Tag Archives: grad school

“The Great Ph.D. Scam” (or: Academy Plight Song)

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, here’s my piece from the Boston Phoenix on the MLA, the first feature piece I ever wrote for publication, twenty-one years ago last month.

Who knows if the Wayback Machine is forever?  Just in case, I’m including the text of the piece here.

The Phoenix gave this piece its title, which I think is too fighty.  My title was “Academy Plight Song.”  (Get it?)

I think this holds up pretty well!  (Except if I were writing this today I wouldn’t attach so much physical description to every woman with a speaking part.)

Melani McAlister, the new hire at GWU who appears in the opening scene, is still there as a tenured professor in 2018.  And all these years later, she’s still interested in helping fledgling academics navigate the world of scholarly work; her page “Thinking Twice about Grad School” is thorough, honest, humane, and just great.

Here’s the piece!

The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg

“We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent . . . ”
— William James
“The Ph.D. Octopus,” 1903

By nine o’clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They’re young and old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white). They’re here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to be hired at Indiana University.

Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That’s because, unlike almost everyone else here, she doesn’t need a job; she’s an assistant professor at George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the similar questions they’ll be asked in days to come.

This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA; and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For the people who are here “on the market,” that is, trying to become professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.

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Is academia wrong for you?

Good article by Daniel McCormack in Chronicle of Higher Education on underpublicized aspects of academic life.

For instance:

These iterative failures are, at a very deep level, the essence of creating new knowledge, and are therefore inseparable from the job. If you can’t imagine going to bed at the end of nearly every day with a nagging feeling that you could have done better, academe is not for you.

The academic workplace is a really unusual one.  For instance, it’s one of the few places to work where you’re nobody’s boss and nobody’s your boss.  It really suits some people — I’m one.  But lots of other people feel otherwise: it’s too slow, too lacking in immediate feedback, too content with the way “it’s always been done.”  And a lot of those people have great things to contribute to mathematics and don’t fit in the system we’ve set up to pay people to do math.

Also, this:

So while the ideal career path leads from graduate school to a tenure-track position, the one you will more likely find yourself on leads from graduate school to a series of short-term positions that will require you to move — often.

is less true in math than in many other areas, but still kind of true.  And it works badly not just for people who temperamentally hate moving, but for people who want to have kids and have a limited childbearing window.

McCormack is right:  without catastrophizing, we should always be trying to give our Ph.D. students as real a picture as possible of what academic life is like, and not just the advisor’s life with tenure at an R1 university.  Lots of people will still happily sign up.  But other people will think more seriously about other great ways to do mathematics.




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Where should you go to grad school?

April 15 approaches, and seniors with math degrees are deciding where to begin their graduate study. Isabel Lugo at God Plays Dice has a great post addressed to prospective graduate students at Penn:

Your mathematical interests will change during the first year in graduate school, because a lot of subjects “feel” different at the undergraduate level than at the graduate level, and there are some things you just don’t see as an undergraduate at all. (This statement about “feeling” is incredibly difficult to make precise, but two examples are probability and number theory. Probability is usually taught in a “naive” way to undergrads and in a measure-theoretic way to grad students; number theory as taught to undergrads pretty much exclusively concerns itself with reasoning that takes place in the integers, whereas at higher levels it uses Big Fancy Algebraic Machinery. In addition, it may turn out that you think you are interested in X but in reality you had a particularly good teacher of X as an undergrad which colored your perception of that field.)

Read the whole thing: I agree with every word, except that Lugo says you should go to Penn, whereas in fact you should come to Wisconsin.

If you’re wrestling with this decision right now, the most important thing I can tell you is that this decision doesn’t matter as much as you think. More precisely: it matters a lot, but the ways in which it will matter are almost entirely unpredictable, so you might as well not worry about them. Four or five years from now you’ll very likely look back and say “How wise I was to have chosen graduate program X!” — which is just what you’d have said about graduate program Y, had you decided to go there.

Some things that matter more than you might think:

  • How much do you like the city where you’d be living for the next several years? Living in a place you hate can be depressing, and being depressed means not doing good mathematics.
  • How strong are the graduate students at the program, how long do they typically take to finish, and what kind of jobs do they get when they do? Make sure the program is well set-up to meet the kind of ambitions you have.
  • How’s the atmosphere? Some math departments are really fun. Some are kind of dead. I don’t know any way to figure out which is which without physically visiting the place and walking around.

Some things that matter less than you might think:

  • How strong is the university “overall,” e.g., how highly rated is it in US News and World Report? In math we only care how good the math department is; membership in the Ivy League, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean much.
  • How strong is the group of faculty in my research area? As Lugo explained, you probably don’t really know what your research area is going to be, even if you think you do. Lots of undergrads have had some exposure to number theory and differential geometry; many fewer have seen algebraic geometry, or representation theory, or PDE, or homological algebra, or symplectic geometry, or homotopy theory, or …. Don’t be afraid to go to a place where you don’t have any idea who you might work with. If the institution is a good fit for you, it’ll work out.
  • How much am I going to get paid? In some circumstances, obviously (e.g. supporting a small child) this really does matter. But if you’ve got a B.A. in math, you’re already taking a huge pay cut by studying for a Ph.D. instead of becoming an I-banker. If you can go to a school that you like better and where you think you’ll do better math at the cost of making a few thousand dollars in annual stipend, you should do it — if you end up getting a fancier postdoc as a result, you’ll break even in a year.

I, too, found this decision really difficult. For a long time I was pretty sure I wanted to go to Berkeley. But a friend of mine who was going to M.I.T. found a nice house in Somerville, and needed an extra person to live there, and I’d heard finding a house in Berkeley was really hard. So I went to Harvard instead. Is that a dopey way to choose a graduate program? Maybe. But it worked out fine for me. And it’ll work out fine for you, too!

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