February 20, 2004

Jane Bast Makes a Statement

I returned to my apartment and looked at my statement. Bill was right. It did seem naďvely idealistic. Too much like Dead Poets Society, and not enough like Discipline and Punish. As I sat down at my desk to begin again, I tried to channel my inner Foucault so that I could think about my work and my abilities with the appropriate critical distance.

-- Jane Bast, "Making a Statement"

With a bit of help from her mentor, Bill Jeremiah, Jane Bast channels Foucault and comes up with a personal statement.

Yes, Jane Bast of "Jane Bast, Undeterred" has applied to graduate school. It cost her 1,500 dollars.

I think it's sad that undergraduate mentors like Professor Jeremiah can no longer heartily recommend that students like Jane Bast pursue graduate studies in the humanities. She strikes me as just the sort of smart, funny, mensch-like person the academy really needs (and I'm not her only fan: several people emailed me yesterday to notify me that Jane Bast had a new column at the Chronicle). But though I can't enthusiastically endorse her plan to enter a PhD program in English literature, I can certainly wish her well.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 20, 2004 09:26 AM

Well, good luck to her. She's already beginning to see what this is going to involve. Just wait until she realizes that academic prose as it is passively socialized into you at the graduate level isn't even about writing isn't even about writing in an "engaged, though detached manner": more like studied ennui punctuated with theoretical declarations of psuedo-tribal affiliation hurled in the manner of the rock-throwing villagers in Jackson's "The Lottery".

She's reasonably good proof that some things are impossible to understand until you experience them yourself.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 20, 2004 10:37 AM

I hate to say this, because she's clearly learned a lot (dare I say from us?) -- but if she doesn't wise up even more, she's screwed six ways from Sunday.

The article doesn't give any indication whatever that she knows anything about the departments she's applying to. She didn't spend any of that $1500 on, say, CALLING THEM UP to find out what they're like.

And she's approaching them as a suppliant. A job-seeker, per her own metaphor. That's bogus. SHE is hiring THEM, paying THEM, to teach and certify HER. She damn well needs to know whether they're going to put any effort into it, not to mention whether the certification she gets from them will be any use whatever. She doesn't. She doesn't know.

It isn't hopeless. If she gets more than one acceptance, she can make some effort at the due diligence she ought to have done already. Failing that, though, I think her already-slim chances of getting where she wants to be -- a tenured professorship, from the looks of things -- approach zero with startling rapidity.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at February 20, 2004 11:36 AM

I was going around telling people not to do PhDs, but then a friend pointed out that it was better to let people learn for themselves whether it was right for them. He rightly said that it was better to try it and be disappointed than spend your life wondering 'What if?'

I admit we have less to lose as our PhDs are only 3 or 4 years in the UK.

Posted by: Duckling at February 20, 2004 12:16 PM

I sympathize with Ms. Bast. I earned an MA in English in 2002 and applied to doctoral programs this past fall.( I'm beginning to get offers.) Part of my research for this process has been reading everything I can find about job prospects, including Burke's excellent warnings and the comments on this blog in response to Ms. Bast's first essay. A number of things occur to me:

1. Many of the comments directed to Ms. Bast have been incredibly patronizing. I'm wouldn't be surprised if she disregarded them completely.

2. It is also difficult to credit discouraging comments from strangers who make ill-considered remarks (e.g., comment 2). Ms. Bast doesn't mention the research she did about these programs in her article, and that omission allows her reader to speculate about whether she did any. It does not justify the assumption that she didn't do any and that therefore she will ultimately fail in her goals.

3. One of the romantic ideas about academia is the notion of the ivory tower. The most useful advice I've gotten focused on the necessity of treating my graduate career as a job and seeing myself as in training for a profession. Advice based on anecdote and conjecture has been less helpful.

4. Do some (perhaps many) people work very hard, do all the right things, and still get screwed? Yes. It's cold out there, which is also true of the job market in general. Life is struggle. Luckily, there's no debtor's prison in America and no one gets a prize if she dies without debt.

That seems like a good list to start with. It does occur to me that after 5 years of working as an editor, I'm much better equiped for doctoral study in that I have a much better sense of what it takes to act like a professional, such as arriving prepared and on-time to meetings and spending my time doing self-directed work that leads to products like essays and reviews.

Posted by: McColl at February 20, 2004 12:23 PM

*shrug* I stand by what I said. I'm willing to be corrected on the research Ms. Bast did or didn't do -- indeed, I earnestly hope for her sake that I'm wrong.

From the lack-of-fit in her application essay that her adviser noted, however, and from the allocation she herself gives of the money she spent -- I don't think she did the research, I do think she has the "ivory tower" notions that McColl mentions, and I do think all of that will cost her.

Five years of work experience absolutely *is* a terrific preparation for grad school. Ms. Bast doesn't have that, either. I personally would encourage her to get it.

I am not, despite my tone, angry with Ms. Bast, nor do I *want* her to fail. I want her to be able to look me smugly in the eye, tenure letter in hand. Go her. But -- and here is where I disagree that "anecdote" is not useful -- I see her falling into pits she could avoid with relative ease. I don't want her to do that. I don't know how else to put up "PIT HERE!" signs.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at February 20, 2004 01:05 PM

Call me skeptical, but part of me wonders if Jane isn't a little more savvy about the whole process than she's letting on. How many of us knew what the Chronicle of Higher Education even *was* when we we were undergrads, let alone how to pitch a series of first-person columns?

Sadly, Jane's enthusiasm and intelligence won't matter too terribly much in graduate school, but she obviously has either professional connections or serious ambition, both of which will probably turn out to be the more valuable assets in the fall.

Posted by: J.V.C. at February 20, 2004 01:13 PM

JVC writes:How many of us knew what the Chronicle of Higher Education even *was* when we we were undergrads

Well -- speaking for myself -- I was familar with CHE, because my father's home subscription landed on the coffee table. Perhaps some of Jane Bast's optimism isn't just youth or a wonderful part of her personality, but instead in part a product of reading (and now being in) what some here call "Chronicle-Land".

Posted by: P at February 20, 2004 01:42 PM

I'd love to hear Ms. Bast's response to J.V.C.'s comment (#6).

Dorothea, I was startled by your tone (#2), but I see that you mean to help. I hope that my observations (anecdotal though they may be) about what I found to be useful advice will help those who wish to advise to do so in a more effective way.

Posted by: McColl at February 20, 2004 01:47 PM

"And she's approaching them as a suppliant."

Seems to me that is the practical stance to assume when applying for admission. Only after receiving multiple offers of admission, and some leverage, one can assume the stance of the skeptical consumer. It is also at this point that it seems most efficient to conduct a serious investigation of each plausible department. Prior to this point, faculty are likely to give only the most perfunctory responses to inquiries.

It goes without saying that nobody should consider an offer of admission without funding (although such offers can sometimes be negotiated into offers with funding if one has multiple options and a taste for brinkmanship).

Posted by: THB at February 20, 2004 02:27 PM

Bill Jeremiah's note on the nature of PhD programs ('grad school is about preparing for a profession') and Jane's 'eureka' – but which is really just an echo ('The purpose of graduate school is to train students for a profession') enrage me. But I am halfway from the bourbon bottle on my way to vulnerable lawn art.

Perhaps my graduate school (in the humanities) experience was unusual, but I now notice how unprepared our teachers made us for the 'profession'. I don't remember any classes in – say – how to collect data in the field, or how archives are organized (or even paleography), how to get a job/promotion, how to get published or deliver a paper . . . and so on.

I am trying imagine a medical school where one never touched a patient, or law school without mock trials and brief-writing, or business school without case studies.

Posted by: P at February 20, 2004 02:35 PM

"Five years of work experience absolutely *is* a terrific preparation for grad school."

I disagree.
Say someone graduates from college at 22. With 5 years under their belt, they will be 27 entering into a phd program. With average programe taking about 7-8 years,they will be approximately 35 entering the job market. Even with things going smoothly, they could well be pushing 40 before they have some stability in their lives.Ugh. Besides, quitting a job to go do something you may not even like seems to risky.It makes leaving with a masters seem like such a waste.

I think that people should hit grad school right after college. Yup, thats right. But then take a year or so off after a masters before plunging for that phd. Most places allow people to take time off. Worst case you can always transfer to another school. But then you will only be about 25, wise enough to understand if the phd is for you, yet young enough to compete in the job market. Better still, wont kick youself for quitting a job for a masters.

Actually lots of places have some sort of unofficial undergrad/masters thing. They will let you take masters classes with minimal fuss.(even your GRE scores are a formality!) The downside is that the program probably wont have funding for you. You will have to find funding from your fave profs.

