Monday, January 18, 2010

Grad school as enrichment exercise?

I know you're all probably sick of the topic from the other day, why go to grad school if you're just going to have to retrain completely once you're out on the other end, but I'm still hung up on this. First of all, I'm disappointed that most of the people who responded to my post were fellow grad student/unemployed types, who largely agreed with what I am saying, and I haven't seen any responses from the tenured-types who posted the original statements about "tough luck but you should have known this going in" yet.

But there is another level of feeling to consider here --- I went back and looked at my posts from years past to find some examples of the proper tone of anger and despair and profanity. And I'm talking about the "finishing the dissertation" posts, not the job market ones. You see, one thing I've noticed about being done is that I no longer live under this immense cloud of doubt and fury and rage and despair that was finishing the dissertation. I think profs forget the extent to which writing and finishing (and worrying about not ever finishing) puts you in a state of intense misery that somehow magically goes away, to a large extent, once you file, even if you do still get depressed about the job market or paying rent or whatnot.

I'm talking about waking up in the morning and feeling like a big weight is going to press the air right out of me. I'm talking about feeling bitter and downright ugly most of the time. Grad students working on their dissertations are miserable, emotional creatures at their best, and tend to respond to everything through that perspective, consciously or no. And then professors write about these same grad students and are surprised when everything that comes out of the grad students' mouths is angry? Hello, dissertation writing is this horrible period of stress and uncertainty even when you have a clue about where your next paycheck is coming from!

So I'm bringing that up just as a reminder to put the recent "attacks" in the comments sections into perspective.

But then when I was rereading my old stuff (a lot of which I softened with humor because I didn't want the blog to be nothing but bile at all times, so quoting appropriately is sorta hard), I found this:
Sorry to return to my usual bitterness but that's what passed through my mind as I was reading the IHE review of Frank Donoghue's The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. ...
I haven't read the actual Donoghue book yet, but the interview goes over the familiar blah blah we all know of increasing costs and corporatization and reliance on adjuncts, with the often-repeated-elsewhere conclusion that tenure and tenured professors are dying out. The keynote is sounded at the end of the article, which I shall post here in all its depressing glory:

"Q: What are key steps that could be taken to restore the tenure-track professoriate?

A: The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. Two factors seal its fate. First, the hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. Second, the demographics of American higher education don’t help us either. For 40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward vocationalism. This trend has been accompanied by an equally pronounced shift in enrollments from four-year schools (with English and History majors) to community colleges, where the humanities have never had a strong presence. Tenure-track professors don’t have a place in this new higher education universe. Much as it pains me to say it, I never considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last Professors."

I don't believe that tenured profs will die out completely ---- there's still room for those few endowed chairs at wealthy, private top universities, for example ---- but I could see the balance shifting as high as 90% -10. What would that system concretely look like? How would it feel on the ground? And is this really going to be a case of that metaphor where you boil a frog in water by gradually raising the temp a couple of degrees at a time?
Just thought we all needed a reminder of this, because I don't think this is a case of having a market and then having a couple of bad years, I think we've been having a terrible situation for years now and this new crash/recession will be what finally ends tenure, professorships, and any thought of a living wage in the academy, permanently.

There are good comments on that post, too, including (if I may) my own, where I point out the university system doesn't even need to exploit any individual grad student or postgrad for very long (so all our big talk about "only doing 3-4 years on the market before quitting academia altogether" is plenty enough to supply all the adjuncts they need, as long as they have a steady supply of new suckers.)

But from my yesterday's post I am infuriated by Rohan Maitzen's comment about advising students on to grad school:
I do try to emphasize very strongly that past the MA level, graduate school in English is currently structured as professional training, but for a profession it is increasingly unlikely a graduate will be able to enter, at least on the terms s/he would like. I say over and over that while you might do an MA for further enrichment, it no longer makes sense to consider a PhD in that light, because all the program requirements are really structured to prepare you to be a "productive" and successful academic.
Seriously??? Two fucking years of "enrichment"? Who does that? Who the hell does that? You didn't, because your programs all helped further you into your current academic job! "Enrichment" to me sounds like something totally unimportant one does for fun --- I did after-school programs for enrichment. I took summer camp for enrichment. Some people go backpack across Europe for 6 months for enrichment but even that is too long for me. Who actually goes and devotes two years of their life to an MA program just thinking it was a fucking book club that would have no impact on their future career or earnings or networking potential?

