Post Academic


Please, Please Don’t Take It Personally If You Get Rejected

Posted in Process Stories,The Education Industry by postacademic on March 17, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox Extension Judging from the popular message boards such as The Grad Café and So You Want to Go to Grad School, which Arnold’s already covered, this is the time of year when people either get accepted or rejected for grad school. You’re not alone: Aspiring professors are finding out if they got postdocs and tenure-track jobs, too.

One recent poster at So You Want to Go to Grad School wrote about getting rejections and how tough that was since he/she has a strong academic record. The headline was “Rejected and Dejected.”

Do not be dejected. Don’t take it personally if you get rejected for a tenure-track job, grad school or a postdoc. This is one case in which you can rest assured that it’s not you … it’s them. Thanks to this wretched economy, more people are applying for a dwindling number of slots, and some programs are dropping fellowship funding altogether.

If you were rejected in the early stages of all your applications, then maybe you should tweak those applications for another round. But if you are sure that you made it to the later stages and didn’t break through, don’t fret about your talent or give up altogether. Try again next year if it is your true passion, or keep looking for your true passion.

By the time you are a finalist for the job, much of the decision is out of your hands. There are so few slots that, even if you have excellent scores and recommendations, your victory will be a matter of taste. It may also be a matter of office politics, which you cannot escape in academia. (In fact, office politics may be worse in academia, but that’s another matter for discussion …) Keep your skill sets sharp, apply again, and don’t close your eyes to other opportunities.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot of movie “Cry Havoc” from public domain.

Academics and “The New Poor”

Posted in Absurdities,The Education Industry by postacademic on March 16, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionThanks to the recession, more people are re-training and going back to school to pick up a trade and get a job. This kind of flexibility and willingness to learn should be rewarded, right? However, according to the NYT, these students might wind up in deep debt because it costs so much money to attend some trade schools, and the educational hucksters behind those schools inflate the amount the students might make upon graduation.

Before you breathe a sigh of relief that you are in a grad school program, not a trade school program, think again. Above the Law was quick to note that the “big-debt-for-high-salary-that-doesn’t-exist” problem is also rampant in law school: “That sounds like exactly the kind of scam many law schools are running.”

As for grad school, the “scam” isn’t as scuzzy because many professors really do believe in the value of a liberal arts education, but the results are the same: There aren’t enough jobs out there for the applicant pool, and the ones that are out there don’t pay enough to cover your debt.

Before entering any training program, whether it is grad school in English or ITT Tech or Rooster’s College of Hair Artistry, find out if you can pay off your debt based on the salary of your chosen profession. If the math does not work for you, try another profession.

The New Poor: In Hard Times Lured Into Trade School and Debt [NYT]

Hypocrisy on Stilts: Law School Professor Calls Out Trade Schools Over Student Debt [Above the Law]

Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Broke-Ass Schools: Justifying Your Existence in Academia

Posted in Ask an Academic,Broke-Ass Schools,The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on March 15, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionMore and more broke-ass schools are evaluating their grad programs to determine which ones are worth it, and some programs are getting cut completely. In order for programs to survive, the professors, grad students, and undergrad students must do a better job justifying what they do, especially if there aren’t many majors in the program.

Why should you have to justify yourself to a bunch of MBAs who are only interested in money? It’s not fair. And not all disciplines can be monetized, but, in order for your department to survive, you need to prove that your discipline is generating students who are well-rounded, no matter what their major is.

Harry at Crooked Timber has a lengthy post answering the question “What’s the point of having a Philosophy Department in an American university?” and one of his statements stuck:

I like having students who are thrilled about doing Philosophy, and the handful that I have helped on their way to graduate school have been among the students I have valued teaching most. But so have students who became, or are becoming, social workers, nurses, teachers, and who took one of my classes simply to fulfill a requirement or on a whim or because some counselor strongly suggested it (the most insulting—because the student fancied the counselor who suggested it). When I think about justifying the existence of my department and what we should be doing, it is those students, and the value we can produce for them, that I think of first.

Focus on what your department and your classes bring to the core curriculum. It might sting that you cannot talk about your specific field of study, but narrow fields of study aren’t going to generate the kind of cash that will keep your department alive. Indicate that no matter how obscure your subject might seem to an administrator, it offers students a buffet of options so they can fulfill their core requirement so they can earn a deeper education and become more valuable employees or entrepreneurs.

What’s the point of having a Philosophy Department in an American university? [Crooked Timber]

Image from the German Federal Archive on Wikimedia Commons.