Posted by: Passing_through at February 20, 2004 03:05 PM

Hmmm. Re: comment 11. I took Dorothea's statement, which Passing_through quoted, to be a response to my comment (4) that responded to her comment (2). whee!

It's certainly possible, Passing_through, that the scenario you pose may happen, may already have happened, hundreds of times over, and it would be a shame if this thread devolved into a series of "but I'm different" comments. Nevertheless, this sort storyboarding as method of persuasion seems less than effective to me.

Working outside of academia before committing to a lengthy program can give a person a sense of perspective and some maturity, two things that I definitely was lacking when I entered my master's program directly after college. ymmv

Posted by: McColl at February 20, 2004 03:49 PM

I really don't get it. I do not get why anyone, armed with a healthy dose of foreknowledge and statistics and anecdotal testimony about the nature of the "profession," would pursue graduate study in the humanities. Really, it's jsut beyond me.

The other day I overheard the undergrad. director telling an impressionable yourn woman about how study for study's sake is a wonderful thing, and graduate study of English can be so, so rewarding. I thought to myself, 'easy for you to say, you've got a retirement package, and you don't have to worry about what might happen to you if you fall on your ass and break your hip'.

Posted by: Chris at February 20, 2004 04:06 PM

Chris, considering the undergrad director's position, she did the right thing. I can find the statistics, and I can read blogs such as this one, and that is good, and occasionally even fruitful. But the worst and most frustrating part of the grad school admissions process was being told by academics, indeed tenure track academics, that I would never make it to that position. How condescending! Folks in such positions should perhaps direct "impressionable young women" such as myself to Invisible Adjunct; they should NOT pretend that academia is impossible, as you seem to wish.

Posted by: amelia at February 20, 2004 04:25 PM

Amelia: I simply found her remarks irresponsible. I'm not trying to be condescending.

Posted by: Chris at February 20, 2004 04:49 PM

god bless jane bast and likewise
the invisble adjunct. indeed,
what the hell, god bless us every one.

our top story tonight:


the UK-wide university teachers strike.
let the wild rumpus begin!

Posted by: vlorbik at February 20, 2004 05:18 PM

As a graduate student who just today turned in my letter of withdrawal from the English program, I'm sorry to see that some people find realism about the humanities condescending and pessimistic. After a term and a half of direct experience, careful observation, and persistent data collecting, I have to agree with Chris (#13). Not only has finding a t-t position become more like a lottery than a job search, the actual experience of graduate school (at least in English) is not at all one of "study for study's sake," as Chris's undergraduate director irresponsibly rhapsodized.

The most likely scenario is you'll spend five to seven years in the dehumanizing environment of graduate school only to get stuck stringing together two or three adjuncting positions for less than you could make managing a Burger King, while watching the literature you love (the first draft of my personal statement was as gooey as Jane Bast's) get repeatedly indicted in the kangaroo court that contemporary scholarship has become.

Posted by: Rose at February 20, 2004 05:44 PM

There are two reasons to pursue a Ph.D in the humanities, both good.

1. Because occasionally you really do get to live, in between all the brickbats and shortcomings, some version of "the life of the mind", at least in a way unavailable to anyone in any other profession. For many sensitive, intellectually inclined people, it's the only chance to do that, even if the chance is small.

2. Because if you get a good job in a good institution, your job has a number of basic economic compensations unavailable in ANY OTHER JOB, most signally: 1) extensive control over your working hours and general pace of work; 2) lack of direct interference by management in your day-to-day duties; 3) considerable protected autonomy in your definitions of professionalism; 4) sabbaticals. Couple that with decent, not extraordinary pay and benefits, and you've got a good life. The problem is that the number of positions with these attributes is shrinking, and as this site demonstrates, shrinking faster all the time.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 20, 2004 06:06 PM

"Arriving prepared and on-time to meetings and spending my time doing self-directed work that leads to products like essays and reviews."

If only someone had told me that 30 years ago. All that time I've been coming late to meetings and immediatle asking "Hey, what are we here for, anyway?" I knew that there was something I was doing wrong, but I just never understood what.

The National Lampoon job-huntin advice did tell me not to pee in the wastebasket, but it left out some of that insider stuff.

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 20, 2004 06:17 PM

Of course it's impossible to know what they're like from outside. In fact, it's rather difficult to know what graduate school is like while in it. I'm certainly not sure -- and quite conflicted about staying. (I am staying for next year because (a) I want teaching experience and (b) I want my MA, at least. I will probably finish my PhD, albeit at a distance in my last year(s), so I can get a reasonable industry job. Sure I'd like an academic job, but that's not going to happen, as was pointed out to me as an undergraduate. But there are industry jobs, which my school has a remarkable record at.)

As many minuses as there are to graduate school (and there are many), there are some goods, too. The question is, which will I regret more: leaving or staying? Jane Bast seems to have made her decision, and all the bad experiencing in the world will be unlikely to change her mind.

I hope, though, that she asks good questions when she is there. How much do they pay? Is it enough to live on? How much are student fees, and are they covered? (Student fees take 10% of my salary, already not enough to live on.) Are you expected to live on this over the summer (in other words, are you expected to come back in September with research done)? What courses will you be allowed to teach, which will you be forced to? I asked some of the right questions, but not enough.

Posted by: wolfangel at February 20, 2004 06:36 PM

Timothy Burke (#18): I'm curious to know what you think are the odds of winning that "lottery"? (nice life, by the way) Would you say they are better or worse than, say, winning Powerball?

Posted by: Chris at February 20, 2004 06:51 PM

If I may step in here: the odds for English majors are 1 in 5 once they have been admitted to graduate school (and of course, not all grad schools are equal). About 3 out that 5 drop out before they finish their doctorates (note that their objective performance can't be differentiated from those who stay). Of the 2 out of 5 who complete their doctorates, only 1 will eventually find a tenure-track job (and not right away, either). Nobody really knows what happens to the others.

English is the most notorious field (also the one with the most use for underpaid, benefit-less grad students and adjuncts (compostion), but most humanities graduates are not that much better off.

Posted by: THB at February 20, 2004 07:03 PM

As someone who has worked both in and outside of academia, I'd like to address Timothy Burke's comments on the merits of academic vs. non-academic employment.

There are two reasons to pursue a Ph.D in the humanities, both good.

1. Because occasionally you really do get to live, in between all the brickbats and shortcomings, some version of "the life of the mind", at least in a way unavailable to anyone in any other profession. For many sensitive, intellectually inclined people, it's the only chance to do that, even if the chance is small.

I turned down my academic offers because none of them allowed me to have as much time or as many resources to do research as I have now in my current job, where I do research full-time and have access to data and computing power I would be highly unlikely to have access to otherwise.

A great deal of academic life is spent teaching, which if you don't like it, is dull work, duller than I ever imagined it could be, duller than a great many jobs I had outside academia. The students (well, many of them) are great, but for every hour with them are many hours of mind-numbing grading and course prep.

All I'm saying is that academia isn't the only 'life of the mind' available. Many people outside of academia get paid to do think, do research, and write papers.

2. Because if you get a good job in a good institution, your job has a number of basic economic compensations unavailable in ANY OTHER JOB, most signally: 1) extensive control over your working hours and general pace of work; 2) lack of direct interference by management in your day-to-day duties; 3) considerable protected autonomy in your definitions of professionalism; 4) sabbaticals. Couple that with decent, not extraordinary pay and benefits, and you've got a good life.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. Academia is unique in providing unstructured employment and (mostly) freedom from direct oversight and structured hours. This is something I very much miss. I miss taking for granted that I will get more than a long weekend for Christmas travel. I also frequently miss the days I didn't have a boss, and my time was mostly my own to dictate what I would do with it.

However, there is an aspect of academic employment that most graduate students don't consider (I think - I know that I certainly did not) and that is location. A huge downside of academic employment is geographic rigidity - unless you are an extremely desirable candidate, you simply have to be willing to move to whereever
the job market places you.

I know I wake up everyday grateful that I'm living in "Big City" and not in "Little Midwestern Town A" or "Even Littler Midwestern Town B" where I had academic offers.

Just my thoughts.

Posted by: at February 20, 2004 07:15 PM

In response to post #10 from P. You say that you didn't get any training for the profession in gathering data etc. Isn't that the point of the dissertation?

On other matters:
I think Jane has it right to treat grad school as a job. It's a job with long hours, low pay, and few benefits, and it eats your life, but thinking of it as a rotten job is probably healthier than thinking of it as your identity.

Posted by: Jenna at February 20, 2004 07:21 PM

Life of the mind available elsewhere, check. I agree. Just that academia offers a more ostensibly, if not actually, predictably repeatable pathway to that. (e.g., in other contexts, it seems to me that you have to work hard to carve out that space.) I would also say that for some of us, teaching and the life of the mind are not opposed imperatives--for me, teaching is precisely *where* I live the life of the mind most fullest. (Though admittedly not in the grading of papers, I agree).

