Thursday, November 17, 2005


On Advising Students about Graduate School

I was inspired to post about this after reading Dean Dad's advice to a reader over at his blog today about whether she should go to graduate school in History. First of all, I think Dean Dad gives really good advice. But that's not really what I want to discuss in this post. What I want to discuss is 1) generally, what are the ethics that guide our decisions about advising students toward or away from graduate school and 2) specifically, how are these ethical considerations affected by the kind of institution at which one teaches.

I think that it's easy to say, particularly if one is in the humanities, "it's unethical, given the state of the job market and the economics of academe, to encourage students to go on to graduate school." Superficially, I agree with this position. In particular, I agree that we should not encourage students to take this path. We should not recommend this path as a viable career option that they "should" consider because they are so brilliant or whatever. But this kind of statement is nevertheless not a solution to the dilemma that we, as advisers, have. Why not?
  1. Unless every single academic actively supports an agenda that dissuades students from considering graduate school, we will always have students who have heard from one of our colleagues that it is something that they should consider. Since this is the case, students will still come to us for advice and letters of recommendation, and ultimately, when that happens, I suspect that most of us throw our convictions about the futility of graduate school as preparation for a career to the wind and give the best advice that we know how to give and write those letters that will seal our students' fates.
  2. To some extent, such a statement serves further to reify our own positions in the academic hierarchy. "Ooh, it's tough out there kids and academia's in the crapper, so I must impress upon you that it will mean only a life of failure and misery if you pursue graduate school," says the professor, who, the student notices, is doing just fine, thanks. It is very difficult for a person on the tenure track or who is tenured to impress upon students that she is the exception and not the rule and that she got lucky by getting a job. If she does take this stance, isn't she being, to some extent, disingenuous? Isn't she saying, "oh, well, I'm much more brilliant than you are or ever will be so don't take me as evidence that you can achieve anything like what I have achieved"? I'm not sure I entirely believe this, but at the same time, it is the response of many of my colleagues when I tell them that I think that it is wrong to advise students in the direction of graduate school in English and American literature.
  3. Perhaps even more dangerous than reifying our own positions in the academic hierarchy, such a statement further institutionalizes the notion that one can only be an academic if one is from an academic or well-off (or both) family. Because guess what, folks: the kids go to fancy liberal arts colleges and the ivies and/or who have academics in the family are still going to apply to graduate school and some of them will succeed in getting tenure-track employment, even if it means being on the market for a few years. When we advise students away from graduate school, we are often (I think) advising diversity out of the academy.

But so then, what is one to do? I think we can all agree that the outlook in the humanities is bleak in terms of whether people will receive adequate compensation for their labor. Things are not going to change any time soon. This is a systemic and pervasive problem. That said, though, if we value what we do in our disciplines, don't we think that the advanced study of those disciplines has value? If we do, how can we discourage students from pursuing such advanced study? If we don't, then why are we continuing in the profession?

To further complicate this already too-complicated issue, I think we've got to consider (yes, I'm getting on this soapbox again) the specific institutions at which we work when we think about the ethics of advising students regarding graduate education in our fields. It means something very different for me, a faculty member at RCU, to advise a student to apply to graduate school than it does for a faculty member at ... oh... a place like.... Oberlin to do so. Context is everything here. Why?

  1. If I am a professor at a prestigious university, I can be fairly certain that my students have family support regarding their education and that they can expect family support in some form or another should they choose to go to graduate school.
  2. If I am a professor at a prestigious university, I can be fairly certain that my students will have a higher likelihood of getting into one of the best graduate programs in the country, thus meaning that these students should (theoretically) have a better chance on the job market.
  3. If I am a professor at a prestigious university, the likelihood is that I have many more connections in academia than, say, a professor at a place like RCU, which means that I can do more to mentor and to assist these students as they navigate the treacherous waters of academe.

In contrast, let's think about what it is like if one is advising students about these issues at a place like RCU.

  1. Students often lack family support for their education, or, if they have it, their families would nevertheless consider somebody who went on to graduate school (as opposed to law or business or medical schools) as "a lifetime student" who wasn't doing anything productive with his/her life.
  2. Students will likely not get into one of the very best graduate schools because they went to a no-name school for their undergraduate degree. Their choice of school for undergraduate education might mean that they have received bad advice about how to put grad school applications together, they might do more poorly on certain portions of the GRE, etc. It's not unlike being at a low-performing high school vs. being at a high-performing high school. Yes, you can be bright and receive an education at both, but that doesn't mean the two things are equal.
  3. Many times students are place-bound, which limits their ability to succeed in academia.
  4. Students often don't have a clear understanding of academic cultures and hierarchies, which can affect their ability to assimilate into graduate student culture and/or to succeed at developing the professional relationships that they will need on the job market.

