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The Reality of Grad School


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Congratulations! Many of you have the opportunity to become political science PhD students in the fall. Now that most of you have gotten in somewhere, though, it is necessary to examine whether going to grad school is right for you.

 

The reality is harsh and won’t be something you hear about at the recruitment weekends or from the DGS that spends his time here. At the best departments, only about half of the students finish with PhDs. It is far fewer as we go down the ranking tree. Of those, maybe half will end up with tenure track jobs somewhere. Of those, a little over half will receive tenure. Only one in eight members of your cohort will be in the discipline. Think about that for a little bit.

 

If you’re not that one person in eight, you’re wasting your time. It’s as simple as that. The skills you acquire in grad school have negligible applications to the professional world. Each year you spend at a PhD program is a year of work experience you don’t have and everyone who didn’t go to grad school does. Each year you miss will also have a new crop of college graduates enter the workforce for you to compete with. It’s not worth falling that far behind, especially when you know there’s an almost 90% chance you ending up right back on the non-academic job market.

 

So, you’re asking yourself, “why would faculty be so welcoming and inviting to me as we get closer to April 15? Don’t they realize that they’re likely sending me down a path to failure?” Well, guess what. They know and they don’t care. You are cheap labor to them, at best. Research assistants, teaching assistants and co-authors who do all the work on a paper (if you’re lucky). They need you. But that’s not even the half of it. Some faculty just enjoy recruitment for the sake of competing with old friends or rivals at other departments. Not only do they not care about you, their promises will literally disappear from your life as soon as you accept. That’s the world you’re entering. Be very wary. I know I wish I had been. 

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You sound like you've gotten one too many rejection letters. Sour grapes much? Have you considered that maybe you're just a mediocre stident and no one wants to invest their time in you?

Congratulations! Many of you have the opportunity to become political science PhD students in the fall. Now that most of you have gotten in somewhere, though, it is necessary to examine whether going

I'm not feeling up to a long, rambling post right now so I'll just keep it short and sweet.   I love being a graduate student and I feel confident in my ability to find employment when I complete my

Something you should keep in mind is that people have thought this through. I, and many others, have a number of years of work experience outside of academia. I think a lot of us would rather do something we enjoy and risk the academic job market than work in a job we don't like. And here's something else: the non-academic job market isn't so easy either.

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Something you should keep in mind is that people have thought this through. I, and many others, have a number of years of work experience outside of academia. I think a lot of us would rather do something we enjoy and risk the academic job market than work in a job we don't like. And here's something else: the non-academic job market isn't so easy either.

 

This is a good point. After battling through a PhD I do think many find it utterly devastating if they can't get the kind of job they imagined. It's quite natural really.. years of training and socialization for a career you might not make it into.

 

FakeCoach is right that there's a systematic overproduction of PhDs and the academic job market just can't take them all. It's grim, but it's the truth. The question is where you draw the line. Many of the denizens of PSR would say being outside the 'Top 5' dooms you to a life of failure. That's true if your idea of failure is working anywhere that's not H-Y-P-S/acronym of choice.

 

I miss the real coach ;)

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Something you should keep in mind is that people have thought this through. I, and many others, have a number of years of work experience outside of academia. I think a lot of us would rather do something we enjoy and risk the academic job market than work in a job we don't like. And here's something else: the non-academic job market isn't so easy either.

This. If you've spent a few years working a job you hate, or searching for a job in the real world (I've done both), risking the academic job market doesn't look all that bad. 

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Many of the denizens of PSR would say being outside the 'Top 5' dooms you to a life of failure. That's true if your idea of failure is working anywhere that's not H-Y-P-S/acronym of choice.

 

I don't mean to pick on AultReekie by quoting this, because this is a common myth on this board (and something I thought when I started). State directional schools and non-selective liberal arts colleges are not consolation prizes. They are prizes that newly minted PhD's from very good programs compete to get.

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I'm all for a dose of realism when it comes to graduate and professional school education, but this was over-the-top to the point that I feel like the OP is projecting his/her own poor choices onto the entire graduate community.  Some on this board have received acceptances to top 10-15 programs, where their chances of landing a TT job are a lot higher than what OP suggests.  Others who are applying to lower ranked schools recognize the possibility that they might be teaching at LACs, or might have to go into policy or government work after the PhD. 

