Thursday, July 28, 2011

"A doctorate in English that probably took you 10 years to earn is something you will need to hide like a prison term while you pay off about $40,000 to $100,000 in loans."

The latest don't-go-to-grad-school entry, from William Pannapacker (via Jacob Levy), claims to be about reforming higher ed, not convincing undergrads that grad school is a mistake, but is nevertheless a straightforward-enough addition to that genre (as well as a good source of links to the rest of the genre in recent years, including more by Pannapacker). And much of this latest one makes sense. Stats about placement should be a much more transparent element of the process. And it should be more openly acknowledged that not every grad student - not even every well-funded one in a top program - can, will, or should end up a prof (unless they radically reduce the size of departments). Job-market guidance needs to be informed by this, by the fact that many students will and by all accounts should take a library/research/secondary-ed/administration/etc. job in a town where they want to be, perhaps where they have a spouse and kids, rather than move across the country or abroad to be an adjunct, and should consider uprooting their families only for a permanent position. So items 3, 4, and 5, yes, yes, and (1,000x) yes.

Item 2 seems reasonable enough, but ignores the fact that only academics themselves care about the job description and rank of undergrads' instructors. The eternal fallacy of employees imagining that those they serve both know and care about the inner workings of the organization. Sure, "[p]rospective undergraduates and their parents should be able to choose institutions on the basis of who is actually doing the teaching," but even if they were able to do so, they'd still want to go to the most name-brand school and/or the one offering the best aid package. If this ended up factoring into rankings, great, but what would be the impetus for that shift? "If parents come to know how their children are being shortchanged — at such great expense — they might support reforms aimed at reallocating resources toward teaching." Yet aside from profs and grad students, oh and maybe some conservative critics of academia who've run out of on-campus orgasm workshops to complain about, no one cares who's teaching undergraduates. Certainly not undergraduates themselves - and speaking as a former undergraduate, most of my best college instructors were of the 12th-year-grad-student-adjunct variety. (It's not that kids, as one Slate commenter claims, aren't there to learn - it's that college students who are there at least in part for that reason - and no shame in also wanting to be employable later in life - don't necessarily find that someone with 20-plus years as Expert can teach better than someone well-prepared and engaging but less-established.) And not the parents, either, who, unless massively wealthy, are just concerned that their kid makes a choice they can afford, has a decent time, and will get a job at the other end.

Item 1... makes sense insofar as it wouldn't hurt for there to be more centralization if that meant more transparency, but I had to check that I'd read right when I got to the part about the outcome for humanities grad students being "an unconscionable waste of talent (comparable to allowing 90 percent of neurosurgeons to work as bartenders)." I'm all about the Humanities Anti-Defamation League, but no, being able to make sense of Proust is not the same as the ability to do brain surgery. Nor, as far as I'm concerned, is the ability to do complex math problems brain surgery, if the math is not in any way applied, and I think the humanities are mocked in ways that other equally-impractical but more gendered-masculine pursuits are not. But brain surgery? No. But I guess Pannapacker has a history of overdramatizing the issue - in an earlier such piece he himself links to, he explains, "You can't assume any partnership will withstand the strains of entry into the academic life." Gosh, how foolish of any of us grad students to get married!

It's Item 6 - the classic 'don't go to grad school, you talented, fresh-faced youth' - I find least persuasive. At a time when it's tough out there for even those with practical-sounding lines of work to earn a living, should a college senior who majored in Comp Lit, who was never going to make it as an engineering major in the first place, who has a five-year offer of funding and health insurance and will have to teach a couple of the years, yes, but may well turn out to like teaching, something worth figuring out, after all, if you're going to be a prof, and who's also going to be paid, if not much, enough, to read books and write papers on a topic of his choice, should this senior turn that down in favor of the "real world"? And if so, do tell, which industry that would be happy to have him has he rejected in pursuit of the frivolous life of the mind?

Grad school probably is a worse bet than, say, inventing Facebook, but how does it compare with being one of 800 applicants for an admin assistant position that if you even get it in all likelihood pays not much more than what grad school does, with far less flexibility in terms of work hours, and with required purchase of business attire? I mean, my goodness, Emily Yoffe's article, and then her interview on NPR... It seems the way to get employed after a gap is to take people out for coffee or a meal all the time and pay - not just for yourself, so as not to be a burden - but the whole bill. This, apparently, constitutes "networking." How is it sustainable? Depressing, at any rate. And law school, fine, is a good choice if a top-10 school wants you and you want to be a lawyer, but otherwise? Between those two requirements - the ability to get in and the interest in/ability to thrive at a big law firm (because if we're talking a law job that pays $30k...) - that no doubt leaves many who have respectable offers from doctoral programs, but who wouldn't be well-advised to go the law-school route. Journalism, publishing, need I say more?

