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It is the time of year again when I am hearing from and talking to students who are facing the next phase of their lives, the time after graduation...

With few exceptions, those who have decided to go on to graduate school are those I think have the potential, and generally also the grades, to get in and be successful.  That leaves the counseling part open, however, and the two big questions.  Should they go, and what should they expect once they get there.  Those are two biggies.  I am going to talk briefly about what I tell them after the orange squiggle of confusion (what I am sure my advice looks like when I am done).

Should you go to graduate school.  Well, maybe.  The first thing my supervisor asked me when I showed up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, to the University of Toronto in 1985, was "You're not expecting to get a job out of this, are you?"  And I lied, mostly.  "Oh, no," I said.  I am here because I want to do Egyptology.  That was true.  And I did expect to get a job.  After all, my Dad had one.  At that point he had been teaching at the university level for more than 30 years, was into his later career during which he was publishing three books every two years and teaching 2-3 classes a year, producing PhDs on a regular basis, and taking a sabbatical like clockwork every seven years.  I thought that with attention to detail I would be able to accomplish that myself.  And I did.  Although we were in the Bush I recession when I was hired, I lucked into a position at a very good undergraduate university that was in a massive new hiring phase.  But don't plan on getting a job when you get your PhD, or at least a permanent one.  Things were bad then; but things are worse now.  Of course, that being said, of our graduates in that stereotypically useless and unemployable field of Art History, several do have tenure-track or tenured professorial jobs and others are librarians, museum curators and administrators, or have found other careers they have been happy with, whether or not their post-BA education was directly connected with it or not.  

Besides, and that gets to the rest of it, the part about what you should expect, not everyone completes a PhD program.  In my program, I started with four people, and three of them didn't finish -- one didn't even finish the year.  The next year four new people came in, three of whom finished their doctorates.  Two of them are trailing spouses although they have taught at prestigious universities in their own right, and one is finally (I think) pretty securely in a position at a premier museum in a research position (she hated teaching).  Undoubtedly the smartest and best teacher of all of us decided to quit halfway through writing her dissertation and is happily wandering around the world, changing countries every few years, teaching English as a Second Language with her spouse (she is currently in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan).  

There are actually two reasons I picked today's subject for this diary.  The first is indeed that we met with the seniors who are writing their senior thesis this year on Tuesday and several of them have decided in the last year that the intensive research focus of a grad program in Art History is (in spite of having planned for it for several years) is not what they want to do, at least immediately.  We have embedded in the course a requirement that students do an informational interview about career paths, whether grad school or not (we recommend, but don't require, that they interview relatively recent graduates about what they are doing now, in the time since they graduated from our university, with the idea that their experiences will be the most directly connected to those our current students will be facing).  So these ones who are now suddenly thinking about what the possibilities are will have a chance to explore them with some guidance.  

The other reason is I finally got the written comments from an upper level class I taught last fall, which was an upper level (junior/senior level) history/art history cross-listed class. Most of the comments were along the lines of "this is a hard class, I hated the quizzes, but I thought they were fair and tested the material we had been covering in class" and "Why was this a history class when I was taking Art History?" which was understandable, if a bit indicative of their not having read the syllabus which said this was a history class as well as Art History.  But two of the students were clearly angry and took it out on the evaluation of the class.  The personal invective is neither here nor there, although it was vicious and hurtful (I really need thicker skin at times).  One of the two was specifically angry about this being a graduate-level class.  Which it wasn't.  I did graduate work in that field.  

That got me thinking about whether we tell our students what the major differences are between undergraduate and graduate school.  And what were the major differences?  For me, as an undergrad, I wrote a senior honors thesis, using foreign language sources because those were the sources that were needed, and I needed to schedule my own time, and I needed to do homework every night in my language classes.  When a professor mentioned something in passing, I read it even if he hadn't actually assigned it.  That is the difference between undergrad and graduate school, I think.  You do things not because they are assigned.  You do them because you want to, need to, know everything you can about a given subject.  Your time in graduate school may have awful colleagues and nasty insecure professors, other graduate students who are angry with you, and unreasonable assignments, horrible funding situations, etc. But you have to want to study something so much that you will go beyond what you are told to do.  The studying of Economics, or Microbiology, Colonial History, or Renaissance Art History, or the social organization of villages in Papua New Guinea, for example, has to be so interesting that you find it worthwhile to do that.  You won't be spending much time playing video games or going to skate board parks, and you will be the sort (if you are going to be successful) who asks a friend to pick up a book at the library for you if you are ill before you ask her to pick up your pills at the pharmacy. You will be spending time locked in labs overnight with weird microbes and slides of vicious pathogens.  You have to enjoy that kind of creepiness.  It may be possible for someone who is a single parent to make it through grad school, but it wouldn't be pleasant; it was stressful for the people who had children and a partner. Marriages and long-term relationships are under horrible stress.  Cats (who didn't require walking) were much better than dogs as pets but you need to have friends who can catsit or dogsit when you are in the field doing research.  I guess snakes would be even better, although they are more expensive as an initial outlay.  

