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Should You Go to Graduate School?

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Unm_mesavistahall

Let’s talk about graduate school.

I’ve spent this year as the Interim Director of Graduate Studies in my department as the usual director is on sabbatical. Speaking of which, I have one more week of teaching until I start my sabbatical. Yes, I am going to enjoy the next 16 months of not teaching, while researching, writing, and hiking as much as possible. Anyway, graduate school. The question of whether to go to graduate school and how to survive graduate school is one I have thought about a great deal. As someone with a PhD from the University of New Mexico, I had to. Not only was nothing ever guaranteed for us Lobos who weren’t ever thought to be able to compete with the Yale and Harvard graduates of the world, but I hit the job market right as the economy collapsed in 2008. The first full year I was on the market, 1/2 of the jobs I applied for were shut down before interviews took place. It was grim. I had a visiting position but it took me 4 years to find a tenure-track job. And I am damned lucky.

It turned out in the end that my fellow UNM people almost all survived the collapse of the job market and either got tenure-track jobs or else good work in professions they wanted, ranging from museums and university presses to federal jobs and permanent positions at community colleges in places they wanted to live. Meanwhile, I heard tales of Big 10 universities having their history programs go 5 years and place 1 person in a U.S. history tenure track job. Why the discrepancy, which was exactly the opposite of what one would expect?

Fundamentally, I think the reason for this is that because we had second-rate funding packages (only 3 years of guaranteed funding as opposed to the 5 or 6 years at supposedly better programs) and because no one believed in us anyway, we had to hustle. So we ended up on the market having done a whole variety of different things that the Yale students never had to do, making us more versatile and allowing us to stand out. I put myself through the last couple of years of graduate school doing work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, making sure it complied with the National Historic Preservation Act. I also put together a climate change report for New Mexico environmental organizations that gave me some early consulting experience. That, plus the blogging, made me different than other candidates. I never quite realized how important that was until I was on a search committee for a job last year for the first time. What became instantly clear to me is that every Ivy League applicant is basically the same–the projects are very similar, the letters are all from the same people, none of them have meaningful teaching experience. You could barely tell them apart. We ended up bringing in 4 candidates from public institutions and hiring two amazing historians.

I say all of this because there are a couple of interesting posts from the last couple of days about graduate school and I think these stories help frame a discussion not only of whether to go to graduate school but also how to do graduate school. There is one basic rule about graduate school: don’t go into debt for it. If someone doesn’t want you or you can’t pay for it in some way yourself that makes sense, then don’t do it.

Now, you might say that it is immoral to send students to graduate school for jobs they won’t get. Possible, but this gets to how to do graduate school and why to do graduate school. The biggest problem right now with Ph.D. programs is that professors don’t know how to get a job as a historian today because they all got extremely lucky to get a job in academia or they did so a long time ago. So when I advise a student on going to graduate school, the first thing I tell them is that they have to assume they will never get an academic job and therefore must prepare for that as well as doing the academic work necessary to get a dissertation and compete for whatever jobs are out there. As part of that, I tell them to keep this in mind even if their advisor doesn’t agree because their advisor may be the absolutely worst person for a student to listen about career preparation.

And then even if you do get a job, be prepared to not live with your partner (mine teaches 500 miles away), have absolutely no control over where you live, not be able to buy a house or have children because of the constant instability, etc. This is a good overview of these issues by someone who has chosen to leave academia, as part of a longer post on what kind of characteristics help someone succeed in academia.

4. You don’t care where you live.

Here, briefly, is how the academic job market works. Suppose you’re writing your dissertation, and the fall of 2018 rolls around and it looks like you’ll be able to successfully defend in the spring of 2019. Because tenure-track academic jobs — I’ll get to non-tenure track jobs below — work on a year-long lead, you need to start applying now, so that you can defend your dissertation in spring 2019 and begin your new job the following fall.

Each academic position will have many, many applicants. Via friends who have served on committees, the number is routinely several hundred. The odds, then, of being offered an interview at any one place are very low (unconditionally, say less than 5%), and to reach a reasonably high probability of receiving an offer you will need to apply everywhere there is a job listing you might reasonably fill.

I have heard early career graduate students or undergraduates considering academia say things like “I wouldn’t mind starting out at a place like the University of Kansas,” or some other institution they perceive to be of similarly low prestige. Let me be clear: you probably won’t get a job at Kansas. Getting a job at Kansas would be fantastic and is therefore exceedingly difficult. For nearly all students outside of the very top graduate programs, a job at Kansas (or similar institution) is almost certainly your best-case scenario. If you have family ties that prevent you from living outside a certain area, or a partner with an inflexible job, you will be very unlikely to find an academic job.

5. You don’t mind moving frequently, or being very mobile in general.

Because finding a tenure track position is very difficult, new PhDs often move from graduate school to a series of short-term positions, either postdoctoral fellowships or, more frequently, visiting or adjunct professor positions. These positions differ from tenure track positions in that they do not offer the promise of long-term employment: generally one would only stay at one of these positions for one or two years. Many times they also do not offer benefits like health insurance. If you can publish enough during this time period, it is sometimes possible to move into a tenure-track position. However, publishing is doubly difficult in visiting and adjunct positions, because you will be teaching a large number of courses.

So while the ideal path leads from graduate school to a tenure track position, more likely is one leading from graduate school to one or more short term positions that will require you to move — often across the country or the world — each year.

A related point here is that academics’ lives are often hilariously peripatetic. I know multiple people who live hours away from their home institutions and commute in to work for 2-3 days each week. If you arrive to graduate school single, you may soon acquire what is known as the “two body problem,” the name given to the deeply unfortunate situation in which one academic is married to another. This either complicates the problem of finding a job dramatically, provides an opportunity for the aforementioned several hour commute, or sets you up for a permanent long-distance relationship.

Again, none of these things are bad. But tolerance for them varies from person to person, and so they are worth pointing out to someone before this person invests six years of their life into a relatively infungible degree.

On a personal note, the last two of these played the biggest role in pushing me out: I didn’t want to give up control over where I lived, and I didn’t want to move frequently. This meant I needed to apply very selectively to jobs, which in turn meant that I didn’t get one. If those sound like dimensions you’re unwilling to compromise on, understand that academia will almost certainly be six to eight years of training for a field you will not find employment in.

Building these alternative skills during a graduate program helps address precisely these issues. If you are from Seattle or New York, do you really want to live in rural Arkansas, just to teach indifferent 19 year olds intro U.S. history? The same goes for the self-exploitation of long-term adjuncting. Reimagining what a graduate program can be opens up opportunities to make your degree useful while also allowing you greater control over your life choices. A couple of years ago, I was talking to some people just finishing up their PhDs in U.S. history at Brown. There was one late job at a decent school in one of Alabama’s less terrible cities. They said they weren’t even going to bother applying for it because they didn’t want to live in Alabama. A reasonable choice, but nothing in their degree program had prepared them to do anything else but get a job as a professor and that wasn’t happening, in part because of the terrible market and in part because their advisors had not prepared them for the real live job market or anything else except getting a job at a school like Brown.

So why go to graduate school? Well, if you aren’t going into debt and you don’t want to work for a corporation, then why not? It’s not like there are tons of great options out there for humanities and social science-minded 22 year olds. At the very least, you will get to meet some interesting people, have your mind blown, see the country some, get a lot smarter, and figure out your life. There really isn’t anything wrong with that if your eyes are open going into it.

But at the same time, it’s critical to reorient the graduate program to these new realities. Because of New Mexico’s unusual placement record, it was selected as one of four schools to participate in a pilot project through the Mellon Foundation and the American Historical Association that seeks to redirect graduate education. I have played a small role in this, coming back to Albuquerque for a couple of events, talking about what I do outside the academy, and eating a lot of green chile. A current student at UNM has a post up at the AHA blog about career diversity and graduate school and it’s worth your time.

The conversation was geared toward PhD students but I wondered, quite selfishly, how it could apply to master’s students. Between my undergraduate and graduate program, I worked in several different industries that appeared to have no relation to my own historical training and background. Whether it was performing administrative duties at a law firm, selling computers, or tending to children at a daycare, I was unsure how these jobs corresponded with the skills I had learned as part of my BA in history and government. In my last position, however, I worked as a legislative analyst for a lobbying firm in Austin, Texas. There I dug through archival materials, read other scholars’ and professionals’ analyses of legislation, and tried to frame my findings in terms relevant to the fast-paced debates occurring in the domed building across the street. Such tasks were fundamental in sharpening my talents as a researcher at the graduate level. Even in the jobs seemingly unrelated to history, I realize now that I learned important skills such as communicating and collaborating with others that are essential to succeeding within and beyond the professoriate. Transferable skills, therefore, are not unidirectional. The training historians receive in the academy prepares them for a surprisingly large array of career paths, but those careers also feed back into how historians work and how they think about their own research, particularly, in terms of how it relates to a wider audience.

