Sunday, December 07, 2008

If you're thinking about going to graduate school

Tenured Radical has had some (as usual) fine posts recently about going on to graduate school. The latest of them explains that, yes, the market is bad, but that grad school isn't the "Ponzi scheme" that one of her commentators called it.

If you get the MLA Newsletter, you've seen this graph already. It represents about 30 years (1975-2007) of the job market in MLA fields, which by traditional accounts tanked after the 1960s and never recovered. I am not saying that the job market is good; it isn't. What I am saying is that if the oral history is correct, there would be a diagonal going from the midpoint of about 1500 jobs advertised in 1975 down to 0-100 in 2007. What the graph shows is that there are peaks and valleys, the latest valley being circa 1993-1997. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.

One of the questions that you need to answer for yourself before you apply, and on the application as you apply, is this: why do I want to go to graduate school? The following are just some additional things to think about in answering this question.
  • Because I'm good at theory and analysis, and I enjoy my classes in (English or history or whatever). Having this kind of aptitude is a wonderful thing. Can you envision yourself putting this toward any other discipline? This is a little like having a talent for acting: more people have it than there are jobs for professional actors.
  • Because I want to be a professor. Why do you want to be a professor? Is it because you want to teach? If so, think seriously about secondary education. The pay is the same, or better, and jobs can be easier to find. Is it because you want to work with college-age students? Have you thought about administration?
  • Because I want to do research. If it's research that attracts you, there may be other jobs (public history, as TR notes, or working at foundations) that may be a better fit. An ADE report from a few years back showed that something like 80% of people in Ph.D. programs had "professor" as their career goal. Only 43-50% ended up as professors in tenure-track positions 10 years down the line, yet the survey showed that those who didn't become professors were still satisfied with their career paths.
And now some other questions:
  • Once you have the Ph.D., are you ready to move anywhere for a job? Like Willie Sutton robbing banks because "that's where the money is," job seekers have to move where the jobs are. This sounds obvious, but people sometimes won't or can't move for family reasons. Those aren't bad reasons, of course, but it's unrealistic to think that you'll get a job in a particular area.
  • Do you have an alternate plan in case you don't get a tenure-track job? In other words, will you regret spending the time in graduate school if a job doesn't materialize?
  • Can you envision working more hours than some of the people you know? The demands of research and teaching take a lot of time; even if you're mowing the lawn, to use the news media's favorite example of academic slackertude, you're thinking about your work. To quote from an old post: if you can't envision working on your research as a pleasure as well as a duty, you should rethink what you're doing and maybe get into another field.
  • Can you imagine spending your vacation money going to conferences and archives instead? Travel budgets will never fund the amount of travel to conferences that you have to do. Are you ready to make the conference/vacation travel tradeoff?
There are more items, but that's enough for now.

Edited to add: I'm not trying to say "go to graduate school" or "don't go to graduate school." Graduate schools need bright, interesting, and committed students with good ideas, and so does the profession. All I'm trying to say is this: if you want to go, know why you are going and what you want to do when you get there.


Anonymous said...

Ah, such a rational approach to this vexing issue. I appreciate your level-headedness; I'm usually incapable of restraining my bitterness about academe long enough to think rationally about this topic. But, I guess I would add this to your list of questions:

Are you willing to make significantly less money than your less-educated friends and to work well past the standard retirement age?

Although there are many, many things I love about my job, it's the finances that make me think that, had I a chance to do it over again, I wouldn't.

Professor Zero said...

The finances are also the main issue for me.

But to add to the list/thoughts:

* My goal during the MA program was to decide whether I wanted to do the PhD. I decided yes on an impulse, basically, but was glad I had.

During the PhD program, before the exams and all, my goal was to do cultural research and writing for UNESCO. There wasn't a lot of time / opportunities at hand to get very far in my investigation of this, though, and then I got busy / caught up in the MLA suddenly, and then ... here I am.

Moral: people should make real time every term to seriously investigate alternative careers.

* The one thing I was not told in graduate school and wish I had been is that there are really huge differences between types of institutions. Did I want to work for a private institution? No, but I didn't know enough about what these were to know I was massively committed to public education. Did I want to work at a non-great institution? Sure, if necessary, but only in a great town ... yet I did not have enough info to know the terms of that tradeoff, either.

* IMPORTANT: I was willing to live "anywhere" but I did not know what that meant. I thought "anywhere" meant, for instance, a university town with snow on it. I said, "sure, I'll shovel snow," and I was right, I like that. I was not imagining places without bookstores, though.

