• August 29, 2015

Making a Reasonable Choice

An Academic in American Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

As a teacher and adviser of undergraduates, primarily in the humanities, I am often asked for advice about graduate school. It seems perfectly reasonable that students should ask professors about career choices in our fields, and it should be part of our job to have reliable, up-to-date information.

It is a cop-out to simply to tell a student to "follow your bliss," but that's what some faculty advisers do, and it is what most students want to hear. While "love" for the "life of the mind" may be a wonderful thing, I think it is at least as important to consider the practical consequences of our choices, particularly when those choices are remarkably risky.

It's fine to think about graduate school as an aesthetic experience, like the Grand Tour of Europe that people like Henry James used to take, if you can afford it. Spending a year in graduate school is surely more laudable than buying an expensive sports car. But most people do not have that kind of economic freedom; I am mostly concerned with the majority of students who do not have the safety net of wealth or connections—those for whom a bad choice in one's early 20s can have life-long consequences.

A lot of general information is available about the humanities and the perceived rankings of graduate programs and universities. Most academics are able to assess the relative merits of the faculty in one department versus another—at least in our particular subfields. We can also visit Web sites and find out the features of programs, which are generally presented in the most positive terms.

But, as an adviser, I'd like to be able to give my students some reliable, recent, and specific information about individual graduate programs, since perceptions about the relative merits of programs are often based on vague—and possibly dated—reputational capital. Useful information, such as attrition rates, are generalized for the entire profession so that one can't use such data to compare programs. And while some programs provide information about placement rates of their graduates in academic positions, that hardly presents the whole picture, and the methods used are inconsistent.

Competitive students often have multiple admission offers, but how can you make the case that they might have a better outcome, career-wise, by going to a lower-ranked university than to a top-ranked program in your field? Without more information, crucial decisions are often based on little more than vague perceptions. And sometimes those perceptions can be dead wrong.

You often hear that students should consider going to a graduate program in the humanities only if they get into a top-20 program. But there are underfinanced programs in the top 20 that have high attrition rates, heavy student workloads, and, for a variety of interconnected reasons, poor placement records. Those programs prepare their students for positions at research universities (for which they may not be competitive) and teach them to shun other opportunities. The majority of teaching jobs are at nonelite colleges, but hiring committees at those colleges share the bias toward the elite and too often assume that a candidate from a top program doesn't really want to teach at a lesser-ranked campus and will leave as soon as possible.

Sometimes elite universities do not properly prepare students for the academic job market, wrongly assuming that reputation is more important than well-rehearsed interview skills and the ability to give a good teaching demonstration.

And sometimes departments promote a small number of star students and invest minimal effort in the rest of the cohort.

If there are dysfunctional programs in the top 20 of any field, there are also programs in the top 100 that are well financed, have low attrition, and place a relatively high percentage of students in full-time positions in academe or other fields (generally being more flexible regarding nonacademic careers). Many professors at departments beyond the top 20 invest deeply in their students, and, as a result, their advisees can be even more successful on the market than their peers at supposedly more prestigious places.

Knowledge about such distinctions, however, is hard to acquire. It requires an extensive web of contacts and information sources that is nearly impossible to sustain outside of the most active centers of the profession. And that's one reason why so many of us in the provinces throw up our hands and say "follow your bliss."

How can we expect 22-year-olds to make informed decisions when we, their professors, can offer little more than idiosyncratic impressions?

How many students are bold enough to ask the chair of a department to provide some hard data about a program? They can visit a department and talk to its students, but how do they contact former graduate students—typically, the majority—who left without completing their degrees?

How much useful information will such questions produce beyond contradictory anecdotes? Graduate students may have wildly inaccurate perceptions about their own programs, and there is a code that says that complaining shows a poor attitude that makes one unemployable. Just as their professors fall back on idealistic platitudes, students are left to rely on beliefs about the value of education and the trustworthiness of institutions that have been cultivated in them since they were small children.