Professors attending the session at the annual meeting expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of helping their students pursue other professional possibilities and using them to mold their academic work. Faculty, however, complained that a cultural shift was necessary among those still pursuing their graduate degrees. Participants noted that most graduate students failed to attend career diversity events because of busy schedules and, more jarringly, due to the fear of being tainted as a student considering a path beyond the professoriate. Even considering the possibility of a career beyond the tenure track was viewed as “depressing.”

If master’s students wish to continue on to the PhD, as I do, we need to think of our connections to the nonacademic world in a way that is invigorating instead of threatening. We should seek out opportunities for career diversity workshops, internships, and other programs because they provide real benefits in terms of how we relate to others’ scholarship and how we produce our own. Students should display the same kind of fearlessness when taking opportunities for training beyond the university as we did when we applied ourselves to the rigors of graduate education. To get the career that best suits us we may need to move beyond our comfort zones.

I think this is right and I also think that even at participating schools there are a lot of professors who still see the only legitimate path as one that ends in a tenure-track job. That is a recipe for irrelevance and the death of programs. Graduate school can be a wonderful thing if you are so inclined, but its also the duty of professors to train you to get an actual real job after it is over, not just throw you overboard to be devoured by the sharks of unemployment, depression, and disillusionment.

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  • petesh

    Max out on the hiking while you can!

    I’m arguing against interest here, since I greatly respect your work, but there is something about extended hiking of pretty much any kind that soothes the soul while toughening up the soles. And keeps you around to do more of that good stuff in the long, er, walk.

    • The 4 months I will be based in Oregon should be very good for this.

      • Ronan

        Do you mind me asking you something off topic? (I saw this the other day and was a little curious as to how accurate it was)

        http://gizmodo.com/oregon-was-founded-as-a-racist-utopia-1539567040

        the TLDR version is that Oregon, at least implicitly, was set up as a ‘racist Utopia’ in the late 19th early 20th century, ie there were various racial exclusion laws built into the constitution and Jim Crow like laws regulating public spaces etc.

        The writer seems to backtrack a bit from the title(the racist Utopia part) in the article itself by saying Oregon wasnt actually that unusual compared to similar states in the region at the time, just they made the anti black policies more explicit.
        Is there anything to the argument that there was an (either implicit or explicit) attempt to turn Oregon into a whites only Utopia during the period, or was the state only following policies that were the norm in the country at the time?

        • Blacks were explicitly excluded from Oregon in the 1859 state constitution, so it was initially explicit. Of course that could not be enforced after the 14th Amendment so it became more implicit. But the KKK was very powerful in Oregon in the 1920s and the state never attracted a large African-American population. Washington and California gained large black populations due to World War II migrations, but that didn’t happen to nearly the extent in Oregon due to the state lacking the same level of good ports. And where it did happen was the Kaiser company town of Vanport, which got wiped out in a 1948 flood and was never rebuilt. So Portland ended up with a small black population and the rest of the state almost none. Today, Oregon still has a very small black population and it is basically a white utopia today considering what draws people to it and who moves there.

          So it’s a combination of factors.

          • Ronan

            Thanks. (That’s pretty much the story the article tells)

        • Anna in PDX

          As Erik said, the story is true. And very weird, and still not well known enough.

  • Captain Oblivious

    I would say, if you really love the subject and have the intellectual curiosity and capacity to master it, and if you like the academic life, then why would you not go to grad school (barring financial or other barriers)? Maybe you won’t get the job of your dreams, but you probably won’t with a BS or BA either.

    ETA: Noting that in some disciplines, especially the hard sciences, your employment prospects are pretty dim without at least a Masters.

  • ArchTeryx

    One of my single biggest regrets was going to grad school. It cost me 10 years of my life, my colon, and my health. For which in trade, in my third year of unemployment, I STILL am being devoured by the three-headed shark of unemployment, depression and disillusionment. Were it not for a friend offering me his spare bedroom in a state with Medicaid expansion, I’d simply be dead, and I wonder if that wouldn’t be an improvement.

    And it’s because for the most part, there is no class of people that exemplify I Got Mine F***k You then tenured professors. (My advisor was one of the rare exceptions, but he didn’t have the pull to get me in anywhere).

    And I’m in a STEM field – molecular virology. Can’t imagine how bad it for social scientists and humanities folks.

    • Bitter Scribe

      Oooh, ouch! Hope things get better for you soon.

    • kerFuFFler

      My son has just finished a post doc at an Ivy in chemistry and cannot find an academic position, even with the glowing letter of recommendation he got. The lack of funding for the sciences by the federal gov is discouraging universities from hiring. With grant money so tight a lot of schools cannot afford to hire more faculty.

      So much for STEM studies offering security.

      Best of luck beating your depression and finding a job!

      • ArchTeryx

        It isn’t just academia. I gave up on an academic career before I even graduated. The trouble is, no other sector is hiring them either, and in many fields, the PhD is a lead weight on any job application. Can’t hide it, can’t explain it away, and can’t make them “believe”.

        “We have a shortage of STEM people!” is one of the biggest crocks of shit ever perpetuated on people. It always translates to “We need more easily exploitable H1Bs!” not “we need more STEM people to hire!”

        • Taylor

          The dirty little secret is that the demand for STEM jobs is really demand for Computer Science.

          Traditional STEM disciplines like to cloud that fact.

          • And it’s not like there’s this huge demand for people doing abstract math. I still say Math is included in STEM strictly for the acronym purposes.

            • Colin Day

              Now you tell me. :(

            • pillsy

              Applied math is less dire (though the academic job market is brutal).

              I bailed on physics after a couple years of post-doc and went into industry as, basically, a programmer. The bulk of my grad school friends did similarly.

              I think I’m an economist now. Not really sure what that’s about.

          • ArchTeryx

            Yep!

            The tenured professors get to actually do STEM.

            The rest are computer programmers pretending to be STEM people (i.e., bioinformatics). That most of them I dealt with were Chinese isn’t any coincidence, either.

            • Vance Maverick

              Care to expand on that last bit? I’m not even quite sure who “them” refers to.

              • ArchTeryx

                Sorry, bad wording due to my being sick. It isn’t the fault of the Chinese programmers. It’s the universities hiring them because, like any H1B hire, they’re far more malleable then American citizens.

            • paul1970

              I’m sorry, speaking as a bioinformatician this is nonsense. It’s a bit like someone in the early middle ages saying “a priest is a Latin linguist pretending to be a religious leader”. Computer programming is just a necessary skill to address many biological problems these days.
              What is true, is that a lot of work in bioinformatics is essentially technical and implmentation-based rather than pure abstract throught – but that’s no different to how I remember life in the lab in my previous existence. Likewise, you could say we have teachers pretending (except when on sabatical!) to be historians. I don’t see we gain anything from this framing.

          • NewishLawyer

            When pundits and politicians say we need STEM, they might as well be saying we need “Technology and Engineering” That is what society and economy and big business wants and needs.

            To add to your comment above, coding is becoming the new thing for young adults to learn after finishing their arts and humanities degrees.

            I’ve often thought that society has a love/hate relationship with the arts and humanities. We would find life dull and gray without them but we still don’t want to support them. Even Obama (who is no bore or vulgarian) was probably being honest when he smacked down on art history majors with how he felt on what people should major in.

            I’ve noted it before but I think the United States is at a place where we are wealthy enough that lots of kids become interested in the arts but their not wealthy enough to be able to pursue careers in the arts.

            • wjts

              When pundits and politicians say we need STEM, they might as well be saying we need “Technology and Engineering”…

              That’s largely true. When they say “science,” they’re certainly not talking about things like cosmology, systematics, paleontology, etc.

            • Linnaeus

              I’ve long said that “STEM” should be written “sTEm”.

              I also remember, when I was still working in the natural sciences, the difficulty getting jobs 20+ years ago. But there was still a STEM “crisis” apparently.

              • Barry_D

                “I’ve long said that “STEM” should be written “sTEm”.”

                No, it should be written ‘E’. Science jobs are scarce, math jobs are scarce, and I don’t know what they mean by ‘Techonology’ (as opposed to engineering).

                And IIRC, the ‘STEM shortage’ was a quite deliberate lie by academia and the government starting back in the 1980’s (or earlier). What they meant by ‘shortage’ was ‘anything short of a massive glut of cheap Ph.D.’s to use as disposable post-docs’.

                • NeonTrotsky

                  Hell there are huge discrepancies of both pay and job openings even within engineering itself.

                • Linnaeus

                  What they meant by ‘shortage’ was ‘anything short of a massive glut of cheap Ph.D.’s to use as disposable post-docs’.

                  Yep. In the mid-1990s, I was competing against Ph.D.s for entry-level research jobs that you didn’t need a Ph.D. to do.

