Go to Grad School!

by Brian on November 30, 2005

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!)

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dearieme 11.30.05 at 6:30 pm

Shouldn’t we also consider the “placement records” of those who were offered places at those schools and then decided not to accept?


John Emerson 11.30.05 at 7:02 pm

I am willing to compromise on wording.

“Don’t go to grad school if it’s not a top-twenty school”, for example. Or “Don’t go to grad school if you aren’t fully funded”. Or “Don’t go to grad school unless you’re willing and able to start over from scratch at age 32”. Or “Don’t go to grad school if you don’t like the idea of being an adjunct”.

There are some real issues here, and there can be the possibility of the appearance of a conflict of interest in the cases of people who make their livings teaching grad students.


rea 11.30.05 at 7:40 pm

Well, I don’t want to sound like an idealist or anything (and after all, I went to law school, myself), but isn’t all this business about careers secondary? Aren’t scholarship and learning good things, in and of themselves? How could grad school possibly be a waste of time, if you learn something, even if you can’t make a career in academia afterwards?


jet 11.30.05 at 7:40 pm

Which is better?

Being a cubicle monkey doing some crap in a field you don’t care much until you die (how’s that philosophy degree working for you as a teller at the bank?)

Or spending several years immersing yourself in what you love, and maybe going into debt, but having the best years of your life and then going and being a cubicle monkey somewhere until you die?

Course the optimal solution is to pick up a complimentary undergrad that pays worth a shit while in grad school. Why don’t more people do this?


LogicGuru 11.30.05 at 7:41 pm

Once you’re a senior with a major in philosophy you might as well go to grad school because there are few other viable options. Possibly law–which is becoming impacted. Possibly MBA or other post graduate degree that doesn’t require any particular major. But basically once you end up with a degree in a humanities area you’re dead in the water.

I majored in philosophy because I thought I was too stupid to do a science or be trained in any technical area, and because philosophy was more interesting and rigorous than Eng lit or other subjects I thought were within reach for me. I wish someone had advised me on these matters. Yes it’s very nice to be a tenured professor and yes I love doing research–writing, publishing, going to conferences. But the costs and risks–not getting to decide where you live and having to teach, which I hate with avengence, are very high.


New Kid on the Hallway 11.30.05 at 7:53 pm

Ummm, for most people grad school are some of the most enjoyable days of their lives? I went to a very good program with a remarkably congenial atmosphere, and have managed to get a job (and survive so far) because of a lot of the factors you specify. But I’m damned glad grad school is over. Sure, I had some good times. I would imagine I would have had some good times doing anything else, too. In lots of ways, grad school sucked. Being at the bottom of the food chain for a prolonged period of time (ten years in my case) isn’t much fun.

In response to some of the other comments: scholarship and learning are wonderful things. Modern Ph.D. programs, however, are training grounds for becoming a college professor (ideally at a R1 university). There are many individuals who are interested solely in learning and the pursuit of knowledge and whatnot. But as institutions, grad schools are not about a passion for knowledge, but about creating professors. I know that sounds cynical, but the message I have seen consistently throughout the myriad grad school accounts I’ve read is that people who go for the pure love of learning – not because they want a job in academia per se – are the ones who are the most miserable once they get there.

Obviously individuals have to consider their own circumstances. But I do think that students need to go in with their eyes open, and I think the “overheated” posts are an important part of opening students’ eyes. I’ve worked with too many colleagues who thought that the only natural thing for an excellent history major to do was go to grad school to feel that these kinds of posts are overstated or overdone.


John Emerson 11.30.05 at 7:58 pm

If someone picks up a lot of debt, career is not secondary. You have to pay it back.

If you spend the best years of your life in grad school and then get out at age 32 with the effective message that you weren’t good enough to make the cut, there’s a big down side.


John Emerson 11.30.05 at 8:00 pm

“The message I have seen consistently throughout the myriad grad school accounts I’ve read is that people who go for the pure love of learning – not because they want a job in academia per se – are the ones who are the most miserable once they get there.”

This would have been my case. I’m an eclectic generalist, and none of the specialized grad-school methodological options I knew about appealed to me.


Matt 11.30.05 at 8:13 pm

Let me repeat the advice about placement. A well-known professor at a school near the bottom of the Leiter report top 50 in philosophy once told me that only about 30% of those who finished their program got tenure track jobs, and those were not that attractive. Even at rather better (but not top) programs like Penn the placement record is around 70-80%, so not finding a job is certainly possible. And, a fair number of those jobs are just okay (though others are excellent.) So, look at that stuff very carefully.


LogicGuru 11.30.05 at 8:16 pm

“Love of learning”–give me a break. The administration at my place treats us to innumerable lectures on encouraging this in our students and gasses on about the value of a liberal arts education, etc. while faculty tsk-tsk about students’ narrowly vocational interests. BS.

“Love of learning” might be very nice for Athenian gentlemen with lands and slaves to provide income and the leisure to hang around the Academy, or for a British gent a century ago with a decent income going to Oxbridge for polishing. For most ordinary Americans however higher education is just vocational school pure and simple and these platitudes about “love of learning” are an insult. If you love learning watch PBS and read books–the purpose of the colleges and universities is to train and credential students for employment.


Jonas Grumby 11.30.05 at 8:36 pm

I have to agree with Brian here. I started a grad program (not in philosophy), and though I didn’t finish or end up in academia, I look back fondly at that time. But it’s like he says: it was funded, so I had accrued all of $800 in debt by the time I left, and I was in a program that was not at all like the horror stories you hear about. The atmosphere was great, the profs were all at least approachable (and some were downright friendly!), and there was a sense of comeraderie with my fellow students.
I didn’t know all of this going in – to a certain extent, I got lucky – and of course it could have turned out much more unpleasantly under different circumstances. But it would be a mistake for someone to be dissuaded solely on the basis of FOAF stories.


decon 11.30.05 at 8:38 pm

I made the mistake of going to grad school, and I went in to a top 20 program, fully funded, with eyes wide open to the issues under discussion.

1. The opportunity cost is huge, and usually, discounted to zero at the time the grad school decision is made. Grad schools do not do their applicants a favor by pretending otherwise. Entering the job market after 5 years in, say, a philosophy program, is a bit like doing so after beomg a stay at home mom for 5 years.

2. The hyper-specialized nature of grad programs makes for a bizarre experience. Grad. school may actually get in the way of learning the kinds of things you want to learn.

3. It isn’t “easy” to recover the costs of grad. school by teaching part time at the end of a career. Firstly teaching part time, as any grad student will know, isn’t easy. And secondly any one who understands compound interest understands the futility of trying to catch up later.

4. Looking at “placement” records of graduates is not very informative. Most students drop out at various stages along the way. How do the dropouts do? And what happens once those who actually graduate are placed? Are they tenured or thrown under the bus in 5 years? Happy with their job choice, miserable, or just muddling along?

I have been very good friends with approximately 20 students in a very good phd program. Of these about actually finished the degree. Most of the graduates got jobs at average state institutions. Only 1 of the graduates is unequivocably happy with the process. Most were relieved it was finally over whether they graduated or not. Several were deeply unhappy. And one was suicidal.

If you want to go to grad school, go! But treat it as a one or two year joy ride and don’t worry about passing your orals. Thats my 2c.


John Emerson 11.30.05 at 8:47 pm

After rereading the post, it seems that despite the title, what Brian is saying is that if you don’t believe that you’re significantly above average (and I would add, if you’re not confident that your seniors in the biz will think so too), you should NOT go to grad school.

For average people and below-average people — actually, for most people — the “generic stories about the typical graduate school experience” should be, in fact, decisive.

How do you know that you’re above average? If you got into one of the best undergrad schools and did very well there. Alternatively if, as an undergrad from a less-reputable school, you published a few things. Otherwise the odds are against you.


John Quiggin 11.30.05 at 8:52 pm

I didn’t go to grad school (got my PhD as an external student from a second-tier Oz uni) and I’ve always wondered whether I would have benefitted from the experience or not. But things didn’t work out that way for me.


jim 11.30.05 at 9:31 pm

Obligatory autobiographical element: I went to graduate school, think those five years among the best in my life, didn’t choose an academic career. Now, twenty five years later, house (nearly) paid for, children’s college (nearly) done, retired on a pension, I do a little teaching.

Agree that graduate school needs to be fully funded. Money should flow towards the graduate student, not away from him or her.

Agree with Brian that relaxed part-time post-career teaching can make up for the late start into earning. It’s a mistake to compare graduate student teaching with post-career teaching.

Certainly, late entry into non-academic work creates some problems: one has to catch up with his cohort. But the fact that I was certified to be a smart person did, in fact, help. There are people in non-academic work buying fake credentials off diploma mills; they aren’t doing so out of vanity.

To a great extent, a student’s graduate school experience is a function of his or her advisor. Mine was good, so I liked graduate school. I knew people whose experience was different. And I would not have cared to have spent ten years feeling I was at the bottom of a food chain.

Still, my youngest took her GREs last week. So I think it a good thing that other college seniors be discouraged from applying to graduate school this year.


Dean Dad 11.30.05 at 9:35 pm

As the Dean in question, I must protest that I’ve been poorly paraphrased. If you read my piece carefully, you’ll note that I specifically said “If you manage to get a fellowship to Harvard, then by all means, knock yourself out. But if your graduate institution is likelier to be Midwest State or its equivalent, don’t.”

MIT has good placement? I don’t doubt it. But it’s also irrelevant to the students who have to ask in the first place whether they should go to grad school at all.


