>Sorry for the long silence. Crazy holiday travel schedule + frantically getting ready for the semester + stupidly becoming addicted to TimeWasteBook = a blogger’s absence.
Anyway, I’m back in Rust Belt, enjoying the peace and quiet caused by a snowy weekend before the semester begins. So while Bullock makes us a new TV/Entertainment stand in his workshop, I’m catching up with all things electronic. Heck, even Pippi’s quiet and mellow. She’s dozing on the window seat that Bullock made for, occasionally looking up to watch the snow fall. Soon we’ll be out there shoveling again, but for now I have time to write a SUBSTANTIVE post. Really!
So while I was at MLA, having a good time on my part since I was neither being interviewed nor giving a paper, I was also feeling great sympathy for all those people on the market — including the 14 we were interviewing — and picking up on the crazy-stress vibe in the main conference hotels. (Btw, do you ever get the feeling that *everyone* is staring at you when you walk into those lobbies? Maybe they are, since everyone is looking for the people they’re meeting, but it makes me feel really weird.) I was also hearing everyone’s stories — successes, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs — as well as the stories they’d heard. And one of those is what inspired the title of this post.
A friend and I were talking about whether our respective hiring committees were afraid of ABDs not finishing in time, and if we tended to prefer people with the PhD in hand or a set defense date, or whatever. And that brought up a story of a friend of this friend, whose dissertation director wouldn’t let the person file his dissertation, year after year, for about three years running. And so the person kept going out on the market as an ABD and not getting many bites and not getting a job. When the director finally let the person file, he got an embarrassment of riches in the interview department, more than one campus visit, and a job. (There were, of course, a couple of articles published in there, too.)
According to my friend — or according to her friend, the one who was prevented from filing — the reason the director wouldn’t let his student file wasn’t because the diss wasn’t finished or wasn’t good enough to be a diss. Rather, it was because it wasn’t good enough to be a book. He thought he was doing his student a favor, getting him to shape it into a book while still a student, rather than once the tenure clock started running. I have to say that when I was a grad student, I kind of thought that way, too, and so did some of my friends, especially those of us who had one or more years of dissertation fellowship. But now I think that’s messed up.
Here’s why. A graduate student on fellowship or working an assistantship makes peanuts. An assistant professor, even at the most poorly paying school, makes a lot more. But it’s not just about a couple of years of higher salary. A graduate student making peanuts isn’t paying off her credit card bills; she’s accruing interest on them. A graduate student isn’t contributing to her retirement account, and so is not only losing that year’s contributions, but also the earnings it accrues (okay, okay, let’s leave aside the tens of thousands of dollars my TIAA-CREF account lost this particular year). Add just those two things together and the financial difference is exponentially greater than just the amount of salary difference. Then there’s the fact that if you’re a professor getting any kind of raise or merit pay or cost of living adjustment — or even summer school pay — it’s likely based on your base pay. A graduate student is losing out on years of having that base pay and having it increase each year. The graduate student is likely also not saving for a down-payment on a house, saving for her kid’s college fund, or, for that matter, saving at all. Such investments and savings also (ideally) accrue value over time (again, let’s leave aside the current financial and real estate markets for the moment).
But it’s not just about money. There’s social and professional status and general self respect involved, too. I can’t begin to explain what a difference it made to my sense of authority in the classroom just to be a lecturer with a Ph.D. versus a grad student in my own grad program. Faculty treated me differently — I got invited to the secret faculty party! — and so did the students. Teaching upper division courses rather than lower div ones also went a long way to making me feel like I had some real expertise and authority in my subject. And even before I got the tenure track job, my family felt like they could stop worrying about me for once — I was finally no longer a student. It even influenced my personal life; you get a better reaction from strangers when you say “I teach at such and such a place” than you do when you say “I’m a Ph.D. student at such and such a place.”
And there’s still more that’s problematic about the dissertation director who expects a finished book rather than a dissertation, and its a problem that affects more than his individual student. First of all, a circumstance like this is an abuse of power. While it’s different in degree from the spouse who won’t let his partner have her own life, it’s not that different in kind. And the student in such cases likely acts like the abused spoused: she internalizes the “it’s for your own good” justification; she can’t bring herself to leave and start all over again (whether that means something as drastic as leaving academia or just switching advisors); and she probably tells herself that she’s partly/mostly to blame – if only she’d just write a better book. I’ve seen people who had such directors still have doubts about themselves and their work years later and it affects their productivity.
But more troubling — or perhaps just troubling on a greater scale — is the impact such expectations have on the discipline and academia in general. If dissertaton directors keep expecting more of the dissertation, hiring committees can expect more of applicants — perhaps a book contract from an ABD. And if hiring committees are expecting more, T&P committees will expect yet more — it’s two books for tenure at some places now. It’s utter madness. I know some of the directors doing this are probably justifying by thinking that they’re only preparing their charges for these increasing expectations. But isn’t it a mutually supporting system? If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren’t we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn’t stop only with those of us on that end of things — the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too. I don’t think a dissertation that’s just a dissertation and one article is too much to ask of a student, or too little to make them look ready for the profession (and, in fact, I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school — but that’s a post for another day). But keeping your student from graduating because his dissertation isn’t yet a book is damaging to both the student and the profession.
Let me close with two quick case studies. One is me. The other is someone who graduated from college at the same time I did — indeed, from the very same college. I took three years off from school before going back for the Ph.D., and she went straight to grad school, so you’d think that this other person and I would be about 3 years apart in our “academic age,” wouldn’t you? But no, I just got tenure last year and she’s a full professor now. I think she may even have an endowed chair. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the two of us that accounts for part of this (for one, she’s a workaholic, which she herself admits). But a big chunk of that difference is that she actually finished the Ph.D. in 5 years — even doing field work for part of it — because she had a director who thought of a dissertation as a dissertation. My once-peer wrote a 150 page dissertation (in a “wordy” field – not a math or hard science). I wrote a 450 page behemoth for a director who didn’t exactly expect a finished book — and certainly didn’t keep me from graduating (I did a lot of that myself) — but did have pretty high expectations, and often referred to the thing as a book. Though to be fair, he often said things like “this is something you’ll want to think about more when you turn this into a book.” So I didn’t have the kind of director I’m troubled by in this post. But I also didn’t have the kind that my one time peer did. And I think that’s made a lot of difference in our career and life trajectories.
The profession as a whole — and especially those fields where we write books — needs actively to rethink what we expect of Ph.D. students, because the state of the market right now and in the future is likely to drive us all into more insane expectations if we don’t start setting some reasonable limits now.