Thursday, January 14, 2010
The Loss of Legibility, Or, Why Do People Still Pile Into Grad School?
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 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.
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...
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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'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.
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 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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.