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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 18, 2013 at 12:40 am

Posted in fabio, grad school rulz

22 Responses

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  1. Who are “typical” students? If it’s the one’s we encounter the most at Historically White Colleges and Universities (HWCUs), then you mean middle-class white students. Which, takes us back to Tressie’s original point that you’re ignoring race, ethnicity, and social class in giving blanket advice to these “typical” students.

    Liked by 1 person

    Eric Anthony Grollman

    April 18, 2013 at 12:52 am

  2. Eric, the average undergrad of any race is not looking for a professorship. That’s a good starting point for a discussion about what to say about graduate school. Then if the person wants an academic career, we can talk grad school.

    Also, we have evidence on typical African American career choices. Historically, the most common college major for African Americans was education. Recently, it is business. This suggests to me that the modal African American college students wants a career with an obvious pay off. Academia is not that career track.

    Finally, I do believe that there needs to be more African American professors. But the solution to that problem is to be as honest as possible about the academic career track. Then, among those who want to try, we give them the best help that we can. That’s better than overselling academia as a path to mobility.



    April 18, 2013 at 1:12 am

  3. @fabio

    re: your 1st point–seems to me that both Tressie’s article and the one that she was responding were pitched not to the “average undergrad” but rather to the kind of undergrad that would seriously considering getting a PhD. I repeat, this is not your “average undergrad.” I would imagine that most students who seriously consider getting a PhD (as opposed to a Master’s or professional degree of some kind) are likely seeking a professorship.

    re: your 2nd point–yes, I would agree that African American students generally are after a career with an obvious payoff. Consequently, many never seriously consider getting a PhD. Thats why I dont believe Tressie’s article was referring to these kind of African American students. Rather, I think she is talking about the rather small segment of African American students who would seriously consider getting a PhD.

    Now, if you want to tell *these* students not to go to grad school, go ahead and knock yourself out but you can’t use any of the reasons you list above because they are negated by Tressie’s central argument: the black students who choose to go to grad school often do so for non-economic reasons.

    So yes I agree with Eric, your blog post here (and comment) only takes us full circle back to Tressie’s point.


    soft scientist

    April 18, 2013 at 2:24 am

  4. Soft scientist: What sort of institution do you teach at? Is it one where there are tons and tons of atypical students who can handle a PhD program and successfully compete for jobs? If so, I congratulate you on your appointment at an Ivy League school!

    However, most faculty, including myself and Eric (and Tressie in all future likelihood), teach/will soon teach at institutions where there are very few such students. I get a lot of 3.2 GPA soc majors who don’t do well on the GRE. There are also some high GPA majors who don’t care for research but hold on to the mantra that more education is better.

    What it is important for faculty who advise undergraduates is to use a two step process. First, we have to communicate that academia is not like medical school. Most doctoral students won’t graduate, jobs are scarce post-graduation. Therefore, it’s really not a “go to” option and most should avoid it. Then, only after a student has shown commitment and skill, do we suggest academia. And there are some *rare* cases where people are doing well but haven’t considered academia. If you have students like these, then great – tell them about academia. But they are rare!

    So my stance on advising is to prepare people for the situations they are most likely to encounter. Most faculty will rarely encounter students like Tressie – people who just love learning and research so much that academia is really a good fit. A world full of Tressies and Erics would be wonderful, but it’s not the world of most of the faculty.



    April 18, 2013 at 3:11 am

  5. Well, let’s say you are a highly academically able student without family financial resources who wants a research-based career requiring quantitative methodological skills. Maybe you could get such a job with a masters; a PhD probably won’t hurt too much, though. And in the mean time, your fellowship will pay for your masters if you start in a PhD program. You can always decide to leave with the (free) masters and several semesters of advanced quantitative training. If, on the other hand, you just went for the masters, you’d be in debt and you’d have less in the way of quantitative training.

