Thursday, January 14, 2010


The Loss of Legibility, Or, Why Do People Still Pile Into Grad School?

Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts?

My generation had an excuse; we were told that a great wave of retirements was imminent, after which jobs would spring from the ground like mushrooms. In other words, we were lied to.

But the adjunct trend is so well-established at this point, and the economic irrationality of grad school so screamingly obvious, that it's fair to wonder why many departments are actually experiencing record applications.

I have a few thoughts, but I invite others.

First, of course, is True Love. Some people can't imagine doing anything else, and won't be dissuaded. I won't discount the idea that people will do self-defeating things for love, but I don't think that explains variations over time. I'd assume that True Love is constant over time, so we need to look at something else to explain variations.

Second is self-delusion. Here again, though, I don't think self-delusion fluctuates with economic cycles, so I'm inclined to assume that this holds pretty constant.

Third is the "port in a storm" hypothesis. If there aren't any jobs to be had anyway, why not ride out the recession in grad school? You get loan deferments, maybe a fellowship or T.A. line, a dignified excuse for poverty, and more education. Applications tend to climb during recessions, so I imagine there's something to this. The degree may not pay off, but if nothing else is paying off either, what the hell?

(The problem with this line of reasoning is that grad school lasts a lot longer than most storms.)

In a conversation with a colleague, though, I heard a fourth explanation, and it made sense to me. I'll call it the Loss of Legibility.

In my college days, in the 80's, we assumed that there were several relatively clear paths to upper-middle-class prosperity. You could go pre-med, or pre-law, or sign up with an investment bank, or do 'consulting,' or go to grad school to prepare to ride the great wave of retirements. Each of those options offered a legible path. It had steps, it had hoops, you knew (more or less) what to do. Each had pitfalls and risks, but at least you could imagine how to get there from here.

In the early 90's, the era of "post-" everything, the old order stopped hiring, but the new was still emerging. A cohort that had played by the old rules found itself locked out, blocked by Boomers and bad economics.

Now, the old stuff is largely dead, and even the New Economy stuff isn't what it used to be. But academia still offers a surface legibility. Yes, the odds are daunting, but good students have spent years rising to the top of academic competitions. There's still a path, there are still hoops, there are still rules. They don't really work very often anymore, but they're there. As the rest of the economy has become less legible, this holds real (if misguided) appeal.

I think this explains some of the wounded indignation people express when they can't get the tenure-track jobs they wanted. In many other lines of work, it's simply understood that the climate of opportunity fluctuates, and you'll get both good breaks and bad. But academia holds tenaciously to the myth of legibility. When you follow the rules for twenty years, only to find nothing waiting for you at the end, it's easy to move to angry disbelief. Academia likes to tell itself that it's immune to economics, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It's supposed to be clear and fair, economics be damned. So some people hang on for years on end, waiting to redeem what they think they're owed.

The problem, of course, is that academia isn't immune to economics, and can't be. And the huge wave of applicants now will discover that that in some really unwelcome ways in a few years.

The meritocratic myth does untold damage. Part of the damage, I think, comes from people hanging on to the dream for far too long, since doing something else would constitute failure. The failure isn't theirs, but it feels like it, and that counts for something.

But until people stop buying the myth of the legible path, I suspect this will continue. I hope not, but it will. In the meantime, I think we owe it to the next generation to steer them away from grad school whenever possible. The path is legible, but it doesn't lead anywhere good.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those on the brink of grad school, I'd like to hear your theories. Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts? And what do you make of the legibility theory?

This makes a lot of sense to me. I recently posted about trying to talk a young colleague of mine out of graduate school in philosophy (philosophy!), and I got the "some people are still getting good jobs" line. Well, yes, they are. It's just that it isn't the way to bet. People win the lottery, too.

This helps clarify some of the reasons WHY people go despite all of the odds. What I also wonder is how many people think they're going to go just to go, because it will be fun / interesting / distracting while they figure out their lives, and then the forward imperative of the program jets them out into trying-to-get-a-tt-job. More than we expect, I think.
I graduated with high honors in an undergrad liberal arts degree, but couldn't find a good job. After a few years working retail, I went to grad school in order to up my credentials. I'm almost done with my masters, and this time I'm working a lot harder on making connections and hoping to actually get a decent job once I get my masters...

