Friday, October 26, 2007

Applying to Grad School in English? Show me the money

This post is inspired by a conversation over at Dean Dad's. I think I have already written about applying to grad school (short version: for god's sake no!) but I have a different angle I want to think through here. I might have drafted something about this and not posted it yet, but if I repeat myself, my apologies.

First, I'm going to be a big dork and quote my response from over at DD's.
Ask yourself what you really want: why do you want to go to grad school in the humanities or social sciences? What do you hope to get out of it? Is it ok, in your opinion, to spend 5-10 years studying and doing a PhD and not get a professorial job on the other end?

Because, as other people have said, it is incredibly difficult to get a full-time, non-adjunct job as a humanities professor. Even if you do get a job, you are limited in terms of where that job might be, and they don't pay all that much. Seriously, think about this. It seems like an easy decision when you are 22 and all your friends are working for just above minimum wage as Starbucks baristas while they "find themselves," but as you get older you will want more stability in terms of your paycheck and living situation, possibly want to start a family and think about retirement. But you will only be partway through a long time of angst and financial precariousness and will either have to soldier on through for a long time or quit the program.

That said, you should choose schools not only based on an advisor you want to work with, but also on their funding packages and job placement rates. Ask the graduate admissions counselors for your targeted departments about these numbers, and be prepared for them to put the most positive spin on their response. I bet you that the faculty you try to contact will not have any data on this, and in our dept., they want to hear from students who have been admitted and are considering attending, but not before.
Yeah, sorry about hogging the comments DD!

So people applying to grad school right out of undergrad, who are young, are also often inexperienced in the ways of money and support --- typically their parents paid, or helped pay, their way through undergrad, and they might have had jobs, but were not reliant on their jobs to eat in a serious and fear-inducing way. (I understand this is not true for everyone, but I am not the only sheltered middle-class kid in my grad program.) College and right after, especially for the humanities and artsy type students, is a time of bohemian existence --- travel, working various shit jobs, holing up somewhere and writing a novel or some god-awful poetry, and in your early twenties you are resilient and unafraid, able to take on partying, all-nighters, and laugh in the face of not being able to pay your rent. So --- I include myself in here --- you might not have thought about money or your future career much, and you might seem puzzled that every time you talk about going to grad school people start ranting about money and the job market when obviously you are going there to talk about Art and other Deep Things and isn't it a little bourgeois to be harping on a steady paycheck in the face of Matthew Arnold, yo?

Ah, but now you must consider the other element of grad school: time. I like to say that, since grad school is about twice as hard as undergrad, it should take twice as long. Of course, that is only because I plan to finish during this, my 8th year. (Think I'm slow? Talk to the rest of my cohort for a wake-up call.) Plus, I went to a crappy MA program (the only place that accepted me the first time out) which helped make me competitive enough to get into this semi-crappy PhD program (more on that later). So I will have been in graduate school of some form or another for an even 10 years. Bite me, ok? The discussion of whether this is fast or slow, or public vs. private school, can wait till another time.

This means that, if you follow my 8-year-plan, you will be ending your twenties and entering your thirties as you finish grad school. Many things happen over the end of your twenties, regardless of your life situation. Your metabolism slows down. You start living a quieter life (more or less). You suddenly think kids are cute and want to have some, or possibly actually marry someone. Your old dreams of starting a punk band while squatting in an Oakland warehouse living the bohemian life suddenly seem ... uncomfortable. (Ok, I'm just jealous of Cool Scientist Friend's life ---- I was never that cool.) You start wanting to buy a house, and worry about having a retirement account. You are just different and interested in different things 8-10 years later.

And even if you don't fully succumb to the American-Dream-white-picket-fence ideal, you start to get tired of living like a grad student and being treated like one long before you finish your program. It gets old, scrambling for new funding every few months, and shuddering and closing your eyes whenever the student loan reminder comes in the mail, and planning everything --- or putting things off --- based around whether or not you will file or get a job or move back in with your parents. (Don't laugh! At some point it will seem attractive.)

