If You Must Go to Grad School ...

July 17, 2003

In my previous column, "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" I tried to explain why I discourage students from considering graduate school in the humanities. I believe that most would not choose to go if they were properly informed about the risks (the most notable of which is a strong probability of never landing a tenure-track job).

Still, I have a mournful affection for students who remain confident of their ability to beat the odds. The young feel invincible and full of unlimited potential. And many universities view their naiveté and energy as an exploitable resource. The majority of graduate students exist to provide cheap labor for undesirable undergraduate courses and students for high-prestige graduate programs taught by tenured professors. It seems like the undergraduates are the only ones who don't know this, and they get angry when you tell them.

But any student who is discouraged by these warnings probably lacks the determination and psychological resilience to make it through the process. The best that one can do with the students who are informed and determined is to give them the advice I wish I had when I made my decision:

Do Not Pay for Graduate School.

Not even if it is the best program in your field. Do not accept future promises (e.g., a job) instead of fair payment in the present. Steady employment in academe after graduation is so unlikely that you should treat grad school as a job in itself rather than as career training. Given the low wages typically earned by Ph.D.'s in the humanities (even on the tenure track, starting salaries are around 40K), you should try to graduate without debts.

Apply to a Lot of Universities.

Between 10 and 15 is a manageable target if you are serious. Plan on spending around $1,000. Diversify your applications to include many different kinds of universities. Don't limit your applications to the top 20; there are some excellent departments at mediocre universities (and some mediocre departments at excellent universities). Regional institutions can have local networks that are more useful than the diffuse national networks of the famous universities. Consider the department's individual faculty members: Is there anyone with whom you would particularly like to work? Ask your academic advisers, but trust your own instincts as well.

Leverage a Better Package.

Almost everything is negotiable for a good student who has been accepted by more than one graduate school. Call the department head first. Be sure to get everything in writing, and keep your eyes open for bait-and-switch money scenarios that can leave you stranded two years into the program with nothing to depend on but uncertain teaching fellowships. Remember that stipends go further in rural locations than in major urban centers. Imagine what it's like to live in New York or Boston on $12,000 a year.

Research Like Your Life Depends on It.

Do not select a graduate school solely on the basis of your financial package. Once you have a plausible offer, you have to find out whether it is worth accepting. A lot of work can be done on a computer or at the library, but the most crucial information is never written. You need to make phone calls and visit the campus to talk with the students and faculty members off the record. This may be the most important research project you will ever undertake, and there are several components that deserve (but do not always get) careful scrutiny.

  • Background Information: You should have done some of this before sending an application, but, once you get a letter of admission, you should be motivated to gather more information. The promotional literature and Web sites of universities are good places to find basic information (degree requirements, names of faculty members), but do not rely on what institutions say about themselves.

    Search online databases for information about the university, the department, and individual professors.You may be surprised to find out how much a university has to hide from its applicants: graduate-student strikes, controversial tenure decisions, gender-discrimination suits, public battles by faculty prima donnas. These are all very bad signs.

  • Graduate-Student Culture: A high attrition rate is a sign of a dysfunctional department, but it is considered normal for 65 to 70 percent of grad students in English to leave before they finish their degree. Other fields in the humanities are probably not much better.

    You can ask about retention rates, but you are not likely to get a straight answer from anyone in authority. Obviously, you should talk with current students, but also try to speak with a few students who left the department. If you can find them, take one or two to lunch; get them talking. Did they leave over money issues, a toxic departmental culture, anticipation of their poor employment prospects? Do the current students seem confident and reasonably optimistic? Or are they miserable, complaining, and unhealthy-looking? Has grad school built them up, or broken them down and kept them hostage?

    You should look into how long it takes most students to get their Ph.D. on the campus. Do they finish their degrees in five to six years, or do they hang around for a decade or more before fading away?

  • The Seminar Experience: While you are visiting a campus, sit in on a few seminars; look for faculty members with whom you might like to work, but remember that you are also scrutinizing your potential peers. Pay careful attention to the interpersonal dynamics and assumptions behind what is said in the seminars. Does the professor respect the students or seek to humiliate them? Do students feel safe enough to ask questions about the course material? Or do the students seem terrified of appearing ignorant or unsophisticated? Do they have constructive dialogues or do they respond to each other with sneering and political intimidation? Does "conversation" consist of obscure allusions to theorists everyone "should" know (but is afraid to acknowledge they don't)? Does anyone have a sense of humor? Is there any authentic, nondeferential laughter? Does the seminar teach a subject or does it cultivate a sense of inadequacy and dread? Trust your instincts; how would you feel if you had to take this seminar?

  • Job Placement: Many departments will give you the names of recent graduates who have been successfully placed in tenure-track jobs (and who are obliged to speak well of their alma mater.) It is harder to get reliable data on a department's overall placement record. Many universities employ their own graduates in temporary postdoctoral positions and consider them "employed, full-time, in the profession." Sometimes no distinction is made between tenure-track, visiting, and adjunct positions. Sometimes graduates who don't respond to surveys are not included in the percentages.

    Perhaps the only reliable way to assess a placement record is to obtain a list of graduates from the last three years (a matter of public record) and ask the department to provide the names of every graduate who has been placed in a tenure-track position. These placements can usually be verified by visiting departmental Web sites. The most reliable recent data indicate that about 50 percent of Ph.D.'s in the humanities eventually find tenure-track jobs, but individual departments (and advisers) can have significantly different placement percentages.

  • Advising: Your adviser will be the most important person in your academic career, and your final choice of a graduate school should also take potential relationships with a few, specific advisers into account.

    Again, remember that individual professors can have placement rates for their advisees that deviate significantly from the institutional average. During the application process you should have been reading the publications of the various faculties, and, once accepted, you should arrange to meet with a few potential advisers. (If a faculty member doesn't respond to your initial inquiries after you have been admitted, this is a very bad sign.)

    After the initial meetings, if all goes well and you seem compatible, you should search Dissertation Abstracts International for your potential advisers' former advisees and find out whether their dissertations have been published and where they are employed (use the humanities databases and Google). Make arrangements by e-mail to speak with these former advisees on the telephone (remember that prudent professionals never put anything critical in print, including in e-mail messages, but what they say or do not say can be quite revealing).

You Are Not Powerless.

Remember that universities operate as businesses; you cannot trust a university to look out for your best interests. But also remember that the power is in your hands until you have accepted the offer of admission. After you enroll, you will have little to bargain with besides the possibility of leaving the department. Of course, this is an option exercised by the majority of grad students, probably for good reasons. But there are always new grad students, particularly during recessions, who feel honored to be admitted and forget to do their research. Don't be one of them.

In my next column I will offer advice on how to maximize your chances for academic employment (and other alternatives) after graduate school.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at