Should I take on significant debt in pursuit of a Classics PhD?
April 8, 2008 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I've been accepted to a Classics PhD program, and I can't decide whether to go or not.

It's a good second-tier program, and the research interests of a number of the faculty line up almost exactly with my own, something that was remarked upon a number of times when I spoke with them. When I got the letter of acceptance, I was thrilled.
Here, of course, is the catch: funding. I'm on the funding wait-list at the moment, and the deadline for my decision is April 15th. The possibility exists that I could end up with full funding at the last minute, but I'm operating under the assumption that I won't.
Now, since I already have an MA (in Classics and Comp Lit), I think I can shave a couple classes off the coursework, and I should be able to finish that within 2.5 years. Without any funding, however, this comes to roughly $90k for tuition alone.
I really want to do this. Really really really. I've been wanting to get a PhD in Classics since high school, as odd as that may sound. Yet my girlfriend, my parents and a number of my friends have warned me about getting into such debt. It is, I realize, a huge obligation. The chances of my making much money at all after graduation is essentially nil.
Yet I don't know what else I want to do with my life. I would be incredibly disappointed in myself if I simply walked away from this offer because I couldn't afford it. "Lots of people," I tell myself, "have taken on massive student debt and ended up more-or-less OK." Other people around me insist differently, especially with as non-lucrative a field as Classics.
I should add, I've been accepted at another school, but the offer is without funding at all, and the cost would be roughly the same.

So, I'm stymied. My personal inclination is to accept and take on the debt as best I can. The voice of reason, however, is telling me otherwise. Any ideas? Suggestions? Thoughts?
posted by anonymous to Education (48 answers total)
Is there something you could do to polish your resume, and then reapply to grad school in a few years? It's generally not a good idea to take on lots of debt for a non-professional degree.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 3:03 PM on April 8, 2008

Don't do it unless you can get funding.
posted by grouse at 3:04 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

First of all, congrats on your acceptance.

Second of all, I have $80k of debt for a music PhD program after which I will probably be lucky to make $45k. Debt for education in this country is unfortunate, but also in some senses a luxury: we can study what we want when we want at extraordinary institutions. And I really, really want to do this AND I didn't know what else to do with my life either. And for the record, despite heartache, debt, and the rather tiresome dissertation process, I wouldn't trade it in for anything.

Third of all, you don't know what kind of funding they might come up with later on. You never know. And just because you accept the offer now doesn't mean you can't back out later. Nor does it mean that you can't find external sources for funding later on.

Fourth of all, this is about YOU. It sounds like you have been into this stuff for a while. Right now, you need to do what's best for YOU. Let your family and friends know that you appreciate their input and you'll take it into consideration as you make your decision. And ask them to be ok with whatever you decide and to support you and love you no matter what.

Congrats and good luck!
posted by cachondeo45 at 3:06 PM on April 8, 2008

Think realistically. ~90K is a lot to take on in order to pursue a nonlucrative degree. You could struggle to both pay down the debt and live comfortably. Remember, people struggle to get by on adjunct/postDoc pay without having incurred significant debt in pursuing their PhD.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 3:09 PM on April 8, 2008

So you are looking at $90k for the first YEAR or $90k for the entire program? It's hard to say. $90k for a single year, I'd say think really hard about the enormous amount of stress you would be under. You would need to take out massive loans, in a market that isn't very credit-friendly right now, and/or work your ass off at a job in addition to your coursework and your research. If $90k is what the entire program would cost, there is a possibility you could go for a year and get funding for the next and not end up with as much debt.

Personally, I was told by all my advisors that the academic track is not worth paying for, that if you do it, make them pay for it, because those are 3-5 years of your life when you're making much less than everyone else, and paying a price in terms of being able to save less for retirement, etc. But if you really, really love your chosen field, and you are sure when you say you can't imagine yourself doing anything else... then you don't have much of a choice, really, do you? Though I have to say, I think that you should explore with the department whether or not maybe deferring for a year would get you a better chance at funding. I take it you won't find out if they've found money for you until after the acceptance deadline.

I think I can shave a couple classes off the coursework

This is something you should confirm, because it has a direct financial impact. Presumably, since you've been accepted to this program, they've reviewed your MA coursework and have a sense of how that coursework would translate to their program.
posted by Kosh at 3:13 PM on April 8, 2008

It's a good second-tier program, and the research interests of a number of the faculty line up almost exactly with my own

Relevant question: what is their placement record? They should be straightforward and up-front with you about this.

