So you want to be a college professor

« previous post | next post »

Passed on to me via Nancy Whittier, this disturbing and bitterly funny animation, here, "So you want to get a PhD in the humanities", which has elicited some Facebook discussion about advising undergrads about going to grad school and about advising grad students.

I was born at the right time, knew that I wanted to be a college professor when I was in high school, and achieved it all as easily as these things can be done (though that involved periods of deep self-doubt and anxiety). Now it gets harder and harder to advise students. Wonderful to teach people, but is it moral to attract them into an academic career? Could any young person find a life doing what I do?

(Allowing comments, with considerable trepidation.)


  1. Kaviani said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    As long as transparency and honesty abide, I see no questionable morals in encouraging a young person into Humanities academia. Promoting it like it's ITT or DeVry would be tragic, though.

  2. xyzzyva said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    These animations, while (disturbingly) accurate, bother me. As a commenter on one posting said:

    I knew I should have pursued that one degree that guarantees professional success and personal happiness.

    What good does it do to discourage people from pursuing their interests if you can't give them alternative suggestions for a life-plan? It just jades them before they go ahead and do it anyway. Or, for a risk-averse person like me, it scares them away from committing to such plans at all, a recipe for rudderless ships.

    And I refuse to accept the life sucks, then you die point of view.

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    No amount of transparency is transparent enough, no honesty honest enough, to convince a wide-eyed undergrad that a pocketful of A's is no predictor of career success. They will hear the words, but will not believe that they apply to them. They are special.

    I used to be a departmental darling at an expensive, east-coast, SLAC that everyone has heard of. I believed I was special. I was wrong, but I believed it with all my heart.

    Today I consider myself damned lucky to have a tenured position in the heart of nowhere. If I had followed the same path twenty years later, I would today be reading Emerson beneath a highway overpass. I might even be dead.

    I advise every promising student of literature to not even think about majoring in the discipline, much less pursuing a graduate degree, unless (1) they have a secure and generous trust-fund income, or (2) they have an interest in technical writing, in which case I name 1-2 appropriate schools.

  4. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » So you want to be a college professor [] on said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    […] Language Log » So you want to be a college professor – view page – cached October 28, 2010 @ 1:51 pm · Filed by Arnold Zwicky under The academic scene Tweets about this link […]

  5. Rob Malouf said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    That's a tough one. On the one hand, no, a young person couldn't find a life doing what you do. It's good to be up front about that… I wish I'd understood that more clearly back in grad school. On the other hand, it is still very possible to make a life of some sort in academia. All the complaints in that video are true, but I think you could make a similar video for pretty much any career path. We all have to do something to make a living, and for the right kind of person teaching at Juneau Community College beats the hell out of selling insurance.

    I think academia is not so different from a lot of other fields. If a young tennis player expects to be able to retire on their tournament winnings and endorsement deals, they're setting themselves up for disappointment. On the other hand, if they are talented and work hard, they may very well be able to make a living doing something related to tennis.

    [(amz) For the record, though I wasn't Rob's adviser, he was a student of mine (remembered with pleasure).]

  6. tesseract said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    I hear many of my classmates talk like this (I am a new PhD). Most of my classmates didn't get hired (not surprising). I just took an administrative position, and was deliriously happy to get it (my household had been entirely unemployed for some time).

    When I started grad school, I definitely didn't think I was in it for the fame and fortune and big bucks- but I did think that I would, eventually, be able to land some kind of academic job. Unfortunately, the job market is… what it is right now. I'm not sure how many of the faculty at my university really understand how bad it is at the moment- I mean, it's always bad, but in the last few years it's really imploded.

    I don't know what the answer is, or how moral it is to recommend students attend graduate school, but I do know that right now you can be very talented, work very hard, and still not be able to make a living in your field (even peripherally).

  7. John Lawler said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    I found the auto-animation style — apparently the software generates the animation from stills and a text script, producing the dialog synthetically — oddly congruent with the oddity of the discourse, and particularly with the ritualistic responses of the student (who got a C and never said a word in class) and of the professor (who agreed mechanically to write a letter right away).

  8. Jeffrey Paulsen said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    There are similar animations out there for other disciplines, e.g., this video re: law school.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    I see from his online bio that Prof. Zwicky completed his Ph.D. only three years after completing his bachelor's degree, which was not uncommon back in those days (maybe 4 years was more common, but 3 not unprecedented). Most of my own college teachers when I was an undergraduate back in the '80's were from the generations that had been on that sort of schedule. But outside of the hard sciences, it seems that completion in, say, 7 years is pretty good these days, and completion in 5 nothing short of heroic. Extended time-to-degree, high attrition/dropout rates, and gross oversupply (even net of the considerable attrition) of newly-minted Ph.D.'s compared to the available number of appropriate entry-level academic positions are all separate but related phenomena contributing to the dysfunction of the Ph.D-in-humanities production process. But the time-to-degree one to me seems perhaps the most significant in terms of whether you would advise someone to even start down the path — if there's a significant chance that you won't be able to "break into the business" even if you diligently get through the program you're starting, the chance of losing 6 or 8 years of your life rather than 3 or 4 may be enough to turn a risky enterprise into a foolhardy one. And saying that the opportunity for intense study of a subject you love is its own reward whether or not you get a paying job out of it is an easier justification to swallow if you're talking about fewer rather than more years devoted to the adventure.

    I would tend to assume people who've spent 6 or 8 years in grad school must in some objective sense know at least a little bit more upon completion than did their predecessors 50 years ago who only spent 3 or 4 years, and that their dissertations either meet a higher standard or are at least, um, longer. But it would be interesting to get the views of someone like Prof. Zwicky who has lived through the change whether the scholarly/systemic benefits that may have been associated with the cultural shift to longer time-to-degree have been worth the costs.

    As myl noted recently, linguistics is a "disciplinary Balkans" that doesn't really fit with the humanities, but doesn't really fit with the hard or even soft sciences all that well either. It would be interesting to know whether the current level of dysfunction in the linguistics Ph.D. production process is comparable to that in, say, philosophy or classics or English or history or if it's somehow a little less broken.

    [(amz) Another data point. I have friends who pose the following question: What do you call a Ph.D. in physics? Wry answer: a systems administrator. The deal is, in order to do a Ph.D. in physics you pretty much have to devise most of the computational resources you need, so then you've taught yourself a marketable skill. Not at all the way the system's supposed to work, but it does work in its own paradoxical way. There simply aren't nearly enough lab director slots available, so most grad students in the hard sciences will spend year after year in post-doc positions, and either turn that into something marketable or find another line of work.]

  10. Laila said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    Thank you for leaving the comments open. As a linguistics/computer science double major trying to decide if research will be my "thing," I'll be following this thread closely.

  11. Chris Brew said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    If the faculty member writes what I think she should write, the student will in any case be turned down by all the schools she applies to. Advising a student to consider graduate study is a different matter, since it is an implicit prediction of their success. Even for determined and very able people this is unwarranted. For people like the robotic student in the animation, who have nothing going for them except determination, even consenting to write a recommendation letter is a somewhat disgusting act. This is not specific to the humanities, it also applies to every non-vocational degree. While it is true that a Ph.D in computer science or phonetics will incidentally give you some highly marketable skills, Ph.D study is not the most effective way to gain these skills, therefore it cannot be recommended as a way of getting them.

    [(amz) Thanks, Chris. My daughter, who did a combined cs/lx/philosophy/psych BA, and even published (with me) in linguistics, ended up not going to grad school and being wonderfully successful in Silicon Valley, getting on-the-job experience first as an undergrad at Ohio State. (She got to be president of her professional society a bit before I did mine!) Both her dads were cool with this and cheered her on. Not my story at all, but it worked for her.]

  12. Joe said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    I do the regular "do you really want to do this?" talk, but the one point that I stress over and over is that they shouldn't take out loans to do grad school.

    [(amz) For some years, one of my specializations was giving The Talk to grad students in linguistics who really should have been doing something else. Basic lessons: it's crazy to think you have to finish anything you've started; you're really bright, really talented; you can do ok in linguistics; but it's clearly not where your talents lie; and here are some other routes to try. Difficult though it was, I came to actually like doing this. Invariably, the student was tremendously relieved, usually cried, and then picked up and found another way, with some help from me and other professors.]