Grad school is misery and enthralling in equal measures.  But it is nothing like undergrad.  You don't have to do stuff you don't really care about (or if you do, it is to get the tools you need -- i.e. statistics or languages are a tool for a lot of research and if you don't want to put the time in to learn them, maybe you need to investigate some field that doesn't need them).  I loved grad school but I had months, years even, when I had to plod with one foot in front of the other just to keep going.  I didn't realize I had pneumonia for a couple of weeks because I had managed to not go out and just work at home, not realizing that I was getting sicker and sicker, until some friends pulled me out for a beer for my birthday, and asked me if I wasn't feeling well because I didn't have the energy to climb the stairs to the restaurant.  

Grad school is not really the means to an end, and it isn't just that it is more challenging or difficult than undergraduate school.  It was wonderful to get up in the morning and know that I was going to work in a library where the books smelled of dust and the class was taught in a room next door to coffins and animal mummies.  I hated having articles in a Russian journal assigned to me because I was the one who had had one year of Russian language seven years previously and I was the only one who could sound out the words, but I was the one who could so I was the one who got the Russian site reports.  J had some Spanish, so she got those ones.  C was fluent in French and Latin so she did Italian and my German got me through Dutch.  (We all could do French and, in a pinch, German).  We built friendships that still last, even though we don't see each other for years at a time.  I loved grad school, and I hated it.  Even though I haven't been as regular at publishing in my field as I thought I would be (three specialized encyclopedia articles last year were my most recent publications), it did get me a job, and I love what I do now.  I am working on a site report, and teach in my field (not at the graduate level, which is fine with me) once every other year.  I would not discourage someone from going to graduate school, like the letter linked above seeks to do, but it isn't easy and it certainly isn't something to do unless you cannot imagine doing anything else.  I am always glad when students realize maybe there are other ways to fulfillment beyond grad school, but I am glad when they decide it is necessary for them to go on and do more in the subject.  As long as they are happy, I am happy.  Whatever they choose to do.  

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Comment Preferences

  •  some things about grad school undergrads must (6+ / 0-)


    competitive potluck meal brinksmanship

    not everyone is racially tolerant (note the diversity represented on your faculty)

    your advisor might actually be threatened by your intellect

    watch the movie, Mean Girls

    have a Plan B,C,D....

    Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

    by annieli on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 01:38:10 PM PDT

    •  and if you finish with a degree, this corollary: (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      northsylvania, science nerd

      watch this movie:

      Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

      by annieli on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 02:05:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Ha. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      annetteboardman, annieli

      A Spanish friend of mine who went through the same degree program as I did at U London posted this. If you pursue a higher degree in another country, you have that much more language problems and cultural baggage to understand above and beyond your advisor's academic jargon.

      “The universe implodes. No matter.” -Liam Williams

      by northsylvania on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 02:41:54 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  LOL passive-aggressive discourse code (5+ / 0-)

        or how to run a graduate seminar


        I hear what you say
        I disagree and do not want to discuss it further
        He accepts my point of view

        With the greatest respect
        You are an idiot
        He is listening to me

        That's not bad
        That's good
        That's poor

        That is a very brave proposal
        You are insane
        He thinks I have courage

        Quite good
        A bit disappointing
        Quite good

        I would suggest
        Do it or be prepared to justify yourself
        Think about the idea, but do what you like

        Oh, incidentally/ by the way
        The primary purpose of our discussion is
        That is not very important

        I was a bit disappointed that
        I am annoyed that
        It doesn't really matter

        Very interesting
        That is clearly nonsense
        They are impressed

        I'll bear it in mind
        I've forgotten it already
        They will probably do it

        I'm sure it's my fault
        It's your fault
        Why do they think it was their fault?

