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Whether you think she's a saint or a skeez, Karen Kelsky is more forthcoming about the fucked up state of academia -- its people, its job prospects, and its insane value system -- than any of the professors I had in undergrad or in my PhD program. For all those considering a PhD, I recommend you spend ten minutes of your time on this video:

While I imagine most of you have heard the horror stories of the job market -- which really has gotten vastly worse in the last year -- I think Kelsky does a better job than most other explanations I've seen in presenting how the whole psychology of the academy works and how professors groom their underlings into trying to stick the whole thing out.

Fwiw, I got out and am much, much happier now. I only wish those of you out there would make the decision that I was too cowardly to make: don't do a PhD at all, and if you're in a PhD now, get out ASAP for your own sake (just say no to the sunk cost fallacy!).

Edited by Ramus
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This whole post comes across as just another form of proselytizing. I am truly sorry that academia disappointed you as it will many others, but please consider that the people here are intelligent enough to question these issues without needing to watch someone sell their brand in a TED talk. 

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2 hours ago, snorkles said:

This whole post comes across as just another form of proselytizing. 

Sorry you feel that way. Feel free to ignore and continue on the path you're on. I wish you well, and I hope you end up in a stable, well-paying position that brings you security and happiness. Unfortunately, the likelihood of you or anyone else on this forum finding such a position in the professoriate is next to nil, which is why I'm compelled to "proselytize."

2 hours ago, snorkles said:

I am truly sorry that academia disappointed you

I'm not looking for an apology, as things worked out fine for me. Please reserve your condescension for someone else. 

2 hours ago, snorkles said:

please consider that the people here are intelligent enough to question these issues 

I think you're missing the point. It's not that people aren't intelligent. I was a smart undergraduate, too, just like many on this site. I read about how bad that the job market was before I went. And that wasn't enough to deter me (though it should have been). The issue, I think, is that there is this impulse on the part of professors to encourage their smart undergraduates to pursue PhDs because, well, that's what smart undergraduates should do. They tell their undergrads (as I was told) that they're smart enough to be the exceptions to the trend, or that they can always do something else if it doesn't work out (and you don't need a PhD to do any of the alternatives). The truth is that virtually none of you will be exceptions to the hiring trends, and, if we can agree that's the case, I would argue that pursuing a PhD in the humanities at this time is a mistake.

But, as your reply evidences, most will ignore such warnings anyway (and, for good measure, will likely look on such warnings with derision). Again, I can say that from experience! I was stubborn and self-assured then, too, similarly arrogant in my refusal to listen to those who made it through the process and came out the other side cynical or defeated (so I perceived them then). For those who are like I was then, I reckon there is no getting through. My hope is that if there's someone out there on the fence, wondering if pursuing a PhD's worth the extraordinary degree of personal risk and uncertainty, that that person will simply pursue another option for their future. 

 

Edited by Ramus
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While I caution y'all from placing too much stock in anecdotal data, allow me to share two brief examples of other recent PhD outcomes from my subfield. I imagine you all know the stories about those who end up in adjunct hell, but I wanted to share these two stories because they help illustrate what can happen even when you do everything "right."

Person A: Graduated from the University of Michigan three years ago with two publications in hand, had participated in one of the keynote panels at the national conference in our field, and was well connected with all the big names in our historical period. A brilliant, brilliant guy. Person A won the lottery in his first year on the job market: he got a TT position at one of the better programs hiring that year (an R2 in the Midwest). But Person A has been absolutely miserable in his job. He lives in a place without the intellectual life he enjoyed in Ann Arbor; he lives in a place without any kind of city life; and he's stuck with students who aren't terribly smart or engaged. Every time I talk to person A, he talks about how he wishes he could leave his job but that he feels like he has no way to escape. The takeaway: even when you get achieve "the dream," you may realize that, in reality, it's not quite all it was cracked up to be.

Person B: Is graduating this year from Yale University with two publications and multiple national conference presentations. Person B struck out entirely on the academic job market this year (which isn't saying much, as there were three jobs posted in our subfield). Person B is now scrambling to accomplish the transition to an alternative -- which he had always thought would be an easy one. He's now in a position to graduate with no job lined up, having struck out thus far on "alt-ac" jobs, too. Person B, who had dreams of being the next Stanley Fish, resorted to calling me a couple months back to ask how to break into technical writing, and he now seems resigned to volunteer to gain experience, taking on personal debt in the process. The takeaway: don't buy into "you can just do something else if it doesn't work out," as though employers are waiting around to hire English PhDs. Moving out of higher ed takes time, dedication, and hard work, often requiring you to seek and participate in internships or learn new skills before you can find a job. Though it often gets framed as the easy back-up option, it can take months or years to develop the kind of resume that would make you competitive for the jobs that can put you on a path toward stability.

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As someone who knows or knew @Ramus irl (and as someone still in academia), these are words of wisdom. As an English major, you have a range of skills. Don't buy into the foundational myths of academia. An undergrad English degree adds value and $ to your life and career trajectory; English PhDs do neither of those things. I don't expect anybody will really pay heed, because the intellectual validation of academia is so alluring, but I admire @Ramus and others for persisting with this message, even as they, like a generation before them in 2014-16, get downvoted and mocked for these posts on this forum.