Odds? Oh, vastly better than Powerball. Let's not go too far down the path to despair. Of the people I was close in my "cohort" of graduate students, all of us have jobs in academia save the two or three people who decided, quite assertively, that they wanted something else, and most of us have pretty good jobs. It's just that when you catalog the totality of academic posts (leaving aside the poor old UK or Western Europe, where an entirely different flavor of horror and misery is served up), probably the majority come with much less pay, much less support for sabbaticals or leave, much less autonomy over conditions of labor, much less choice over subjects taught and approaches taken, much less security and so on.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 20, 2004 08:19 PM

I'm guessing your cohort finished in the early to mid 90s? It's different now. Things took a turn for the worse in the late 90s and have yet to recover.

1999 saw an all-time high in the production of new history PhDs, but without a corresponding increase in tenure-track openings. Instead, the increased PhD production occurred just as hiring budgets were slashed (esp. at state-funded schools). This has been the pattern ever since. The odds are a lot better than Powerball, but as the job stats at Perspectives tell us, it is numerically impossible for more than 1 in 2 history PhDs to obtain full-time academic employment (which 1 in 2 will of course vary by subdiscipline, field of specialization, rank of grad program, and so on).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at February 20, 2004 08:42 PM

Yeah, it is different now--that's right. It was bad when we finished (early 1990s to mid 1990s) and it's been getting worse ever since. The odds were not great then and they're much worse now. Just not quite (yet) Powerball, that's all.

The big thing to remember is that there are odds at all. That's really very different than many other professions. If you get a legal or medical degree, it really isn't deluded to imagine that if you keep at it, there will be a decent enough (economically, that is) life out there for you somewhere. Not inevitable, but pluck and talent and stick-to-itness are important in that context. With academia, it really is something of a lottery. And you know what economists say about lotteries: even at reasonably decent odds, they are a chump's game. The house always wins--or the house would be out of business.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 20, 2004 09:25 PM

It's definitely not Powerball.

In terms of despair, I guess I would want to distinguish between individual and collective or institutional despair.

For the individual who has invested years of time, energy, and resources (and let's not get started on the opportunity costs...) only to be shut out of the profession, despair is a reasonable response to the situation. (I'm not saying such individuals should spend the rest of their lives holding "pity parties" and wallowing in despair rather than searching for alternative employment. I am saying that a sense of despair and futility is the normal response, that will have to be overcome).

But I don't think despair is a useful collective response for those who remain within the academy. The ostrich syndrome (problem? what problem?) is disastrous, but just giving up on the whole enterprise would be equally disastrous.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at February 20, 2004 10:16 PM

"while watching the literature you love get repeatedly indicted in the kangaroo court that contemporary scholarship has become."

I'm curious, as I have seen a number of English scholars make comments similar to what Rose has said (quoted above). Now, I'm more of a social sciences person than humanities, but before deciding to apply to grad school I went and looked at the most recent year of so of some of the major journals in my area. The question was, could I stand reading and writing stuff like that for the rest of my life?

The answer was yes, so here I am in my first year of grad school. But do most students not check out currently scholarly trends in their fields? Or do they assume that they won't have to write about the things that are common in the contemporary literature?

Posted by: oliviacw at February 21, 2004 02:19 AM

I agree with Timothy Burke in comment 18

Posted by: Duckling at February 21, 2004 05:08 AM

Jena writes:In response to post #10 from P. You say that you didn't get any training for the profession in gathering data etc. Isn't that the point of the dissertation?

Well I was thinking of semesters-after-semesters of courses I took and their – in my appraisal – distant if any relationship to success in ‘the profession’ after award of the PhD.

Now looking for a good job (and therefore in frenetic self-promotion mode), I wish I had the benefit of more training in say forensics/rhetoric than in ‘current research in writing in XYZ’; and more guidance in grant-writing, and teaching; how to publish; and the mechanics (and economics) of the ‘profession’.

But rewinding to the dissertation stage you mention, I gather I wasn’t alone in feeling quite overwhelmed when I began to research and write the monstrosity.

(I’m trying to think of a parallel, non-self-identifying scenario here . . .)

When I ventured into the hills of Vietnam to research some contemporary and past aspect of Hmong life, I was wishing I had training in doing fieldwork ("How do I get these people to talk to me? How do I keep notes/tapes? How do I stay healthy? Etc."). And when I hit the regional and Parisian archives, I was wishing I knew more about paleography and interpretation and had better language skills. Notably absent from my thinking were any colloquia readings on "Lesbian bartenders in post-revolutionary Port-au-Prince".

Perhaps the last is an unfair hyperbole (perhaps it’s the Fighting Cock bourbon still talking), but do I think PhD programs in the humanities are in desperate need of professionalization. That’s why I pointed to other types of graduate education which lead to recognizably professional (perhaps b/c public licenses are awarded) careers.

I just don’t think critical tools for professional success should be left outside the classroom, to be learned on a casual basis. I think the image of the ‘apprenticeship’ (apparently still current, as it appears in Bast’s essay) can often be a cover for benign indifference or, at worst, malicious neglect.

Posted by: P at February 21, 2004 07:03 AM

In response to P. I imagine the necessity of training varies depending on your area of the humanities. If you're on fieldwork in Vietnam or in a foreign library it sounds pretty crucial. However, to a certain extent feeling lost and working out how to solve it yourself helps you become strong and independent.

Posted by: Duckling at February 21, 2004 08:04 AM

Duckling -- of course. The specific training needs follows from specialization. Perhaps I muddled the conversation with my exotic example (no matter how true it was for me). So let's tackle a common need instead.

Most PhD students in the humanities hope to attain positions in which teaching college students is a major part of the job description. (Which is to say, they want to become professors, even if they don't care much about teaching relative to their own research.)

So why don't graduate programs require and provide (much less emphasize!) training in college-level teaching? I would have gladly passed by another investment of my time and money in yet another "Current Research & Literature in XYZ" for this sort of opportunity to acquire applicable skills.

Another example would be writing. Do I understand correctly that writing is just as important to lawyers as it is to humanities scholars, and that first year law students take courses in "legal writing"? Why, then, no courses in "academic writing"?

Yet another example would be counseling. Am I right that medical schools are placing increasing emphasis on interacting with other humans in a productive way (i.e., "bedside manner"). If part of the job of a humanities professor is to interact with advisees, why not institutionalize training in this in PhD programs?

Posted by: P at February 21, 2004 08:42 AM

Am I the only one surprised by Jane Bast applying to so many graduate schools? Is this normal now? 30 years ago, I applied to three, was accepted by two, went to the more prestigious (d'oh!). One friend applied to four, was accepted by two, went to the one that offered first year money; another friend applied to three, was accepted by all three and went to Yale. We knew where we would fit best before we applied. I can't imagine spending $1500 to apply to 10-15 schools. The standard advice for (undergraduate) college admissions is to apply to no more than six.

Posted by: jam at February 21, 2004 08:47 AM

In 1990 I applied to two grad schools. I was also surprised by the number. The research I did was at the Fulbright Commission office in London. I looked for department specialties and then I looked for how many of the students were funded by university scholarships, TAs etc. I then applied to the two schools with the right specialties and lots of student funding (I assumed at least one would accept me and if they didn't maybe going to grad school wasn't a good idea!). I did look at their own literature too of course. My masters adviser said I should apply to study Econ at MIT. I thought that was impossible and didn't even try (my undergrad econ performance wasn't good enough to do a masters at my undergrad institution - but they were very tough). So I ended up doing geography. U of mid-West state offered me a really great scholarship but I ended up going to big private university in big northeastern city with funding but not as good because going to the mid-West seemed too scary :) I think another thing that sold me on this option was only 1 year of required coursework for the PhD (non-required in UK but less money available - the only reason I applied to grad school in the US was to get funding). 3 years later I was back in the UK on a post doc and 7 months later I was defending my PhD on a quick trip back to the US.

Something I have noticed is that successful people in academia mostly seem to get their PhD around age 30 (I got it aged 29 with 7 1/2 years of post high school study). I knew what grad school would be like - the kind of research I was already doing as an academic isn't really substantively different to that I am doing now as a tenure track prof (I had 8 years of non-tenure track jobs (but better than adjunct) etc. after the PhD.

I think it is also helpful to be totally obsessed with your field of study and in becoming a professor.

At the moment I am trying to get into my students heads that they need to start thinking and working on their PhD research from the minute they start their program - they can't leave it till all the other requirements are done, or they will run out of money and time. So when all the other requirements are met they are ready to write their proposal. The courses are there to help you develop the topic and your proposal.

