Both feet? Both feet and a hand?
November 25, 2008 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I always knew I'd go back to grad school to get my PhD in English, but have I shot myself in the foot by picking 2009, aka the year of financial armageddon and joblessness, to apply to top-notch programs?

See, I had a plan. I had a schedule, dammit. After graduating in 2006, I was going to hopscotch around the journalism scene for two or three years, just to stretch my legs, and then leap back into academics for duration of my nerdy existence.

Other than the very real problem of sucking at math which I plan to ameliorate as best I can, I have (or had) a good shot at getting into good English programs. I graduated with honors from a top 20 college with a 4.0 in my major and a 3.8 overall. I've kept contact with the two of the most respected scholars at the university, and they're both more than happy to write solid recommendations. I'm getting perfect scores on my Verbal GRE practice tests, and the Lit GRE will, all things considered, go as smoothly.

And then the wave of financial doom and gloom crushed my little sand castle. I presume many of the bright young things who lost their jobs at Doubleday and Conde Nast are hoping to tread water in grad school while the new Great Depression washes over, and I know many are similarly qualified. Of course, I'm worried that the increased competition will winnow down my options. As I'd like to get my PhD from a respectable institution with a high job-placement rate so I can decrease my chances of languishing in adjuncthood for eternity, I'm wondering A) how much I can expect the current recession to impact my acceptance chances, and B) is it worth delaying my matriculation until things calm down a bit? Because wouldn't that mean waiting, like, years?

And while I know it's everyone's favoritest parlor game to hyperventilate over us foolhardy young'uns skipping into academia's dried up job market, please save the very well-meaning concern for the uninitiated.
posted by zoomorphic to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
No, you're in good shape.

I work for a university and spend a lot of time around admission people. The current idea in higher education is that people will apply for MA-level programs that will help them in career development. For the most part, those classes are paid by loans or the student. As a Ph.D. candidate you will of course have to deal with a potential drop in funding for doctoral programs but I think the general consensus is funding won't drop.
posted by parmanparman at 8:03 AM on November 25, 2008

I am a grad student in the sciences, so you can disregard my opinion as much as you want.

I would say that you are still a very competitive applicant -- grad schools are not necessarily looking for people with tons of job experience, they are looking for strong candidates who are willing to learn and work hard. Perhaps those that have been softened by a few years in the real world with real salaries and real respect won't think it is worth their time to go back and work for grunt pay teaching undergrads how to analyze short stories. Although this graph shows exactly what you fear, it looks like unemployment and grad school enrollment have been on the rise for a few years now and perhaps that is something you didn't anticipate.

I guess I'd say go ahead and apply, but in the sciences application fees are often waived, so it was fairly cheap for me to apply to grad school after all the tests were paid for. So I revise that to go ahead and apply to a few places -- maybe a few top choices, some fall back schools that are still good, and see what you get -- you can always apply again in a few years, but now is a great time to be furthering your education, and assuming you pass your quals, it is great job security.

P.s. Crap crap crap, I'm graduating next summer and it is not looking here I come!
posted by sararah at 8:05 AM on November 25, 2008

A) how much I can expect the current recession to impact my acceptance chances

Somewhat, possibly -- applications will probably be up, and a lot of universities are having budgetary issues right now (endowments have been hit hard, and state budget cuts have been announced in some places) which conceivably could trickle down to fewer graduate student stipends being available. But that is all outside your control, and your energy would be a lot more productive if put into working on your writing samples and admissions letters. (And universities are usually pretty good at keeping a long-term focus, and understand that cutting all grad student funding this year will cause real problems for years to come because the pipeline will be empty.)

and B) is it worth delaying my matriculation until things calm down a bit? Because wouldn't that mean waiting, like, years?

No, because there is no downside (except application costs and your time) to applying this year. If you get in, great. If you don't get in, you simply apply again next year. If you decide to wait, your chances of being admitted this year drop to zero.

Your concerns are valid, not tinfoil-hat-ish at all. But the state of the economy doesn't change that this is the right year for you to be applying to grad schools, and that your chances of getting in are a lot better if you actually apply, rather than delay. Ergo, no reason to wait.

Do take the GRE and see what your actual numbers are -- practice tests are good, but aren't always the same as sitting in the testing room facing the real test.

And while I know it's everyone's favoritest parlor game to hyperventilate over us foolhardy young'uns skipping into academia's dried up job market, please save the very well-meaning concern for the uninitiated.

The academic job market is pretty good. It's the English job market that is in the shitter. You say you know this already, so just stay strategic in what schools you choose, what areas you focus on, and with whom you decide to work. The job market in English, like in a lot of academic disciplines, is sharply bifurcated -- you are either on the track of well-paid and high-status tenured employment, or you are not, and that bifurcation can start really early in the process.
posted by Forktine at 8:48 AM on November 25, 2008

If you're sure you're doing a PhD eventually, there's little to lose by applying now. OK, you'll lose a small amount of time and money for applications, but that's pretty minor in the scheme of things. The time you need to take a hard look at this is when the decisions start coming in. If you think, at that time, that you would be able to get into a better program or get better funding if it weren't for this annus horribilis, then perhaps you should reapply the next year.
posted by grouse at 8:55 AM on November 25, 2008

I'm in almost the exact same boat as you. I graduated in 2006, but wanted to get some more research experience and travel before grad school. It really sucks that the ole economy's in the shitter, but I think there's definitely something to be said for all the Master's applicants effectively bolstering the doctoral programs. Master's programs are cash cows at a lot of universities, and I'd be willing to be that there will be a proportionally higher increase in master's applicants as compared to doctoral ones (going back to school to give your career a boost is a lot different than essentially committing yourself to academia as a career).

Here's to hoping this is accurate.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:37 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

You should apply. You should, as with most questions about academia, ask this on the relevant forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education website.
posted by ob at 9:59 AM on November 25, 2008

Just because you apply doesn't mean you have to go. If you don't get in where you would like to get in, don't go. In the meantime, work to make your career more fulfilling in case grad school doesn't work out for you right this second.

I know that seems simplistic, but think about it--you have all the time in the world. You can apply now and three years from now.

I have seen too many friends go to a grad school they really don't want to attend, because they had worked so hard during undergrad and the application process, and started to perceive grad school as their ultimate goal. The problem is that grad school isn't a good goal in and of itself. It should be useful and productive, of course, but ultimately it needs to serve you and your life plan or there's really no point to it.
posted by sondrialiac at 12:18 PM on November 25, 2008

hey, I am in a very similar boat to yourself, applying to do PhD programs in English at the top notch places. Reading about your perfect verbal GRE and GPA, I can honestly say that it is the people like me who are worrying about the people like you. Not advice as such, but make of it what you will.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 3:31 PM on December 5, 2008

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