Straight Talk about Graduate School

by Robert Nagle on 12/6/2004

in Instructional,Literary/Ebooks,most popular

Timothy Burke wrote a great essay, Should I go to Grad School? In a word, no. He writes:

Graduate school is not about learning. If you learn things, it’s only because you’ve already internalized the habit of learning, only because you make the effort on your own and in concert with fellow graduate students. You learn because that’s what you do now, that’s your life. Don’t go into it expecting to extend the kinds of healthily collaborative relationships you’ve had to date with your teachers and don’t go into it expecting to extend the kinds of educational nurturing you’ve had to date. Graduate school is not education. It is socialization. It is about learning to behave, about mastering a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe. Graduate school is cotillion for eggheads. For all these reasons, graduate school is not something you want to experiment with. Think heroin–this is your brain, this is your brain on graduate school. Think Al Pacino in “Godfather 3″–just when you think you are out, you will l be sucked back in again. Academia, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, is a total culture. It colonizes most aspects of your life. You are never not an academic–the little mental tape recorder is on all the time, or it had better be if you want to be good at this life. Anything is grist for my mill as a teacher and a scholar, and that is as it should be. Graduate school is, if anything, even more totalizing than this. It gets into your pores.

Dorothea Salo’s tale of grad school burnout is sobering, but not unusual. She discusses misconceptions:

Misconception 1: Anyone who starts a graduate degree and does not finish it lives the rest of his or her life permanently embittered, resentful, and with a sense of personal inferiority.Sorry, not so. Sure, some people live that way; my mother (who left while writing her dissertation) is a textbook example. When I left school, my father discussed her lifelong regret with me to try to scare me into going back. But I’m not bitter, I’m certainly not inferior, and if I’m resentful, it’s a resentment of a ridiculously stupid, unfair, and ineffective system, and I express my resentment by writing these pieces in hopes of helping you survive the system and perhaps even forcing the system to change. I don’t automatically resent people who succeed in academia, I don’t resent all the academics I’ve ever known, and I don’t resent academia as a whole. Does a bitter, resentful person try to help other people do well in the same situation she failed at? That’s what I’m trying to do.

I finished my master’s degree in one year, and later wandered aimlessly through the business world. Actually, teaching at universities overseas was a delight because it allowed me to teach without having to go through the hoops or advance through the pecking order. Here are my superficial thoughts about academia:

  1. Grad school is a volume-based business. You better be able to crank out a lot of essays and reconcile yourself to the fact that a large percentage of it will be mediocre or ultimately unimportant.
  2. Tenure track jobs in humanities are impossible to find these days. Finding tenure-track jobs in any discipline can be practically impossible.
  3. Four year institutions are dinosaurs. The real innovation is occurring at professional institutes and community colleges. Unfortunately, a lot of these involve adjunct (i.e., part-time ) instructors.
  4. Despite the fact that I was in a literature/creative writing program, I accomplished little in the way of serious independent reading or writing. I did however accomplish a great deal of that immediately afterwards.
  5. I took two semesters of graduate level instructional technology courses at University of Texas at Austin. Great courses, great students, but it became evident that I didn’t need to be taking courses to learn the things I did. Grad school requires a lot of face time and renders your schedule absolutely inflexible.
  6. It really helps if you have a spouse not in academia who could move if you find a job in academia.
  7. Grad school sucks, and so do the politics and turf fighting, but the international demographics of it makes it good for potluck dinners.
  8. I never figured out what it meant to “give a paper” at an academic conference. For the sciences, you didn’t actually have to write the paper, only conduct (or help with) the research. For humanities, it meant merely submitting an essay and having them agree to let you give a talk on it to 10 other academics (optimistically speaking).
  9. It’s practically impossible to regurgitate well and say interesting/original things at the same time. Why? If you write an original paper, you are criticized for not mentioning Scholar X or Scholar Y or Theory Z. On the other hand, if you do cite Scholar X, Scholar Y and Theory Z (along with several others), you find little room left for original thought or analysis.
  10. The problem with PhDs is that your particular field of study or analytical method can fall out of fashion very easily. In the 80’s, using deconstructionist methods to analyze texts was a lively way to understand texts (and helped with academic advancement for practitioners). In the 2000’s, this type of analysis seems irrelevant and incomprehensible. Perhaps a scholarly approach will stay trendy long enough for you to find a job, but regardless of whether you find success, you need to face the fact that 10 years from now scholars will find your subject area or method outdated, irrelevant or overrun with prospectors.
  11. Absolutist and polemical rhetoric can help your cause, provided that your scholarship skills are basically sound. Notoriety is a great way to reach the top of the academic heap (but it’s a debatable question whether it makes you a better thinker).
  12. Many tenured faculty have unrealistic notions of what the job market is like now or how tough the competition is. Either they haven’t been involved in hiring decisions recently or they base their notions about the current job market on what they experienced when they were seeking a teaching position 20 years ago. Back then, many things were different: the minimum requirements, available opportunities and typical experience. Even the best-intentioned faculty member may not have access to fresh information (other than what they hear secondhand at conferences).

