Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Should I Become an English Prof?

Frank at Bourgeois Nerd had decided not to go to grad school for an English Ph.D. based on his readings of academic blogs. In this post he wonders if this was a wise decision and if academic blogs are an accurate reflection of life in grad school and afterwards. These are very good questions, and because Frank is a Jersey guy, he deserves some attempt at answers, despite my insane deadlines right now.

Frank has actually received some good comments from other Profs and grad students, so I am not going to repeat all of that (just read the comments), but I want to add a few things.

First, graduate students live for complaining, so you should always discount their miserable whining by 60% (mine also). I'm not saying that grad school doesn't often feel miserable, but that is also part of being that age and having to deal with the difficulties of having no money, no prestige, etc. In retrospect, a lot of grad school is a lot of fun, but that depends in great part on the program you are in and the students around you. Professors also like to gripe, and it seems to be bad form ever to admit in public that you are fabulously happy and fulfilled in your job and your life. There's a lot of the "I wear black on the outside because that's how I feel on the inside" Emo pose in both grad school and in the professoriate.

That said, grad school with a bad advisor or terrible colleagues or a rotten department can really suck and be a true waste of time and resources. The job market is terrible and isn't getting much better for tenure-track jobs, and there can be a lot of politics in academia, which can unfairly cause tenure denial. I think you need to be very, very cautious about additional student loans for graduate school since (experience talking here) the cost runs up very quickly while the earning power afterwards isn't so great, and if you drop out just before the Ph.D., the financial cost can be enormous.


Being an English professor is a great job. You get to study what you want, read and write all the time, and, as part of your job talk about interesting, intellectual things with other people who are also interested in those things. The flexibility is very valuable, the pay isn't as bad as it could be, and the security of a tenured job can't be beat. So it's a good prize. And most importantly, you get to teach.

Which is exactly why lots of people want a professor job. Which means that getting it takes some doing.

My best friend from college is a successful Broadway actress who does concerts with Marvin Hamlish, etc. Things are going very well for her now, but when we were both getting started we used to commiserate about how hard we were working with few results to show. She passed along an actors' saying:

Aspiring Actor: I have no life.

Slightly More Established Actor: Oh! You wanted a life? I didn't realize that. I thought you wanted a career. If you wanted a life, you should have said so.

The point is that to get the prize of being a 'working actor' or a tenure-track assistant professor, a lot of sacrifice is required at the early stages. Almost all of the people who dropped out of my graduate programs were those who took graduate school as an extension of college rather than as a job that was going to require at least 40 hours per week of hard work (and usually need more than that).

As for politics, yes they are there in academia, but not demonstrably more so than in a lot of other professions. I've been lucky in that the politics at Wheaton are manageable, and if you're a good teacher, pretty much everything else is discounted, which is very helpful. But I also want to challenge the bromide that academic politics are so vicious because so little is at stake. Hogwash. Academic politics can be so vicious because it's all about status, which is the issue around which all the most vicious political battles occur in any profession. So it's not so much about being particularly political, or being a particularly good suck-up (though I've seen that work for a few people in the short run), but about producing some kind of output that can be measured and can stand up on its own (i.e., publications, syllabi, etc.) to insulate you from the more dangerous and miserable politics. There were politics at the Pet Store that I managed, and they are there in any organization that includes people, so that's not a particular reason to avoid academia.

Frank's other worry about not wanting to be a vagabond academic is more well-founded. Academia definitely rewards those who can/will hop from place to place. This is especially true at the very upper levels. If you are tied to one geographic location or to another person, academia is not very accomodating. If you want your job to be in NJ forever, you're giving yourself a much higher uphill climb for a tenure-track job (though I do know someone who desperately wanted to get a tenure-track job in North Dakota, and did, and is happy there).

So in partial conclusion, I would say that the crankiness on academic blogs shouldn't warn you away from academia, but the real problems of geography and the job market should give you pause. And most of all, I think people should not go into academia unless they really want it badly. Otherwise you will be out-competed by someone who does, even if you are intellectually superior to that person.

The academic environment is also a lot bigger than the tenured professors who have the "elite" status. Several of my former students got degrees in library science from Simmons College. Especially because they were also computer-savvy, they all had multiple job offers upon graduation in the geographic locations of their choice. And at least one of them is almost certainly making more money than I am right now, and having what seems to be a pretty great life. Library science, distance learning, academic PR and communications, development and administration are all other avenues that provide a lot of the great things that being a professor provides. They don't, however, give you a classroom and a bunch of students. To me that is the greatest benefit of being a professor, and why my job is also my calling (and thus why it is great, and I'm happy).

[UPDATE: Another Damned Medievalist in a comment below noted her rule of "don't go to grad school unless they pay you to do it." I actually had something about this in the first draft of the post but then couldn't get it to fit and so cut it. But the point is very important: I think it is very, very risky to go into debt to pay for grad school in the humanities, particularly if you are seeking a Ph.D. That debt can be crippling when you get out, particularly if you run into some bad luck and don't land a full-time position your first year (and the unfair reality of the adjunct world is that two half-time positions do not equal one full-time position). Most of the big land-grant colleges in the midwest will pay your tuition and a stipend if you can teach, and I strongly recommend having second and third thoughts about a program, no matter how prestigious, that doesn't at least cover your tuition and give you a chance to teach. The starting salary for a full-time, tenure-track job in English in the Northeast is about $50,000. That's above the median income for a family of four in the U.S., and a nice living on its own, but it would be difficult to live on in a high-cost area (like those in the Northeast) if you also had to service $50K of debt even with today's lower interest rates (and your grace period is only six months from graduation if I remember correctly).]


Another Damned Medievalist said...

What a very nice post. It says all the right things. Oh .. except maybe, don't go to grad school unless they pay you to do it?

But that's my own hobbyhorse.

Frank said...

Wow, Dr. Drout, I'm honored a) that you read my blog and b) that you chose to respond to my post with such a good one of your own! Thank you very much; you give much good advice. I think the bottom line is, and I've only just really realized it after reading the comments to my post, is that I don't really have a "fire in my belly" to be a professor. It just sort of made sense and sounded good. "Hey, I like to read! I enjoy teasing out meaning from texts! I even kinda enjoy research papers! I guess I'll be a professor." I don't feel I HAVE to be one, though, and that means I really shouldn't be. Maybe someday I'll reconsider, but for now I'm going to try other avenues.

Natalia said...

Actually, the two rules a professor gave me as an undergrad were:
1. don't go unless they pay you (on which you and adm have expounded above), and
2. make sure you like the area, because it's going to be home for 6+ years.

I felt like both were useful points. I guess one could add that it's especially important to like where you go for grad school, because that's the last time you get to choose where you live...

Dr. Lisa said...

These ideas are more prosaic, but I usually tell students: 1) don't go to grad school to become a professor if you don't enjoy working by yourself; and 2) don't go if you prefer having a job supervisor rather than setting your own tasks.

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