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Questions for Current PhD Applicants


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Hey all,

I just read the "Grad School Ponzi Scheme" thread. To be honest, I haven't visited this site since 2008, when I was applying to grad school. I came here to make a post pretty similar to the OP of that thread. 

After reading the thread, it's clear that all or most of you understand that there are no tenure track jobs available.

So rather than post a long rant or plea, I'd like to sincerely know: What is it you all plan to do when you graduate with your PhD? Are you just doing the PhD because it amounts to (paid) time spent pursuing the subject you love? Or do you have career goals for post-graduation that do not involve a tenure-track job? Just genuinely curious to know why you would pursue a PhD knowing that you won't get a tenure track job. Because you won't get a tenure track job. If you're interested in 'alt-ac,' that's something you need to pursue from day one of grad school. It doesn't really work as a plan B. At least it didn't in my experience. 

I graduated from an English PhD program ranked somewhere between 5-10 last year. Started my PhD in 2009. I was naive and dumb did not do my research then, and the 'crisis in the humanities' wasn't quite as dominant a discourse as it is now. I'm in the process of leaving academia. I spent two years on the job market. This school year, I adjuncted. Adjuncting is a miserable, degrading experience. Since July 2014, I've applied to over 200 tenure-track jobs, and I was invited to zero interviews. During my grad career, I published in top journals and was the instructor of record for multiple classes. My professors told me I would be the exception to the job market rule; that there are some TT jobs, and someone has to get them. Obviously that didn't turn out to be the case. 

Many of you are making a huge mistake, and it's the same mistake I made.

"We already know the job market sucks" is, I guess, a response to my point, but then it begs the question of, if you know that, why on earth are you doing this? It seems insanely self-destructive. 

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23 minutes ago, js17981 said:

 

I just read the "Grad School Ponzi Scheme" thread. To be honest, I haven't visited this site since 2008, when I was applying to grad school. I came here to make a post pretty similar to the OP of that thread.

Why?

Seriously...if you just acknowledged that you're making the same thread, why make it at all?

My reasons for going down this road should not concern you. I'm pretty sure most folks here read The Chronicle and various state-of-the-industry publications, and are told by many that we should not pursue this course. Clearly those of us posting here are, and I doubt many minds will be changed by an anonymous, dissenting voice on an Internet forum.

I just can't read a post like this without getting a strong whiff of ulterior motive.

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2 minutes ago, MeNotMe said:

 Surely it can't matter to you that you could save another soul, could it? 

Actually it would mean a great deal to me if I were able to convince one person considering this path to choose some other way to spend the next 6-8 years of their life. I really wish someone had tried to convince me of it. 

Furthermore, I believe that PhD programs are pretty shameful in their inability or unwillingness to address this issue with current and prospective students. Recently I was asked to attend my school's admitted students day (I work as an adjunct at the same school I got my degree from). Couldn't do it in good conscience. By the same token, I can't just sit here silently and watch others walk right into the same disaster that I did. Of course you're free to ignore what I'm saying, but maybe someone else won't. 

What the person in the 'ponzi scheme' thread was trying to say, it seems to me, is true, and worth considering: These universities will exploit you, and that's all they'll do.

For what it's worth, I'm going to be fine. I've carved out an alternative path, and my life isn't ruined forever. I'm lucky that I don't have debt. But I regret getting a PhD. The whole system is set up to damage people, and I wish I'd known that going in. 

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1 minute ago, Wyatt's Terps said:

 

I just can't read a post like this without getting a strong whiff of ulterior motive.

This is paranoid, and is also exactly how I responded to these type of threads/articles for the entire time I was in graduate school. 

The 'why' is simply that because maybe one person will listen, take it to heart, in the way that I wasn't able to, and that most of you don't seem to be able to, either.  

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7 minutes ago, Wyatt's Terps said:

 I'm pretty sure most folks here read The Chronicle and various state-of-the-industry publications, and are told by many that we should not pursue this course.Clearly those of us posting here are, and I doubt many minds will be changed by an anonymous, dissenting voice on an Internet forum.

 

Point taken, but then you are being obstinate and foolish in a way that can seriously ruin your life. I'm one of the lucky ones, relatively speaking, and I still feel the need to point this out as an anonymous dissenter on an internet forum. That should tell you something. 

