Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Your don't-go of the evening

Because what's a day without at least three bleak articles about academia, grad-student-Facebook-land has now brought me to this piece about the difficulties of getting a PhD and job in the humanities without outside support. UChicago doctoral candidate David Mihalyfy writes:

Spousal income, a parent-owned condo, a trust fund – no matter which, these necessities increasingly make a humanities Ph.D. less of a career path and more of a leisure pursuit for those with financial stability from elsewhere, even for students at top institutions.
It's one of the rare trustafarian exposés that remembers that sometimes - strange as it may seem - 30-year-olds (40-year-olds) are married. That the invisible extra source of income of someone ancient might be a spouse, and not mom and dad. Far too often, articles about the broke and humanitiesish suggest that it's this upper-middle-class thing to support one's kids financially until said kids themselves reach retirement age. And, eh, I don't think it's quite gotten to that point.

Further, similarly scattered thoughts below:

-Is marriage to someone who earns more than a grad student does privilege in the same way as having rich parents? I mean, it's pretty equally unearned advantage, or at least irrelevant advantage, but it doesn't necessarily indicate that "Despite rare exceptions, our humanities professors will come from wealthier backgrounds." I mean, a grad student whose spouse is a plumber or schoolteacher is at an advantage. It hardly needs to be Wall Street.

Now, it certainly doesn't say anything good about a career path if you need a decade of outside support to get started. It doesn't seem like the way to get the best candidates for anything. It's still wildly unfair. But if the concern is social mobility into academia, and the socioeconomic class of resulting humanities profs, spousal support would be less of an issue.

-In order to succeed on the academic job market, what you need on your CV are fellowships. Grants. Scholarships. Awards. These things tend to come with money. Needing money - being someone for whom $500, say, isn't just a night on the town - is an awfully big motivator to shoot for these, or at least I found it to be. If something is your job, you may well be more likely to treat it as one. Those who approach grad school as dabblers (no matter the source of outside income) and don't apply for extra (or any) funding may well have more time to publish, but they may have gaps in other key areas.

-Being married/partnered as a grad student isn't necessarily a career advantage. It does seem to up the odds that one will have kids. And as great a thing as marriage to a high-powered hot-shot (or anyone with a job, really) can be in terms of allowing some - like a woman mentioned in the piece - to avoid grueling perma-adjuncting, often enough, a spouse with a decent salary isn't going to want to move to Outer Mongolia (selected due to its current non-existence; no offense intended to Mongolians generally, nor to the Mongolian family who used to be my neighbors in particular) with you when that's the place that has the only tenure-track job in Medieval Tapestry Studies.

Nor will the grad-student spouse necessarily think Outer Mongolia and a far lower family income (and what about when Outer Mongolia deems you unworthy of tenure?) beats not-Outer-Mongolia and high school teaching/non-profit work/library work/from-scratch housespousery/retraining-in-air-conditioner-repair/there's-always-law-school. Don't let anyone stand between you and your dreams! But god forbid you should have found a partner before age 35, and that that person should also have dreams, and that that person's dreams pay more and in a better location. The best you - a purely theoretical you - can hope for is that in the course of grad school, you realize your dream may not have been Professor of Medieval Tapestry Studies after all.

(There isn't a two-body problem, generally, when parents or a trust fund are the source of whichever cushion. Although I don't think the first of the helicoptered generation is old enough yet for grad school.)

-Did you think I was going to let this go without a gender angle? No such luck. It seems possible that being partnered helps men but not women. While - given, if nothing else, the fact that men tend to earn more than women - women with husbands (because most couples are opposite-sex) may have a better shot at avoiding garret starvation, women may also have more trouble than men when it comes to getting a spouse to move wherever a job happens to be. A single man, meanwhile, will lack whichever Stable Adult With Family aura that apparently benefits married men - and not married women - on the job market, academic or otherwise.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I thought (indeed I thought that I knew) that Outer Mongolia persists, while once-Inner Mongolia is now simply In China.

Phoebe said...

Wikipedia says otherwise - Outer Mongolia is no more, and is just called Mongolia. Beyond Wikipedia (or my sleepy interpretation of it), I have no idea, and unfortunately the Mongolians here seem to have left. (They were very glamorous, actually, and if anything made Mongolia seem like a desirable place to live.)

