Realistic Plans for Grad School

twitter threads, advice

Yesterday I wrote about my conversations with students about academic careers. Today I wanted to share some of the advice I give them in an effort to be realistic without being overly discouraging.

(Link to twitter thread)

These are my three key points: (1) Don’t get in debt for a PhD. (2) Have a Plan B” if academia doesn’t work out, and (3) carefully research what it takes to succeed in such a competitive academic market.

Note that I don’t tell them not to pursue their dreams. I think that’s a terrible thing to say to a young person. I just encourage them to take some reasonable precautions. If you can graduate without a lot of debt, why not spend 5-7 years doing something you love?

It is also worth looking at the average time to completion at various programs and trying to do things like advanced language study before you start so as to shorten the time you are paying for credits.

A Plan B” can be of two kinds. One might be an alt-ac career. Most of my grad students in Taiwan worked outside academia before coming to get a PhD, but many of the (often younger) US students who speak with me have never even considered other options.

I tell them to start by educating themselves about other career trajectories. For instance an anthropologist might want to attend the Applied Anthro conference, or start making a note of the career paths of public figures they admire who are outside of academia.

It is often possible to tailor your research project so that you also get some relevant experience for an alt-ac career at the same time. Interested in public health? Do a project that involves participatory research at a public health org!

Another approach for a Plan B” is to develop marketable skills besides writing and research. This is good for students who already have hobbies or interests that could potentially turn into careers.

Not everyone has to combine their job and their passion.” I have plenty of friends who separate the two, working for money 9-5 and then doing what they love after hours. For some it has worked out even better than trying to combine everything.

Finally, if your dream is to be a professor, you need to educate yourself about the nature of the job market and what it takes to succeed. There isn’t just one path to success, but some paths are riskier than others and you should make those choices knowingly.

For instance, it is a fact that a career in Taiwan studies” is going to be riskier than a career in China studies.” And when something like 70% of the jobs in the US go to graduates of just 7 programs, you are certainly handicapping yourself if you don’t go to one of those.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t excellent reasons for taking such risks. But you shouldn’t understand what you are getting yourself into and consider ways of mitigating the risks.

Mitigation techniques might involve having a committee member from a top 7 program, or - in the case of Taiwan studies -, doing some comparative research.

Students should also understand that many successful academic careers involve moving a lot till you either land a TT job, or give up and do something else. Not being willing to continually uproot yourself (and your family) is a big reason many people drop out.

Finally, be wary of the sunk cost fallacy.” Don’t stay in a program that makes you miserable just because you have already spent so much time, money, and effort on your studies. Trust your instincts and if you think it isn’t working for you, get out.