The Truth About Grad School, Part 4: The Risk You Take

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend in publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education (which, full disclosure, I’ve written for in the past) of articles written by adjunct faculty members bemoaning their woeful economic situation and saying this like “suicide is my retirement plan” (no, I’m not kidding)

While I have grave concerns about the trend toward reliance on contingent faculty, especially at community colleges, these articles also tend to drive me nuts. There is an air of entitlement that goes with saying, basically, “I have my PhD so where is my job as a full-time academic?”

Let me put it even more bluntly: Nobody is forced to be an adjunct and nobody is guaranteed that their PhD is the ticket to lifelong employment in the exact position of their choice.

Within my graduate school cohort, there was a student I’ll call Joy. Joy works in higher education in an administrative role. Her school offers tuition remission so she isn’t taking on any debt to be a doctoral student. Joy is passionate about learning and research and shows up to every class having done all the reading and more. She is content in her current position (though she is smart and hardworking and I suspect she’ll advance quickly) and feels like her PhD is for her personal fulfillment.

Joy is sort of the Platonic ideal of a graduate student and is perhaps one of the few examples of someone for whom doing the PhD doesn’t represent some level of risk.

For the rest of us though, there is some risk to doing a doctoral program, mostly financial, but also emotional.

For example, there is a student in a different cohort in my program who is in her 50’s, who has some prior higher ed experience but isn’t currently working in the field. She is place bound and has been unsuccessful in getting hired at the college she is most interested in working at. She is hoping her PhD will help her get her foot in the door. If/when she graduates, she’ll have a terminal degree and no fulltime professional experience.

As someone who has worked for basically every type of institution (land grant, small private liberal arts and two community college systems) and has been on or chaired probably 40 hiring committees, I can tell you that her odds of finding the kinds of jobs she wants are not great. In a past position, I supervised six student services areas at a community college. I never hired anyone who didn’t already have experience, whether that was for an academic advising position, career services or running our orientation programming. A PhD with no experience is a tough hire to make when the applicant pools for advisor level positions generally had between 100-200 applicants.

(Full disclosure again: these are my views. Not those of any of my employers, past or present)

There are other students I have encountered along the way that I also suspect are either unlikely to finish their degree or who are unlikely to find the employment they want/expect after graduation. I don’t know if anyone, like their major professor or advisor, has ever had a “let’s get real” conversation with them about their prospects. I suspect not. The potential for regret and disappointment seems so damn high for these students.

The thing is, there are despite my negative examples here, some good reasons to become a doctoral student. I’ve grown academically and professionally. I am comfortable with reading and conducting research in a way that I wasn’t before. While I don’t have any guarantees, based on my age and my work history, I have reason to believe that my completed PhD will help me continue to advance. If that doesn’t happen for some reason, I won’t be financially devastated by the debt that I’ve taken on.

I should note again that I’m on an administrative career path. I think this whole discussion of the risks of grad school is probably even more critical for those who want to become faculty members given that the tenure track job market is a hot mess in many fields.

So, should you go to grad school? Maybe.

If your primary goal is learning: yes.

If your primary goal is professional advancement: maybe, if you can financially and emotionally handle the consequences if that doesn’t happen.

If your primary goal is a tenure track faculty position: eh, maybe? If you are young, single, not place bound and open to living almost anywhere and you love research, I’ll give you a slightly stronger maybe, but go into with your eyes wide open about what the job market looks like.

If your primary goal is to get your first job in higher ed.: I have concerns.

Next time: Procrastination and how to not let it totally wreck your academic life.

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