 

Yes, the TT market right now is quite bad.  As one mentor put it to me, "You should only be applying to a PhD if you cannot envision doing yourself happy in any other line of work."  For those who satisfy this criterion and know the risks going in, then I say good for them.

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I'm all for a dose of realism when it comes to graduate and professional school education, but this was over-the-top to the point that I feel like the OP is projecting his/her own poor choices onto the entire graduate community.

This. Data on completing graduate school and scoring an academic gig are definitely important. The "nobody cares about you at all, programs are using you and faculty are spending their time purposefully trying to screw you over" thing is just being dramatic about a personal experience.

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 Some on this board have received acceptances to top 10-15 programs, where their chances of landing a TT job are a lot higher than what OP suggests.  Others who are applying to lower ranked schools recognize the possibility that they might be teaching at LACs, or might have to go into policy or government work after the PhD. 

It's probably worth recognizing that you still need to go to a highly ranked program if you want to work at a LAC. See, for example, the faculty at Oberlin, which includes grads from Yale, U Chicago, Harvard, Minnesota, Columbia, and Berkeley. Wellesley is similar: Princeton, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Stanford, U Chicago, UNC-Chapel Hill. Alright, those two are pretty elite. So maybe a less elite LAC is what you're interested in. Well, how about SUNY Purchase, #171 in the US News and World Report rankings for National Liberal Arts Colleges? UT-Austin, University of Houston, UNC-CH, Rutgers, the New School. I listed them all since they only have five faculty. New College of Florida is tied for #87 in those same rankings. The faculty there are from Duke, Michigan State, Indiana, and UC-Davis. 

 

I say all this to point out that it's a fallacy that you can go anywhere and end up at a liberal arts college. (BTW, it's a good exercise to look up the CVs of folks working at places you think you might want to work at. It'll help you see what the qualifications for that job might be, assuming such a job is available in 5-7 years when you're on the market.) The Chronicle has a bunch of threads on this. Such jobs look for elite scholar-educators, often who have attended a LAC for undergrad and thus know what it's all about. And, if you don't love teaching, you'll hate LAC life with it's 3/3 (or more) teaching loads, 25-50 advisees (at a minimum), and expectation that you are in your office and accessible to students from basically 8am-6pm on weekdays. 

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A healthy dose of realism is hugely important at this stage, and a lot of people are not happy to hear it, which can be sad. 

 

The number of graduate students in good programs who earnestly believe that they all will get tenure track jobs at R1s is huge. Far, far greater than the number that will or even can get those jobs. 

 

Very many of them don't realize how bad the market is until close to the end, when they really don't have time to easily make themselves attractive to non-academic jobs by gaining alternative skillets. 

 

You may very well not be one of these individuals. You may have thought through exactly all the sacrifices you'll need to make, and know your odds. You may have a lot of non-academic experience, and know how to translate your work to a non-academic job, or even not be doing a PhD for the job prospects. That's great. But if you fall into these categories, you are very likely the vast minority of the entering cohort for next year. 

 

Go to the chronicle forum, and see the constant laments that undergrads won't listen to faculty trying to steer them away from grad school, or about the lack of realism and preparation of their entering classes. It's a systemic problem that the large majority of people applying to, and getting into, graduate programs have no strong idea what getting the degree will entail, what they need to do to do well after the degree, or what the degree will qualify them for in a job. 

 

They simply liked undergrad, have done well, and see continuing that education as a natural extension. 

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It's probably worth recognizing that you still need to go to a highly ranked program if you want to work at a LAC. See, for example, the faculty at Oberlin, which includes grads from Yale, U Chicago, Harvard, Minnesota, Columbia, and Berkeley. Wellesley is similar: Princeton, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Stanford, U Chicago, UNC-Chapel Hill. Alright, those two are pretty elite. So maybe a less elite LAC is what you're interested in. Well, how about SUNY Purchase, #171 in the US News and World Report rankings for National Liberal Arts Colleges? UT-Austin, University of Houston, UNC-CH, Rutgers, the New School. I listed them all since they only have five faculty. New College of Florida is tied for #87 in those same rankings. The faculty there are from Duke, Michigan State, Indiana, and UC-Davis. 

