Thursday, February 05, 2009

Advising to Students about Grad School (in English Specifically, though in the Humanities Generally, I Suppose)

A number of places have had posts about this whole "advising students about grad school" thing lately, from Thomas H. Benton over at the Chronicle to Sybil Vane over at Bitch Ph.D. to Sisyphus over at Academic Cog. Now, Benton is a tenured professor at an LAC, whereas Sybil and Sis are on-the-market peeps who've yet to secure a full-time gig. I'll admit that I haven't read the comment thread to Sybil's post, so let me just put that out there right now. I suppose I want to respond because I advise a lot of undergraduates. I've got somewhere around 30 who are technically my advisees, plus I end up being the unofficial adviser to a lot of the students whom I encounter in my classes (so let's estimate about 20 or so defacto advisees in addition to the official ones on my roster) when it comes to these matters. I'm also in a weird position, in that I'm an almost-tenured English professor in a department at a regional comprehensive with a brand spanking new MA program in English, at a no-name regional institution that caters to a crowd of 1st generation college students (which is not dissimilar from my own experience, attending a no-name regional institution as a 1st generation college student). We're all coming from different places.

So, here's my baggage:

1. I do think that it's unethical to suggest to students that graduate school is anything but one of the most risky options available for "what to do" with their English degree. In fact, it might be the absolute riskiest option, and they should know that, not just because I say "don't do this!" but they should know the how and why of that risk.
2. That said, I am glad that I ended up taking that risk. (Of course, it worked out well for me, so that is a factor here.)
3. I do think that there are many rewarding things people can do with their lives with an English degree that don't involve graduate school in English, and I am careful to suggest those options - to encourage those options, and to explain the pathways to those options - to students. That said, law school isn't exactly a fantastic option for a lot of reasons (so this is not the failsafe that I think English profs often make it out to be) and even going to get trained as a librarian isn't necessarily an option that is filled with jobs! jobs! jobs! in our current economic climate. In other words, I don't think we're off the hook if we advise people to law school or to library science. In fact, English grad school can be a better short-term option, if students can get a fully funded slot. (Note that I say it can be a better short-term option - not necessarily a better long-term one.)

I think that the thing that I resist in the "Graduate School in English - Don't Do It" (and yes, you should be singing that to the tune of "Teenage Suiciiiiide - Don't Do it" tune, and if you don't know the pop culture reference to which I refer, well, shame on you) is that really it's not about telling all people not to do it. It's about telling people who are, variously, working-class or female or ethnic minorities or even middle-class people who don't have family money or spousal support, not to do it. It's about telling people who don't go to Ivies or elite slacs or their equivalents not to do it. It's about reifying an educated elite and telling everybody else to go work in human resources or in administrative sorts of jobs or whatever. Those people should just be happy to get a paycheck, really. Because they aren't part of the privileged class that can strap on a career as an intellectual. They can read in their free time, right? It can be a lifelong and enriching hobby for the unwashed masses, but clearly they shouldn't aim for it to be something more than that.

But if you have family money? Pursue your dreams! If you marry advantageously? Rock it out with your grad school ambitions! If you "fit" into the status quo of our cultural image of what a professor should be? The world is your oyster! (Which of course, isn't true in the discipline of English, either. Those people still might end up being adjuncts, or people with long-term contracts, or people who end up working in student services sorts of gigs. But the reality is that they will still get the support [material, emotional] that they need to pursue graduate school, whereas, these narratives indicate, people outside of the educated elite shouldn't even consider it.)

And this, for me, is the rub, with the "Don't Do It" narrative. This approach to how to handle professionalization in English (whether that's professionalization toward a range of fields with a BA or toward advanced study in the discipline itself) is both lacking in subtelty and ultimately discriminatory. And any student educated in English at the undergraduate level by decent professors should be able to recognize that fact. So what the "Don't Do It" narrative produces is similar to what the "Dancing is the Gateway to Sin" narrative in Footloose produces: a wild daughter who has premarital sex with a jerk who challenges the new guy in town to a game of chicken on tractors and who punches her in the face. Or, alternatively, uninformed students who go to grad school anyway, in programs that don't fund them and that treat them badly and don't prepare them for the profession, which then blame the student for not ending up in a job with health insurance while laughing maniacally as they talk about the "revenue" that these unsuspecting students have generated for the university.

So, no. I don't think that it makes sense to tell students to go to grad school in English only if, as Benton suggests, the following factors are in place:

