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PhDoubts: Hidden Burdens of Academic Careers

todayFebruary 16, 2016 5

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By Joshua Morrison
Blog Content Contributor

Photo by superawesomevectors via Deviant Art
Photo by superawesomevectors via Deviant Art

I’m writing today to provide a valuable perspective regarding the decision to pursue graduate education. My goal is to insert this perspective into the discourse that surrounds an incredibly important decision that is not to be made lightly. It is a perspective I wish had been part of the conversation when I was making that decision. As somebody who is currently working on their second MA, it is a perspective I am equipped to give and it is my sincere hope that it benefits even one person.

The perspective I’m speaking from isn’t going to be relevant to everybody considering further education. Some careers, like law and medicine, require it. There are also people who, simply put, need to learn or sharpen skills before being employable in their desired industry. The people I’m speaking to are those who are thinking about pursuing advanced degrees with the intention of becoming academics.

The path to becoming a professor with job security is a path rarely discussed in detail, and the same is true of the daily life of somebody working in academia. To amend this oversight, we should first take a look at just how long it takes to land gainful, stable academic employment. Spoiler alert: it takes a long time.

A master’s degree is generally the first step toward an academic career. A standard master’s degree takes two years to complete. Next is the PhD. Four years is a common, though definitely unreasonable, expectation for the amount of time completing doctoral education should take. At this point we’re up to six years. The next step is landing a tenure-track position at a college or university. For those unfamiliar with this term, all you need to know is that tenure essentially means you can’t be fired unless you really mess up. A tenure-track position is essentially a trial run wherein a professor becomes part of a faculty while their colleagues decide whether or not their performance warrants tenure. The length of time spent on the tenure-track varies across institutions and departments, but five years is a fair approximate length. That brings the total time passed before any semblance of job security to 11 years.

Spending 11 years of your life working towards having a stable job is a tall order. Further, it is important to keep in mind that the map of the academic career path I’ve sketched is perhaps the most optimistic map ever drafted. Opportunities for mishap abound, and the system is all but rigged against aspiring academics.

The first bit of optimism that could prove fatal is the belief that completing a PhD in four years is a reasonable expectation. The average number of years it takes to complete a PhD has been shown to be over eight. The expectation of completing a PhD in half that time stems from the fact that many departments only offer funding packages for four, maybe five, years of doctoral education. Students often find themselves out of financial support with unfinished degrees, which leads many of them into crushing financial situations. This scenario is particularly likely for those outside of the hard sciences.

Photo by jean pierre gallot via Flickr
Photo by jean pierre gallot via Flickr

Financial burden is a very real consideration that must be taken into account when pursuing a PhD. It can be a costly endeavor and, unfortunately, holding a PhD does not at all mean that one can feel secure in their employment prospects. While moving from tenure-track to tenured is certainly a difficult process, it’s really only half the battle. Finding a tenure-track position in the first place can be an incredibly daunting task.

Many students are simply unaware of the system of academic rank and tenure, and most teachers decline to make their status within that rank known. As a result, there is little understanding among large swaths of the population when it comes to the precarious nature of a post-PhD life. The majority, the majority, of people who hold PhDs, who have spent a bare minimum of an entire decade pursuing their education, are unable to find full-time academic employment.

People with PhDs often end up accepting “adjunct instructor” positions. This term means nothing to a great deal of people, but it is an important term that points to a host of problems in the current academic infrastructure. Tenure-track positions are drying up as university administrations move toward employing adjunct instructors, who are by definition employed on a part-time, course-by-course basis. Academics who are employed as adjuncts often earn shockingly little per course and struggle mightily to earn a living. The possibility of earning an advanced degree only to end up in an adjunct position is alarmingly high: more than half of higher-education faculty are employed part time. This reality has led adjunct instructors being described as “the new working poor.”

Time and financial hardship are two pieces of a dangerous trifecta that warrant approaching the decision to pursue an academic career with serious caution. The third piece is the price of enduring higher education. Academia can breed isolation and often hosts a culture of silence about the toll it can take on a person’s mental health. Graduate education entails extensive research and writing that is usually paired with teaching requirements. Students are required to be available to their students while taking intense courses, producing research before presenting it at expensive conferences and trying to get it published, networking, and pursue an endless stream of other activities oriented toward professional development. All of this activity is too frequently undertaken without a support network and too few opportunities to discuss the difficulty in the open. The result? Staggeringly high rates of depression among graduate students.

The academy can be a great place for some. Research can be a rewarding endeavor that makes a difference in the world. Teaching students can be an edifying experience. During my time in graduate school I have met wonderful, fulfilled people. The perspective provided here is not meant to discount these possibilities. My hope is that I have provided some readers with insight into the academic world that they may not have previously received. I know that I, and many like me, have only come to realize what the academic life entails after experiencing it firsthand. The takeaway I wish to leave behind is merely that the decision to pursue this path is a weighty one and, in my estimation, should only be made by those for whom teaching and research are integral to fulfillment. To those people: Good luck.

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