Monday, September 20, 2010

Bad advice?

A good friend started her Ph.D. program this week at the same school I'm just about done at. As expected, she was given a huge long speech about how graduate students aren't really members of the department, how they are better off working as waitresses (clearly the only thing people with English degrees can do) than getting part time work as adjuncts, about how few of them are going to finish--and it doesn't surprise me, as I know that this is that administrator's view on the job market, how to succeed at it, and how to be a graduate student.

What continues to puzzle me is that I followed absolutely none of this fellow's advice, and thus far have done enormously well for myself. I found an outside way to fund the last year of my degree (full time administrative job) from my adjunct job. I am on the job market and people who were recently there and know my work claim that I will do well. If I don't do well, I still have a full time job. My current position gives me 8 times the travel funding I ever got from my Ph.D. institution, which I am using to the fullest extent I can. I was recently named an assistant editor at a respected journal in my field. I am working on a major project for a national conference with a lot of people I really like and respect across the country, including one that is generally considered a "big name." I have one confirmed publication and one that almost certainly will be accepted--and this second one not only is in an "important" journal, but wouldn't have been possible at all without my adjunct position (and there's a review, but well, whatever--it's a review).

So she seemed upset, and I more or less told her that her degree is what she makes of it. She should seek out the opportunities she wants and listen to the advice of people she trusts. She needs to get in with other faculty members who aren't as harsh, needs to go to conferences and meet people who aren't at that school (we both attend because it's close and R1), and needs to realize that despite recent grad students' success, most of us didn't follow any of the advice we were given. The one who did got a visiting professorship, and that's great, but it's not great.

Meanwhile, my Twitter feed where I'm very very honest (and far more honest than I probably should be at that) has gotten me two invites to apply for specific positions. The department's stance on twitter is that it's a waste of time. I haven't been rejected by a conference in years, though I've not taken any of the department's advice in those regards either (such as getting at least three faculty members to read every proposal I send out--as if I have time for that! I'm lucky they read bits of my dissertation as it is!) and the one student whom I know always does follow their advice was turned down for Big Name Conference this year. Another GTA is performing brilliantly, but has been told it's okay to openly bad mouth other grad students and professors in his blog, which is leading him to get quite a reputation as a jerk. Needless to say, given the chance I wouldn't hire him. That's a problem.

So what bad advice have you been given? Is it just us? Is my department really so badly out of touch with the field that they can't even tell students how to succeed anymore? And if that's the case (as I fear it sometimes is), is there anything more that can be done for the students still there?


  1. What a juicy post!

    I think the struggle with advice here is that, honestly, the path to professorship is dying. In the next 25 years, I sadly predict the tenure-track position to all but disappear.

    Publications will undergo a MAJOR revolution and stop being the major measurement of quality research. Adjuncts will at some point unionize or existing profs will come together and establish that the University needs to pay slightly more and offer benefits even if there is not going to be any more tenure. Ads are now up for more "3 year contracts" with decent pay on The Chronicle than I've ever seen before. Maybe that's the future.

    So the newly admitted grad students are more fucked than those who believed that the 1990s would witness enormous numbers of sudden academic retirements in the Humanities.

    But beyond that, new grad students need to realize that their 10% chance of becoming college profs needs to be balanced with an alternative Plan B education: take extra courses so you're qualified to do something else (as My Little Proffie here did).

    Finally, the best way to succeed is NOT to play the department game. I too found independent work and was making $35,000 as a grad student. Everyone else who did things "right" was only making $14,000 a year or winning a "prestigious" but labor-intensive $1000 travel grant. Who can research abroad for 3 months on only a grand? No one. They take loans and find themselves doing everything right but having NO opportunities when they get out. Just loads of debt and the adjunct cycle.

    Poor dears.

  2. Is my department really so badly out of touch with the field that they can't even tell students how to succeed anymore?

    The problem here is also the problem with your narrative.

    We live in a work culture where what used to work (for many current professors) no longer does and what worked for one person (in this case, you) might not work for anyone else.

    It really does seem to be dumb, blind luck (which often leads to opportunities) that leads to "success."

  3. Hm. I'm waiting for you to check back in when you've actually *landed* a t-t job. Advice often only seems right in retrospect. And it seems as if the advice is pitched for students who want a serious research career. If you've already taken an admin post, which will currently be preventing you from investing in research and teaching, that student isn't really you. Which is cool, as long as you know that. I'd wait for the chips to fall before I'd completely discount a senior prof's advice. One of my mentors once told me never to listen to grad students. I thought he was being mean. Now I that's what I tell my own students; they think I'm being mean.