John Biles 11.30.05 at 9:44 pm

Scholarship and learning are good things in and of themselves, but graduate school costs a ton of money and lots of schools, you’re going to find it hard to get a full ride.


hilzoy 11.30.05 at 10:11 pm

Two things to think about before you go to grad school:

(1) Many, many jobs in philosophy do not let you do any of the things that might have attracted you to the discipline, because they have, say, 4-4 teaching loads. With a 4-4 teaching load, you will not publish, you will not read much, you will not even be able to teach very well, since there are just too many students to really spend a lot of time working with all of them on their papers. So ask yourself which phil. jobs you could actually enjoy, and see whether any of the places that accept you have a good track record placing students in those jobs. If not, take it as an omen.

(2) At some point, almost any grad student (outside sciences, and even in some of them) will have a crisis of confidence brought on by thoughts like: all of my friends seem to be making a concrete difference in the world, and I am — doing what exactly? trying to figure out the exactly right way to parse some relatively minor argument or other? Can this possibly be worth it, when I could be saving lives, or rehabilitating crumbling neighborhoods, or building bridges, or, well, something? Make sure you have a really good answer to this question, so that you will be able to deal with this thought when it hits in force. If you don’t, go do something else.


agm 11.30.05 at 10:55 pm

It must be nice to have a choice. In physics, the choice an undergrad faces is grad school or leaving the field. There is no third option. Grad school will be hell. This is also not optional, and advisor independent — the quality of one’s advisor and his/her funding determines which circle of hell you are in. All technical fields (at least in the US) are the same, as demonstrated by the fact that Jorge Cham’s comic is widely known and sympathized with by all.

Yet many, many of us still go. Better to have tried and failed than to wonder for a lifetime?


Colin Danby 11.30.05 at 11:27 pm

I hope potential grad students reading this will take away the message that grad school is a very mixed bag and you want to ask about placement success, figure out what grad student culture is like, and maybe check out some potential advisors.

But assuming you can get funding and can handle a few years with no social status, I’m with Brian: it’s not bad for a while. You get to read stuff that interests you, almost full-time. You get to learn. And no, loving learning absolutely does not stand in opposition to getting a job! Being moderately ambitious and careful to make progress in no way stops you reading and learning. In fact beyond a certain point the best way to learn is to be writing.

I’d also urge potential grad students to ask about teaching opportunities as a grad student, and to look for a place where *the grad student culture* values undergrad teaching. If you’re going to end up in a job where you teach, learn to do it, and well. It’ll make you more employable, and happier.


Wrong 11.30.05 at 11:45 pm

What’s the opportunity cost of grad school? For a lot of humanities graduates, they’re giving up five years of boring, badly paid clerical work and/or intermittent unemployment. That’s a price I’m certainly willing to pay.

The idea that you’re going to be doing something significantly more pleasant or better paid than graduate school in the first seven years after you get your bachelors strikes me as bizarre (TAing at my current graduate school pays significantly better than the job I had before I came out here, for instance). Likewise, I doubt that you’ld have significantly more job security than an adjunct professor if you got a job straight out of college.


JR 12.01.05 at 1:24 am

If you come out of college with, oh, $40-80,000 in student loan debt and you have no funding for graduate school other than more debt, you are OUT OF YOUR MIND even to be considering graduate school. Graduate school is a luxury good. It’s no different than a Ferrari or an in-ground swimmming pool or an eight-week safari in Africa. YOU CANNOT AFFORD IT. Forget it. Get a job. There are lots of interesting things you can do- just because the only adults you’ve been around for the past few years have been professors doesn’t mean that every adult in the world is a professor.

And you’re not missing anything. Graduate students are depressed. They are bored, scared, and infantilized. It’s not a life you want.


CG 12.01.05 at 2:03 am

My situation sounds, at first, unusual, but it seems a common thing for recent graduates in my cohort. I just got a BA from U Chicago in Biology, having ridden one of my secondary interests – human genetics – out to a bachelors. This nets me good job prospects for the time being (earning 45k as a research associate in a hospital)… But I realized too late in college that I do not want to make a career in science. My one constant unflagging interest has been Mediterranean history. I’m making plans to go to grad school, hopefully at a top place, in this subject, and frankly I do not know how good my prospects are. Good recs, probably good GREs, may get me so far, but without a history degree I’m not sure whether I’ll get much attention from the admissions committees. There are a lot of regrets, but for the time being I have a steady paycheck. Am I doomed to be a scientist?

I have friends in similar situations. Undergrads are encouraged to follow their interests, but we only find out what we are in for much later, when it’s too late to change.


ben wolfson 12.01.05 at 2:48 am

The important point here is that no one ever has to decide to go to grad school as such.

I believe in the falsity of this statement.


Kenny Easwaran 12.01.05 at 2:55 am

I imagine that a large proportion of the horror stories are from people in fields like history or english. From what I understand (mainly driven by these horror stories), in those fields there are in fact a significant percentage of students that don’t get funding, and a significant percentage that take 10 years or more, and a large number of departments that knowingly take more students than they can reasonably place. In such a market, you really do have to have good evidence that you’re well above average to make it a worthwhile prospect – ie, if your application isn’t good enough to get any sort of funding except debt, then what are the chances that your job applications will be good enough to get you the kind of job you wanted going in. And sinking tens of thousands of dollars into debt will probably be financially debilitating.

For a prospective philosophy student though, the job prospects do sound better on entering a decent graduate program. And while the student is likely giving up the possibility of a decently large salary doing consulting, or doing something or other with a computer, at least the student isn’t likely going much into debt, so she won’t have large debt financing issues hanging over her head if she ends up dropping out.

In the sciences, the financial prospects are actually probably relatively positive – a masters degree in science seems to increase income in relevant jobs by a decent amount, and the academic job market has plenty of outlets into industry. However, graduate school does sound more like slavery (at least, judging by my friends in chemistry).

So philosophy seems to occupy an unusual niche in the academic world – job prospects much better than the humanities, and graduate school much more pleasant than the sciences (though not NSF-funded). Math is the only discipline I can imagine having a better combination of these factors.


magistra 12.01.05 at 3:18 am

cg – it is certainly possible at least to start the switch from science to the humanities (I’m not sure it is the other way round). I’ve done it in the UK system, and I suspect the US system is more flexible. I got my first degree in mathematics, then worked as a librarian and have now just finished my PhD in medieval history. I got accepted onto a masters degree in medieval history at Cambridge University on the basis that I had a good first degree, I had recently done well in A level Ancient History (normally done by 18 year old school leavers), I knew the relevant languages (I could read French, German and had taught myself some Latin) and I could write a decent essay.

I think the key thing is showing you’ve got a serious academic interest (willing and able to read the scholarly literature in the main languages) and the basic analytical skills a historian needs. Can you read two scholarly articles on the same topic which disagree with one another and decide which one is more likely to be right? That’s one of the main skills that history undergraduates lack at first.

Once I’d got the masters, I was easily able to get onto a PhD, and I even got funding, which is quite difficult in the UK system. Where I am having problems at the moment is in getting a job post-PhD, where I suspect my relative age and bizarre career background is a hindrance. You’d need someone more versed in the US system than I am to tell you what the prospects are for mature/non-traditional students with PhDs getting jobs over there.

However, I’d say that in actually getting the PhD it’s an advantage having had a regular job beforehand. Unlike some graduate students, you know that there are hours of the day before 10 am and it’s possible to get useful work done in them. Disciplined work habits are useful for getting the PhD and so is being used to the fact that you have to work/study in suboptimal conditions, not just when you really feel inspired. It’s also an incentive to the academic life if you’ve seen what the alternative is like and you don’t enjoy it.


dp 12.01.05 at 3:27 am

CG: “Undergrads are encouraged to follow their interests, but we only find out what we are in for much later, when it’s too late to change.”

Rings true here. A reasonable option is to aim for a particular line of work, and bundle some of the job requirements into your plans. Pick up an extra skill that is in short supply for the field of your choice, and do this independently of the supposed interests of academic mentors.

This isn’t about hedging a bet, but about giving a particular employer a good reason to latch onto you in the absence of anything more obvious. Had I studied town planning, for example, a subfocus on property appraisals or quantity surveying would have been a good thing. Finding people in that line of work and milking them for priorities would be a very pragmatic thing to do. The idea is to target yor employer/market at the outset, and take steps to make oneself atttractive in some practical way.

Grad schools are notoriously inept at preparing people for the ‘outside’ world in this regard, particularly given the hyperbole around ‘academics-in-training’. If you don’t fit the profile ofg a model prospect, then the best thing is to set your own course early and stick to it.


Simstim 12.01.05 at 5:20 am

To add my grain of sand (albeit a British one, where the situation is a bit different to the American one) to the emerging heap. I was a PhD dropout, fully funded (by a research council) at a second-tier British university, and although I enjoyed some of that time, I certainly feel as if I’ve lost 5 years of my life. I’m 33 and I feel as if I’m only just finding my feet again after (finally) realising that academia is not for me. I’m now finding that for the career that I’m interested in I’m too old to be a “fresh out of college” graduate to get on the fast track route, and with too little relevant work experience to go in at the middle, so I’m having to start right at the bottom.

Reasons I dropped out: burn-out (full-time education from the age of 5 up to 28 without a break); realising I was a generalist essayist not a specialist monographer; and getting disenchanted that, with a few exceptions, most of the people in the upper half of the disciplines I was interested in seemed really mediocre, intellectually speaking. It seems to me that unless you really are sparkling in the extreme and marry this to consistently hard work, the only way to get a job in academia is to play the networking/fashionable topics game. Not that I’m bitter or anything…


Peter 12.01.05 at 5:36 am

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.

I continue to be amazed at the blinkered ignorance that most academics have of life beyond the quad. Almost all professional careers have moments like this, and some more so than academia. Ask people in advertising or in law or in medicine and you’ll hear the same comment!


wage slave 12.01.05 at 8:23 am

Worth noting: If you’re good enough to get in a top PhD program, even in the humanities, you’re also good enough to get an interesting private sector or nonprofit job.