Point being, if by "grad school in the humanities," what's meant is a multiyear contract with a livable wage and health insurance, not to mention the added bonus of an interesting new peer group to hang out with (plus maybe even a future spouse), Pannapacker never makes clear what the preferable alternative is to that. Such programs exist, and sometimes those in them effectively could not be employed more effectively without redoing all previous life choices, inclinations, and talents, i.e. without rewriting their life stories and becoming engineers.

Of course, these articles never specify - Pannapacker mentions 10 years to degree plus massive debt, but does not say anything about the difference between that situation and programs much shorter and better-funded. The equivalent genre re: law school generally distinguishes between the few who should go and the majority who go but should not. Pannapacker says that you should only go if you're independently wealthy or the child of an Ivy League president, which suggests he doesn't think any programs are worth the bother... but describes a worst-case-scenario admission package.

No one's entirely clear what's being discussed. So you get people commenting about MA and PhD programs, about how it's better to get a doctorate in the sciences because at least those programs are funded (!), about how some "funded" program barely covered the tuition (!!), ignoring that funding ideally also covers tuition. If once, just once, one of these articles would spell out a) which routes are being discussed, and b) what alternatives are out there, in the job market that actually exists, not merely for The Young Person, but for the sort of people who are considering becoming fully-funded humanities grad students. If the answer is that it's dumb to major in anything impractical in the first place, so be it, but then that needs to be stated, and the change would need to occur well before a college senior is comparing his offer from Yale with one from Starbucks.

21 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

You describe the benefits of PhD programs as consisting almost entirely in delaying unemployment, not circumventing it. While perhaps Pannapacker could be convinced to accept that someone with a fully-funded PhD offer in the humanities and no other employment opportunities should pick grad school for now, that still doesn't address the problem that once the same person finishes the PhD (if he finishes at all), he is likely to be right back where he started--with no employment opportunities. From that vantage point, was grad school the right decision? Even if it was fun and mind-expanding and all that while it lasted, none of this carries over into future benefits unless it results in a job. And if it doesn't, then what else have you done except lose time (even if it was personally fulfilling or whatever) and overqualify yourself for other jobs, which you will still eventually have to search for and hold even if they seem to be beneath you once the grad school escape valve has been closed?

You seem to have a very dim view of entry level job options for college graduates, but the trade-off is more accurate when you compare job options post-PhD rather than prior to it. Even if there are many English grad student spots available in the country, the availability of good entry-level jobs for English majors is probably substantially greater than that of actual tenure-track lit professor jobs. Journalism and publishing are competitive and pay very little at the entry level, but the pay is comparable to or higher than a grad stipend (which one also has to compete for), and if you spend the five years you would've been in grad school working in the field, you will have begun to build a career as cushy as an academic's. Grad school may be sometimes a good idea, but not b/c job searching is daunting and demoralizing for the fragile souls humanities people.

It seems a little hubristic for people in our position to be hoisting the grad school flag so high. We might be able to attest to some pleasures of grad school life and the lack of debt, but we can't really say to undergrads, "Don't worry! If you love comp lit, just go for it! Get married while you're here! It'll all work out!" We have no idea if it will all work out job-wise, marriage-wise, or otherwise. The fact that we got married doesn't in disprove Pannapacker's claim that academic marriages come under more than usual strain. Our marriages will have to stay together over time to be even anecdotal evidence against that claim. We may not be in debt as PhD students, but if we don't find academic jobs and have to obtain supplementary education to become employable in other fields (teaching certification, library school, etc.), then we won't really be able to say that financial outlay is not an issue. Nor can we say that we've made better bets than professional school students, since there are, for example, far more legal jobs (that pay more than $30k) than graduates of top-10 law schools, but there are not more tenure-track faculty positions in humanities fields vs. graduates of PhD programs in those fields.

Daniel Goldberg said...

Strangely, I agree with both Phoebe's post AND MSI's comments (There are obvious tensions, but I'm not certain I see any outright disagreements).

Phoebe said...

MSI,

"You describe the benefits of PhD programs as consisting almost entirely in delaying unemployment, not circumventing it."

Not exactly. But before I get to that, this is not "delaying unemployment" by living in one's parents' basement. It's... finite-contract employment. Anyway, I think Pannapacker and I agree that there are other professions where having a PhD in the humanities is at worst slightly overshooting the mark of what's required. And PhDs do trickle into those fields - not all are tenure-track, adjuncts, SAHMs, or begging for change. The problem is that it's socially unacceptable to admit this, and that - for this reason - there's no formal structure within programs to channel some graduating students into those professions. Job-market prep, as it exists, is only for one of several things people do with their degrees, and I'm referring only to work for which the degree is relevant. If it was more oriented towards pointing some of each graduating class to the non-academic jobs they might but might not find otherwise, that would be a huge improvement, but it's not as though, as it stands, the degree is neutral-to-negative for all jobs other than prof.

