The Only Thing Worse Than Getting a Ph.D. in Today’s Academic Job Market

The Only Thing Worse Than Getting a Ph.D. in Today’s Academic Job Market:

Dissertations—some 250 pages of original research in the humanities, and topping 400 in the social sciences—are objectively, indisputably difficult. It sometimes takes years just to collect data or comb through the necessary archives, and then the damn thing must be written, often in total isolation. Dissertations are not impossible, but they are very hard, and most people in the world—including, perhaps, you, my friend—cannot complete one.

… there are the inner hindrances, the ones that cause procrastination, and then shame, and then paralysis. Here’s my favorite: believing, erroneously, that one must read and master every single word of existing scholarship before even beginning to write. Here’s my least favorite (which happens to my clients all the time): refusing to turn in any chapter that isn’t perfect, and thus not turning in anything at all—which results in the adviser getting irate, which puts even more pressure on the student to be even more perfect, ad infinitum. This is how dissertations are stalled, often forever.

So what can be done to fix this? The Izzy Mandelbaums of academia may argue the system is fine the way it is: In a field that requires extended independent work to succeed, the trial by fire of the dissertation is an apt initiation. (“All aboard the pain train!”) But does it have to be this way? I see no reason why, for example, more dissertation advisers couldn’t be enthusiastic about seeing early drafts, to provide guidance and support. Some already do this (mine did), but far too many of my clients say their advisers won’t even look at anything that isn’t “polished.” Every adviser who says this is part of the problem.

Another step in the right direction would be not just to hold dissertation workshops, but also to make them mandatory. A lot of grad students are simply too paralyzed (or ashamed to admit they don’t know what they’re doing) to attend one of their own volition. A mandatory workshop frees them to get the help they need, without having to admit they need help.

The belief that someone has ’failed if they do not complete their doctoral degree is absolutely frustrating and absurd; I’ve seen brilliant people leave not because they couldn’t write, not because they couldn’t publish, but because there were bureaucratic hoops they were emotionally ill-suited to handle. And instead of working with them – people who could have easily been the next leaders of their respective fields, and who were already emerging as such as doctoral students – they were instead cast aside. This is pre-defence of comprehensive exams, pre-defence of dissertation proposal, and thus way before the defence (or writing of) their dissertation itself.

For those ‘stuck’ at the dissertating point, I think that having regular (ideally weekly) meetups is incredibly helpful for successful completion, second in value only to regular (ideally bi-weekly) meetings with one’s supervisor. I was blessed to have an outstanding advisor who was willing to read early-draft work and provide valuable feedback, with most feedback returned in 2 weeks or so of me giving it to him. He shared with me thoughts and guidance, as well as tactics for moving forward. Sometimes I didn’t understand why he wanted what he wanted, to the point where it sometimes took years for me to implement the changes. Not because I didn’t want to, not because I wasn’t willing to (somewhat) blindly accept his proposed revisions, but because I wasn’t at a stage to understand what he was even proposing. Only by having regular, ongoing, contact with both dissertating peers and one’s supervisor does such nuance and advice become tangible and real in my experience.

The other helpful thing about regular peer-based meetings is you can set weekly goals, monthly goals, and semester-length goals. And you just chip away at them, every week. Ideally the group has at least one person who can drive a meeting so it’s quick and efficient and often asks pain-in-the-ass questions (e.g. It’s great that you’re working on that conference paper, but can you state how it fits with the dissertation, and what working on that paper will do over the next week/month/term in terms of advancing the dissertation)? In my experience, when I ran such meetings, they would take the following format:

  • meet at coffee shop, order coffee (5–10 minutes)
  • go around the table, reminding the group what each person committed to accomplishing and then asking whether each member met their goals (5–10 minutes)
  • go back around the table, getting members to commit to next week’s/month’s goals (5–10 minutes)
  • meeting adjourned
  • Total time: 15–30 minutes

Our meetings typically had been 4–7 people and, for those who attended and committed regularly, worked out well. We also had a deal where if you failed to accomplish any of your weekly goalsyou bought someone a coffee next week. It was a very small, but useful, measure to ensure that each person accomplished at least one of their goals set the prior week. And, if they failed, to have some ‘pain’ associated with that failure.


