs (I'm after a teaching job myself, and so far the search is going OK). However, I do have some regrets about going to graduate school, mostly because it has been a soul-crushing experience. Maybe I'm just surly and overdramatic because I'm working on my dissertation, but I wish I had left with my master's degree.

Posted by: angela at December 8, 2003 10:41 AM

This is why I make sure to tell my undergrads-wanting-to-go-on-to-pursue-humanities-PhDs to follow the money. Having something akin to financial security lets a grad student concentrate on the important things . . . like the depressive soul crushing!

Seriously, though, this is the path I followed as a grad student. I went where the money was, not where the top names in my field were. I had some advisor trouble for a while, but most of the (minimal) soul crushing I underwent in grad school was self-inflected via procrastination. The same for the debt I had accumulated: if I had worried less about perfection on papers and on my dissertation, I would have finished earlier and had less student debt.

(One result of my procrastinating ways is that I do encourage students to try working for a year. If I had it to do over again, I would defer my matriculation and spend a year learning to budget time and money prior to returning to school.)

I also ask students to consider a terminal M. A. program (as mentioned above) instead of locking themselves in for 5 years.

Finally, I've had a few grad students come to me for advice about leaving the academy to get law degrees or some form of employment. I first make sure that the student really wants to leave, and then I support them in that decision, writing them recommendations and the like.

There's no guarantee that any change will be the result, but I hope that the atmosphere will shift as the last batch of faculty hired during the fat years retire from their senior, Ph. D. advising positions. Most of my junior colleagues here at Big State U have positions on these issues similar to the ones I've expressed here, and I don't expect those views to change just because some of us get tenure.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 8, 2003 11:20 AM

Hi. Sorry itís taken me so long to respond to this discussion. I guess Iím a little surprised that this topic would generate such a response.

First, I should say that I sincerely appreciate my professorsí efforts to ensure that I donít walk into grad school unaware of the pitfalls. I know theyíre looking out for me. But I have to admit that the amount of lament posted on this site distresses me a bit. Can grad school really be that bad?

Iíve heard lots of horror stories about grad school. They almost have the quality of urban legends now. Itís not that I donít believe that some students steal each otherís research notes or hide key library books. Iím familiar enough with humanity to know how petty we can be, how competition can drive some people to extreme acts of childishness. Iím just ticked off by the idea that people like that would keep people like me from going. I donít look forward to the prospect of having my soul crushed in graduate school, but I also donít plan on giving anyone in grad school the power to do so. Maybe Iím horribly naÔve to think thatís even possible.

But I wonder if the reason some people are disappointed with grad school is because they expected it to answer a larger question in their lives, to somehow provide them with a sense of purpose or direction. I donít mean to sound callous hereóIím just positing the idea that some of the disappointment with grad school could stem from it not living up to pretty steep expectations. When I think about why I want to go to grad school, my reasons seem blandly pragmatic: I want to write books about nineteenth-century literature, and I want to teach college students.

I know that my chances for landing a tenure-track job are slim. I know that a lot of smart and capable people never find work in the academy. But some people do, and I might be one of them. And if Iím not? Then Iím not. And the world will keep turning. Will my five plus years in school be a waste? I donít know. But I guess Iím prepared to live with uncertainty.

Posted by: Jane Bast at December 8, 2003 05:22 PM

I'm a recently-minted Ph.D in the social sciences (with a tenure-track job), and I can tell you that teaching college students gets old pretty quickly. I don't hate it, mind you. But there are many days when I reflect on the utter pointlessness of what I do for a living. Academe is a big waste of time.
If you would like, I can give specific reasons why teaching college students isn't all it's cracked up to be, but I'll leave it at that for now.

Posted by: CWD at December 8, 2003 05:33 PM

Actually, the urban legends you're citing sound more like law school than grad school, but we have much better job prospects so it doesn't really crush our souls. I think most people undertake any kind of education because they expect it to provide them with direction, i.e., a job. That is, ostensibly, the purpose of all graduate education. If it's not going to lead to a job, then you'd better be sure you're ready to spend your twenties doing something that will be "just for fun" and will leave you broke without marketable skills. If I had it to do over again, I'd trade my MA for a couple of years abroad, teaching or interning. You'd learn a lot more.

Posted by: at December 8, 2003 06:03 PM

Oops -- erased part of my response. It's not the other people in graduate school who will crush your souls, it's the poverty, solitude, future job prospects and knowledge that society does not value what you do that will crush it. The other people are generally pretty nice and reasonably smart. But they are no better than people in professional school or the working world.

Posted by: Colette at December 8, 2003 06:26 PM

Something else to consider: is there a truly compelling reason to go to grad school _now_? I say this because the happiest grad students I knew were the ones who entered after 5-10 years working in the "real" world; they knew what they wanted, they had the financial (and marital) stability to weather the storms of graduate poverty, and had years of experience with work and dealing with bosses to draw on. Several had already had children, too, or were confident that they did not want any in the future. None of these students had any regrets nor any of the angst I saw among my own young cohort, and most of them finished earlier than us too. Just a thought...

Posted by: Rana at December 8, 2003 06:36 PM

(Not that they found grad school an undimmed paradise 24-7, I hasten to add, but rather that they had much better coping skills and resources to draw on.)

Posted by: Rana at December 8, 2003 06:38 PM

I'm sorry to hear that you don't enjoy teaching college students. My experiences as TA gave me a little insight into the potential frustrations of teaching people who don't always want to learn, and who don't always care. But I hope that you have had some moments of job satisfaction.

I think that it's occasionally tempting to view teaching as a sort of life-or-death responsibility. I don't expect to change the world as a college professor, but I do hope to encourage my students (or at least, those students who are willing) to examine their beliefs and to push their ideas to a greater level of complexity. In the end, I'm getting into this field because I think teaching can be quite interesting--on a good day.

Posted by: Jane Bast at December 8, 2003 06:44 PM

Jane, as far as what it will feel like to have invested six years to no particular purpose, I can only say you'll have to find out for yourself if it happens to come to that. It's generally impossible for people to believe that how other people say they feel will be the way that they feel too: this seems to be one of those significant class of experiences that people simply can't (or won't) accept the experiences of others as relevant to their own emotional and intellectual projections about how they will feel in similar circumstances. And sometimes, of course, it's quite right to reject the relevance of others: not everyone will feel the same, in fact.

As for what is bad about graduate school, I think there you're laboring under a misapprehension that truly is an "urban legend", based on some old folklore about law school and med school that's roughly as current as "The Paper Chase". The problem isn't rivalries or other students or anything of the sort. It's not even professors, by and large, though there's always the occasional problem person.

