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The Case Against the Case Against Grad School


Brian Weatherson has a terrific response to this crude description of grad school and the academic job market, which is a pretty common line of argument. So good, in fact, that my points are more reiterations than additions. It should first be noted that the academic job market is indeed simply not as dire as “Dean Dad” suggests, and it’s not just elite schools. I, and my co-bloggers, went (or are currently in) a program which is well-regarded but not elite (in terms of reputation); it generally ranks around 25th in departmental rankings for political science. And yet are placement record is, in fact, very good: most of the people who finish the program end up in tenure track jobs. And good jobs, too; in the last 5 years our relatively small program has placed people in tenure-track jobs at good institutions like Cornell, the University of Wisconsin, U of Illinois, U Conn, the University of Oregon the University of Delaware, Concordia University in Montreal, etc. Even the most dubious students in our program can end up with excellent tenure-track jobs at Hunter College and The University of Kentucky. Now, admittedly, I think our program is much better than its ranking suggests (but doesn’t everybody, and on the job market reputation matters a lot whether it’s accurate or not), and there are certain subfields–like comparative politics and public law–in which our program probably has a stronger reputation than the overall ranking (but many of our best placements come outside of these fields.) But that, of course, is what Brian is saying; the question about grad school is not whether to “go to grad school” per se, but whether a particular offer is good, so you need to look into a department to see if it’s a good fit for you. But, anyway, it’s simply not true that tenure-track jobs are nearly impossible to get in every field, or even that the good prospects are limited to elite universities; that’s just a hoary canard. Look into the placement records of the departments and programs you’re interested in; don’t just assume that it’s hopeless.

I also agree with Brian that grad school was, for me, a very good experience. Yeah, the pay is awful, but to state the obvious if money is a big priority–which is a perfectly legitimate consideration!–then academia really isn’t for you. And, of course, it’s not for many (or most) people. But I like seminars, I like writing, and I liked teaching; I thought grad school in and of itself was rewarding and engaging, and I’ve never had the slightest regret. Aside from the crude utilitarianism, Dean Dad is frankly crazy to compare high school teaching with academia; they’re very, very different jobs. The nature of the teaching is different, some people like to write and do research, etc. You should think very carefully about it, do a lot of research, and be honest about your own values and aspirations and be aware of what you’re sacrificing before you go to grad school, without question. The risk for ending up in an awful cycle of adjunct jobs is all-too-present, even if the chances are exaggerated and vary wildly across programs and fields, and you need to consider that too. But totalizing critiques like Dean Dad’s are useless, and I would strongly advise you to ignore them if you’re considering grad school.

…in the comments at CT, John Emerson does remind me of one crucial caveat: “Don’t go to grad school if you aren’t fully funded.” That’s absoultely true. You shouldn’t pay a dime in tuition money to attend grad school in the humanities and social sciences, and while you shouldn’t expect an income much above subsistence you shouldn’t be borrowing money for food and rent. The payoff at the end just isn’t worth taking on significant debt the way it is for law school or med school.

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