Edited by js17981
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Notice that no one is interested in answering my questions, which is fine, but I'd reiterate that they are sincere questions. They boil down to, given this information

10 minutes ago, Wyatt's Terps said:

I'm pretty sure most folks here read The Chronicle and various state-of-the-industry publications, and are told by many that we should not pursue this course. Clearly those of us posting here are

 

Why are you pursuing this course?

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To the OP: I respect your position, and I appreciate that you have a forum in which to say it. I'm not going to run from views that oppose my own. It's an important topic for sure, one that we each have to think through in our own way, and on which we have to reach our own conclusions. So the exchange of views is what matters to me. You have spoken, as have I. That's a good thing. Glad to hear you're doing well--honestly. You made a difficult call, and lived to tell about it. as I said, take care, and good luck. I appreciate hearing your perspective. 

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Nevermind, I guess you both did answer that question when you said your reasons aren't my concern. 

That's fair enough, but it sort of confirms my suspicion that you are all basically me in 2009. 

I seriously hope you'll reconsider, for no other reason than your own health, happiness, and longterm best interest, but if you're inclined to read my posts as trolling or otherwise insincere, I can't do anything about that. Good luck. 

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I thought the question was an interesting one, actually. I am pursuing a PhD because, at the time, I was in a field that was still hiring (rhetoric and composition). However, the bubble seems to be about the burst. So while am I still here? Well, I love the work I'm doing. I feel like my dissertation is an important project, and I love teaching. I am working hard to put myself in a good position for the job market (publishing, presenting, etc), while acknowledging that everyone else is doing the same thing. Recently, I've started seriously talking with my partner about realistic Plan B's. I'm fortunate that I live in DC, so if the job market is a bust, I hope to get a full-time gig in policy or advocacy. I'm considering going for a summer internship or fellowship next year to make connections.

So, to answer your question more succinctly, I am doing this because it's the only way I pursue my ideal career, but if that falls to hell, my research and teaching are still preparing me for other careers I would find satisfying. 

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22 minutes ago, ProfLorax said:

I thought the question was an interesting one, actually. I am pursuing a PhD because, at the time, I was in a field that was still hiring (rhetoric and composition). However, the bubble seems to be about the burst. So while am I still here? Well, I love the work I'm doing. I feel like my dissertation is an important project, and I love teaching. I am working hard to put myself in a good position for the job market (publishing, presenting, etc), while acknowledging that everyone else is doing the same thing. Recently, I've started seriously talking with my partner about realistic Plan B's. I'm fortunate that I live in DC, so if the job market is a bust, I hope to get a full-time gig in policy or advocacy. I'm considering going for a summer internship or fellowship next year to make connections.

So, to answer your question more succinctly, I am doing this because it's the only way I pursue my ideal career, but if that falls to hell, my research and teaching are still preparing me for other careers I would find satisfying. 

Cool, thank you. That seems like a smart way to approach things. Good luck. 

By the way I don't mean to imply that people's defensiveness or dismissiveness in response to my OP is unjustified. Like I said, it's certainly the reaction I had for a number of years. But I've watched so many people crash and burn around me, and have experienced my own fair share of crushing defeat and misery as a result of academia, I'd feel bad just not saying anything. Of course, I recognize my anonymous voice doesn't amount to much, particularly when there's an ever-growing bibliography of 'don't go to grad school' think pieces to choose from.

But, if it's useful to anyone, particularly those of you who haven't yet started grad school, I am happy to answer questions about my experience, what led to me leaving academia, etc. 

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I'm pursuing it for as long as I enjoy it, I guess?  I'm getting paid a living wage with health insurance and living in the city that I wanted to move to after graduating from college even before I decided to apply to grad school.  Which is nice.  I have work experience in other things that I could pursue if this doesn't work out, but they aren't exactly gold mines either (library science, teaching), and, actually, getting my MA and PhD from the program I'm in (or even leaving after the MA or ABD) wouldn't put me in a bad spot in terms of going forward with that experience.  My partner is working her way into education right now, and people with advanced degrees in the humanities get decent jobs in her (and other schools in the area) all the time. 

