the grad trap



Freddie deBoer used to blog at, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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19 Responses

  1. An interesting article, there is no denying there is stiff competition for jobs even if you have a degree certificate does not guarantee more money let alone a job. The current financial climate has increased this competition for jobs.Report

  2. Avatar Paul Fidalgo says:

    This terrified me, as someone looking to pursue a doctorate at the age of 31. So, thanks. 🙂Report

  3. Avatar Freddie says:

    Sorry Paul! Of course we’re talking in broad strokes… many can and do succeed. Not trying to be discouraging, just realistic.Report

  4. Avatar Paul Fidalgo says:

    Oh, no, not at all. But you make a very important point about passion-following and just seeing what happens at the other side of 6 years, which is not always accompanied by a realistic assessment of what might be available. I don’t know how one assesses that to begin with, of course, and I am unaltered in my pursuit. Anyway, very good post.Report

  5. I think I agree with all of this — it’s a very fine post — except the tiny part about me. Last things first, I didn’t insult people who went to “directional” schools; the passage in question actually says, “My friends at small liberal arts colleges tell me of dealing with massively entitled students who drive cars far more expensive than anything in the faculty parking lot, and who look upon their classes in the humanities as amusing or annoying little pit stops on their paths toward world domination. My friends at smaller state schools –- the places that legendary North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano once termed ‘directional schools,’ because they usually include a point of the compass in their name — tell me of trying to teach thoroughly disengaged students who have never encountered a work of literature written before 1900, and will almost surely never do so again after college.” All I can say in defense of this passage is that it is true: my friends at such institutions do indeed say such things. I apologize if it sounded like a blanket insult.

    But the more important issue here, of course, is what lucky tenured people like me should tell prospective students. We can either ignore the state of the market, lie about it, or issue the appropriate warnings. I choose door number 3, and the point isn’t “don’t try to get what I have”; the point is that three-quarters of the people teaching in American colleges are doing so as adjuncts, graduate students, or permanent non-TT faculty. Because of its reliance on introductory writing courses, English employs especially high percentages of NTT labor. The odds against landing a TT job in English are long and getting longer, and they have nothing to do with the talent or dedication of the doctoral candidates now in the system. I’d rather be honest about that, even if it seems “hypocritical or self-serving”; when I was placement director at Illinois I faced too many angry, disillusioned students who felt — rightly — like the system had taken them for a decade-long ride.

    Anyway, thanks for reading my book, and for the kind word. This is indeed a sticky problem, and I don’t always know how to respond to it. One final thing, though: I wouldn’t place any faith in those predictions of an uptick in the market when the Boomers retire. We’ve been hearing those predictions for almost twenty years now, and so far, Godot hasn’t shown up.Report

  6. Avatar Freddie says:

    This is all well said. You’ll forgive a certain overly sensitive attitude from those of us who went to Direction State U. It’s certainly true that there are many disengaged and disinterested students. There are very many others who are very much engaged, and passionate, and find themselves rather constantly marginalized as intellects and as students. I also tend to find that disengagement and disinterest are commodities found at all levels of the academy. But as I said– I’m overly sensitive.

    As I tried to say, but probably failed to say, you’re in a tough position– because, as you say, you should be honest with people and try to put them on the right path. The point wasn’t that you are self-serving or hypocritical, only that it can’t fail to seem that way sometimes to people who want very badly to be in your shoes. And that’s an impediment to reform; grad students can placate themselves by saying “Oh, he’s just being a grouch from within the world he criticizes; so I’ll just ignore it.” In other words, the people best equipped to honestly judge the situation are the ones who tend to be ignored out of a sense of petty resentment or professional envy.

    At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the administrations of the universities to have the integrity not to pressure departments to take on more than a certain minimum number of grad students; the departments to not take on more grad students than they have a reasonable expectation could possibly find some sort of related employment; and the students, to take truly discriminating accounting of the job prospects beyond “I really and truly love it”. Many people really and truly love X academic subject and still have had to let go of professorial dreams. I did, although not, it’s true, entirely.Report

  7. Avatar Chemjobber says:

    Speaking for the scientists here, you liberal arts types get screwed. The dirty little secret of graduate school in the sciences is that you get paid to do it (tuition + stipend). Sure, it’s a pittance ($15-25K), but you’ll have a car, roommate and you’ll eat more ramen and less meat than you’d like, but you can live on it and you won’t accumulate massive piles of debt like law students.

    (I took out a couple of student loans in grad school (~$22K), but that was basically for quality of life, not actual tuition/food, etc.)

    Once you leave grad school, you can either go get a job (much better money, but a tough time finding a job these days) or you can go for a postdoc. The physicists and the chemists have been better at clearing out their backlogs of postdocs and the like than the biologists, who toil for years without finding jobs in either academia or industry. You can’t blame it on academia, totally — it’s the industrial job market that just can’t absorb the new entry-level folks.

    I’ve always worried about academia basically being a pyramid scheme, where folks are recruited to teach students. What will the students do when they’ve graduated? Why, teach, of course! Who will they teach? Why, students, of course…Report

  8. Avatar Chemjobber says:

    By the way, have I ever told you how much I love you for this quote?:

    “What’s the problem? The problem, first of all, is that college is not and should not be Club Med with classes. By focusing so much money and attention on buildings and facilities, the universities play into a vision of college that is damaging to the educational mission. You need facilities and buildings. But nice basketball courts and cafeterias are rather peripheral to the core project of the academy. Money should principally be spent on better faculty and better academic services and facilities. Sadly, those things have little of the obvious “curb appeal” that new buildings and new amenities have. (“Did you see how big the dorm rooms are?”)”