It's that the horizons of graduate school shrink down to a very short and narrow perspective, and disallow the very ideas and explorations that many people regard (properly) as the essence of intellectual inquiry. This will not happen in any obvious way: no ogre will appear to forbid you anything. It will happen invidiously, slowly, pervasively: no one will actually do it to you, and never will you be able to put your finger on exactly how and when it is being done. Slowly but surely, however, you will be cut to fit a very particular professionalized and disciplinary cloth, and become a willing participant in innumerable rituals of abjection. Slowly but surely, you'll begin to accept the intimate intertwining of your life and your work, and pernicious forms of virally spreading authority and power by numerous other people, some of them quite distant from you in social terms, over that intertwined work-life.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 8, 2003 07:01 PM

Reply to #51 If the public is really subsidising people doing PhDs at state universities or at private ones maybe undergrads are (I'm skeptical about that) then the argument is for less scholarships/assistantships for PhDs to raise the price of getting one. Our university is going down that road and trying to eliminate supposed undergraduate subsidy of grad programs. Any grad program that can't survive on outside funding will eventually die.

Posted by: David at December 8, 2003 07:06 PM

As a counter-statement to Timothy's last comment (#70), let me just say that I found my time in graduate school to be one of ever-expanding intellectual boundaries. My perspective became broader over time (in large part because my dissertation advisor encouraged me to structure my thesis in simultaneously macro- and microcosmic ways), and my teaching opportunities allowed me to try out a variety of approaches and experiences on my own initiative (more on this below). There were certainly rituals of abjection, but those exist in any profession. (My father is a clergyman, and I have stories about dysfunctional congregations that put many of the horror narratives described on IA's site to shame).

My experience certainly isn't the rule (although I don't think it's the exception either). It's your responsibility, Jane, to take the time to carefully examine the grad programs to which you're thinking of applying. Look at the course offerings on the Web site (do they reflect approaches to literature or history or whatever that annoy you?), make sure to visit campus (if you have the financial wherewithal and the time to do so), talk to or e-mail current grad students (who can generally be counted on to give an honest opinion of departmental culture). You'll find some programs that fit the negative stories presented to you here and elsewhere. You'll also find programs that fit my more positive story.

Then make sure that the programs that sound sanest to you are also offering you financial support. I can't stress that point enough: if they don't pony up the cash, don't go.

P. S. I'm now in my eleventh year of college-level teaching. There have been classes which were pains to teach, but by and large I've enjoyed (and am still enjoying) myself. I think that teaching is highly personality- and context-interdependent. Look for programs that let you teach sooner rather than later--after several semesters (to shake out any quirks), you'll have a good sense of how teaching makes you feel--and will be able to cut and run before putting too much time into a dissertation you wouldn't need to be finishing. I'd also recommend considering programs that let you design your own syllabi over those that require you to teach a largely preestablished syllabus. My grad program always allowed me to teach whatever texts I wanted, provided that I maintained a certain level of writing assignment page counts. This made teaching much more enjoyable, and it helped me to continue broadening my horizons as I moved through grad school--I was always tinkering with syllabi to bring in new texts and new perspectives on familiar topics.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 8, 2003 07:24 PM

To Timothy:

You make it sound as if grad school were like the Borg! Resistance is futile!

Posted by: Jane Bast at December 8, 2003 07:27 PM

It can be like that, Jane. It was for me, the first time.

Second, third, and fourth Rana's comment about "now." If you're not sure, it will not hurt you in the slightest to wait.

I'm back (for a professional degree, not a Ph.D) now, nine years older than when I tried it the first time, and just incalculably better-equipped to do it. Wait. Wait. Wait. Then wait some more. Then ask yourself why you wanted to go in the first place, and if those reasons still obtain.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at December 8, 2003 08:02 PM

Hi Jane,

I hope you'll think hard about Tim Burke's comments, and take a look at his essay about whether to go to grad school; they come the closest to expressing what I eventually concluded about my own graduate school career, and about the advice I would offer others starting out. The biggest problem about grad school is not merely the money and time it takes (though both are real concerns), it is the way it (and your academic subfield) become the sole lens through which you evaluate the world. IMHO, that is why so many people have trouble leaving graduate school -- not because it is such a paradise, but because graduate students all-too-quickly adopt a value system which defines leaving graduate school as "failure," no matter what sensible reasons one might have for jumping ship. It often takes several years afterwards for one to gain a certain sense of perspective, sensibly evaluate the whole grad school experience, and realize that leaving does not equal failure.

That said, there is much to be enjoyed about graduate school; parts of it can be very intellectually enjoyable, and even fun. Sure, some grad students are horrible suck-ups and backstabbers, but others aren't, and you can have a real sense comradeship with fellow grad students. Teaching can, of course, be drudgery, but there are fun moments to be had, and if you go to a good graduate school your students should be pretty bright themselves. And, of course, the best way to truly learn a subject is to try to teach it.

There is already a lot of good advice floating around in this discussion (don't go without a good financial package, think about taking a couple of years off), but I will offer one more tip: find out how long it takes people to really finish their degree--not just what the department promises. If the department says four years, they're lying; if, however, you pull dissertations off the shelves and discover a lot of people finish in, say, six years, it's a good sign. You do not want to go to grad school where the average time to finish is, say, 11 years; that's too long, and if you spend that long in grad school you will be embittered.

A final thought: after I got my PhD I went to law school, and have wound up pretty happy (a lot of my law classmates aren't, but I am at a place I like). Sometimes I think that I would have been happier had I gone to law school right out of college, and skipped the whole grad school path. Then my wife reminds me that, had I done that, I'd probably be one of those folks who quit law when they're 40 and go back to grad school. So I guess there is no perfect path to follow.

Best of luck.

Posted by: HW at December 8, 2003 08:58 PM

I didn't say I hated teaching college students, just that more often than not it is just a job.
Don't expect a bunch of eager beavers, waiting with baited (sp?) breath to devour your every pearl of wisdom about __________
(fill in the blank: literature, politics, biology, philosophy). It just doesn't happen. Most undergrads are there to get their credentials while incurring as little debt as possible so they can get a middle-class job after graduation. By and large, they're not there to learn for learning's sake. Believe me, this can be very disheartening and discouraging, leading to bouts of severe cynicism and pessimism.
Like others on this thread have said, be sure you are going to grad school for the "right" reasons, whatever those are for you. It's just at the moment, I'm drawing a blank as to what those reasons might be.
Looking back to 1995 when I started my grad studies in political science, I think I thought exactly what you did--that I wanted to teach college (it certainly wasn't the research that excited and attracted me). I wasn't exactly sure why this appealed to me--it just did. Maybe it was an ego thing of having people listen raptly to my every word (see above). Maybe it was the long vacation time and flexible hours. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above. But are any of these good reasons? Not really, especially when faced with $40K+ of student loan debt and having to live in a part of the country I would never have even visited.
Like you, I was aware of all of these things back in 1995, but I blew these considerations off, thinking they wouldn't be a big deal. I was young and naive, but also not very imaginative or risk-taking when it came to career choices.

Posted by: CWD at December 8, 2003 09:14 PM

I am not sure if waiting as suggested by rana and dorothea is really appropriate if one wishes to obtain an academic job. Perhaps a year or two will be good. Most professors that I am aware of get their phds around their late 20s or very early 30s. People who get it later work at other places. I dont think one wants to be 38 and still looking for that first gig. Now there are faculty who come in older, but mostly after working in research places after their phds. Since this age thing varies from discipline to discipline, I would suggest that you look at the top well 10 15 prgrams doing what you are interested in and look at the relative age of the people graduating. This will give you a better idea of your specific area.

