It’s around the time of year when undergraduates start thinking about graduate school, so naturally it’s the time of year for overheated blog posts on why going to grad school is meant to be a Very Bad Idea. The latest of these is from Dean Dad, who wants to Stop the Cycle of Abuse, i.e. stop people going to grad school. The reasons given are all fairly standard factoids – it’s a huge opportunity cost, it takes forever, and the job market is awful. None of these are good reasons, and it would be an awful decision to not apply to graduate schools because of posts like these.
Now it is true that going to grad school does block you off from doing many other things with your 20s, such as being a professional athelete. But for many people grad school days are some of the most enjoyable of their lives, so the fact they last a while is hardly a major cost. And the job market is, at least for a lot of grad students, much better than the horror stories you’ll find on blogs suggest. Here, for instance, are the placement records for recent years of the philosophy departments at Princeton, Rutgers, NYU and MIT, four of the best East Coast philosophy programs. Note that these are the complete records – they include everyone who graduated, not just those who got headline jobs.
The records are fairly excellent I’d say. It might be noted that the job market in philosophy has generally been thought to be fairly weak over time period reported, and is much stronger nowadays. (There are more jobs advertised this year in philosophy I think than ever before.) Yet even over the lean years, the median student entering one of those programs ended up with a tenure-track job at a good-to-excellent university. And to a certain kind of person, there’s hardly a better job that can be imagined. The compulsory hours are fewer than any other job around (except perhaps as an NFL referee). And while you do have to spend time on research, presumably the people who go into these fields do so because they enjoy them. Life as an academic does consist of a fair amount of teaching, committee meetings, grading and so on. But it also consists in a rather ridiculous number of “I’m getting paid to do this!” moments, which more than make up for it. The payoff from being successful in this market, in other words, is pretty high. And that’s without mentioning the job security.
Now you might wonder why any of this is relevant. After all, most grad students don’t get to go to Princeton, Rutgers, NYU or MIT. The important point here is that no one ever has to decide to go to grad school as such. The big decision is whether to go to a particular graduate school that has offered you a (hopefully funded) place. In other words, when you have to make the crucial decision, you may well be in position of crucial information (i.e. that you’re at a school with an excellent placement record) that suggests your career prospects are very good.
There is a flipside to this of course, and that’s that by the time you’re accepted, you might know that your only grad school option is to go somewhere with a very poor placement record. (Or a very poor record of competent advising, or poor morale among students, or what have you.) At that stage, it is a very good idea to reconsider how strongly you want to go to graduate school. Going somewhere that you might well not enjoy, that might not lead to much of a career, is a real gamble. Of course there are very few schools from where no one has had a successful career, so it’s not like you have to give up if you don’t get into a top school. But you should go in with eyes wide open, or not go in at all. If you can’t get the data from the schools you’re considering about how they’ve done at placement in recent years, that’s a reason to be suspicious of the school. (Eyes wide open and staring into the void is not good.) And you’d have to think very hard before going somewhere without tuition wavers, or adequate stipends. But again, those are the kinds of decisions that should be made in the light of your specific possibilities, not in virtue of generic data about what humanities graduate school in general is like.
I also suspect the opportunity costs of graduate school are not as great as the Dean suggests. It’s true that you aren’t going to be putting much into your retirement fund or home equity while in graduate school. But academia is one of the best industries to be in if you want to choose your own retirement date. A few years of rather relaxed part-time teaching at the end of your career can easily make up for some lost income at the start. Over the long run, grad school will often be financially a perfectly acceptable deal. It’s hard to imagine too many people for whom going to grad school is the income-maximising path (though I know some such people), but it’s just as hard to imagine people who choose it purely on the basis of financial considerations.
The important take away point is that there’s no stage in the process where you ever have to worry about how your experience will be using the ‘typical graduate student experience’ as any guide. At this stage all you have to do are fairly non-committing things like taking the GRE and writing applications. When you really have to make a decision you’ll have a lot of information about what your grad school experience will be like, and what your long term prospects would be, and generic stories about what grad school as such is like will be of very little relevance to your particular case. Hopefully you’ll be in a position to know that your odds are well, well above average. (Assuming that, like the children of Lake Woebegon, the readers of CT are all above average!)