Changing Gears in a Difficult Job Market

Editor’s Note: There are so many stories about the difficult academic job market that it’s easy to forget some people do occasionally get jobs. Every once in a while, a tenure-track job is awarded to a lucky candidate, but more often than not, getting a full-time job in academe requires a shift in focus toward what is now commonly referred to as an alternate academic, or alt-ac, career. Sometimes this shift is only a slight pivot, but it can also mean going back to school and earning a new degree.

Brian Flota’s “alt-ac narrative” falls into the second category. The English literature tenure-track market just wasn’t working for him, so he reinvented himself by returning to school and becoming an academic librarian. His story is a good example of how to take a bad situation and change it into a better one. Following is Brian’s alt-ac story that grew out of a discussion between he and Joe Fruscione. Maybe it will help others who are thinking about shifting gears while on the job market.

Going Back to School

In 2006, I graduated with a Ph.D. in English, and the Great Recession happened. Five years later, I’d had nine interviews and zero job offers.

I sat back and watched peers with virtually no publication history from more prestigious universities get tenure-track positions. After a few years on the market while teaching as an adjunct, I was “damaged goods.” There’s that perception that if one does not have a tenure-track job five years out from the Ph.D., the “dream” is probably not going to come true. Getting fewer nibbles on the job market year after year became demoralizing. Realizing this, I began to seriously entertain other career options. Given my research background and some experience working in libraries, I started thinking about getting a Master’s in Library and Information Science (LIS).

This seemed like a great option, although the library job market is just as fraught with peril as the tenure-track English one is. I applied to the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was accepted, but decided to defer my enrollment into GSLIS for one year so I could test the English Lit job market one last time.

That last year, I only had one job interview. Two months passed without hearing back, and I realized my goose was cooked. I was no longer wanted in the profession I had devoted the last dozen years of my life to. I declined an offer to adjunct again the following year and, with a mixture of relief and terror, went all-in for library school.

Switching careers gave me the opportunity to pay attention to the things I overlooked the first time I was in graduate school. When I started the Ph.D. program in 1999, I was a young, idealistic student who wanted to soak up as much great literature, theory, and research as I could. Getting a job wasn’t a primary concern, even though I was a first-generation college student from a middle-class background. I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunities to professionalize that I should have, and I’m confident these oversights hurt me on the job market.

I was determined to do things differently the second time around. In fact, in a now-infamous 2012 article published by Forbes, the LIS degree was rated the “No. 1 Worst Master’s Degree for Jobs.” I learned along the way that having a degree from a top-tier school made a huge difference. As a result, I chose to attend UIUC, the school with the top-ranked library program in the country. I began my new life by immediately relocating to Champaign in order to take advantage of the school’s knowledgeable librarians and numerous libraries.

While I waited for classes to begin, I took every volunteer gig I could, and one of them eventually became a graduate assistantship. Before my first class at GSLIS, I met with six librarians to introduce myself and share with them my goals and ambitions. One of those informational interviews led to a second assistantship at UIUC’s Literatures and Languages library.

Once coursework began, I took courses that covered a wide swath of specializations within librarianship, such as reference, cataloging and metadata, databases, displays and exhibits, archives, special collections, and administration. One of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of a PhD is specialization. With this second degree, I wanted to avoid the specialization of my PhD program, so that my marketability wasn’t confined to a very small segment of the profession.

Throughout the two-year process, I was often seized by doubt. I asked myself: “Have I made the right decision?” “Is this worth it?” “Will it work out?” “Am I a failure?” Much of this can be traced back to the amount of loan debt I acquired. I also asked myself, “Will I be able to get a job that will allow me to make my loan payments?”

Once it was time to go on the market, I overcame my self-doubt and applied to 50 jobs, ultimately securing seven phone interviews. This was great compared to my previous job market experiences.

After a dodgy first interview, I got much better. But still no luck landing a job. I was competing with much younger, more tech-savvy applicants. Undaunted, I solicited advice from recent hires and asked them how I should approach the interviewing process.

With the sixth attempt, I netted my first campus visit, which resulted in finally getting a tenure-track position: Library Liaison to the English Department at James Madison University at the rank of Assistant Professor.

Brian Flota is a tenure-track Library Liaison to the English Department at James Madison University.

MLA Steps Up Higher Ed Change Advocacy With New Report

The Modern Language Association has a new report out today that contains recommendations on the future of graduate study in the humanities. The 40-page report is the result of a study conducted by a specially-convened MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Language and Literature.

The study was underwritten by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Lots of good recommendations. Some I agree with, some I don’t. Either way, I’m glad to see the MLA getting more involved in advocacy for change in higher ed. Having been a part of the presidential address in 2013, I can say with certainty that MLA executives and leaders do want to help; it’s just a matter of knowing how to best use their resources and influence. This new task force and its findings are a good step in the right direction.

