Grad School Reality Check

By Jayne J. Feld

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 information architect.

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.

Portnoy's Complaint

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 lay ahead.

"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 be lucky."

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,, 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."