If all you get from an MA program is "enrichment" then there is no fucking reason to go --- look, novels cost from about 11 to 20 bucks a piece and you can go off and "enrich" yourself by reading them at home, after working a real actual job. What the hell does the MA add to that? A lot of programs have their reading lists online; you can download them and read along without paying 10 grand and while moving forward in some actual career ladder that will work for you, and take a bit of the money you are earning and get season tickets to the symphony.

There is nothing going on in English or MFA or even History MA programs that you don't have access to; unlike the "entry cost" of certain subjects like film production or physics that are not feasible to do on your own, the entry cost of reading around in English or History or writing creatively is practically nil. You want community? Go start a message board with 20 friends who you love and who love to talk about books and link it with your own blogs or video logs and have at it for free! Trust me, it's way cheaper than paying for an MA or getting paid to teach freshman comp for an MA, if you don't plan on being a teacher later. And if an MA or PhD is nothing more than enrichment, somewhere between getting a hobby and going to church to improve yourself, why even go? You're just going to have to retrain for that job-nobody-wants-which-is-why-someone-is-willing-to-pay-you-for-it, anyway.



Sisyphus said...

For what it's worth, I agree with Maitzen's take on the PhD and am glad that she's making those statements; I'm just blown out of the water that anybody could think a two (or three, for most of my friends) year master's that is nothing more than personal enrichment would be something you'd encourage students to enroll in.

Rohan Maitzen said...

OK. Well, hmmm. Now I know what it feels like to be at the receiving end of some of that anger, anyway.

I should clarify that I don't ever instigate the idea that a student should pursue an MA for enrichment--"enrichment" is also maybe not the best word to use, as I guess you are right that it could imply frivolous dilettantism; I was just trying to identify a purpose different from specific professional training.

What I am talking about is the frequent situation in which u/g students come to talk to me about graduate school who are very enthusiastic about their experiences studying literature and keen to keep doing more of that. Enthusiasm about literature would be a terrible reason to pursue a PhD, and I tell them that as emphatically as I can, with (I hope) due attention to things like the demands of the degree and the disastrous and irrational job market, and the differences between loving books and working as a professor even if you get that elusive job. I also talk as clearly as I can about differences between the kind of work they have typically done as undergraduates and the nature of and expectations for work in graduate seminars. For some, all this discouraging talk is enough to turn them aside from the idea. Nobody ever said anything like this to me when I started applying to graduate school, and I wish they had; usually, it seems nobody else has ever said anything like this to the students, either, who often seem surprised that their own enthusiasm is not met with unqualified enthusiasm from me in return.

But many MA programs in Canada are only 1 year (ours included) and we admit only funded students. So some students, despite all the warnings, are still attracted, not altogether unreasonably, to the prospect of doing one more (funded) year of formal study in a field they are intellectually excited about--and getting an additional degree that, at least as far as I been told by former students and friends working in other fields, can be a boost for students if they choose to head into education, law, journalism, the civil service, or other kinds of work involving research and writing. Whatever the personal or professional benefits they hope for and might achieve, I would certainly stress that they should not do an MA on their own dime, and that they should closely consider any teaching obligations that come along with their funding package. You are right that they could get a job and read on their own time, but I don't see it as obvious that an MA is something I should advise them against altogether. I don't think that means I (or they) are treating the MA as an expensive way to indulge a hobby, or as a waste of time compared to "moving forward in some actual career ladder." Most of my own former MA supervisees (about 15, I think, at last count) are on career ladders of various interesting kinds now (a handful, of course, have gone on into Ph.D. programs--at least I know we had "the talk" before they made that choice, for what that's worth). I don't think any of them started the MA program thinking it was a "fucking book club" and I'm pretty sure they believe that it was a year well spent. Perhaps I flatter myself and my colleagues, but I also believe they learned things from their degree (from us, from their colleagues in seminars) that would have been harder to do by downloading our reading lists and working through them independently (if not, well, that wouldn't say much for the concept of graduate "teaching," would it?). That would be one answer to your question about "why even go," wouldn't it?

It's late here and I can only hope I'm not making this worse by trying to explain it better. I'm sorry to have made you so mad. I'll go back to lurking now.

newkidonthehallway said...

I was going to add that many MA programs (in history) are only one year, and that students are often funded. So in that respect - why NOT do it for "enrichment"? (Maybe "personal satisfaction" is a better term?) I think many students in their early 20s could afford to take a year (or even maybe two) off from the work world without significant harm. They might not be in a better position regarding employment than they were before they started, but I don't think they'd be significantly behind their peers in job experience/training. All the retraining you talk about, many people don't rush out of undergrad to get those additional degrees; people often do crap jobs for a few years and then move into something different. I think the MA can fit into place here. But I say this also because I've had a lot of students who "wanted to go to graduate school," do a year or so of MA, and realize/decide it's just not for them. So, useful experience.