        You must come for dinner
        It's not an invitation, I'm just being polite
        I will get an invitation soon

        I almost agree
        I don't agree at all
        He's not far from agreement

        I only have a few minor comments
        Please rewrite completely
        He has found a few typos

        Could we consider some other options
        I don't like your idea
        They have not yet decided

        Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

        by annieli on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 02:55:06 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Doing my (5+ / 0-)

    MA at McMaster helped me come to a brilliant insight, I was a) completely unsuited for academic life and b) not smart enough to do a PHD and c) I wished I had pressed my Aunt harder to get me into the Post Office.

    I do have a few friends who managed to find their way and even get tenured jobs but I really think people have no idea how hard it is.

    I ended up floundering around for a few years in contract civil service jobs and then becoming a nurse.

  •  You can never ass-kiss enough. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annieli, northsylvania

    I was kind of disappointed how my colleagues that succeeded did not work with really interesting ideas.

  •  Nicely Done! (6+ / 0-)

    I went to grad school because I wanted more direction to my reading. I loved it, for I did not expect a job out of it... and didn't even try to get one until almost two decades had passed (becoming, until recently, one of the oldest Assistant Professors with a PhD around).

    Your students are lucky: They have someone who really knows what she is talking about to go to.

  •  have had several grad school experiences (4+ / 0-)

    including taking a doctoral level seminar at Penn as a senior at Haverford.

    My first masters was in religious studies, and I did not really experience it as all that rigorous -  that is, compared to upper level courses at Haverford it really was not all that rigorous.  Still, it got me in the habit of reading widely in relevant professional journals.

    My 2nd, an MAT at Johns Hopkins, was actually more demanding than I had expected.  We were expected to do a lot of reading in professional journals, which because of my experience was relatively comfortable.  We were expected to do a lot of reflective writing, which since I had journaled since my teens was not a stretch.  It was the other kinds of writing that began to stretch and stress me, but not all that much.

    When I began my doctoral work in education - which I left with my dissertation half written because it was going to cost 5800 while I would only be paid 600/year more and I discovered I did not need the magic letters Ph.D. in order to have my voice heard on educational policy - I really did not find the classes particularly demanding.  In one case, the professor threw me out of class and told me to do independent study because i had already read most of what was being assigned and it was a conflict between either my being bored or my speaking up and freezing the class.  I did however have to learn statistics and qualitative methods, which have both remained useful.  I began to serve as a peer reviewer of journal submissions because one professor said that was a way to get a foot in the door.

    I was married, and teaching 6 classes a day.  Somehow I also managed to find time to do other reading or writing.

    But I was in my early 50s, we did not have children, and my wife had a career of her own, so we made it work.

    I think your words are well worth reading by those about to embark on graduate studies for the first time, don't misread the intent of this comment.  I note that not all graduate experiences are so consuming.

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 02:19:08 PM PDT

    •  That's funny. (3+ / 0-)
      I had already read most of what was being assigned and it was a conflict between either my being bored or my speaking up and freezing the class..
      If your class couldn't joust with you because they felt at an experiential disadvantage, they had no business being in a grad program. One of the greatest joys of getting an advanced degree at an advanced age is having younger people poke holes in your intellectual balloon.

      “The universe implodes. No matter.” -Liam Williams

      by northsylvania on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 02:51:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  going to disagree (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        it was a course in educational philosophy.  I had taken a number of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, had been teaching for four years, and had done a great deal of reading in educational philosophy.  Of the assigned texts, there was only one I had not already read.  Almost all the other students in the class were encountering the texts for the first time.

        I did not experience having younger people "poke holes" in my "intellectual balloon."  So I was given additional texts to read and summarize and discuss on my own.  It saved me a trip to campus and was a more efficient and effective use of my time and energy.

        "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

        by teacherken on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 04:08:11 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  kudos to your professor for respecting you - (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          annetteboardman, northsylvania

          insecurity is often correlated with age and tenure

          I did not experience having younger people "poke holes" in my "intellectual balloon."  So I was given additional texts to read and summarize and discuss on my own.  It saved me a trip to campus and was a more efficient and effective use of my time and energy.

          Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

          by annieli on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 04:22:04 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I wrote about how to get a PhD (4+ / 0-)


    I got mine in 99

  •  Thanks for putting this so well - your research (3+ / 0-)

    really has to be what gets you out of bed in the morning. That's similar to what I tell my avowed pre-meds [especially those who think they are pre-med though they have never worked/volunteered in direct patient care] but I haven't really said that to the students thinking about graduate school. The good part of grad school in my field is that you are actually doing science, rather than just learning about science, practically from day 1. But it can be a slog, and you need the passion to get you through. I teach at an undergrad institution, so do not train grad students, though it might have been fun. I really miss being immersed in research, but I adore being in the classroom.

    A note: the "getting a job" link is not working for me. It goes to a dKos error page. Is it a diary that has been deleted? I wanted to read the linked letter...

  •  I agree completely that you go to grad (4+ / 0-)

    school because you want to study a particular subject in great depth, not because you expect to get a job. The academic job market has always been difficult, but I think that it is getting much worse as tenure-track and tenure-level positions are replaced by contact positions and part-timers. While many folks complain about tenure, it is (among many other things) an important protection against age discrimination.

  •  I am glad to see that from what I can tell (4+ / 0-)

    you are less sanguine about assuring your students that they can go to grad school without making a Plan B (or C or D).

    My favorite cautionary essay is still the one by Thomas H. Benton (the pseudonym of William Pannapacker) in the Chronicle of Higher Education from a few years back, "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go."

    The whole essay is worth reading, but the money paragraphs are these:

    Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

    Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members. ...

    As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:

    You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
    You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
    You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
    You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
    Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them.

    I, too, fell for the fairy tale that there would be more openings in the professoriate as the current older faculty retired, a fantasy that was promulgated freely in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I did attend a highly prestigious doctoral program (and was admitted with a full ride for several years to more than one), and after years of serious financial hardship I managed to complete my dissertation.

    But the degree to which that effort had depleted me, heart and soul, cannot be described by me, at least not yet, and it's been eight years since I finished my diss. I was a single parent of two during most of that time.

    The turn to part-time faculty is a terrible waste of the training and skills of thousands, and a cynical bet against the tens of thousands of undergrads, in particular, who are not able to benefit as fully as they could were conditions better for undergrad faculty. It is worse than a rat race.

    At this point, I think the only solution, improbable as it may be to be implemented, is to starve the beast. Don't keep supplying the grad student pipeline; adjuncts should if at all possible cut their losses (the earlier the better, of course). That is perhaps the greatest service in the long run that one can  provide one's field of interest.

    Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

    by peregrine kate on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 03:25:59 PM PDT

  •  I surely didn't become a mathematician.. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annieli, annetteboardman, viral, sngmama

    ...because of the lure of employment.  There isn't any, unless one wants to be a college professor.

  •  I teach undergraduate creative writing (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annieli, annetteboardman

    and often I fear it's a Ponzi scheme: I am the next level up, and I can keep my position as long as I can sign on all of these students with the promise (implicit--despite my denials) that they, too, can have a fun job just like mine one day.

    Only, of course, they don't see the not-so-fun parts, and, simply by the numbers, they can't.  Even the very best ones are a long shot.

  •  I went to grad school because (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    when I graduated with a BS I couldn't find a job and I panicked. Also, grad school scared me less than job interviews.

    The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right. Mark Twain

    by BlueMississippi on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 08:08:23 PM PDT

    •  Did you feel it was worth doing? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have wondered about our students who seem to think that is a reasonable thing to do.  We tell them it isn't but I haven't really heard the results from someone who has done it.  Do you think it worked out well for you?  Did you enjoy graduate school more or less than undergrad or than you thought you would?

      •  Well, it did work out for me (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        because by the time I finished my MS I found a good job and wouldn't have got it without the MS. It didn't hurt that my field is engineering. I hated grad school though. I felt it was a lot of hoop-jumping and added nothing to my ability to do the job. A PhD would not have made me more employable except in academia which I was not at all interested in. What you say about loving your field and really wanting to know something is so true. I went into engineering because I didn't like math and thought that if I had to suffer through school, I shouldn't turn into a chore that which I really enjoyed ... archeology. It made sense to me at the time. Perhaps a mistake but my goal was employment. Btw, in those days, a woman needed an MS in engineering to have the same chances as a man with a BS. It's not true today, I think, though we are still outnumbered.

        I enjoyed your diary very much, annetteboardman.

        The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right. Mark Twain

        by BlueMississippi on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 09:38:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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