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5 hours ago, snorkles said:

This whole post comes across as just another form of proselytizing. I am truly sorry that academia disappointed you as it will many others, but please consider that the people here are intelligent enough to question these issues without needing to watch someone sell their brand in a TED talk. 

Not a fan of Kelsky by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel like this is good information for people to be aware of, being offered in good faith from someone who's managed to come out the other side with a stable job and career prospects, which is more than many folks who end up exploited and overworked in adjunct/VAP hell can say. Plus I think it's valuable to hear someone who's recently made the transition confirm that pivoting into industry takes a whole lot of work that can't be done overnight.

 

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Man the admissions process and job market are tough enough at the moment. Do you really have to go around promoting the field to those who would be otherwise happy in a more traditional, alt-ac cult?

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1 hour ago, queenofkings7 said:

like a generation before them in 2014-16, get downvoted and mocked for these posts on this forum.

I definitely had flashbacks to "The Graduate School Ponzi Scheme" thread when making this post. Have I become VirtualMessage?! Maybe so, albeit without the vitriol.

For the noobs:

 

 

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@Ramus yeah, that's the thread. It shouldn't surprise any of us that things have become much, much worse since then. Also unsurprising: the current cohort of applicants have the same enthusiasm...and maybe the same conviction that things will be different for them. They will be more "professionalized," they aren't in this for a tenure track job, they really care about the intellectual work for its intrinsic value, and--they know it--they will be the exception.

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32 minutes ago, queenofkings7 said:

they aren't in this for a tenure track job, they really care about the intellectual work for its intrinsic value

And I'm over here, virtually screaming, "For the love of God, think about your 401k!" 

In all seriousness, I think it's incredibly difficult to convince 22-year-old humanists that they should care about job security, or money, or work-life balance. At that age, I thought worrying about money and all that was so crass and small-minded. Now, I just want a job that doesn't drive me crazy and gives me the comfort to pay my mortgage, go on vacation (...eventually), and pursue my hobbies and interests.

*Cue Progressive's "We can't protect you from becoming your parents" commercial.*

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dissertator here (so i've seen several cohorts come and go) and wanted to add something about alt-ac: your department, wherever you end up, will be very ill-prepared to help you transition to alternative jobs or develop skills outside of traditional academic skills. your advisors are people who never had to think about alt-ac; they've most likely been in academia their whole adult lives so even if they mean well, they can't offer you much in preparing for the tremendous likelihood that you will not receive an academic job and will need to pivot and market yourself in a different way '

so basically, you need to be prepared to do your academic work while also developing skills that will make you more marketable in the "real world." i've been developing communications/marketing skills since my first year here through a campus job, which is nice and hopefully will lead to something that can pay the bills after i graduate (i'm one of the suckers who has bought into the sunk-cost fallacy and decided to just finish the phd since i'm already dissertating) but it's also tiring to be seeking out these professional development opportunities on top of normal academic duties 

also, i've seen one person in my program get an R1 job the whole time i've been here. the market is bleak bleak bleak. everyone thinks they will be the exception but that's not how exceptions work. if you're going to enter the phd no matter what, i encourage you to start preparing for alternative employment from day 1 

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3 hours ago, Ramus said:

Have I become VirtualMessage?!

Yes, with a touch of self-destructiveness (hint: never name names in an open forum) and a generous dose of defensiveness.

Your admission that you're still seeking "a job that doesn't drive [you] crazy and gives [you] the comfort to pay my mortgage, go on vacation (...eventually), and pursue [your] hobbies and interests" suggests that you're no nearer to knowing the answer to the question "What am I going to do with my life?" than when you were in graduate school.

The statement also suggests that you may not be as familiar with the demands of working in the private sector as you would have readers believe. ("Managing a team of technical writers at a Fortune 100 company" is an ambiguous job description.)

  • Even the most satisfying and lucrative jobs are bedeviling.
  • Home ownership is much more than paying a mortgage -- it is also utilities, insurance, taxes, dealing with neighbors, project management, maintenance, and deferred maintenance.
  • Vacations are more and more deferred and increasingly disrupted by work.
  • Hobbies and interests are hard to maintain as workdays lengthen and workweeks expand.
  • 401k's alone may not earn enough money for one's retirement.
  • And, if you haven't discovered already, a cult of personality in corporate America can be at least as corrosively soul crushing as one in the Ivory Tower--especially if that cult has set up shop in HR.

IMO, your overall argument would have been stronger had you bumped that infamous thread with a post in which you outlined the steps you took to remedy what you found wrong in your department during your time at Ohio State.

  • What committees did you join?
  • How did you seek to remedy bad relationships with professors?
  • Were your experiences actually as commonplace as you allege?
  • What kind of training did you get for going on the job market?
  • Were you a competitive job applicant with knowledge of in-demand fields or did you have the misfortune of specializing in the wrong fields at the wrong time?
  • Do you bear any responsibility for your sour relationships with the professors you named?

I also think your comments would be less controversial if you had offered guidance on how to manage expectations and be prepared to pivot.