  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
Let me address each point in order, in terms of my own experience:
  • I was not in any way shape or form independently wealthy. However, I also did not have to support anyone other than myself, and I did have the support of my parents (materially, emotionally) during graduate school. What that meant was that I was hurting no one but myself by trying. I also got good advice about going to grad school funded, so, though I do have student loan debt related to living expenses, I could have paid my bills if I ended up in a lower-wage job (think in the 20s) than my current one (inside or outside the academy). I never considered adjuncting as a career move I'd make - I can type 100 words a minute, and seriously: I would have worked in a clerical job with benefits doing transcription typing on the side before I'd have adjuncted full time, and while I'd not have been flush with funds, I would have been able to survive on that).
  • I made the connections that I have in graduate school, because my "connections" prior to that were with people with high school educations or less. I also dispute the fact that "connectedness" can secure tenure-track jobs these days. I have friends who ostensibly are much more well connected (pre-grad-school) than me who are still doing VAP gigs or who have left the profession altogether. Connections are what you make of them (a), but also (b) connections don't mean shit when over 500 people apply for a job. Dude. With that many applicants, at least 20 will be "well connected." There is only one job. I think that this possibility is obsolete.
  • I actually think it's not always a good thing if you're relying on a partner, as for most people who do, that binds them to a place. The reality is that if you're bound to a place, you will not get a job as a t-t person in English. And so, advising students in this fashion in some ways can relegate them to the adjunct track, particularly in the current economy. Indeed, you might have a partner with a great job, and then you go to a great grad school where the partner has the great job. But then when you want to pursue your own career, they don't have an option to move to rural South Dakota. In which case, you'll be adjuncting at your old grad school, not really pursuing the career that you had in mind initially. This is also why it can suck to enter into a partnership with one's dissertation adviser, incidentally. Do that, and you may well always be the faculty wife who teaches in the department and is never an actual faculty member with faculty pay and faculty benefits.
  • Indeed, earning a credential that your employer is paying for is totally a grand idea. I have no objections to this. In fact, I often advise my English Ed students who think they may want grad school to go into high school teaching in order to get this benefit for their MA. This one is fine to me, in isolation. It's just that those elite intellectuals won't take this option. Students like mine will. And that sucks. Because why should working-class students have to do indentured servitude in public high schools before they even entertain the idea of grad school? That, if HS teaching isn't what they actually want, is wack. This advice is the same as telling a student who wants to be a lawyer, if they go to a crappy undergrad institution, that they have to be a paralegal for 5-10 years before they can think about law school.
But if this isn't what we should tell undergrads thinking of grad school, or, more precisely, what I feel comfortable telling such students, then what to tell them?

Well, here's what I tell my students.

I ask them why they think they want to go to graduate school. If they say it's because they want to teach, I ask them why not high school. If they explain why they don't want to teach high school, I ask them what they think the job of a college professor is. And then I tell them about my job. All of my job. I tell them about the rage-inducing service. I tell them about the various demands of teaching and how much time they take. I tell them about how long it takes to get an article to publication, and the various steps of that, I tell them about the tenure process, and I tell them about the disappointments of things not going how they're supposed to go. I tell them about feeling like you're a loser because you don't end up in a t-t position (based on friends' examples) or in a t-t position at the "right" kind of school (based on my own experience). I tell them about the even worse feeling of teaching piecemeal by course, comp, to make 20 grand a year without insurance. I tell them about the students whom I've advised to grad school who've left after the MA to have great, great lives. I tell them about all of the parts of it.

And after all of that, if they still want to be a college professor, I tell them about the personal sacrifices. I tell them about the relationships that can't survive grad school. I tell them about trailing spouses. I tell them about long-distance marriages and about the biological clocks that stop ticking. I tell them about living far away from dying parents.

And let's say they're not sure that grad school would be for them. I tell them about the careers our undergrads have gone on to secure. (Jobs at the local entertainment weekly, jobs in student services or PR departments of our university, jobs in corporations in the area, jobs in editing, jobs teaching, jobs in non-profits, jobs in HR departments or other local businesses.)

Let's say that they think that they want grad school but that they also reveal that they never want to leave the area and they don't really like research. I tell them all of the other things that they should probably consider, because if those are the conditions, becoming a "professor" is unlikely at best.

All the way along, whatever their situation, I talk to my students about professionalization. Whether that means internships at local businesses or doing conferences (locally, for undergraduates, etc.), doing research projects with faculty members, doing editing projects, etc. I talk to them about the skills that they need to be able to demonstrate with this major. The point is, jobs, whether those "jobs" are conventional or whether they are jobs that lead to graduate school, or whether they are in themselves graduate school, require experience and expertise. School doesn't get those people those things. You've got to be thinking about marketability long before you've got the degree - whether that degree is a BA, and MA, or a Ph.D. Because for students outside of elite universities or colleges, you've got to have more than the degree. Actually, maybe all students need more than the degree, but students at my kind of university don't realize they've got to do those other things, necessarily. Because they don't necessarily have the advising (whether by family or by faculty) that privileges those things.

So, I suppose what I think, at the end of the day, is that "Don't Do It" is as irresponsible a piece of advice as "Do It." First, because if we're doing our jobs then our students should be utterly suspicious of both pieces of advice. Second, because while I don't want to produce a generation of "mini-mes" in the academy by sending my students off to mediocre grad programs, I also don't want to produce a generation of students who get tracked into crappy jobs that are "good enough." Ultimately, what I want, is to advise students in such a way that I give those who might succeed on the academic track the best support possible, as well as the best advice about what to do if it doesn't work out. (One thing I spend a lot of time talking about with my students who end up pursuing grad school is what they'll do if they don't get a job on their first year, or second or third years, out.) And I want to give students who might not succeed on the academic track the best advice possible for them, giving them options that will make for a great life - a life that will enrich them - even if their "dream" is not the thing that they ultimately should pursue - which isn't the same thing as just telling them no.

Here's the thing:

Should anybody pursue an advanced degree - whether it's an MA or a Ph.D. - in English unfunded? No.

Would I encourage anybody who has attained an M.A. or a Ph.D. to pursue the adjunct track? No.

But do I think that we should only encourage a priveleged class to grad school in my discipline? Do I think that only people who went to Ivies or Elite slacs, or who have wealthy spouses, or who have trust funds, should get to think about and teach others to think about books for a living?

No, I don't think that.

