In 1999, several years before this blog existed, I created some pages that dealt with the sad state of affairs in academia. The pages collectively entitled "Biting the Hand that (Barely) Feeds Me" were meant to do several things at once. They offered advice to my students, attempted to inform people about what was happening in academia, vented some of my frustrations, and the like. I maintained the pages for two years and then removed them from my website. I didn't have the time to keep them current, and so I took them down.
After a few years passed, I restored my academic autobiography to my site. I had originally intended that page as nothing more than an introduction to the other "biting" pages. I figured that there ought to be some way for readers to orient themselves to my situation before they proceeded to read my advice and mull over my somewhat jaundiced observations. Much to my surprise, my autobiography turned out to be the most popular of my pages. I received a lot of email about it. Therefore, I eventually decided that I should put the page online again and update it on a regular basis. I've been gratified by the positive feedback that the page still generates.
But I never did anything with the other "biting" pages until today. There didn't seem to be any pressing reason to put them online again. I've changed my mind, and here's why I've once again made available the page containing my advice about going to graduate school.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with an intelligent young woman who had contacted me through my blog. She told me that she had been thinking about going to graduate school, but also that she hadn't been able to get very helpful advice from her professors. I met her at a coffee shop and told her what I could about going to graduate school. When I mentioned that I had once had a page on my website dedicated to this question, she said that she would like to see it, and that she had friends who would also like to see it.
Well, I'm happy to help when I can. I've posted the original page and appended a brief update. Although I last updated the old page in March 2001, I don't see any reason to make any major changes to it. I still believe what I believed five years ago. Nothing has changed in academia to make me change my mind. Things are as bad as they've ever been.
In the update you'll read a few bits of advice that you won't find in the original page. When you read the original page, please keep in mind that it was first composed in 1999 and last updated in 2001. I was still in academia at that time, dividing my teaching between the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College. The update reflects my current opinions, and so to a certain extent they are the product of the past two and a half years, during which time I've been an independent scholar without any academic affiliation.
The Original Page From 1999/2001
"Should I go to graduate school?"
Students who are thinking about pursuing an academic career ask me this question all the time. This is hardly surprising: I attended graduate school, received my Ph.D., and began an academic career, all within recent memory. As a result, I should know something about what it's like to attend graduate school nowadays. From my point of view, it's fairly easy to decide who is or isn't cut out for graduate school. Success in a graduate program is as much a matter of character as intelligence, and it's generally not too hard to see who possesses both qualities. Such judgments aren't infallible, of course, but they're more or less dependable.
But this really isn't the sense in which the question is intended. Most students are confident of their abilities (some, alas, are too confident), and thus they don't need me to reassure them. Instead, what they want to know is what they can expect once they've finished graduate school and have begun looking for an academic job. Most people who decide to get a Ph.D. initially do so with an eye towards an academic career, and so they naturally want to know what the job situation is. Unfortunately, the current situation is a such a disaster that it beggars belief.
Believe it or not, roughly half of all professors in this country are now employed on a part-time basis. An academic employed in this fashion is typically known as an adjunct professor or, more simply, an adjunct. I can't cite any statistical surveys to prove that the percentage of adjuncts is so high (although such data no doubt exist somewhere), but a figure of fifty per cent squares with what I have observed on my own and with what I have read in newspapers and magazines. Most people outside of academia have no idea that the percentage is so high. This is truly odd. Universities, of course, have good reasons for failing to publicize such figures, but one would think that the mass media would pick up the story and aggressively report it. Imagine how the media would howl if they learned that half of all doctors and lawyers were employed on a part-time basis.
For example, I taught part-time at La Salle University, a Catholic school in north Philadelphia, for two and a half years, and during the Fall 1995 semester, which was the last time I taught there, the adjunct faculty in the philosophy department outnumbered the full-time faculty. (If I remember correctly, at that time there were eight part-time members and seven full-time ones.) My colleagues across the country tell me similar stories. At some schools the percentage of adjuncts actually exceeds fifty per cent.
This is a scandal. Given how much students pay to go to a college or university, they deserve to be taught by full-time faculty receiving the salary, benefits, and institutional support that make it possible for them to do their jobs properly. Increasingly, however, this isn't happening, and so students are being cheated.
But universities aren't letting on that this is the case. Can you imagine what the recruitment brochures would look like? If they were honest, they would sound something like this:
Here you'll be taught by some of the finest professors in the country, although it was decided that it would be more economically efficient to exploit half of them as cheap labor. But don't worry! Academia is a genteel profession in which everyone works for a higher good, so trivial things such as money and hope for the future don't matter, especially to those who actually do the teaching and research that together constitute the primary mission of the university.