MLA Task Force Report

The report summary boils down to these main bullet points:

  • Redesign the doctoral program.
  • Engage more deeply with technology.
  • Reimagine the dissertation.
  • Reduce time to degree.
  • Strengthen teaching preparation.
  • Expand professionalization opportunities.
  • Use the whole university community.
  • Redefine the roles of faculty advisers.
  • Validate diverse career outcomes.
  • Rethink admissions practices.

Check out the executive summary of the report for a more detailed explanation of each of these recommendations.

More coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

Stripper With a PhD

“The first time I ever stepped into a strip club, I was 18. I walked into the VIP section where dozens of men were getting lap dances and I thought, ‘This shit is like Caligula.’”

It was 1998 when “Claire” had her first taste of stripping–the career that would call her back throughout her life, even as she pursued and eventually obtained her Ph.D. in English Literature. Now Claire is in her early thirties and she still dances at a joint near where she lives in the southeastern U.S–the same region where she earned her Ph.D.*

“I’ve been in this field so long that it’s in my veins. I feel at home in a strip club. Totally comfortable,” Claire reports confidently.

Stripper With a PhD

It’s a performance, of course. Sure, some strip club-goers are relatively innocent. Just looking for some evening entertainment and a little female attention, however feigned. But most men who step through those blacked-out doors into the swirling neon lights have one thing in mind, and it doesn’t involve innocence.

The goal is to make him think she wants him, to make him think he’s the only one in the whole club that she wants to take to the couches. That’s where the real money is.

But, of course, he’s not the only one in the club. If he turns down her offer of a lap dance, she’ll just move on to the next guy. The next only guy in the club. They all want her to pick them out from the crowd and make them feel special. And she wants them to buy what she’s offering.

A room full of willing participants. A captive audience. And her task is to engage them all. To hold the attention of every single person in the room while simultaneously making each one feel special, like she’s talking directly to him.

This challenge will sound familiar to anyone who has worked as a teacher. Teaching is also a performance. Claire’s strip club description fits the classroom experience well. In fact, her very words could describe any veteran teacher’s career.

“I’ve been in this field so long that it’s in my veins. I feel at home in a classroom. Totally comfortable.”

Teachers are continually challenged to come up with new ways to reach their students, to convince them to buy what they’re offering. Teaching and stripping are similar careers, not counting the nudity and the lap dances. Some teachers are better at the dance than others. The good teachers are drawn to the profession. They have a tendency to stay with the job no matter how little it reciprocates that sacrifice. Some teachers know from the very beginning they’ve found their niche. Claire knew pretty quickly that she had found hers as a dancer–long before she returned to school for her doctorate.

“I’ve always had a way with men,” she explains. “I come from a family of southern beauty queens to whom beauty and charm are of utmost importance—and I mastered my feminine wiles at a precocious age.”

She’s candid about her past and about her talent. She knows her confidence is not exactly politically correct, but she’s not afraid to be honest about her thoughts on a successful career.

“I realize it is perhaps not socially acceptable to claim, ‘Hey, dudes like me,’ but they do, they always have, and I knew I could make money off of that.”

Sometimes the secret to success is simply recognizing your strengths and exploiting them. Other times you conduct field research and learn best practices. Claire goes on to relate some of the secrets she’s learned from her years on stage. Like how she gleans a customer’s name immediately upon approaching him, and then repeats his name as often as possible during their brief conversation. “Works like magic for emptying wallets,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve mastered the tricks necessary for convincing men to want me.”

In her 20s, Claire was confident that her life plan would involve a Ph.D. and a professorship. But as the reality of the academic job market began to loom large, she started thinking of creative alternatives. During graduate school, she had stepped away from the clubs for almost six years. The problem–as any grad student knows–was that the assistantship stipend just wasn’t financially feasible.

So, deciding to return to the club and ultimately to launch her own pole dancing business was easy. At the time, she was making a “fabulous $16,000 a year as an exploited graduate assistant,” which wasn’t cutting it. Bills had to be paid. Claire has a three-year-old child and her husband works a 9-5 job. She wanted to avoid an all-day daycare, so a night job was essential. “I needed to make adult money to afford our house. Stripping was the easiest and quickest solution.”

Academic Background

When Claire walked back into the strip club after a six-year hiatus, she was in the process of polishing up her dissertation for her Ph.D. in English. Her topic?

“Literary bad girls,” Claire explains, pointing out the irony of her chosen subject matter. I tried to push her for more detail, but she demurred on the grounds that the women she wrote about are too obscure to list without giving away her identity.

The concept of irony comes up a lot in Claire’s life. She’s quite aware of the seemingly paradoxical relationship between her status as an academic feminist and her chosen profession in which she performs for the pleasure of the mostly male gaze.

Claire makes clear to any “feminist detractors” that she herself is a feminist, and that she can easily reconcile the two disparate identities.

“Please do not judge me as a victimized sex-object who doesn’t know any better—especially if you have never worked in the sex trade,” she says.  “I am empowered in this position and if you don’t believe me, please see my paid-off credit card bill.”