    So true, so true.Report

  9. Avatar Paul Fidalgo says:

    I wonder if there is no more insidious example of this pyramid scheme idea than that of theatre/acting grad programs. There are few industries in which the supply so overwhelms the demand, and actors become a-dime-a-metric-ton, but still countless schools charge enormous tuitions to teach armies of young actors the finer points of their craft, all so they can graduate, starve, flood the marketplace, and then eventually do something else. I say this as one who abandoned work on an acting MFA, and I have never regretted it, though I certainly still bear the debt of that one year.Report

  10. Thanks, Freddie. Fie on me for citing Valvano’s line — it clearly sounds dismissive. The context for those conversations, btw, was that various interlocutors were taking me to task by saying, “that’s all very well and good for people like you who teach at flagship institutions, but we here at Eastern U,” etc. Besides, it’s no secret — and I think I admitted as much — that Penn State has plenty of disengaged and disinterested students.

    And I agree completely with your final paragraph. The problem is that too many administrations don’t have that integrity, and lots of departments depend on that cheap labor. I’ll try to find ways of saying so that don’t sound too grouchy or self-serving. . . .

    Nice blog, btw. Bowler hats never go out of style.Report

  11. Avatar Chemjobber says:

    Let’s not forget one of Freddie’s original points, which is that people REALLY love doing what they get to do. I love doing chemistry every day, which is something you get to do (and do and do) in graduate school. Paul, I’m sure you loved learning how to act well…

    But when you’re asked to bear huge financial costs (anything over 50k aggregate, IMHO), you need to have a “Schumer box” of some sort to get informed consent.Report

  12. Avatar Joel says:

    To be fair, graduate students in the sciences get compensated because said compensation delivers a distinct tangible benefit to society. I do not wish to be dismissive of the humanities, but from the government’s perspective, you get what you pay for.Report

  13. Avatar Chad says:

    Sorry, this all reminded me of the opening lecture in my introduction to music composition class many moons ago. The professor decided to tell us about the career of a music composition major:
    “You arrive and begin your studies. Either you got a head start in high school or take a few years in another major, but you are accepted into the music composition program. After four to five years, you get your bachelors degree in music composition.
    “There is no work for you.
    “So you go back to school and spend a few years until you achieve your masters degree in music composition.
    “There is no work for you.
    “So you go back to school and spend a few years until you get your doctorate in music composition.
    “There is still no work for you.
    “So you go back to school and get a job as a professor in order to teach other people to do the same thing you just did. Perhaps along the way you will write some pieces that people will enjoy and remember.”Report

  14. Avatar Ched says:

    I appreciate this dialogue.

    Here’s to the Academy “living up to its ideals.”Report

  15. Avatar scriblerus says:

    You mention 6.5 years as the average time to completion but in the humanities it’s closer to 10.Report

  16. Avatar Freddie says:

    Didn’t mean to mention it as an average, just as ballpark figure for someone who is doing his or her PhD fulltime and nothing else. But you’re right in the larger order of things.Report

  17. Avatar Chemjobber says:

    Well, this is distressing — from a Nature news article in 2004:

    “US graduate programmes, especially in life sciences, have grown excruciatingly long in recent decades… In 1973–82, the average in biosciences was 6.3 years; for 1993–2002, the average was 7.7 years. In physics, time to degree increased from 6.6 to 7.4 years, in chemistry from 5.8 to 6.7 years.”

    Wow. I knew it was bad, but not this bad. But wait, it gets worse, much worse:

    According to this NSF white paper, registered time-to-degree (the time you were in school minus breaks) was as follows: 6.8 for physical sciences, 6.9 for life sciences and 9.0 for the humanities.

    Oh, the humanity.Report

  18. Avatar Mike says:

    Fantastic post. When I think of liberal arts grad programs I think of that quote from Randy Pausch’s ‘Last Lecture’ about how the walls we come to in life are not meant to keep us out, but to force us to prove how much we want something. I like that line in the philosophical sense, but I think there has been a sort of conscious and unconscious collusion on the part of many in the liberals arts to erect those walls as a way of keeping liberal arts majors out of the job market.

    Once upon a time, if you had a BA or a BS there were a lot of open doors after college. Now that’s just the first small step. The point is that this entire culture has been created around the ‘grad-school experience’ as you accurately point out. Your undergrad professors start preparing you for it with romanticized tales of late-night drinking and thankless work for tyrant professors. You are told it’s completely normal to have 2-3 jobs while in grad school. No one tells you to avoid the lure of easy college loan money (if you have loans to pay off you might take a corporate job rather than asking for a liberal arts career). I always picture those who actually have good jobs in the liberal arts field as being extremely ticked every time a kid makes it through the gauntlet they created and asks for a decent-paying job. That’s why now those jobs that use to be found for those with a Master’s are slipping towards requiring a PhD. One more brick wall to filter out those job seekers.

    I’m not bashing the notion of grad school either, but the reality is that most people with liberal arts degrees end up in completely un-related jobs. I have a BA in history and anthropology and after giving up on grad school in the short term I took a corporate job for way more money. 9 years later the thought of taking a 75% pay cut to pursue my dream is painfully depressing.Report

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