Monday, October 24, 2011

Lessons of Grad School #1

Judging by the general progression of other post-ac blogs, it's about time to start my first serial post. So, I'm going to begin a series of lessons and advice that I've learned the hard way in grad school. Things I wished I'd known before I started. Maybe it'll help someone else not make the same mistakes - they can make all new ones instead!

Lesson #1 - Do Your Research

You say you want to go to grad school because you like to do research? Well prove it! There are three crucial subjects to research before even applying to any graduate program: the field, the department, and grad life in THAT department. I'll admit to knowing none of these things before I started and that may be the biggest mistake I made in grad school. So let's look at these big 3 in a little more depth.

The Field

I'm not talking subject matter or content here. You should already have some of that or you shouldn't be looking at that field in the first place. The research I'm talking about is job-related. What jobs are out there for people in this field with the degree you want? What do those jobs pay? What is the progression to those jobs?

These questions may seem base if you're buying into the whole "noble life of the mind." Two points to keep in mind: 1) the ability to feed oneself post-degree is vitally important and 2) the "life of the mind" is an out-moded concept with no bearing in current academic reality, if it ever existed al all. So, let's talk about what would be awaiting you at the end of grad school.
  • You can be a college professor. If this is your dream, I suggest you do two things. First, shadow a professor for a day or two or ask them to candidly tell you about what their life is really like and what they needed to do to get there. And two, look up the stats on how many people in that field go into grad school, how many actually graduate, how many jobs are offered each year, and the liklihood of getting one of those jobs. I'll give you a headstart, 50% or less get jobs as tenured faculty - in the social sciences and humanities it's less.

  • You can get a job outside academia. If this is your goal, check and see if you need a master's, doctorate, or professional degree to do that job. If you don't, do NOT take on the debt of grad school. Very few people get funded the whole way these days. If a grad degree is that important to you, do a non-traditional one and pay for it as you go. It then becomes an expensive hobby but you'll have a life on the outside, an identity not tied to your studies, and likely be generally happier and healthier for it.
A special note on salaries: You should never take out more loans than what your salary would be your first year on the job. So, if you discover the job you want pays $45k/year starting, that is your LOAN CAP. Once you hit that number, NO MORE LOANS!

Having some idea where you're going ahead of time can save you a LOT of grief down the road. If the answers you get to these questions do not inspire you to go to grad school, don't despair. If you just want to read more deeply on a subject you love, all you need is a library card. They're cheap (or free!) and you have the freedom to read up on whatever you want. No one can say that about grad school!

The Department

Once you've decided to continue on your grad school quest, you need to pick a department for your studies. There are lots of departments out there with grad programs in whatever field you want to study. So, how do you decide? Here are some questions to ask of every department:
  • Do they have people specializing in what you want to study? If you want to study ways to increase crop yields and a department only specializes in zoology and microbiology, you may want to look elsewhere. Find people whose research interests you and check out their departments.

  • Does the department have funding for their students and for how long? Grad student debt ranges from astronomical to absurd to soul-crushing. If a department cannot fund all of its incoming grad students RUN! That's no place you want to rack up debt. Ideally, you want a department that will fund you to finish but, at the very least, you need one that will fund you to ABD (All But Dissertation). What type of funding is also good to know but we'll get to that.

  • How does the department rank? Academia is NOT a meritocracy. Where you graduate from matters. If you want to be a college professor, you really need to aim for a top 5 department. To the rest of the world, Ivy league looks better than state schools which look better than regionals (give or take whether an alumni of your school is on the hiring committee). Yes, there's a hierarchy. No, it's not fair. But who told you life was fair? Whoever it was, I assure you, they lied. Find them and smack them upside the head with a fish. You'll feel better.
Applying to grad school takes time and money. Narrowing down your list of departments to those that will benefit you the most helps. Such research can also help you get a better grasp of the politics of your chosen field - very important information to have. And if you don't get into one of your top picks, try to avoid settling. Spending 10 years and tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree that no one respects won't help you much in the end. Of course, if your goal is just to get some letters after your name, then by all means choose the cheapest, most convenient, accredited option you can stand and try to have a life and a bit of fun while you're there.