There are people who get a phd in X because they love X. Then there are people who do the program to get a job working in X. The second group of people in general dont hate what they study, but are more practical about it. They consider the odds of them getting a job, find out how much it pays, etc before doing a phd or choosing what sub-field to specialise in. As i have mentioned above, dont be a Hopeless Romantic. Academia is a job, not a hobby for most people. Hopeless Romatics get burnt, be it the ones who enter med school, or law school.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 8, 2003 09:53 PM

Certainly I learned a lot in graduate school, both from some wonderful, gifted peers and from several advisors and professors. In fact, my chief advisor utterly and productively changed my sense of what I was doing by becoming a historian. So it's not all bad, in fact, not even most of it was.

It's just that it's often much less than it ought to be, and there is a pervasive, subrosa institutional atmosphere of paranoia, humiliation, and conformity. I think it's that last that surprised me most, in the end--it wasn't how I perceived academia and academics, but in fact, the general temperment of academia is actually extraordinarily conservative and cautious in tempermental if not ideological terms, and there is a really concerted attempt to file off any rough edges and wear down anyone who stands out in any notable way.

On the subject of timing, everyone should take a year off, but if you're sure you want to be a professor, then I'd say go ahead and get rolling after two years or so, there are a lot of advantages to that. If you're not sure you want to be a professor, once again, don't go to grad school in the humanities or social sciences.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 8, 2003 10:34 PM

Hi, Jane! Welcome to the conversation.

Above all, what you absolutely, unquestionably need to know before you apply to grad school is what your job prospects are going to look like several years from now. The number of new English PhDs cranked out annually far exceeds the number of job openings. Odds are that you will not get your full-time dream job; instead, it's more likely that you'll wind up an "invisible adjunct"--especially if universities don't change their staffing policies.

Succeeding in academia requires an unfathomable combination of intelligence, professionalism, determination, and sheer unpredictable luck. If you choose to give it a shot, just be aware that it's not a meritocracy, and the odds are not with you.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 8, 2003 11:22 PM

One more follow-up to Timothy (#78) and then I'll shut up . . .

In the twelve years since I entered academia via grad school, I have never seen the sort of "pervasive, subrosa institutional atmosphere of paranoia, humiliation, and conformity" that you describe. I have seen individual colleagues and teachers who take such an approach, but in the programs I know--my graduate program and my Big State U department--such individuals are generally isolated, and grad students are warned in advance. Instead, I've found myself at two different institutions that fostered a fair spread of graduate student projects (ranging from very traditional approaches to bleeding-edge poststructuralism), that encouraged interdisciplinary work (my dissertation crosses a period divide, yet I never received any critique for doing so, either in grad school or in the project's current form as a book manuscript). We had (and have) a number of quirky standouts among the students--the only real rough edges I've seen filed relate quite specifically to strategies for representing oneself on the academic job market--and I consider those to be sound advice for professional presentation. (Both my grad institution and my current department give grad students a lot of job market prep support.)

Now, that said, I don't doubt that your experience is equally valid. I just want to make it clear to Jane that so much of what is discussed here (at least in the threads on grad student training and culture) is institution- and department-specific. A lot of it is probably even personality-specific. Which is why Jane needs to do her homework in investigating her preferred departments. Taking a year or two off is a good way to do this: you get used to living according to a work schedule, you save up some money, and you buy yourself the time to thoroughly research your options (as opposed to squeezing it in during the fall semester of senior year).

P. S. I will concede that a lot of these issues are field- and subfield-specific. My particular subfield in English studies tends to be left to its own devices by the rest of the department--so I have always been pretty much free to do as I please intellectually. Folks working in other subfields--especially contemporary ones--may tell a different story.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 9, 2003 01:42 AM

I would ask that Jane note that Professor Burke has one what can only be regarded as one of the best possible jobs in the profession and wrote a dissertation so impressive that at least three research libraries have copies of it before it was published as a book. And thus, if someone of this level of accomplishment is telling you to be wary of graduate school, you should listen very carefully, even if he is quite clearly a nerd.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 9, 2003 02:43 AM

Ms. Bast, you have an amazingly optimistic view of things, and it seems you might just be the sort of person who constitutionally sees the glass half full. If so, please take care to never lose that view on life, and if you value your optimism, please consider this advice from a current grad student in physics:

Please esteem the advice you are being given a little more highly than it seems that you are doing. People tell these things, however depressing, or unrealistic, or inapplicable they may appear to you, because these people are trying to help you avoid the pitfalls they've had. Let me provide an example.

In undergraduate education, all other things being equal there is nothing that even comes close to matching the sheer brutality of quantum mechanics, not the long hours of the musician, the writer's cramp of the poet, not the exams of the engineer, nothing. There simply is no other undergraduate class, with the possible exception of certain mathematical topics, that will break you down like this does, and that's assuming you pass. (This is NOT hyperbole. If anything it's too rosy a picture. But the great part is that your sleep schedule is now probably unrelated to any diurnal rhythm you started with, preparing you for grad school in physics.) On top of this, the class is taught by a most difficult professor. My friend swore that she was going to earn an A without already having the prerequisite mathematics under her belt. Knowing exactly what lay in her future, I had a good and hearty laugh, but she ignored this omen of ultimate doom and staunchly refused to wait until it was offered again. I was unsurprised when I got a panicked phone call after each exam, quiz, or homework that didn't go well, roughly once every couple of weeks, and each time I reassured her that she is capable of getting through this. This semester, along with quantum mechanics she has learned the hard way to take advantage of an object lesson (me). We are hoping that you won't have to be burned before you're willing to listen.

Am I counseling that you not go to grad school? Emphatically not. I am counseling that you do what is necessary to survive life as a grad student, an office worker, a teacher, or whatever profession you undertake -- lose as much of the naivete as possible without losing your sunny disposition by acquainting youself with the reality of the future you want to pursue. I dream of winning a Nobel someday, but I also recognize that the odds are so small that this cannot be a consideration in planning my future. Are you willing to gamble that you will not be spent and discarded before reaching your goal, or worse, that you pursued something only to later find out that it was never a possibility at all? As the Despair Demotivator (tm) says, "Before you attempt to beat the odds, be sure you could survive the odds beating you". Once you have learned these things, only then should you go forth boldly and pursue you dreams.

Best of luck in whatever you pick!

