Notes for further revisions and additions to my old essay about whether graduate school is a good idea. Thanks to Paul Musgrave for helping me to think through some of these points, some of which involve the academic job market and others of which involve graduate school itself.
1) When I first wrote my essay and posted it on my old hand-written HTML blog in 2003, I was newly tenured and very inspired by conversations at the Invisible Adjunct’s blog. By that point, I’d only advised a relative handful of Swarthmore students about their plans to go into academia (looking back, it looks as if most of the folks who chose to go then have had good outcomes from that choice).
Now I’ve advised a lot more students and I’ve developed a deep frustration over my inability to reconcile two imperatives that govern my advice. Once I’ve delivered the basic warnings contained in my old essay and some of the cautions about how troubled academia is as a career, I move on to talking to students about more specific questions about what fields they might study, where they might apply, and so on. Sometimes I flat out tell a student that it’s a bad idea for them to go to graduate school, at least at this point in their lives. I’m usually comfortable if not happy about doing that. If I think there are no red flags and it’s possible that the student might find graduate school relatively congenial and have a decent shot at winning a good prize in the tournament, then we get down to brass tacks.
Here I hit the contradiction. Students who already have a commanding, mature sense of their academic interests and inclinations often are already thinking past or against disciplinary boundaries. Some of my smartest students with the best skills as writers and speakers are often practicing intellectuals in the best sense, combining ideas and methodologies from multiple disciplines. They’ve lived up to the ideal of a liberal arts education. I want them to continue being that way.
But now I have to advise them about what programs to apply to. Many of them are dissatisfied with disciplinary exclusivity. I hear from students who want to do ethnographic research but are also interested in studying the past, students who are interested in integrating theory from economics with qualitative sociology, students who want to do political philosophy but not as the discipline of philosophy or political science do them, students who want to combine film or media theory with some kind of media production but who don’t want to do an MFA or go to art school. You name it, there are interesting, well-reasoned combinations that I hear proposed, many of them founded in inspirational coursework students have done while at Swarthmore.
So I have to decide: am I going to carry water for narrower, more constrained, more territorial practices of disciplinarity that are governed from and set by the elite R1 institutions that have the Ph.D programs and cultural capital that my students are aspiring to? To be responsible, I should do so: I need to tell my students that they’ve got to make some constrained choices, give up some of their interesting ideas, conform. I should do that for pragmatic reasons, that this is what the next few years are going to be like (bowing the knee to the most controlling or authoritarian presences in their graduate program). I should do so maybe even because there’s a legitimate case to be made for getting a strong command of one disciplinary tradition under your belt before you mess around with several. (I’m less convinced of this now than I have been in the past, but it’s at least a legitimate discussion.) At the same time, I almost want to tell the students with the most creative and confident vision of their intellectual practice to just not go to graduate school, or to do graduate work in the one freaky program out there that would welcome their ideas even if it means they’ll be completely unemployable on the other end.
I know that some people will object and say that even the most odd-duck graduate program can find a place for its students. But honestly, I have been on the other side in way too many grant competitions, job searches, panel selections and so on. In a tournament economy with hundreds of highly qualified competitors, just one thing that irks one judge or evaluator is enough to knock you out of the race. If it’s a consistent thing, e.g., something that rubs up against an orthodox way of defining a field or discipline, it’ll knock you out of most races. It’s nearly impossible to convince most historians to hire someone whose degree is in anthropology and vice-versa. When the unlikely happens and someone from one discipline manages to infiltrate the redoubt of another, they’d better be happily oblivious to sniping and negativity, because I guarantee you they’ll have a constant background buzz trailing them wherever they go.
So as an advisor, do I carry water for a way of organizing the administrative and intellectual work of academic institutions? It’s the responsible thing for me to do, and offers much lower risks. But that’s the first step on the path to a lifetime of taking few risks in a career that offers protections that are intended to incentivize risk.
2) I’ve written before about how difficult it is to come up with intentional practices that help undergraduates acquire cultural capital, which I think is more important by far in social mobility than the content of the curriculum. For first-generation college students or students who have little familiarity with the hidden codes and assumptions of an elite liberal-arts institution, making it all transparent is absolutely critical. A student who loves literary criticism with a transforming passion but who has no idea how tenure works, where money comes from in a university, how scholars actually publish, what the big picture of disciplinarity is like, which famous literary critic is actually a notorious asshole, and so on, is heading for trouble at the exits if they decide to go to graduate school. This was such a classic pattern in the conversations at the Invisible Adjunct: people who wandered into the discussion still full of passion for some period of history, for some theoretical approach to social analysis, for poetry and fiction, or for the general idea of being an intellectual and so full of confusion and alienation about how little their graduate work seemed to resemble their romantic conception of what it should have been like. (Those heartfelt expressions have since been appropriated and bowdlerized in one strand of conservative ressentiment: check out Michael BÃ©rubÃ©’s latest at Crooked Timber for a particularly eye-rolling example.)