Here, of course, is the catch: funding. I'm on the funding wait-list at the moment, and the deadline for my decision is April 15th. The possibility exists that I could end up with full funding at the last minute, but I'm operating under the assumption that I won't.

Probably, then: DON'T.

Now, since I already have an MA (in Classics and Comp Lit), I think I can shave a couple classes off the coursework

Don't think. Ask. Get in writing. If they won't give you a straight answer either way, don't go.

Without any funding, however, this comes to roughly $90k for tuition alone.

Don't go. Simple as that. You're young and all, but you will be crippling the rest of your life. Everything you do and don't do will be shaped by that time you spent $100K+ on a degree you don't use.

Funding wait list at a second-tier says to me: Be a lay enthusiast instead.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:18 PM on April 8, 2008

You could see if you can defer admission for a year or two. In that time you can work to save money, and apply for more fellowships. Also maybe the department might dig up money for you next year.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:49 PM on April 8, 2008

Can you get a high school teaching job and study part time?
posted by Jahaza at 3:50 PM on April 8, 2008

Hm. Why do you want to get a PhD in Classics? What's the logical reason, and what's the other reason - the motivation, the inspiration? How'd it start?
posted by coffeefilter at 3:52 PM on April 8, 2008

(1) Can you do part-time school / part-time work such that your work cash flow covers a significant percentage of tuition?
(2) Can you put off the degree for a year or two and work your ass off such that you can earn enough to cover a good chunk of the tuition? You might consider high-paying jobs where you can get living expenses covered, like maybe being a contractor in Iraq.
posted by charlesv at 3:55 PM on April 8, 2008

Hell, no. A Ph.D. candidate who cannot get funding at a second-tier program cannot expect to be a viable contender on the job market. Don't get a "vanity" Ph.D.

Funding wait list at a second-tier says to me: Be a lay enthusiast instead.

I agree with this.
posted by jayder at 4:03 PM on April 8, 2008

I really want to do this. Really really really. I've been wanting to get a PhD in Classics since high school, as odd as that may sound.

You're not someone who's just going to grad school because you can't think of something else to do with your life; you have a serious passion. The people who are saying you can't have a viable academic career are assuming that you *want* an academic career. You can go off and do other things after you have your Ph.D. -- it may not be an obvious path, but having achieved your dream with this, you'll have more confidence and energy than someone who's already decided that passion doesn't really count for much.

I say go for it, but be prepared to make your own rules.

If your girlfriend wants to get married and have babies soon, you might have to talk that over with her and factor that in, though. You might end up breaking up with her over this.
posted by amtho at 4:21 PM on April 8, 2008

My favorite rule in life is to follow your interests. What else you gonna do? If you're good enough in any field then you can make it work. The real question is how much are you willing to work? If you're not a hard worker than I'd say you're a bad investment to put $90k into this PHD.

If you are a hard worker and you're REALLY interested then you have more to loose by backing up from your interests (like most people do--and for good reason: it's always scary).

Everyone loves to tell people to take the safe route without considering what kind of person they are giving advise to. What kind of person are you?
posted by Murray M at 4:41 PM on April 8, 2008

How much have you spoken to the graduate adviser about funding options? There may be jobs somewhere on campus that come with a full tuition waver. Even if your own department cannot offer you funding, it is probably available, somewhere, at your school.

Taking on $90k in debt for a PhD in Classics is not a good idea. It just isn't. So, what you have to do is pester everyone you can possibly think to pester about funding possibilities in other departments, in the school administration -- whatever. Do not be passive about this. If you're adamant enough, you will find something.
posted by Ms. Saint at 4:50 PM on April 8, 2008

Your passion for the subject is obvious. So to me it comes down to one question: Which do you consider the worse feeling? Looking back on this for the rest of your life and thinking "God, I wish I had done my PhD" or being financially strapped for the next decade? (Disclosure: I am a few months from finishing my PhD in literature and it has been one of the most frustrating, challenging, exhilarating, rewarding experience of my life.)
posted by meerkatty at 5:05 PM on April 8, 2008

While I hear the people who are advising anon to follow his/her passion--after all, I decided to become an English professor at age 7--pursuing a Ph.D. for love alone can be a real non-starter. Advanced graduate work involves a lot of drudgery (dissertations, anyone?) and scutwork (in classics, several centuries' worth of scholarship), and while love can be a great energizing force, it's not going to carry a student through to completion. Even the terminal MAs at my campus, who "love reading," frequently get frustrated once they realize what they're expected to, well, master.

