"The Chicago Guide is the single best guide to academe I have ever read. Both thorough and thoroughly honest, the Guide provides the kind of inside information every graduate student and young professor needs, but seldom finds. The conversational approach is inviting, and the authorial voices appealing. Would that such a book existed when I was getting started!"Peter A. Coclanis, Albert R. Newsome Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
"I have many students who are contemplating an academic career who have little idea of how it works as a profession. Goldsmith, Komlos, and Gold are knowledgeable, savvy, and successful academic guides. This Guide will help students and young professors understand the academic life and navigate the academic waters."Bernard Saffran, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Swarthmore College
"I will recommend this book to every undergraduate major who wants to be a professor, to every graduate student who is betting their future on an academic career, and to every junior professor who deserves to know what to do so that they don't sabotage their changes of achieving the goals they work so hard to achieve."Pepper Schwartz, University of Washington
"On virtually every page, I felt as if the authors were speaking directly to my current situation as a recent graduate and new junior faculty member. Their advice was exactly what I needed at this point in my career. I was amazed to learn that my fears and concerns are shared by nearly all academics. The authors succeeded, and show how you can too!"Yukari Hirata, Colgate University
"Goldsmith, Komlos, and Gold have put together an extremely useful resource for living and working as an academic. They articulate the struggles and turning points of academic life on many different levels, addressing them with a tone that is fresh, careful, and wise. I will recommend this book to all of my students."Diane Brentari, Purdue University
Entering Graduate School
A chapter from The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars from Graduate School through Tenure by John A. Goldsmith, John Komlos, and Penny Schine Gold
What is graduate school really all about?
John Goldsmith: I would say that the most important fact to bear in mind is that, in general, the purposes of graduate school and of undergraduate studies could hardly be more different. A college educationin the United States, at leastis aimed at providing a general education, a liberal education, even if the choice of a major subject does allow some degree of specialization. In contrast, graduate education is aimed at creating a professional. When I use the term "professional," of course, I am not using it in the most familiar way. The term is generally used in relation to disciplines such as law, medicine, and business. The schools in these disciplines provide specific training along what are generally well established lines, bringing the student to the point where she may, in most of the cases, pass a standardized examination, such as the bar exam or the medical boards. The professional schools do not require students to write a dissertation or engage in individual research effortsthose hallmarks of graduate education in a research university.
Yet it is still true that graduate education is aimed at forming a particular type of professional: a professional researcher. There are some important things to say about this. The most significant of all is that this kind of intellectual formation has relatively little to do with passing on specific information. Oh, it is true that all educators make similar claims: they are not teaching specific things, but rather how to learn; still, this is nowhere as clear as in graduate school. Alas, the graduate research environment is not structured so as to be the training ground for the most extraordinary minds either. There are too few of them to justify (or help shape, for that matter) the enormous institutions that we are talking about. No, graduate education is about training graduate students to become researchers (and to some extent, teachers) in a research environment, within a specific intellectual tradition. Psychologists create new psychologists; linguists create new linguists; musicologists create new musicologists.
Penny Gold: Let me give an example of what we mean by "professional training." In my very first term of graduate school, I registered for a course called "Medieval Biography." I was happily anticipating learning about a variety of medieval people, their lives, and their thoughts. Instead, each student picked one medieval author and then tracked all existing manuscripts and published editions of this person's work. I chose Einhard, the ninth-century biographer of Charlemagne, and spent hours and hours in the stacks of the Stanford and Berkeley libraries, pulling down very dusty volumes that catalogued manuscript collections across Europe and using various bibliographical tools to find all existing editions. (Some of this would be easier now because of computers.) I found this enormously tedious and complained throughout the term. I wanted to be learning about Einhard and Charlemagne, not about his manuscripts! By the time I began my dissertation research a couple of years later, I finally appreciated the research skills I had developed in this course. Another example was a graduate colloquium in "Renaissance and Reformation History," in which the entire reading list was recent scholarship, with not one primary source text from the period itself.
This relates to the issue of what is being taught in graduate school. It is certainly true that the foundation of graduate training is training in a method of analysis, whether that be historical, linguistic, economic, or some other method. Yet there is also a great deal of specific information that must be learned, as one is expected to very rapidly become knowledgeable about "what is being done in the field"hence, the focus on reading the scholarship of others in many graduate school courses. It is also such stuff (masses of it) that one is tested on in the oral or qualifying examinations that are the gateway to beginning on one's own doctoral research. In fact, one of the challenges of life after graduate school is to keep on top of the ever-changing scholarship in one's field when one doesn't have the concentrated time to do this that one does in graduate school.
John Komlos: While undergraduate education concentrates, in the main, on learning a body of knowledge in a wide range of fields, graduate school is essentially about exploring the frontiers of knowledge in a particular field. Hence, the latter is an extension of the former, but differs from it greatly. Being on the frontiers of scholarship (like its geographic counterpart in early American history) is not always a comfortable experience. There are no guideposts to tell you which path to take.
Can you offer any advice for the person who is seriously thinking about entering graduate school?
