Lucie Melahn may be the world's authority on the head and
neck movements of horses. But opportunities to expound on
equestrian locomotion are rare in her current job as a dot-com
Since dropping out of her biology graduate program at Cornell
University four years ago, Melahn, 31, has looked back only
long enough to wonder why it took her so long to leave academia.
Therapy sessions for depression at the student counseling
center helped her to realize she wanted out, which in turn
opened her eyes to the fact that every academic-in-training
must face: the tenure-track jobs of her Ivory-trimmed dreams
are practically non-existent.
Had she stayed long enough to defend a dissertation, Melahn's
post-academic prospects would have been bleak. She likely
would have struggled to eke out a living as a post-doctorate
student teaching undergraduate classes and doing research
under a full professor. She would have been glued to the lab
at odd hours of the day and on weekends with no money or time
for a social life or vacation. If the research didn't produce
a decent paper, she would have needed to apply for another
post-doctorate position and repeat the cycle. With good recommendations
and published papers, there still was no guarantee she would
land one of the good jobs that come with health benefits and
a livable salary.
Still, Melahn, like countless other grad-school students
facing this reality, found the prospect of leaving academia
very scary. Not only was the university life all she knew,
it was all her professors knew. After all, the whole idea
of graduate work in the humanities and sciences is to build
credentials towards admission into the sainted circle of professorhood.
"One advisor tried to stop me," says Melahn, who works at
Manhattan-based Ice Inc., a web design company. "It's really
funny. When you want to leave, they can't conceive of it.
They don't know of the world outside academia. They think
you'll be sleeping on a park bench."
McDonald's pays better
Less than half of English and foreign language doctoral candidates
land full-time tenure track jobs - the good ones - within
a year of receiving their degrees. The prospects for science
students aren't much better. Instead of hiring more full-time
professors, universities are exploiting cheap graduate-student
labor and part-time workers. A Ph.D. who doesn't land a full-time
job can expect to make anything from $1,000 to $7,500 to teach
a semester course, says Cary Nelson, an English professor
at the University of Illinois, Urbana, who penned Will Teach
for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis.
"Teaching, in many cases, is really a blue-collar job now,"
Nelson says. "Salaries have been collapsing for the last 15
to 20 years. Faculty members are now being employed for the
same kind of money as McDonalds' workers."
Although the academic job market crisis has received some
media attention over the past few years, universities have
done little to change their culture, Nelson says. Suggestions
to broaden programs, such as linking an English doctorate
to library studies or biology to computer cross-training,
typically go nowhere. In recent years, some graduate-school
departments have introduced Ph.D. candidates to alternative
careers by providing guest speakers from the outside world
or even offering semester-long courses - efforts Nelson doesn't
consider enough to alleviate the situation.
Outside the academy, however, several students who have successfully
entered the job market maintain websites and listserves offering
extensive advice to students, everything from how to market
skills to researching alternative careers.
"A lot of academics think alternative careers are fine,"
says Nelson. "But they just want it to happen to students.
They don't want to change the nature of their programs."
More than 50 percent of students who enroll in post-graduate
programs drop out, a figure only slightly higher than it has
been over the past 30 years, he says.
However, more students are leaving earlier, within the first
two years, than in the past, he says. And the number of applicants
to graduate school has dropped over the last five or six years,
causing some departments to downsize. His English department,
for instance, enrolled 350 students in 1970. Today, 120 students
are pursuing Ph.Ds, but only 55 percent will likely stay to
the end. In the past, about two thirds of students stayed
long enough to defend their dissertations.
Still, Nelson says, the glut of grad-school students dramatically
outnumbers the number of decent jobs out there.
"It's a churning phenomena," he says. "Students drop out,
others keep applying, particularly to the prestigious schools."
