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The Graduate School Ponzi Scheme


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Dear Prospective Students,

 

I thought of addressing this post to my former self when I was eager to attend a PhD English program--when I was totally committed to getting in, doing well, joining the profession. But I write to you as I am. I have a new PhD, it's from a program many of you wish to join, and I have been successful publishing my work. However, after years of hard, painstaking work, I find myself living a nightmare of despair, frustration, and anger. I'll spare you the particulars, but the academic job search has been worse than any of the articles on Slate or the Chronicle can describe. It has been crushing in ways that I do not have a language to describe. You might read this as hyperbole, but you forget that this is about making a living. And the consequences that follow from not making one. 

 

I want to tell you something that you've read many other places and that you know rationally: this profession is in shambles. It's a Ponzi scheme. And it does not matter if you attend UCLA or Columbia, UNC or Duke, the opportunities for a viable career are dwindling, rapidly. Look at the academic job wiki; see the reality of what awaits after you struggle intellectually and financially for at least several years in graduate school.

 

The problem is that these doctoral programs need you to survive. And they're looking to hook you on the illusion of academe. They offer you 30k to study! To get a PhD! To have a chance at the table to role the die for a TT job. Why not accept their offer? It's a dream!

 

Here's what they're not telling you and what you're not seeing at your campus visit: the emotional devastation of making this investment and suffering the rejection that awaits an increasing number of you in spite of your faith in divine academic providence (there are plenty of Calvinists that comprise your cohorts). It might not be about a job for you now, but it will become a mad hunt for a job once you have the exact same credentials, publications, and experience that merits an assistant professorship. But academic hiring is not about merit--it is about fit. And fit means inside hires, BS searches, and lateral moves. I know that these seem like distant, vague frustrations. But when you find that there are only a handful of openings in your field to begin with, the reality of these searches will overwhelm you.

 

You can dismiss this post as a bitter rant.  However, I intend this as a sincere warning. I mean this from my heart, and I would not or will not amend it even if I find myself employed in the academy, managing the scheme. Believe me, I wish I could extol the virtues of this profession; I believe deeply in the importance of teaching and research. However, the profession often actively undermines these labors in favor of careerism, self-aggrandizement, and nepotism. These realities have been devastating in ways that I never anticipated and that I never thought I would be vulnerable to experiencing. Again, once you commit--which you have to do in order to produce work you can take pride in--you open yourself up to living the nightmare because escape becomes increasingly unfathomable.

 

Take your intelligence and your drive and your curiosity and find something that will reward you with a living. You cannot make a living doing this. The people responsible for safeguarding this profession turned their backs on you long ago; don't turn towards them now.

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Dear Prospective Students,

 

I thought of addressing this post to my former self when I was eager to attend a PhD English program--when I was totally committed to getting in, doing well, joining the profession. But I write to you as I am. I have a new PhD, it's from a program many of you wish to join, and I have been successful publishing my work. However, after years of hard, painstaking work, I find myself living a nightmare of despair, frustration, and anger. I'll spare you the particulars, but the academic job search has been worse than any of the articles on Slate or the Chronicle can describe. It has been crushing in ways that I do not have a language to describe. You might read this as hyperbole, but you forget that this is about making a living. And the consequences that follow from not making one. 

 

I want to tell you something that you've read many other places and that you know rationally: this profession is in shambles. It's a Ponzi scheme. And it does not matter if you attend UCLA or Columbia, UNC or Duke, the opportunities for a viable career are dwindling, rapidly. Look at the academic job wiki; see the reality of what awaits after you struggle intellectually and financially for at least several years in graduate school.

 

The problem is that these doctoral programs need you to survive. And they're looking to hook you on the illusion of academe. They offer you 30k to study! To get a PhD! To have a chance at the table to role the die for a TT job. Why not accept their offer? It's a dream!

 

Here's what they're not telling you and what you're not seeing at your campus visit: the emotional devastation of making this investment and suffering the rejection that awaits an increasing number of you in spite of your faith in divine academic providence (there are plenty of Calvinists that comprise your cohorts). It might not be about a job for you now, but it will become a mad hunt for a job once you have the exact same credentials, publications, and experience that merits an assistant professorship. But academic hiring is not about merit--it is about fit. And fit means inside hires, BS searches, and lateral moves. I know that these seem like distant, vague frustrations. But when you find that there are only a handful of openings in your field to begin with, the reality of these searches will overwhelm you.

