Thursday, April 29, 2010

talking to students about grad school

My recent posts on the academic job market, as well as on-going debates over articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton (aka William Pannapacker), have made me think about talking to undergraduate students about graduate school. Benton's advice, simply, is to tell students "don't go", and I have a lot of respect for that. On the other hand, as I've mentioned in earlier blogs, I'm under some pressure to send students on to graduate school. My colleagues feel it makes our program and our university look good. So, when I'm talking to students about their future plans, I try to be ethical and honest, without being overly harsh or pessimistic. I also have to recognize that my own experiences, good and bad, have shaped my attitudes toward graduate school and the academic job market.

I tell all students three things about grad school:

1) Don't go to graduate school because you don't know what else to do. Honestly, if that's even a part of the reason they want to go, they should run - not walk - in the opposite direction. Students think that they'd be better off delaying "real life" for a while, if they can't find a perfect job straight out of undegrad (or much of any job, given the current economy), but if they're worried about their financial situation, they're better off getting a minimum wage job while trying to break into some other career. Graduate school will actually take away major wealth-building years, without much compensatory financial reward at the end, even for the most successful. If they are just scared of leaving college, well, push them toward a job at a library or someplace equally dusty and book-filled. If they really want to stay in school, suggest a professional degree. Fear and lack of other options will not be sufficient motivation to get a student through a PhD program.

2) Be prepared to pay the price. Students do not realize that graduate school is a much greater commitment than their undergraduate education, and significantly different in its structure and demands. They do not realize that by the time they finish their PhD, they will be much older, often much more in debt, and likely far more neurotic and in poorer health, than they planned. That's not to say that grad school can't be fun, socially and intellectually, but there is a significant price paid for dedicating a decade (give or take) to getting a PhD. Their college friends will get married, buy houses and cars, have kids, and be established in careers, before they even get their first job. They will have fewer resources for retirement than their college friends. They will live like students for a lot longer. Tragically, too many people will be unable to start the families they want, because their most productive years - even their health - were sacrificed to graduate school. I'm not saying there are no compensations. If the student is willing to pay the price in order to continue in a field they love, then it is worthwhile. Too often, though, students don't know how steep the price will be, or they have a vision of their future life that is completely incompatible with the realities of academia.

3) There is absolutely nothing you can do that will guarantee you a job. This is the hardest point to get across to students. The myth of meritocracy is strong in the U.S. In generally, I believe it is true that the best and brightest are more likely to get jobs. The problem is, a significant number of the best and brightest won't. I know archaeologists who graduated about the same time I did, who have weaker publications records than mine, who are now tenured in top anthropology programs. I know archaeologists with publications records that put mine to shame who have finally dropped out of academia all-together, unable to find a job. There is no check-list you can follow that will guarantee you a job, as long as you have crossed off every item. You can certainly make your chances of getting a job better, but there is too much luck involved for any guarantees.

I try to tell this to students, but they don't believe me. I think there are two problems:

a) their other professors are telling them something different. After all, they're talking to the lottery winners - those of us who actually got jobs. We all like to think that we're in our current positions due to our own hard work, clean living, and right thinking. And, of course, we are. But too many professors fail to realize that there were others - just as hard working, clean living, and right thinking - who were passed over, despite being just as qualified. When I first started my dissertation, one of my graduate advisers told me I would have no trouble getting a job "as long as you're the best at what you do." At the time, I was intimidated by the idea of having to be "the best". I now know he was wrong anyway. I'm arguably "the best" at my specific method in my specific region, but nobody's hiring in that field, so it does me no good. Students think these job market problems could never happen to them. They'll be so good, so smart, so accomplished, that they'll waltz right into a job. Their professors often feed that idea, either because it feeds their own egos, or because they can't see beyond their own experiences.

b) students, like most people, are incredibly bad at assessing risks. Just as people tends to have more fear of (their one in 3,748,067 chance of) dying from a shark attack, than of dying in a car accident (actually the number-one non-illness killer in the country), students tend to have a hard time understanding the risks they take in graduate school. Even if they've heard how bad the numbers are, they don't seem to understand what they mean. Case in point: I recently read the comments section for a Chronicle of Higher Education article on the English job market. One of the commenters posted that more than 50% of English PhDs have tenure-track jobs, so he couldn't understand why the author of the article was discouraging students from grad school. Really? The commenter honestly feels that, after dedicating almost a decade of your life toward a PhD, it's acceptable to have the same odds of getting a job as you do of tossing a coin and getting heads? Would you bet ten years of your life - ten years of earnings, ten years of marriage, ten years of raising a family, ten years of gaining equity in a house, ten years of building a career - on the result of a coin toss? I tell students, if a tenure-track job is the only outcome you'll find acceptable, then graduate school's not worth the gamble.

I strongly push archaeology students toward an MA, particularly from one of the strong MA-only programs. Northern Arizona and the University of Tulsa spring to mind as good examples of MA-only programs with strong faculty who work closely with their graduate students. If a student loves field archaeology, and wants to work in CRM, this is an excellent solution. MAs haven't priced themselves out of the job market, and they can always choose to go back for the PhD, once they really understand how the system works. They can find lucrative employment in the field they love, without the same level of sacrifice demanded for a PhD.


  1. I know I should probably be asking my own professors about this, but I was wondering if you knew of any other strong MA-only programs?

  2. Other than Northern Arizona and Tulsa, I'd recommend Southern Illinois University Carbondale (actually, they offer a PhD, but their MA program is more of a focus of their faculty than is usually the case, and is separated from the PhD program). Western Michigan offers a strong MA program, as does Kent State. Kent State also offers a PhD, but only in BioAnth. There are some other schools that are good, it really depends on what your interests are. If you have a particular region/method/topic you're interested in, I may have more specific recommendations.

  3. Thanks for the help.

    Regionally, I'm most interested in the Southwest, so Northern Arizona University is a strong option for me. Do you know if Eastern New Mexico University has a decent MA program?

  4. I don't know anything about Eastern New Mexico. New Mexico State has a good program, though. I would definitely recommend NAU and NMS, if you're interested in the Southwest.