I will say, though, that even if it exists, the point holds. I was trying to avoid naming any specific familiar locale as Outer Mongolia, because, well, Outer Mongolia is subjective.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Oh, OK-- you were saying that the place-name is gone (true) and I took you to be saying that the place was gone, absorbed into China, as the rest of Mongolia was (not true).

Yes, certainly the point holds. Just pedantry-- and, it turns out, based on a misunderstanding.

Miss Self-Important said...

This guy and his line sounded familiar, and it turns out that he's written this previously as an op-ed for the Marooon. I wasn't moved by this then either.

First, in what previous epoch of academic training were things easier for the poor? The guaranteed 5-year funding package that many programs now offer is something that most of them adopted within the last decade. When we were undergrads at Chicago in the dark days of 2004, the grad students in social sciences and humanities were being offered differential funding - 5-yr fellowships for only the strongest applicants, and partial or no funding for everyone else. And it's not like Chicago was a bottom-of-the-barrel institution. So I guess all our professors were trust-fund babies then?

Second, this complaint is actually much narrower than he implies. It's not that only the rich can go to grad school, b/c that's patently untrue. It's that only the "rich" can afford to stay on in grad school after their 5th year: "Thus, some form of outside support has become essential for wading through longer Ph.D. programs." Well, no. Humanities programs are not in principle longer than others; people make them longer by taking more time to finish. This is not necessarily the wrong choice, but it is a choice. Because Mihalyfy doesn't mention that the first five years feature tuition remission plus a stipend or teaching income, it sounds as though the poor are forced to self-fund the entire undertaking, rather than just the extra year or two.

Even during those extra years, most universities will continue to hire their advanced grad students as TAs, or allow them to teach their own courses. This is in addition to the completion fellowships for which they are at that point eligible. So yes, you may have to hustle if you take extra years, but it's as you say, hustling that is relevant to developing a career. Why should the expectation be that grad school is a free ride with full leisure for however long it may take you to get through?

Finally the suggestion that spousal income is an unfair advantage gives the whole game away. This is totally not about the rampant "trust funds" (have you ever met a grad student w/ one of these? I have not) or vast familial wealth that obstructs the hordes of poor would-be PhD students from pursuing their dreams while elevating the children of plutocrats. Marriage is a widely available form of financial aid, as accessible to poor grad students as rich ones. In fact, marriage is a thing most grown-ups do, in addition to getting jobs and meeting other responsibilities that Mihalyfy seems to think are unjustifiable burdens on grad students.

So in the end, what is the engine of this great social injustice, which is giving us "two tracks of PhD student" and the "re-gilding of the academy"? It is that it takes some added effort on top of doing nothing for single grad students to come up with the money to fund their extra year or two of writing up a dissertation. Crisis of world-historic proportions.

Miss Self-Important said...

For reference, the 2007(!) Maroon story on the new uniform grad financial packages: http://chicagomaroon.com/2007/02/13/university-boosts-graduate-student-aid/

Phoebe said...


"First, in what previous epoch of academic training were things easier for the poor?"

Excellent point. I hadn't known that about UChicago, but there's a similar story with NYU. Grad students used to be on food stamps. Today, two cohabiting grad students can live some semblance of a middle-class lifestyle.

Which is, as I may have mentioned a thousand times before on and off blog, why, today, a humanities-oriented person who does need to earn a living might well gravitate to a doctoral program. It would seem a better bet than a string of unpaid internships.

And agreed that the trustafarian grad student is basically a myth. I remember hearing that someone I don't think I ever even met who was a few years ahead of me in my department was an heir to something or other - never substantiated - but even in NYC, even in French, that's not the norm.

And marriage, yup. Spouses supporting each other while one is in school and the other is working, this is a) ancient history, and b) not somehow limited to the rich. The only possible argument I could see for that interpretation is that marriage is increasingly becoming a phenomenon of the college-educated. But you know what? Everyone in grad school is college-educated. So unless the argument here is that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than other grad students to be married - which, maybe? but I doubt it - I'm not seeing the issue.

"Humanities programs are not in principle longer than others; people make them longer by taking more time to finish."

