Keeping Your Options Open in Grad School

Given the shittiness of the academic job market and the expense of higher education, common sense says that going to graduate school in the humanities is a pretty terrible idea.  Yet there are those of us who, for whatever reason, feel the need to go anyway.  For me, I think it was a combination of stubbornness, naiveté, and the fact that a Ph.D. in English has been a life goal of mine since 10th grade that led me to pursue graduate school and stick with it.  I don’t regret doing it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone.

That said, I think there is a way of approaching grad school without being taken for a ride.  There is much about the university-industrial complex that is dysfunctional, including a tendency to exploit the labor of wide-eyed idealists.  For every potential graduate student who thinks that living a life of the mind is more important than making a remunerative wage, there is a university willing to milk that person for 5-7 years of cheap (or free) labor without either guarantee of or preparation for a real job at the end of that period.  For every person who wants to be in academia sooooo baaaadly, there is a university happy to pay that person $20,000 a year with no benefits in a one-year non-renewable adjunct or “visiting” assistant professorship.

The key to not getting taken for a ride is to know where your interests lie, to decide from the very beginning what you are willing to sacrifice in order to get a Ph.D. and not sacrifice one inch beyond that point.  For me, it has meant deciding that wherever I land job-wise in the next few years, the Ph.D. was a worthy accomplishment in and of itself, a ridiculously huge bucket list item, if you will, and I refuse to see myself or my time in grad school as a failure if I wind up taking one of the less prestigious but actually pretty appealing alternatives to an academic career, like teaching high school or community college or running workshops on persuasive writing for a branch of the federal government (that is actually a real job, and it apparently pays really, really well).  I have, in effect, taken the words of perennial buzzkill Thomas Benton to heart:

Perhaps members of a generation that enters graduate school with no expectations of an academic position — who never even consider, for one moment, that they will become tenure-track professors — will bring about positive change in the way things are taught. Such students will be less beholden to advisers, and empowered to demand that courses have some relationship to existing opportunities. With an eye to careers outside academe, they will challenge the tyranny of the monograph; they might seek technical skills; they will want to speak to a wider public; and they will be more open to movement between academe and the “outside world” than previous generations, who were taught to regard anything but the professorial life as failure from which one could never return.

While I’ll be applying for academic jobs this year, I’m keeping my options open while doing so.  I’m trying to be a little bit entrepreneurial, a little bit mercenary about the whole thing.  I’m not pretending that money doesn’t matter, and I’ve laid out in pretty specific terms what I am willing to sacrifice lifestyle-wise in order to work at a university.  I am not going forward as if I can write my own ticket, but I refuse to be dazzled by the glamor of the MLA convention to the point that I’ll mortgage my life for the dream of playing in the NBA.

So what does an attitude like that mean for the way you approach grad school, and how can graduate students get through the experience without being psychologically and financially crushed?  If there’s one bit of advice that I could give prospective (or current) grad students, it would be this:

Graduate school is a job.  Don’t do it for free.

When I was applying to grad school in my senior year of college, I received two offers.  The first was from an elite Northeastern institution that wanted to charge me $20,000 a year for the privilege of learning and working there.  I kept their offer letter on my desk for a while, but ultimately I said no.  There was just no way I was going to go that far into a financial hole for this experience.  The second letter I received was from a less prestigious but nevertheless major public university.  They were offering 5 years of guaranteed financial support in the form of teaching appointments, including waived tuition, a living stipend, and state employee health benefits, with the possibility of two extra years of support contingent on performance and budgetary concerns.  I would never under any circumstances advise a prospective graduate student to settle for anything less.  Here’s why:

Graduate school is not worth a crushing debt load. I have a close relative who is now $150,000 in the hole thanks to college and law school debt.  His monthly payment is more than most people pay in rent.  Do not let this happen to you, especially given the earning potential of a fresh Ph.D. on the academic job market.  While even funded graduate students may require some student loans to meet living expenses, there is just no good reason to take out more in tuition loans each year than you will make your first few years as an adjunct or visiting assistant whatever.

