Making the Grad

Rob Weir offers his take on the debate over getting a graduate degree in the humanities.

May 24, 2010

When you write an advice column about any aspect of academe, people locate your e-mail address to solicit your views on all sorts of things about which you’ve not written. Mind, I’m not complaining; it’s flattering to be considered a sage. But I need to remind people that I’m the poster child (OK, poster gray beard) for an unorthodox career, not how to get on the fast track. So take this into account as I weigh in on a topic for which I’ve gotten several e-mails now that the spring semester has ended: Should I consider going to graduate school?

Yes! That is, if you’re contemplating a degree in a field for which there is a reasonable chance of securing employment. It’s the channel though which useful contacts are made and networks are established. Graduate school is intellectually rewarding and a place where you make lifelong friends. For many folks graduate school is so exciting that they experience a big letdown when they discover that real life — even securing a professorship — generally scores lower on the stimulation scale. If you’re stuck in a dead-end or mind-deadening job and graduate school offers a reasonable chance of escape, go for it.

That is, if there is life after grad school. Assessing this is where critical thinking clashes with dreams. I teach in the humanities, a discipline that’s currently about as hot as an Antarctic winter. As most probably know, "Thomas H. Benton" (William Pannapecker of the Hope College English department) wrote two earth-shattering Chronicle of Higher Education essays last year in which he opined that no one should consider graduate degrees in the humanities unless they are independently wealthy, well-connected, or subsidized now and in the future. His was a bleak assessment that burst optimistic bubbles about coming retirements, the ability of good people to find jobs, and of converting humanities degrees into non-teaching jobs. Pannapecker asserted that most of those obtaining graduate humanities degrees will find themselves competing against (and losing to) undergraduates with professional degrees. His advice concerning graduate school is to just say no.

I’m not quite as pessimistic, though I agree with almost everything Pannapecker said (especially his remarks excoriating universities for exploiting graduate students). But even though I was a casualty of a previous crash in humanities hiring, I remain romantic enough to believe that mercenary measures cannot assess the usefulness of knowledge. It's true that current job prospects are bleak in many fields (and that includes non-humanities subjects such as computer science and law). I'm in favor of full disclosure; universities should be brutally frank about what graduate students can expect at the end of the tunnel. I part company with doom-and-gloom prognosticators on two levels, though. First, as a historian one of the few things I can say with a great degree of certainty is that everyone who has ever predicted the future — no matter how prescient about some things — has misfired on most of what they forecast. Second, as a human being, I believe that a life of regret is worse than a life of diminished economic prospects. Like I said — it’s romantic — but if you share my views on regret, the risk might be worth it.

I’m romantic, but I’m not blind, so there are a few things I’d very much recommend if graduate school and future employment are linked. First — and I hear the scream of the Ivy Leaguers as I type this — go to a grad school that will pay you to come. It may be true (though I’m dubious of their placement statistics) that a degree from high-prestige private university offers some job placement advantages. But if a good state school waives your tuition and offers you a fellowship, and the fancy school doesn’t, take the money! In fact, if no one offers you a financial package, you’re probably not top grad school material and youneed to rethink your career plans altogether. Pannapecker notes that nearly a quarter of grad students rack up around $30,000 of debt and 14 percent more than $50,000. That’s a ridiculous amount of debt to carry as you begin your career, even if you are lucky enough — and few are — to secure a dream job. As Harvard strikers once chanted, “You can’t eat prestige.” Amen to that.

Second, make sure you have health insurance, whether through a partner or your chosen grad school. The health care reform debate is over for now and anyone entering grad school now will be required to have it upon graduation. You’d be a fool to wait until then. Among the sillier arguments arising from the health care debates came from younger people, who complained they shouldn’t have to pay for insurance because are less likely to need medical care in the immediate future. How naïve! I used health care more in my hale and hearty 30s than in my impending dotage. Among grad school’s downsides is that it’s not the healthiest place to be. Like all institutions, it’s a disease incubator; to pick just one example, the swine flu bug bit more college personnel than members of surrounding communities. Every door knob you touch, every coughing student you pass, every book you pull from the library shelf, and every desk or bus seat upon which you sit might be a miniature Andromeda Strain. Plus, grad students develop plenty of ailments of their own: study-induced migraines, stress-triggered allergies, mysterious muscle aches (probably stress-related as well), clinical depression…. If you think that grad school can send you into serious debt, try a catastrophic illness.

Third, if you’re partnered, make an ironclad contract with that person. Grad school can be brutal on relationships. Do not think your relationship will simply "adapt," or that you can negotiate after you "settle into a routine." You will live with less money, less free time, and more demands on both. How much do you value your relationship? What values do you share? How will graduate school compromise those values and how significant is this? Decide in advance how you will make decisions about where you will live, how you will budget money, how chores will be allocated, how much time you will reserve to spend together, and the degree to which your partner can be (or wishes to be) integrated into your grad school circle. If you have kids, magnify the seriousness of these discussions tenfold.

Fourth, define your bottom line. What will you settle for once you’re done? it’s simply a fact that very few humanities grads land their ideal job. I don’t mean immediately, I mean ever. Do you want to teach? If so, at what kind of institution?

I’ve taught for high schools, community colleges, small colleges, private colleges, and universities. I have loved each and every experience, but that doesn’t mean you would. Where are you willing to go for a job? A grad school friend thought she wouldn’t mind being in a rural area, until she found herself a hundred miles from any other college historian! Go to a few conferences and you’ll find scores of people who claim to be “trapped” in schools and towns they dislike. Forget the ceiling; what’s your floor? Mine was that I refused to work some place I wouldn’t want to live. I’ve paid a price for that. What price are you willing to pay?

Finally, don’t assume Plan B will appear as needed; develop one before you start. Universities owe it to students to deliver a never-promised-you-a-rose-garden message, and grad students owe it to themselves not to feel betrayed when FTD doesn’t deliver bouquets to their doorsteps. At some point your grad education will end and you do not want to be among those sad sacks waiting tables around the old U waiting for something to turn up. Get on with your life. To paraphrase (badly!) Casablanca, you’ll always have (had) grad school.

Suggested Reading: A Google search will reveal blogs, books, and articles galore for nearly every discipline. Here’s a small sample of what’s out there:

--The pieces by Pannapecker are available here and here.

--Even computer scientists need to think about the future. See Ronald Azuma’s take.

--Jerald Jellison has a new book on life after grad school. You can preview it here.


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