Post Academic


Taking Time Off Before Grad School: Part Two, the Practice

Image SourceI knew exactly what I was doing when I applied to graduate school in English during my senior year of college. First, I wanted to get my letters of reference squared away before my advisors forgot me. Not that I would blame them for doing so. Professors are busy people who are always being asked for references. They’re bound to get people mixed up at some point.

I also wanted to get the testing over with. I took the GRE and the LSAT at the same time while I was in a studying mood.

Sure, if I had taken a year off, my writing sample would have been much better. I know my statement of purpose would have been better. But it’s hard to argue with momentum.

I didn’t want to go to grad school because I had hazy aspirations of a sheltered life in the academy. I wanted to get a job and move somewhere new. I had the test scores, the papers, the references, and a few years of tutoring under my belt. It made sense to go to grad school in English, not to go to some random city where I didn’t have a job and flounder a while until I found myself.

My undergrad advisors had warned me the job market was tough. They warned me not to stay in the same place where I did undergrad. One of them even told me straight-up not to go if I didn’t get funding. That advice was a real jolt, but it was the best advice I ever got. A program accepted me, I got funding, and I started my MA in the fall.

The point of all this? Undergrads are not necessarily lost if they tell you that they want to go to grad school. Many of them have thought out a plan. Many of them have back-up plans. Just tell them the truth about the market, the funding, the job prospects, and the placements–especially the placements. If you tell the truth and they go anyway, they can’t blame you if they don’t get a job in the end. I sure don’t blame my undergrad advisors for the fact that I decided I didn’t want to be a professor after all.

An image of the game Irides, an abstract strategy game designed by J.C.Tsistinas. Image from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Taking a time out *after* grad school: The professional benefits? (with poll!)

"Neon Sign: Time Out" by Justinc (Creative Commons license)

Caroline’s post about taking time off between undergrad and grad school got me to thinking about the far-fetched and not-very-practical idea of taking time out from academia *after* completing your Ph.D.  I know, the last thing a new Ph.D. wants to do is delay making sure that tenure-track position wasn’t all a mirage and finally earning grown-up money at least 5-10 years after most of your college friends did.  Plus, there are matters like knowing where you are going to live for a while and maybe moving on with a “life” life.  And a lot of folks finish their Ph.D.s after lining up a job, not vice versa, so they’re already pursuing the next stage of their professional lives.

But let’s say that there was some kind of magic or funding source that enabled you the time and freedom to consider what they wanted to do after your Ph.D. and just to recharge your batteries, like if you had a year of dissertation fellowship at the very end, but you were already finished.  It might help someone like myself and the pseudonymous “Eliza Woolf”, who addresses her own career crossroads in a new Inside Higher Ed column, “On the Fence”:

Why? What’s so great about academe?

I can think of quite a few things, but my inability to abandon ship boils down to these five factors:

1) Academe is the devil I know, and being a professor is what I’ve trained to do.

2) The promise of autonomy and a flexible schedule is awfully tempting.

3) Research and teaching feel like a career, not a job (service not so much).

4) How else will I pay off my hefty student loan debt?

5) I am terrified of starting over when a tenure-track job could be around the corner.

These are as good as any reasons to stay in academia, I guess, but having some space to deal with these uncertainties and mental blocks might help folks like us unthink some of the career assumptions above and rethink our expectations of life-as-an-academic.  Those of you who are sure that being a prof is all you ever wanted can stop reading now, although maybe that destiny is a prophecy fulfilled after the fact, since I probably wouldn’t have thought about this if I had a tenure-track position.  For a lot of us, though, it’s probably not an awful idea to have some distance from academia, especially since many of our people (like “Eliza Woolf”–and like myself!) have never or barely left a college campus after age 18.  It might not be a bad idea to look at what else is out there between our late teens and our early-to-mid 30s, huh?

Below the fold are some considerations on how I could/would/should use my (ahem, not-so) hypothetical year off…

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Taking Time Off Before Grad School: Part One, the Theory

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionTenured Radical champions the notion that undergrads should take some time off before entering a grad program. They’ll gain focus and experience, and maybe they’ll find a career so swell they won’t need grad school:

Regardless of whether you like this or not, or whether it seems fair, it is simply a fact that actual graduate school admissions committees at select schools will regard your application more favorably if you take a significant amount of time off. Two to five years, I would say. Want to do labor history? Be an organizer; spend one of those years as a day laborer or a factory worker. An anthropologist? Leave the country and learn a language. Learn two. Cultural studies? Try an advertising agency or tending bar on the Lower East Side of New York.

This makes perfect sense. Life experience can add dimension to a dissertation, and students will professionalize themselves in ways that will help them on the market. But I almost wish that Tenured Radical just uttered the Pannapacker Doctrine: “Just Don’t Go.”

Saying “just don’t go” sounds extreme, and it is, but at least it admits there’s a problem with the grad school system in general.

Maybe the real message is that people shouldn’t go to grad school until the big problems–namely the lack of jobs and the unwillingness of the program to help current students with back-up plans–are solved. If that’s the case, then people are going to need to take a whole lot more than two to three years off.

So, tomorrow … why didn’t I wait a few years to go to grad school?

Student teachers practice teaching kindergarten at the Toronto Normal School, Canada, 1898. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.