I've questioned whether I want to stay in graduate school a lot actually, but the truth is I'm in a pretty fortunate position right now despite all the negative rhetoric about what I'm doing and despite the job market that is actually, truly, really bad.  And even though I go to a school that has a better placement rate and endowment than many schools out there, I don't know a single person in my department who has any illusions about the job market and I know many who came from different jobs and have some semblance of a "plan B," which isn't to say that I also haven't met people who literally have no idea what they will do if they don't get a job in academia after graduating.  Personally, I feel like I could ease back into the "real world" pretty easily and don't feel super emotionally attached to academia (though it is only my first year).  Maybe that's a bad sign for my prospects in academia though?  

I don't know.  If I wanted to leave, I could just finish the MA and easily get a job teaching in a charter school around here and make 40-50k as a starting wage and probably get a master's in teaching paid for.  I'd be totally fine with that, though I have serious problems with that system.  But when I put it in that perspective, a lot of the screaming about the job market (which has gotten drowned out pretty significantly since I began coursework) seems rather histrionic.  That's how I feel right about it all right now, anyway.

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That's basically what I did. Once I was in, I knew I was going to finish the PhD ( I did a combined MA/PhD as well). And parts of it were great, for the reasons you mention: I really enjoyed most of the work, I like teaching, I seem to be good at it. I thrive working independently. I guess it was afterwards that it really turned bad for me. I found that I had fewer exit options than I'd planned on. For instance, I applied to a bunch of high schools (mainly private schools that specifically hired faculty with PhDs) and community colleges, and found them just as difficult to get into as four-year colleges. It sounds like your Plan B is more feasible though. I guess it does seem like hysteria, particularly since I am in this position indulging in the job market hysteria, when, as I said, I came out relatively unscathed.

When I look back, though, the thing that gets me about it is that all that work was basically for nothing. I always envisioned that I could build on my research, my teaching, etc. Have a career in higher ed, even if it wasn't via the tenure track. Now that that's not happening, I'm doing my best to not live in the past or be continually filled with regret, but it's hard not to think there are many other things I am equally passionate about (and there are, even I wasn't bothering to identify them in the last decade) that I could've pursued in the context of a sustainable career.  I moved to another city for grad school, one I did not necessarily want to live in, which I don't regret. That alone was an important experience. But I also know I could've found meaningful work in my home city, and spent way more time with my close friends over the last decade. 

I guess the silver lining is that (I think) I've learned the things that I want/need in a career, by virtue of the fact that I was not able to acquire them in academia. 

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wrote an obnoxious, long thing, but, nevermind: just: I'm not in it just for the job. I'm doing it for the same reason all sorts of people sacrifice hours and sleep and other stuff for things: it's what I'm passionate about. I realize there are complications that come from letting a passion/'hobby' become a career, become the center rather than the periphery. But, you know, I spend all my free time in a library reading and writing already, even when not in school, writing things that I hope are actually important, working on thinking about how to teach in ways that are actually important. Basically, I think parts of this are more important than me. Other parts are tedious and worthless. Certainly no part is, as some people have wandered over to this board to say in the past, as immediately important as working on a cure for cancer, but, you know, the humanities are pretty important to the whole living part of living longer, so, I'm keeping on with the idea that they're an important thing to know about, understand, and teach. So I'm going to do that--and, if I hate it in 5-8 years, or if I end up in the very likely position of no academic job: I'll go back to doing what I'm doing now (which is publishing, which is where many people who leave this particular part of academia end up), and, I'll be as deeply bored by it as I am now, but at least I'll have spent a time, however brief, doing what I wanted to at the time I decided to start doing it.

Edited by thinkingandthinking
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9 hours ago, js17981 said:

Notice that no one is interested in answering my questions, which is fine, but I'd reiterate that they are sincere questions. They boil down to, given this information

Why are you pursuing this course?

I'm doing this because I'm getting paid good money (considering my cost of living) to do what I enjoy.  I'm fully aware that my options may be limited to instructor, lecturer, or adjunct when I go on the market, and because my passion is teaching, and not driven by a capitalist impulse to excess, I'm completely okay with that.

Btw- your bitter is showing.

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js17981 you mention regretting that you ever got a PhD. Out of curiosity, do you regret it more than you would have regretted not getting one if you had chosen to go another path? I think this is a hard question to answer (counterfactuals are always hard), but I think I know myself well enough to recognize that if were to chose to not even attempt to pursue a PhD, I would very likely spend the rest of my life wondering what if.