          • DAS

            Our chemistry undergrads seem to have a good track record of getting jobs. The thing is that I work in a very chemistry heavy state, and yet there are actually not that many people getting undergraduate chem degrees. Part of the reason STEM looks like such an attractive collection of fields jobs-wise is that there are actually only so many STEM majors — if we were to really increase the number of STEM majors, the job getting rate for STEM majors wouldn’t be so good.

    • Sebastian_h

      Hugs. I feel you, I really do. We are in the middle of a huge reorientating of the long term job market and you’re bearing the brunt

    • PunditusMaximus

      I’m switching over and getting an MBA for this reason. I have a very supportive spouse. I intend to spend the entire year-and-a-half networking madly, and if the job offer comes, the MBA program ends for me.

    • were-witch

      Swap skin for colon, and our stories are identical. <3

    • Justaguy

      So sorry to hear this. I’m in my fourth year of a chronic illness brought on by the abusive labor management practices of my department. When you apply they assure you there is TA work for everyone, but then the graduate division increases the number of grad students while cutting spending on graduate education. My department saw this was happening and didn’t inform anyone – so when I got back from my fieldwork, I had no idea how I’d pay my bills from quarter to quarter.

      The stress destroyed my health. I have chronic pain, decreased cognitive function and chronic fatigue. I was running to the bathroom to vomit in the middle of teaching sections. When I went to my advisor to tell her how bad things were for me, she literally laughed at me. She told me I just didn’t have enough “passion”. She is a “Marxist” labor theorist who often professes a passionate interest in workers. That doesn’t, apparently, extend to the grad students who grade papers for her.

      The head of the graduate program in my department just ignored me when I tried to tell him how abusive the program had become for students without funding. When I wouldn’t shut up about it, the department chair accused me of being a potential campus shooter and they threatened to put me through whatever procedures they had developed for mentally unbalanced threats to the campus community. I never actually said or did anything that could be constructed as a threat, but in a system where you have absolute power, you don’t entertain dissent.

      The year after I left, the department had an external review led by one of the most influential scholars in our field. He described the grad students as being completely demoralized with the lack of faculty support and opaque decision making. In response, I’m told there were meetings where faculty who had full rides as grad students said living on $10k a month in the early 1970s was a struggle for them, so they know how we feel.

      I spent two years living at my parents, and several months where I couldn’t get out of bed. If it weren’t for the Medicaid expansion, I have no idea what I would do. I have a job now, and am slowly getting back on my feet. But seriously, fuck academia.

      • twbb

        Care to name names?

        • Origami Isopod

          Agreed. These people should be named and shamed.

  • dplunk

    Idk how it is for other majors. But having a masters in Political Science hasn’t gotten me much on the job market. I’ve been looking for 4 months as a 33 year old. Intellectually I got a lot out of grad school. But the financial benefits have yet to appear. What interviews I do get are probably more for technical data skills I’ve just happened to pick up along the way. Perhaps there’s something unique to me that I’m not getting more. But I really think it’s that employers look at Political Science and don’t have a clue why I’d be a good employee.

    • M. Davidson

      Ugh. I very resolutely chose to avoid academia after watching my sibling’s tortuous path to tenure. So, brainchild that I am, I pursued a less specialised master’s in strategic studies– rather than one in Middle Eastern Studies–under the delusion that it would be easy to get a job upon finishing. Hell, I’ve got 15 years of very useful job experience AND I speak four foreign languages (more or less; use it or lose it!), so employers aren’t hiring a fresh from his/her mother’s bosom graduate.
      Yet, no love after a year and close to triple digit applications under my belt. Now, I spend most of my time surfing in order to only worry for a few precious hours about the real sharks lurking in the depths. Some days that fate seems preferable to being devoured by the sharks of unemployment, depression and disillusionment. Maybe I’ll take out another loan and get a PhD.

    • NeonTrotsky

      My cynical impression is that social science master programs are mostly just money making enterprises for the university

      • dplunk

        Pretty much. I mean, I really did learn a lot. But financially it’s just not worth spending money on. Gotta get a research assistant position while you’re doing it.

  • twbb

    About half the people in my PhD program didn’t even want to do academia; I would like to but not enough to risk years of adjuncting. I have been continuously surprised how many people in other PhD programs don’t have a backup plan, or have an unrealistically optimistic backup plan (e.g., STEM PhDs who think their doctorate would give them an easy in to “science policy” or “science communicator” jobs).

    Of course, one ultimate driver of the PhD glut is the fact for a significant percentage of American the PhD represents a social signalling device.

    • nemdam

      Not just a social signaling device, it also soothes the anxieties of parents. If your kid completes grad school, you have to think they’ll turn out all right.

      • ArchTeryx

        Yep. My mother was flummoxed that I can’t get a job in any sector. She’s completely flabbergasted that I now am putting in for secretary jobs – what SHE did for a living – with New York State. Because a PhD isn’t worth the paper it is printed on when it comes to actually getting a damned job.

    • ArchTeryx

      *raises paw*

      And the strange thing is, communicating science to the layman is what I do best. I got a bunch of compliments and an award for it in grad school. What they fail to tell you is that people who make bank out of Science Communicator are already tenured professors for the most part, that also happen to be telegenic. (See: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan).

      Science Communicator is a hobby, not a career. A very *profitable* hobby if you can get paid for it, but few can.

      • Orphos

        There are some exceptions to this, but they’re mostly things people don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole: technical writer, grant writer, and ‘development’ jobs (corporate and foundation relations, etc).

        Many of them now require a PhD in whatever area you’re raising money for. But again, most folks who go to grad school for bio, etc don’t want to spend their days talking to corporations and foundations about money and budgets.

        • paul1970

          Private foundations are contraversial, and I have decidely mixed feelings about them, but there’s nothing inherently worthless about building a case for a program of work which links the science (or whatever) to the strategic goals of an organisation with a funding program – it can be very intellectually satisfying, and mostly honest (for sure, there’s some salesmanship, but less than in most “real world” jobs.
          We need good jobs for everyone, a proper career structure in the acedemic sector, etc., etc., but the case isn’t strengthened by complaining “no-one wants to pay me to sit in a dark room and think.”

      • khb

        Hi, I’m a career science communicator who makes bank (low six figures plus benefits – I do all right) and has never been a tenured professor (I ran screaming from academia after two years as a postdoc). The thing is, you’ve almost certainly never heard of me unless you happen to read the publication I work for and pay very close attention to the bylines. (This works for me. I was never much interested in personal fame.)

        I won’t pretend that jobs like mine are easy to come by. It took a considerable amount of being in the right place at the right time for me to get where I am. And yet, all around me in my day-to-day work I see people whose jobs are writing press releases and online news stories about science. Far too many of these people are terrible at what they do. If you’d be good at a job like that, I encourage you to try to get one. You’d be making the world a better place.

        • Origami Isopod

          It’d be great if there were a private Facebook group or mailing list for academics associated with LGM to job-network. I don’t know how high a success rate it’d have, but it might help some people, and it’d be a much better alternative to the usual networking groups full of bullshit pep talks and Calvinism and no awareness of labor issues whatsoever.

          • N__B

            I’m dying right now trying to find a project manger. High-class searching got me literally nothing; LinkedIn has so far got me 9 resumes that don’t remotely match the job description. All the techbros disrupting shit have not managed to disrupt the fucked-up matching of recruiters and seekers.

            And before anyone asks, we’re offering good benefits and a salary higher than the median for the job description in NYC.

            • mds

              And before anyone asks, we’re offering good benefits and a salary higher than the median for the job description in NYC.

              Uh, actually, what I wanted to ask was, what is a project manager? Because I see that people want 15+ years of experience in it, and that someone be a registered PE. Even if I had the skills of a project manager, I might be daunted by that sort of thing. This is something I’ve seen in STEM: highly specific credentialing / experience requirements, even though it’s likely that a generic STEM Ph.D. has a lot of the requisite skills and mindset to hit the ground running.

              • N__B

                At the risk of being simplistic, someone with enough experience to manage a project with review by the principals but not direct involvement. Our ad says three to six years and ASCE Grades III or IV.

          • Dagmar

            “Science Communicator” don’t mean jack shit at tenure time. Even though public support for science appropriations demands “science communication”.

        • khb

          …and to return to one of the points in the original post: Where I landed is not that far outside of academia. I interact with academics all the time, because they’re the ones who do most of the science that I write about, and I go to all the same conferences that I did when I was a grad student and postdoc. And yet, my professors and friends from grad school were shocked – shocked! – to hear that I was lowering myself so far as to leave academia and take this job, and it took me far too long to shake the feeling that I was a failure. The notion that “tenure-track professor” is the only acceptable career outcome for a STEM PhD really runs deep in that world, and it really messes with your head.

          • Linnaeus

            The notion that “tenure-track professor” is the only acceptable career outcome for a STEM PhD really runs deep in that world, and it really messes with your head.