 

I totally agree with your overall point - LAC positions are very competitive and one should not assume that they will be able to get them if one attends a lower ranked school in political science. 

 

That being said, there is a specific reason why I divided it between "top 10-15" and "the rest."  Obviously, as you acknowledge, Oberlin and Wellesley are in a different class of LACs than most other schools - those are highly desirable positions for even those who would prefer to work in a T1 research setting.  Note however that your list for SUNY Purchase and New College include only one definite top 10-15 program (Duke), while the rest are in accordance with my statement (UNC-CH is borderline depending on subfield).

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My favorite part was where we're all puppets being played with so faculty members can compete with other faculty members they know. I just want to know where the scoreboard is keeping track of who gets the most recruits.

 

You'd be surprised at how accurate this can be. 

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You sound like you've gotten one too many rejection letters. Sour grapes much? Have you considered that maybe you're just a mediocre stident and no one wants to invest their time in you?

 

That's probably the reaction I would have had when I was in your position, but the numbers aren't wrong. Are you so confident that you won't end up in that 65-75%? Are all but one or two students in a cohort really "mediocre" and not worth investing time in? Give it a think. 

 

I'm all for a dose of realism when it comes to graduate and professional school education, but this was over-the-top to the point that I feel like the OP is projecting his/her own poor choices onto the entire graduate community.  Some on this board have received acceptances to top 10-15 programs, where their chances of landing a TT job are a lot higher than what OP suggests.  Others who are applying to lower ranked schools recognize the possibility that they might be teaching at LACs, or might have to go into policy or government work after the PhD. 

 

Yes, the TT market right now is quite bad.  As one mentor put it to me, "You should only be applying to a PhD if you cannot envision doing yourself happy in any other line of work."  For those who satisfy this criterion and know the risks going in, then I say good for them.

 

I'd recheck your numbers. The most complete (now outdated) statistics are at: https://sites.google.com/site/honestgraduatenumbers/Even top-10 schools rarely place more than half of their entering classes, it's usually around 25%, varying from year to year. Imagine what it's like further down -- those programs sure won't tell you. Take NYU's 2006 class (http://politics.as.nyu.edu/docs/IO/4610/NYU_Placement.pdf), not to pick on them, but because half of the links are dead. Great placements. Stanford. Rochester. Minnesota. But, only 4 TT of a cohort of 19. Not even 25%. They sure will tell you about those four, but what about the other 15? 

 

And these are the departments that are being transparent. Imagine what's going on at the one's that won't tell you the placement stats. Harvard included. From a friend: huge classes, little faculty attention and about half of the cohorts just disappear. And, guess what? No complete statistics, like NYU or the other schools on the site. The stats look great because there are many great placements, but that's just window dressing. Half of the people that enroll in PhD programs won't finish. They don't get to go to those government jobs or LACs (although, it's been said well here that the top programs compete for both of those, too). Think about your future. Where would you end up with a four year gap on your resume?

 

This. Data on completing graduate school and scoring an academic gig are definitely important. The "nobody cares about you at all, programs are using you and faculty are spending their time purposefully trying to screw you over" thing is just being dramatic about a personal experience.

 

That's your interpretation of what I said. There are certainly people who care, but many people do not or only marginally do. A friend's adviser promised him that he'd stick around until the friend graduated only to jump ship and move across the country right before the friend went on the job market. More important to you, though, is that there will be some faculty members that recruit you and make you promises during the recruitment weekend, only to disappear once you actually attend. Be cautious and on guard, because it's ultimately your life that you're leaving in their hands. 

 

But the cheap labor comment is just logic: if only a quarter (or less at lower ranked programs) get jobs, then why have graduate students? It's certainly not career training, but there's always sections to be led or data to be coded or papers to be 'co-written' (again, if you're lucky). In reality, the first two of these won't help you get a job (and will hurt your own research output if overdone) and a publication with an adviser is heavily discounted. So, again, be wary of what programs want you to commit your time to. Recruitment is the only time you will ever have leverage. The next class is just a year away. 

