Over the past few years I have focused much of this blog on efficiently getting through graduate school.  Yet as I have started teaching and working on my dissertation, I have begun to question what I want out of graduate school.

There are a ton of reasons people start a PhD program:

  • They want to be called Dr.
  • They are fascinated by a really specific topic
  • They want to cure cancer/find extraterrestrial life/fix society/etc.
  • They don’t know what else to do after their undergrad program
  • They don’t want to get a real job yet
  • They want to be a Professor

For me it was this last one, although in hindsight I can admit that I didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant.  What the average undergrad sees of professors is conferences, teaching classes, meeting with students, etc.  That was the part that I wanted.  What the average undergrad DOESN’T see is the research process, the funding issues and the politics.  Here are some things I didn’t realize when I started that I kind of wish I had known beforehand:

  • A PhD is a RESEARCH degree.  You are being trained to do and publish research.  Your “major” is really the area which you intend to apply your research skills.  Teaching is secondary.
  • There are fewer and fewer full time tenure track positions available.  The humanities are just a disaster in this respect (to the point where respected faculty are advising undergraduates NOT to go to grad school), the social sciences are sinking fast, and even the hard sciences have fewer openings.  Competition for those positions is fierce, and the bar to even be considered is far higher than it has ever been in the past.
  • Money is scarce.  Most schools now are placing a lot of emphasis on bringing in grant funding.  So in addition to doing research you must learn how to get the money to do it, and that means choosing your subject not for its intrinsic value or because it fascinates you, but based on what the government, industry or non-profits are willing to fund.
  • You don’t get to relax after you graduate.  In fact, it gets worse.  The first six years of your academic career are focused on nothing but getting tenure, and while everyone SAYS they look at teaching reviews in the process what they REALLY care about is research productivity and stature.
  • Internal academic politics are as bad or worse than the politics you encounter in any other workplace.
  • Much of research time is spent proving things that practitioners will tell you they already knew.  I read about a paper recently titled Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning.  Duh.  My papers to date have also landed with comparable thuds on the practitioner world, where they tend to look at you like you are an idiot for not having already know whatever it was you just showed in your paper.
  • The typical professor at a a university is expected to spend most of their time on research and little on anything else.  (See below) I’ve heard 70% research, 20% teaching and 10% service at an R1.  Even those working at a liberal arts college teaching 4 classes per semester are expected to get some research done.

A few things have become clear to me of late:

  1. I love teaching and that is what I want the focus of my work to be.
  2. I am particularly passionate about students at the community college, most of whom work full time and are often single parents or struggling to get by.
  3. I picked a bad field for those goals, because frankly there is little call for instructors in education policy anywhere other than at the graduate level of research schools.
  4. This is a LOT of work when it won’t get me where I want to go.

As I may have mentioned, this semester I am teaching not just my standard statistics class, but also psychology 101.  There is a LOT of need for people to teach psychology at the community college level, and I actually have quite a few credits in relevant areas (methods and educational psychology).  Therefore I am taking a short detour (6 classes assuming all the transfer stuff works out correctly) to pick up a Masters in Psychology.

Why?  Well, most simply it aligns better with my goals.  It gives me the necessary credentials to get a full time teaching position at a community college in a field that is always needed and of interest to students at that level.  For now I am not officially stopping the PhD program;  I will probably finish my dissertation eventually, if only because I hate to see things unfinished.  But in the meantime I have realigned how my time is spent versus my goals.

So why am I telling you this?  If you are starting to think about graduate school, and especially about PhD program, you should go into that process with your eyes completely open.  As with any other career there are pluses and minuses to this one, and given the level of time, sacrifice and effort involved you need to be sure is for you from the outset.  Talk to faculty at your intended school candidly about job prospects, hiring rates for departmental graduates, and how they spend their time.  Make sure you know what you are getting in to.

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