Friday, November 30, 2012

stuff you need to think about if you want to go to grad school

I've gone on record several times as saying that going to grad school can be a good decision, if you are funded, and if you take the steps to inform yourself and make the decision without illusions. You should check out the post if you want the long form; a lot of it has to do with the perception of opportunity costs, which are dependent on opportunity, which is hard to come by for many people these days. But information is key, and being ruthless in your self-examination is key, and doing the research is key. To be a grad student is to say that you intend to spend several years of your life being a professional researcher. Fail to do the necessary research before you begin and suffer for it, and I have little sympathy for you.

I bring this up because my university has a new regime coming to town, and people are doing their initial assessments to prepare for new scrutiny.

So: since 1998, my program (not to be confused with the department in which it is housed) has graduated 92% of those doctoral candidates who have passed their exams, at an average total time to graduate of 5.3 years, with a hire rate for those pursuing permanent teaching positions at just about 100%. (Some of these people have taken permanent contracts at non-tenure granting institutions like community colleges, some go on to teach at high school, though the large majority have taken tenure track positions.) We also send a small but consistent number of people into industry, working in professional writing and communication for large corporations. These numbers are in part an aspect of the small scale of my field, and lit people would rush to point out that the TT jobs we get are rarely considered prestige jobs by the sort of people who care about that perception. But that's a separate conversation from that of being employable.

This is not an act of braggadocio. Those numbers guarantee nothing about my own career, and trust me, I'm aware that I could be left without a chair when the music stops. And I also have no illusions that such numbers will necessarily defend us against an antagonistic administration. But those numbers matter; they reflect real material differences in the lives of doctoral students and their families. They are not the product of an accident. They are the product of a program and professors who have made getting people graduated and hired a relentless focus of their work; of a field that has worked to demonstrate its practical value for students to administrators and gatekeepers; and of a community decision not to flood the job market with more PhDs than it can reasonably support. Choices matter and incentives matter, for professors and administrators. They also matter for students.

So if you're thinking of going to grad school, do the legwork. Try to find these numbers and read them critically. If you can't find them, don't apply to that school. If the numbers are terrible, don't apply to that school. If getting hired would require that you beat long odds, don't go, unless you have genuine certainty that you have some ace in your sleeve, or if you have other professional outs. If you come from money or have your realtor's license or can otherwise get employed after you graduate, fine. But don't depend on hope. I know people who have gone on to TT jobs coming from departments which have overall poor numbers. They are exceptional people. But none of us is good at assessing whether we ourselves are exceptional. If you're deciding, you owe it to yourself to decide with a strong bias towards not going.

People respond to incentives. You may have heard about a "law school bubble," an idea which is a product of our current moment where you can get absolutely anything published as long as you call it a bubble. Well, perhaps it's not a bubble but a balloon, and rather than popping, people are slowly and gradually letting some of the air out, as rational people do. As Noah Millman says, things that are unsustainable won't be sustained. (Problems are solvable, and the juvenile "bubbles everywhere" mindset presumes that everyone but the person calling the bubble is just too stupid or stubborn to solve them.) But to adjust your behavior you have to be rational. It's okay to be romantic about learning and the life of the mind-- I am-- but first, you have to be a mercenary.