 

You can dismiss this post as a bitter rant.  However, I intend this as a sincere warning. I mean this from my heart, and I would not or will not amend it even if I find myself employed in the academy, managing the scheme. Believe me, I wish I could extol the virtues of this profession; I believe deeply in the importance of teaching and research. However, the profession often actively undermines these labors in favor of careerism, self-aggrandizement, and nepotism. These realities have been devastating in ways that I never anticipated and that I never thought I would be vulnerable to experiencing. Again, once you commit--which you have to do in order to produce work you can take pride in--you open yourself up to living the nightmare because escape becomes increasingly unfathomable.

 

Take your intelligence and your drive and your curiosity and find something that will reward you with a living. You cannot make a living doing this. The people responsible for safeguarding this profession turned their backs on you long ago; don't turn towards them now.

 

Just go ahead tell us where you are waitlisted.  Trying to thin the field, eh? 

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So I googled "alt-ac career english phd" and this link came up: http://fromphdtolife.com/transition-q-as/

 

I know the majority of PhDs want to pursue a TT position, but some of these jobs look really cool! There doesn't have to be misery after academia. Not that I know anything about it just yet, but hey, at least it's a glimmer of hope.

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I don't mean to be flip; the OP's words about how even going in with rational knowledge of the terrors of the job market doesn't prepare you for its emotional toll make a good point.

 

But at the same time, some of us are going into this knowing full well what's on the other end, having watched friends, family, and loved ones struggle on the market, and have appropriate other (it seems silly to say "back up" or "plan B" when they're perhaps more likely) plans/careers/ways to feed ourselves in place.

 

(Moreover, the brand new account and level of surprise at the fact that that "the profession often actively undermines these labors in favor of careerism, self-aggrandizement, and nepotism" makes me read this a little differently than a pure warning of "you don't know how bad it is.")

Edited by unræd
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But at the same time, some of us are going into this knowing full well what's on the other end, having watched friends, family, and loved ones struggle on the market, and have appropriate other (it seems silly to say "back up" or "plan B" when they're perhaps more likely) plans/careers/ways to feed ourselves in place.

 

 

 

Spot-on as usual, Unraed. It would require a gross level of ignorance and/or naivete to be unaware of the sheer difficulty of getting a TT job in academia, or the relative difficulty of getting a job in academia at all. It is the ideal for many, but the bottom line is that getting an M.A. or a Ph.D. in English doesn't pigeonhole you into one career possibility. There are many, many possibilities for alternate career paths with an M.A. or Ph.D. in hand -- some of which are listed in Emily.Rose's link. That's why I always get a tiny bit snarky when I see threads like these. In theory, we're all smart people here. I suspect that most of us have at least a partial understanding of how difficult this path is. Telling us how difficult it is is tantamount to putting grotesque pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packages.

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VirtualMessage, if you are still here, I am really sorry about your job search. On one campus visit, I learned the PhD students had applied to 80 jobs apiece. By the time I go on the job market, I imagine I will have to apply to way over 100--and definitely apply outside academia as well.
 
You are a fantastic person for making it through a PhD program, for publishing several articles, for believing in teaching and research. I agree that sometimes academia is pretentious and self-aggrandizing. I also agree that everyone should know the risks and what they're willing to give. But most of us have found that teaching and research make us better people, and that being a better person is worth the downsides. Most of us have been told "just don't go," too. 
 
Some people on the GradCafe have been accepted to fantastic schools, and no one should start their career with a cloud of doom thundering overhead. Instead of posting once, why don't you stay here? We need more people to give us smart talk and advice from the other side of a PhD. 
Edited by empress-marmot
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As someone that has gone on the job market, I'll just say that 80 jobs is a low number to apply for, especially for people in English. It can be an agonizing process because applying for jobs basically becomes a full-time job and then you hear nothing back for months on end, except when you check the wiki and learn that others have advanced to phone/Skype interviews or that they're being invited to campus. It really can be soul-crushing, especially given the sheer volume of work that goes into it. There's basically nothing else in grad school that prepares you for it, nor does having been un(der)employed before grad school because sending in 80 standard job apps is a lot less work than 80 academic ones which may require your teaching philosophy, teaching evals, research statement, statement about how you work with diverse populations, plus a 2-3 pg cover letter, each of which must be tailored to the specific institution. I thought I was prepared for lots of rejection and waiting when I went on the market but, having done it, I can say without a doubt that I was not. Others who have actually been on the market may agree with me. 

