Monday, March 30, 2009

Students and Graduate School (Post # 400,000)

A bit ago I had a meeting with yet another of my students who is interested in graduate school in English. This is a student I'm only getting to know this semester, and zie is graduating in May. Zie is a strong student, and she's the first in her family to go to college, yadda yadda yadda.

I gave my standard spiel about how competitive it is, about how I don't in good conscience recommend that any student pursue this - opportunity costs, horrible outcomes, yadda yadda yadda - but also that if a student wants to do it after all of the facts are presented, that I support students that I think are strong candidates. Reading Sisyphus's post today... well, it has me thinking about that meeting. (I link to Sis here because I want everybody in the whole world to head over there and to give her some love. I'll know if you don't do it, so get on it.)

I've also been spending some time lurking on the forums at The Grad Cafe, and on the Chronicle's grad student life forum in recent weeks, thinking that it's good for me to know what those kids today (beyond "those kids" whom I know in the academic blogosphere - and I use "those kids" facetiously here) are saying about the process and about their experiences. It's nearly 13 years since I began grad school. I gather it's a brave new world - or maybe it was always that world and I just didn't have enough of a clue to realize it. And then there's the current economy, which is encouraging even more students to consider grad school (per even my local news), and yet which is fucking higher education just as surely as every other career path is fucked (although my students don't realize this).

At any rate, all of this has me rethinking my stance on the grad school advice. Well, not really rethinking - just thinking about. See, I still believe that it's fucked up to tell my students no outright. Especially given the fact that I'm at a crap institution where nearly all students are first generation to graduate from any college at all. I still believe that people from a wide range of backgrounds make higher education stronger, and I still believe that some of my students really are suited to academia. How can I just tell them I won't support them? I mean, the facts probably do indicate that I should, but my instinct is that once upon a time the "facts" indicated that lots of marginalized groups should be advised toward, say, beauty school or secretarial school and iron-working or construction. Not college. And yeah, I think that's fucked up. So sure, the facts are against me, but my beliefs really are on my side on this one.

But. There is a tiny part of me that feels like maybe I should be even more discouraging than I already am. There is a tiny part of me that feels like maybe it's not my job to advise based on what I believe. It's just my students are so clueless and so without support. I feel like if they didn't get support from me then they wouldn't get the informed support that they need. They have no idea that they need to apply to more than one program. They have no idea that they should expect full funding or not go. They have no idea that even if you want to teach at a place like my current place that you've got to go to a top 50 program - that even the crappy jobs are just that competitive. They don't know from SLACs and R1s - they just "want to be a professor" and they figure that any Ph.D. from any institution will do. They think that if they take out loans that they'll make a salary commensurate with their debt, if they're not funded. They seriously think these things. They think that they won't need to move away from their families. They think that they won't need to do anything other than to "pursue their dreams" and that it will all work out. Of course I disabuse them of all these notions, of course I tell them lots of things our grads have done that are not graduate school (or law school, or library school). But so many of them still want this. Even after I talk about the specifics of my job, of the things that are screwy in my personal life, even after I give them my best doom and gloom.

And so I support them. I give them the best advice I know how to give, and I support their research, and I write those letters of recommendation. But is that the right thing to do? Who the fuck knows.

I'll say this: I'm glad that I don't teach at a uni with a Ph.D. program. I imagine that the guilt that I feel right now would be quadrupled.

All of that said, my BES? She won two of our 7 or so department awards. She won the biggie for most outstanding graduating senior, and she won the one for the most awesome student in class (the award is something about the student's wit and irreverence... I forget the language). And two of my other students won book awards, and another former student (one of the boys who gave me a poem when he was a baby freshman!) won the leadership award. So maybe my worries are about nothing. Maybe my students really just are that good.

I'm still not sure if they should go to graduate school in English, though. Not even close to sure.


David said...

I made clear the line between the M.A. and the PhD. If the student doesn't absolutely have to start earning money right away (I'd imagine even though they are first gen that doesn't mean the family is destitute), there isn't much harm to spending a couple years of further study. I would however scare the crap out of them before going on to the PhD. There is benefit of socialization in grad school that one can get enough of at the M.A. level that the PhD doesn't really add anymore too.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think what you're doing is good. Especially if you are explaining to them all the things that you say they don't know. I think it would be better if you could get other faculty in on it, but you know? They are adults and have to make decisions for themselves.

Strangely, one of my students, whom a colleague was really pushing towards grad school, came to me and said he was going to law school instead. He'd written his senior thesis with my colleague, but said that, if the kind of recall and internalization of information and participation in seminars was like what I expected, but even more? He knew he couldn't slide by the way he did with my colleague, and he wasn't prepared to work that hard!

Comet Jo said...

I think you are doing the right thing - absolutely, give them all the info the need to do it in an informed a way as possible, discourage them, but it would totally, totally suck and be disrespectful of them to make the decision for them.

Dance said...

One of the things I always tell my students is that they have to go to grad school for itself. That is, they have to go in knowing that if they come out in 5-7 years and decide not to go into academia (or have that decision made for them), they will be okay with that, because the 5-7 years will have been valuable to them.

(Note: being okay with that requires not going into debt for grad school. The time spent, the delay in "settling down", re-inventing oneself at the age of 28 or 30, I think are all weighable trade-offs. The debt is not.)

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree with you and the others on this. My approach is that you give them the information to understand, as best they can, the decision they make. That decision is up to them.