My point, overwrought as it is, is clear, I hope. Parents would not be happy. Students would not be happy. Alumni would not be happy. The happiness of a large portion of the faculty apparently doesn't matter. So the scandal is simply not mentioned. Decorum demands as much.
Since the use of part-time faculty is widespread (and maybe even accelerating), the odds are good that upon leaving graduate school freshly minted professors will be employed as part-time labor, perhaps after accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in debt. As adjuncts, they will probably have to teach too many classes at two or more schools, and they'll almost certainly receive no benefits, little or no computer support, and no research assistance whatsoever. If they have absolutely no luck at all, they might not even get an office in which to hold office hours. Furthermore, they'll have to go on the job market every year, which itself costs a lot of money, and compete with hundreds of other people in the same degrading circumstances.
I can attest to all of this from personal experience. I have been looking for a full-time job since the end of 1992. Since then I have sent out approximately five hundred and fifty applications, had twenty-two interviews, and made seven on-campus visits all without ever receiving a single job offer of any sort. I'm not an idiot; in fact, I'm very good at what I do. I don't think that it's immodest of me to say so. Yet I can't find a job. It's very frustrating.
The Penn philosophy department does for me what it can with its limited budget: I make a decent amount of money; I have a nice office; and I have gotten some money to help pay my way to three conferences. But I receive no benefits and no computer support outside of the usual e-mail account. The computer equipment in my office belongs to me. I bought it all with my own money. Despite the terms of my employment, I very much enjoy teaching here, but I have no future at this institution. That's why I have to go on the job market every year. (I've also been teaching at Bryn Mawr College recently to earn more money. By the way, Bryn Mawr supplies me with a computer.)
If you're thinking about going to graduate school, it's naive to think that this can't happen to you. (If you've already gone and find yourself in my situation, then you have my sympathy.) Because this can happen to anyone (although I admit that my case is something of an exceptional one because of the length of time that it has lasted), this fact should give pause to anyone considering graduate school. Why spend five to ten years in a graduate program just to wind up badly employed at the end of it all, especially when there were always other alternatives?
There is at least one compelling reason to go to graduate school: simply put, it can be a wonderful experience. I'm not given to excessive rhetorical displays, but I will say that I genuinely enjoyed graduate school, and that my life would have been impoverished without it. I would look back with regret if I had not studied philosophy. There are a few things that I regret having done, but getting a Ph.D. in philosophy isn't one of them.
So if you find that you cannot imagine your life without having graduate school figure in it in some significant way, even if you don't want a career in academia, then I think that you should go to graduate school. While this isn't the only good reason for pursuing a Ph.D., it seems to me to be the most compelling one. But if you do go, make sure that you do so with both eyes open. Otherwise, you might regret it.
Update February 17, 2006
Here are some additional thoughts.
If you decide to go to graduate school, I strongly advise you not to enter a program that doesn't offer you financial support from the very beginning. Some programs admit students without offering them either a tuition waiver or a stipend. In such cases they usually say that it's always possible in a year or two to get such support, but even then it isn't guaranteed.
Face the following fact: some of the newly admitted students are being offered such support. So if it isn't being offered to you from the beginning, it's almost certainly because the department doesn't think that you're as good as the others who have been admitted with financial support. Why go into such a situation voluntarily?
My advice is to keep applying until a department agrees to fund you from the very beginning of your time in graduate school. Don't think that you have to enroll in a program just because you happen to have been accepted. If you don't have funding from the beginning, you'll have to borrow a lot of money (unless, of course, you or your parents are wealthy enough to pick up the tab). That's not a good idea, as far as I'm concerned.
So if you apply one year and don't get any offers of support, apply again next year. Wait until you get an offer that makes it worth your while to go to graduate school. Graduate school is stressful enough as it is. Having to worry about your financial situation will only make things worse.
If you go to graduate school with the intention of becoming a professor afterwards, you have to keep in mind the possibility that you will fail to find a long-term position. This is what happened to me, as my academic autobiography attests. I still have no regrets about having gone to graduate school. As I reflect on what happened to me, I can really only think of one significant mistake that I made. When I first ran into trouble finding a job, I should have set a time limit for my job search. I should have said to myself that after some number of years, I would just pack it in and turn to some other career. Instead, I stayed in the profession rather tenuously, of course for ten years. Well, that was too long. I should have left it earlier than I did.
I recommend a self-imposed time limit for searching for a job. If you don't find one after a certain number of years, then move on to something else. Academia has its charms, but it's a deeply troubled profession, and nothing is happening right now that will greatly improve it. Not being a part of it isn't the end of the world.
More: Go to this post for what I have to say about imposing a time limit on your job search.