Typically, students feel grateful to be admitted to graduate school, and they go in with their eyes half shut. Sometimes it works out; more often, it doesn't. A lot of luck is involved. And it's much easier to talk about contributing factors in retrospect, perhaps 10 years later, than it is to predict the outcome of a program one is about to enter.

That's why the caveat emptor argument regarding graduate education strikes me as more than a little cynical: "If you're smart enough to get a doctorate, you should be smart enough not to get one." The problem is that most applicants to graduate programs lack the most crucial information, and so do the people they trust and turn to for advice.

If we accept the free-market rhetoric that presents graduate education as a legitimate "choice," then we should also accept the need for openness. A lot of relevant information could be compiled, year by year, into comprehensive resources, a kind of departmental dashboard that's up to date, comparable, and easy to interpret and that could provide undergraduates and their advisers with the information they need to make informed decisions:

Admissions: How many applications does your program receive each year? How many students are accepted? How many enroll?

Student aid: What kind of financial support can a student expect to receive during the entire course of the program? In each year? What is the cost of living in the area? How much educational debt have students accumulated, on average, by the time they graduate?

Teaching: How many discussion sections and courses are graduate students required to teach in order to receive a stipend in each year of the program? What is the average teaching load in each year of the program?

Attrition: What percentage of students enrolled in the program eventually earn doctorates? How many leave with master's degrees? At what point do most drop out? What are the reasons given, if any (i.e., money, concerns about job market, seeking other opportunities, family responsibilities, etc.)?

Time to degree: How many years does it take to graduate on average (not ideally, but in reality)?

Placement: How long are graduates on the academic job market? Where, exactly, is every graduate employed in academe (and in what kinds of positions: tenure track, visiting, adjunct, etc.)? Who was their dissertation adviser? What were their subfields? Where are graduates working, if not in academe? Does the program also lead to appealing career paths outside of academe?

On many department Web sites, you will find information about successful recent placements, but the methods are not comparable or verifiable, and leave out far more than they include. Only when you see all of the categories of program assessment together, compiled over many years (five, at least), do you begin to be able to discern which programs are healthy—maybe even nurturing the "life of the mind"—and which ones are somewhere along the spectrum toward dysfunctional and even exploitative.

The value of such information for advising undergraduates would be enormous, and it could place positive pressures on universities to accelerate time to degree, reduce debt, curtail attrition, and, perhaps, encourage institutions to reduce their reliance on contingent labor. As I've said before, many programs would resist providing the information because it might paint them in an ugly light and rightly discourage applicants. On the other hand, it would surely be in the interest of some programs to brag about their success relative to universities that are supposedly more distinguished. Maybe a virtuous cycle could begin to counteract the seemingly unstoppable transformation of higher education in the humanities into a part-time, low-wage, transient occupation?

There may also be some external ways to encourage participation. Professional organizations like the American Association of University Professors, the Modern Language Association, and the American Historical Association could publicize the most effective programs, recognize the most improved, and censure the worst or the ones that refuse to participate.

Perhaps a more aggressive approach would be to use the issue of the taxpayer-subsidized student loans that underwrite many graduate programs in the humanities. Isn't loaning money to students in their 20s getting an M.F.A. at $35,000 a year rather like financing a new BMW with no money down for someone with no job and limited prospects? Why should taxpayers subsidize the deferral of loan payments for students in obviously exploitative programs? Why not make the data that I have described above an essential part of borrowing money to support education? Not all educational debt is "good debt," despite the generalized claims of some financial planners.

Some readers of my previous columns think that I have been making a populist, anti-intellectual argument against graduate education in the humanities instead of calling for reform. I have never claimed there is no such thing as the "life of the mind," only that the current academic labor system, for most students, makes that a lie, and the lie is getting bigger every year. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to evaluate specific graduate programs until you have already invested several years in them, and, by that time, the trap has already been sprung: Leaving becomes almost unthinkable, no matter how dim one's prospects.