John Emerson 12.01.05 at 8:24 am

I imagine that a large proportion of the horror stories are from people in fields like history or English.

This is correct — though the phrase “fields like history and English” looks vaguely pejorative. You could add anthropology, anything arts-oriented, low-demand foreign languages, and those areas of the social sciences without non-academic applications.

One problem is that the unsuccessful academic often does not have a place to step down to. (The contrast is with science — several failed biology PhD’s I know have made middle-class careers as techs). PhDs are both underqualified and overqualified for high school teaching — they have to retrain for a year, and many schools will fear them. Journalism used to be a catchall for well-educated failures, but now it’s a profession of its own with its own career track. (That’s right, they aren’t naturally stupid and dishonest. They’ve been trained to be that way. I’m not joking).

There’s an interesting piece to be written about the history of “The Humanities”. The humanities tend not to have an immediate practical payoff; they’re the “idealistic” part of the life of the mind. Historically they’ve been carried on as a class privilege / class obligation by landowners, churchmen, and military officers — together with the lackeys and retainers of the aristocracy and free-lance writers.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the humanities were taken up into the university as knowledge-producing professions. Now the university’s knowledge-production is being evaluated on utilitarian economic grounds, and the humanities don’t look good from that point of view, either for students or society as a whole (in its present mood).

Suppose humanities education were to be analyzed from four points of view: job training (because the students will have to work); the dissemination of culture; the production of culture; and (the wild card) the ratification of class.

The last one is the strange one. In some way, an English BA working in a coffee shop is an “elite snob”, because he / she has been initiated into obsolete and useless aristicratic knowledge. Being a college graduate still differentiates class, even if the graduate is making less money than the average HS graduate.

A lot of the energy of the Republicans “cultural elitism” comes from financially successful men who didn’t finish college and feel left out. For example, Karl Rove — one of the smartest political scientists in the US, but no degree.


Elyas Bakhtiari 12.01.05 at 9:24 am

I majored in Sociology as an undergrad, graduated about two years ago, and am currently considering grad school. I’m just not sure why.

As an undergrad, several professors suggested I would do well in a graduate program. They would tell me things like, “You’re going to have to be more aggressive in class when you’re in grad school” and write comments on my papers like, “This would make an excellent thesis when you’re in grad school.”

The problem is, I am a generalist. I like Sociology, but I am not prepared to narrow it down further than that. Although college wasn’t that stimulating or exciting at the time, now that I’m out and have gotten nothing out of my BA in Sociology, I miss learning academically.

One of the problems I have with grad school (or at least my perceptions of it) is that after completing a graduate program you have become so specialized that you speak a completely different language than the general population or someone of another discipline. I feel academics lack effective communication skills, which is why I have been leaning toward forgetting about grad school and pursuing a journalism/writing career.

I’ve actually been studying for the GRE and planned on taking it soon, but some of the comments in this post have raised doubt as to whether it’s a wise decision at this point. I would appreciate any advice from those who have gone.


anonymous 12.01.05 at 9:26 am

No! Don’t do it!

I’m just finishing up with a PhD at one of those top 4 grad schools you talk about. The statistics you cite *don’t* include all of those grad students who dropped out before finishing their dissertation.

In my class of ~20, at least half have dropped out and maybe 5 of us will get jobs in academia, and I’ll bet only 1-2 of us go on to get tenure. Worse than that, its been a 5-7 year process for most of us…I could’ve gotten 2-3 MBA’s or Law degrees in that time and gone on to do something real, rather than just bathe daily in the bitchy politics of publication, grading, and resource fights.

Academia is highly random and political. Even as a PhD student, its very much about who you network with and what their personal opinion of you is. And its all about that when you hit the job market, and later go for tenure. Beware!


eweininger 12.01.05 at 9:35 am

The details of funding commitments have to be a key consideration, evaluated relative to the local cost of living (which means, above all, are you going to reside in one of those oh-so-exciting-but-expensive big cities?). Quite frequently, at least in the US, grad students can only attain a minimally decent quality of life–i.e. not being evicted–by doing some undergraduate teaching. This is a undoubtedly a valuable experience, especially for those who go on to academic careers (since teaching is rarely part of the grad school curriculum). Nevertheless, the pay is typically outrageously low, and that can be the origin of a very vicious circle of increasing teaching and decreasing progress towards the degree. Colleges and universities are complicit in this in a thousand ways: any section taught by an adjunct or part-timer is a big money maker (or at least less of a money loser); and more perniciously, poor wages essentially contribute to preserving a pool impoverished-but-capable labor by impeding degree completion.

During my grad school career in NYC, I knew any number of smart, highly able folks who taught 6, 8 or even 10+ courses at a wage of maybe $2500 (pre-tax) per–in perpetuity. And, every couple of years, the NYTimes would doing an article profiling a couple of them. The basic gist?–they are brimming with inner satisfaction.


John Emerson 12.01.05 at 9:52 am

I don’t have my own bitter experiences of grad school, but a relative of mine was a teaching slave for several years before she was told that she would be refused her doctorate. She believes that her notification was delayed for one or more years so that they could get some more teaching out of her.

She came out with quite a bit of debt, too. Fortunately, the field she was in was a technical one in which an ABD could get an OK job.


anon 12.01.05 at 10:27 am

One problem is that the unsuccessful academic often does not have a place to step down to.

A problem that, it turns out, is amplified at the tenure-denial stage. If your field is small enough or specialized enough that job outside R1 are few and far between, there may be no place to step down to within academia, and it’s even harder than for new mint Ph.D.s to step outside academia altogether.


Miranda 12.01.05 at 10:34 am

As a Ph.D in English with a tenure track job, let me chime in here. I went to a top Ivy grad school, was fully funded for four years, got my degree in 6, had absolutely lovely advisors, and yet I would hardly say grad school was the best time of my life. I love learning and my field and I had success on the job market (after five years of MLA hell and adjuncting), but grad school made me insecure, question my ability to do or think anything, hate my peers, and grind my teeth at night such that i have a special dental guard to this day. You should only go if you can’t imagine doing anything other than be a professor (and want to teach) and if you are fully funded.


Colin Danby 12.01.05 at 11:05 am

CG: A number of us have undergrad and grad degrees in very different fields. Talk with some people in History and ask their advice (any History e-lists out there?). You can always take one or two extra undergrad classes, on a non-degree basis, if you need to bolster the transcript but generally grad school admissions committees want bright, hard-working people more than they need extensive prior training.

Elyas: I wouldn’t do it unless you really want to, and your reservations are right. Grad school trains you to be a scholar, and success there requires narrowing and specialization. It’s not just a matter of jargon. The general population, as far as I can tell from my incoming students, thinks of scholars as knowers, who then cloak what they know in jargon. But we’re not primarily knowers, and we’re bored with what we know — we’re askers who look for new questions. That’s what’s hard to communicate.


John F. Opie 12.01.05 at 11:21 am

Hi –

I did my undergraduate in philosophy and psychology (and even today understand what phenomonological hermeneutics is) and went to Germany to do my Dr.Phil. in Philosophy.

While I was there I met my future wife when I was ABD, and changed fields to do a MA in political science, economics and philosophy.

Looking back, I did my philosophy in order to learn how to understand things. I’ve been a very successful economic forecaster for the last 15 years, specializing in detailed industrial forecasting. Why? Because I can understand the inner structure of industries in a very short period of time, having learned how to understand complex relationships.

I was lucky: no tuition in Germany and the remnants of a small inheritance allowed me to do grad school on a very limited budget, but I had to do it all in German (and that was part of the challenge!), which added at least a full year to the experience.

So there is life after grad school.

But the reason I didn’t finish the Dr. Phil. in philosophy was that I was facing at least 4 years of research and a year of writing and would have joined the ranks of the very, very, very few who have immersed themselves in phenomonological hermeneutics, effectively making myself unemployable anywhere but a very small handfull of universities. I got along famously with my advisor back when and at one point, after we had worked through an article from German into English, he admitted that he was on his 4th marriage and it wasn’t working out well and advised me NOT to go into the field unless I was willing to forego having kids and anything even remotely resembling a normal life.

For which I am eternally grateful, since he was right: instead I have two wonderful daughters, now teenagers, and a wife to whom I’ve been married now no less than 16 years.

Worth the trade off, but if I hadn’t at least pursued the “dream”, I’d never had met her. And while I’ve often faced a glass ceiling because of the lack of the doctorate, I’ve also been able to take a sledge hammer to at least one. Sledgehammers break glass.

So my words of wisdom? Do what you want. But if you find yourself digging a hole that you probably are gonna have a hard time digging yourself out of, then at least have the honesty to yourself to stop digging and start filling in the whole before the rains come…



JR 12.01.05 at 11:23 am

Imagine someone on the way to becoming a successful dancer. You see in your mind’s eye someone who has wanted to be a dancer and nothing else since she was six. She eats, sleeps, dreams dance. She’s always stood out as the best in every performance. She believes with absolute certainty that she will be a great dancer. She’s probably wrong – she will probably hit a ceiling – but she has a chance. Without that belief to a level of certainty, she will never make the commitment that is necessary for success.

If you want to be an English professor you have to have that same passion and dedication to literature and criticism. If your reason for going to grad school is that you like to read novels in your spare time and you’re pretty good with the lingo, you’re going to fail- expensively and ignominiously. If you haven’t demonstrated a level of dedication and competence far beyond the average student by the time you are 22, you should not go to grad school. If don’t see youself as the potential equal of Stanley Fish or Elaine Showalter or Helen Vendler, don’t start.

Garrison Keillor once said that the difference between liking novels and being an English professor is like the difference between Huck Finn and the Army Corps of Engineers. While his choice of metaphor shows what he thinks of the profession, he’s fundamentally correct about the difference in the level of effort and commitment.


