Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Bad Reasons to Go

Disclaimer 1: I am not the Delphic Oracle of Grad School Decisions. The following Bad Reasons to Go are simply culled from my eight years of experience as a humanities grad student, in the hope that potential applicants up late at night making that “Should I or shouldn’t I” list can see if any of these reasons apply to them.

Disclaimer 2: I received a PhD in the humanities (literature, specifically), so when I refer to “grad school” I am referring primarily to grad school in the humanities (literature, film studies, history, etc.). I think my perspective can in some cases be applied to law school or MBA programs, but obviously those are very different areas that I have no experience in.

Bad Reasons to Go to Grad School

1. You want to be a tenured professor in a city of your choosing and will accept no other job. Everyone applying to humanities grad programs should first be required to spend a solid six months reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the Academic Jobs Wiki. It would save people a lot of disillusionment and heartbreak later on. Bottom line: tenure-track positions in the humanities are getting rarer and rarer, and plenty of very qualified tenure-track profs are now being rejected for tenure simply because the university doesn’t want to pay them a tenured salary (and because of politics, departmental restructuring, etc.).  If you don’t know much about the tenure system, do some research–you need to know.

The market is currently flooded with humanities PhD’s, and this isn’t likely to change soon, since humanities grad programs need to admit large numbers of grad students to cheaply teach undergrad courses and give their department prestige. Some PhD’s will search for months, even years for a full-time position. Many will end up adjuncting, making less money than bus drivers (I know academics are supposed to be above petty concerns like money, but a life of the mind doesn’t feel so noble when you have no health insurance and can barely make rent).

So you’ll have to be flexible in your career goals, and be prepared to relocate to a middle-of-nowhere town for at least a few years (or maybe longer). If you’re set on a tenure-track job in Los Angeles or New York…sure, you might get lucky. But you probably won’t.

2. You love your subject. Again, good place to start, but not a good reason to invest up to nine years of your life in something. There are many ways to express and develop your love of books or films without getting a PhD. Start a book club. Write a blog. Take continuing education classes (or audit undergrad classes) in the subjects that you love. Read on your own. Sadly, if you do love your subject, a few years of grad school can make you hate it–or at least make you sick of it.

3. You want to put off entry into the real world / avoid job hunting in a bad economy. Hey, I’m guilty of this one. It’s no surprise that grad school admission competition really heats up in an economic downturn. But it’s not a good reason to go. You need to be focused, determined, passionate, and persistent in your approach to grad school–you shouldn’t be treating it as an escape or a “Well, this will do till I have a better idea” option. You’ll have to face the job market eventually–and an academic job market in a decent economy is often much worse than a regular job market in a bad economy.

4. You think that life in higher education is inherently better / more meaningful than life in the corporate world. Sadly, more and more universities are becoming indistinguishable from corporations (though some would argue that they’ve always been corporations before institutions of higher learning).  They cut departments that don’t generate enough profits. They funnel money into more profit-making enterprises like sports teams and pharmaceutical research. They expect professors and students to sell their programs to undergrads and grads, who they see as potential investors. They’re quick to sweep embarrassing incidents like sexual assaults under the rug to avoid tarnishing their brand.

There are a lot of good things that happen in universities, and there are wonderful examples of universities that really do care more about education than profits. But in the vast majority of cases, universities are corporations–that pay their employees a lot less than “real” corporations do.

5. You love to teach. Universities have a bizarre relationship with teaching. T.A.’s and junior faculty will have their teaching skills aggressively evaluated, and universities know that hotshot professors who teach large classes mean big money. But when it comes to applying for full-time jobs, what really matters is your research. I have witnessed some truly dreadful teaching by tenured professors, but they’re unlikely to be fired or even reprimanded for it if their research is seen as valuable or prestigious to the university. As an adjunct you’ll get a chance to teach but will be paid so little and work such long hours that the quality of your teaching will surely suffer, while as a junior faculty member you’ll be expected to take on so many roles that you often won’t be able to make teaching a priority.

So if you love to teach, consider finding a way to do it outside of academia.

6. You think that a PhD will increase your earning potential. In some cases it will. But in some cases you’ll actually be advised NOT to include your PhD on your resume. Why? Because it will make you seem overqualified and an egghead.

When I first set out to get a humanities PhD my mother kept telling me how happy she was that this was likely to mean a higher salary. I’ve had to explain to her repeatedly that a PhD in the humanities is different from a PhD in neuroscience, or an MBA. A PhD in the humanities is a prerequisite for a full-time academic job, and a good thing to have if you want to work for NGOs or certain government entities. But in almost all other cases it will not increase your earning potential, and can even work against you.

Some people go to grad school for bad reasons and end up loving it and eventually finding a fulfilling and decent-paying job. But looking back, I’d say 1, 2, 3, 4, AND 5 were true for me when I started. Yikes.

10 comments on “Bad Reasons to Go

  1. David Milliken
    May 23, 2011

    I will go with 1,2,4, and 5, but it matters little now as I bilged out of PhD school in 1973. Wow, 38 years ago and the higher ed scene has only gotten worse. At last I begin to get over it. The “it” is covered on my website where I discuss the PhD Octopus, a beast discovered in 1910 by William James — perhaps early proof that Humanities PhD’s and democracy are mutually exclusive. How naive I was when I thought being a professor was the only happiness — a severe overdose of Mr. Chips, I think. And here I’ve been apologetic about my alternative career in PR! Not so bad actually.