She acknowledges the fact that some will judge her anyway. She knows that having a Ph.D. and being a stripper will always result in pity or outright criticism by some who will think she has failed her training. But Claire doesn’t feel like a failure.

“I feel empowered—not just in my ability to rake in benjis–but moreover in my bold decision to eschew a national job search in favor of pragmatically providing for the life I actually want. Indeed, I felt like I would be living a less meaningful, more wasted life if I forced myself into the academic path that I now regard as unduly stressful and all-consuming.”

Claire takes her position on feminism within the sex industry a step further even.

“It is taboo to admit, but I enjoy working in strip clubs,” she explains. “I like the glamour, smoking cigarettes and talking to strangers, dancing all night, a constant flood of compliments—and tons of money.”

To Claire, working in the strip club is empowering in ways that grinding through life in the academy couldn’t possibly be. She asks, “Would it be more ‘respectable,’ more socially-acceptable, for me to adjunct my ass off all across this state for peanuts and grey hairs?”

Her point is not lost on this adjunct.

Each year, more and more Ph.D.-holders end up on the dead-end adjunct professor track. The American Association of University Professors puts the number of comfortably-employed college professors as low as 30%. The other three-fourths of the profession is filled with contingent workers who have no contracts or retirement, and who earn a fraction of the tenure-track professor salary. It’s not hard to imagine why someone would decide to leave that life behind in favor of a more lucrative and exciting career–especially if she is supporting a family.

On the Overlap of Stripping and the Academy

Oddly enough, Claire argues that this transition from academic to stripper is much easier than one might think.

“My academic training helps me recognize the systems of power operating at the strip club, and that training informs my hustling strategies,” she explains. “This academic training mixes interestingly with a lifetime of experience manipulating men to get the things I want.”

According to Claire, the “bad girls” of her research complement her behavior at the club. Thousands of hours in classrooms and meeting with advisors taught her how to read an audience and to give them what they want. Crucial to both professions is audience awareness, and Claire is a master of it. The only question is through which medium she will practice her skill and training. For her, the decision was pretty simple. “I decided I would no longer give away anything for free.”

So, she took her academic training and left the profession in order to use it in a place that more appropriately compensated her for her skills. And speaking of compensation . . .

Claire tells me that the money is the best thing about stripping. “That kind of money is life-changing,” she says. Based on the numbers she gave, I would agree.

“At the height of my career, I made as much as $8,000 -$10,000 a month. That’s $500+ a night on a regular basis. Working three nights a week, I can usually count on $1200 – $1500 a week. On a weeknight, I’m stressed out if I make anything less than $300. On a weekend, I expect anything from $400 – $1000 a night.”

To give you an idea just how life-changing this income could be, consider the average pay an adjunct professor receives for teaching a course in freshman writing. According to the Adjunct Project, a self-reported database of adjunct wages that’s hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the average adjunct pay per course is about $2,700.

An adjunct teaching a full-time course load of 10 classes each year would earn an annual salary of $27,000. Claire can make more than that in just three months. I’d say that’s life-changing.

Then there’s the free time factor that also sweetens the deal for Claire. As a stripper, she earns this kind of money while only working 24 hours a week. The financial reasons to abandon academe for the club are obvious–the earning potential doesn’t even compare. But, for Claire, the decision to leave was more than just a financial one.

Deciding to Leave

During her last year of dissertation work, Claire faced the decision all Ph.D. candidates must eventually ask themselves. Am I willing to leave behind my life and move to a small town in the middle of nowhere for a job at an obscure college in order to get that coveted tenure-track teaching position?

This is a reality everyone comes to terms with while on the academic job market. The chances of getting a job in a city one actually wants to live are slim. Can you live in small town Alaska/North Dakota/Kansas? Is a low-paying tenure-track, teaching-intensive position even worth the geographic sacrifice? For Claire, the situation was even more complicated by the fact that she had a young child and a husband with an established career. Could she ask them to give up their own lives so she could fulfill her dream?

She could not. She entered the local job market only, applying for every teaching position in her immediate vicinity and she forsook the national job search for the sake of her family.

“I asked myself, ‘What do you value? What do you love? What is important to you?’”

Once she thought about it, the decision became clear. As Claire puts it, “There were things in my life I valued more than analyzing books, teaching freshman composition, and engaging in an intellectual circle jerk through esoteric publications that only a few privileged folks read.”

Being a professional academic requires huge sacrifices. Minimum-wage grad school jobs, cross-country moves, uprooted families, seven-day work weeks. Claire knew she wouldn’t be happy with that life.

“What was I willing to sacrifice in order to be a professional academic?” she asks, and then answers her own question: “Not much, it turns out.”

The local job search didn’t pan out. As it happens, this wasn’t a big deal for Claire because she was quickly becoming disillusioned with the academy anyway. Her final few years of graduate school had exposed her to some of the pettiness and hypocrisy that academe usually hides from the outside world, and she was questioning whether she even wanted to enter the profession if she could.

