If You Decide to Go Anyway


For your own sake, consider the 100 Reasons before committing yourself to graduate school. If there is no hope of convincing you not to go, here are three bits of advice:


1. Stay out of debt.

If you go to professional school (medical school, law school, business school, a school of education, etc.), you typically have to cover tuition and other expenses yourself. Students in professional school often have no option but to take out large student loans to get them through their degree programs. This makes sense only if you will graduate with a degree that will lead to a job with a salary high enough to make paying back your debt possible. For medical school graduates, this may not be a problem. For indebted law school graduates, the scarcity of jobs in the legal profession has become a crisis.

Graduate school, however, is different. In graduate school, you are not (ostensibly) being trained for a “practical” trade, but are instead becoming a scholar, undertaking the study of an “academic” subject for its own sake. This, of course, is nonsense, but it is the premise behind the idea that there should be generous financial support for graduate students (as opposed to professional students). Departments “fund” graduate students by giving them either fellowships (scholarships) or assistantships (jobs). You should NOT begin a graduate program if you have not been offered funding.

Some will say that being offered admission to a graduate program without funding is like being given a polite rejection, but universities will be happy to collect tuition from you if you are willing to pay it. No graduate program is worth the cost of tuition, especially if it requires you to go into debt. In reality, graduate school is professional training. It is training for a career in academe, and the academic job market is terrible (see Reason 55). Academic jobs are extremely hard to obtain and do not pay well, so if you go into debt for a graduate degree you are putting yourself at risk of being unable to repay that debt. Student-loan debt cannot even be discharged in bankruptcy.


2. Go to a prestigious school.

Where you go to graduate school matters. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this point. As everyone knows, there is a hierarchy of universities, but no one takes this hierarchy more seriously than academics (see Reason 3). There are so few jobs in academe that the competition for virtually every open position is a national (and often international) competition. Those with the best chance of securing employment are the products of the nationally (and internationally) prestigious institutions. There are very few genuinely prestigious universities, and almost all of them are private. They are the Ivies and the quasi-Ivies like Stanford and MIT. The number of genuinely prestigious public universities in the United States can be counted on one hand, probably on three fingers, and quite possibly on one.

The large, perfectly respectable public university in your area is almost certainly not one of them, even if it offers an enormous array of graduate programs with extremely competitive admission standards. The problem is that there are hundreds of universities just like it all over the country, together producing tens of thousands of graduate degrees every year. If you happen to earn your PhD at such a place, you will be at a severe disadvantage on the job market, where you will be pitted against people with degrees from the genuinely prestigious universities.

Be wary of characterizations of “prestigious departments” or “top programs” at universities that are not themselves highly prestigious institutions, and bear in mind that the prestige of an institution may have no relation to the quality of education that it provides its students. As far as landing an academic job is concerned, the prestige of your degree is more important than anything you learned in the process of obtaining it. If you are not admitted to a graduate program at a highly prestigious university, then you have all the more reason to ask yourself if a massive life investment in graduate school is worth it.


3. Finish as quickly as possible.

This is by far the hardest piece of advice to follow. Circumstances tend to conspire to turn what is already designed to be a long, slow slog into an even lengthier ordeal. Everything from unreliable funding to onerous teaching assistantships can slow down your progress through graduate school. But every year that you spend in graduate school is a year of opportunity costs. It is precious time in which you’re not earning a salary, you’re not establishing seniority in a career, and you’re not exploring opportunities in fields with better job prospects than academe.

Remember that you can quit graduate school if you don’t like it, but this is far easier said than done (see Reason 11) and it is better to quit after one year than after five or six. Even if you do finish a PhD, there is no guarantee that you will ever find an academic position for which your degree is a requirement. Minimizing your time in graduate school limits your opportunity costs, as well as your exposure to an environment that can be stressful, competitive, and deeply discouraging (see Reason 50).

There is no simple way to ensure a quick path through graduate school, but following the advice in Point 2 will help. The most prestigious schools tend to offer the most generous funding packages, which can serve to relieve you of the debilitating financial worries that complicate the typical graduate-school experience. You would also be wise to choose an adviser who keeps you strictly accountable (see Reason 45) and to start working on your dissertation long before you take your comprehensive exams. You will find it very hard to prioritize your own research and writing when you have job obligations involving students and faculty, but if you do not prioritize your own academic work, graduate school can drag on for many years.

94 comments:

  1. Wonderful, sound advice. Thanks, blogger. I wish I'd taken my "polite rejection" and burned it instead of saying "Wheee! I got in to Middling Reputation State School!" Now I'm gonna be stuck with gobs of debt if I wanna finish--all so I can adjunct in a discipline I hate. No thank you.

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    1. In the event that you need more convincing about how important prestige is when choosing a grad school...

      "Groupthink in Academia: Majoritarian Departmental Politics and the Professional Pyramid" by Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern

      Independent Review, Spring 2009

      http://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?a=731

      From the article:

      [Consider a conventional ranking of two hundred economics departments worldwide, where the top thirty-five are treated as the apex (Klein 2005, 143). In these top thirty-five departments, more than 90 percent of faculty received their Ph.D. degree from the same thirty-five departments; the top is almost entirely self-regenerating. According to the regression line, the department ranked one hundredth would have about 65 percent of its faculty from the top thirty-five. Departments farther down the pyramid are generally much smaller, so the top thirty-five departments train and mentor the people who populate most of the top two hundred departments. The profession, especially at the higher echelons, consists for the most part of people directly indebted to and personally loyal to those at the apex.

      Yet these results do not fully capture the domination by the top departments, which also have vastly disproportionate influence in regard to journals, grants, second-generation degrees, and so on (Klein 2005, 144–45). In sociology, for instance, Val Burris documents the extraordinary power that the leading U.S. departments exercise:

      Graduates from the top 5 departments account for roughly one-third of all faculty hired in all 94 departments. The top 20 departments account for roughly 70 percent of the total. Boundaries to upward mobility are extremely rigid. Sociologists with degrees from non–top 20 departments are rarely hired at top 20 departments and almost never hired at top 5 departments....