 

Edited by Sigaba
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oh and one more thing, once you're in grad school, you'll be told time and time again that if you want an academic job, you should be prepared to move anywhere for it. when i was a naive 22 year old entering my phd program, i thought to myself, oh sure, i'll move anywhere because i love the profession! now, i'm several years older, i have a partner whose field simply doesn't exist in rural alabama, i've spent several years living and working in the Midwest and i've realized "you know, i don't want to just move anywhere for the pursuit of an academic job. actually, i only really want to live near a major metropolitan area, like where i grew up, and where my partner will actually have job opportunities and ideally i'd like to be driving distance from my family." and if you want to be in academia, you can't be choosy like that.

so that's something to consider and prepare for because a phd is long and life happens and sure, at the beginning of your phd, you think you'd be happy wherever as long as you can pursue an "academic life" but four years into your phd, you realize "an academic life" isn't such an exalted thing anyway and wow i'd really love to live somewhere with a major airport and varied food offerings.

you're all great at writing and have the ability to pivot to jobs like marketing and communications and technical writing which are much more flexible in terms of where jobs are located. i'm not trying to convince folks not to pursue a phd because that's probably not possible, but i really encourage everyone who is entering this year to start building a resume outside of academia from day 1 and go in with the expectation that you will not secure an academic job.

i have a peer reviewed publication, great teaching evals, a stellar history of department service, "trendy" research interests, and excellent relationships with my advisors — all told, i've enjoyed my time here and i will go on the job market (in a limited capacity because i'm not willing to move anywhere). but i have zero expectation of securing an academic job. i'll still probably be crushed when i go on the market and get rejected but at least i'll have been preparing for that rejection for six years. that's all you can really do imo: have no expectations. 

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, Sigaba said:

Yes, with a touch of self-destructiveness (hint: never name names in an open forum) and a generous dose of defensiveness.

Eh, that other post wasn't the most generous or thoughtful thing I've ever written, but I don't think it was self-destructive. I don't see the basis for your attribution of defensiveness to me, though I don't see much value in litigating it.

2 hours ago, Sigaba said:

Your admission that you're still seeking "a job that doesn't drive [you] crazy and gives [you] the comfort to pay my mortgage, go on vacation (...eventually), and pursue [your] hobbies and interests" suggests that you're no nearer to knowing the answer to the question "What am I going to do with my life?" than when you were in graduate school.

The statement also suggests that you may not be as familiar with the demands of working in the private sector as you would have readers believe. ("Managing a team of technical writers at a Fortune 100 company" is an ambiguous job description.)

While I welcome healthy skepticism, your suspicions are misplaced. They seem to have arisen from your reading of what I say I "want": my intent was to express what I value now (in contrast to my undergrad days), not what I desire but am currently lacking. As it happens, my current position is precisely the job that allows me to pay a mortgage, go on vacation, and pursue hobbies and interests. I'm happy with my current situation, and I have a realistic development plan for my career and future (and thus have a decent enough answer to the question you assume I don't know how to answer).

Regarding your second inference, I'll say two things. One, I'm not sure what counts as familiarity with "the demands of working in the private sector" apart from, well, working in the private sector, which I do. Two, I'm not sure why my signature has further added to your paranoia about my credentials, but it should go without saying that a signature on TGC is not a resume. If you want to read through my resume, I can send you a copy to allay your concerns further.

2 hours ago, Sigaba said:

 

  • Even the most satisfying and lucrative jobs are bedeviling.
  • Home ownership is much more than paying a mortgage -- it is also utilities, insurance, taxes, dealing with neighbors, project management, maintenance, and deferred maintenance.
  • Vacations are more and more deferred and increasingly disrupted by work.
  • Hobbies and interests are hard to maintain as workdays lengthen and workweeks expand.
  • 401k's alone may not earn enough money for one's retirement.
  • And, if you haven't discovered already, a cult of personality in corporate America can be at least as corrosively soul crushing as one in the Ivory Tower--especially if that cult has set up shop in HR.

 

Of course the first bullet is true, and I'd be happy to give a full list of pros and cons of working in the private sector based on my experience.

I couldn't help but laugh as you explained for me the obligations of homeownership. As a homeowner, I know these all too well. (You didn't really think I meant "paying a mortgage" to be an exhaustive description of homeownership, did you?)

Regarding vacations and hobbies, I'll just say that's not been my experience. I clock a firm 9-5 M-F, and I haven't had any vacations intruded upon due to work (though I have no way of knowing if my experience on this is representative). I've actually been able to pursue a new hobby, fly fishing, with the additional time that I now have during the nights and weekends.

You're right, of course, on 401ks, which is why last year I also contributed the max allowable to my IRA and threw additional money into my brokerage account. My point in raising 401ks was that humanities grad students in their 20s aren't thinking about retirement but that they should. 

And regarding the last bullet, again, I'll just have to say that I haven't had to deal with the cult of personality in the private sector that I saw in the university. I'm happy to concede that this may -- likely is -- commonplace elsewhere in corporate America.

2 hours ago, Sigaba said:

IMO, your overall argument would have been stronger had you bumped that infamous thread with a post in which you outlined the steps you took to remedy what you found wrong in your department during your time at Ohio State.

Maybe that would have been better, though I've made several posts in the past to that effect. See below.