April 2008 Update: I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the steady stream of comments on this piece which I wrote without much thought. If you liked this, you might also like my piece, Graduate programs in creative writing are not a complete waste or time. In my blogpost titled Jobs for Writers at Universities & the Covert Intellectual , I reach this juicy conclusion:

For those of us who work as “covert intellectuals” in the workplace, taking subversive political and social positions, finding the daily outrage to blog about or the latest online philosophical conundrum to cogitate over, the key question is whether our advanced study makes us better-equipped to deal with the money-obsessed workworld or simply increases our alienation from it. One delightful essay described web-surfing-at-work as the ultimate “opiate of the masses,” calling it a reward for having to endure the soulless world of business. I laughed when I read it, thinking it a delightful pseudo-rationalization for workplace sloth. As the years go by, I have to wonder whether the clandestine nature of work surfing causes the thinker’s voice to diminish. When people seek academic jobs, what they are really seeking is a way to maintain a public identity as an intellectual; an academic job gives one the right to be a gadfly or a bohemian and not get fired. On the other hand, the technology/Internet boom has produced enormously interesting and profitable jobs for educated people. (I would argue that liberal arts graduates are one of its main beneficiaries). The work environment is comfortable, challenging to the brain and full of workplace diversity. I may be the only blogger in my group of technical writers, but the rest of us have equally diverse interests. In many ways, our workplace conditions are more conducive to intellectual cogitation than an academic niche. The modern work environments I have inhabited over the last 10 years have been enormously tolerant of intellectual curiosity, personal growth and diversity of opinion. Yet, everything seems geared to productivity, business goals and profitability. Such a work environment is conducive to learning; but can an intellectual find it satisfying over the long term?

March 2 2009: See also this persuasive and important piece by Penelope Trunk:  Don’t Try to Dodge the Recession with Graduate School.

Graduate school forces you to overinvest: It’s too high risk. In a world where people did not change careers, grad school made sense. Today, grad school is antiquated. You invest three to six extra years in school in order to get your dream career. But the problem is that not only are the old dream careers deteriorating, but even if you have a dream career, it won’t last. You’ll want to change because you can. Because that’s normal for today’s workplace. People who are in their twenties today will change careers about four times in their life. Which means that grad school is a steep investment for such a short period of time. The grad school model needs to change to adapt to the new workplace. Until then. Stay away.

Actually I’ve started to have a slight change in heart about my blithe dismissal of graduate school. I think investing 2 years in a master’s program makes sense, especially if you think you can derive some benefit just from that (without following  the full PhD path). Geek visionary Paul Graham suggested a brilliant criteria for evaluating career decisions: which career path will leave more options open?

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.

Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, you can’t fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for “don’t give up on your dreams.” Stay upwind.

The problem with grad school is that it tends to limit your options. Consider my own academic fork in the road: should I go for the Phd in Literature/Creative Writing or not? I saw a lot of value in doing so, but it also made my whole career dependent on climbing the academic ladder (with all its  interdepartmental politics) and a finite number of funding resources.   Now that I’m outside academia, I can see lots of options I didn’t see  before. On the other hand, I still  miss the camaraderie and the contact with students. Sometimes I feel like a lonely intellectual.

One great thing about graduate school is that you are encouraged to focus on one research area and pursue it relentlessly. That experience can be educational in itself. I had a good friend who was a brilliant thinker who found himself incapable of writing even a master’s thesis (even though writing was one of his key talents).  He realized a valuable thing about himself. He enjoyed being a cultural critic but felt limited by concentrating on too narrow a  subject.  (I am precisely the opposite).  He writes prodigious amounts of highbrow film criticism, and perhaps getting out of academia was the best thing to happen to him.  That was a 2 year life lesson worth paying for.