Our students are taking longer to find jobs now than in the recent past - my last job search that ended up with me here 1 1/2 years ago took 2 years and the last year of that I was unemployed ("visiting fellow").

So that is my advice on grad school. If you are having doubts about maybe it isn't a good idea!


Posted by: moom at February 21, 2004 09:42 AM

In response to jam (#34), yes, this is normal now. Perhaps 15 is rather high, but certainly applying to only 2 or 3 schools would be a risky strategy (unless one is applying from one of the very top feeder schools, and even then, I think 2 or 3 would be risky). I think the advice now is to apply to 8 to 10.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at February 21, 2004 09:53 AM

Moom writes:If you are having doubts about maybe it isn't a good idea!

To bring it back full circle to the article that sparks this thread: this is what worries me about Jane Bast's essays. I don't see the slightest hint of doubt . . . the detection of which would, to me, suggest a degree of realism. I already mourn the inevitable death of the optimistic, funny (and what else did IA mention?) Jane, if she gets her wish of admittance to a PhD program in the Humanities. I was like that too (minus the romanticism about academics) once, as my (now) spouse has recently pointed out to me.

[No one need point out in psycho-babble that I am transferring my own grief of personal(ity) loss.]

Posted by: P at February 21, 2004 09:59 AM

oliviacw asks:

But do most students not check out currently scholarly trends in their fields? Or do they assume that they won't have to write about the things that are common in the contemporary literature?

In English, at least, there's a small number of scholars who are swimming against the pomo/poco tide, and an even smaller number who are looking at cognitive approaches to literature, which is where my own interest lies. My mistake (besides not taking seriously the grim employment prospects) was in reading too much of the kind of research I liked, failing to understand what a tiny dustmote in the discipline such scholarship represented, and--worst of all--miscalculating the discipline's suspicion of science, or of concepts of empirical validity.

Although my first post may have sounded bitter, I actually feel pretty lucky to have gotten out after such a relatively short investment of time. Of course I can't speak for anyone else, but my experience with some other unhappy grad students in English is that they (unlike me) were quite on board with Theory when they started out, but that over time its internal contradictions and tendency to produce predigested, sound-alike scholarship led them to resent its dominance.

At any rate, even if a potential graduate student is perfectly thrilled with current scholarship trends, I think the warning voices here are worth heeding. A 50% chance of employment (if THB's numbers are right, and I suspect it's a little worse than that now) is a pretty poor return on an investment of five or more years.

Posted by: Rose at February 21, 2004 10:00 AM

P wrote in post #33: "why not institutionalize training in this in PhD programs?"

The humanities have viewed "vocational" subjects ( like engineering, business, econ, etc) with a little scorn and perhaps even distaste, considering these subjects as a little less elite and pure. Humantites may actually take some pride in being less practical than say accounting, thus in some part may consider institutionalize training as beneath them.

Traditionally the humanities have been pursued by the wealthy while the more "vocational" disciplines are subjects that the lower/middle class people studied. Knowing witty quotes from famous books is far more valuable in a formal dinner setting than knowing how to fix a steam engine. Specific vocational training in the humanities simply wasnt necessary. Unfortunately, the world is changing and we are moving into a quatitative world where "pratical" skills are more valued. The mindset of the humanities in some aspects has not moved on.

Posted by: Passing_through at February 21, 2004 10:18 AM

"We knew where we would fit best before we applied. I can't imagine spending $1500 to apply to 10-15 schools. The standard advice for (undergraduate) college admissions is to apply to no more than six."

I'm skeptical that anyone can know where they will "fit best" before applying, particulary given how little entering grad students know about what they are getting into. Extensive research (campus visit, interviews with faculty, students, and graduates) might give one clues about this, but the only way to really know how well one fits is to go for a few years.

I think the best indicator of "fit" is the affirmation one receives in the form of admission and funding. And, since there is no way to predict how these will be allocated, the best strategy is to apply to as many places as you possibly can without significantly reducing the quality of your applications.

Also, the more offers one receives, the more leverage one has to improve offers from places one regards as "better fits" (e.g., cooler city, more famous faculty, or whatever impressionistic thing attracts new grad students).

One last bumper sticker: "The best fit has three things: full funding, low attrition, and high placement on the tenure track."

Posted by: THB at February 21, 2004 10:55 AM

I guess what I am saying is that the person in the best situation is the one who is thinking: "I could already be a professor and that is what I want to be and now I just need to prove it to the rest of the world". Of course that attitude can blur into "I don't need to do any work, they already owe me the degree". That is a very dangerous one slated for failure too. If what you want to be is a research-oriented academic and you are already showing strong signs of success at being one then you won't have much doubt that you are going in the right direction. People who are more interested in teaching or other careers may have a lot more doubt about whether they want to pursue a PhD to get there. It's kind of a very inefficient hurdle for someone who really doesn't want to be a ressearcher.

Thinking too much about who is hiring who is not a very productive way to go either. I think the best attitude is to be clear on your goal and then determine what you need to get to obtain your goal - for example money and the right environment where you are going to be able to do the kind of research you are interested in with the opportunities for interaction with productive scholars who will help you get there.

A problem I have just been thinking about in the last hour or so, is that unless they go to elite schools, most US undergrads will not be able to be in the kind of position I was in to know early on that what I wanted to do was be a professor. Even when I was in high school it sounded an interesting career (no my parents are not professors - my mother had a BA in classics and my father was a degreeless self taught engineer). By the end of my second year undergrad I thought I might have what it takes. By the end of the third (final) year I was pretty sure. I went straight to do a masters (1 year) and then went to work (be unemployed for several months and then get a good job) to see whether maybe I should try another career. Pretty quickly I was on to doing the PhD.

I'm not trying to boast here - I haven't always had an easy time post PhD and I am finally up for tenure review next year (3 year tenure track job after 8 years post PhD employment). But I see similar characteristics is other people who do successfully become professors.

At US undergrad institutions there are so many diversions from the major that it is hard to get the fast start. Maybe that is why so many of the new assistant profs in the US are foreign (like me).

Posted by: moom at February 21, 2004 11:23 AM

I should have said in the post above #35 that "the research I did as an undergrad isn't substantively very different from what I am doing now as a tenure track prof".

Another thing, coming to mind is that our high school in England was totally geared to making us compete against each other. The idea of collaboration was kind of new to me coming to America :) I imagine that schools in China and India are more similar to the British experience than to the US one.

Posted by: moom at February 21, 2004 11:34 AM

Passing Through writes: The humanities have viewed "vocational" subjects ( like engineering, business, econ, etc) with a little scorn and perhaps even distaste

Precisely. And where has that gotten us now?

[I'd say: bitching and whining at the AHA that no one pays attention to us; meanwhile the number of history and humanities majors drop yet further into the abyss. In my 'bourbon'-fed rage (or clarity?) I've told the spouse that there's no way I'd pay for the little toddler now sitting on my lap to do a liberal arts undergrad degree; if that what s/he wants, s/he can do ROTC].

Posted by: P at February 21, 2004 11:36 AM

Just responding to some of the above...

My program was also bad at teaching the particulars of academic work, both on the teaching front and on the research front. (Feedback on writing was fine.) I had to take my own initiative to take a teaching workshop to get more experience; teaching at a related program on campus (where they did require new TAs to attend classes on pedagogy, classroom management, syllabus and assignment design, etc.) also helped considerably. My queries for advice on specific research techniques (such as managing large amounts of primary source data) were met with vague mumbles about it being "an art" and suggestions to use index cards. I'd like to think that I'm a good researcher now, but it was the school of hard knocks rather than a formal program.

(On the plus side, this lack of instruction did free me up to develop some original approaches to data most of my professors had never considered even looking at.)

As to why grad school... I admit, when I entered I was going on the "if you have a BA in history you will end up teaching" meme, and rationalized to myself that if I had to teach, I didn't want to teach in high school or lower -- ergo, I'd need the PhD. Ironically, though, I discovered that it was the _research_ and the discussions in seminars and conferences that interested me; teaching had its moments, but was basically a way to pay the bills. Yet I kept doggedly hunting down teaching experience, in the belief that no one was hiring anyone without it. I now realize that I should have been spending that time getting published -- another irony. (I kept being hired for more and more teaching-intensive one year positions, leaving me no time to beef up my portfolio in the area I preferred -- research -- creating a rather vicious cycle.)

Shorter version: I don't know if I could have figured out what I wanted from grad school without actually attending grad school. However, the lack of guidance both before and during grad school about the _practical_ and _professional_ ramifications (except for a few bits of informal advice from one or two people) meant that I was acting without the necessary information to make strategically appropriate decisions. I didn't even know that I was missing that information, so didn't think to seek it out.

If Jane has been paying as much attention to this site as she says she has, hopefully she can avoid that pitfall at least.