  4. Do check back; I'm curious too. It is hard right now to know *what* advice to give. I generally tell students that time is worth more than money until they are 30 (unless they have kids), but not to go into debt for grad school (I recommend *Your Money or Your Life* all the time), and to have a Plan B. I tell them that leaving the academy is not failure, and that it is not a long-term ticket to the middle class even for me. I tell them it's like being an artist: if you can't not do this, even absent structural support, you should do this; otherwise, do that other thing. I tell them that they should pursue life (kids, partners, pleasures), not just the academy, because the academy has no guarantees. At the same time, I tell them, stamina is the one ingredient I see consistently in those who succeed (and not, let it be noted, brilliance).

    But am I right, or wrong? I have no idea. The idea that you can outsmart the demise of the academy seems to me to be individualist and idiotic in the extreme. If you make it, My Little Proffie, it will be due in no small measure to luck. If you don't, it will be due in no small measure to luck. Try to be humble, OK?

  5. I feel the same way about my grad school program. At every turn I was going things that seemed to undermine the "powers that be." They said, "Thou shalt not adjunct in addition to the funding we provide you." I thought, "Hmmm. I need real teaching experience not just TA crap AND I need to make a living." So I very quietly took an adjunct position at a small local private uni. They said, "Thou shalt work all summer on your research and go to conferences everywhere." I thought, "That's great but I'll work an REU across the country so that I can show I value undergrad research." They said, "You'll have to write a teaching statement. It needs to be 'good' but it's fluff and doesn't matter what's in it as long as it is 'good'." I started outlining mine 1 year before I thought I'd be on the market.

    The adjunct job resulted in my best letter of recommendation. A letter my now co-workers still remembered 3 years post-hire. In addition to the letter, I also had essential primary instructor experience without which I may not have been offered my TT job.

    The cross-country REU was of interest to many employers. This particularly went over well with Deans and Presidents. It was also a minority student seeking REU which people liked as well. I could speak of my interest in recruiting minorities and that was highly popular at the primarily white institutions which were interviewing me.

    People seemed to respond to my teaching statement. Based on the hundreds of statements I've read as a search committee member, mine was not standard. This might have made my application stand out amongst the heaping stacks.

    In the end I had a 30% return in phone/conference interviews. I had three TT job offers and was still turning down interview offers after I accepted my favorite school.

    I thought outside the box at every step in grad school. I felt that the faculty were out of touch mainly because they were at an R1 and I wanted to be at a PUI. In the three years following my graduation I was the only one to land a TT at a 4 year uni. The others took no interest in the things that I did (some did adjunct, though).

    Perhaps my success was because I didn't follow the yellow brick road or perhaps I put myself in a different set of applicants applying to a different type of school. I don't regret a thing and my advisor learned the value of non-traditionals on a CV.

  6. A lot of students in my cohort were advised not to spend time going to conferences, working in the summer or teaching because it might slow down their research. I did all of these things and landed a TT job before I graduated largely on the basis of my publications and prior teaching experience.

    It's really hard to say what advice is good. I don't necessarily recommend my method to my students because it was hard work and took more than 4 years.

  7. Rule number one: there are no rules, only loose guidelines.

    Like Marcia et al. I'd want to know how this all turns out before drawing any conclusions.

    Like Cass, I tell my grad students not to listen to other grad students' advice on matters having to do with what's on the other side of the Ph.D., because by definition they only think they know.

    So the advice your peers are getting is pretty standard advice for those who want a crack at the kind of career the faculty at your graduate program have. And it is probably mostly solid, despite your clear disdain for it.

    What you have done is set yourself up for some other kind of career, kind of like CMP above. That's fine, and I would never tell you that you were wrong. You made a choice that has likely taken you out of the running for one kind of job and put you in the running for another. Actually, reading your narrative, you already started making those choices the second you picked a grad program based on location rather than fit (a discussion that we had in the early going on CM).

    But you still don't know how it is going to turn out. Just because you've been invited to apply doesn't mean you'll get anywhere once the files are on the table. And just because you made a series of choices that seem to be working our for you, doesn't mean that your peer with the VAP made the wrong ones. He or she may well be fucked, but may well end up in a job. You may end up in a job, or you may very well be fucked. I don't know, but neither do you... yet. Get back to us when you do.

