It attracts the easily exploited.

31 01 2012

Reason 77 of 100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School is (as Homer Simpson once said) funny ’cause it’s true:

Graduate school demands that you spend an immense amount of time alone (see Reason 69). It demands sustained interest in highly esoteric subjects. And it demands that you approach those esoteric subjects with the utmost seriousness. You can see how this environment would be attractive to people who are more comfortable in their own thoughts than in the company of others. This applies across academic disciplines. While some graduate students are involved in cutting-edge medical research, others are studying the subtle aspects of postwar Croatian cinema (see Reason 66). Oddly enough, the latter take their work as seriously as the former. Grad school can be compared to an endless fan convention at which all the participants cluster by genre or disciplinary interest, and where every individual is highly invested in a particular sub-sub-sub-genre.

I resemble that remark. Although my highly tolerant wife has done her best to limit that resemblance as I grow older, anyone who knows me knows that my true geeky nature surfaces more than occasionally. So let me use the same blog to offer an entirely different reason not to go to graduate school that I think I understand much better.

This is the very beginning of Reason 1:

If you think that going to graduate school will allow you to spend your days in a community of the enlightened, consider the axiom that it is unwise to borrow money that is difficult to repay. To go into debt for a graduate degree in the humanities is to go into debt for a credential that, at best, will qualify you for a job with a relatively low starting salary in an extremely competitive job market. Meanwhile, you will have removed yourself from the job market to pursue this degree, so don’t forget to add up the years that you will have incurred debt when you could have been earning money. But surely people in graduate school would be too smart to finance their educations with debt…

Even if you don’t finance grad school with debt, there is a social and economic opportunity cost to spending many of your prime earning years holed up in a library because you keeping saying to yourself, “I’m going to be a college professor.” Is two or three thousand dollars per course without benefits really worth the effort?

To say that adjuncts are being exploited is so obvious it shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. What most people fail to appreciate is the ways that tenure track faculty can be victimized to a lesser degree by the same two mentalities that trap contingent faculty: MBA thinking on the part of management and over-generousness on the part of labor. Filming yourself and letting Apple profit from people accessing your work is merely an extreme case. I think the entire contractual structure at most schools is designed to cultivate this same financially self-destructive tendency.

I object to the concept of service, not because I won’t do things to help the university run but because this performance criterion is so easily corrupted by a lack of standards and an absence of limits. Service is for Boy Scouts. Using it as a criteria with which to evaluate the job performance of adult workers would be the subject of a grievance in a typical union setting, particularly since management will readily claim that our entire profession is a form of service if it suits their ends.

If I could redo the last ten years or so, I would learn to say “no” a lot more often. Luckily enough, this may be the only profession in America where I’m still young enough to learn from my mistakes. I will never “retire in place,” as one of my now-retired colleagues liked to describe his attitude toward service before he left us for good, but if my university ever does run out of people for committee assignments maybe they should consider opening up a few more tenure-track lines.


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