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I posted because I wish that I could go back, grab my younger self by the collar, and shake. Like I said, I'm sure all of you are aware there is a job crisis, but what I am trying to communicate is the very real and very powerful emotional investment that you will make if you get through a doctoral program. Almost half who first attend, do not make it; out of the people who do complete the degree, not all publish. To make it through any doctorate and publish is an achievement full of joys and frustrations. As you'll soon come to find out, not all faculty members are motivated in the same ways--there are helpful people and there are sadists and everything in-between (it can take time for the personality disorders to fully emerge in view). Remember, your mentors aren't accountable to anyone.  Things also change within departments and institutions. The current nation-wide drop in English enrollments has been rippling through Departments, and I expect that this precipitous drop will continue to further constrict budgets. In other words, the program you're entering this fall might change radically by the time you're ready to write a dissertation. The Universities, especially the humanities programs within them, have been foundationally altered in the aftermath of 2008. This affects everything from teaching assignments to internal grant money. You might have been promised x number of years for funding, but there are unstated variables that have considerable impact on the quality of that funding.

 

But again, my point is that I want you to think about how the rejection will feel, even if you do have a backup plan. Consider it this way: You worked hard in college, studied like hell for the MCAT, go into a top medical program, worked even harder to get through that, you did your residency-- you're in love with your work-- but you are not allowed to practice medicine at the end of it. You might have the opportunity to do part-time work as an EMT Basic.

 

That's how it will feel to be rejected from the tenure track after working your ass off for years and years. There are any number of institutional realties that have been hidden from you. You think you're aware of them, but you are not.  Foremost, the professors who have the job and life you want, well, they have it on the backs of the adjuncts who are the backbone of the institution. 75%. Consider that number nationwide. At my major research University, it's nearly 30%. You don't see right now the intensity of that abjection because you think that it will not happen to you. But what if you fall in love with medicine after all that training? You have the skill; you have the knowledge. Do you really think it's so easy to walk away? Or to ride in the ambulance--unable to push life-saving drugs because your shoulder patch says you're an EMT Basic? Perhaps the analogy seems extreme, but the scenario I'm outlining is very much how I feel. To be a scholar is to commit to living a certain way. The more work you do, the more committed you are. You haven't done that work yet, so you simply do not know how it will feel. I'm telling you that it's devastating.

 

Of course, I wish you luck, and I hope you'll succeed. I do believe in the values behind this work. The profession, however, is a nasty thing. And "professionalization" is what they'll insist on again and again; there is no way for a doctorate to be only an intellectual experience. It's professional training for a profession that is quickly becoming extinct. I think it's totally irresponsible that many of these programs, including my own, allow first-year students to indulge their fantasies and their excitement without having them confront the truth about labor at their University. I have found that faculty members-- many of them Marxists! -- simply cannot stomach having an earnest conversation about these problems. If they do talk, it's often with the willful ignorance and reckless optimism that they would disdain in any other conversation. Marc Bousquet's How the University Works articulates some of these realities. If I had known them, I would not have done this. I'm not telling anyone here what to do. However, I warn you. When you get to the end and there's nothing for you, it will hurt all over.  

Edited by VirtualMessage
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the OP's words about how even going in with rational knowledge of the terrors of the job market doesn't prepare you for its emotional toll make a good point.

 

But at the same time, some of us are going into this knowing full well what's on the other end, having watched friends, family, and loved ones struggle on the market

 

 Others who have actually been on the market may agree with me.

 

In theory, we're all smart people here. I suspect that most of us have at least a partial understanding of how difficult this path is.

 

In theory, yes. In practice? Who doesn't think they will be the exception? Who doesn't think: "that won't happen to me"? I know I thought this. I thought I'd finish fast, with a few great publications, a lot of teaching experience, having networked pretty well. I did. I still didn't get a TT job on my first try. People I know who got a TT job on their first try? For example, peeps who had spent ten years on their dissertations and had no publications. I once went on a campus visit where the job went to an inside candidate who had not gained tenure at a previous institution and was ten years post-PhD with no pubs... Sounds like sour grapes? Maybe it is. Mostly, it is disappointment, for me, but also for my friends who didn't make it, who are still trapped in adjunct hell, who are still clinging to their dream of being a professor, good people now in their thirties, who got thoroughly screwed over.

 

Me? I feel like crap and I can't believe I have been so lucky. I got jobs. I never adjuncted. Nonetheless the past few years have been pretty terrible. The uncertainty, the impossibility to make any sense out of the job market process, make it very difficult to go through it times and times again. I have failed things in my life, but nothing made me feel more like a failure than the job market, even when I succeeded. I broke down several times after getting a job offer at the last minute, after thinking for months that I'd be unemployed the next year.

 

But those who never get called back? Those who have spent weeks crafting their job materials and who, come December, see the wiki filling up with requests for additional materials, interviews, etc, and who never get called? I cannot even imagine how they feel. 