Of course I'm generalizing here, but I think that these generalizations do come from a real place. But so if my students will most likely be at such a disadvantage, then shouldn't I discourage them from any thought of graduate education? But if I do, then don't I contribute to an academic culture that doesn't see those kinds of students or respect their abilities? And what if somebody had taken that line with me? Because I was a student much like the ones that I teach now, and I ignored the advice of one of my advisers, and ultimately I am a tenure-track college professor. How do I reconcile that fact with the doom and gloom stories that I feel obligated to tell my students?

I suppose at the end of the day I think that the most ethical stance is not to make a blanket statement that no one should go to graduate school. I think, rather, that for me the most ethical thing that I can do as an adviser is to demystify the processes and hierarchies of academic culture and accept that students will decide for themselves. No, I will not sugar-coat the realities of the market for my students, nor will I tell them that they have any chance of getting a job if they never leave the geographical area. Nor will I ever advise a student to go to a less-than-stellar program. But at the same time I think that it's important that they have the support of mentors like me if they are going to do this. Academia is alienating enough, especially for working-class or minority students. Perhaps it wouldn't be quite so alienating if there was a little bit more representation of those kinds of faces and voices in the professoriate and administration. So no, I won't be encouraging my students to go to graduate school, but I will be supporting those whom I think can make it if they decide to take that path.


The job market for faculty in the sciences and engineering is tough, too. When we advertise for one faculty position, we typically get 100 applications. Most graduates tend to do postdoc after postdoc, teach as adjuncts, etc for several years before they manage to land a full time position. Of course, we might have a somewhat better chance of a good non-academic job than a social science PhD.

The reward is not that it is easy to get the job, but rather college professors are doing what they want to do. Should we discourage students who truly want this as a career? I don't think so. Besides, isn't that hypocritical of us, given that this is the road that we took? But, let's not sugar coat it and say that it is easy or lucrative to land a job as a faculty member. Give them the real scoop, and let them decide for themselves if this is the right road for them.

I had a long, hard road to get where I am. Now, I have a tenured position at an institution that I like and where I believe that I truly make a difference. Do I have any regrets? Perhaps a few, I won't deny that. I wish that some things had worked out differently. However, I am happy and believe that this is the best possible career for me. So, how could I in good conscience advise a student to go for another career?
Astroprof, your caveat about disciplines is even more important than you suggest: My bro-in-law and I got our degrees at the same time, me in English, he in Astrophysics. I chose the academic job market because my other options were high school teaching, or advertising copy writing, which only very marginally takes advantage of my course of study (and would have been soul-sucking). He opted out of the academic job market, and took a job directly in his field making lots of money for a very large company. So it's not just the academic job market, but also the alternatives.

I like to think of myself as smart, but I can name five fellow grad students who were smarter (if it's an absolute scale, which it isn't) and who didn't finish, or land tenure track jobs. Some of them may still finish and move on in the academy, but some won't. And their alternative job options are not six-figured the way my brother-in-law's likely were.

OK, so I got a good job, and so did several of my friends. We were lucky, and driven, and optimistic to a fault about academia, because if you aren't the last two, there are just too many reasons to quit midway through. I survived being called a professional student by my dad, and I consolidated my massive loans at a good time. And I came out the other end. Smart, but more: Lucky. Driven. Idealistic. Did I mention lucky, lucky, lucky?
Great discussion, Dr. Crazy. I think you're right on the mark about the importance of context, and the problem of a less than diverse academic faculty.

I'm trying to make a link back to my own post, responding further.
I almost always try to talk them out of grad school. I had a student in the other day who is graduating from PrettyGood and wants to go to Prestigious, where I did my grad work (through a freaky accident. It's not like I'm so great, or anything, believe me).

Anyway, I was asking him how his grades and GREs were and he starts talking about how his sophomore year (*insert story of tragedy here*). I had to say as a person, my heart bleeds for you, as a realist, you aren't going to get in to Prestigious.