Even though we have a huge problem with adjunct labor, even though we have a profession that is not equitable and that doesn't take care of the people that it trains. No, I don't think that the answer is to say that only the privileged few should be granted access. No, I don't think that the privileged few should be trained toward the profession of college professor. I don't say that because I want to exploit the underclass that I teach. I say that because I want to be able, when it is possible, to bring some of those students up out of it. They should, if they want it and if they are suited to it, have that chance.

With that being said, I had a conversation recently with my student whose thesis I'm advising. She expressed that she thinks grad school in English may not be for her. After listening to her, do you know what I said? I told her that if she thinks she'd be happy doing anything else that she should pursue that. I also told her that even if she changed her mind, that grad school would be there whenever she wanted it. I then told her that I want her to be happy more than anything. I will be as happy for her if she gets a regular job and pursues that as I would if she applied to grad school as I would if she did law school. What I want is her happiness. Do I think she could be a great grad student? Yes. Do I think she's a great person? Even moreso. And being a great and happy person matters more. She needs to do what is right for her. If she takes an academic path, I will do everything in my power to help her success. But I won't in any way be disappointed if she chooses something else. Why? Because I care about her infinitely more than I care about me and my ego and my academic lineage. And that's how it should be.


Nik said...

The last paragraph really struck me. I think some students need permission not to go (as you so kindly allowed to your thesis advisee) as well as permission to go, with all the caveats stated. I particularly think that you're right that students should experience a conference, an internship, what it feels like to get a rejection for their essay. Most academics don't know what other jobs there are, English profs in particular. Just having a list of what your cool grads ended up doing means that you're advising them broadly. Thanks for the smart and thorough post.

Laura said...

Once again, an excellent post. I want to pull out this:

"I actually think it's not always a good thing if you're relying on a partner, as for most people who do, that binds them to a place. The reality is that if you're bound to a place, you will not get a job as a t-t person in English. And so, advising students in this fashion in some ways can relegate them to the adjunct track, particularly in the current economy."

My husband and I actually had the plan of doing a national search together when I finished my degree. That didn't really work out. He ended up wanting to leave before I did. I'm now relegated to adjunct life if I want to stay in academe. I think, actually, that I want to get as far away as possible--not that I'm bitter--but it's easy to get sucked in.

Sybil Vane said...

I appreciate your perspective here, but just want to point out that the reasons I want to emphasize for not going to grad school have less to do with money (because I agree with much of what you say about how that can valence) and more to do with the ethics of a professional organization that exploits its labor and a career which nearly necessitate training to be undertaken as an extension of one's personality. The risks of emotional and intellectual devestation at not being successful on the market (which, let's face it, is likely) are too great given the intensely personal nature of graduate school. My class narrative w/r/t graduate school and the profession is similar to yours and I am not trying to reify a segregation of privilege with the discussion.

Anastasia said...

"The risks of emotional and intellectual devestation at not being successful on the market (which, let's face it, is likely) are too great given the intensely personal nature of graduate school."

I object to this statement really strongly, in part because I think it starts from the assertion that potential grad students have been praised and encouraged their entire lives, to which I also object strenuously as an account of the standard experience.

I could say more but it's tangential to this post and I'm not in english, so maybe I'll write something in my own space about it.

Sybil Vane said...

That's really not how I am thinking of it, Anastasia. I am thinking of the actualities of a dissertation, which purports to be a manifestation of a scholars unique, personal, singular intellectual contribution to scholarship. The dissertation is a calcification of intellect, and insistently original and singular intellect at that. My experience is that the emotional and psychological investment in professinal training of this nature is, as a result, much more likely to result in a kind of entanglement that is toxic when coupled with very bleak prospects for success.

Dr. Crazy said...

I see what you're saying, and if the message goes out to every undergrad who attends an elite slac, every undergrad who attends an Ivy, heck, every undergrad who attends a flagship public, and we just close down all grad programs in English, or totally change the parameters of getting a Ph.D. in English, then I might be on board with what you're saying here.

The problem is, that's not going to happen. What will happen is that a "certain kind of student" will always get the support and mentoring that they need in order to pursue an academic path. And for all of those other students, many will still end up going to grad school anyway, just with little insight about what that entails, and with little advice about how to navigate that difficult terrain.

I guess what I'm saying is that I understand your objections to how this discipline - and by extension, academia as a whole - operates, and I mostly agree with you about how bad that all is. The crucial thing for me, though, is that there will always be a segment of the population who does it anyway, and so if some of those people come into my office, I want to give them as much information as support as possible because they're not likely to get it anyplace else. Most of the students that I advise about grad school don't end up going on to the PhD, incidentally, and a lot end up going into other sorts of fields besides English. But they make their own decisions and they know I'm happy with whatever they decide. I think that's a good thing, if only because it gets rid of the "I'll show that person!" reason for spending 10 years getting a PhD.

Anastasia said...

I don't see how that's not potentially the case in a whole host of professions. I hear the argument that academics invest more of their identities in their work than other professionals but I don't know how far I trust that. I don't think academia is that special. And while academia may be unusual in terms of the huge amount of training plus bleak job prospects, other careers present other challenges that are equally problematic. Like the potential to be fired without cause, despite stellar performance and work ethic. Because that can happen in some professions and does.

