Monday, March 06, 2006


Ask the Administrator: Threading the Needle

A new correspondent writes:


I am a 32 year old married mom who is taking my generals part time at a cc. I am planning to transfer to a private 4 year university as a junior. There I will earn a B.A. full time in an artsy humanities type discipline. As of late I've been entertaining the thought of continuing my education and someday becoming a professor of this discipline. I have a couple questions for you:

#1) Assuming I would graduate with my B.A. at the age of 36, and then I'll have another 3 (or 4 or ??? not sure how long grad school is) years to get my grad degree, I will be around 40 when I am ready to look for a professing job. How do you think this would affect how employers view me for a tenure track job? Will I be looked at as too "unaccomplished" for my age?? Or will I be looked at as "older and wiser" than my younger counterparts also just out of grad school? I kind of figure that maybe it's better to give tenure to someone older so you don't have to keep them around as long??? LOL

#2) Is it silly to pursue a job as a professor if staying in your area is important to you? I haven't yet decided if I'd be willing to relocate or not, but if I decide I'd rather not, would it be best to give up my aspirations to be a professor?

Thanks for your help. Incidentally, if it makes any difference, my own children will be starting college and junior high just as I'm graduating with my B.A.

The discipline in question usually tops out at an M.F.A., rather than a Ph.D., so the time estimate may be realistic – I really don’t know. M.F.A.-bearing readers out there: is four years realistic? For a humanities Ph.D., I would consider 4 years exceptionally fast, at least in the American system.

First of all, congratulations on managing to juggle marriage, work, kids, and college study! I never tried to do all that at once, and can’t imagine how people do it. One of the few moments of wisdom I had in my college years was the decision to go straight through to the Ph.D., since I knew that if I waited until I had a family, I’d never do it. I had to do it at 22 or not at all.
So I tip my cap to you.

That said, I think you’re focusing on the wrong question. As far as hiring goes, I don’t think age is the critical variable; age of degree is. If you have a newly-minted terminal degree, you’re new. That’s true whether you’re 27 or 47.

I’ve written before on the general unadvisability of targeting a career as a full-time professor in the liberal arts, so I’ll reiterate that, with a few points unique to your situation.

If your older kid hits college just as you’re entering grad school, I sincerely hope your husband makes megabucks. If he doesn’t, you’re in for a ridiculously rough ride, financially. Your kid’s tuition, plus your own (if any), plus the opportunity costs of your grad school (the money that you would have made, had you been working) could put most people under. Even if you get a fellowship, it won’t come anywhere close to what you would have made working, and paying tuition for your kid out of a fellowship just isn’t gonna work. Do some very cold math before making a decision here. Besides, paying off student loans into your forties or fifties makes saving for retirement, and the second kid’s college tuition, a little challenging.

(Anya Kamenetz’ new book Generation Debt is very good on these issues.)

To pull some numbers out of my keister: let’s say you and your husband make 40k each. Right now you’re going to a cc part-time, so maybe 2k of tuition. After tuition, your household has 78k. When you go to the four-year school (let’s say a public one), you’ll go full-time, so assume your earnings drop to 10k and your tuition moves to 5k. Now, your household has 45k. You graduate and hit grad school when Kid One hits college. Your earnings drop to zero, you get a tuition waiver, junior needs 5k tuition. Now, your household is down to 35k. That’s assuming a tuition waiver for you, and a cheap public college (while living at home) for junior, both of which are optimistic assumptions. With optimistic assumptions, you’re down to less than half of your current income. Not looking good. If junior goes away to school, or you have to pay tuition for yourself, it gets even worse. That’s not even mentioning the stress on the marriage, any layoffs or illnesses, the second kid’s eventual tuition, saving for retirement, etc.

Even if you’re willing to endure all of that, the academic job market (to the extent it exists) is national. It would require extraordinary luck to find a full-time, tenure-track position if you’re unwilling to move. (That’s even truer in the humanities, where the market tends to be the worst.) Anything is possible, but the odds are longer than I would ever advise betting years of your life on.