The lack of teaching skills means we are supporting institutions that not only don’t do what we idealize them to do, they don’t value and professionalize the things that we expect them to do well. In fact, we have gone to extremes to prevent the job of university teaching from becoming a profession. The most obvious example is hiring adjunct professors. These are people who are hired for about the same wage as a fast food server, and are expected to teach physics or philosophy to 18 year olds. They don’t get benefits or even long-term contracts. So, in effect, they never get the chance to develop into highly skilled teaching professionals. Instead, they spend most of their time worrying about heating bills and whether they can afford to go to the doctor.

Now, of course, universities will argue that they are research organizations. And that is true. Universities do value research over teaching. Meaning that tenured and tenure-track professors, even if they love teaching, cannot prioritize it, because their administration requires them to be good researchers. Indeed, if you admit that you are a middling to average researcher and want to focus on teaching, you become viewed a burden by your department.

Yet, for the great majority of people, their only interaction with a university is through the people doing the teaching. It’s as if a major corporation, say General Motors, decided that their public face would not be their most visible product—hello Chevy Volt—and instead decides to place the janitorial service front and center. Then, just to top it off, decided not to train the janitors.


CSI and Malaysia 370


See, on TV and in the movies (Enemy of the State, anyone), the government always has whatever technology they need at exactly the right moment they need it to solve a problem. Even more, they have unlimited budgets to pursue every case.

So of course people think Malaysia 370 was under total observation all the time. It’s the only story that “makes sense” given what they all “know.”

The ‘CSI effect’ also causes huge problems at jury trials these days, with jurors often unable to believe that a CSI-style analysis of evidence isn’t possible or hasn’t been done. Equally pernicious, CSI-based evidence is often held in higher regard, now, that previously on the basis that it must be accurate. Because, you know, unless you’re dealing with the master-villian of the series the CSI analyses are likely to have successfully drawn conclusions.

Yay TV and technology?


There’s so much hue and cry about the diminishing opportunities for those who were previously part of the middle class – as if a problem only matters when it happens to folks who had better things in mind. But for some people this has always been their mode of living, their understanding of the world. When we hold out the promise of a better life as the result of higher education, not everyone can believe in that promise. When pundits bemoan the “high expectations” of an entire generation, they’re forgetting that not everyone had the expectation of magical prosperity either from education or anything else. If we took loans, it wasn’t because we truly believed we could repay them; it was because we saw no other option, because we were told our chances of survival were even lower without the coveted Bachelor’s degree. It was because not having a degree was presented a threat to our future employability, and the fear of debt was overshadowed by the fear of other forms of uncertainty. That doesn’t feel like a “choice” – it feels like coercion, and it’s something we need to start thinking about when we engage in debates about policy and accessibility.

* Melonie Fullick, “Poor Choices

iPads in the Classroom: A Sound Investment or Bottomless Money Pit?

Klassen writes:

 To outfit a student body of 700 students at current prices schools would need to spend approximately $350,000, and that’s just for the hardware. To outfit one particular class, say Chemistry, with the needed textbooks—at Apple’s quoted $15 per book price—would likely cost a little over $10,000, to outfit the entire school with every textbook they needed for every course would cost significantly more than the hardware itself.

All told, an average size school would need to find approximately $500,000 to equip its entire study population with iPads and digital textbooks, and with most schools struggling to find funding for programs like art, music, and physical education, current financial priorities may be elsewhere.


My vote: an expensive money pit. Unless, of course, schools start deferring costs by requiring parents to pony up and pay for expensive Apple iGear. I’m sure parents would just love that extra expense of $500/year in hardware costs. I bet replacing damaged screens, stolen devices, and so forth will also improve parents’ sunny dispositions towards school systems that adopt Apple’s digital textbook extravaganza.


Must Read on Apple ‘Saving’ Education

While I’m skeptical about the reasons that publishers are embracing Apple’s new iBooks Author system, Kieran Healy has a terrific piece that strikes to the problems with iBooks themselves: they’re a solution that insist on defining the problem. The issue is that, the problem it’s ‘solving’ is unlikely to be a significant problem actually facing educators, students, or the educational market.

The punchline in particular is great: Encarta is not the future. I’m not saying WHY that’s such a great punchline but you can find out if you go and read the article.