Follow my lessons, not my footsteps

by David Alm on November 2, 2011

Last week I received an email from a former student asking for a letter of recommendation for graduate school, and I had no problem saying yes. He had taken three courses with me in three years, and been one of the best students I’ve had in my eight years of teaching. He is a gifted writer and a naturally curious young man with what some call an “excellence reflex.” He wants to do well and he does, by virtue of wanting to.

But when I saw the program he’s applying to, I bristled slightly: an interdisciplinary program in the humanities at a world-renowned university. The name of the school is irrelevant, as many prestigious universities are now offering such programs. What matters is that it reminded me of the program I received my own Master’s degree from, at the University of Chicago. I loved the program, learned a lot, developed the critical thinking skills I hoped I’d develop, and graduated with a great sense of pride in my accomplishment.

And then I spent nearly a year applying for jobs. I was 28, with numerous magazine credentials and a ghostwritten book to my name. I was also a newly minted Master — and that proved to be the biggest obstacle. Some weeks, I applied for more than a dozen jobs, many in grant writing or any other kind of editorial work for which I was a fit. I met each of these jobs’ desired qualifications, and often exceeded them.

Yet I never got an interview. I went broke applying for those jobs. And I sank into a deep depression. Occasionally I’d contact an organization and ask why I hadn’t been considered, and rarely did I get a response. When I did, these were the two most common answers: “We can’t pay you enough money.” And: “We didn’t think this job would be academic enough for you.”

First of all, who were they to tell me what was “enough money”? I needed work, and would have been thrilled with a $20,000 per year job at a nonprofit. To the second excuse, with just an MA, you can’t get a job that would be “academic enough.” This leaves people with MAs in the humanities (or liberal studies, or whatever) between a rock and a hard place. You have a big, fancy name on your resume, and it’s practically worthless. Worse, it can be a liability.

But it’s far from priceless. Most of these programs will run a student more than $50,000.

This isn’t to say they’re not worth it. As I said, my time at Chicago was one of the most worthwhile pursuits of my life. But — and this is a very big but — it took a long time after finishing the program for me to see any returns on my investment. Even today, more than eight years later, I have yet to repay my loans, in part because the only work my MA has helped me get is adjunct teaching, which doesn’t pay much. And I got my teaching work largely because of my journalism experience, not my MA. Ultimately, my degree’s value doesn’t hold a candle to the value of the experience.

That is, I cherish what the education gave me, but the degree itself reminds me of that old saw from Gloria Steinem: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Just swap in the words “intellectual” and “Master’s degree in the humanities,” and you get my point.

I would love to help my best students continue their studies in programs like the one I chose, which shaped me into the person I am today, but I have to pause. Should I also wish upon them the same struggles?

Then again, maybe those struggles are all part of the deal. No one ever said graduate school would be easy.

M Washburn November 2, 2011 at 10:03 am

did you mention your concerns to the student? i’d be inclined to let them make their own mistakes and accrue their own debt, but i’d pass along my experience along with the letter of rec.

my post-uchicago experience has been different from yours, or at least it was until the last year or so. now we’re very much in the same boat (a development which was catalyzed by circumstance but confirmed by choice). i entered the program hoping to resolve my ambivalence abt PhD work. i exited the program with my ambivalence intact, but it did help launch my public humanities career. i don’t think i’d have been able to get those jobs without the degree. and without the jobs, i doubt i’d have started writing professionally.

anyway, you know all of this about me, David. i’d be curious what other folks think about this issue.

a thought: is this post in tension with some of your previous posts, the ones that argue for the superiority of the liberal arts as liberal arts vs more instrumental forms of knowledge/education/power.

David Alm November 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Thanks for the comments, Mike. I did actually share my concerns, though he did not respond to that email. I tempered my doubts with plenty of encouragement, and basically just ended with, “Be sure to do your research.”