Kieran Healy 12.01.05 at 11:35 am


I majored in Sociology as an undergrad, graduated about two years ago, and am currently considering grad school. I’m just not sure why.

Then I think the best advice is almost certainly “Don’t go.”

The problem is, I am a generalist. I like Sociology, but I am not prepared to narrow it down further than that.

In what sense are you “not prepared to narrow it down further”? (Haha: I am asking you to be specific…) Seriously, any sociology book or article you read is going to be about something in particiular: even pure theory or the comparative analysis of world civilizations are both about particular questions and have some kind of literature with specific ongoing debates and standards for investigating them. You can go to grad school to study Big Questions (if that’s what you mean by “generalist”) but you’ll still be working in a particular area. And even big question people typically start out writing PhD theses that are about something in particular. Take a look at the PhD topics of the likes of Immanuel Wallerstein or Michael Mann or Charles Tilly, for instance.

have been leaning toward forgetting about grad school and pursuing a journalism/writing career.

Something like this sounds more suited to your interests. But even here there are more specific skills and less generalism than you might expect.


Aeon J. Skoble 12.01.05 at 11:37 am

“With a 4-4 teaching load, you will not publish, you will not read much, you will not even be able to teach very well”
You’re overstating the case considerably. It’s true that in 4-4 land, you can’t publish _as much as_ the folks in 2-2 land, but many of us nevertheless publish quite a lot. At schools with a 4-4 load, it’s often the case that 3 of the 4 are intro or critical-thinking courses the prep for which takes less and less time as you accumulate experience. Obviously 4-4 loads suck, but it’s false that they totally preclude a scholarly life.


Evan 12.01.05 at 11:40 am

Yeah, what Peter said. This piece and many of the comments have the same unconscious assumptions that Laura‘s (otherwise fine) piece had. If you work in an office doing law, architecture, accounting, or advertising, why is that necessarily less spiritually fulfilling than working as a philosophy professor?

I’m curious where this attitude comes from. Are white collar office workers simply too bourgeois to be taken seriously? Or is it that collar office workers have made some sort of devil’s bargain with The Man, and that therefore they must be punished somehow — if not in the financial realm, then in the spiritual.


jet 12.01.05 at 11:49 am

Aeon J. Skoble,
In English that isn’t really that true. Teaching 4-4 where all the grading is essay pretty much means 60-70 hours weeks.


phred 12.01.05 at 11:54 am

I like the “mixed bag” statement above. In fact, most every comment here resonates. The question, though, is what advice to give people contemplating grad school. The downsides are well-documented here and elsewhere: pay, low social status, potential debt, potentially re-starting in a few years, dashed hopes, crises of confidence. A combination of several of these would be very trying, indeed. As with any strategy, the key is to minimize the likelihood of as many of the big negatives as possible. One can endure one or two in life pretty easily (in fact, most ANY career will carry some of these downsides – or others, e.g., soul-crushing boredome in clerical work, or physical risk in many other fields). Most of the suggestions here address one or more of these risks; my strategy (in retrospect, it was only deliberate in some ways) was to look at all of them and make sure that none would devastate me. To wit:

1. Pay, debt (direct). Don’t go un- or under-funded. Make sure that you can make it through while incurring NO debt, while NOT doing work outside of your field, if possibible. Avoid credit cards.

2. Long-term financial security. See 1. Choose and tailor your field wisely. This is tough if your One True Love is rarefied (obscure?), but there are strategies to minimize problems. One is pursue love a bit off-kilter. Rather than pursuing history in a history department, you might consider doing it in a Library and Information School (ditto with sociologists, cog-sci folks, literature types, cultural anthropologists, etc.etc.). Library / Info schools are professional schools, and do a lot of hiring. For you historians, archivists are HOTHOTHOT. You can do archival research in your favorite period, and get a really good job later. You can do comparative literature of kids’ books and work in a library school. You can do ethnographies of information workers. Go to the websites of the best library schools around (Texas, UNC, Syracuse, and others) and see. They do the same work as everyone else in the Uni, but the get jobs. It may not be history, literature, etc. as pure as the driven snow, but it’s good research.

OR, get a master of library science, and work as an academic librarian in your chosen field. Especially if it’s interesting but not cutting edge / prolific research and knowledge you crave, rather than teaching.

Or get a JD/PhD (long term commitment, and possibly more costly, but marketable).

Or study philosophy at Rutgers, Princeton, NYU, etc.

3. Low social status. Work first. Prove to yourself that you are a productive and capable member of society. One post above talked about grad students as scared and infantilized, another about comparing yourself to your peers who seem to have more impact. Both are overstatements (infantilized? come on, more like they’re left alone without supervision more than any other job in the world for people of similar training, and how many people make real impacts in their 20s and 30s? not many of my peers did). But there is something to having confidence in your abilities outside of academia, for several reasons:
a. some people denigrate academic work. That rolls of easier, and it’s easy to recognize it as the mere resentfulness it usually is, if you’ve succeeded elsewhere.
b. You know you can leave at a moment’s notice.
c. Your students will like it; mine appreciate that I can relate how my work relates to what I’m doing – it shows up in evaluation constantly.
Moreover, you will go back when, and only when, you really want to.
4. Potentially re-starting. See 2 and 3. With a practical bent to your field, it ain’t restarting; especially if that’s an MLS or a JD. And a previous career makes graduate work look like a second previous career, rather than a prolonged BA.
5. Crisis of confidence. See all of the above.

Much of this repeats other posts. But look at holistically, and with your eyes open. Strategize to avoid each of the pitfalls as much as you can.


soubzriquet 12.01.05 at 12:07 pm

I can perhaps offer a different personal point of view, for a few reasons. I say this as someone whos Ph.D defense is in less that two weeks, so the other end of the process is very clear to me at the moment!

A few relevent comments about my situtation, for context.

I dropped out of high school and did other things for a while, and didn’t start undergraduate studies until an age (24) at which many people are already finished them. For this reason, some of the concerns about debt etc. are perhaps more acute for me. Apart from a year between undergraduate and graduate studies, I have spent the last ten years in B.Sc -> M.Ma -> Ph.D studies.

Through a combination of national scholarships and a generous department (plus a little teaching) I have maintained a level of funding that is quite inconcievable in some other disciplines/departments, as I understand it.

I didn’t plan on staying for a Ph.D, but had so much fun during masters studies that I stayed (here in Canada, at least in some disciplines, a thesis based masters is the normal route to Ph.D studies.) Similarly, I wasn’t about to stay in academia at any cost, but have lucked into a nice fellowship for post-doctoral studies that will take me through the next 2 years.

My field is mathematics, but in particular what I do has broad application. I suspect this puts me in a rather different situation than many.

Within this context, then, my feelings about the graduate studies experience are as follows.

My time in graduate school has been excellent for several reasons. First, I am working with good people. Second, I have always had comfortable amounts of funding. This doesn’t mean that I could not have made a lot more money outside of gradute school (as others have noted), but it does mean that I incur no debt, and have never had to worry about meeting rent without taking on extra work. In my case, I’ve even managed to save a bit. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, I’ve always had reasonable options if I decided to walk away at any point. I think this just gets worse the further along you go — if you can’t leave without it feeling like a massive failure, I suspect you could talk yourself into accepting some pretty horrible positions. The same is true of my path going forward. I suspect in a year or two I’ll be applying for tenure-track positions, but if nothing comes of it, or (more tellingly) nothing that I feel is a good fit — I’ll happily go elsewhere.

So, given all of that: For the right person, graduate studies is nearly the best of all possible worlds. As a senior graduate student, you have the luxury of research time that faculty members (particularly junior ones) can only dream of. You have very little in the way of short term responsibility and scheduling constraints, and all kinds of time. Yes, this can be a problem if you lack discipline, but what an opportunity! I can’t really imagine a better way to have spend the last six years.

So by all means, try to go! However, only if you are reasonably funded (a personal decision), and only if you know that you can walk away at the end of your degree (or perhaps even before then) and count it as time well spent. Be realistic about possible long term futures, and have an idea of what you might do if you don’t end up in academics. If those options don’t appeal at all, rethink the whole thing.

I certainly don’t assume I’ll have an academic position in a few years time, but I’ll keep aiming that way and have some fun while I’m at it.


soubzriquet 12.01.05 at 12:14 pm

One further note, particularly aimed at any undergraduates who may be reading and thinking about these things. When I finished undergraduate studies, I couldn’t decide what in particular I wanted to do in graduate school. I stared at a small pile of acceptance letters, still couldn’t decide — so I told them all `not this year’ and took a job instead. I think this was a very good choice, and didn’t hurt me at all in the end. Others experience may well vary, of course!


Sebastian holsclaw 12.01.05 at 12:35 pm

For a lot of humanities graduates, they’re giving up five years of boring, badly paid clerical work and/or intermittent unemployment. That’s a price I’m certainly willing to pay.

The idea that you’re going to be doing something significantly more pleasant or better paid than graduate school in the first seven years after you get your bachelors strikes me as bizarre (TAing at my current graduate school pays significantly better than the job I had before I came out here, for instance). Likewise, I doubt that you’ld have significantly more job security than an adjunct professor if you got a job straight out of college.

