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

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dear Prospective Graduate Students

I felt a little bad the other day when a prospective graduate student who blogs here fell, like the rest of you, for my April Fool's Day post about getting an interview for a tenure-track job. The fact that the prospect of getting an interview for a tenure-track job has become the stuff of jokes tells you something about the state of the profession. The fact that you all fell for it says something about how academe has programmed us to view such opportunities.

While it amuses me that you post-academics and other presumably rational adults fell for my fake post, I very much do NOT want to mislead idealistic, optimistic prospective graduate students who may have found their way here by searching the intertubes for stories affirming what they fully believe in their naive young hearts to be true: that is, if you work hard enough, set your goals high enough, follow your passion, please your advisers, and do everything right along the way, things will work out and you will have a career as a professor. After all, it's only the losers and fuck-ups who don't make it, right? And you, for sure, won't be one of them because you've done everything right so far! Why should graduate school and the path to professorhood be any different?

One of the criticisms by prospective and new graduate students of the graduate school naysayers -- naysayers, for example, such as the blogger and commenters over at 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School -- is their negativity. Those whiners and complainers, the critics say, need to just suck it up and shut up. Whoever said graduate school was supposed to be easy? You should expect to work hard. You should expect it to be competitive. You should expect to make sacrifices. And if you don't have the stomach to roll with the punches all the way to tenure-track professorland, you should leave and do something else with your life rather than complaining. Your bad experience with academe is your own fault, and you have nothing and no one to blame but your own negative attitude.

Here's the thing: I'm all for encouraging optimism and positivity. It's a heathier way to live, most of the time. But, unfortunately, academe these days is far, far from Dr. Pangloss's "best of all possible worlds." (or here if you don't feel like reading Voltaire right now). Negative emotions -- to the extent they do not lead to debilitating depression, suicide, or violence against others -- can be a normal and healthy reaction to a wrong or unfair or otherwise problematic situation. Some might even argue feelings of discontent are what lead to action and ultimately positive change and progress.

And graduate students have A LOT of very good reasons to feel discontent and anger, frustration and betrayal. But many of these reasons are evident to new or prospective graduate students only in the abstract since they have not yet had to confront them personally. It's easy to believe you would respond differently or make different choices when you have nothing to base your perspective on but undergraduate experiences of academic success and advisers who challenged you, showered you with praise when you met the challenges, and encouraged you in your aspirations to follow in their footsteps. Be especially wary of the influence these people have over you. They mean well and sincerely want you to become professors like them, but your success -- and getting into graduate school is the first milestone -- also validates their sense of professional (and, in some cases, personal) self-worth. Don't expect them to tell you the truth, either about what graduate school may have in store for you or about what awaits you after you finish -- if you finish, that is. They'll tell you their truth, but their truth will not very likely be yours.

If you feel that graduate school, right now, is your calling, I'm not going to be the one to tell you not to go. Maybe you have Deep Questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Maybe you need to spend some time exploring them before you can move on with your life, before you can perhaps expand your horizons to include other pursuits. Maybe graduate school is the only place for you right now ...

If you are a new or prospective graduate student, let me put this to you bluntly: From the get-go, assume you will NOT end up with a job as a professor. Even though there still are a few tenure-track jobs out there and recent Ph.D.s do get them, you should operate under the assumption you will NOT get one. EVER.  There are several reasons you should do this, and they have nothing to do with whether you're good enough, smart enough, or assiduous and hard working enough to BE a professor. Rather, they have to do with the structural realities of higher ed and the unfortunate consequence that your future, beyond simply finishing your program, is NOT in your own hands:

1) Operate under the assumption you will NOT become a professor because you will have more motivation to prepare a back-up plan. Despite what your current advisers, blinded by your brilliance, may tell you, you NEED one, even if you never end up having to fall back on it. If you're not a trust fund brat or the spouse of someone who can support you indefinitely and you want to be assured you will be able to eat and pay your rent after the age of 30, you CANNOT afford to rely on optimism alone. The academic job market is fickle at best. Beyond writing a great dissertation, publishing a few articles, having strong recommendations, and teaching a class or two, even getting called for an interview is COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR CONTROL. When you're an undergrad, a clear correlation exists between how hard you work and how successful you are, including your ability to get into graduate school. That correlation does not exist between your success as a graduate student and your ability to get a job as a professor. You do not want to put in all the time and effort it takes to earn a Ph.D. -- no matter how much you enjoy the process -- only to find yourself 30+ years old and facing only two choices: another semester of adjuncting on three different campuses for barely enough money to keep your ass warm in winter or just plain unemployment.