The differences in our experiences post-MA are interesting, in part because they reflect less about the similarity of our academic training than the sheer luck in building a career. Not that your writing talents or skills in public-humanities programs are “luck,” but getting certain opportunities largely are. For all of us.

While I’ve had a lot of frustrations post-MA, I’ve made much better use of the degree than many people who have similar MAs. It’s tempting to think this disparity comes from the fact that it’s a non-vocational degree, so of course its graduates would find themselves following different paths afterwards. But the same is true, I’ve gathered, among graduates of J-schools. Some are lucky enough to become actual journalists, while others do myriad other things.

As far as tension with my other posts goes, I’m not so sure. I think it’s a paradox I’m still grappling with: the humanities are of the utmost value, and yet they’re utterly worthless.

Jeff McMahon November 3, 2011 at 10:31 am

Thank you for this provocative post, David, and for the conversation, gentlemen.

I’ve worked with a thousand MA students now, and I’ve seen many get jobs because of the credential, some struggle ridiculously for years applying unsuccessfully for find jobs they could do with their eyes closed, and I know from personal experience what David means about the possible liability of certain advanced degrees—they can turn some employers off. I’m not sure about the luck premise. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone get a job through luck. Timing helps sometimes, but I think the deal usually closes for reasons less random, ultimately, than luck.

But MAs in the humanities are like English majors, right? They’re non-vocational, and if all the warnings from parents—and all the times Uncle Fred asks “What are you going to do with that?”—don’t dissuade a student from that path, will a warning from Prof. Alm do the trick?

Still I think it’s an important ethical question for a recommender to ask himself, and thank you for asking it aloud.

People often talk about critical thinking as the aim of these programs, I would add some aims that sound fundamental but that can be highly refined in graduate school — how to read, how to write. And in our program, at least, I’ve noticed a startling side effect of graduate study—our students become very powerful and efficient workers. Yes, they all read Marx in Autumn, and yes, by June they are incredibly industrious and reliable workers. That’s why, in a slightly sinister twist, the university loves to hire them.

David Alm November 3, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I actually didn’t say people got jobs through luck, but opportunities. Maybe it’s splitting hairs to distinguish them, but my point was that you need to get a foot in the door before you can get a job. Or make a connection. Otherwise you’re just part of the great, unknown wash adding to the pile of resumes on an employer’s desk. And if you’re in that situation, as I was after my MA — and continue to be whenever I bother applying for editorial jobs — god help you.

Moreover, I’d venture to say that the students you’ve known who’ve gotten jobs because of their MA did not have much experience leading up to the MA. As a result, the MA becomes their primary calling card, the thing they use to set themselves apart from the rest. I knew plenty of people in my cohort who got jobs with decent salaries after the program ended. And they were five years younger than me, with a fraction of my professional experience. Why did I struggle while they got jobs?

I always speculated that it was because no one knew how to position someone like me, with my unique combination of New York editorial experience and an MA from Chicago. I couldn’t be placed in an entry-level job at the university, for example, because I was overqualified (or more accurately, differently qualified). But that’s not to say I wasn’t willing to learn, just as the people who they did hire were. The point is, they made a presumption about me — and if my experience applying for seemingly hundreds of jobs is any indication, it was a common presumption.

As for the non-vocational yet intrinsically valuable nature of humanities programs, I agree — in theory. But that’s the problem. We’re not talking about theories here. We’re not talking about how to be a more “rounded” and “conscientious” human being. We’re talking about getting a job. And if you can’t get a job with a six-figure education (including undergrad), then what, really, is the point?

I’m always the first to defend the value of studying — and I mean really studying — the humanities. But I am beginning to wonder if I do so largely, and merely, out of habit.

Finally, wonderful point about why the university rewards graduates of its MA program with jobs at the university. I always found it ironic that a de-facto requirement of becoming a paper-pushing administrator would be having wrestled with Judith Bulter in a graduate seminar on Thingness.