So, to sum up, when you decide to go to grad school, you need to think not only of your early-twenties self, but your later-twenties/thirties future self and what s/he may want. What if you change your mind and want kids? How much debt are you willing to take on? Will you be willing to live in family student housing, or have roommates, or live in a slum, 10 years down the line? How many years can you eat beans and rice and not take a vacation? How many side jobs are you willing to take on for extra money? How long will you take shit adjunct work before you walk away from the whole thing? Is your family going to be able to help you out a bit, or will they be needing help in a few years? Will your 30s-self be pissed at your 20s-self when you finally graduate 50K in debt, with no job and no benefits or retirement fund started up?

And you need to think long and hard about whether you'd be ok with not ever landing that permanent job --- that's what I'm thinking about constantly right now --- and realize that even if you promise yourself that you won't get sucked into the whole "I must get a tenure-track job or a certain type or I am a personal, moral, and academic failure" --- even if you swear you won't fall into this thinking, remember that the pressures to think that way, to invest in that mindset, will be around you constantly.

I mean, sure, going to grad school isn't the end of the world. But if the worst-case scenario --- not to mention the medium-case scenario --- horrifies you and doesn't look like what you want, then don't apply. Think about it long and hard.

And the title of this post? I have a second part coming up. The second question you'll need to ask yourself: why do grad schools want you?


Flavia said...

Many things happen over the end of your twenties, regardless of your life situation. Your metabolism slows down. You start living a quieter life (more or less). You suddenly think kids are cute and want to have some, or possibly actually marry someone. Your old dreams of starting a punk band while squatting in an Oakland warehouse living the bohemian life suddenly seem ... uncomfortable [. . . .] You start wanting to buy a house, and worry about having a retirement account. You are just different and interested in different things 8-10 years later.

This is just about the truest fucking thing I've ever read about grad school, and it's exactly what I tell every student who mentions being interested in a PhD program--but it's also, I think, the thing that 22- (or 24- or 26-) year-olds are just constitutionally unable to understand. It's hard to imagine yourself changing, but it's also hard to imagine your friends changing and no longer being in step with them: you don't know what it's like to be 30 and not own a house, a car, or a single decent piece of furniture and to eat ceral for dinner for the entire week before your too-small paycheque arrives--while all your friends are married homeowners with pretty accessories who can order in sushi any old time--until you're there.

moria said...

Okay, mouse. Breathe deeply. Breathe. Okay.

So, Sis. I think this is a great post, and I think you articulate some important things.


To the extent that it's ever possible to know what one is getting into when one is beginning any long, difficult, potentially annihilating process, there are some of us who have, and have had for some time, a grasp on what this grad school gig is.

And we are sick to fucking death of being told, every time we suggest we might want to pursue an academic path, immediately, with no questions asked, as you and Dean Dad have both done, "FOR GOD'S SAKE, DON'T DO IT (or at least take pause and carefully consider the following horrible things before you do)."

I've been getting versions of this talk from various people for three years now. It's becoming very upsetting. It's also very telling, sure (how many career paths exist from which initiates actually discourage new blood??). Because you're so amply Not Wrong -- there's so much to think about that one doesn't want to think about, and a necessary degree of self-awareness that is difficult to maintain. It is important to be reminded of these things.

But given the soul-crushingness of the whole endeavour -- from the earliest phase of contemplating application on -- it is not helpful to have so much knee-jerk negativity thrown around.

I'm not saying you/we/They should be handling young'uns with kid gloves. I think the realities you gesture to are important, and it may really be news to a lot of the people who read this post. But it would be nice if, now and then, when we wee ones tell an Elder that we're applying to Ph.D. programs, the immediate reaction was not "For fuck's sake, why???"

So could I get some fields of daisies and happy singing baby cogs or something next time? One daisy? A single, torn-off wilted petal of a daisy? ...Pretty please?

(I want to reiterate that I think this is a great post. I think fancy-pants intellectual undergrads (hi!) are really unwilling to think about money, lest as you said it seem bourgeois. That's important to say. I'm just very twitchy. And demand daisies.)

squadratomagico said...

I also want to laud you on a really incisive post that identifies a number of issues that talented undergraduate students have a hard time fully grasping -- notably, the issue of one's own changing interests and expectations over a long period of tim. Certainly I did not have a real understanding of this.