My point being, having a career means risking failure and facing certain difficulties, in any field. So why the special warning to students about academia? Because of the emotional or psychological stress of investment plus bleak job prospects? That's what I heard and I think that's where my reaction is coming from, rather than from your critique of academia, which seems fair although I don't think one *has* to identify with one's work in this way, to calcify intellect and such. Not every graduate student has that experience.

But beneath that, I am very uneasy about the idea of a professor interrogating the real or potential emotional state of a student. Like the blanket statement "potential grad students have been praised their whole lives" it assumes too much. And to speculate about how a student will handle the potential emotional and intellectual stress--that failure will be devastating--seems invasive.a

human said...

"...and more to do with the ethics of a professional organization that exploits its labor and a career which nearly necessitate training to be undertaken as an extension of one's personality."

I don't understand the bolded part of this sentence from Sybil's comment. Can someone help me out here?

rachel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shane in Utah said...

I shouldn't be posting, as I have five dozen response papers to grade before my class in 2 hours. But I have to weigh in here:

In declaring that it's irresponsible to tell students "don't do it", aren't you assuming that the state of the profession will continue along more or less as it has been for the last 20 years? Whereas I'm really afraid that this economic crisis is going to destroy higher education as we know it in this country. Seriously. The state universities in my region are facing budget cuts of 20% or more. If my state declares a state of financial emergency, that frees the administration to start firing tenured faculty and closing entire programs. And hundreds of non-elite private universities around the country are in danger of total collapse. I'm not sure the profession will survive all this. So I think it may be irresponsible to tell ANYONE to pursue a career in academia right now, not knowing what that career may look like (of if it will even exist--many third-world universities don't even teach English literature any more, and we seem to be headed down that path) in 6-8 years.

I also wonder what exactly you mean by "funded." Is $10,000 or $12,000 really enough to live on without going massively into debt? It can cost $10,000 just to move across the country and get settled in a new place. If you have to fund your own travels to research destinations, conferences, etc. the student loans (not to mention credit card debt) add up fast. Why take that risk with absolutely no guarantee of finding a job at the end?

I feel bad discouraging students from grad school when I derive such enormous satisfaction from my own job. But in the last couple of years, my advice to students has evolved from "think very carefully about this career path" to "don't do it!!!". And I think I've done so for good reasons.

Bardiac said...

Dr. C. Thank you :) I'm happy knowing you're out there as a colleague in the large sense, advising students well. I imagine your students benefit immensely from your advice.

It's hard, being at the sort of school we're at, to know that our brightest students are every bit as smart and hard working as those at elite SLACs, but that they don't have nearly the opportunities. And if grad programs cut student acceptances and funding, they won't cut the students from elite SLACs; they'll cut our students. And our students deserve better.

Dr. Crazy said...

Here's where I think it's irresponsible, and this ultimately has nothing to do with my ability to predict the future of higher education: there will be students who do not listen to you. Quite a good many, I'd imagine. Saying "don't do it" closes a door, and then those students end up *paying tuition to go to graduate school* because they don't realize that they shouldn't do that, or they end up going to the program closest to home that has an atrocious placement rate of their PhDs. The thing is, I know that my response when my undergraduate adviser told me not to go to grad school under any circumstances (because I'd never get into a good enough program, I wasn't stellar enough to ever get a job even if I did) was to think, "my adviser is a big jerk" and to proceed without guidance. That's how I ended up in my MA program, and I was *incredibly lucky* that I didn't make a bigger mess of that.

I guess that I don't think that laying down the law and saying "don't do it" lets us off the hook or means that we're somehow absolved if a student goes to grad school. No, I think that we're *still* responsible. So, by extension, if we say "don't do it" and then wash our hands of the whole thing, I think that makes us irresponsible.

And as for going to grad school fully funded, yes, that did mean for me a meager stipend (mine was 9K when I started my PhD program in Boston in 1997; by the end I think that it got up to about 12K or so), and no, that's not some grand living. And so I worked to make extra money, in my last year of grad school I came back to the midwest and temped rather than adjuncted because I was able to make more money doing that. I had minimal help from my parents and I took about about 5K in loans per year to supplement living expenses. I know students (not ones I advise) who enrolled in crappy MA programs locally and paid for the whole shebang, emerging with more debt than I've got and without a terminal degree. So you're right: "funding" doesn't mean "making a decent living" but at least it can mean coming away neutral or close to neutral rather than in debt that you will have no possibility of repaying.

(A lot also depends on whether has massive debt from undergrad, which I didn't. But that's why it's important to talk to individual students about their situations rather than just saying no, at least in my view.)

Sybil Vane said...

I'm not sure that what I've written, or what Benton has writtne, suggests that either of us advocate saying "Don't do it," and then washingo ur hadns of the matter, closing off all further conversation. I"m saying going to graduate school in the humanities is a bad decision. And I have a lot of reasons why I think that. And I would give them to real live students, not just to the internet. I feel like an absitence-only education kind of analogy is being created here, where if one holds the position that a humanities PhD is a bad idea, she must be in denial abotu the fact that kids are going to have sex anywya, and now maybe without condoms. I wouldn't let an advice seeking student leave my office ill-informed about the rules of the game and how to play it, but I would still tell her that I don't recommend this path.

Dr. Crazy said...

No you haven't said that you wouldn't talk to students again. I'm sorry if I implied that. I think that my take on this is that I never consulted with my adviser who told me not to go to grad school again. Because I felt like she was hostile to me. And so while no one has said they wouldn't have continual conversations with their students about grad school after the fact, I do feel like saying "that's a bad decision if you choose to do that" might not be the best way to encourage continuing conversation.