I think the grad school decision is full of tradeoffs to be weighed, but I don’t think this is really a fair analysis of the downside of starting out at a job instead of choosing grad school. Unless you are the tip-top of your field (the functional equivalent of the basketball star) you are going to have to go through the unrewarding early years of your career path at some point. Having a Masters degree or PhD isn’t going to change that. It just changes which years are spent there (and in some fields you get to spend them there both in grad school and in your first few years of work). I especially feel bad for failed PhDs in the humanities or those who can’t get tenure. If you end up as one of those (and statistically lots of people do) you will still have to endure the scut years of entering the work world, but you will have managers younger than you.


harry b 12.01.05 at 12:41 pm

I have one piece of advice, if you are already going to grad school. If at all possible, do not restrict you learning, academic or otherwise, to your chosen discipline. Practice journalism, or intern regularly for a non-profit, or work in a stables, or something. Contra Brian I think people do learn a lot in their 20s in other areas of work (including, for some, that they’d rather be in grad school). Even if you are brilliant and lucky you still might not land up where you want to, and it will be less of a blow, and easier to move into something else, if you have been doing something else all along. And even if you do land up where you want you might enjoy having a sideline (I learned to write by writing agitational political pamphlets and leaflets while in grad school, and that has served me well both as an academic and in my enjoyable forays into journalism; I also learned to run meetings through political activism, but that is a curse, in fact).


tim 12.01.05 at 12:48 pm

a real example from a 4-4 life:

2 comp classes, 25 students each, 4 papers each.
2 surveys, 35 students each, 3 papers each.
20 minutes of grading per paper.

3 1/2 weeks each semester of full-time, nothing but grading. Grading really bad, soul-crushingly bad papers. Those of you at top schools probably don’t realize just how badly the students at the schools whose names you wouldn’t recognize write.

Of course, it depends on your field. This example had a colleague in the business school with the same 4-4 load, maybe even more students, who didn’t understand the problem: one midterm, one final, both scantron. (“I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!”)

(The story has a happy ending – my example has moved on to a far better school. Take away what moral you wish.)


soubzriquet 12.01.05 at 12:49 pm

harry b: that is a good point, and related to earlier conversations here (papier-mache, etc.). One invaluable piece of advice to any graduate student is, I think, to do *something* else as well. I suppose that in the particular case that your chosen field does not have a lot of employment options, consider doing something that might (but only if you are genuinely interested — this can’t be a chore). In my case it was music, but something to get you away from your research is essential, I believe.


Tim 12.01.05 at 12:57 pm

A question for all ye who know know a lot of once-and-future grad students:

Do you know any grad students who have finished a Ph.D. while working full time? I need just a little bit of hope!

(The full-time job is the intellectually challenging and stimulating career path; at this point the degree is more or less a hobby.)


John Emerson 12.01.05 at 1:03 pm

Tim: I know a US Post Office lifer who got a linguistics PhD from U Washington at age 55. He was single and self-funded, and I think that his department gave him lots of time.


Keith 12.01.05 at 1:09 pm

I went to grad School specifically to get the diploma so I could get a job. And it worked. My MLS landed me a postion that pays three times more than I wa smaking before, I enjoy it thouroughly and feel that, by attending Grad School (for just under 2 years) I not only contributed to my own learning as an academic but as an adult. I’m a much better person because of Grad School and would highly reccomend the experience to anyone.


Matt McGrattan 12.01.05 at 1:20 pm

Tim, re:

“A question for all ye who know know a lot of once-and-future grad students:

Do you know any grad students who have finished a Ph.D. while working full time? I need just a little bit of hope!”

Yes, me. Or at least, I submitted my thesis 6 weeks or so back. My viva isn’t scheduled till after the new year.

I worked full-time for 2 years during the time that I took to do my thesis, and I took a short additional break of around 9 months to get married. [For immigration reasons it was easier to get married while not a full-time student]

It took me a little under 5 years start to finish. Which is only a matter of months more than my friends who didn’t work at all during their doctorates. So it is certainly do-able.

On the other hand, I spent less time at conferences than I really could have and would have had more time to prepare material for publication if I wasn’t worried about earning money.


Michael S 12.01.05 at 1:32 pm

I’m coming to this discussion a little late, and mostly skimmed the responses, so forgive me if I repeat anything that’s been said — but I don’t quite find the arguments for going to grad school convincing. Those placement records are all from top east-coast schools, but they do not give percentages out of the total number of graduates, nor do they provide raw numbers of all the students who enroll, drop out, finish, find part-time work, etc. There’s nothing said about attrition rates (in some Ph.D. programs, 90% of all people who enter drop out before finishing). Placement histories are also a bit misleading because they say nothing about the vagaries of the job market, or the fates of all the other candidates who were applying for the same jobs. Most of all, what about the countless number of graduate students who do not attend Ivy League schools? What about their fates? How effective are their departments in placing them? And let’s face it: many academic departments practice a certain amount of institutional discrimination; if your diploma has the name “Princeton” on it, you’re more likely to get an interview than if your diploma has a much less esteemed moniker. I’ve seen this happen more than enough times.

Plus, the whole issue raises questions about how the experience is across different disciplines. Even if philosophy PhDs are finding jobs, does that mean that history or English PhDs are doing the same, or those in the sciences? I know from experience just how rough the job market is in history, with hundreds of accomplished people in part-time jobs, hundreds of qualified applicants applying for the same tenure-track position, positions not being filled at all because of funding problems, fewer and fewer open positions in certain sub-disciplines, the list goes on. Plus, I think the image of philosophy jobs is too rosy; philosophy departments simply aren’t thriving, and are worse off than English and history departments.

Having said all that, I wonder if there’s another way to look at it. I wonder about the way Dean Dad phrased the issue; it seems like these are all utilitarian, practical concerns — opportunity costs, job placement, time. Don’t get me wrong; not being practical is being foolish because you simply have to find a way to survive, make money, save for the future, work, and so on, and I’m all for that. But the main reason to attend graduate school is personal, especially if you are attending a program in the humanities. Tthe job market in the humanities is a mess, and getting a PhD requires great personal sacrifices, so the only reason to pursue a degree is because you have a compelling personal reason to do so. Certainly, most of us who went to grad school wanted to be professors, but because there’s absolutely no guarantee you will be one, you have to find another reason. And if you decide to pursue a degree because it’s the one thing you want to do, that’s a good enough reason. I personally don’t think grad school is much fun, but I am glad I went because of what I accomplished while there, and because of who I was when I finished. If you’re going for other than deeply personal reasons (and because you genuinely love the work), you’re much less likely to finish.


augie 12.01.05 at 2:13 pm

I worked full-time while a grad student–two jobs and with two children. It’s taken me ten years total. And now? After a one-year visiting prof stint in upstate new york, I’m now a “cubicle monkey” doing tech writing and documentation. The reward? They call me “Doc” at work.

As one of my profs told me, it’s all about academic pedigree. My undergrad degree is from a small Catholic university, “not Princeton” (her words), and so my odds at getting short-listed are pretty close to zero. Unless, of course, I convert to Catholicism, publish a best-selling book about the collapse of western morality, and submit about 100 applications; then my chances may be uped to 10%. My advice, to my children and friends, get an MBA or a hard science degree so you can earn a decent living. Then read Plato and Nietzsche in your spare time. Why suffer poverty for intellectual accolades?


soubzriquet 12.01.05 at 2:13 pm

Tim: I don’t know anyone who did an entire Ph.D while working full time, but I certainly know some who spent significant parts of it doing so. Logistically speaking if your program requires quite a few courses, it may be easier to concentrate a year or so of full-time study on getting coursework done, for example. If your program has very rigorous comphrehensive exams, some preperation time before then while not working may be very useful also.

In all, it is certainly do-able, and I suspect you may be a bit more efficient because of it (that `inefficient’ time may be pedagogically useful, but not directly related to your dissertation). It won’t be the same experience, of course … and if you want to finish in even roughly the same time as you would without the full time work, something (home/social life, conferences, non-thesis related research, etc.) is going to be sacrificed. If there was a way for you to manage without full time work, it would be better, however, if you are passionate to do the degree, and this is the only way to make it work, then it is certainly something to consider.


John Emerson 12.01.05 at 2:15 pm

Keith: If MLS is library science, it’s one of the few grad programs I’d recommend, based on the anecdotes at my disposal. There are jobs and it can be tremendously interesting.

It might also be a good major for a journalist, because your search skills are multiplied enormously.


Daphne 12.01.05 at 2:28 pm

Math is the only discipline I can imagine having a better combination of these factors.

Statistics is also fantastic. Plentiful and well-paid employment opportunities outside of academic, and decent opportunities inside. Usually well-funded because the grad student pool is so low because of its stereotype as the most boring thing you could ever possibly study. But for people who are pre-disposed to math and science, it’s heaven – cool work in science, public policy, engineering, and law is open to you.


DigitalDjigit 12.01.05 at 2:49 pm

Haha, I love that “as such”. I only ever see it in philosophy texts.


Uncle Kvetch 12.01.05 at 3:08 pm

Phew. Where to begin. There’s way too much above to respond to, so I’ll just chime in with my own story.

I just dropped out of a PhD program in linguistic anthropology at the ABD stage, a few months into my (gulp) 12th year. I went into the program thinking that I’d probably want to go on to an academic career, but swearing to myself up and down that that was not the “reason” I was doing the degree–I was getting the degree solely for its own sake, because I wanted to. As far as what was to come afterwards, que sera sera. And that attitude has served me in good stead, as things have turned out, because I’ve been able to leave the process unfinished with very few regrets.

I was fully funded at a very good department at a very good research university, with a truly wonderful and supportive advisor. The process had a predictable number of highs and lows: coursework was mostly good (depending on the prof, obviously); I hated writing grant applications for fieldwork with a white-hot passion; preparing for and taking the comps was actually, dare I say it, fun; and the experience of fieldwork itself was simply incredible, unforgettable, a once-in-a-lifetime WOW. Overall, it was a very, very positive period of my life.

