Monday, June 04, 2007

What a Grad Student Should Know

Horace over at To Delight and Instruct has asked folks to contribute things that grad students should read. So here's my go:

At my university, we make a lot of effort to help our students see that their liberal arts education has taught them valuable skills that they can actually use to get a job as well as to live a well-considered life. The Dean goes around talking to classes about what employers of all sorts want from college graduates. We faculty learn from resources from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Our career services helps students write resumes that relate what they've learned in classes to the skills employers are looking for.

We have a fair bit of contact with alumni, most of whom leave college and start careers, and they largely seem to tell us that they really do appreciate and use skills in writing, critical reading, oral presentation, listening carefuly, analyzing data of different sorts (numerical, graphic, and textual), understanding cultural and historical contexts, etc. They relate that doing group projects taught them important leadership skills, and encourage students to do more of those sorts of projects. Those who studied abroad talk about the importance of that experience for their education. And those who've been deeply involved in community or university service find new ways to serve their communities and find that service enriches their lives.

In grad school, it's easy to forget that you learned and reinforced a ton of useful skills as an undergrad, and that, in fact, you're learning and developing new skills as a graduate student.

And it's even easier to forget that there are wonderful lives to be lived outside academics.

When you're in a grad program, there's a huge investment in doing that graduate program, emotional, temporal, financial. It's painful to get an A-, to worry about passing exams, jumping hoops, fellowships, teaching. Typically, you're spending your time at an R1 institution, amongst people who've never had a job outside academics, and who really can't imagine other possibilities. And some of those people are total jerks.

Here's what you should know:

1) Getting a PhD doesn't make you a good, moral, ethical, decent, smart person. Sometimes, it has the opposite effect. Look around: see those professors who are jerks? They probably have PhDs (or some terminal degree).

2) If you don't love teaching, get out while the getting's good. Relatively few people end up in R1s, and even those people make appearances in classrooms. (If you love teaching, there are lots of ways to be involved in teaching outside college and university settings!)

3) If the politics of academia make you miserable, leave. Heck, go join the administrative side and change things! (Maybe you can change things from inside as a faculty member, but I really haven't seen that happen except in very tiny ways.)

4) Yes, your work in [enter obscure subject here] is fascinating! But in the grand scheme of things, lots of other lines of work are fascinating. Face it, the person who collects garbage or trucks vegetables from farms contributes more to the basic living of people than most academics ever will.

5) There's a huge opportunity cost to spending 8 or so years earning a PhD, especially in the humanities where, for your labor, you're likely to get an entry level tenure track job starting in the mid 30-40K range.

So, if you're unhappy in graduate school, realize that you can leave, and there's no shame in leaving. Choosing to leave (or heck, even being kicked out of a phud program) doesn't make you a lesser person.

Sometimes, just realizing that you can leave will make it easier to stay. And you'll make the decision, and not just live in misery. Know also that you'll probably find a really good job (or jobs, or careers) outside academics, making a decent salary (probably more than in academics) and doing meaningful, good work. And, most people in non-academic jobs have a LOT more choice about where they'll live, and if that's important to you, that's important. (Not that I don't love winters... okay, I hate winters. Why can't my school open a campus in Hawaii?)

When I was in grad school, I knew a number of people who left our grad program for a variety of reasons, including the smartest grad student I knew. And I knew some great people who didn't get academic tenure-track jobs after they'd earned their phuds. And those people, to my knowledge, have fulfilling and interesting jobs and lives.

All those skills you learned as an undergraduate, all the additional skills you've honed doing grad work, all of those are actually meaningful in lots of jobs and careers. If you're not sure of that, go visit your local career center and start thinking about how you can explain how your skills help you contribute to an employer.

Make up a resume, and maybe even put yourself up for some jobs. It's good to have an alternative and to know that you have that alternative. Knowledge is power.


  1. I just wanted to second your point about grad school not being a prison sentence - i.e., it's optional not compulsory. Knowing that you can leave anytime it becomes obvious that it's just not for you is a very freeing realization!

  2. And yes: There IS a life outside of academia! I strongly believe that taking some time "off" between college and grad school is a very good idea, even if one is certain that one wants to go on to get a higher degree. It's a powerful reminder that grad school is optional, and that you could always be doing something else (and, perhaps, that you tried some of that "else" and found it wanting...).

  3. Funny thing is, most of your advice applies to medical training just as well.

    For the record, I love teaching and had always planned an academic career, but the politics nauseate me, so I will likely get a private practice job that involves teaching residents and fellows.

  4. Anonymous9:09 PM

    I wish I had read something like this a year ago. I left a Master's program in the humanities after two mostly miserable years. And now I have a job that, while it does not allow me as much flexibility, is fulfilling, interesting, and well-paying. It's so easy to look back at that time now and wonder why I did not leave after the first year. But when you're in the thick of it, it's sometimes hard to conceive that there's another world out there of things you can do too...and it's difficult to not feel like a complete failure when you leave, at least at first. Knowing there are other options is definitely empowering.

  5. Excellent advice, all around. Let me second the bullet point about opportunity cost, and suggest that cost itself is an issue, not necessarily in terms of tuition and fees, which are usually covered in funding, but with the massive loans that many have to take out to have a liveable income.

    There's been a lot of talk lately about student loans around the media lately, and work on the pedagogy of debt talks about the pervasive effects of debt on the US economy for so many undergrads. But if the scenario is more widespread for undergrads, it s more intense for grad students who often end up with six figures of debt to start on their modestly paying middle class careers, which begin 8 years after their MA-less friends have started paying off theirs.