Claire now views the academy with cynicism. To her, it’s a place “where a small group of elite people give lip-service to eliminating classism, sexism, and racism, yet this lip-service is written in jargon so intimidating that it is accessible only to those elite.” So much for the “proletarian philosophy of equality,” Claire chides.

“How do academics affect the world?” she continues. “How are academics change agents? Are we hoping for some kind of trickle-down intellectualism where our students receive a bit of our wisdom and go about disseminating it among the plebes?”

It doesn’t take much prodding to get Claire to share her thoughts on academe. She seems eager to let go of some brooding criticisms that were stifled during her graduate training.

“I don’t like most academics,” Claire writes in an email to me. I get the impression she’s only half-joking.

As you might expect from someone who dances for a living, Claire finds the academy too staid and boring. She is careful to point out that she’s grateful for the education and intellectual growth her PhD provided, but to Claire, the academy just isn’t “hip enough.” Probably not the first time that accusation has been leveled at the institution.

The academy didn’t have what Claire wanted, and vice versa apparently, so they’re taking a break from each other. For now.

Making Sacrifices

Estrangement from academia like Claire’s is becoming more and more common these days. As the adjunct labor crisis deepens, would-be academics are jumping ship in favor of careers with more stability and better incomes. Like Claire, these grad students and early career professionals are disillusioned with an academic labor system that appears to be hypocritical. The false promises of eventual jobs in exchange for a decade of meager assistantship stipends are wearing thin for many.

As a result, some ex-academics and higher education experts have begun to call for a reality check in graduate school acceptance and placement rates. Some, like Karen Kelsky a former tenured professor and department chair who runs The Professor Is In, offer frank advice to those attempting to make informed decisions about academic careers.

In January 2014, Kelsky created a Google Doc that crowdsourced information about Ph.D. debt. A quick scan through the document reveals many Ph.D.-holders with six-figure debt balances and no job to show for their financial sacrifices. One column asks respondents how they plan to pay back the debt. More than a few simply state, “I have no idea.”

In light of the information this document provides, it’s not hard to imagine why some Ph.D. candidates abandon the career track before even finishing the degree, let alone after a few unsuccessful years on the job market.

As one who successfully walked away from her academic destiny and repurposed her Ph.D. in a very unorthodox way, Claire also has some thoughts for those contemplating a life in the academy.

“If you’re only pursuing an academic career because it is what you are most trained and qualified for—if you see academia as just your job—then it is not worth following to the ends of the earth,” she cautions.

Claire’s advice to other academics who are caught up in the passion of their work rings true. Moreso than others, academics have a tendency to fall into the do-what-you-love trap. As a result, they get stuck in a mindset that will perpetually imprison them, thinking they’re doing something wrong if they don’t love every minute of their jobs.

Not only does this mentality perpetuate unhappiness and discontentment in higher education, but it also facilitates rampant exploitation of the workers who ascribe to this mindset. It’s easy to use propaganda to justify low pay when one is sacrificing for the sake of passion. Teachers, in particular, are prone to this kind of economic oppression due to the political rhetoric of “self-sacrificing” professions. Claire’s self-empowering revelation was that she could decouple her career from her passion.

“Your job does not have to be your passion. You can just have a regular old job that pays decently and you can fulfill your passion in other areas of your life,” she points out.

Intersection of Two Lives

When it comes to those other areas of Claire’s life, she likes to be a bit more careful than most about keeping them separate from her career. She has a family and a different life outside of the club. The two worlds almost never mix. She explains that “no one in my academic life, outside of my most trusted friends, know about the stripping.” Claire is very aware of the judgment she could face from the academy if anyone were to find out about her second life.

She tells me that former advisors and colleagues would likely see her decision to leave the academy as a failure–especially in light of the job she now holds and its perception as being antithetical to the principles under which she trained in her doctoral program. But, if you haven’t gathered by now, Claire doesn’t back down from a challenge. She fires right back that she’s “suspicious of any framework that disallows female sexual expression as somehow socially irresponsible.” The feminist training fails her not.

Claire is savvy, though. She realizes her background can work to her advantage in the club with the right kind of client. She isn’t afraid to put the degree to use when she sees an opportunity.

“My strip club caters to a very high class clientele, and I use the PhD shtick all the time when I sense the customer might like it. These men are often millionaires and are interested in a woman with some culture. With these men, I will usually talk Faulkner topless for $600/hour.”

The Sound and the Fury will never be the same.

Planning for the Future

Claire’s wish to maintain her anonymity is rooted in her desire to keep her two lives separate for the sake of both her family and her sanity. But she also has another reason. A small thought in the back of her mind tugs at her, calling her to one day return to the world she left behind. Despite her open disparagement of the system that pushed her out, she admits a desire to stay connected to it. To a certain extent, once an academic always an academic. The hunger for deep intellectual engagement never goes away entirely, and Claire tells me she still holds out hope for a low-key academic job in her city.