So for me it was a calculated decision that the jump from new MA to professional job would be easier than the jump from sales clerk to professional job, in the eyes of those who hire. We'll see how it plays out...
5) A lot of college grads hop on the grad school train as an excuse to defer growing up and getting a job. It seems perfectly logical at the time; however, once on, there's no clear exit point. Nobody wants to be the person who started out getting a doctorate and leaves with just an MA. This is a curious attitude given that the doctorate is only marginally less useless in the modern economy, but it's real.

6) Grad school remains a sponge for a lot of mediocre talent; people who are of above-average intelligence but without any real analytical or quantitative skill. In other words, people who wouldn't make it in the law, finance, business, etc. but are entirely capable of replicating whatever's trendy in academia these days.
As a grad student from a working class background, the idea of legibility is so true.

Culturally, we are still told that education is one of very few ways to "climb" out of our class position. So, if you have also been told for 90% of your life that you are good at school, once you are in for your MA, the PhD seems like the next logical step in the path.

It wasn't until after course work and comps, that I started to question what I was doing and why.
I think legibility is a big thing, especially for people in fields that don't automatically translate into a career path. That is, a lot of undergrads who major in psychology can go on to get a job in psychology (admittedly sometimes they need another degree, but the career path seems relatively clear.). Conversely, majors like history, English, or philosophy don't track quite so clearly into specific jobs.

And lord knows undergraduate advisors don't always have any idea how to advise students in those fields into more legible paths. (Hell, I didn't, when it was part of my job.)

Will admit, though, to finding anonymous's idea that grad school is made up of people who can't hack law, business, etc., more than a little insulting. (Though slightly amusing given my prof's assessment yesterday of the rigor of MBA programs, which was not flattering.)
I think the "port in a storm" holds for why the sudden increase over the last several years, but you're forgetting the economic model of success in the 90's was ANY DEGREE would lead to success. So in the last 10 years you've ended up with a lot of people getting BAs. Once they couldn't find jobs with their BA (like Anna) they decided to go back to grad school. Like Julie says, they aren't necessarily planning to go on to tt-job, it just happens. I know several people in PhD programs right now who "don't want to teach." They seem to be under the impression with a doctorate in [liberal arts discipline] they can "work in industry." So I don't think people are ignorant about the few jobs in academia, they are just under the impression there's a lot more options for PhDs. When usually there isn't.
I think Frautech made a very strong point - for a while it was any degree was the key to success. Instead of choosing a career, students choose a course of study. As a scholarly geek myself (looking to start the PhD path in a few years) I can understand that, but it is imperative for the student to translate the concepts into the realities.

My first task at my first job - sweeping a parking lot. It's not all roses and tweed jackets! Anna - you may find that your retail job can be a real asset. My retail work history during college was what sealed the deal for several of my positions.
I graduated from a SLAC and entered grad school in 2002. I definitely think there's something to your legibiity idea, plus a hefty dose of "I had no idea the academic job market is the way it is." Bad advising, perhaps, but then I think about the age and life paths of my undergrad advisers, and it's not clear to me that *they* realized that either.
I recently turned in PhD applications for a "useless humanities degree." I have a BA and two MAs in the humanities and am 25 yrs old. I understand that no job exists at the end of a PhD. I don't buy into the myth of the legible path. I also don't think I (or my friends who are in similar positions) fit into any of these categories. I do truly love the field, but I can imagine doing and loving another profession. But my choice to continue with a humanities education (given I receive funding) is because I would love the opportunity to read, write, and research with a community of people who are interested in similar questions. Five years of in depth learning, thinking, and writing about a subject I care deeply about sounds good to me. I have no delusions of an academic job, but why not take five years to do this if it doesn't harm me economically.
I got my doctorate because I was teaching in a public school and advanced degrees put me on a higher tier of pay. The doctorate put me at the highest pay, but not as high as going to administration. I was intelligent, had a mentor, so I did it.

By the time I finished, if I wanted to use my new doctorate in a t-t, I would have had to move to another state. Things had changed in my and my family's lives, and we weren't willing to make the move, so I became an adjunct part time and kept my full time job.

