Don’t Go To Graduate School (An Inadvertent Guest Post)

This post shares an email sent to me last week by a good friend, an NTT English professor  with a secure and well-compensated ongoing position in English at an R1 institution.  This email is a follow-up to an email she had forwarded the week before, from a talented undergraduate English major who had been in her class.  The student had written to tell my friend excitedly about her plans to move across the country to start a terminal Masters degree in English at an elite East Coast institution, as a first step to getting a Ph.D. in English  She had received no funding from the institution, and was explaining that the cost of tuition alone would be $45,000 a year.

“But I’m absolutely committed to getting a Ph.D. in English!!!” her email affirmed. “I’ll do whatever it takes!!!”

My friend wrote to me in consternation, asking: “WWTPIID??” ( What would The Professor Is In Do???)  “I already sent her to your blog,” she wrote, “but should I stage an intervention??”

To my eyes, what was most striking about the email from the student was her apparent belief that her single-minded fixation on obtaining the Ph.D. in English at any cost was a sure path to earning my friend’s approval.   It does make sense:  imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so naturally a naive and starry-eyed student would believe that an overriding life goal to get the Ph.D. in English would be the surest path to the approval of her former English professor.

I responded to my friend that the best intervention might be to communicate clearly that the life plan she APPROVES of is the one that does NOT include a ruinous and self-destructive plan for unfunded graduate school in English.

My friend didn’t tell me if she agreed with this advice or not, but this is the email that she wrote in response.


Dear XXXX,

Grad school is a bad idea under the best of circumstances.  The job market is SO bad, and there is so little that grad study in literature can help you do beyond seeking jobs in the dismal academic job market that pursuing a grad degree in English only makes sense if the following conditions are met:

1.  You are fully funded (or at least have reason to expect to be after the initial year).

2.  You really, genuinely, honestly don’t care if you find yourself at 30 needing to start over again in an entirely new line of work having failed to find an academic job.

I’m frankly surprised that condition #1 doesn’t hold for you.  You strike me as the sort of student who would excel at grad school, based on your performance in my course.  That said, I don’t have much sense of what the pool of grad-school-bound applicants looks like nor do I know first-hand what admissions/fellowship committees look for.  So you should take my affirmation simply for what is it: a profound respect for you and your abilities–NOT a reading of the tea-leaves that hold your future.

The fact that you did not get admitted with funding suggests that this is not the right career path for you.  It’s not the right career path for ANYONE at the moment, even those who do get admitted-with-funding.  The world needs smart people who know how to read and write critically, and you can find fulfilling work without entering the black hole that is academia.   I have no doubt of that.

If you want to continue to pursue graduate study, then the main thing you need to do is figure out what went wrong this year, what parts of your package are not holding up, and what, if anything you can do to improve it. You should also, if you can, find out if you aren’t being damned by faint praise in your recommendation letters, or inadvertently sabotaged by someone who doesn’t understand how competitive graduate admissions have become.  You need to show your statement to everyone who has ever worked with you.  Then you should probably research carefully the grad programs that are particularly strong in your interest area (that is, they have a lot of faculty taking on students) and try and find specific information on how many grad students they admit and how those students get funded, so that you can target your application to the institutions where you have the best chances.

If, while you retool your application, you want to get more coursework under your belt (and make more professional contacts) by getting a terminal MA, then I would encourage you to do it as cheaply as you possibly can, and don’t take out loans unless you absolutely have to–particularly since an MA wouldn’t really fill in gaps in your current record (if, say, you were a business major and wanted to switch to English lit., a terminal MA might be helpful to show that you had the necessary skills–but that’s not your situation.) I repeat: no loans.

$45K is NUTS and suggests to me that [Elite Private University] sees its MA program as a cash cow, nothing more. Seriously, the added prestige of going somewhere particular or working with someone specific is simply not worth it.  (Terminal MA students are the last priority for professors’ time and energy.)  It’s not unusual for people to take a year or three out between college and grad school–and so long as you maintain contact with your recommenders and use the time to grow intellectually, I don’t think it would look bad NOT to be in a terminal MA program (but this is advice you might want to confirm with people who have more first-hand experience with grad admission).