I recognize the odds of ever attaining a tenure track academic position are low, but I also think that I have the skill set to have at least as good of a shot as anyone else and I recognize that there are few careers that are as attractive to me. Given these facts I would much rather give it my best shot than always wonder if I could have made it. There's of course a point when this line of thought stops being tenable, and one should start surveying other options (and it's good to be cognizant of these goong in), but I'm not there yet and am reasonably confident that I can recognize it when/it I am.

Edited by DerPhilosoph
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I'm going to start an MA program in the fall and haven't fully decided on the PhD yet, so I know this doesn't directly apply to me (though I'll chime in anyway).

My reason for going the grad school route is a bit complicated, really. I love my field (rhetoric and composition) and have gotten some exposure to it in undergrad, but also, I want to get out of a my small town family business and have a shot at something more.

Now, I know you may be thinking "don't go to grad school for lack of nothing else to do!", but it's not like that. College opened doors for me that were never available to me (I mean, I got into grad school because of it! And I learned how to tutor students and how to help people learn). I also met a lot of amazing people who have positively changed my life, and with that being said, I'm not done yet. I don't want to stop studying this field, and I don't want to stop challenging myself intellectually. Nothing at home can do that for me, and even though I'm qualified to go get a job and start the rat race, I don't WANT to.

I'll be moving out of state for grad school (while getting paid), so it's a great opportunity for me to be my own person and pursue one of my passions. I don't know exactly what an MA in rhet comp and teaching experience can get me if I decide to forego the PhD, but still, I'll be better off than I started and will have more options - I'll have more of a chance. I'll meet people in a highly specialized field who can perhaps help me find jobs in the "real" world, and I'll just be more educated than I was coming in and will be able to further appreciate education and academia.

Of course I love working with students and learning and all that jazz as well, but this is another reason that compels me to go. I think your question is interesting  (although you do have a clear bias), and I think it's important for people to fully understand what they're doing and why.

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Out of interest, how did your cohort do? 

Also, you know why physicists/mathematicians/biologists/whatever discipline you fetishize get PhDs? Because they love research and they're getting paid to do what they love. There are no academic jobs for anybody (save a few specialities in economics/business and engineering). Yes, these disciplines have exit opps that don't leave you destitute and starting over in a new career with a boss who is 10 years younger than you, but nobody serves 7 years in a basement at Harvard to work at a quant hedge fund or Pfizer either. These people could've worked up to those jobs out of UG, and would probably be further ahead in their alt-ac careers had they done so. Most if not all of them are doing it for no reason other than that they love research and want to take the one in a million chance to make it their career.

The reason you and that other ass-clown aren't being taken seriously is because you've formulated some overly hysterical narrative of "oppression", the responsibility for which you then, in full contradiction to the fundamentals of your argument, try to pin on the individual. Like, I'm sorry, but not getting your dream job doesn't constitute exploitation. What, is every kid who worked really really hard in high school but didn't get into an Ivy exploited now? There are definitely programs that exploit their graduate students by not paying them a living wage or saddling them with insane teaching/service commitments, but your $25k/year fellowship summer stipend conference and archive funded gig is emphatically not that. You played the game and you lost, a game that most people will lose, a loss the financial and emotional devastation of which is impossible to imagine when you're just starting to play the game. Don't dress it up as some universal injustice. 

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And might I add, too, that it's not all shiny outside academia, either, despite how persecuted people who've never been outside it seem to act (as if a PhD ever guaranteed you the job you wanted?). Is it better in the '~real world~'? Yeah, somewhat. But I have plenty of friends who are the age now that I'll be when I finish my PhD who are still cobbling together crappy part time jobs, working in food-service (not that there's a single thing wrong with this), struggling to make it financially, even w/ a college degree. There are some that are doing well, in engineering or finance (not even law, anymore--that path's starting to look a fair bit like it's headed the way of the TT job. You might land one of the relative handfuls of good positions still left, over the legions more people getting JDs than there are available jobs, but still only if you're fanatically dedicated, and committed to working ridiculous hours for little pay for the first 5 years or so even after school. I sense similar anxiety among friends who are going to med school.), but there was never a time that I could have gone down any of those paths--it's just not my skill set, plain and simple, and my early STEM education was too poor to set me up for something in the hard sciences. Do I have friends outside of those things that have jobs they actually enjoy? Who actually feel like they're doing what they wanted to? Yes, but, with similar sacrifices to those I'm making now. Are there others that have something more comfortable? Also, yes. But when I look at the relative numbers, it seems as much a crap-shoot as getting a TT position after the PhD. At the very least, I'll be set up to teach English in a prep school somewhere, which is much more than I can say about the track I or many friends are on now. It's not the dream, but, I'm okay with the fact that each of the programs I'm considering have 100% full-time employment 2 years out. Not hardly 100% in TT, obviously, but, stable, well-enough paying jobs nonetheless--which, again, is a lot more than quite a few people I know.