At the time I started the doctorate program, I thought I had something to offer the field in research, writing, and teaching. Six years later, my circumstances had changed and so had the job opportunities. By the time I was writing the dissertation, I was determined to finish even if I never got to research, write, or teach. I was fortunate because I had a supporting job and spouse.

The process of getting the doctorate was life changing in my discipline and attitude. But it didn't fit the life I had when I finished it. Quitting it before finishing would have been unthinkable to me even if I wouldn't ever use it.

Maybe quitting before finishing would be unthinkable to many new doctorates. Personal principles.
I think the legibility path makes sense. I also think that people under 40 have been sold on the idea that you have to love your job. Sure, it would be nice to have a job that you love (tenure-track academic), but at the expense of personal well-being, family life and financial security? Much better, in my opinion, to have a job that you like okay and that allows you enough time, energy and compensation to enjoy the rest of your life. When young people (and I speak as one of them) enter grad school, they don’t often take into account things like “Will my career be compatible with that of my future spouse?,” “Can I realistically support children on an adjunct’s wages?,” and “Who will take care of my aging parents if I live all the way across the country?” The idea of having a job that they are passionate about outweighs those concerns, if they think about them at all. By the time these realities set in, many people have invested years of their life in grad school and it’s difficult for to make a change.
Well said, but just a note- I don't think it's much better in biological sciences. And there *is* an industry out there looking for us, it's just they need a lot more experienced BA techs with good hands than they need thinkers.
To Anonymous at 7:31 am. Just be sure to also consider the opportunity costs of being out of the wage-earning world for the duration of grad school, in addition to the question of funding. While you are in school your peers will have started saving for retirement (or should), for a downpayment on a house, etc, and will have the ability to put themselves in a financially much better place than living on a stipend with no retirement or savings and potentially no job at the end of the line. Also, your degree might make you over-qualified to take a lot of other non-academic jobs, too.

I'm not saying I was smart enough to know about these costs ahead of time. And I'm also one of the lucky ones who had a full stipend and tuition waiver in grad school, a degree in a field that still has a relatively decent market, and a t-t job with a decent salary. But I'm still kicking myself for not putting even $10 a month into a ROTH IRA starting in my 20s. And I only bought a house in my late 30s.

So, just be aware of all the factors.
I was involved in competitive speech and debate as an undergrad. Many speech programs depended on grad assistants to keep the teams running. So you would compete for four years, then someone would offer you a way to stay involved in the only two things you knew: speech and school. Why the hell wouldn't you take that opportunity? A lot of undergrads saw that cycle repeated over and over, nobody ever complained or questioned the wisdom of it. In fact, I think a lot of competitors saw grad school merely as a mechanism to stay involved in the activity. I can't speak to the other fields, but Com can always count on legions of speech nerds lining up for their new coaching jobs.
My experience with guiding undergrads is that they see getting a Ph.D. as winning. For the competitive, it's an Ultimate Achievement. Too bad the prize isn't always so spendable. Also, I think they don't really understand that whatever one achieves, there is always someone else who did it better.
I used to work with mature adults working on Ph.D.s. We had no aid, so they paid for their degree. I can't tell you how many people would say "getting a Ph.D. has always been my dream" -- albeit one disconnected from reality, and in many cases disconnected from employment. I never understood it.
"lord knows undergraduate advisors don't always have any idea how to advise students in those fields [English, phil., history, etc] into more legible paths"

This. Combined with "the economic model of success in the 90's was ANY DEGREE would lead to success"

Plus even non-advisors in students' lives don't always have a good handle on what one does with a degree in [liberal art X].

I'm always fascinated by the questions and answers on Ask Metafilter to various permutations of the questions "should I go to grad school?" and "what can I do with a degree in [X]?" See the tag "degree" for example.

I personally had that issue: although I was very certain that I was not interested in teaching of any kind, I had no idea what else I could end up doing. I was lucky enough to bumble into a reasonably satisfying and remunerative career, but I know of others who have had roundabout and/or dead-end paths. So I can see where grad school seems like the most straightforward idea.
I think lots of people have no idea how bad the academic job market it and they are confident of their ability to come out on top.