  13. Dan K said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    I'm moved to post this link, to an article that (despite the title) is really about why an academic career is not a great idea for many of us.

    The main point the article is a dubious argument about the lack of women in science, but if you ignore that, there are some good points about academic careers in general. Tragically (for me), this article and the posted animation were not available when I was an undegrad, and, being too stupid to figure it out on my own, I consequently made some mistakes with lifelong negative consequences. May the next generation be more fortunate!

  14. Jonathan Badger said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    I don't know what the situation is in the humanities (or if it even makes sense to lump all those fields together), but one thing that wasn't clear to me as an undergraduate in biology is just how little the job of professor involves teaching, except at a small private college. Potential professors-to-be should be aware of the amount of research involved (which could be positive or negative attraction to the career depending on the interests of the candidate)

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Seizing beneficial project, job, and scholastic opportunities throughout my 40-year career enabled me to reach a position that was beyond my initial expectations and completely alien to how I imagined myself grown up. This is probably true for almost everyone: you will not end up where you thought you would, and good fortune and recognizing opportunities will be major contributors to your success.

    Remember Jim Croce's words: "Tried to find me an executive position / But no matter how smooth I talked / They wouldn't listen to the fact that I was a genius / The man say, "We got all that we can use" from his insightful Workin' At The Car Wash Blues. My advice to young future college professors would be the same as for young future doctors: "You've got to be kidding." Speaking of immorality, there is nothing immoral in working for a profit-making enterprise, and being (for instance) an adjunct professor at the local community college on the side. Your day job puts real food on the table and your part-time work feeds your soul.

  16. Anonymoose said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    If we were to discuss linguistics PhDs and job prospects, how would you rank the various subfields in terms of jobs in the US?

  17. marie-lucie said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    Anonymoose, someone (a PhD student, I think) did such as survey and reported on it here a year or two ago (perhaps even more).

    "How little teaching professors do": it depends on where you are based, and there is also a big difference between the hard sciences and the humanities. A biology professor with a continuing grant to operate a big lab does hardly any formal teaching. The size of the institution matters too: in many universities the norm is three courses per semester, but a large, "research-oriented" university a prof might teach two or even one course, while at a community college four courses are the norm [(amz) five or six are not uncommon, and many people piece together several different positions in order to make a living; see AAUP literature on the point] (but "you don't have to do research" – too bad for you if the opportunity to do research is the main attraction of an academic career).

  18. Mr Punch said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    What I wasn't told (40 years go) but should have been: Don't go in a PhD program unless they pay you to do it. That's oversimplified, of course, but not by much. And it's by no means the sames as "if offered a fellowship, take it."

  19. Mark said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    This is off topic, but I just had to laugh at this:

    "Harold Bloom is a misogynistic narcissist. He is not even in their English Department. They gave him his own department of Humanities, because no one could frakkin' stand him."

  20. Acilius said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    "Don't go in a PhD program unless they pay you to do it. That's oversimplified, of course"- If that's oversimplified, it is only because it is just the first of many strictures. Never go where they don't pay you enough that you can live on. Never borrow money to pay for grad school. Never listen to advice from faculty members who have been tenured for more than five years; the world they will describe to you no longer exists.

  21. Kathleen said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    I'm a just-tenured associate professor of history. The history job market is so atrocious that I tell potential grad students the following:

    1. Don't waste your time applying for a Ph.D. program unless you have at least a 3.5 GPA.
    2. Don't go anywhere unless they pay you.
    3. Don't bother going to a third-tier institution. Nobody is going to hire a Ph.D. from the Western University of Southeastern State at North Smallville when they can have their pick of graduates from Princeton, Michigan and UCLA.
    4. Don't go unless you are willing to move anywhere in the entire country, both for grad school and (eventually) for a job. Likewise, if you are only willing to work at a fancy liberal arts college, don't go.
    5. There is in fact nothing wrong with a job at a community college, but graduate school will probably try to socialize you to believe otherwise.
    6. It can easily take seven to nine years to get a Ph.D. in history.
    7. Be aware that the trends in higher education (decreasing state funding, an oversupply of Ph.D.s, an ever-growing reliance on adjuncts and part-timers) mean that it is entirely possible even for very good candidates to be unable to find tenure-track positions.

    It is interesting to me that for many of the students I talk to, the deal-breaker on this list is having to accept that you will probably not have much choice in where you want to live. Most of my students have strong family connections to our area, and would be completely unwilling to move hundreds or thousands of miles away. I can certainly respect that commitment to the region, but it isn't well-suited to a prospective academic.

  22. Mark P said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    Mr Punch, a reasonable gauge of job prospects is probably whether the graduate program offers an assistanceship, preferably a research assistanceship. When I went back to grad school (Georgia Tech, atmospheric science) in 1980 at age 30 after working several years as a newspaper reporter (BA in journalism), I ended up getting more as a research assistant than as a full-time reporter at a medium-sized daily.

  23. Mark P said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    I should add that when I left with a PhD in 1985, it was far easier to get a job working in Reagan's Star Wars buildup than in atmospheric science.

  24. F. Escobar said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    I taught for several years in a university in Latin America. It's very much a clerical job: in the morning (8am), you punch in; in the late afternoon (6pm), you punch out. You have to be available all day, meaning students, department heads, random chatters, etc., can stop in any time. All sorts of meetings take place during the week. I had to post on my door a schedule showing what I was doing every hour of the day. Research was usually done on the side: some people got there at 5am, to get three hours of research done before the 8am bustle, while others stayed a few hours after 6pm. Professors were still expected to publish, and were often given economic incentives (paid in cash for each article published), but, as you can see, the environment was not very research-friendly.

    It was, nevertheless, a research-oriented university. In other schools, some professors had to teach somewhere around 30 hours a week (aside from the in-office duties). Many professors were called "bicycle professors" because they had to cycle from one school, where they taught a course, to another, where they taught a different course, and had no office other than the cafeteria.

    That may sound dismal, but it's still a clawed-after job. Starting salaries are several times higher than non-academic jobs at the university (unlike what the video said about adjuncts versus janitors). And titles have a huge impact on your income: having a Ph.D. can represent something like tripling your salary as compared to someone with a B.A. or a Master's Degree.

    Lately, I have heard very often that the 9-to-5, punch-in-and-punch-out model, that of professor turned into cleric with teaching duties and research done on the side, is actually not a Latin American anomaly, but the way in which universities all over the world will restructure themselves in the years to come. Apparently, it's a very economically efficient model.

  25. Jason Eisner said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    I am grateful that the video is titled "So you want to get a PhD in the humanities." A lot of popular criticism and discussion of academia (e.g., from newspaper columnists) doesn't acknowledge that it's really only talking about the humanities and social sciences.

    In the particular case of hiring: I'm not saying that things are perfect in the hard sciences, math/CS, engineering, medicine, law, etc. But things are often much less depressing and exploitative.

    The main problem with hiring in academia is overproduction. A professor graduates perhaps 35 Ph.D.s over a career, only one of whom can inherit a job like the professor's (now that the pool of such jobs is no longer growing).

    But in many fields, there are plenty of other good jobs, i.e., it is not necessary to teach community college in Alaska in order to "stay in the field." This means that most people do get to stay in the field, and that the competitive field for academic jobs is narrowed to the ones who would actually enjoy the research/teaching pressure cooker.

    As a result, my Ph.D. students who have applied for academic jobs have been able to get tenure-track offers from highly-ranked schools. My other Ph.D. students have gone to research positions in industry to do exactly the sort of work that they were trained for.

    Of course, we are lucky that our field is computer science and that there is currently industry demand for CS researchers, including in our area (computational linguistics, natural language processing, machine learning, etc.).

    By contrast, theoretical physicists looking for relevant jobs outside academia are as badly off as literary scholars. (When I was considering grad school, I subscribed to an U.S. email list called the Young Scientists' Network that was roughly as bitter as this video, and eventually turned to nasty anti-immigrant sentiment, at which point I unsubscribed. It did make the point clearly that one should go into grad school with one's eyes open.)

  26. Jason Eisner said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    I am grateful that the video is titled "So you want to get a PhD in the humanities." A lot of popular criticism and discussion of academia (e.g., from newspaper columnists) doesn't acknowledge that it's really only talking about the humanities and social sciences.