In the absence of convincing contrary information, I will continue to offer my students the same advice that I always have: Graduate school in the humanities is almost always a bad idea unless you are rich, connected, or getting credentials for a job you already hold. There are lots of other places you could find the kind of intellectual stimulation you crave. Try working for a few years first. Let's walk over to career services: Maybe we can find a good internship or add a few courses that could make you marketable for some new career paths. Maybe you can be part of a generation that takes the culture of the humanities to places outside of academe where your qualities are most needed and, perhaps, more highly valued.

But if you are still determined to go to graduate school—and you know the risks—I will help you as much as I can. I am ethically obliged to do so. I will review your writing sample and statement of interest, and I will write you the best recommendation you deserve. I will help you make choices about where to applyand which offer to accept (encouraging you to ask others as well), but I will do those things knowing that I could be much more effective—and less resigned to mournful skepticism—if I had more specific, reliable, and up-to-date information that would begin to make graduate school a choice rather than a reckless gamble.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.


1. postacademic1 - April 19, 2010 at 03:23 am

That's great advice to suggest that programs provide such concrete information that can be quantifiable, especially in humanities fields that try to evade hard-and-fast statistical data. However, it would seem that getting programs to systematize information in such ways would be like herding cats!--just check out Frank Donoghue's column in the Chronicle two weeks ago where he claims, "The reason for my exasperation is that I do not believe the current job system can ever lend itself to statistical analysis."

Offering even *some* of the data above would provide a better picture of programs than, say, the US News & World Report grad school rankings, which are based on completely subjective criteria. Unfortunately, though, maybe the most practical data that prospective students need to know is that pay increases were the lowest they've been in a long time (that's not including furloughs, either) and, at least in lit and languages, there were fewer tenure-track openings this job cycle than there have been in at least 35 years.

2. ksledge - April 19, 2010 at 08:01 am

It's geared more towards science and social science, but I made a website that helps students apply to graduate school and make decisions: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mooreks/graduatehelp.html

I get no money from this; I'm just posting it here to help.

Hopefully there are sites out there that will help out prospective humanities students as well.

3. totoro - April 19, 2010 at 09:08 am

As a graduate studies director I made sure I had all the information you list here. But students rarely asked me for it. Academic societies should make an effort to gather this data from departments. Some do gather data but usually not this most relevant stuff.

4. v8573254 - April 19, 2010 at 09:57 am

Two things I like:
1. yes, there can be "life of the mind" outside a university.
2. working for several years b/f deciding to pursue advanced graduate studies settles the mind considerably.

5. john_drake - April 19, 2010 at 10:05 am

Graduate programs won't collect and reveal this information unless many prospective students start asking for it. Students won't ask for it unless their advisers insist on it. Advisers, start insisting on it.

6. klblk - April 19, 2010 at 10:12 am

I agree with @totoro.

Sadly, my experience with students applying for postgraduate research degrees is that most fail to carry out even simple research, for example, "am I applying after the closing date for admissions?", or "does this potential supervisor have any interest in my topic?", so my suspicion is that additional, targeted information of the kind that you suggest would not improve decision-making as most students would not make use of it.

7. paulab - April 19, 2010 at 11:36 am

I agree with v8573254 in that... being in the job market for several years has settled my mind considerably. Though I have not made the final decision to go for an advanced degree, I'm reading up on it, and it's good to know the good, the bad, and the ugly of all side, pro and con, before making a final decision. Going into graduate school is at 22 is way different than at 41. :) Still, wish me luck on my decision.

8. thirdcamper2 - April 19, 2010 at 11:50 am

I can tell Pannapacker has hit a chord with these articles on the crisis in graduate prospects, but just a word to signal, for whatever it's worth, that one reader at least misses the old free-form columns of Thomas H. Benton, reflections on the experiential life of teaching, scholarship, book-hunting, and the like, playful, sometimes sour. Did the loss of anonymity kill that off for good? I hope not.

