The 5 Virtues of Successful Graduate Students

September 05, 2003

"It doesn't matter where you earn your degree, how much you publish, or how well you teach," I tell my students who are going to graduate school. "Nothing you do is enough to guarantee a tenure-track job in the humanities."

As I noted in the first two columns in this series, only about 50 percent of Ph.D.'s in English eventually land tenure-track jobs, and the same holds true for most other fields in the humanities. Some of the remaining 50 percent will have prestigious degrees, distinguished advisers, substantial publications, and luminous personalities. That's just the way the academy is today.

"So, point taken," an undeterred student might say, "there are no guarantees. I'm going anyway. But how can I maximize my chances for a tenure-track job?"

Besides raw intellectual ability, graduate students who eventually get tenure-track jobs seem to share five "virtues" (though in varying proportions):

Discipline: Work every day if possible. Do not believe in the myth of the romantic artist, who produces a masterpiece minutes before a deadline. If you work less than 20 hours a week on your writing (in addition to coursework, teaching, and other responsibilities), you'll probably never build up a respectable publishing record, much less finish your dissertation. I find that it is best to write for three or four hours every morning, when my energy level is high and my mind is relatively clear. Don't be a perfectionist, delaying publication until all interest in a topic has passed (including your own).

Publish as much as you can, and if some of your work is unsuccessful, move on, and dilute it with better publications. Sooner or later, you will attract positive attention. Ignore those who encourage younger scholars to produce less work because of the glut of scholarly publications and the shrinking of university presses. You can be sure that most hiring committees and your competition will also ignore that advice. There are new electronic publishing venues emerging even as the old paper ones decline; in some respects, there has never been a better time to be a writer.

Networking Ability: Contrary to the myth of professorial introversion, social networking is necessary, even for the most individualistic professional activities. Opportunities to publish often emerge from direct solicitations from editors and publishers who recognize your authority and availability.

You have to be known in at least one field.

Reaching such a position requires a difficult phase of unsolicited and unpaid submissions, and it also requires making personal contacts at conferences and seminars. On the level of the job search, strong qualifications (publications, teaching experience) are necessary but insufficient. There are dozens, often hundreds, of qualified applicants for every academic position. Personal connections often differentiate one equally qualified candidate from another. Individual members of hiring committees can be concerned about the impact of their choices on professional relationships.

You need to cultivate the respect of senior faculty members (both within and beyond your graduate school) who will be willing to write letters and make phone calls on your behalf. If you have a shortage of people who are willing to stake their reputations on you in the form of strong recommendations and offers to publish, it is a sign that you are considering the wrong profession.

Mental Health: More than any other factor, mental stress (often combined with physical symptoms) prevents the majority of graduate students in the humanities from completing their degrees. The academy has become so hypercompetitive that it seems difficult to succeed except by the exclusion of all other motives, activities, and social interactions.

Graduate school can be characterized by intellectual confusion, a lack of social support, and intense feelings of powerlessness and even worthlessness. It can be more like a shark tank than a symposium. You will probably find for the first time in your life that you are not the smartest person in the room -- and that you are possibly the dumbest.

You may not make a single genuine friend with whom you can share your feelings. Intemperate confessions to supposed friends have a way of becoming public gossip. You may also find yourself at the mercy of an unchallengeable adviser whose disapproval can decisively end your academic career.

Grad students sometimes alleviate their stress with alcohol or drugs; it is a tradition of writerly romanticism that destroys one's capacity for steady work. The best method of relieving stress is to keep a sense of perspective; try to have a meaningful life outside of the profession. Do not accept depression and physical decline as components of "academic macho." Guard your health: Eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep and exercise, and make friends with people who are not academics.

Flexibility: Consider every plausible job opening in your field; do not turn your Ivy League nose up at a military academy in the Ozarks. It might be your only chance. The majority of academic job seekers cannot afford to be selective about their first tenure-track position. You must be willing to live anywhere and teach anything remotely related to your field. You should be willing to teach at any kind of college or university, including junior colleges and small, liberal-arts colleges with a teaching load of four or five courses each semester.

Once you have a job, your other "virtues" should eventually make it possible for you to move to a more congenial location and institution.

Do not put down deep roots if you wish to advance in your career by moving around. Avoid buying property or becoming emotionally entangled with other academics. It helps if you are single and childless, or have a partner who is willing to subordinate his or her career to yours. Dual-career academics face almost insurmountable problems unless they are already academic stars.

Patience: Graduate school in the humanities will take at least five years; it is more likely to take eight years. You will then, in all likelihood, spend one to three years in a poorly paid, postdoctoral position before landing your first tenure-track job.

Each year will be more stressful than the last. You'll find that it's not always the "best" candidates who get hired, but the ones who were selected by a seemingly random process; invisible, unarticulated variables trump "qualifications" every time.

If you finally find a tenure-track job (remember that 50-percent probability), you will work even harder for six more years before you are finally granted tenure, itself a decreasingly secure institution. Overall, the direct road from college graduate to tenured professor will take a minimum of 12 years, and possibly as many as 20. If you are a typical graduating senior, you probably will be in your 40s by the time you have tenure. Meanwhile, you will watch your nonacademic peers (many of them not half as smart, ethical, or hard-working) rise in jobs that pay several times your income.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" I ask my students who are headed to grad school.

"Remember," I repeatedly advise, "you can do everything right and still fail if your goal is to get a tenure-track job. But I think you are at least less likely to fail if you cultivate these 'virtues.'"

I don't mean to offer some kind of Franklinesque success strategy for grad students. The academy has never been a pure meritocracy. But can anyone deny that the relationship between graduate education and academic employment has become seriously out of balance?

If you are one of the few who made it to the tenure track, you undoubtedly had to work hard and make many personal sacrifices. You undoubtedly possess many of these "virtues." But, if you are honest with yourself, you will admit that you were also very lucky.

Do you not have an obligation to be honest with those who seek your advice?

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 You can find an archive of his previous columns here. Section: Career Network Volume 50, Issue 2, Page C3