The “don’t go to graduate school” debate has flared up again this past week with the publication of this piece in Slate, “Thesis Hatement: Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Turn You Into an Emotional Train Wreck, Not a Professor. The author, Rebecca Schuman, is a terrific writer.
“Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D. So perhaps you, literature lover, are considering pursuing this path.
Well, what if I told you that by “five hours” I mean “80 hours,” and by “summers off” I mean “two months of unpaid research sequestration and curriculum planning”? What if you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”—And I can’t even tell you what kind of ass you have to kiss these days to get tenure—largely because, like most professors, I’m not on the tenure track, so I don’t know.
Don’t do it. Just don’t. I deeply regret going to graduate school… I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.
Schuman goes on to apply Kafka’s “A Little Fable,” of a mouse unable to run away from the cat, as her central framing device for the graduate school experience:
“The mouse wasn’t going in the wrong direction so much as it was walking cat food the entire time. A graduate career is just like this, only worse, because ‘A Little Fable’ lasts three sentences and is made up, while graduate school lasts at least six years and will ruin your life in a very real way. But, as in the fable, this ruin is predestined, and completely unrelated to how ‘right’ you do things.”
I really like this piece, as I like most exposes of the breathtaking bullshit surrounding the Ph.D. granting apparatus/ponzi scheme. However, when I put the link up on the Professor Is In Facebook page, I also wrote, “And yet, some good people do, even now, get jobs, and nobody is actually a mouse–you can mobilize for the job market in a host of different ways-by publishing, by networking, and mostly, by making sure your application materials and interview skills don’t suck.”
“Just don’t go” is really not adequate as advice regarding the decision to do a Ph.D., even in the humanities.
This point was made very quickly and well by Tressiemc, who wrote an essay on her blog in response, claiming that blanket advice to not go to graduate school is its own form of elitism.
“That advice is not wrong.
It is, however, a bit disingenuous about the implied comparison always being made. Namely, that one can do better.
But, what if one can’t do better? Like me, five years ago?
This is the case for many black students and I will try to unpack the Pandora’s box of structural and social processes that make it different.”
Writers of “just don’t go” pieces are typically white, privileged, and have, or can imagine, an alternative career as backup plan; they do not recognize that for some students from marginalized communities even the limited, circumscribed, or compromised outcomes of the Ph.D. may be far better ones than might otherwise be within their immediate purview. I totally agree. The Ph.D. can still be an empowering step for some.
I have also said before that too many privileged academics use the absysmal job market as an alibi to simply abandon their obligations to provide decent career advising to the Ph.D. students already enrolled.
However, be that as it may, some kind of advice is needed. I am asked with some regularity by readers whether they “should do the Ph.D.” This is what I say:
Understand that doing the Ph.D., especially in the humanities, is a terribly risky proposition financially. During the years in the program, even if you are “fully funded,” the quote-unquote full funding is inadequate to support most people’s actual expenses, particularly if they have a partner, children, a health challenge, or any other responsibilities.
Understand that if you do it, you almost certainly will not get a full time permanent tenure track academic job at the end that will even begin to make back the money you invested into the program. Even if you get a permanent job, the pay scale of faculty is low enough in most colleges and universities outside the elite schools, that you will be unable to pay off your undergraduate student debt or readily meet basic expenses like child care or medical expenses.
There is also opportunity cost. While in graduate school you will lose many years in the workforce. You will lose any trajectory toward seniority in any other field you might currently be in. You will experience perhaps a decade of lost wages and lost payment into social security; these losses will follow you through to retirement.
Understand that you will not be told the truth about this by anyone in any graduate program to which you apply.
If you still feel determined to consider this step, I would advise it be only under the following conditions:
- You do not have substantial debt from your undergraduate degree, that is to say, debt above $15,000-$20,000.
- You are offered a full funding package that includes tuition waiver, all fees, and a stipend.
- You take out absolutely no new debt to undertake the degree. This means that you must either be prepared to live on a stipend of approximately $15,000-$20,000 a year, have a partner/spouse/family member who can augment that stipend, or work a second job to augment the stipend yourself.
- You go to one of the very best programs in the country, judged by funding available, prestige, and job placement rate. This is not because of elitism, but because only these programs deliver the financial support and connections that give you a fighting chance of a debt-free degree and permanent employment at the end.
- You avoid any second or third tier Ph.D. program like the plague, regardless of what they appear to offer by way of programs in your area of interest. Your Ph.D. will not be competitive for a wide enough range of jobs at the end. Online Ph.D.s are beneath consideration.
- You align yourself, before signing on, with an advisor who is well known, who is at the peak of his/her career (no asst profs, no emeritii), who has recently placed other Ph.D.s in tenure track jobs before you, and who is genuinely and personally invested in your arrival to the program.
- You understand that the system is entirely hierarchical and productivity-based, and you will be judged by your high-status output (publications in major journals, national grants, high profile conferences, famous recommenders) more than by the inherent “brilliance” of your ideas.
- You approach academic pursuits as a job, not a calling.
- You approach graduate school as vocational training for a job.
- You do everything I say in the column, Graduate School Is a Means to a Job, religiously and without excuses.
- You are under 35, and ideally, under 30. If you fail to find permanent employment within 3-4 years after completion of the Ph.D., this outcome will be far less disastrous if you are still in your thirties and can reinvent yourself for a different career track. The financial stakes for middle-aged people are exponentially higher, the risks exponentially greater, than for younger people.
With all of these conditions met, the choice to go to graduate school in the humanities may not be a completely ill-conceived one. If however, you are thinking of graduate school primarily because you are “in love with” your topic, and “passionate about research,” and “can’t imagine your life doing anything else,” and all of these financial considerations “just don’t matter,” then you are in a state of profound mystification about the nature of the Ph.D., and should probably approach it only with the most profound caution. But you won’t. Because nobody believes the things Schuman describes will happen to them until they do.