Post Academic

Myths about grad students: Squatting doesn’t mean you’re a hippie, slacker, or future barista

Posted in Housekeeping by Arnold Pan on April 16, 2010

Caroline has done a great job debunking some commonly held assumptions about graduate students, particularly the idea that a Ph.D. candidate is basically a hippie / slacker (depending on the generation) destined to work at a Starbucks near you.  That isn’t to say there aren’t those perpetual grad students who still haven’t finished seminar papers when they should be done with their dissertation, but I’m not entirely sure where the idea that grad students are lazy underachievers comes from, because most of the always-almost Ph.D.s and post-degree hangers-on I know are probably working more and getting paid less without the same benefits as part-time lecturers at your local community college.  As Caroline’s post previous to this one shows, even admin at universities cling on to certain ideas of grad school life, that there is noble suffering in attaining one’s Ph.D. that will soon pay off–so be quiet and thankful for what you’ve got!

The following are some reasons to explain why the long time it often takes folks to finish Ph.D.s shouldn’t reflect badly on them as unmotivated, malcontent, and socially unadjusted:

1. It’s not personal, it’s structural: In a lot of cases, working at the poverty line begets the need to work more at the poverty line.  It’s not *simply* that grad students are constitutionally whiners (though I’d have to admit they do their good share of complaining), but that they are caught in a vicious circle that is difficult to get out of.  That’s why U Chicago Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen, as Caroline reports, seems so ill-informed and callous when she says, ““We’re talking about students who will soon no longer be in this situation,” because, for a lot of students, there is no magic wand or happy ending after years and years of barely subsisting in order to do the work you want and being used as cheap labor–interesting that Cohen doesn’t mention the latter.  And since there are fewer and fewer full-time jobs out there–U Chicago itself has been cutting back–the reality is that many students who finish will still be in the poverty situation, just without any institutional backing.

Which leads me to the next point, below the fold…

2. Street-smart squatting: Grad students, obviously enough, are no dummies.  But you might be surprised that they are street smart in addition to being book smart.  They figure that, once they leave grad school with their Ph.D but without a job, they have to start paying off the student loans that come with being paid at a poverty rate, lose their reasonably priced health benefits, and find, in some cases, new housing that’s not university subsidized.  So what would you choose between: having more expenses and debts to pay off with no guaranteed income OR swallowing your pride by staying in school to buy yourself some time for the next job cycle?  And for those who choose the latter, it’s not like they are making that choice to avoid working.  Because funding and guaranteed teaching gigs at your home institution begin to dry up the longer you stay, a lot of folks in this no wo/man’s land end up working more and more side jobs as SAT tutors and community college instructors to make up for the lost income and, sometimes, to pay for the tuition and fees you have to cough up in order to remain a grad student.

3. The old(er) grad student is not damaged goods: While we would all assume that the young prodigy who finished her/his dissertation in record time is the better job target, the converse is not true, namely that the older grad student who takes longer to finish is a worse candidate.  I can only provide anecdotal information here, but, at my home institution, lots of folks who have stayed past normative time–let’s say 6+ years–have done well on the job market; in fact, folks who got many of the most prestigious positions were grad students for even longer than that amount of time.  It’s probably better for your own peace of mind to get out of grad school as soon as possible and attain the relative security of a tenure-track job, but sometimes slow, steady, and persevering wins the race.  And you best believe that the prodigy who didn’t get a job after her/his 5th year in a humanities Ph.D. program is still in grad school.

“Two hippies at the Woodstock Festival,” by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell from Wikimedia Commons, licensed by Creative Commons

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