Also, can I just note that I've never said that I *recommend* graduate school as an option to students? And that the entirety of my post is about how I work really hard to emphasize the many options that students have other than graduate school? My point isn't that we should be encouraging anybody to go get advanced degrees in English. My point is that students who end up at my kind of institution deserve support and need support. And "support" to me doesn't mean telling them they're great and they should follow their bliss without thinking through the costs of their choices, but it also doesn't mean telling them they're making a bad decision if they don't do as I say and not as I did. I responded to that as hypocrisy when it was done to me, and I responded to it as bullshit. Maybe not all people would respond that way, but that's how my 20-year-old self responded, and I do think that a good many of my students might respond similarly.

the rebel lettriste said...

Ah, debt. I have commented elsewhere that I was one of those students who was told NOT TO GET A PHD, by my elite SLAC profs. The intimation was just as Dr. Crazy puts it: some fancier kids were grad school material. But not me! I was too ... unmonied, too cantankerous, too female, too something.

Anyway, my undergrad advisor told me explicitly that he'd recommend me for an MFA, but not a PhD. So I went off and indebted myself to the hilt going to a highly ranked MFA creative writing program. And then promptly realized that being a poet with some $55K in the hole was not tenable. (Half that debt was from my BA, I'll point out.)

It was only then that I found mentors who told me to go do a PhD at 1.) a place where it was cheap, and 2.) a place with a powerful union and benefits.

I tell my students that grad school is cool if somebody else pays for it. And I work with them to figure out how to make that happen.

And also, for me the dissertation wasn't about what Sybil's calling "a manifestation of a scholars unique, personal, singular intellectual contribution to scholarship. The dissertation is a calcification of intellect, and insistently original and singular intellect at that." It was always a means to an end, and I knew that, and my advisors knew that. The best diss. is a DONE diss.

Sybil Vane said...

I think that's fair. When students ask me about grad school I own that I am not especially happy with my decisions, that I have sacrificed things I would like to have back, and that the world is hardly my oyster. Which is to say, I try to deflate the potential for hypocrisy to the extent that I can. I try to not even talk so much about how "it's hard work" because I don't want to sound like I am suggesting they can't hack it.

jennyfields said...

This is really the balanced response I've been hoping to hear. I am part of the dozen kids in the English Honors program at my R1 undergrad. We are the best of those graduating in English this year. I've struggled with bitterness because, while engaging in conversations with other students, I always feel like the "other." Most of my classmates are kids who went to private high schools (that actually educated them instead of lowering standards to keep the drop out rate low) with parents who give them semesters abroad and leases in ultra-new apartment complexes. I work part-time because I have to pay my rent, not because my parents want me to have the character of earning my pin money in college. My mom was terrified for years because she always told me I could go to college if I wanted it, but she knew that she and my father would never be able to help me do it. Luckily, I figured out scholarships and aid.

Among my fellow honors students I feel like, what the hell am I doing here?

I've always felt like I have a "place" dictated by my economic situation. I should get married out of high school and get a job so that our combined income will support us (women can't make it on one income is the assumption). Then you have children because your job is so mind-numbing that you need a family to come home to in order to have an identity. When I read these polemics about graduate school, I get the same feeling. There's a "place" for certain types of students (not academia, not to be educated) and they should stay in it. This may mean a better class of jobs and class position than what was available to my mother, but it still assumes the same values.

I know the risks. I've had good professors give me sober advice and I comb the academic blogs for information on realistic expectations and how to professionalize. I would only go to grad school if I were fully funded and with my additional disability funding I will be making more than my mother or father even with the lowliest TA salary (no addition loans, in other words). I am used to living on small means (and the way some people bandy about "poverty" in complete ignorance of what poverty really is bothers me). I am prepared to live anywhere and not to be able to buy a house or marry until my 30s. I'm prepared not to have a family with children.

If getting faculty or TT doesn't work out, I'll become a teacher at a private high school or some other sort of job that need writing and communication skills. Those are much more stimulating jobs than were ever open to my mother and there is a lot farther to fall than a desk job. Is it possible that the education itself can be more important than an early start to stability? My parents are 50 and their unskilled labor jobs are still not stable. They never got to buy a house until five years ago and if they aren't careful they may lost it.

I know that people and circumstances change. Maybe what I want will change someday. I'm doing the terminal Masters first to get a feel for grad school and teaching as well as continue to professionalize in order to enter a better Ph.D program. The only thing I can say is that I feel I am going into this sober and clear headed with realistic expectations and a specific understanding of my values. I won't have the bitterness of looking back and saying "but no one told me!" I own my choices.

Some of the disenfranchised may have their own motivations. They watched generations of their family breaking their backs in coal mines and getting repetitive motion injuries in factories that treated them like literal pack mules and lay them off at 30 or 40 or 50 with no explanation. They die young, worn to pieces, and are never educated enough to see beyond their plight. I always grew up expecting I'd have to work my ass off to get even the basics in this world. The opportunity to learn and get a larger context for my world through research is invaluable to me. Even if I end up making $30,000 at a desk or in a high school classroom in the middle of nowhere for the rest of my life, that's a lot better off than my mother was and I'll have the satisfaction of knowing I tried and having the experience I gained.

I'm sorry that this was really long but I've really wanted to respond to all the negativism that I've been reading on academic blogs the last couple of years. It seems like the economic downturn has made these sentiments particularly vicious this year.