Even if you had been admitted with funding, these are some links I would be sending you to encourage you to reconsider. There are many ways to be happy and make a meaningful contribution without being in academia.  In fact, it might be easier outside academia.  When I referred to academia three paragraphs back as a “black hole,” I was not exaggerating. Please, please read them and take them seriously. (it’s philosophy, not lit.., but the nature of the job market is the same across the humanities)

I realize this is probably NOT the e-mail message you wanted to get from me at this stage.  I wish I could in good conscience urge you to take a leap of faith and move to [East Coast City] to suffer for a year before going on to a brilliant career.  But it just doesn’t work like that and it would be terrible if you found yourself a year from now with huge sunk costs and no better prospects of achieving this particular goal.  Especially when you have so much to offer the world.  I wish that academia was currently in a state to welcome you and make use of your gifts–but it just isn’t.

Feel free to come talk to me after break.

Professor W

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Don’t Go To Graduate School (An Inadvertent Guest Post) — 38 Comments

  1. Ah, the benefit of good mentorship- I have two terminal MAs. TWO. And after paying back my student loans for years I am now almost down to $70k. So yes, I emphatically agree with the recommendation to skip the cash-cow MA programs, of which there seem to be many. My only caveat is that because I fell through the cracks as an undergrad (the massive downside of going to an intensely graduate focused institution), my expensive MAs were actually great for helping me to meet my first genuine mentors.

    Still, when I think of how badly I suffered during my 20s as a result of the mentorship void I feel so bitter…

  2. I think my undergraduate advisor tried to tell me the same thing about grad school in general, but I was not prepared to listen to him, particularly since other faculty members were encouraging me on. I ended up in a fully-funded program, so have not encountered the odious burdens of loan debt. The CC debt resulting from the shortfalls of the academic funding structure is another matter. Having held several “academic” jobs while finishing up my Ph.D., I can only say that the reality of employment in my field does not match the dreams I had at the beginning of grad school, nor does it compare well with the visions spun by the professors at Elite East Coast University, where I’ve done my graduate work. I originally thought my undergrad supervisor was being mean, but I now realize he was doing me a favor, though I was too young and naive to realize it at the time. That memory is one of several things that is helping me make the transition from the black hole of academia to the real world.

  3. I did go to a cash-cow program for my MA but it was cheaper than my other choice and I was able to finish my coursework in 3 semesters, saving nearly $20K in tuition. When I graduated and was dealing with how to pay back my loans, I was told that my salary requirements needed to match my loan amount or higher. Since my loans were in low $30K, it wasn’t AS awful as it could have been. But it was tough to find a job that would pay that much for someone with little work experience!

    My undergraduate adviser did try to push me towards another MA degree (somewhat related) that would be even cheaper but I was skeptical of what I could get out of it as I really wanted to go for my PhD eventually or have plenty of options in my field. I still don’t know what she thinks now now that I’ve gotten into full-funded PhD programs.

    But I would encourage anyone who is thinking of taking out loans for graduate school to take out only as much as you expect to make after you graduate. Your yearly loan amount should eat about 10% of your total income, not more. Factor in undergraduate loans.

    And keep paying loans as a graduate student so you can come out with… less debt. Interests don’t have a pause button.

  4. This post comes at a timely moment as I just accepted an offer at a prestigious university’s doctorate in education. This comes after 20 years of working and teaching with fully paid off student loans from my MA ($55,000.) I am awaiting the school/FAFSA award letter so that the department head can review it. In her email it stated I would be fully funded for the first year based on my need. But I have savings and a full time job so I’m nervous. Any advice?

    • I was fully funded for my first two years, but not for the years after that. Also, no stipend. Those years were manageable. Now, I am in my non-funded years, and things are getting tougher. I have managed to take out only Stafford subsidized loans (meaning no interest until I graduate) but come this summer, any more loans I (any any other phd student) accrue will no longer be subsidized. The question is, will you still be able to work full-time and pursue your doctorate, and how much longer will it take you to get through the program that way?

    • graduate funding is not generally based on need. This seems very odd. I refer you to my advice previously in this thread: “If and only if they are fully funded, with funding that actually covers all or most of their real expenses (ie, not just a token stipend but one that is liveable for the area), and have no significant debt from undergraduate study. Also, if and only if the program has an excellent record of job placement, and a department-wide commitment to professionalization and placement. And last, if and only if they have a strong commitment from an advisor who is actively recruiting them to come to his or her department. If those three conditions are met, I will support the graduate school desires of students who come to me asking for advice.”

      That does not sound like the case for your Ph.D. I’d approach with EXTREME caution.

      • I just checked her email. The exact wording is: “Let me know when you hear from FAFSA/XXXX(name of school) so that we can make sure you are adequately funded for the year.”

