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View Diary: Teachers' Lounge: You want to go to grad school? (24 comments)

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  •  I warn everyone away that I can (3+ / 0-)

    Grad school was the most miserable time of my life.  I know my experience was not entirely representative, but I still believe that it's a big mistake for the majority of people, and I feel it is a duty to scare as many of them away as I can.  If they're scared off by the rantings of a bitter quitter, then they shouldn't be there to begin with.

    Why?  I am of the opinion that academia is corrupt to its core. I think the biggest problem is the way in which the "job" of faculty member/scholar has been constructed, and the role it plays in the overall university.  Modern universities are run as money-making enterprises, where the professional administrators (who have little/no background in scholarship) choose all policies to maximize their income, and then spend that income on themselves, while starving faculty and research facilities of their needed funds.  The modern university has a variety of income streams, such as state funding, student tuition, alumni donations, gouging the students for food, etc.  One of the lesser-known income streams is faculty and student grants.  Whenever a student or faculty member gets a grant for research, the University takes a 25% to 40% cut, for "administrative overhead" and whatnot.  As far as the school is concerned, this is the primary role of the full-time faculty - beg for grant money, and turn it into publications.  Anything that gets in the way of this (especially teaching) is discouraged, and shunted off to the non-tenure-track faculty, the poor adjuncts and lecturers.  Adjuncts and lecturers get somewhere between $300 and $1000 per quarter/semester/term per class, and are restricted to 2 classes a term per school.  This is a ridiculously low and unlivable wage, but the surplus of unemployed PhD's is so great, and the burning desire in the ranks of the unemployed to stay in the market and find a tenure-track job is strong enough, that they are willing to work at slave-wages for years, in the hope of finally reaching the promised land.

    But it gets worse.  Tenure-track jobs are pretty crappy, too.  The thing is, until you reach the hallowed ranks of the tenured Full Professor (damn hard to do nowadays), you work on a series of 2-3 year jobs with a near 100% chance of being fired at the end.  Theoretically, any associate professor could go up for tenure review, and upon successful completion of that review, get a permenant job.  The fact is that many schools NEVER grant tenure to anyone, for any reason.  Theoretically, tenure decisions are supposed to be made within the department, but fellow faculty members.  But in fact, such decisions are almost entirely made by the upper administration, and are almost entirely financial in nature.  But as there is always that tiny glimmer of hope, young faculty members are willing to kill themselves with overwork, doing all kinds of stupid volunteer committee work for the school and the department, in addition to grant-writing and research - even if they KNOW, for a fact, that they will never get tenure at that particular institution.  Most faculty members have to go back on the job market over and over.  Each time, it's a round of cross-country travel (at their own expense), giving job talks at new schools and hoping, praying there is even one position, anywhere in the country, where their skills and qualifications might be relevant.  Being an academic is a bit like being in the army - you never have any control over where you live and work.

    But to get to that level, first you have to finish grad school.  Really, this means a PhD.  Masters degrees are useless.  Nobody cares about them.  There are too many unemployed PhD's for a mere Masters to have a chance at pretty much any job, even a chance to teach a single course at a community college.  Masters degrees are what High School teachers get during their spare time in summer break.  I have two of them, and they mean absolutely nothing.

    So, a PhD.  I was enrolled at the U of Michigan, one of the top-tier schools in History, and THE top school in Anthropology.  Yay.  At Michigan, the standard time to completion was close to 10 years.  Why is that?  You're only allowed 2-3 years of coursework, and you'd be lucky to get funding for more than a year of research.  So, what 5 years should be enough, right?  Well, that's what admin thinks, and they allocate funding accordingly.  But what happens, then?  Why do people take so long?  Grad school nowadays is a constant game of one-upsmanship.  One must do more research, cite more sources, and deal with more trendy theoretical ideas than the next aspiring scholar - otherwise your work simply isn't up to the high standards of the school.  In all honesty, it's rather hard to come up with any sort of objective criteria for whether one piece of research in the social sciences or humanities is "better" than another, or even "good enough."  This, combined with the jockeying between schools over prestige (it looks bad if one's graduates can't get jobs, so you better make sure they can get them on the strength of their dissertation and job talk!), jockeying between top faculty members (it looks bad if the student one guides can't get a job, so you better make sure they can get a job based on the strength of their dissertation and job talk!), and jockeying between the students themselves (So-and-so has 500 sources in her bibliography, AND wrote on the trendiest topic to date, and still couldn't get a job!  I need to do more!), has produced a system where it's more and more impossible to finish in a reasonable time.

