Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Academia - It's Where You Read/Write/Think about "Anything!" - Myth/Reality #4

Myth: You should get a Ph.D. because then you can spend your life reading and writing about a wide variety of things that interest you.
Reality: Not exactly ... at least not for a large chunk of your working life.

I was one of the people who went to graduate school because I loved reading, writing, and thinking about ideas (broadly defined), and loved my discipline.

In short, I was the kid who went to graduate school because I loved college, and wanted "more college." More learning. More reading and writing. I was barely even thinking about a future career, other than some vague ideas that I'd like to teach. Really, though, I just wanted to keep going to college.


When I arrived on my grad school campus, people would often ask what type of research I was interested in. All I could ever come up with was the name of a broad subfield in my discipline. Specific research projects I wanted to pursue to completion? I had no idea. I figured that as things struck my interest, I would explore them further. And that I would have my entire career to do this type of thing ... and that I'd be able to write about anything, since my discipline is very, very broad.

For the first few years, this was very true. I took a wide variety of classes, wrote papers on a wide variety of topics (indeed, instead of focusing each paper on my subfield of interest, I wrote on a ton of different topics).

My masters' thesis? It was fine. Picked a topic, wrote on it, and prepared to move on.

Qualifying exams were also okay ... sure, I had to focus on one subfield, but I created a very broad reading list that meant I was reading a ton of interesting research on all different topics within that subfield.

By the time my exams were over, though, I had to sit down and pick a dissertation topic. I had a lot of ideas ... but was told that most of them were not "appropriate" for my discipline. Indeed, I found that I couldn't write about the very things I was most interested in (policy outcomes), and had to instead focus on a very abstract, broad, theoretical aspect of social policy that I was somewhat interested in ... but not particularly. This led to me being very, very bored, uninterested, and unhappy with my dissertation. Rather than reading on the topics I was most interested in, I had to spend time poring over dry, boring theoretical readings in an area I wasn't even interested in, because that was the literature I needed to draw from in order to make my dissertation acceptable to my committee. Any time spent thinking about policy outcomes was quickly removed from my project as irrelevant.

Lest anyone think that I could have just picked another dissertation topic - you may think you can write on anything, but your committee needs to sign off. This will often lead to your topic being narrowed down and winnowed away from what you're interested in, toward what the existing research of your field currently looks like and what your advisors want to see. They often mean well, but they are not going to let you write on anything you want.

Fast forward to your faculty years, when you will be teaching more than one course per semester, adjusting to a new campus and department, be inundated with committee work and departmental meetings, etc. And, of course, you're still going to have to do the type of research that will get you the most professional success during your pre-tenure years ... which means you'll be still writing within that narrow range of approved topics in your discipline, within which you already have a reputation. You won't be writing a paper on the race patterns of crime victims in a particular city, and then a paper on the beliefs of a particular religion and a third analyzing changes in political rhetoric over time. You will be writing on different nuances of the same basic topics, over and over.

If you really love that topic, then great. But if you're like me, and you were hoping to expand the scope of your reading/writing/thinking while in grad school, you will likely get burnt out by the dissertation stage, because by that point you need to specialize, not broaden your writing. And once you start specializing, you basically have to stay there, and keep parsing that topic more and more. Again - that might be great for some people, but for someone like me who had a lot of interests, it was torture.

So if you're like me, you might have a hard time with academic research, even if you love reading/writing/research more generally.

Sure, after tenure you can start expanding a bit. However, that's a long decade to focus on one thing, if you're a big, broad learner. And if you hope to maintain a reputation after tenure, you probably don't want to jump off into a completely different and unrelated topic to start writing on - much less a third or fourth.

So while I'm not saying you shouldn't go to grad school if you "want more college," I am advising you to pay more attention to whether you remain happy throughout the process. And keep in mind that the profession of academia is far, far different than being in "more college."

And you can always leave after your scope of learning stopped broadening and instead started narrowing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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