Responding to Penelope Trunk’s piece, I think we all have a need to take off some time to focus on retooling, obtaining certifications, pursuing intellectual projects. That is not slacking off.  In fact, that is the path to growth and career advancement.  What does this require? Superior time-management abilities and ability to stick to a budget. This is really hard.  Also, I think we need to be able to change course rapidly. I took off 1.5 years from a full time job to work on various personal projects.  I quickly discovered that working on my novel seemed to take precedence over my  other projects.   That was where my heart and mind lay (and I still regard my writing  during that time as my best).  On the other hand,  I ended up living off a credit card for longer than was reasonable under the circumstances. Will finishing this novel help me in the long run (I mean, financially, not psychologically)?  Hard to say.  But when you carefully save for something, you tend to be very frugal with your time.

One of the underlying problems is the 40 hour workweek, which makes it next-to-impossible to pursue outside projects. A lot of  company benefits kick in only if you are working 32 hours or more.  Some people of course want to work 40 hours because they absolutely need the money.  But others can satisfy their intellectual curiosity and creative dreams simply by having 3 or 4 days a week to work instead of 5.  Some fields understand this need to allocate time for intellectual projects; other fields do not (it is equated with sloth or lack of ambition). Some fields  understand this perennial need to retool; other fields are less tolerant.   Even if you “drop out” of the job market for a year or two to work on fun/creative/intellectual projects, you still need to be  able to point to accomplishments during that time–so future employers can see that you are becoming a more valuable (and productive) worker.

The comments on Penelope Trunk’s piece are revealing. See this one:

I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the signaling value of pursuing higher education/advanced degrees. See:

It may not be possible to prove that an employee is smart or productive in a resume or job interview, but going with the assumption that education “costs” (i.e., is less challenging, not economic cost) high-productivity workers less than low-productivity workers, the pursuit of advanced degrees serves as a useful signal to employers as to which workers are actually high-productivity, even if it has no practical impact on their actual productivity.

March 2 Update #2. Thomas H. Benton asks seriously,  is going to grad school is like being in a cult?

Nevertheless, understanding the varied social experiences of graduate school (student culture as well as formal instruction), as a kind of cult helps to explain why so many people cannot be dissuaded from staying in school — or working, year after year, as underpaid adjuncts — when it is manifestly against their interests to do so, when they sincerely want to get out the academy but feel impeded by irrational fears.

And hey, maybe treating graduate school as a kind of cult from which one needs help to escape might give rise to some unconventional new positions for all the unemployed Ph.D.’s.

Let’s say a mother finds an application to Duke University’s Ph.D. program in English under her daughter’s mattress. Obviously the mother is devastated. If she does nothing, in a year her daughter will be dressed in black and sneering in obscure jargon at the Thanksgiving turkey and Aunt Sally’s cranberry Jell-O mold. Where can a concerned parent turn for help?

To serve this need, former academics could reinvent themselves as counselors; they could coordinate interventions with the friends and loved ones of people who are flirting with graduate school, or who have been enrolled for several years but lack the will to leave, or who are trapped in dead-end adjunct positions. These “academic exit counselors” could foster the kind of loving, supportive environments that “academic captives” need to return to a normal life.

Of course, in some cases, tough love may be the only solution. And former graduate students and adjuncts could put together a traveling program for kids who still have time to turn themselves around. They could even make a documentary. It could be a nerdy version of Scared Straight: “You fancy-ass punks think you’re so smart? You think you know something about hegemony? I got a Ph.D., 50 grand in student loans, and I clocked 20 years as an adjunct. Now I’m here to tell the truth to suckers like you.”

Here’s Benton’s recommendation to people considering grad study in the humanities: Don’t!

The follow-up letters I receive from those prospective Ph.D.’s are often quite angry and incoherent; they’ve been praised their whole lives, and no one has ever told them that they may not become what they want to be, that higher education is a business that does not necessarily have their best interests at heart. Sometimes they accuse me of being threatened by their obvious talent. I assume they go on to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear: “Yes, my child, you are the one we’ve been waiting for all our lives.” It can be painful, but it is better that undergraduates considering graduate school in the humanities should know the truth now, instead of when they are 30 and unemployed, or worse, working as adjuncts at less than the minimum wage under the misguided belief that more teaching experience and more glowing recommendations will somehow open the door to a real position.