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 9, 2003 07:29 AM

This thread is particularly interesting, because one of my coworkers is applying to grad school (in physics) even as I write. He's been out of school for five years. His friends are very supportive, enthusiastic, etc.--except me. And here's what I've been telling him:

I went to grad school after having been working for five years, and that turned out to be a good thing; I treated grad school like a job, and I could write on demand (my job had included writing grant proposals, and the federal gov't isn't interested in your writer's block). I also went to pretty nifty U (I remember the chair telling us, at orientation, that it was one of the top ten political science departments in the country, though I hadn't known that going in). I got tuition but not a stipend, though I later got dissertation fellowships and my work was well-regarded. I finished in seven years, which was a land speed record for my department, practically. The person who knew my work best died as I started writing my dissertation; his recommendation might well have made the critical difference in terms of the one interview (at Great Liberal Arts College) I had; several faculty there had known him, and the person they ultimately hired had also been one of his students, but had been denied tenure. (She dropped her lawsuit at the denying place once GLAC hired her.) The chair of the hiring committee at GLAC clearly supported me strongly--he had the decency to call me and tell me what had happened, and why, after a two-hour meeting, the committee hired her instead of me; he also told me they thought I'd be a great theorist. Of course, I never got another interview, because there was no bottom to how bad the market was that year and the next. I had substantial debt--nearly $60,000, counting interest, which i do, because I had to pay it--and no spouse to support me while I waited for the market to improve. I was virtually unemployed for more than a year (I did temporary secretarial work to put food on the table, which paid better than adjunct teaching), and finally got a job completely outside my field and outside of academia. I have another job now, also completely outside both academia and my previous job. So was grad school worth it? (That's what the potential physics student wants to know, and he dearly wants me to say that it was.)

It took 17 years of my life to get the degree and pay for it. I am not doing the work I wanted to do and that I would have done well. I do not get to have conversations about the subjects I studied and about which i care passionately. You tell me if that time and money was well-spent, or whether I might have done just as well (or better) to pursue a different career path (or even a different degree). As I tell my coworker, you have to be prepared to NOT SUCCEED. Even if you get the degree, the chances of getting a tenure-track job in a place you want to live are vanishingly small. Can you live with that? Do you have a Plan B (and a Plan C)? Do you have a strategy for getting a different kind of job? Do you know your own tipping point, in terms of getting out? (It may not be possible to know this ahead of time.) As I say to him, I'm not saying you shouldn't go; I'm saying you need to know that you may not succeed, even if you are brilliant and your work is great and well-regarded and so on; you can end up second or third on every hiring list, which is a testament of sorts but still leaves you unemployed. I've noticed that many people like to think that, well, YOU didn't get a job because you're not quite good enough, but I secretly know that I'm better and I'll succeed--I'll be number one on that list of 350 job applicants, by gum! Could be; but be prepared to be wrong.

Posted by: Think at December 9, 2003 10:01 AM


The most important thing you can do now is research what else you can do with your Phd. Then make a plan. I know of an anthropology grad student who became his departments computer expert. He now designs the cds that come with undergrad textbooks. He isn't teaching, but he likes his work, and makes much more than he would teaching. He was able to do this because he developed other skils while in grad school.
I have a cousin who used her knowledge of other cultures to become a corporate trainer. She teaches business people about manners in other countries. She also makes much more than a college professor, and she gets to teach. This is not her dream job, but she finds it better than being an adjunct.

Grad school can be a wonderful experience at times, and at times it will crush you. Be prepared for the roller coaster of emotion. You're right, you could be the one who gets the tenure track job. But, you could be wrong. So, if you go, take time to ask yourself regularly "Will this make me more marketable if I don't find my dream job?" Look for a university that offers information about careers beyond academia. Your department may not do that, but career services offices sometimes do. The career services office at my university offered seminars every semester on this topic.

Posted by: at December 9, 2003 10:44 AM


I believe your article generates so much interest because, to a certain extent, we have all been you. Speaking for myself, I know that many of the reasons you desire to go to graduate school are the same as my own were, eight years ago. They are beautiful sentiments - a love of learning and scholarship, a committment to furthering knowledge. You are looking to further the journey that you have only just begun. Why else does anyone go to graduate school?

So why spoil such fine sentiments? Why not simply let you learn from experience? I think you've made up your mind to go to graduate school, and are seeking approval and support. You think we are just telling you that graduate school will be hard, that it is not fun, that it will be competitive, and that you will not make much money at the end of it. All these things are true.

But what we can't tell you is how you will change in graduate school and how graduate school will change you. Partly, you will become older and your priorities will change. You will be trained to become a member of your professional discipline, which involves reshuffling priorities. You will learn more about department politics then you will ever wish you knew. And at the end of it, you may find that you've devoted the better part of your youth and energy to training in a discipline that you find rewarding on neither a personal or financial level, with yourself uniquely unsuited to any other type of employment.

I was certain ten years ago that I was uniquely suited to an academic life - I was a good scholar and a talented teacher. A closer examination of academic life in graduate school caused me to think I might be more happily employed outside of it. Fortunately my interests had led me to economics, a field with numerous advantages in transitioning to non-academic life. If you decide to go to graduate school in English, I would recommend that you aggressively pursue internships and job experience outside the academy, as a plan B in case you are either unable or unwilling to join the ranks of tenure-track faculty.

All I'm saying is, keep an open mind and plan carefully. There's plenty of good advice here. Best of luck in your future endeavors.

Posted by: Matilde at December 9, 2003 10:53 AM

Note to CWD -- I think it's 'bated, short for abated, breath. I could be wrong, though -- I'm a historian, not an English person (despite the fact that my students think I spend far too much time marking their essays for spelling and grammar).

Note to Jane --

Bear in mind, please that I love teaching, and it's really part of who I am. That having been said, Tim Burke is right about the insidious nature of academia, especially for those of us who try to 'do it all'. During grad school, you may well find yourself feeling guilty any time you aren't working on something academic. You will lug home tons of books on every break that you're lucky enough to take, and may find your friends and family getting really ticked that you have to split time between too-short visits and grading or studying. Of course, you may be hyper-efficient and organized, and this won't be a problem.

You may also find that you are in a horrible position in your department because your advisor (the only person on campus who could advise your thesis) has made enemies everywhere. Or you could be lucky enough to have the patronage of a professor with clout -- in which case, your very existence may spark jealousy, but you'll be reasonably safe.

Your advisor could die or get another job somewhere and you may end up with a committee that knows nothing of your research and wants you to re-think the whole damned thing. It happens. But not to that many people. Or you might have an advisor who is just plain wonderful. I did, but it was entirely luck. I ended up changing my research interests in order to work with someone I respected and liked, and whose personality really clicked with mine. It was a great decision for me, but not for everyone.

You want to teach? Make sure you go to a school that turns out teachers who can research. Make sure they offer adequate training before they let you into a classroom. But know this. I love teaching. It's part of who I am. And this quarter, I hate many of my students. Some of my students hate me. Fortunately, more love me. (Hate and love aren't appropriate, you say? ah, but they are. Show me a teacher who doesn't care what his students think, and I'll show you someone who is arrogant and/or clueless. Show me someone who cares to much, and I'll show you a victim)

Still -- teaching isn't all great. But you can be good at it if you realize that most of your students take your class because they have to. Most of them don't care. Most of them will do just enough to barely get the grade they want. They will not recognize your expertise. They will see themselves as customers and they will threaten lawsuits if you don't give them the grades to which they think they are entitled. They will cheat. Not all, but one's too many. And a few (a happy few) will think your class is great. They'll take more classes from you. They may even change majors because you've turned them on to something that they thought they hated. But you can't count on it.

Meanwhile, you may find that you never teach what you love (many English departments make the junior and adjunct faculty teach all the comp and remedial classes and reserve the lit classes for themselves). You may find that you spend more time in meetings (if you're lucky and get a TT job) than in the classroom. If you adjunct, you may hold office hours in your car.