It's tricky, because it's hard to know really what grad school/academis entail until you're doing it (especially for those not coming from that sort of background), and it's easy to have your cautionary tales be interpreted as sour grapes or something that doesn't apply to *them.* But there's not much else you can do, and I agree with your concern of a narrowing of who goes into academia.

human said...

I have a couple of mentors who I discussed the whole graduate school thing with before applying (I am a historian). I am, like your students, stubborn. I got accepted to a good program and will be starting in the fall. I have two backup plans, one of which is to go back to my current career path. I am going to be ok.

But, not one of the people I talked with about my applications said anything to me about how unlikely humanities Ph.Ds are to get academic jobs. I learned everything I know about that from the internet. As a result, I find that I simply do not trust them anymore to give me sound advice about how to proceed. It's kind of annoying, because I could use their advice on other stuff. But I know now that I can't trust it.

The course you are taking I think is the only one you can possibly take and still have these students trust you while also not betraying them. If you just tell them No flat out, they won't trust you. They will reject your advice and find someone else to help them get to grad school and your warnings won't have prepared them. If you don't tell them anything at all about the problems... either they will be blindsided or they will know you are BSing them.

You are making the only good choice there is, I think.

James said...

I have the opposite problem. In my field, we have to coax our students to apply to graduate school, as almost none of them have any interest beyond getting a job immediately out of university. Ph.D. students are only admitted with support in my field and there are many jobs outside academia, so I think it's worth talking with students about graduate school.

I'm not sure whether it's something different in the nature of our two disciplines (the increasing mathematics as they progress is often disliked and they know they'll be more in graduate school) or just the fact that students in my field know their career path and can get a job immediately out of school with relative ease that causes these differences.

Sisyphus said...

Awww, you're awesome, Crazy! :)


jennyfields said...

Things are getting closer for me. I've been doing conferences, looking into publishing, looking ahead to apply to Ph.D programs during the MA program I'm about to start.

The horrifying things I see are students who are seniors and do not already know these things. I want to pet them and hold them and then yell in their faces, no, it's not going to be like that! I'm sorry!

I've gotten advice from several different professors at several difference types of school, plus the internet, so I feel like I know the score. And I'm doing it away.

All I have to say is, make sure they REALLY understand the sacrifices they're going to have to make. Don't let it go in one ear and out the other ear of their big inflated dream head. Informed risk, play smart. That's the only sane way to view going into academia.

Also, the fact that if academia doesn't work out for someone, there are other things. Your life hasn't ended because you didn't get that TT 2/2 at an R1. More exists. Be aware as possible, and if you still want to follow your dreams after understanding all the sacrifices, do it. It will work out or you're go somewhere else. If the risk is worth it to you.

As long as it doesn't involve tremendous dept (big no no) I would consider furthering my education to be worth while even if I had to leave it at the end for another field. I accept the risks, and if there becomes a point that I can't, I'll leave. These are just the thoughts of an almost-grad student.

Susan said...

One thing we did this year was to admit a few of our students to our MA program to explore graduate study as a kind of transition -- they are mostly first generation, and can decide both if they want to do it and if they can, at not too much cost or personal upheaval.

Deb said...

as a first gen college student (my mother was the first person in her family to grad from HS) and as an MA student at a top 5 university in my field, i read your posts on students and grad school with great interest. i am trying to make a decision about the phd. i remember in college i wanted to study southern lit and was given the kind of advice you offer. and i was grateful for it. when i began taking classes in the field in which i'm earning my MA (comm/rhetoric, which has historically faired better than say english in the job market but not this year), i did not receive the same kind of advice. "the job market is and has always been much better for this field, etc." Well, maybe when my professors were applying for TT jobs. But not now. I know the logical thing to do is stop when I finish my MA next year and be really happy with all the knowledge I've gained.

1) I love teaching (which i know does not = "get your phd!")
2) Academia is a strange, strange cult, and the guilt that leaving produces is overwhelming
3) I have worked in the corporate world, and while there I can only think of all the reasons why I shouldn't be there (see #2 and Marxist thought 101)
3) Like you, I believe we need more folks from working class backgrounds in the academy. But there are so many cultural barriers... I have heard "white trash" and "trailer trash" used in the classroom (by undergrad profs) with no irony. I don't do dinners, appreciate modern art, drink fine wine or speak/read another language. I don't enjoy NASCAR, but I don't appreciate the scoffing, since my family loves it. I don't shop at co-ops and eat organic food. I miss 80% of cultural references dropped in hall conversation. I get angry in class when I hear students who sound like they should be wearing a monocle and sipping expensive brandy rail on things they consider to be "low culture" (interestingly, many of these students consider themselves 'radicals'). I could continue. The point is: despite all the "inclusive" language, it's really, really tough for a student from a working class background to feel comfortable in grad school, and I may leave more for that reason than for practical ones. Which just ain't fair.

On the other hand, it makes me want to work harder to prove the snobby bastards wrong. But that most often requires a degree of assimilation I'm not sure I'm ready to accept. And I can't let that influence my decision to get a PhD I may never have the opportunity to use... especially when in my family education MUST = $$, since my parents worked so much overtime to help me pay for said education.

Anyway, that's my way of saying I feel your dilemma. I'm not in your position, but I understand that tension between trying not to sell students on a career path that will make them broke and unhappy, and being mindful of the historical "facts" that want all us country folks with college degrees to become assistant managers at walmart (where I actually had an internship and considered a career).

Whew. I am long-winded.

PS - Thank you for caring about first gen students. We fall through the cracks more often than not, and you're working hard to reduce that number. No wonder you got a TT job in an impossible field.