La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to Visit my other website.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

So you want to get a Ph.D.?

At least once a year, some undergraduate or M.S. student comes to me asking where they should apply to study for a Ph.D. And every time, I respond by asking: "Why do you want a Ph.D.?"

For those that tell me they want to become a university or college teacher/professor, I then ask, "What kind of college or university? What kind of professor?" After that, I explain how the academic job market works, and we discuss what types of programs they would want in order to maximize the likelihood that they will be able to get the type of job they want. Then, we discuss their particular research interests, and I recommend programs that they should investigate further. Roughly 20-25% of the students in my office fall into this category.

The rest usually give me one of the following responses to the first question (Why a PhD?):
"I like politics."

"I like school and am good at it."

"I am or want to be an intellectual."

"I am smart and [therefore] should get a Ph.D."

"I just want one." Or,

"I like reading interesting books and contemplating important issues."

[These reasons are not unlike those offered by future English Ph.D. students, though the job outlook for them is even more bleak. (Via.)]

For these students, I pass along something one of my undergraduate advisors told me when he learned I had been accepted to graduate school: a Ph.D. is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end, much like a union card necessary to get a particular job.

I point out that intellectual curiosity is not likely to sustain anyone through those dark nights sitting in front of a blank computer screen, and if at some point, you realize you can get the job you want without a Ph.D., you're likely to give up the Ph.D. because it's just so much work.

Then, I go on to explain how the job market works, how you have little to no choice over where you live for your first job(s), how important it is to go to a "top" program, and how hard you have to work to get tenure (no matter where you land in your first job--it's hard to get tenure everywhere, the expectations are just distributed differently). In essence, I do everything possible to disabuse them of the notion that being a faculty member is glamorous.

So that's the first half of the "So you [think you] want to get a Ph.D.?" talk.

At some point, I'll post the second half of the talk (about the job market, assistantships and why if you aren't offered one anywhere, you probably shouldn't be trying to get a Ph.D., and other of my personal opinions). It's a bit of tough love, but I hope it helps some of my students. If it scares them from getting a Ph.D., they probably didn't really want one anyway, and if they go on to a Ph.D. program, at least they are doing so with their eyes wide open.

And then, when I get random queries about grad school, I can just point them to my posts first. It will save us both time.

posted by Michelle @ 1:25 PM,


At 7/19/2006 3:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are so right. I am entering my second year in a Ph.D. program and already some of my classmates left because it's not what they expected, it's not like college.

It's good that you advise them well, that speaks good of you as a mentor.

At 7/19/2006 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michelle, hange in there! I really enjoyed your thoughts on students' compemplating and working toward a Ph.D.

I remember well from my grad student days that when I would tell my fellow students that I had no intention of studying for a doctorate, they would size me up as 'terminal' (with all their floating angst in that signifier, 'terminal'). It was as if I had a bad disease. LOL

No, I don't regret for one minute not going for the Ph.D--especially as I developed a critique of the institution of academia and recognized all the dishonorable politics and hypocrisy. But that is true of all social hierarchies, be it a corporation or any organization.

Having said that, there were a few professors that had a marked influence on my life, and are incredible people. That god for those precious few that support students as decent fellow humans and who stive not to perpetuate the vile psychic violence that is so much a part of our society.

Hey, best toward you for completing the BS part of the program! You have earned your right to desublimate in whatever fashion you choose once this is complete.

At 7/19/2006 11:33 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Mariana, you're right...grad school is nothing like college: it's qualitatively and quantitatively different. But that's another speech I give first semester grad students in my stats class, and worthy of a separate post.

Salvador, Ph.D.s certainly aren't worth the work unless you want to be a professor b/c there are very few jobs otherwise that require them. Why would anyone wast several years of their life (not to mention loans, the patience of their loved ones, etc.) getting a piece of paper if it's not necessary for their calling? I certainly wouldn't have.

At 7/20/2006 1:48 PM, Blogger Memphis Chix said...

a Ph.D. is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end, much like a union card necessary to get a particular job.
I believe the same can be said for a Master's in most fields, only many people don't realize it until they have another $40k in student loans under their belt, still unable to find satisfying employment.

At 7/20/2006 1:56 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

What you say about a MA/MS may be true, but at least those are easier to finish because after one semester, you're usually close to halfway there.

The unfortunate truth about many terminal MA programs (like ours at GT) is that most students are unfunded or receive *very little* in funding. The cost is usually almost entirely borne by the student.

At 7/21/2006 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michelle said "The unfortunate truth about many terminal MA programs (like ours at GT) is that most students are unfunded or receive *very little* in funding. The cost is usually almost entirely borne by the student."

Geez, you hit it on the head. 'Star students' can receive ample funding, grants, etc.---but many student have to put themeselves in hock to obtain a higher-level degree. Especially when one isn't persuing an advanced degree for the sole purpose of getting more money (off the bat), then the financial pressures whilst studing for an advanced degree are daunting.

But, for me the experience was well worth it. The time I took to engage the social sciences, arts, philosophy, etc. have helped me in an incredible way toward developing my business--geared toward innovative practices and social responsbility. Being able to 'think' the world goes far toward contributing to its betterment. I am remain very enthused about the importance of a well-rounded education.

Suffice it to say that 'wisdom' and academic smarts/creditials do not always meet in the 'real world'. But surrendering to cynicism and parasitical/pathological behavior is not an option.

The world needs decent people as academics, especially in the face of the 'market forces' (aka 'the hand of God) that diminish collective humankind. So, Michelle, though it might sound like a syrup-drenched cliche--strive to be a light that enlightens and inspires, no matter how much bs politics you have to endure. And remember, what you know--compared with ALL ThAT IS--ain't shit. If you follow these general guidelines, and you get tenure LOL, you just might not commit suicide or end up on skid row (not that there is any thing wrong with skid row, mind you).

At 7/22/2006 1:35 AM, Blogger cindylu said...

Heh. I wish someone would have given me that talk. I got admitted to a program, enrolled and two years later am seriously thinking of leaving.


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