John Komlos: Yes, indeed. A very good rule is that you should be excited about the field you choose. This is most important! Do you really want to find out how the economy or society works? Are you curious about Stone Age cultures? Are you really deeply interested in the questions economists or sociologists or anthropologists are asking and the answers they are supplying? If not, you should seriously question whether these are the right career paths for you. By the time you contemplate entering graduate school, you should have your goals well sorted out. The American undergraduate education allows, even encourages, a great deal of searching by trial and error. Flexibility is its strength, but at the same time, it places an immense amount of responsibility on the individual student to build a program that makes sense in terms of her intellectual development. By the end of your undergraduate education, you should have a good idea of what you want out of life. Is academia attractive to you? If you are still unsure, you must talk to people whom you respect and whose judgment you trust as much as, or more than, your own.
Bear in mind also that genuine introspection helps a great deal. However, as long as you feel uncertain, you should delay making a commitment. Premature decisions often mean excessive risk taking, and the chances are high that you will not be making optimal use of your time or talents. The point is that graduate school is much too challenging an experience for you to go through if your interest in the subject is merely peripheral. Halfhearted commitments won't work out very well. You have to find the field of your choice stimulating in order to come out of the process unscathed. Otherwise, the chances are good that you will be frustrated and disappointed.
If you have not done well academically, it would be foolhardy to think seriously about continuing in graduate school. If you are making plans to enter a graduate program, you should prepare yourself well in advance in the basic prerequisites of the specialization you have chosen. If you want to be an economist, for example, make sure that you have the needed mathematical background. Obviously, the sooner you decide, the sooner you can start working on the subjects that will be important to you in graduate school. It would be very helpful if you spent some time working for a professor in the field you are considering. As an undergraduate research assistant, you can begin to learn what the field looks like from within.
John Goldsmith: I'd like to second that. Oddly enough, students who are considering entering an academic profession often have little idea of what they're getting into. In most cases, they are coming straight out of college, where they were able to take college-level courses in some areas and do some additional reading in other areas. They as likely as not had no real contact with faculty researchers and as likely as not did not attend a university with any significant number of researchers. In a few cases, they may even choose a graduate specialization entirely on the basis of reading, never having taken a single course in that area. This is true, for example, in my area, linguistics, where students often come from language or psychology backgrounds.
And yet, as John said, a most important precondition for a graduate education to work out well is that the student must love the discipline. How do you know if this describes you? Utterly reliable criteria are hard to establish, but I'd look for a deep and enduring interest in and fascination for the subject, the profession, and its literature. It is surprising how often this condition is not met! Students may (so to speak) wander into graduate school in a specific discipline, take a year or two of courses (or more), and not be at all sure of the correctness of their choice. Still, inertia, the time and money invested, and the fear of losing face all push the students on, often propelling them to the point of writing a dissertation, or even beyond.
Yet as the student moves further along in the education process, she will find that there is less and less personal support and that the hurdles rise higher and higher, with longer periods between moments of reward and relaxation. (This trend continues, of course, when the student moves into faculty status.) Without a strong emotional attachment to the fieldsimply feeling fascinated by what one is doingthis difficult task becomes no more than a long-term commitment to masochism. Loving the field means that the hard work is its own reward.
John Komlos: Moreover, I would suggest that the student seek advice, again and again.
Penny Gold: I'd like to interject here some advice about advicewho and what to ask:
John Komlos: As with any other important decision, you should continually question and rethink this one as well. After all, it will have an enormous (and generally irreversible) impact on the rest of your life. By making this choice, you have in many respects chosen a lifestyle. If you're entering graduate school, you are about to invest several years of intense effort, often resulting in a considerable financial burden. So it behooves you to take the decision very, very seriously. New information may become available that might be put into the decision-making equation. Did you make the right choice after all? Are you as prepared for graduate school as you had thought you were? Do you still find the field as exciting as before? Do you actually have the skills, intuition, and talent you thought you had? If you can identify some marked deficiencies, how long would it take to overcome them? For example, how long will it take you to learn another language? Do you write well? Depending on the rigors of your education so far, you may still not have perfected the art of written communication, even in your native language. You can teach yourself, of course, but it is best done before you enter graduate school. Obviously, the sooner you sort out these issues the better.
You might also consider if your motivations are sound. What are the rewards in the field you are considering? What is the ratio of pecuniary to nonpecuniary rewards you can expect? Is that mix about right for you? Try to avoid establishing potentially conflicting goals, such as rising to the upper end of the academic salary range while teaching in the humanities. Original research requires much self-reliance, perseverance, and intelligence as well as creativity. You also need self-discipline to complete the monotonous tasks that inevitably accompany even the most exciting research project. Do you have enough of these qualities to succeed?
Self-questioning is, of course, an important quality to nurture in yourself, but it certainly requires practice to be effective. One cannot develop such critical skills overnight. Do you know yourself well enough? Are you practicing self-deception without even knowing it? Are you able to judge yourself without making excuses? Do you rationalize your mistakes, so you cannot learn from them? You can improve your forecasts about yourself by consciously updating your information set periodically. How have you erred in the past, and what can you learn from these errors about your true abilities and about your expectations? Are the goals you are about to set for yourself reasonable in light of your past performance? Are you getting closer to formulating a reasonable strategy for solving problems?