I don't think that's quite true in all cases. In some departments, a dissertation isn't considered complete unless it's a multi-year project. This can lead to some internal conflicts when universities decide to make grad school seven years tops. But in some programs, with some advisors, the type of document expected at the end is one that couldn't plausibly have been completed in the allotted time.

It could also be that in some humanities departments, the expectation that 'dissertation' means 8-plus years is so ingrained that profs view *anything* handed in sooner as a rushed job, although thankfully I've never actually known that to happen. But it might be possible, in some cases, to get the degree in less time, but not with good references.

And then the hustling is a real problem. In enough cases, those who take 6-plus years aren't stragglers, but merely completing a program that has never in its history taken anyone just 5 years. So if the program only funds 5 years, there are some justified grievances.

Miss Self-Important said...

It could also be that in some humanities departments, the expectation that 'dissertation' means 8-plus years is so ingrained that profs view *anything* handed in sooner as a rushed job, although thankfully I've never actually known that to happen.
This sounds really unusual to me. I don't think I've ever come across anyone who's claimed that his department wants him to stay on longer. On the contrary, almost everyone feels under pressure to finish as quickly as possible, and there is a prevailing belief (among grad students; I don't know what hiring committees think) that the longer you stay past the six-year mark, the more "stale" you are as a job candidate, unless you can show that you were being inordinately productive during those extra years (mainly by publishing). But if you've taken eight years and all you have to show for them is a completed dissertation, that seems less good. Maybe a social sciences bias? I don't know. My own field is a humanist enclave w/in social science, so it's hard to gauge.

Also, I think the 6-8 (or 6-infinity) year completion rates are supposed to be a vestige of the old regime of non-funding. The Maroon article mentions that one impetus for the guaranteed funding was to get grad students out the door faster by guaranteeing them an income and reducing their teaching burdens in the first five years so they can make more efficient use of those years. Princeton, which I think has the most generous humanities PhD funding in the country, is even more adamant about this. If the reason people used to take 10 years to get a PhD was b/c they had to piece together the funds to live and do research by working at the campus coffee shop and TA-ing 10 courses, then with these necessities met, is it reasonable to expect them to move faster?

Phoebe said...


The very top universities were, I think, the first to move to the Princeton model - five years, no worries, and done. I'm going to take a wild guess that this applies to Harvard.

What's happened elsewhere, though, is that some professors got used to a certain no-rush mindset. So within the same department, some profs will be very much with the times, encouraging students to just turn something in already, while others will not even expect to see chapters until year infinity. For all I know this leads to internal squabbles within the faculty, but I'm precisely the last person who'd be privy to that sort of thing. (A shame, really, because it would impede my ability to write an academic novel.)

What I do know is, if a university is transitioning to the generous-five-years model (as mine is - thus anecdotal evidence from multiple departments), what you can get are... mixed messages. So you may be told both... what you said re: the advantages on the job market of having finished in good time, and that you're at a disadvantage on the job market relative to people who've been in grad school longer.

But it's the kind of thing that will likely sort itself out with time. And it totally seems fair that if five years of just coursework and dissertating are guaranteed, people would get through programs more quickly. Again, the issue really is the transition from one model to the other. If you've taught for all of grad school (not my case, but possible, I think, in other departments), it doesn't much help you, at year eight, that students now entering won't have any teaching requirement.

Another issue, though, now that I think of it, is really language-department-specific: you probably do need more teaching experience if you're going to be hired in a very teaching-intensive (not the most articulate way to put it, but it's late) capacity. So the purported advantage of year infinity isn't (just) that one may have published in that time (which isn't always necessary to get a job, it seems), but you've also been able to put on your CV that you've taught all these different kinds of classes, maybe even at a bunch of different universities, thus showing your range. I can't imagine this would be the case in political science.

Britta said...

In my field, a PhD in 5 years is generally a career killer but 20 years isn't, depending on what you do with the 20 years. Transitioning to the 5 year model with pressure to get students out has been a contributing factor to the top Ivies (HYP) ruining their departments' reputations in my field, and it's damaged their placement record. Students in my department are advised not to defend until they have a job lined up, because it looks much better to take 10 years than finish in 6 and be unemployed for even just one year. Because the clock is stopped, grad school allows time for having families, or doing 5 years of research out of which one could get 2 books and multiple articles. Getting money is always a challenge, but I know people who've gotten up to 20 years fully funded, though obviously this is very rare. 7-8 years of full funding is probably more the norm than the exception, and getting up to 9 years is not that hard. I currently have about 7 years of full funding lined up, and I haven't even started applying for write up grants or had to resort to teaching for money, and I'm not that unusual.

i said...