Mentor advice: stop whining
Emily Toth, author of Miss Mentor's Impeccable Advice for
Women in Academia, suggests graduate schools shouldn't be
expected to become more career-oriented. Rather, applicants
should get smarter about their future prospects when they
enter a PhD. program. In reality, the market for professors
has been dismal since 1970. Among Toth's cohort at John Hopkins
University, in fact, only seven percent of her 30 classmates
finished with PhD.s. Only six went on to academic careers.
Three remain in the field.
"It surprises me how many people go into graduate school
in English and don't even know it's a job crunch," says Toth,
a professor of women's studies and English at Louisiana State
University. "You can go into grad school with the idea that
you are going to learn skills, but this is not primarily about
job preparation. It's brain food. What's hard for people is
that they expect it to do both - to give them brain food and
to put food on the table."
She says graduate students, who are in school to flex their
brains, shouldn't expect to be spoon-fed information about
alternative jobs. They can just as easily look up career information
as anyone else can in the position of finding a new job.
The fact is most students enter graduate school blissfully
ignorant of their career prospects, experts say.
Grad-school drop-out Sean Portnoy says he hardly considered
the job market for professors until he was far along in his
cultural studies program at the University of Southern California.
He started attending job-related meetings in the department
and found out that few grads were getting good jobs.
"I think people like me who started grad school in the early
'90s were mistakenly sold a bill of goods that, because a
lot of professors would be at retirement age when we finished
our doctorates, we would get those jobs when the professors
retired," he says.
What's really happening, however, is either old professors
are clinging to their posts (there's no mandatory retirement
age for professors) or schools decide to split job responsibilities
among assistant professors, adjunct staff or graduate students.
The use of part-time faculty almost doubled between 1970 and
1993, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Students are considered lucky even when they land tenure-track
jobs at a state school in geographical dead zones, says Portnoy,
who left before completing his dissertation. But most of his
friends who stayed in the academy are still on the job prowl,
often after years of trying.
He started seriously thinking about getting out a few years
ago after talking to friends about their summer plans. They
were reading as many books as possible and spending as little
money as possible.
"And I'm thinking, we're almost 30 years old. I can't keep
living my life like this," says Portnoy, an associate producer
at Manhattan-based ZDNet, an online source on computer technology.
Hear No Evil
The truth is students typically don't want to hear about
their grim prospects when they start grad school, says Nelson,
who makes his bread and butter researching and writing about
such topics. Every year during grad-school orientation, in
fact, he reduces the amount of material he presents on the
realities of the profession. Students just don't want to listen.
"It isn't just that nobody tells them," he says. "People
just aren't eager to hear that bad news."
Susan Glueck, who will be working for a scientific journal
after completing a post-doctorate program at Indiana University,
says her students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are
typically more realistic. They know an advanced degree in
science can be a career enhancer and approach it that way.
More privileged students, she says, tend to view academia
as pure and beautiful. She counsels them to resist the urge
to embark on research that doesn't have real-life applications
unless they've really thought hard about the challenges that
"I've been in this long enough to know there's two things
you need to make it in academic biology," says Gleuck, who
received her Ph.D. from Cornell. "You have to have a never-ending
passion for this stuff. You have to live and breathe this
stuff. And if you lose that, you're toast. You also have to
have luck. They say fortune favors the prepared mind. Well,
you have to bust your ass to have enough opportunities to
Melahn, the information architect, got lucky in a completely
different way. Immediately after defending her master's degree
thesis in horse locomotion in 1996, she hopped a plane to
London and walked into an HTML programming job. She didn't
know Internet coding but was able to convince her employer,
Virgin.net, that she could learn it easily enough. From there,
she has advanced her career in small Internet design companies.
The salary range for information architects in the New York
metropolitan region is $60,000 to $100,000. If she stayed
in academics, she says, she would likely be making $30,000
to $35,000 while finishing up a post-doctorate degree and
trying to get a full-time job.
"I don't care what anybody says. It's better in the real
world," she says. "You can search for your soul anywhere.
You might as well get a bigger salary while doing it."