9. carolineroberts - April 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

"Many professors at departments beyond the top 20 invest deeply in their students, and, as a result, their advisees can be even more successful on the market than their peers at supposedly more prestigious places."

This is true. I have to give my undergrad advisor credit--he gave me this advice and told me to look beyond US News and World Report. Of course, that advice doesn't help when the whole job market is in the tank, but it means that students will get more support overall, and they'll have more confidence when looking for work outside academia.

10. sugaree - April 19, 2010 at 12:48 pm

"It is a cop-out to simply to tell a student to "follow your bliss," but that's what some faculty advisers do, and it is what most students want to hear."

While Pannapacker raised important points and the check-list of pertinent questions is handy, I fear too few will read it because he begins YET ANOTHER piece about this crisis that has been ongoing for over a decade (or even longer now) and, frankly, I am tired of reading lines like that above that are false in so many circumstances. I never got that advice, no one I know got that advice, and no one I've worked with in the past 15 years has ever given that advice. Pannapacker is guilty of what he accuses some advisors of doing and that is bringing out the same tired lines to begin every one of his last, what 5-6 articles? Package the material in a new way already.

11. haj120 - April 19, 2010 at 01:56 pm

I appreciate that this piece places some of the responsibility for the job market problems on advisors. I find it irksome that so many of the doom-and-gloom conversations about the marketplace blame those now seeking employment. These conversations keep reiterating that graduate students do not take time off or do not conduct sufficient research or etc.etc.etc. Nothing like kicking 'em when they're down, unemployed, and already stuck.

What keeps getting missed is that many graduate students are actively recruited, with all the re-framing and marketing that entails. With all of the glitz and glitter misleading recruits and obscuring the important data, it seems remarkably unjust to lay all the blame at graduate students' doors. Thank you for turning the issue to a positive path. Data such as this would be remarkably helpful, and I appreciate the call for it.

12. mubbs - April 19, 2010 at 02:14 pm

To Sugaree,

I disagree with you. I got that advice. Even worse, when I told my supervisor that I was thinking of dropping out because of the bleak job market (during the 2009 recession) I was given the wonderful advice of "well, the good ones always get jobs you know"--a phrase that echos down the hallways of English departments every year. That and the assurance that a few professors would be retiring in our department in 5 (ish) years so that would open up some spots.

The problem is that tenured professors really don't educate themselves on much. They went to undergrad, went to grad school, and got a few of the jobs. Their main focus in life has not been as career advisors, considering most of them began their real working career at the tender age of 33.

My advice to anybody thinking of graduate school is to not ask a professor for advice. Go ahead, go down to the military office and ask them if they think it is a good idea to sign up for a tour in the Middle East. If you are looking for advice, go to an outside source--even a friend. Say it like this:

You see there is this job that pays 50,00 grand a year, but it takes about 12 years of education to get, 100,000 dollars of debt, and there is about a 70-80 percent chance that I won't get it. The good part is that I get to read some books. Should I do it?

They will tell you you are insane. And you are.

Only take advice from a professor who is like Benton--he has given up the impossible demands of academics for first coming to some objective position with loads of stats before ever even dreaming of taking a position--and employed what is missing: practical advice. The bad outweighs the good, too much risk not enough gain.....Just don't GO.

13. jffoster - April 19, 2010 at 05:32 pm

Mubbs makes an interesting point with the following:

"...Their [tenured rofessors' jff] main focus in life has not been as career advisors, considering most of them began their real working career at the tender age of 33."

That old? Some of us began our "real working 'careers'" (i.e. Ph D and TT position) when barely 26. That was however then; this is now. And most in the humanities weren't that young and even for the Social and Natural Sciences, that was younger than average or modal age. It doesn't mean we quit paying attention to our respective professions, though. But those considering graduate school should seek advice from a professor who has paid attention.

14. minnesotan - April 19, 2010 at 05:53 pm

RE: Sugaree and "Bliss"

Graduate students in my department are still getting that advice.