"Journalism and publishing are competitive and pay very little at the entry level"

They're also generally accepted to be dying professions. And to even get to entry-level, it's generally accepted that one will need to have done a few unpaid internships - the few who get jobs are lucky, but the few who get them without ever having done that step, and without family connections, are probably not in a position to explain how near-unachievable a tenure-track job is as a goal. As for the first rung of that ladder paying at least as much as grad school, it depends what you're calling the first rung, but even if you're only looking at things not called internships, I'm not entirely sure publishing jobs 22-year-olds work in SoHo pay more than what nearby NYU grad students are making. My journalism anecdata, admittedly limited, is that an impressive-sounding job-job (not internship) can pay less than a good scholarship to journalism school, not enough to make it on without family support.

(cont.)

Phoebe said...

"It seems a little hubristic for people in our position to be hoisting the grad school flag so high."

I'm not sure whether by "hubris" you mean that our positions are not that of most grad students, or (and I think it's this) that even we have it bad and should acknowledge the crappiness of our life choices. The problem, as I write it seems every time I come across one of these articles, is that it's rarely clear if "people in our position" are being addressed. I mean, I have no idea how many doctoral students total are paying for their degrees. I mean, I'm not opposed to some other routes being better for those like myself than the one I took. But I would like to see authors of articles in this vein making it clear if they see a difference between funded and not, six years and ten, name-brand-U (in one's field and/or in general) and obscure, between fields that can cross over (yours into think-tank-type work, mine into... anything where fluency in French and knowledge of France/the French-speaking world is a major requirement) and ones where that's more difficult (notoriously, that would be: English). And if so, what that difference is. If the point is that even with the best package from the best school, grad school's a terrible idea, that needs to be stated. The way these articles go, it's easy to read them and think, huh, I'm not $100,000 in grad-school debt, I'm not spending a decade at this, and I could do X, Y, or Z with my degree, or with skills I've accumulated tangentially. My reaction, then, isn't to tell undergrads thinking of grad school to go for it, no questions asked. Rather, I think they need to be informed about specifics, and articles that conflate every field at every school and every funding package or lack thereof are not helpful

"The fact that we got married doesn't in disprove Pannapacker's claim that academic marriages come under more than usual strain."

What, though, supports his claim? I mean, I know as well as everyone else what problems he's referring to, but what is usual strain? No one who's married, academics included, can look into their marriage's future with certainty, but if anything, I suspect that being married sometimes means one or both spouse having to abandon the goal of a tenure-track job in order to stay in the same area. I'm not aware of a divorce epidemic among academics. But the way Pannapacker describes it, being in academia is akin to having a seriously disabled child, something that can really break an otherwise stable couple. Strikes me as extreme, akin to the $100,000-in-debt claim, or the suggestion that you need a parent who's an Ivy prof to even try (a claim I'd say is far less extreme if it - well, the equivalent - were applied to journalism). No doubt happens to some, but probably not the norm.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

Oops, one more thing!

"the availability of good entry-level jobs for English majors is probably substantially greater than that of actual tenure-track lit professor jobs."

The relevant comparison would be whether there are more mid-level jobs in journalism and publishing. There are certainly not, of course, jobs at the ready for all former interns in these fields. What makes you think everyone making $25k at 23 will have risen in the ranks or at least stayed put by 35? I see how job-vs-grad-school ups the odds you'll be in the same organization for decades, but other than that...

Miss Self-Important said...

Um, comment publishing fail? One second...

Flavia said...

All the people I know who got PhDs in English and didn't wind up in the academy--and I know a shockingly large number--are gainfully and happily employed: as writers, rare books curators, or (and this seems to be the most common) in interesting mid-level positions, with lots of responsibility, at arts/humanities/philanthropic nonprofits.

So, I'm with you, Phoebe, that PhD training is worthwhile personal and professional training even for those who don't choose to or are unable to stay in academia.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

Your comments in full are in my email - shall I post them?

Phoebe said...

MSI part I,

I'm not saying that getting a job--a good job--in such fields is as straightforward or seemingly easy as getting a consulting/i-banking job through on-campus recruiting is for graduating seniors w/ econ BAs. It is usually much, much harder. But I am saying that just because these jobs are hard to get and require some years of low pay doesn't mean they're not worth having, or that you should give up after a few rejections and assume that, as a humanities major without quant skills, grad school is your only option. That's what your argument sounds like.