If, for example, you have a tendency to start projects without finishing them, it is much better to acknowledge this attribute than to make excuses about why this is the case and externalizing blame. Disregarding that trait in yourself is a big mistake, one that may cost you dearly later. How can you use that information to predict your ability to succeed in a Ph.D. program? First, take that information into account, and then work on improving your predictive ability by searching for answers as to why your actions fall into a particular pattern and just how these mistakes are changeable. Just what is it that makes it so difficult for you to complete a project? Once you are able to finish some tasks ahead of schedule, you can be more certain that, with some probability, you can actually complete a particular goal you set for yourself in the allotted time. In other words, you should not be making systematic errors about your abilities or about your performance. If your mistakes are systematic, the chances are you are disregarding some significant information available to you.
I'll make this point yet another way because I think it is crucial for success. I believe that mistakes are OK, in general. They simply cannot be avoided, and if you are not making enough mistakes, it might well mean that you are not challenging yourself sufficiently to find out where your limits are. The real problems arise if you do not learn from the mistakes already committed. That can happen for many reasons. You might tend to put the blame on others, or else you might be so used to making these mistakes that you fail to see the patterns in your own behavior. Your mistakes might also be self-reinforcing. Perhaps underneath it all, you really do not want to reach the goal you set for yourself. Perhaps you let others set your goal for you. Perhaps you are just plain afraid of success. Though the reasons may be many and complex, the consequence is simple: if you continue along that path, you can systematically get farther and farther away from where you want to be. So make an effort to recognize your mistakes; try to face them squarely and explore the systematic reasons for your doing them, including flaws in your own thinking and in the assumptions you are making reflexively without thinking them over, and make a conscious effort to avoid the same mistakes in the future. I know that it is easier said than done, but you will find that practice does help.
And another thing: do not forget that your personal life should be in congruity with your current aspirations. If you are married, it is imperative that your spouse/partner fully support your going to graduate school. Otherwise, you will have too many frictions with which to cope, in addition to the tribulations encountered in your daily work. Your career choice will also put requirements on your spouse/partner, inasmuch as your obligations will limit your social life, including your ability to maintain contact with relatives, clubs, organizations, or friends to the extent you did before. You should be prepared for these changes in your life.
In addition, you will probably feel a certain amount of financial insecurity unless you are independently wealthy or are married to an employed spouse. Because the financial constraints could affect your peace of mindand, therefore, your performance in schoolI advise graduate students to earn some money during summers. In some fields, such as law, this comes automatically, since internships are common, but in other fields, it is less easy to do so. I particularly recommend nontraditional kinds of employment. Open a business preparing tax returns, for example, if you have the aptitude for it. Buy a house and renovate it. You are smarter than average, so use some of your talents to make a little profit. If you can do so, you will not be completely at the mercy of the academic job market.
John Goldsmith: I think people's social experience probably varies widely. Surely academics are about as social and hospitable as people in other walks of life! There are forces at work that encourage people who work in, say, linguistics to socialize with other linguists, and I think that these forces are much stronger for some reason early on in a person's career than they are subsequently.
How should one go about choosing a graduate school?
John Komlos: Of course, most people will apply to several universities, and it is important to do so in order to test the market. You may have certain notions about your qualifications, but how do they look on paper? How do they compare to those of others? How do others perceive them? There is no reason to assume that you will not be accepted into a particular program simply because you do not have excellent grades in the field. You might have other qualities that can compensate any deficiencies in your grade point average. Good GRE scores, for example, do help. Different departments weigh these various components of your record differently. In addition, departments vary on their standards for admission. Some are strict, feeling that by admitting a student, they make an implicit commitment to her that she has a fair chance of completing the program. Other equally good programs might take a more relaxed, laissez-faire attitude with respect to admissions, thinking that students have inside information on their abilities and should be given a chance to prove themselves, even if their record up to then was not impeccable. Students, they believe, will be weeded out in due course anyhow, by various filters the department has instituted, if they are not really qualified to do graduate work. These idiosyncratic philosophies will not be spelled out in black and white in the departmental manuals. So you should cast your application net widely. In addition to some safe bets, you should try some unlikely possibilities. More choices ought to be preferred to less. The good news is that practically everyone (87 percent, to be precise) who applies to an advanced-degree program gets at least one acceptance, and that means that you should have no problem getting into graduate school. You just need to seek out the right program for your set of abilities.
John Goldsmith: In smaller departments, it is usual for virtually all of the faculty to read most of the application dossiers, and read them quite carefully. Speaking personally, I am completely sold on a candidate who writes a perceptive personal statement that shows thoughtfulness and real interest in the field. I rarely see more than one or two of those in an entire year's harvest of applications. I suspect that applicants think their dossiers are going to some distant admissions office, but that's just not true. It's your future teachers who are deciding if they'd like you to come. Let me repeat that: real intelligence can be read in a personal essay, and this can easily outweigh the matter of grades or exam scores.
Penny Gold: The personal essay is also a crucial part of any applications you make for national graduate fellowships (Mellon, National Science Foundation, Javits, etc.). If you have begun work on an honors thesis or senior thesis or have done some other substantial piece of research work, you will have an advantage in writing such an essay, as this work will undoubtedly help you formulate your ideas on the kind of research you want to pursue in graduate school, the kinds of questions you anticipate asking. The people reading your essay are looking at how you present yourself intellectually and will use this presentation itself as a sample of your intellectual interests, the extent of your understanding of the field you are asking to enter, and your ability to write persuasively. You should expect to go through multiple drafts on this essay and should be sure to ask for comments from a professor experienced in graduate school admissions.
