are the grad skool rulz too pessimistic?

In a recent tweet, Brayden wondered if he would have gone to graduate school had he read my advice book, Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure ($2 – cheap!). That got me thinking. Brayden is a cool dude and an amazingly successful scholar. Is my book, whose first chapter is called “Don’t Go to Graduate School,” too harsh if it would have discouraged someone like Brayden?

I don’t think I’m unduly harsh. I’m being scary in the book so that people will understand how tough academia can be. People won’t get the picture unless you yell a little bit. Consider the following. Roughly speaking, only 50% of doctoral students complete the PhD within ten years. Many take 7, 8 and 9 years to complete. The job market is atrocious. Only about half of PhD’s will ever get tenure track positions, some only after years of low paying post-docs. Of course, a significant number will not be promoted with tenure even if they do get a tenure track job.  I would have told the younger Brayden is that these are the odds and that he should go forward if he is willing to take the risk and put in a lot of hard work.

Idealistic students will only confront these questions if you are blunt. Really blunt. That’s not pessimism. It’s honesty. It just means that graduate school is real life. You can’t pull an all nighter and get a nice piece of paper at the end. Graduate education takes effort, planning, and a lot of luck. And even then, it doesn’t always work. Grownups take this sort of calculus into account when choosing a career.

Finally, let me gently chide my friend Brayden for not reading the whole book. Near the end, I actually view the Rulz as a positive, affirming text:

I also wrote the Grad Skool Rulz out of a sense of optimism. For all its imperfections, and there are many, the academic system is a truly amazing human invention. Evolving over a period of nearly a thousand years, universities embody the knowledge that humanity has created. I am very lucky to be part of this exciting enterprise. The Grad Skool Rulz are designed to help people get past the bureaucracy of higher education so they can actually enjoy a career of research and teaching.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz


Written by fabiorojas

September 23, 2012 at 12:01 am

13 Responses

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  1. i think that the point of this book is to weed out the people who just want “to debate in class and read cool books in coffee shops” (Evan Schofer’s words on people who don’t do well in Ph.d programs).

    After having read through the Rulz (I laughed, I cried!), I still found that I wanted to do the Ph.d route – it was a selfish impulse in that I wanted to be able to make a living off of learning and finding new knowledge. It’s not about achieving social justice or “making a mark” in a student’s life (though I’m not against doing that in academia – they’re just 9th and 10th on the list after #’s 1-8, research).

    You know that you REALLY like something when you’re willing to go through with the grunt work of a profession – football players spend their practice days doing endless drills over and over again and memorizing thousand-page playbooks. People who truly want to research will dive into statistics even if they’re more qualitatively oriented (like me – though I’m finding that I like being catholic with methods since I can ask more interesting research questions).

    Playing pickup basketball is fun for everyone; shooting 1000 jump shots in a day and running dozens of wind sprints is not. Reading a book is fun, and so can writing a paper; reading 50 books and rewriting that paper draft 50 times is not.



    September 23, 2012 at 12:55 am

  2. Professor here. Based on this post, at least, I think you are being too harsh. The 50% cut their losses early, and at least tried their dreams. They can now go back to their old careers without regrets for what might have been.

    As for the 50% who do finish, tenure is over-rated. Even without tenure, you can make a decent living ($60-100k in US, PPP-adjusted comparable elsewhere) working 6-7 months of the year at 20 hours a week. It’s a relaxing life and, if you enjoy teaching, truly a joy.



    September 23, 2012 at 4:50 am

  3. I think it is important to remember that there is–at least in the sorts of fields most represented among OrgTheory readers–a difference between the extent to which we encourage people to consider careers in the professorial and the extent to which we encourage students to consider furthering their education. For instance, why should my star student who is interested in a career in criminological policy be discouraged from getting a Ph.D.? Right now, is advertising 341 jobs with the keyword “Ph.D.”…

    If I was advising the younger Brayden, I would have asked him why he was considering a Ph.D. program, and if he told me he wanted an academic job, I would have explained the odds and encouraged him to ensure he had a reasonable alternative career in mind that would make use of the education he was seeking.



    September 23, 2012 at 4:57 am

  4. Along the same general theme of the prior two comments, I think the scary stats in the first chapter undersells the job prospects of those who don’t finish, or who finish but who don’t want or get academic jobs. Most such students I’ve seen over the years have found skill-utilizing jobs in marketing firms, private research firms, government research agencies (e.g., DoE, BLS, CDC), non-profit research, and the research units of major social media firms. By any objective measure, these are good jobs.