So go to grad school. But do it for the right reasons. And perhaps get a teaching credential first -- there's nothing wrong with a backup plan.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at December 9, 2003 03:08 PM

Everyone else is saying this, but it bears repeanig. Two years after graduation, your recommendations will be as sterling and your GPA and GREs as high as they are today. So why not spend two years working for a consulting firm, an NGO, or something else resembling an enjoyable career for a bookish person? I cannot empahsize enough the value of entering grad school with experience in some profession. Doing so offers three benefits:
1. You will be insulated financially from grad student poverty.
2. If all goes South, prior working experience will greatly ease reentry into non-academic life
3. You will have some kind of context in which to evaluate your academic experience.

The first two points are obvious, but let me dwell on the third. Academia is a weird little world. I found it a fun kind of weird, if ultimately not to my taste. It may not ultimately be to your taste either, and if so, you want to recongize this *as soon as possible.* There are many pressures that keep people in grad school too long: contempt for the perceived babbitry of commerce is one, fear of the unknown another. Some experience working will reduce both.

Posted by: baa at December 9, 2003 05:52 PM

This is all very good advice, and if a lot of people ar telling you to take time off believe them because it is true. If you want to be succesful in grad school a year or two off won't hurt and will certainly help. If it is too hard to take mentally, just consider it pre-grad school. Grantwriting is an excellent field to work in. It will give you experience in writing grants, which you will have to do a lot of in grad school, and in writing on demand (as previously mentioned). I would add one more piece of advice I learned the hard way. Check the stability of the faculty. Of my original dissertation committee, one person was still at the institution by time I finished and she had been denied tenure and worked at an Institute. Everybody else left for better job offers. This did not help me when it came time to get support from my department (they were not really interested in my project anymore, now that the potential glory would go someplace else).

Like Think, I did pretty good work in my field. I am still getting invited to panels at conferences and am slowly working on article revisions for publication in a pretty good journal in my free time. I wanted to get that job at GLAC too. And I had my interview and they almost hired me, but they decided to take the search in a different direction and do it over the next year with a different description for factors that did not have a whole lot to do with me but with departmental and college politics. Oh well. I love teaching and I'm good at it. At one institution I taught at, students actually petitioned to have me rehired for the next year. The provost was nice enought to forward their e-mails and letters after I turned in my grades. And they were not high. Alas, budgets being what they were there was no money (although I almost had a deal cut between three departments but it fell apart when some grant money was excluded from the package that would have paid me). So I still teach, only in private school, and I make the same money. Still, it was a lot more engaging to go discuss work that mattered to me in a personal way (and to read!) as opposed to say 35 papers on Ming China.

Best of luck, but take our advice. 2 years off or at least a terminal masters program first. It will improve your chances in the long run.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 9, 2003 09:43 PM

You know, I just read a book by Luke Davies called "Candy". It's about a couple of heroin addicts in Australia. They waste years and years and years of their lives to heroin.

[Spoiler ahead]: At the end, they finally straighten things out. But they were only 30! I was thinking, hell, 10 years of heroin addiction and he's really no worse off financially or career-wise than a grad student having to switch careers. Plus, the guy published his novel. Probably get a job teaching writing somewhere.

So, in some cases, heroin chic writing may offer more opportunities than grad school.

Posted by: IB Bill at December 10, 2003 03:01 PM

Think's comments were right on target! And I really hope, Jane, that you will take time to think about your options and your future opportunities.

Just to add to the mix, I'll tell you my story---I had decided that I wanted to become an academic while I was very young (I decided that this was the career for me when I was about 14 and I fell madly in love with my subject). I spent my time in high school and college (a top rated liberal arts college) thinking and day-dreaming about My Brilliant [Future Academic] Career and how wonderful it would all be. I intended to go directly to graduate school (late 1980s)---because of a death in my family, I wound up not applying to grad school during my senior year in college. Instead, I went out and got a job in a field in which I was mildly interested. I thank God that happened as the experiences and knowledge I gained during the two years I spent working were invaluable to me when I decided to opt out of an academic career.

I do not regret going on to get a PhD but I was, like most people, disappointed in grad school. I had wanted to become an historian because I loved to do primary research---my idea of a wonderful time was (and still is!) to curl up with 19th century newspapers, to read 19th century novels etc. I was miserable in grad school where we constantly read secondary works and where we were all trained to go for the kill---to attack and learn where and how great scholars went wrong in their work. I internalized all of this criticism---I found myself when reading (even for my pleasure) constantly seeing the flaws in a work. This was not pleasant and it was a skill I had to spend years un-learning. I do value the analytical abilities I learned but in grad school, the culture encourages one to attack and criticize (most grad students fail to understand the difference between a critique and a criticism). I became (and I am not proud of this) an extremely argumentative person. I spent my time attacking everything and anything. Additionally (and I also dislike this), I found myself constantly viewing everything thro' the prism of Class/Gender/Race (the Trinity for historians). In college, my boyfriend (who was of a different race) had once complained that I didn't think about race much---now I found myself fixated on it. I think, in an odd way, I became a racist because now rather than race being one of the MANY things I thought abt when I met someone, it was always the FIRST and always the KEY thing I noticed. My boyfriend in college was Anthony---had I met him in grad school, he would have been a Representative of His Race. This kind of stuff is very painful for me to discuss as I am ashamed of it. But I think this is what some people are saying when they say that grad school is abt narrowing your focus---it made me see things, the world and even the people whom I loved, thro' a very bizarre and narrow lens. It also made me inclined to argue with everyone who did not share my myopic view.

When I was finishing my dissertation, a friend and my brother took me to task and said that I seemed a very angry, very bitter and very narrow (how insulting that last comment was!) person. I spent three years seeing a therapist getting rid of this and going back to the person I was before I entered grad school.

This was all bad enough but then...when I was offered a job (and I was lucky) I found myself living as someone else said in a place I would never have visited. I spent several years on the job market even after gaining my tenure-track job (and most of my fellow historians, even those with tenure-track jobs, were constantly on the job market because they disliked their jobs). Ultimately, I asked myself a question academics never ask: what was my ideal job? I realized that there were quite literally two schools which met all my criterion. This made me realize that I was probably pursuing a very unrealistic dream.

I re-thought everything. I was a great teacher (won awards etc.) but teaching never satisfied me. I could have 90% of the class with me (a great percentage!) but I focused on the 10%. Plus, I love my subject and had been reading about it since I was very young---I was unhappy to discover that most of my students did not share my passion and even when I got them excited about the subject, they lacked the background to engage in it at a high level. My colleagues were in different fields and the only good intellectual discussions I had were via email with a colleague I had met at a conference.