Britta, lord almighty, what is your field? It sounds sooo different from everything I know from my own field.

But here's what I wanted to add. On the one hand, I'm very sympathetic to the thrust of the article (as you represent it, I haven't read it yet), as I have thought that a lot of my fellow students at my very fancy grad school were more comfortable than I was from point 0. And I do suspect that having parental, specifically parental, financial support of a kind that was beyond my own family's middle class means can help someone get into a well-funded program. My plan B if I didn't get into the top grad schools I was interested in was to do a public school masters in my home town, at the same university where I did my BA. My classmates got in, sometimes, by going and doing an MPhil at Cambridge or Oxford. So I do think it's a case where having money can help you get a better deal going into grad school.

That said, I cannot agree enough with your point about fellowships. None of my classmates applied for external dissertation fellowships. We were guaranteed funding anyway for that year, and there was the Whiting which most everyone applied for, but it was administered internally. No fire under the bum, as it were. Whereas I, with my immigrant striver mentality, applied for a bunch of them and got several. Alas, I couldn't take more than one, but it made the CV much nicer. More than that, however, when you know you're going to be applying for external funding, it gives you both motivation and deadlines to get other things done, like sending out an article so you can at least have it "under consideration." It's a kind of non-baby leaning in, if you like.

I have seen this exact same dynamic play out on the tenure track. If you're mad ambitious and together, you'll apply for everything in sight, be publishing and presenting constantly, and doing all that good stuff anyway. But if you're that person, you're not reading this blog, but checking the footnotes on your sixteenth article. We normal mortals tend to get a bit lazy when money's already there. Not having a lot of paid leave, for example, is a great nudge to apply, apply, apply. So there are these moments when the inequalities even out a bit.

Petey said...

"I was trying to avoid naming any specific familiar locale as Outer Mongolia, because, well, Outer Mongolia is subjective."

Back on the pedantry beat:

Outer Mongolia is not subjective. It is the country currently known as Mongolia.

Similarly, Rhodesia is not subjective, even though the country formerly known as Rhodesia is currently known as Zimbabwe...

caryatis said...

Phoebe, re: the marriage as privilege question, I've certainly seen evidence that richer/upper-class people tend to marry richer/upper-class people. I see no reason this would be different if you narrow down to the specific population of grad students. Grad students have some similar characteristics, sure, but they also have different class backgrounds which affect, say, whether they would ever consider marrying the air-conditioner installer.

David Schraub said...

I'm really annoyed that the Outer Mongolia discussion petered out before I could figure out a way to YPIS Phoebe.

Britta said...

An elite college is a way for the merely middle class to hobnob with the upper upper middle class, or the truly wealthy. Grad school narrows it down more to the eccentric second children of the wealthy or upper middle class intellectuals, since the truly wealthy are at Wharton or working on Wall Street or partying on the French Riviera after college, not slogging through 19th century French poetry.

Phoebe said...

In reverse order:


The way to YPIS me in this context would be to explain that I'm independently wealthy and married to an heir or self-made gazillionaire. And it wouldn't matter that this isn't true in either sense - that's the beauty of YPIS. But if you could find a way to YPIS me about Mongolia, fantastic. Tough, though - now is not knowing much about Mongolia a form of privilege? Is not being Mongolian privilege? Not considering the type of car this Mongolian family drove.


People tend to marry those of similar backgrounds, yes. But not so relevant in this context - all one would need is someone who earns enough to allow you to not-starve while in (or at the end of) grad school, or while adjuncting for a bit after grad school.


A Petey-being-clever comment that doesn't require a reply.


"But if you're that person, you're not reading this blog, but checking the footnotes on your sixteenth article."

In defense of my readers, some are very accomplished academics. They must have WWPD open on one page and something more serious in the other.

