Monday, May 16, 2011

Poor Life Choices

Lately I have been thinking about graduate education in the humanities. Perhaps it would be a bit extreme to say that I have been having a moral crisis. Like St. Thomas, though, I sometimes have my doubts.

It’s not that I give credence to right-wing attacks on humanities research. Nothing drives me up the wall more than to switch on some local news story about an illiterate state legislator claiming that the humanities are irrelevant and a waste of tax payer money. I have written here and elsewhere about how critical an engagement with the humanities is for an informed and responsible citizenry, mostly to keep them from electing illiterate state legislators. Ethnic studies research also has a critical role to play as the nation’s demographics continue to shift. Ironically (in an Alanis Morrisette sorta way) it is at the very moment that companies and government agencies are desperate for individuals who can intelligently engage with minority communities, especially Latinos, that many universities are slashing their ethnic studies programs. I am looking at you, University of Texas system.

My concerns about graduate studies in the humanities are a bit more pragmatic. I have wondered about the wisdom of churning out armies of Ph.D.’s when the opportunity to land a traditional tenure–track position is becoming more and more remote. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" or something . . .

Do we have any ethical obligation to resist the temptation to admit graduate students when we know this to be the case? How do we balance that obligation with an equal investment in insuring that new research on critical topics like race, gender, sexuality, class, disability studies and other fields moves forward?

Sadly, I have no answers to these questions. Instead, I can only think about the type of advice that I would give to newly admitted Ph.D. students in the Social Sciences or the Humanities. Hopefully you already received some clear-cut guidance before you applied to these programs. If not, here are some things to consider as you start a new program. It might be harsh, but it’s only because I love you.

    1. Do not expect to get an academic job. Surely I can’t be the first person to mention that the academic job market is beyond miserable. A few very lucky folks land a coveted tenure-track position, but then a few lucky folks also win the lottery. Many others are placed into some mighty abysmal working arrangements as part of the adjunct machine. Universities and colleges, regrettably, know that they can acquire cheap labor and offer no guarantees because there is a surplus of Ph.D.’s on the market. Only you can decide if you want to work those long hours for minimal pay (and probably do without health benefits). It seems wiser, though, to prepare yourself to walk away from the t-t market. Consider obtaining an advanced degree as the opportunity itself. You have six years (or so) to really delve into topics that interest you. That is a luxury that can be enjoyed on its own.

    2. Learn to combat feelings of being an intellectual imposter. If you find yourself feeling like everybody around you is a bit smarter or has read more, don’t worry. They are all thinking the exact same thing. I won’t deny that admissions to a graduate program depends upon a range of subjective criteria. Nonetheless, you would be surprised by the level of consensus that usually forms around candidates during admissions. This means that you should rest assured that you are just as bright and capable as any other student in the program.

    3. Learn to combat feelings of being an intellectual superior. This is the flip side of number two. Indeed, many students vacillate between these two extremes. Graduate school can turn you downright bipolar. You have talents, to be sure, but they do not surpass those around you. It has seemed to me that once graduate students go down the path of hyper-ego their minds close faster than a vegan restaurant in Texas.

    4. Use the gentle cycle on the washing machine. Have you looked at your stipend recently? You better make your existing wardrobe last because there are no trips to the mall in your future. It’s either that or join a nudist colony by your fifth year.

    5. Remember that being a graduate student is a remarkably privileged position. This might seem hard to imagine given the brutal hours that you spend toiling away in the library. Nonetheless, you are now part of a tiny educated elite in this country whatever your economic or social class prior to admission. Estimates suggest that only 3 percent of the nation’s population holds a Ph.D. There are many mighty smart people who would have jumped at the chance to continue their education, but circumstances prevented it. This isn’t to say that the stress you feel is not real or that institutions can’t do better. Still, remember that you aren’t exactly shoveling coal for a living either.

    6. Avoid having sex with faculty members in your department/immediate field. In my time, I have been propositioned by faculty who outranked me and also by graduate students. I don’t mention this to make claims about my innate hotness (Although . . .), rather it is to suggest that such things are a common turn of events in the academic world. It seems to me if you are a woman or a gay man, your chances of fielding unexpected/unwanted advances are pretty high. For some gay men, it’s how they say hello.

    It might also be the case that you are occasionally dazzled by a faculty member who really pushes your buttons. Never, though, does it seem like a particularly good idea when there is such an obvious difference in power. Coming up with polite ways to decline is your best option.

    Feel free to have sex with faculty members in departments far removed from your own. If you are in the humanities, there is no reason not to take a tumble with somebody in civil engineering should the mood and opportunity appear. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

    7. Learn the metric system. Okay, this doesn't really have much to do with your success in the program. Still, it's embarrassing that the U.S. is far behind on converting to metric.