Generous support packages indicate pretty good things about the university. As I quickly discovered my first week on campus, the generous support package was due to a strong history of collective bargaining on the part of graduate students and a faculty that “gets it” and is willing to go to bat for them.  The structured way in which graduate students progressed through their teaching appointments indicated a department with a savvy placement committee with a clear sense of what the job market required.  9 of the 12 people on the job market last year got full-time jobs at universities.  That is a ridiculously good record.

So that’s the first aspect of not doing this job for free, or more to the point, not paying for it out of your own pocket.  Once you’re in a program with decent support, don’t sign up for stuff that isn’t in your job description unless you’re making more money for doing it or there is a clear career reason for jumping at the opportunity.  Committee service and conference organization looks pretty good on a c.v., but it doesn’t look nearly as good as a finished dissertation or an article in a major journal.  If you want a shot at a job in academia, concentrate on the activities that are going to really help you:  writing, publishing, and teaching.  Everything else is extra.

I have, however, found that it can be both rewarding and beneficial to pursue paid work outside of your department.  In addition to teaching for English, I have worked as a research assistant in an interdisciplinary program without its own grad students, a freelance editor, a tutor in the Undergraduate Writing Center, a teacher in an outreach program working with underperforming high schools, and an application reader for an Honors program (that one paid ridiculously well, and I got to do it at home on my own time).  Each one of those represented two things:  1)  Extra income, which meant I could take a lower paying but less time-consuming job during the summer rather than teaching summer school in order to work on my dissertation.  I could also afford to go to 5 conferences this year.  2)  Exposure to alternative career paths in editing, writing center administration, high school teaching, and university admissions, and credentials in an interdisciplinary field.  I do not yet know if these are going to pay off in some way, but there is value in learning that you are good at things other than writing papers, that you can thrive in a variety of job situations, that there are, perhaps, other things you can see yourself doing after grad school.

There are, however, going to be numerous people at your university–administrators and faculty–who want you to do stuff for free, who will insist that it benefits you in some way to, for example, take on additional teaching and mentorship responsibilities with no extra pay.  Do not take these claims at face value.  Weigh your interests against theirs in the equation.  It is in their best interest to guilt you into doing more work for less money, to keep you around for as long as possible doing stuff for free and then paying them tuition when your funding runs out.  It is in yours to concentrate all of your energy toward finishing your dissertation, publishing stuff, and eventually getting a job.  While you can listen to advice from outside parties, you and only you can decide whether or not volunteering for extra stuff is going to be a good choice.

Finally, remember that leaving graduate school is not an admission of failure. In many cases, it is evidence of nothing more than unimpeachable common sense.  I know many people who left after the first two years for jobs that sound pretty awesome, and you are allowed to be one of those people, no matter what the bitter people who are determined to tough it out despite their misery or the shaming influence of a university-industrial complex whose interests are not aligned with yours.  When it comes to the decision to finish or not to finish, only one person’s opinion matters:  yours, not your advisor’s, not the department chair’s, not your parents’ or the people who attend your high school reunions.  If you come to the conclusion, at some point, that you would rather be doing something else or that you are the victim of a giant racket, GTFO.  Your career, your life in fact, is not a fraternity initiation procedure to see who can withstand something unnecessarily painful the longest.

Is this sort of depressing?  Ok, kind of.  But it’s important to know up front that graduate school can be a devastatingly disempowering experience, shockingly unlike college.  The difference is like that of a minimum wage worker at a retail outlet versus that of a customer at said retail outlet.  As a college student, the faculty and administration were collectively working together on your behalf. As a graduate student, you are a laborer–a laborer whose primary goal is to finish graduate school–and the key to having a rewarding experience is thinking of yourself as such, as someone who deserves to benefit from the work that you do.  Furthermore, if you are able to think of yourself as going to work every day rather than going to limbo, it can actually make the long run seem bearable.

5 thoughts on “Keeping Your Options Open in Grad School

  1. The commitment that I’ve made to myself is that, if I don’t find a job this year (I’ll be on the market for the first time), I will spend no more than one year as an adjunct. If the market doesn’t work out the second time around, then I have plenty of decent options with the federal government.

  2. Your blog posts this week about grad school and work are amazing. I am a graduate student trying to complete my PhD and decide how much of myself to give to the process.

    I simply want to say thank you.

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