All of this caused me to leave academia. While I don't regret the time I spent in grad school (probably b/c I did it all in 6 years---had I spent more or gone into debt, I would probably be bitter), I would never recommend it to anyone, especially not to someone who is going to go directlt to grad school from undergrad. The 2 years I spent before grad school turned out to one of my greatest assets both in grad school (the work ethic I learned in the outside world was what enabled me to do my PhD in 6 years) and outside of academia (the skills I learned in my first job were very important to my ecurrent employer). My comment/suggestion: take a year or two to think about your decision. It will make you a better scholar (the more you see of the world, the more you will understand nuances and complexities---learning about the outside world really will make you a better scholar and it will also help you be a better mentor to undergraduates (most of whom will not go on to graduate school and who will ask you for career advice). A year or two spent outside of academia is nothing in the wider scheme of things (especially if it will help you progress thrpo' grad school more quickly).

Posted by: an historian at December 10, 2003 04:20 PM

Hi All,

I want to thank everyone for their advice and for keeping this conversation going. I hear the word "Beware," beating like a low drum in the back of my mind. And I want to be as prepared for grad school as I can, so being wary is a good start.

Along with being wary, I wonder if some of you would like to comment on the personality traits that can herald success in graduate school. So much of what I read and hear addresses the academic skills a student needs for grad school, but I wonder if having a decent sense of humor and a sane estimation of one's self and one's abilities might make all the difference.

Posted by: Jane Bast at December 10, 2003 05:54 PM

I think the most important personality trait to have in order to succeed (i.e., finish) in grad school is to have the tenacity of a pit bull. Also develop a thick skin. Note that neither of these things have anything to do with intelligence or creativity.

Posted by: CWD at December 10, 2003 06:20 PM

Hi, Jane.

I second many of the Burke thoughts, but I won't go into that here, because I've got nothing new to add. Here are some of the traits that got me through grad school & into a job.

I think I had a good relationship with my faculty because I acted like an adult around them. Take the job seriously, but don't be an ostentatious suck-up, and learn to switch roles from colleauge to underling as approrpiate. It's an interesting tension. Second, I thought of department activities as professional responsibilities-- going to talks, meetings, whatever is mandatory, not something to be blown off when inconvenient. Being a good departmental citizen earns you a reserve of good will that you will need when you fuck up, as everyone does at some point. Third, I kept my ear to the ground when it came to department politics. There are lousy, troublemaking faculty in most departments, and you should know who they are and how to deal with them. If you don't know this, you're going to alienate someone who will hold it against you. It doesn't take much: many of us have seen this happen. Fourth, I always had in the back of my head that this was my long shot at a job I wanted. It's not enough to just get by, or do the required thing; it's not enough to do better than your grad student peers. You need to distinguish yourself from the many, many other grad students who will be applying for the same job, at the end of the day, and that means having evidence that you're serious. Publish, give talks, mean business. If you're just getting by, don't bother.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at December 10, 2003 06:29 PM


I don't know of any personality traits that allow one to thrive in graduate school. Humor and self-awareness don't strike me as either unusual or useful tools in academic research. Those that thrive in graduate school (a few do thrive) do so primarily through a particularly good advisor/advisee match, talent and perseverance, the time, mentoring, and money for research that is typically the result the first two. The few cases I know of highly successful graduate students who did not have particular powerful, talented or close advisors - in all these the graduate student herself/himself was older, had professional experience and contacts in the field prior to graduate school, and had a research agenda from their first day forward.

I can think of some personality traits that would make academic life more rewarding and a better match, including: (1) a love of solitude, (2) an affection, if not love, for teaching, (3) a highly competitive drive to publish, (4) no geographic preferences whatsoever, (5) willingness to choose a mate who has no geographic preferences whatsoever.

Posted by: Matilde at December 10, 2003 07:11 PM

> but I wonder if having a decent sense of humor
> and a sane estimation of one's self and one's
> abilities might make all the difference.

Nope, these will not make all the difference. How do I know? I have a very sane estimation of myself, which is why I had originally planned to take two years to prepare for grad school (I was suffering from a combination of burn out and several years of poverty-level wages as an undergrad). Everyone I discussed this with urged me not to take a break; in technical fields, for the older generations, not going striaght to grad school is a cardinal sin because they've seen so many people decide not to continue. I knew how fallacious this argument was, I knew how badly I needed to stop and recharge, I knew that I was in a financially untenable position for grad school, yet I let myself get talked into going on without so much as a pause -- now I'm paying for it by watching my dreams slip away. Depending on the curve, so to speak, my first semester at Rice may be my last.

If you go on without taking time off, you will definitely find out what you're made of. It could easily be that you are made of sterner stuff than I am, but it could just as easily happen that you start thinking how nice it would be to be able to afford that oil change, or to eat sushi more than once every four months, or to pay that medical bill, and so on. It could be that you find out you excel over all the others, and it could be that you meet people who you will not EVER be able to compete with (I know several people who, if it came down to it, would be hired over me instantly for a position). The hardest part will definitely be realizing that you are nowhere near as ready as you thought you were and discovering that you might not have what it takes, that there are limits to how far you are able to push yourself, that eventually your body and mind can take no more of it and refuse to cooperate any more.

Basically, the reason people want you to try something else first is this: the world outside academia tests you mettle quickly, and it also provides opportunities to develop what you'll need to get through grad school. Some people can survive the baptism of fire during that first semester, and some can't. Do you know which sort you are?

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 11, 2003 07:33 AM

Neither of the traits you describe are particularly helpful. Most of the funny folks who had a realistic sense of their abilities left pretty quick. Most people I met in academia marveled at how well-adjusted I was and remarked on it. This is scary, because a) I was not particularly well-adjusted and b) it was like I was a museum freak or something. The single best trait I can think of for a grad student was described by a friend of mine as "the ability to worry a problem until you completely understand it like a dog going after its favorite chew toy." In fact, it was the least socially adjusted and least humerous people who tended to do best.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 11, 2003 08:09 AM


I disagree that a sense of humor isn't useful. You don't NEED it for grad school and it probably won't help you succeed (it won't hurt either), but it will help keep you sane. I hope you appreciate the absurd. Grad school is frequently absurd. I have had arguments over the meaning of a word, and over using the pdf or cdf of a random variable in an equation. You need to be able to step back occasionally and laugh at yourself and the situation.

I do agree that you should take a year or two off first. It will help you cope with grad school now, and give you other options later. It will not harm you. You also need to think about what else you could do with your Phd, you might beat the odds, but it isn't likely.

Best of luck to you in whatever you decide.

Posted by: susan at December 11, 2003 09:00 AM

Add my voice to the wait before you leap list.

I'm one of the lucky ones -- I just started a tenure-track job in English, which I landed in my first try at the market. But please understand -- I don't think it was because I'm anything special -- my wife and I were willing to go anywhere (including the tiny liberal arts college where I now work), and I was just plain darned lucky.

But how did I get here?

I did my M.A. right after my B.A. It took me 5 years (my undergrad classes were in other fields, and I was trying to be a rock star at the same time), and I wound up taking the non-thesis option and bailing w/ a 3.4. With no other options, I went to work as a trade journalist (during which time I met, among others, Kevin Walzer (Hello to the Mrs.!)).

SIX YEARS LATER, I went back for the Ph.D. at a second-tier university. I finished in 4 years, carried a 4.0, and went a year from beginning my proposal to defending the diss. Had it not been for the discipline I learned at the cube farm (and the awareness that I was headed back there if I didn't kick butt), there's no way in hell I would have gotten it done.