        • you’re going to want to check further about multi-year funding commitments. The students who thrive in grad school and leave with no or little debt and all the goodies they need on the cv such a conferences and refereed publications generally are those who had firm multi-year funding commitments up front–commitments that allow them to focus their attention on research, networking, writing, and publishing, rather than a desperate term-by-term scramble for TA appointments and constant financial anxiety.

          • I agree totally with Karen here. This is weird. Ideally, you are looking for multi-year funding, enough so that you can reasonably finish coursework and complete a dissertation. That funding can be in the form of a fellowship (for which no labor is generally expected), a teaching or graduate assistantship (which requires that you work), or some combination of them. And you should get a tuition waiver. If you can, and if they have the information posted, see if the school has a Graduate College, which should give you centralized information about the rules and regulations of how much work you are expected to do as a TA or RA, and how great an appointment you must have in order to get a tuition waiver. But the bottom line, as Karen is pointing out, is that you are taking a big risk when you don’t have all the information you need to chart out the financial shape of your entire grad career.

  5. I have sent this to one of my brightest students – a mature student who is finishing her BA at age 29. She is really grad school material but I have advised her not to go. She appreciates my honesty. Another of my students is set on going to grad school – she is just 21 – she got one acceptance and three rejections. I tried to convince her to do Communication and Media – not English. I gave her reading materials and online sites with facts and figures but she is convinced she is not like those other students – she is somehow a cut above them (with her BA degree from a low ranked college). Sometimes students think they know better than their professors and there is not much we can do to persuade them that hindsight is far more valuable than their own naive impressions. I am glad that people are talking about this openly now – I sent this site to my 29 year old student – lists thins we can do with our humanities degrees besides grad school:
    She bought the book and it set to find a fruitful career with her English BA and I for one am happy for her!

  6. As someone who just finished up English PhD applications, I can imagine the justification/determination an undergraduate might feel in such a situation. There’s a certain illusory pressure that the world will end if you don’t have somewhere to be next fall, particularly in students who like the academic world, which motivates the decision to “invest”/fork over/take out loans to continue one’s sense of his or her own academic momentum.

    Is the student aware that if her ultimate goal is getting into a PhD program, earning an MA has certain risks attached to it?–I was advised by my English professors that MA applicants to PhD programs are held to much higher standards (in clarity of purpose, past accomplishments, recommendations, etc). There is, on some admissions committees, a favoring of the “freshness” of BA-only applicants. Some English departments tend to only admit applicants with just a BA–If her goal is to apply to one of these programs eventually, then she could be shooting herself in the foot. Holding on to the BA and strengthening her application for future cycles in other ways might be a better approach, and not just financially. Not to mention, there are a number of English MA programs that offer full or partial funding if you do some googling. Even Chicago’s MAPH offers full or half funding to its most promising applicants.

    Personally though, I believe that taking time “off” can be very helpful, either for applications or for figuring what else you might enjoy doing with your life. I graduated last May with my BA, took time over the summer to prepare for tests (GRE and the Lit in English subject test), and spent the fall using my free time to read up on journals in my field, polish my writing sample, and familiarize myself with the work of professors of programs I applied to. This didn’t cost any money (it was hardly time “off” either, since I used my time productively), and I made it into a fully-funded Ivy League English PhD program. I would actually recommend applying ONLY to programs that fund their students. Not all PhD programs are created equally, to say the least.

  7. I agree with much of what’s been said here, but I am hesitant to give this kind of blanket advice to people who ask me about going to grad school. I’m in the social sciences so my perspective is not as bleak as humanities people, but surely there are situations in which we would encourage talented people to pursue graduate school and academia. I guess I just feel like it’s not so black-and-white as presented here (though I agree things are quite bad).

    • If and only if they are fully funded, with funding that actually covers all or most of their real expenses (ie, not just a token stipend but one that is liveable for the area), and have no significant debt from undergraduate study. Also, if and only if the program has an excellent record of job placement, and a department-wide commitment to professionalization and placement. And last, if and only if they have a strong commitment from an advisor who is actively recruiting them to come to his or her department. If those three conditions are met, I will support the graduate school desires of undergraduate students who come to me asking for advice.

