Category Archives: Choosing An Advisor

Graduate School in a Downsizing Academy

The most important step that you can take when considering graduate school is to ask yourself, what is the job that graduate school will prepare me for?

If you are not focused on your post-graduate school goal, then your process of choosing graduate programs, applying to them, picking an advisor, deciding on a dissertation topic, and everything else, will likely be unfocused and relatively ineffective.  One unfortunate outcome for many of those who do not have a clear career goal in their graduate school plan is unemployment accompanied by debt.

The fact is, jobs for Ph.D.s have been evaporating for 40 years, and have now declined to crisis levels.  The reasons for this are the overall disinvestment in higher education in America.  Universities have less money to spend, and less of that reduced amount is spent on teaching per se.  Instead it goes to athletics, student services, and bloated administration.

The quantity of actual permanent tenure-line faculty plummets, as these professors are replaced by short-term contingent instructors known as adjuncts.  Currently the percentage of college instructors who are adjuncts is hovering at about 65%.  Yes, that’s right.  The majority of university faculty are now hired on a part-time basis, with no benefits or job security, and paid just a few thousand dollars a class.  Visit the website of the organization New Faculty Majority to learn more.

In this context, newly minted Ph.D.s struggle to find permanent work–the kinds of full-time faculty positions with benefits that currently account for only about 35% of university teaching positions.  There are vastly, vastly more Ph.D.s than there are jobs for them.

This is where your planning comes into play.  If you are hoping to obtain one of these scarce positions upon completion of your Ph.D., then your strategizing for that outcome must start in your very first year of graduate school.  Actually, the point of this blog post is to tell you that it should start before you enter graduate school.   In fact, you should not choose a graduate program unless it has an excellent and well-publicized record of placement for its Ph.D.s in permanent, tenure-track positions.  Don’t consider attending a graduate program that doesn’t.

In addition, the program must have abundant funding, and be prepared to offer you a multi-year funding package, so that your years of study in the Ph.D. do not leave you with substantial debt.

With a Ph.D. from such a program, you will be situated to be competitive for the few tenure-track jobs that are available when you finish, and you will embark on the next stage of your life without the burden of crushing debt.

This is not the typical path.  The typical Ph.D. student does not know to look for these attributes in Ph.D. programs to which she applies.  She enters the program, dedicates years to it, only to find out at the end that she has been given no meaningful preparation for actually obtaining a permanent, full-time, tenure-track position.   She may have required years of loans to survive.  Proudly submitting her dissertation, she discovers that her applications for tenure-track jobs are rejected one after another.   She finds herself spending semester after semester doing part-time adjunct teaching that doesn’t pay the bills, or allow her time to do the research and writing that are required for a tenure-track job-worthy record.  After some years, she is confronted with the painful choice whether or not to give up on her dreams of an academic career in order to right her financial ship.

I wish this story were the exception but it is not; it is currently the norm.

The way to avoid this outcome is to ensure, as I wrote above, that the doctoral program you enter is doing everything possible to train its graduate students in all of the skills necessary to obtain tenure-track positions.  These include grant-writing, publishing, conferences, and networking, as well as generally keeping a close eye on the state of the job market in the field and evolving hiring priorities, and assisting their Ph.D.s to follow them.

It is not easy to discern whether a graduate program has a commitment to this kind of professionalization training.  Clues to look for include a “placement” page on the website that is up to date, and shows the job placements of recent Ph.D.s.  Also look for workshops dedicated to grant-writing and the job market, and an active brown-bag or seminar schedule that brings top scholars to visit (this promotes networking).   Ask currently-enrolled graduate students whether they are encouraged (and funded) to attend national conferences, and whether the department offers an academic writing seminar and support for publication.  Finally, ask current graduate students and faculty about recent Ph.D.s–where are they now?  If they answer with some version of, “gosh….I don’t really know,” turn on your heel and run in the opposite direction.  Only consider attending a department that has a strong institutional culture of tracking its Ph.D.s and identifying with their success.

It goes without saying that the individual advisor you choose should be looked at in a similar vein.  How good is he at placing his Ph.D.s in tenure-track positions?  If you can’t get a clear answer on that, or if the answer is, “not very,” don’t consider that individual as an advisor.

In all things related to graduate school, remember—you are in the driver’s seat.  Protect yourself.  Departments and advisors may assist you, but your success ultimately rests in your hands alone.

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The Personalities of a Graduate Program


Ah, Departmental Politics. The downfall of many a hapless graduate student. So many personalities, so many treacherous waters. How to navigate them?