2 hours ago, Sigaba said:

 

  • What committees did you join?
  • How did you seek to remedy bad relationships with professors?
  • Were your experiences actually as commonplace as you allege?
  • What kind of training did you get for going on the job market?
  • Were you a competitive job applicant with knowledge of in-demand fields or did you have the misfortune of specializing in the wrong fields at the wrong time?
  • Do you bear any responsibility for your sour relationships with the professors you named?

As far as committees, I was only ever really involved in my subfield-specific grad committee.

I fortunately didn't have any bad relationships with professors that needed remedying. I got along swimmingly with my committee members and those faculty members with whom I took classes. My assessment of the poor mentorship provided by my committee stems from my belief that they'd rather bury their heads in the sand rather than confront the fact that they're "training" their PhD students for jobs that aren't waiting for them. I talk about this experience some in this post:

Like in many programs, my job market training came both in the form of 1:1 advising and in a series of job market workshops. I thought these were both fine, except that, again, they downplayed the likelihood that the department's PhDs wouldn't get TT jobs. The department also sponsored a voluntary, 3-hour workshop on alt-ac job seeking during my tenure.

By the time a typical graduate student would first go on the market, I had resolved not to apply at all, so I can't tell you how competitive I was. I will say that I was completing my dissertation on a topic that would have been considered "trendy" in my subfield at the time I would have applied. 

Finally, there are no "sour relationships" between me and the professors I named. My assessment of those folks was based on my incidental interactions with them, hearing how they treat other graduate students, observations of their contributions to departmental communications, and, in the case of one of the named, their interactions with my wife. These people weren't on my committee, and I have no ongoing relationship of substance with any of them. 

I won't go too much further in what is already a very long post, but regarding "pivoting" I can only say that what worked for me was to pursue internships (against the advice of my professors). By the time I graduated, I had worked two internships with the federal government, one with an education non-profit, and one with the private sector company that is now my full-time employer. Not that I would have expected anyone here to remember this, but I've discussed my experiences preparing to leave higher ed in the following posts: 

 

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10 hours ago, Sigaba said:

your overall argument would have been stronger had you bumped that infamous thread

Speaking of the "infamous thread," I'd encourage all the newer members of the forum to read the first half of it. While it's become infamous around here for how toxic it become on the back end, as I was reading it last night, I was really struck by the quality of the initial discussion more generally but also the astuteness of the senior posters and the predictability of the younger posters (I was in the latter group at the time). Here are a few of the gems:

 

And a few of the snarky, smug, and dismissive posts by those who were applying to schools that year:

 

If your first instinct was to scoff at my initial post, I'd kindly encourage you to read the thread I quote and ask yourself whether you're any different from the folks five years ago who said versions of "I already know the risks," "I'm smart enough to think this through on my own," "I don't really care about getting a job," "a PhD has intrinsic value," etc. I'd also encourage you to ask why, every few years, there are folks nearing the end of their PhDs that come on this site to warn applicants about the state of the field. Perhaps what they have to say is worth reflecting upon.

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1 hour ago, Ramus said:

If your first instinct was to scoff at my initial post, I'd kindly encourage you to read the thread I quote and ask yourself whether you're any different from the folks five years ago who said versions of "I already know the risks," "I'm smart enough to think this through on my own," "I don't really care about getting a job," "a PhD has intrinsic value," etc. I'd also encourage you to ask why, every few years, there are folks nearing the end of their PhDs that come on this site to warn applicants about the state of the field. Perhaps what they have to say is worth reflecting upon.

The issue is that what you're saying is absolutely obvious to everyone here, yet you insist on using this insufferably condescending middle-class savior tone. No one thinks they're "any different from the folks five years ago." They know they're in the same situation, accepting the same risks, resigned to the likelihood that a PhD will not be profitable because they've heard the warnings already. And they'll still do it despite the risk because, like young people for centuries, they have an ideal and inner drive they want to play out in all of its drama instead of taking the practically-optimized route. (And yes, before you say it, they know--I know--that it will probably end in disappointment and burden them with some regrets, but that's life.) The reason I and others roll our eyes--not scoff, which is a self-congratulatory way to imagine the negative reactions to your post--is because you have not figured out something unique, you have reenacted the most predictable plot in the world. Most people who have advice stemming from an extremely common experience simply give that advice in brief and move on instead of, yes, proselytizing and being dramatic when they are not immediately met with applause and effusive thanks for their effort. So, here is my own patronizing advice to you: try being more like those people who say their piece and then move on instead of the whole performance you're doing here.

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7 minutes ago, SirGhostus said:

The issue is that what you're saying is absolutely obvious to everyone here, yet you insist on using this insufferably condescending middle-class savior tone. No one thinks they're "any different from the folks five years ago." They know they're in the same situation, accepting the same risks, resigned to the likelihood that a PhD will not be profitable because they've heard the warnings already. And they'll still do it despite the risk because, like young people for centuries, they have an ideal and inner drive they want to play out in all of its drama instead of taking the practically-optimized route. (And yes, before you say it, they know--I know--that it will probably end in disappointment and burden them with some regrets, but that's life.) The reason I and others roll our eyes--not scoff, which is a self-congratulatory way to imagine the negative reactions to your post--is because you have not figured out something unique, you have reenacted the most predictable plot in the world. Most people who have advice stemming from an extremely common experience simply give that advice in brief and move on instead of, yes, proselytizing and being dramatic when they are not immediately met with applause and effusive thanks for their effort. So, here is my own patronizing advice to you: try being more like those people who say their piece and then move on instead of the whole performance you're doing here.