      The hiring of senior faculty by prestigious departments is even more incestuous than the hiring of new PhDs.... Of the 430 full-time faculty employed by the top 20 sociology departments... only 7 (less than 2 percent) received their PhD from a non–top 20 department, worked for three or more years in a non–top 20 department, and, after building their scholarly reputations, advanced to a faculty position in one of the top 20 departments. (2004, 247–49, 251)]

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    2. I wrote an article expressing very similar points to this about college not preparing you for a specific trade, which I guess is similar graduate school as well.

      "http://beyoubesure.com/2013/01/25/dear-college-what-next-prepare-us-for-reality/"

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  2. Which schools would be on the 3 fingers I wonder.

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  3. that's what I was wondering!!
    Blogger, please clarify. Here are some guesses:

    1. UC Berkeley (aka "Cal")
    2. Madison Wisconsin
    3. U of Michigan
    4. UCLA

    I'm/We're dying to know!

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    1. ummm...are you kidding?

      those four schools are most certainly not on the list of 3, or on the hand for that matter...that's my guess

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    2. He said "Public." According to the US News & World Report National rankings, the highest-ranked public schools are:

      Rank('13): School
      21. Berkeley
      24. UCLA
      24.(tie) UVA
      29. Michigan
      30. UNC-Chapel Hill

      And already, UNC-Chapel Hill doesn't seem to have the brand value of the others.

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    3. The ranking is differ for every field (and sometimes subfield). People may argue about 3. Vs 4. But among mainstream academics there is pretty good agreement (this comes with being socialized into the profession). And wen it comes job placemen the ranking of ones OhD program cannot be overemphasized.

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  4. You don't have to ask which public universities are prestigious. You didn't imagine that list arbitrarily.

    If I was forced to choose, I would say Michigan. Berkeley and UCLA compete with Stanford. Madison is like Michigan except it's not Michigan.

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  5. Top schools, Ivy league schools are Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, Stanford, Northwestern University - maybe a couple of others in addition.

    @Anonymous 12:00pm: #3 may make it, but the others definitely not.

    If my list of schools is wrong, please let me know.

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  6. whoa! ivy league schools are: harvard, princeton, yale, dartmouth, columbia, cornell, brown, and upenn.

    u of chicago, northwestern, stanford, mit, cit, etc. are all just quasi-ivies.

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    1. Thank you. I hate when people say schools are in the ivy league that are not and vice-versa. Stanford, MIT, etc are probably better / higher ranked / more prestigious at least in some fields than are some of the ivies, but that doesn't make them part of a sports league that they're not actually in.

      As for the original article, I sort of agree with the prestige comment but sort of do not...the fit really matters (where will you do your best WORK) and so does the prestige and overall quality of your primary advisor(s). The school's overall prestige value definitely matters, but it is much more inclusive than the author states. I've seen so many highly successful people in my field come out of public schools that wouldn't be in the top 5 but would maybe be in the top 15 (e.g. University of Iowa) and private schools that decidedly not in the ivy-plus category but are still somewhat prestigious (e.g. Boston University, Vanderbilt). And those programs they came from offered plenty of financial aid, etc.

      Also, as for "finish as quickly as possible," this is not necessarily the best advice, either. If 5 years is the standard for your field/program, there's no need to force yourself to finish in 3.5 or 4 if you have funding. If you have funding for a 6th year and a lot of momentum with your projects, you might as well hang around and build up your publication record, hitting the market stronger. I think this advice should have been "don't let the PhD drag out," but "finish as quickly as possible" is a little crazy.

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  7. @Anonymous 10:28pm

    Yes, you're right, those are ivies and are quasi-ivies, but they are top schools and worthy of consideration.

    Either top school or cheap, is the way to do it. Avoid student loans like the plague. Student loans are slavery.

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  8. I think there are some sound "reasons" on here, but they can mostly be summed up to "don't go to graduate school because it's hard." Couldn't one come up with "100 reasons" not to pursue any and/or every profession/pursuit? I think it really just comes down to whether you want to do it or not, and whether you're willing to stick it out.

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    1. Granted, Grad School is hard--but that "hardness" has a certain uniqueness to it, that is difficult to find outside of Graduate School. It's a very good idea to know what you are facing before you decide to go in, and if you do decide, it's nice to be prepared for them. As I've seen from the comments, these reasons have also given Graduate Students "Aha, so that's what's wrong!" moments, that have helped them get out of poisonous situations.

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    2. Adding on - 'hard' meaning that 30% or fewer complete their degrees. And this is of good people. Even allowing for some people who shouldn't have been there, the success rate for the good people is 50% at best.

      Hard - in that it's 5-7 years of a rather difficult life. During that time your are paid rather little, very vulnerable to abuse, and restricted to one location.

      Hard - if you finish your degree, and it's from a school which is in the top small slice of your field, the odds of getting a real job in your field slim.

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    3. Ryan - NeuroscienceOctober 2, 2012 at 10:01 PM

      I agree with this... but the real question is, what about if you have a true passion for something like the hard sciences. Besides working a menial job as a lab tech or similar, the options for something that you care about are virtually nonexistent. I am in a PhD program now and can relate to much of this, but I think a good chunk sums up to it not being for people who don't actually have a passion for their work.

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    4. Anonymous October 11, 2012, is grad school free as well? I know many European countries provide free education until the first degree...

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  9. I would also add:

    1) Fully vet future advisors. Have their students have been successful in obtaining tenure track positions? Look at their publications. How have they dealt with co-authorship?
    2) Learn some time management skills. Buy a book or attend a seminar.
    3) Learn to write every day. Stick to a writing schedule.
    4) Approach the search for a thesis topic/advisor with the same mindset as the search for a spouse. Grad school has a similar impact on life.