But, like Neophyte, I think that making the emphatic "Don't do it!!!" response the default mode is a disservice to students, in some ways. I try honestly to present the down sides of grad. school to my students who ask about it, but ultimately, I don't think grad. school necessarily is a mistake -- even for those students who hate it and drop out; or for the folks who adjunct; or who get the degree and then leave for a corporate job. It's part of the mix that makes those people who they are, even if they did not go straight through grad. school directly to a TT job.

Or, if it becomes something the student ultimately regrets, well, it's their mistake to make. Life is full of mistakes; this is only one of them.

gwoertendyke said...

i just want to say that how you find the time to give such cogent and important advice, i'll never know.

more importantly, i want to see the cool shirt you wore out last night.

Bardiac said...

This is a great post, just really on the mark with some of the important things that students should think about before going to grad school, especially in the humanities.

Flavia said...

Squadrato is right, of course, but I think that almost none of us DO make "don't do it! you're crazy for even thinking about it!" our default mode when actually talking with students. Certainly, I respect and value my students, and even those whom I sincerely think aren't cut out for grad school don't get that message from me--it's not appropriate to stomp on someone's dream, even if one really and truly thinks one knows better. There are ways of being kind and generally supportive while still making the drawbacks of grad school plain.

So I think that part of what Neo is responding to (at least here and at Dean Dad's--I can't speak to whatever you've heard from the people who have advised you one-on-one) is the letting-off-steam side of the blogosphere; the frustrations and irritations that we half wish we could say aloud, but generally don't

Because no, I don't think most of us, ourselves, regret our decision to go to grad school. And I also hope that we all have enough humility to know that we *can't* know who can go the distance, and who can't; personally, I really dislike it when people frame the issue as, "only go to grad school if you really really really can't imagine ever doing anything else"--for one thing, *of course* many smart 22-year-olds can't imagine doing anything other than school, because they've never done it. For another, though, I'm exactly the kind of student my undergrad profs would have dissuaded from going to grad school (had I ever asked anyone for advice about grad school, which I didn't): I was smart enough but by no means a standout student or classroom star; I was actively considering other options; I wasn't really sure why I wanted to be in grad school, or what I'd study, or whether I'd be a good teacher. But I found my vocation along the way. The point is, there's just no knowing which brilliant 24-year-old will flame out fast, or which aimless one will suddenly blossom.

And Squadrato is also right that making a mistake isn't the worst thing in the world, so maybe it's presumptuous or condescending to think that we can or should "save" students from the possible mistake of grad school. Still, when you've seen so many people ground down by the experience (something I once wrote about here), it's hard not to feel a sense of obligation to warn others away.

Belle said...

Hear, hear. I tell my students that grad school is both soul-stripping and exhilarating, and that it must be done for love not money. Money and status? Go to law school. But if you love the learning and the subject (and history can be either a humanity or a social science, depending on various idiocies), and you can accept that it's going to be totally different and harder than you think it is (because no undergrad really gets it until they're overwhelmed first semester in), then go for it. And I'll support them whatever. Once they go in, no matter what they decide once in, they get the best support I can offer.

A friend who went through law school said she fought it for over a year, because they were trying to change the way she thought, and she liked the way she thought. Once she accepted that, it became easier. And she didn't have umpteen years of genteel poverty ahead of her!

So Neo gets truckloads of daisies and hugs and the rest of you get awe and honor as well as daisies. But easy it aint.

StyleyGeek said...

I too think this was a great post, but I don't know if I agree with the idea that you shouldn't do something because you don't know if the you you'll be in 10 years time will thank you for it. We can never know who we'll be in ten years time. By this reasoning, none of us should have kids, because even though we might think we're okay with sleepless nights and endless worry, and financial costs that children entail, what about when we are older and tireder, and the children keep demanding things? Better not to even try.

Okay, so maybe that analogy was a little bit of a reach, but it's just that in my early 20s I saw my friends of a similar age getting into all sorts of things that had just as serious, just as long-term consequences as grad school (marriage and children being among these things), and no one told them they should rethink. Whereas, like Neophyte, I got the "Really really don't go to grad school. No, don't!" talk every time I brought it up.

The other point I kind of disagree with is the one that says not to do it if you're not okay with getting a professorial job at the end of it. I would almost go to the other extreme and say that there is little in grad school that is INHERENTLY rewarding, and the only thing in the whole wide world that you need a PhD for is to be a professor, so don't do it unless that's what you want to be. (Although it's totally true that people need to know that a tenure-track job is pretty unlikely, and you need to be okay with the idea of spending many years adjuncting and/or pulling together lots of little jobs as research assistants etc.)