  8. I would like to second the comments that graduate school is not worth it if you are going to accumulate any kind of significant debt (and in many cases not worth the time commitment in any case, given the job market). But if you are going to go go grad school anyways, you should have a plan for funding it all the way through to the end. Concretely, in the humanities and social sciences, this means:
    A commitment from the graduate program to fund you through exams, usually through TA positions but, if you’re really good or lucky, through fellowships that allow you to concentrate entirely on your classes.
    Funding (both external and from your university), for which you will have to compete (so get ready to do this, have in mind exactly what you are going to go for over a year in advance), for a year of research and a year of writing.
    Expect to spend another year (or two) finishing the dissertation and accumulating teaching experience while you mainly live on an adjunct salary and whatever other work you can pick up.
    This is what I did, and I came out of grad school with essentially zero debt. The research fellowships and teaching experience during the final year of grad school made me competitive enough for a low-tier job at a regional state school, which is the best anyone in my grad program got. So if you can’t manage this level of funding while in grad school, it’s probably best to choose another path.

  9. The position in this letter is rather extreme. Every line of work, every discipline of study, has risks associated with it. Not every student will work in their chosen field of study after they graduate. (Some will, in fact, decide they don’t even want to). Humanities is not, as a discipline, crumbling into a fiery crevice. When I give advice to future graduate students, I try to consider all the variables, and I want to (at the end of the day) encourage students to make smart choices about their own goals and ambitions, whatever they might be. It’s hubris to think that I can accurately inform students about the shape of the discipline or job market 10 years from now.

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  11. I think there is confusion upthread about what it is to be “funded” and if so, this may be worth a post.

    One doesn’t mean by funded, allowed Federal grants / loans to actually cover cost of education. Funded means funded by department / university, fellowships and TAships from them.

    People do need to realize that, with some exceptions, not being funded in these ways also means you are not going to be supported for a job … it’s considered you’re doing a vanity degree, basically.

    However, I wouldn’t discourage people from doing the PhD if they’re funded, and for some it may be worth it even if not. It’s just that one needs to realize what one is or may be getting into.

    • There *is* a lot of confusion about what constitutes “funding” for graduate school. I have learned this from my work with McNair undergraduates planning their transition into Ph.D. programs. They have NO idea they should be expecting funding packages; they’re always startled when I tell them.

      Because so many applicants don’t realize that so many grad programs actually do, typically, fund many of their phd students, they sign up without realizing that the lack of funding is a major strike against them, that tarnishes their reputation and standing from day one. Indeed, without funding they are often perceived as pursuing a vanity degree. of course some are unfunded the first year, and fully funded after that…. but you can accumulate a lot of debt in even one year.

  12. I have to emphasize that even if you DO get full funding it is still not a good idea. I had three years of full funding at my MA institution and five years of full funding at my PhD institution and swore to myself that I would never take out a loan. But in that time I got married (to another graduate student) and had two kids and you know what? $20,000 is NOT enough to support a family. I had to take out a few small loans over the past couple of years just to pay the bills. Now that I’m done, the loan repayments from undergrad and grad school have kicked in and are crippling. Even if I can get a job, we’re going to be living month-to-month for a very long time. I have friends who did not have kids but got sick for various reasons and had to pay for medical expenses. You never know how things are going to change. It is sad, but only the wealthy can afford to go to graduate school, even with the best funding packages.

    • I think whether one goes to grad school or not, he or she will still have situations where he has to spend money and may be take loans, so going to a grad school that is fully funded is an additional advantage because it gives you the a competitive advantage over those who have not attended grad school. It is even tougher to find a job as an undergraduate compared to a graduate student. So, I think grad school is a good thing and one just have to recognize the fact that, whether one attends grad school or not, life demands that money be spent. However, its good to look at the job market or your deep passions and dreams before launching into grad school. I believe that, if I can’t find a job in my field, then, I should use my creative ability sharpened through grad school to create my own job!

      • Graduate school is not a universal good, though. It’s a means to an end, and sometimes students don’t have ends in mind to begin with OR the ends they desire are not achievable with the program they’re choosing. And the kinds of loans that you may take out working a non-academic job are not even comparable to the kinds of debt you’d have to take on to support a family on $20,000. Also, it’s not universally true that it’s harder to find a job with a BA than a graduate degree; it depends on the field. It is certainly more difficult to find employment in academia than in most fields one could work in with a BA in English.

        • The conflict comes between those who want to see grad school as an end in itself, and those who ask what it serves as a means to the end of gainful employment. While i appreciate the “grad school is an end in itself” discourse (which focuses on all the learning and growing a person does during grad school), current economic conditions mean that it is a fraught and perilous stance indeed.

