Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Converging conversations on grad school

The other day, I was talking to a departmental colleague about a student who's planning to go on to graduate school, and we somehow got onto the question of talking to students about the difficulty of the job market. My colleague told me she doesn't think it's her job to inform the student that the job market's bad. In fact, my colleague said, she'd feel a bit hypocritical telling a student that the job market's bad when she got a job.

I said that I try to balance telling students how much I love my job with how difficult it is to get a job, but that I do think it's important that they go into grad school with their eyes at least a little opened about the job situation. I want my students to understand that PhD programs use grad students, but that actually getting a degree and then a job is seriously tough.

My colleague disagreed, and said that students already know about the job problem anyway, by the time they're thinking about grad school.

I was amazed, because I really had no clue at all until I was into my PhD program that the academic job market was bad (and had been for years, and probably will be for years); seriously, I must have been incredibly stupid and naive not to realize it, in any of the three schools I'd been to previously (an R1, a CC, and a Regional U) before my first year in a PhD program.

My colleague said she'd been aware of it basically forever. And then stopped, grinned, shook her head, and said that her father was a professor of English, and maybe that had something to do with her knowing. A goodly proportion of our students are first generation college students, and they just can't have access to the kinds of information my colleague learned as a kid. So, she agreed, we probably do need to tell our students.

Later, I was out to dinner with my gang; I'm the only lit person in the bunch, but we're all humanists, pretty much.

We're all moaning about grading and enjoying an evening of escape complete with a great dinner and wonderful conversation. And of course we get to reminiscing a bit about grad school, how wonderful life is when all you have to do is teach a couple hours a week, sit in a couple classes, and read your eyes out.

It does, indeed, seem tempting. It would have been a lot more fun at the time if I hadn't been so incredibly stressed about the possibility of finishing my degree and getting a job.

I remember a grad school friend noting once that when men in our program talked, they talked about when they'd finish their degree, and when the women in our program talked, they tended to talk about if they'd finish their degree, until at some point, usually in the final year of writing, you'd notice a shift in the way a woman talked, as if she'd convinced herself that she actually would finish her degree, and she'd start using when instead of if. My friend noticed when she made that shift, and since she'd pointed it out, I noticed when I made the shift.

But few had the confidence to use when to talk about jobs.

There were people who didn't finish for whom I was really happy because they made a decision to leave a program that wasn't making them happy, preparing them for a job they didn't want. For them, leaving was right. I knew a few people who were cut, but my program wasn't viscious about cutting people (though, of course, I feared for several years that I'd be cut).

But I knew more unhappy people who couldn't bring themselves to leave though they weren't happy doing grad work and didn't expect to be happy teaching; some of them just seemed to hang on and off, getting by.

Then there were the people who'd finished their degrees who were working as adjuncts, year by year, until they got a job elsewhere or the department cut them loose in order to provide adjuncting spots for the next folks. Basically, you adjuncted there because you hadn't gotten a tenure track or other job in your first or second year on the market, and had finished your dissertation.

I adjuncted for a year there before getting my first tenure track job, and when I did, I noticed something that I'd participated in without consciously noting it before. People who'd finished but hadn't gotten tenure track jobs were sort of treated like pariahs by a lot of people, not consciously, but it was like people who hadn't finished didn't want to see us, wanted us to disappear, to comfortingly have or get other jobs. But that we'd gotten the degree but not the job meant that not getting a job was a painful possibility for most, and a likelihood for some.

Remembering, I know I treated other adjuncts before me that way, especially the people I didn't know well enough to think of first as friends rather than first as another grad student. It's not something I'm happy about.

In a way, being an adjunct smelled of failure, and no one likes the smell of failure. Being an adjunct was also, for many of us, a great opportunity to get some further teaching under our belts, to be able to talk more convincingly when interviews came our way, and to practice actually communicating about literature rather than being a grad student.

I wonder how happy I could have been in grad school if I hadn't worried all the time about being cut from the program or ending up jobless, unemployed, living on the street.

Here at NWU, we talk to our students a lot about what kinds of skills they're learning as liberal arts students, and how they can translate those skills to do well in all sorts of different career options (we also talk about being engaged responsible citizens, but they're more worried about job potential).

In many ways, my thinking has been changed by my experiences here at NWU. I do love my job, but I recognize in myself the same kinds of skills that make people valuable at other jobs, too. When I was in grad school, "job" meant one thing, and one thing only, a tenure track job at a college or university of some sort. I think it would have helped me immensely in grad school to learn to think of myself as a person with lots of skills which I could use toward different kinds of career opportunities, and to think of those career opportunities as potentially fulfilling, engaging, and exciting.

Where I sit now, I work with people who see an undergraduate education in English or other liberal arts areas as valuable in and of itself, and as good preparation for meaningful life work. By extension, we see MA and PhD work as great preparation for professing, but also as even deeper preparation for the kinds of critical thinking and communication skills that are really valued by a broad range of employers. No, those employers don't care that you know lots about Shakespeare. But they do care that you're really good at communicating complex ideas to a variety of people, that you can understand and analyze information in texts, that you can manage people and time.