I hate those kinds of conversations.
i went to a small undergrad and when my advisor found out that i was interested in grad school we talked about it a great deal.
he didn't discourage me but he was brutally honest about all of the frustrations that i would be facing--getting into a good school from small school, the job market, etc.
my thoughts are that if you can discourage a student from going to grad school by telling them these things, they weren't going to get through anyway. but some will decide to go despite the overwhelming facts because we can't imagine what else we would do.
those students will appreciate your honest support.
Wow, thanks, Dr. Crazy. I've commented twice over at DD, because it broke a little piece of my heart. Not because I am naive about what my prospects are, but because from whom it's coming. He knows. But so do you. I've had people tell me that my field - Middle East - makes it easier. Really? I see perhaps two jobs at CHE. I think they want me to see that my language skills could give me other jobs if academia fails me, and I appreciate that. But this is what I am increasingly coming to want to do with my life. I don't CARE if I never own a house. I don't CARE about owning a car. And if I left academia, you think I'd really want to be CIA in the Arab world for THIS GD administration? No. Anyway, I'm glad you and DD have written up nice, long, thoughtful posts about it. This graduate student is very grateful.
I always give my students this piece from Tim Burke (whose work I quite admire):

It's honest, and it's biased towards the answer "no."

Masterfraud - FWIW, I know of a history department arguing over how to define a line, and they're concerned about limiting it to Middle East because they're afraid they're not going to be able to get someone, since it's such a competitive field. ;-)

In response to the post in general - excellent post. It's such a tough issue. I'm always torn between my desire to help students realize their dreams - which are theirs, and I can't tell them what those dreams should be - and a desire to dissuade them. I think the concern about diversity in academe is a big one. I come from a completely un-academic family background, but I went to a baby Ivy and in that respect my background is part of the academic elite (in terms of numbers; not necessarily skill or intelligence!). I had a fascinating conversation with someone from a Real Huge Ivy recently, who talked about how increasingly UN-diverse good graduate programs in history had become - even the state schools which had traditionally been more diverse; they'd all reduced admissions and in the process ended up replicating (in general) a homogenous, privileged academic class. He was not pleased with these developments, but the market was cutting out anyone who faced the kinds of disadvantages that Crazy outlines here.
Really? That's a bit of good news. But I'm still really scared. Gah.
NK, Why did I not remember that about you? Crazy, this is a great post. I especiallylike the part about demystifying things. That's the one thing I never really had, and it would have helped. And you know, I really hope I get a job, if only to show that it really does happen :-)
I think I'd also harp on the lucky aspect, if I were ever really pressed on the issue. Sure, there are a lot of people out there who would do a pretty good job as a prof, but in order to get in the door, you need some connection. Well, you do in my field, at least. I would carefully explain my connection to my current job to the student in question, and try to impress upon them that the odds of the stars aligning for every other student out there are slim. In other words, you may be able to get the "you have to be lucky" point across if you were, and you can prove how capricious it all is.
To all the professors out there: when you weighed the odds yourself, did you think that luck would have that big of a role in where you ended up? Is luck this big of a factor in any other career? Did you think about what ELSE you would do? What else CAN unemployed PhD's do? Sorry to hog comments, but I'm stressed!
Dr. C--I agree with your conclusions, but I am troubled, a bit, by your allowing the issue of "diversity in the academy" to come into it. Yes, I would hope that the academy would welcome individuals from a range of backgrounds, too. But when a student asks for advice about grad school, the response has to be based on what would be good for that student--not on any general desire for the academy to welcome non-traditional students.
AF - Yes, advice must be based on what would be good for a student, but the problem is, how do we evaluate what is "good." Technically, with my father who offered no support for any of my education, my mother and stepfather whose combined income was about 40K, and me who had undergraduate student loan debt, the "good" advice financially would have been a) not to major in English, b) to get a job immediately upon finishing my undergrad degree. But what about what was "good" for me emotionally? Intellectually? It is too easy to tell the kinds of students that I teach that graduate school is beyond their reach. I know, because my adviser treated me like a fool for wanting to do so with my background. She didn't even know me. I think that's fucked up.
Ok, I have a little more time to comment now, so to respond to others:

I also give students who approach me about wanting to go to graduate school the link to the Burke article, as well as this
and this,kamenetz,53011,1.html

When I say that I think that I don't think that actively saying to students, "do not go to graduate school" doesn't quite cut it, I am NOT saying that I don't give them the bad news. I suppose what I'm saying, though, is that I don't want to replicate what my experience was. My experience was that my adviser told me "don't do it" and then that shut down dialogue with her. I asked her for a letter of rec., and she wrote me one, but at the same time I didn't feel like I had her support. If I hadn't had the support from other areas, well, I wonder whether I would have been entirely daunted.

