Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Should You Go to Graduate School?

I mentioned in the last post that recently I've had a number of people ask me for my opinion on whether others should go to graduate school. Two weekends ago, I ran into the younger brother of a former high school friend, who said that my career change had him second-guessing his goal of pursuing a Ph.D. And last weekend, an intern at my partner's company asked me for advice because she is considering going to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in the same field I'm in right now. Every now and then, I get emails from people looking for information about our graduate program and asking whether they should go to grad school.


First of all, clearly I'm biased. I've become very disillusioned and disappointed recently, and thus am undoubtedly more cynical about whether someone should go to graduate school than the average person.

On the other hand, though, I think that some cynicism is appropriate. I think that college faculty are far too eager to encourage their undergraduate students to pursue graduate degrees. And the public in general knows so little about the nature of academic jobs and the state of the job market that young people who are considering graduate school get very little useful advice about whether they should go to grad school.

I know that for me, there was never any practical discussion of what the academic job market looked like, or indeed what a career in academia would look like. I was young and naive, and had no idea that working in X field would be different than studying it in college. And my parents unquestioningly encouraged me, saying that "more education is always good."

I'm certainly not blaming any of those people - my parents or my undergraduate advisors - for the position I'm in now. I was an adult, and could have done my own research.

But that's the thing. Rather than encouraging potential grad students to do careful research, we just continue encouraging promising students to apply to graduate school as if future jobs and happiness are guaranteed. And that would be fine, if graduate school were like a normal job.

But it's not. What these kids will experience is (likely) a move to a different part of the country, social isolation from people outside academia, very low pay and few benefits, and very likely a lack of discussion of any career options outside the academy.

So ... do I think people should go to graduate school?

Well ... maybe. I certainly don't think people shouldn't go, if they're excited about it and sure it's what they want.

However, I do think they need to make sure their decision is a well-informed and practical one. So along those lines, I have some advice for anyone considering pursuing graduate education (in any field, but particularly in the humanities and social sciences).

(1) Don't go unless you have guaranteed funding from your department or another source (and NOT student loans) that will get you at least through the masters' degree. Short of perhaps taking out one small loan to fund you while you're writing the dissertation at the very end of graduate school, you really don't want to go into debt over a graduate degree - especially in the humanities and social sciences, where jobs are scarce.

Take it from the legions of us out here who are adjuncting or working low-paid outside jobs after going on the market ... or from the people whose first-year faculty jobs don't pay well. Trust me, they are out there. If you don't believe me, play around with the AAUP faculty salary tool at the Chronicle of Higher Education site for a few minutes. Compare the salaries from big state universities to small liberal arts schools in the South. Compare salaries across departments at the same school. Make sure you're informed about what you're facing once you finish.

(2) Before applying, read through blogs of people who love academia and graduate school, and people who hate it. Think about how you compare to those people in terms of personality and expectations of what grad school will be.

(3) Along those lines ... if you think you only want a masters' degree and geography or finances are not an issue, you should still apply to Ph.D. programs in your field. The training and name recognition for your degree will be better, and in most programs you will not be penalized for leaving after your masters'.

(4) Once you're enrolled, at the end of every semester/year you should sit down and reflect on your experiences a bit. Think about how the year has gone, evaluate whether you truly love what you do, and think about what you want to do next inside and outside of academia (which may be different from what your advisors want you to do). Look at job market blogs and see how the market in your field looks and how it's changing each year.

If you start to feel discouraged or think you might want to leave, write down a list of what concrete, transferable job skills you've obtained during your training. This will give you an ego boost and will help you realize you have been gaining concrete knowledge while in school, even if no one emphasizes it. And will make it easier to keep your self-esteem up ... or to leave and find another job, if that's what you want to do.

(5) Keep one foot outside the academy. Whether it's via making friends or dating outside the academy, or volunteering or joining a nonacademic social group, or possibly taking a part-time job outside the university ... just keep one foot in the real world. You'll likely be happier, less stressed, and you'll benefit from a social network that does not revolve around teaching and research.