As for your main point, I think so much depends a) where you go to school (my program's placing people quite well, but I don't remember anyone getting Oxford degrees prior, unless maybe they're British and this was their college; this may once again be a question of HYP vs. everything else), and b) what your own obstacles happen to be.

From where I sat/sit, it seemed like there were the people whose parents really respected that they were in grad school, that this was training for a white-collar career, and then there were those who saw it as, sheesh, my kid is a dabbler. And often enough, the latter sort of parents are going to be the wealthier ones - the ones who kind of already know the deal with humanities grad school, because they're well-educated in this country themselves.

So I suppose I haven't seen a great deal of parental investment in adult children's humanities careers (even among parents who could well afford that), nor have I encountered classmates who are blasé about fellowship money - for all I know there's more invisible parental support than I realize, but people really are living on this, as indicated by the panic at and after meetings about funding.

What I have seen, though, are people going to funded doctoral programs precisely because this is a thing one can do with a humanities BA and be self-supporting as an adult. I mean, certainly if you're from a very poor family and are expected to support your parents and five younger siblings after college, a PhD in Tapestry isn't an obvious choice. But if you're just run-of-the-mill, your parents expect you to pay for yourself as an adult, then funded programs are an option.

Finally, I still think there's a huge difference between parents paying for college plus a fancy MA plus a condo or whichever variant of this, and someone being 30ish and married to a spouse who makes more than a grad student. Not in terms of ease, but in terms of the resulting socioeconomic status of professors.


Your field might be the exception. But it does seem true that different fields fit better or worse to the 5-year model. In French I could see this working, but maybe only with a change to some of the coursework requirements. Getting rid of the teaching requirement seems like it could cause problems - you kind of do need to know if you can (or want to) teach in French/teach a French-language class.

Britta said...


I'm in anthropology. A minimum of one year of fieldwork is required, 1.5-2 is standard, and 4+ is not unheard of. It is expected you will received outside funding for fieldwork, even with a 5 year fellowship. In fairness, funding used to be much worse, and was revised in an attempt to be more in line with the Ivies, university wide, but my department does everything it can push against pressure to finish.

In my department, about 60-70% of the students come in with Masters, including from Ivies or Oxford/Cambridge. I don't know what the financials are on that though. I know some people got full tuition scholarships for MAs, some presumably paid out of pocket, either with parental support or loans. My discipline might be slightly different in that the top schools are not Ivies (except maybe Columbia is top 5), though I don't think it's that unusual at the graduate level for programs' prestige to not map on to the USNWR rankings. A difference, and one reason why the Ivies do tend to have strong programs, is they have deep pockets and they can pay faculty and students well, if they want to. I know someone who about 10 years ago got offered 30K a year stipend from Cornell.

Meggie said...

This is hardly the point of your post at all, but I thought I'd chime in. I'm at the very beginning of the idea of helicopter parenting. It's much worse in the parents of the kids I tutor (I'm getting an elementary ed degree), but it's very certainly in my memory of my friend's parents and even mine. Most of my high school friends graduated from undergrad, and finished their first year of grad school this spring. Just thought yo u might want to know!

Phoebe said...


Huh, I didn't realize!

Maybe, then, it's more of a progression. In my day (I say from the vantage point of almost-30), there were plenty of individual examples of helicopter parenting. But they were exceptions. This was also before smartphones (a huge difference, I suspect), largely before cellphones. I would take the public bus to school alone in 5th grade, but just typing this now, it seems almost unconceivable, even though the city's now probably much safer.

caryatis said...

Britta, $30,000 a year counts as generous?! What are other grad students living on?

Phoebe said...

Caryatis, Britta can answer too, but here goes: Grad students generally get paid a lot less than that. Summer funding can boost things a bit, as can teaching if you're getting paid for that on top of a fellowship.

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe - I agree that transitioning from "patchy funding so you stay forever" to "full funding and you're out in five years" is not seamless. But in terms of what this article is complaining about, it pretty much solves the problem. Uniform funding guarantees are what you say - low but livable incomes, for the rich and poor alike. What this guy seems to be asking for is that plus three(?) more years of guaranteed income, b/c humanities students can't be expected to move that quickly, or should not feel pressured to. But why exactly not?