John Komlos: The essay also gives you the opportunity to reveal some of your significant attributes that may otherwise not be obvious from your application or to explain some of your apparent deficiencies that may no longer be relevant. You need to be credible, of course.
Before you make up your mind which program to choose, do visit the campuses because you can find out much more in face-to-face conversations about the atmosphere of the department than you can in correspondence. Be sure to talk to currently enrolled students. Ask them about the faculty's commitment to the graduate program. How well is the program organized? Talk to the graduate advisor. Ask her what the ratio of graduating to entering students is. Note that even in the best history departments only about half of the entering students leave with a Ph.D. in hand, and the average is closer to a quarter. These ratios vary by field and over time. If a program is well above or much below the average for the discipline, you have reliable information on which to base your judgment of how risky it is to enter that program. Another factor to consider is the success of the graduate students in obtaining employment in their field after earning the doctorate. Such information can be immensely useful when it comes time for you to make up your mind. If you are unable to find this information, ask the department's graduate secretary for help. In any case, you should not accept an offer blindly.
It is also useful to ascertain if the department is well represented in the various subspecialties in the field. If you plan to study the economics of the Third World, for example, you need to make sure that the department has sufficient depth in that area to support such a specialty. Are the faculty members well known in their field? Are they actively engaged in research? You should be able to form a preliminary opinion by seeking out publications of the professors in your field of potential interest. If you find recently published papers or books, you can infer that the person is actively engaged in research and has been keeping up with recent developments in the field, not just living off past achievements. Another crucial consideration is her track record with graduate students. If she is frequently out of the country, she might be difficult to work with. Is she likely to retire soon? If so, you could be left hanging in the middle of your dissertation. Has she been producing graduate students lately? If she has not, that is an indication that perhaps she really does not have the inclination to do so, might be difficult to get along with, has too high expectations, or does not have the ideas to attract young entrants into the field. In any case, you should take such information seriously. By the way, do not assume that every professor is committed to working with graduate students. Those who are not will give you signals to stay away, though they will usually not tell you so outright. You may be able to confirm the meaning of these signals by talking with advanced graduate students in the department.
In any event, it is extremely important that you find the right program for your aspirations because this decision will have a significant impact on your career, including your ability to find employment. You should realize that your abilities alone will generally not suffice to be successful either in the academic world or in any other profession. We'll come back to this theme again, but I should mention now that the academic culture in America is influenced by the immense size of the market. In such a large market, it is costlier to acquire and process inside information than in smaller ones (Belgium, for instance), where the community of scholars is relatively tightly knit. In large markets, people might use symbols, images, and rule-of-thumb devices as substitutes for genuine information to arrive at a decision. Hence, a department's reputation is important, and affiliation with a top department will pay dividends. You need to know, however, that even the best departments will not cover all aspects of a discipline and will not cover equally well those parts they do cover. You need to keep these nuances in mind before making a decision.
What role do you see the Internet playing in this process?
John Goldsmith: The World Wide Webthe HTML part of the global Internethas changed our lives in the last few years, and information is at your fingertips in a way that would have been inconceivable not long ago. Every college and university has enormous amounts of published information, including application procedures, right on their home pages. These are easy to find with any search engine, using the name of the institution you are considering as the keyword. An academic department can make a good deal of information available to students who are thinking of applying. There will be hard and cold facts about the program, and there will be softer, more personal information that can be gleaned from a department's Web page, and manyperhaps mostactive academics now maintain some sort of Web page of their own, which may provide lists of recent publications and research interests and often includes such useful things as recent course syllabi and even lecture slides. A few hours spent researching departments on the Web is the most valuable investment a person could make.
Should financial considerations play an important role in choosing a department?
John Komlos: No. By and large, for once, moneyhere, the level of debthardly matters. How much is job satisfaction for the rest of your life worth to you? Money should be much less important in choosing a department than the other factors we have mentioned, although your aspiration and innate talent do play a role in deciding how much weight to put on finances. However, it should be clear that a scholarship from an average or below-average university will not help you a lot in the long run if your chances of employmentand, therefore, your lifetime earningswill be adversely affected by it. Other things equal, it is hardly worth it. Do not forget that most of the sacrifice you incur in the course of your graduate education has to do with the fact that you will be out of the labor force for an extended period. In addition to not earning a real income, you will not have on-the-job experience, which will make it more difficult for you to reenter the labor force, should you decide not to complete your graduate program. Because not completing a program can be quite an expensive venture, it is important that you think about your prospects before you begin.
John Goldsmith: I agree only up to a point. I don't think it is prudent for a graduate student to take on really serious debt, and certainly not the kind of debt that can grow from paying large tuition bills for several years. Full tuition at a private university is over $20,000 now, and borrowing to pay several years of tuition at that rate would lead a student to a level of debt that would be difficult to imagine paying off in a reasonable period. I can't see recommending that a student borrow more than $20,000maximumfor tuition over a graduate career and a maximum of about that for living on. That would come to a total of $40,000about a car and a half, by today's standards. That's my view.