Finally (and sorry for the long comment), I should fess up that I am coming at this from a privileged point of view. I got through fast, due more to a combination of fortunate circumstances than anything I did, and I got through debt-free, thanks to lots of adjuncting, generous scholarships, and a husband with a (badly paid, but still quite real) job. I know it's a totally different experience for people not in that situation: just like my undergrad years where I worked nights and was constantly in fear of not being able to afford to eat were a different experience from that of my middle-class parental-supported peers.

So what I'm saying as that the stuff I take issue with above is probably due to my own experience being different. I still think it's a very worthwhile post and a great discussion down here in the comments.

Tree of Knowledge said...

Good advice. But I have the same desire for daisies as Neophyte. It's not that I think any of the "good god, don't it" advice is wrong (because it's right for a lot of people), it's just hard to hear when you're already in grad school--from everyone. It's already a soul-crushing experience, and it's difficult not to read that advice without second-guessing your own decision to do this (but really, I can't imagine being anywhere else). I certainly want to make sure that anyone applying to grad and comes to me for advice has a realistic idea of what it's like and not some glorified idea of academia (which a lot of people do--stupid movies that make teaching look easy and fun and make profs out to be god-like saviors). So advice likes yours is good, and needed, and yet it's hard to read. Which is, I guess, why it's good?

Oh, and I tagged you for a meme.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I think there's also a demographic reason why there's such a "OMG don't do it!" response - and that's that there is a cohort of people out there who went to grad school in part because they were told that (in the words of my UG advisor), "in the next ten years, one-third of the nation's faculty will retire or die," so getting a Ph.D. would be a great career path. Um, yeah, that didn't happen. I'm okay with it, but I do know people who became extremely bitter that the advice they'd been given was so completely wrong.

(I'm not sure their bitterness is quite justified, but you can kind of understand it. It makes you emphasize the negative, sometimes.)

Shimmy said...

Great post. And your comment fields take up something between the lines in the conversation we all had on DeanDad's blog. For me, that between-the-lines buzz goes something like this: yes, we want to tell prospective graduate students to be careful about what they're getting into, but we should not demoralize them with such severity that they do not even apply.

I agree with flavia -- the apocalyptic tone of this discussion ("no, don't ever go to graduate school") is partly just some great letting-off-steam in the blogosphere.

But I've attended forums where fellow faculty have said this to prospective students. In these latter situations, I find myself adding correctives, as I did in DD's comment fields. If you have the passion and (seemingly) the talent for the field, why shouldn't you apply? Know the realities [the disclaimers we all added on DD's blog]. But we can't know all the realities -- all right on the mark in your posting -- of anything we get into.

I'm very suspicious of those of us in tenure-line positions who tell people not to go to graduate school under any circumstances. I tell students in the grad program I direct the reality of grad school and let them know they shouldn't be idealistic about the occult vagaries of the humanities academic job search, if they choose to go that route (which, of course, not everyone does). But if I discouraged folks to apply to graduate school wholesale -- as DD and a few others did -- then I'd question whether or not I believed in graduate education at all. I wouldn't want faculty members who do not believe in graduate education teaching in our program.

nolapoet said...

I feel your pain, baby. Trust me-- it's much worse if you go back in your 40s. All those prime earning years sacrificed in the name of one's art, or theory, or intellectual project of whatever kind, can never be replaced. As my aid shrinks and my "estimated family contribution" (and student debt) grows, I still take home three figures a month and own neither car nor home. It's more painful because I actually had car, home, and career, walked away from all of it, and am now giving very serious thought to going back to my old line of work and adjuncting a single class on the side for extra money. (Oh, so THAT'S how a Ph.D. can make as much as a garbageman with no GED!)

OTOH, should I win the lottery and get hired full-time in my specialty at a decent rate in a town that I love, I'll consider myself very, very lucky. Hard work clearly has nothing to do with it. Everyone I know at this level works hard. What astounds me is the needless and silly backstabbing. Many rats in a small cage phenom, I guess. Everyone always seems to be jockeying--but for what?