Whether there are enough mid-level jobs in journalism for all the entrants, I don't know. So far, I think about 75% of the younger people I worked with (at the NYT and via Doublethink, etc) are still in journalism, but it's only been a couple of years, so it's early to tell.
The point is not that PhDs are unemployable or more unemployable than BAs. It's that they're being trained for a specific job for which there is very little demand, and if that doesn't work out, the humanities PhD coming out of grad school is in the same "real world" job market position as the humanities BA coming out of college, with an advantage only in a couple of additional fields (namely, private school teaching). But that advantage is not worth the investment, since private schools also hire people with only BAs or MAs and they don't pay PhDs much more. Yes, some degrees give you specific skills that are applicable elsewhere, but a PhD in French doesn't itself qualify you for jobs requiring French fluency, since many of these jobs aside from straight translation work will also require quantitative and other skills in addition. Similarly, a PhD in political theory doesn't lead to a think tank job without significant publications on topics relevant to think tank issues (sadly, Aristotle is not one of these). The social science side of political science (read: facility with stats) does teach transferable skills, which is why social sciences are not like the humanities.

By "our position," I mean current grad students in good (and funded) programs. Not having been on the job market or seen the other side, we can't really say that we've made good life decisions by going to grad school, even though our decisions seem good to us right now. We maybe made acceptable short-term decisions, but all we can really say is that the state of being in a fully-funded PhD program is pretty good. I agree with that, but I would likely change my mind about grad school's value if, 20 years on, I am part-timing at three different schools for $60k/yr, or the only job I can find is in Alaska, or I teach in Alaska but my husband and family are in Oregon, or if, b/c I didn't want the job in Alaska, I went to law school after all that PhD work, or if I am a high school teacher b/c my husband and I could not both find jobs in the same city so one of us had to, as you say, give up certain career aspirations. In the last case particularly, which is the one you offer, Pannapacker's point is still true: if you have to give up your academic career goals to keep your marriage together, then yes, the marriage stays together, but it also undermines the benefits of grad school since you now can't use your education.

So, in sum, my question is, for those who don't land tenure-track jobs in their field, what does a PhD do for you that a BA doesn't? If the answer is nothing more than that it keeps you alive for five years so you can face exactly the same difficult job market at a later time, then how does that justify it?

Phoebe said...

Never mind, the above is MSI part II, and here's part I

"this is not "delaying unemployment" by living in one's parents' basement."

But that is not the alternative. The alternative is getting an entry-level job, even if it takes many months of searching. If you hadn't gotten into any PhD programs when you applied, would you have gone to live in your parents' basement for the next five years, or would you have resigned yourself to the real world and found a (different) job instead?

"there's no formal structure within programs to channel some graduating students into those professions"

Right, neither should there be. Most educational tracks are open-ended enough that they don't require employment in that field after graduation. But to acknowledge that doesn't create an obligation to also prepare students for employment in every other possible field in addition to the one they're granting degrees in. It would be counterproductive for, say, law schools to acknowledge that not all their graduates will become lawyers and so offer courses in political office-seeking and library science and business and secondary teaching and every other field that some law grads end up in. Similarly, it doesn't make sense for English PhD programs to offer career prep in the fields their graduates might opt for in place of academia. If people are interested in those fields, there are already degrees they can pursue in them, and those degrees are not English PhDs.

"They're also generally accepted to be dying professions."

If journalism and publishing are dying, then so is humanities academia, which relies on them. When the only professions available are math-based, then not only will there be no demand for journalists, there will no longer be any demand for French lit classes either (and no one requires a university education merely to learn a language--it's a lot cheaper to go abroad for a while or take private classes), so humanities grad school is hardly a better bet for someone who thinks that journalism and publishing are dying. Given that, even the dimmest view of media's future should be at least as dim as one's view of comp lit's future, so if you're going to be reckless one way or the other, why not apply oneself to innovating in media rather than innovating in interpretations of narrative in Beowulf? The potential payoff in the former is much, much higher.

Moreover, it's simply not true that journalism jobs are all about family connections (can't speak for publishing, but no one I knew at the U of C Press was another employee's child). Arthur Sulzberger's son writes for the NYT b/c of family connections, but he is one staffer out of more than 200, and no one under 30 in my office in DC had family connections in journalism, and most of the people who had the equivalent of my job (for other columnists) in NYC were also first-generation immigrants, so I doubt their parents had many strings to pull. Also, consider the journalists you read regularly at Slate, NYT, political magazines, etc--how many have family ties? Among magazine staffs I'm familiar with (mostly conservative ones), family ties (to someone in conservative politics generally, not even to someone at the magazine) account for maybe 5-10 percent of employment. I still regularly get emails about magazine job openings, and then I see who fills them, and familiarly-named progeny are quite rare. (Oddly, I find more familiarly named progeny in grad school, where parent-child combos in the same discipline are surprisingly common. Or maybe only in my discipline.) Exactly the same kinds of people who ended up in my PhD program get jobs in DC political journalism--the name-brand educated and ambitious types who got good grades, wrote for college publications, and did tons of stuff. If you want a job at a more local or regional newspaper, name-brand educated drops off the list of expectations.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

I suppose I'm tempted to preface my response by asking why, if you think grad school's a terrible not to mention marriage-destroying idea, even if one is at a top school, you've pursued it anyway?

