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Like Sands Through The Hourglass, So Are The Days Of Our Lives: Having The Courage Not To Go To Graduate School

May 2, 2010, 12:08 pm

You would think that May would signal the winding down of things at Zenith. In fact, as we all know, the liberal arts college has a tendency to crank things up toward the end of the year. Didn’t spend enough of your budget? There will be a memo asking for suggestions on how to do that. Last year, when I was chair and everyone was in ex post crash-o mentality, we saved a lot of time via a memo telling us that departments and programs were prohibited from spending down at the end of the year, although how they would be able to sift legitimate from illegitimate expenses was not clear. (“Six skateboards? Why did sociology purchase skateboards?”) Prizes and various awards must be given, and we will be solicited for the names of ever-more students to receive them. Committees that have been ruminating on this or that will be rushing legislation to the floor of the last faculty meeting. These motions will be greeted with suspicion by a great many people who haven’t bothered to attend a meeting all year, and who will table them: “We can’t hurry an important decision like this!” they will snarl.

Subsequently, many of these ideas will die on the Island of Tabled Motions.

In the middle of all this chaos, there are the former students who write to ask for recommendations. They’ve been cooling their heels in Teach for America and prison re-entry programs, toiling in obscurity as paralegals at Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and Doing Good Deeds in far-flung places. Spring has come and — guess what? There’s no summer vacation! You don’t get to advance to the next level of work in the fall! Furthermore, since liberal arts colleges now specialize in ginning up nostalgia (and saving money, I presume) by holding alumni reunions and commencement on the same weekend in May, the recent B.A.’s thoughts turn lovingly to:

Graduate school. As Monty Python would say, “Run away! Run away!”

Frequent readers might recall that I was critiqued roundly in the comments section of this post for suggesting that people contemplating the PH.D. might want to evaluate their chances of getting an academic job more thoroughly prior to choosing a program that suits them only for being a college professor. “I’m gobsmacked that someone who calls herself radical could publish something so reactionary,” wrote one of my kinder critics. My suggestion that any person contemplating the PH.D work for a minimum of three years post-B.A. to imagine the numerous other life choices available was also rejected by many. “Why would you hold back a talented person who knows exactly what s/he wants to do at the age of twenty or twenty-two?” is a collective version of what I was asked. “If I wait, I will be almost thirty when I get my degree! Too late to start a life!” others whimpered. The most heartfelt responses were some version of: “On what grounds can you — and people like you — deny me the opportunity to have something precious that you already have?”

I do not yet control the fate of the historical profession, much less the academy at large, and regulating the supply of jobs to meet the demand is the committee I keep requesting, but to no avail. Give me time, why don’t you?

Seriously, let me say two things: I don’t think there is anything particularly radical about encouraging people to get a PH.D. in say, history or English literature. It’s not like you will be educated to join the IWW, after all (although if you go into sociology you might have a crack at it), or to redistribute wealth. In addition, as I will be 52 in a couple weeks, color me silly, but I don’t think 30 is too late to change direction in life, voluntarily or involuntarily. One valued family member of mine is, in her thirties, embarking on her fourth career, and I would say that each one of them has made her a more interesting and productive person.

I also don’t think any education, PH.D.’s in the Humanities included, is a waste, even if it doesn’t lead you to the career you thought it would. Could be a waste of money, but not time.

However: the idea that life will pass you by if you actually take time to live it (as opposed to studying it, or acquire more education to enter life at a higher level than ordinary folk) is worrisome to some of us who watch talented people graduate from our universities only to return a year later to say that they want back in. I worry that it is a symptom of being part of a generation of over-scheduled overachievers raised to believe that the sands of time run quicker if you aren’t writing a memoir about your alcoholic mother, starting your own film production company or scoring big time with your new band in those crucial twelve months after graduation. The concern seems to be that living life is an uncertain proposition at best, a huge waste of time at worst. Those of us who advise contemplation and acquiring experience outside the classroom are perceived by Generation Adderall as hopelessly out of touch.

Rather than seeing me and my colleagues as gatekeepers, however, I would like these hopeful young people to do the research themselves before embarking on this journey. In particular, in the comments section of my earlier post I was initially appalled, then angered, and then moved, by the numerous bitter remarks by commenters who claimed they had been lied to by their own college professors about their future prospects as scholars. Many claimed that they were told that they should go to graduate school, and that the cream always rises to the top in the job market. Such people said they were not told, prior to enrolling in the PH.D. program, that only 4 out of 10 of them would get a tenure track job, much less at a college or university similar to the one they had attended.

