Should you go to grad school?

posted Aug 23, 2017, 7:03 AM by Daniel Laurison   [ updated Aug 23, 2017, 12:39 PM ]

My first answer is read Tiim Burke's essay (where his short answer is “no”).

And then read Tressie McMillan Cottom's essay on what’s wrong with blanket “don’t go to grad school” advice. That will link you to a series of tweets by Sandy Darity on why maybe you should go to grad school.

And then if you want, read this. My short answer is, it depends on who you are and what you want to get out of it. 

First of all, if you’ve never not been in school, I don’t think you should apply for graduate school right now, in the fall of your senior year, or even necessarily the fall after your senior  year. Now I don’t know you, so I could be wrong, but I think going straight to graduate school is a bad idea for most people, for three reasons.  

·         First, the practical: researching and applying to grad schools well is at least as much work as one additional course in the fall of your senior year. Maybe two. That means you’ll be juggling more work than usual, at a time when you maybe should just be enjoying your last year of college, and when (if you do want to get into grad school), the quality of your work now can have a big effect on your chances later. You’ll also have a better shot if you have a completed thesis or other awesome research paper to use as a writing sample, and four years of grades in classes in your major. 

·         Second, unless you’re unusual for an undergraduate, you’ve never had a full-time, year-round job that wasn’t being a student. You don’t know that you don’t want to have work and a life outside of academia, because your whole life up to now has essentially been in school. You may know that you don’t want a job like the ones people in your family have, or like the ones you’ve worked in so far, but that is a very very small sample of the kinds of work that are out there for you once you graduate.

·         Finally, even if you’re 100% sure you want to be an academic (see below), I think you’re better off having at least one year of your whole life where you have a job that’s not primarily about learning or teaching; ideally you can also have a job that has clear duties and start- and end-times, where there are some hours of each day (and weekends!) where there’s nothing you really should be writing or reading, no upcoming academic deadlines hanging over your head.

Now, once you’ve been out of school for a year or more (or if you’re ignoring the above advice) – should you try to get a PhD? Here’s the first thing to know: most if not all of the people who you’re likely asking this question of are the people who lucked out. Among the 15 or so people who started grad school at Berkeley with me in 2004, I think about half of us have tenure-track jobs as sociologists; I’d guess that’s a better success rate (if you’re thinking about getting a PhD in Sociology in order to do anything other than be a professor when you’re done, there are better ways -- see below) than the average. Some of the people who didn’t end up in tenure track jobs made an affirmative decision to leave academia, but many of them wanted what I’ve got and couldn’t get it. These are people who are at least as smart, hard-working and otherwise fully qualified as those of us who landed jobs; the problem is simply that there are far more people with Sociology PhDs than there are tenure-track professor jobs. A lot of people end up working as adjunct professors, which means they get to teach undergraduates, but they usually have little job security, low pay, and little or no time for their own research; others leave academia for other things. I don’t know how many people, for various reasons, end up wishing they hadn’t gone to grad school, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot more than none.

So, to understand the full range of possibilities of what it’s like to try to get a PhD, navigate the academic job market, and work post-PhD, you’d want to talk to all those people who didn’t end up as professors at places they love. In quants-speak, when  you ask your professors about graduate school, you’re sampling on the dependent variable – if your question is “will x lead to good outcomes” you’d want to know the full range of x, not just the people with good outcomes.

That said, I love being an academic.  My full time, all day every day job is mostly about figuring out the answers to my questions about how class and politics work in the US and other places, and reading, writing, talking and teaching about subjects I care about. Not only that, I landed at place near a city I’m very happy to live in (this is really not that common; I know a lot of people living in places they would not have chosen if they had more choices). And I am at a school where the students are generally as excited about figuring stuff out as I am, where the institution broadly works from values I share, and where I am supported and rewarded for both conducting the research I think is important and trying to be as attentive and thoughtful and present in my teaching as I know how to be. None of these things are particularly common outcomes in academia, landing them all in one job is like winning the lottery.

I also loved graduate school itself, which as I understand it is not that common. I had a great time in most of the classes I was in, I really enjoyed my qualifying exams, and I liked doing the research for my dissertation and writing it up. There were parts that weren’t great, of course: I had to learn and adapt to any number of disciplinary norms that didn’t make much sense to me when I started, I had enormous trouble getting my first article published, and I didn’t like how long it took me (9 years), or that I was still a student at ages (through 36) when people who chose other career paths or started earlier/went quicker through the PhD were full-on mid-career adults in their professions. I didn’t like moving three times in 12 years (to Berkeley for grad school, to London for a post-doc, then to Philadelphia), and neither did my partner, or my kids on the last 2 moves; on the other hand I am incredibly lucky to have gotten to live in three really great places, and not to have had additional moves before getting a tenure-track spot. I did like that I had the flexibility to do a substantial portion of the parenting of my two kids who arrived while I was a graduate student, including roughly a semester with each baby where I was the main caregiver and my partner went to work. 

If you want to pursue a few intellectual questions deeply and intensely and in minute detail, develop your ideas and evidence and arguments to the point where they can withstand the often-harrowing (and sometimes capricious) process of peer review and publishing, and also teach graduate students and/or undergraduates, you might be happy in academia too. But there are other, simpler, less time-consuming, and higher success-rate ways to have a career that may be the thing you want, without a sociology PhD.  

I think a lot of people want to be sociologists because they have a pretty good idea about how the world or some portion of it could be better, and they think having a PhD will help them make that argument, or even make it happen. If you already know how things ought to work and just want to push them in that direction, a sociology (or other academic) PhD is a really poor way to accomplish that. In academia, our research often takes years, and then more years to get published, and then unless we’re also skilled publicists and/or very lucky isn’t read by that many people or reported on in newspapers or influential at all. There are all kinds of organizations where people do their research much more quickly, and then work to make sure it has the influence they want it to have. If you want to make a difference outside academia through research, consider getting an MA in public policy, or urban planning, or public health, or a similar field, then working in a policy think tank or a non-profit that advocates for the policies you believe are right.

Or, if you’re really interested just in the influence part and not so much in the research part, you might want to go work in politics or advocacy or organizing directly, and help run campaigns or work for the people you believe will fight for the policies you care about, or work for an organization that tries to get politicians and others with power to do better.

If it’s the teaching you’re interested in, rather than the research, are you sure you want or need to do it at the 4-year college level? PhDs are generally designed to be all about research, with a bit of teaching on the side. That’s a poor way to prepare professors, and an awful lot of work to do if it’s not the research that’s driving you. Could you get an MA and teach at a community college? Or teach high school?

What else makes you think academia is the right path for you? If there’s another way to do the kind of work you think you want to do, and have the kind of career you think you want to have, I’d encourage you to find out about it and see if it’s a good fit. So my general answer to the question of should you go to graduate school is: only if you really, really, want to do deep intensive research as your primary job. If that is what you want to do, then you should absolutely apply.

Update: this is now cross-posted on scatterplot, and if you want to see some other perspectives look at the comments there, the replies to this tweet, and the discussion on this facebook post .  One person in a post that's not public said they think it's malpractice to tell people to go to grad school without emphasizing that they should plan for an alternative (to tenure-track jobs) career and that it's OK to leave. 

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