            This notion runs deep in non-STEM fields, too, in my experience. It’s embedded in such terms as “alternative careers”, because of the default assumption that a “career” must mean a tenure-track faculty position.

  • nemdam

    Every article I read about the horror stories of a grad student’s employment prospects and how hard it is to get a tenure track job makes me outraged that our society doesn’t value academia more. Sure all the stereotypical criticisms of academics have some truth to them, but there is something wrong with a society that makes pursuing an academic life so difficult. It also makes me mad when people believe the stereotype that tenured professors live a life of idle leisure with no pressure on them to produce anything. While this is laughably untrue, I would have little problem with it even if it were accurate since it is so hard to even get one of those jobs in the first place.

    • twbb

      I don’t know if it’s that; we send a tremendous number of people to college compared to even other developed countries. There’s just too many people who want to be faculty, more than even the most education-prioritizing country could hire.

      • Just a Rube

        This is definitely a concern. It doesn’t help the fact that practically every college out there decided to go ahead and create a graduate school for the prestige factor, meaning that there are now plenty of places turning out graduate students, making the supply even larger, often from places that will never place someone (and don’t even get me started on the for-profit “graduate” degrees), meaning the supply issue is huge.

        It would be a problem even if the number of tenured lines was staying the same (since there are only so many tenured faculty retiring any year, and there are significantly more graduate students earning PhDs at the same time, not even counting people switching jobs, or coming from post-docs/industry positions); the fact that in a lot of departments tenured lines are going away just makes things worse.

      • Manny Kant

        Except of course that there are thousands and thousands of adjunct and other non-tenure track positions.

        • twbb

          And if you replaced those positions with full time tenure-track positions, you still have thousands and thousands of people who want to be full time faculty but there are no spots.

    • NewishLawyer

      My theory (which I really can’t prove) is that the United States (and possibly other developed nations) are in a weird spot economically. We are richer than many nations in the history of the world. We are wealthy enough that many kids can become really interested in the arts and humanities and sciences and want to pursue their knowledge to the limit and many parents get a psychic benefit out of this at least. My parents (especially my mom) seems to love my level of formal and informal education and interest in the arts.

      But we are not in the post-want Star Trek economy just yet and have strong market impulses.

      How many people go to college and university because they sincerely want to learn and how many go because they know it is what you need to do for a middle-class or above life and/or it is expected of their socio-economic status? I went to a SLAC where the closest thing to a business major was economics. Most people did not pick my school unless they really wanted to be there. We were also largely middle-class suburban kids and above.

      But there are plenty of middle-class suburban kids who just go to whatever state university and are largely indifferent students as Erik mentioned above. How many of them would rather do a business apprenticeship over a business degree that also makes them take Philosophy, Art History, and a Physics gen ed?

    • Origami Isopod

      We value college degrees as class markers. We value education insofar as it can make us big bucks. We don’t value knowledge for its own sake at all. We don’t value anything that doesn’t make money.

  • Dennis Orphen

    The harder (and/or smarter) you work the luckier you get.

    • Bruce B.

      This is very often untrue. Some people get “lucky” breaks thanks to things like belonging to the right family and social stratum for whatever it is they’re interested and therefore having a lot of connections to draw on. Others get genuinely lucky, and some of them are lazy bastards. Many, many people work very hard indeed and get no favorable luck at all.

      One of the crucial tasks, indeed, for a whole lot of things like graduate programs is doing all they can to support students through the realization of how little good their hard, smart work may do them, and dealing with the consequences.

      • This is very often untrue. Some people get “lucky” breaks thanks to things like belonging to the right family and social stratum for whatever it is they’re interested and therefore having a lot of connections to draw on. Others get genuinely lucky, and some of them are lazy bastards. Many, many people work very hard indeed and get no favorable luck at all.

        I’ve stated rather often that I got “genuinely lucky”—I emphatically did not belong to “the right family and social stratum”. But my “luck” was social (in contrast to either family or individual): I was just the right age to benefit hugely from America’s postwar education boom and post-Sputnik panic (I was 9 when Sputnik went up).

        It’s a lot easier for any given person to be lucky in life when conditions favor more—and more various—people being lucky.

        • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

          I was triple lucky- white, male, and my parents were basically sane. That I haven’t accomplished anything of lasting significance embarrasses me at times.

        • Bruce B.

          Yeah, so much so. I got some significant boosts in my schooling because I happened to live in a time when that happened quite a bit more often than it does now, even in the same liberal-leaning parts of the US. I worked hard, did my part, but the whole situation was obviously not one you or I made.

        • Pat

          The lucky ones are the ultimate group exhibiting survivor bias.

    • Origami Isopod

      Tell that to all the people who work their tails off and get nowhere.

      Also, if I never hear the phrase “Work smarter, not harder” again, it’ll be too soon. It’s a favorite of managers who want to deride their underlings’ hard work.

  • Unlearner

    Grad school is basically a bohemia, and should be treated as such. That’s what I think and what I take you to be saying. But looking back, I was in rock and roll bohemia on a part time basis for a few years and activist bohemia full time for five or so, depending on how you count, but I’ve been in grad school for almost eight years already (basically part time, thank god), but I have a ways to go yet and I’m not sure I’d be much further along if I was doing it more full time like the other students. That’s too long, really. The dissertation as a big book project might make sense if grad school was really a professional apprenticeship but since it’s not, a smaller project would make more sense.

  • NorEastern

    Liberal arts PhD programs should be cut by 80%. They just consume valuable resources while providing little value to their graduates. PhD programs in the STEM fields and medicine should be significantly increased. Christ no PhD in statistics ever wants for a job. The same holds true for attorneys. You say that attorneys can’t find a job? Just get a degree in a STEM field, go to law school and then pass the patent bar. Finding employment will be a breeze.

    • Liberal arts PhD programs should be cut by 80%. They just consume valuable resources while providing little value to their graduates. PhD programs in the STEM fields and medicine should be significantly increased.

      Oh fuck off.

      Not to mention that there is a major PhD glut in many STEM fields too.

      • ArchTeryx

        Believe it or not you’re actually preaching to the choir with me. I’m a STEM person but one of the smartest, nicest people I know is a poet laureate. Who makes a “living” as an adjunct faculty in a Medicaid refusenik state, and is slowly dying because of it.

        TL;DR: Yeah. NorEastern can fuck off.

        • NorEastern

          200 words is TL;DR? Are you suffering from ADD?

          • Vance Maverick

            Please dial back the gratuitous hostility.

            (Also, by convention, TL;DR introduces the short bit.)

          • Origami Isopod

            You’re a charming fellow. Do you usually throw psychiatric diagnoses at people when you disagree with them or misunderstand what they’re saying?

            • It’s how he scores with the college set

              • Origami Isopod

                He’s probably one of those guys who likes ’em much younger because they’re much more willing to listen and nod appreciatively to his hot air.

      • NorEastern

        You have no idea what you are talking about. And did you ever pass trig?

        http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/05/employment-crisis-new-phds-illusion

        • Colin Day

          And did you ever pass trig?

          I didn’t see any trigonometry in the article. Also, is the employment distributed equally over disciplines, or are some worse off than others? Do post-doc and adjunct positions count as employment?

      • Justaguy

        I dropped out of a PhD in Anthropology at the University of California. I agree that Humanities and Social Science PhD programs should be cut drastically. They don’t suck up resources – they generate money for the university. At my campus most revenue came from teaching classes, and most classes were taught in social sciences and humanities. Those classes rely on grad student labor to be profitable. You get a bunch of 100-400 student intro courses with one professor teaching it, and pay a 4-10 grad students a fraction of what a professor would cost to do all the grunt work.

        Social science and humanities PhD programs at state universities generate money to fund the university, but they don’t actually help their students get employed afterwards. It is exploitative and unethical.

    • twbb

      I think it’s largely people who don’t work in STEM who think STEM jobs are easy to get. See, for example, the molecular virologist post above.

      There’s not some big pile of STEM problems and the more STEM PhDs you have the faster you get through them.

      • Taylor

        See my comment above about “STEM”.

        I agree about statistics. Machine learning is very big, and they’re only hiring PhDs because they can’t find anybody at lower rank who knows how to do it.

      • NorEastern

        My GF is in her final semester at a top ranked private university. She states that her three upper tier psychology courses together do not require near the work and time as her final statistics class, linear regression modeling. She states that those psych students have no idea how easy they have it. She has a 4.0 in her psych classes and a 3.6 in her statistics classes. By the way her goal is to teach math in inner city schools.

        • Ronan

          ?? you surely do statistics and linear regression modeling in any postgrad psych degree?

          • ?? you surely do statistics and linear regression modeling in any postgrad psych degree?

            For values of “do” less than or equal to “learn crank results out of a commercial computer program”.

