seriously, don’t go to graduate school
Recently, sociologist Tressie McMillam Cottom wrote a column titled: “Does Blanket ‘Don’t Go to Graduate School!’ Advice Ignore Race and Reality?” It’s a nice article and worth reading. She makes the case that it is a mistake to tell people “Don’t Go to Graduate School” as a one-size-fits-all piece of advice. It’s the advice contained in chapter 1 of the Grad Skool Rulz ($3 - cheap!!). Specifically, she argues that graduate school represents an important avenue of mobility, especially for people of color who face disadvantages in the labor market.
A few responses from someone who advises a lot of students, in person and through my writings. Firsts, I don’t believe in advice that fits everyone. In the introduction of the book, I write: “I trust that you will be resourceful enough to adjust the advice for your own situation.” Human action is defined by circumstance, which is always variable and complex.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t offer advice aimed at typical students making typical choices. When it comes to graduate education, “don’t go to graduate school” is a sound starting point for discussion because graduate school is a bad choice for most people who have recently completed their B.A. Why?
- First, most students think the Ph.D. is needed for getting good jobs. Yes, there are some jobs that require a Ph.D. But most jobs do not require a Ph.D. degree, aside from university teaching or scientific research in the physical sciences or engineering.
- Second, most students do not understand that doctoral education is built around producing scholars. When people say, “I want to get a Ph.D.” I answer: “Do you want to be a college teacher?” The answer is usually no.
- Third, graduate education entails more risk than almost any other kind of professional education. As I’ve written before, the average Ph.D. doesn’t get the degree,while most students in other professional programs get the degree.
- Fourth, job prospects are very, very limited in many academic disciplines. Sociology’s market isn’t that bad, but it’s horrible in the humanities and the sciences where there is no external market.
- Fifth, academia entails great costs, even if you get the degree. You have limited geographical mobility. Partners may leave you. You make less money than other professionals with similar training.
In other words, academia is a neat place to work, but it is a very risky career and many people simply aren’t suited for it.
Cottom justifiably raises the issue of job market signalling. Perhaps the advice I just gave applies less to students of color because they’ve been stigmatized. They need to overcompensate through educational credentials in order to experience mobility.
Two responses: First, doctoral training is only one option. If one wants to signal intelligence on the labor market through credentials, you would probably be better served by other forms of education than the typical PhD program. For example, most engineering programs have master’s level work that leads to jobs. Other professions, such as teaching and business, also have short post-graduate courses of study that more directly lead to well compensated career tracks.
Second, there are serious opportunity costs. If one wants a job outside academia, it might better to work in a non-academic job to build experience. You earn a normal salary and get to know your field. While you spend 8 years on that Ph.D., you lose a lot of money and experience.
Let me conclude with an attempt to clarify my point. I am not trying to drive away people who are genuinely interested in the academic career. What I am doing is trying to sort between people who want to be scholars and those who seek training or credentials for employment outside higher education. The Ph.D. program is a very inefficient and risky way to pursue these goals.