Now, since I already have an MA (in Classics and Comp Lit), I think I can shave a couple classes off the coursework, and I should be able to finish that within 2.5 years.

Nth get this in writing. Most schools will have transfer policies. Some will not. Some will look askance at an MA in Classics and Comp Lit.

Moreover, classics is not an Anglo-centric scholarly field: you'll need advanced competency in classical Greek and Latin, plus reading competency in, at the very least, French, German, and Italian. You don't mention how many languages you already have. Even taking languages-for-grad students courses, you may lose some of the transfer advantages.

It's a good second-tier program

As others have said, this is a problem. If you want an academic career, but cannot get funding at a second-tier program, you may want to rethink what you're doing. And an academic career, unfortunately, has become a really lousy proposition these days, even without the second-tier degree. If you don't want an academic career, there are ways of pursuing advanced study (taking classes as a non-matriculat.ed student, for example) that won't saddle you with a gazillion years of debt.

Next--the possible funding. If there's teaching involved, that could very likely slow you down (doing in that 2.5-year coursework calculation you've made). So be careful there.

In preview: Ms. Saint makes a good point. Again, though, remember that working-while-studying may make it harder to proceed as quickly as you expect right now.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:07 PM on April 8, 2008

I'm a graduate faculty member in Classics in a program that no longer offers PhD admission without funding due to a variety of factors, one major one being the difficulty some students had in finishing. I'll make a few remarks here, but would be happy to follow up by email if you have a dummy account set up for this anonymous question. Or you could ask the admins for my email address.

This is a tough decision. The match of faculty with your interests and your own passion for the field are both good signs; the lack of funding is of course not. Are the possibilities for funding after the first year reasonably good? I know people who have succeeded in precisely your situation (and I do mean precisely) and others who have had to give up and pay back $75K in loans with little to show for it. Predicting your ability to find a job at the other end of this long process is almost impossible -- even if a top-tier program were offering you full funding. As others have said, however, not getting funding from the start, especially with an MA in hand, may be a warning sign worth considering.

Personally I might go for it anyway, at least for a year, if personal circumstances permit. Then when you see more about the chances of better support in the second and later years you can decide whether to stay or get out. Good luck to you!
posted by Rain Man at 5:08 PM on April 8, 2008

Congratulations. Really, truly. You've really achieved something great and this sounds like a really great match for you.

Now is reality time. $90k is a lot of debt as you know and I think that it's important to consider placement. In many fields, people with degrees from 1st tier schools tend to teach at 2nd and even 3rd tier schools, leaving people from 2nd tier schools to a lifetime of adjuncting or teaching in prep schools. So make sure you have a handle on the placements before you make a final decision.

A lot of people believe that one shouldn't pursue a Ph.D. that isn't at least partially funded. I know funding is harder and harder to come by but if you believe you have the tenacity to pull it off, go for it. Just know that, as hard as the dissertation is, the fun actually begins once you finish.
posted by wildeepdotorg at 5:57 PM on April 8, 2008

90K is a WHOLE lotta money. With extremely modest living expenses and some work, you're going to be upwards of $150K in debt after five years of this. That's a completely irrational amount of debt to take on unless you can be sure that you're going to have an adequate salary at the end to both live and pay off your debt. Have you even broken this down on one of the many available loan calculators online? It comes out to a $1000/month loan payment for 30 YEARS, assuming (and this is a big assumption) you borrow it all at the current Stafford rate of 6.8%.

Don't assume that just because the school is selling the degree at that price, and you can borrow money to pay for it, that it actually makes any sense to do it. And remember, you can't discharge these loans in bankruptcy except in extreme circumstances.
posted by footnote at 6:06 PM on April 8, 2008

I really want to do this. Really really really. I've been wanting to get a PhD in Classics since high school, as odd as that may sound.

Why? What about it interests you?

Realize some of this:

Maybe you like teaching, or at least think you do. Have you ever taught? More to the point, have you ever taught a class full of people that for the most part are really not like you? That mostly aren't deeply interested in classics? That often don't care enough to do the work unless you force them to with threats? That are going to be the same, year after year until you retire?

Maybe you really liked those few hours a week with a neat prof, and the occasional discussions of things that were interesting to you. But do you like grading 30 bad papers by woefully underprepared students who have trouble communicating in plain English, and 20 good ones? Do you like going to meetings where people argue for hours about what color the brochures should be? Do you like doing paperwork where you have to take three pages to say what boils down to "I know they learned stuff because I gave them tests, and they did okay." Do you like arguing about grades with premed students who just will not accept anything less than an A? Do you like telling international students that it doesn't matter that they're going to lose their visa and be sent home in disgrace, they still failed?