Penny Gold: Another matter to investigate regarding grants and assistantships is the percentage of students in the program who are funded and whether that changes after the first year. Does this department admit a large group in the first year, funding only a few, with funding in subsequent years based on how well students do in the first year? This creates some hope of future funding, but also can create a sense of competition with one's peers; it's a much more congenial and cooperative environment if all admitted students are funded similarly. Also, if the department funds only a portion of admitted students, and you're not in that portion, it means you are set up as having to prove yourself. This is an added stress in what will usually be a difficult transition anyway.
John Komlos: Often some financial aid is tied to teaching assistantships. This is actually a less lucrative option than it appears at the beginning of graduate school because such responsibility puts additional burdens on an already busy schedule. In fact, in some institutions, the burdens of teaching assistantships are such that they leave little time for the completion of the program, and most students leave after four years without a degree in hand. Such an offer of a graduate fellowship is almost tantamount to entrapment, as the institution avails itself of cheap labor, while the prospective graduate students are not savvy enough to find out what the probability is of their obtaining a graduate degree. It is quite another thing if you would be allowed to teach during summers, when the burdens are less and teaching might be a welcome diversion from studies and research. In any event, good programs limit teaching by graduate students because they are usually not yet ready to do a good job. However, teaching experience during your third or fourth year will become an important asset when you start looking for your first job, though such experience is probably more important at teaching institutions than at research universities. Hence, if you are considering the trade-off between going to an expensive program with an excellent reputation and a small financial aid package or to a less expensive, but less prominent, institution with a teaching assistantship, spending the extra money is probably well worth it. To be sure, one needs to weigh the choices in the context of the totality of one's abilities, aspirations, and financial circumstances.
Penny Gold: And of the possibility of a professional-level wage when one finishes the program, even if one doesn't find employment in academia. This prospect is much brighter for some fields (e.g., economics, computer science) than it is for others (history, English).
John Goldsmith: The importance of having teaching experiencesuch as can be gained through a teaching assistantshipmay also vary from field to field. In the humanities, it is a serious deficiency for an applicant not to have experience teaching.
John Komlos: An additional caveat in this regard is that it is already useful to be thinking of your long-range aspirations. If you would like to teach at a small liberal arts college with a local (as opposed to a national) reputation, you should be aware of the fact that such an institution might not be very open to hire from the top departments in the country. They may assume that if you invested heavily in acquiring a degree from Columbia, say, you would probably not feel particularly comfortable teaching at a small school in southwestern Montana. Thus, a degree from a top university will open some doors, but you might be surprised to hear that, in fact, it will shut others. Hence, if you aspire to the middle range of the academic spectrum, then, indeed, you might not necessarily want to acquire an expensive degree.
John Goldsmith: On the other hand, there are many small colleges where faculty are expected to do (and publish) real research--only to do it at a considerably slower rate.
Penny Gold: As the small-college person here, let me emphasize a couple of things. When applying for a job at a primarily teaching institution, it is definitely the case that a candidate with teaching experience will have an advantage over a similarly qualified person without such experience. But not all teaching assistantships yield the kind of teaching that really counts. Being a T.A. in a course taught by another professor is a useful experience to have, but even more helpful is being in charge of your own course once or twice and developing the syllabi you yourself designed. If this opportunity isn't available at your school, such experience can sometimes be gained by part-time adjunct appointments in neighboring institutions. The importance of "real" teaching experience also explains why candidates who have had one-year positions elsewhere will sometimes be favored in a search.
Second, the job market in some fields is so tight that many teaching institutions (whether liberal arts colleges or universities with primarily teaching missions) can compete for candidates from the top research universities. It's true that some won't consider such candidates, worried about a bad fit, but other schools are eager to enhance the profile of their faculty and are delighted with such candidates. Also, as John Goldsmith mentions, many teaching institutions still expect faculty to do research and so will look for candidates with the relevant training and potential.
How do you pick the right school?
John Komlos: Once you've decided to pursue a career requiring a graduate degree, the next step is to find the right program. The American system of education is highly stratified. There are a couple of dozen top universities that are certainly the best in the world, but then the quality gradient becomes increasingly steeper. You ought to know also that you are joining a department as much as (or more than) a university. Even schools that do not enjoy a reputation for excellence overall might have outstanding programs in certain fields. The University of Pittsburgh, for example, has one of the best philosophy departments in the countrya fact well known to philosophers. Because tuition rates are less at Pittsburgh than at the elite schools, you would get a real bargain if you studied philosophy there. Hence, it is worth your while to ferret out this kind of information. You need to keep in mind that the department you join will be considered indicative of your abilities. Thus, if you are an average student capable of hard work, you might gain by going to a top-ranked school.