I'm sorry my posts have provoked in you such irritation and hostility. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors, and I hope your education and career choices bring you peace and happiness.

Edited by Ramus
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13 minutes ago, Ramus said:

I'm sorry my posts have provoked in you such irritation and hostility. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors, and I hope your education and career choices bring you peace and happiness.

Apology accepted, the best of luck to you and yours as well.

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14 hours ago, helloperil said:

so basically, you need to be prepared to do your academic work while also developing skills that will make you more marketable in the "real world."

This. 

14 hours ago, helloperil said:

(i'm one of the suckers who has bought into the sunk-cost fallacy and decided to just finish the phd since i'm already dissertating)

I'm right there with you, @helloperil. I told myself I could have until the five years of funding were up and that I'd bounce if I hadn't finished by then. Now I wish I had yanked the cord earlier. My advice on this point was, alas, of the "do as I say, not as I do" variety. 

14 hours ago, helloperil said:

but it's also tiring to be seeking out these professional development opportunities on top of normal academic duties 

Yes, yes, yes. It really sucks, and I feel for those who throw up their hands and say, "I just don't have the time or energy." At one point, I was working 45 hours a week, TAing and working an internship at the same time (and commuting 6 hours a week to the internship, to boot). It was absolutely exhausting and, needless to say, I got virtually no writing done that semester.

I wish more universities would experiment with different ways to get their grad students experience by way of their guaranteed funding. At OSU, we had for a time a one-semester fellowship you could apply for that hooked you up with a local alt-ac internship in lieu of teaching. (This is how I got connected with my non-profit internship.) I haven't heard of any other schools using this model yet, but I thought it was a great idea to get students alt-ac experience without forcing them to chose between taking on multiple jobs and ditching their guaranteed funding / tuition remission to work outside the university. 

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Having been around for both the original (2015 was my first year of my doctorate), and being currently on the job market (30 applications, 1 interview, 8 outstanding, in case you want to know how that is), some thoughts in no particular order:

  • A PhD from a program with substantial resources (note: this is not equivalent to a top program, though there is substantial overlap) is still a worthwhile experience in and of itself. $30-35k yr plus good health insurance isn't nothing in this pre-postapocalyptic hellscape. Plus, I've had multi-month paid trips to Europe each year. My teaching load was light but engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of researching and writing my dissertation. The experience wasn't stress free, but it wasn't a bad sort of stress.
  • A PhD in the humanities takes more than 5 years. Make sure you're funded accordingly (part of the first point).
  • Going to a program without those resources, one where you have to scrape and claw and hustle to get even your basic needs met, is not a worthwhile experience. It's just volunteering to be exploited based on a lie as to future possibilities.
  • The actual line between the two situations is a bit fuzzy, but err on the side of caution. Do not apply to programs just to make sure you go to grad school.
  • I have very little sympathy for those who have recently finished their PhD and are left jobless or in adjunct hell. This includes some of my own friends. Yes, that's more than a bit brutal to say. But at this point, if you didn't know what the academic job market looked like going into it, that's on you. There are abundant resources that not only provide ample warning as to what lies ahead, but that also explain how to set yourself up for a non-academic career outside the academy, or at least outside a traditional professorship track. If the state of the world on the other side of your degree blindsides you, that's because you ignored several hundred flashing neon warning signs accompanied by air-raid sirens, or thought that, for some reason, they were trying to warn everyone else besides you.
  • Have a plan for your post-degree future before you apply. That plan should both identify several possible career paths, most of which should not be "be a professor", and have intermediate goals that set up those career paths roughly mapped out. 
  • Do not adjunct. Do anything other than adjunct.

Hopefully that's useful.

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Everything is a tradeoff in the capitalist hellscape we're in. There's some good advice in this thread.

Although I'm absolutely in the "she's a skeeze" camp, both the video and Ramus' posts speak to conditions that seem accurate to me, and echo what I've heard from other late stage grad students or post-academics. It is very worth taking to heart. I know universities are pushing to do alt-ac better, but they're not good enough to be truly helpful yet.

I will also say that what Sigada says about the private sector is true. In this, I can put on my own wearied veteran hat, and add:

  • The work is typically mind-numbingly mundane. The corporate world is, largely, a very stupid and vacuous place. Prepare yourself for things like content mill writer jobs that prioritize mediocrity, vacuity and speed over quality, having to speak corporate-ese, working for horrible impersonal corporations that try to mask their cutthroat capitalism with nauseating veneers of humanity, and being subjected to backhanded gossip, token diversity statements, and all the social toxicities people complain about with academia - except with even less genuine effort at ethical behavior. Have you ever spoken to a really terrible business major? It's like that at least 40 hours a week. 
  • You may or may not have the time and means for vacation and hobbies; if you do have the time and means, it may or may not be scarce. I have friends who have, largely, pretty engaging and well-paying jobs who regularly have to work 60+ hours for deadlines, have 10 vacation days a year, and the like. And again: the work tends to be mildly offputting at best. 
  • The tradeoff is generally more job security, but you still don't necessarily have a whole lot of that. I have learned to never treat a job as secure. What I can be secure about, I guess, is that I can typically find another job if the present one doesn't work out. 