Posted by: Rana at February 21, 2004 01:13 PM

One issue, which has only been alluded to in this thread, but which is in fact very important has to do with the field, or sub-field one chooses to throw their lot in with. If one enters an English program with the intent of, say, specializing in British Modernism, well, one had better hope that there will be a need for Modernists in about 6 to 7 years from the date of entry. In other words, one has to be able to forecast the demand for whatever sub-field one chooses. The difficulty, obviously, is that there is no way to tell what sub-fields will be hot 6 or 7 years down the line. And switching fields, while not impossible, is very, very difficult.

And to compound matters, one will also have to choose the "right" methodological approach to whatever the up and coming sub-field is. The most successful members of my program, that is, the ones who actually got hired on the tenure-track, were the ones who had no interest per se, and no particular methodological commitments, but rather were able to forecast what the "hot" fields and sub-fields were going to be, chose an appropriate methodology, and then went off and studied that field and methodological orientation. It's a business, and one needs to position oneself vis-a-vis the currents of the business.

Nevermind "follow your heart" and all that cr*p. One has to be mercenary about it all. If you "follow your heart," sadly, your heart may well lead you into oblivion.

Posted by: Chris at February 21, 2004 03:29 PM

Jam is a bit out of touch in the undergraduate admissions world. The rule is: apply early decision and pray, if that doesn't work send out a dozen common applications or so to a range of schools. Unfortunately, it is something of a prisoner's dilemma. With many people applying to lots of schools (and 20 is not unheard of) the chance of any single application getting into any single school goes down. Then there is the whole financial aid package end game to consider. That said, my niece only applied to four schools, but she was into an acceptable one with a healhy scholarship in early September with no obligation to attend and so had the luxury of only applying to schools she thought were better. If Bast applied to a mix of MA and PhD programs, it sounds like she hit it about right. And remember Jane, the MA first strategy gives you the4 chance to make one set of contacts, get a dissertation topic, do a bunch of reading for comps and then go someplace else with a completely new clock. Speed is very important these days so the MA first strategy gives you a chance to work around that.

The problem with what many folks have posted here about successful academics, including the speed factor, is that you don't get the chance to work with a wider variety of people. Mills Thornton has basically nothing to do with my work, but I am a better historian for having taken a course with him, taught for him, and done a field with him. Similar for Brad Perkins and I learned more about teaching a lecture course from Sid Fine than anybody else. Unfortunately, it is awfully hard to cram all that into a cover letter and talk about your dissertation.

Person after person told me, "I can tell you how to get a research u job but if you are looking for a teaching college, I can't help you." Even people who taught at teaching colleges told me that. So if that is what you are interested in, it is a total crapshoot.

Posted by: David Salmanson at February 21, 2004 10:25 PM

David Salmanson: "Jam is a bit out of touch in the undergraduate admissions world." Umm. My youngest is currently a college sophomore, so I last went through this two years ago. (She applied to five colleges, by the way, one more than David Salmanson's niece. Perhaps we might find more exceptions to his rule.)

But I think it's a bad rule. Applying to ten or a dozen schools means you care more about going to college or being a graduate student than you care about which institution allows you this status. I think that's a dangerous attitude. I guess I'm circling round to Dorothea's point. All graduate schools/programs are not alike. It matters which you go to.

Posted by: jam at February 22, 2004 09:53 AM

Definitely I would recommend doing a masters and then seeing if you want to continue to the PhD (as long as this reduces the time needed to get the PhD).

On predicting future fields of interest. Yes that is very tricky. One reason I have found it hard to find a job is that I have no training or experience in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) as it was just taking off as I started my grad study and I decided (to speed things up) to ignore it and focus on what really interested me. So I couldn't apply to most geography jobs which required GIS. I even recently considered doing a GIS diploma to retrain...but actually I was thinking more seriously instead of getting out of academia (to the finance sector - green/ethical investment analysis and management). But then this job (in econ) came up.

So you do have to be pragmatic to learn skills that are going to be useful (for teaching or non-academic jobs) even if they don't terribly interest you.

I was just thinking about my fellow students in my PhD class 14 years ago.... One is a tenured associate prof. I am a tenure track prof. One is a research assoc prof still at our old school. 2 got masters (one planned that way). One is in government research. And two went back to their home countries (one a government scientist they sponsored him) I think.

Posted by: moom at February 22, 2004 10:36 AM

I am still kicking myself over the GIS thing. Not having that credential completely shut me out from the Geography job market. On the other hand, I basically guessed right on the take-off in Western US and environmental but guessed wrong as to time period. All that said, I'm glad I researched something I really was interested in and continue to work on. Also helpful, knowing that a PHD in my chosen field would not necessarily lead to a professorship. So why go to grad school? Somebody actually paid me to write a rough draft of a book I wasn't sure I could write. Completing the dissertation was enough for me (but then again, I had no debt either).

Jem, I'm just going by what the college counselor at the Upper School I work at says is the national trend and, unfortunately the local trend as well. (She is recognized as a national authority on these things, the only college counselor I've ever seen where the Deans of Admission go out of there way to be nice to her instead of vice-versa!) Ironically, students are being forced to choose either too early (via Early Decision) or not well (in the mad dash chaos of post Early Decision applications, trying to figure out where spots are still available).

Posted by: David Salmanson at February 22, 2004 09:42 PM

I've been reading this web site for a while now, and have been following the various discussions about how ridiculously stupid it is for someone like me (22) to go into graduate school. Strangely, though, I'm still not put off. Maybe it's because of my area; i'm half-humanities, in that i study e-government and come from a political science background, but still have all the computer science experience on top of it. Or maybe it's because i've been fortunate enough so far - I'm happily attending a British university for an MSc in CompSci, am a research assistant at an e-gov centre, and just got an offer for a PhD in Public Admin. Sure, i'm about 60k in debt thanks to a snooty private school and traipsing abroad for a year, but there's no way I would trade in the past five years to get that money back.

I guess i'm writing to offer either a small ray of hope for those like me to cling to, or a childish naďveté for you all to laugh at. I'm doing okay, for now. Sure, I'm broke, but that just means I can wax philosophical about the materialism surrounding us all. I obviously haven't gotten to the point of applying for tenured positions, but I don't foresee many problems in finding something that would make me happy. I think the interdisciplinary aspect of my area lends to that - i can choose between a few different fields, so I have more options than most.

Maybe i'm lucky, or maybe it hasn't all hit the fan yet. But i'm hopeful, and not stupidly so - I did my research into the scant 3 PhD schools i applied to, and know i'd be happy at any of them. I recognize all of your frustrations and am working them into my preconceptions for the future (thank you for that), but I still think I can be happy in higher education. I just wanted encourage all of you to help people like me as best as you can, because we're still pushing ahead.

Posted by: ghani at February 23, 2004 08:35 AM

Ghani -- good for you. You seem to be going into this with your eyes open, and an appreciation of why. Both things will be very helpful when (not if) things get difficult; and you will be able to weigh why you should stay in against the costs of doing so.

I once made the analogy that going to grad school is like choosing to climb a mountain -- it's hard, challenging, and can be deeply rewarding on a personal level -- but no one should be fooled into thinking it is easy or necessary, that others will understand why you did it or why they should care afterward, and there's no guarantee that anything useful will come of it afterward.

Unlike mountain climbing, though, too many people have gone into grad school with little appreciation of the dangers, since they are not obvious until you're in it (and often not even then) and have assumed that some rewards or recognition will follow (*raising hand*).

If you've trained for your climb, and are enjoying it, more power to you. We'll be here for you when you climb down, whether you reach the top or not, and I, for one, will cheer you on as you climb. :)

Posted by: Rana at February 23, 2004 02:38 PM

Thank you Rana, that was lovely of you! And I think the analogy of a mountain climb -- especially the part about nobody really understanding why you're doing it -- is a very good one. My family (from East Tennessee) all support me, but have very little idea of what I actually do, and even less of an idea of how challenging it is. I think that's why I love this website so much (even if it scares the hell out of me)- people actually understand.

Posted by: ghani at February 23, 2004 03:57 PM

P (comment 33) offers two good suggestions for making preparation for college teaching more vocationally focused:

--So why don't graduate programs require and provide (much less emphasize!) training in college-level teaching?

--Another example would be writing. Do I understand correctly that writing is just as important to lawyers as it is to humanities scholars, and that first year law students take courses in "legal writing"? Why, then, no courses in "academic writing"?

When I was completing a Ph.D. program in English in the early 90's, the faculty only occasionally suggested that students consider writing for publication. And except for the Rhetoric and Composition faculty, most professors were largely dismissive of anything resembling "teaching workshops." It stings me to think back on how naive they were, which of course led me to be naive as well.

Posted by: E Hardin at February 24, 2004 02:56 PM

E_Hardin: Well, thanks for the response. I don't know what to make of the silence here.