Honestly, I’d encourage you to explore different related career options while finishing your B.A. Although it’s wonderfully flattering for academics when bright students want to do what we do, from an ethical perspective, I can’t really be all that encouraging. The system is broken, the market horrific. You’re still early enough in your progress that many options are open to you. With the kind of drive you’ve demonstrated by juggling everything you’re juggling, you should be able to prosper in any field that isn’t broken beyond repair. This system is.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Dean Dad explains the issues well, I think.

I also congratulate you on being back in school! Way to go!

Let me add the further complication that IF you're going to go to a PhD program, it behooves you to be willing to move because you should apply to at least a 5-6 programs and choose the best fit for yourself when you get accepted.

And then what Dean Dad said about the national market is absolutely true, too. Look at how many schools are in your area, and how many positions they possibly have.

I don't think the age thing is really an issue, but the location thing is in a BIG way.
I wish the age issue weren't important, but it sometimes is. I know of a number of candidates whose ages were an issue in certain searches. The rationale on the hiring institution went, "Why should we hire someone further along in their career over someone so early in theirs?" Strange reasoning, given that one case involved a one-year-old Ph.D. with a book submitted, multiple articles, and many years of teaching vs. an ABD currently in a first year of teaching. The real issue? Age: the first candidate was mid-30s, the other mid-20s. Age discrimination really does show up occasionally, even if masquerading as concern about time to degree or time since college.
Dean Dad gives some good advice here, especialy about the national search being a must. I finished my B.A. as a single mom of two--one in high school, one in middle school when I moved them with me out-of-state for graduate school. While finishing my MFA I decided there was more I needed to know and got my Ph.D. It all sounds foolhardy and expensive and it was. I got a tenure-track job, which I suppose justifies the family shakeups, but it could have turned out very differently. My son ended up dropping out and getting his G.E.D. and my daughter was bitterly unhappy. I ended up home schooling her during my last year of Ph.D. coursework, and both of my kids are fine now and have no regrets, but this was a major, life-shaking change for all of us. My only excuse is that I was broke anyway with few career options in my location without further education. I was lucky enough to be offered G.A. positions with more than one school (choices are good) each time, giving me the chance to do it at all. However, I suspect my situation differed fom yours in that I had little to give up financially (I sold my house, but knew I'd be kissing that equity goodbye)and everything to gain if it turned out well. Ask yourself seriously if any other options appeal to you because this road is heavily travelled and few get to the destination. I decided to do it, but I also resolved that if I didn't get a tenure-track job and ended up in adjunct-city, I would still be ahead of the game compared to where I started.

If you limit yourself to local-only in the end, you doom yourself. I sent out 70 applications and had two campus interviews. There was one job in my home area, but I didn't apply for it because it was primarily administrative, and you don't have to think too hard to come up with drawbacks to being in charge of a major program while not having the security of tenure. Truly, the likelihood of getting a job in your hometown is ridiculously small. There is also the "prophet not honored in his/her home town" syndrome to contend with as well as policies that prohibit hiring past students for tenure-track jobs. Don't do this if your dream is to be a prof at Hometown U. It won't happen (except for adjunct work).
Oh man, here we go again!

Yes, age is going to be an issue.

Yes, limiting yourself to a "local search" is going to be a major issue.


Please don't be discouraged by those who go on about the sad state of the academic job market. If it is something that you love doing and are willing to make the sacrifices involved AND people who have made a success at it themselves think you are made of the right stuff, do it. Go into it with eyes wide open - it is a tough job market and DD isn't too far off on the financial hardships involved - but don't let the disgruntled turn you away. Seek the frank advice of sucessful people in academia. (Writing to an anonymous blog for advice is not where I would begin.)
If your MFA is at all flexible and your husband supportive, then it might be a good move.

I tend to agree that the job market is horrible for humanities, but my mom's advise is often good, and Mom said that you should go to school for what really interests you and the rest will take care of itself. In my case, she was right.... I'm in a tenure-track job in a city we moved to for hubby's graduate ed.
Dean Dad states the truth that should have been said a very, very long time ago: 'The system is broken, the market horrific.'