To Masterfraud: I do think that it's important to think about ways to make your graduate degrees work for you if the academic route doesn't work out. I know that's not what you want to hear, but for me this was a consideration, and I actually think that it helped me in my efforts on the academic job market. It did so in two ways: 1) I had skills that demonstrated that I could handle being in a non-R1 university - that I wasn't entirely motivated by research, although obviously it's important to me and 2) it helped me emotionally when I was on the market to think that even if this whole academic thing didn't work out that I was still a person and that I wouldn't be doomed to life as an adjunct - so much of our identities is bound up in being academics, and those rejections can hurt a lot if one can't see oneself as something else.
Thanks, Dr. C. I think I AM thinking about what else I can do; it's just starting to hit me that I actually want to be in graduate school, and actually want to be a professor. So much of getting here appeared like such a fluke, and now I'm actually making conscious decisions to make it work for me. Anyway, appreciate your words and counsel very much.
Well, as someone from the other side, I know that advising students not to go to graduate school will hurt the diversity of graduate school. I think, though, that it’s more important to protect students than institutions.

My background in brief—I grew up in a large working-class/poor family in a fairly fringe religious group, quit school after 8th grade, and worked for 10 years before deciding to go to college. After taking 1 year of classes at a local school, I transferred to an excellent liberal arts school (Davidson) and graduated with a degree in economics.

By any academic standard, I was a good candidate for grad school; perfect GRE scores, high GPA, lots of math, did research as a student, liked studying and research, enjoyed being around academics, etc. I seriously considered grad school, but decided not to go; I just couldn’t stomach the idea of worrying whether I’d be able to eat AND pay the rent for another 4 years (at least), and then my employment prospects would be worse.

Academia is an aristocracy--not needing to support yourself (much less anyone else) is expected. I don’t think it does students any favors to be ill-informed on that issue.

Certainly, it would be better for almost everyone if there were half as many grad student slots and stipends were twice as high--but that's just not the world we live in.

Cross-posted at Dean Dad
I agree with you that it's more important to protect students than institutions. I also agree that students should be well and accurately informed about the realities of the market and of life in academia.

Where I think you and I disagree is that I think it's important that I, after making sure my students are well-informed of the risks and potential outcomes, support students who decide that grad school is ultimately for them.

I appreciate your position on this, and I'm glad that you decided (for yourself) not to do graduate school. You seem happy with that decision. I would be entirely happy if any student of mine made a similar decision.

That said, I don't want to force them into a decision that would make them unhappy, and some students really would be unhappy if they got a "regular job" and didn't go to grad school.
Where I think you and I disagree is that I think it's important that I, after making sure my students are well-informed of the risks and potential outcomes, support students who decide that grad school is ultimately for them.

Actually, I think we agree; if students are sure that grad school is what they want, even given the odds and the built-in assumptions about financial ability, I would agree that you should support them. I just wanted to make clear that I really appreciate the advisers who made sure I knew those odds, even though it did cause me to decide not to go to graduate school.
Where I teach, I do not have to face this issue very often. Most of my students have no desire to go to graduate school, and those that do tend to go for professional master's degrees. I have, however, thought about what I might say to a student asking for advice about graduate school in part because I would be overjoyed to have an advisee who decided that they were that committed to furthering their studies.

I agree with much of the original message - the fact is, no matter how it happens, many of us do end up with tenure track jobs. It may have taken awhile. We may have sacrificed greater, or faster, economic rewards, and while not on the tenure track, stability. The less support we had from family and partners, and the less flexible we were or could be about schools, place of residence, etc. the harder it was. But somehow, we survived both grad school and the job market, and I doubt that very many of us would say that it wasn't worth it.

In adivsing others, I think that much consideration has to be given to the individual student. Why do they want to go to graduate school? How much passion do they have for their subject? What kind of support do they have? Are they prepared to go it alone if they need to? If I have a bright, articulate advisee who thinks that they want the academic life, what service am I really doing them by, as a matter of principle, advising them against applying to and attending graduate school? Do I owe them an honest assessment of job prospects, etc.? Sure. But flat out discouragement seems like a horrible thing to do someone who thinks they've found their calling. I agree with Dr. Crazy - I would no doubt come across as an arch egotist, in effect saying to them, "I was good enough, but you're not."