            • Ronan

              Id assume the stats content in postgrad psych would be comparable to (what I guess NorEastern is talking about..) the final year of an undergrad degree?
              Not necessarily sophisticated, but I wouldnt imagine NorEastern’s (imaginary?) gf’s stats and linear regression class is producing a cohort of linear algebra aficionados.

      • NorEastern

        I have a PhD in CS and finding a job was never a problem. But honestly I am now retired.

        • Hogan

          Ah. Aren’t there some clouds you should be out yelling at?

          • NorEastern

            I yell at no one. I did protest against the war in Vietnam but I guess I got it all out of my system then.

            • No Longer Middle Aged Man

              Which would make you over 60 with a gf in her final semester?

              And if you’re retired, just how much information do you actually have about the current job market?

        • Manny Kant

          You are retired and your girlfriend is finishing undergrad?

      • Ronan

        my link below seems to say people with biology PhDs earn less (outside academia) than other Phds, which surprised me(i thought the maths/computer programming skills would be at least comparable to what you would learn in the social sciences?)

        • twbb

          I think the more quantitative social sciences tend to use more sophisticated statistics than general biology.

          • gccolby

            The really hard math in biology tends to be in fields with more limited applications outside of academic basic research. Developing the models and statistics to do high-quality phylogenomics is mind-bendingly hard, but doesn’t have much industrial application. Some of the more sophisticated uses of modeling to try to describe or predict evolutionary processes is also quite complex, but again, not common.

            In the experimental cell and molecular biology that makes up the bread and butter of biological research, there’s seldom call for your typical worker to do anything more complicated than linear regression on a regular basis. So the complex stuff remains a specialist gig. You just don’t need that many people to do the work.

      • gccolby

        I think it’s largely people who don’t work in STEM who think STEM jobs are easy to get. See, for example, the molecular virologist post above.

        There’s not some big pile of STEM problems and the more STEM PhDs you have the faster you get through them.

        Yes. And even if you’re in a field and a location where there are lots of opportunities, it’s a long way from “easy.” I’m a biologist with a Masters degree (a long story in and of itself), living in Greater Boston. So after finding myself unexpectedly looking for work back in the beginning of February, I should be all set in no time, right? Ha! The reality is, this field is brutally competitive at every level. I’m getting a lot of interest and seem to be close to locking something down, so with any luck I’ll be back to work soon. But you have to scramble your ass off, and even then you also just need that bit of luck. I’m no hero; and if one ends up in the same applicant pool as me, I could well be boned despite a fabulous interview. There may be some narrow areas of STEM where demand is so high it really is relatively easy to find work, but even the “hot” STEM industries have a lot of competition for a limited job pool.

        • Hondo

          It appears to me that STEM (corporate engineering) are still easy to find. All the guys I know who got laid off have found comparable work. A few of those didn’t even have to move.

    • Ronan

      Very quick search would imply that the more time you spend in college (1) the more you earn (2) the lower your chances of being unemployed

      https://careersuccess.msu.edu/phdcareers/explore/the-numbers

      although this looks more realistic

      http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2015/12/new-phd-incomes-surprisingly-low

      What I often hear (online) from people with PhDs seems to be a relative status complaint, ie if theyd done career X instead of a PhD theyd be earning more etc. But in purely material terms theyre often doing much better than the population in general.
      This seems to be true also for the humanities and social sciences, even at a bachelors level ie the philosopher working as a barista is a generally a myth(at least as a long term job prospect)

      Basic point is more education will still be rewarded to a greater degree than less education in the job market.

      • Ronan

        according to this – “Postgrad parents → 0.0% chance of dropping out of high school. Parents who dropped out of high school → 0.0% chance of postgrad degree”

        https://twitter.com/Henry_Curr/status/854033208660373509

        • Ronan

          Very quick search would imply that the more time you spend in college (1) the more you earn (2) the lower your chances of being unemployed

          https://careersuccess.msu.edu/phdcareers/explore/the-numbers

          (comment continued below as two links is putting it into moderation. feel free to delete moderated comment)

        • Ronan

          cont….although this looks more realistic

          http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2015/12/new-phd-incomes-surprisingly-low

          What I often hear (online) from people with PhDs seems to be a relative status complaint, ie if theyd done career X instead of a PhD theyd be earning more etc. But in purely material terms theyre often doing much better than the population in general.
          This seems to be true also for the humanities and social sciences, even at a bachelors level ie the philosopher working as a barista is a generally a myth(at least as a long term job prospect)

          Basic point is more education will still be rewarded to a greater degree than less education in the job market.

      • twbb

        The assumption seems to be that if they weren’t doing a PhD they’d likely be investment bankers or biglaw lawyers or physicians, rather than assistant directors of marketing or project managers or junior staff analysts.

    • John Revolta

      My nephew’s an engineer. He got a job straight out of school in California. They liked him so well that they sent him to China, and now he’s training people over there how to to HIS job when the company moves next year. But, you know, I’m sure that’s an isolated incident.

    • Colin Day

      What “valuable resources” are students in liberal-arts PhD programs consuming? Some classroom space? Their advisors’ time?

      • veleda_k

        Oxygen that could be being breathed by valuable computer science students.

        • Colin Day

          Wouldn’t they be breathing roughly the same amount of oxygen if they weren’t in grad school?

        • Hondo

          Exactly. It’s all zero sum

    • Hondo

      Yeah, what Erik said.
      Fuck off.

    • Barry_D

      ” The same holds true for attorneys. You say that attorneys can’t find a job? Just get a degree in a STEM field, go to law school and then pass the patent bar.”

      We know whose blog this guy has not read :)

    • Origami Isopod

      Liberal arts PhD programs should be cut by 80%. They just consume valuable resources while providing little value to their graduates.

      Rather than leaving this comment I should’ve just scrolled down, then linked to you. Or my comment on the environmental thread about programmers and engineers with no intellectual curiosity and a seething contempt for people who ask questions without binary answers.

      • Dagmar

        NorEaster is poster child for requiring STEM grads to have exposure to social sciences and humanities.

  • Bloix

    “Well, if you aren’t going into debt and you don’t want to work for a corporation, then why not?”
    I found graduate school in history to be extraordinarily lonely. I think that’s a common experience. I dropped out – after finishing the course work – because I couldn’t face a year of reading a book a day in my kitchen with nothing but a cup of tea and a cigarette for company. (The cigarette reveals my age, I suppose, but I don’t think the experience has changed much.)

    I think “why not” is absolutely the worst possible reason to go to grad school in history. It’s like training to be a pianist or an actor – there are almost no jobs and anything else you might do can be trained for more efficiently and more pleasantly. If your reason is, “I’m a good student – I can do what my professors do” – then you have no business even considering grad school in history.

    • It takes a certain personality, yes.

      I was also helped by having a cohort of people who were genuine friends and so it was a lot less lonely than it usually is.

      • CD

        For me one of the most pleasurable parts of grad school was being able to spend weeks on end reading. I too got support and solidarity from a great cohort, but yes, you must want to live in your own head a lot.

        Belated tenure congratulations, Erik! Nobody ever deserved a sabbatical more.

        • twbb

          I basically had 5 years of completely self-directed study. It was amazing.

          • I basically had 5 years of completely self-directed study. It was amazing.

            Yes!

            In my third year, my advisor (whom I’d picked my first year) mentioned in the hall one day that we really ought to try meeting in his office at least once a semester. It was hard but I did manage it.

            In my fifth year, the week before my thesis was due, he suggested that maybe the person I’d been talking to the most about the problem I’d come up with (and the rather different problem I’d eventually solved…) ought to become my official advisor of record. (In the end I just had both of them.) I got invited to contribute to his 85th birthday Festschrift, anyway.

            Of course (given my personality, etc.), self-directedness left me with a lot of holes in my inventory of stuff-topologists-are-supposed-to-be-able-to-do-in-their-sleep (spectral sequences will always remain a complete mystery to me; although I sort of understand the Atiyah—Singer Index Theorem, I am flummoxed any time I try to apply it to anything I’m interested in; and so on and so forth). If I’d ever had graduate students I suppose I would have had to pick most of that up just to do a half-way decent job advising them, but I didn’t, and I’m just as glad given the work world they would have faced.

            • twbb

              My work is a mishmash of public policy, history and psychology, with a bit of philosophy thrown in. And it’s a mishmash because I read what I was interested in and at the end am trying to fit all these different fractured parts into something slightly coherent.

              I actually gained a fairly decent comprehensive knowledge of my field generally, though it was by chance I think.

            • Pseudonym

              I tried looking up what spectral sequences are. My brain hurts.

      • Hondo

        I’m not an academic, but I always thought there had to be reasons beyond the material for becoming one in order to be happy and successful. Like passion for your field of study, and pride in contributing to it, even if it meant anonomously moving the ball foward in your own way.

      • Justaguy

        A study at UC Berkeley found grad students suffering from depression at a rate between 47% and 64% depending on the division – not at some point in their graduate career, but at the time of the study. And earlier study found 10% of UCB grad students had seriously contemplated suicide.