Ramus, I hope your tech job continues to work out for you, but I have to warn you that after a couple more years you may feel as I did: as though your brain is melting out of your ears. I had a reasonable job that I was good at, too - flexible schedule, a modicum of creativity to keep things a bit interesting sometimes. Still absolutely mind-numbing at the end of the day. I would gently suggest that lionizing the middle-class white collar life based on your experience at a single job is a bit tone deaf. A lot of people, even among the middle class - who are so much luckier than those in the lower-class or gig economies - are struggling mightily.

There are jobs with more meaningful work to be found in the nonprofit, publishing, high school teaching, or public sectors. They can be great, and they can also be unbelievably overworked and underpaid. It's up to the individual to decide if you think going for that is a good idea, or if you think you can get one of the better positions. 

For my part, I am ecstatic to have 5-6 years out from the workforce, and if I don't get a TT job I will go back to what I was doing. I know that even if retirement takes a bit longer as a result, I will be happy I made this choice. 

Regardless, the best piece of advice here is that you need to be proactive. Start working on your alt-ac contingency plan now, and the most important thing is to get job experience. Do internships, basically. My university has an internship program especially for humanities PhDs that funds internships that would otherwise be unfunded. Take advantage of things like this - or, just take advantage of your summer stipends to get internships. Entry-level jobs require experience and you need to get it before you graduate. Discuss with career counselors and just look at job descriptions on Indeed or what have you. Take a look at the requirements and the skills section. Decide on what you think you can tolerate, and work at gaining those requirements and skills. Don't rely on your professors and don't postpone this. Basically, dedicate a couple of summers to internships, and cultivate skills and your network throughout.

I'll add one final thing: this entire discussion dodges the systemic and political dimension to all of this. Academia needs reform: the tuition problem, working conditions, societal devaluation of the humanities and obscene "professionalization" and corporatization of everything are all huge problems that need our activism, whether or not we get TT jobs. The answer to academia's problems, in this broader scheme, is not "encourage the people who want to get PhDs to join the white collar workforce," even if that makes sense to some degree from the personal angle.  

However we hack it, the key is to try to wrangle a livable working life out of an economic system that is not designed in our favor. Best of luck to all of us with that.

Edited by merry night wanderer
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2 hours ago, dr. telkanuru said:

A PhD from a program with substantial resources (note: this is not equivalent to a top program, though there is substantial overlap) is still a worthwhile experience in and of itself. $30-35k yr plus good health insurance isn't nothing in this pre-postapocalyptic hellscape.

I agree with most of what you've said, @dr. telkanuru, though we'll have to agree to disagree on whether the PhD is "still a worthwhile experience" in spite of its problems. I will add, though, that working for $30-35k a year, while a pretty sweet deal by the standards of grad student pay, still means you're missing out on a good deal of income that you could have earned if you'd entered the workforce after earning your BA. Add to that missing out the development of skills and experience, potential promotions or raises, etc., and by the end of 5 years, you've lost out on a fair amount. I think we can have an honest debate about whether whatever joys one gets out of your PhD (and I enjoyed researching and writing, my dissertation too) are worth that trade-off. They weren't for me, but I realize they are for others.

Good luck on the job market, by the way. Hope it works out for you. 

Edited by Ramus
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There's a lot of great advice on this thread. In the spirit of giving advice in brief and moving on, here's two things about academia and grad school that aren't usually mentioned in these threads:

1) Academia operates according to a prestige economy. Many of you are already familiar with the gist of this prestige economy in your worries about getting into highly ranked schools. But it's also important to understand that you, as a PhD student, are a commodity within this prestige economy. Part of the criteria to be awarded an "R1" designation is the number of doctorates produced by the university. Many faculty members like teaching graduate courses as these courses line up with their research and offer more productive conversations than advanced undergrad courses, and advising graduate students can be a important aspect of professional development if you are looking to move from a tenured job at a less prestigious university to a more prestigious one. As undergrad majors in English decline in number, so too do upper division literature courses...making graduate courses all the more desirable from a professor's perspective. The existence of a grad program adds some intangible value to the prestige of an English department at a public university. This is more true of public universities, especially less prestigious ones, than it is of the Ivies, where the level of prestige is already high. What is true of both public unis and the Ivies is that the research agenda of a professor gets a certain glow or buzz when students they advise, and whose ideas might closely reflect theirs, move on to jobs at other universities. As a professor, you never stop being a part of the prestige economy, so it is natural to want this sort of buzz. Now, do all professors actually articulate to themselves these ideas about how graduate students add to their value within the prestige economy? Absolutely not. And several professors may make intentional decisions to resist the prestige economy's moderation of their desires. I say all this so you know the faculty's incentives are not your incentives. They have incentives to attract you to their program, to keep the number of graduate students admitted high, and to encourage you to stay in academia. Your incentive to get a PhD is very different. Keep this in mind from the moment they woo you when you visit, when they talk about the department like it's a family, and when your department acts like the faculty are constantly looking to good by graduate students.