I opted for a two year professional masters degree even though I have academic leanings because I remember the fall out of my dad not getting tenure. I remember an uncle who got it on appeal (they though ecology was a fad).
Personally, I think a grad degree is a waste these days. There is almost no reason to have one if it doesn't:
A lead to a steady job
B Is a good Investment.(help you gain the money spent and outearn those without such degrees)

Personally, I dont like paying for school. It seems a waste.

What is your opinion on practical grad school degrees? Like those in physical therapy?
I'm a few years younger than you DD but I was also told "Your current profs will retire soon so get your grad degree now." And so far only one of them has retired! I was never told how hard it would be to find a job, we were only told of the success stories. I to grad school because it was the only thing I was good at: school. I couldn't seem to find a job after my BS so it just seemed to make sense. I'm not sure I'd do it this way knowing what I know now....but what do you suggest when there aren't ANY jobs in any field?
SA summed it up - students follow this path because we encourage them to. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a prof push a smart student to consider grad school. They should be encouraging them to look at MBAs or professional master's - if they want the student to have a decent career. Not everyone who loves science has to do research. I think it is very hard for a group of people who spent most of their 20's and 30's in school on the path to their faculty position to give students advice about following different pathes.
From what I can tell, the situation is this:
1. Understanding GPA to be critical to acceptance, students interested in law go into bachelors in fields they think are easy As. English, media studies, etc. Also improves their writing chops I guess.
2. The subprime securities kept a lot of lawyers employed going over contracts for mortgages, investment firm CDOs, credit default swaps, etc. When this unwinds there's suddenly a lot of big firms with more lawyers than clients. Hiring freezes begin, and offers firms made to students are rescinded ("indefinitely deferred").
3. This law school armageddon is publicly documented in NYTimes. People who spend their lives grooming for law school notice.
4. Suddenly, a large number of people aiming for law school hedge their bets with grad school applications, figuring they can improve their odds of acceptance once the market clears.
I think the social premium on "doing what you love" keeps increasing, and academia (especially in humanities) is flypaper for a certain kind of idealist. So even if "True Love" itself isn't on the up, the proportion who heed its call is.
Not everyone who loves science has to do research. I think it is very hard for a group of people who spent most of their 20's and 30's in school on the path to their faculty position to give students advice about following different pathes.
A PhD in the sciences can lead to a wide variety of job choices. Doing the research is what develops these in demand skill sets. Friends have gotten jobs consulting, policy, industry, editing, communication, government, non-profits, etc.

My advice to undergraduates thinking of applying to grad school in the sciences is to look at all the job options outside of being a faculty member. I let them know the reality of that particular job market. This includes explaining at a research university the role grants play in everything. Many students entering grad school have no clue about such things and I am afraid an alarming number of recent PhDs/post-docs are just as ignorant.

I would add to the list lack of information being based to undergraduates to allow them to make a truly informed decision.
Thanks for this post--very perceptive. It certainly described my path, oh, twenty years ago, though I also blame the Bowen Report for encouraging so many of us to grad school.

I want to challenge one thing people have written here -- that some go to grad school in the humanities for the "love of it." If they do so, they've shown they haven't understood the concept of grad school. As others have said, graduate school isn't a place for people to pursue what they love--it's a place for people to be trained to be professional scholars. If you merely want to read, say, literature, and aren't interested in being a literature professor, then read literature; don't go to grad school. Talking about going to grad school merely because you love the subject, but don't want to be a professional, makes about as much sense as someone saying you want to go to medical school but don't really want to be a doctor.
Count me as another vote of support for the legibility hypothesis. I knew back in college that I wanted to be a professor and researcher, and I was lucky enough to get excellent advice from my advisors: don't go straight to grad school! Try out the real world, see what it's like to pay your bills in full, know where your health insurance will come from, be an adult before returning to extended adolescence, etc.

I got a job pretty easily, but I could also see that, with my skill set, I'd never be more than a paralegal if I didn't do something drastic. Meanwhile, I had time to think about what I would do if I were to commit myself to grad school, so that I wouldn't be one of those aimless "well, I like to read and study" people who reliably crash and burn. I knew the statistical odds against getting a t-t job, I knew how long and hard the road would be, and even that couldn't stop me, because that's what I wanted (and still want) to do.

