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Should You Go to Graduate School?



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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