Life in the Department

Now that you've narrowed down the department options, go visit those places. Don't just talk to professors when you're there. Talk to the grad students, old and new ones, away from the profs. Go to lunch or happy hour with them. Get the dirt. You're better off learning it now rather than when you've tied yourself to that department for any length of time. Some important information to try to learn:
  • What's it like to work with the professors in the department? At some point you'll have to work with other profs in the department and it helps to know what they're like. This also tends to lead to people dishing about the politics in that department. Do some profs just not get along? Are some not allowed to be in the same room together? These may be signs of a snake pit. You really want to try to avoid those. In a similar vein, do the grad students get along? Do there seem to be factions? Are you shepherded away from some grad students? These are also signs of snake pit behavior. Watch out for fangs.

  • What is the funding like in the department? Is it more TAs or RAs? Do they take a lot of time? Some TAs and RAs don't take time and you get paid for doing very little. Others will have so much work that you'll be filing grievances with your grad union right and left, if you have a grad union there. You should ask about that too. Does the department guarantee funding for any specific length of time? Do they deliver on that guarantee? My department claims they fund everyone for 4 years but I've only received funding for last summer - 8 years into my program. The rest of my funding I've had to find on my own.

  • What is it like to work with your potential advisor? I cannot stress this one enough. You're initially signing on to work with this person for nearly a decade. You better learn something about that life before you apply. Is s/he reasonable both in their requests of your labor and their advice? Does s/he provide a lot of opportunities for research? With funding? Is s/he a decent human being? Ethical? You may not want to ask some of these questions outright, unless you either are that comfortable with the grad students or you get the feeling they're warranted.

    There are two types of danger signs when talking with grad students that should set your hair on end and your fight running in the opposite direction: 1) If grad students either damn their professor(s) with faint praise or they are clearly hiding something or hedging what they're saying (very deliberate word choice is a clue). 2) They tell you outright s/he is evil, despotic, or otherwise unreasonable. If grad students have reached the point of #2, they are so fed up with their advisor's dictates that they are willing to risk you babbling something incriminatory should you happen to see that advisor again. This is a bad sign. You cannot change an advisor. They are no fixer-uppers. These behaviors are a sign of abusive relationships. Take head.
So, here's the beginning of things I really wished I had known about grad school ahead of time. I'm not saying people shouldn't go to grad school - only that you should know what you're getting into if you choose to do so. Despite my love of living a wild and unpredictable life, it does on occasion pay to look before you leap.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Week in the Dip

I was going to start a series of posts about things I've learned in grad school but I've postponed it temporarily. It's been a rough week and I need to vent.

Transitioning careers involves a lot of emotional ups and downs. It's sort of a series of manic-depressive cycles moving from "yes, I can do this and look at all the things I could do" to "I have no experience in anything of value and don't stand a chance outside academia." This week has been mostly a depressive dip for a variety of reasons.


I have no idea what I want to do at this point. I've been looking into possible fields that may interest me. There's always an initial rush of "yes, I can do this and it'll be great," followed quickly by "But I wouldn't even know where to start." I do have some experience in doing all sorts of things but none of it in a publicly available format. I know it's not an insurmountable problem but it is disheartening at first.

The larger problem is one of fear and paralysis. I know lots of folks on the post-ac blogosphere suggest checking all the options quickly, deciding, and sticking with it. Here's the problem. That's what I did when it came to grad school and here I am now. I don't want a repeat of how that worked out. Though I don't regret it and, all things considered, it could've been worse, I was lucky and don't want to rely on luck quite so much this time. It does make me a little gun shy this time around.

You need courage to change careers. You need it to cold call and email folks for informational interviews. You need it to start at the bottom and work your way back up. You need courage to decide to change careers. So, I know I have it. I'm just not feeling it right now. Not curled up in a corner, rocking and babbling to myself just yet but it's been a rough week.

Trolling the Job Ads

I started cruising the want ads up on LinkedIn. I wanted to see what jobs were out there and what qualifications they were looking for. Originally, I wanted to see what they were looking for and what words were used to help with a basic resume. The result was the I realized I didn't have a lot of desirable qualifications for some of the fields I was interested in.

Again, not an insurmountable problem. I have time yet. I'm good where I'm at until next summer. I could get some of these qualifications in that time. It's just one of those moments when you realize all the things you should've been doing while in grad school.

For the record, this exercise does validate all that advice other post-acs have offered about choosing a path and sticking with it. Though there is a lot of overlap, each field uses some specialized vocabulary and emphasizes different things. By choosing at least a general direction will help getting those basic resumes up and running.