March 2 Update #3. One reason why young people are attracted to the idea of going to graduate school is that job prospects seem so uncertain and dismal. Consider the advice I often tell recent humanities graduates: “Generally your career in your twenties will suck bigtime.  Most of your jobs will be unfulfilling. You may feel stuck.  However, when you get into your 30s and 40s,  your career prospects will improve considerably. Your ability to take advantage of professional opportunities will be a key asset.   Your ability to survive through your twenties will build character; it will  teach you how to understand   market signals and  adapt. It will also give you insight into what you really need in a career to be happy.  Many engineers/lawyers/medical professionals start  their career by choosing career paths solely on the basis of  job stability/earning potential. Only in their thirties will the enormity of their mistake become clear. On the plus side, these kinds of people will have  enough accumulated savings to make a radical career shift possible.   But these  practical types have a hard time imagining themselves  being happy in careers with incomes under $60,000/80,000/100,000, etc, so they end up picking another safe (and unfulfilling) path.

In my opinion, if humanities grads had a better understanding of how sucky jobs in their 20s will be, it will offend them less terribly if they have to do occasional gigs as a waitress/data entry clerk/bookstore clerk/substitute teacher.  Maybe humanities graduates are attracted to the status of being a graduate student because they cannot reconcile their identity of being multi-talented  with that of  working as a slave in an industry they care little about.   On many occasions, I’ve met  remarkable and talented and upbeat individuals working at  transitional jobs while  pursuing some outside interest or taking a night class or studying for a professional certification. There is absolutely no shame in that.

To follow up on that previous thought: when I came back from overseas, I worked a year or two as a temp worker doing a wide variety of things. I didn’t make much money, but I learned a lot about how businesses really operate.  I could see firsthand how technology had transformed many industries and what kinds of skills were in great demand.  Also, I got a chance to learn about many hidden jobs in areas I would not have known about. My point here is not to encourage people to work at these jobs forever (some of them really sucked). But it’s often easy to parlay this firsthand knowledge into a career you would find both rewarding and challenging.

September 6, 2009 Update: Dorothy Salo (quoted above) has updated her thoughts about graduate school.

I hope you realize that the major contribution I made to my own survival and (eventual) prosperity was opening up my life to let serendipity help me, rather than ceaselessly bemoaning my fate. I hope you realize that it’s a great big wildly varied world out there, a world with as much room for ex-grad-students as anyone else.

One vital lesson I may not have made clear is that failures, even bad failures, contain the seeds of future successes. I landed the electronic-publishing job because of the manuscript-transcription work I did in graduate school. The job after that was with an ebook outfit, obviously attracted by my strong record in that field. Ebooks were dying on the vine at the time, but that turned out not to hurt me at all; the experience I gained working with them meant immensely more. A freelance tech-writing job I’m working on now, in fact, also stems from old ebook circles. The poorly-paid data-entry job I took ended up paying for most of my library-school degree, and the younger woman who got the supervisor’s job I had wanted became a brilliant example, a recommender when I hit the job market again, and a real friend. And some part of the reason I landed my new dream job has to do with my old publishing experience—some of my soon-to-be colleagues want to start a new journal. Look to the future, by all means, but don’t shut the past away. It helps in the strangest ways.

Update:December 22, 2009. The job market for humanities graduates is always sobering, but this MLA report is especially so:

positions in English language and literature will drop 35 percent from last year, while positions in languages other than English are expected to fall 39 percent this year. Given that both categories saw decreases last year, the two-year decline in available positions is 51 percent in English and 55 percent in foreign languages.

December 22, 2009 Update 2 I am right now working on a collection of literary essays about a brilliant and  underappreciated  American short story writer. I can’t say it hurts me to be writing it outside of academia, but for some intellectual pursuits, it’s next to impossible to do it without institutional support. Perhaps you should ask this question: in order to pursue my intellectual goal, do I absolutely require an academic institution to accomplish it? Note that we are no longer talking about career goals; we are talking about intellectual goals. Even if you require enrollment in a graduate program to write a book or conduct research, it doesn’t automatically follow that it will help your career. You need to have already accepted the fact that your intellectual goal is worth pursuing for its own sake.