I think every discipline expects some teaching experience, but usually the five-year packages account for that, don't they? When I was applying, the most common financial situation was a stipend for the first 2 yrs of coursework, then "guaranteed" teaching for 2-3 yrs while you dissertate, then sometimes a guaranteed completion fellowship or other teaching reduction for the final year of dissertating. So ideally, you'd get in 4-6 semesters of teaching before finishing. Fieldwork requirements could get in the way of some of that teaching though, although in my department, people seem to do one year of teaching before going to Africa or wherever for the next 1-2.

As for the idea that money buys you pre-grad school advantages, like MPhils at Oxford, I'm sure that's true to some degree. Money buys lots of good things. But it seems silly to complain that I was unfairly denied the opportunity to get an Oxford MPhil due to my lack of money when my entire post-secondary education has been made possible by rich people. Rich donors who funded my college scholarships and grants, other rich donors who funded my graduate fellowship, yet other rich donors who paid for my study abroad, my internships, my summer conferences and workshops, etc. I'm willing to live with the trade-off - as long as rich people keep providing these essential services to the non-rich, their own children can be permitted to have nicer things than me w/o incurring my resentment, including trust funds, condos, and decorative European degrees that are not required for American PhD admission.

Phoebe said...


Correct, dude's problems are largely solved in a world where all degrees are five years fully funded. But maybe not entirely? They're solved in terms of the grad program itself, but not what comes after. What seems to be happening is, the period that used to be the 7th-plus year of grad school now often enough goes to time spent adjuncting for other universities. If you don't do this, and instead find a sort of work that pays enough and provides benefits, you've left the field. But staying in the field doesn't mean there's ever going to be a tenure-track job. But maybe there will be! From my own dept., some have gotten good jobs right after grad school, but others have gotten possibly even better jobs after 500 years of adjuncting.

The difference with language teaching may be that you generally have your own class, which may just be more time-intensive (or physically exhausting - you have to perform) than being a TA. It might be that rather than dissertating.

And finally, re: rich people funding scholarships, etc.: this gets us back to the issue I was discussing with i (funny to type that!) earlier. If you're not independently wealthy, you have more of a motivation to apply for things that look good on a CV. If you're incredibly poor and supporting a large family, this doesn't work out so well. But it might, paradoxically, give an edge to those who do need to support themselves and just themselves, over those who do not.

fourtinefork said...

Caryatis: $30K sounds generous to me! I've had post-PhD jobs at very fancy places that paid not much more than that ($32K in Boston and $36K in NYC). The salaries of many humanities jobs are sad and pathetic.

I had an outside fellowship that paid $25K (required living in NYC); that rate has since been raised to $30K. Plus a $5K travel budget. It was by far the best gig I ever had: pure research and extraordinary resources. I had another outside fellowship-- for international research-- and the amount was painfully small. I had four years of funding through my grad program (2 years full fellowship; 2 as a TA): it was in the $13K range in the early 2000s. I taught in some summers, but that was also a pittance. I'd like to think that amount has gone up since then, but somehow I doubt it...

fourtinefork said...

Also, with all this talk of Mongolia-- outer or not-- I want to make sure everyone here has experienced the joy that is the band Dschinghis Khan. They were the German entrants to the Eurovision song contest in the late 1970s (several members were Hungarian).

For their eponymous hit, Dschinghis Khan, they performed on stage dressed as Mongolians. I don't think a lack of German-language skills impedes enjoyment of this fabulousness in any way.

Miss Self-Important said...

But about the post-PhD pre-job years, isn't he basically saying that people who are married can be supported by their spouses (unfair), while people who are single have to do a series of short-term postdocs (also unfair to the marrieds, who can't move around as easily). Either way though, survival is possible through one set of unfair advantages or the other. His particular problem seems to be the pre-PhD, post-funding years, like his eighth year of grad school.

The problem you describe is in the job market itself, not in the funding to prepare you for the job market. If there are far fewer jobs than candidates, it doesn't matter how much we fund the unemployed to keep trying, b/c the formula will never balance out. At some point, people have to make choices about their lives - whether it's worth it to stay in and keep trying, or whether they should move on to other fields. If you're still adjuncting 10 years out, chances are that the major obstacle to your getting a full-time job is not that you lack a trust fund, but the more complex constraints of adult life - family commitments, location commitments, and so on.

