Crossing on a Yellow Light: Ten Questions To Ask Prospective Graduate Students

October 13, 2013, 11:52 am

crosswalk2-petitinventionLongtime readers of the Radical know that it is one of my policies not to write about real people, but I’m going to break that rule to make an important announcement.

I said no to writing a graduate school recommendation for a candidate applying to PhD programs in history.

That’s right, me. Me, who thinks it paternalistic to keep intelligent people out of graduate school. Me, who believes fervently that our nation would be better off with better-educated people in it (if you don’t believe this, pick any Tea Party congressperson at random and ask that person a question about the female reproductive system, what the Bible or the Constitution actually says, political history, race and/or how government works.)

Let me just say: I did not turn this student away for political or ideological reasons, or because said person does not deserve a shot at a career in history. My reasons were more mundane than that: I no longer work for that school and I am on sabbatical. It is my policy that if I am not in a position to write a really strong letter for a Ph.D. program, I don’t do it at all (sorry, law schools, my standards are different for you.) That principle would have made this letter particularly time-consuming, as the prospective historian graduated several years ago, never did advanced work with me, and has had a somewhat fascinating life since that I know very little about. As anyone who writes these letters knows, anything more than a generic recommendation takes at least half a day of writing, and a fair amount of reading, to do well.

I did, however, suggest several things that might move the project forward. Then I took a deep breath and offered unasked for, and possibly unwanted, advice.

I suggested that s/he re-think going to graduate school in history at all: not give it up, but research it carefully. Perhaps the proposed work might be done in one of the social sciences where academic jobs were more plentiful and alt-ac employment a real career path? I suggested that s/he join the American Historical Association with a student membership to gain access to current issues of Perspectives on History, and purchase a web membership to this publication, where even more debates take place. Both would create an enhanced opportunity to follow the conversation about employment, to learn about how people address the difficulties of the job market at different career stages. There is also a lot of free information out there about the labor situation in higher education: go to Inside Higher Ed and The New Faculty Majority to start.

My chief motivation for offering this advice was alarm: this person had declared an intention to go forward in a specialty where there is a spectacular lack of opportunity. Since I can remember, there have been fewer than five jobs a year posted in this field (despite its massive popularity among undergraduates), and this year there is exactly one, in the whole country, at a satellite campus of a state university in a Rust-Belt town. My guess is that there are over 500 applications for that job. Sure there are related fields, but this too is weak gruel: how does adding five more jobs to your list, and perhaps a thousand more competitors, improve things?

This wasn’t a red light, but a yellow light. My message was: proceed with caution.

But I also thought, how could this person not know that s/he was would be taking on debt and preparing for a job that essentially no longer exists?

This thought jolted me, because to my mind this information is freely available on the Internet and has been for some time. Clearly, however, that is not enough. Too many commenters on this blog have repeatedly insisted that they went to graduate school in the humanities with their eyes wide shut. Too many people see themselves as stuck in a cycle of exploitative contingent labor, and unfit for anything else unless they take on more debt for more school, are angry and disappointed with how they have spent their young adulthood. Many have said they were encouraged to go by undergraduate mentors who never told them about a job crisis, never told them that about 30% of them would get tenure-stream jobs.

Many of those who are already in tenured jobs are stung by these criticisms, and I abso-poso-lutely guarantee you that some of them will write in to say so. But here’s the news, friends. People going to grad school in the liberal arts and sciences don’t go through the career center: they go through us. And almost no student should be, or ever should have been, green-lighted for graduate school just because s/he was smart.

Let them cross, if they must, on a yellow light.

Through accumulated evidence — on this blog, reading extensively about the employment crisis, and meeting IRL with current graduate students and job seekers – I have become convinced that the Ph.D. students are right about how little they know about academia as a business before embarking on their intellectual journey. Why would they? They are students, and we haven’t taught them anything about it.

Instead, in sometimes misguided acts of affectionate praise, many faculty – particularly at liberal arts colleges, where the most advanced students are treated like miniature grad students and future colleagues  – are happily sending their best and brightest to graduate school in the humanities without ever having a conversation about the possibilities for employment, or lack thereof.  For those of us who do warn students about the difficulties that lie ahead, we rarely suggest any way that they can take action to retain power over their own futures, other than being the good students they know how to be. And keeping their fingers and toes crossed.

Worse, people who are good at school trust the faculty members who reach out them in ways that may seem naïve, but are actually cultivated by the intimacy of the pedagogical relationships that liberal arts colleges foster. We faculty are also the success stories, the people who made it, the proof of the pudding. Students may also believe that, as employees of the schools that they have taken out loans to pay for, we understand their current and financial situation better than we do.

But how can we? These are private matters, worked out in families. We may also be singularly unqualified to gauge the financial risk for students. Older faculty educated prior to 1980 did not have to take on significant debt for their educations. Younger tenure-track faculty are likely to have some educational debt – but they are also the ones for whom the gamble seems to have paid out. The education of today’s undergraduates has been defined by debt, either their own or their parents’. They have little or no experience with paying off loans yet, and they may take it for granted that if graduate education means taking on a larger debt, that burden will come with an enhanced ability to pay it back.

So on that note, when students approach you for recommendations this fall, here are ten questions you might want to ask them:

  • Have you researched the current state of academic employment in this discipline? Do you know where and how to do that? Are you willing to invest less than $100 to get the resources you need to do that?
  • Do you know what the possibilities are for people with a Ph.D. in ________ to find employment outside of the academy? Would you consider being a dean, a program director, or another kind of administrator? Would you see working on renewable contracts, rather than the tenure track, or becoming an administrator, as a failure? Name three things you would like to do if you don’t get a tenure-track job.
  • Do you really love to write? Not like it, or see it as instrumental to a university career, but really love it enough to persist until you become really good at it?
  • Does research compel you?
  • Do you see a broader political or intellectual public for your work than the university –based specialists in your field?
  • Are there other disciplines than the one you wish to apply in that might offer better prospects for academic or alternative employment?
  • Have you considered taking two-three years off to work in this field, or a related one, in order to find out if you really need to go to graduate school at all?
  • Have you taken any graduate classes to understand what commitment you must make to succeed in graduate school? Do you know how long you might be there?
  • Do you have loans already? Have you visited the financial aid office to have your repayment rate calculated on those loans? Do you have access to family wealth?
  • Do you have the self confidence, and the patience, to fail? To try again? To reimagine your career and/or intellectual goals? To do this more than once?

These are questions that people should have been asking for over thirty years.

Furthermore, the conversation about the academic job market and alt-ac employment, at its best, is far less public than we who are on the inside, tenure-track or contingent, think it is. Sure, it seems public: but that’s because we are already academics and we talk to each other! This conversation is going on in professional venues, and publications, in which grad school applicants do not yet have membership. In most cases, they don’t even know about them.

It is an absolutely crucial project, in my view, that we need to be working on reforming graduate education at two levels: the first is rethinking and revising an academic employment system that is exploitative broken. The second is cultivating the next generation of intellectuals who can help us fix it by imagining an entirely different academy, one that does not function through reproduction but through revision and re-imagination. New cohorts of graduate students need to be joining us with eyes wide open, bringing ideas to the table that will create change, and demanding that universities, and departments that aspire to graduate training, work to become what they should be rather than a diminished version of what they currently are.


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