    I should add that a lot of the popular criticism is about poor funding and advising during grad school, and about the meaninglessness of research. But none of that accords with my experience as a grad student or professor. The grad students I know (in CS, EE, linguistics, cognitive science, psych, etc.) are generally highly interested in what they're doing, well-advised, and well-supported. The real question is whether they will have a future or are just squandering their youth.

  27. wally said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    As the father of a high school senior, I find this kind of ironic. The implication here is that it is hard to find a place that needs good teachers. Meanwhile, all the schools my son, an excellent student, should be thinking about going to have 10 and 20 per cent acceptance rates, implying a shortage of teachers, not an over supply.

  28. Mark Liberman said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    Back in April, my colleague Peter Conn created some controversy with an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities". His general conclusion:

    The obvious conclusions, though many senior faculty members in the humanities seem reluctant to admit it, are these: As a profession, we are enrolling too many Ph.D. students, we have been doing so for decades, we spend far too long in guiding them to their degrees, and we then consign them to a dysfunctional job market.

    The rest of his essay is worth reading.

    I'd like to echo the point that Jason Eisner made. Graduates (at whatever level) with skills that are applicable to speech and language technology remain in demand in industrial and government jobs. As someone who spent the first 15 years after grad school in an industrial research lab, I don't see these options as in any way second-rate, and I'm proud of the fact that students I've advised have ended up in a mixture of academic and non-academic positions.

  29. Emilio said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    I am PhD student in Italy. The common wisdom is that Italian academy is highly clientelar and that scientific titles hardly matters to get a job. I am afraid this is by and large true.

    Unfortunately, this led many people to think that, by contrast, any good Italian graduate could be offered plenty of opportunities abroad. So for many (the best?) of us the point of the debate was mostly: am I willing to leave my country in order to get a job anywhere else? (By the way my answer is: hell, yes!).

    This thread shows that this perspective was hopelessly optimistic.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    @Kathleen: Congratulations on beating the odds!

    There is in fact nothing wrong with a job at a community college, but graduate school will probably try to socialize you to believe otherwise.

    Indeed, I really can't imagine a better job for me (except teaching at a community college that hires TAs to grade homework).

    @Wally: I don't think your argument follows. Anyone can go to college who graduates from high school or gets a GED. What's in short supply are places at the kind of colleges your son should go to. The oversupply is of people who want to teach college, despite the enormous number of students.

  31. Heidi Kent said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    Speaking as a 46-year-old graduate student in linguistics, I have a fairly unique perspective on this discussion. I am *so very glad* I did not go straight into graduate school in 1985. I would have ended up with a shiny linguistics degree, some interesting theories, and no real clue as to how to apply it all outside of academia. As it is I’m focused on applied linguistics with some clear ideas about what kind of job I will be looking for.

    Two things come to mind.

    One, the disconnect between story and statistics, which I think is a function of our cognitive faculties. It is so much easier to grasp any given narrative than an abstract statistical truth. (This is how in Star Trek JJ Abrams was able to generate more sympathy for killing Spock’s mother than for the genocide of the other six billion inhabitants of Vulcan.) “Follow your dream” is also a very powerful force in our culture; the stories of the people who weren’t able to achieve their dream simply don’t get told with the same level of resonance.

    Two, life experience contributes in a very real way to our knowledge of what kinds of careers are out there. Furthermore, specifically, at the time when you graduate from college you really don’t have a clear idea of the world outside of academia, whereas academia itself is very salient. And if you like school enough to consider continuing, you are probably very comfortable there, and moreover all your mentors and role models are professors. As a senior in college I literally could not imagine what kind of job I might get that was not as a college professor.

  32. can't say said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    1. Don't waste your time applying for a Ph.D. program unless you have at least a 3.5 GPA.
    2. Don't go anywhere unless they pay you.
    3. Don't bother going to a third-tier institution. Nobody is going to hire a Ph.D. from the Western University of Southeastern State at North Smallville when they can have their pick of graduates from Princeton, Michigan and UCLA.
    4. Don't go unless you are willing to move anywhere in the entire country, both for grad school and (eventually) for a job. Likewise, if you are only willing to work at a fancy liberal arts college, don't go.

    I had a 3.98 undergrad GPA, got into all of the top-5 schools in my (humanities) field that I applied to (and a couple more), and went to one of those top 5 schools with 5 years of fellowship funding. 10 years later, my chances of getting a tenure-track job are not great.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    By the way, according to this on-line dictionary, Italian politica clientelare means "the practice of favouritism". Is there a word for clientelare in English? I think we could rephrase Emilio's comment as "The common wisdom is that Italian academia is based on favoritism."

  34. James C. said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    Anyone who wants to go to grad school should be strongly advised to take at least a year off and go do something else, be it work in an office job or just washing dishes. Interaction with people outside of the academy makes a potential grad student much more realistic and less naïve. In addition, one gets an excellent sense of perspective on things like deadlines, money, interpersonal politics, and so forth.

  35. Arnold Zwicky said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

    For the record: despite my trepidations (and my despair about the way so many LLog discussions have gone), this discussion has been remarkably on-topic, civil, and illuminating. Thank you all.

  36. marie-lucie said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

    I heartily agree with James C. In academia it is easy to become much too narrowly focused and to lose sight of the world at large and of the varied talents and experiences of its inhabitants.

    I remember reading about non-academic outlets for linguistics graduates some years ago, in the newsletter of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Georgetown (I think), where the editor had asked for contributions from relatively recent graduates working in non-academic jobs (at a time when academic jobs were still relatively plentiful). One sentence has stuck in my mind ever since: people taking such jobs will find that "intellectual brilliance is not limited to the academic world" – nor to some of the people who have been brilliant students.

  37. Mark P said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

    @ James C.
    I heartily agree that taking some time off to see the real world is a good idea. I spent about seven years doing that and I think I was much better prepared to appreciate school as a result. For one thing, it made me much more likely to choose a field with at least a reasonable chance of making a good living, whether I had ever considered such a field or not.

  38. DJ said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    I can certainly relate to a lot of this video, but I think I come at it from a slightly different perspective. I'm a second-year Master's student in literature at a small state university. We hear, constantly and from all sides, reminders of how difficult the job market/Ph.D. placement is (to which I can attest, as it's "that time of year" for going through the wringer). I can't, however, help but wonder whether there are professors who aren't like the one in the video (which was, coincidentally, sent to us all today by a graduate professor in our department). Since I decided to go to graduate school, midway through my undergraduate years, I have met only one professor who didn't seem to think that going to graduate school stood as a stark reminder of my obvious inability to consider the future. Several have made remarks to the effect that graduate school should be the last possible recourse of a person unable to find gainful employment in any other field.
    While I try to limit myself to negativity I can't seem avoid (e.g., constant worry about publication, deadlines, committee work, etc.), it's difficult not to suspect that the people telling me this are being condescending in a well-meaning way. That is, nearly all of the graduate students I've met, whether at my institution or at conferences, are deeply aware of the difficulties of finding a job after graduation and are even more keenly aware of the jeremiads frequently featured in the Chronicle. It is expected that graduate students be at least reasonably intelligent; mostly, we're able to understand the difficulties inherent in finding a job, especially since we hear about it no less than once a day. Graduate school may once have been different, or carried different expectations with it; I don't know.
    To some extent, then, I can't help but wonder from what position an exchange like this one is in any way aimed at graduate students, who I don't think really experience much idealism in the way of what graduate study can accomplish (or if we do, it's quickly argued out of us). I have worked private-sector jobs, and I mostly hated them. I am a T.A. at an institution that requires a 2/2 load and doesn't offer full remittance (though our stipend stretches a long way in this town), and I absolutely love what I do. The work required, going most days on four or five hours of sleep and no time to actually eat "meals," and the inevitability of never making much, is an exchange I knowingly entered into in order to spend at least these few years of my life in an academic environment, studying something I find exhilarating and getting to feel a genuine thrill at teaching. I realize I may not get to spend my life in academia — believe me, by now I get that — but it's worth it for the time being.

  39. Ann LJ. said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    I am eternally grateful to my honours supervisor who advised me against doing a PhD in his discipline. He told me that despitre my adjunct faculty status, I would never get a real job, because of all the gatekeeper strategies for keeping others out. A decade later with a PhD in another field entirely, I love my work as an academic despite the long hours of marking,the intensity of the teaching sessions and the bureaucracy. I also feel I have a moral obligation to warn my students about the parts of their career path that may not be compatible with satisfaction, recognition, children and partners, and the need for money. There is nothing wrong with telling students to look hard in some other direction.