True, teaching your own courses is optional in my field, although I get the impression that it looks good.

caryatis said...


"The salaries of many humanities jobs are sad and pathetic."

Agreed. I didn't realize just how much, though.

Phoebe said...


"also unfair to the marrieds, who can't move around as easily"

See, this is what was missing from his essay. He described marriage as if it were a trust fund. Which just didn't make any sense.

"At some point, people have to make choices about their lives - whether it's worth it to stay in and keep trying, or whether they should move on to other fields."

I've certainly thought this from the start of grad school. The problem is what Britta says - the culture of academia is such that if you do make these choices, you're stigmatized for leaving the field. Which is intimidating, esp. because your profs will likely be at least some of your references moving forward.

The only less-bleak aspect of this, though, is that in my highly anecdotal experience, the stigmatization comes more from fellow grad students dead-set on academia than from professors, who will generally make a pitch for the academy, but accept that it's not their place to sort out what you're going to do for the rest of your life, esp. when there are hardly any jobs.

Miss Self-Important said...

The problem is what Britta says - the culture of academia is such that if you do make these choices, you're stigmatized for leaving the field.
I understand this. Grad school can be a really emotionally, intellectually, other adverbially crushing experience. Post grad school probably too. As a relative non-enjoyer of grad school, I fully sympathize with both its present badness and the disappointment and shame I will undoubtedly feel if I leave academia - a paradox which I see but can't seem to avert. But does this rise to the level of a social or political problem? Or is it still a basically individual decision on par with all other such decisions that people must make, even in the face of stigma?

All major decisions involve closing some doors that you might wish you could leave open forever. Get married and now you can't be with all the men who aren't your husband anymore. But wait until you're 40 and there will be fewer men to be with at all. Have children now and your free time disappears. But wait to have children and conception becomes extraordinarily difficult. Career choices equally involve trade-offs. I'm not sure it's so bad to expect people to learn how to close doors and live with (and even enjoy!) the things they've traded for.

I'm not even sure I see the wisdom in diminishing the stigma of leaving academia since the existence of the pull to stay serves a purpose. The prevailing attitude of people in graduate programs should not be that they're just here to hang out for a bit and dabble until something better comes along. It should be that they're seriously focused on scholarly training with the end goal of professional scholarship, even if they know in the back of their minds that this goal can't/won't be attained by all. Doesn't maintaining such an attitude always mean that one by-product of leaving academia will be shame and disappointment? If you're a competitive person, which many people in academia are, you will suffer the additional pain of envy that comes from watching people you think are worse than you get academic jobs you've foreclosed. Sad, but survivable.

I also agree that the social pressures come mainly from other grad students who are assimilated into this career-focused attitude, and who additionally know nothing about the world and think the only options are tenure-track or the gutter, whereas faculty (esp. older faculty) have more perspective.

Phoebe said...


The stigma is a problem precisely because there are no doubt many adjuncts toiling not because their dream is a tenure-track job, nor because they're in fact unemployable elsewhere, but because it's so taboo to even consider doing something else, at least not until one as put in a good fight.

"The prevailing attitude of people in graduate programs should not be that they're just here to hang out for a bit and dabble until something better comes along."

A few things to that point.

1) The alternative to being set on tenure-track employment isn't dabbling. There really are other things one can do with that training, although what said things are will depend on the discipline, and on an individual's other training/skills/experience. If you're literally going to get the degree and then go train as an air-conditioner-repairperson, and that was your plan all along, then sure, you may deserve some stigma. But that seems... unusual.

2) There is no danger whatsoever in too many grad students entering without desperately wanting a tenure-track job at the other end.

3) It is at this point such a long shot that any individual grad student (and I get that it's different in your program, as it is in mine) will end up with a tenure-track job that the requirement that one act as though it would be tragic if such a job doesn't surface starts to look a bit ridiculous. There comes a point at which maybe either a) there need to be fewer PhD students, period, to better match the available positions, or b) we need to stop by-default assuming a tenure-track job is Plan A, and that everything else can be arrived at only after copious soul-searching and agony.

Miss Self-Important said...

