Monday, February 16, 2004

Leaving (or being driven out of) Grad School
[N.B.: Post started last week; delayed due to sick toddler who is now well]
This post at Winston's Diary and a series of similar posts and discussions here and in the comments and a follow-up at Invisible Adjunct, and more discussion here at Critical Mass (and also follow Erin's links) has gotten me to thinking about why smart people I know dropped out of academia and why I was able to stick with it even though not, perhaps, as intellectually gifted as they were. This is also a relevant topic because my very best former student has just started getting excellent offers from Ph.D. programs and so is going to be following along the academic trail.

I think there are a number of problems with graduate school system that are getting conflated here, in particular the political problems (people with certain viewpoints or approaches driven out [n.b.: working on a post on the Duke flap], the labor problems (institutions accept a lot of graduate students to staff the freshman writing program, thus freeing up professors for other things; those graduate students then either receive Ph.D. as door prize and don't get jobs or are just strung along at low wages), and the market problems (there aren't as many tenure track jobs, in desireable locations, as there are people who want them).

But in my link-following (to In the Shadow of Mt Hollywood and then to Conscientious Objector, who has a slightly different p.o.v.) I've run across a fair number of people, in blogs and in comments, who seem to be very angry and bitter about graduate school, and I think that if more folks went in with the right knowledge and attitude, fewer people who have these terrible experiences.

I can't really add much to the discussion of the market itself. There's a supply and demand problem that won't be solved until the two come into balance. I doubt unionization would help, though I'm not opposed to it, but I think this is probably the triumph of hope over experience. The "Ponzi scheme" charge won't stick, I'm afraid, because there is a complete lack of coordination between institutions (and I've seen this first-hand). The 'wage' (which includes job security, benefits, pay) probably won't change much until there is either more demand or lower supply, and I have no solution to either of these problems that doesn't commit gross injustice upon one person or another. The theory that production of Ph.D.'s can somehow be limited by some kind of cartel is appalling, not because there aren't too many Ph.D.'s for the number of jobs, but because of the gross injustice that would be created by trying to implement such a system. Admissions to anything is already an unjust and inefficient process (how can you tell from an undergraduate transcript what someone is going to be in seven years?) and to put more weight on it, by limiting entrance to programs (which is what you'd have to do) is, to me, insane and pretty horrible (you want the only Ph.D.'s out there to come from the Ivies? Shudder. Your think the professoriate is screwed up now...).

But I can address graduate school burn out / drop out / misery out, which has claimed no small number of my friends. The biggest problem I've seen is that people go in with incorrect expectations. Not too high, not too idealistic, just incorrect. If I could tell all prospective graduate students three things, they would be:

A Ph.D., on its own, does not qualify you for anything and does not earn you a job. It is merely the lowest common denominator for the job you want. Analogy: the ability to sing on key will not get you a job at the Metropolitan Opera. You have to, while you are still a graduate student and immediately when you are done, do a whole suite of other things to get a job. These include publishing, networking, and showing that you have additional skills -- administration, computer skills, documented teaching ability, etc. Way too many expect that all the work that goes into a Ph.D. guarantees some result or entitles them to something. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Second, if you want a Ph.D. and a job afterwards, you must focus single-mindedly on doing what it takes. You are not allowed to say "but I don't have a life." (The correct reply to that complaint is: "oh, you want a life. I thought you wanted a Ph.D.") Most of the people I know who dropped grad school at or before the M.A. level thought that their life would be an extension of undergrad, but with more money, freedom and respect. Ha! Be prepared going in. There are many good things about grad school, and (in retrospect) I enjoyed my years, but they are nothing like even the most rigorous years of an undergraduate program. Not if you want a Ph.D. and a job.