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    1. to (4): It really is like that, but don't actually look for a spouse in an advisor. When I was in rotations, I had these moments of 'clicking' with a potential advisor, and was mixing it up with feeling attracted to this person vs. feeling that this person was just the right advisor for me. It's hilarious to think about in retrospect because it can be such a fine line to walk.

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    2. So glad to know it wasn't just me! I had a major crush on my Ph.D supervisor, but like you pointed out, it was more to do with feeling he was brilliant and a great guide through the process (as a supervisor) more than anything else... Thank God I didn't try anything inappropriate or stupid!!

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  10. This is generally good advice, through I would stress that everything varies by discipline, so the weight of one or another factor depends. For instance, in sociology, there are top departments that are more "prestigious" than their university; and their very prestigious universities that everyone in sociology knows don't have great sociology graduate programs. So at least in sociology, you should consider the "prestige" of the program as much, if not more, than the university as a whole. To take an example, sociology programs like Arizona or Indiana are more highly ranked their universities, and even more highly ranked than some Ivy League universities. So if you come onto the job market in sociology with an Indiana or Arizona PhD it can be just as good if not better than a sociology PhD from certain Ivy League universities.

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    1. Oh my. Sociology ain't so special. I know, I'm about to leave it. My program loves to boast about how highly we're ranked in various subfields. Really? Then how come our graduates get jobs only in SLACs in the hinterlands, if at all?

      I'd say that the "everything varies by discipline" advice may be most true of the arts, where an MFA from Iowa still comes in at #1 (or Cal Arts for animation, USC for film, etc.)

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    2. This is good advice. In my discipline, the top grad programs (currently placing students in top jobs) are at institutions otherwise best known for their NCAA sports. If you don't have an advisor who can tell you for sure what the best programs are in your field, you're not prepared to go.

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    3. Or fire up google. In an hour or so you should have a good idea of the rough ranking of PhD program in you field (and every ranking is rough ). But it is still very real. It can make or break your future

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  11. The most important factor is really placement. How successful have graduates from this program been compared to graduates from other schools? That information captures a lot of other important information such as program quality, prestige and expected job market outcomes. In Economics, for example, Minnesota places far better (and has a more respected program) than ivies such as Cornell and Duke. The university isn't anything special, but career outcomes from a PhD at Minnesota are very very good (comparable to Yale). So, it's not just school prestige, but program prestige - especially for academic jobs.

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    1. It is not always easy for someone (especially a naive undergrad-- which we all were once) to obtain accurate placement data. Don't take too much on faith. If a program's recent placement record is poor, it is not in their interest for you to know it.

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  12. Overall good advice but of course every individual experience will differ. I finished grad school in two years, attended a prestigious (yes it was private) university, but didn't receive funding until my second year. Therefore, I went into debt. I still believe it was worth it even though I no longer work in academia. I may not "need" my master's degree for what I do, but I didn't attend grad school for anyone but myself.

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    1. You hit the nail on the head. Anyone who goes to grad school to study an "academic" subject better be there for more than just a career.

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    2. I'll go one better. Anyone who goes to grad school to study ANY subject better be there for more than just a career.

      Doesn't matter how "practical" it is. Doesn't matter what the claimed demand is, either. The bottom keeps falling out for too many people who have done their best to plan responsibly.

      The best advice I can give is, study something that you can turn into a business (or better yet, multiple businesses) by yourself, with a minimum of available capital and a minimum of investment of anything except your own sweat equity. DO NOT make the mistake of studying something that is dependent on someone else (employer, overpaid HR dimwit, subsequent school, investor, etc.) to see the value of. The rules have changed, and most of us are on our own.

      Other than something you can pursue as an enterprise, study that which will reduce your expenses and your dependence on others - how to grow and prepare food, household mechanics, hunting, trapping, house repairs, plumbing, construction. "Home economics" is a set of subjects that is woefully neglected in the US, unlike, for example, Japan. At least the unemployed Japanese kids can always darn their own socks and prep their own meals, but the unemployed American kids will probably wind up having to buy theirs.

      When it comes to banking and investment, at the risk of sounding paranoid, I put it to you that there is nothing that you can invest in that cannot be taken away. Not one thing. I have no solution to offer here except to advocate support for the protection of property rights, to advocate changes in the tax code, to advocate a return to the rule of law and broader recognition of the harm of administrative fiat, and to promote the notion of transferable skills, the abandonment of which has relegated the educations of so very many people to the scrap heap. The best bet in any case is diversification of one's assets - just remember, your assets are not protected by anything other than your diligence, and that includes your education.

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  13. I take an issue with the third bit - finish as quickly as possible. There are real costs to finishing to quickly once you step onto the job market. If you are out in five years, while median time to graduation is eight, you are likely to find yourself competing with people with longer CV's and more extensive professional networks. I'd say, don't rush it, you might regret it. An extra year of graduate school could be of great advantage when it comes to racing for tenure.

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    1. Reply to Anonymous, 11:53:

      I've heard that "don't rush to finish at the expense of publications" from a number of graduate students in my own department. I'm sorry to say that it is not only mistaken, it is a false choice.

      I am currently on two hiring committees at a mid-level school, and we have dismissed out of hand recently graduated candidates who took 8 years to complete a PhD, regardless of their publication records. Committees are trying to avoid anything that smells like slow progress and possible problems at tenure time, and slow completion of the PhD makes a candidate seem risky in that regard.


      Sorry- in keeping with the tenor of the blog, I'm telling you how it is, not how it should be. The standard is both quick completion and publication. If you need some extra time to publish, the place for that is a postdoc.

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    2. I don't think that is universal.

      I am a student rep on the hiring committee of my department (top five in a social science) and we have dismissed a couple of candidates out of hand because they took only five years. Six to eight is the gold standard for quantitative researchers, but we do not penalize qualitative candidates up to about ten years to degree, especially if they did international work & managed to publish a couple of books while they were working on their degree.

