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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

To those who fell along the way

I've been thinking lately about all the people who don't make it through grad school and into the profession, particularly those I've known personally. I'm not talking about people who are kicked out of their programs after their comps (which is awful, but which didn't happen in my program because entering class size is so small and our funding uniform), but all the other casualties, of whom there are so many.

George Washington Boyfriend and I were two years apart in grad school, and we were both in extremely uncohesive cohorts; the joke was that the admissions committee got it right every OTHER year, but on the in-between years, they inevitably fucked up. Fucked up, how? Well, entering classes usually number around 10. From GWB's year, he's one of exactly TWO people who both a) finished his Ph.D., and b) got a full-time teaching job. No one else is even still in the profession.

As for my cohort, 10 people began my program not quite seven years ago:
  • 1 person left after one year, came back for a year, and then left permanently
  • 1 person left after two years to go to professional school
  • 2 people left after two years, came back for a year, and then left permanently
  • 1 person finished the Ph.D., went on the job market once, then went to professional school
The rest of us are doing okay--we're all done with our degrees, two are already on the tenure-track, and the other three have full-time jobs for next year, whether on the t-t or in good visiting positions. But we lost 50% of our already small entering class, none of them for financial or family reasons. Two of them were even, I'd say, among the three smartest and coolest of us all, and one of them is the child of academics. I mention these things because it's absolutely true that minority graduate students, as well as the more socially and economically disadvantaged, drop out more often than others; I've seen the studies, and I've seen it happen among my friends in other departments. But even with their advantages, the five people we lost in my year left (with one exception) simply because they were deeply and profoundly unhappy. Yes, they were doing what they'd always thought they wanted to do. And yes, they truly loved what they were reading and teaching and researching. And yet, they were so unhappy that they couldn't function.

It's hard to explain this to someone who hasn't been through grad school, but of course most of my readership probably knows what I'm talking about; I myself was so depressed my second year of grad school that the only way I got through many days was by telling myself that I could drop out in May, after I'd gotten the M.A. I think, in fact, that part of what makes grad school so hard is that when you're unhappy doing what you love, you look at yourself and think, "what else is there? if I'm not good at this one thing that really matters to me, what am I good at?"

I'm sure that many of the people who left are now happy doing whatever they're doing; I hear about some of them through various chanels, and they're at least in no worse shape than anyone else who's still trying to find his or her calling. And of course, with the job market what it is, it's probably just as well (for them and for the rest of us) that they're pursuing other paths. But I just keep thinking about that last conversation I had with my one friend before he left, or the last time I saw another friend before she did, and how empty they both looked. Neither one had any plans; neither had any idea what he or she was going to do; and both spoke and acted as if they were failures and embarrassments to the rest of us. (Embarrassments, maybe, because they reminded us of how close to the same failure we all were.)

And what of those who actually finish the degree? One of the people from GWB's cohort--widely acknowledged to be brilliant, with teaching awards, good one-year appointments, and all the rest--finally left the profession after striking out on the job market three years running; her last year on the market she had exactly ONE interview at the MLA.

Not every cohort is like this. In the class between mine and GWB's, no one took time off and 10 out of the 11 are done and in full-time jobs--most of them at extremely good institutions. It's easy to focus on those students and to say, well, most candidates make it through. But what is this "most"? We're looking at maybe 60% of my program's entering graduate students staying in the profession, and this at a place where the funding is good (relatively speaking), the teaching load light, and the name on the degree has long-term value.

That's really not good.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 3:25 PM |


Blogger Ancrene Wiseass commented at 4:58 PM~  

I think, in fact, that part of what makes grad school so hard is that when you're unhappy doing what you love, you look at yourself and think, "what else is there? if I'm not good at this one thing that really matters to me, what am I good at?"

Oh Lord, yes. Yes yes yes.

Which adds such bitter irony to those nonplussed "Well, at least you're doing what you love" comments from those who want to be supportive when you're feeling particularly low.

Blogger Ianqui commented at 6:35 PM~  

Good post. I've thought a lot about this too. In my cohort, 5 people entered, and 2 finished. Two of those who left entered grad programs in very different fields, and the other dropped out altogether. In fact, my grad program regularly had more than 50% attrition. I think it was because it was in a weird field, and people didn't know what they were getting into when they started.