The only way the "system, political" change that @merry night wanderer rightly points to will come about is if tenured and tenure-track faculty mobilize, strike work, etc., in protest of cuts to the budget and hiring freezes. This will never happen. The faculty (will) only strike work if the university proposes to cut tenure/tenure-track faculty positions. And, whatever, I don't blame them. They have mortgages to pay. Their academic identity is a big part of their self-identity. Cool.

2) Don't let the job market reach backward and influence everything you do from the minute you enter grad school. To my mind, the biggest challenge of grad school isn't that new cohorts of graduate students aren't aware of the job market, but that they are hyper-aware of the job market from the moment they enter, and it hangs over them from semester 1. You feel the need to publish as much as possible, and you push yourself to devote time and energy to this in order to make yourself competitive on the market; you may feel the pressure to go to as many conferences as possible; you may feel the need to take on certain professional development activities or service assignments purely based on how that might play to a search committee. Negative feedback from faculty and peers can weigh you down even more so than normal. When you feel this pressure, ask yourself: is this why you wanted to go to grad school? You cannot outwork or outachieve other candidates. Most of you know the academic job market is not a meritocracy, but many probably don't know that all sorts of small, bureaucratic things determine which candidates are hired by search committees. Most institutions prioritize a certain kind of "fit" and it's almost impossible to say in advance what that fit is: a department may hire so they have someone to teach a very specific course on their curriculum; they may hire to expand their research or teaching diversity in a specific way, they may NOT hire a certain candidate because that candidate expressed a desire to teach a course that another faculty member already loves teaching; they may hire a certain candidate because that candidate can also be a 25% hire in the department of Gender and Sexuality Studies or History or Middle-Eastern Studies since those departments have the budget for that 25%. As this is a buyer's market, search committees will have no trouble finding whatever mix of qualifications they want in a capable candidate. 

So, if you choose to go to grad school knowing the risks, spend your 5-6 years actually doing what you find intellectually satisfying, in addition to preparing for an "alt-ac" job in the ways OP and other posters suggest. The "normal" work of grad school is stressful enough. Don't get into grad school telling yourself you'll do everything you can to be as competitive for an academic job as possible.

Edited by queenofkings7
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6 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

I will also say that what Sigada says about the private sector is true. In this, I can put on my own wearied veteran hat, and add:

  • The work is typically mind-numbingly mundane. The corporate world is, largely, a very stupid and vacuous place. Prepare yourself for things like content mill writer jobs that prioritize mediocrity, vacuity and speed over quality, having to speak corporate-ese, working for horrible impersonal corporations that try to mask their cutthroat capitalism with nauseating veneers of humanity, and being subjected to backhanded gossip, token diversity statements, and all the social toxicities people complain about with academia - except with even less genuine effort at ethical behavior. Have you ever spoken to a really terrible business major? It's like that at least 40 hours a week. 
  • You may or may not have the time and means for vacation and hobbies; if you do have the time and means, it may or may not be scarce. I have friends who have, largely, pretty engaging and well-paying jobs who regularly have to work 60+ hours for deadlines, have 10 vacation days a year, and the like. And again: the work tends to be mildly offputting at best. 
  • The tradeoff is generally more job security, but you still don't necessarily have a whole lot of that. I have learned to never treat a job as secure. What I can be secure about, I guess, is that I can typically find another job if the present one doesn't work out. 

I could have just lucked out, at least for the time being, but my experience in corporate life hasn't been similar to this, to use your phrase, "capitalist hellscape." There is corporatese, which I find by turns annoying and amusingly preposterous, and some mundane work, for which I have a relatively high tolerance. More often, though, my day-to-day has me doing challenging, interesting work, collaborating with a bunch of smart people, and being given a lot of opportunities to learn knew things and deepen my industry knowledge. You're right about job security - nothing beats tenure if you can get it (government work is probably a close second). 

I'm perfectly willing to concede that my experience could be entirely unrepresentative of corporate life. After all, Office Space didn't resonate with so many people on a gut level for nothing.

6 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

I would gently suggest that lionizing the middle-class white collar life based on your experience at a single job is a bit tone deaf. A lot of people, even among the middle class - who are so much luckier than those in the lower-class or gig economies - are struggling mightily.

That's a fair critique to a a degree - you're right to point out my sample size is small and thus potentially unrepresentative. However, I don't think it's right to suggest that, because "a lot of people" writ large are struggling, that I should modulate my message that there are decent life alternatives to going to graduate school / pursuing an academic life.

Corporate life isn't perfect, and it certainly isn't for everyone. But not all companies are awful, and many employ a smart folks working on interesting problems. (Perhaps one of the takeaways regarding this conversation could be: as far as corporate life goes, ymmv.) It just pains me that so often I'll hear humanities types flatten the prospects of working in the private sector to offhand dismissals: "The pursuit of profit is bad; corporations are bad; thus I will never go corporate." If you adopt that mindset, you're eliminating literally 50% of options for work.

6 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

There are jobs with more meaningful work to be found in the nonprofit, publishing, high school teaching, or public sectors. They can be great, and they can also be unbelievably overworked and underpaid. It's up to the individual to decide if you think going for that is a good idea, or if you think you can get one of the better positions. 