Anyone else have thoughts? (And, I swear, I have the 'bourbon' under control now . . . mostly.)

Posted by: P at February 24, 2004 03:02 PM

P -

The answers to your question depend on which program you're discussing.

When I was in grad school in the 1990s, my English department required its grad student comp instructors to take a day-long teaching orientation session. The agenda covered key issues in classroom management and composition pedagogy. There was also a general, college-wide orientation for any interested TAs.

In addition to this, the English department sponsored a semester-long teaching course (which first-time grad instructors were expected to take). The faculty member teaching the class and the grad students taking it all taught the same syllabus in their freshman composition courses. They would then devote their weekly class session to a discussion not only of pedagogical theory but of ways in which the texts on the comp course syllabus could be addressed in class.

Finally, the English grad student support group had a pair of freshman comp representatives. These two individuals were liasons to the comp program. As part of their office's responsibilities, they scheduled regular forums on teaching issues.

So there's a program that did quite a bit to train its grad students in undergraduate teaching. But I also know that that level of training isn't standard.

As for "academic writing" courses, I'm not sure what to say. My understanding has always been that the papers one writes for a graduate course are meant to be one's training in academic writing--and that responsible faculty will spend some time commenting on the writing in the student's paper. My advisor spent a lot of time working with me to ensure that my dissertation was well-written and not overly arcane. I'm not sure how one would go about teaching "academic writing"--it doesn't seem to me that academics face the same challenges that lawyers do in learning to write very precise legal prose.

My grad program did regularly hold sessions on the job market and on academic publishing (i.e., how to go about getting an essay into print)--and those sessions certainly communicated a sense of what fieldwide standards were in the areas of application letter writing and article writing. But I don't think that's what you're asking about here.

I do feel that my program did a good job of preparing its students for the professional aspects of teaching college English. But it's also clear that not every program considers that preparation important.

All the more reason for a prospective grad student to look at a program's "professionalization" structures.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at February 24, 2004 05:44 PM

One thing to emphasize here is that often those Teaching Practicums or Pedagogy Seminars are woefully out of touch with the realities of teaching. Another point to underscore is that (in English) they are often geared solely toward Freshman Comp., but even is this context they remain rather ineffectual. They're long on ensuring a sensitive and "politically correct" atmosphere, but short on actual in-class strategies and tactics.

And one last thing I've noticed in these kinds of orientations and seminars is that they vastly over estimate the quality of student writing. The examples they provide, in terms of argumentation, and facility with the English language, are not anywhere close to the critical mass of student abilities.

It would be useful if English Depts. and Writing Pgms. were up front about the fact that the Freshman are likely to have little facility with or knowledge of standard written English, and then developed a program to help adjuncts and grad. students work with these kinds of students. But this is perhaps asking for too much. I doubt most Writing Pgms. and English Depts. want to admit that first year writing can often be an exercise in ESL.

Posted by: Chris at February 24, 2004 06:37 PM

to ivyleaguegrad (and others),

if given the choice between a grad lit program with a strong professionalization structure and a great placement record, but with very little funding available, and a smaller lit program with great funding but perhaps less job opportunities and training, which one would you lean towards?

also: what do you wish you had known to ask about when/if you were in the position of choosing a program? i did try to do as much due dilligence as i could beforehand, at least as far as reading faculty monographs (and, in one case, a book) and initiating email correspondence. i also talked in person with directors of two programs. but now, with three offers, i feel like my position has been somewhat strengthened, and i want to make the most of it without pushing too far and making enemies.

for the record, when i start in the fall, i will have been out of undergrad for 2 1/2 years. the rejection letters i received the first time around were probably the best thing that ever happened to me...at least i have some non-academic experience to go back to if/when that becomes necessary later on.

Posted by: theuniversalgirl at February 24, 2004 08:58 PM

"if given the choice between a grad lit program with a strong professionalization structure and a great placement record, but with very little funding available, and a smaller lit program with great funding but perhaps less job opportunities and training, which one would you lean towards?"

I would not go without funding. Period. You are being admitted as a cash cow to fund the real students. You could wait and see if they are willing to negotiate later (some of their better prospects may not enroll). Even then, I'd be reluctant to go--a lot of people will know under what terms you were admitted and treat you as a second-class citizen.

If the big program will not fund you, then I suggest going with funding to the smaller program, proving yourself there (or deciding grad school is not for you), and then reapplying to the programs with better placement records. But preferably not to the schools that rejected you the first time (they probably won't forget).

BTW, how do you know about the placement records of these schools? I wouldn't trust what any school says about itself. The only placements that count are full-time, tenure-track, but schools often count their own post-docs as placements.

Posted by: THB at February 25, 2004 08:26 AM


I have to agree with THB here. You go where the money is--there's no point in risking your future in academia while having to pay through the nose for the privilege. (And you want to be careful even if you do have funding: I took out a number of student loans to cover such things as computer purchases and semesters sans teaching so that I could finish the dissertation--which means that I'm still paying for grad school three years later and counting.)

The financial support is a necessity for graduate study. Good professionalization and pedagogy support are fine and dandy, but you want that money to live on first. Simply put, there are lots of ways to professionalize oneself. Careful observation of your peers and faculty is one way: who's doing well? Why are they doing well? Another is to have a good advisor. A third is to keep reading blogs like IA's.

Yes, there are certain things you can't get on your own. Our job placement officers at Ivy U's English department did a wonderful job of giving us access not only to the job letters of Ivy U grads who got jobs at a variety of institutions but to the job letters and abstracts of the junior profs Ivy U had hired over the last few years. We were better job candidates as a result: we knew how to present ourselves and our research/teaching. But I suspect you would have difficulty acquiring such information without a job placement program in place: people are very secretive about their letters otherwise.

As for your other question: what do I wish I had known before applying to graduate school? The answer: EVERYTHING discussed in this thread and the other Jane Bast thread. When I applied to grad programs in the early 1990s, I had no real advice about grad school. I had a mentor who gave me good suggestions about the best programs in medieval studies at the time, and everyone on the faculty of my liberal arts u-grad college agreed that I should follow the money--but that was it for pre-app planning and research. Granted, this was before the Web, back in those dino days when you had to get information about grad programs through snail mail only. So it's not as though I could have easily gotten my hands on the information I needed to make an informed decision. But I wouldn't do it that way again, even though I lucked out and got into a great program. The Internet gives potential applicants more information than previous applicants have ever had, and I think you're right to make use of it in your search.

Good luck in your search!

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at February 25, 2004 11:58 AM

For Universalgirl,

Congratualtions on your acceptances! I am completing graduate school as we speak--I just finished my diss(!) and am setting defense dates with my committee. I'm happy about that but I am also unemployed and a little afraid of the future. So, I second THB and IvyLeagueGrad's suggestion to go where the funding is. The fact that my school had adequate funding meant that I could finish my diss in 6 years and move out of academia, quickly, despite the fear of not knowing where I'll end up. I would also add that if you have any interests whatsoever--in law, public policy, theater managment, physical therapy, yoga, anything at all--that you consider going to a school that will allow you to construct a dual degree program. I don't regret the PhD but I do regret putting all of my eggs in one basket. If I had to do it over again, I would have sustained my professional training in one of the fields that I enjoyed as an undergrad. You don't have to see this as pessimistically making a back-up plan but more as a way to continue the breadth of your learning.

Posted by: pencil_vainia at February 27, 2004 12:37 PM

To Universalgirl: IMHO an acceptance to an academic grad school program (i.e. not business, law etc.) without funding is more or less a rejection - don't do it unless you are really wealthy and can afford the risk. I am now a director of a grad program LOL (however small)...

To ghani: unfortunately in my experience interdisciplinarity does not help in getting jobs - it makes you an outsider everywhere except in interdisciplinary programs. I'm a geographer-economist...

Posted by: moom at February 27, 2004 06:38 PM

To moom: I totally agree: in academe the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity is total bull. Most people, at least in my filed (the humanities), who are truly interdisciplinary will get their their dissertation published sooner then they will land a job. But geography-economics or, in ghani's case compsci-public policy, seem like practical forms of interdisciplinary knowledge. I thought those things would be quite valuable outside academia. Am I wrong?

Posted by: pencil_vainia at February 28, 2004 08:37 AM

I wouldn't say that interdisciplinarity is complete hogwash--there are some fields in which interdisciplinary work will help you to get a job. For example, someone with a Medieval Studies degree won't necessarily get a specifically Medieval Studies job, but they will be competitive for medievalist jobs in traditional departments. I'm sure that other people can identify those interdisciplinary fields that have institutional support.