  8. You have something to fall back on - a full-time administrative job that pays the bills. That's what I'd suggest to any would-be graduate English major. Hopefully the full-time gig will just be temporary till you can line up a teaching gig, but at least you don't have to starve while you attempt to follow your bliss.

    I can't say I was given any bad advice in grad school. Everyone told me that I'd be poor for the rest of my life if I chose to pursue a PhD in English. Many people attempted to talk me out of grad school. I didn't listen to them at first but after finishing my MA I wised up. But not because of the bleak job prospects, mostly because I ran out of money and didn't want to take out a huge, life-crippling loan to go for the PhD. Perhaps if I had the Plan B all along, I might have managed, but I had to fail with Plan A first and live poor for a few years before I realized how much it sucks to be poor, then I finally ended up doing something else altogether.

    So my advice to English majors in grad school would be to have a Plan B that can be easily discarded if Plan A works out, but won't leave you poverty-stricken in case Plan A doesn't work or takes a long time to implement.

  9. "I found an outside way to fund the last year of my degree (full time administrative job) from my adjunct job."

    Would an army of administrators carrying PhDs from the Humanities be any better or worse than the current wave with terminal degrees in higher education administration?

  10. To answer the question, the best advice I ever received came from two friends who are tenured in the Humanities: get a PhD in a business-specific discipline.

    Both of them are professors. With the start of my TT job, I made more money than they currently make with a slightly less teaching load and for a school far below their respective schools.

    I enjoy my research stream and the courses I teach. I also don't fuck around with freshmen courses and all the attending bullshit that comes with them.

  11. One thing I haven't seen mentioned (or maybe I just missed it) is how much bad advice is given out in the service of not speaking the Unspeakable Truth in some departments - i.e., the program blows.

    Here's what I mean.

    In my field, there's your usual suspects at the top - the Ivies and the big honkin' state R1s - but there's a whole host - a couple dozen - other schools below those who don't seem to have *that* much trouble finding jobs for their kids, assuming they can finish and dress themselves and so on. On the other hand, there's about a hundred, give or take, OTHER PhD granting programs below that cohort that supply the overwhelming majority of "career adjuncts" for my discipline.

    A lot of vague, loopy, bad, or even bizarre advice is uttered by professors who are eager to avoid saying the one thing they can't say: sure, you can get a job doing this, just NOT FROM HERE.

    These aren't Community Colleges, either, they're real, live, honest-to-God PhD-grantin' universities, they just aren't carrying enough weight in my particular field of humanities to guarantee their graduates anything more than a hearty handshake at the end of the road. Even that might be asking too much.

    They talk (boy do "they" ever talk!) all the time about how unlikely you are to get a job in the humanities after finishing a PhD, but, other than a nod to the fact that getting your Doctorate from Harvard or the like makes you PRETTY safe, they don't really ever break those numbers down very much, when, in fact, breaking them down would reveal that the future isn't NEARLY so bleak as you might imagine for a whole wide swath of current graduate students, while it's MUCH bleaker than anyone is saying out loud for about, oh, twice as many as that, roughly speaking.

    Much misinformation - intentional or otherwise - is disseminated in the service of not telling this vital truth.

  12. I suppose I could qualify some of my statements more (though you're absolutely right, I have no idea how this job search is going to go--and that's okay! I actually really like my current institution and believe in its mission, and it allows me to attend conferences, participate in my field, and do just about everything I'd love to do but sleep).

    I came from a better program where I earned my Master's. The advice I heard there was pretty much the opposite of what I hear here--yet those professors were pretty much top of the field and continue to be minus the two that retired. Unfortunately, I take care of my aging parents and couldn't stay there for my Ph.D. so I came here on their recommendation.

    Before, I was told that when I go to conferences I should avoid people's panels that I know and go see speakers I'm unfamiliar with. I do this and I've met people to do research with nationwide. In my current program, we're encouraged to hang out with each other and for the most part my cohort has met no one. I see this as a giant shame.

    Perhaps the weirdest advice I ever got was to copy the format of my letters and CV directly out of Graduate Study for the 21st Century. While I love having examples of any type, Semenza's own current CV doesn't match the example in the book. As someone who does, indeed, have to review resumes quarterly, I can't imagine why it would be good to have every student who comes out of your program having an identical CV (in format if not content).

    And no, people aren't getting terribly good jobs (VP girl removed from the equation). Most people get jobs similar to the one I already have, and while that's fine, I think we all could potentially do better.


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