Surviving Grad School: An Increasing Number of Empty Chairs

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 14, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionOne of the best parts of grad school was a weekly tradition we had called “Victorian Lunch,” where grad students picked up take-out meals and ate outside on UCI’s campus. The lunch probably should have been called “Novel Lunch,” as I wasn’t even a Victorian, but the topics were up my alley. Of course, the lunch wasn’t all about academic subjects, and I picked up plenty of practical advice, some of which I wish I knew before going to grad school.

In fact, I believe it was my former advisor, Homer Brown, who told a fascinating story about his first class in his first year in grad school. He admitted that the professor instilled fear into the hearts of the students through a simple exercise, one that you should probably try if you go to grad school yourself:

1. Look to your left.
2. Look to your right.
3. Take note that both of those chairs will be empty by the end of the year.

The genius of the exercise was that everyone would be gone, yet the person in the middle could still cling to the fact that she might be the exception.
(more…)

Some more annoying personalities you will meet in grad school programs

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Arnold Pan on March 12, 2010
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Since Caroline’s earlier post was such a big hit, I wanted to get in on the fun and identify a few other common grad student personality types to add to her list.  You can read whatever meaning into “more” you want, whether as “some more” or “more annoying,” depending on what you can tolerate and can’t.

6. The Networking Name Dropper

Kind of a hybrid between The Disciple, The One-Upper, and The Gossip.  Like The Disciple (just more fickle) in his idolatry of the latest, greatest theorist.  Like The One-Upper in that he will explain why your favorite theorist pales in influence and significance to said latest, greatest theorist, if only because he has met the latter at some conference where your paper wasn’t accepted.  Like The Gossip in that he will tell you all about it.

Annoyance Level: Depends on how much you enjoy inside baseball.  At the very least, you might find out some interesting stories that might encourage you to indulge your inner Gossip.

Danger Level: Low.  He’s just not that into you.

How to Handle: Just let him find someone more interesting and more networking-worthy to talk to, which might not take too long.  He’s probably just as eager to stop talking to you as you are him, if only for different reasons.

7. The Passive Aggressor

Academia is full of very nice people, some of them maybe too nice.  The Passive Aggressor wants to be your friend and probably is, so you might not notice when low-maintenance go-with-the-flow guy becomes high-maintenance drama-king who justifies it by feeling bad about it.  What’s worse is that The Passive Aggressor Grad Student can grow up and become The Passive Aggressor Professor, whose obsessive conflict avoidance and shilly-shallying might actually eff things up for someone.

Annoyance Level: Varies.  But when you find fault with someone who tries hard to be faultless (and might be faultless), you’re probably pretty annoyed.

Danger Level: Sneaky high.  You probably won’t notice you’ve been embroiled in a friendship with baggage until you’ve actually invested in it and it’s too late.  Before you know it, The Passive Aggressor might have turned you into The Downer.

How to Handle: After a while, you’ve gotta figure out the cycle and break it.  Or else, try to out passive aggressive them until they can’t put up with you.

8. The Perpetual Grad Student

If grad programs gave out Letter Jackets, this guy would be wearing one (along with whatever was in fashion when he started grad school that has long been out-of-date).  He’s the late-bloomer version of the big-man-on-campus, who spends too much time on the department listserv in flame wars or giving too much unsolicited advice to the new batch of students.  (On the other hand, pot might be meeting kettle here, considering that Post Academic might just be a glorified version of such a hypothetical listserv.)

Annoyance Level: Low.  The one thing about The Perpetual Grad Student is that he is usually very earnest and idealistic.  Unless he’s The Creepy Perpetual Grad Student who stays in school to hit on the new grad students and the undergrads he teaches.

Danger Level: Not high–so long as you don’t become him!

How to Handle: Try to find things to talk about that aren’t related to school and department politics.  Anyone so obsessed with grad school is probably obsessed with something else.

As Caroline wrote earlier, a lot of these personality quirks are fostered by the culture of grad school and, in many ways, out of anyone’s personal control.  Indeed, in the spirit of full disclosure and semi-self-awareness, I’ve probably gone through phases where at least some aspects of all these types have applied to me in varying degrees during the grad school process, arriving now at some combo of The Downer (who wouldn’t be after being on this crappy academic job market) and The Perpetual Grad Student.  And you can probably find something good in most of these personality types, since being idealistic, overly persistent, too nice, and overachieving aren’t necessarily bad things in the right context.  They’re just not as fun to write and snark about!