If something good came along, she would take it. Hence, her need to remain anonymous about her current lifestyle. She states her apprehension more bluntly: “Who wants to hire a slut? I cannot come out of the closet.”

In the meantime, Claire is pretty content with her life. The stripping pays well for now.

“I’m a pragmatist. I just want enough money to live in my modest home and not freak out about bills. Enough money to go on a family vacation every now and again. A job that I could leave at the end of the day. A job that wouldn’t consume every other aspect of my life. A job that wouldn’t become my whole identity.”

Claire is an “alternative academic” in the truest sense of the phrase. She is an academic who has found a nontraditional medium in which to practice her knowledge in a way that provides for herself and her family. She may have left behind the university, but she hasn’t left behind her training and experience. She continues to use her writing and theoretical background whenever possible. In fact, Claire has begun chronicling her exit from academia anonymously at her blog, Doctor Outta Here, where she discusses her reasons for leaving and her current life post-Ph.D. Though she feels the judgmental eyes of the academy, she is not ashamed of her career and her life decisions.

“Yes, I am a stripper with a Ph.D. I own that, and I’m proud of it,” she writes in an email. “I think it’s a neat thing to be. Complex, contradictory, different.”

 

*This piece is the long version of an interview with Claire that was first published at The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae.

What is a Flexible Academic?

I’ve never been quite satisfied with the labels #altac and #postac. It seems like they don’t do justice to the people they describe. Sarah Kendzior once pointed out on Twitter that these terms define a person based on what he is not, rather than on what he is. In order to be an alternate academic or a post-academic, you have to not be a normal academic. The names suggest that the alternative categories are less important than the category from which they are derived.

Ever since I saw Kendzior’s tweet, that hierarchical naming structure has stuck with me. I’ve wished for a new way to describe academics who choose to pursue other career tracks beyond the professorship or even beyond the academy itself. Besides, it’s kind of annoying to have to include both hashtags in a tweet when they refer to the same general group of people.

In a recent altac and postac piece for Vitae I begrudgingly used those terms. I only did it because I didn’t have a better way of referring to these non-traditional academics (non-traditional academic just doesn’t have the same ring to it).

When my editor at Vitae mentioned they were trying to create a group for altac and postac discussions, I was glad to hear about a new gathering place for the conversations that had been happening randomly around the web. But I wondered what the group would be called. My editor commissioned me to come up with a new name.

Over the past month or so, I have rejected dozens of possible names. I wanted to avoid the trap that Sarah Kendzior pointed out. The name had to create a new category that wasn’t defined in opposition to another group. The name also had to make sense and be easy to use. It had to encompass academics who work both within the academy and without it, and it had to be empowering.

After a few weeks, the name finally hit me: Flexible Academics. A flexible academic is someone who views her career with an open-mind, who keeps her options available as she goes through graduate school, who wants to learn about the wide variety of jobs she qualifies for other than just professor.

Flexible

Is your career flexible?

The new group just launched today at Vitae. It’s going to be a place to ask questions, share resources, and meet other like-minded people. From a design standpoint, the group is still in development. Soon, it will look much different and contain more options. If you’re into this kind of thing, you should go ahead and join the group so we can get this discussion rolling. As I’ve said before, I’m just learning about flexible academic careers, but I like what I’m seeing. Anything that provides an alternative to adjunct hell is worth checking into.

I’m looking forward to meeting new people and sharing resources as we continue to define this category.

Join me in the Flexible Academics group here.

Debt for Master of Arts Degree Increases by Double the National Average

What on earth could possess a person to borrow $43,000 for a Master of Arts degree? There is no possible way that could be a good idea. Financially speaking, an MA is worth little, if anything, more than a bachelor’s degree. Borrowing $43,000 for a Master of Arts degree is insane.

This $43,000 figure comes from a piece by Jordan Weissmann over at Slate in which he breaks down recent findings from the New America Foundation on the student loan borrowing habits of graduate students. Weissmann’s piece is accompanied by some nifty graphics that illustrate graduate student borrowing trends and percentages of federal student loan disbursements.

My favorite graphic from the piece, entitled “How Much Do Students Borrow During Grad School?,” compares average grad student loan borrowing rates in 2004 to average grad student loan borrowing rates in 2012.

Not surprisingly, those borrowing rates have increased across the board for all graduate programs. That makes sense. Tuition prices have also increased dramatically in those eight years. Seems fairly innocuous until I figured out the percentages of increase for each of those programs.

By comparing borrowing rates across programs for the past eight years, I found an interesting new statistic about different graduate students’ willingness to borrow. The percentages of increase tell another–even more amazing–story for those of us in the humanities.

Percentage Increase of Grad Student Borrowing by Program (2004-2012)

As you can see from the chart, graduate students pursuing a Master of Arts degree raised their debt load by far more than students from any other graduate program.*

[pq]Master of Arts students increased their willingness to assume debt by double the average for all other programs.[/pq]: 35% versus the average of 17.9%. Hard to believe, considering these degrees notoriously leave graduates with no defined career track and often require additional school or training before leading to jobs.