So to sum up, my advice to potential grad students is to apply if you want to ... but to do a lot of research first, don't settle for any program that will have you regardless of prestige or cost ... and to continuously evaluate your well-being, your own career goals, and the state of the job market throughout your progress through the program.

And while it will try, do not let academia consume your entire life. Keep a foot in the real world, and remember that academia is not the only thing you're good at.


  1. I think it is more likely that a person with PhD will have to move to another country to get a job in academia. I found it impossible to get a job even as an adjunct in the US and worked in Central Asia for three years and am now in Ghana. The pay and benefits here are pretty good, but I never thought I would end up living in Africa.

  2. Yes, I did notice that there were quite a few academic jobs posted that were located overseas, and I imagine that the competition for those was probably far less intense. So it might be a good option for some people. I'm glad it's working out for you! For me, I was forced to limit myself somewhat geographically (basically, the eastern half of the US and Canada). That left me with, literally, no options I was willing to take. If I'd applied more widely, perhaps I would have gotten something ... but I know I would have been miserable.

  3. (Hopefully this isn't a duplicate post . . . technical issues)

    . . . and think about what you want to do next inside and outside of academia (which may be different from what your advisors want you to do).



    I have a very good relationship with my advisor. She has taught me more than a graduate degree ever could have. I have a M.Sc. degree in a social science, research field, and I am in the middle of another graduate degree in a more applied field - one that give me more of a change of a job outside of academia.

    I have come across your blog before when I was considering doing the more applied masters degree rather than going right into a PhD program, and I am now reading it again half way through that applied degree as I have the desire to skip the PhD and leave academia completely.

    I also love teaching, but not enough to be underpaid and under-appreciated for doing it. I also feel that the teaching skills that I have gained/am gaining can serve me outside of the ivory tower. I can teach at a college as a side job (as you suggest through out the blog) or use those skills in a job some other way in the future.

    What I don't love is research. I can't see myself spending all my days stressing over a topic only to have my writing, if it is even accepted, to be only read by a select few who will either only disparage it or use it for fuel for mental masturbation.

    Now, I do love writing, but i hate academic writing.There is not freedom in it, and I think writing should be about freedom.

    Now, like I said, I came back to you blog (and started reading it from the beginning because I am considering (very strongly) not doing ANOTHER thesis and taking a comprehensive examination route to complete my applied masters degree. Although it is not certain, this would signify my pathway of not getting a PhD in this field.

    I have misgivings for this pending departure from academia for a number of reasons. First, I feel that it might be seen as disrespectful toward my mentor's teaching and guidance that she has given me over the years. I am told that getting a PhD is "in your blood," but that thought only makes my blood curdle. I feel that what ever is, in fact, in my blood is yet to be discovered, and I can't help but think that I will never discover what exactly it is unless I try something new . . . outside of the Ivory Tower.

    Second, I don't want to lost the personal relationships that I have gained from working with my advisor (and other) in what was originally a strictly professional relationship. Now, I know it the obvious answer is that I have to make this decision form myself, but maybe it is part of the brainwashing that you talk about being inherent to the academic world. I don't want to not live up to the expectations that have been placed on my due to the long years I spent in the Tower.

    That is my current battle, and I will let it go . . . I will get over it. If I am going to be happy, I have to take a different, less certain, path. It will be another year until I can leave This Place, but I feel that now is the time to do so. Again, my main worried have to do with the change in relationships that I have built over the years, but if they don't endure, they weren't meant to anyways.

    Thank you for your blog. Maybe one day I'll catch up to your more recent post, but I am enjoying exploring your process of leaving as I contemplate my own.

  4. I have to apologize for the typos and spelling mistakes. I am experiencing much academic guilt not editing the post before publishing it. I wrote it quickly . . . stream of consciousness . . . trying to recreate a previous post that I accidentally deleted.