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I don't mean to pick on AultReekie by quoting this, because this is a common myth on this board (and something I thought when I started). State directional schools and non-selective liberal arts colleges are not consolation prizes. They are prizes that newly minted PhD's from very good programs compete to get.

 

I didn't say otherwise. Merely that the slice of bitter graduate students you find on PSR doesn't equate such positions with success!

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That's your interpretation of what I said. There are certainly people who care, but many people do not or only marginally do. A friend's adviser promised him that he'd stick around until the friend graduated only to jump ship and move across the country right before the friend went on the job market. More important to you, though, is that there will be some faculty members that recruit you and make you promises during the recruitment weekend, only to disappear once you actually attend. Be cautious and on guard, because it's ultimately your life that you're leaving in their hands.

But the cheap labor comment is just logic: if only a quarter (or less at lower ranked programs) get jobs, then why have graduate students? It's certainly not career training, but there's always sections to be led or data to be coded or papers to be 'co-written' (again, if you're lucky). In reality, the first two of these won't help you get a job (and will hurt your own research output if overdone) and a publication with an adviser is heavily discounted. So, again, be wary of what programs want you to commit your time to. Recruitment is the only time you will ever have leverage. The next class is just a year away.

Your friend isn't the center of the world. If a faculty member is given a better opportunity, why shouldn't they take it? Their job isn't to hold the hand of graduate students.

You know what would be even cheaper labor? Not paying hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to fund graduate students and instead using free undergraduates. If schools really thought so poorly about graduate students, they wouldn't waste the money on them. It isn't like money is flowing freely in academia.

If people think graduate school will be a walk in the park or think that programs will treat them like kings, they weren't going to make it very far anyway.

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I'd recheck your numbers. The most complete (now outdated) statistics are at: https://sites.google.com/site/honestgraduatenumbers/Even top-10 schools rarely place more than half of their entering classes, it's usually around 25%, varying from year to year. Imagine what it's like further down -- those programs sure won't tell you. Take NYU's 2006 class (http://politics.as.nyu.edu/docs/IO/4610/NYU_Placement.pdf), not to pick on them, but because half of the links are dead. Great placements. Stanford. Rochester. Minnesota. But, only 4 TT of a cohort of 19. Not even 25%. They sure will tell you about those four, but what about the other 15? 

 

And these are the departments that are being transparent. Imagine what's going on at the one's that won't tell you the placement stats. Harvard included. From a friend: huge classes, little faculty attention and about half of the cohorts just disappear. And, guess what? No complete statistics, like NYU or the other schools on the site. The stats look great because there are many great placements, but that's just window dressing. Half of the people that enroll in PhD programs won't finish. They don't get to go to those government jobs or LACs (although, it's been said well here that the top programs compete for both of those, too). Think about your future. Where would you end up with a four year gap on your resume?

Here's the updated look at NYU's placement for the class of 2006: http://politics.as.nyu.edu/docs/IO/4610/NYU_Placement.pdf

 

The Class of 2006 currently has 4 TTs, 5 post-docs, 1 NTT, 1 still ABD.  6 dropped out, which can occur for various reasons and there is no evidence to impute that onto the Politics department itself without evidence.  Therefore, out of 12 people, 4 already have TTs and 5 are taking the right steps to get them in the future.  I hardly see how those numbers are poor at all.

 

As I've said before, I agree with you that a dose of realism is beneficial for people who are making the decision to enter graduate school, especially in a field such a political science with a sub-optimal TT market right now. 

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I think the reason that we all whistle past the graveyard when we start out is because we come from places where we were distinctive. Students that apply to and get accepted to PhD programs were elite undergraduates. Part of us thinks that we have risen to the top before as undergrads and we have beaten odds before in the application process, so we can easily imagine doing it again.

 

All of those people who didn't get any job offers and just drifted away, or who shuffled around a couple post-docs until settling into an adjuncting career were just as special and elite as the rest of us when they started out.

