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.