And even for me, there's a degree to which I fall into your description, in that I sometimes feel like I'm getting into academia right when a bunch of long-held assumptions are being overturned, and no one has any idea what the path to a long-term secure career is, or if there will be one at all.
Is the explanation of why people still pile into grad school what he chooses to call the loss of legibility? Legibility? (Capable of being read.) Loss of legibility of what? The paths (or a path?) to upper-middle-class prosperity? Were they ever legible? Did he mean clear? The paths to that goal have seldom been clear except in retrospect. So much depends on personality, energy, ability, resources, luck, timing, etc., all peculiar to the individual and his situation that the way forward has rarely been clear.

Just because there is a path doesn't mean that an individual can go the distance. There is good reason th believe that for most it has been more a series of stepping-stones than a path.

The rest of the economy has become less legible? Less clear? Was it ever clear? The more we learn of the economy, the less we know. It has aleays been that way.

Academia holds tenaciously to the myth of legibility of what? Is that how the insiders really feel, or those who want to enter? Or is that the 'hustle' to fill next year's classes?

Dean Dad asks, What do you make of the legibility theory? I don't think the theory matters. The usefulness to any person of graduate school in the humanities depends on the talent and personality of the individual and the sincere interest in being a professional scholar, with all that that means. It cannot be counted on as a good stepping stone to something else.
To Anonymous at 7:31 AM:

Just to be clear, your comment about "funding" only makes sense if you can live entirely on your grad student stipend for the entire duration of your PhD program, so you can leave with your degree and a few grand in the bank. That is what I did during my PhD program at a time when the job situation was about as bad as it is now.

The opportunity costs only make sense if you could get a job, and one can view them as the real cost of the joy that comes from a few years of deep learning. Just don't go into debt doing it.
I think you nailed it with "legibility", but only because so few faculty have any idea what sorts of jobs graduates in a given field can take. They are mostly out of touch with anyone who does not continue into academia.

I've blogged about this point and the next one in some detail under the "jobs" tag.

This is a big problem in physics, where only 1/3 of PhDs end up in permanent academic jobs. It must be horrid in humanities, but I have never seen any data to back up the blather. What does an employment survey of all humanities PhDs show about 5 years down the road?

But I take some exception to your list of ways to reach an upper middle class income. You left out such old standards as a mere BS in engineering, and the odds of winning a professors job with an upper middle class salary were probably not as good as the odds of getting into med school.
"Personally, I dont like paying for school. It seems a waste." (sic)

1. Someone pays for school, if not you tax-payers, of which you probably are one.
2. School might have been wasted on you, since your writing lacks coherence and doesn't employ basic grammar or display much of an attempt at correct punctuation.
About that job market, and the need for PhD's. As recently as January 6, 2010 it was reported that Canada needed to graduate MORE PhDs (link below), especially in science and technology, or else we are going to to keep falling behind in higher education, scientific and techological R&D, and that amorphous thing called "innovation". So while this isn't about needed more people in the Humanities, it is about needing more PhDs, and to many people more just means more, they don't care so much about more of what.

Like any other department, Humanities departments get cold, hard cash for graduate students, and they aren't going to stop the gravy train by lowering the numbers. At both of the institutions I teach at in Canada they are increasing graduate student enrollments - job market be damned, welfare of their students be damned. This is clearly not sustainable, but hey, they get dollars and cheap labour, which they've become addicted to. And the people who LOVE what they do (and I'd count myself as one of these) play along.

Aside from LOVE, we play along because people are still spinning that line about retirements, because occasionally people do get hired (5 from my department recently got TT jobs), and we get stuck in the rut of teaching so much that we can't quite find the time to complete our dissertations...a vicious cycle if there ever was one.