Do not forget that judging your potential as a professional is time consuming for anyone charged with assessing your competence as a future teacher and researcher. Judgments are imperfect and outcomes uncertain. As a consequence, it does make some sense for future interviewers to take your academic affiliation into consideration in arriving at a decision. It is a sign of your aspirations, your willingness to compete. It can also be interpreted as indicative of what you think of yourself. If you applied to Yale, you must have thought you were bright enough to mingle with the best. These are the kinds of information revealed by your affiliation. The fact that you successfully completed the program will be seen as a sign that you had a realistic assessment of your own abilities. In addition, your formal education involves more than acquiring knowledge. It also involves forming a network of supporters who might well remain your friends for the rest of your life. Hence, it is to your advantage to go to a school whose faculty is well known around the country. Letters of recommendation, after all, are taken much more seriously from people with an established reputation. You may well consider it unfair that so much depends on the reputation of the graduate program and that you are not judged entirely on your personal attributes. However, do consider that many qualities that are crucial for your future performance are hidden and not at all easily and credibly ascertainable by a committee that meets you for a short period of time. That is why it is practically unavoidable for them to use external information as a proxy measure for those invisible qualities.
It is not sufficient that the program you ultimately choose be a good one: it is extremely important, in addition, that there be a reasonably good match between you and the program. After all, if you find out subsequently that you made a mistake, transferring into another graduate program is time consuming and might have a stigma attached to it unless you have a good explanation at the ready, such as "I went to work with Professor so-and-so, but, in the meanwhile, she went to work in the private sector."
John Goldsmith: We're going to talk about mentoring later on, but I want to mention some advice I was given when I was in college. One of my teachersa professor in the economics department, in factwas going to be on leave in my senior year, and he asked to speak to me just before he left, at the end of my junior year. He asked me what I was planning to do after college, and I had to admit that my view was pretty hazy at that point. He gave the following advice: if you do decide to go on to graduate school, you should think very seriously about precisely with whom you are going to study. In the end, I took that advice very seriously and made a list of the people who I knew were alive and kicking in academe at that point whose work had greatly impressed me. So seriously did I take that advice that I applied to only one graduate school, and I expected I would get a job (probably as a computer programmer) if I wasn't accepted into that graduate program. As it turned out, I was accepted.
Penny Gold: I receivedand givethis same advice, though it makes me nervous to even think about someone applying to only one school! In my own case, I ignored the advice, choosing the school I did on the basis of the fellowship offered, the smallness of the program (and hence relative assurance of attention to students by faculty), and its attractive geographic location. It could have been a disaster, but as fortune would have it, a new professor joined the faculty at the same time I entered the graduate programsomeone I knew nothing about when I appliedand he turned out to be a perfect advisor for me. Ahead of time, students can investigate the scholarly production of the faculty at various institutions and even correspond with faculty with whom they might want to work. Then when your final decision is looming, it's time for campus visits, giving special importance to the query John Komlos recommends you pose to current graduate students: how is it to work with Professor X? No matter how brilliant the work, if the person is mean-spirited and remote, it is better to find someone else.
John Komlos: Do not be surprised if you find a trade-off between nurturing and academic excellence within a department. The top graduate schools have many professors on their faculty who are among the top scholars in their field. They are well versed in intellectual dueling and can easily make a novice feel inadequate, even if unintentionally. Their degree is not in pedagogy, and many have long forgotten what it was like to be a graduate student. It would be a mistake to interpret their lack of respect for you as even vaguely implying that you are not cut out for academia. I would like to stress that if you need emotional or spiritual support from your professors, you had better go to a small program, even if it is a less prestigious one, because you could feel lost in a large and impersonal program.
Penny Gold: I don't think it's one or the othersome of the top schools (depending on field) have relatively small programs, and the inclination to be supportive of one's students can vary significantly from one professor to another, even within one graduate program.
John Goldsmith: This may also depend on the discipline because in my arealinguisticsmost of the very nurturing departments are consistently ranked among the very best in national studies.
John Komlos: It is good you brought up departmental rankings because this is important information for potential applicants, and the cost of obtaining it is minimal. Most disciplines have a system of grading departments. Economists publish such ratings regularly, and this would be one piece of information worth considering. Note that this rating is usually in terms of research performance or in terms of esteem among colleagues and, as far as I know, not according to teaching performance or nurturing. That kind of information is available as a rule only on an informal basis.
At the same time, do not be misled into thinking that just because you are going into a top-rated program your career is assured. In some fields, even top departments graduate more students than can reasonably find jobs. You might obtain valuable credentials that could pay off in the future if you have the patience to wait until an opportunity arises, but it might not be immediately.
You should do a bit of market research. How does the market for graduates in your field look at the moment? How has it changed during the last few years? Valuable information on graduate programs is readily available from professional newsletters, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and on the World Wide Web. All you have to do is to look for it. Browse the Internet, ask the graduate secretary, read handbooks, and talk to the graduate advisor until you have reliable evidence on the program. Most important for you to know is the share of entering students who complete the program and the kinds of positions they have received within the last few years. Such considerations could help you make an informed guess concerning what your prospects are likely to be in five or so years. You should absolutely not make up your mind without being confident about your future chances.
Another important factor to consider, besides the quality of the department, is its intellectual orientation. Within any discipline, there are competing schools of thought. In economics, for instance, there are departments that are more concerned with theoretical issues, others with quantitative or institutional ones. Some focus on Keynesian economics, while others refuse to take its concepts seriously. The economics department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has the largest contingent of radical economists in the country, for example. If you prefer a more traditional line of analysis, this would not be the right institution for you. Political and ideological dispositions also differ markedly. As a consequence, you need to research this issue in order to be sufficiently well informed about the various intellectual movements in the field before you can make the right choice for you. The time spent on these preliminaries is well worth the effort, inasmuch as you are more likely to be successful in a program if your worldview fits well into that of the department. Not only that, but you are, in effect, attaching yourself to a particular school of thought, which will surely affect the rest of your academic trajectory. It will determinemore or lessin which paradigm you will spend a good part of your academic career, insofar as it is extremely difficult to change orientation subsequently. Hence, the choice you make will become a watershed of major proportions in your life, and it is important that you give some thought to the matter.