Sometime in the past several years, while in the midst of the writing-up stage, I decided against pursuing an academic career. I have a longtime partner who was decidedly unenthusiastic about having to relocate from NYC (which was practically a given). I was watching colleagues from my program bounce from fellowship to one-year appointment to adjuncting, year after year. And worst of all, I was constantly hearing horror stories from junior faculty in my field–i.e., the people who had actually “made it” and landed those sweet tenure-track jobs! Crushing teaching loads, ugly intradepartmental dynamics, ever-increasing publication requirements for tenure, and on and on. A few of these folks are actually riding the wave, sleeping 4 hours a night, cranking out the work and loving it; most of them are simply exhausted. The kicker: they’re making about the same salary for their 60-70 hour workweek as I make in thirty hours as a “cubicle monkey” (thanks, Jet) at a NYC law firm.

Bottom line: both Rea (#3) and Jet (#4) hit the nail on the head very early on in this discussion. “Should you go to grad school” and “Should you be a college professor” really are two separate questions. Had I treated my grad school experience solely as a training or apprenticeship for an academic career, I would be hard-pressed not to see the many years I spent there as “wasted.” As it stands, I think of it as a very gratifying and fulfilling period of my life.


John Emerson 12.01.05 at 3:13 pm

Just to stir the pot: what would happen if nobody went to graduate school expect those for whom graduate school was a rational choice.

You’d start off by closing down at least a third of the grad schools, but there’d be a ripple effect since those schools would no longer be hiring.

I happen to think that humanistic studies, like childraising, is an irrational but meritorious form of altruistic activity. It’s hard to express that idea in free-market utilitarian / evolutionary-biological terms, but screw those people.


Barry 12.01.05 at 4:43 pm

Posted by Daphne: “Statistics is also fantastic. Plentiful and well-paid employment opportunities outside of academic, and decent opportunities inside. Usually well-funded because the grad student pool is so low because of its stereotype as the most boring thing you could ever possibly study. But for people who are pre-disposed to math and science, it’s heaven – cool work in science, public policy, engineering, and law is open to you.”

I second this, adding that statistics is great for people who are good at math, but don’t want to plunge into the full depth of abstraction that a Ph.D. in math calls for. Related fields: biostatistics (more of an applied than a theoretical degree) and operations research.


1) If you leave before getting a Ph.D., you can get a good, interesting job.

2) Because Ph.D.’s in these fields have excellent prospects outside of academia, the academic prospects should be slightly better.

3) After 1-2 years and a master’s degree in these fields, there are a number of Ph.D. programs which will want you, due to having hot quantitative skills.


Russell Arben Fox 12.01.05 at 4:44 pm

“I happen to think that humanistic studies, like childraising, is an irrational but meritorious form of altruistic activity. It’s hard to express that idea in free-market utilitarian / evolutionary-biological terms, but screw those people.”

Yes! John’s comment wins, hands down.


soubzriquet 12.01.05 at 4:51 pm

barry’s comments (66) are correct. Although I am in maths (of a fairly applied sort, but still) if someone where looking for the most broadly sought after or applicable areas, I’d have to second his comments, and add that a) there seem to be a lot of Op.Res. positions around, and b) there is also the financial angle, if that floats your boat. Either as a quant. analyst, or earlier on you can head off into actuarial work.


Uncle Kvetch 12.01.05 at 5:13 pm

Yes! John’s comment wins, hands down.

I to say that all of John E’s comments on this thread have been very much in line with my own thinking.

Although the one that’s really closest to my heart is miranda (#39)–simply because I started grinding my teeth in my first year of grad school and had to get a night guard too. Good times, man, good times.


JR 12.01.05 at 7:49 pm

“I happen to think that humanistic studies, like childraising, is an irrational but meritorious form of altruistic activity.”

Altruism in my dictionary means “selfless regard or concern for the well-being of others.” If you are dedicated to altruism, become a doctor or nurse or physician’s assistant and move to Haiti or Harlem. Or become a lawyer and devote yourself to actual innocence cases. Or become a journalist and document oppression in Myanmar or lies in Washington. Or become the music librarian for a symphony orchestra or teach middle school or do rehab therapy or do any of a thousand other things.

But don’t tell me that you’re writing a book that no one will ever read on geographies of the body in Austen because you’re an altruist.


JR 12.01.05 at 7:56 pm

PS- Phred, I said “infantilized” because grad students are doing work that no one cares about. If you are a lawyer or an engineer at 28, there are people who care a lot if you are right, and if you fuck up people get screwed. That is what it means to be an adult. If you are a grad student at 28, what is the best that you get? The equivalent of “that’s nice, dear” from some parental surrogate of an advisor. And if you fuck up, who cares? You’re a perpetual child.


Keith 12.01.05 at 9:50 pm

An MLS is indeed a library Science degree. And that’s where all the jobs areat. Statistics very (don’t they always?) but anywhere between 40 and 60% of librarians will reach retirement age in the next ten years (this also explains why the Library Science world has such a weird attitude about computers. Most of the librarians in the field are afraid that they’ll be replaced by some cyborg fueled by devouring their precious card catalog). But as the field grays, new recruits, ones who are computer savvy have room to advance rapidly.

Just out of grad school with no library experience and six months later, I’m head of the technical services department of an art school with three campuses, two in GA and one in France. But I have a background in art. The moral is: go with your strengths. If your undergrad is n the humanities, find a grad program that will allow you to enfold that expertise in a practical way that will get you a job.


Scott Spiegelberg 12.01.05 at 9:56 pm

I thought I’d give voice to a missing field in these discussions, the arts. For some history, my Ph.D. is in music theory, from one of the top five programs in the country (Eastman). I loved my time there, both as an academic and as a practicing musician. I’m now in a tenure-track job at a liberal arts university with a professional school of music.

In the arts, grad school is treated as an opportunity to hone your craft further, whether or not you plan to pursue academia as a career. DMAs apply for orchestra jobs as often as college jobs. When I finished my MM in trumpet performance, I was auditioning for gigs as well as applying to doctoral programs in theory. Even while in my doctoral program I was still auditioning for jobs in top military bands and orchestras.

More importantly, life in the arts is a vocation, no matter what level of degree you pursue. The drop-out rate is much higher for undergraduate music majors than graduate students, because of the high demands. Musicians who get jobs after a Bachelor’s spend as much time practicing and obsessing as their counterparts in grad school. They just get paid a little better.

I will say that I had a ball in grad school. I was intellectually challenged by my peers and teachers, but also respected by the same. There was a bit of a sink-or-swim attitude, but I enjoyed the challenge of that. To Tim’s question, I started teaching full-time immediately after I finished my coursework. I took my qualifying exams and wrote my dissertation in 2.5 years, while teaching in three different states. I also had two children in that time period. Anything is possible if you want to do it and surround yourself with people to help you.


Long Sunday 12.01.05 at 10:51 pm


Pedro 12.01.05 at 11:24 pm

The best information to be gleaned from this discussion? Find out where the loser’s favorite blog guru, john emerson, attended “grad school”, and make sure not to apply there.

Maybe if you’re searching for a career as a jack handy like scriptwriter some of john emerson’s wit and wisdom could be useful; here’s a deep one on fidiciary matters:

“If someone picks up a lot of debt, career is not secondary. You have to pay it back.”

Whoa. And more of the brilliancy of John Waldo Emerson:

“If you spend the best years of your life in grad school and then get out at age 32 with the effective message that you weren’t good enough to make the cut, there’s a big down side.”

Yes, the effective message. A big down side. For whom? All? some? none? I doesn’t appear John Waldo ever made to even Aristotelian quantifiers.

More Emoson:

“I’m an eclectic generalist”

yeah they used to be called bullshit artistes, or mountebanks and swindlers.


Ray Davis 12.01.05 at 11:32 pm

Although I never went to grad school and never got burned or stroked and never regretted either loss, I’ve been told that my advice as a detached observer was good.


Seth Edenbaum 12.02.05 at 12:48 am

I’m still struck by the degree to which the humanities have been overtaken by the ghetto sensibility of the hard sciences. If I didn’t know better I’d blame it on Sputnik and leave it at that.

A nominally intelligent but well trained chemist can be a “productive” scientist, engaged in research, if not leading it. That’s not so simple in the humanities, where originality is the point. 50 years ago it would have been enough to have a Ph.D in English Lit and teach. But these days people pretend the rules have changed. I’m in favor of anything that limits the number of publications from mediocre but desperate minds with advanced degrees.

Science knows no qualitative idea of craftmanship. There is no ‘added value,’ to number, none of any moral or philosophical meaning or use. Taste is meaningless pleasure gone nicy-nice

Other people, and I’m one, value the articulate description of things because description is the only way know the world. Perception without description, asocial, is inarticulate emptiness, and what is social, intersubjective, gets sloppy. Art, as opposed to science, is description before prescription: always tentative. Good literature therefore is the literature of specifics, not ideas; just as a lawyer defends her client first, and professional ethics take precedence for her over abstract morality and ‘truth’. Her tradecraft comes first. Craft allows us to concentrate not on what we want to think but how we do so. An appreciation of the result need not devolve into irrationalism any more than logic need devolve into pedantry, but the last century had plenty of both.

It doesn’t bother me that TS Eliot was an anti Semitic reactionary, not because his poetic genius makes such things irrelevant but because he described so well what it was to be in his position: modern and anti-modern; American and European (and anti-American); arrogant and weak; confused and confident; impotent, or fearful of it; a brilliantly articulate closeted twirp. If the ideas are contradictory it doesn’t matter. I don’t read Eliot for the ideas that ‘belong to him’ but for the ideas in the work itself. And they’re not the same thing.

When engineering is no longer the template for intellectual study in the humanities, the academy will become an interesting place again. The upside is that Intellectual life outside the academy is much more interesting than it used to be.


Me 12.02.05 at 1:04 am

“The upside is that Intellectual life outside the academy is much more interesting than it used to be.”