Maybe you really liked your four years at a neato selective liberal arts college in rural Vermont or central Philly or some other good location. But odds are, you won't work at one even if you land a tenure-track job somewhere. More likely, you'll be at a third or fourth tier directional state university in a podunk nowhere town in a flyover state where the locals might be undereducated enough to view you with undisguised suspicion.

Maybe you liked doing research papers. Do you like the idea of sending months worth of work out to journals only to see it eviscerated by reviewers in ways that are plainly wrong to you and rejected 90% of the time?

Look, I like my job. There's lots of great things about it. But when push comes to shove, it is still a job, and there's lots of baggage associated with it too. And trust me when I say that while it's very easy to romanticize academic life, the reality is a lot more humdrum, a lot more like regular office life, and not nearly as exciting as being a student.

So be careful when you're thinking about dropping $90K on a degree that is nothing more than a professional certification for those jobs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:15 PM on April 8, 2008 [5 favorites]

Looking back on this for the rest of your life and thinking "God, I wish I had done my PhD" or being financially strapped for the next decade?

$90K and second-tier-humanities-phd job prospects is not financially strapped for the next decade. $90K and second-tier-humanities-phd job prospects is financially strapped for 30 years. It's you can't retire, ever, because you dropped $90K on a degree and then earned $25--30K/year for so long that you could never save anything, and Social Security isn't worth a damn in 2040.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:24 PM on April 8, 2008

1) It's not a given you won't get funding. Many people make a decision on these things at the very last minute — April 15th. That, in turn, means that many spots free up at the last minute. Wait and see.

2) If you decide you're not willing to go without funding, make that clear to the department. If they're really interested in you, there's a chance they'll at least help you find other options — places to apply for grants, other departments that might hire you as a TA, etc.

At my school, for instance, English and Philosophy are perpetually short of TA's, and some semesters they wind up bringing in students from Linguistics to take up the slack. That's how I got funding for my first semester; funding in my own department became available after that. There may or may not be a similar situation where you are, but it can't hurt to ask. Are you qualified to TA for Ancient History? Philosophy? Religious Studies? Some kinda Great Books thing? Let them know.

3) Do ask if they'll count your MA classes towards your Ph.D. Some departments don't. I have quite a few classmates with MAs, but they had to start again with the same first-year grad classes that I did, and it'll still take them 4+ years to graduate.

4) Ask, too, how funding is allocated after your first year. Is there a competitive process? Is there a chance you'll get funding for your second year if you kick ass during your first? How many second- and third-years do they have with no funding? You want to know what the odds are, and of course they can't tell you the odds exactly, but they can tell you how fierce the competition is, and how many winners and losers there will be.

5) Finally, if you wind up without funding, you can always ask them flat-out: "What would I have needed on my application to have a better shot?" If the answer is something you have control over (a clearer statement of purpose; stronger writing samples; a more thorough background in X) then work to fix it and apply again next year. If it's something you can't control (mediocre references are the most likely culprit I can think of, unless you've got some ace-in-the-hole reference that you didn't use this time) then it may be time to rethink this.

6) Last thing: In a lot of ways, you can think of grad school as being like boot camp. If you go, you're going to spend the next few years abused, overworked, broke, stressed and miserable — and much of what you'll be learning, you could just as easily learn as a calm, happy amateur scholar, relaxing on the couch after your nicely-paying day job.

Many people who are going to grad school for free still drop out due to the stress. It is almost certainly not worth going $90,000 into debt for.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:20 PM on April 8, 2008

Is there any way to scare up outside funding? Can you ask for a tuition waver in lieu of being a research assistant? Have you told them, point blank, that this is your dream and you would enroll today if they could find some way to make it bankable? Can you say yes, and then defer a year for funding next year? Say yes and see if anyone funded takes another offer before September? Have you discussed your "2.5 years" plan with them and do they agree it could work? Have you tried prostrating yourself across an administrator's desk and begging for help?
Also, can you get an administrative job on campus that gives you a tuition break and take the degree part time? I would try those, first.
posted by kristin at 7:25 PM on April 8, 2008

ROU_Xenophobe has some good points - especially about the money aspect. I perhaps didn't take into account how low-paying academic jobs are. I've accepted a job outside of academia that will pay off my debt well within 10 years but YMMV.
posted by meerkatty at 7:29 PM on April 8, 2008

I have to say that I agree with those saying: don't do this now.