  40. Zora said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    No one has said anything re the possibilities of independent scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. If you truly ARE a scholar, and it's impossible to get a paying job AS as scholar, then you might want to take the "Spinoza option": support yourself with a job that isn't too demanding but pays enough to live on, and research and write in your leisure time. This becomes more and more possible as books and papers move online and discussion moves to blogs.

    Possible but difficult. Articles reside behind paywalls, local libraries don't have the books you need, the necessary books cost hundreds of dollars (a big round of disdain for Brill here), and some academics seem to disdain independent scholars.

  41. James Kabala said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    The video was generally excellent but had one strange part: The student at first boasts of her A grades and thinks that is enough to qualify her for graduate school (a very common and realistic flaw that a bright undergraduate could fall into), but later she is said to have received a C in the class (in which case she just has delusions of grandeur that even an undergrad should recognize).

  42. Ann LJ. said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    Coming back to what Mr Punch said…my supervisor who said don't do a PhD in his discipline, also said not to do one until someone paid me to do it. That was great advice, although at the time it equated with doing nothing at all. When I finally became a candidate, my university paid my way, employed me to teach, and I graduated with no debt. I have colleagues who refused to take the convoluted and painful road of working as a research assistant, a teaching assistant, a dog's body, casually and on contracts…but they finsihed up somewher outside the academy …there is no other way and if you finish up doing a job that you love and that you feel makes a difference, why not? I didn't choose to work for 40 years in something boring and repetitive and secure.

  43. Allison said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

    Kathleen brings up community colleges. As someone who has been on multiple English hiring committees at a community college, I can tell you this: the competition for our jobs is intense. And don't bother applying if you've never taught at a community college. We want people who know what it means to teach 75-120 English composition students each quarter and LIKE it. Get a comp-rhetoric degree, not a literature degree, know something about ESL, and you'll have an edge.

  44. Tili S. said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:13 am

    Heidi said, "As a senior in college I literally could not imagine what kind of job I might get that was not as a college professor." I'm a college student now and I'm in a fairly similar situation: when I try to imagine my adult life, it's very hard to picture it except as basically a copy of the lives of adults I know, which means mostly my parents and professors. Since I don't really want to grow up to be my parents, and I'm increasingly aware that it's not smart to entertain fantasies of being a professor, what should I do to give myself broader horizons? Do I just need to get to know more adults until I find one whose job sounds plausible and pleasant, and then go after that?

  45. pAnonymous said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 1:41 am

    As an undergraduate I was a straight A student and very passionate about my major, but I never considered academia a possibility until my advisor mentioned it one day, and urged me to apply to grad school. That tiny seed took root, spouted, and now years later I'm lost in that dark forest called ABD, with no breadcrumbs to lead me home. Before we even talk about the bleak job market, what about the perils of grad school itself? My own experience has led me to lose all faith in my own abilities, to lose interest in the subject, and at various times even to lose the will to live. So while I'll always be grateful to my undergraduate advisor for all the mentorship and encouragement I got, I do wish she hadn't planted that seed. I hope all advisors out there will be very careful about recommending grad school or academia to their impressionable young advisees. Be very sure that the student really has what it takes to even survive grad school, let alone an actual faculty position!

  46. Justin L. said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:32 am

    @Jerry: I think nepotism is the closest semantic match in English.

    There's another one of those videos for my field, Political Science, going around our department right now. Unlike many of my fellow graduate students in PoliSci, I worked in a legislature for a couple years before coming to the realization that I enjoyed politics a lot more from a distance than up close. It's given me a lot of real world experience, which doesn't always match up to academic political science discourse.

    In the end, I'm glad I decided to go to graduate school, even if some days I wonder if I picked the right program. I know my job prospects may not be great–especially since I went to one of those fancy liberal arts colleges as an undergrad and hope to return to one. American politics is one field where you can't get much of a job outside academia unless you're willing to be partisan.

  47. Kathleen said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:02 am

    @can't say — I know. It's horrible. You can be an outstanding candidate (it sounds like you are!) and still come up empty. I try to warn my students that even students who do everything right can still wind up without a tenure-track job. Good luck to you on the job market!

    @Allison — You are, of course, absolutely right. In the comments above, I mentioned that I tell my students that there is nothing wrong with taking a job at a community college. I meant only to say that applying for such jobs is a real option, although at many grad schools the faculty regard it as a fallback for those who can't find anything better. In no way did I mean to imply that getting such a job is easy. Every week I have someone in my office telling me "I'll get my M.A. in history, and then I'll get a job teaching at the community college." I have to tell them that the community-college search is very competitive, and that many (probably most, by now) CCs can and do require hires to have both teaching experience and doctorates.

  48. Ned Danison said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    I might have missed it in the 45+ comments, but no one seems to mention that apart from all the practical considerations, a PhD is a big status marker, and that — admit it, folks — is the strongest kind of motivation.

  49. PP said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    " a PhD is a big status marker" – right:

  50. Alan said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 7:52 am

    When I completed my first degree, I was immediately offered a place in a Ph.D. program. I turned it down. In my first job, (public service), I was encouraged to do a Ph.D. part-time. I did a year, then abandoned both job and Ph.D.

    I have been working in the private sector for more than 20 years. Occasionally, out of nostalgia, I look at job adverts in academia. They usually leave me shaking my head in dismay: I make more than a full professor / departmental head.

    I satsfy my urge to teach with private tutoring and I satisfy urge to learn by reading. I haven't published anything for years, but I might try my hand again when I retire.

    And that is how I would advise any student who is not obviously brilliant.

  51. Mark P said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    " … periods of deep self-doubt and anxiety …"

    That's another issue for grad students. My brother got his PhD in materials science, and there were multiple occasions when went to his rented house and started packing, ready to give it up. I went through some of that, too, when I did mine. Graduate school was rewarding in many, many ways, but it wasn't a picnic. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I had doubted the possibility of even getting a job once I finished.

  52. Emilio said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    Sorry for using the funny word "clientelar". Of course it was meant to be an adjective related to "clientelism", which (Google says) is actually used in English at least by some social scientists. Needless to say, I was adapting the Italian word too straightforwardly.

  53. John said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    @Emilio: "Clientelism" is a very unusual word in English (for example, my spellchecker doesn't recognize it). To express what you wanted say, I'd put it as, "there is a patronage system in Italian academia." The problem with "nepotism" is that I think it tends to mean "favoring your blood relatives" (e.g. a prime minister giving a cabinet post to an underqualified cousin).

  54. Nijma said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    lost in that dark forest called ABD, with no breadcrumbs to lead me home.
    My cousin is ABD in three different fields, so has 3 masters. I don't think he wants a PhD, he just likes research.

  55. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    Aware of the refutation that the plural of anecdote is not data, I want to mention a friend of mine who 30 years ago as a brilliant history student took up carpentry to make ends meet. Work obligations interfered with graduate school so he stayed with carpentry. He now owns his own construction company and is having the time of his life.

    Take 10 minutes to (re)read Maugham's The Verger for an interesting treatment of extra education and unexpected life changes.

  56. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    Here's one from the other side of life.

    Back in college, one of my Linguistics professors cautioned me that if I did not go to graduate school IMMEDIATELY after graduation I was unlikely ever to return to academia.

    I blithely applied to only the top 3 schools in Computer Science (my chosen field) and none of them accepted me. Two years later I sent out some more applications and got accepted to one of the top 10 schools. I told my boss "goodbye"…and then an associate of his offered me triple my previous salary, and having to choose between that and having to find a roommate to get by – I never returned to academia.

    I can't really say this is a bad thing, I really love my job….but I still feel a bit wistful when I am in contact with those who took the path less (but, I guess, still too often) traveled.

  57. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    I second the independent scholar route. I was an undergrad in the early 1980s. By inclination I would have been a good fit for grad school in the humanities, but even back then I looked at the job market and decided against it. But this doesn't mean I can't do original research. It limits the scope, but there are interesting areas out there where an independent can do the research and get published. I have settled into early baseball history. I have a paying career I enjoy and which allows me the time to scratch my research itch. My colleagues may think it odd that my idea of a vacation is to visit a research library, but so what?