Everyone is complicit here, but University Admins and Faculty and departments that keep increasing enrollments by enticing people who are in LOVE are, in my mind, the most culpable. A really revolutionary act would be to let in fewer people, but I can't see this happening anytime soon. Perhaps the 20 people they just let into my PhD program (up from 10 last year, and 8 the year before that) will be lucky enough to get TT jobs due to retirements, but I seriously doubt it. Me? I'm finishing up the diss and seriously thinking of become a school crossing guard when I'm done. After all of this time in the library I'm ready to stand outside all day and interact with people.
I advise liberal arts students, who are notoriously prone to go to grad school for dubious, romantic and/or naive reasons. I had one today who said that "hey, the programs I am applying for offer a full ride, so I figure that 7 years of getting paid to read and write is a good deal, and I'll worry about the rest of it afterwards." I suspect this student has family means that will allow him/her to lead this kind of life, but the vast majority of the people I advise on this matter sure don't.

The other thing that I see from students frequently (apologies if other commenters have gotten here already) is that they think Things Will Be Different For Me Because I'm Special. Everyone thinks s/he will be a star, that fabulous tenure track job offers will rain down on upon their graduation. And, hey, if it's bad right now, well, it's bound to be different in 7-10 years. Frustrating to say the least. Tim Burke's short commmentary on "Should I Go To Grad School" is a staple of my comments to would-be humanities graduate applicants. And, I'm NOT anti-graduate school or anti-intellectual, it's just that I see reasonably smart people make ill- or un-informed grad school choices out of inertia. I figure it's my job to provide some reality checks so that they're have an inkling of what they're in for.
Your blog was very informative and interesting.
I agree with one of the comments -- that each person really does think that Things Will Be Different for Me Because I'm Special or More Savvy or whatever. I see a lot of that.

But I also think that many students have trouble imagining what they could do if they don't have models. Undergrads get four years minimum of professorial role models and think that it looks like a great gig. Yet, I'm troubled by how little students know of professorial life. When I taught a college application prep course for high school students, I thought it important to explain how the difference in colleges (SLAC and research, comprehensive, etc.) translates into a different experience and how different institutional expectations of professors translates into a different undergrad experience.

I think young grad students need to know more about the job market and daily life of a professor before going in. Not to mention that there are other good jobs in higher ed, like advising and stuff.
I got my B.A. in History from a state university in 2005, after which I moved to NYC (to be with my fiance) and put my degree to good use being a secretary (or administrative assistant, for those who are kidding themselves). I made travel arrangements, kept track of appointments, and fetched can upon can of diet coke for a CEO. The advertisement for this job mentioned that a B.A. was required in addition to at least two years of work experience. Good thing I had student work experience fetching diet cokes for my university's dean. After about 1.5 years of going home every night crying because I felt like a cog, I got a minor promotion to a project manager position and sat there for another two years (still feeling like a cog but making more money) while I figured out what to do next.

Why did I sit there for so long trying to figure out what to do next? Because during my undergrad years, my professors had me convinced that going on to get a PhD was the only thing a self-respecting educated individual could do. There were no other worthy professions. Business students got a raised eyebrow and a sneer from my profs - and there was the (barely) unspoken judgment that students in business were boorish and illiterate.

So, I had it stuck in my head for the past several years that I would bring a great shame upon myself and my profs if I were to pursue anything but the PhD. But the reason I didn't jump right into a PhD program so that I could go on being the prized student they had me believing I was was because those same professors complained about their jobs incessantly- the administration, the institution's expectation for published research even though they were teaching four writing intensive classes a term with 60 students registered, plus all the extra advising and committee work, and all that for a crappy salary and raises that, if they came, didn't even account for in increase in cost of living. Yes, during a visit after graduation I bought my prof. friend his beer because I, a secretary, was making a bit more money than he was, and I was single and he was supporting a family of four.

So then after 3.5 years of feeling guilty about the idea, I decided to quit my job and go back to school... to get an MBA. Because at the end of the day, a job is a job. And a professor is just as likely to feel like a cog than is a secretary or a middle manager or what have you. And in truth, the love I have for studying history did not outweigh the cons I saw working in academia, and in the end, if the likelihood of feeling like a cog is quite high regardless of the profession, I would rather be making a hell of a lot more money and having someone else fetch the diet cokes for me.

Yes, my old professors may raise their eyebrows at me, but I wonder if that attitude isn't to make themselves feel a little better. And maybe it would have helped some of these brand new unemployed PhDs if their professors had let down their judgment, opened up the horizons, and let their students feel good about going on to work jobs that paid salaries that allowed enough disposable income that one might want to donate back to the university to fund new TT positions.
Late to the party again, but....