Q:What should I write my dissertation about?
A: Do what you love!

Q: Should I go on to do a Masters in English Literature if I'm not preparing to be a teacher?
A: You can do so many great things with an MA in English (that I won't bother naming them all). It's clearly worth the $60,000 investment, if it's what you love to do!

Q: I'm a quarter-mil in debt, and I think I should drop out and get a real job.
A: I can't advise you about money, but it'd be a real shame to lose a mind like yours.

It's almost sinister the way we avoid conversations about money and the job market, as if they are not genteel subjects, yet we cheerlead the most impractical career decisions. We play on naive idealism to fill the ranks and pay the bills, but are happy to abandon folks once they're out the door.

15. watermarkup - April 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm

This is the best job market-related column yet from THB, above all because he recommends some concrete steps--actually, fairly simple steps that should have been put in place decades ago. If the Ph.D.-producing departments or the professional societies won't start collecting and publishing this data, someone else should.

16. robertjudd - April 20, 2010 at 05:06 pm

@2: Thanks for the URL: this is valuable and I will add it to our web site "Looking for a graduate program in musicology?" page.

@15: Agreed. The American Musicological Society's Graduate Education Committee did an extensive survey of musicology programs last year, and reported a summary in the most recent AMS Newsletter (Feb 2010, p. 22; http://www.ams-net.org/newsletter/). It was a first for us, and certainly not the last. The AMS fully intends to continue attempting to collect and publish this data (#1 is right, though: it's hard to do it).

17. nuclear_engineer - April 21, 2010 at 10:35 am

I suspect my comments will be considered way off topic, but I'll make them any way.

Many humanity students considering graduate school would have been better off majoring in science and engineering. For the investment of a given amount of time and money, science and engineering beats most other academic disciplines hands down for future quality of life. This is especially so if one must run up large debts to finance a college education and/or if one expects to raise children and send them to college.

Of course, this all presupposes that a credible person (a non-parent as a rule) would talk with freshmen and sophomores and give them the "economic facts of life talk" about the cold cruel job market they will face after their (increasing debt funded) academic days have passed. But, considering how much trust (and the amount of dollars) that students and parents place in the guiding hand of colleges and universities, some one should give them students this talk early on whether they like it or not.

This comment is not to denigrate the humanities in any way. I quite enjoyed all the humanity area courses that I took as an undergraduate. Got A's in all of them and wish I had taken more of them. And considering the really POOR writing skills of college graduates today, all students need such courses with a lot more graded writing assignments than they apparently receive today.

Just my 2 cents.

18. tonycontento - April 21, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I was speaking with a colleague about this today. We both agreed that some of our graduate students are coming simply because of some interia pushing them towards grad school. I think that the idea is that "you can't get a job with a Bachelor's degree."

There may be some truth to that statement, but that is not an absolute. I feel that many students are being told that graduate/professional studies are the only viable option, and that leads them down a career path that is not for everyone.

But, if a Bachelor's is really useless except as a stepping stone towards more schooling, then the system should be modified. For now, I do feel that students would be well-served with a (required) career services course earlier in their program (perhaps sophomore year).

19. sophie_seattle - April 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I know that I just shouldn't go, but as a prospective student, I have a quick question. Are there negative professional consequences to calling the programs I am actually interested in and asking them for answers to these questions? Should I make up a pseudonym? I fear this answer: "why are you asking these questions? If you aren't already sufficiently impressed by our prestige, you have no place here because your priorities are wrong, and there are a million people who would gladly take your place in line. Goodbye!" Rather than, say, a straight answer involving numbers.

20. schach1000 - April 21, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Another way to know which departments are producing good candidates and to see which faculty are engaged in the success of their students is to be current in one's field. Which schools are actively promoting their graduates at conferences, symposia, etc? What programs reappear in journals, and not just the stars? Moreover, knowing the field can help an advisor not just match a student to a strong program, but even to a particular faculty member in that program. As "Getting what you came for" describes, finding the right graduate advisor/mentor can be critical to success. As pressures to teach more sections and advise more students increases, this becomes harder to do but time spent keeping up with the discipline improves one's teaching and advising ability.

