I don’t know much, but I do know a lot about graduate school. Getting a PhD in psychology was my dream since I was about 17. I took college classes on “careers in psych” when I was in high school; I read the APA’s Getting In: A Step-by-Step for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology when I was 18. When I was 20, I applied to over 20 graduate programs in psychology and political science, and got admissions offers with funding from 5. At 25 I finished my PhD without paying a cent (I have debt from undergrad, but not grad).
But my shit is anomalous. I got really really lucky. And all my hard work didn’t land me an academic, tenure-track job. As the Bachelor’s degree becomes devalued and people flock to Master’s and PhD programs, graduate school is largely becoming an expensive farce. Graduate students lead the charge in debt accumulation in the US.
At the same time, as the number of graduate school slots are expanding, the number of academic, tenure-track jobs with benefits shrinks every year. Most schools now use between 50–70% adjunct labor to fill their classes. Adjuncts are only offered a part-time course load, receive no benefits, earn very little, and typically have to work multiple jobs at several institutions in order to get by. If you get a PhD and don’t have a job offer, that will be you.
The vast majority of graduate students leave with upwards of $50,000 in debt (especially Master’s students). And the job market for academics is total shit. I have a colleague who applied to 98 jobs — 98!!!! — and got two interviews. And that shit? Is common. And that’s to say nothing of the people who drop out of graduate school without a degree, decide the program isn’t for them, suffer from paralyzing stress, etc.
So. Should you go to graduate school? Probably not. Ask yourself…
- Do I want to work in academia? For many disciplines, especially the humanities there are virtually no job opportunities for MA’s and PhD’s, unless you want to a) be a professor, or b) work as an adjunct.
- Do I think I can get a job as a tenured professor? Do some research. How many tenure-track jobs are posted each year, nationally, for your discipline? Talk to recent graduates. How many jobs did they apply to? How many interviews did they get? How many of them have no tenure-track or long-term contracted offers? Probably the vast majority.
- Do I have a way of paying? If not, you can expect to pay thousands per semester, more if the school is private. Plus living expenses.
- Do I want a PhD? A Master’s degree does not necessarily open job doors. Sometimes it’s better to be out in the world accumulating two or three years of work experience instead (and no debt).
- Do I have funding? Do not go to graduate school if you do not have funding. Do not. Do not. A professor once told me, “If you’re doing it right, you should not have to pay for graduate school.” PhD programs have funding packages. Apply for PhD programs. Only want a Master’s? You can always drop out after you get your Master’s. Funding also usually comes with work that helps you build your resume. I know lots of people with MA’s and MS’s who got zero hands-on work experience while in school.
- Can I live on $14,000 a year? PhD students typically get research assistantships that cover tuition, health insurance, and provide a small stipend to live on. They range from $12,000-$20,000 a year. If you aren’t comfortable living in a studio, eating peanut butter, and wearing the same sweaters five years in a row, this is not the racket for you. If you have chronic conditions, family members to support, kids to feed, or other costly needs, you will be strapped for cash the whole time.
- Can I handle criticism? I see it every year. Perfect A-Plus students who always do everything right come to graduate school…and have their confidence shattered. Graduate school is both a job and a mentorship program. You will be heavily criticized, questioned, and demoralized. If you cannot handle (and accept!) negative feedback, you will fail. No one is talented enough to skate through graduate school without tons of negative feedback and frustrations. You need to be equipped to handle it.
- Am I a perfectionist? If so, graduate school will derail you. Effective graduate students know how to manage their time and work smart rather than hard. You have to learn to skim, to write quickly, and to produce a ton of work without wringing your hands over whether the work is up to your standards or not. Sometimes your papers will suck. So? You’re gonna be getting tons of negative feedback regardless. It’s better to be productive than to be perfect.
- Am I capable of self-motivating? The people who fuck up and take 10 years to graduate are often the people who need constant feedback, structure, and supervision. In undergrad, you receive firm deadlines. In the workplace, there are managers and clients who ride your ass to make sure you make progress. In graduate school, no one cares if you are writing your thesis or not. Your adviser will expect that you can work on your own. You have to set your own schedule, commit to working on your own projects, and show up every day just like it’s a job. No one else will force you. I’ve seen people take upward of 7 years on a 2 year Master’s because they lacked this initiative and got distracted by other life responsibilities.
- Am I an independent worker? Graduate school requires a lot of reading, researching, and writing in absolute solitude. If you don’t work well alone, you will get super depressed and lonely. I did.
- Do I want this? In psychology, at least, graduate schools have an acceptance rate of 10% or lower. So, the admissions process is hard. Coursework is hard and tedious. Exams are fucking hard. Your adviser shitting on you all the time is hard. A dissertation is a two-year long marathon at least. Intelligence does not predict success in graduate school. Being a good student in undergrad doesn’t predict success either. You have to want it despite all the limitations, setbacks, and frustrations outlined above. Don’t do this shit to yourself if you don’t want it enough to endure all that.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.