Update:December 22, 2009 . Obviously the commenters on this post have given amazing insights into the graduate school experience. A request. Can you mention which subject you are studying in graduate school (that is, if it doesn’t reveal too much!). Thanks.

Update: January 27, 2010.  See this metafilter discussion of this article.
Update: Feb 11 2010 . This forum discusses what a master’s degree is worth. I also found these comments by readers to be helpful, especially this one:

Whatever the calculations or conclusions, a prospective graduate student should understand that he or she will become a paying customer who is handing over money to a program that only exists because there is a market for it — not because the world actually needs another 5,000 screenwriters or marine biologists or historians. Too many of us think that the number of programs is somehow scaled to the number of jobs that are available to all the graduates out there. As long as students are willing to pay, education institutions will be there to collect their money. Whether this bubble bursts depends on whether people wise up to this truth.

In 2007 Liz Pulliam Weston estimated how graduate degrees increase earning potential. There is little net income gain for people seeking masters in liberal arts or social sciences (and a mixed gain for people in law, science, or business). This is not particularly surprising, and it depends on the area of concentration. For example, I could imagine that some areas of linguistics might bring a person into lucrative areas of AI, natural language processing or even computer programming. Even in the low-paying field of creative writing, it’s conceivable that a class publishing project could introduce you to XML or web design or even multimedia production. Therein lies the paradox of graduate school. If your graduate program gives you lots of room to explore, there certainly will be payoffs. On the other hand, if your graduate program seems more interested in weeding people out (through burdensome requirements and prerequisites) and forcing you to narrow your intellectual interests,  these payoffs  will be  less likely. I mentioned before that during my graduate school experience, I felt as though I hardly had time to read or write anything. Instead I was writing pointless short essays about F.Scott Fitzgerald and workshop critiques. If I had to do this for more than a year, I probably would have gone crazy.

Here’s an interesting comment made by a reader on a thread about Immanuel Kant:

For me the constant problem in learning philosophy would be that I would think I understand something when in fact I didn’t. Probably 70% of my interactions with teachers consisted of me saying, “So Kant’s saying X Y and Z here, right?” and the teacher grimacing and saying, “No, I don’t think Kant wants to say that.” It’s a pretty humbling experience, and by the time I left I had a good appreciation for what it takes to have a legit understanding of some great philosophical work–namely, years and years of arduous study. So anyway, I think MY’s comment about needing to read philosophy under the “watchful eye and whip-hand of a teacher” is right on, because–after reading some dense passage a couple of times–you will start to convince yourself that you understand what the guy’s talking about, and you might even start having opinions about it. But when you actually have to explain the text back to someone who knows their stuff–unless you really are truly gifted–you’ll quickly find that you didn’t have a good understanding of the text after all. The real test of philosophical understanding is repeating back the argument to someone, not reading it on your own.

In other words, it is difficult to do textual analysis on one’s own without having a bona fide expert being around to wince whenever you oversimplify a thinker’s meaning. Perhaps the benefits of graduate school derive simply from being in the presence of another expert who is aware of the deeper nuances in a theory or text than you would normally be. Getting a master’s  20 years ago  gave me a better appreciation of how much more complex the literary/publishing world was than I imagined; I realized early on that what I regarded as “literary brilliance” was really nothing more than minimum competence.  What a rude awakening! I have learned a lot  on my own since then, but overall I think I benefited from having this awareness come sooner rather than later. The next question is whether keeping a blog or actively participating in a forum can provide a similar kind of feedback mechanism. Maybe so, but only if netizens restrain their distaste towards eager newbies.

Update Sept 29 2010. Here is a collection of comments and gripes by current adjunct profs about the job market and how adjuncts are mistreated and exploited.