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@thinkingandthinking jsyk, you shouldn't make "getting a job teaching English at a prep school" into what "getting a job teaching at Wellesley" was a decade ago. Everyone and their dog thinks they're going to get a job teaching at a prep school nowadays. It's no certainty, especially if the gilt on your resume doesn't originate in high school.

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I agree with the OP and I won't hedge my comments by questioning the OP's motives, their personality flaws, or in any way try to indirectly discredit.

My reasons for getting a PhD is because I love my field and it is not to find a job.

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1 hour ago, ExponentialDecay said:

@thinkingandthinking jsyk, you shouldn't make "getting a job teaching English at a prep school" into what "getting a job teaching at Wellesley" was a decade ago. Everyone and their dog thinks they're going to get a job teaching at a prep school nowadays. It's no certainty, especially if the gilt on your resume doesn't originate in high school.

This was just the example that I got from one of my profs, who graduated from the institution I'll be going to just a few years ago--as in all of his cohort and the two behind that didn't find an academic job wound up in such a position, so, at least where I'm going, this is something that the job placement office has a support system in place to prepare you for, if you decide to take that course, so it seems a bit more likely. But, again, just an example among many. I'd be fine back in publishing, too, or like a friend of mine, in government work (apparently the fed. gov. is always looking for people with editing skills--they loved his cultural anthro PhD, which is a field way worse as far as the doom and gloom "you'll never find a job ever" discourse goes, even more so than English. He had some super basic technological skills to go along with it, which I'm sure helped, but, I was planning on picking some of those up, anyhow--pretty helpful for an academic career these days now, too.) The overall point, though, for me, beyond specific but varied possible plan-b's is as DerPhilosoph basically said: I know I'd regret it down the line if I don't try now, even if it means knowing I'm missing other opportunities.

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7 hours ago, ExponentialDecay said:

Out of interest, how did your cohort do? 

Also, you know why physicists/mathematicians/biologists/whatever discipline you fetishize get PhDs? Because they love research and they're getting paid to do what they love. There are no academic jobs for anybody (save a few specialities in economics/business and engineering). Yes, these disciplines have exit opps that don't leave you destitute and starting over in a new career with a boss who is 10 years younger than you, but nobody serves 7 years in a basement at Harvard to work at a quant hedge fund or Pfizer either. These people could've worked up to those jobs out of UG, and would probably be further ahead in their alt-ac careers had they done so. Most if not all of them are doing it for no reason other than that they love research and want to take the one in a million chance to make it their career.

The reason you and that other ass-clown aren't being taken seriously is because you've formulated some overly hysterical narrative of "oppression", the responsibility for which you then, in full contradiction to the fundamentals of your argument, try to pin on the individual. Like, I'm sorry, but not getting your dream job doesn't constitute exploitation. What, is every kid who worked really really hard in high school but didn't get into an Ivy exploited now? There are definitely programs that exploit their graduate students by not paying them a living wage or saddling them with insane teaching/service commitments, but your $25k/year fellowship summer stipend conference and archive funded gig is emphatically not that. You played the game and you lost, a game that most people will lose, a loss the financial and emotional devastation of which is impossible to imagine when you're just starting to play the game. Don't dress it up as some universal injustice. 

Yeah, I mean... yeah.  I wouldn't call OP an "ass clown" (lol), and don't think s/he has been overly hostile or condescending like VM, but I agree with a lot of these points.  I hate the "oppression" narrative these conversations sometimes revolve around (which I think has thankfully been avoided in this thread, actually), to the point where they sound almost comical.  Like, sorry your little middle class bubble was popped?  The economy has been pretty shitty for a lot of us for a minute now, why should we somehow be the exception because of our education levels?  This was the whole reason I wasn't going to go to graduate school unless I could be fully funded: if your graduate degree in the humanities is un(der)funded, to me, it simply isn't worth it.  It just isn't.  Sorry.

