I was lucky to attend a graduate program that conducted itself, and so far as I know continues to conduct itself, quite ethically. During our orientation, my cohort was led into an auditorium where the department’s graduate director addressed us. After the typical messages of welcome and run-downs of various logistical need-to-know, the graduate director delivered a very somber warning.
He plainly and seriously warned us that of the 30 or so people in the room, only perhaps 40 percent of us would complete our degrees and secure academic appointments. That 40 percent, he warned, would be lucky to find any sort of academic job, even off the tenure track, and even fewer of us would be fortunate enough to secure tenure-track appointments. And nobody, he practically promised, would get their dream job. Considering the seriousness of the message, the mood among the grad students remained light. It was literally the first day of graduate school, and nobody worried. We adjourned to the bars near campus. But it wasn’t the last time we heard the warning.
Fast-forward six or eight years, to today. The economy has slackened (to put it mildly), and the bad academic job market that my cohort was warned about has become the abysmal job market that leads advisers to now say things to their grad students along the lines of "I don’t know. It's always been bad, but it's never been this bad." A lucky few members of my cohort have already filed their dissertations and found jobs, while a few more changed course along the way, and the majority are spending their first or second year on the job market, wondering when, if ever, a lucky (and deserved) break will arrive.
Why, I have wondered since that first day of graduate school, were so many of us, myself included, incapable of hearing the warning that the graduate director had so bluntly delivered? Why were we repeatedly shocked when the warning repeatedly proved true? While I’m no psychologist, and can’t claim any expertise in psychology, I'm willing to speculate that more than a little cognitive dissonance comes into play when graduate students are informed, in the most frank terms, about just how unlikely it is that they will land the job of their dreams, or any job. My layman's psychological theory is that the answer has a lot to do with the type of person who attends graduate school. The very same qualities that lead many graduate students to pursue higher degrees are the qualities that make them incapable of hearing and processing even the most dire warnings about their professional prospects.
Graduate students are, almost by definition, atypical students as undergraduates. In most cases, the types of people who enroll in graduate work were exceptionally bright, hardworking undergraduate students. As exceptional undergraduates, the people who eventually go on to graduate studies probably get very good at disregarding warnings. When, as an undergraduate, an instructor issued routine warnings to the class, the grad-school-bound student might have gotten very used to ignoring the sorts of admonitions that pervade the undergraduate experience: "My bibliographies are always perfect, and I turn everything in on time, so this warning to make sure that my APA formatting is correct and to have my paper turned in by Monday is nothing to worry about."
By the time they arrive at graduate school, and even if they are years removed from their undergraduate education, most grad students have been conditioned to see themselves as an exception, and as exceptional. So, when they begin to hear warnings about the realities of the job market in graduate school, the old conditioning kicks in, and the old thinking, so trustworthy before, also kicks in: "This doesn’t apply to me. My intelligence and hard work will see me through, just as they always have." The problem, of course, is that not everyone can actually be the exception. People will be disappointed, their studies abandoned, their dreams unfulfilled, their future paths unclear.
What is so impossible for many graduate students to understand is that everybody in their cohort is just as smart and hardworking as they themselves are. At the graduate level, the smarts and diligence that once set students apart from their undergraduate peers will no longer set them apart, but merely allow them to keep up. It is almost impossible for many beginning graduate students to grasp that having above average intelligence and an unimpeachable work ethic will mean only that they are average graduate students. That's quite a shock to some people.
Then there's luck. A tremendous amount of luck will begin to come into play during a graduate career. Because graduate students are older than undergraduates, there are simply more variables in play in their lives. They have families in many cases, and more susceptibility to serious health issues, and more financial obligations. Their parents are older, and more likely to need the student’s help at some point. There are simply more variables present in a graduate student's life that can interfere with studies than there are in the typical undergraduate’s life.
And that's where luck begins to come into play. Will personal, family, and health crises stay away, and allow students to finish their dissertations, or will crises intervene, possibly slowing or even stopping students’ progress? Will the dissertation the student chooses remain timely and relevant three years later, when it is defended? Or will it become irrelevant, or get "scooped" by another researcher working in the same area? Will the student’s dissertation director be attentive and look out for the student’s best interests, or be an actual inhibitor to progress? Will ambivalent dissertation committee members need to be swapped out, slowing the writing process? Will the student’s funding package remain in place, or will funding cuts force the student to take outside work to pay the bills? What else might go wrong?
And merit, many of us have realized with shock, plays a relatively small and marginalized role in who completes a degree and secures an appointment. Because smart, creative, hardworking researchers and teachers are not lacking at all in today’s academic job market. Every discipline is awash with smart, hardworking people doing innovative research and with exceptional teaching skills. As a result, a certain amount of luck will determine which of the 200 qualified applicants is selected for any particular job. From what I can tell, luck is more of a factor early in an academic career than late in one. At the late stages, the people who are most important within a discipline have earned it, through their research, hard work, and creative thinking. But getting one's foot in the door, to even have a chance to establish a career, that's the lucky part.
I'm not sure that there is a way to convey to the beginning graduate student just how much luck is involved in this life. Nor am I sure of how to convey to graduate students, in a way that they will understand and process, just exactly what sort of odds they face, though a recent open letter  attempting just that has been making the digital rounds. I do know though that it is the obligation of graduate programs and graduate faculty to be frank and realistic with students about the numbers, now more than ever.