It's still smarter to position yourself as someone who works in a traditional field. But once you do that, you can market yourself as the candidate whose work crosses over with another field--and have some success in doing so. This works across traditional period boundaries, and it works across discipline boundaries. The key is demonstrating your clear starting position in a single field, even if you're really an academic amphibian. Carefully structured job letters and interview skills can make that work.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at February 28, 2004 12:43 PM

Seconding what IvyLeagueGrad says...

The real danger of doing interdisciplinary work is that (a) you tend to fall between two stools during the job search, and (b) your work is an intrinsic challenge to those interested in boundary maintenance.

However, as an "interdisciplinarian" myself, I tend to think that the potential of drawing from different but related fields is too great to ignore. My advice would be to keep learning from other field areas -- methods, subject areas, what have you -- while wearing the colors of the field that's granting you your degree. (Of course, if you're having trouble doing that, then perhaps you are in the wrong program?) Forge alliances with people in both fields; having more than one network is a valuable asset, even if individual members of either field may say otherwise. (You have no obligation to let your critics know that you have connections with non-field people.)

Then, when looking for work (in academia or elsewhere), keep an eye out for positions that have room for cross-department collaboration. I found a number of these during my last search, and there my interdisciplinary leanings were met with approval -- alas that budget axes fell on the programs in question!

Posted by: Rana at February 28, 2004 05:21 PM

On the interdisciplinary question: quite often, as one moves through their graduate program and becomes adjusted to the "culture" of their field and academia as a whole, what was once an "interdisciplinary" specialization becomes either a secondary area of specialization, or a sub-field. I've known Medeivalists who have a hankering for Sci-Fi, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and I knew a person who wrote their dissertation on British Gothic literature (18th c.), who marketted herself as an 18th-centuryist who had a sub-specialization in horror film, all with a feminist twist.

I think an "interdisciplinary" orientation can be very useful, but only if the particular candidate is adept at marketing their particular interdisciplinary sub-field in a way that hiring committees can comprehend (and not be threatened by). But be forewarned: when academics are placed on hiring committees they tend to become stunningly dull, if not altogether stupid, and what seems obvious to you, and to your friends, and virtually everyone with a pulse becomes incomprehensible to the hiring committee. Why this is so, I don't know. But it is so nevertheless.

By the way, I know of what I speak. My Ph.D. is in Comparative Literature, and I am forever being asked in interviews, usually with a slight hint of exasperation, 'so what did you compare, anyway?'

Posted by: Chris at February 28, 2004 06:28 PM

I have to say that I was one of those people who "paid through the nose" to go to school. I did not have funding. And yes, I was a 2nd class citizen for it at the time!

But guess what. I have a tenure-track position now, at exactly the school I wanted when I started this whole thing. I finished my dissertation in 2 years, AND I had a baby in the middle of that.

I worked full-time professionally in my field while in school also (except during the dissertation years), so I had the added burden of all those issues; i.e. "you're not committed to this program 100%" etc. (Helped with the bills though.) However, I was able to do really fun research projects and publish papers because I was working with real world problems.

I don't regret it for a minute. Funding, schmunding. I had more trust in myself than the people who were making the funding decisions, and I turned out to be right.

I ended up with $0 debt and a great position. I worked my ass off, and had to put up with A LOT of insecurities the whole time, rude comments, etc, but so what, that is life. I consider it great training for dealing with Deans and Department Chairs now.

Know thyself.


Posted by: megan at February 28, 2004 10:32 PM

Ok, I was a little hasty in saying that in the humanities the desire for interdisciplinarity is bull. But it really seems that way from my perspective. I was on the market this year and out of the 8 or 9 fellow grad students also on the market, there was a positive relation between canonical and/or intra-disciplinary dissertations and interview offers. The more one's dissertation dealt with either non-canonical authors or non-textual material, like film, the fewer interviews one got. But guess what? Out of those 9 only 4 got job offers; out of that 4 only 1 person is happy with where he's going. So in the end nothing we did ultimately mattered. I simply feel like everything that institutions say they value really isn't valued. My friends and I did all the right things--attended a top-ten program, taught a bunch of courses, published, tried to make dissertations that stand out--and all it amounted to was tossing dice at a craps table.

Posted by: pencil_vainia at February 29, 2004 02:16 PM

To Megan - what you say makes sense - but you have been lucky in coming out OK in the end - if you don't get funding the Department is saying "we think you might have talent, but we aren't clear enough about that to give you any of our money". And that is what you seem to be saying your experience was. Actually I would have expected more apathy rather than hostility. It would be better to find a department that appreciated you IMHO... though I do see people just valuing the schools people went to above all else. It is hard to win at this game.

On interdisciplinarity - I think it is very important and everyone, especially universities say so, but even at interdisciplinary journals or funding agencies things get sent out to mono-discipline specialists who reject them on a narrow disciplinary basis. Search committees I think have to be compromises - a lot of promising candidates raise red flags with other members and so are chucked out. They go towards the safe choice they can all agree on. That's why they look dumb. As for tenure decisions....

Posted by: moom at February 29, 2004 03:13 PM

Different people on search committees seem to have such different perspectives on what is valuable in my opinion. It is very frustrating often. And you don't have much time to discuss or evaluate any candidate until you get down to the long short-list. In the last search I was on my chair was putting teaching experience down as a negative. Publications from a new PhD didn't seem to count. ... Disertation topic seemed to count much more than I had ever seen it before. Someone who was an RA for a big professor at a good school was a shoo in... In the end we didn't hire any of the junior candidates anyway. I guess we decided they were too hard to evaluate...

Posted by: moom at February 29, 2004 03:19 PM

Hmm... I hadn't realized that the definitions of interdisciplinary work were so narrow in Lit. I was talking about drawing on work in entirely different fields (in my case, history, anthropology, geography, communications and literary criticism), rather than combining different emphases within history. Lit _is_ a different world, isn't it?

I agree with what moom says about the compromise factor in search decisions -- but also want to add that there are other variables (many, many other variables!) in play, too. At least in my field, if you have a solid background in the area being sought it's not a problem per se -- what made or broke candidates in the search I witnessed was (a) fit with the campus in general, (b) ability to explain the field and research in undergraduate-friendly terms, and (c) ability to meet the needs of a second, affiliated department. It was (c) that was the real killer (and here it was therefore not a matter of disliking interdisciplinary thinking -- it was actively sought -- and more doubt about where the candidates' primary affiliation would be). Trying to get one search committee to agree was challenging; getting two to agree was damn near impossible.

Posted by: Rana at March 1, 2004 11:08 AM


Interdisciplinary work in lit departments can be just as broad. My own work is as much local/regional history as it is literary study, and I know people making use of anthropology as well (work I borrowed to teach satire in Swift and Pope). "Theory" in lit departments is essentially another way of saying "interdisciplinarity." What else can someone call work in dialogue with philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, and the like? (Said someone may not like the particular dialogues taking place, but that's a different discussion.)

To quickly respond to what pencil_vania said about non-canonical methods/text losing out on the market, all I can say is this: the less canonical your approaches/texts, the more work you have to do in the job letter and interview to communicate your ability to speak to the larger audience outside your non-canonical specialty (which includes undergraduates interested in the canonical texts). If you're lucky, you'll have a dissertation project that combines the canonical with the non-canonical--thus demonstrating your ability to make such moves. If you don't have such a project, be prepared to demonstrate that you can speak intelligibly on the (ever-shifting) canon.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at March 1, 2004 02:03 PM

"I simply feel like everything that institutions say they value really isn't valued. My friends and I did all the right things--attended a top-ten program, taught a bunch of courses, published, tried to make dissertations that stand out--and all it amounted to was tossing dice at a craps table." --pencil_vainia


Posted by: Chris at March 1, 2004 04:02 PM

#72 Don't go to U. Tennessee and apply here LOL You'll get chucked out as coming from some unknown southern university... but we hired a guy from U. Florida - he already knew the chairman and that is what it is all about in the end I think....

Posted by: moom at March 2, 2004 09:36 AM

I stumbled upon this thread by accident (and tardy as well), but I feel I have something *at stake* in entering the dicussion.

I am finishing up my Masters in English Literature at small State school. And despite the warranted cynicism on this board (Chris etc), I do think there are things that I am doing that others arent doing (at least in my program). Number one, I am actually, passionate about my research topics, my article-length essays, my ideas, if you will--what I am talking about goes beyond "being in love" with self/ideas/school, but rather being to discuss ones ideas so bring others into discussion--i attempt (and i think I succeed) to get others interested in what I am interested in. My work *is* important. I *want* to be studying what I study. My fellow graduate students are willy-nilly about far too much to commend respect from anyone. I think if one is going into the humanities, one should treat it less like a "profession" and more like a life-orientation (i know the distinction is rather silly and lame one)--all those who seem to be bitter about their success within the field use this sort of language "Well I did everything *right*, i went to the *right* schools, taught the *right* courses, wrote the *right* dissertations. Simply put, giving people what they expect isn't necessarily impressive: in fact, it's easy!

