Monday, October 03, 2011

"As if wanting to have health insurance is vulgar and wanting to not go on food stamps is careerist"

A Facebook friend linked to Karen Kelsey's condemnation of the state of graduate advising, highlighting specifically this bit: "You reject it as 'vulgar' and 'careerist'—as if wanting to have health insurance is vulgar and wanting to not go on food stamps is careerist." The "it" in question is the list of factors other than the quality of the dissertation - factors having to do with professional with-it-ness - that actually matter more for getting a job after grad school. According to Kelsey, whose own job is to "sell Ph.D. advising services on the open market" - which, allow me this aside, means she does consulting for a population that orders the regular coffee when it would prefer a mocha because that's the amount of disposable income it has at the ready, or is she just contributing to making academia inaccessible to those without trust funds? - thinks that those who advise doctoral students from within the university are afraid to do as Patti Stanger does (although she does not invoke Stanger) and tell it like it is.

This has not been my impression. My own department is straightforward when it comes to this kind of advice, assuming you get it together to show up for the meetings where it's offered. And it seems, as a rule, for both departmental advice and that which comes from a specific advisor, that individual students are expected to be - apologies for the term - proactive. As for individual advisers, it's always nice when someone sits you down and tells you that you need to have done X to get a job later, which I have experienced, as opposed to when someone knows how to help you with X and would happily do so if you only came to them asking about how to go about X, which I believe happens plenty in the humanities. But this kind of mentorship and/or hand-holding is unusual in any line of work.

In any arts-broadly-defined field these days, there's going to be some blurring between a "not doing it for the money" that involves accepting $30k while finance-types make ten times that and then some, and one that entails living off that mysterious source of grocery-rent-and-going-out cash that is the discreetly-accessed trust fund/parental credit card. Many of us would sign up for the former, but neither would nor could for the latter. Does some of this blurring extend to academia? Some, but it could be worse.

If the quote I began this post with rang true, it's maybe because this was very much the case in the field I was interested in entering prior to grad school: journalism. More generally, this is true of any field where there are unpaid internships. This is, more to the point, what it means when professions go the unpaid-internship route, replacing low-paid entry-level or admin or whatever these positions used to be called with unpaid college students/grads. It becomes this thing where expecting any compensation whatsoever is considered... not "careerist," but "vulgar," absolutely. It's if anything considered the opposite of careerist to expect $8/hr or similar for one's labor, because it's seen as evidence that one is insufficiently committed to a line of work, that one's in it for the money, even when "the money" would not even pay the rent for a third of a Bushwick one-bedroom.

That (funded) grad school offers a salary, if a low one,and health insurance, from day one, makes it, in this regard, the better bet. So it's not - paging Miss Self-Important - that one can never earn money as a journalist, or in any arts field that requires ten unpaid internships before the honor of an internship with a yearly $7k stipend. It's that a funded program, however above-practical-concerns its faculty may seem, sends a clear message without words, from the get-go, that it's reasonable to expect compensation for work, even if that work is interesting.

There is, however, something to be said for grad programs not morphing into academic-consulting firms, which is what Kelsey appears to be advocating. A certain level of professionalization is the difference between a chaotic finishing school and professional training. But the end goal should not be producing academics whose primary skill is some kind of generic Winning at Work, who might as well be employed in any other field, who have zero interest in their topics or indeed in any other topics in their field, for that matter, but who have mastered the arts of networking and self-presentation. And this is a real risk when, after all, grad students are selected largely based on having been Type A, straight-A authority-figure-pleasers, the Winning at School sorts. There needs to be a balance. It should still be OK for academics to be a bit more eccentric, on average, than PR/marketing types, both because this is a way to channel somewhat-eccentric sorts into the workforce, and because it's not necessary for productivity/promptness/organization in academia for profs to be ultra-sharp, highly-polished sorts. But at the same time, it's good that there isn't too much valorization these days of not seeming professional, of being too brilliant to bathe, too awkward to network. Like I said, a balance is needed.


Miss Self-Important said...

Is winning grant money something people do in your field? Do they "tailor their dissertations" towards grants? This sounds foreign to me--I guess I am either unprofessionalized or her advice is inapplicable. Also, how hard is it to write a CV?

Why hate on the dissertation? The pressure to write a good dissertation, when widely accepted as the standard job-attainment mechanism in a field, actually takes pressure away from having to do a million other things to achieve the same end. Imagine if we really had to have a dozen articles published or in press by graduation instead? How would a dozen articles on half a dozen topics be more "realistic" than one dissertation on one topic? Also, when would you have time to read all that is required to be able to speak in elevators with faculty if you were required to spend your time honing your elevator-speaking skills instead?

Phoebe said...

I just got some email about a grant-writing workshop at my university, for those in the humanities in general. I thought this was something profs did, but grad students? Not that I know of.

I'm all for the dissertation being it, because that's where I'm putting my time, because I went to grad school mostly to research and write a book-length thing about French Jewish history and literature. The problem, as I see it, is when it's both a given that of course one will have published an article if one wishes to get a job at the other end, and at the same time something grad students in the humanities are rarely urged to do, let alone guided through the process of doing. The problem comes up when it's only at the end of a program that it becomes clear what ought to have been accomplished during. If everything lines up - what's asked for in the program is what hiring committees want to see - then there's no problem.

Britta said...

At least in my branch of the Social Sciences, winning at least an extra year of grant money is mandatory pretty much, and we have grant writing classes. We also have professionalization classes for advanced grad students, which teach you how to go on the job market, how to publish, where/when/what to publish, etc. There's not a huge amount of hand holding, but it's definitely put out there explicitly. Also, my department is about as far from real world practicality as it can get when it comes to alternative careers ('applied anthropologist' is a derogatory term around here.) Being savvy about what it actually means to be successful in academia is not the same as being not oriented towards an academic career.

Phoebe said...


-I think some of the confusion re: "grants" is terminology. We apply for fellowships, but not grants as in funding for specific projects, like they do in the sciences.

-The issue, I think, is that sometimes, when "professionalization" begins in year 8 or whatever, that students find themselves shocked to find out what they were supposed to know - but never told - they were meant to be doing all along. Yet when programs start that all too early, you get a bunch of students complaining that they feel rushed, that they feel like they haven't had time to even know what they might work on, let alone to have written a publishable article on the topic. This is why it's always appreciated when my dept. hands out timelines - so you know what you'll need to have done eventually, but you know it doesn't all need to be that week.

- "Being savvy about what it actually means to be successful in academia is not the same as being not oriented towards an academic career."

Not in your dept., I suppose, but in one that places only 50% (or 10%) of its students in TT jobs, maybe. What's the use in only knowing about how to get a variety of job that you only might get at the end, if you're really, really lucky?

Also, there's such a thing as too savvy, too practical. If you pick a topic based on what you think will be marketable, but fail to "market" it to yourself, you'll be miserable. If you approach grad school as a quest for one big shiny gold star certifying that you are the best student ever, then maybe you'll emerge a good teacher, maybe not, but is this the kind of person who should lead intellectual inquiry? Exclusively this sort of person? And wouldn't that kind of generically-overachieving personality lend itself better to a more lucrative pursuit? I don't know where the balance is to be found, but there must be one.