I pursued my internships with the feds first based on my belief that work in the government would be "more meaningful." And, at the highest level, I believed strongly in the mission I was doing (eliminating wasteful spending and practices in the DoD). But I found the day-to-day much closer to the mindnumbingly mundane work you link to corporate life: the work is unrelentingly focused on process and procedure; there's plenty of interpersonal drama; leadership is totally resistant to innovation and creativity; and there was a stupid amount of downtime. If you're someone like me, who likes being busy, government work ain't for you. 

6 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

Regardless, the best piece of advice here is that you need to be proactive. Start working on your alt-ac contingency plan now, and the most important thing is to get job experience. Do internships, basically. My university has an internship program especially for humanities PhDs that funds internships that would otherwise be unfunded. Take advantage of things like this - or, just take advantage of your summer stipends to get internships. Entry-level jobs require experience and you need to get it before you graduate. Discuss with career counselors and just look at job descriptions on Indeed or what have you. Take a look at the requirements and the skills section. Decide on what you think you can tolerate, and work at gaining those requirements and skills. Don't rely on your professors and don't postpone this. Basically, dedicate a couple of summers to internships, and cultivate skills and your network throughout.

I hope everyone here heeds this very good advice, especially the part about using your summers to build your non-ac resume. 

6 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

I'll add one final thing: this entire discussion dodges the systemic and political dimension to all of this. Academia needs reform: the tuition problem, working conditions, societal devaluation of the humanities and obscene "professionalization" and corporatization of everything are all huge problems that need our activism, whether or not we get TT jobs. The answer to academia's problems, in this broader scheme, is not "encourage the people who want to get PhDs to join the white collar workforce," even if that makes sense to some degree from the personal angle.  

 I'm about as sanguine about the likelihood of academic reform as @queenofkings7. I hope you and others work to prove my pessimism wrong. 

 

6 hours ago, merry night wanderer said:

However we hack it, the key is to try to wrangle a livable working life out of an economic system that is not designed in our favor. Best of luck to all of us with that.

Amen. Good luck to all.

Edited by Ramus
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On 4/14/2021 at 10:41 PM, Ramus said:

I'm perfectly willing to concede that my experience could be entirely unrepresentative of corporate life. After all, Office Space didn't resonate with so many people on a gut level for nothing.

As they say, "Office Space is a documentary," lol. 

It really sounds like you did luck out, and that's deeply worth valuing and sticking with. If you like the place where you have to spend 40 hours a week, and aren't pushed to spend more, there's not much more to reasonably ask for. I have many issues with the way industry works under capitalism. However, that doesn’t mean that every company will crush your soul or that you can’t find yourself with good colleagues, interesting work, and reasonable working conditions. Your point later is well taken that there’s a big bias against the private sector among academics, and while I completely understand why that’s the case (since we tend to think in big-picture, systemic terms), it’s also true that those conditions *can be* more humane and opportunities *certainly are* more plentiful there and they shouldn't, for reasons of survival, be discounted. 

Just as you wouldn’t want the person who got lucky and made it to be representative of the academic prospects of the people here, I wouldn’t want people to think that white collar work is a proverbial field of free time and job opportunities and good salaries. It *can* be that. But it fully depends on how you machete your way through a hostile economic jungle, and how lucky you are. You could also end up in an awful, dehumanizing situation with abusive bosses and incredibly tedious work. So you have to do your best to minimize those chances.

My major point here is the one that there are tradeoffs for everything and people need to think carefully about what kind of working life they can find tolerable. Do you need job security? Don’t freelance. Do you hate commutes? Maybe freelancing is worth the job security tradeoff for you. Do you want meaningful, helping-the-world-be-a-better-place work? You will probably want to work with nonprofits (though the nonprofit industrial complex is another ethical minefield as well). Do you really need stellar benefits? You probably need a public sector or solid white collar job, unfortunately. Just as academia is a huge tradeoff in terms of time spent, salary, meaningfulness of the work, and job prospects, so is everything else, and because you need an alt-ac plan no matter who you are, you should consider what you’re willing to give up and what you need. 

On 4/14/2021 at 10:41 PM, Ramus said:

I pursued my internships with the feds first based on my belief that work in the government would be "more meaningful." And, at the highest level, I believed strongly in the mission I was doing (eliminating wasteful spending and practices in the DoD). But I found the day-to-day much closer to the mindnumbingly mundane work you link to corporate life: the work is unrelentingly focused on process and procedure; there's plenty of interpersonal drama; leadership is totally resistant to innovation and creativity; and there was a stupid amount of downtime. If you're someone like me, who likes being busy, government work ain't for you. 

I think perhaps I haphazardly stuck nonprofits (which have overworked/underpaid issues) with public sector jobs, which tend to have the problems you're listing. I've worked as a contractor for government organizations and have generally found them my most pleasant (if not well-paying) jobs, but I'm not surprised to hear your report. If, in your personal calculus, you like benefits, job security, and work with a mission better than innovation, flexibility, and keeping busy, you might find it better. Or not! It depends again on the situation. I don't personally mind downtime (there is always personal reading to do!), but I certainly don't like process and procedure-based work and would have likely been miserable there too.

I would say the one thing you're never going to be able to fully avoid is interpersonal drama. That everyone is likely to have to confront at one time or another in any job situation. But everything else is worth thinking about as you try to angle the alt-ac resume all of us are going to need.

Edited by merry night wanderer
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