Meeting with the Advisor

Had a impromptu meeting with the advisor this week. I told him I had decided to leave academia. He does try to be supportive but there were several lines reminiscent of Postacademic in NYC's post about leaving academia or not having children. Advisor's primary one was "…but you'd be such a good professor." Thanks to Postacademic's post, I nearly burst out laughing mid-meeting.

He also had another argument he kept trying to raise. I'm planning to move to the same city as my significant other. He's been my port in this storm - a Safe Haven - particularly since he has changed careers many times and has multiple advanced degrees. Advisor kept pointing out how many relationships fail and that I shouldn't hitch my wagons to one horse. Here's the problem with this assumption: SH has a more mobile occupation than any I might pick and would follow me to where I got a job. SH is hitching his wagon to mine, not the other way around. So this also made me laugh.

The downside to this otherwise amusing conversation was that Advisor kept trying to convince me to stick it out in academia, or try again next year. Check any post-acs blog on adjuncts to see the danger here (try Recent Ph.D.'s or JC's). I did feel a bit guilty about not giving the job market a serious go. And he did try to convince me that there were better departments than the one I'm in. I believe him on this one. It just doesn't matter. The thought of being an academic makes me depressed. I think it has to do with the lack of freedom. I'll rant about that later.

Happy Hour with Other Grad Students

The final depressing round this week was going to happy hour with Advisor and some of the other grad students. Currently, my advisor could possibly graduate five people this academic year. So, there are a lot of people talking about jobs right now. The deadlines for several postings are coming up. The really odd part is that several of the students are putting a lot of time and aggravation into these applications while saying, with total confidence, that they won't get any of the jobs. So I ask why are they applying then and always get a variation of "Because that's what I'm supposed to do," in response. Try explaining the insanity and futility of this approach to an academic. It's like trying to convince a creationist of evolution during a commercial break...using only twitter posts.

I've told a few of the grad students that I'm leaving academia. The responses have been varied from "I've been thinking that too!" to "Why?!" Not a bad range, all things considered. However, I've only told one grad student about some of the fields I'm looking into. The result was less than encouraging. The implication has been that to do anything other than some form of academia is a waste of my time, talent, and life.

A waste of MY time, talent, and life.

This is where my annoyance and depression gets angry. For starters, it's MY time, MY talent, and MY life. Mine. If I want to squander it flipping burgers at McDonald's on the nightshift, that's my f*$&% prerogative. Second, none of these folks knows anything about my life, hopes, or plans. They assume my dream life is their dream life. I assure you, this is not the case. So, if you don't know what I want, how can you assume my choice to leave academia is a waste of anything? This leads to my third and perhaps greatest issue.

There is an implication, an implicit little demon, in most questions directed toward post-academics. It is particularly aggravating when coming from academics. Some people have the gaul to say it explicitly. Again, I advocate smacking such people with a fish, preferably a well-spoiled one.

The implication is that by leaving academia, by pursuing some less noble occupation than the professoriate, you are depriving your field of your talents and discoveries. By not staying, teaching, researching, the field will never be able to benefit from your insights and this will, somehow, stunt the achievements of humankind. To this I say: BULLSH^%! The field bumbled along before I came along and it will continue to bumble its way to stagnation without requiring any assistance from me.

This implication should be grouped with all those objections that suggest you are devaluing your degree/department/university and everyone in it by leaving academia. This class of objections also includes those people who need you to stay in academia to validate their choice to do so. All these objections play on the group mentality and altruism by trying to shame or guilt you into staying in academia. Again: BULLSH^%!

You can contribute far more to humanity by leaving academia than by toiling for years in the bowels of the Ivory Tower, writing arcane manuscripts no one is ever going to read. By demonstrating a use for your degree outside academia, you actually increase it's value. If you have decent marketers in your department, your post-academic success may even increase your old department's/university's prestige and value. You really want to contribute to society and all those prof's who helped you out along the way? Then get a life and be happy. You don't give a damn about those folks any more and they didn't help you all? Fine. Get a life, be happy, and don't tell them about it. There is no greater revenge than success - except possibly convincing others to join you!

In summary, this week has not been my best. I still have no idea where I'm going. I am, however, sick of people telling me I'd be better off just staying put and being miserable. And this is only the beginning. I'm going to go find a rather odiferous fish now. I anticipate some serious fish slapping down the road.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Source of Post-Ac Angst?

Now here's an interesting idea: Why some people learn faster.

