Monday, October 31, 2011

71. The tenure track is brutal.

The more time that you sink into graduate school, the more invested you become in an academic career (see Reason 29), and the holy grail for job seekers on the highly competitive academic job market is a tenure-track appointment as an assistant professor. Unfortunately, an assistant professorship is only a temporary, probationary position that lasts a maximum of 5-7 years. Toward the end of that period, an assistant professor applies for tenure, which is (more or less) a guarantee of permanent employment. The requirements for tenure vary, but you are generally expected to have published at least one book (sometimes two)—a feat made ever more difficult by the realities of the academic publishing business (see Reason 34)—as well as a number of journal articles. Of course, you will also have had to have taught a full load of courses every year, performed your faculty service obligations, and done it all to the satisfaction of your students, colleagues, and administrative superiors.

What happens if you are denied tenure? You’re fired. That’s it. You may have a second chance to apply for tenure, but if you do not have tenure by the end of your probationary employment period, you will be cleaning out your desk and saying goodbye to your colleagues (who voted to fire you). By now you may be in your 40s, but you will find yourself back on the vicious job market, and with the stigma of having been denied tenure. At this point, you will likely have spent a decade in graduate school, perhaps a few years as an adjunct, and six more years as an assistant professor. And yet you will have been found unfit for the one job for which all of those years were spent in preparation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

70. It is unforgiving.

There are a few exceptional individuals for whom graduate school is a breeze, but the vast majority of grad students are regular people. In fact, most of them probably belong to a group described in 1903 by Harvard professor William James. In his prescient critique of graduate education, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” James identified those for whom an academic life is an end in itself. Because current standards are not what they were then (see Reason 5), the type of earnest-but-not-dazzlingly-brilliant student he described is now more likely to make it through graduate school (and even into an academic career) than would have been the case 100 years ago. Even so, graduate programs remain highly proficient (and efficient) at turning thousands of eager, hard-working people into “victims” who either drop out (see Reason 46), flounder for years (see Reason 4), or face underemployment (see Reason 14).

William James felt genuine sympathy for these graduate students, because he understood the seriousness of their situation. There is simply no obvious place to land if you stumble on the long, arduous road to an academic career. The term that he used to describe those left by the wayside was blunt: “social failures.” Remember that James had in mind the “failures” produced by graduate programs at Harvard; one can only imagine what he would say about those churned out by state universities. It is disheartening to consider what has not changed more than a century after James made his observations:

But there is a third class of persons who are genuinely, and in the most pathetic sense, the institution's victims. For this type of character the academic life may become, after a certain point, a virulent poison. Men without marked originality or native force, but fond of truth and especially of books and study, ambitious of reward and recognition, poor often, and needing a degree to get a teaching position… There are individuals of this sort for whom to pass one degree after another seems the limit of earthly aspiration. Your private advice does not discourage them. They will fail, and go away to recuperate, and then present themselves for another ordeal, and sometimes prolong the process into middle life. Or else, if they are less heroic morally they will accept the failure as a sentence of doom that they are not fit, and are broken-spirited men thereafter.
We of the university faculties are responsible for deliberately creating this new class of American social failures, and heavy is the responsibility. We advertise our "schools" and send out our degree-requirements, knowing well that aspirants of all sorts will be attracted… We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent…
The more widespread becomes the popular belief that our diplomas are indispensable hall-marks to show the sterling metal of their holders, the more widespread these corruptions will become…

If only he knew.


Monday, October 3, 2011

69. It is lonely.

In graduate school, you spend a great deal of time alone. Most academic work is the product of isolation. Studying, research, and writing are time-consuming solitary activities, as is the miserable drudgery of grading (see Reason 56). A longing for some sense of shared experience is probably what drives graduate students to coffee places, where they sit for hours in uncomfortable chairs, hunched over their laptops or over piles of ungraded papers. There, at least for a while, they can be in the company of others who are as alone as they are.

The loneliness of graduate school stems not only from the nature of the work, but from the way it alienates people from those around them. Much to their surprise, new graduate students discover that there is no intellectual community (see Reason 20) to mitigate the effects of their strange status on campus and in the wider world (see Reasons 30 and 37). They have no comfortable place in the social circles of either the undergraduates or the professors who surround them, and their relative poverty severely limits what they can do with friends who have regular jobs and incomes. The struggles and triumphs of graduate school are of no interest to friends and family members outside of academe. And graduate students themselves are so absorbed in their own work that they have little time or inclination (see Reason 2) to offer support to one other. Loneliness may be the single worst aspect of graduate-student life.