Update October 26, 2010. Here’s a relevant video:

Dec 20, 2010 Update.  The Economist speculated about why people pursue PhD in the face of negative economic realities:

Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrollment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

My response: The Economist  assumes  that things like salary and obtaining a PhD are the most important way to measure whether the decision to seek a Phd is a good one. Also, the article misunderstands  how incentives differ in the humanities. In the humanities, it’s relatively easy to get admitted to grad school and even get a TA position or fellowship, but that is to compensate for low market demand post-degree. But it’s hard to distinguish your credentials from the rest and hard to continue being productive academically after obtaining a degree.  The comment section for the article gives several helpful suggestions: 1)go to a Tier 1 grad school  or don’t go!, 2)consider getting 2 master’s degrees instead of a Phd, 3)make your thesis on a practical topic likely to be of  interest outside of academia. All are interesting ideas. My feeling is that you should regard academia like a stay at a vacation resort (in other words: know it will end sometime, and eventually you will need to return to the “real world.”). Now that I’ve expressed this advice, I realize how badly I followed it. I wrote lots of things for my creative writing master’s  degree, but 20 years later,  very little of this writing is important. I wouldn’t call this experience a waste of my time; I certainly improved my writing, learned a few practical tips and met all kinds of people. Also, I honed my skills at writing and frankly learned from comparison what was unique and not-so-unique about my writing point.  At the same time,     if I knew at the age of 22 or 23 that none of the things I wrote during that period would matter to my career, I doubt I would have been as eager to pursue it.

Update #2. James Mulvey at is a 27 year old Canadian who recently completed his English master’s and decided to turn down an opportunity to  do a Ph.D. at a prestigious program with a full-scholarship. His blog records his transition into the “real world” and his reflections about whether turning away from academia was the right thing to do.  He offers a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the different types of characters who end up at graduate school.  Here’s his cynical thoughts about how liberal artsy types become cynical about their newly acquired knowledge:

.. (Y)ou can lament the demise of liberal education.  You can lament the triumph of techne (notice the last pretentious, learned word with a clever blend of modernist theory and Aristotlian baggage; your journey will be slow, even my former educated self is still breathing somewhere deep down there) over contemplation.  You can weep for a world that has lost its aesthetic center, and lament for a life of things forgotten outside of their utilitarian purpose.  You can do and think all of those things.

But those things won’t help you. They won’t help you get out of the crap job you will most likely end up in after grad school. Like me, mowing lawns and running chainsaws with the Cantos of Ezra Pound pounding in my headphones.  After graduate school has spit you out of production, after you have worked so hard to indoctrinate yourself into the total culture of academe, you will have to leave that self in the past and find a new job. You will have to find a new culture because the university doesn’t have room for you.

And if you do, it won’t be all bad.  You will get rid of the anxiety of having an obscure resume and be able to turn your intelligence into a livable, sustainable wage that doesn’t rely on the charity of grants, the luck of scholarships, or the mercy of a department budget. You won’t have to fear moving to some obscure state college to teach. You won’t have to delay having children till your late 30’s.  You could move to New York tomorrow.  Or take a break for a few years without destroying your Ph.D. job track to nowhere.

James Mulvey cites  a brilliant rule for being productive: the 25-50-25 rule:

The 25-50-25 rule says that you must divide your time as follows:

• No more than 25 percent of your time studying – i.e., reading books, attending workshops, listening to instructional CDs in your car.

• No more than 25 percent of your time observing – watching what successful people are already doing.

• At least 50 percent of your time actually DOING the thing you are studying and observing.

Perhaps this  is simplistic, but apply this rule to academia:  how much of what you do in academia is really “work”?  Is this work-like activity  actually meaningful and useful (at least in the philosophic sense)?  In academia there is a lot of cogitation and free discussion and even research papers, but what is the ultimate goal of these activities?  Will publishing 10 academic papers really convince others to hire you or advance the cause of scholarship in a way that would be impossible without you? And will it help you personally in a concrete way? Maybe I’m setting too high a standard here; after all in office settings, people spend an inordinate amount of time taking breaks, dawdling and surfing to web pages like this one.  But if the majority of the things you do in academia are not useful both to you and society,  how can you justify doing it and miss out on other more practical/useful activities?

According to Mulvey, one thing that hurts graduate students is that they are used to waiting for for everything.

Grad students are excellent at waiting.  They delay having a family till their thirties.  They wait for months to hear back about a publication in a journal.  They think about writing some fiction, and then decide to wait till they understand more about how literary theory works before trying their first novel.

They take a year off, work hard, and then wait to see what Ph.D. program accepts them. They wait to buy a house, wait to have a dog, and pull their partners around the country, chasing scholarships, jobs, and programs. Then they wait for ten years to find out if they are one of the “the lucky ones” who get jobs.

