Advice for the New Academic Year

Thinking of getting a PhD? Maybe you feel really passionately about a very specific topic? Maybe you are looking for an opportunity to really delve into a subject, become an expert? Or, perhaps, you can’t find a job and you think the more education the better? Well here is some advice from someone with 9 years of post-secondary education.

Before committing to a PhD program it is important to know what the expected outcomes are:

capital sheep

1. Cultural Capital–Ok, you won’t be able to buy a fancy new car with cultural capital but you will be able to impress (annoy?) your friends and family with all your knowledge. For example, someone you know is looking for a job? Remind them about Granovetter and the strength of weak ties! Is someone you know having a baby? Remind them that Butler says gender is performative. They may think they are having a baby girl but nature has yet to meet nurture so we should reserve judgement. Now that is something that you can take to the bank, except not really.


2. Lower Standards–Before graduate school, I was unhappy with my salary of about $25k/year. Now, I know that I can live comfortably on $15k/year. I dream of all the wonderful things I could do with $30k/year. I could go on vacation! And catch up on the latest sociology research in a more tropical climate! If I get a job at a coffee shop, my mind will remain free to think the valuable thoughts of my chosen field. Or, for $60k/year I can win the academic jackpot as a young professor struggling for tenure. Meanwhile, my less educated siblings are making more than I can ever imagine making and have been for all the years I have been in graduate school.

hang in there

3. Persistence–Graduate school is a series of baby steps and before you know it there is no turning back. If you are lucky, you will never notice the futility of academia. But, for most of us, there comes a point when you realize that you spend your days writing things that only a few people (or no one) will ever read. That course paper you stressed over for months? Your prospectus? The dissertation you spent a year or more obsessing over? You have to do it for you; because you are the only one likely to read all the words. There will come a time when you think “Why am I doing this?” and then you will justify it. Well, I am already three, four, five years in I might as well keep going. I really enjoy the process of research and writing! So, you persist.


4. Faith–No, I am not talking about a religious epiphany (though I am not ruling that out either). I am talking about the sort of everyday faith that things will work out despite evidence to the contrary. You will start to see older students struggling on the job market or delaying graduation to avoid having to pay back student loans without the promise of a job. You will notice the exhausted look of the new faculty as they juggle publishing, teaching, and service. You will note how many faculty are divorced or living in separate states from their spouses.  But you will say, this won’t be me! I will graduate in a timely manner and get a dream job that will pay the bills! I will balance work and family! My partner and I will find jobs in a good location and I will remain passionate about my research and my students! You will likely never meet anyone who has successfully realized this dream but you will maintain faith that it is possible. Hey, maybe even unicorns are real! Crazier creatures exist.

As those graduate school acceptance letters come rolling in, keep in mind what a PhD actually gets you. If it is too late for you and you are too far in just remember you don’t have to graduate. You can always just pile on more PhDs or go to law/medical/business school. There is still hope!


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