Students at Victoria College, 1910, William James (not that William James), Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.  Image from Wikimedia Commons.

5 Annoying Personalities You Will Meet in Grad School Programs, and How to Cope With Them

Posted in Absurdities,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 11, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionBoth in and out of the ivory tower, you will meet people you don’t like, and you will have to get along with them or learn to avoid them. Here’s how to handle certain personality types:

1. The Disciple

The Disciple is a workaholic in disguise. Even at parties, no matter how much you liquor her up, she will still keep chanting the mantra of her chosen theoretical bent.

Annoyance Level: High. Do you really want to talk about Barthes all night long?

Danger Level: Low, unless you’re around when she finally has a nervous breakdown.

How to Handle: The annoyance level is high because her chanting will drive you nuts. However, if you change the subject tactfully and successfully, you might find a fun person underneath the work obsession.

2. The Downer

If the Disciple’s mantra is “Foucault, Foucault, Foucault” or “Lacan, Lacan, Lacan,” the Downer’s mantra is “my mentor sucks,” “my students suck,” and “this party sucks.” Oh, yeah, and everything sucks.

Annoyance Level: Low. Who doesn’t love a good pity party? Frighteningly enough, many of the Downer’s complaints are legitimate.

Danger Level: Medium. When you wake up from your pity party, the problem that caused the party will still exist.

How to Handle: With the isolation that comes with the ivory tower, every grad student has the potential to become the Downer. Introduce the individual to sunlight, suggest possible solutions to his problems, and remind him that the world will not stop spinning if he doesn’t get a tenure-track job.

3. The One-Upper

When someone says, “Oh, you got an A? Yes, he gives everyone A’s. I got an A-plus,” you try not to punch the person in the face.

Annoyance Level: High. A talented one-upper can diminish all your accomplishments with a single chunk of snark.

Danger Level: Believe it or not, low. A One-Upper just likes to make you feel bad, but if you ask her to prove she’s better than you, she will chicken out. That A+ she’s talking about is cover for a few B’s. Guaranteed.

How to Handle: Don’t even try to fathom this person’s insecurities. Comfort yourself with the fact that she will eventually get put in her place. Suggest therapy if you’re feeling bold and can find an exit quickly.

4. The Gossip

The most entertaining person in the department, bar none! After talking to the Disciple, the Downer, or the One-Upper, the Gossip will seem like an oasis since the Gossip actually smiles and laughs.

Annoyance Level: Low. As long as you aren’t the subject of the gossip.

Danger Level: High. Especially if you are the subject of the gossip.

How to Handle: Be nice to the Gossip so she doesn’t take anything out on you, and don’t reveal any information in exchange for a juicy tidbit. And keep your voice low. You don’t want anyone else to hear your yakking.

5. The Drama Queen

The Drama Queen can be male or female. Like the Gossip, this person is charismatic and might seem fun at first. Professors and grad students alike adore him. He charms (or sleeps) his way into everything instead of working hard like everyone else.

Annoyance Level: Off the charts if you’re the only person to see through the charade or if the Drama Queen is banging your advisor.

Danger Level: Double that. A bad reputation is the very least you could catch from this person.

How to Handle: Avoid at all costs. Do not get caught in the spider’s web. The Drama Queen may go far, but hold your envy in check, and don’t waste your energy envying him. A Drama Queen doesn’t have any substance to back up his style, and he has a long way to fall.

Anyone in academia has a few of these personality characteristics. Downers and gossips in particular lurk within, always waiting to emerge at your next social gathering. (For the record, I am one-half Disciple and one-half Downer.) By learning how to tame these tigers, you will be ahead of the game when it comes to professionalizing yourself and preparing for the tough terrain of job applications and interviews. You’ll encounter these personalities over and over in the future, but coping with them is a critical job skill.

Michelle et Christine avec des amis, Paris 1972, Francois Mativet. Image public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

Transfer Your Skills: Looking at the Academy in a Whole New Way

Posted in Transfer Your Skills by Caroline Roberts on March 11, 2010
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PhotobucketIs the academy really an ivory tower in which professors and grad students slave away on research without contact with the outside world? Absolutely not. You have to learn how to share the knowledge you’ve gained, which means you need to think of fresh ways to present complex theories and big ideas to the outside world. The Globe and Mail offers a feature by their “Nerd Girl,” Dr. Jennifer Gardy, who has a fresh perspective on grad school:

The point of grad school isn’t to cram you full of knowledge related to one very exclusive area of research; instead it’s to develop you into a researcher and equip you with the skills — independence, academic creativity, communication — that you’ll need to succeed downstream.

