I was recently discussing graduate school with one of my undergraduates who is interested in becoming a professor. As a student leader with a strong academic record, I think she is very likely to be successful. However, I also felt it was important that she understand the hurdles she will face.
I entered graduate school in political science about 16 years ago with a limited understanding of what it would take to ultimately become an academic. I was the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, let alone a Ph.D. However, I was determined, and was fortunate to get a four-year fellowship. There were about 32 students in my cohort (a huge number, even for the time). At least half of the students didn’t have any funding and weren’t eligible to be teaching assistants. This set up a very competitive environment, since those who didn’t have guaranteed funding would have to perform well in their first year to get funding in their second year.
As I look back, I shouldn’t be surprised at the attrition rate – many from my cohort left after the first year, with many more leaving after getting a master’s degree, having realized that political science wasn’t exactly what they wanted to do. Many came in wanting to do policy oriented work, or were more activist in nature; some couldn’t manage the math and statistics requirements – they all had their own reasons for leaving the program. Among those of us who finished with Ph.D.'s, several went into consulting or other jobs outside of academia. Some have become adjuncts or lecturers as the trend toward hiring more contingent instructors continues. In the end, only a handful of us have managed to get tenure-track jobs and eventually tenure.
A particularly painful episode occurred when I was going up for tenure. I was fairly certain that I was over the bar, but a colleague who had been a couple of years ahead of me in graduate school happened to be going up at the same time, and it was clear that he wasn’t going to make it. In the end he chose to resign rather than go up for tenure, but it was hard to enjoy my success while watching a friend having to make difficult decisions about his future.
Those of us who have made it as professors understand that getting through graduate school and completing a dissertation is difficult, getting a job is even more difficult, and getting through the tenure process can be nerve-racking at best. The hurdles are never-ending. After tenure, there’s the push to get to full professor, or to take on administrative duties, as a department chair or dean. For full professors, post-tenure review is always on the horizon.
Although I have been successful in this process, I understand that there are problems with the way that the system works. However, it is not likely to change for the better in the near future, and my student will have to deal with the current realities, including the lack of jobs in a tough economic environment. There are those who would discourage students from pursuing Ph.D.'s during these difficult financial times. I think those who aspire to become academics need to be realistic about the requirements and the limitations of academia. Like many professions, it is not for everyone, and even though someone may seem cut out for an academic career, there are no guarantees that they will survive the process.
It’s not clear how widespread it is, but there has been a trend in some departments toward reducing the size of incoming graduate classes, providing more funding for those who are admitted, and generally being careful to admit students in sub-disciplines where students have faculty to work with and potential for jobs afterward. I think this is a good trend. Departments have to be even more realistic about the job prospects for graduates during these difficult economic times. But what is the potential graduate student to do? More students than ever want to try graduate school, again because of the difficult economic times. I can only speak in regard to my own discipline of political science, but it is clear that we need to provide realistic expectations for students who are interested in entering our programs.
However, we also need to make sure that we are not screening out or discouraging those candidates who have that intangible quality that would make them successful as academics. One of the most successful people to come out of the graduate program at UCLA during my time happens to be an African-American male who got his undergraduate degree from a state university and was a first-generation college student. From my perspective, determination and maturity have a lot to do with getting through a graduate program successfully. As programs reduce the number of students they admit, they also need to make sure they are giving students the opportunity to visit the program, that they assess the level of fit between the candidate and the program, and carefully consider students who may not fit into a traditional profile.
My advice to my student is simple: keep all options open. Starting a graduate degree doesn’t mean you have to finish it, and there’s no shame in moving on to something else if it turns out that it is not your best option. However, the most important thing is to go into this endeavor with a clear understanding of the costs and benefits. If you are admitted, do your homework before making a final decision on a program. Make sure there are several professors you would want to work with, since you never know who will be around for your entire graduate career. Find out how many students have completed their degrees over the last few years and how many years it took them to finish. Look at where they have been placed for jobs. Avoid going into heavy debt to pursue the degree. And finally, consider other job options where you might have the opportunity to do research or teaching.