Who is directing your dissertation is ten times more important than where you are getting your degree. I cannot emphasize this enough. I went to Loyola-Chicago for my Ph.D. A fairly lame school with a below-average English program (in my opinion, of course). But I had Allen Frantzen direct my dissertation and there simply is no one better, on earth, at preparing his students. There were six of us doing dissertations with Allen while I was there (yes, that's a huge load of graduate students in English). Five of us six have tenure-track jobs (or, in my case, tenure) or the equivalent, and the sixth has a full-time position at the institution she wants. That's 100% placement within 1 or two years of graduation. Unheard of. And it is all because Allen put in huge amounts of time preparing us for the job market: he helped us frame our topics so that they were what we wanted to study but also sounded good to hiring committees (the former is essential or you'll go crazy; the latter is essential or you won't get hired); he made gigantic personal efforts to network for us; he guided us through conferences, publishing, etc. If you don't know who you want to study with (common at the beginning level of grad school), you need to research and move after your M.A. And you need to talk with the person first, see if you are compatible and get a committment. You should expect to do something in return (assist on projects, help run conferences and, most importantly, take an interest in your director's work so that he can discuss it with you), but if the director is ethical, he won't use you for monkey work and you'll get a vital education that's outside of both classes and official reviews.

There are caveats and exceptions to all of the three dicta I've given above, and remember that I'm talking about how the system actually works, not how it should work if it were efficient, fair, honest, just, etc.

But if you want success in a Ph.D. program, you need to follow those three dicta, I think, and you must not treat it as an extension of undergraduate (though that's exactly why I went to graduate school at first). You don't do the minimum to get the A; you do a lot of extra work. You read around in the critical literature. You don't write the same paper for each class ("The Lacanian Mirror Stage in Beowulf" "The Lacanian Mirror Stage in Wuthering Heights" "The Lacanian Mirror Stage in Sometimes a Great Notion")

A number of the posts I've been reading recently mention graduate students who are frustrated because their profs want to teach, say, feminist theory while they want to do, say, cognitivist approaches to literature. If that's the case, you are in the wrong program, with the wrong professor and you need to move on rather than trying to do your dissertation there (yes, I know, that's not truly helpful advice, since one of the reasons you are at a certain school is that it is where your spouse lives, or where you got in, or where you want to live).
But a doctoral program isn't like an undergraduate program where you show up, sign up for classes, and can expect to get the degree you want if you do the work. You are signing up to work one-on-one with someone who really gets paid the same whether you graduate and get a job or not. If the person doesn't have professional ethics and if he or she isn't a good human being, then it's not worth studying there even if the program does have a "name."

There may be certain exceptions, programs, like Toronto in Medieval Lit, where the system works so well that nearly all the graduates get jobs. But those are hard to find, and harder to get into, and they tend to produce students who do one kind of thing superbly (source study, say, or medieval Latin), but, perhaps, lack some of the creativity needed to end up at a cool but quirky place or to do the kind of work that gets noticed outside of the immediate field.

You need to investigate whose students are all employed. I can say this because he's retiring and thus won't get a flood of applicants off of my stupid blog, but Tom Hill at Cornell is a great example. There are Tom Hill students everywhere (he's also my academic grandfather, my dissertation director's dissertation director's dissertation director -- Tom Hill => Jim Earl => Allen Frantzen => Me) in great jobs because he is not only a great teacher, but someone who makes a real effort--phone calls, talking to people at conferences, really strong letters--to take care of his students. Find an Allen Frantzen or a Tom Hill, and you are set.

And if you end up underemployed or in temporary jobs, you need to publish your way out of them if you want to leave. That of course destroys your life even more, and begs the question of where you get the time. But a very good friend from my Ph.D. program didn't get a tenure track job offer after his Ph.D. He went off for a one-year, non-renewable position at a big state school that had him teaching either 8 or 9 classes and helping to run a computer lab. But he worked like a fiend, published in JEGP (Journal of English and Germanic Philology) and the next year got the most coveted job in Anglo-Saxon that was open that year. One big article in JEGP or Speculum or their equivalents is probably worth more than a book contract (to get a job; book contract is probably necessary for tenure). A PMLA article will put you at the front of every queue.

So my conclusion: the struggle for a tenured job in academia is like the struggle to be a successful actor or actress or writer or athlete or any other career where the job is very appealing and there are a lot of people that want it. The odds are against you (there were 127 applicants for my job at Wheaton and only 25 jobs listed in Medieval Lit that year. You can do the math). Act accordingly, and decide if the effort you must put in is worth the possible result. You can make a lot more money in a lot of other careers. But you don't get to teach amazing and wonderful undergraduates. A tough trade-off.


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