Please please PLEASE spend some time in the non-academic world before you plunge into grad school. You'll be able to use the money (we lived in part off my 401K -- this was a suicide mission), you'll develop abilities that will serve you both inside and outside the version of Alice's rabbit hole we call academia, and you may even decide you like it.

And like I said, that's advice from someone who lucked out.

Posted by: WM3 at December 11, 2003 09:20 AM


An Historian (post #90) is right about how the grad-school tendency to critique everything can do weird things to one's personality. And I say this as one whose grad school experience (in English, like you're planning to do) was mostly positive. I was adequately funded and very fortunate in my choice of adviser. My program isn't the kind where the graduate students are at each other's throats. I haven't lost my love of my subject, either.

However. One of the things you learn in graduate seminars in English is to "enter the conversation" in your field. This often involves reading other people's scholarship and tearing it down so that you can write your own articles explaining why your arguments are better than the previous ones. In a profession crowded with scholars desperately publishing to get tenure, it gets harder and harder to say something new and fresh (especially about older texts) without taking the "criticize other people's takes on the subject" approach to gain a toehold.

Some people react to this training by getting aggressively critical. I'm not one of them. I went the other direction instead; graduate school exaggerated my tendency to be relentlessly self-critical. (Constantly questioning your own worth is an easy habit to acquire when you're used to anticipating other people's critiques.) And what An Historian said about teaching, and fixating on the 10% of the class that isn't engaged or interested? That's been true of me too.

So one personality trait you need to survive grad school is the ability not to let those habits of thought carry over into your personal life -- which is the same thing, I guess, as the ability to refuse what Timothy Burke calls "the intimate intertwining of your life and your work" in #70. But that can be awfully hard to do. And that's what I wish someone had told me before I went straight from undergrad to a Ph.D. program. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken time off to find out what else I was good at besides scholarship.

Good luck to you!

Posted by: Amanda at December 11, 2003 09:48 AM

A sense of humor helps. But I'd say that the most important trait is the ability to be an adult (see #93).

Most important, keep a sense of perspective; academia is not the whole world, even if it's the part you like best. I noted that I ended up in a top department for grad school w/o knowing that it was a top department. My first reaction was "What the f*** did I just get myself into?" My second thought was, "What's the worst can they do to me?" and I promptly stopped worrying about it. (My sister died three years before I went to grad school, so I figured the faculty couldn't do worse to me than that.) That perspective helped. Departments tend to be hothouses, where everyone is in everyone else's back pocket, and it's easy to forget that these people are NOT the whole world. Therefore, have a life outside, too, if you possibly can. Remember that the faculty are going to be your colleagues in a few years; treat them respectfully, but not obsequeously (sp?), and, as you gain knowledge and confidence, feel free to engage them--not to show off, but because you enjoy the interchange. (If you don't, you're in the wrong profession.)

I would also suggest a job outside of the department if you can possibly manage that. (With TA-ships, etc., that may not be possible.) I worked in the library, moving furniture and fixing things, for three years, and I loved it; I worked according to a schedule, I wasn't grading papers for (or teaching) someone else's class, and my schedule wasn't suddenly thrown for a loop because the professor for whom i was working had to finish a paper and needed me to do the legwork. Get a job tending bar somewhere--away from the university--or something like that.

Finally, I recommend that you find a way to explain what you're doing to your relatives. My family and their friends (whom I'd see on holidays) were/are all working class, so they really didn't understand what I was doing, or why. I found ways to talk about my work--sometimes it was describing, literally, what my days were like, with classes and the library and so on, sometimes it was finding a way to talk about my interests in ways that were clear to them. When I wrote my dissertation, I had my dad (who's very smart, and an autodidact of the first degree, but has only a high school diploma) as my audience in my head, which helped me keep gobbledegook jargon out of the thing. (He did read it--and understood it better than some of my so-called "peers.") What this does is (a) help you stay connected to people you love, and (b) improve your ability to communicate what you're doing to a variety of audiences. This skill will translate into other fields, if you end up leaving academia.

Posted by: Thnk (again) at December 11, 2003 10:41 AM

I agree with Amanda. Not only did I become incredibly critical of other people, I was also hyper critical of myself. That's what a lot of that time in therapy was about! I found that world really draining and it took me a long time to find my way back to liking myself (this is why so many academics are bitter; they really don't like themselves very much).

I also want to recommend following Think's advice about a job outside of your department. I did my PhD in less than 8 years at a top ten program. I worked as a t'a, took a full course load and worked part time as a sec'y at a toy company. The toy company was great! I was extremely focused in my work and approach and that was because I took time off (I'll also admit that I am and always have been a super fast reader in English and French and that helped a lot but I would still say that the reason I was able to be so focused was because I learned discipline in my real job). And I also want to add a sad comment/addition to what Think has said. My dad died in horrific circumstances when I was a senior in college (he committed suicide)---like Think, this enabled me to distance myself from a lot of the self-importance which characterizes academics and their views of the world. I don't recommend (and never would) experiencing something horrible but I do recommend that you experience the real world before becoming an academic. I was never very into simplistic approaches to problems because I had seen and experienced something very complicated. Go out and work with people whose lives are a struggle and you will be a better scholar. Go out and even just earn money and you will have a better understanding of the world (which is fundamentally what scholars are studying).

And finally, there is one final thing I would say. I am reminded of a character in an academic novel (I think it's Francine Prose's Blue Angel). The character hurls an invective at literary theorists and says "But then you hate reading!" I know lots of literary theorists who went to grad school because they loved to read novels or poetry. They then studied theory and spent their careers destroying the work they loved. For some of them, this was fine but for me (and for some people I know), it would have destroyed my love of reading. As an historian, I can't enjoy historical films or historical novels in the same way I did before going to grad school (this is where that hyper drive of super-criticism kicks in, combined, of course, with the academic's sad tendency to sneer at anything which enjoys popular support). In many ways, I wish I had the ability to enjoy things which I had before I became an academic. As a college student, it was very heady to be able to know and explain all the historical problems but this headiness and this ability is not limited to scholars within the Ivory Tower.

Posted by: an historian at December 11, 2003 12:15 PM

Jane (and others),

Everything Timothy Burke says is entirely true -- but last summer I started a list of reasons why people should attend grad school in the humanities; it's here on my blog. As others pointed out, though, it turned into more a prerequisite list (and the comments are well worth reading). I'd like to return to that project someday when I have time.