How’s that? Would love to hear what you mean… More interesting than in Eliot’s time?


jeff l 12.02.05 at 1:31 am

Well, I will send off my applications to philosophy grad programs this month, so this conversation is of particular interest to me. I have little hope of getting into a top tier program. I am graduating from a hyphenated university with a somewhat spotty transcript (virtually entirely A’s, a few A-’s, and two semesters F’s that are long in my past[those darn personal issues]. I am graduating with two ba’s (philosophy and econ). I will have very good recommendations from profs I have gotten to know personally, though they are certainly not household names. My GRE scores were very good but not stellar. I think I’m cut out for grad school, but will obviously have no idea until I get there if I get there.

Anyone out there have this type of history/experience? Have any advice/stories. I’m excited and scared out of my mind.

I am interested in econ grad work as well, but moreso as it pertains to economic thought not so much the analysis. I believe this eliminates it as an option.


phred 12.02.05 at 8:36 am

jeff l –
Beyond the general advice everyone here has given, most of which is really, really good, one thing to consider is moving up. That is, if you don’t get into ‘stellar’ programs, write at least one very good paper to use as a writing sample, do some interesting work for two years, get the MA, and reapply to better programs then. This is pretty common, and can have a number of advantages (knowing better on what and with whom you’d like to work; going to a school more likely to get you a job).

Also, use the econ to your advantage. If you do, say, political and moral philosophy or philosophy of science and social science, having a very strong grasp of economics will be invaluable. So consider taking courses in the econ department, or minoring in it (if minors are required). Good luck.


Barry 12.02.05 at 9:17 am

Keith: “An MLS is indeed a library Science degree. And that’s where all the jobs areat. Statistics very (don’t they always?) but anywhere between 40 and 60% of librarians will reach retirement age in the next ten years (this also explains why the Library Science world has such a weird attitude about computers. “

Don’t trust this – I first encountered this idea in the famous report issued in the late 1980’s, predicting a shortage of Ph.D.’s in the 1990’s. What happened was that they changed the rules – mandatory retirement ages were dropped, corporations dropped most pure research, etc. End result – lots of Ph.D.’s who could pursue the careers which they were trained for.

In the case of MLS, library administrations have a strong interest reducing costs. This means not replacing retiring librarians with people, or at least with highly-paid people. Automation and the de-skilling of positions is what I’d expect.


james a 12.02.05 at 9:20 am

I know that I’m entering this thread quite late, but I must chime in as a long-time lurker here. Very simply, I’m flabbergasted by the worldview expressed by “Dean Dad” and by a good number of the contributors to this discussion.

I would of course encourage all considering graduate school to go into it with eyes wide open: Attrition at any good program in my field (in the social sciences) will be over 50% and odds for landing the plum t-t jobs open in the year(s) you are on the market are, by definition, slim. As such, I advise undergraduates as follows: I tell the 60% that I see who seem to be heading to grad school to extend their adolescence to take on some sort of “helping” position, embark on the grand tour of Europe or hit the old “hippie trail” in Latin America or Asia for a year, or simply get a “real” job for a while before I will write them a letter of recommendation. I tell the 35% I see who seem to be heading to grad school simply because they were always “good at school” to consider the pursuit of a more “applied” or professional advanced degree and council them against the pursuit of an academic career (we were all “good at school,” so it is really beside the point).

That leaves 5%, who seem to have the genuine, burning “love of learning” that “logicguru” scoffs at above. This segment is admittedly the toughest nut to crack. Perhaps half of them are driven by identity politics or an activist bent. I warn them away from the “pure” social sciences (e.g., while the right politics might have allowed you to skate as an undergrad, the economists at Chicago really aren’t going to care) and into ethnic/gender/labor studies programs with a very strong qualification that they simply must tool up on theory, methods, and statistics far beyond what is usually required in such programs given the strong possibility that they will grow disenchanted with academia and will eventually trail toward the think-tank/government/NGO sector.

For the remaining 2.5%, I say the following: If you’ve got an extraordinary work ethic and a creative mind – and you must have both – an academic career is truly the “last good job in America.” Know going in that – if successful – you 1) will never make more than $100,000-$200,000 a year, 2) won’t buy a house or have a decent car until you are 40 (so weigh very soberly how much that stuff matters to you and realize that it might matter a good bit more to you at 35 than it does at 25!), 3) will race the biological clock (if so inclined), 4) will have to endure mediocrity and resentment from those who don’t make the cut and a good number who do (again, by the math, the vast majority that you will encounter in grad school), 5) subject yourself to a total institution that is going to systematically break you down before building you back up.

If that’s cool with you then, and only then, apply to the Top 10 or 20 programs in your field and, all else equal, go to the best place you can get into. You are smart and a hard worker, so you’ve got 95% beat hands-down in any domain, so you’ll never want for a decent living, regardless of whether you land an acceptable academic position. So endure the slings and arrows hurled by those in our instrumentally-oriented and highly anti-intellectual culture (including, again by definition, most you will encounter in grad school) and get to work. It is a short ride, so enjoy. And remember, there’s always med/law/business school…


Adam Stephanides 12.02.05 at 12:24 pm

John’s point in 65 deserves to be emphasized: if everybody took Brian’s advice and only applied to those graduate programs with good placement records, then most grad programs would have to shut down (at least in the humanities) and those good placement records would be a lot less good. So the people at those good programs are, in effect, benefitting from the false hopes of the less talented.

I have a Ph.D. in history, and while I had some good experiences in grad school, I would hardly describe those years as “the best years of my life.” In fact, several of them, in particular the five or so years spent researching and writing my dissertation, were among the worst years of my life.


John Emerson 12.02.05 at 1:03 pm

Jr — I haven’t said so here, but one reason I doubt the present professionalized system is the way it pushes humanistic studies into ever-more-precious directions. So the example you give is irrelevant.

As far as “altruistic” goes, I mean only that 1.) historically the rewards of humanistic studies have been almost entirely intrinsic rather than extrinsic, and that humanistic studies have always been impractical money-losers for the scholar; and 2.) humanistic studies are in fact of real human value, even though they don’t relieve hunger or cure disease. Very few believe #2 anymore, in part precisely because of the negative side effects of the professionalization of scholarship.


save_the_rustbelt 12.02.05 at 1:18 pm

This may be the wrong place to mention it, but if you want almost guaranteed job placement get a Ph D in accounting.

Three job openings for every qualified candidate this year, with starting salaries $100,000 plus.

If you can stand four years of ridiculously hard work for ridiculously low pay.


allen 12.02.05 at 1:39 pm

It seems to me that there are a host of other reasons not to attend graduate school. Why is potential employment the center of discussion? If someone is going to avoid graduate school mainly because they feel they’ll have slim chances of getting a job — they probably shouldn’t be going to graduate school in the first place.


Anonymous 12.02.05 at 4:12 pm

Ok, lets get one thing clear here.


By which I mean (a) people have different personalities, and generalized “you won’t like grad school” or “you will like grad school” comments are totally meaningless.

By which I also mean (b) everything does really suck. Unless one has the good fortune to be Hunter S. Thompson, or a grossly overpaid opinion columnist (HOW do you get THAT gig, anyway?), maybe work in a think tank (which you need grad school for anyway), everyone will have some of the miasma of a post-industrial capitalist society to suffer. There are only 4 kinds of jobs in the world: (1) Jobs that are impossible to get, (2) Jobs that are boring as hell, (3) Dangerous jobs, (4) Grossly underpaid jobs. Remember this typology.

For many, profhood is clearly (1) and arguably (4). For some, it’s (2). However, this isn’t the primary decision factor for grad school. What are the ALTERNATIVES?

Law school? Well, I hate to break this to you, kiddies, but I’m a lawyer. Being a lawyer is usually (2). If you don’t go to a top law school, you also get the nasty choice between (1) and (4). Also a special bonus: (5) (absurdly long hours)

Med school? (2), (5) and special bonus: (6) (icky body parts.)

Journalism? (1), (4), sometimes (3).

Business? (2)x10000000000, often (5). Special bonus: (7) (major ethical conflict when you’re, say, pushing cigarettes to teenagers) (actually, law often gets that one too, as does journalism)

Novelist, or some other kind of artist? (1)x1000000000000, (4)x10000000000

Hard Scientist of some kind? (1), (4)

Computer geek? (1), (2).

Government? (2)x1000000, (4)

Well, that’s it for the intellectual jobs. All the non-intellectual jobs get big dollops of (2) and a good chunk of them get some (3) and (4) too.

The path to profhood (and hence, implicity, grad school, since the warnings about grad school generally reduce to warnings about (1) and (4)) doesn’t look a lot worse than any of the above.

And speaking as someone who has been practicing law for 5 years (on and off), and who did graduate from a top law school, I’ve had a handful only of “I get paid for this?” moments as compared to many, many “oh god, get me out of here before I kill myself” moments.

That’s why I’m applying to grad school…


Anonymous 12.02.05 at 4:16 pm

Oh, and lets not forget accounting. (2) > ((9999×10^99999999999999999^}!)^2^ or so.


Uncle Kvetch 12.02.05 at 5:18 pm

James A’s comments seem very accurate to me–in retrospect, I’d say I was very close to being in that magical 2.5% but was actually just outside the inner circle, and it took years of grad school to learn that. I must say, though, that I did a double-take on this:

Know going in that – if successful – you 1) will never make more than $100,000-$200,000 a year

$200,000 seems extremely high for the social sciences. My impression was that in anthropology, only a few “stars” ever break the six-figure mark. Am I way off?


Nathan Foell 12.02.05 at 8:03 pm

Just a few thoughts to add to the discussion.