      As I said, I am sure this is extremely institution and discipline specific. I only want to point out that this is not necessarily "how it is" everywhere.

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    3. There was recently a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on this topic and the upshot was that many hiring committees ARE favoring folks who took longer and have more pubs. Obviously not universally, but it's a trend.

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    4. There are people who finish in a hurry AND publish like crazy. It's not really an either/or. If you want a job, be one of those people.

      #2 still betters #3. All else being equal, the Yale PhD who took 8 years is going to get the job over the Michigan PhD who took 5.

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    5. This is a trade-off, cost-benefit analysis. You aren't getting any younger. And taking an extra year to write papers doesn't giantess any publishable papers. If you take noticeably longer than average noticeably more. ( by way of publications) to show for it

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  14. You say that completing a phd doesn't mean you'll find a job that requires one and that is a reason not to go to grad school. That is beside the point because many jobs that don't require a phd will still prefer to hire a job candidate who does have that credential. We're in an academic credential arms race with each other and there are not enough jobs for every one who is qualified. ...so, we try to become overqualified.

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    1. There is virtually no evidence for this. None.

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  15. As someone who is glad to have a PhD in mathematics, but didn't want to stay in Academia after obtaining that PhD, I would like to endorse these items. In particular, it can be rather distressing to have gobs of student debt, of which the monthly payment is almost as much as you pay for rent, but you don't pay anything because you can't afford to (perpetual deferment is that best friend who will stab you in the back with interest payments).

    And I got those gobs of debt after accepting a fellowship--so be aware that, even with a fellowship, it's still awfully tempting to get loans, especially when the fellowship won't necessarily cover all your cost-of-living expenses.

    I'll also say this: #2 is crucial only if you plan on staying in Academia; of course, as far as I've seen so far, having a PhD in Academia is pretty worthless. Thus, if you want to learn the material, and if you're seeking a higher degree for better pay (eg, if you're a public school teacher), #2 won't matter so much. But, by all means, keep out of debt and get it over with quickly!

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  16. I'm still on the fence about Grad school, but I definitely am going to wait at least a year after undergrad to clear my head and save up money. I also worry that I won't be able to do #3, because as prolific of a writer as I can be when I'm on my A-game, I usually now try to engage in various social justice actions while working a job at the same time, which makes finishing quickly in the harsh environment of Grad school seem absurdly intense and nigh impossible.

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    1. If you are a good writer, engaged in social justice activities, and an autodidact who loves to teach and learn, you might find grad school a soul crushing experience. I actually look back on grad school with very fond memories, but I remember feeling crushed that it wasn't the open minded, free spirited, social justice oriented environment I hoped it would be. I was in two departments for my program - one of them was a really humdrum, suburban parent environment, and the other one had a lot of cool people but they weren't interested in much of what I was in.

      I did meet some amazing people in grad school who shared my beliefs and opinions, but that was just chance. I've met just as many great people in my non-academic jobs since grad school. Just be prepared for the fact that grad school is primarily designed as training for a life in academia, and not anything else. It can be very hierarchical and judgmental. Look for volunteer or paid positions at non-profit orgs if you want to find some people who do social justice work for a living.

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    2. absolutely - the way grad students brandish their jargon (at least in the humanities)! it's pathetic and amusing at the same time. i have seen VERY few people with the ability to retain their independence and creativity in grad school.

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  17. By the by, I'm wondering if you can maybe offer some alternative paths to graduate school? I'm a philosophy student and I love learning and teaching, but I really don't know where else I'd do this outside of the academy, other than teaching at free skools.

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    1. When you've been a student your whole life, it can be hard to imagine any other kind of life. You can stumble into grad school because it seems like the natural next step. It sounds comfortable. It might even be comfortable for the first couple of years, before you realize the mess you're in. Grad school eats people alive.

      Don't make the mistake of thinking that you can't have a stimulating intellectual life outside of the academy. Don't finish college and then work for a year at a coffee shop while you send out grad school applications. Go out and get some kind of challenging professional employment, even it's entry level, and then give yourself some time to adjust to it. You might hate it, or love it, or something in between, but give real life a chance.

      Every industry, company, government agency, and non-profit needs smart people and good writers. If you're humble and open-minded about the kind of work that you're willing to do, you can get your foot in the door somewhere. There are plenty of unemployed PhDs out there looking for the kind of opportunities that are open to people just getting out of college.

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    2. Try teaching English abroad. It can pay fairly well, and will give you some good life experience! Check out EPIK or Jet. Both programs are suited for undergrads from English speaking countries to teach kids in Korea or Japan. I know several people who have done it, and all have said it was a rewarding experience. Many people even build careers teaching English around the world.

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    3. Teaching English abroad as a career? These are careers without advancement, that start to become very difficult to continue around age 47. Usually there's no health or retirement plan.

      Teaching English abroad is not a resume enhancer, not even if you've bothered to study the language while there. This was even true when it was comparatively rare.

      You CAN put away a few thousand bucks every year, and one used to be able to do that with comparatively few class hours (say, 12/week). With the explosion of interest in teaching abroad (because nobody can find a decent job at home), and the growth of online learning, you can't do that anymore. However, Uncle Sam and local authorities are cracking down on tax evasion. You'd be surprised what Uncle Sam considers tax evasion, but someone's got to fund that ca.1788 French farce that's taking place in Washington D.C. today. Oh, and good luck finding a foreign bank that wants the hassle of dealing with the IRS if they so much as take you on as a customer - it's the shoebox under the bed for you. In South Korea you might get two years of income tax-free vis. Korea.

      Years ago an expat observed that all things considered, the best thing to do was to start your own school. Today, here comes Uncle Sam, who has to pick your pocket over and over again just to cover the new expenses of his largely Democrat aristocrat class - and is not above abusing his authority and violating the law to do so.