Maybe more importantly, do we really want a world where people are discouraged from following their passion simply because it might be hard or because they run the risk of failing? Or, even worse, because there are other things you can do with your life that offer better pay and benefits? Ultimately, the student can, should, and, as Dr. Crazy notes, will decide for themselves what graduate school and pursuit of an academic career means to them. The horror stories will scare some off, and they probably should be discouraged. So too should those who don't have good answers to the kinds of questions listed above, especially the "why" question. But those that do have a good answer to the "why" question, and who seem willing to venture into the abyss no matter how scary you make it seem, really merit support, not discouragement.
Great discussion. I have spent much time having anguish and mixed feelings about this, and can offer no conclusions beyond what's already been suggested above, but here's my absolute favorite link that I ask all students to read before they come in for a serious conversation about what it means to decide to do a PhD in English:

It's Suzanne Keen's advice for her students at Washington and Lee, and it's really excellent.
Adding on to the tail end of this discussion...

As I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, I was faced with the decision of whether or not to continue onto grad school. All of my professors tried to convince me to pursue a higher degree telling me that I had potential and motivation or what not. In fact, I did not approach my professors about grad school, they approached me. From previous experiences, I had come to the conclusion that I was not cut out for grad school and that I did not have the "grad school mentality" (as I called it). And though I had opted to write an honors thesis during my senior year, I had no inclination to continue onto grad school. I chose to write this paper not because it would get me into grad school, but because it would give me a chance to do some deep personal research. It would challenge me. It ended up being almost painful. But nonetheless, I loved doing it. The consensus among my professors was that I needed to go onto grad school or else it would be a waste. I was not convinced. I am currently not in grad school. I am working an 8-5 job (hence, my late reply to this post). But i do admit, however, that despite my concious decision not to go to grad school, I am often wrought with doubt wondering if I decided against grad school too fast. Writing my thesis was not super pleasant as I stated above but it became real and passionate. I loved the unpleasantness of it. As Crazy says: "some students really would be unhappy if they got a "regular job" and didn't go to grad school." I am in that position right now. I am not too terribly pleased with my job. I am not too terribly happy doing something where there is no mental stimulation. Yes, I am saving money. Yes, I am building up valuable experience. And yes, I know that my later job prospects will not be all completely based on luck. But is it for me? I don't know.

Since graduating, I have thouroughly analysed the reasons why I chose to face the real world and get a real job instead of going straight through to a grad program. THe reasons, though seeming sometimes insignificant, were enough to push me out of academia. I know that I can always go back. THat is not the question. THe reasons I decided against grad school despite the encouragement of my professors and my peers are as follows:
1. The state of academia: I am not naive about academia. I know how grad students are chewed up by the system and spit back out. I know that many PhDs in the humanities search in vain for professorships. And I know how utterly solitary life can be after the lucky ones land their first tenure track job. As a student, I never had enough courage to ask my professors if they enjoyed what they did. I was afraid that their answer would be too disheartening. But I have read stories about grad students who are abused by their professors, professors who are abused by the system and the overlying system that just sits back and laughs. THe ideal of academia is so great: a group of bustling intellectuals discussing the great works of literature, but the reality is so different. It seems that a rivalry overturns the camaradry. Everyone ends up fighting for the same professorship.
2. My personal doubt: I don't know if I have the mentality to handle it, intellectually and mentally. And i guess that this within itself is reason enough to abstain from grad school for a while.
3. The seeming futility of academia
And as i do struggle with these issues, i guess i made the right decision in not going to grad school. I told my advisor that I would not go to grad school because I felt like there was nothing else I could do with my degree or because I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I had way too many doubts. But now, 6 months out of school, the resaons I listed up above no longer have the same weight as they had 6 months ago. However, I do not plan on going back to school next year. Maybe I will never go back to school, maybe I will. I guess I will have to come to terms with all the problems I have with academia before I can make any solid conclusions about the issue.

I just have so much to say about all of this.
Sorry for the drawn out comment.
No need to apologize about the drawn-out comment! And to everybody - thank you for the many comments in the thread :)
Hello I love your information on this topic ... very interesting and I would like to put more on this article .... it's great that people have engaged to do interesting things to do .... thanks
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