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I appreciate the OP's, and other's, words of caution. Yet, I do find myself unsure of what exactly to do with this information as during my undergrad and my MA I was frequently reminded of the harsh realities of the academic market. Does VirtualMessage and others have any suggestions for preparing for an alt-ac position or something to fall back on if our dreams of academic employment do not manifest? Maybe an MA in TESOL?

In my particular case, I'm already committed. I've bought in. Even still, I have no expectations of a TT right out of my Ph.D.; however, I do expect something a little more than adjuncting, which I currently do now for a living. (e.g. a VAP, a job at a research/teaching/writing center, a postdoc.)

I've read frequently that Ph.D.s end up so specialized and professionalized that they find it quite difficult to articulate how their skills transfer toward a different profession. VirtualMessage, is this your experience as well? 

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I'm not sure why people are so down on OP. I get that it's unpleasant to hear these things and that we've heard it over and over and over but I liked the original post. I don't want to minimize OP's experience either by shouting him/her down.

 

As far as I know, most of the people dumping on him/her don't actually have their degree yet and are definitely not on the same job market. So while we, as candidates have one view, it's still pretty valuable to hear these job market experiences. It is for me, at least. 

 

As in, I know it's terrible out there. But did I know all the details that OP shared? No... and I think it's wise to steel oneself with realities like this. Obviously, none of us will ever be 100% ready after we step out of the university and into the job market, but hopefully we'll all be wiser and more prepared than those who haven't had the same schpeel pounded over and over into their heads.

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Agreed with 1Q84. If you haven't already been looking at the academic jobs wiki, you should be. See here. In rhet/comp, there were well over 200 jobs posted, which is part of the reason applying for 80 is a small number. Yes, there are jobs, but there is also stiff competition for those jobs. Hearing it repeatedly may ultimately better prepare you for actually being immersed in that market and its realities when the time comes.

 

Lazaria, even getting a VAP is hard these days and, in some cases, being a VAP is no better financially than being an adjunct. There's a postdoc or VAP (can't remember which) that was the talk of the jobs wiki last year for offering under $30K with a 4/4 teaching load. I'm sure they got plenty of applications, as were many others who peruse the wiki. In some fields, people will post how many people they were told applied for the job. I'm in the social sciences and there were interdisciplinary positions I applied to and was rejected from that received 250+ applications. VAPs, especially multi-year ones, often receive hundreds of applications too.

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A more honest definition of the number of TT rhet-comp jobs this year is somewhere on the order of 140 or 150. A lot of jobs end up in stats that aren't actually rhet/comp. There were probably another 25-30 attractive NTT jobs, jobs with long-term contracts and good working conditions. Speaking conservatively, the field will mint about 225-250 new PhDs this year. That does not include all the people switching jobs who are current assistant profs (who always have a leg up), people who went on the market last year and were unsuccessful, and people who are finishing postdocs, assistant prof positions, and other short-term contracts. Additionally, I know of at least 10 searches that were started and canceled due to lack of funding. 

 

Another concern is one of those open secrets: some jobs are listed when the committee already knows who they're going to hire before they begin. They necessarily tend to keep that under their hat, but as someone who's pretty well connected in a connected program, I hear things. It's very discouraging.

Edited by ComeBackZinc
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Agreed with 1Q84. If you haven't already been looking at the academic jobs wiki, you should be. See here. In rhet/comp, there were well over 200 jobs posted, which is part of the reason applying for 80 is a small number. Yes, there are jobs, but there is also stiff competition for those jobs. Hearing it repeatedly may ultimately better prepare you for actually being immersed in that market and its realities when the time comes.

 

Lazaria, even getting a VAP is hard these days and, in some cases, being a VAP is no better financially than being an adjunct. There's a postdoc or VAP (can't remember which) that was the talk of the jobs wiki last year for offering under $30K with a 4/4 teaching load. I'm sure they got plenty of applications, as were many others who peruse the wiki. In some fields, people will post how many people they were told applied for the job. I'm in the social sciences and there were interdisciplinary positions I applied to and was rejected from that received 250+ applications. VAPs, especially multi-year ones, often receive hundreds of applications too.

 

Thank you for that wiki link.  I for one was not aware of it.  Can someone explain what a VAP is?

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VAP = Visiting Assistant Professor.

Thanks for the insight, Rising_Star. So, knowledge of the bleak job market aside, what should we all be doing to secure a better future for ourselves? To those who are facing the job market, if you could go back in time and confront your Ph.D.-seeking selves, what would you say, knowing full well that you were still carrying on in your doctorate? How would you advise yourself? 

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