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  18. If I have a passion for a field that amounts to fanaticism, eschew getting married and starting a family, and am guaranteed full funding, is grad school for me?

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    1. Possibly.

      "Full Funding" is a slippery term, something you'll realize when you're denied food stamps based on your "student" status.

      Also, you're going to want to disabuse yourself of the notion that the majority of your time is going to be spent immersed in free intellectual engagement with your field. Your day-to-day experiences are more likely to be:

      A) Dealing with students fulfilling GenEd requirements and trying to whine their way out of attendance and work via e-mail.

      B) Negotiating the tricky advisor situation. Even when it's good, it's not that good.

      C) Teaching meetings. Hours wasted, nothing real accomplished. No connection to your field, unless your field is pedagogy. In which case, you'll quickly become frustrated that none of your co-teachers cares.


      If you're that fanatical about your field, read the relevant texts on your own time while working in the real world. Take advantage of the nights and weekends you WOULDN'T have in graduate school to explore the field. Attend conferences regularly (nationwide), and write a couple of scholarly articles a year on topics in your field. Keep them in a personal diary, and be sure to follow the major journals of your field.

      If you're not fanatical enough to do that outside of graduate school, your fanaticism alone isn't enough to justify going. And you're welcome to stay single in the real world, as well. Even if you don't want marriage, graduate school makes forming healthy relationships (romantic or otherwise) all but impossible. The time commitment, the narrow focus, the poverty, the socialization into a group that speaks, acts, and thinks in a way that puts most people on the defensive...

      Graduate school may be for you -- but it's a matter of personality and character, rather than raw material. You might have the makings of an academic, but remember that there's a very good reason that not everyone with a slim build runs marathons. It just isn't for most people. And it's really bad for your joints.

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  19. Grad school can enhance career prospects if the student also keeps the career in mind. Doing a five year Phd may be crazy, but doing a one or two year Master's helps to reduce the level of competition from the massive undergrad field. However, I would advise that students should keep one foot in the professional world throughout university, and take some time to work professionally even prior to doing any Master's if possible. Only the combination of a good education, and professional work experience really helps to create a profile which stands out a little bit from the masses. My two cents. That being said, half the students pursuing undergrads would be better off pursuing a trade, because unless your highly competitive in almost any program, you are wasting time and money. If you spend more time at toga parties and keggers, this probably applies to you.

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  20. I think you should differentiate between an M.S and a PhD. Most of your complaints about "grad school" don't hold up for a sharp little 2-year M.S. program. I'm 1 year in, and I've already differentiated myself from all the undergrad scrubs that sleep through the labs I T.A. I also get a decent stipend for it, and as an alumni my tuition is free. What's not to love?

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    1. It's a little scary that you made it all the way to grad school without learning that "alumni" is plural. Your tuition waiver probably has nothing to do with the fact that you're an alumnus. That's part of the standard compensation for a T.A. at most schools.

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    2. Actually, your insulting comment is one more reason to add to the list of reasons to avoid grad school; one can avoid pretentious snobs that have to try to appear smart by trying to make others feel dumb to feel good about themselves. Can't stand people like you.

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    3. Agreed with soshdog on this one. You gained nothing by your insight, and your entire blog seems premeditated on keeping yourself inside of a tiny bubble. Have fun living in a world where the only small joys you can find in your petty, miserable existence are making snide, rather dull insults against people on the internet.

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    4. Disagree with "ubiquitousnewt" - M.S. programs can be every bit as bad as PhD programs and sometimes worse.
      Tactics used by bad M.S. programs to extend time-to-degree:
      1) Use incompetent profs. to teach core and required subjects. Repeat for maximum impact.
      2) Use foreign profs. who can't even ask the time of day intelligibly to teach difficult, recondite topics requiring highly precise communication.
      3) Change degree requirements - make the changes retroactive.
      4) Cherry-pick each student's applicable courses for degree after the student's already taken the courses to be discarded.
      5) If student is a TA or RA, make sure (s)he doesn't get a workspace, desk, or workstation.
      6) If student is a TA or RA, change his/her work hours during the semester. Repeat for maximum disruption.
      7) Change lecture/lab meeting times during the semester, but after the add/drop period.
      8) Allow TAs to grade graduate work of peers.
      9) After an assignment is given and collected, retroactively cancel certain items and/or increase grading weights on others.
      10) Every project will be a GROUP project - this helps ensure that some capable students will be taken down with their less capable (or even lazy) group partners, and get ground down as it's happening.
      11) Use "secret" materials (textbooks, articles, websites) to be divulged to some students but not others - then grade on access to these.
      12) Increase degree requirements, and make the new requirements retroactive.
      13) Allow cheating. Honest students will be bewildered and turned off, but they've got more 'skin in the game' - so they'll persist even as they're being demoralized.
      14) Allow plagiarism. Make sure it is known that some students are immune from prosecution for plagiarism - the effect will be the same as 13).
      15) Allow faculty targeting of students.
      16) Allow student targeting of fellow students.
      17) Deny reasonable parking access to students.
      18) Keep students from taking comprehensives while material is fresh (for maximum effect, delay until there is faculty turnover in one or more areas of coverage).
      19) Cherry pick comprehensive exam subjects - do not allow students to take exams in their focus areas.
      20) Reduce/delay access to scholarship/aid resources.
      21) Deny access to library resources. This is especially effective with required materials on reserve that somehow never become available.
      22) Have post-hoc assessments of the acceptability of course offerings, then do not allow some course offerings to be used towards the degree.
      23) Conversely, require courses that are not offered. Repeat for maximum disruption.
      24) Delay payment for work done by students on behalf of the department or university.
      25) Offer courses without any real expertise, make the students find their own materials and teach themselves, then grade them on what they *should* have studied about the topics.
      26) Every question from the spectacularly obscure aspects of the discipline to those with answers informed by experience, to those involving extraneous practical matters (e.g. setting up the workstation to use the lab printer, or troubleshooting some arcane bit of university bureaucracy) should be met with, "Look it up yourself." Repeat frequently enough and eventually students will have lost a whole semester through loss of time, misconceptions formed and mistakes made.
      27) Nickel-and-dime TAs and RAs in the performance of their duties - make them pay for almost everything they need to do their jobs.