    8. Summers are not vacations. Take a poll of your department’s junior faculty and find out how they spent their summer months. Chances are you will hear things like “researching,” “writing,” “visiting archives,” or “field work.” If you hear the word “vacation,” generally it means they have dragged their significant other along with them in a simple attempt to appease them. “Yeah, I really needed to spend some serious time at the Iowa State Archive,” one might say, “so I took my husband and we made a vacation out of it! I don’t care what they say, Des Moines has lots of summer surprises.” By “vacation,” they really mean that their spouse got to spend time with them late at night and on the weekends when the archives closed. The spouse’s “surprise” was that they found themselves being a dedicated xerox operator the rest of the time.

    This is a window into the life of an academic, especially one who is early in hir career. The demands of the regular academic year generally permit only scattered time to focus on a research agenda. Summers become precious opportunities to really bare down and work. If you plan to spend the four months lounging around a pool without cracking an academic journal or book, save yourself some heartache and drop out of graduate school now.

    9. Tend to your personal life. Sacrifices will inevitably have to be made, but try not to let grad school take complete control of your life. Have plans to get married? No reason not to do so. I mean, you’ll still end up divorced eventually, so why not get the clock running now? At least this way you’ll still be relatively young when your first marriage goes south. Want children? Go for it (Although, as always, I would suggest that one think carefully about the larger environmental implications of producing another weapon of massive consumption). Don’t have a family plan? Rather frequent bathhouses? As long as you have an endless supply of condoms, I say make it a weekly ritual if that’s your thing. In other words, there is really not a reason to delay doing other things simply for graduate school. This doesn’t mean that you don’t still need to do the actual work, but I haven’t seen any reward come to those who put off their personal life.

    10. Keep an eye on the liquor consumption. It’s hardly an original story when one turns to gin when feeling a bit stressed out. I am not a teetotaler (trust me), but it is always well worth thinking about how much liquor you consume. Avoid the binges or drinking every day. Besides, it’s an expensive habit and that money could go to other extravagances – like protein. An ideal scholar ends up with a classroom building named after hir; a less than ideal scholar ends up with the boardroom at Tanqueray named after hir.

    11. Come to terms with the fact that you will not likely live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, or another of the nation’s great cities. Back in the nineteenth century, when most of this nation’s universities started, popular thinking associated cities with vice, pollution, and unhealthy living. To insure that young adults remained morally and physically in shape, the logic went, universities needed to be as far away from urban areas as possible. Better that they hang out with the cows. That was before the nation faced the epidemic of bovine gangs. Personally, I blame the alfalfa black-market.

    Now we reap the legacy of nineteenth-century discourse as most of us in the academic world live in small towns rather than metropolises. This, I think, is one of the hardest things that we have to come to terms with for this job, especially if you’re gay (where the number of other gay people is necessarily going to be quite small). I have no solution to offer, which is probably why Tanqueray named that boardroom after me.

    12. Learn how to communicate your ideas to a wide audience. There are good reasons to delve deeply into a particular subfield or methodology. Nonetheless, you’ll be taking your dissertation on a road tour before you know it. If you find yourself at conferences getting asked questions about your main argument (or, worse, not getting asked any questions at all), it’s not the audience’s problem. You have to know how to pitch things in a way that is approachable from a wider range of disciplines.

Keep your chin up. In the end, graduate school is mostly about sticking through it.


pacalaga said...

WOO. I am gonna go in to work this morning and quit my job and go to grad school! Oh wait. No nightly booze fests? Hmmm, maybe not. In all seriousness, most of your description, plus dirt, tents, scorpions and hot dry wind, are the reasons I got out of archaeology and into engineering in the first place. In most of the companies I've worked for, grad engr degrees are detractors on the resume.

Clio Bluestocking said...

"I don’t mention this to make claims about my innate hotness..."

Your innate hotness goes without question!

GayProf said...

Pacalaga: The dirt, tent, scorpions, and hot dry wind is why I opted for history instead of archaeology. The worst thing that could happen in an archive is that the a/c might be on too low.

Clio: I know, right?

Kendra said...

GayProf, I love you, your innate hotness, and the pic of WW and Superman. I'm sending this to all of my students and, since the advice is good for faculty as well, my colleagues. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Mel said...

What Clio said, naturally. Also, I still think there must be a place for GayProf in Boston. If not today, then someday.

Of course, even in the hard sciences there are grad school pitfalls. I think I ran up against every possible one my first go-'round, which is why I have fewer letters after my name than I ought for having spent nearly three decades in school. Still, the quest for knowledge goes on. If it can eventually land me a lecturer position in Iceland, I think I'd be fine with that.

Blake said...

Excellent advice. The one I always have trouble with is #1, especially when giving it to my own MA students as they contemplate applying for a PhD. It's just a wee bit awkward to tell people that they won't get t-t jobs when I have one. Even though the odds indicate that indeed they will not get one.

GayProf said...

Kendra: Many thanks for the linky love. It was toss up between Superman or Batman in a romantic moment with superheroine number 1. In the end, I figured I would rather make out with Superman.

Mel: The funny thing is that once you earn the letters, you rarely think about employing them.