All I mean to say (and it may be naive) is that in some cases, for those never given any hope at something better and who have known nothing but ignorance in their lives, just trying and the experience of high education itself is worth it.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

FWIW, a couple of years ago I had a conversation with a VERY eminent Ivy League scholar who believed that in history, exactly what you worry about, Dr. C, was happening: schools were unwilling to take "risks" on students coming out of non-name-brand schools and/or with unconventional backgrounds; that more and more, entering classes (at his Ivy, from which students would have a much better shot getting a T-T job than some places) were made up of students who were 21-24 who had attended fancypants SLACs and eminent R1s (usually Ivies, though I suspect they'd deign to accept folks from, say, Michigan or Berkeley). And that IS really disturbing.

In conjunction with my recent rant about the uber-students produced at my undergrad, students at the elite schools are always going to have a leg up because those schools have the money to fund students to do fancy internships, to give students named scholarships, and to formalize a lot of opportunities for students into things that look wonderful on resumes. If you manage to get into one of these schools, it can make up for a lot of deficiencies in your background - but getting requires you to have some kind of support/awareness of these options earlier in life...

I can't prove this directly since I went straight to grad school from undergrad, but I do think that although every profession has its bad points, and no profession tosses bouquets your way on a regular basis, going to grad school in the humanities does professionalize you very differently than training in a non-academic profession. People do invest themselves in their professions outside of academia, obviously. But if you've done quite a bit of crap work/working your way up the job hierarchy as you find your way into a profession, I think you develop a different attitude. My sister, graduating a year after me into the recession of the early 90s, spent quite a lot of time working retail, as did many of our classmates, before getting into a "real" career [no offense, retail career people]. She has a much greater ability to see a job as "just" a job - a way to support yourself, not to define yourself - than I do. A dear friend of mine had worked in about five different fields by the time I finished my graduate degree. These things lead to very different work identities.

If nothing else, I think academia promotes a vision of meritocracy in a different way from other professions. If you are smart, you will succeed. Period. The cream rises to the top. All those good clicehs. God knows law doesn't seem to have the same attitude (one of the mantras of law school is that you can suck at law school and still go on to be a great lawyer. And that law school exams/grades are largely arbirtrary. Hell, I know a guy who said that when he got a grade 12 points lower than his next lowest grade, he was initially convinced it had to be a clerical error. Does anyone know a grad student who, if confronted with the same situation [although it probably wouldn't happen since all grad students get varieties of As], wouldn't think, at least on some level, "they've found me out!"??)

Which is all rambling a little afar from the question of what to say to undergrads, sorry - I guess I wanted to say that the conversation is important because no, academia is not the same as other fields people find their way into. (Which isn't to say that everyone will suffer from doing it, but I do think it shapes you differently from other professions.) (Not that other professions are necessarily better, just different.)

Good Enough Woman said...

I don't understand why no one in this thread (as far as I can tell) has mentioned community college teaching.

I never wanted to teach high school because I did not want to deal with minors and their parents.
But high school is not the only alternative to a t-t college professorship. I teach at a CC in California. I am tenured. Yes, I teach composition. But I also teach critical thinking, intro to lit, Brit lit, and literature by women.

I've also had a sabbatical, but I do not have to publish or perish. I get to enjoy my summers with my family. I get paid pretty well for my work. And, if I (or my spouse) ever had to move, there are other CC's out there. Sure, I get frustrated with my job, but, overall, it's a sweet gig.

Granted, t-t jobs at CC's aren't always available, and they can be competitive, but that's true of a lot of things. It can have it's downsides, and perhaps CC's are different from region to region, but I think it's a viable option for those who want to spend their lives within their discipline.

I went to a very good R1 university for undergrad, but I put off going to grad school in English for several years (I did an M.Ed. in Counseling first) because I wasn't sure I "measured up." Five years later, I missed literature so much that I went to a state school for my M.A. (which wasn't all that pricey). Other than raising my kids, nothing has ever made me more happy than those years in my M.A.

So I am somewhat disheartened to think that the CC option--either as a primary goal or as a fallback--isn't on the table for this discussion. Perhaps university professors don't mention it because it sounds like an undesirable gig? I don't know. But for some students, it might be just the happy medium to meet their needs.

Side note: I'm getting my Ph.D. now (or trying to anyway), and I might try the four-year university route some day. Then again, it's more likely, I'll stay where I am. Ph.D. and all.

Dr. Crazy said...

This has been such a great conversation, everyone, so thanks a bunch! Can I just say that I love the kinds of comments that my readers leave? Even when there is disagreement, everybody is so thoughtful! Hurray for my readers!

Anyway, first, thanks so much for leaving your comment jennyfields. It's nice to hear from a student in all of this, and to have that perspective added into the mix. While it's true that everybody commenting here (advanced grad students, profs, people who've left the academic life) has at one time or another been in your position, we are removed from it, and I think it's good for us to be reminded of how this feels from your position.

NK - thanks for your comment, and sooner or later I'll need to do a post about how academia shapes one's identity.... I've posted about that before, but I've been thinking about it a lot esp. after getting the positive tenure letter, and I think what I have to say now differs in some respects from what I had to say previously. Also, I think it speaks to Sybil's original post over at Bitch Ph.D., which added to Benton's argument in ways that I didn't address.