      Remember, it's all about the university maximizing profit and getting the most it can out of its captive customer base!

      Delete
  21. I would add a fourth essential item to this list. That is: pursue every professional developmental opportunity you can while you are in grad school. Internships, co-op terms, writing workshops, field schools - the kinds of things that provide opportunities for professional development outside of the traditional university setting.

    Having these types of experiences and skills will prove vital if you end up having to pursue non-academic lines of work, which the vast majority of us end up doing due to the abysmal academic job market. Despite what your advisor or other professors will tell you about the marketability of a degree, very few places will hire you merely because you have a MA or PhD. The skills that employers want -- things like business writing skills, the ability to write for a public audience, facilitating meetings, supervising staff, etc. -- they aren't built into most degree programs (esp. the humanities). Even if they were, you wouldn't be able to convince employers of it because most academic experience is seen as one and the same outside of the ivory tower.

    As a non-academic employer myself, I can tell you that putting down "critical skills, "analytical prowess", etc on your resume will get you nowhere with non-academic employers. These are vague and meaningless things to anyone not in the academic stream, no matter whether you have a PhD behind your name or not. Employers want applied skills and demonstrated ability and the closest you can get to acquiring these things (aside from working part-time in a non-academic field while you are completing your studies, which I too don't recommend) is by doing the kinds of things I mention above.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I call BS - not to be combative, but it's just not my experience after over 20 years of American "job market" stupidity.

      Most employers just want young, stupid, and cheap. Pretty helps and easy helps also. Otherwise only those with directly applicable experience within the excessively limited parameters of HR's asserted requirements need apply.

      The crash is coming and the industrial West will be sorry.

      Delete
  22. You nailed it, Author.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I think all prospective and current graduate students should read this latest article from Inside Higher Ed:

    The Myth of Ivy Advantage by Karen Kelsky
    http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/08/22/essay-assumption-only-elite-university-phds-land-jobs

    ReplyDelete
  24. Hello All,
    I need advice. I am confused I am going to grad school, but not a fancy PH.D program. I originally was going to law school, but I don't enjoy reading legal material and I secretly hated mock trail lol. I back out at the last minute because the potential debt and lack of employment terrified me. My whole centered on becoming a lawyer someday so I felt lost. One of my professors asked me to speak on a panel (loved it), lead tutoring workshops, and I got a tutoring job on campus. After all this in one semester I decided to become a teacher. My famiy and friends are disappointed that I will not be some hot shot lawyer, and it is hard seeing people you love seem so disappointed in you. I am naturally good at teaching/creating.

    I love the arts. I like critical theory, literature, photography, paiting, blogging etc. I want to travel while providing for myself. I have a friend that is teaching English abroad while completing an online masters in secondary education at Grand Canyon University. I thought I would do the same. I am currently in my second class online and I want to transfer to small state school. The state school's Master of Arts in Teaching English is one year, ends with teacher certification, and will cost about $12,000 to complete. I don't feel like I am truly earning anything because the online program is really easy. Now, I'm thinking I should transfer to the state school then apply to teaching positions abroad. I need the master's degree to teach in my state. I have a liberal arts degree and I feel it is useful but it seems employers do not. I am single, child free, late 27 years old, and I have about 30,000 student loans with no credit card debt. I want to complete graduate school by the time I am 30.

    I am thinking I want to transfer to the state school this summer, finish it in a year, and then go teach abroad for year and then come back to the states to become an adult just in time for my 30th birthday.

    At the end of the day I just want a job that I don't hate, I need to be able to live and pay back loans, and have time to live my life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Get out of Grand Canyon University and get into a state school in your state. Likely the tuition will be much lower. The connections you make while in graduate school are important in getting employed. You really need to ask yourself where do you want to work and what are the job prospects there.

      Teaching English in foreign countries pays 9-12 bucks an hour, and the living conditions can be hellish. If you want to teach in public high schools, etc. you should probably just stay in the US and go to work. Make sure that you are all squared away with your licensure requirements in your state if you want to teach in public school, etc.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the reply!! I'm going to a state school.

      Delete
    3. Look, whatever you do, don't go to the state schools in your state. Although NAU might be OK, ASU is a real shower of shit and U of A may not be much better. Move to another state if you want to go to public university.

      Delete
  25. #1 is essential. #2 is overstated. Search committees are honestly not stupid, and know the current reputations of "prestigious" and "non-prestigious" schools, and they also read the cv below the first line (as well as your rec letters.) More important is that you go to a school where you know other people had jobs. (I'm at the same Ph.D. program as my undergrad advisor, who got a job at a prestigious Northeastern private school.)
    #3- I agree with the other commenters. It's not that you finish as quick as possible, but that you are always working towards improving the c.v. while working on the dissertation through publishing, conferences, etc.

    The most important thing that I wish would be said: go (for the doctorate) if You Can't Imagine Living Without Being in Grad School. By this, I don't mean for prestige, professional reasons, or boredom. There is a topic and you need to study it, and your life would be much less worth living if you weren't. And if you fully realize the positives and negatives about grad school, you realize what masters and doctorates are for, and you are able to work in that weird mix of independence and institutionality, then you should be in grad school.

    ReplyDelete
  26. #1 and #2 are pretty U.S.-specific, isn't it? In my country higher education is free, and almost all prestigious universities are publich...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. the entire blog is US-specific.