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I think this is indeed a healthy dose of realism. Personally, I'm not a fan of over the top doomsaying but just because I don't like it does not mean it is not true. I think it is important for all of us, both about-to-be-new graduate students and current graduate students (like me) to look at the numbers. In many fields, only 10% of people graduating PhD programs end up on the tenure track. And only about 50% of people who enter PhD programs will actually graduate with a PhD. This is a reality we should prepare for when we enter graduate school and each year, almost every graduate student I know will re-evaluate their decision to stay. Some people continue, some people choose to do other things with their lives. The important thing, in my opinion, is to recognize that leaving graduate school is not failure. I don't think it is actually a problem that 50% of graduate students do not finish. The problem is when certain programs set up their students to fail, but leaving graduate school early because you want to pursue other things is not failure and not a problem. Also, an extension of this is that a non-TT job placement is also not failure! I will probably choose non-TT jobs because you have almost no choice in location when you are following TT-jobs, for example.
 
I also really want to emphasize what Eigen said about one naive perspective on graduate school, "They simply liked undergrad, have done well, and see continuing that education as a natural extension." Graduate school really is not a natural extension of education and it is not what you should do if you really like a subject and want to learn more about it. Graduate school is a place you go to in order to get training for a specific career goal. Thus, I think it's really important for all students, at some early point in their graduate school career, to decide what it is exactly that they want out of graduate school. You don't have to decide this right away and in fact, it can be quite difficult to know this without any experience in graduate school or academia. But at some point, we should all decide what we want to do, make a plan on how to achieve, and get it and get out. If it turns out that what you really want to do cannot be attained in graduate school, then leaving early is better than finishing up a useless degree. Hopefully your program allows you to leave with a Masters and hopefully you were able to get something out of grad school.

 

I think doses of reality like this post is important. But to me, it is not a doomsaying post that says "only 10% of you will ever succeed, the other 90% will waste their life". Instead, I view these numbers and statistics as a call to reality to encourage me to make well-defined and achievable goals in grad school. If you come in with the naive mindset that "I love subject X and will only be happy if I am a professor in X" then yes, you have a very high chance of failure and disappointment. But this is no different in academia than other fields (e.g. if your dream was to be a rock star etc.). On the other hand, if we seriously consider what our time in grad school will mean to us in terms of career, professional, and personal development, and if we make realistic plans to achieve these goals, then we all have a good chance of getting something that we want out of grad school. 

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While a TT professorship would be awesome, I'd be completely ecstatic to get a research job at MS, Google, Amazon, etc.

 

I'm not afraid of not getting what is considered the ultimate goal of a PhD, because it isn't the reason I want one. I want to do research in computer science. <- Period.

 

If it is as a professor, awesome, if it isn't? That is awesome too.

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But to me, it is not a doomsaying post that says "only 10% of you will ever succeed, the other 90% will waste their life".

 

See, I think it is a bit doomsday. For the reason that going to grad school is a 'waste of life.' What exactly about going to grad school is a waste of life? As opposed to what, working in a typical job 40+ hours a week that you may or may not like?

 

To me, that's a false dilemma. 

 

That's the problem with a lot of these arguments for me. It's like, for the vast majority of people in the world; they spend most of their life working in completely average jobs, working to live. So what exactly are most people sacrificing here? 

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I think this is indeed a healthy dose of realism. Personally, I'm not a fan of over the top doomsaying but just because I don't like it does not mean it is not true. I think it is important for all of us, both about-to-be-new graduate students and current graduate students (like me) to look at the numbers. In many fields, only 10% of people graduating PhD programs end up on the tenure track. And only about 50% of people who enter PhD programs will actually graduate with a PhD. This is a reality we should prepare for when we enter graduate school and each year, almost every graduate student I know will re-evaluate their decision to stay. Some people continue, some people choose to do other things with their lives. The important thing, in my opinion, is to recognize that leaving graduate school is not failure. I don't think it is actually a problem that 50% of graduate students do not finish. The problem is when certain programs set up their students to fail, but leaving graduate school early because you want to pursue other things is not failure and not a problem. Also, an extension of this is that a non-TT job placement is also not failure! I will probably choose non-TT jobs because you have almost no choice in location when you are following TT-jobs, for example.