I feel relieved by that realization, somehow. The world of employment possibilities wouldn't end if I lost my job here, though I'd certainly be upset and distraught. But it's good to realize that there are other paths I could have taken that would have led to other experiences, perhaps as happy, or more happy.

Maybe that's the message I should try to get across to students who want to go on to grad school in English? Focus on the fact that the degree really isn't only of use if you get that elusive tenure track job, but that getting it can be meaningful in other ways, and potentially for other engaging and exciting work?


  1. I did not know much about the market when I started graduate school. That I finished graduate school without knowing more about it was a real problem. It's true, I had small kids and didn't socialize much, that I finished my courses and TA-ing and left town, but I was shocked that there really might not be jobs. silly me. Now I'm wondering how long it will take me to stop feeling like a candidate -- six years is a long time to internalize a certain sense of not succeeding, yes failure, that seems inherent in long-term adjuncting. Why wouldn't you mention the market?

  2. Smarting from a crass comment from another board, I have been thinking a lot of graduate school the last couple of days. I was not informed of the job market until my first year of the PhD program (my third year of graduate school). Sure, I heard the murmurs, but it wasn't until then that a professor (on a one-year stint himself) talked openly about the market.

    I am a first generation student. Both parents have an associates from the local cc, and they were the over-achievers. I muddled my way to a land-grant teaching U., where, the conversation went, two older, white men told me I was foolish to even try to complete the degree. Why? Because their experience, which came off as really bitter at the time, told them that white men were too-un-PC to get an English job anymore. This would have been around 1996.

    I ignored them, of course, writing them off as bitter and socially retarded (which I still think is the case). But I have been hard-pressed to prove them wrong. Was their advice accurate? Somewhat. Was is good to hear? Not at the time, but I did jump on an opportunity to become a traveling consultant teaching ERP software (SAP, specifically). This has led to exposure to a life otherwise closed (nice hotels, decent billing rate, immersion into business life, intricate technical education, adult learning thoery and practice, distance education, etc.).

    Am I better for the liberal education? Hamlet doesn't come up often, but I am able to capture nuance of process and interogate systems better than my family (my undecated baseline), so...

  3. I think the attitude towards adjuncts you describe is one of the reasons I'm still ABD as an adjunct; no one looks down on you for being an adjunct when you haven't quite finished yet. I admit that I've probably used this asan excuse to work on the diss more slowly and avoid the 'real' job market.

  4. There's so much good stuff in here, Bardiac, but I'm still grading so I'm only going to hit the highlights.

    First: I think it's completely irresponsible not to tell future grad students what the job market looks like, and also to spell out what "bad" means: i.e., you (whoever you are) are unlikely to get a job at a school like the one you received your degree from (whatever it was like), and there's a very real possibility that you might not get a tenure-track job at all. And if you do, it may take years. Years in which your debt will likely be mounting up.

    I was informed about the job market, but only in vague ways (oh, it's pretty bad. oh, jobs are hard to get), and thus it wasn't until I saw people I knew go through it that I really understood what a bad market really MEANT.

    I completely agree that the skills one learns in grad school are, at least in certain ways, surprisingly transferrable, and, having worked full-time before going to grad school, I took a lot of comfort in my own confidence that I could leave and still find meaningful work. However, I don't think anyone should *embark* on a Ph.D. unless he or she wants to teach at the college-level. An M.A.? Definitely a useful degree for a lot of jobs, and a way for the perpetual student to enjoy the positive side of grad school (as he or she can afford it). A Ph.D.? No. Very few non-academic jobs need the specific skills one learns in a Ph.D. program, and there are better and less poverty-courting ways to get the more generalized version of those skils.

    My $0.02...

  5. My grad friends and I have a phrase we like to throw around: "If people knew what graduate school was really like, no one would start a PhD." Okay, that sounds a little bitter, but what we're driving at is how little we really knew about the entire process when we started. You don't even know what questions to ask before you start grad school! So, hell yeah, profs have a responsibility to give grad students as honest a picture as possible of the dissertation process, the writing timeline, the job market. I know I intend to when I have students of my own.

    (and ditto to La Lecturess - her points rock)

  6. Anonymous4:20 PM

    I'd add that it's not only irresponsible but also deeply unethical not to give students a clear picture of the job market. I know that the undergrads I teach are mostly clueless. One future they tend to believe in is that of teaching with an M.A. at a community college. They don't realize that most of the possibilities there are for adjuncts. (And that Wal-Mart pays better, as one student discovered). Many also have the idea that they can get a B.A. with teacher certification, teach high school, and then, while teaching high school, acquire a doctorate and segue into college teaching. Deeply unrealistic, I'm afraid.

  7. Fascinating read,this.

    I often fantasize about leaving the hectic life of medicine for the world of real acedemia. I even got an offer once to join the faculty of a small liberal artss college in New England. I'm sure it was not a tenure position, now that I think of it...

    Mr TBTAM is a teacher (elementary ed) and I envy his frequent vacations and long summers. I imagine a family life of two academics, enriched not by money, but by time and discussion, and reading and campus life.

    Then I wake up and realize just how much work it would be - real self-starting work, not the just show up every day and it pesents itself to you kind of work that I do. And realize that, knowing how I approach work, that I'd be one of those lifetime adjuncts, not the one who gets tenure.