  58. Emilio said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    @John: Thank you very much, I think "patronage system" is the best match. "Nepotism" strictly speaking refers to blood relatives, which is not what I was thinking of. Anyway, roughly said, the complaint about Italian academia is that personal connections are by far the strongest title to pursue an academic career, and scientific achievements come (at best) second.

  59. Grep Agni said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    I never went to graduate school, but my wife and many of my friends did. None of them have academic jobs, though many are working in their field in industry. I know one person who dropped out of an English Literature PhD program to become a professional gambler. Seriously. He is now married and has a child and seems very happy

  60. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    @John: I'd add that for me, "nepotism" can include favoring in-laws as well as blood relatives.

    @Emilio: Another way to say what you were talking about is "Getting hired for an academic job in Italy is very political," although some people might understand that as meaning it has to do with your political beliefs rather than your connections.

    For paraphrases, "connections" is a good word. Also "old-boy network" (and a half-jocular American equivalent, "good-ol'-boy network") and the proverb "It's not what you know, it's who you know." As you can see, the phenomenon isn't limited to Italy. I have to admit it worked well for me once.

  61. Wishing for community said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    Tili S. has a good point. How should young people imagine their future lives, when their contact with adults is limited to parents and teachers? (And often the jobs of parents and friends' parents are opaque, taking place in a separate sphere.) Secondly, what can academically-inclined young people do to carry their intellectual interests forward in a community, outside of attending graduate school? I've been able to continue musical and sports pursuits fairly rigorously into my mid-thirties, but have not found ways to do the same with intellectual interests, which I would have preferred to the others. I find that my friends who have not joined academia feel similarly isolated intellectually (in the disparate geographies to which jobs and partners have sent us).

  62. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    As a 38-year-old recent M.A. graduate, who spent 2 decades in an entirely different career (which I still work in), this discussion is making me seriously reconsider whether or not to attempt to complete a Ph.D. I entered grad school with some serious misconceptions about what academia was all about. Although it was an expensive way to go about it, I think the most valuable things I've learned in this last degree have to do with the reality of the academic world.

  63. Marcus said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    I have to second what DJ said. I am a graduate student in the humanities with every intention of continuing to be such and hopefully to eventually make my career in academia, but I have no idea how a person could manage to go into this naively. I've been told, both in personal conversation and as part of a random (usually angry) tangent by a professor, many MANY times how frickin' hard the job market is, how hard the work is, how little you get paid, etc. And I always feel a little bit like, "Yeah, and…?" Why wouldn't it be hard? Why would you expect that going to into academia would beat out the private sector in terms of salary? I fully expect that at some point in my career as an academic I will experience rejection (most likely sooner than later since I'm applying for PhD programs for next year), that I'll have to move to go where the opportunities are (already have), that it will cause strain in my relationships (ditto; although, on the other hand, literally all of my friends, spread around the country, also my wife, are people I've met at school) — in other words, it won't come easy, and I'm probably not gonna be the lazy professor in the mansion on the hill. But what I never understand about this tirade is what exactly these people think someone like me SHOULD do — or what they think they should have done. Anything but academia! Great, so explain to me how that whole process is fundamentally different? I mean, it would involve having to work hard, right? And people in all fields often have to move to where the opportunities are. And find me a person who hasn't felt his/her relationships have been strained who doesn't consider career issues at least somewhat responsible.

    It always seems like at the heart of rants like this one is this assumption that being an academic should be an easy thing, a reward for being a smart & gifted person. But then it's not like that, so people get resentful and then take that resentment out on the perceived naivety of those fluffleheaded 20-somethings who don't know squat about anything and have their whole lives ahead of them. So, yeah, if you think grad school is gonna be cake, you're wrong and probably you should think harder before you do it. But that applies to literally every possible career path a person might choose.

  64. Malayer said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    No one seems to have mentioned that in some universities, the problem lies with the humanities departments themselves, which continue to admit far more graduate students than the market can bear. They do this for a number of reasons, including prestige, pressure from the administration, and the need for TA's to help reduce the undergraduate teaching load.

    [(myl) I believe that several people have mentioned this — but in particular, I quoted Peter Conn's CoHE article, and included a link to it.]

  65. Erin Jonaitis said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    There's another inhumane aspect of the current market in humanities and social sciences, and that's the shame that some academics associate with taking any job other than one in academic research. At my graduate institution, there was no discussion of teaching jobs, or of industry research; the only alumni that I ever heard mentioned again were those who had tenure-track jobs, or at the very least prestigious postdocs, at major research universities. Those of us who were unsure of our commitment to academia were extremely reluctant to say so in public for fear of reprisal from our advisors — having our funding yanked or other resources taken away (face time, office space, rec letters). Mine was actually extremely gracious and helpful when I told her I was thinking of taking another path, but prudence demanded that I delay that disclosure far longer than would have been ideal (i.e. until I was pretty certain I'd graduate), so she only had a few months to figure out how to be an effective mentor to someone who didn't want her exact job.

    This isn't some anomaly seen only in my particular field, department, or university, either. I belong to a great community of academic expats from across the humanities and social sciences (! check it out!), and joining the community requires a pretty strongly-worded confidentiality agreement for this reason: many people in academia who are thinking about leaving (for unhappiness, for lack of jobs, for reasons of financial need) are terrified of being punished in some way if other people find out. In the best of all possible worlds, the value system that generates this fear is myopic, to say the least, but in the current world, where getting a "good" job requires not only brilliance and tenacity, but also political savvy and an awful lot of luck, I find it downright abhorrent.

  66. Matthew said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    This is my first time to comment on this or any blog, but like Jason Eisner, I was stuck as a third-year graduate student in mathematics by the difference between my experience so far and many of the ones described here. I am at a large land-grant institution in the southern United States. I have many friends in the department, and we mostly seem to be reasonably happy and well-adjusted; the research is both fascinating and difficult, and the end results are clear-cut [either you proved a new theorem or you didn't]. We are paid quite handsomely as graduate students here–I am on a several year fellowship paying me almost three times as much as the poverty line for single people, with no required teaching duties during that time. I was able to graduate from college four years early, and so much less of my youth will be squandered if I can't find a job later. I also have a friendly advisor who is very good at what he does and gives us good advice. I don't personally know of anyone who wasn't able to get either a post-doc or a full-time teaching position at a four-year school after getting a Ph.D. here, although many people don't finish, of course; there are always good options like becoming an actuary.

    Even so, graduate school has not been a cakewalk. It is difficult, and I have gone through many cycles of fear, self-doubt, self-loathing, and depression, constantly wondering "am I good enough to make it?", "am I working hard enough?", "will it be possible to find work as a mathematician?", and "as a mathematician, will I be useful to society?", although these cycles are usually broken up by pure, intense joy at being allowed to learn and do mathematics like this. I just never realized how easy I have had it so far.

    By the way, I have very much enjoyed lurking around Language Log for the past year or so; the posts are always fascinating. I hope that my comment was not out of line.

  67. MikeM said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    Some of my best high school teachers had PhDs — in physics, chemistry, and English. They were the legacy of the first great depression (I graduated high school in 1955). If you're interested in inspiring students, that's another very good alternative.

  68. Nick said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    This is so depressing. I'm finishing my BA in linguistics next spring, and all I want is to keep studying, but this makes it sound like hell.

  69. Currently dissertating said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    As an undergrad, and while working on my MA, I thought that academia was the only logical career path for an intellectual person (as I believed myself to be). Now ABD and just starting to entertain the idea of non-academic job options, I realize how silly that mindset was. I have to admit I've enjoyed many aspects of my graduate school education, but wish I had been a little more creative in my thinking about career paths before I committed to whiling away my 20s, perpetually stressed out and poor.

  70. Jahi Chappell said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

    While I can understand, and partially agree with much of the discussion here, I'd like to see some people address Marcus' point: "in other words, it won't come easy, and I'm probably not gonna be the lazy professor in the mansion on the hill. But what I never understand about this tirade is what exactly these people think someone like me SHOULD do — or what they think they should have done. Anything but academia! Great, so explain to me how that whole process is fundamentally different?"