2) Operate under the assumption you will NOT become a professor because you will have more freedom while you are "still in school" to make life and career choices that are the best choices for YOU rather than the choices you think you have to make in order to have a shot at a tenure-track job down the line. Simply completing the requirements to earn a Ph.D. -- coursework, exams, and dissertation -- is challenging and a real accomplishment if you can get through it. However, many graduate students put themselves under unnecessary additional pressures to publish multiple articles, present at conferences, and build up a teaching portfolio because they've internalized the message that doing these things will make them better job candidates. The reality is that beyond one peer-reviewed article and two or three semesters of teaching, what matters to a committee is how well they think you'll "fit" in their department. For the initial screening of candidates, they base "fit" on how you represent your research and teaching in your letter rather than what you've actually done. Since you don't know what "fit" means to any particular search committee, you have no idea of what they're looking for or what to say to make yourself "fit" it. I know this is hard to fathom at this point, but there are so many candidates these days so far exceeding the required qualifications that committees really have no choice. My point is that if you operate under the assumption that you WON'T get a tenure-track job, you will do "extra" things like publishing articles and presenting at conferences only if you want to and can afford to in terms of both time and money rather than because you think you have to. You'll save yourself, at the very least, one or two minor breakdowns.

3) Operate under the assumption you will NOT become a professor because it will allow you to create some very important distance between who you are as an academic and who you are as a person. Even as you are finishing up your undergrad program, to what degree is your sense of self-worth caught up in the quality of your academic work and the recognition you get for it? Be honest. It's not an easy question. If your answer is that a grade on a paper or a professor's praise or criticism can make or break your entire day, you should know that those feelings only get more intense in graduate school and beyond. A full professor at my Grad U confessed to me once that ze couldn't look at peer-reviewers' comments on articles ze had submitted to journals without having a drink first. Ze said even a "revise and resubmit" response, nevermind a rejection, would make hir depressed for weeks before ze could face the process of revising and resubmitting. Do you really want to subject yourself to this kind of emotional drama when you're 50? No, you don't. But if you go to graduate school to explore Deep Questions recognizing from the outset you might have to do something else to earn a living, you will focus on those Deep Questions rather than on what other people say about you. Your "career," whatever it may turn out to be, will be separate from your personhood. And your well-being will not be held hostage to how people react to your work, academic or otherwise.

If you follow this advice, make it through graduate school, and end up with a tenure-track job, great! Remember, all is grist for the mill. However, if -- as is much more likely despite your passion and brilliance -- you end up having to build up some other career for yourself, following this advice will prepare you much better to do so than conforming to academe's expectation that you put all your eggs in one basket.


  1. O my god...I am so relieved. You have no idea.

  2. Hehe. I wonder how many people I actually fooled! I fooled Think Tank Boss, too, who really thought I might be about to quit, so now we're even after hir zoo prank I fell for last year (see comments to previous post).

    1. As you know, you fooled me. :)

      But you know why? Because, damn ... we all know how academia seems to pop up at the last possible second with some kind of opportunity that you should you know maybepossiblyjustapplyforbecauseyouneverknowwhatwillhappen.

      I mean, who knows ... maybe you got sucked in too!

      Seriously, though ... this post is fantastic. I might sneak up to Grad U before the new students arrive this fall and put a whole stack of them on the table in the grad lounge and computer lab. I think I still have a key! :)

  3. This is really great advice. I wish I could link it to our Grad U web site. Potential students/incoming students REALLY need to hear this.

    1. Feel free to print out copies and leave 'em around the grad student lounge. I wish I'd heard this repeated over and over and over again in my early grad school years. It might've made a difference in where I am today.

  4. Good advice for prospective people who are interested in applying for grad school. I think that many people in my programme should have heard this since it might have made a difference so at least those who did get tenure track jobs weren't so condescending about those who didn't.

  5. Good advice that is applicable to pretty much EVERY aspect of life: professional, educational, personal, etc... never put your eggs in one basket.

  6. It's important to emphasize especially for careers in academe because graduate students face an incredible amount of pressure to do just that -- put all their eggs in one basket. Despite the dearth of tenure-track jobs, which everybody acknowledges, there's active discouragement in a lot of departments against graduate students taking nonacademic jobs or developing skills they might use to help get a nonacademic job after they finish. They're told, time and again, that they should be putting all their time and effort into building a competitive CV and that taking time away to earn extra money, develop other skills, or otherwise prepare a Plan B is a WASTE of time.

    But, the unfortunate reality is that no matter how great your CV is, you're more likely NOT to end up with a tenure-track job. With this in mind, common sense says you should absolutely have that back-up plan, but everybody else in academe will tell you just the opposite.

    It's very different from how things work in most nonacademic professions, which is why it's an important point to emphasize -- and to observe how, though very sensible, the advice to not put all your eggs in one basket runs counter to what a lot of people have internalized about academic careers.