It’s all about the “downstream” part. I can vouch that I did pick up the skills I needed to find good jobs downstream. Academia is half research and half learning how to share your vast knowledge with the rest of the world. If you go into grad school hoping to read and right all day, you are bound to be disappointed.

Hat Tip: Going Graduate

Cold Pizza, Destitution and Your Dream: Graduate Research [The Globe and Mail]

Surviving Grad School: The Mentor Backup Plan

Posted in First Person,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 8, 2010
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PhotobucketYour undergrad advisor was probably a well-meaning soul who didn’t want to trick you, but you won’t find out what grad school is really like until you’re in it. This series is for those who are already in grad school (or considering it) and have just encountered a grad school surprise:

The person you dreamed of working with turns into a creep, flakes out, or dies.

Like The Man says, you need to “diversify, diversify, diversify.” Knowing the field you want to study and sticking to it can be a big help because you can develop relationships with multiple professors. When one professor turns out to be a sexist pig and another has a nervous breakdown, just move on down the line. When the line ends, you’re not at the right place for you, so transfer or bail.

You may argue that prestige is important, but Professor Prestige won’t do you a lick of good if she never shows up for office hours and can’t remember your name … even though you’ve had three classes with her and she’s assigned to be your mentor. You need to find the kind of advisor who will go to bat for you.

If you have a dream advocate, you still need to prepare to shift gears in the event of his death. I seriously considered going back to school to finish my PhD, but my advisor died soon after I left. Homer (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”) Brown was a wonderful, funny, kind, smart man. I met my husband in his Transatlantic Fiction class. Thanks to Homer, I discovered my love of the epistolary novel. If I had decided to return to school, I could have worked with other people, but I had been out of the academia game for so long that it would have been tough to rebuild relationships. In that sense, the academic track has a lot in common with the hamster track: You must find good mentors, you must network, and you must nurture your relationships because you can’t predict what will happen next.

Grad School Programs Death Watch: University of Iowa

One of the cardinal rules of humanities grad school is that, if you’re going to go, make sure you get paid to go. Many grad school programs offer fellowships, but those fellowships are getting cut next year at the University of Iowa:

The UI’s graduate programs that were marked as needing more evaluation in a recent report won’t receive fellowship funding to recruit new students for the upcoming academic year, Graduate College Dean John Keller said Thursday.

Some of the programs affected include the following: “American studies, Asian civilizations, comparative literature, comparative literature (translation), film studies, German [and] linguistics.”

If you have a passion to attend grad school in any of these programs, what’s happening at the University of Iowa could be a trend, and it will be tougher to get funding. I’m not sure what people seem to have against learning other languages, as other nations encourage students to learn more than one language, but maybe someone will come to their senses.

14 programs won’t get new grad money [The Daily Iowan]
U. of Iowa Lists 14 Graduate Programs at Risk for Cuts or Elimination [Chronicle of Higher Ed]

Tips for Getting Through the PhD Process Alive

Posted in Process Stories,The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on March 4, 2010
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If you’re here, you’re probably familiar with the article by Thomas H. Benton titled “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.” It’s a bummer, and it’s an even bigger bummer for those who are in the middle of a grad program and feeling stuck.

But you don’t have to bogged down in the grad-school process. You could leave, or you could stay, finish, and treat grad school like any other job experience. Matt Feeney at The American Scene offers a list of tips. The following is just a summary of his points:

* View the PhD as an end in itself

* Try not to take too long

* Take an occasional moment to note that your “job” for the time being is to read books, some of them “great,” and talk about them (Best part of grad school, in my opinion, so love it!)

* Take up a dissertation topic might get you sent to cool places for research, language-learning

* Socialize outside of your department

* Socialize outside of the grad school

* Don’t turn up your nose at the undergraduates (To which I add a caveat: You’re not supposed to be their friends—really, do not be their friends because it is better for everyone involved—but don’t look at them as enemies. After all, students are the reason teachers exist.)

This list isn’t perfect, but it’s more constructive than what the MLA is offering at the moment. The point is, you have to make grad school worth it for you beyond the end result of getting an academic job. Face it: You might not get an academic job. Given the current conditions, you probably won’t get an academic job, or at least a job in a happening place to live. If getting a tenure-track job in a sweet place was the end-all, be-all of this process, then you might want to consider a career shift.

Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go [Chronicle of Higher Ed]

Is the PhD Trap a Trap?
[The American Scene]

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