Several commenters, most recently Earnest English, are bringing up the concept of models. I think there's a lot to that.

Very few 18-year-olds have vast real-world experience. We all know we need jobs eventually, but the path to getting a good one usually isn't clear. In my case, I knew I couldn't do what my parents did, because they were not having a great time of it, employment-wise. But what should I do?

Humans learn by modeling what more experienced humans do. At this point, we ensure that most young adults spend many years under the tutelage of people who are college professors. Of course lots of them are going to decide they want to be professors themselves! It's a path that seems clear, and when you're a 21-year-old who has no idea of how one goes about becoming a bounty hunter or an advertising agency manager, that sounds good.

Back in the day, college was the province of the wealthy elite, who had models of how to succeed at home, and of the rare go-getters who seem to have a genetic predisposition for success. Now, you've got a bunch of middle-class and working-class kids, many of them with recently laid-off parents, who are trying to figure out how the heck you play this game. Not surprising that they want to follow in the footsteps of the adults in their lives who seem to have steady, high-status jobs.

Incidentally, this is another good reason to encourage people to work between high school and college, and between college and grad school: more diversity in career modeling. It'd give students a better idea of what they want to shoot for.
Love of the study itself is the best reason and in the end the most supportable and advantageous. One always has to make one's own way, no matter the profession, and now more than ever.
I'm hopelessly late to the discussion but will throw my two cents in anyway.

My choice to go to grad school was a mistake, pure and simple. I was finishing up my BA in political science in 2007, volunteered for a campaign for a while, but was told that to really go far in policy work (as opposed to politicking), I'd need a masters. And I was being skipped over for interviews because I was not one of the top qualifiers. So to graduate school I went. As an aside, I have managed to live on my stipend, simply by living outside the city and being very frugal and budget-minded. But I digress.

What I did not understand at the time was that "masters degree" to pro politicians and their staff means the kind of graduate program they run in Washington and NY for those already on political staffs: policy heavy and theory light. Not what I'm doing. And I finished up my masters degree just in time for the recession. Timing is everything, yes? ;)

In short, I did not go to grad school for naive or romantic reasons. I knew it would be hard work and that most advisors would throw me the line about academic jobs becoming available. I think there is something in the legibility argument, but that wasn't really the driving reason behind my grad school applications. I simply made a very strategic blunder...but hopefully this will be the year I get a full-time job. Fingers crossed.
My reason for going to grad school? Basically, I didn't know what else to do. I wanted to teach, but NOT in high school. I wanted a flexible schedule for the children I was expecting to have, and, yes, once I started I just wanted to get the stupid thing over with. Near the end of my program I tried to look at other options (desperately read What Color is Your Parachute!), but they didn't seem feasible. In the end, it looked to me like playing the t-t market (and I'm only a lecturer/contract position now) or landing a co-host position on The View.
In the sciences, there is some justification for recruiting more graduate students than the market for faculty services can absorb. For one thing, graduate students and postdocs are the direct producers of scientific knowledge. For another, it is impossible to predict who will be the most productive scientists; we need a large pool from which to select them. This imposes a significant opportunity cost on those of us not selected, but most of us accept it as a price we pay for an extraordinary experience.
Lots of good points above to agree with regarding this lovely little question. Thanks be to Deandad for bothering to ask. However methinks the lemmings started running well before the edge of the cliff that graduate school represents. Might be better off examining the attitude that even a four-year degree is always worthwhile.

Students are seduced into attending outrageously expensive colleges and universities exiting with debt loads that will put them decades behind financially, unless they are able to get a "good" job. Having already gambled poorly on their bachelor's degree an advanced degree lets them roll the dice one more time (albeit at worse odds.)

Unemployed with a grad degree is somehow more respectable than unemployed with a bachelor's degree. You get status your parents can point to proudly and you can always claim you are unhireable due to being "over-educated." Its so much riskier to have to put yourself at risk of being proved mediocre in the actual work force, or worse yet, come down of your high horse and pay your dues in the trenches in some non-glamorous field.
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