Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Wanted: Really Smart Suckers

I missed this article by Anya Kamenetz which has a provoking subtitle: “Grad school provides exciting new road to poverty” Here’s the introduction:

Here’s an exciting career opportunity you won’t see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it’s time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession’s ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off.

Warning: I don’t know what “having summers off” is supposed to mean. At least in Canada, most professors have no more than 4 weeks of vacations. Maybe some really cool schools give you 5 weeks off… You may not have students around you, but you have to do grant applications, research, teaching preparation, administrative duties, and so on.

There are some beautiful quotes in this article, check this one out:

“Top undergraduates are arrogant; they lack perspective,” says Benton. “They’ve been fawned over all their lives, and they think grad school is there to help them realize their potential, not to use them up and toss them out.”

This one is also beautiful:

“The best phrase I’ve heard for us is the intellectual lumpenproletariat,” he says, using the Marxist term for the ground-down members of the underclass who lack the class consciousness for revolt. “If something happened to empower those people, there would be an incredible efflorescence of culture in this country, because there’s more of them now than there ever has been. But they are too busy scuttling around getting shitty jobs.”

Household opera had this to say about the article:

Seven years ago, when I entered graduate school, people were still predicting that, while the academic job market admittedly sucked like a giant Hoover vacuum, there’d eventually be tenure-track positions opening up as all the older professors finally retired. Now that it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of those positions are being replaced by adjunct jobs, I wonder if the old “they’ll retire sooner or later” argument is still in use. If (as the Voice article reports), “[g]rad school applications are up slightly over the last decade, as unemployed college grads seek a haven from the job market,” I suspect yes — though this also suggests that a lot of bright young people see grad school as a way of sitting out economically tough times.

Anyhow, I come back to my old, tired argument: be forthcoming about job possibilities. This quote from the article says it all: “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It would have been different if I had known. You’re committed to your subject. You don’t think of yourself as a 40-year-old trying to support a family.”