Friday, March 27, 2009

Advice to potential grad students

Academics often wonder whether it is fair to encourage students to go on to grad school in pursuit of the PhD and academic employment. There are certainly easier ways to make money. The job market has been consistently poor since the early 1970s (after a few years when many many professors were hired in an unprecedented situation, the result of the baby boom), it takes years of preparation to gain the degree, and there's the whole issue of deferred income, which you may or may not ever make up. As I say, if you are smart and determined enough to get a PhD, there are easier ways to make money.

Over at Glossographia, a blog I have just started to follow, Stephen Chrisomalis has one of the best answers I have heard to this question. The entire post is worth reading, but here are a couple of key paragraphs:

I think that the sorts of people who should be considering graduate school are those for whom the actual process of going to grad school is enjoyable and rewarding for its own sake (despite its struggles). One thing I do tell my students is to ask themselves, “If I spend six years in grad school, even if I never get a job, will it still have been worth it?” If they can honestly answer yes, that the process of learning and intellectual exploration is worth it for its own sake, then they should do it; if not, then they shouldn’t. And again the money comes into play – if one has to go into massive debt to do it, then it’s certainly less likely to be worth it.

And even further, I worry that while Benton is right about the job market, and right about the need to inform students of the realities of the market, he’s asking more of academics than anyone would ask of other professionals. We don’t tell artists not to do art, and the chances of financial success as an artist are far, far dimmer than the prospects for an academic. We don’t tell baseball players not to try out for the minor leagues just because the chances of them ever playing major league ball are minuscule. (The baseball analogy is one that a friend of mine mentioned to me some years ago and that I have been using ever since to talk to non-academics about the model under which academic employment works.)

I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I didn't.

Image: Sandy Koufax.


  1. Thanks very much! One thing I didn't mention explicitly is that Benton is really talking about the humanities from his perspective as an English literature professor, where (perhaps) the odds are significantly longer than in anthropology (or history?). I'm willing to at least grant the possibility that disciplinary differences should make for different advice to prospective grad students.

    - Steve Chrisomalis

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