One can’t help but believe — even if you think, as I do, that you shouldn’t take all your advice about going into the priesthood from a priest — that there isn’t some truth to the experiences they are reporting, so I did a little of my own research. And you know what? I think a lot of them were lied to, albeit by well-meaning people. I was further convinced of this by a conversation with a lovely young person who was given exactly the wrong advice by a university mentor: the best young intellects go straight from college to graduate school; prestigious schools in your field don’t care about you taking time to think it over; there will be plenty of jobs in (x) field by the time you get out in seven years. Not one of these things is true, and (x) field is literally crammed with the un- and underemployed. Looking back at the records of the professional association in which (x) field is located, I count 16 jobs in that field advertised in the last 5 years, and 182 if you count the larger fields which might accept an application from someone trained in (x). There were, in the same period 537 PH.D.s produced in the larger fields for which a person trained in (x) might have applied. If you count the other people, in other fields, who might have enlarged the pool for the more general job descriptions, that is less than a 1 in 3 chance of obtaining a tenure-track job over 5 years on the market.

I am estimating, given the job market that existed prior to the crash, and given that state legislatures will continue to slash away at education budgets for several years to come (remember: the commercial real estate market is slumping like a warm ice cream cone as 5-year balloon mortgages start to come due) that out of the dozen or so students who have talked to me about the PH.D. this spring alone, there will be academic jobs for 4 or 5 at best.

Hence, paying some attention to those who claim they were lied to about their prospects, I have responded to this by advising talented undergraduates, right up front, not to go to graduate school. Not yet, at least. And when you are making this decision, take into account the following:

Regardless of whether you like this or not, or whether it seems fair, it is simply a fact that actual graduate school admissions committees at select schools will regard your application more favorably if you take a significant amount of time off. Two to five years, I would say. Want to do labor history? Be an organizer; spend one of those years as a day laborer or a factory worker. An anthropologist? Leave the country and learn a language. Learn two. Cultural studies? Try an advertising agency or tending bar on the Lower East Side of New York. Whatever you do, engage the world of paid labor head on, and try to marry your genuine interests with a determination to get out of your comfort zone. Use this time to read, far more deeply than you have had the opportunity to do as an undergraduate, to discover what field compels you in a deep enough way to make a profoundly scary, uncertain commitment to it.

Your choice to attend graduate school, and their choice to admit you, is not a mutual contract that is designed to benefit all parties equally. Too often young people who have succeeded in school believe that schools actually care about them. They don’t. Then why do graduate schools pay people to attend? In part, because it is traditional to do so. But in the overwhelming number of cases graduate students constitute an indispensable pool of cheap labor. You earn your tuition and stipend by doing hours of work for what seems like a good sum of money at the age of 22; by the time you are 29, it doesn’t look so good.

If your beloved undergraduate mentor is over age 65, you run the risk of getting really bad advice about graduate school. In fact, I would say that few of us over 35 are reliably in touch, with some exceptions. The first thing you should do is join the professional association in your field of choice. If your income is under 25K, it costs $45 to join the American Historical Association, $35 to join the MLA, $55 to join the American Studies Association. A one year digital subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education is $72.50, and Inside Higher Education is free! Hence, for under $125, a small investment compared to the loans you will be forced to take out in graduate school to eat and keep a roof over your head, you have within your grasp the best possible advice about the current state of the academic profession, the recent history of the job market, and the degree of risk you are running if you have your heart set on being an academic.

Read blogs: start with New Faculty Majority, the mother ship of up-to-date commentary about the high rate of underemployment among academics.

As for asking live people, your most important advice in this matter, particularly at a liberal arts college, is from the youngest members of the faculty, those who have been on the job market quite recently, and whose bright and capable friends are strategizing their lack of tenure-track employment. I pick out the SLAC as a particular font of poor advice in this matter, because it is here that the romance of teaching and scholarship tends to cloud the uglier realities of academic life, and it is here that there are no graduate students to set you straight as Professor Graybeard waxes eloquent about the beauties of a cultivated scholarly intellect. Your second most important advice is from all women, GLBT people and anyone in an interdisciplinary or ethnic studies field: there never has been a “good” market for us, and we tend not to think that our special experience of success characterizes the general condition.

And finally, when you are taking advice, do what sensible people do: consider the source. Check to see how many search committees Professor Graybeard has run, and whether s/he gives papers at professional meetings regularly. Does s/he contribute to the life of the profession by serving on committees of professional associations? Does s/he mentor graduate students of hir own, or sit on committees at nearby research universities? Is s/he on the editorial board of a journal? Does s/he publish? Thanks to Google, all of this information is available to you. If the answers to all, or most, of the above questions are “No” then this person may be well-intentioned, but is not a good source of advice.

Whatever you decide: take responsibility for your own decisions in this matter so that you don’t waste a lot of emotional energy trying to figure out who to blame when the breaks, and the tenure-track searches, don’t go your way. The damage done is not an education that isn’t worth anything — all education is worth something, particularly to creative and engaged people. It’s the damage of low self-esteem and disillusion when you have drunk the academic Kool-Aid and — through no fault of your own — it doesn’t work out.

Monday update: here’s a post on the joint J.D./PH.D. from Karen Tani at Legal History Blog. While I wouldn’t advise trying to jive the job market by simply attaining multiple degrees (and Tani notes that pursuing such a program is “not for the faint of heart”) it is one direction for those of you with an incurable love for learning who are also sane enough to want flexible career options.

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