      Delete
    2. Well good for you. Than why doesn't your country solve all of the world's problems? Why does everyone in the world leave it to the USA to fix the wars and problems. Shut up Anonymous October 11, 2012, and do something to fix the problem.

      Delete
    3. Anon Dec. 3, 2012 at 8:32 PM, because the US solves all the world's problems.

      Delete
    4. To Anon 10/11/2012 2:45 PM and Anon 12/02/2012 3:29 PM:
      #1 and #2 are not US specific - in fact all three issues pertain to countries other than the US, including the PRC, where problems involving education debt and graduate unemployment are mushrooming.
      Yes the blog has a US focus, it is written almost entirely in English, and it would appear that most of the participants are from and in the US.

      To Anon 12/03/2012 and Anon 05/29/2013:
      The US does not solve all the world's problems and it certainly creates some. It does appear, however, to have done better at addressing the world's problems than any other nation to date, and has expended considerable resources and lives to do so, at high cost.

      Delete
  27. Great blog, I'll post it on the face-book. So we are all screwed. I've decided not to go to grad school, since my BFA in graphic design from a state college is worthless. That is the pay is about 8.00 dollars an hours because everyone and their dogs have that same degree be it from any school. I wish someone would have told me that Art and Design and theater are worthless degree's and that I would have been better off working at Wal-Mart at age 16 than spending several years getting a BFA going to college. It has not only has placed me in debt, but has given me a worthless expensive piece of paper which to this day has not earned me any money. When will this college bubble burst? Will everyone feel as rejected and vulnerable as me? Will the media stop reporting BS results of you will earn more money with a degree than without? I doubt it and the next generation falls victim all over again. I really do hate art and how their are no jobs that pay over 8.00 dollars for the work, and if it wasn't bad enough artist are giving everything away for free in hopes of getting more clients or jobs, to quote craiglist user " It would be your privilege for you to take pictures of me at my wedding for your portfolio." What is wrong with our society, the bride doesn't even want to pay photographers any money for their work? It's our privilege to take her portrait? I called just to see if anyone had taken her up on her offer of free labor and yes three stupid artist photographers showed up for the wedding. The art community is driving it self into a grave, and the world doesn't deserve free artwork and that bride makes me sick. And shame on all artist for working for free, you're destroying the art world one project at a time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. amen. as someone with a BA in graphic design, apping to a humanities phd program, i am completely screwed.

      Delete
  28. Thank you for the tips! It is true that even as graduate students we need to be aware of these unfortunate circumstances. In a flailing economy we cannot simply believe that it is just going to get better. It is important for us to acknowledge these misfortunes and indeed acknowledge the fact that graduate school is not a guarantee--it is a risk. If you are willing to take a risk you are indeed gambling with your future...

    ReplyDelete
  29. And I have got my 101st reason why I should not go to graduate school too :) Basically, online trade schooling is being offered continuously. :)

    ReplyDelete
  30. Amongst business college courses that are available, I am most interested in the field of Sales. :)

    ReplyDelete
  31. Finishing early is a great tip; stretching out the time in graduate school can be costly and lead to bigger student loans. Finishing quickly takes more dedication but is doable.

    ReplyDelete
  32. If you agree with this article, then you are clearly dumb. Anyone that performed well as an undergraduate should not run into the problem of paying for grad school unless you have a weak major (i.e. Business, English, etc.). As an engineering major with a 4.0/4.0, I will be paid to attend graduate school at top tier schools along with my tuition being waved. Also, this graduate degree will significantly increase my starting salary as a practicing engineer. Bottom line is that graduate degrees are becoming more and more prevalent and undergraduate degrees will eventually be as useless as a high school diploma and to say that graduate degrees are only necessary for academia is nieve to say the least.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You might want to learn how to spell "naive," because it's a word that you're going to be using a lot when you look back on your life in a few years.

      Delete
    2. He's too busy watching his tuition being waved to notice the snow job.

      Delete
  33. Even at at top university, either have a trust fund or lick the boots of a powerful advisor.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I don't necessarily disagree with much of what this list and these articles say, but there's precious little mentioned about how difficult it is to get ahead in MOST fields. Most things worth doing involve one, more, or all of the following to be successful: hard work, talent, luck, risk, connections, and debt. Does going to grad school with the intention of landing a tenure-track job pose peculiar challenges? Sure, but so do a lot of other endeavors. Just look at business....how many people who start them fail, versus the small percentage of those who REALLY end up succeeding? This blog has some good advice, but a little larger perspective might be good as well. I'm speaking as one of those "lucky" ones who went to a very-good-but-non-elite doctoral school, amassed some debt, and yet managed to land a tenure-track job recently.

    ReplyDelete
  35. What about music? I will graduate from a well-respected university in my state with a music education and a performance degree. I auditioned at a more "prestigious" school and a small program at a bigger state university than the one I am at now. I got rejected to the prestigious school but was accepted with open arms to the smaller program at the state school. The benefits to this are that I would get to work one-on-one with an outstanding faculty member, who is young and recently joined the faculty. As I have not yet developed a strong ability to work in competitive environments, this seems like a good choice for me. I could take a full tuition fellowship plus an $8800 stipend to roll the dice and see if I really improve in my musical playing in the next couple years, or I can take an entry-level K-12 everything teaching job in my small Midwestern state for 35K.

    Leave, take a risk, and see what happens?

    Or stay, be safe, and never know?

    ReplyDelete
  36. I love that you suggest "don't go into debt" and "choose a prestigious school" in the same article. Not fucking possible, unless you are a genius. I'm smart, but not smart enough to get into Stanford or MIT or whatever Ivy League schools there are. Give me a break. Beggars can't be choosers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Natalie, you're exactly the kind of person who gets screwed in this business because you don't understand how it works.

      Grad students at good schools get free rides from the day they're admitted. Decent grad students at so-so schools get free rides, too, but you don't want to be one of them because they don't have a prayer against the first group. You REALLY don't want to be somebody who gets loans to go to a so-so grad school.