I'll be applying for Ph. D. programs for Fall 2005, so I must say that I appreciate the discussion taking place here, it is helpful--but I think we must know that our discipline *humanities* is distinct in a rather *human* sort of way. I imagine if I treat my future employers less like future employers and more like *people* (after all these are humanities professors, evidently who have felt human, dare I say, passionate about something), my task at job placement will be much alleviated.

It seems to me that many who are posting horror stories aren't convinced by import of their own work. And maybe the question of whether one's work *should* be important never enters the picture. While, certainly, I would have trouble 'proving' the exigency of my work to those resiting it, but by the mere fact that I am convinced by its relevance and that I can display it multifacetedly (oral, written, body language) I can win respect.

Maybe my world is sheltered at my state school, but my professors, those who sit on the committees that would eventually hire someone like me, have personality, care about the world, have some sense that what they do matters (like teaching for instance), and it seems silly to treat such people aseptically, having my hands primmed for my interview.

No doubt, I jump through the hoops they tell me too, the supposed 'right' hoops, but of course if everyones doing that and your not Inside trader Martha Stewart, you fail to distinguish yourself from the competition. Likewise, I also concur that the classroom environment and literary criticism (gasp, THEORY) itself lends itself to kangaroo court--but when that happens the practitioners of such and such theoritical platform fail to ask questions of importance and worry more about the precision in which they complete their near-sighted task. Theory doesnt matter all by itself we have to make it matter by employing it with exigence, temperance, and within a framework that is at the very leasy *di*aletic.

I apologize for the Rant, but I hear far too much of this at my collegues who wish to blame their lack of *marrow* on the 'impossibility of graduate school getting me a job.'

PS How I found this site was by scouring the internet for syllabi of British Modernism courses--I'm utilizing a materialistic criticism to open a the question (in my paper) about why everybody is willing to read/talk about/write about/teach Joyce's high modernist novels and not Woolf's. Odd, that I ended up here, two weeks late have you.

Posted by: Noah at March 18, 2004 01:46 PM

Simply Terrible Grammar above, my apologies; the Rant does not know how to spell.

Posted by: Noah at March 18, 2004 02:09 PM

Noah, sadly, I cringe and wince when I read you saying "I imagine if I treat my future employers less like future employers and more like *people* (after all these are humanities professors, evidently who have felt human, dare I say, passionate about something), my task at job placement will be much alleviated." No, this is untrue. What will happen is that while you are employed, that is, for as long as you are useful, they will treat you like a semi-colleague. But when the winds turn, and turn they will, you sill leanr quickly that all that friendship and colletgiality was a sham. That, or like Tony Soprano, they will remind you that this is just business, just business.

And when you say "It seems to me that many who are posting horror stories aren't convinced by import of their own work," this is because we have learned, again the hard way, that our work does not matter. Or rather, it mattered during that semester when they needed us, but next semester it won't matter at all. Again, just business.

As for your professors, those who in your words, "sit on the committees that would eventually hire someone like me, have personality, care about the world, have some sense that what they do matters (like teaching for instance)," you'd be amazed at how quickly they will take on a very different persona when the matter of hiring comes up. In fact, I urge you to get yourself placed on a hiring committee -- perhaps as a student rep, they do this sort of thing these days -- so you can see the carnage up close and personal, and more importantly, see who is carrying out the carnage, all with a shrug of the shoulders, and a sniff, 'her work isn't really up to snuff, you know."

Posted by: Chris at March 18, 2004 06:35 PM

Thanks for the genuine responce. But I do sit on a number of committees (though not specifically for hiring) and see the duplicitous personalities many professor take on--however, if my hunches are right (and I think this site, as well as its contributors are evidence of such) that many professors in the humanities are not duplicitous--yes, some are, and some are out to push their aesthetics, their professionalism or what-have-you, but the thing is there's nothing anyone can do about these self-absorbed, career-squashing types, so its much more efficacious to target those how do have sense of 'matteringness.'

Which brings me to my next point: I, too, 'cringe and wince' when i read you say "that our work does not matter" if indeed this *is* the case, and the general sentiment of those in the humanities, then truly we are the walking dead and its only a matter of time before humanities (likely along with much of the social sciences) are effaced entirely from universities. Already 'liberal studies' ethics are endanger (and though a problematic ethics an important one), this sentiment that 'business is business' will indeed spell the end for the humanities, because it takes the *humanity* out of them.

It does seem to me graduate student and professor alike at least in literary studies refuse to ask questions of import, exigency, and efficacy--and rather see their tasks empty, perfunctory ones--at most adding to a trivial discourse. The thing is that the humanities are not telelogically suppose to be a *business* rather to some how distinguish our culture from social darwinism, and whether or not the dinstinction is of merit is not the question, but rather to ask how might we make the distinctions, to boldly stumble in the dark and claim meaning here and there, sometimes inappropraitely and sometimes sublimely...

*More than ever* our culture is in need of humanities--we have the tools, the personal, and some us the motivation to reconcile the rather petty world we find ourselves in--of course some day, I may resign myself to my consumerism and my pride, but not yet. I hope, Chris, you don't see this as naivete but as a much distressed over conclusion--I think it was fitzgerald who said somethign of the sort, "we must with our time and effort try to change the world, while still acknowledging it is a hopeless task."

Posted by: Noah at March 20, 2004 08:37 PM

Ah, the young, so idealistic and easy to exploit. Noah, please write back in about five years.

Posted by: Safer anonymous at March 21, 2004 09:01 AM

In what could have been an expression of a post-academic sentiment, Beckett once wrote "But it is useless to dwell on this period of my life. If I go on long enough calling that my life I'll end up by believing it. It's the principle of advertising. This period of my life. It reminds me, when I think of it, of air in a wind pipe."

And in Godot, Beckett has Didi turn to Gogo and ask "where did all these corpses come from." Sadly, Noah, you're answering that question, I think.

Posted by: Chris at March 21, 2004 10:41 AM

Noah -- I share with you a desire for the _meaningfulness_ of academic endeavors in the humanities to be recognized, defended, promulgated, etc. The problem, though, is that this is something that demands large-scale change and effort -- a cultural shift, not only within the academy but within the larger public sphere as well.

To stand up for that larger cause, and to advocate that individuals join you in it, is noble and praiseworthy. However, you need to realize that it is often a long, lonely road these days, and that you will most likely have to sacrifice economic stability, the hope of a family, geographical mobility, health coverage, and a whole wealth of good things like that in order to travel it. Moreover, that effort may produce little in the end, or even be held against you.

This is not to say this is not a good cause, nor that it should not be taken up -- but be _damned_ certain that it is a cause that YOU want to put before all others, because even if you change your mind five or ten years in, you can't get back the sacrifices that lost time represents.

Posted by: Rana at March 21, 2004 04:21 PM

To augment Rana's comments, another point to consider is that the divide between academe and the "real" world is decreasing, and not just in a negative fashion. Typically, we speak of this decreasing division in perjorative terms, tending to cite with scorn such changes as the "corporatization" of the academy. Critiques of this kind are fast becoming cliches. On the other side of this division, however, there are career tracks that are every bit as intellectually and creatively rewarding as an academic one. The trade-off is that one doesn't get Summer's off and the same levels of autonomy as can be had in academia, but on the plus side many of these career paths actually provide a living wage and benefits.

Consider that an adjunct, after all the out-of-class time is factored into the equation, makes around the same amount per hour as someone working in a coffee shop. Now, consider what a political affairs journalist makes, or a free-lance writer who, after paying his or her dues, ends up writing articles on arts and cultural issues for the New Yorker, Harpers, The Chicago Sun journalist. The difference is vast.

I have a friend, an ex-grad student who is 36 now, who writes a column for an "alterantive" weekly in a major city. When she began she was earning only around $32k, but after about 7 years she's now earning $45k, has full medical benefits, and is putting the finishing touches on a collection of essays culled from her various articles. Her writing is always interesting, intelligent, and informed -- actually, she reminds me of IA, or rather, IA reminds me of her.

I would give up my Ph.D. and trade places with this friend of mine in a heart beat. If only I had been as far seeing as she was when I was 29! As far as I can tell, she has had to sacrifice very little in terms of intellectual depth and rigor in her writing, and she has gained an audience that academics can only dream about. It's true, the issues she writes about are perhaps more "real world" than the typical subjects in academic writing, but she writes with a leftist political bent, and often includes historical information, and artistic and philosophic knowledge in her articles.

And, she own her own house! I'll probably never own one.

Nuff' said?

Posted by: Chris at March 21, 2004 07:32 PM