• October 31, 2014

So You Want to Go to Grad School?

"Don't go to graduate school."

"But ... I burn with an intense, gemlike flame for Victorian poetry."

"Don't go."

"But ... I'm sure I'd love teaching."

"Why are you really considering graduate school?"

"Well, to be perfectly honest, I majored in English, and I can't find a job -- at least not one that pays anything or has health benefits. I'm thinking I can hide out in grad school until the economy gets better, and, hey, if I really like it, I can just become a professor, right?"

Hmm. Should I repress a long, low, bitter laugh? Or do I give this misguided youth the facts I wish I had when I was in the same predicament in 1990?

When should we stop coddling our undergraduates? Puffing up their self-esteem? Making utterly unrealistic promises about their future prospects?

Many undergraduates have never known academic failure; most have never faced a serious intellectual challenge. They have received a steady stream of praise from teachers their entire conscious lives. There are few ways for students to know whether they are really competitive, given that so many of them receive such high grades for such mediocre work.

How do you finally say to your advisee, "Even though you have a 3.9 GPA and everyone here thinks you are wonderful, I don't think you should go to graduate school if your aim is to become a professor. It's just not that easy."

Last year, the total number of advertised jobs in English dropped from 983 to 792, and only about half of those jobs are on the tenure track. Remember that the 977 doctorates produced in 2000-2001 will have to compete with hundreds of job-seekers from previous years, to say nothing of all the adjunct faculty members who are looking for full-time, tenure-track work.

The Modern Language Association's own data -- very conservative and upbeat in my opinion -- indicate that only about one in five newly-admitted graduate students in English will eventually become tenure-track professors.

"Are you the one in five?" Really? Well, that's what the other four think too. Take my advice (I secretly care about you as a person): Don't go.

If you speak this way, four out of five students will think you're a crank and find a more flattering adviser: "Of course, my little genius, you can be anything you want to be."

For a few years toward the end of the 1990s it seemed like undergraduates had finally gotten the message about grad school in the humanities. Some of the grumbling by unemployed Ph.D.'s was breaking into the national media. More importantly, undergraduates had better options for employment during the boom economy. Even creative-writing majors were becoming "content developers."

But graduate-school enrollments soar during recessions. They seem like a haven from low-paying jobs that feel degrading to students with egos inflated by a lifetime of empty praise. And, inevitably, many universities use recessions to expand their corps of low-paid, grad-student teachers and research assistants who are mostly unemployable after they complete their degrees.

"But I'm not sure I want to be a professor anyway," says the student. "I just think it would be fun to spend a few years in grad school."

"Remember," I advise, "that if you go to graduate school, you are contributing to the problem by making it less necessary for universities to hire full-time faculty members at decent wages. If you have a burning passion for Victorian poetry, you can probably satisfy this passion by yourself. Force yourself to read a few dozen academic books before deciding to dedicate your life to a subject. That is what one does in graduate school anyway. Most learning is unsupervised, independent, and onerous. Why pay or work according to an institutional timetable unless one needs an academic credential?

"Also, remember that most grad students start out as dilettantes, thinking they'll just hang out for a few years on a stipend. But eventually they become completely invested in the profession, unable to envision themselves doing anything else. A few years can become a decade or more. Meanwhile, everyone else is beginning their adult lives while you remain trapped in permanent adolescence."

I want to say more (but usually refrain): "Be wary of people who claim that grad school is a 'wonderful' experience, a means of acquiring the polish of culture -- a kind of 'grand tour' -- before entering the 'real' world. Professionalism obligates people to speak positively about their alma mater in public. Grad school is not all fun and personal enrichment for many people. It can involve poverty-level wages, uncertain employment conditions, contradictory demands by supervisors, irrelevant research projects, and disrespectful treatment by both the tenured faculty members and the undergraduates (both of whom behave, all too often, as management and customers.) Grad school is a confidence-killing daily assault of petty degradations. All of this is compounded by the fear that it is all for nothing; that you are a useful fool.

"I hardly know anyone who was a grad student in the last decade who is not deeply embittered. Because of my columns on this site, a few people have told me how their graduate-school years coincided with long periods of suicidal ideation. More commonly, grad students suffer from untreated chronic ailments such as weight fluctuation, fatigue, headache, stomach pain, nervousness, and alcoholism."

It pains me to tell some of my best students that the structure of employment in the academy has been hidden from them -- that many faculty members make less than fast-food workers and have no health benefits. In darker moments I am quite sure that higher education in the humanities as we know it is not even likely to last out the careers of the younger tenure-track faculty members. Doesn't that impose some kind of obligation on us? Shouldn't we turn out the lights?

"Go home, find any kind of job, and wait. The economy will change in a few years. New opportunities will emerge, and you'll be free to seize them, possibly with only a few months of training. Do not plan on a lifetime career in a single field. You'll change careers at least once every decade. And, here's the good news: Your undergraduate degree in the humanities has prepared you for that kind of flexibility. Use your education to help yourself, your future family, and the larger society. Do not use it to sustain unethical labor practices in the new corporate universities.

"Don't be in such a hurry to re-institutionalize yourself. Throw your mortarboard in the air. Consider yourself free for the first time in your life. If you really love knowledge and teaching, there's a whole world of both outside the academy. Find it or create it! Go!"

And, if your advisees have listened and still want to talk with you about grad school, then maybe they are right for it. To them, one owes a different kind of advice. And I'll try to offer it in my next two columns, first on how to select a graduate school in the humanities and then on how to maximize your chances for academic employment (and other alternatives) afterward.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com

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