You say you have wanted to get a PhD in classics for a long time, but does this mean that you are in love with the idea of the degree? That's a great way to start, but it's not worth going 90K into un-payoffable debt for. Getting a PhD in a subject like classics is a dicey financial proposition even if you get funding (ROU isn't kidding about the very real chance that you would end up making $20K/year with no benefits as an adjunct lecturer at age 35, if you decide to stay in the field at all). Without funding it's close to financial suicide.

You love classics, yes? You'll keep doing it next year even if you're not in school for it? It's an activity that you enjoy and do voluntarily with intense focus?

See if you can defer, or turn them down, explaining that you'd dearly love to come there but cannot unless you have guaranteed funding. Brush up your CV, languages, writing samples, whatever kept you from getting a funded spot, and apply again next year or the year after.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:50 PM on April 8, 2008

But of course: do wait until the last possible second, because there's usually a lot of movement on April 15 and you never know. Let them know that your decision is contingent on guaranteed funding for at least 4 years, and that you need to know how much of your MA work counts toward the PhD.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:54 PM on April 8, 2008

What you have to do here is work out the actual likely outcome of this - do a best case and a worst case scenario - and try to assess if it's worth it. I am going into debt for my PhD. I paid off my student loans from my undergraduate degree in the time I took off between college & grad school, when I was making what at the time seemed like a pretty satisfying salary to me (around 50K - dot com boom / web design), and I felt like I had too much money (though I don't really have expensive tastes). So I'm back in debt, but fairly confident I'll be able to get a job once I finish, and then it'll just be another expense, which I've budgeted for, so to speak. I mean I know it's part of the deal.

I don't know what kind of classics you're into, whether this is to read Homer, or Plato & Aristotle, or what, but to take the philosophical approach, you have to see how the practical part of your life works with the rest of it. It won't help to just ignore practical matters; instead you have to consider what you want, how you can come closest to achieving it, and if there are really insurmountable barriers, what you can do instead. Basically, you have to start thinking of the telos of your life, not just the momentary pleasure you may get from reading Loeb dual editions. Because of course, you can always carry Loeb around on the subway or whatever, if you decide that ultimately that's the level you are interested in pursuing this.

So, what kind of job do you hope a Classics degree will get you? If you want to teach, is this to investigate the meaning of the texts, as one might at university level, or to teach the basics of the languages, as you could at a prep school? Would you want to go to conferences to fight over the translation of "eidos" or do you just want to decline the aorist middle participle?
How likely are you to realistically be able to get this job? How soon?
How much will you make doing this, and what sorts of expenses will it include?
What sort of lifestyle do you want in terms of living expenses, house, car, etc?
Do you want to get married, have kids, yadda yadda, or is that secondary?
What would you do if you did not do this? How much would that make, how happy would it make you, and how realistic is that as a goal?

Any job has pluses and minuses, and a budget is not an absolute but a relative principle. Try to work out what that budget would actually be, and what that job would actually be, and make the decision based on specific factors, not just the general inclinations you're feeling.
posted by mdn at 9:49 PM on April 8, 2008

"I don't have the money" should never be the reason to pass up a life-changing opportunity. You will have lots of opportunities to apply for additional funding.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:01 PM on April 8, 2008

Not that I disagree with any of the more detailed suggestions above. But don't lose focus.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:02 PM on April 8, 2008

No one should do a PhD without funding.
Re-take your GREs, get a better score, and re-apply for programs that will give you funding.
posted by k8t at 10:43 PM on April 8, 2008

Should you do the Ph.D.? Yes. Without funding? No.

Here's my (Classicist in-joke):

On the one hand, a Ph.D. in Classics is really rewarding and offers you a chance to immerse yourself in high-level study. You don't sound like you aren't in it just for the prestige of Having A Ph.D. In Classics as suggested above, but for a true love of the subject. Above arguments for "is it useful?" always get me down because utility does not equal value.

BUT, these are your options after getting your degree:

1. Have amazing connections and parlay that into a tenure track position
(achieved by a very, very small group. Sometimes even connections won't help when you are competing against super-qualified candidates from the top schools.)

2. Take one year positions at a series of schools, interviewing at APA every year
(frustrating and itinerant if you have a family. This has been the fate of a friend of mine with impeccable credentials, and after 3 years of this he's ready to throw in the towel.)

3. Ditch academia and become a high school or middle school Latin/Greek teacher
(can be rewarding, and you don't need a Ph.D. to do it. Several professors I know did this at one point.)

Lack of funding is the real problem. Holding a job while doing graduate work is very, very hard. Loans are easily available, but it doesn't take long to rack up a lot of debt that way.