    Kudos to you for accomplishing what you have at this point in your career. May it be a long and productive career.

  8. To throw wrinkle in here, I was actually told at one point that the job market was going to be good, that with all the retirements there would be a hiring boom. I still hear this occasionally because on of the Unis I adjunct at hired most of it's faculty in the late 60s early 70s. The reality is they aren't replacing retirees with new people and they are hiring adjuncts to do the bulk of the teaching.

  9. Thanks for posting on this - as someone who did not get a tenure track job this year (my first try with my degree barely finished but my second one out on the market) I feel the fear of being labeled a "failure with a Ph.D." keenly. For me, it wasn't that no one said it would be easy, but that no one ever talked about the job market in anything above a whisper in our department. I went to an Ivy league school where we were supposed to "just do our work" and revel in the fact that "this was the only time we were going to have the freedom to do this kind of intellectual activity" - the job market was perpetually put off by our advisors, etc. Not that I think we should start professionalizing from day one at the expense of writing a good dissertation, but I would have liked to know that there are many roads to Rome, so to speak. It takes lots of really good people (and I, hopefully, count myself among them) years to find a tenure-track position. I have chosen to leave a recently renewed visiting position at the school that I've been at for a year in order to go adjunct at the place my husband has been offered a really good t-t job - I'm going to give the market another go next year (probably in a more limited way - not applying for every job in my field) and see what happens. I have no idea if I'm committing career suicide, but I know I'll be far far happier next year.

    I think the best thing we can do for our students is inform them not so much that it's a bad or good job market (it is what it is), but that each year is different - some years there seem to be 75 people out in your field all from the best 2 schools - some years it's different. I feel a bit like a pariah at my old university with a lot of people - but not with my advisor, who revealed to me that it took her 3 tries to get her awesome permanent job. I also recently learned that several of the biggest scholars in my field took several tries and just kept pulling at the plow - some got awesome jobs their first time or two out, some don't. That helped more than anything...

    But, I have to say - god, I hope I get a permanent job next year! :)

  10. Bardiac, I'm only now just now catching up on some old posts that I saved in Bloglines, so I hope you don't mind the late comment.

    Anyway, everyone here has said the same general things I would have said (it's unethical *not* to tell prospective students about the job market, etc.) but I thought you'd like to know that the adjuncts at your grad U don't tend to get treated as failures anymore. In fact, when I did the same gig, my status went *up*. An Americanist friend had the same experience. Suddenly profs who'd barely spoken to us before treated us as colleagues -- and I don't think it's just because we had offices among them. I think, rather, that the job market has been so bad for so long, and the adjunct/lecturuer thing now a regular (and almost *expected*) part of the experience, that it has become normal and the old dudes now realize that even the best need to go through that phase now.

    And that actually, weirdly, worries me. Is a post-doc lectureship going to become a *requirement* before getting a job -- like post-doc research is in the sciences? As good as it will be for the status of adjuncts and lecturers -- no longer perceived as 'losers,' but just par for the course -- it's bad for the system as a whole. It took me nine years to finish my degree and land a TT job!

    And *that* is something prospective students should *definitely* know. If I had a nickel for every first year who thought that a supposed 5-year-program really would only take them 5 years, I'd be able to pay off my student loans!

  11. An excellent post!

    It must be the time of year to reflect on grad school and aftermath. I'll likely post on it myself.

    You raise some interesting points in this discussion not often brought up in these things. 1) The condescending attitudes of grad students (especially in high-powered R1-type schools) towards adjuncts ("Why can't they get e tt job? Aren't they good enough?"), spoken in ignorance, of course; 2) the subsequent feelings of newly-minted PhDs who have to serve time in adjunct purgatory, often in a school perceived by both the adjunct and advisor as a tier lower than one's own grad school. I'm watching a couple of very good friends from grad school self-destruct, slowly, because of this. I always thought that these two were more likely to secure a tt job and a book contract ahead of me. They're good people, scholarly and personable. Now they're adjuncts waiting for the boomers to retire or whatever, and they hate it. And they're just too worn out from teaching 5-4 contracts to publish, present, or procreate at the pace they would have hoped to. They hate themselves for being adjuncts.

    All part of the reality of the career and the market that feeds it.

    These days, though, grad students and prospectives have unparalleled access to unedited anecdotal and experiential evidence online, blogs or otherwise. I would hope that more are taking advantage of it.

    But for those in grad school....I speak directly and openly to my own doctoral students about these things. They nod zealously and eagerly, as though they expect it to come up in prelims, and they think I'm just testing their dedication. one feels too sorry for the homecoming queen or the football team captain when post-school reality comes crashing down on them. Post-school reality happens even to academic superstars.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.


  12. To further qualify my "post-school reality" comment...

    No one outside of the academic world will feel sorry for those of us with PhDs who are living the harsh reality after grad school. And that's part of what makes it hard to suffer, whether we're in the midst of it, or have friends whoare, or have students who wannt to throw themselves into the fray.

    [apologies for the double comment--I clicked "publish" instead of "preview"]