    So, for all that time, people are living the grad school life, which is quite honestly miserable.  Every moment is a moment that could have been spent studying.  Your future is cloudy, at best.  You can't live your live, you can only prepare to live it in the future.  For the first year or two, you're doing classes with others and meet people, and there's a real sense of camaraderie.  Then everyone splits off to do their research, and one is alone.  Painfully alone.  Further, the work is hard.  It's really, really damn hard.  If it's not, you're not doing it right, and everyone will tell you as much.  Doing good research, and writing it into a coherent, on-topic, and sufficiently trendy piece of writing is REALLY HARD.  For everyone.  Now, some people do grow to enjoy it.  Anyone working professionally in academic enjoys research.  I didn't, which is one of the reasons I quit.  I like reading and synthesizing, and am really excellent at it, but original research was just not interesting.  That said, the fact is, many students go through a kind of breakdown or collapse around the 5-7 year mark, and at least partially withdraw from academic life.  Isolation, over-work, stress, uncertainty, self-doubt, and the painful fear that they just aren't good enough take their toll.  They move somewhere else, get a job, and go on "detached leave" for a while.  Many never come back, but some finally get their stuff together, move through their issues, and in a finally spurt of work get their dissertation finished.  And then, the real fun begins.

    `Under my command, every mission is a suicide mission.`

    by Zwackus on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 02:54:43 AM PST

    •  Hey, Zwackus, I feel your pain. (0+ / 0-)

      I really do--I'm now eight years out from defending my own U-MI Ph.D in the humanities.

      The points you raise here are all important considerations, and I think you've done the thread and the diarist a service in doing so.

      I do have a correction to offer, however. Adjunct teaching is indeed badly paid, just not quite as badly as you say. I think the national average is about $1800 per course, at least in English, and not all institutions limit teaching to 2 courses per semester. U-MI itself has a salary floor (at the Ann Arbor campus) of $36,000 for full-time teaching--2 semesters per year, generally 3 classes each semester. That's not great, but it's something.

      Perhaps I'm still beholden to the belief that having good evidence and a strong argument will help carry the day, but I think you do your case no good by overstating how bad prospects are.

      Some DKos series & groups worth your while: Black Kos, Native American Netroots, KosAbility, Monday Night Cancer Club. If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

      by peregrine kate on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 08:04:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  At my university it is $3000/semester (0+ / 0-)

        and the grant contribution to the university is not as high as you indicate.  I am sorry you had such a rough experience.  And in a way it lines up with what I tell my students -- you have to feel grad school is worth it as it is or you shouldn't do it.  Aiming for a job at the end isn't the reason to do it. But I loved grad school and the friends I made there are still close close friends, even though some are no longer in the field.  I did hit the hellish phase at the 3 year mark, in the last year of coursework and the summer after that, when my planned topic fell apart, but I made it through and I am glad I did.  But I was lucky, and the job I got has grown into the job I wanted, and the university has become the university I want to be at.  Our administrators are superb scholars, as well as being good administrators, but it depends very much on the university, and there are still far fewer adjuncts than is the average nationwide.  Again, it depends very much on the university you are at.  Mine has a very good reputation (top 20 best buys) for undergrad education, but it is in a lousy location for many people and is not prestigious to teach at.  Hardly an Ann Arbor or a Madison.  But it is a place I am happy and proud to work at, and it still has a few tenure track hires each year.  Even one in Anthro last year.  

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