1. Why is it such a financial risk to go to graduate school again? Sure you aren’t going to be making contributions to your retirement fund while in grad school, but neither are law school or medical school students. Most jobs that you can get fresh out of college, B. A. in hand, aren’t going to pay enough to allow you to make substantial contributions to a retirement fund anyway. Unless you’re Bill Gates or something, earning a high income requires advanced training.

2. Several people have mentioned unpleasant things about being an academic, and their comments are well taken. But can you name for me a job that isn’t accompanied by some unpleasantness? I’m sure that having to accumulate 2,400 billable hours a year as an associate at a big law firm is all fun and games right? Or being a resident at a hospital is nothing but playtime correct? Any job is going to have it’s good and bad aspects. If the point being made is that you should only go to graduate school if you find the good aspects of being an academic significantly more enticing than the good aspects of being a lawyer or doctor then of course that’s correct. But isn’t that obvious?

3. I find the implicit supposition lurking behind many of the comments that philosophers live in poverty to be insulting. Neither one of my parents has ever made over $35,000 dollars in a year and I certainly wasn’t deprived growing up. It’s called being middle class. I understand that philosophers often have friends who entered more lucrative professions, and that this can inspire jealousy or even regret. But the idea that people making the salary of your average academic are poor is insulting to those who are actually poor.

In sum, I think that Brian’s original post is right on the mark. Even if the idea of being a teacher/researcher is very appealing to you, the job prospects that people have coming of out some low-ranked programs should give one pause before going to them. But for those accepted to good programs, I don’t see how the risks are greater than in any other profession, and even for those accepted to lower-ranked programs sometimes it can make sense to attend. Being a happy academic requires that you care about the rewards of teaching/research more than the money you might be able to make in another profession, and people should carefully evaluate what is most important to them in life before deciding to attend grad school. It doesn’t necessarily make you a shallow person to decide that the life being a lawyer could afford you is worth more to you than being a scholar or teacher. But the suggestion that there are some special risks inherent to going to grad school, or that too many people have been duped into going under false pretenses, is ludicrous. People should enter grad school eyes wide open, but that doesn’t imply that anyone with eyes wide open would see that going to grad school is a bad decision.


Kragen Sitaker 12.02.05 at 9:57 pm

academia is one of the best industries to be in

I think this is industry, in sense 5 from the OED: A particular form or branch of productive labor; a trade or manufacture, since all the other non-obsolete senses are mass nouns rather than number nouns. From outside academia, it does not appear to me to be a trade or manufacture. In fact, it’s often spoken of as the opposite, as in the comments above:

the academic job market has plenty of outlets into industry


Seth Edenbaum 12.03.05 at 12:20 am

“I happen to think that humanistic studies, like childraising, is an irrational but meritorious form of altruistic activity.”

John, childraising has a function, and so does self awareness.
I grow tired of people defending human values using vague terminology. I always end up wondering what the fuck meaningful means.

The question is this (and I almost posted this on a legal philosophy blog today): What is the difference between an academic discussion of legal principles and the act of defending someone you know to be guilty of a particularly grisly murder?

What is the difference between the langue and parole of any system? How describe a system of which you are a part? Objectivity, if it were possible: would still not be capable of describing the details of subjective experience.

Scientists ignore this question. Novelists do not. Philosophers do so at the risk of being thought of as idiots by anyone outside their field, as green haired suburban teenagers risk mockery every time they call themselves radical. No they’re PRIDICTABLE!
As predictable as run-of-the-mill academics become when they attempt to be original thinkers.


Seth Edenbaum 12.03.05 at 12:30 am

And for the record my only problem with Scott Spiegelberg’s comment is that he writes as if everyone else shares his understanding. What is the philosphical status not of the musical historian but of of the musician? He takes for granted what John defends, and what I think John needs to do a better job defending.
Pedro on the other hand, can go fuck himself.

If that crosses a line, so be it.


Kenny Easwaran 12.03.05 at 4:04 am

65 and 84 – it’s true that if people took Brian’s advice and only applied to the top PhD programs, most of the others would have to close up shop. However, while this would mean a decline in the number of jobs available, it wouldn’t be a drastic decline. There are only(?) about 120 PhD programs in philosophy, maybe about 150 counting Canada, UK, and Australasia. However, there are more than 150 institutions (I estimate around 180) hiring in this month’s Jobs for Philosophers, several of them hiring for more than one position. There are several thousand colleges and universities in the US alone, and I would guess at least that several hundred of them have some sort of philosophy department.

If the number of PhD programs dropped from 150 to 50, then some large number of departments would downsize, but they wouldn’t disappear entirely. More relevantly, they wouldn’t pump out so many PhDs to compete for the jobs that remain. So Brian’s advice would result in a sustainable equilibrium at some level. Of course, the jobs that are lost would be many of the best (though not the very very best) jobs, but there would still be plenty of tenure track jobs for the graduates of the smaller number of institutions.


John Emerson 12.03.05 at 6:05 am

Kenny Easwaran — the quantitative decline wouldn’t be enormous, but a lot of the remaining jobs would be harder because of no TAs, and less interesting because of no grad students.

Nathan, one of the big issues is debt, and Brian and I agreed on that one, though I think that he overestimated the proportion of fully funded grad school positions.

I agree with you that lower-middle-class income would be OK if everything else was. Adjuncts, though, have (besides low pay) no security, and they aften have hectic workloads (often part time at several schools) making the fun part of teaching/studying hard to spend much time on,

Careerwise, with the exception of library science, no one has mentioned any of the various certificate / MA type programs which lead to pretty good jobs, some of them even without the BA. ESL is another, and there are many jobs in medical and high tech fields. They often do require tech rather than verbal skills, but often not at a terribly demanding level.


Uncle Kvetch 12.03.05 at 11:06 am

Several people have mentioned unpleasant things about being an academic, and their comments are well taken. But can you name for me a job that isn’t accompanied by some unpleasantness?

Speaking strictly for myself, Nathan, there’s a crucial distinction between academic jobs and the other kinds you refer to: the relative ease of changing jobs when you find yourself in a situation not to your liking. I was considering an academic career in the smallest of anthropology’s four subfields–even in the best years, no more than a dozen or so tenure-track jobs are likely to open up, and many of these will be restricted in terms of geographical area of study or other specialization. And as I pointed out above, having to relocate is pretty much guaranteed.

Simply put, an associate attorney or physician in a large city, upon finding herself in an intolerable work environment, will have an infinitely easier time finding a position in the same city than will an assistant prof in linguistic anthropology–and this is one of the factors that ultimately scared me off.


John Emerson 12.03.05 at 11:15 am

I have had several moderately interesting, low-stress, low-paying jobs. I got off work fresh and did my own thing at night.


Tim O'Keefe 12.03.05 at 12:36 pm

To jeff l (comment 79):

The advice above about considering moving up (getting an MA from one institution and then transferring) makes sense. Another option is to go to a university with a good terminal MA program, where lots of people will be in your situation: coming from a less well-known place, or whetever, and wanting to spiffy up their applications for good Ph.D. programs. (I’m biased, as I teah in such a program, but I still think it should be kept in mind.)

I would also advise, if your GPA was significantly lowered because of a couple of semesters of Fs due to personal problems, that you be upfront in your cover letter about why you have the transcript that you do, or ask one of your letter writers to address the issue. Otherwise many places (with large numbers of good-looking applicants) will simply see that your GPA is e.g., 3.2, and chuck your application out.


Wrye 12.03.05 at 2:42 pm

Having an MLS is not, in and of itself, a ticket to academic librarianship; many University libraries these days want you to have an advanced degree or teaching experience in a field before your MLS can get you in the door. And getting funding of any sort in a Library school can be difficult, with the “jobs raining from the sky” myth held up as some sort of justification. YMMV, of course, but all the previous cautions about debt and funding still apply.


John Emerson 12.03.05 at 6:55 pm

As I understand, librarians can work in a variety of areas, not just universities or public libraries. They know a lot about information storage and retrieval, and researching generally.


Jim Hu 12.03.05 at 8:47 pm

#12:”Most of the graduates got jobs at average state institutions. “

If this is your definition of an unhappy outcome, then don’t go to grad school.


Elliot 12.04.05 at 2:36 am

Anyone have any ideas on alternative careers that overlap with sociology (or others) in terms of skills or interests? JD/MBA/MD/tech/etc are all well and good financially, but they seem like fundamentally different kinds of lives. The question is whether a person otherwise suited for academia would really enjoy or be good at these other kinds of options.


John Emerson 12.05.05 at 10:09 am

Pedro: I never went to graduate school — I did get 6 grad credits at my undergrad institution. I have been dealing with the pros and cons of it for about 20-25 years, and I’ve always thought the cons outweighed the pros. So I’ve been free-lancing.

You, on the other hand, had some sort of tragic career-ending alcoholic event in grad school, and it’s been a gift that’s kept on giving.


TP 12.05.05 at 5:52 pm

Or, you could do what I did. I am now a Ph.D student (1st year in residence) at a unique humanities based grad program (medical humanities), focusing on clinical ethics. I knew I was fascinated by medical ethics 10 years ago, but was concerned about grad school in philosophy for the reasons articulated so eloquently in this comment thread.

So, I went to law school instead, at a school with an excellent health law program, and concentrated in health law, bioethics, health policy, etc. I practiced law for a few years with a big firm, earned some dollars, and then kissed it goodbye to return to grad school and prepare for the career I’ve always wanted (clinical medical ethicist).

I work part-time as a lawyer, which pays the bills nicely. I have law school debt, but it isn’t overwhelming by any means, and I make more than enough to live comfortably whilst I am in school.

Admittedly, my intended career is not entirely academic in the traditional sense, though I do plan to seek academic appointment. I did what I did partly to make the decision to attend grad school more practical for me.

And of course, having a law degree and several years of practice, as well as clerking for a judge, only serves to make me more employable, I tend to think.

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