GEW - Thanks for chiming in and bringing up the CC option. NK has a thoughtful response to your comment over at her blog, and I also commented over there, but what I'll say here is that I *have* discussed CC teaching with my students as a possible path, but I think one of the roadblocks is actually a class thing: these students managed *not* to go to a CC - going to my regional was a huge accomplishment for them in that regard - and so they aren't familiar with the CC mission nor are they terribly interested in it. This isn't snobbery, actually: it's just that when they think of being a "professor" they think of teaching the kind of students that they are in the context in which they've been a student. So it's not that they're all dreaming of teaching at R1s or something. If anything, they're dreaming of having my job (which is a little weird, quite frankly, given the fact that in the wider profession, colleagues across other universities - including at my former grad institution - look at me with pity for the job that I have!). In that regard, suggesting CC teaching to them is not unlike suggesting a completely unrelated to grad school career path - it just seems off the wall to them. I do have one or two students who may end up going that route, but only time will tell.

j said...

THANK you. your point is exactly my own rub about it. i think the "don't do it" is as unrealistic as "do it" for all the reasons you cite, and for some reasons that i think are socially conditioned:

this idea that the system changing is a crisis. as a historian it occurs to me that the system of professionalization we have isn't actually all that old. a century, maybe. it is changing again. we don't know what form it will take.

and it is deeply tied to ideas of middle class success and security that are also, in this country, not that old. as someone who was raised by a single mom with no college education, i've never felt entitled to a certain kind of security, nor expected it. i didn't pursue a ph.d. in the hopes it would provide it. like JF, i'm flexible--and my partner is too--about what my ultimate choices are. i never felt i "deserved" economic security such as tenure might bring. that helps, too.

and honestly. no other career path i've considered would have brought me more than i might get. professional writer? architect? policy wonk? all of those have long long apprenticeships and sometimes little chance of success.

so. thanks for your thoughts. i really appreciate them.

Catherine said...

Dr. Crazy,

Thanks for this post. I'm a long-time reader and first-time commenter. It's true that some students need permission not to go to grad school, but some of us really needed permission to go, too. I have a tt job at an R1, but if I hadn't had an undergrad professor (at my large non-elite state school) who told me I should go to grad school, I'd probably have shot myself by now. Some perspective: my family didn't want me to go to college, and they definitely didn't want me to go to grad school. (I come from a very, very conservative semi-rural area.) So I got very little financial or emotional support from them. I got lots of support from undergrad advisers who told me to get the hell out of town and see how far hard work, luck, and (some!) brains could take me. I'll admit that was 20 years ago, but I still think it's the best advice I've ever gotten.

The thing is, we don't always know what our students would be leaving to go to grad school. Why assume that what they would be leaving is "safety"?

pocha said...

Wait, and I'll admit that I sorta read quickly after the first three paragraphs, but are you really saying that, to put it crudely, people of color and/or people without a lot of money, should not apply to grad school? And after that do you suggest that only people with a lot of money or who are married and/or related to people with a lot of money are the only students you'd encourage to go on to graduate school? So, when a person of color and/or someone who you think/assume lacks a lot of resources looks you in the face and says that they really want to be an academic, you will tell them all that you've told us? Wow.

Dr. Crazy said...

Pocha, you read so quickly as to completely *misread* my post. I'm saying that this is what the "Don't go to grad school" narrative does - that it is discriminatory - and I talk all about the reasons why I think that's wrong, and what I do to try to give my students relevant information and support, as opposed to telling them not to go because of the reasons they're not independently wealthy, married to a spouse who will support them, well connected - which, incidentally, were the reasons that Benton said were the only reasonable ones that would authorize a person thinking of grad school. Not my reasons: the reasons that the guy who gets paid to write for the Chronicle of Higher Education gives. So if you've got a problem, your problem is with him (and maybe with the Chronicle for printing such stuff) and not with me.

Good Enough Woman said...

Hi, Dr. Crazy. I said this over at NK's place, but I do totally get that your students want YOUR job, just as mine think my job looks pretty cool, and (as I also said at NK's place) just as I wanted Susan Gubar's job when I was an undergrad. Like that was going to happen . . .

I just don't like the idea of lit lovers heading off into accounting instead of maybe thinking about getting an M.A. and seeing where they go from there . . .


Bardiac said...

I always wonder what the point of an MA in English is. If it's to "see if you want to go on" then you shouldn't be going on, probably. Especially if you enter an MA program where you're not paid to be there.

Except for some K-12 jobs (where an MA can mean a pay increase), there's little career benefit to doing an MA.

AND, the great thing about English literature is that you can read, write, and talk about it without a degree of any kind. You don't need a university library, a lab, or a major museum. You just need a decent public library (and by "decent" I mean a library whose librarian knows how to access interlibrary loans), and bonus if you have some friends who like to talk about literature, too. Even in fairly small communities, there's community theater, poetry readings, and people talking about books.

Of course, if you already know you want to go on, and an MA program is a good bridge for you, go for it.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, I think that going on to an MA program fully funded is a really good option for many students, particularly if they're coming from less than stellar undergrad institutions (a) and if they want to go directly to grad school, or nearly directly to grad school (taking only a year off or something) (b). 1) It's only a 2-3 year commitment at most, so there's less opportunity cost, and a lot of students after that really have had enough of grad school, but if you go into a PhD program right out of the gate, leaving after coursework can be perceived as a "failure" as opposed to "I completed my program and now I'm going to do other things." 2) An MA doesn't necessarily come off as "massively overqualified" in the way that a PhD does for jobs outside the academy, and it can serve as a credential that will allow students either to compete for some community college jobs or for private high school jobs, or can make them more attractive for student services sorts of jobs at universities (at least at mine, we like to hire MAs as undergrad advisers, for example). 3) Succeeding in a well regarded terminal MA can give a student more options for more highly ranked PhD programs than applying to straight PhD programs from a less well regarded undergrad institution, so even if a PhD is the ultimate goal, an MA program that is a step up from the undergrad program can be beneficial.