    And in my world of students, no one is looking for a PhD because they think more education is better. In fact, they don’t know what PhDs are and look at me in shock when I tell them how long I was in school for. On the *rare* occasion that we do suggest PhDs to incredible and amazing students who have the aptitude to do fantastic things, the students are shocked that we might believe them capable of such feats. Saying we should not open doors for these students is nothing more than a clear perpetuation of class disadvantage.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 18, 2013 at 3:47 am

  6. Mikalia: Here’s the thing that gets me about the whole conversation. Academia is a world of 10 year PhDs, scarce jobs, and high debt. It’s a world of adjuncts and multi-year job searches. That doesn’t mean that we should hide academia. It means we should be very, very careful in recommending it. Academia is a real career danger zone.

    If we are truly interested in erasing inequality, academic careers will be a small part of the story. Instead, we should really be emphasizing career tracks that have a much higher probability of leading to higher pay and at much lower cost. If we really want kids from low SES families to do well, we should be yelling at the top of our lungs: STEM!! STEM!!! STEM!!! That’s basically been the educational path of most groups that have experience mobility in America.



    April 18, 2013 at 3:54 am

  7. There are lots of kinds of inequality. One of them is the kind where poor kids get to try for jobs that pay well and make them miserable, while rich kids get to try for jobs they actually are fulfilled by and enjoy.



    April 18, 2013 at 3:59 am

  8. Academia is actually: lots of rich kids try out for a low paying job cool job (academia), don’t get it, but are ok; poor gets try out for the same job, don’t get it, and then get saddled with $100k+ in debt.

    One solution is to encourage more poor kids to try out for the high risk/low pay off job. Another solution is to encourage all students to shift away from the high risk/low pay off career into low risk/high pay off careers.

    I vote for option #2.



    April 18, 2013 at 4:19 am

  9. Something I did not see addressed here is that a PhD does not equal academia. I’ve worked in the medical/pharmaceutical for profit industry for years, and my PI keeps telling me that I’ll almost double my income if I get my PhD. So I’m studying for that dreaded GRE after working as a scientist for years, which means I’m rusty but I hope my research counts for something. I really dislike the world of academia, and am getting my PhD to be able to offer my family a better quality of life and maybe one day own a home. The careers for PhDs in the for-profit sphere are neither risky nor low paying; that’s my 2 cents.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 18, 2013 at 4:51 am

  10. @SamIAm: “The careers for PhDs in the for-profit sphere are neither risky nor low paying; that’s my 2 cents.”

    Sure… in the sciences with obvious applications. I even wrote that in the original post. (“But most jobs do not require a Ph.D. degree, aside from university teaching or scientific research in the physical sciences or engineering.”) And I always say that as well, if you happen to be in a field where a PhD is required or rewarded, you will be told so. But that’s a fairly unusual situation outside the sciences.



    April 18, 2013 at 4:54 am

  11. I’m curious…is what you are talking about really a problem? Are PhD programs in sociology full of students whose goal is not academia, or something closely related? With the exceptions of some other public sector work, I think you are correct to conclude that a PhD in sociology (or a related discipline) won’t do much to help you get a job in, say, the insurance industry. But is this really an issue? Are there really people out there misguidedly pursuing a PhD in sociology who seek unrelated employment? If so, why are graduate programs allowing these people in? And why are they keeping them? I can’t imagine that any respectable PhD program would keep a student whose goal was to become a regional manager of a bank or something like that……..


    Silly Wabbit

    April 18, 2013 at 5:19 am

  12. SW: You get a lot of applicants who are non academically oriented, but most programs won’t accept them. Of those who get in, it’s hard to maintain the drive if you aren’t oriented toward teaching and research.

    The big issue in this post is how much we should deviate from the advice that doctoral programs should only be for those dedicated to the academy, which is pretty rare in the population. If you agree with that advice, then it is normal that the default advice is to avoid graduate school.



    April 18, 2013 at 5:45 am

  13. @Fabio, I understand the point that you’re emphasizing. Practically speaking, pursuing a PhD may not be practical (at least on some counts). But, I think it is important to make sure our students (particularly those from marginalized backgrounds) are aware that graduate training is an option, and is possible. Arguably, part of the reason few students of color and working-class students seek academic careers is that they don’t think it’s possible, or don’t see its relevance to their own lives. Sure, running for US President is a gamble, but please don’t tell young people not to aspire for such a position. Our dreams are already tempered by the awareness that racism and classism still exist as barriers, and further tempered where we don’t see people like us. I call for more positive honesty. Let’s be honest about post-graduate school job prospects. Yes, let’s be practical. But, let’s not discourage people!