However, I also agree with you that if you want enrichment, you can do it on your own dime much more easily in the humanities than in many fields. And in my grad program, there was no distinction between MA and PhD students, so the MA students would get sucked in by the whole academic machine anyway. But that's probably not as much the case in every program.

I do think the important point is the bigger one: that the PhD (in the humanities) *is* a professional degree, and that there is NO REASON to undertake it unless you're trying to get a job as a professor, and the chances of getting that job are diminishing ridiculously. I see a lot of people taking the flip side to this: that because you can't get a job, you shouldn't get a PhD in order to get a job; get a PhD because you love the subject, you want to learn, you want to develop research and writing skills. I understand why people might come to that conclusion, but I think it's bullshit; spending 7-10 years of your life impoverished and not saving for retirement, not gaining skills that are easy to market in other areas, is NOT a worthwhile return on loving your subject. All the arguments you make against "enrichment," I apply to the PhD program.

(I think I should have some conclusion here but I don't, so I'll just stop.)

Shane in Utah said...

Seriously??? Two fucking years of "enrichment"? Who does that? Who the hell does that?

Ummm... I have lots of master's students pass through my department's (non-PhD granting) grad program who do. Some of them are clerical staff at the university who want a MA/MS so they'll be qualified for promotions. Some of them are HS teachers who need an advanced degree to get a raise. Some of them are women whose husbands are 2 years behind them because they took 2 years off to go on a mission, and so the women need to kill time before they start having children. Some of them already have jobs, but would like to teach a class at Salt Lake Community College every now and then, and an MA lets them do that. Some of them are a bit lost, and not sure they want to pursue a PhD, and they figure two years in an MA program will help them figure it out. I would lump all of these students under the general category of "seeking enrichment."

Seriously, it's not that uncommon, and it's not a giant scam. I think you're a bit blinkered by your position in a PhD-granting program, where presumably the MA students are already on the PhD track.

Shane in Utah said...

One more thought: I wouldn't compare getting an MA to "going to church to improve yourself." I'd compare it to taking flying lessons even if you have no intention of becoming a professional pilot, or learning judo, or something else expensive and time-consuming and not immediately practical, but possibly quite fulfilling. If you have the burning desire and you can afford it, why not? Especially if it gives you advanced credentials for some of the other positions I mentioned before--HS teacher, low-level university administrator, etc.

And by the way, another category of "enrichment" student I've encountered is the retiree who wants something more rigorous and structured than reading novels on his/her own time...

Why be so judgmental of people whose approach to education is less practical (even mercenary?) than yours seems to be? So long as they go in knowing the realities of the situation, more power to them in my book.

Prof. Koshary said...

I will formally take up my place atop the fence and say that I see both sides to this issue.

On the emotional level, I definitely feel you on the shock and outrage at people who seem to meander into MA programs, and think about meandering into PhD work from there. Meandering people in general drive me nuts, because I'm one of those people who strenuously plans and re-plans for best results. I did three days of research before buying a router last week. I'm certainly not going to jump into years of graduate study just because I like the subject! Talking at length with people whose entire lives seem to be dictated by happy-go-lucky throws of the dice exhausts me. could make a reasonable argument that, within that set of academics who knew from the outset that they wanted to be academics, I am as meandering as they come. That's a post of its own, so suffice it to say that I can see how the idea would have appeal to happy-go-lucky people. More to the point, though, I see how the idea appeals to a probably much larger set of MA students: rich kids who don't know what to do with their lives. This is not a total knock on them, really; it's a simple fact that a lot of kids coming out of college come from families with the means to subsidize them in those early post-collegiate years. In a job market like this, a lot of those kids have no idea what they'd want to do even if the market were begging for new talent, let alone right now when the economy is shrinking and shuddering. Just like many have said before, there's an attraction to something that (on the face of it) looks like a warm and inviting continuation of college. So, to well-meaning and perhaps rather privileged ex-students who never have had to provide for themselves, this even looks more like work than some of the crappier entry-level jobs being advertised; and surely, a lot of their parents see more value and prestige in MA studies than taking that half-time gig at the copy shop.

(continued in next comment)

Prof. Koshary said...