    I should say that in the 10-15 such cases I’m aware of (nonrandom blah blah blah), every single one left graduate school — MA or PhD — with strong quantitative skills. The advice, then, for the risk-averse student is take stats and methods courses and learn large-scale data management skills even if you want to be a qualitative researcher (or “theorist”). If you don’t have the preparatory training, native ability, or interest in developing or applying these skills, then yeah, the odds maybe aren’t so great.



    September 23, 2012 at 11:19 am

  5. Well, I’m glad you finally responded to my tweet Fabio! ;)

    My tweet was obviously quite idiosyncratic to my own personality temperament and experiences. I’m someone who is very cautious in decision-making. I’m risk averse in many ways. I also started out my phd program with two young kids. I was not in the best position to begin life as a poor grad student with uncertain job prospects. I think back at all of the decisions and experiences I had that led to grad school and all I can attribute it to is blind luck and a heavy dose of idealism and naivete. If I hadn’t been so naive, if I’d known how tough the road ahead would be (without knowing the eventual conclusion, of course), would I have decided to take that path? Maybe not. I think that in my case, being naive really helped me. It blinded me to the challenges and risks of getting a phd. Lacking information about what I was really getting into worked in my favor I think.

    Ultimately, I think a person has to pursue his or per passion in life. That’s the final piece of advice I’d give to any young career seeker. Yes, it’s important to get sufficient information to make an informed decision, but in the end you have to make your career decisions about what you think will make you happy in your life. That’s what drove me to grad school, and I’m glad now that I listened to my gut instinct.


    brayden king

    September 23, 2012 at 12:38 pm

  6. To pst2k9:

    What kind of non-tenure job makes $60k-$100k? My partner is currently an adjunct at an institution that pays well and he could never make $60k working more than full-time.

    I don’t think the rulz are too harsh. Job prospects are terrible, and adjuncting barely pays more than a grad student stipend. At this point in my graduate career, I see academia as an incredible waste of talent. Graduate programs continue to accept students knowing how grim the outlook is, and use them to teach courses so they don’t have to hire adjuncts and faculty. This will not change, and I highly doubt that universities will ever hire at rates they have in the past. This system works great for universities, but really screws undergrad and graduate students. The sociology grad student has to ignore all of their sociological instincts and knowledge in order to pursue a career in academia. We have to believe that a meritocracy exists, and that we will be the special one who makes it. We have to buy into the fiction we try to expose in our intro classes. It is cruel.



    September 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm

  7. The Rulz aren’t too harsh. Your read of the lay of the land seems eminently sober. However, it is presented w/o context, and that is where I disagree. What are the odds of rising to the top of any field of endeavor? Necessarily – and by definition – pretty darn slim.

    • Compare the number of basketball players on scholarship in a given year to the number in that cohort who have a career in the NBA.

    • Compare the number of MBAs produced in a given year to the number in that cohort who will move into the highest reaches of management at Fortune 500 companies.

    • Compare the number of law school grads produced in a given year to the number in that cohort who will make partner at respectable firms.

    • Compare the number of cooking school grads produced in a given year to the number in that cohort who will have successful careers as chefs.

    Etc. Without that context, The Rulz can come off as pessimistic, rather than realistic. (For instance, by comparison, I’d gladly take the odds of landing a tenure track position with a social science Ph.D.)
    But, but, they say, academia…should be…different (for some reason). And The Rulz very politely plays along, but – here’s the rub – Fabio doesn’t really believe that everyone who receives a Ph.D. should land a tenure-track position. Like Mitt Romney, I’ll bet you $10,000 that is his prior is that the number who shouldn’t is >0. What is that proportion? Is it 1%? 5%? 10%? Is it 47%? Do tell.* “Don’t go to grad school?” Well, don’t get in your car either, you might get in an accident! The academic game is highly competitive. Few will win, many will lose. That means the odds are against YOU. But, you know what? It is no more competitive than many other games that a BA might play. This is the context in which to present The Rulz.

    * For example, what ask the Orgtheory team what percentage of the applicants for T-T positions at their respective departments they personally rejected out of hand as “not even close” the last time they were on a hiring committee. Hint: the proportion will be larger than 47%!