Here is my suggestion: if you don't get funding, don't go. Get a Latin teaching job for a year (Look on the ACL job placement site) and try again next year.

MeFi mail me if you want to talk about this more. It's way late and this may not make much sense, but don't get discouraged.
posted by Locative at 12:53 AM on April 9, 2008

To clarify:

Should I pursue a Classics Ph.D.? Yes!
Should I take on significant debt? No!
posted by Locative at 1:08 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

You don't say whether you plan to become a professor, but do not assume that you will be able to get an academic job, no matter how passionate you are. I know several very smart people that got humanities PhDs at top 5 programs with really famous advisors, applied to literally 80-100 jobs, and got nothing or one-year temporary jobs with high teaching loads. A good 2nd tier program in a field like Classics (which has almost no jobs) is a lottery ticket at best. This isn't to say that you shouldn't do it, but you should know.

BTW, most grad schools are very misleading about their placement rates. Red flag if they name some places they have placed people at in the past rather than giving you actual numbers of how many enter, how many finish, and how many of them get tenure-track jobs.
posted by underwater at 4:49 AM on April 9, 2008

I'm just being realistic here: if you can't get funding now, the chances that you will be able to get a job in your field when you graduate are very low. An unsupported student from a second tier school means, at best, you get a full time non-tenure track position. At worst, you're cobbling together visiting professorships and part-time gigs trying to make enough money to live on, possibly for years or decades, all while dealing with crushing student loan debt.

Wait a year or two. Retake the GRE, rewrite your essays, network with professors at better schools, attend conferences, maybe even try to write a paper or two. Then reapply. If this is something you really want, do it right and set yourself on a course for a life you'll really want.
posted by decathecting at 9:30 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

No one should do a PhD without funding.

There are plenty of complicating factors involved - who you want to study with, where you want to live, when you want to begin, etc. My program is notoriously underfunded, so I know plenty of people who have made the unusual choice to take out at least some loans. You can keep debt to a reasonable amount by teaching on the side and pushing for / seeking out better funding & scholarships in the upcoming years. The point is just that you can do the math and weight the priorities yourself.
posted by mdn at 10:17 AM on April 12, 2008

Straight simple advice from a director of a grad program and an adviser of about 10 dissertations in any given year:

If you cannot obtain *full* fellowship funding to attend a PhD program in the humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences (excepting maybe economics) you should not get a PhD unless money is an irrelevant concern for your whole life (because you were born rich, or plan to inherit a lot).

I'm sorry to say it's that simple. Some people do pay their own way and go on to careers, but the vast majority of people who enter the academic profession do so after *funded* graduate study. The indication that someone is willing to fund you is the first test of your suitability for the profession, and being unfunded puts you at a terrible competitive disadvantage in a field where the competitors are not having to work outside jobs or pay back mountains of debt and can focus on their scholarship.

People often do not believe this when I tell it to them before they go to graduate school. I've never met anyone who didn't believe it a few years into the grind. Either you're fundable or you are very likely wasting your time and a good number of crucial years (at a huge opportunity cost) chasing a career for which you are immediately disadvantaged.

The proper question, therefore, is how do I get funded to do a PhD? That is a rich subject, but the basic answer is a) be very good at what you do, among the top 10 percent in your field, b) have original ideas, and c) build professional networks as soon as you become aware of the desire to go to graduate school.

Grad school is a meritocracy, much more than undergraduate admissions where students are paying customers.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:08 AM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Things are a little bit field dependent, always. Life is far rougher in the largest humanities fields like English and History and Philosophy, where being unfunded in grad school is almost a sure sign of a second-tier or worse career in your future. I am aware of something of a revival of classics going on, but am not sure what the job market looks like. Some fields (like my own, luckily) are growing and there are a lot of jobs in the immediate second tier (tenure track, but at liberal arts colleges and smaller public universities) going to students from the less well funded programs at the moment (which was not true when I was coming up in the field, however -- things can change rapidly).

Some schools -- especially many state universities -- do not have the funding to compete with the richer schools, and still sometimes have top programs in any given field. But even then, the top few students -- the ones likely to get tenure track jobs -- tend to be mostly funded by some means or other (teaching may be heavier, external fellowships and grants more important).

Just remember that every hour you spend working on something other than your own scholarship is an hour a fully funded student is getting ahead of you in the chase. You have to be very good, very driven, and very lucky to make it while paying your own way. It is done, however. It's just very, very hard.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:56 AM on April 20, 2008

Some people do pay their own way and go on to careers, but the vast majority of people who enter the academic profession do so after *funded* graduate study.