  13. Even without funding, there are much less expensive MA options. I’m glad I went into an MA program before entering a PhD program. I needed some time to thrash around in different subfields before finding a niche. I am even gladder that I went into an MA program at a very good, underrated, underfunded public university near home with excellent faculty and a less-than-famous name. It was a fantastic experience, I have only $6K of debt, and it made me a much better first-year PhD student than I would have been otherwise. At my current institution, which has a much more famous name, MA students pay through the nose in order to support me and my doctoral-student ilk in the (admittedly modest) style to which we are accustomed, and frequently leave without being accepted to PhD programs. I love both schools, but please, applicants, for God’s sake–consider the benefits of in-state tuition.

    • I’d be careful with this advice. Many M.A. programs at your local state university may not prepare you well for a Ph.D. program. Case in point: I have a friend who got his M.A. at our local state university (we live in California, and here there are two state university systems. The University of California system is research-based and generally more prestigious. The California State University system is teaching-based. This was a CSU.) When he was ready to finish, I advised him to write a thesis since he was planning on applying for Ph.D. programs. His advisor at the CSU instead advised him to take the easy way out and submit 4 papers that he had previously submitted for other courses in lieu of the thesis. He took his advisor’s advice and submitted the 4 papers. Now, he has been rejected from every Ph.D. program he’s applied to despite the fact that he’s a brilliant writer and a great historian. In my experience, there are certain programs geared towards getting people in and out and not helping them advance. Now my friend is in adjunct hell and has no hope of getting a full time job even at a cc since he’s competing against ABDs and Ph.D.s.

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  16. I’m also very committed to getting my Ph.D. in English; the difference is that I am absolutely unwilling to go into debt to do so. As a result, one of the primary factors influencing which schools I am willing to apply to has been whether or not said school offers Teaching Assistantships (with tuition waiver and stipend) to majority, if not all, of its incoming students.

    The reason for this goes beyond simply wanting to avoid debt, as a TA will also provide me with job experience that I would otherwise be sorely lacking.

    Granted, even with my planning, I may not get a job in the end, but my wife is already a licensed psychologist, so I won’t be sleeping in a cardboard box if my career plans go pear-shaped 😀

    • Please be aware that the majority of folks with debt had quote-unquote “full funding” packages with waivers and teaching stipends. the issue is, those stipends, in the humanities, don’t cover actual costs of living. Don’t expect them to tell the truth about this. Get the offer, find out the post-tax income, and see if it meets your financial obligations.

  17. For awhile I am been conflicted about graduate school. I am a marine science major and am unfunded. The field of environmental science is extremely competitive, as I have struggled to get a job with my BS. This led me to want to pursue a Masters, but the financial burden is kicking in after just one semester. I believe I am grad school material, but I don’t feel is it worth paying a debt for a significant part of mylife when the job market is weak. When I applied, I admit, I was naïve and thought grad school would fix the not having a job in my field problem. Now, I realize that there are truly many paths to the top of the mountain. I plan on getting real life experience through volunteer and independent research projects at local organizations. The thought of never getting a job in my field absolutely scares me because I do not want a wasted degree. I am passionate about nature and want to be involved with it as my career. I think about the awesome time I know I would of had in Florida at my grad school, but in the end, I feel it would not really get me where I wanted to be. I wished I would have realized this before, but at the same time, there’s no way I could have until I was face to face with it.

  18. Sage advice all around. I went to grad school as an older, non-traditional student with family obligations that prevented me from flying around the country looking for a grad program (in education) that provided funding. I was accepted at a local school but couldn’t get an assistantship or even a part-time campus job. It was unfortunate, but I really didn’t have much choice. So I plowed ahead thinking that if I just worked hard enough I could make a success of it. Found out after graduating that all hard work was for naught… what really mattered was the experience gained through on campus employment. Maybe other fields are different, but in education, you really need that on campus employment support.

  19. I’m struggling to decide if I should go to graduate school or not. I have a strong desire to teach at the college-level and that simply isn’t possible without a graduate degree. I keep hearing and reading these pleas to not go into academia, but they are always coming from individuals who are currently teaching college-level courses and seem to absolutely love what they do, making the decision even more confusing.

  20. One thing that is not being mentioned here is the wealth of good, inexpensive but non-funded practice-oriented programs at public universities. I completed my master’s degree and doctorate in two employable fields (library science and government) at minimal cost and am now happily employed in an administrative capacity at a college, so I get to be in academe (albeit not actively teaching) and employed at the same time. It is possible to make a graduate education profitable but you have to accept that Elite East Coast University is not necessarily the place to do it. Try Southeastern Regional Public University instead, in a doctoral program focused on real-world practice in addition to research and theory. You get to have a job and be called “doctor” at the same time.

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