To what extent should a student specialize during graduate school?
John Komlos: Whenever a venture is risky, it pays to diversify, and education is no exception: no need to put all your eggs into one basket. However, the degree to which one should diversify is not so easy to specify. Thus, it is often worthwhile to develop an interest, or even expertise, in more than one niche of your discipline, providing the "price" is reasonable. Suppose you are in labor economics; you might be able to supplement your program with some additional work in demography. You would immediately differentiate yourself from other labor economists and possibly make yourself more attractive to some departments than you would be otherwise. You might also become eligible for grants, fellowships, and postdoctoral programs for which you would not have qualified otherwise. It is exactly such peripheral interest in demography that won me a two-year postdoctoral position at the University of North Carolina that truly gave me a boost. Without teaching and administrative obligations, I could really concentrate my effort on research and lived for many years off of projects started in that short time span. Of course, such diversification may not pay off, but the chances are that it will help you to find a comfortable niche in the profession. I know for a fact that it did for me.
John Goldsmith: I agree that diversification is necessary. The student may also not find this being emphasized explicitly by anyone during her graduate experience, I might add. I can mention some examples. There are a number of fields (including linguistics) where knowledge of computer programming is not a must, but is highly desirable. By and large, the generation of people currently teaching came of age in an earlier era, and they may beindeed, they areless sensitive to these shifting priorities, and they will frequently not be the ones urging students to strengthen their skills in the computational area. The same point holds mutatis mutandis in other areas, where it might be a matter of truly mastering an additional foreign language or of learning statistics or something else.
Penny Gold: Having some coursework in one or two additional subfields within one's discipline can be especially valuable if you come to be considered for a job at an institution where the department is relatively small and people are expected to teach beyond their research field. The ad I answered when I applied for a job at Knox asked for someone who could teach medieval, ancient, and Latin American history. I begged off on Latin American, but I had taken a couple of courses in Greek and Roman history that enhanced my profile for this job. The history department at Knox has five full-time faculty; we could not mount an appropriately diverse curriculum if we hired someone who could teach only one field of history.
What happens to lifewhat most people would think of as life, in any eventwhile you're in graduate school?
John Komlos: I think that graduate school is generally a trying period in one's life even under the best of circumstances. One is usually financially insecure in a materialistic world and is often surrounded by relatives and acquaintances who are already earning a "real" income. In addition, one's social position is in limbo, with plenty of uncertainty about the future. The typical graduate student is far away from home and family, and if she is already married, particularly with children, the complexities of life and the conflicts and stresses that they create can easily multiply. Moreover, this time in one's development is often intellectually very unsettling. The search for intellectual moorings intensifies, and while that can be, and at times certainly will be, a scintillating experience, it is accompanied by sufficient soul-searching to be emotionally demanding. In addition, you will no longer be merely assimilating knowledge; instead, you will be traveling in uncharted territory. Researchknowledge creationis full of disappointments and failures. Hence, these years are not likely to be emotionally comfortable, well-balanced, or easygoing ones. In order to come through such a stressful experience unscathed, it is extremely important that you possess an inner certitude that you have made the right choices, that you are pursuing your true calling. It must be practically the only thing you want to do in life because, for a while at least, it will become almost synonymous with your life. As a consequence, it will also increase the pressure on personal relationships and generate a feedback effect on your academic performance. In short, many sacrifices will need to be made for a successful entry into the profession.
This is making a graduate school career sound rather daunting!
John Komlos: Intentionally so. Most people do not just breeze through it. That is why I think it is absolutely essential for you to take your time in reaching a decision. It is not something to decide on a Sunday afternoon at the beach.
John Goldsmith: But I'd like to break in and say that there are other experiences, too. I remember the years of my graduate career as being in some ways quite magical. It is true, as John has said, that it's important to really love the discipline that one is in. But when that's true, one thing that happens during one's graduate career is that what once was distant and mysterious becomes quite tangible, and one gets to meet and see close up the people whose work is forming and shaping the discipline. Intellectually this may be the most intense period of one's life.
I was in graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1970sI was at MIT thenand it was almost unheard of for students to live by themselves; students generally lived three to an apartment, and this was as much an economic necessity as anything else, though it also contributed to everybody's social lifeI am tempted to say, their real life. Many people roomed with their classmates, while others shared apartments or houses with other young people who did many different things. I myself did both, at various times. I don't know how things are in Cambridge these days, but my impression has been for quite a while that living three or four to an apartment is much less common now.
John, I share your recollections about much of graduate school days: the scintillating experience, the soul-searching, and the frequent sense of being off-balance and frustrated. But I don't have a recollection of sacrifice. Now, it's true that I didn't have a family at the time, and that changes the circumstances quite considerably. We'll come back to this matter later on.