    September 23, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  8. I’m glad this discussion has come up again…I want to reiterate some of IT’s point by asking how does Fabio (or other orgtheory readers) think about the difficulty of gaining a tenure track position vs gaining a top job in other kinds of industries/fields, particularly in this age of recession. This question is the reason why I never know how much to trust horror stories about the academic job market; is academia just the norm or is it a considerably tighter job market than most other industries? I ask that totally ignorant of any data that might give insight into it so I’d be interested in hearing what people think.


    Soft Scientist

    September 23, 2012 at 10:16 pm

  9. I think there’s an important dimension to consider that is related to, but not quite the same as Brayden’s worry. Brayden is saying that the rulz tell him that academia is hard work with an uncertain outcome. But it’s the uncertain outcome, not the hard work, that troubles him. I think many people (even when they are not naive) would counterbalance this information with their own unshakable sense of how talented they are. The hard odds, these people assume, merely “weed out” untalented people who don’t belong in academia. If the knowledge of the rulz themselves to the weeding (by self-selection), as Andrew points out above, then that’s great too.

    But the rulz may have another effect, which is less desirable: the sense that talent is not only not enough, but almost irrelevant to success in academia. One reason to work in academia, after all, is to be allowed to hang out with a bunch of very smart people and talk about interesting things. The rulz (which I’ve only read on the blog on a running basis, I should say) sometimes leave the impression that the good jobs will go to hardworking, ambitious people who are able (and willing) to play a number of games.

    Now, that may or may not be true, but it’s also likely to become increasingly true as grad students come to believe its true. It may scare off a number of “naive and idealistic” students who are also very talented, leaving the universities to their more ambitious and cynical peers. I normally put it this way: The universities ought to be a place where the most curious people succeed, not just another place where the game goes to the most ambitious.

    I even think an argument can be made to let “hard workers” compete somewhere else. No one has yet demonstrated to me that the “truth” is discovered by anything like hard work, at least as traditionally understood. (Stubbornness, yes, but that’s not the same thing.) In fact, the opposite may be true. The sort of mind that is inclined to avoid industry may be exactly the kind of mind we want to populate the faculty of our institutions of higher learning. Let the rest go into, well, industry.



    September 24, 2012 at 9:46 am

  10. I agree 100% with Brayden — my lack of knowledge about academia was a plus. I don’t think I would have started if I had known as much about the state of the field as I know now. But I’m glad I didn’t know better. Despite a chronic moderate level of stress (yes, even post-tenure) I really like my job.

    I do want to push back a bit against the idea that you have to be either ambitious and hard-working or curious and idealistic (or even that there’s a necessary tension between the two). I think it’s wonderful to be curious (how does it all work?) and idealistic (what would a really good sociology actually look like?). But curious and idealistic people still have to make sure to write their thoughts down and make sure those thoughts are interesting to other people. That’s not much different than the behavior expected in an engaging graduate seminar — speak up and make it interesting. The differences are only the medium of expression and the time scale of the conversation. Just as it takes hard work for quiet, thoughtful people to overcome shyness and speak up in seminars, it takes hard work for most people to write their thoughts down and submit them to the scrutiny of their peers.

    Likewise, ambition is not (just) to secure good employment and status. I would guess that most of us have the ambition to make — really make — the conversations we’re in more interesting. We’re soc nerds; we really care about this stuff. At least I do!


    Steve Vaisey

    September 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm

  11. If Academia would have been something really desirable (in terms of intellectual conections and the life of the mind) by really brilliant people , then maybe people like Grigori-Perelman would have remained in US (he was there for some years) or return there to teach/research after solving Poincaré Conjecture…



    September 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm

  12. @Steve. I think we agree mostly. My worry is that a set of Grad Skool Rulz that emphasizes the employment and status issues, and advices people to think seriously about how to deal with them, might scare off the nerds, i.e., people who primarily just care about the content of research and hope a research career is mostly like an engaging graduate seminar. These people will of course be a bit disappointed by the realities, but perhaps that is preferable to a reality in which they decided against even going into it, i.e., a reality without the nerds, and populated mainly by a bunch of devotees of the Rulz: hard-working, thick-skinned academic careerists.



    September 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm

  13. […] few days ago, we got into a discussion about whether the grad skool rulz ($2 – cheap!) are too pessimistic. One commenter wanted to know how hard academia is relative to other careers. Here’s how I […]


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