How would that work without actually creating two tracks of PhD students - those headed for academia and those for other Plan A's? Without causing credential creep in other professions? I don't see how departments can actively encourage their students to pursue non-academic careers from the outset without changing their curricula to make them more relevant to those other careers.

Phoebe said...


Not sure I follow your concern. There's quite a lot of space between 'students given impression that world will end if they don't become profs' and 'doctoral programs revamped into multitrack model, with suddenly many more fields demanding doctorates.' As I pointed out, what Plan B (which may well really be Plan A) is will depend a great deal on what an individual's other skills are, so I don't see how it would even be feasible for there to be tailored support from profs on how to go about being anything other than a prof.

What gets to me about this issue is simply the disparity between the number of jobs and the number of... I was going to say "doctorates," but really, it should be "graduate students," because some probably do leave their programs early once learning what's on the other end. As it stands, these programs can hardly be looked at as solely functioning as pre-professional training for tenure-track employment. If that outcome is a long shot even from the schools/programs that appear to supply the bulk of the tenure-track profs nationwide, where does that leave the system as a whole?

We assume that law school trains lawyers, and react in dismay at whichever stories of post-bar-exam employment at McDonalds. We clearly must, on some level, understand that there are reasons to get a PhD (as it currently exists! with the training currently offered!) other than to get tenure-track employment, or literally every grad student but the top few at Princeton (for everyone else it's a gamble) are fools. So what I'd like to see change in the culture is for there to just be a certain amount of acknowledgement of that. Nothing would have to change in the programs themselves.

Miss Self-Important said...

There's quite a lot of space between 'students given impression that world will end if they don't become profs' and 'doctoral programs revamped into multitrack model, with suddenly many more fields demanding doctorates.'
Yes, but I thought we agreed that this impression was largely the product of our own minds, abetted by the equally future-frightened minds of other students, not the concerted work of PhD programs themselves, which have been dealing with attrition since forever*? Career Services at most schools is open to grad students, and in euphemistic Boston at least, even hosts events to help grad students get non-academic jobs. Beyond that, what could grad programs concretely do to acknowledge the fact of non-academic employment?

Are more fields demanding doctorates now than before? I assume we're speaking of the humanities, and the big non-academic employment options that come to my mind at least - secondary teaching, journalism, law, and business - precisely do not require PhDs.

*I'm really starting to become skeptical that the current academic job market is really much worse than it ever was in the past. I'm constantly coming across my advisor's former students from the '70s-'90s in non-academic places like politics and journalism, some of whom tried and failed to get academic jobs, others who never tried or who left academia for family or other reasons, and it seems like 1) the job market has always been extremely tight, and 2) leaving academia has always been a very common thing. So why are we suddenly so worked up over it?

Phoebe said...


-Re: today's market being worse. As I understand it (but there are probably stats somewhere that would be more definitive), the issue is the rise of adjuncts and the loss of tenure-track positions. More kids than ever are going to college, but it's no longer assumed that TT professors will be teaching them.

Re: Harvard PhDs from back in the day needing to leave academia, I think we'd need some more details here. Was it that the jobs they applied for at Yale, Stanford, and maybe a couple more places in desirable locations didn't work out, and so they chose to opt out? (Yes, says my own anecdotal evidence.) Or was it that even Outer Mongolia U didn't hire them? As might happen today.

Also, I suspect we both have a skewed view of this, coming from departments that really do seem to get people jobs. If there are entire programs channeling people almost exclusively to adjunct positions, which I suspect/have some evidence of, then it's all the more baffling how the purpose of the degree is explained in that context.

-Agreed, very much so, that the credential of a PhD isn't needed in ever-expanding areas.

-Agreed that this is largely in the culture, and not something profs are ordering from on high. But there are ways the culture could change. Will think of specific ways, but none immediately come to mind.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Quoth Phoebe:

"What's happened elsewhere, though, is that some professors got used to a certain no-rush mindset. So within the same department, some profs will be very much with the times, encouraging students to just turn something in already, while others will not even expect to see chapters until year infinity. For all I know this leads to internal squabbles within the faculty, but I'm precisely the last person who'd be privy to that sort of thing. (A shame, really, because it would impede my ability to write an academic novel.) "

In case it's useful to your novel to have this speculation confirmed, I confirm it.