And students pursuing the graduate degrees that actually lead to gainful employment post-graduation increased their borrowing rates by the lowest percentages. Business administration students and Master of Science students both kept their increase under 10%.

Why are MA students now so much more likely to assume crazy amounts of debt in order to obtain their degrees? Who knows. I can only speak from my own experience as a holder of one of those MAs in English.

I borrowed $19,000 in student loans and another $8000 on a credit card to get my master’s degree. It was an incredibly stupid idea. I could have easily cash-flowed my degree if I had just gone a bit slower and been less willing to take on debt.

Part of the problem was a kind of naive idealism with which I and many of my fellow humanists are plagued. We have a tendency to ignore red flags and hope for the best. I managed to convince myself that my new degree would lead to a steady job after graduation and that I could pay my debt back in no time.

Three years later, I still haven’t found that steady job, whatever that means. I have managed to piece together an income from many different places, and I’ve gotten my debt down to $12,000 from the $27,000 I started with after graduation. Still a long way to go. If I had known how much it would suck to have this debt hanging over me (and how much interest I would pay), I would never have borrowed the money.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to start with the average Master of Arts student’s debt load of $43,000. It would be crippling. Especially for graduates with no career prospects other than adjuncting.

A student who begins with that much debt will pay $16,381 in interest over the life of the loan. That master’s degree will end up costing $59,381 when it’s all said and done. It damn well better be worth it, but it almost certainly isn’t.

Be smart people. Say no to dumb debt.

__________________________________

*With the exception of law, which is not represented here.

See Also: English Professors Are Among the Lowest Paid Professors

Avoid Confirmation Bias When Considering Grad School

Current grad students should ask prospective grad students if they are aware of the job market conditions.

That’s one of the key bits of advice in Kelly Hanson’s GradHacker article yesterday. In the piece, Hanson also gives four other solid suggestions for how current and former graduate students can be tactfully honest about the realities of grad school and the academic job market when talking to prospective graduate students.

Don't go to grad school advice

Hanson happens to oppose the blanket “Just Don’t Go” advice that has been previously offered by William Pannapacker and Rebecca Schuman. Personally, I come down on the side of Pannapacker and Schuman much more readily. I see too many reasons these days why earning an advanced degree might not be the best use of time and money.

But Hanson disagrees, arguing that she’s “not going to take the extreme ‘just don’t go’  route.” She even pushes her dismissal a step further, citing Tressie McMillan Cottom’s rebuttal to this position. Hanson writes:

“That is not what this post is about. And frankly, I don’t think that is useful advice—as some have pointed out, the advice to ‘just don’t go’ to graduate school assumes that there are better options available, which just simply isn’t the case for everyone.”

I get Hanson’s argument, but I just want to add a caveat. One shouldn’t use dismissals of this anti-grad school advice as an excuse to go to grad school. It’s still a hugely important decision with a very questionable return on investment.

Confirmation Bias Obscures Reality

When we really want something to be true, it’s easy to “prove” it by ignoring any information that contradicts it and by embracing any information that confirms it.

Known to economists as confirmation bias, this fallacy occurs when 1) we have a preconception, 2) we want it to be true, and 3) we seek out and favor information that confirms our hypothesis.

For example: 1) I want grad school to be a good idea, 2) I find advice on the internet that says grad school is a good idea, and 3) grad school is a good idea. Hooray.

Of course, I’m aware that confirmation bias can also go the other way in this scenario, which is something I personally need to be diligent about. I have a tendency to automatically advise against graduate school, an equally unproductive stance that is not always wise.

I have a couple of heavily-trafficked posts on this website about earning a master’s degree in English. Often commenters relay their circumstances to me and ask my advice. I have to be careful not to respond with “Run Away!”

So, it’s good for me to read articles like Hanson’s occasionally in order to be reminded of my own confirmation biases. Better yet would be for me and others to read accounts of successful grad school stories. There aren’t many in the news these days. I suspect there’s a reason for that, but I’m sure there are at least a few out there.

Do you have one?

Escape From Academia

I’ve read a bunch of stories lately about people leaving academe. Vitae even started compiling a Google Doc full of quitter narratives and created a special genre that Sydni Dunn dubbed #quitlit. The document has 69 stories and counting.

I’m not surprised how many people are leaving the once-heralded halls of the academy–especially given the way all the good academic jobs are drying up and being converted to low-paying contingent positions.

I guess it is interesting how many people are especially vocal about their decision to flee the academic life. Usually quitting a job is not necessarily something to proclaim from the roof tops. You just kind of quit quietly and move on.