 

I also really want to emphasize what Eigen said about one naive perspective on graduate school, "They simply liked undergrad, have done well, and see continuing that education as a natural extension." Graduate school really is not a natural extension of education and it is not what you should do if you really like a subject and want to learn more about it. Graduate school is a place you go to in order to get training for a specific career goal. Thus, I think it's really important for all students, at some early point in their graduate school career, to decide what it is exactly that they want out of graduate school. You don't have to decide this right away and in fact, it can be quite difficult to know this without any experience in graduate school or academia. But at some point, we should all decide what we want to do, make a plan on how to achieve, and get it and get out. If it turns out that what you really want to do cannot be attained in graduate school, then leaving early is better than finishing up a useless degree. Hopefully your program allows you to leave with a Masters and hopefully you were able to get something out of grad school.

 

I think doses of reality like this post is important. But to me, it is not a doomsaying post that says "only 10% of you will ever succeed, the other 90% will waste their life". Instead, I view these numbers and statistics as a call to reality to encourage me to make well-defined and achievable goals in grad school. If you come in with the naive mindset that "I love subject X and will only be happy if I am a professor in X" then yes, you have a very high chance of failure and disappointment. But this is no different in academia than other fields (e.g. if your dream was to be a rock star etc.). On the other hand, if we seriously consider what our time in grad school will mean to us in terms of career, professional, and personal development, and if we make realistic plans to achieve these goals, then we all have a good chance of getting something that we want out of grad school. 

 

It's not realism to state that "only 10% of you will ever succeed;" that is simply untrue, unless you meant to post this on the philosophy board ;~}.  If you're counting the 50% attrition rate, then you might have a slightly better case.  However, I don't think it makes sense to count these students among the "failures".  For one, quite a few have already said that they have career goals other than being a Professor; this means that it makes sense to cut one's losses after achieving the MA and opting for the career for which they were initially aiming.  I suspect the number of PhD students who actually don't want to end up in academia is higher than is readily apparent, since we all know that there is some stigma in the academy about opting for a non-academic job; free MA for those who only wanted one in the first place.  Some students drop out of the program realizing that it doesn't entail what they thought it would.  These students are probably those you mention as having been good in school, thinking graduate school is more of the same, and with limited research experience.  Fine, but you can't count them among the failures for getting a TT job because they decided they didn't even want to attempt to get one at all!  They discovered that something else would suit their interests.  So, really, you can only count those who completed the PhD: PhDs out, compared against how many get TT jobs.  But even that isn't completely satisfactory, because some graduates will choose a non-academic job after getting the PhD even if they can get a TT job.  Some eventually realize that at that point they would rather make 80-120k working for the government in DC instead of moving to Nebraska for a 50k TT job.  That's certainly not the same as failing to get a TT job. 

In all these cases, the students in question opted for careers they found themselves preferring to being a Professor, so you're right that there's no shame in dropping out of graduate school.  However, that doesn't make it true that those seeking to become Professors are extremely likely (i.e., 90%) to fail.  The chances are significantly worse for those coming from low ranked programs, but I don't see any program in the top 50 or so that are regularly churning out adjuncts.  Ok, sure, many will have to do a post-doc first, but that's not too bad, especially considering that all med-students, for instance, are legally mandated to complete a three year 'post-doc' after graduating (it makes sense to compare a PhD to other professional programs and careers as opposed to some ideal).  Maybe all the government officials/think tankers/private sector workers with polsci PhDs were forced into these avenues because they couldn't find TT jobs; this is hard to verify without actually taking a survey, but it does seem very unlikely.  All this being said, I think we do all agree that the road is tough and that the academic marketplace is extremely competitive.  'The Realist' has a very good post about this in this forum.  Nevertheless, everyone wants to be seen as a 'realist' and uses this as a mask for doom-and-gloom and statements that are simply hyperbolic (90% rate of failure; saying it's the same as being a rockstar, when really it's the same situation that lawyers face).

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