As for the rest...

Your situation in journalism - as well as perhaps that of other columnist assistants at that paper generally - strikes me as extremely unusual. There's generally a barrier of unpaid/barely-paid work, plus perhaps journalism school, even once one is out of college, making the field not-so-accessible to those whose parents aren't (discreetly, as is so often the case) supporting them. This is going, I suppose, by my anecdata, but there are hardworking and talented people who must go through all these steps only to "win" at the end a job that does not cover rent and living expenses. And while a place like the NYT probably does run things more on the up-and-up, and with more of an eye towards reaching out to talented kids of not-connected families, that's unlikely to be the norm. I mean, to give an extreme example, consider the amount of privilege necessary to get a foot in the door in fashion journalism. But I can also think of plenty of journalists at Slate and similar whose parents are also well-known writers. I don't know what percentage of the whole that makes up, but I do know (remember that Village Voice film critic holding forth on Zionist summer camp?) that these are jobs that can, entry-level, be gotten through nepotism. Whereas the phenomenon of prof's kids following suit, which absolutely exists in my neck of the woods as well, is, unless the parent's super-famous, mostly just a factor of hearing the profession discussed around the dinner table, of thinking of it as the most obvious thing to do as a grown-up.

As for my own situation, indeed, I would not have been unemployed but for grad school, because I had a full-time job (two, ultimately) prior to grad school. But I will say that journalism, which was what I thought I'd work in for at least one post-grad year, did not strike me as a way I might possibly earn a living. This is all ancient history, I realize, but I do think relevant - remember that this was before anyone was claiming that journalism had crashed. I was about as well-situated as anyone not from Harvard and without famous parents might have been - I'd worked at campus publications (opinion editor/columnist) had two paid magazine internships, one of which I'd been asked back to and thus done twice, so if I was being judged mostly on my writing, places could also verify that I wasn't someone who comes across well on-blog, but is in fact incapable of working in an office with other humans. But I had no luck. And neither I nor my parents were keen on my continuing to live at home - let alone funding some kind of finding-myself gap-year whatever - so I switched to applying to office jobs, and got one basically as I moved out, the August or September after I'd graduated. Meanwhile, since then, I've had three (at least, that I can think of off the top of my head) opportunities to write unpaid for high-profile sites, the two publications that did offer checks in exchange for this typing no longer exist. I can't say I've been pursuing a career in journalism any time recently, but I have little reason to believe the field is any easier to break into now than it was in 2005.

(cont.)

Phoebe said...

"So, in sum, my question is, for those who don't land tenure-track jobs in their field, what does a PhD do for you that a BA doesn't? If the answer is nothing more than that it keeps you alive for five years so you can face exactly the same difficult job market at a later time, then how does that justify it?"

If you enjoyed grad school, and were paid/had health insurance during, I don't see why, even if it left you in precisely the same spot as six years prior, that's a disaster for you. I could see why grad school as an institution might be criticized if that's all it did, but on an individual-life-choices level, I don't see that as disastrous. It's not lost time, then, nor is it an "investment" in the same way as programs where you actually take out loans to go.

But as Flavia and Nick suggest, and as my own anecdotal evidence supports, people do other things with their degrees. As for French in particular, you're right that it won't get people in my field hired as i-bankers in France, but it will give us an edge in some situations where 800 people are applying for that one spot. It's a skill above and beyond 'I went to college.' And some of us do indeed have other skills that, combined with language and cultural knowledge, could get us work. I mean, the people who get just MAs in the same dept. seem to get relevant such jobs after that degree, for which they (typically) had to pay.

"Not having been on the job market or seen the other side, we can't really say that we've made good life decisions by going to grad school, even though our decisions seem good to us right now."

