"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Monday, December 5, 2011

Shoulda Coulda Woulda

One thing us postacademics get really tired of hearing really quickly is some version of the following:
If I were in your shoes, I NEVER would have made the mistake of going to graduate school. Everybody knows there are no jobs in academe, and nobody in their right mind should spend that much time, effort, and money on education and professional training that will NEVER pay off with a job. I just can't understand why so many otherwise smart people make such a stupid choice.
To be fair, I don't hear this, personally, all that often. But just the other day, an acquaintance was telling me about a friend, somebody still in her 20s but gainfully employed as a journalist, who is seriously considering going for a Ph.D. in the humanities. "I just don't get it," my acquaintance (who does not have a higher ed background and never considered graduate school) says to me,
I keep pointing out to Crazy Friend there aren't any jobs and, like, why would she quit the job she already has and borrow money to go for a useless degree? That's just mind-warpingly unfathomable. Is Crazy Friend being willfully ignorant? As far as I can tell, you'd have to be. I really just don't get why people just shut themselves off from what they don't want to hear and believe. The facts are pretty stark.And there's no shortage of articles, news stories, and blogs telling everyone that cares to listen that going to graduate school in the humanities is a bad idea. Why don't people listen to reason? I told my friend not to go, but she won't listen. She wants to be a professor.

I just shake my head at both sides. Sure, the "I don't get it" crowd has a point, but, rationally speaking, if so many otherwise intelligent people are continuing to ignore obvious signs that graduate school is a trap, there must be more to it.

There IS more to it. Consider:

Prospective (and, indeed, current) graduate students get a lot of conflicting information and mixed messages they aren't really equipped to sort through. For example, the student might have read some articles in Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle (or any number of mainstream publications) that talk about the dearth of academic jobs and what a big waste it is getting a Ph.D. To a nonacademic with no graduate school inclinations like my acquaintance, this is both the only information they have and the only information they think they need to be able to pass judgment on someone like Crazy Friend.

But the aspiring student has a host of other information -- some of it quite personal -- to grapple with. There is the praise from undergraduate professors, some of it no doubt truly misleading the student to believe they are the "special" exception -- a standout even among those talented enough, passionate and committed enough, to be distinguished from the masses. Of course, this praise does nothing but perpetuate the myth of meritocracy. Even if your undergrad profs are right about your talent (and ... well-meaning as they might be, they're probably wrong), how good you are only matters when How Good You Are Matters matters more than How Well You Fit Based on the Frantic Review of 600 Candidates Right Before Finals (all of whom were similarly praised and encouraged by their undergrad profs years ago).

So, if students can depersonalize praise and be objective, they would less likely fall into the trap, but most people would have a hard time doing that -- and the naysayers would, too, if they were on the receiving end of this encouragement and had an interest in further academic pursuits.

Also, the strong interest in further academic pursuits itself leads even those not drunk on their undergrad advisers' praise to believe "facts" and "statistics" about job placement rates used by departments to promote their graduate programs. Speaking personally, this was one of the largest factors clouding my judgment. Since a few years had passed between the time I finished undergrad and started grad school, I had some distance (like acquaintance's Crazy Friend). Rather than overzealous praise, my own desire to succeed in a profession I cared about, coupled with more disciplined work habits and more general maturity than the typical 22-year-old entering a grad program, led me to choose a program that, while not the most prestigious, for one thing, had what appeared to be a very robust number of job placements.

In other words, I DID look at career prospects. The larger picture represented in the media told one story, but the program I'd been accepted to and looked forward to attending told another. And this was 10 years ago, when the kind of information readily available today to anyone with Internet access wasn't out there -- was either not collected (and, in many cases, still isn't) or was misrepresented (i.e. placements are meaningless unless you know how many others who started the program the same year have since either dropped out or are working as adjuncts). At the beginning and throughout my time as a graduate student, I repeatedly heard announcements of tenure-track job placements, along with yearly totals that seemed impressive .......... impressive, that is, until several years in I started observing how many others the department was simply retaining as adjuncts, with and without the Ph.D., and how many just walked away, just disappeared without a trace to become postacademics. My understanding of who adjuncts were -- and how many of them my own department employed -- was limited by my experience. During the first few years, I saw them as failures, if I saw them at all. Duh, why weren't they following all the CV-building advice I was and publishing and presenting at conferences? But later ... well, who knew there were so many? And who knew so many of them were there due to no lack of competence on their part? They were doing the same things junior faculty on the tenure track were doing (they had to in order to stay competitive for tenure track jobs elsewhere); the university simply wasn't acknowledging it.