Life never really begins for them.  It is always in a stage of transition, almost ready to become real.

That’s because they don’t want a good job.  They want a great job.  They don’t want to be smart.  They want to be brilliant (which is the acceptable replacement for their first dream of being a genius).  They refuse failure.  They are willing to crawl towards a Ph.D., live in poverty, sacrifice family—anything other than being like everyone else.

Update #3. Michael White makes the somewhat obvious point that graduate students in the sciences don’t face the career hopelessness that a grad student in the humanities does:

Science grad students aren’t exploited quite so badly as their humanities colleagues. The grad student-slave labor problem is real, but there is an important distinction when it comes to the sciences. Humanities students who have to teach classes in order to get any sort of living stipend are being drawn away from their ultimate goal – a dissertation. Every hour spent teaching or preparing for a class is one hour away from the research needed to graduate.

In science grad programs, students don’t get paid to teach – they get paid to work in the lab. The key difference is that the lab work, which grad students are getting paid to do, is in fact the dissertation research necessary to graduate. So while humanities students have to spend much of their time away from their dissertation research in order to earn subsistence wages, science grad students get paid subsistence wages while working on their dissertation research.

In the sciences, that hardly counts as a “dirty secret” – you get paid to work in a lab on your PhD thesis, and you’re fortunate to have a faculty advisor who did some heavy lifting to get the lab funded.

Unfortunately, the humanities don’t have any hope of getting the kinds of funding that scientists get, so the problem of slave labor in humanities graduate programs is more intractable. Every grad student should be guaranteed at least some time free of teaching to make progress on the dissertation. To make sure there is money for such teaching-free time, departments should make an effort to cut down on the slave labor: it’s better to spend the limited money providing a healthy research environment for a smaller pool of students with real career prospects in the field, than to spread the money thin on a large group of graduate students without realistic career prospects, but who can teach for next to nothing.

100 Reasons Not to Go To Graduate School is an oustanding blog where every posts lists another reason to avoid the graduate school experience. (See the index of the reasons here).
Frankly, this blog has thought a lot more deeply about the subject than you will find here and the author  identifies many subtle problems  which are easy to overlook — like  the feeling of  your friends passing you  by, the irritating aspects of being constantly surrounded by undergrads and the tedium of grading papers:

Teaching assistants stare in envy at undergraduates taking an exam, because for those students the brief ordeal will soon be over. For the TAs, it is just beginning. It can take days to grade a written exam, and grading papers is worse. There are few things more discouraging than finding yourself at two in the morning reading the forty-third paper in a row on the same subject when you know that there are sixty more to grade. You will be handed another pile of papers after this one, not to mention the midterm exam and the final exam. To grade conscientiously requires a draining degree of sustained focus, and after all of your effort, you know that only a few of the students will give more than a minute’s attention to the comments that you have painstakingly written with your aching hand. And none of this work moves you one inch closer to finishing your degree.

Update #4. Literary journalist Ron Rosenbaum  writes a first hand account of why he didn’t attend grad school in the 1960s. He found offputting that teachers at his grad school were suggesting insane theories about Shakespeare. Later Rosenbaum left grad school to pursue  several journalism gigs which eventually allowed him to be a literary/arts journalist (and even to write several books for the general reader). An interesting account (although I’m not sure suggesting journalism for anyone is good advice except as an alternative to the English PhD). Rosenbaum makes the point that alternative career paths can also allow you to explore and write about  your love — often in more satisfying ways. Writing books or magazine articles seems to be a good way to pursue a subject in the same depth that you might do in school.  He revels in how journalism brought him into contact with lots of people and organizations in a way that literary academia failed to do. In grad school, it can feel wonderful  to be around people with a common love for Shakespeare and Kafka. But that becomes stifling when you realize that 1)they are your competitors and 2)most people in the real world don’t have these interests (much less know about them). The social capital you acquire by becoming an expert in one aspect of Shakespeare has value only within academia; step 100 feet outside it, and you quickly realize that this currency is now worthless.  The reader comments to the Rosenbaum essay  are  priceless:

Re: dissertation. The point of a diss is not to enjoy reading. You already know how to do that. The point is to come up with an interesting question and do the research and writing. That can also be deeply pleasurable, but it’s a different kind of joy than reading literature.


