The Intersection

Today I begin a series of posts on the tremendous challenges facing graduate students–with some illuminating data that sheds light on what’s really going on in the ivory towers during the 21st century. To get started, here’s The Simpsons perspective on the pursuit of an academic tenure track position:

(if the video stops, click ‘pause/play’ to continue)

Check back later today for some troubling statistics…


  1. #1 5th year PhD
    May 22, 2008

    Funny. Sad. True.

  2. #2 Walker
    May 22, 2008

    A lot of this is going to be dependent on the field. Certainly, academia is very much a pyramid scheme. There is no way everyone who tries for, or even achieves, a PhD can get a tenure-track position.

    But in fields where industry wants PhDs — such as engineering and computer science — the current output of graduate students is actually pretty good. Indeed, these departments have a fairly healthy attitude with how they track their students. The really star students get tracked to academia, while the others are encouraged to go to industry.

    Furthermore, if you are in area that provides a lot of service courses — like mathematics — then your chances of getting a job in academia are much better than in something with limited demand — like classics. But, as a result, a mathematics grad student is just more likely to end up working at a teaching school. And good mathematics departments realize this, so they spend a non-trivial portion of their program on training and mentoring their students as teachers. Again, these graduate students turn out okay.

    So it is hard to make blanket generalizations about the plight of graduate students without first considering what areas you are talking about.

  3. #3 Walker
    May 22, 2008

    To follow-up my last post, I will also point out that we cannot talk about the graduate side of things without also examining how the undergraduate education feeds into it. Back when I worked at a SLAC (I am now in a department at an R1), there was heavy pressure to encourage our students to go to graduate school. Why? Because that is the easiest ways to justify majors in your area.

    If you are a mathematics or a physics department with few majors (because the majority of science majors at a SLAC are pre-med, and hence in some area related to biology), then you cannot teach the higher level classes frequently. This hurts your ability to hire and retain faculty. You get some majors by making your area exciting, but not enough to make a serious effect on headcount (thought you do get the stars this way). But you get the most by convincing the students that this major leads to a real career path, thus justifying the cost of a college education. If your school is fortunate enough to have ties with existing businesses, then that is one way to do it. But the vast majority of SLACs in this country do not have those. So they see graduate school as a way of justifying this career path to students.

    As a result, you get a fair number of students who go to graduate school not really knowing what they want to do with their lives. The whole nature of academia, and what that career path entails, is unknown to them. As they go through the program, they eventually leave, and then they make an informed choice. But it would have been nice if they had been better informed before they made the choice instead of wasting some of their prime years.

    I have become a big believer that this starts at the undergraduate level. I am very picky about writing recommendations for graduate school. For anyone who asks, I make sure to talk to them about their motivations for going. Do they have goals and a plan, or are they just going out of inertia. If it is the latter, I won’t write a recommendation anymore.

  4. #4 Miriam
    May 22, 2008

    Awww, Sheril, are we grad students not tormented enough? Why must you torture us with…THE TRUTH??? (Sometimes I fear that I went to grad school purely because of my deep loathing for business casual clothing.)

  5. #5 Larry Moran
    May 22, 2008

    Here are the five things you need to get into graduate school. If you don’t have them then don’t bother applying.

  6. #6 Emily
    May 22, 2008

    When it all gets to be too much, some enlightenment can be found at Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham.

  7. #7 agnostic
    May 22, 2008

    (Sometimes I fear that I went to grad school purely because of my deep loathing for business casual clothing.)

    Business casual is already so streetperson, what do you wear — overalls and a straw hat? Honest question!

    I’m going to tear my field a new asshole, and that should be enough to get a job somewhere. If not, I’ll just teach at a private high school where they don’t require some phoney-baloney teaching degree, come to believe the Big Lie that “helping the next generation” is more important than doing original work, and marry one of the students who falls for me, after she graduates.

    Life could be worse.

  8. #8 Miriam
    May 24, 2008

    agnostic – I wear my giant isopod t-shirt, of course! (scroll down.)