I loved graduate school -- learning new skills, making new friends, reading new books, and encountering new ideas every week. I don't regret it one bit -- and I can count my (fairly petty) disappointments with my program on one hand with fingers left over. I also took a year between college and grad school (netting myself a lucrative part-time job for the grad school years), started in a program where I could've jumped with a terminal master's if I found it wanting (I didn't), pieced together funding and jobs so that I didn't run up any debt, finished my program very quickly (under five years for M.A. and Ph.D.), and caught a good tenure-track job my first autumn on the job market. In some ways I'm an anomaly, and in others I acted on the kinds of advice people are now giving in this thread. I do think taking a breather between college and grad school is extremely helpful -- but if, like me, you keep spending your disposable income buying out the academic sections of bookstores, and if you recognize that getting a good academic job takes hard work and a good dose of gambling, there's a place for people like us. :)

Posted by: Naomi Chana at December 11, 2003 12:16 PM

While I will agree with almost everything said above, I think many of the comments tell you something about the sort of personality traits that won't help you get through grad school. Many of the concerns on this blog are about having a life and a career at the same time and dealing with the inevitable unfairness of the fact that for every one person who gets a tenure track job, 3-5 equally (or better!) qualified people do not. It's true that these are problems, IF you want to keep your life separate from your job and IF you see being a scholar as "something you do" instead of "who you are." I sense that most people in this conversation (and IA's poll down the page supports it) are of the "what I do" type. If you are as well, you might reconsider grad school.

The personality trait that is most helpful in grad school is absolutely bland, crazed commitment to being a professor. If you see being a professor (not just a scholar, you can do that -- possibly -- without a tenure track job) as a vocation, as the ONLY possible way your life will ever be fulfilled, then you will probably make it. That means you have the insane and somewhat irrational dedication of the priest or penitent. It also means you won't worry about things like having a partner, starting a family, eating decent food, or living somewhere nice, because the superficial pleasure all those things bring you pale next to the deep joy you derive from reading, writing, and teaching. Such people finish, because they can't imagine not finishing. Such people publish while in grad school, because they don't spend time doing much of anything else. And such people eventually get tenure track positions, because they don't care where they go for a visiting position, don't have families or partners to prevent them from going anywhere, and spend all their free time writing and sleeping (and they won't have much free time teaching 5-5 loads in visiting positions!). These people, and this is the sick or tragic part, find such a life exciting and satisfying.

The problem, of course, is that such people are not much fun to be around and aren't well adjusted socially. I know this description fits me pretty well, and almost everyone I know (other than my colleagues) finds me odd beyond belief. In short, the best traits for success in grad school are being a socially maladjusted loner with the dedication of a religious penitent. Like priests, others won't and can't understand your sacrifices, and can't even imagine how your life could be happy without all those things you have sacrificed. But you are happy. If you can't imagine happiness as a relatively celibate, materially deprived (relative to other middle class folks, of course), misunderstood, and largely isolated person, don't dream of being a professor.

Posted by: ECW at December 11, 2003 02:26 PM

And before the well-adjusted people on the board jump on me, let me say that some people who see being a professor as a nice career but want a life separate from it DO make it, and many of them are successful. I just think they are the exception, and in highly competitive fields in the humanities (especially English, Philosophy, History, Political Thoery -- fields where you can't do anything else relevant with the degree)they are increasingly the exception, since the now almost required 2-4 years spent building a fantastic teaching and publication record while moving aroung the country from one part-time or visiting position to another weeds out the less vocationally oriented, in the same way the 10 year probationary period weeds out wannabe Jesuit priests.

Posted by: ECW at December 11, 2003 02:32 PM

Jane: One final piece of advice. Pick your field carefully. I do not know about English lit type of positions but for historians there is no chance of success in certain fields....even if you are Jesus, Mohammad, the Buddha and Moses all rolled into one. In history, for example, the odds of finding a position as a 20th century Italian historian are VERY slim. I wouldn't recommend specializing in eighteenth-century Danish history or seventh-century Russian history either. Look at the jobs listed in the MLA or in the lit journals where positions are advertised and shape your future according to where the jobs are. No school will create a job for you so if you decide to study something completely obscure and which you love with a passion---even if you come out of grad school with a MacArthur Genius Grant (which is not super likely), your chances of finding a job are slim to non-existent. If you must do this, be smart about it.

Posted by: at December 11, 2003 04:26 PM

Let me swim against the tide here. There's a major fallacy lurking behind the "personality traits" question: it assumes that there is some magic brew that automatically confers grad school success.

There isn't. It takes two to tango. In academia, a lot more than two. And you, no matter how talented you are, are only ONE.

I said this very loudly and clearly in my personal "so ya wanna go to grad school?" rant, but it bears repeating: YOU DO NOT UNIQUELY CONTROL WHETHER YOU SUCCEED IN ACADEMIA. You need luck and the right people around you. And more luck. And a bit of extra luck doesn't hurt.

If you can't handle not being entirely in control, don't go. Really. Honest.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at December 11, 2003 04:59 PM

If you are not a top program, and you advise potential graduate students to only go to a top program, are you not therefore advocating the closing of your own PhD program?

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 11, 2003 09:53 PM

"but if, like me, you keep spending your disposable income buying out the academic sections of bookstores, and if you recognize that getting a good academic job takes hard work and a good dose of gambling, there's a place for people like us. :)"

For me, this doesn't quite add up. If you said, "but if, like me, you keep spending your disposable income buying out the academic sections of bookstores, and if you recognize that getting a good academic job takes hard work, there's a place for people like us. :)," then it would make sense. But alas, it is no longer credible to say this, so of course you have to mention the gamble, and there's the rub, isn't it? what is a gamble if it doesn't involve betting on an uncertain outcome? Well, obviously there are gambles and then there are gambles, with varying degrees of uncertainty. I'd say an English PhD is betting fairly heavily against the odds.

The fact is, in English literature there isn't necessarily a place for the person who can't keep away from the academic sections of the bookstore and who works very heard and devotes herself singlemindedly to the pursuit of literary studies. I think it's important to say this. The point I take from Tim Burke's description of the dilemma in which he finds himself as an advisor to undergrads: while there are incredibly bright and talented undergraduates who would make wonderful scholars and teachers, who are exactly the kind of people the academy should be recruiting, it is no longer possible to recruit them without reservations, misgivings, and qualms of conscience.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 12, 2003 11:14 AM

For what it's worth, I don't think it requires a tremendous amount of imagination for a college senior to conclude that someone who likes to buy academic books potentially has a place in academia. I think it takes greater imagination to realize that it's okay to be a well-read blogger, or bank-teller, or screenwriter, or high-school teacher, or Java programmer, or stay-at-home parent. In fact, it's more than okay; if the people who know the most about history and literature cloister themselves in academia and confine themselves to the echo chamber of barely read journals and insidery professional conferences, it's a loss for society overall--that is, if you think the humanities have something to say to people other than professional scholars.

I do worry about this. If the segment of our society that's best-schooled in the humanities overwhelmingly concludes that living the good life means pursuing a career in the humanities, I have to wonder if at least some of those people haven't missed the point of literature and history in the first place. I'm having a hard time thinking of any worthwhile work of literature whose message is: "Obsessively study the messenger!"

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 12, 2003 03:38 PM

Well I'm applying to Master of Urban Planning programs for next fall after hopeless months on the job market with my history BA. I definitely thought about PhD programs in the past, but the more comments like this I read the more I'm glad I decided against that idea. My only problem is that I don't want to go into more debt, so hopefully one of these Master's programs will throw some dough at me... I'm applying everywhere from tiny state schools to Harvard... hopefully the hemorraghing of application fees pays off somehow.

Posted by: Brandon at December 19, 2003 04:43 PM