Monday, September 9, 2013

91. Downward mobility is the norm.

The term "downward mobility" describes the phenomenon of falling into a social class lower than the one into which you were born. If you go to graduate school, it is quite possible that you will experience this kind of economic downward mobility (see Reason 85). But there is another kind of downward mobility that you will almost certainly experience if you survive graduate school and land a teaching position: academic downward mobility. As a general rule, when you complete a PhD, you can only expect to be hired by institutions that are less prestigious than the university at which you earned your doctorate. The authors of one of four recent studies on doctoral prestige and academic career prospects reported: "Across disciplines, we find that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality." That is why the prestige of your graduate program is so important. In academe, prestige is the coin of the realm. The more prestigious your degree, the more options you have on the academic job market (see Reason 3 and Point 2).

While you are suffering through the poverty, loneliness, and indignity of graduate school, it can be hard to imagine an academic environment worse than the one in which you already find yourself (see Reason 50). If you have the good fortune of being hired for a full-time faculty position, you might have a better paycheck than you had in grad school, but it's just as likely that your new institution (where you may spend the rest of your career) will have lower standards, a greater number of ill-prepared students, fewer resources, and less name recognition than the university at which you completed your graduate work. That last item (name recognitionmay sound trivial, but in a business in which prestige is so important, the status of your institution can strongly influence both your sense of self-worth (see Reason 25) and your quality of life. Moreover, your professional identity becomes closely associated with the institution at which you work. For almost every graduate student contemplating an academic career, there is a real sense in which the view forward is a view downward. There are people with Harvard PhDs teaching in Lubbock, Bakersfield, and Tuscaloosa (see Reason 16). Where might a PhD take you?

Monday, May 27, 2013

90. Virtually no one cares about what you are doing.

In graduate school, you often feel alone because you often are alone, but also because no one cares about what you're doing. You spend vast amounts of time and effort writing things that no one wants to read (see Reason 89), and no one wants to hear you talk about them either. Your mother isn't interested in your research. Your friends aren't interested. Your fellow graduate students, consumed by their own work, are most definitely not interested. Even your adviser may not be interested in what you're doing (see Reason 45). The people with a seemingly insatiable interest in your progress through graduate school—the people who ask you all those awkward questions—do not care about the projects that devour your thought and energy.

Not surprisingly, graduate students commonly suffer from intense loneliness and isolation, a reality made painfully clear by the search-engine queries that direct readers to 100 Reasons. The ritualized atmosphere of an academic conference (see Reason 74) is one of the few environments in which people pretend, for a few minutes at least, to be mildly interested in each other's research. In the event that people are interested in your work, their interest is likely hostile; that is, your work is similar to theirs, so they view you as a competitor (see Reason 2). Apart from conferences, you can go through life as a graduate student without ever meeting anyone who shows a genuine interest in what you're doing, which, over time, can make you begin to question your own interest in the rhetoric of masculinity in medieval French poetry, in the idiosyncrasies of Portuguese urban planning, or in the application of game theory to the economic behavior of soybean farmers. This helps explain why so many people find dissertations so excruciatingly hard to finish (see Reason 60) and why graduate-school attrition rates are so high (see Reason 46). It's not easy to care about your work when no one else does.

Monday, March 25, 2013

89. Virtually no one reads what you write.

You are not paid for your academic writing (see Reason 88) because no one is willing to pay to read it. In fact, virtually no one is willing to read it at all. After several years of work on a dissertation, you can have some confidence that your adviser will read the finished product, and somewhat less confidence that the other members of your dissertation committee will read it. Beyond that handful of people, it is unlikely that anyone will ever read your dissertation again. As university libraries are increasingly archiving dissertations digitally, you may not even have the satisfaction of seeing your name on a volume in the library. On rare occasions, someone may come along and cherry-pick something from your research that relates to his own, but chances are that no one will ever sit down and read the paragraphs over which you agonized for so long (see Reason 28). 

The same fate awaits the vast majority of published academic writing. Typically, it takes months of research, writing, and revision to produce a journal article that will be seen by fewer people in its author's lifetime than will visit this blog in an hour. Academic presses print as few as 300 copies of the books that their authors have labored over for years. Most journal articles and academic monographs are written because academics need to be published to keep their jobs, not because there is a demand or need for their work (see Reasons 33 and 34). To the extent that academic writing is consulted at all, it tends to be "read" solely for the purpose of furthering someone else's writing. In many cases, editors and peer-reviewers probably read manuscripts more carefully before they are published than anyone will ever read them after they are published. Even someone entrusted to review a book may only skim it. Feeling obliged to stuff their work with citations, scholars sometimes look no further than the titles of what they cite. It will come as a surprise to you the first time that you see your work cited by someone who did not read it. It will be less surprising the second time. A few academic careerists use the fact that virtually no one reads what they write to their advantage, but most academics take great pains to produce good work. If you don't like the idea of spending the next several decades writing for a minuscule audience of readers, then you probably shouldn't go to graduate school.

Monday, January 21, 2013

88. You are not paid for what you write.

You could argue that professors are paid to write, because they’re required to produce publications as a condition of their employment. But that is really only true of people with tenure-track positions, and their annual salaries don’t rise or fall based on the quality or quantity of their writing (though whether they receive tenure is another matter). Adjunct professors and others, writing furiously in the hope of publishing enough to be worthy of a tenure-track job, receive no compensation whatsoever for their labors at the keyboard. Likewise, aside from the lucky few who have fellowships (see Reason 18), graduate students are not paid for the hours, months, and years that they spend writing. The academic journals that weigh down the shelves of university libraries publish a vast quantity of scholarly prose every year, but they don’t pay their authors a penny. Only a tiny fraction of academic writers—including professors guilty of the gauche practice of making their own books required reading—earn any significant income from the sale of academic books (see Reason 34).

It has never been easy to make money by writing, but you might ask yourself if writing for nothing is the best use of your time. Is what you write so important to you (see Reason 35) that you’re willing to produce it for free? The great Samuel Johnson famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” In the middle of the eighteenth century, he wrote (among much else) all 42,000 entries in the Dictionary of the English Language. Dr. Johnson knew that writing was work. And while it can be rewarding in its own way, academic writing is an especially arduous kind of work (see Reason 28). It exacts a price. In an essay on his personal experiences under the Guardian headline “Writing is bad for you,” scholar Rick Gekoski observed that “the more I write, the worse I become.” In graduate school, you will likely pay for the privilege of writing a thesis or dissertation (see Reason 59), and it will cost you a hefty chunk of your life as well. If you clear all of the hurdles of graduate school, there is a chance that your academic writing will help you win and keep an academic job, but you are unlikely to earn anything from your writing directly. Incidentally, Samuel Johnson may be the most famous “Dr.” never to have gone to graduate school; his doctorates were honorary, and no one seems to mind.