But this is the thing: I do not think that anybody should pay tuition for an MA in English. I think that you should go with tuition remission and, ideally, the opportunity to teach.

I will say, part of the reason that I often advise my students in this direction is partly because it was the path that I took, and I do feel that had I not done the MA as a kind of bridge between my undergrad experience and my PhD experience I probably wouldn't have survived my PhD program (if I'd even have gotten in). I'll also say that my PhD program has trended toward admitting more students who already had an MA in the past 10 years (no MA is offered at my PhD institution - you just get an MA if you drop out after coursework, but it's not a degree program), and I think part of that has to do with the likelihood of students who come in with the MA completing the PhD - it's a better funding risk.

Oh, and one last thing: I think a final benefit is that being in a program where you see grad students further along than you are struggling with the job market, etc., can really open your eyes to the challenges of breaking into the profession in ways that just aren't possible in undergrad, where even if there are grad students around, they have very little interaction with undergrads. One of my former students went on to a top 25 MA program, and she decided not to do the PhD immediately following, in spite of the encouragement of her grad school advisers, in part because she saw first hand how people further along than her (the school also has a PhD program) were faring. She was 23 when she finished the MA, and she was fully funded throughout. I think that she was enriched by the experience, but also that she didn't feel like a failure for choosing to go get a job at the end instead of slogging through for another 5 years to earn the PhD. Had she gone into a straight PhD program, I wonder whether leaving would really have been an option that she would have considered, or if she would have felt compelled to stay on principle....

Anyway, I'm rambling. But I don't think advising students toward the MA is necessarily a bad thing. I just think that they need lots of advice about what schools offer meaningful TA programs, funding, and preparation toward the PhD, if students are indeed looking at that as the long term goal.

Good Enough Woman said...

No point to the MA, Bardiac? Really? Wow. Thanks, Crazy for responding to that suggestion. I suppose I could add to your analysis, but considering that my entire career (and the careers of many others) is based on the M.A., I don't think I even have the wherewithal to respond to the notion that my degree has no point.

Color me shocked.

gwinne said...

I don't have time to comment on the big picture of your post--which I very much want to do--but did want to say just a bit. FWIW, I didn't have any funding my first year of grad school; if I'd known what I know now about the state of the profession, I suppose I would have made the "educated" decision not to pursue graduate study. But because I was completely, totally naive, I enrolled, gambling on the fact that I'd earn a GA position for the rest of my time in the program. I did. I'm now t-t at an R1.

A said...

I'm wondering how much of the disagreements here are a result of change over time. I too started grad school without funding, and was fully funded only after my first year. But I couldn't do that now--- at the time my school allocated funding year by year and had the least for first year students, and it's now been consolidated into multi-year packages. So a risky but not insane move 15 years ago would be much riskier now. Similarly, my uninformed impression is that there's been substantial credential creep, so that jobs that used to require a MA now require a PhD, just as too many entry level jobs at universities go to people with 3 years experience and a book.

I'm fortunate enough that most of my advising is with people who are planning to be high school teachers. A lot of them ask about teaching college, but simply hearing that it would take another 8 years of school is enough to discourage most. The rest get a discussion a lot like Dr. Crazy's.


Matt L said...

Hi Dr. C. - Thanks for the post. I was kind of disheartened by Benton's article in the chronicle. I think your post and the comments are a nice antidote.

I teach history at a 4 year state college, and we serve a lot of first generation college students. Every year I have a couple of students who want to go to grad school and want advice/information. I am reluctant to do this, because I do think the PhD in the humanities is kind of a racket for the elites. But I also respect the right of my students to make their own, well informed, decisions.

You are right, the 'don't do it' approach is a non-starter. Its better to give them all the information possible. For most, this enough to steer them in a more productive direction.

More broadly, maybe we as academics and society as a whole, need to have a conversation about living a 'life of the mind.' That was my main motive for getting a PhD and becoming a college prof. Is there another way to have that 'life of the mind' without a PhD and a spot in the present academic caste system? What are the contours of such a life?

Bardiac said...

I'm sorry, mine was a stupid comment. I teach in a program that has a small MA, without minimal funding (for about 2 students, and not enough to live on), with poor preparation for teaching, and with poor job prospects in the area (especially for teaching). But, of course, I should have thought of the bigger picture.

I apologize.

Doctor Pion said...

Your students are so, SO lucky to have you for an adviser. The key is that you are in contact with your former students regardless of whether they ended up in academia. You know the range of jobs that can make for a happy and successful life. Too many only get advice from someone who has lost touch with all but the handful of students who got academic positions.

I say that as someone who has learned that someone with a BA in history (my niece) can find a spectacularly interesting job in a business that few would consider needed that sort of expertise.

By the way, my field (physics) is one where most students are fully funded for their entire career. This certainly colors my view of grad school - because I can't imagine borrowing money to take a chance on the job lottery. I don't think anyone should pay more than "opportunity costs" to go to grad school.