    Also, I think, whatever our stances, we should clarify what we mean by “grad school.” Don’t pursue a PhD or equivalent degree? Don’t even pursue a Master’s degree? If you’re going to give blanket advice not to go (or even to consider it), please at least clarify for the “typical” student who may not fully know what you mean by a general reference to “grad school.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Eric Anthony Grollman

    April 18, 2013 at 12:43 pm

  14. I think that we underestimate the value of a PhD outside academia. McMillam Cottom is right that government bureaucracies hire PhDs. I know some sociology PhDs who have gone on to lucrative careers in the corporate world. The tech sector is quite interested in quantitative sociologists. If you want to work in foreign policy or international development, a PhD and field research experience are real assets. I don’t think careers in the non-profit sector are any riskier than academia. There are also PhDs working at philanthropic organizations like the Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, etc. Granted, these jobs are competitive, and they will require some evidence of transferable skills. But any grad student these days would be wise to have a non-academic plan B (and actually try to keep a finger in that world so that they can make the transition if they need to). If someone wants to work in international development, and can get a 4 year fellowship from a good PhD program and has a decent chance to get a fellowship for dissertation fieldwork, why not pursue that degree? It’s a lot cheaper than going to law school. Contrary to belief, there are some sociology PhD programs whose graduates often take non-academic jobs. I am very aware that there is a problem of people losing years and racking up debt in PhD programs, but I think getting them to think more strategically from the beginning about what career(s) they want to pursue is very helpful.

    When a student says to me that they want to apply to PhD programs, I ask why, and then I ask them what type of career they want to pursue. Sometimes they need to be forced to think more carefully about this. I get a lot of different answers, and I do think it’s important to tailor your advice to different backgrounds and interests. To be honest, I am much more likely to discourage people if they say they want to become a professor, as the opportunities in academia (at least in social sciences and humanities) are clearly becoming more and more limited.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm

  15. Every day I am thankful that nobody ever discouraged me from going to graduate school back when I was a poor “kid” majoring in sociology. After having worked in dead end jobs for 13 years before I even started college, I would have been thrilled if I had ended up teaching at a community college. I am all for presenting students with complete information about what graduate school is all about (e.g., average time to completion, etc). But again, I am so grateful to all of those wonderful professors at U of A who encouraged me to give it a shot.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm

  16. Seems to me the main advice is: don’t absorb a lot of debt to go to graduate school and assume you’ll make it up later in a high salary. (See “don’t pay to go to graduate school.”) And: inform yourself about options and field. For some students, living on a stipend for several years and getting another credential may be a sound move, even if it does not lead to a job. It looks a lot better on a resume than unemployment. The challenge to graduate programs is to recognize declining job opportunities in the academy and ask ourselves what we are doing and whether we shouldn’t be helping students prepare for non-academic careers.



    April 18, 2013 at 3:52 pm

  17. Yes, the debt is the issue, not the going to grad school. I always tell students not to go to PhD programs without full funding; for working class students, it’s easy to imagine making up the difference by mowing some lawns in the summer. Plenty of people are ok living on $20k to go to school, especially after they’ve been working full time at shit jobs to pay for college. On the other hand, I spend an inordinate amount of time talking students OUT of paying $40k+ for crappy masters degrees that will not help them on the job market. What we should be doing when we advise is talking to students seriously about their goals and options, the degree to which those are realistic given the projected job market and the students’ aptitude, and the way to get as close as possible to those goals for a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm

  18. […] seriously, don’t go to graduate school | […]


  19. Some recent studies that have received a good bit of press examined how students from lower-SES backgrounds approached applying to college. These were high-achieving students who, based on their academic and extracurricular merits could have a decent shot of getting an acceptance letter from highly selective colleges and universities. Generally, these students did not even apply to these colleges. I believe these studies also found that, even among the students who did apply, a lower amount would actually matriculate to these highly selective colleges. A second related study found that, to increase these high-achieving, low SES students to simply apply, the researchers set up sessions for a sample of students to meet and discuss different colleges and opportunities. Their results: *talking* to these students increased the likelihood they would apply, and even enroll in these highly selective colleges.