This is without question the best book (in combination with Getting What You Came For [Robert Peters, 1997]) available on succeeding in graduate school and leaving graduate school gainfully employed.


If I wrote a book on graduate school, it would be this book.


The only caveat I must mention is that it IS, as stated in the subtitle, geared to graduate students in the Humanities.  Those in the sciences and professional fields may find some parts not entirely applicable.  Nevertheless, as an overall guide to graduate school, this one is IT.


Today I want to introduce a section of the truly wonderful first chapter, The Culture of a Graduate Program.

This section, pages 34-36, introduces the “ubiquitous personalities” found in American university departments.
Every would-be graduate student should learn to identify these personality types and understand thoroughly which type your advisor is, which types your committee members are, and what the potential pitfalls of each can be.


The types are drawn directly from Semenza.  However, the discussion following each one is my own, based on my own experience as a student and a colleague in 4 different departments.


•The High Priests and Priestesses:  The commonly regarded “superstars” of the program.  Oftentimes the most productive, with the widest national and international reputation.  Highly respected for their productivity and leadership.  Oftentimes come with monumentally massive egos to match.  Usually make excellent advisors, as long as you can cope with the ego factor.


•Deadwood:  Tenured faculty who ceased making original scholarly contributions to their field (and similarly, ceased to stay up to date in teaching or active and responsive in service) at some point in their career.  They can’t be fired, and they are just marking time until retirement.  Never, under any circumstances, have one of these as an advisor.  You can immediately tell if someone is deadwood by doing an internet search and finding that they have published nothing, attended no conferences, and won no major grants or awards in the past decade.


•The Black Sheep: The faculty member in a department who feels, justifiably or not, isolated, marginalized, and persecuted intellectually and/or socially.  They often turn this marginalization into a badge of honor, and indulge in paranoia and delusions of grandeur.   They may legitimately work in an area of the discipline that runs counter to the rest of the department’s focus.  Or, they may just be paranoid.  In any case, they will often try to reach out and collar new graduate students and turn them into “loyalists.”  Most graduate students are flattered until they realize this is a dead end intellectually and politically in the program.  Beware of the Black Sheep as advisor.  There are far more potential risks than benefits in most cases.


•The Careerists:  Generally younger faculty members who are absolutely, single-mindedly, fixated on building their reputation, status, and political influence in their scholarly fields.   They will be focused intensively on getting the next grant, attending the next conference, organizing the next symposium, publishing the next article, and editing the next book.  Assistant Professors, still seeking tenure, should legitimately be careerist to some degree, as it is necessary to building the kind of high powered resume that guarantees tenure.  However, for many faculty, the habits of careerism that begin early in the career are hard to break, and in fact only intensify over time.  Careerist senior faculty may or may not make good advisors.  They can teach you priceless skills in networking, self promotion, and chutzpah.  However, given their propensity to be constantly jetting off to the latest conference in Singapore, Amsterdam, and/or South Africa, they can be very, very difficult to actually meet with.


•Service Slaves:  Almost 100% of the time women, Service Slaves are untenured or tenured faculty members who are unable to say no when the department creates the committees that keep it running—ie, search committees, curriculum committees, grievance committees, advisory committees, etc.   Sacrificing their own research productivity to departmental needs, they are the “perpetual associate professors” who stagnate in salary and status, with little to show for their selfless work in keeping the department functioning while other, far more selfish individuals, garner prizes, praise, and raises.   Service Slaves generally make warm, fuzzy advisors who might even bake you cookies for your birthday.  But they fall short of the ideal advisor, being negative role models for scholarly productivity, self-promotion, and clear personal boundaries.


•The Curmudgeons:  Every department has at least one senior greybeard, nearly always male, who stumps about complaining about the downfall of the field, the discipline, the department, the university, the world at large, and who generally sets himself up to resent and resist every curricular and administrative change that comes under discussion.  Curmudgeons can be secretly sweet and good natured, or openly hostile and antagonistic.  Either way, you must never have a curmudgeon as an advisor.  They can serve as an informal mentor or committee member as long as counterweighted by younger, more forward thinking committee members.   But as primary advisors, they are a mistake.  They’re primary contributions lie in the past, and they are backward looking.  You need someone focused on the future, and who thoroughly understands the brutal, heartbreaking conditions of the contemporary job market.  Do not, under any circumstances, be seduced by corduroy elbow patches, grey hair, and warm welcomes!!!!   You need someone as your advisor who is in the very prime of their career.


To be continued……