        It doesn’t take a certain personality – graduate education is structured in a way that is unhealthy to your psychological wellbeing. It does’t have to be that way. If faculty and administrators were genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of their students, this would be a crisis. But instead there’s an attitude of I made it through because I had passion, could tough it out, etc. and if you can’t that’s your problem.

        If we were talking about Chinese factory workers committing suicide, nobody would attribute negative mental health outcomes to the personal attributes of individual employees. Well, I’m sure Foxconn’s PR department would, but if a student said “it takes a certain personality” in a class discussion of the issue, I trust you would take issue with it. Academics tend to attribute success or failure in the academy, not to structural or institutional factors, but to the attributes of individual scholars. Framing the problem this way allows people who have been successful in the academy to rationalize abusive aspects of the system. But if 67% of humanities students at Berkeley are depressed, is that just because Berkeley tends to admit the wrong kind of student?

        https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/04/22/berkeley-study-finds-high-levels-depression-among-graduate-students

    • Srsly Dad Y

      I’ll be That Guy and add, partly inspired by observing family members, that there is a large opportunity cost associated with the likely outcome of starting fresh in your “real career,” to which your degree may or may not even be relevant, and your retirement savings, if any, in your early 30s or even later. It’s fine if you’re comfortable with those odds. But first please put yourself in the shoes of your older self, looking back, and ask if the bet still looks good. Our front pagers were lucky. Do you feel lucky, punk?

      • Ronan

        People often overstate the alternative paths they might have taken that would have led to wealth and fortune. The struggling grad student who wishes theyd joined a big law firm straight out of college instead and made a bundle in their 20s. The overworked lawyer who wished theyd done that PhD instead of working 60-70 hour weeks.
        It’s an empirical question though. Does it effect long term earnings? Id guess not really, but have no evidence for that.

        • 10 years of living hand to mouth does definitely affect the long-term financial planning. I am 43 years old, still have student loan debt, and have nothing saved for retirement outside of my standard retirement plan. I also have no ability to buy a house. And I am lucky.

          • Srsly Dad Y

            Thank you. No one said anything about wealth.

            • twbb

              People also sometimes overestimate the alternate path when they assume they would have even a moderately stable and secure middle class job.

              • Srsly Dad Y

                Whatever. We could argue the probabilities all night, but the typical person who can get into a graduate program can likely get some sort of paying job and be doing it, or successor jobs, for many years before they would ever finish grad school. That’s the likely path in that direction. It’s likely there is an opportunity cost to not taking it. The risk of under/overestimating your job earnings is an uncertainty band around that option, it doesn’t change the central likelihood. The typical likely outcome of grad school is not financially better.

                • Orphos

                  I mean, Campos has posted the crap out of the opportunity cost of law school, and he’s even included info for if you attend for free. It’s not trivial! I spent 10 years in grad school, and I’m super pleased to be in a job that requires my degree even a little, but financially I’d be much better off if I’d dropped out with a master’s and gotten the job one step below the one I have now.

                • Bloix

                  “the typical person who can get into a graduate program can likely get some sort of paying job and be doing it, or successor jobs, for many years before they would ever finish grad school.”

                  This. The world is full of jobs that require intelligence, dependability, and the ability to work independently. The problem is that most people in graduate school have no access even to finding out what these jobs are and would shudder to imagine themselves doing them.

        • Linnaeus

          This is one reason why, despite the debt, delayed earnings, and all of the other drawbacks that have come with having gone to graduate school, I don’t really regret doing it. I started it many years ago when my first career choice flamed out (in a STEM field, no less) and I was working a long-term temporary job that was coming to an end and my employer wasn’t going to hire me permanently. There didn’t seem to be a better option at the time, so I did it.

          Were there other things I could have done? Sure, but it’s not that clear to me even now what they would have been and it certainly wasn’t clear to me at the time I had to make the decision whether to go. So I don’t beat myself up over choosing to go to graduate school, even if my life hasn’t turned out the way I had imagined it would.

          • N__B

            If you had a STEM doctorate, you'd be able to see the future.

            And levitate.

            • Linnaeus

              If only I had known!

        • Elkinmotion

          Many of us can compare alternative paths – those of our classmates who left grad school, in many cases, wound up several years into new careers or even finishing nursing or medical school by the time we were finishing phds. A huge amount can happen in 3-4 years early in your career, spending them in grad school cuts off some options.

          In many ways I had a pretty decent grad school experience (decent stipend and no debt, didn’t drop out because I liked the temporary financial security and flexible schedule, finished ma and phd in six years with enough outside experience to get job offers in museums and public history after graduating). Still, if people ask me if it was worth it i say that there is a major opportunity cost and I don’t advise others to get phds if they are interested in non – academic careers.

      • twbb

        My work is a mishmash of public policy, history and psychology, with a bit of philosophy thrown in. And it’s a mishmash because I read what I was interested in and at the end am trying to fit all these different fractured parts into something slightly coherent.

        I actually gained a fairly decent comprehensive knowledge of my field generally, though it was by chance I think.

        • twbb

          Ignore that, meant to be in the thread above.

    • Manny Kant

      I finished my PhD in history, and I’d concur that “why not?” is a terrible reason (and that was basically my reason – I was good at school, like it, and didn’t have any real idea what I wanted to do). Result: never did better than part-time adjuncting, now going back to school to get an education degree in the probably vain hope that that I can get a high school history teaching gig.

      One thing I’d definitely say is – take a few years off school and see how you like it before going into a PhD or Masters program. Only apply for grad school only if you can’t imagine doing anything else and also have a real idea of what your specific research interest would be, and a sense of whether that’s the kind of thing that can actually get you a job.

      As far as other job opportunities go, I hear about them, and assume they exist, but for the most part I’ve found that, in my mid-30s, I’m both overqualified and underqualified for most jobs. Too much education to hire at an entry-level position, not enough experience to hire at any other level. I don’t very much recommend it unless you have a real drive and a burning need to write a book or articles that seven people will ever read.

  • brad

    This touches on a large part of why I didn’t finish my phd. I have an MA, and did about half a phd, but a perfect storm of personal issues and my then school having major convulsions led me to accept reality. I don’t regret it, but I have the privilege to have taken lots of time and good fortune to have ended up doing something with a future. I had a flawless gpa and the necessary future references, but there’s just no future in philosophy these days.
    Schools really have to decide whether to be sources of patronage or institutions of learning. Keeping the children of wealthy donors employed may keep the endowment large, but there’s only so much make believe work admins can do. Something has to give way, but looking at schools like NYU I tend to have a low opinion of what’s to come.

  • TheSophist

    I have to confess I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the teaching HS option. We (a prep school in Phx) hire freshly minted PhDs pretty much every year. Motivated, intelligent students, a high degree of autonomy, a greater degree of intellectual conversation than one might expect (the text my sophomores use is Judt’s Postwar), along with decent salary, benefits, and security. I suspect it’s a much better academic life than almost anything short of a tenure track job.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      And how many applicants

      • TheSophist

        For the job opening in my department (history) we got 30-odd applications, brought in four for interviews.

    • ArchTeryx

      That assumes you can get teaching certification. To get it in New York State, I’d have to go back to school for the fourth time and get a Master’s in Education…at which point, I come out with even BIGGER student loan burdens and maybe no jobs. I’m through chasing credentials for no gain.

      • TheSophist

        Not for private schools. We don’t care about certification at all. Maybe some states require certification for private HS teachers, but most don’t.

      • NorEastern

        My GF on Thursday got two free ride offers to her application to a single major Universities accelerated program for a masters in education. I am still peeling her off the ceiling. 48 hours later. She is just that giddy.

    • Thom

      Yep, one guy from my PhD cohort who had a job at a public R1, but did not get tenure, then went to private secondary teaching and has been very happy. Public secondary teaching could also be great.

      • TheSophist

        Every class I teach I have designed myself. As well as the above-mentioned Postwar my texts include LOTR, Dune, Neuromancer, Sandel’s Justice, Singer’s The Most Good…, etc.

        Two years ago I took a dozen kids to NZ for a LOTR tour and last Monday I spent the morning leading a conversation with Garry Kasparov (pretty bucket-list for a guy who’s a chess master as well as a history/philosophy/literature teacher.)

        I’m not saying any of this to brag, but rather to show that there’s a lot of really cool jobs out there in the private school world if folks look there.

    • NorEastern

      Private schools are like a dream come true. My daughter attended one and had several teachers who were PhDs. They were some of the happiest people on this planet.

    • mombrava

      The problem here is that most PhD programs don’t really prepare you to teach period, much less teach in the way that high school’s expect. I’ve been very luck to have gotten a job early in grad school working for the director of our teaching center–she drilled into me the kind of pedagogical thinking that has enabled me to talk to high school administrators. Were that not the case I’d probably be dead in the water.