I also had serious angst in my 2nd year. I thought that grad school was very self-indulgent. I wanted to do something that would be more beneficial to the world. I guess I got over that, and now I like the flexibility of my job to be able to think about things that in many ways are more important (like peak oil, for example).

So, I hear you.

Anonymous Laustic commented at 8:38 PM~  

Your post is oddly soothing for me. I'm preparing to take (write/present/whatever) my comps this summer and there are days when I am certain it is impossible to finish this work. Almost daily I toy with the notion that I could go back to teaching high school, but then I know I couldn't teach what I love. Can't put my finger on what it is that consoles me about your comments. Maybe it's just the old misery and company thing, though I sense there's something more to it than that. At least I can boast that we're beating the odds at my institution: there were only 2 who entered in my cohort and both of us have hung on for three years now.

Blogger Psycgirl commented at 9:05 PM~  

Since so much of my blog is about this, I can't avoid posting a comment. I too spent a lot of my 2nd year full of angst - but angst that the department was so unfair. I just take it day by day and try not to look too far ahead

Anonymous Dr M commented at 9:12 AM~  

When you say "went on to professional school" do you mean law school? Medical school?

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 3:34 PM~  

Out of my cohort (9), none of us finished. Of the two following years' classes, none finished. That's almost 30 unfinished PhDs. Your post made me think about all of them, and reflect on how important a functional department really is.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:09 PM~  

Dr. M: I was being deliberately vague. But you can probably imagine what kind of professional school most humanities Ph.D. dropouts would attend as a fallback.

Anon: I don't have any words for your experience, except to say that I'm so sorry!

Blogger Simplicius commented at 8:46 PM~  

I mention these things because it's absolutely true that minority graduate students, as well as the more socially and economically disadvantaged, drop out more often than others; I've seen the studies, and I've seen it happen among my friends in other departments.

This has long been one of my pet peeves. At the place where I did my graduate work, one of the seemingly eternal mysteries was why certain students were able to complete their orals and dissertations in a timely manner and why others were not. Part of it obviously had to do with drive and ambition and luck (hitting upon a good and doable dissertation topic early in the process), but the opinions expressed by the department faculty seemed to stop there, equating progress with being responsible and lack of progress with some sort of moral failing. Very rarely did anyone raise the divide that I saw all around me, between those who worked outside jobs during the school year and during summers and those who did not, a divide that seemed to correlate pretty strongly with progress toward the Ph.D. and with eventually finishing the diss. That they couldn't and didn't want to see this divide both dismayed and surprised me. It wasn't that I necessarily thought this issue would or should result in any new policies; rather, it struck me more as an issue that a group of incredibly privileged people never even stopped to consider because it was so foreign to them.

As for unhappiness, it was for that reason that I was always incredibly pleased for people when they saw the light and realized the pain wasn't worth it. And, yes, after they left, they did always seem so much happier.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:27 AM~  


Yes, this certainly happened at my grad institution, although the funding was such (everyone got a year-long diss fellowship, for example) that it usually didn't disadvantage anyone TOO much over the long term. (I myself worked 15hrs/week all through grad school, and more over the summers.)

Nevertheless, it's true that the Powers That Be refused to recognize that some students were much closer to the edge than others. A woman I knew fought, unsuccessfully, to double up her teaching over the school year so that she'd have money saved to work full-time on her dissertation over the summer (don't ask why they wouldn't let her; it has to do with the institution's fiction that it doesn't rely overmuch on grad student labor)--and then her summer funding options fell through. Unlike most of us, she had the balls to go to our chair and DGS and say, "look, I just want you to know what happens when you don't give us credit for knowing how best to manage our own teaching and research. So, I'll go home to my folks' this summer and temp. That's fine. I'll be able to pay my bills. But I shouldn't be expected to have a chapter written when I get back in September just because you didn't let me manage my own life."

As I was told the story, the DGS was sympathetic, but ultimately just didn't *get* what had gone wrong, or how it could have been helped.

Blogger Bookboojum commented at 3:05 AM~  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger Bookboojum commented at 3:08 AM~  

Great post. I wish somebody had said something like the below to me before I even went to grad school:


I was miserable beyond belief, and dropped out after my first year, although the current state of the job market coupled w/ the gradual phasing out of tenure makes me not QUITE so regretful of my decision.

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