Graduate School: To go, or not to go, is that the question?

PhD_graduand_shaking_hands_with_Sir_Dominic_Cadbury,_the_Chancellor_of_the_University_of_Birmingham_-_20120705

If you read the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate Magazine, or the New York Times, you have come across a story about the decision of whether or not to go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. It is a topic of much concern within the academic community, particularly given the budget crises, the lack of available jobs, and the ethics surrounding whether or not to encourage our students to attend when the likelihood of a tenure track job is nearly improbable.

As a social scientist, I know the numbers regarding jobs, the statistical likelihood of being ‘successful’ on the job market. Please do not let what I am about to say fool you with regard to my understanding. I just came from the market. I NEVER want to go there again. However, I must also contribute an anecdote to this discussion, given my experience.

I was the first person in my family to attend college. In fact, no one had even graduated from high school. My community knew drugs, alcoholism, prison, and the common theme between them all, poverty. The opportunity to go to college kind of just happened. I never planned it, no one really ever talked to me about it. When I say opportunity, I mean opportunity. I have no idea how it happened. I had a 1.8 high school GPA, and no idea how to pay for it or what to study. Were it not for the Pell Grant …? I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I was not a terribly bright student. I made average grades. I did work hard, however. I made all the mistakes and faced all of the challenges that first generation low-income students encounter. I managed to transfer to a better school, Gordon College, a small-liberal arts college on the North Shore of Boston (How my heart breaks for Boston and those injured right now). I graduated in 2004. I developed a desire to learn more, more about myself and about the world, and my place in it.

What an easy four words to write. However, it was not so easy. Being a first generation college student and a low-income student puts you in a unique category. Only 5% of those students in the low-income quartile brackets graduate from college. First-generation and low-income college students have higher drop-out rates, higher stress rates, and lower levels of traditional support. When you couple this with my 1.8 high school GPA, I had about a 3% chance of finishing college within six years of finishing high school.

I did attend graduate school at Boston University. If you want to know more about my academic life, click here. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science. I graduated in a reasonable amount of time and secured a tenure track position at West Virginia State University, a Land Grant HBCU, which I love. I have great students. I publish. I contribute to the academic community. I guess it is easy for me to make this argument given that I found your version of ‘success’ rather quickly, but my point is still valid.

Obviously not everyone is going to find a tenure track job. The numbers do not lie. However, I think that the current discussion about whether to pursue a Ph.D. is one sided and inappropriate. Of course the tenured faculty at Tier 1 Research schools are correct about the fact that if you go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. you will fail, if you graduate. And, you will fail more miserably if you do not attend a Tier 1 research school. Do you know why they are correct? They are only defining ‘success’ as a Tenure Track job at their Tier 1 Research school.

These faculty are telling others not to even attempt to pursue this form of higher education. I am utterly flummoxed by this line of thinking in my community. Why are they doing this? At what point did we, as society, discourage people from trying to overcome the odds of a difficult problem? What about the fight? What about David and Goliath, Prometheus and Zeus, Sparta and Thermopylae, Martin Luther and the Catholic Church, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendements and Southern stubbornness, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Crow, Women and the World, Hilary Clinton and the World, Barack Obama and America’s racist history, and on and on we could go forever. Overcoming difficult odds is the Human story, the American dream and promise of a better world.

It seems to me that there is a propaganda machine at work. I know that William Pannapacker and Daniel Drezner, amongst others, think they are providing advice that will make it easier for those that would have ‘failed’ at becoming that which they seek. I would assume that they believe that they have an ethical responsibility to ‘warn’ people that pursuing a Ph.D. is dangerous, both financially and emotionally. These arguments have some merit. However, the arguments need serious clarifications.

I think that in their current form, they perpetuate elitism. The elite remain the elite. There is no opportunity for class change. There is no opportunity for intellectual diversity. If Ph.D. work is dangerous and not worth the risk, who will pursue it? Only those with nothing to lose? The elite have no risk in their pursuit of the Ph.D. The risk is for the poor, minorities, and downtrodden. Their articles suggest what is best for those thinking of pursing a Ph.D., only mentioning the negatives, only mentioning that a person will not be a tenure track professor. They never mention the enjoyment and the rewards of pursuing graduate work. They never mention overcoming.

Ph.D. students are some of the most intelligent, creative individuals. They spend hours every day trying to locate problems and then creating models that solve those problems. Why do we want fewer persons like this in the workforce? Why do we want to discourage such hard workers from producing solutions to complex problems? Why do we want fewer critical thinkers at the highest levels participating in any market?

Personally, what if I had listened to them? If I had not even tried to beat the odds of attending college? Seriously, who bets on 3%? Who takes that chance? No one! The odds of me graduating from college were abysmal. Should I have not tried graduate school either? Where is the spirit of rising to a challenge? Where is the fight? At what point do we let ‘odds’ determine what we pursue, what life we want, what type of society we want? The odds are always against us. There is always a reason not to do something, not to change your life or your neighbor’s life. The highest levels of education are an illuminating force. They can provide a person with opportunities that might not otherwise exist, particularly for the poorest of society. Education provides those persons with choices, and the ability to think through those choices; something that true poverty completely obliterates.

Pursing and completing a Ph.D. was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was mind-grueling work. I worked 70 plus hours a week for about $10,000 a year. It challenges every aspect of your identity, personhood, and future life. You are immersed in a world that suffocates you with the notion that a tenure track research job is the only measure of success; it is the only reason to pursue such a level of higher education.

Nevertheless, it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. In a complex sisyphean manner, there is beauty and power in the work itself. The constructed ‘outcome’ is irrelevant. The work literally changes who you are and the way you think. It breaks you down to nothing and then rebuilds you in a completely different way. So, do not tell me that if those persons discouraged from pursuing a Ph.D. are smart, they will still be successful if they chose not to pursue the Ph.D. Some persons ‘become’ during the degree. Learning from the process makes you different. It gives a person skills, substantive critical and analytical thinking, and an ability to process multiple perspectives simultaneously, all the while understanding the nuances of an argument with which you disagree while simultaneously contemplating a solution to the posited extant problem.

Instead of simply presenting the myriad of negative aspects, would we not be better served to think of other careers for Ph.D.’s, other ways to contribute to society, rather than simply defining ‘success’ as a tenure track research job. For instance, 53% of political science Ph.Ds work for the federal government. There are other areas wherein Ph.Ds could contribute. Could they not better the workforce in advising, industry, and healthcare, et cetera? Could not the military be better with more Ph.Ds? Could not our high schools be better with more Ph.Ds? Could not our lawmakers, bankers, lawyers?

Are not those faculty members such as William Pannapacker and Daniel Drezner actually perpetuating the problem? Are not they actually the failures? They are facilitating the prepostrus notion that if a person does not get a tenure track position at a Tier 1 research school, that person has somehow failed to reach the ultimate goal. Have they not failed by constructing a pseudo-reality of ‘success’ and then criticizing the system that they actually created? Have they not failed for not embracing their responsibility to see the larger picture with regards to defining the successful outcome of a Ph.D.? A tenure track research job is not the only answer. What about defining ‘success’ as the completion of a Ph.D.? What you do afterwards is not the measure of ‘success’.

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