      You don't have to be a genius, but you have to know how to play the game or it will crush you.

      Delete
    2. Sorry, but with this attitude you could end up a beggar.

      Delete
  37. I would add "go overseas to pay off debt" Middle East and Korea are looking for anyone with a degree from a North American University. The higher the degree, the higher the pay. Get your TESL (Teacher of English as a 2nd Language) as an add-on to your resume in case your job falls through. Yes you'll have to put up with a totally different culture (unless you have an affinity for the Muslim or Korean culture) but you'll get to see the world while you pay off your debts really quick.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suspect this is one of the worst things you can do to develop your career.

      Yes, you can make lots of money... relative to the average local in the same profession. Your cost of living may be somewhat lower, so you can sock some away. In South Korea you can enjoy a tax holiday of two years on your earnings.

      BUT...

      After you return you will find it very difficult to find work. You will have been identified an an ESL teacher, and mostly you will not be considered capable of transitioning out of ESL teaching. In fact, you probably won't even be able to transition out of ESL in the country that you are working in. You could have relevant training and education (e.g. an information systems, business, or engineering degree), and speak/read/write the local language fluently, and you will still not get a look-in because you are just another ESL teacher.

      Why is this? I think it must have something to do with how ESL in particular and the people who teach it are viewed by the broader professional community. Beyond this, I suspect very strongly that American business has a bias against foreign language and area knowledge for multiple reasons (travel viewed as a privileged commodity, suspicion of education, suspicion of 'going native,' and belief that any needs in this area are best addressed locally or via immigration).

      Finally there is a saying that encapsulates how our new economy works - "If you make the potato salad, you will always be the person who makes the potato salad."

      So how bad could that be?
      - Not likely to have health or retirement benefits
      - Dependent on vagaries of temporary immigrant labor policies of your host country (possibly highly variable) and unlikely to be allowed to migrate permanently
      - Limits on income unless you start some other business (and you may not be allowed to do so) or go into ESL at a very different level (e.g. chain school operator, course publisher).
      - Dual tax reporting responsibilities
      - Your ability to find work may start to dwindle at age 45-47 (as discriminatory as US hiring policies are to the middle-aged and elderly, East Asia is much worse)
      - Courtesy of our current administration, US citizens are not welcome customers of any banks available to them if they are living or traveling abroad. Their banking options include the shoebox or under the mattress.

      If you still feel this is your option, I suspect Korea is the best bet currently, although it's one of the most formalized. Most employers there require a security check (to be carried out in this country) and that can take several months to over a year owing to the backlog. You may also be contractually tied to your employer for some time. However, once this obstacle is cleared, the ROK government appears to allow for long stays and even has a formal program to recruit foreigners into the public school system.

      Delete
  38. What the hell, almost everyone that makes a comfortable income, or a job that they enjoy does not graduate from Ivy Leage schools. What fucking planet do these people live on?

    ReplyDelete
  39. The awesome thing about this blog is that it has stood the test of time. It was written over a year ago and it's a great caution for anyone considering their life's work. Timeless peice. Great conversation that can go on a decade.

    My graduate work was done in a school-way-too-expensive-to-end-up-being-a-public-school-teacher. What was I thinking? I wasn't.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am in that same boat, now I have a shitload of loans. If I didn't have a wife and kid I would probably step out in front of traffic. But then again they would get my life insurance money....

      Delete
  40. someone wrote a counter to this:

    "One hundred reasons why YOU SHOULD go to graduate school"

    http://facciani.weebly.com/1/post/2013/08/one-hundred-reasons-why-you-should-go-to-graduate-school.html

    nice to see differing perspectives on the issue!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those 100 reasons were written by someone currently in the midst of a PhD and set on becoming a TT prof. Pretty hard to take such a perspective seriously since they haven't got real experience outside the ivory tower.

      Delete
  41. I've hired a lot of people in my 30 years in corporate America-mostly Ph.D.'s and all in the sciences. After your first job, it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what school you got your Ph.D. from, who your advisor was, or what your grades were...often, it doesn't make a difference even for your first job. You'll either get that job or lose it based on your interview...example: don't ask if you can leave early on Fridays because you like to play golf (an actual experience).

    Also, take a long view of the Ph.D.-in my field, there have been times when anyone with a pulse could get a six-digit salary and other times literally hundreds of Ph.D.'s were applying for the same job.

    ReplyDelete
  42. I agree with most of the 100 reasons and also the first two bits of advice. Thus, I was surprised to see how crappy the final bit of advice is. It's really only relevant to graduate students who either aren't enjoying their work or aren't being compensated fairly.

    I'm getting paid over $32,500 a year (yes, I am in a prestigious university and have a prestigious fellowship), I have free healthcare, I have subsidized housing, and I can walk to work. I can also make my own schedule, have a free gym membership, and free internet access. On average, I probably eat three free meals every week. I work for a legitimately famous intellectual, and get to meet with a lot of intellectual giants on a regular basis. Sure, my job is harder than most, but it's also WAY COOLER and has a lot of hidden perks.

    The purpose of my response isn't to brag to strangers. I just want to say that graduate school can and should be rewarding in and of itself. If you aren't enjoying your life in graduate school, then you should probably quit, because chances are you aren't really helping your career much by staying put. But if you love what you are doing and can support yourself by pursuing knowledge - even if only for a time - then don't let a bitter blogger tell you that you shouldn't do just that. And if you're happy, and making money, then take your time with it.

    Furthermore, in addition to prolonging the enjoyment of getting paid to do what you love the most in life, prolonging your graduate study can make a difference in your career. A friend of mine chose to stay a sixth year in graduate school in a five-year program, and wrote the majority of his papers in that year; he made a similar decision during his postdoctoral work. It seems to have worked out quite well for him. If my situation is similar to his, I plan to do the same.

    ReplyDelete
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