Making a Reasonable Choice

Brian Taylor

April 18, 2010

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.