Well now you're just affirming the consequent...

The programs that exist which for one reason or another have a smaller endowment and require students to scramble a bit more financially may or may not have decent reputations, good faculty, network opportunities, and enriching classes, and a decision can be made on a case-by-case basis about whether it is worth your investment.

Grad school is a meritocracy, much more than undergraduate admissions where students are paying customers.

But what merits are rewarded? It's the established profs who decide who joins them, so the current apprenticeship system might be argued to be less nurturing of real creativity and new ideas, and more likely to reproduce "what's been agreed to". That's that whole "ivory tower" issue. I realize getting a job in the academy requires understanding the standards of your field, but there's something to be said for fresh perspectives, and some grad schools really seem to mold students in the image of the program.

Again, there are particulars to consider in every case, and I really don't know how much this applies to getting a degree in Classics, but in the end I do think a doctorate is about more than professionalism. Work out all the factors, work out all the numbers, prioritize things, consider what your various options are, and choose your own path. Not everyone wants to work at Harvard, and not everyone minds a moderate budget if it means you can honestly do what you enjoy. All that matters is that you're realistic about what your options & debts will be.

You have to be very good, very driven, and very lucky to make it while paying your own way. It is done, however. It's just very, very hard.

I'm in a program where almost no one is fully funded the whole time, and it seems like most people who go on the market get tenure track jobs the first year out, so that seems a little hyperbolic. I know one person who didn't get an offer until the summer, and one person who got a visiting professorship instead, but I don't know anyone who had to turn to flipping burgers or anything.
posted by mdn at 2:19 PM on April 20, 2008

OK, mdn, I think maybe I am coming across as hyperbolic, and I don't mean to condone the "meritocracy," or argue that it is pure, but I do think my point is a bit more than "affirming the consequent." The consequent is a direct consequence of material conditions. As I see it, it's a question of how you spend your time -- working on your scholarship or making money to pay for your tuition (and everyone, even the fully funded at elite schools, has to do a mix of both). I'm sure there is variation by field depending on how many top programs there are and how many are fully funding their students. Fields with a lot of technical skills that are transferable easily to other domains (computer science, say) may be different than ones that are more esoteric or lack applied opportunities (English).

A highly motivated, deeply driven person can succeed under any conditions. Almost. But such a person *deserves* to be fully funded, and a large number of such people are funded in top programs, so the competition is steep. I'm not saying you'll be flipping burgers, but this is a world where people with PhDs from top programs are teaching at community colleges as adjuncts in many fields, or jumping from one year to one year, or teaching at raunchy little colleges in the middle of nowhere and being paid accordingly and teaching 4 classes a semester so they can't publish research and move up and out.

I have a fair bit of perspective on this. I left a public university 10 years ago precisely because I despaired of not being able to fund my graduate students properly. I've counseled hundreds of students on this stuff, and watched the careers of hundreds unfold under a wide array of conditions. I simply mean that if you cannot or choose not to attend a program where you are well funded, do so with your eyes wide open and know you have a harder hill to climb.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:02 PM on April 20, 2008

Addendum: if you are going to be happy in a quieter and easier path, with more time for yourself, or more teaching and less research, that's fine too. I assume this question is accompanied by a desire to reach to upper ranks of the academic world, which means a tenure-track position at a major research university. If your sites are set on more modest career goals (and a lot of people drawn to academia are in fact looking for this) adjust my advice accordingly.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:06 PM on April 20, 2008

And I do have to say that getting a PhD in classics with 90K in student debt strikes me as utter insanity. Sorry. Especially given the huge rate of attrition in PhD programs; what if you never finish and you still wind up carrying the debt? And assuming you do go smoothly on into a tenure track position, to make back that $90K you will be paying off that loan for a good 20 years, at least, maybe longer, while making a salary in the range of 50-70K for 5-7 years, and only hitting the 80-100K range in your mid-career (unless you're a rock star, these are good, solid numbers for a very successful academic career that begins on a tenure track and leads to tenure). There are brilliant classics students at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago on full ride fellowships, and I suspect most of the top jobs get filled by people from these programs. The single most important factor in what kind of job you get is the originality (or perceived originality)and ambitiousness of your dissertation; it takes an enormous amount of time to develop a highly original and ambitious dissertation project (and to publish in grad school, the second best predictor of future success; or to get external grants, the third best predictor).

