The Russian kind?

December 7, 2007, 11:44 pm

The astute Scott Eric Kaufman says,

Those of you who land interviews, campus visits and offer sheets? You are no more deserving of them than anyone else on the market. I know you think you are—I know you’re thrilled by the very thought of your own deservedness, but consider the conditions of your “triumph.” You have bested your contemporaries in a game of chance. Put another way:

Do some players deserve to win at roulette? Are they inherently better scholars because they do?

There is truth in this, especially at the early stages of the job-search process. It takes a profound amount of luck to get your foot in the door. Once you do, it’s a bit more up to you. (Though not always: the committee may decide in your favor, but strange personal factors can still intervene!)

But certainly getting that early in — given the numbers in this game, so many people applying for so few positions — owes much to luck. Nothing used to trouble me more than sage greybeards saying, “The good people get jobs.” Man, I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by winter, waiting hysterical pentup, dragging themselves to the letter flap each day looking for a friendly note.

Even if it wasn’t the best minds it was still some pretty good ones.

Which is why you should always think about Burke on “should I go to grad school?“:

Short answer: no.

Updated: Below the fold, my post on this from last year, which earlier, I couldn’t find.

It’s the season for applications to graduate school, and as this post on Unfogged indicates, it may not be too late for a bit of avuncular advice. (Warning: thoughts on graduate school from young academics often evoke strong emotions, which sometimes means strong language, which you will find in some of the below-linked posts.) Some of what I have to say will be specific to my own discipline of history, but much of it is broadly applicable not only to the social sciences and humanities, but beyond.

First, you should read this classic by Timothy Burke, which begins,

Should I go to graduate school?
Short answer: no.

and goes on from there. I don’t agree with everything Burke says, but perhaps the key point to take away is, you shouldn’t go to graduate school unless you’re sure you’re sure that this is the only career for you. Your sunk costs will be very high very soon, and the only thing that can possibly carry you through will be your conviction that you really do love your subject.

Second, you should have a look at the job market. In my field, you can see here that last year, for the first time in fifteen years, there were more jobs posted than degrees awarded. But that’s not especially good news: that fifteen years produced a big backlog of un- and under-employed PhD’s in history who are still looking for jobs. Also, the current surplus may well be a blip:

Over the past five years, the number of graduate students entering history PhD programs has been rising, while the proportion of faculty approaching retirement has been falling. And looking forward, the U.S. Department of Education anticipates that the recent growth in the number of new undergraduate students at American colleges and universities will slow down over the coming decade–about the time it would typically take someone just starting a history PhD to finish.

As it happens, fifteen years ago is when I entered graduate school, and I earned my doctorate in the years when that gap was the biggest it’s been since the early 1970s. If my experience is any guide, what you can expect on getting a PhD in this market is a few years, or maybe more than a few, of temporary work before you land a tenure-track job (if you do). (And I was lucky: I held a temporary job in a wonderful department that paid me a decent wage to teach a perfectly reasonable number of courses, gave me benefits, and provided, on balance, a boost to my career. Most young professors are not so fortunate.)

What gets people through a lean job market like that? Stubbornness, I expect. Being smart and competent are not sufficient. You need to keep at it until fortune smiles on you. You may need ultimately to have an exit plan, too. (Mine was business school. I took the GMAT and, so help me, one of the essay questions asked you to explain the fallacy in the following reasoning: there will be a lot of academic retirements in upcoming years, therefore now is a good time to get a PhD. I did quite well, thanks for asking.)

So if you’re relying on stubbornness, principally, we return to Burke’s advice: you need to be sure you really want this.

Third, supposing you can’t be dissuaded, you’re sure, you’re stubborn enough already that this is something you want to do. How should you do it?

You want the right program for you, of course. You’ll ask around; maybe you’ll use‘s feature that allows you to choose a department based on National Research Council rankings. The trouble with that is, the NRC hasn’t done those rankings afresh since the 1995 publication (though they’re supposed to, sometime soon). So they don’t mean much right now.

Keeping the job market in mind, what you want is not only the right school, but the right person. You will need, as they say on The Wire, a rabbi. This is going to be an established scholar in your field who has the same interests as you, whose work you like and admire, who will recommend you, and whose recommendation will carry weight. Maybe it will help to think of applying to graduate school as applying to a person, or a couple of people, as much as to a program. It may therefore be better for you to choose a program with a slightly lower ranking but where, it so happens, you can find the right advisor for you.

Choosing the right advisor means more than just scanning the website for someone in your prospective field. It means actually learning something about someone, both as a scholar and as a trainer of future scholars. You need to do homework, talk to people, read books and articles.

If you’ve done your homework, and chosen the right program and the right person, your statement of purpose should reflect this. Explain what you plan to do with your graduate degree, what kind of research you want to do, and why this would be the best program for you and why you would be a good fit for this program. The more knowledgeably you can make these points, the more attractive a candidate you will be.

Even if you’re an excellent candidate, you may not get in. Programs often have limited resources to fund graduate students. Advisors sometimes don’t want to take new students. So you should apply to more than one program, when you apply, and you shouldn’t take it personally, when you’re turned down.

Finally, how should you deal with it when you get there? The 12-step advice from Fontana Labs is as good as any I’ve seen, especially perhaps his (slightly) strongly worded point 11 (sensitive readers should now avert their eyes):

There’s no shame in dropping out, either. Smarter people than you are flourishing in nonacademic careers, and I invite you to bite their asses if you think your “Dr” means anything.

Beyond all that, it’s very nice work.

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