A very large department like the one at Grad U depends on a significant degree of invisibility, whether deliberately reinforced or not, to make the kinds of claims it makes about job placement that allow them to recruit and retain people like me -- and probably like you, too.

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There's a lot more to say on this subject, but this post is long enough for today. The bottom line is that there's a bigger picture the Shoulda Coulda Woulda naysayers outside academe aren't privy to. Take responsibility for your choices, but don't let anyone get away with telling you you're stupid for not doing your research before you got into this mess. It's more complicated than what some pundit writes for a general audience, however much truth she or he may tell.

Next time: Two very different ways of thinking about why academe NEEDS people who put their love for the pursuit of knowledge first and their best interests career-wise last ...


  1. Some thoughts on the use of job placement statistics: When I eventually went on the market, I applied for positions variously defined as the medieval history of country X, the history of country X, the history of the region in which country X is located, and the history of anywhere in the world outside of Europe and America. Even the largest programs only produced one or two or three medieval historians of country X each year, so the sample size might have been too small to support a conclusion that one program was better at placing medieval historians of country X than another. However, statistics at a higher level of aggregation would not have been that meaningful either – it didn’t help me if my department was placing graduates in positions for the modern history of country X or the medieval history of country Y. So in a relatively small and highly compartmentalized field like mine, I don’t think statistics would have helped unless you had access to the raw data.

    On the other hand, if the field is small enough then students could collect the data on their own, without cooperation from departments or universities. I don’t think you’d need to cover more than two dozen programs to catch just about everyone getting a PhD in the United States in the medieval history of the country I studied, for example, and you’d only need one person in each program to volunteer to help gather the information. If you tracked everyone who entered the programs each year and what eventually happened to them (tenure track, adjuncting, left academia after finishing the degree, left academia before finishing the degree, transferred to another degree program etc.), then pretty soon you’d have something useful for prospective students to look at. I don’t use Facebook or anything like that, but kids these days and their new-fangled social media probably have some easy way to get stuff like this done.

  2. In my program (and my terminal MA program, too, for that matter), departments did not keep track of anyone other than those who accepted tenure-track jobs.

    This lack of tracking is a problem, and I don't think whether you're on facebook or not would help. For one thing, some of us are not on facebook. Like me. A bigger problem, even if we were all on facebook, is that departments (min anyway) don't make public who a new "class" of graduate students is. Sure, the ones with TAships MOSTLY know each other, but I definitely did not know who all the first-year PhD students were even during my first year and even though I was a TA. As the years went by, I knew fewer and fewer people.

    There's no way for students to keep track of this. The best way would be for departments to do exit interviews of some sort (which some are beginning to) and to make the results (with or without names, doesn't matter) available to prospective and current graduate students at the very least.

    That would give people a much better idea of what's happening than simply sending around a "congratulations!" email when someone got a tt job and then adding up the number of those every year and giving yourself a pat on the back.

    Also, English might be a little different than history in that, while the "best" jobs are the ones in different areas of expertise (Medieval lit, American lit. between X year and Y year, 18th c. Brit. lit., environmental lit., etc.), we're all eligible for the generalist and a great many of the rhet/comp position, which really are the majority of positions. So, who got what in which specific area tends to be, for us, less important than for those in history, at least from what it sounds like you're saying. But it's also fairly obvious from the job announcements that more people are getting hired in certain subfields than others.

    However, none of this is as important as getting numbers on who and how many AREN'T getting tt jobs of any kind.

  3. (On a side note, I should add that I explicitly did NOT apply for generalist and rhet/comp jobs in my academic job searches because I was and am not willing to move for them. When I talk about the narrowness of my academic job search, it's in part because of this. That's why I'm more than a little idiosyncratic in my approach to these things. BUT even if I applied to everything and anything, as many people do, the odds would still be most definitely NOT in my favor. ANd that's why statistics on how many people end up adjuncting or doing other things would be helpful.)