Avoid Confirmation Bias When Considering Grad School

Don't go to grad school advice

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.

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

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.

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

Ph.D. Policy Shift

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.

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

Head in the Sand

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.

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