Monday, April 15, 2013

What Not To Say to Grad Students

Here's something not to do:  Don't try to convince the grad student in your life that of course he can get a job [as an assistant professor] at Berkeley because he's really smart!

This happened recently to one of the students in Tam's math PhD program (a fellow third year student) in a conversation with his father.  The discussion involved the student yelling at his dad and basically wanting to murder him.

If this student's Dad's comments don't seem crazy and wrong to you, let's break it down.

The Job Market in General

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the job market in academia sucks.  Don't believe me?  Google the phrase "academic job market sucks" and you get 6,060 hits.  (In contrast, "academic job market is good" and " fine" yield no hits.)  Start perusing the links you get from that search, and the despair and desperation felt by job candidates is palpable.  It sucks marginally less in some fields, and is dire enough to make candidates suicidal in others.  The job market in math is... well, there is talk from some hiring committee insiders that this year they are receiving applications from 600 or more credible applicants for tenure-track positions. It's probably safe to say that there are hundreds of reasonable candidates for every job and there are more qualified applicants than there are jobs.

In most fields, when going on the job market, candidates will typically apply to somewhere between "the majority of" and "all" tenure-track job openings.  I mean, all job openings in the entire country (plus Canada, for some). Not all job openings in big cities, places with nice weather, places with politics compatible with their own, places with culture/athletics/shopping/birding opportunities/whatever their personal interests are, places close to friends and family, places where a significant other could find a non-academic job, or anything like that.  If there is a job opening at the University of Texas-Brownsville or Keystone College in Factoryville, PA, chances are, your grad student will apply for it.  This is something I don't think people outside academia understand.  No accountant, computer programmer, sales manager, or whatever would consider applying to all relevant jobs no matter where in the country they are located, but this is standard operating procedure in academia.

Of course, in the sciences it is increasingly common that people don't enter the academic job market directly out of the PhD program.  First, you apply to post-doc positions that give the opportunity to do research and get publications to beef up your CV before applying for assistant professor positions.  A lot of people end up doing more than one 3-year post-doc before getting a tenure-track position (if they ever do).  Note that there is a huge amount of competition for post-doc positions, too, and they don't pay all that well, either -- perhaps around $45,000 on average.  And many people end up moving from one temporary position to another, hopping across the country multiple times to do so, or cobbling together gigs to teach one class here and one class there.  These options pay even worse.

Being Smart

Your grad student is really smart.  I'm sure that's true.  I'd guess that most people in PhD programs are pretty sharp.  So good news: I believe you about your grad student.  Bad news:  Your grad student is competing against a bunch of other brainiacs for the limited number of jobs available.  But maybe your grad student is even smarter than the average grad student - yay, right? 

Well, maybe.  Your grad student mostly gets credit for his intelligence by channeling his intelligence into activities that matter.  Hiring committees in academia aren't making decisions based on a sense of how "smart" candidates are.  They are looking at CVs (publications, etc.) and job market talks (presentation of a piece of their current research) and so on to decide which candidates have the research and/or teaching skillz the university wants.  I'd argue that "being smart," above and beyond what is reflected in these other aspects of the application, is of less value in the academic job market than the non-academic job market for the following reason: the job of assistant professor is quite precise and the hiring committee can (because of how many more applicants there are than jobs available) require that candidates demonstrate that they already can do the things that constitute the job -- research and teaching.  In the (admittedly highly variable) non-academic job market, it's harder to get direct evidence of what an applicant's skills are (if for no other reason than work product is generally proprietary to the company where the applicant was working when they did it, unlike publications in journals that anyone can read) and jobs are more ambiguous and changeable.

Getting a Job at Berkeley

Let's face another tough truth.  In addition to your CV and your job talk, another thing really matters on the academic job market: your academic pedigree.  It should come as no surprise that academia is snobsville.  In general, candidates are viable at universities at or below the level of the university from which they graduated.

In the case of Tam's fellow student, his father is suggesting that after graduating from a program ranked around #100, he will ("of course") be able to get a job at a university with a top 10 program.  This is so unlikely to occur that we might as well call the probability 0.  (A glance at the website of Tam's program showed me quite a few faculty members who graduated from top 10-30 programs.  This seems very typical to me of the pattern in academia generally.)

Getting a Job at X University

But even if the idea of going from Tam's university to Berkeley weren't so obviously a non-starter, it's still just flat not the case that most students can "of course" get a job at any given university.  There are a bunch of reasons:

The department might not be hiring in any given year (or several years).

The department might be hiring for a position your grad student doesn't qualify for.  Berkeley might be looking for an algebraist, so your grad student with a specialization in combinatorics is shit out of luck.  (Note: I don't know how specific hiring is in math, but it's specific to some extent in all fields.  I also don't know anything about combinatorics except it was the specialty of Charlie's ex-advisee/girlfriend Amita on the TV show Numb3rs.  Of course, she also was hired as an assistant professor by the same university where she got her PhD - an example of academic inbreeding, which is generally frowned upon.) 

It seems to me that the specialization issue is less at teaching oriented, rather than research oriented, schools, but there is still an issue of "fit" no matter where you apply.  Some aspects of this fit you can sort of predict -- a small, liberal arts college will like it that you have stellar student evaluations of teaching and significant experience overseeing undergraduate research, for example -- but other aspects of this fit are mysterious, unpredictable, and out of your control.

There are just too many applicants for too few jobs.  (See "academic job market sucks" for a refresher.)  The academic job market is not literally a crap shoot, but ... yeah, it sort of acts like one.  So here's the thing, there just is no such thing as "of course" when it comes to getting an academic job, any academic job. 

An Analogy

Getting a tenure-track job at a top-ranked university is like getting a job in professional sports.  (I tried this analogy on Robert and he did not visibly choke, so I'm going with it.)  It wouldn't make sense to tell a basketball player at Division III Bridgewater State University that "of course" he can get a job playing for the L.A. Lakers because he's "really athletic."  It doesn't really matter whether he's the best player on the Bridgewater State team either.  Things don't work like that in pro sports, and they don't work like that in academia either. 

What Not To Do

I hope that I have convinced you that your well-intentioned but naive belief that your "really smart" grad student can "of course" get a good academic job is completely out of touch with reality.  But if you want to fantasize about your grad student being a superstar at one of the most elite universities in the country, fine -- that's your business.  (Go ahead and award them a Nobel Prize while you're at it.)  But do not -- DO NOT -- share these fantasies with your grad student, and most especially do not share them in ways that make them seem like expectations you have for their future greatness and achievement.

Grad school is stressful, it's grueling, it breaks you down and makes you want to cry.  Just getting by on a day-to-day basis is tough and tests your resources to the limit.  The job market is a scary, horrible thing that looms overhead, creating additional anxiety and terror.  There is really no point in even bringing up the job market with your grad student.  (This is quadruply true if your grad student is still in the early years of the program, worrying about classes and exams and finding research they're interested in.)  If you want to be helpful and encouraging, do not make your grad student deal with your fantasies masquerading as support.


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