As a retired university professor, let me make some points based on the advice I used to offer students interested in going to graduate school in my liberal arts discipline.

a.) Graduate school is professional education. You go to dentistry school so you can become a dentist and earn a living, not because you happen to like teeth.

b.) You need to realize that for the past several decades there has been a terrific overproduction of graduate degrees in this country, so that far more are turned out every year than the market can possibly absorb (here I won’t go into all the reasons why this has happened). This means you need to realize in advance that if you successfully complete a graduate program, your chances of getting the kind of job you want are slim. How slim depends of course on your particular field, but in many (including the Liberal Arts) they can be very slim indeed.

c.) If you are fortunately enough to get a job offer when you leave graduate school, in many disciplines the only offer you get may be some from some very unexpected and faraway place. If you are not prepared or not able to move to wherever that place may be and begin a new life there, then you had best forget the whole thing.

d.) You should also realize in advance that it is difficult if not impossible to be successful in graduate school while having a normal family life and enjoying the comforts of a standard middle class lifestyle. Those who try to do both things at once usually bomb out of the program one way or another and have nothing tangible to show for the years they have invested in it (see below on MA degrees). So, once again, if you aren’t willing to postpone these things until you finish your degree, you would be well advised to forget the whole thing.

e.) You should furthermore realize that (unless you are a high school teacher looking to get your salary bumped up) in many disciplines a MA is a pretty worthless piece of paper that won’t help you land a job or open any doors for you, so you need to go the whole hog for a doctorate. This means you need to plan on enduring the kind of deprivations I was just talking about for no less than four years, and quite likely more than that.

f.) It helps if you are an absolutely singleminded fanatic with the thick hide of an elephant and a huge amount of confidence in yourself and your potential abilities. In fact, the personality profile of a successful graduate student who goes on to be successful in his or her chosen profession can sometimes look remarkably like that of an extremely high-functioning sociopath.

Now, if you have thoroughly digested everything I’ve said, and have talked to some people who are currently in graduate school and have successfully completed it to get some cross-bearings, then and only then you should go for it. Lotsa luck.


Best advice given by a professor: Go where the money is offered.   Only attend grad school with a tuition waiver and GA/RA (Grad Assistant/Research Assistant) assignment. Nothing matters more than $. Institutional status is always second to $.  If you are into economics, consider economic geography, etc. etc. (Major is also second to $, there are a lot of similar departments.) No debt for grad school!!

I wanted to say something about  that last comment.  Money is not a prime motivator for people in the humanities. But it fuels your ability to pursue an intellectual interest. A primary reason I quit graduate school (and teaching really) is that I didn’t see any money in it — either for the Phd or the eventual teaching job (if I got one).  If I received a fellowship somewhere to get a Phd in English or comparative literature or creative writing, I almost certainly would have pursued it.  But the odds of receiving funds or fellowships to do that became slimmer with every passing year.  I could spend way too much time trying to apply for these opportunities  instead of actually learning & writing on my own own.  At some point you have to recognize the value of pursuing things at your own pace and on your own dime than having to wait for some academic door magically to open.  Reality check time: right now (12/2012) I’m   in between jobs, practically penniless and pursuing my own projects on my own dime. Comparatively speaking, poverty in academia doesn’t seem much more terrible — at least I get to eat lunch occasionally with someone who reads a book occasionally.  In the “real world,” most of your peers  don’t want to talk about books or the arts; instead they want to talk about sports, the latest celebrity scandal, job  trivialities  and the occasional vacations.

Update #5. I think it boils down to whether you feel going to grad school is a good and useful experience in and of itself. My memories of grad school were that I enjoyed the people and the parties and the status, but I didn’t actually enjoy the work (well, except for the teaching, but that’s not really part of grad school). I was happy to be around like-minded individuals (in the arts, you feel this sense of camaraderie very rarely).  But the work itself — writing the papers, reading the essays and manuscripts by classmates, didn’t seem interesting and worthwhile. Maybe 50% of it was, but the other 50% seemed like a stifling burden. (In the field of creative writing, writing workshops often make you feel miserable and overworked….. )My attitude was, I don’t need to be around my classmates to write! Why subject myself to this torture? On the other hand, if I were writing a more analytical thesis or dissertation, I might feel differently.

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