I feel this every time I meet a student who tells me he wants to go study with a famous scholar whose work the student has found inspirational and I gently have to tell the student that the scholar is dead, retired, doesn’t have graduate students, or is widely known as a monster to almost everyone in the field. Ok, sometimes you just don’t know these things. Sometimes I don’t know it any more either, because if you don’t train graduate students, you miss out on some of the cutting-edge gossip in various fields. But like as not, that first statement is going to be followed by other ones that tell me that no one has made anything transparent to the student until this very moment. Where I have to explain, for example, that a doctorate in political science is generally not seen as a great first step for a person whose main career objective is to run for elected office. That no one does simultaneous doctorates in microbiology, cultural anthropology and computer science except for characters in comic books. That you should expect to receive a stipend and a tuition waver if you’re admitted to a doctoral program and if you don’t, that this is a sign that they don’t really want you. That you don’t need to do a terminal MA first in one program as preparation for doctoral study. That there are no merit grants which fund more than a teeny tiny proportion of graduate work unless you fit some rare demographic blessed by an eccentric philanthropist, like being the child of an Orthodox Jew and a Quaker who would like to study medical anthropology in Patagonia.
And so on. All these little rules, ways of being, figures of speech. Most of them not at all defensible or rational, just the markers of a particular social habitus, of hierarchy. I can tell you which future graduate students generally already have the keys to the kingdom before they even start: the children of academics. Just about everyone else is likely to lack some crucial bit of insider knowledge that is important to flourishing. What makes this especially difficult is that so much of academic work both in graduate school and afterwards is inexplicit. I’m sure there are programs which are exceptions, but most of us were not trained to write (or interpret) peer reviews, letters of recommendation, grant applications. dossiers, paper presentations, and so on. You figure out by watching others, but if you have the bad luck to happen on the wrong template or guess wrong, at the very least, you’re heading for humiliation, at the worst for self-immolation.
So I struggle here too. Academic institutions endorse faculty diversity, but the conversation about diversity usually boils down to fixed identarian formulas, to improving the percentage of recognized groups, not to diversifying the kinds of experience (and passions) that professionals can bring to intellectual work. I feel intuitively that the generation of faculty just ahead of me, people from their late 50s to 70s, are more diverse in this sense if not racially so. I know considerably more first-generation scholars whose passionate connection to intellectual work got them into academia in that generation than in any younger cohort. The question is whether I should encourage someone who I think hasn’t been exposed to all the insider rules and codes to go on to graduate work. There’s no way I can make up for all that in one conversation or even several. The best I can do is tell someone bluntly that they’re going to be at a disadvantage and that they’ve got to do their best to break the code every chance they get. At the very least, you owe it to applicants to tell them about this problem.
3) I mentioned this above, but let me mention it again. With rare exceptions, no Ph.D. program that is primarily or exclusively aimed at an academic career is worth pursuing if the applicant is not given a tuition waver upon admission. Probably it’s not worth it if you don’t get some kind of stipend or support. (I’ll add by way of disclosure that I was not funded for my first year, but got funded by my second, though I had a waiver from the beginning. In retrospect, I should have gone with the offer where I was funded from the beginning, which might have been a better place for me to be in other ways.) Do NOT go into debt for a Ph.D. program that doesn’t have other well-paying career outcomes beyond academia. It is very easy to justify going into debt out of hope or even desperation, but this is some crushing stuff to overcome later on. People who tell me that it’s worth it to them because they love what they’re going to study so much, well, seriously, with an $80,000 credit card debt, you could buy a lot of books, pay for broadband, and live in a decent apartment in a city where there’s lots of free events with intellectual heft to them and maybe even find a decent job. That’s a better option both for consummating your love of intellectual work and for developing a career and life, really. A graduate program aimed at an academic career should admit you with no tuition obligation and support you with a stipend because in the end you’re going to save them money by being a cheap teacher.
4) One thing I’ve heard over the years (most recently from several people replying to my last post) is that graduate work has a way of pulling you out of your existing peer network and making your life feel very deferred or de-synchronized. Certainly one thing that I absolutely tell potential applicants is that by seeking an academic career, they need to give up on the idea of living in a particular part of the country that they prefer. There are many wonderful places that you could choose to live as a lawyer, doctor, psychologist, accountant, information technologist, etcetera, that you simply can’t choose to be as a professor because there are no universities or colleges in those places, or maybe just one. Your pre-academic friends, on the other hand, may be making all sorts of choices like that, not just about where to live but which will-o-the-wisp to chase. This is ok if one of your reasons for choosing an academic career is stability and predictability. But I talk to some students interested in graduate school whose self-image is that they are risk-takers, that they like change and dynamism, that they like the idea of being a professor but only if it’s being a professor IN BERKELEY or NEW YORK. This is going to cause trouble sooner or later. Relationships, life aspirations, a wide or diverse emotional range, are all structurally harder to work out if you’re a person chasing a tenure-track academic post via completion of a doctorate. This is something an applicant has got to understand in advance.