But do you not read the articles about layoffs, unemployment, and the overall dreary state of the job market, esp. for those who are not especially good at doing work that sounds especially complicated-yet-dull? Obviously I have anxiety about what's on the other side, but at least I can account for the last five years, and did not spend part or all of them waking up and getting dressed as if to go to an office each morning and heading instead to a coffee shop to at least 'stay in the rhythm' of having a job to get to. And I've known all along what my priorities are, that I would sooner work at a research library or high school in a place I want to be (and, now, where I'd be with my spouse) than adjunct somewhere distant, or indeed than adjunct indefinitely in a good location. Aside from a few (inevitably male) grad students who've known since diapers that they will become Esteemed Professors, most of us enter with plans B, C, D...

I mean, yes, it's depressing not to know exactly where we'll be in 10 years. But my overall point here is that the 'don't go' genre needs to be clear on precisely what going is worse than. There are articles telling you not to go to law school, articles telling you that the job market in every field other than emptying bedpans is kaput, that however horrible conditions are at your office, you must thank your lucky stars you have a job. I'm enough of a cynic to be able to get something out of an article about why I'd have been better off doing X than going to grad school. But as long as "X" is either unspecified, or is given as "journalism" which, as explained above, I don't think was about to pay my bills as grad school has, I'm not convinced.

Flavia said...

This response to Pannapacker has been making the rounds on my social media. Long, but worth it--especially in its suggestion that it's not the kids from working-class backgrounds who are most vulnerable to the wicked siren song of academia, but perhaps those who are most clear-eyed about its advantages and trade-offs.

(Which is something that I've found, anecdotally, to be true among my friends too: if all the adults you know have always worked dead-end jobs, and if you've held lots of low-level jobs yourself, you know that no employer has your best interests at heart; that to be given the opportunity to love what you do is incredible; and/but that you've gotta make a living, one way or another, and that you will move on if this particular path doesn't allow you to do so.)

kei said...

I enjoy reading the back and forth comments and thinking about them, but I am unable to follow them well enough to respond to them directly, so if I may, I'll just chime in with my own random thoughts from my point of view.

Generally though, yes, Pannapacker needs to clarify what programs he's talking about. But I wonder if he keeps it all kind of open-ended because 1) he really believes almost no one should go to any grad school and 2) because then everyone will apply their own particular situation to his general scheme and react in some way or another, and maybe at this point all he needs or wants is any reaction so that people just think about the romantic academic life vision in especially these trying times. He should at least differentiate between MA and PhD programs, even if he can't be any more specific. I remember there being disappointed MAs at the U of C (MAPHs?), and a lot of what Pannapacker talks about reminds me of them. They were working in the stacks (Staxxx) with me (same job shelving), and they were in no better a position than I was when I graduated. I think one of them is still working at and looking for jobs that I would or could be looking for had I stayed and "built a career" at the Reg. (What a thought!) I remember being highly discouraged from even considering the MAPH program and something like it at Columbia, I think it was--my adviser called it "funding for the doctorate students" and called it a waste of money.

This gets into my own side of things, but if I returned to the Reg with a PhD and had to compete for jobs with BAs, that would be sad, and a reason to reconsider why I went to grad school. But I don't see myself going back to the Reg with a PhD in philosophy, even to catalog philosophy books. I think I'd rather continue trying to teach at any level. I wouldn't be using my education to the max (MSI, I assume you're referring to reading, writing, and publishing), but if I could teach at any level in Chicago and live with my family, I would consider myself using my education pretty well, and much better off than at least myself as a BA.

Phoebe, I take it that you're looking for the X in "In an alternate world where I did not go to grad school, I am doing X and better off in various ways," which he cannot answer for anyone without getting into specifics. I see your point that without these kinds of claims, his argument (or at least the "just don't go, walk away" part) is not very persuasive. But in at least the "Just Don't Go, Part 2" article, he concedes that there will be people who go to grad school "for 'love' no matter what I say." In that case, since you (and me, so we) are on board with grad school, ignoring P's "don't go" advice, then I think the issue is not so much whether his "don't go" argument is persuasive, but how we are supposed to, according to P, "transform academe by finding ways to bring [our] passions to a wider world, where they are most needed, and, in the process, to change graduate education in the humanities into something to which students can be sent without ethical reservations." In this latest piece, aside from the last point, he gives some thought to that, which I appreciated, and I anticipate a Part 2. (I realize he can't give an outline of what to do, but I want to know what he's thinking about these more concrete matters concerning the transformation.) I mean, I would hope that you don't find his "don't go" argument persuasive! I love your blog the way it is, and I think it's the way it is because you're where you're at, not because you belong in journalism (which may be true, but I also take it that you are not failing, or not just okay, i.e. very good, at what you're doing).