    I was fortunate enough to recently get a tenure-track job in my field (in natural sciences). The natural science/humanities-social science split is a real one, so that's a major difference in experiences — and, to be fair and honest, I didn't think there was any chance of me going into academia until I did. For me, at least, and my rather applied work in a broad field, the job market was actually probably better in academia. As a PhD, I'm "overqualified" for many jobs in the environmental movement, and nonprofits, think-tanks, and government offices only hire a very few scientists/direct analysts in this area. (And there is no private sector job where I can repeatedly and loudly decry, and research, the insanity of indefinite economic growth on a resource-finite planet or how not making more food but rather distributing it better would be better for sustainability and food security–not much of a profit model, that).

    So Marcus's point strikes very close to home, because although there *are* jobs doing something like what I do out there in the "real world," they pay less, have less security, and less freedom to follow my research (and advocacy based on it) wherever it may lead.

    Not that advocacy is a-ok encouraged in academia, even in applied fields — far from it. Reason #85 I didn't think I was going into it. But all things considered, assuming that I've not just purely sold out and had my ideals corrupted, I still would advise students to go into this field for a PhD if they care about the issues, or more particularly, *if they care about asking somewhat abstract questions about the issues.* If they can put up with that being a major, but not exclusive, focus of their life, they may be able to use academia as a good place to engage in work that's not rewarded in the private sector (and has no entirely private sector model–I suppose environmental consultancies are growing, but they seem by and large to offer to make large monstrous companies less monstrous, which is not going to cut it in the long analysis).

    All that is to say, what I should've said — I advise students based on the students' desires and skills themselves. I tell them, if they're willing to go through hard work and heartache, much skepticism, and perhaps have to make concessions to academic/intellectual traditions/norms/whatever that they think are silly or counterproductive, in order to gain the knowledge (and frankly, social standing) to do certain things in the environmental movement, go for it. If they simply want to change things, understand the issues, and act on the ground, they shouldn't be in academia anyway. They'll just be frustrated. In the end, I tell them it's like acting — if you can do anything else and be happy, you should do so. But for a subsection who either thirst for the academic life and pursuits, or are willing to feign such for a long time to get a socially and intellectually useful degree, it's the right choice. The alternatives would hardly be easier–like Marcus said, moving, long hours, etc. are not unique to academia. Perhaps what is unique is the additional years of training and pain required just to get to that point.

  71. Jahi Chappell said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    Or perhaps now that I'm part of the establishment, my anger against it that simmered throughout grad school has predictably subsided. As a friend who's a tenured professor and somewhat new mother said to me, "Of course, I have a lot at stake mentally in believing this is the best course, so I WOULD say that. Hmm–yeah, don't listen to me. Don't listen to any of us who are already invested in the system, we're hardly going to invalidate our own life-choices."

  72. onymous said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    Jason Eisner above wrote:

    By contrast, theoretical physicists looking for relevant jobs outside academia are as badly off as literary scholars.

    I'm a theoretical physicist. I know a number of people who've left the field. Almost every one of them got a very high-paying job in banking or finance. (And the recent financial crisis doesn't obviously seem to have brought this to a halt.)

  73. Kathleen said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 10:15 pm


    When I warn my students about graduate school, it is because I think they should have all the facts before they make a decision. The facts (as you know) are not rosy. Maybe some of them should go, and others probably shouldn't. But anyone who goes should know from day one just how risky it is. (I didn't. I went in thinking that everyone who worked hard and graduated would find a job.) The market was bad when I graduated several years ago, and it's worse now. I would think myself unethical if I didn't tell potential students the truth as I've seen it.

    If professors go on and on about how hard the job is (I usually don't) it is probably in reaction to the widespread belief that we work only a handful of hours a week. ("I'd love to be a professor! Teach a couple of classes and spend the rest of the week kicking back, wearing tweed, and thinking deep thoughts!") I doubt anyone means to imply that other people don't work hard. (Although, you know, I have known some ridiculously self-important professors, so maybe they do.)

    My concern isn't that my students will get out of grad school, get an academic job, and then be shocked that they have to work hard. My concern is that they will go to grad school, work hard at that for almost a decade, and then get out and have no job. (I also don't want them to find themselves forced to string together a string of adjunct classes at maybe $1500 a pop, with no benefits and no job security.)

    I am a historian. In my home state (one of the big square western ones) there may be an absolute maximum of twelve to fifteen tenured or tenure-track professors in my specific subfield. I would be willing to bet, however, that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of lawyers, computer programmers, postal employees, high school teachers, retail managers, insurance adjusters, systems analysts, small business owners, and realtors. Whether one wants to do any of those things, I don't know. I'm not even saying that it is easy to find a job in any of those fields. In some of them (like law), I know it isn't. However, it is entirely possible that no college in my home state has hired a tenure-track historian in my subfield in the past five years. I think it is safe to say that some lawyers, computer programmers, etc. have found jobs there during that time period.

    I've already described what I tell history majors who are thinking about grad school. I've also got a whole lot of advisees who are planning to go into teaching high school. I tell them that the regional market for high school teachers is absolutely saturated (we live an area of declining population), but that if they are willing to move to any of about twelve different Sunbelt states, they'll be able to get jobs. Graduates from the past several years have confirmed for me that this is true.

    I know this is no help at all. I never wanted to be a high school history teacher, a realtor, or a small-business owner. But what I wanted or didn't want doesn't have much to do with the job market. In the end, I feel confident that my students who want to be high school teachers can find jobs if they work hard and are willing to move. I am not at all confident that the same is true for those who want to be history professors. Shouldn't I tell them that before they make any decisions?

  74. Brigid M. said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    @ Justin L. I'd like to view this Poli Sci video you say has been circulating.

  75. Anonymous said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    I guess I had the opposite experience. I entered graduate school at age 30, married and with a child, because it was the only way I could see to progress in my field. (I'm in the biomedical sciences). I was not entirely sure that I wanted to or was good enough to do it, but I knew I wanted to do scientific research and I didn't want the kinds of jobs that were available for non-PhDs.

    Three years later I still doubt my abilities, but I also still think graduate school is valuable preparation for the kind of jobs I want so I have every reason to keep on trying. I have also not run into the misery and existential angst that seems to dog so many grad students (having a family helps, I think, because it forces you to get out of the lab and spend time with other people who couldn't care less about science).

    I should add that I consider myself a lifelong learner and I have always been interested in a wide variety of fields (language being one; that's why I read Language Log!). I chose biomedical sciences because it was not only interesting but also socially valuable and employable.

    My point is that graduate school should be viewed as professional preparation, not as an opportunity to indulge your love for a subject. Most 22-year-old college seniors have never held a full-time job and are ill-prepared to fully evaluate the college-professor career path. They don't think in terms of the working conditions. I would strongly recommend that everyone thinking of getting a Ph.D. spend five years working other jobs before they enter the program.

  76. Rod Johnson said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    Thanks to Erin for putting the "versatile Ph.D." idea out there. When I was a first-year grad student going through one of those cycles of self-doubt, I mentioned to one of my teachers that I wasn't sure I really belonged in academe. She replied, somewhat contemptuously, "Of course you belong here! You can't *do* anything else!"–which had the effect of simultaneously confirming that I was on the right path and demolishing my self-esteem. In retrospect, I think she was trying to convey a sort of world-weary, we're-all-in-this-together supportiveness, but at the time it was a poisonous combination, though I survived. Grad school often has that kind of insidious effect, slowly replacing enthusiasm with desperation as a motivating force. It's good to hear that people here are trying to think about their role as mentors, and at least considering that there are legitimate other paths for talented young people with a scholarly bent.

  77. Mary Bull said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    This isn't a new problem — it's only the most recent manifestation of the undergraduate's need to be realistic about life beyond the bachelor's degree. I took my degree in English Literature because I loved reading and writing. When I proposed going on to graduate school – in 1947 — my major professor said, "Do you really want to do research?" I hadn't realized that this was what graduate school would mean — I thought it would be a continuation of my undergrad life. So, I was lucky, I guess, that he raised this question.

    Through a series of unpredictable events, I ended up as a manuscript editor in a book-publishing house, right in the heart of reading and writing.

    But, I fell in love and got married, and we went where my husband's job took him, to small towns scattered across Tennessee and Kentucky. No reading-and-writing jobs there for me, but a very great need for teachers. I taught high-school English for a couple of years, was caught up in the problems of high-school freshmen whose skills were far below grade-level, and ended by taking a master's degree in education and continuing my teaching career in the elementary school.