Though the article is primarily focused on why some people are more inclined to learn new things and thus learn things faster, it raises interesting points that may explain a lot about grad school, academia, and post-ac angst.

The research shows that if you praise a child for hir effort, ze feels that trying is all ze needs to do for praise and ze is willing to try harder puzzles. He or she is willing to risk failure. However, if you praise a child for hir intelligence (for being smart), ze feels that ze needs to show ze is smart to get more praise and ze is NOT willing to do harder puzzles. He or she is unwilling to risk failure.

So let's follow this bit of psychology through grad school. Most grad students go to grad school often partly, if not entirely, because they've been told they're smart and that's what smart people do. Follow the train above. These students are less likely to risk failure. This may explain a lot of the redundant research in many fields. Yes, I know science happens in small steps but there are small steps and then there's spinning in a circle and until you fall down. You know of both types in your field, whatever your field may be.

Anyway, these students are given one career path: professorship. They do less than groundbreaking research which they know is unlikely to fail. They get articles published and go on to become professors. By the time they join the professoriate, or adjuncthood (which ain't the same thing - google it), they've had this risk aversion strategy reinforced throughout their entire grad school career. It shouldn't be shocking if they then go on to reinforce this strategy with their own grad students. To be fair, I think some level of risk aversion is essential for an academic career. Sudden movements scare people - the kind of people who may be voting on your tenure.

This idea also explains the angst of the post-ac transition. Post-academics have also gone through this system and had their risk aversion system reinforced. However, in order to change careers, you must be willing to take risk. So, post-acs need to change from risk aversion to risk seeking. You've got to go out on a limb to change your path and that's scary. Grad school does not engender such feelings. This risk aversion is also one of the stereotypical traits business people have of academics. As a result, not only do post-acs have to become more risk seeking, they have to be so comfortable with that idea that they can sell it to a prospective employer. Yeah, that could cause a bit of angst.

So, ask all your friends to praise your effort to change your life and not your intelligence for leaving academia. Maybe it'll make you braver!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Propaganda and Aggravation

Let me begin this post by saying that I am biased. I'll admit it outright. I was trolling the blogosphere and clicked through to Penelope's blog from Escape the Ivory Tower. Her post annoyed me. Let me explain why.

Yes, I understand that her post was a bit of anti-grad school propaganda. And I know that such things are needed if only to counteract what students get from faculty. Even some faculty recognize that they should not be trying to talk folks into entering grad school.

However, as someone who went to grad school (Ph.D. no less - big no-no from her blog), I have a few issues with her post. I'm ok with her main point that students need to seriously consider what they want before they go to grad school. The myths and considerations she brought up are also good to ponder before one heads on to more schooling. The details of the post, on the other hand, I'm not so happy with.

As a future post-academic, the idea that my Ph.D. would hinder me in the job market and that I'm an idiot for getting it rubs me the wrong way. (Yup, I took it personal. It's the blogosphere. I'm allowed to do that.) I legitimately went to grad school because I thought I wanted to be a professor. So, I prefer to think of my time in grad school as an internship and beginning the steps to that career. Then life, in its usual highly inconvenient way, led me to change my goals. I am no different, and no more of an idiot, than anyone else who tried a career and then decided to switch paths, due to changing life circumstances or market conditions.

True, Penelope was referring to humanities Ph.D.'s and mine is in the social sciences. I assure you, people have just as much difficulty finding the practical application of the social sciences outside their field as they do any of the humanities. Many people have not even heard of my field despite its long history. From all I've read about getting post-ac jobs, your prospects depend entirely upon your ability and willingness to sell (or spin) your skills. Yes, you have skills and there are many corollaries between academics and the "real world." Somewhere down the line I'll post about my experience with this but I'm just not to that point in my job search yet.

So, here's what I've learned from post-ac blogs to counteract this propaganda: Your Ph.D. is not worthless. It is not a hindrance. Depending on where you are and where you want to go, getting a post-ac job can be difficult - but so is getting an academic job. Life can be difficult but that's no reason to back down! You can get a job you'll enjoy outside academia. In fact, you have a better variety out here than you do in there. The world is vast beyond the Ivory Tower. You CAN find a career that doesn't make you want to gouge your eyes out with a spork - heck, it can even be downright fulfilling and intellectually rewarding!

So, here's a happy ending for you courtesy of Anthea at The Hour of the Bewilderness: a recent article from Inside Higher Ed about the need to change grad programs and to destigmatize post-ac jobs.