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

That post makes a good point, but I'm not even sure it requires a working class upbringing to have that approach. Not that Jonathan Senchyne thinks this either - "In fact, it’s only those who came to programs from positions of extreme privilege who seem to be clueless about the state of academia when they get here." Precisely. I mean, I think it's true of anyone of the class that has heard family members complain about unfair bosses, and in which one is not so wealthy as to have never worked crappy jobs during the years from high school to recent-college-grad. My family's not working-class, and I've never risked my life at any job, unless walking back to Prospect Heights at 1am after the coffee shop I worked at closed counts, which it doesn't. But I absolutely had the experience when I started grad school of thinking, I'm paid to do this, how fabulous, precisely because of what some pre-grad-school jobs I'd had were like. (Jobs, incidentally, including the library shelving one Kei mentions in her comment.) I guess I'm pointing this out because, while I think some issues that post raises (the challenges specific to lacking the cultural capital that lets you navigate dept. social events, etc.) apply to a much smaller subset of the grad-student population than the simple fact of finding this work so so much better than work tends to be. So I don't want this angle of the discussion to take a 'your privilege is showing' turn - unless you're so privileged as to have never worked or heard a family member complain about a job, you get it.

I do almost wonder, though, how much of this is class, and how much also - assuming a student who's neither desperately poor nor a trust-funder - depends on what the student's immediate pre-grad-school work experience was like. MSI had what sounds like in many ways a dream job, and I had ones that did not not motivate me to fill out those grad school apps. If you're grateful just to be interacting with smart people, doing interesting work, etc., you're probably more likely to have a rosier view of the whole thing.

Kei,

Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, so far so good in grad school, but of course that doesn't guarantee anything particular afterwards.

"He should at least differentiate between MA and PhD programs, even if he can't be any more specific."

Yes, that would have been a start. I also wasn't sure whether the debt he was referring to was leftover college debt or coming from grad school itself.

But I think you're right that the part where Pannapacker is onto something in the part of his article not about "don't go." Far more transparency would be wonderful. And - and here MSI and I disagree - grad schools ought to acknowledge not literally every last profession PhDs end up in, but at least some of the major ones, and ought to include in job guidance at least directions to where to find guidance for things other than TT jobs. The thing about making sure parents know they're paying for adjuncts not profs was kind of weak, but not b/c the adjunct set-up doesn't need major reform, only b/c college students and their parents don't care, nor, perhaps, should they.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

That post makes a good point, but I'm not even sure it requires a working class upbringing to have that approach. Not that Jonathan Senchyne thinks this either - "In fact, it’s only those who came to programs from positions of extreme privilege who seem to be clueless about the state of academia when they get here." Precisely. I mean, I think it's true of anyone of the class that has heard family members complain about unfair bosses, and in which one is not so wealthy as to have never worked crappy jobs during the years from high school to recent-college-grad. My family's not working-class, and I've never risked my life at any job, unless walking back to Prospect Heights at 1am after the coffee shop I worked at closed counts, which it doesn't. But I absolutely had the experience when I started grad school of thinking, I'm paid to do this, how fabulous, precisely because of what some pre-grad-school jobs I'd had were like. (Jobs, incidentally, including the library shelving one Kei mentions in her comment.) I guess I'm pointing this out because, while I think some issues that post raises (the challenges specific to lacking the cultural capital that lets you navigate dept. social events, etc.) apply to a much smaller subset of the grad-student population than the simple fact of finding this work so so much better than work tends to be. So I don't want this angle of the discussion to take a 'your privilege is showing' turn - unless you're so privileged as to have never worked or heard a family member complain about a job, you get it.

I do almost wonder, though, how much of this is class, and how much also - assuming a student who's neither desperately poor nor a trust-funder - depends on what the student's immediate pre-grad-school work experience was like. MSI had what sounds like in many ways a dream job, and I had ones that did not not motivate me to fill out those grad school apps. If you're grateful just to be interacting with smart people, doing interesting work, etc., you're probably more likely to have a rosier view of the whole thing.

Kei,

Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, so far so good in grad school, but of course that doesn't guarantee anything particular afterwards.

"He should at least differentiate between MA and PhD programs, even if he can't be any more specific."

Yes, that would have been a start. I also wasn't sure whether the debt he was referring to was leftover college debt or coming from grad school itself.

But I think you're right that the part where Pannapacker is onto something in the part of his article not about "don't go." Far more transparency would be wonderful. And - and here MSI and I disagree - grad schools ought to acknowledge not literally every last profession PhDs end up in, but at least some of the major ones, and ought to include in job guidance at least directions to where to find guidance for things other than TT jobs. The thing about making sure parents know they're paying for adjuncts not profs was kind of weak, but not b/c the adjunct set-up doesn't need major reform, only b/c college students and their parents don't care, nor, perhaps, should they.

Flavia said...