    Believe me, English literature and the other arts are entirely relevant to the growth and development of young children. And it is very exciting and satisfying to spend a career lifetime working to meet those needs.

  78. Marcus said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 12:45 pm


    Maybe it is the case that most students thinking about going into academia are pretty naive about it, or even if they're not naive they haven't really conceived of the actual state of the academic job market. Given that context, I can certainly understand why advisers and professors would caution students — repeatedly — about making that decision. What bothers me about certain iterations of that warning — the video that prompted this thread included — is the idea that going into academia is the hardest possible thing someone can do, which then seems to lead to feeling some kind of pity/disdain for wannabe graduate students (usually this is not directed toward any individual students, just the general idea of graduate students). Only, I don't think it's actually true that going into academia is the hardest possible thing someone can do. Even going through years of graduate school only to find out at the end that I can't find a job as a professor doesn't seem like the end of the world to me. I mean, sure, it'll suck, a lot, if that happens. But that seems like a much better situation, to me, than any number of "safer" career paths that I could have followed. I have a friend who went to a really good business school, now has a pretty solid job, full benefits, etc., but when I talk to him about his daily routine, or talk to him about what he envisions for his future, I just don't see the appeal. I would *much* rather be doing what I'm doing now, and I would much rather take the risks and put in the effort it will take to continue doing it in the future. It might not be the most direct or sure path to financial security, but it's not like it's therefore likely I'll end up destitute, depressed, and friendless because of it. I mean, I guess what I really don't understand is the assumption that it's somehow irresponsible to advise younger people in anything but the most fundamentally pragmatic terms, as if they're all teetering on the edge of disaster and that decision to go to grad school might be the thing that pushes them over the edge into a lifetime of regret and despair.

    So, yes, continue telling students that the job market for professors is currently abysmal and that they should think long and hard before they decide to go in that direction. But remember that people, even young people, are always making decisions based on a lot of different criteria, and even if they set off in one direction only to find out later they don't get the outcome they'd hoped for doesn't mean they made the "wrong" decision, or that you didn't warn them enough. It may be that any of the apparently more certain careers would have been worse decision — for instance, I know now that I absolutely do not want to be a high school teacher, but when I was younger I thought it might be okay and if I would have listened to any number of people who suggested that as a better option I would most likely currently be trying to figure out what else I might be able to go into.

  79. Joanna said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    When I entered grad school (in Comp Lit!) in 1980, I was told there were no jobs. So some of this is not new at all. But not everyone who starts grad school will finish. Of my entry cohort of 20, only 2 of us finished "on time". Attrition was brutal and psychologically damaging for many. Of my friends who finished a PhD in other humanities fields, many of them went on to do other things–administration, publishing, editing, painting houses–and are much happier than they would have been in academia. So when I advise students now, I try to give them a honest appraisal of what grad school is really like and what professional options there are other than academia, but I also remind them that unless they are both profoundly in love with writing, research AND teaching, and willing to be intensely competitive for the rest of their lives, as well as being ready to move anywhere, this is not for them.

  80. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    @ Joanna:

    It's the competitive aspect that really gets me. I love writing and teaching, like doing research when I have the ability (I'm a father of two and finished my M.A. while working to support my family, so my time is pretty limited for studying) – but I had no idea going in how competitive academia can be. I am profoundly uncompetitive – I don't even like the process of applying for grants/scholarships, and have never done so. I realize now that this bodes poorly for my future success as an academic and am reconsidering it seriously, but I wish someone had given me even a hint about it at the outset.

  81. Kathleen said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 4:18 pm


    First, I do want to say that I wish you all the best in your academic career. It sounds like you know all the risks, and are going for it anyway. That takes courage. Good luck!

    However, I'm not quite sure why you are suggesting that professors claim that an academic career is the hardest thing you can do. At first, I thought that it was probably just something in the air at your university, as departments can be weirdly pathological in various ways. However, it looks like you said that the video promotes this idea, so I went back and watched it again. In order, here's what I saw the professor saying:

    If you want to be a professor in the humanities, you should know that:
    1. You may have to move somewhere that you don't want to live.
    2. You need to choose a specialized topic for graduate work.
    3. Getting a Ph.D. can take 7-9 years.
    4. Fewer than half of those who earn Ph.D.s will wind up with tenure.
    5. Adjuncts are poorly paid and often have no health benefits.
    6. Graduate assistants are poorly paid, and graduate students are likely to find themselves working with bitter professors.
    7. Students will lie to you.
    8. With Cs on your transcript, you aren't likely to get into grad school.
    9. If you marry an academic, you have a two-body problem.
    10. You must publish or perish.
    11. Committee work sucks up your time.
    12. Universities are facing funding cuts that are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

    These things are true. Does this mean that I have the hardest job ever? No. Not even close. But I read the video as saying "Don't romanticize the life of an academic," not "academics have the hardest jobs on earth."

    I have a friend who is a wonderfully talented professional musician. I know many people who romanticize his life: "Oh, it must be so wonderful to play the kazoo at such a very high level! What beautiful music you make! I would give anything to have a life like that!" If he made a video like this, he might describe the crappy hours, the playing in bars to make the rent, the long hours of tedious practice, the people who think he should play for free ('cause, you know, making music is its own reward), the frequent long-distance trips, the students who don't practice, and the general insecurity of his job.

    He doesn't hate his job, and I don't hate mine. I love my job (most of the time) even though there are many things about it that make me crazy. This video summed up many of the biggest frustrations that academics have about their jobs . . . but I don't see that it implies that other jobs don't also have problems.

  82. Marcus said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 6:57 pm


    So "the hardest job in the world" may have been a hyperbolic assessment of what the video is claiming. I *have* heard many times, however, and not just from people in my university, the sentiment expressed along the lines of, "People should only go into academia if they literally cannot imagine doing anything else," or, "I always tell students that if they can think of any other career they might be able to or might want to go into, they should do that instead." I think your breakdown of the video's claims about academic life is more accurate than mine was, though, because I was really describing something else. However, I also read the video as saying (humorously enough, to be fair) that students who want to go into graduate humanities studies are idealistic airheads, and I just don't think that's true. It may be true of some (I've known them), but most other graduate students I've known tend to have the complete opposite problem: an overwhelming sense of dread about their ultimate chances for a stable career in the academic world. And yet they're trying anyway. FWIW, the way you've characterized your warning to potential graduate students sounds completely reasonable, and I didn't mean to imply your concerns are misplaced. I was sort of responding to a synthesis of all the most frustrating versions of this warning I've encountered over the past several years. I promise that I won't name that warning "Kathleen!"

  83. Kathleen said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 8:07 pm


    Fair enough. I think I saw it differently because I saw it as a satire on the random unprepared undergraduates who come talk to professors about graduate school, not on actual graduate students. I would say that 80% of the students who come to talk to me about graduate school shouldn't go. They have straight Cs in their history classes, can't write a coherent five-page paper, or openly admit that they hate to read and write. They are thinking about graduate school because they like the History Channel and think that professors don't have to work very hard. I saw these students reflected in the video when the young lady (who got a C from the professor and never talks in class) insisted that she had to go to Yale. I talk to students like this all the time, and I refuse to write letters for them.

    In no way do I think that all students are like this. In the past few months, I've agreed to write letters for a young man with strong analytical skills and an overwhelming interest in colonial politics, and a young lady who writes like a pro, sought out multiple internships at local historical societies, and wants to study the material culture of the eighteenth century. Of course, I've warned them about the realities of the field, but I also wholeheartedly support their decision to pursue their dreams of being historians.

  84. Anonymous said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 9:50 pm


    Gotta stick up for Marcus. As a graduate student in the life sciences, I have been told the exact same thing as Marcus: If there is any other career you could possibly pursue, do that one and not academic science. In fact, the keynote speaker at our last department retreat said exactly that during his speech.

  85. John Cowan said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    I entered grad school on a literally nepotistic basis (the people involved are long since dead or retired, so I have no worries about saying so) before receiving my undergraduate degree, and very sensibly dropped out after less than a year with no degrees at all. I knew, having grown up in an academic family, that I never wanted to be one, and had gone to school more or less out of inertia. I got a job in a completely unrelated field and never looked back.