      • Private HS teacher with a PhD here. It is not for the feint of heart and you need the right kind of personality. You spend a lot of time in the classroom and a lot of time grading. And that’s before we get to advising, coaching (?!), and clubs. I teach four classes, three preps, advise 7 students plus, since they are seniors, advise their senior projects, sit on judicial board, run the senior speech program (and supervise about 20 senior speeches directly), and help out with all kinds of diversity clubs. I’m also on the faculty green committee and diversity committee, And then there’s plays, concerts, sports games, dances to chaperone etc. I try to hit one event that each kid I teach does once in the year. And that’s not even including my own kids’ games, plays, and concerts. I like the work a lot, but when I had kid number three I damn near lost my job because I couldn’t keep up.

  • mojrim

    Perhaps it’s just my jaundiced eye, but the takeaway appears to be this: There are not enough academic jobs, in any field whatsoever, for the number of post-graduates we produce. Sure, there are always ways to beat the competition, to be the better candidate, but that’s just juggling the lifeboat list aboard Titanic.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Yes, and with all due respect to our hosts, the people who survived the trip are the last ones you should listen to about buying a ticket.

      • I agree completely.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          I don’t mean don’t listen, just that you’d be last :-)

          • mojrim

            I love you both, so, so much.

      • CD

        … though taking Erik’s advice about not going without a funding package (tuition waver plus a stipend for at least three years) would address part of this glut. I might add, don’t go unless there are multiple faculty you’d want to work with, and a vibrant grad student culture.

        The “we” in “we produce” is a little weird, no? There is no central planner. There’s lotsa places with grad programs, of widely varying quality.

        • paul1970

          Yes. If no-one will pay you to do your doctorate, it’s unlikely they’ll pay you thereafter.

        • mojrim

          You completely missed the point. This is about numbers, the “we” being “the united states of america” which is producing far more degrees than it can employ gainfully. That way lies ruin.

    • NorEastern

      Of course not. I for instance, did not even consider a career in academia. I went straight into industry.That is where most of the jobs for STEM graduate students are. Good luck to any PhD in history looking for a job at a high tech firm.

      • mojrim

        We have much the same problem in STEM; smaller, but it’s growing as people are squeezed into ever narrower tracks for “good jobs.”

    • NorEastern

      Absolutely. So if you do not have serious potential for employment in the private sector you should not even apply. Historians need not to enter that sector. There are no jobs.

    • The Lorax

      Let’s be clear why this is. It’s so people in R1s can avoid undergrad teaching. They need TAs.

      • rumpkin

        More specifically, they need TAs for undergrad grading. I’m teaching a 3/3 with students whose work needs a lot of constructive criticism. Admittedly, I’ve never been a speedy grader, but the grading gets all-consuming, especially after mid-semester.

        • The Lorax

          I’m doing a 3/3/3 (soon to be a 4/4) with similar grading. Yeah; it’s a hell of a lot of work. But I love teaching undergrads,

          • N__B

            But I love teaching undergrads

            That’s great. [We need a way of signaling the reverse of sarcasm, for those of us who have reputations for not making serious comments.]

      • Linnaeus

        In his book The Last Professors, Frank Donoghue says that (paraphrasing a bit here) that bringing in graduate students (for various reasons, including labor) is the real goal of graduate programs and that completed Ph.D.s are waste products.

        • The Lorax

          He’s exactly right.

        • mojrim

          Perfect

      • twbb

        My program was weird in that we had to fight a bit to be even allowed to teach our own classes; the policy was strongly that full time faculty were the only ones to teach undergrads. Glad I got in because my alternate was CUNY where teaching 4 classes a semester from the beginning was not unusual.

  • NewishLawyer

    #4 in your block quote is basically why I never went into academia. I cared too much about where I lived and even at 25, I saw the adjunct hell thing developing and this was way back in 2005.

    Now I could not predict law school imploding too. That finally (knocks wood) seems to have calmed down but it was rocky for a while and I was lucky in many ways through out the whole law school glut.

    • Dilan Esper

      That was a big problem for law school grads long before the collapse. I went to law school a generation earlier and I had many classmates who could not find legal work in Los Angeles. In major cities where people want to live, there’s a huge glut of talented candidates for every decent job. Being realistic about moving is a key asset in getting professional employment.

  • Peterr

    I hit the job market right as the economy collapsed in 2008. The first full year I was on the market, 1/2 of the jobs I applied for were shut down before interviews took place.

    At one point in my post-PhD job search, I had five applications pending. In one week, I got five letters from five deans saying that they had canceled the search.

    I’ve had better weeks.

    OTOH, as a friend told me after letter #5 arrived, it beats getting five rejection letters. “This is a case where ‘It’s not you – it’s me’ is actually correct.”

    • ArchTeryx

      Sounds not dissimilar to the “perfect” interview I put in for an Enviro Chem position with NYS, to the point the person whom I was interviewing to replace voted for me. Perfect wasn’t good enough. I was rejected anyway.

  • veleda_k

    This is very timely post for me personally, because I am once again considering grad school. This consideration comes along regularly, but it seems a bit more serious this time. But I’m really not a competitive candidate at the time, and programs for my field are few and far between.

    What I do now with absolute certainty is that I don’t want to do academia as a career.

    Anyway, nice job at catering to my specific interests.

  • Alworth

    This is a fantastic post, Erik. I think it could be extended beyond academics. Basically, very few people have this stuff figured out, and the course life takes, like spilled water, has more to do with open channels than foresight

    I started out in grad school and found my future spouse there–in the narrow humanities program we were both studying. Zero chance of finding a job at the same university. Eventually I left with just a masters and ended up doing research in an unrelated field in the city I wanted to live in (Portland). (You’ll be happy to know that allowed me to get very involved in the union–ultimately on the bargaining team–at PSU.)

    I have since managed to get where I should have started, as a working writer. Which brings me back to the original comment. Writing, like academics, requires a lot of one’s own ingenuity and resolve. Your story reminds me of successful writers, for whom there are no sinecures at newspapers left. They had to blog and take the work that was available and figure out how to turn that into a salary they could live on. It’s hard and you almost certainly won’t make much money. But you will live where you want and investigate what interests you. Trade offs. And you’ll be far more successful if you work hard and scrap.

  • osceola

    Thank you for writing this, Eric. I dropped out of the history PhD program at Texas when I noticed that tenure track was becoming a thing of the past, or at least a lot of positions being turned into non-tenured permanent or adjunct. As for moving around, I called it “being an academic vagabond,” and, since I LOOOOVE living in Austin, I just decided to stay because I consider this home and I ain’t EVER leaving.

    So I work at the local community college in a non-teaching position. I have insurance, paid vacation/sick/personal leave, nine paid days off every Christmas, paid week off for Spring Break (all campuses closed). So, yeah, I know I’m lucky as shit. I still value my education in that I am very well read and continue to read history and keep up with the literature just because that’s what I want to do as a pastime. I t also allows me to be informative in any political discussion. A degree (I have an MA from FSU) taught me research and analytical skills that I use as a citizen, and I am corny enough to believe that a well-informed citizenry is what the founders of this nation thought is the only way a republic with democratic elections can work.

    Some of my classmates did what you described, Eric. Some have permanent positions at my college. Most of them started as adjuncts when they were still grad students and made themselves known as competent and reliable in case the tenure search didn’t work out. A couple of others landed in small colleges (tenure track) in, for two examples, Ohio and upstate New York.

    So I agree that there are a lot of different ways someone can take a graduate education.

  • pillsy

    Yeah, I didn’t figure out I really didn’t want to do the things I’d have to do—move all the time, hustle all the time, et c.—in order to have the slightest chance of success until I had already finished my PhD. I had a string of really good luck in terms of being able to get a contracting gig that I really liked and spinning it into a full-time position.

    A lot of this came because I taught myself a lot of programming as a way to avoid writing my dissertation. That year spinning my wheels really paid off.

  • Paleolithic

    I wish I hadn’t gone to graduate school and gotten a PhD. No career I wanted. Not even a job. It was a complete waste of time.

    #sad

  • gccolby

    It’s late and I don’t want to tell a long story, but man do I have feels about this.

    I graduated college in February 2009 (I took an extra semester to add a second major, that’s the kind of nerd I am). You can imagine what the job market was looking like. But I’d applied to grad school, got in, and off I went. Three years later, I left with a Masters degree in biology. That’s it’s own long and sordid story, but suffice it to say, I got lucky. I could’ve left after five years with nothing.