Now, I'm not a lit person -- I'm in social science -- so the idea of an "enrichment"-style MA program doesn't fully compute in my terms. I gather that this idea is most prevalent among English grads and related literary fields. In my field, an MA is not just a dry run for the larger, more challenging work of the PhD studies, but it often feeds into the latter directly. My own program is MA/PhD, so it's hard for the MA students not to notice, if they didn't know already, where all of this is going. I don't know a soul in my entire program, in all of my [redacted] years here, who entered on such flimsy motivation and made it through. The very few who even got in that way ended up withdrawing, once it became clear that their fantasy did not correlate with the reality of academia. The only people who leave after the MA are those who get a better funding offer for PhD studies elsewhere (very uncommon), and those who essentially are mustered out as unfit for the discipline (the majority).

In my field, claiming "enrichment" as impetus to go for the MA would seem patently insane to anyone, including the profs who need TAs each year. Even they would (and do) counsel prospectives that this is not a smart way to go about things. But in my field, the MA studies are more obviously vocational in nature; unless a particularly candid English prof explained the situation to one of these hypothetical students, they really might not see it from our point of view: that graduate studies are job training, and that those of us who have suffered for years to become qualified professionals resent the implication that some of our years of martyrdom are basically College Redux for confused twentysomethings and sound way cooler than growing up. And, since those MA programs are frequently unfunded or barely funded for students, the universities that offer them make (and save!) a lot of money. MA programs that present themselves to prospectives as dignified post-collegiate enrichment are likely gravy trains for their universities, and no one wants to turn off that tap.

But, like a number of people appear to mention in these comments and elsewhere, no one is going to know any of this if people who know better don't publicize it.

Susan said...

My Ph.D program gave you an MA for completing hte first year. We had a whole bunch of people (unfunded) my first year, who left after realizing that Ph.D. in history was a professional degree, and you were no longer so focused on "cool and interesting things that happened" and more on methodologies and interpretations.

Many had gone to SLACs, and expected the Ph.D. to be a long extension of undergrad. I think they all had productive lives after they left the university, and it wasn't traumatic.

Dr. Crazy said...

I just wanted to chime in and say that my experience (also at a non-PhD granting institution) is pretty much identical to Shane's in regard to the MA. And I can tell you that as far as I'm aware absolutely none of our students have ambitions to go on to the PhD, nor are they being encouraged in that direction. I could go on at length about teaching a grad student population who sees an MA as enrichment (and thus submits work that would be unacceptable from my undergrads), but that's totally unrelated to your post :)

Also unrelated to this post - I didn't respond to your retraining post because I took the weekend off email. I think (briefly) that the suggestion that one can just run out and become an academic librarian or an administrator or whatever with one's liberal arts PhD is dead wrong. Perhaps an administrative path could be viable if one had been doing things all throughout grad school to prepare one for it, but generally? All this talk of "just sell your skills in another area! stop being a baby!" is really ill-informed, at least as far as I can tell.

pocha said...

Where I work we have an MA program in English. The majority of students get funding (in the form of an English 101 section each quarter). Also, before The Great Recession, many got jobs at 2-year-colleges teaching comp, something they wanted to do in the first place. Many have gone into the tech industry, which is (still) thriving in this part of the woods, so to speak. So it's not all for nothing. But, yeah, the idea of going just for the love of literature is not practical, unless you're "of money" and therefore don't have to teach comp, which takes up so much time that you end up having very little time to read anything outside of your two seminars.

In other words, point taken!

cattyinqueens said...

I went and got an MA for enrichment. I found it frightening for 6 months, and difficult for the whole 2 years. I'm not rich of from money. I went to a state school, did fine with the teaching stipend living in the midwest, and by the end of the MA program, decided I wanted to keep going to school.

I liked my dissertation; it did make me miserable a lot, but I genuinely liked doing it. I know that writing sucks, but really, it's sad to hear that people hate their lives so much that all the work is not worth it. For me, the best part was getting to be part of a program with so many likeminded and interesting people--try finding that in a reading group (have you ever actually been in one of those? um, *that* can be really far from enriching. Friends you love aren't necessarily going to love to talk about books the way you want to).

I should admit: I got a tenure track job at the end, but many of my peers didn't get one, and they are all gainfully employed at universities, non-profits, publishers, tech companies, educational software companies, and magazines. They don't resent their time in the program. And their degrees got them a better salary and they beat out people who didn't have them for their positions. But I went to a phd program where most people were well-adjusted, cared about their research, but were also fairly flexible about what they did afterward.

So I'm a little pollyanna about this issue. I didn't think an English MA would lead to a big paycheck, but I did think I'd learn stuff and I was right. For reasons not related to my dissertation, but related to my experience in the world of being cheap labor, I also became a better citizen--more aware of labor issues and the political aspects of education and administration. I also had free days in which to be an activist and volunteer with the grad program schedule. I really grew up in that environment, and became the civic participant that I am now because I went there.