    What can we take away from these studies? Talking to students about educational opportunities makes a difference. Something I have found effective is to not wait for students to knock on my door to ask about grad school. During the first half of each semester, I bring up a few “tips” at the end of most classes that relate to networking, the ins-and-outs of grad school, the importance of going to conferences (big and small), and related topics to put it in students’ minds that they should think about the proverbial next steps early, and not wait until midway through the fall semester of their last year in undergrad (which happens way too often, it seems). Since I’ve done this the past two years, more students are sending me emails, dropping by my office, and talking about their post-undergrad pursuits way earlier than their senior year. From personal experience, I noticed how many of my friends of well-networked and financially stable backgrounds growing up in a small mountain community were talked to differently than myself. People would talk to me about jobs after high school, maybe the local community college, while these same people would talk to my friends about going to big name universities, the summer opportunities, and the like (a similar experience to what Dierdre Royster found in her studies relating to race and opportunities at a technical high school). Thus, the opportunities, the knowledge, was not supposed to get to me, and luckily I noticed and asked some questions which set me on the path to not wait for someone to tell me what to do, but find out how I should do it myself. With this in mind, simply relaying some grad school-related info at the end of class seems to be making things seem more accessible because students of all backgrounds are getting more information to make better decisions and understand the process.



    April 18, 2013 at 7:03 pm

  20. I think we should ponder this issue in light of pipeline issues both before and after the tenure-track. Dissuading certain students from grad school will only exacerbate how the discipline looks (literally). This is why I think Tressie’s post is so important. I posted this at scatterplot some time ago: ):

    By my quick and rough count, as of 2013-2014, there are/will be roughly 49 assistant professors in the Top 10 departments (using orgtheory’s rankings).

    Of these 49: 3 are black (6%) and 5 are Latino/a or Hispanic (10%), the rest are White or Asian*.

    Compared to their respective population sizes in the U.S. this yields: Blacks (6% vs. 13% of U.S. population) and Latinos/Hispanics (including Hispanic whites) (10% vs. 16% of U.S. population)

    *Asians make up 8 of these 49 asst. professors (16% vs. 5% of U.S. population)

    There are also the findings of this study by the ASA: show that (1) African-Americans actually do quite well in obtaining a tenure track job as ABDs (there is quite a demand for them and they make slightly more $$$ too), but (2) African Americans are under-represented at Research and Doctoral universities and over-represented at Bachelor’s-only institutions (Pg. 8). By contrast, Hispanics and Asians are under-represented at Bachelor’s-only institutions (Pg. 8).

    Furthermore, there is considerable “leakage” of African-Americans between assistant and full professor ranks, particularly at R1 universities, such that (Pg. 10) such that, “[i]n contrast to African Americans, the relative proportion of whites increased rather than decreased between assistant to full professor” (Pg. 12)

    Taken together these data suggest that even though there are probably pipeline issues that precede the job market, it is not as if there is total equality in the tenure-track pipeline itself either.



    April 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm

  21. Fabio, I really think that you should be more precise when you say, “don’t go to graduate school” when what you mean is “don’t get a Ph.D.” I know that it might sound trivial and it often becomes clear when I read your posts that you mean “graduate school” to be synonymous with “Ph.D. program”, but I think that there are many students for whom graduate school means getting an M.Ed., MSW, MBA or MPP. I certainly would want to discuss the cost/benefit of a Masters degree with students; however, there are many, many more jobs out there that require a Masters than require a Ph.D. and the trade-offs are very different (paid tuition, one to two years of opportunity costs, certification requirements). I don’t mean this to be an attack, especially since I benefited from your advice in graduate school and continue to benefit as an assistant professor. But since you have earned a reputation for advising students across the U.S. (and around the world, I would presume) through this blog, I believe it is necessary to be specific when you provide such advice (and I think it fits in your larger effort to convey the true costs and risks).



    April 19, 2013 at 12:13 am

  22. […] training the next generation of scholars and college-educated adults.  It counters the somewhat lazy advice of not pursuing certain paths because they may not be as lucrative today.  Rather, it encourages […]

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