This is not to mention the tremendous opportunity cost of going to grad school in the arts and sciences; assuming you get it done in 5 years in your 20s, you are still going to be far behind your friends who went into law or business in saving for retirement or to have children, and you will be able to count on having to relocate several times early in your career on top of that.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:13 PM on April 20, 2008

mdn: I'm in a program where almost no one is fully funded the whole time, and it seems like most people who go on the market get tenure track jobs the first year out

In philosophy, which I believe you are, this placement record is an extremely, vanishingly rare state of affairs.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:55 PM on April 20, 2008

well, I'm going by impression not numbers, that's true. Probably people who don't make it are also less active in the dept & I just don't know about their trouble. What's an expected placement level then?

anyway, I already made it clear my motives and interests are not entirely traditional. I had unusual personal circumstances and an especially ambivalent relationship to the ivory tower, so chose to go part time into an alternative program, and it's only been in getting near the end that I've taken seriously the academic career. But if I somehow fail at that, it won't be the end of the world for me. There are other paths, and I still think the education I've had would have been worth it.
posted by mdn at 9:57 PM on April 20, 2008

I'd say any philosophy program at all where a majority of new PhDs are walking into tenure track jobs right after the PhD is a top program, indeed. The programs I know (mostly at Ivy League universities) don't generally have stats like that!
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:19 AM on April 21, 2008

My guess, and it's really a sheer guess based on a very small sample of programs (from about Leiter top 20 to Leiter top 4), is that of a given entering class this is what will happen:
Suppose 10 are admitted.
3 will quit within 3 years,
3 more will quit within 7 years,
4 will eventually get PhDs.
Of those 4, one will get a tenure track job first time out, after applying to 100+ jobs.
Three will bounce around in visiting positions, adjuncting, etc for a couple/few years and get tenure track jobs after a few times on the market.
One will eventually end up at a very good place; the others will end up at lesser places, maybe quite a bit lesser. At least one of these will quit philosophy altogether.

Students coming from the very, very top end of the Leiter scale probably have an advantage. Students coming from Christian/Catholic schools have a bit of an advantage in getting jobs at Christian/Catholic schools, and there are probably other pipelines like that.

Here's one source on this year's placement, across the field, as voluntarily reported to Leiter:
Leiter placement thread 1
thread 2

Bear in mind that if a school placed 3 people in jobs this year, that doesn't necessarily represent people who are on their first go-round. Some of them may have been on the market for one or more previous years.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:15 AM on April 21, 2008

most people who go on the market get tenure track jobs the first year out

Though, if your program is very strict about who can go on the market, I suppose I could see this. Maybe they only allow their best two candidates on the market in a given year, and only if they're in different specialties, and the faculty make a big push for each candidate. I know there are some schools where grads who are not stars are told "look, you can feel free to try, but we're not giving you our departmental stamp of approval"; maybe at such programs there is a great placement record because they just won't let you go on if they think you have less than n% chance of placing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:20 AM on April 21, 2008

Interesting, I didn't realize it was so dire across the board... I did think that at top schools at least the graduates had more security.

As for my peers, I'm sure you're right that there is "advice" given to who should even make an attempt, plus no doubt there are people trying I just don't know about. Personal acquaintances seem to have been lucky, but it's no surprise the "stars" of a dept would be acquainted with more students, and I haven't gone out of my way to get to know everyone around. Certainly we lose a fair number of students on the way up, usually transitioning from MA to PhD - some voluntary, some by award of a terminal MA.

Also, perhaps we're talking about different aspirations - I don't mean getting a position at a top 20 research university or something. Just a stable teaching job at whatever little college. I know people who are teaching at state U's, one person at a catholic U, someone at a (good) tech institute, and then some folks at small liberal arts colleges...

Finally, perhaps my program has a "pipeline" aspect in being continental, though I have usually expected that to be a negative in the job market.
posted by mdn at 4:14 PM on April 21, 2008

Ah, yeah I was wondering if you might be in a continental program. It's a very weird dynamic. Small liberal arts colleges actually want people who can teach continental, and other stuff that is off the agenda of major research places (Asian or African thought, applied ethics, etc). The Leiter ranked places just don't really offer training in that stuff (huge oversimplification), so there's a real hole in the job market that is an advantage for continentally trained grad students who mainly want to teach undergrads.

(The placements I'm talking about are tenure track anywhere, no-name small colleges, regional master's granting universities (southeast podunk state), etc. I might be exaggerating, I guess, but any way you slice it, it is very, very hard to get a job, let alone a "good" job, in analytic philosophy.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:16 PM on April 21, 2008

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