It suggests to me that people are especially bitter and pissed off about their circumstances in the world of higher education. Any job that causes you to do a happy dance after quitting must suck pretty bad.

escape from academia

Part of the post-quitter elation seems to come from finally releasing the hold gained by many years of academia’s burrowing into one’s mental and psychological health. It’s hard to give it up once you’ve invested so much. After investing a decade or more in earning a degree and training to use it, academics become especially adept at ignoring the sunk cost fallacy.

A form of cognitive dissonance I suppose. As long as I can convince myself that what I’m doing is worth it, then it must be so. Nevermind the interminable “apprenticeship” of adjuncthood or the low pay and self-sacrifice.

And that doesn’t even address the opportunity cost associated with an unsatisfying academic career. What might you be doing if you weren’t sticking it out in the academy? Could you be working a more fulfilling career? A better paying one? Might you have more free time?

It’s easy to forget about these opportunity costs when one is pursuing a goal with the monomaniacal tenacity of Ahab.

At what point must we own up to the sunk costs and simply walk away? All that time spent in grad school, all those years teaching as an adjunct, all those rewritten chapters of your dissertation? They’re already done and gone. They’re in the past and they can’t be gotten back. So why allow them to continue to derail your future plans?

Best to just leave the past where it is and move on to the future.

Anne Helen Peterson just did. I’m drawn to Peterson’s story*, which I read today in The Hairpin, because she’s achieved exactly what I’m trying to achieve. An escape from academia in favor of a career as a writer.

After earning a PhD, Peterson started writing on the side and gradually built up an online presence. In the process, she learned how to adapt her esoteric academic prose to the reading style of a pop culture audience. It worked and now she’s heading to Buzzfeed full-time. Lucky her.

Apparently, Peterson was as excited as the other #quitlitters to get the hell out of the academy. You can tell from the opening question of the interview.

After confirming her new position, interview and interviewee apparently shared a moment of exuberance because “eight minutes of screaming” had to be redacted from the interview transcript. Ha. An exaggeration no doubt, but you get the picture.

Getting away from a job for which you are “not a good fit” (as Peterson eloquently puts it) is a great feeling. Finding a job for which you are a good fit is even better.

The sooner I can join the quitlit ranks and embark on my escape from academia, the better. I always enjoy reading stories like Peterson’s because they give me confidence that it can be done.

*Thanks to Jacqui Shine for tipping me on Peterson’s escape from academia.

More PhDs, Fewer Jobs

Obtaining a tenure-track professorship has always been the ultimate goal of a Ph.D. program. In the past, that made sense. But now, not so much.

There was a time not long ago when being a college professor was a good job that paid well and offered a reasonable level of security. During that golden era of the university, grad programs started flooding with students hoping to land that dream job. And for about 40 years, everything worked just fine. Lots of students, lots of professors, lots of jobs.

Not surprisingly, the growth of Ph.D. degrees awarded in America corresponded directly with the post-WWII expansion of higher education. The chart below illustrates the rapid increase in the number of doctoral degrees awarded over the past several decades.

As the chart reflects, from 1950 to 2006, the number of Ph.D.s awarded each decade increased dramatically.

So did the number of students enrolled in American universities.

Between 1970 and 2009, the total number of students enrolled in college grew steadily from about 7.5 million to 17.5 million. Two years later, in 2011, that number had jumped to 20.6 million.

The past two years have both seen a slight decline in total enrollment (19.9 million in 2013), but the drop is not nearly enough to dramatically affect professor hiring practices nationally.

Therefore, it makes sense that colleges would need to increase the number of professors in order to meet their staffing needs as they responded to the growing student population. More students, more professors, more jobs, right? Not so fast.

Here’s the problem. Not all professor jobs are created equally.

The number of students enrolled in college has not waned, but the number of full-time teaching appointments has. Approximately the same number of teachers are needed, but those teaching positions are increasingly filled with low-paid, part-time contingent laborers rather than the tenure-track professors of decades past. More students, more Ph.D.s, fewer jobs.

The result of this growing supply and shrinking demand is a surplus labor problem that is facilitating the exploitation of these highly-skilled workers.

Graduate programs really only have two reasonable responses to this labor surplus and shift in hiring practices.

1) Stop accepting and graduating so many Ph.D.s.

But, as the Ph.D. chart above reveals, graduate programs have not yet begun to taper their acceptance rates. Shrinking the size of their programs would be one way to address the surplus labor problem.

2) Start training Ph.D.s for careers other than university professor.

Creating career tracks outside of the academy would diffuse the labor market and release the hiring bottleneck, thereby alleviating the downward pressure on wages.

Fewer candidates in the hiring pool would restore some leverage to applicants and, presumably, raise wages or at least incentivize colleges to reinstate full-time positions.

The American Historical Association (AHA) announced today that a $1.6 million dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation would be used to broaden career paths for Ph.D.s. Definitely a step in the right direction.

If new career paths can be created, the “problem” of the Ph.D. surplus will be solved. As AHA Executive Director James R. Grossman says, the problem is not so much overproduction as it is underutilization.