Or to use a telling anecdote: I recall a party several miles north of Hyde Park, circa 2005, at which one of my grad-school friends, who had become an academic administrator at Chicago was engaged in a lengthy discussion with her co-workers, whom she had brought to meet other people. On my way to get another beer, I overheard her say to her friends, with great zeal, “They’re trying to make Excel do things that it doesn’t want to do!”

Bringing the humanities into the world, indeed.

Jeff McMahon November 3, 2011 at 7:41 pm

You might like this: 100 Reasons Not To Go To Graduate School, via Frank Popper:

http://100rsns.blogspot.com/p/complete-list-to-date.html

David Alm November 6, 2011 at 8:49 am

Thanks, Jeff. Many of those are quite good. What do you think of his reasons and reasoning?

Jeff McMahon November 6, 2011 at 3:20 pm

I think that’s a huge question, because there are 71 reasons, to date, each with its own reasoning. And I’ve got like 30 seconds. I’ll tell you this: I think #1 (“The smart people are somewhere else”) is too glib. There are smart people in grad school too.

Amanda K November 8, 2011 at 10:05 am

Hi David. I wanted to respond to this last week but was too busy. I too had an incredibly hard time finding a job after MAPH. So much so, in fact, that I took a significant pay cut from my pre-MA salary, and ended up temping for an entire year. I only went back up in salary when I was lucky enough that a former boss in San Francisco offered me my old job back for a year. Then I ran off to get the PhD, which everyone tried to warn against (they were right and wrong, on a few different levels). The program closed many doors, but it did open a few, so I’m trying to figure out how I really feel about that experience.

I have a lot to say about this topic, but perhaps this isn’t the forum. I’m struggling now, as a professor, with what I am supposed to say when my students ask about graduate school.

Thanks for the blog in general, and this topical post.

David Alm November 8, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for your comment, Amanda, and congratulations on becoming a professor despite all the discouragement you faced in pursuing an academic career. (We all faced the same discouragement, of course.)

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on how your PhD has closed more doors than it’s opened, and how you feel about it. I understand the desire to protect your reputation, though, and to not say anything potentially damning on a public forum. If you have any thoughts you would feel comfortable sharing, though, I can’t think of a better forum than this.

Your dilemma when asked by students about graduate school reminds me of my own meetings with professors when I was in school. I understood their warnings, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was kind of ironic that a gainfully employed, tenured or tenure-track professor with a seemingly idyllic life in a little college town would sit there and warn a young hopeful about the perils of pursuing such a life himself. I couldn’t help feeling like, despite receiving excellent grades and remarks from them, they were saying, “Oh sure, it worked out for me. But it won’t for you.” As a result, it felt like inherently elitist counsel, and it frankly did more to hurt my feelings than provide any real insight.

Now that I’m older, and in that position (sort of) myself, I get it. They knew how lucky they were to be teaching, and how unlucky many of their equally qualified colleagues have been in their own searches for work.

But the quandary remains: How do you sit at your desk, across from a student asking you about graduate school, flanked by interesting-looking books, with a large window overlooking some leafy quad in autumn, and tell her that it’s not worth it?

Amanda K November 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm

David: Oh, I definitely meant that MAPH closed more doors than it opened. The PhD, I would say, does whatever you want it to do–whether you decide to become an “academic” on one of many levels, or you leave and tell prospective employers that it wasn’t the right world for you. I went in knowing the stark facts of employment, and yes, I am able to speak to my students from my nice little office with a big window overlooking, well in my case it’s a large bush and a parking lot. But I do have a job, and an office, and I’m thrilled for that.

I do feel very lucky to be teaching, and it is not for everyone. I’m here for two years, but then I have to start from scratch again–unforgiving job market, no guarantees of employment. I’d say it is quite a gamble, but from the state of the economy worldwide, it seems like a gamble regardless of one’s field or scholarly choices.

I tell my students to think about it, do your research, take time off, work outside of school if you can, and then reassess down the road a few years. By then the idea to come back is less “I don’t know how to get a job” or “This is all I know” and more “I weighed my options and I want to continue this work.”

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