Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Collegial advice

Though myself a blogger, I don't really follow very many other blogs. Make that next to none. But not quite none. I keep up with Reuters Faith World (which I learned about from my elusive journalist uncle D), and with Tenured Radical, and not just because its incisive and fearlessly honest writer happens now to be a New School colleague. Recently, TR took on one of the toughest questions facing us university folks - whether and how to encourage bright undergraduates to pursue further studies. I have for some time now seen it as my responsibility to tell students that the academic job market has dried up, that the likelihood of landing a full-time job in a place they want to be is very slim, that if they go to graduate school they should try to find a way to go without accruing debt, and, finally, to ask themselves if they would feel they had wasted their twenties if they wound up with a dissertation and no job at thirty (i.e., make sure you're doing research work you love).

Some of my friends are appalled that I do this, and it makes me sad, too - my generation faced quite different prospects, and I wish some of my most promising students could do what I've been able to do. But the current system is sending thousands of bright young people to certain disappointment and even bigger debt... What to do? And what else can they do? The oracle speaks! Faculty are wrong to think that undergraduate students know how difficult the situation is, so have a responsibility to inform them. But she draws up a fantastic list of questions we might pose our questions, which manages to be empowering rather than dispiriting:
  • Have you researched the current state of academic employment in this discipline? Do you know where and how to do that? Are you willing to invest less than $100 to get the resources you need to do that?
  • Do you know what the possibilities are for people with a Ph.D. in ________ to find employment outside of the academy? Would you consider being a dean, a program director, or another kind of administrator? Would you see working on renewable contracts, rather than the tenure track, or becoming an administrator, as a failure? Name three things you would like to do if you don’t get a tenure-track job.
  • Do you really love to write? Not like it, or see it as instrumental to a university career, but really love it enough to persist until you become really good at it?
  • Does research compel you?
  • Do you see a broader political or intellectual public for your work than the university –based specialists in your field?
  • Are there other disciplines than the one you wish to apply in that might offer better prospects for academic or alternative employment?
  • Have you considered taking two-three years off to work in this field, or a related one, in order to find out if you really need to go to graduate school at all?
  • Have you taken any graduate classes to understand what commitment you must make to succeed in graduate school? Do you know how long you might be there?
  • Do you have loans already? Have you visited the financial aid office to have your repayment rate calculated on those loans? Do you have access to family wealth?
  • Do you have the self confidence, and the patience, to fail? To try again? To reimagine your career and/or intellectual goals? To do this more than once?
The rest of the article, and the discussion it inspires, are worth reading too. I know it's what I'll turn to the next time a student asks about graduate school.

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