21. nordicexpat - April 21, 2010 at 02:36 pm

While there might be some that would have the attitude you describe, you wouldn't want to go there anyway. The best ones would have ready material for you and would be happy you asked.

One word of (unsolicited) advice: Be very wary of taking out any loans to go to graduate school, no matter how prestigious the institution. If you don't get funding, seriously consider waiting a year and reapplying.

22. kerr7920 - April 21, 2010 at 04:35 pm

"a bad choice in one's early 20s [that] can have life-long consequences" is deciding to become a drug dealer or rob a bank. Pannaker is setting up a straw man ( a hippy dippy professor who tells a student to "follow your bliss"), and a straw victim (an undergraduate with no capacity to evaluate the post-college choices she makes) and asserting overly dire consequences. Yes, anyone considering taking on more debt to go to graduate school should think long and hard about it, just as they should think long and hard about taking on a mortgage. But I don't know any professors or senior undergraduates quite as naive as the ones Pannacker encounters.

23. john_drake - April 21, 2010 at 08:01 pm

kerr7920: "But I don't know any professors or senior undergraduates quite as naive as the ones Pannacker encounters."

I do.

24. fwood01 - April 25, 2010 at 02:19 pm

A few observations:
1. Professor Pannapacker's students are not *naive*. For years, I have been telling folks that there is nothing in undergraduate life -- not subject content, mind you -- that prepares one for full-time graduate school life [aka indentured servitude], whether or not at a top 20 institution. I have had the somewhat gratifying experience of subsequent grads telling me that I was precisely correct. Students can't ask questions for which they have no context to make their inquiries. Even for students who are not first-generation grads, the current academic and employment environment is radically different from their parents' late 70s one -- as will be their employment trajectories.
Unless parents are in, or intimate with someone conversant with, the vicissitudes of 21st century grad life, there is precious little that they can offer their children beyond the moral and social standards by which they haver reared them.

2. What measures are being taken to help to assure that nostalgia and ghettoized disciplinary bias are not the primary bases of information provided students seeking grad school advice?

3. To paraphrase a dictum of the medical profession: If you misdiagnose the illness, then you will prescribe the wrong remedy. Some undergrads are just plain panicked, and under a combination of employment, peer and parental pressure to "be" fill-in-the-blank. Suggesting that they consider stepping off the treadmill that they have been on for 17 of their 22 years may be an absolutlely appropriate recommendation.

4. Academia, not to mention other professional areas, will be radically different twenty years from today (despite the glacial pace at which the revered semi-monastic institutions among us embrace change). Most advisors will be near or in retirement. None of us has a crystal ball. Pehaps, the entire mode of feeding the maw that sustains the academy (professional schools of other stripes are, perhaps, a different convversation), needs to be re-thought. Gasp! Perish the thought.
5. Finally, referring potential grads to institutions based on the *stars* of one's particular discipline may be disastrous for the student. *Stars* don't become stars by mentoring; they become stars by writing/publishing their research. Such activity leaves precious little time (inclination?) for the patient and intimate process of mentoring -- as opposed to cloning.

25. timewaster123 - May 01, 2010 at 03:07 pm

Just to add to the evidence - real conversation between me and my master's advisor when trying to decide whether to enter the PhD program where I'd gained admission (at a different school).

me: "But I"m worried about the money and I've already got some student loans from undergrad and this master's degree."
advisor: "Don't worry about it. You'll have some loans and then you'll get through and be fine - that's what I did."
Admittedly, social science, not humanities, but you see how this advising issue is a big concern - I was pretty skeptical about the money going in, but of course trusted my advisor, and boy, shoulda listened to my own gut more.

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