    I’ve certainly wondered if going to grad school was the right decision, especially since I didn’t get out of it what I was aiming for. And I’ve been scrambling pretty much continuously ever since. The thing is, it’s not obvious that I would’ve been better off had I stayed local and tried to get into industry then. It was 2009! It was a mess. The only obvious opportunities for a fresh graduate with an Environmental Sciences degree were lab-packing gigs. Where would that have led? Well, in my travels through the industry interview circuit recently, I’ve noticed that most of the R.A.s out there seem to be in their early and mid-20’s. At my age bracket, early 30’s, there’s almost no one. Maybe that’s just an artifact of the career cycle, and those kids are going to get their PhDs and coming back to fill out the leadership jobs. But between this and people I know around my age, it sure seems like a lot of us Great Recession graduates never got back on a “professional” career track. It’s near miraculous to me that I’ve been able to continue working in science after a whole series of setbacks. It’s felt like a scramble the whole time. I keep thinking I’m just about to make it and I’ll be able to relax a bit, but so far, nope. You just can’t get too comfortable. So on the whole, I think even the weird and abbreviated grad school experience I did have probably set me up better for the scramble than had I never gone. But I guess that means I’m lucky, in my own way.

  • gmoot

    I’m a social scientist in a field other than economics, where the external market has been robust for decades. In my field, we’re seeing a growing share of PhD students with decent quant skills take research jobs in tech companies. There, they make more than twice the starting salary of tenure-track assistant professors *at elite institutions* (not that there are more than 2-3 of these jobs per year) and 4-5 times the starting “salary” on the adjunct circuit.

    This is a great outlet for the students who are getting in on the gig. But, I wonder about the long-term viability of these companies — many of which are losing insane amounts of money — as an outlet job market. And, closer to home, I worry about the long-term effect of brain drain on higher education, and on the quality of the free, basic research and training on which these and other companies rely.

  • yet_another_lawyer

    This is very late, but just in case anybody finds this thread and reads it all the way through: While others have mentioned the problem of opportunity cost, it’s a far bigger cost than generally given credit for because of the miracle of compound interest. Because of compounding, $1,000 a year saved from 22-32 is far more valuable than, say, $10,000 saved at 32. So even if you do a funded grad program, strike out of academia, and then get a decent job, you can never catch up to your hypothetical “straight to the job market” 22 year old self (and if you’re a hard enough worker to get a PhD you would have done reasonably well at SOMETHING in ten years). This is even worse if you take on some debt for either undergrad or grad school, because then compound interest is working against you and you really can’t catch up.

    Separately, I would resist the urge to put too much stock in anecdotes about a cohort that did well. Oddly, the federal government requires gainful employment statistic reporting for vocational programs but not for graduate programs… so while we don’t know exactly how bad it is out there, it’s bad. “I read about these people who did get a job so I should do grad school” is right up there with “I read about these people who won the lottery, so I should buy a ticket.”

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Thank you. It’s scary that some educated people don’t recognize these basic facts. Bottom line, like the arts or minor league sports — count on grad school costing you money, do it only if your life will feel incomplete otherwise. Which can be a sufficient reason!

      • yet_another_lawyer

        Yeah, much like “I love art so much I’m going to make $15,000 a year being a painter” can be a valid life style choice. If that’s what you want to do it’s fine, just know what you’re doing.

    • Ronan

      Meh. Again it’s an empirical question. All of this boilerplate about opportunity costs(there are opportunity costs going straight into the labour market) and lost wealth(how much do similar people in their 20s save)is still only speculation.

      “you can never catch up to your hypothetical “straight to the job market” 22 year old self ”

      This is an assumption in need of an argument. There is no ‘hypothetical straight to the job market 22 year old self.’ Obviously if you construct a scenario where your hypothetical straight to market self has done better than your grad school self, then the argument is tautological.

      I think the actual conclusion is ‘it depends.’ Some grad degrees are clearly less of a risk than others.

      https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/paying/articles/2017-03-14/weigh-the-cost-benefits-of-graduate-school
      “So it’s important to assess whether a graduate degree really is worthwhile before sacrificing a salary for an extended period and piling on debt. Generally speaking, yes, “graduate degrees provide substantial returns, on average, irrespective of the field,” says Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.”

      “This is even worse if you take on some debt for either undergrad or grad school, because then compound interest is working against you and you really can’t catch up.”

      Yes, obviously. This is explicitly noted in the OP.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        That U.S. News article is mostly about professional degrees, not the kind we’re discussing here, and is also largely BS and constructed from survivorship bias among those who end up employed (note the reference to law as an “obvious” degree that pays for itself). We’re talking about probabilities and probable costs, and you keep saying every snowflake is different. We’re reminding young people of a cost they can too easily overlook, and you keep saying meh, it all depends.

      • yet_another_lawyer

        1) It’s true that it’s impossible to know for sure if you would have had a better life if you had made different choices, but there are few career paths for college graduates that leave them more poor than when they graduated 8 years later (which, on average, a graduate student will be, if for no other reason than interest accumulating on some of their undergraduate loans) and then never get a job that utilizes their PhD. We don’t know exactly what that percentage that is, because PhD programs are not subject to meaningful reporting requirements on gainful employment, but the high number of applicants for every academic job, the fierce competition for shitty adjunct jobs, crowdsourced materials, and anecdotes like the one in this thread are pretty suggestive. Now, fine, maybe all those people would be worse off if they had done something else with their lives, but maybe somebody in prison is actually better off because on the outside they would have been hit by a bus. You can’t know for sure, but that’s hardly a reason to want to go to prison.

        2) Pardon my skepticism, but a real estate agent always thinks now is the great time to buy a house, a car salesman always thinks you need a new car, and a university always thinks a degree is a marvelous idea. Until very recently, law schools were outright scamming prospective marks with bogus employment statistics until internet crowdsourcing made it infeasible to do so.

    • Elkinmotion

      My actual 22 year old self made just above minimum wage with no benefits at two part time jobs. I wasn’t saving a dime. Grad school almost doubled my income and I was able to save, although granted not at the “15% for retirement plus employer match” level.

      I think my hypothetical non grad student self would have caught up about 3 years in, so we’re only talking 3 actual years of lower income. Most of my friends weren’t really stable until their mid to late 20s. That’s about equivalent to stopping with a master’s, which is actually valuable in all the fields I’ve worked in.

      So I think it’s not as dire as you paint, at least for those of us who didn’t go into fields with great salaried jobs for inexperienced 22 year olds. And maybe then the argument is everyone should go into tech or consulting, which is…an entirely different and kind of sad argument.

    • Dagmar

      Graduate school is for the children of wealthy parents, or those who marry them.

      • This is very much not true for a lot of people

  • If you (hypothetical PhD student) are open to relocating overseas there are some good opportunities that pay rather handsomely.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      Most overseas positions in Africa and Asia pay very poorly. There are some in the Middle East that pay good. But, I only got my current position due to knowing people on the inside and even then it took three years of applying. The compensation is excellent. But, the teaching load is heavy and the students here are much, much, much less disciplined then those I taught in Kyrgyzstan or Ghana. For instance people say cheating is bad in the former USSR. But, Kurdistan is many orders of magnitude worse than Kyrgyzstan on that front. Even with one proctor for every five students I still hear rumors that they cheat in my exams. Also this is the first time I have had students incessantly disturb class. I thought it was just me since I was used to highly disciplined African students. But, evidently the Middle East and especially Kurdistan is orders of magnitude worse than everywhere else regarding classroom conduct. A lot of students here just want to get perfect marks and not do any work what so ever so they can become engineers and build bridges that collapse.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      Also Middle Eastern regimes unlike African ones are notorious for not granting spousal visas. My wife’s visa application has been rejected three times now in eight months.

      • Gulf states are generally okay about granting spousal visas (a lot of red tape but there’s a lot of that to go around here but the edu institution should have people for that). The problem can be getting a job for your spouse.

  • rumpkin

    The moving thing is huge. I really had no idea even after defending that pretty much everyone looking for a tt job was going to have to take at least one short-term position before getting on the tenure track. My wife and I decided when I finished (in 2013) that we would move anywhere for a tt job because, like, I thought it was entirely reasonable to expect to get a tt job right after finishing. But even the “rising stars” (of which I was not one) in my top 20 program found themselves in one-year positions before landing tt jobs. And with a working (primary breadwinning) spouse and a child on the way jumping around the continent for temporary work wasn’t really in the cards.

    • Linnaeus

      Yeah, it is huge and it’s one reason of several why I chose not to go into academia.

      A friend of mine emailed me recently and when I asked him if he’d be in town (we both attended the same graduate program), he said no and then went on to say that he wasn’t sure if he’d have a job by the end of the summer. He completed his Ph.D. about four years ago and is on his third stopgap job. Yeesh.

    • Elkinmotion

      It’s also awful for couples who met in grad school. The options are living apart or one or both people leaving academia or adjuncting to follow each other. My choice was leaving, jury’s still out on whether the spouse (currently a postdoc) will find a TT job somewhere tolerable.

  • Eli Rabett

    To depress you even further. The academic job market in STEM collapsed in 1970 and has never recovered. It was never anything but overcrowded in Libreal Arts. Since a 70 year old academic does not have to retire there are implications.

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