    Lesson learned? I knew NOTHING when I was 28. I did not understand the poet in Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” but I do now: . . . to love and bear to hope; ’til Hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”

  2. gradland
    May 24, 2011

    Sad to hear that it’s been so bad for so long, though I do hope that more people are becoming aware of the realities of academia so they can at least make informed decisions.

  3. David Milliken
    September 30, 2011

    I particularly support your opinion about other ways to satisfy the need for life of the mind. I remind myself that the very poets and novelists who have affected me deeply never darkened the doors of academe, e.g. Whitman, Melville. The list goes on and on. I suppose Shakespeare goes to the top of the list. And I thoroughly that academe, going the way it is, provides no escape from corporate culture. Actually my naval experience was far better.

    I have linked you to my site. Bonne chance.

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  5. Amanda
    November 7, 2011

    I especially like #2. It’s the primary reason why I came back to graduate school after working in the “industry” for about 3 years. However, you can stay your passion, whatever it is, not in an academic setting. Not a lot of people advocate for that, but they should. Perhaps it’s because you don’t get a certificate for a love of knowledge unless it’s through academics.

    I also really like to teach and worked as an interpretive guide for a while before I ever got assigned a T.A. position, which I now realize is not for me (after only 1 semester! I can’t handle all the grading and objectivity.

  6. David Milliken
    December 29, 2011

    Hello, it is I again. The other day I found the neatest tombstone graphic which I used to mark my blog on Ph.D. failure. I only return to the cemetery if I think I have advice for folks contemplating the ordeal — not with flowers but with things I remember that might help a young grad student. Life after career is good. There’s some new stuff at at & livelihood/Ph.D. —R.I.P. And yes, blogging goes to a need to teach.

  7. theshanshuprophecy
    January 15, 2012

    As someone who has re-entered a PhD program 6 months ago and who is considering taking leave-without-pay to study FT, this is a depressing post – but ultimately fair. Academia has many, many drawbacks, in fact the sheer volume of blogs from ex and ‘recovering’ academics is breathtaking. But, given that I currently have a job that I don’t want to return to and that academia is offering some paid work and a base stipend to support myself with, it could be much, much worse. I appreciate your points and think I am guilty of at least 2, 4 and 5 (perhaps more but I am not that self-aware).

  8. gradland
    January 17, 2012

    Good luck shanshu–ultimately I think the decision to enter / stay in / leave academia is a very personal one, and as I near the end of my own graduate career I’m inclined to look back on a lot of the positive things that came out of it. Everybody should go in with their eyes open, of course, but that doesn’t mean that the experience will be fruitless, even if the end result isn’t necessarily what you planned it would be.

  9. David Milliken
    March 5, 2012

    David Milliken

    Someone visited my “Ph.D. Octopus” blog again and per usual left no comment. I understand that. The subject is depressing. It was depressing in the Seventies when I was in Gradland. To finally admit that the life of the mind may not include educating Rita as part of it, comes hard. Dreams die hard. If it helps, I have never lost a passion for ideas. I still read as eclectically as ever. I got involved in The Writer’s Place here in Kansas City — speaking of places in which I once thought would be ideal for a nice tenured position. Kansas City is a place of art, music, literature and, of course, is a “well kept secret” which may be part of its charm. No one expects much of fly over country. Your loss, fly overers! We’ve got writers here, painters, musicians, too. You can do cutting edge or hum along to the William Tell Overture, pretending memories of the Lone Ranger don’t come back to you. And you’re right, Kansas City is not New York or Paris, but time has made that less concerning to me.

    If I could do it all over again, I think I would enter the ed school and teach English, but I had a thing about the methods courses. Maybe I’d have had a combination of English and physics. Maybe I’d have wound up in administration. Who knows? I’d still have done my own time in the library in the heavier stuff.

    These days I’m very appreciative of the humble ones who taught me how to read and write, the ones who first sparked my interest in learning — even the fuddy duddy history guy who made us memorize key dates in history. “Thanatopsis” had a powerful effect on me — though I didn’t understand at at the time. I had to grow up. A high school teacher encouraged me to write and I wrote my senior paper on the Irish potato famine. She praised it and my sentimental poem about a collie that died. I had a physics teacher who thought I was foolish not to become an engineer. I could have done that. I liked physics almost as much as English.

    It seems to me that a good public school teacher probably affects more people in useful ways than the University Professor. I think St. Peter smiles broadly when he welcomes those who taught in the trenches and yawns at the tenured profs. Yes, I think I would have done that, but I fancied a prestigious position, something worthy of my parents’ and society’s higher regard. Men in my family just didn’t teach in the public system. Bullshit! I wanted the intellectual life, but didn’t realize that a high school English teacher can be as intellectual as he or she chooses, and perhaps be a lot happier. As far as the crap a school teacher and a professor have to tolerate, I’m guessing it’s about equal.

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