    However, I never let my schooling interfere with my (self-)education, which had begun very early and continues to this day. Everything I know about practically anything (and I do seem to know at least something about practically everything, a condition dubbed cowaniscience by a friend of mine) comes from books and articles.

  86. speegster said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    Given this is Language Log and the focus of this blog is ultimately language and linguistics (though of course the original post referenced the Humanities), I've a got a few specific questions:

    1. What about a PhD in *linguistics*? What do those in the field feel about current grad school students' prospects for employment in our own little corner of academia?

    [(myl) See these posts, and especially this one.]

    2. Someone asked earlier in the thread but was not answered: expertise in which subfields are most likely to land the student a job, or at least a decent postdoc position? Sociolinguistics? Applied? Theoretical? Comp ling?

    [(myl) Same answer.]

    3. As someone who has embarked upon a PhD (in sociolinguistics) outside of the US, what do people (both inside and out) think about the somewhat prevalent idea that the US is the be-all and end-all of postgraduate linguistic study? Could anyone with a non-US PhD in linguistics ever hope to find employment in a US department, for example?

    [(myl) it has certainly happened.]

    I'd be really interested to hear any thoughts anyone might have!

  87. Kym said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    I wanted to be a college professor ever since I found out that was how you got people to pay you for doing research, and, as the college I chose didn't offer a degree in Linguistics, which is the field I was most interested in, I settled for a double-major in Spanish (which I hate, but it was all my high school offered, so I started college with a ton of AP credits in it) and Philosophy, with a minor in Japanese. My family was seriously unhappy with this, and contacted deans and professors and got them to try to talk me into switching to Business. I managed to resist this, but in the process they also managed to talk me out of even trying grad school (despite the fact that I adore research, I despise writing and playing politics).

    So I gave up on my dream of being a researcher, and resigned myself to teaching high school. I managed to last one year at that (this might have had more to do with how much I hate Spanish than anything else, because of course that's what they made me teach). I ended up going back to the sorts of jobs I had in high school and college — customer service. Now I'll be 30 in a few months, still doing corporate tier 1 tech support, which I can honestly say I don't hate (I do like helping people), but I can't help feeling completely rudderless and disappointed with myself, even if I was born 20 years too late to have a realistic chance at getting to do what would make me happiest.

  88. Chris Brew said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    I do agree with Jason Eisner's comments about the excellent industrial and pretty good academic prospects for people who combine good Ph.Ds with good technical skills. And, done right, graduate school can be a very worthwhile experience, but I still don't feel comfortable advising it to many people. I can think of two where I was sure of my advice: one who was going to go in any case, and did, and one who wasn't sure, but had unusual skills and opportunities that would be very helpful to the research community if used. The latter person hasn't yet gone to graduate school, and probably will not, which is a loss to my world, but not necessarily to theirs.

  89. Jason Merchant said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    One resource I've been recommending to students (undergrad and grad) and to junior colleagues is John Goldsmith et al.'s Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career, which really lays out in specific detail (with particular experience from linguistics, given one of its three authors) what to expect in grad school and the tenure process beyond (if you're lucky enough to get a job). There are plenty of other general guides around (and plenty of satire), but for those of us who advise a lot of otherwise smart students (I was DUS for seven years), this book says almost all of it, and doesn't wear out your vocal cords. (I realize it's a plug for a colleague's book, but it really is the best straight-talking advice book I've seen.)

  90. John said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    @Kym: Take stock of your current position. Look around you and see what positions in the same company might be more attractive/remunerative. Look around outside, too. See if there's a conceivable path between where you are now and a better position (however you're defining it). Then work toward taking that upward or sideways step. Continue doing so, giving each change a year or two–just so you don't get tagged as flighty.

    If you don't see an absolutely clear path between A and Z, don't sweat it. Just keep moving. Opportunities change and develop; you change and develop.

    I went from a Christmas job in a department store to that store's display department, then their advertising department, then their corporate communications department (a seven-year journey) before going into the Foreign Service as an Information/Cultural Affairs Officer. I stayed in that for 25 years, most of it in very interesting countries.

    Come to think of it, the US Foreign Service sees more than a few people who decide that their first career wasn't what they really wanted after all. Doctors, lawyers, cops, university professors… they find that there's a different kind of fulfillment available. Of course, being willing to go anywhere in the world your bosses want to send you is an absolute requirement (health exceptions do pertain). Too, you have to put up with an exceptionally hierarchical bureaucracy, but not all that different from academia, I suspect. Sometimes, though, the stakes can be life-and-death, not just office politics.

  91. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    I think the most important advice to give anyone contemplating an academic career is a few tips on recognizing when you ought to get out.

    Only a small proportion make it. There's no point hiding that. That isn't a problem in itself except that academic communities tend to inculcate a certain level of fear and loathing for the outside world, which is silly, because the outside world isn't all that different.

    The only academic career worth having is a successful one, and that means getting a good start and not missing breaks along the way. a minority of all tenured faculty. Many of the rest – and this is an international generalization – are a) giving themselves ulcers with unfulfilled ambitions or b) are where they are for their skill with their elbows. Which is pretty much like other human organizations.

    If you are fairly honestly idealistic and moderately to decently talented in your subject, you do not want to spend most of the rest of your life struggling among them. And that means: if you do a bum PhD and you know it, take the title and get out. Don't hang around on some poorly paid insecure deal for too long and don't let people string you along on promises of a better position.

    Go cycle around the world, go live in a foreign country, try and find some freelance activity that involves getting paid for something close to what you do best. It won't make you rich but it gives you a chance to be working mostly for people who appreciate your efforts.

    Hat tip to Robert M. Sapolsky and his observations that alpha males are not the only successful members of baboon troops (A Primate's Memoir).

  92. Julie said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 4:05 am

    Wow. You mean, even if I'd tried, I'd have failed anyway? That's encouraging. Or not. Too late now anyway. After thirty years of confusion, missteps and poverty, I'm on a straight track to… more confusion, missteps and poverty. C'est la vie.

  93. The Humanities versus the Singularity « Christian Marks said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    […] faculty have reduced job prospects in a sluggish and unforgiving economy increasingly hostile to the humanities. Future historians will recognize them as among the first casualties of the Transhuman enterprise […]

  94. Rana said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 1:30 pm


    I think, in some ways, that you are misreading the message being sent by people who warn students away from graduate school. It's not that it's hard. It's not that academic work is hard. It's that the odds for professional success are crap, even for the best of the best.

    It's that you invest all that hard work, in the hopes of having a positive outcome somewhere along the line, but that is not guaranteed. Indeed, it's worse than being not a sure thing; it's more that it's a pretty sure thing that you, despite your brilliance, hard work, and doing all the right things, will still end up unemployed.

    In other words, what they are trying, fumblingly, to say is that grad school outcomes are sold as the rewards of a meritocracy, but the outcomes are in fact a lottery. Not only is a PhD not a guarantee of employment (which, yes, is naive to think), but being a brilliant, hard-working, self-sacrificing, willing to compromise PhD is also no guarantee. Remember, jobs are few, and you are competing with people just like yourself, who are brilliant, hard-working, have published, are willing to move to Podunk U to teach 100+ undergraduates basic history for $1500 a month, and so on. Granted, without these qualities, you have pretty much no chance of getting such work, but no chance and slim chance aren't as far apart as you seem to think.

    This is if one thinks that grad school's purpose is to obtain an academic job. If one has other motivations, then there are certainly positive aspects of having gone through grad school. One learns discipline, stubbornness, writing skills, and persistence, among other things. One does learn to work hard, and one gets to experience the pleasures of a "life of a mind."

    What one does not get is what a graduate of law school or medical school gets: a reasonable chance at employment in one's chosen profession.

    I wish you luck, because that, far more than ability or dedication, is what gets qualified people academic jobs these days.

  95. E said,

    October 17, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    Everyone posting here is a well-meaning soul. But I did find myself waiting for a response to the anonymous poster who in addition to finding graduate school disparaging, mentioned doubt about living at all – here is what I feel. A worm nerving about in my chest–about where the heart would be, if I knew the heart weren't on the left side–it's some anxiety–some of this advice, the do's and don'ts (which can so painfully be too late) seems only to provoke more confusion. What is it we can be sure of, in life? What is it we can truly advise? It seems there is no clear path, but the best and wisest advice seems one a professor once gave me: be patient with yourself.

RSS feed for comments on this post