 

Reinventing Graduate Education

If the Ph.D. is an endangered species, what will happen to graduate studies over the course of the next two decades?

Earning a terminal degree does not accomplish the same professional goals that it used to accomplish. Thousands of Ph.D. holders graduate from American universities each year and only a small minority of them will obtain one of those coveted tenure track teaching positions.

Ph.D. Policy Shift

Earning a doctorate is, of course, much different from earning a bachelor’s degree. Ph.D holders could have easily invested ten years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in their education. And that doesn’t even factor in the opportunity cost associated with the degree.

This opportunity cost results from the money lost because these Ph.D. students were not doing other things while in graduate school. Other things like working at a regular job and earning a regular salary.

So, when accounting for the financial impact of earning a Ph.D., one must consider both the time and money directly invested in the degree, and also the time and money that was not earned and invested while working at another job.

The end result could easily add up to over a million dollars when you factor in the earning potential of an IRA and 401K, in which most people begin investing during their 20s when they start a professional career.

But Ph.D candidates rarely have a retirement plan. They usually spend most of their 20s scraping together a meager living as a teaching assistant or even working in restaurants and bars–another career path that affords no long-term retirement options.

All this is to stress how important it is that those who pursue the Ph.D. are able to recoup their financial loss upon graduating. Getting a good job is crucial when one doesn’t begin to earn real money until his mid-30s.

And this is all the more reason the adjunct professor crisis is destroying the academy. Most Ph.D. holders are working these minimum wage part-time teaching gigs after graduation. No retirement, no health insurance. No return on investment for the decade spent in graduate school.

As this crisis grows and becomes more visible, fewer people will enroll in graduate school. The Ph.D. will slowly begin to die. After all, not many people are willing to make such a big sacrifice without any reasonable chance of a return.

Because of this eventuality, I recommend the Ph.D. be restructured in order to train students for a much wider variety of careers–both inside the academy and out. In order for the Ph.D. to maintain relevance, it needs to have definitive pathways to employment that will take the place of the increasingly common adjunct professor job. [pullquote]In order for the Ph.D. to maintain relevance, it needs to have definitive pathways to employment that will take the place of the increasingly common adjunct professor job.[/pullquote]

Some people call these new career paths alternate academic or post academic careers. Sometimes those titles are shortened to alt-ac and post-ac.

These are careers in government, library, research, writing, etc. that engage workers in ways similar to their graduate training, but that do not necessarily involve the dying profession of teaching.

The concepts of alt-ac and post-ac career tracks are still in their infancy. No one knows exactly how to define them yet or what they will become. But many people who study and write about higher education and graduate studies have begun to call for alternative forms of training for the Ph.D.

As one who is intimately familiar with the adjunct crisis and with the huge numbers of out-of-work Ph.D.s, I have taken a real interest in alt-ac careers. I believe they could potentially become the way out of adjunct hell for many people.

Whether it happens in graduate schools themselves, or whether it grows as an organic movement defined and shaped by those who live it, alt-ac promises hope for many who currently have none.

As a result, I’m helping to develop The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae as an alt-ac-friendly space. The first step is to gather resources about the as-yet-undefined reaches of the alt-ac world.

If you would like to learn more about alt-ac and post-ac jobs, add your name and contact information to the alt-ac resource list I started at Vitae. If you are already involved, please share your favorite resources, as well.

If we can pull together enough people on the alt-ac platform, we’ll be able to start influencing graduate schools to incorporate alt-ac career training into their Ph.D. curriculums. Major policy shifts begin with movement by the people.

The PhD is an Endangered Species

Graduate programs continue to crank out adjunct professors who support the system on their backs by becoming cogs in the academic machinery, and no one is talking about what will happen when the system finally collapses under its own weight.

University administrations are building their temp workforces, offering low wage jobs to any poor teacher who has a large enough debt balance and few enough other employment prospects. They do it because they can, which obviously isn’t always a good reason. This irresponsible hiring rash is a temporary fix to a long term problem.

Eventually it will catch up to them.

Head in the Sand

On the other side of the table are the graduate programs that are engaging in equally irresponsible behavior–accepting and graduating PhD after PhD, knowing full well that they are releasing their students into the abyss without properly preparing them.

Training grad students to be professors is foolish at this point. Everyone with half a brain who studies higher education can see the writing on the wall. This profession is shrinking by the day.

The only way for graduate programs to maintain some dignity and relevance in this new higher ed economy is for them to start adapting to the changing job market. Grad programs need to create new career tracks for their PhD students. If this doesn’t happen, I can’t imagine why anyone will continue to earn PhDs. Graduate programs will effectively squeeze themselves out of relevance by refusing to adapt.

Some schools have recognized this reality and have begun discussing the concept of alternative academic careers, or alt-ac for short. The alt-ac is the future of graduate studies and it’s time to start preparing students accordingly.

Read more about the relevance of PhDs and the importance of alt-ac training at:

The Ph.D. Needs CPR