Re: jobs and teaching outside of academia: yeah teaching in fancy prep schools ain't like, an easy gig to get into, but if you're in a major city, those aren't your only options.  In my city, charter schools are booming, especially in low-income areas, and need teachers.  As do public schools, like, everywhere; and there are programs in a lot of major cities that provide funding for your MAT if you're willing to do student teaching in local urban public schools.  Does a Ph.D. in English prepare you for teaching high school kids?  Hell.  No.  But college-prep schools increasingly value candidates with advanced knowledge of content over simple classroom management experience.  Before I came to grad school, I was hired in a public high school in desperate need of teachers and fast-tracked to long-term substitute certification simply because of having a degree in English and a good college transcript: they didn't hire me for teaching experience (I had almost none), but because they thought I would be good at explaining what feminism or reader response theory was to kids.  This is a real trend in education right now in a lot of places.  The school my partner works at gives preference to applicants with advanced degrees in their fields over applicants with a MAT.  It's tricky for a lot of teachers right now, and ethically and systemically complex and often troubling, but the MAT degree, I feel (sad as that is), is increasingly becoming irrelevant in education.  I see that strongly in my city right now.

Anyway.  Being in grad school (applying for fellowships, helping organize panels and conferences, etc.) also gives you a bunch of experience and communication skills that are desirable in the non-profit sector.  I think overall employment rates for Ph.D.s are actually not that bad, even if employment in tenure track jobs is: this is the real reason why I'm suspicious of sob stories and exploitation narratives, though I'm not saying there aren't people who are genuinely screwed over by the graduate education machine or that there aren't serious problems in many programs (mine has plenty).  Is that disappointment real?  Yes, I can only imagine it.  But I can't imagine, personally, it being the end of the world (though I can imagine it being that way for many, many people).

I identify a lot with @klader 's (did I do that right?) account: going to my program has given me the opportunity to get out of the *actually* exploitative job I was working in a small, economically depressed town post-college and has made it possible to enjoy some extra time becoming a more educated person making connections and a life in a new city where, even outside of the university, even if I ultimately decide to leave or don't end up in academia, I'll still have had more opportunities for having come here.

I like reading people's different accounts in this thread, though.  I think the premise a lot more productive than "ponzi scheme" thread, which just got so nasty.  

 

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Yeah, I'll just chime in to say that I would be worse off financially out of a PhD program right now, & that the insistence that a PhD is a uniformly bad career move is classist and awfully presumptuous of other people's financial situations. I would note, though, that I do in my personal life routinely discourage people applying to PhDs from applying to schools with stipends on the lower end. 

Edited by echo449
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You all have been far nicer to OP than I am about to be.

OP, you are an asshole. What motivated you to post this? Is it some sort of patriarical bullshit (or, more likely, a fear of competition in an admittedly tight job market) that caused you to post this? Is it a desire to mansplain something that any potential PhD student already knows because no one else listens to you? I know it isn't a case of "learn from my mistake" because you've failed to critically evaluate what your own mistakes even were.

It's the worst kind of ivory tower blindness that makes people think that their situation is somehow unique. I've worked in industries that collapsed, and saw people who worked 10, 15 years in the field fail to find jobs outside of retail. I've worked with adults trying to raise kids on $8/hr without any real hope of personal improvement or job advancement. I've been on the market as both a college dropout and a college graduate, and experienced difficulty finding 9-5 work in both situations.

I'm going to say something ridiculous here, and the OP is going to hate it: Getting a PhD is the best decision for me because it provides a level of security I have never had. I know that for the next four years I will have a regular paycheck,insurance, respect and responsibility. I still believe that I'm in a field that's generally "market proof" (it's not as good as it was even five years ago, but there were still more R/C jobs than English jobs this year, for a smaller number of graduates). I'm only considering programs with 90% placement rates (not hard at the top 20+ r/c programs, while making sure that I will have opportunities to teach business and technical writing, assume administrative responsibilities, and do other work that isn't as "pure" academically but better situates me for the market as it is developing.

Maybe the question the OP should ask isn't why do we want to be like him, but what are we doing to avoid being the sort of sad, underemployed person who trolls people excited about the opportunity to go on.

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