When I started grad school in 1981, in Romance Language and Literature (talk about humanities and a useless area, especially because I am a medievalist!!!), they told us: 'Don't worry--the market will ease up about the time you get out. Look, there are all these professors retiring.'

And, lo, they retired, and the universities took away their tenure-track positions and turned them into 'junkie' positions. So... when I got my PhD in 1990, they said: 'Oh don't worry, the market will get better.'

Uhuh. I am now ordained (the other track I had been following even in grad school). At least in my denomination, I have 'tenure.' The pay ain't great but I am not dealing with as quite a busted system.
I agree with earlier comments that encouraged you to follow your passion, but do so with your eyes wide open.

I received my BA at the end of my daughter's first year of college. My husband and I moved out of state so I could go to grad school. Sold the house, left our daughter behind. Tough, very tough.

Finished my master's in a professional field and found a position in the same state as my master's program. A year later I decided that I wanted the Ph.D. and went back to school part-time. Fortunately, my job is an administrative position in a community college so my aspirations for a Ph.D. are supported by my dean and my college president. Still it has been a tough haul to get to ABD. After I finish, my husband and I will most likely move as I pursue a tenure track position; however, I may choose to stay in my current position. If it continues to challenge me, as it has these past five now nearly six years, I am content where I am. If we move, our only hope at this point is that any move will take us closer to our daughter and son-in-law.

I feel fortunate. Yes, I have a heavy student loan debt load. But we have managed our finances well and have minimal debt other than our house. Considering that I now make nearly four times what I did (adjusting for inflation) before I went back to school, the sacrifice has been worth it.

But I also know that I have been very lucky. The cost of my BA as half what it would have been because I received a scholarship. My master's was heavily subsidized by yet another scholarship. And I was able to use my master's to pay for my Ph.D. since my master's is in a professional field - my cc pays for half my tuition and my Ph.D. fellowship pays the other half so a portion of the costs of my Ph.D. are covered. Still I think my luck is due in part to good planning on my part and to finding my passion. When you love something enough, you find a way to make it work.

Follow your passion if you wish, but do it with a full awareness of the costs and the benefits to you and your family. Make sure everyone's on board with the decision. I know it has not been easy for my daughter, but she says that for her it was worth it because I am a much happier person now that I am no longer stuck in a dead-end job that I hate. And it motivated her to do things in the traditional order: college, career, marriage, house, and now a baby. So I guess we ended up with a happy ending, or at least it's in sight.

Good luck.
Oh my God you just depressed the hell out of me and I'm already a professor. Junior's not going to college!
I agree with the commenters who mention that age is often an issue. Though, of course, that will be field-dependent. I have noticed that in my area, they hesitate to take in PhD students that are deemed too old. (hitting 30 when starting a PhD seems the big barrier here. Candidates have been declined for age reasons even though they had spent their "youth" getting a PhD in another area and are thus technically probably way ahead of just-graduated undergrads applying.)
My point being - if your area has an age issue, you are likely to encounter it already when you apply for a PhD, they will tell you then. That is at any rate preferable to going through 5 years of expensive grad school and then notice later.
First of all, Dean Dad is absolutely right to trot out the dismal numbers and realities for you to really confront.

I'm perhaps the exception that proves the rule--went back for my doctorate in my 30s, got a husband, child (now 3) and t-t job down the road from grad school city.

I found nothing awkward in being a new PHD/job candidate of around 40 (I found more resistance to the super-young candidates, who had never been out of school), but I know my experience in staying local, in having a position at a school that will essentially cover my daughter's tuition here or at a linked private liberal arts college, and being able to have a house, save for retirement, and pay off my considerable loans, is anything but typical.

That said, I love my job and am grateful every day that I flew in the face of good sense.

Oh, and I took closer to 10 years than 4 years to finish my degree in the Humanities/literature area
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