Oh, sure. I wasn't saying that this kind of realism is *exclusive* to people from working-class backgrounds--just that, in my experience, a lot of the "don't do it! don't ruin your life by going to grad school!!!" rhetoric suggests that students from less culturally-privileged backgrounds are in the most danger of being sucked into the fantasy of living the life of the mind and being stunned by their terrible working conditions, lack of job prospects, etc. And I think the (not terribly vast numbers of) students from such backgrounds who are serious candidates for PhD programs are actually the ones who in some ways need such warnings the least. There's advice and support that such students need, absolutely, but it's of a more pragmatic sort--like how to approach the application process.

Personally, I was depressed and unhappy throughout most of my grad school experience, and I'm as cyncial as anyone else about many of the ways the profession works--but I always felt I could leave, had several alternate career plans, and never felt actively mislead. Like you, I can't claim any working class cred, but like you I do attribute my relative realism about academia to having worked a variety of full- and part-time jobs both before and during grad school.

Britta said...

Since I just wrote the equivalent of a 5 page paper on Phoebe's other post, I don't have time to read all the comments closely or comment at length (luckily for you), I just want to point out that many top schools have something at stake for making sure their PhD students don't end up homeless, even if they don't get TT positions. I know U of C has several dedicated employees in Career Services whose job it is to find suitable non-academic employment for PhDs. I also know profs for whom it didn't work out in academia who've moved on to consulting and NGO jobs and that sound kind of cool. I think if you get over the sense of embarrassment or the judging 5% of your former colleagues will engage in, there's a lot you can do that's cool with a PhD (at least in my not very practical social science). Worst case scenario, a PhD will allow me to bring in about 50K (as opposed to about 20K with a bachelor's degree) a year as an English teacher in China, probably more since I speak Chinese, which would allow me to live pretty well over here.

Britta said...

Many years ago Crooked Timber also had a post responding to Pannapaker, called "go to grad school." The post argued that if you can get into a top 10 program in your field, you should go, and led to a lively debate, where people pointed out that if you can get funding at a 10 ten or top 5 school in your field, *of course* you should go, and Pannapaker is talking about everyone else. Others countered that phd programs are always a terrible option, etc.

I agree with Phoebe that it would be nice to see more of a breakdown in who exactly Pannapaker is addressing. I know nothing is guaranteed, and getting a TT job even at a top school out of a fully funded program is really hard and stressful. But it's also true that, like any highly competitive field, you need to know where you stand and what, realistically your chances are. Being an NBA basketball player is really hard, but if you get a basketball scholarship to [insert college with good basketball team here] you know you have a fighting chance, as opposed to burning out after a year on your sophomore JV team. Likewise, if you can get into a top fully funded program with a 5% acceptance rate, you know, even if it's still an uphill battle, you are one of the people who might be able to make it as a tenured professor.

Also, if I end up a high school teacher with a PhD, I'd be happy that I got the chance to get the PhD, rather than bitter that I'd wasted my life, and I imagine there are other people who feel the same about what they study. In fact, looking at what junior faculty in my department have to go through, I'd probably rather be a HS teacher with a PhD than pulling multiple all-nighters at age 40 to desperately produce what I need for tenure.

jim said...

One of the unspoken assumptions behind Pannapacker's pieces (and similar from similar) is that Graduate School is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It's the same view, on a slightly higher level, as "What are you going to do with that degree?"

If one takes the view that life is a series of experiences and that Graduate School is an interesting, challenging and enjoyable experience in itself, then there's no reason not to go if you can afford it (and if the School is going to pay, then you can afford it).

If, on the other hand, one takes the view that tenured full professor is a sweet gig that one would like a piece of and in order to do so one must first endure a PhD program, then suffer through the seven year hazing of the tenure track, then the odds of success are sufficiently low that one shouldn't take the bet. Perhaps Pannapacker is really talking to these people (and assuming they are the only PhD students that exist). Because if one gets through Graduate School and then doesn't even get to suffer through the tenure process, let alone reach the promised land of tenure, it will have been a waste.

For what it's worth, after a disastrous campus visit, I decided I really didn't want an academic job and went off to do something else. I didn't think then or now that that meant my experience of Graduate School had been worthless.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

Yes, that makes sense, esp. given Pannapacker's comment about how you need to be independently wealthy.

Britta,

Agreed re: high school teaching as a non-tragic outcome. My sense is that female grad students are 1,000x more likely to think this (reasonable) way than are male ones. The question is then whether grad schools should have so many more places than there are positions on the other end that we even have to have this discussion in the first place, which I'm about to address in a new post...

Jim,

"Perhaps Pannapacker is really talking to these people (and assuming they are the only PhD students that exist)."

This is exactly where his article went wrong. It was not at all clear which students/programs he meant. It shouldn't be the reader's job to guess.