Blake: It's a hard call. For my part, I don't think that I have ever suggested graduate school to a student. If they are interested, I also try to be candid about the lack of jobs. To me, it really is about taking it one step at time. Earn the ph.d. (if you desire) and then see what the options might be. I know that I have been mighty lucky with jobs, but I was also willing to walk away if I needed to do so. Indeed, if the whole tenure thing doesn't work out, it still might be the case. There are many ways for me to find job satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

" “Yeah, I really needed to spend some serious time at the Iowa State Archive,” one might say, “so I took my husband and we made a vacation out of it! I don’t care what they say, Des Moines has lots of summer surprises.” By “vacation,” they really mean that their spouse got to spend time with them late at night and on the weekends when the archives closed. The spouse’s “surprise” was that they found themselves being a dedicated xerox operator the rest of the time."

But my husband and I thought that was *exactly* how it was supposed to be! Don't tell him. Next we are going to exciting Pittsburgh!


Frank said...

A copy of this should be distributed to every student in America contemplating grad school! (But, of course, since every missive of yours, GayProf, is required reading for every student in America, that's just redundant.) Despite on the surface being the perfect candidate for professorship, in the end I opted not to go that route. I just wasn't willing to spend all those years and all that money for iffy job prospects in Deity-knows-where. The world just doesn't need my thoughts on Marie de France that much.

Oh, and are tumbles "with somebody in civil engineering" something you know from personal experience? Hmmmmm?

vuboq said...

#4 made me laugh.

when I was in grad school, I didn't really do research during the summer. but I had no desire to move on to the ph.d. Also, I am lazy.

also, grad school is not the place to land a rich husband. lesson. learned. ;-)

Sensible said...

Bwahahaha. Good advice indeed.

Recently I've had a number of conversations with non-PhD friends, and their stories of (other) folks with better (= more defined) hours and better incomes ($900/hr consulting for one orthopedic surgeon!) make me wonder about my own poor life choices. Clearly, I'm not in it for the money. I'm just sayin'.

GayProf said...

Dutchie: There is nothing like a tour of the rust belt to bring a couple together.

Frank: I would never take a tumble with a civil engineer. Well, at least not until I knew his name.

VUBOQ: Not working in the summer is a clear sign that a student just isn't that into it.

Sensible: Fortunately most of the friends that I had at college made similar decisions. Therefore I never had to hear about how much more money (and how much less debt) I could be making.

Susan said...

Great advice. I wish all my colleagues agreed. I'd even add to #1 for faculty: try to imagine what someone could do with a Ph.D. other than an academic job. It blows my mind how many of my colleagues think the only reason to get a Ph. D is to get an academic job. (Even more, it blows my mind that people think their students will have no trouble getting one, but that's another story.) The best thing we can do for our students is not see a t-t job at an R-1 as the only measure of success for our students.

Anonymous said...

This is excellent advice--for junior faculty as well as for grad students. Though, it assumes that everyone is making a reasoned choice when they decide whether or not to go to grad school. Believe it or not, that's not necessarily the case.

I know women who have basically fallen into it, attempting to escape abusive heterosexual marriages, hoping that it would somehow provide some relief for several years anyway. They couldn't see further ahead than their defense, if even that far.

And then there are those middle-aged people who lose their jobs or realize that there isn't much future in the field they are working in, or who haven't had much work experience to date and can't find a job and decide that grad school would be a good idea. I have encountered a number of folks like that.

Non-traditional grad students, in otherwords. They are often given even less useful advice than "mainstream" students.

Anne West said...

I wish I would have read this 5 yrs ago. I graduated last August. I'm coming to terms with the fact that I will be LUCKY to get an instructor position. I'm working on my plans B and C while intermittently balling my eyes out. However, the prospect of not living in the corn fields for the rest of my life is getting me through this crisis just fine.

I keep trying to tell my peers about the abysmal job market, but they just put their heads down and think that they are better than every other candidate and will surely rise to the top. So, I've cut down the communication with them (which was easy because they treat me like academic roadkill) and tried to get on with the business of cobbling together a life after putting everything into the damn ph.d.

I digress. I plan to share this with the few receptive folks I know. Thanks for writing this.

GayProf said...

Susan: For sure, I think that all of us in the academic world need to have a broader view of employment for ph.d.'s It's easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on the t-t job because all of us teaching grad students went that route. That doesn't mean there aren't other options out there.

Anon2: It's cool with me if talented students want to apply to grad school as a means to rethink other problems in their life. The main thing, though, is that their advisers need to be honest that they can't depend upon it turning into a t-t career.

Anne West: I'm sorry that the market is so abysmal. It sucks.

Like you, I have been surprised that some graduate students aren't aware how tough it really is out there. Early in my time at BMU, I was really taken aback by a small group of graduate students who had unrealistic ideas about the academic market. They imagined that they were so "exceptional" that they would easily land a t-t job. Not only that, some even told me that they would never bother applying for a job outside of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco because they didn't need to do so. They are all still unemployed as far as I know. I often wondered what color the sky was in their world.

tornwordo said...

They're hinting at the college that I might want to get a master's to enhance my career. I DON'T WANT TO and this post only reinforces that not-want.