Penny Gold: I look back at those years in graduate school as the time in which, in many ways, I became the person I am todaynot so much intellectually (as my undergraduate education was the major shaping force there, with graduate school the necessary intensification and refinement), but emotionally, personally, politically. It's when I grew up, really. I lived in a shared house rather than a dorm, I had my first car, I was financially independent for the first time in my life, and I was challenged and inspired by the antiwar and feminist movements. Several of the friends I made in those years, people both in and out of academia, are still among my closest friends today, thirty years later.
And a word about the importance of an inner certitude that one has made the right choice. I wasn't confident that eventual work as a teacher and scholar was the right thing for me until I was well into my dissertation work. But I was funded, I was living with great people and had a nice circle of friends, my teachers liked my work, and I was enjoying life, so there was no reason to stop along the way. It turned out that this has, indeed, been exactly the right choice of work for me, but I did not know that from the start.
John Komlos: It might help you make up your mind if you read about the life of some of the prominent members of the profession you are considering. If you can afford it, I'd suggest that you take a year off to travel. Or take a job outside academia and see what that is like. Such experiences will help you immensely to mature, and that will enable you to make more realistic decisions later onnot ones based on an idealized view of the world. The money you'll save can provide you a nest egg for you to fall back on. You are young; it is worthwhile to take your time in making a decision that will have an impact on the rest of your life. It is better to be sure about your decision a year from now than to take excessive risks now. In other words, making an informed choice is not a free lunchyou have to work for itand making a commitment only after diligent investigation of likely alternatives is a strategy that will pay dividends down the line.
Finally, with all its challenges notwithstanding, graduate school will most certainly also be a period of intellectual growth. So you should try to get yourself in that frame of mind as you are beginning your chosen program. Cultivate friendships, develop your judgment, open yourself to new ideas, experiment with new directions, get to know your department, and, above all, open yourself to the possibilities that present themselves. If you can allow yourself to do all that, you will benefit enormously. And do not forget that you are privileged to be able to participate in the best educational system in the world. To interact with the best collection of scholars should become an uplifting experience. So make the best of it!
When should I ask myself: Is this career choice the right one for me? How will I know? Who will tell me if it's not the right one for me?
John Goldsmith: What a tough question! It's one for which there are few simple answers. Here's one of them, though. Many graduate programs have an examination early on, often at the end of the first yearour linguistics program has such an exam, which we call our M.A. exam. In a typical year, one person out of perhaps seven or eight does not achieve the score of "High Pass" that we require for continuing in the doctoral program. The students who don't get a High Pass have the right to appeal to the department, and they almost always do. Every three or four years there is a perfectly valid reason why the exam score does not accurately reflect the student's abilities (the student was running a high fever, had a sick child at home, etc.), but most of the time the exam measures what it's supposed to measure. Let me restate this in a less impersonal fashion: most of the time we know what we're doing when we grade the exams, and we are, indeed, sending a message. I think that a below-average score on such an exam should be taken seriously by a student as an indication that an academic career in linguistics is very likely not a wise career choice. In general, I think that you're kidding yourself if you tell yourself, "Next year, I'll study harder. I just didn't work hard enough this past year."
If you're not in a program with such an exam, or you're not there yet, I think that you could reasonably expect yourself to get an A (or A-) in all of your courses in the subject that you are studyingwhether you're an undergraduate or a graduate student. If you don't get such A's on almost all of your courses, you're probably not doing well enough.
Let's pass to the next category of student, a more advanced student. Let's say you've done well enough on your exams and you're into the more advanced stages of your studies, perhaps already working on a dissertation topic. My opinion is that at this point the question is not whether you are smart enough to have an academic career, but whether the right fit exists between your personality and the academic careerand frankly that's why we've written this book: to help you understand what the academic career consists of and to help you see whether you go well with it. If you find yourself excited at the thought of reading and writing conference papers, that's a good sign of a good fit.
Perhaps it is worth making this point explicitly: there are lots of brilliant people who don't make very good academics. Some of them never made it into academia, and others slide on through, with a not very successful academic career. On the other hand, there are lots of successful academics who aren't all that bright (dare I say that? I guess I do), but who have done very good work in teaching, in research, or in both.
Penny Gold: Teachers have lots of experience giving critical comments on student workwe do it all the time in the form of comments made on papers and during conferences over first drafts. But to criticize one particular paper is very different from saying about a person as a whole: "I don't think you're qualified to go to graduate school (or to stay in graduate school)." It's much more fun to encourage students who have too humble an opinion of themselves! Since I teach only undergraduates, the only situation I deal with is that of students wanting to go on to graduate school. I try to be as frank as possible if I don't think the student is cut out for such a program, but it's very, very hard. I'd love to know what others say in these circumstances! If her subject matter or language training is weak, that's an easy thing to say. But what if I just think the student's not sharp enough intellectually? I would not say that to anyone. If their grades include too many B's, I'll point that out as not a good sign. I may encourage the student to apply for a master's program rather than a doctoral program, to test the water. And if they still persist, I'll tell them that I'm including in my recommendation the comment that I am happy to recommend for a master's program, but am less certain about doctoral work. I may also try to talk to them about career alternatives, but this works better in the sophomore or junior year than in the fall of the senior year, which is usually when the problem is arising.