* Finally: I was convinced there had to be PhD programs in my disciplines at my school. I still say that is ideal but much more important is whether there are good programs at *any* level in your discipline, and PhD programs in related disciplines.

* Finally-finally: when I was younger I thought there were good institutions (i.e. those really good for me) and the rest. I imagined that if one were in a "good" one, any good one would do, and that if one were in one of the rest, it also did not matter which (one is supposed to be willing to go anywhere, right?).

In fact, though, you have to be *especially* discerning about the "rest," if you find yourself choosing among several places which are non ideal for you. They are all different and there is great variety in terms of quality as well. I have blown off a couple of opportunities because I did not realize then how good they actually were.

undine said...

Bittersweet Girl, that's a good question, too. About the finances issue: my aunt, twenty years ago, made more as a high school teacher than I am making today--not adjusted dollars or anything, just a larger annual salary than I am currently making. I think that people see the "average" professor salaries, which include the business & STEM people making about 3x what the humanities people are making, and assume that we are well paid. And I can foresee no time when I can retire, but then again, I can't see a time when I would want to, although that may change.

Professor Zero, I agree about the alternate careers, although with every passing year, those options get more limited. When you're 21 or 22, you think your time to decide about everything is unlimited (or I did). You're still thinking about those alternatives, though, which is healthy.

Professor Zero said...

I just lost a whole well explained comment, but it was essentially advice to consider more than one field, too.

I went into the field I had studied at the BA level, forgetting that my strongest interests were actually in an allied field.

I forgot this because at the time of applying I was aware I needed to look as competitive as possible, so I stayed where I was best prepared, where it wouldn't be a reach for an admissions committee to say "yes you can."

In retrospect I realize I was also competitive for the other field ... I just plumb forgot about it in the flurry of applying in the field I applied in.

Typical for a 20 year old undergraduate studying on the quarter system: immediate goals loom, and long term ones fly out the window.

Ergo: people need to be reminded, told, informed, asked, etc.

Bardiac said...

I have to say, seeing the dip for the years I was looking for a job makes me even sadder for the folks I went to school with who didn't get academic jobs. Totally out of our control or knowledge how things would work out.

I feel sick again.

Anonymous said...

Bardiac - yes. I found seeing the dip comforting. So *that* was why I never got a job I actually liked, I thought.

Anonymous said...

Yet more: what I figured out in my first wee of professordom: the best fields to go into in grad school are History and the social sciences.

NIX English, foreign languages, Comparative Literature, and math, because most jobs involve mostly community college level teaching, and in these fields community college level teaching means imparting basic literacy skills. If that is what you want to do, stop studying at the M.A. level and stay home, or move to an area you love, and teach up a storm.

NIX sciences, because unless you get a job at a big big school, you won't be able to do research.

BUT: history and the social sciences exist everywhere, and you get to teach in your field of interest from day 1. (Not that history 101 people don't have writing problems, but you do get to talk about history ... whereas in foreign languages the lit courses don't start until junior year sometimes.)

undine said...

Bardiac, I feel bad for the dip years, too, but everyone got some kind of job even it it wasn't teaching.

The thing we lose sight of (and maybe I'm too quick to settle) is that making enough to feed yourself and your family is the important thing. Yes, I know that's easy to say from a t-t position, but I felt that way when I was looking at alternative careers when I was adjuncting, too.

Cero, that sounds like a good strategy, but the history people seem to think that their field is even worse for jobs than English, if that is possible.

Anonymous said...

Market worse in History: yes, it's true. So much for my theory. Honestly, if you can stand doing a lot of teaching to language requirements, the place to be is Spanish. It needs almost as many personnel as English does, and there are fewer qualified people because learning to speak a foreign language is such a natural barrier to degree getting. I don't think I know any unemployed people.

Anonymous said...


"The thing we lose sight of (and maybe I'm too quick to settle) is that making enough to feed yourself and your family is the important thing."

Also interesting. I never expected necessarily to get an academic job ... the market was bad ... so I guess that is why I do not feel betrayed as some people do (although I've been lucky, never adjuncted, have always been employed, even though I've been a major f***up). A lot of people *do* seem to feel betrayed, though.
That in turn explains why I have always gotten such heavy pressure to STAY in academia ... somehow the logic of all of this bit about how one is owed a job if one gets a PhD leads to the idea that one must be an academic if one has a PhD.


undine said...

But you do have some other plans, Cero (moving, etc.), so that pressure shouldn't and won't determine what you ultimately do.