Published: Mar 10, 2009

Topics: Education       Grad School       

Lucie Melahn may be the world's authority on the head and neck movementsof horses. But opportunities to expound on equestrian locomotion arerare in her current job as a dot-com information architect.

Since dropping out of her biology graduate program at Cornell Universityfour years ago, Melahn, 31, has looked back only long enough to wonderwhy it took her so long to leave academia.

Therapy sessions for depression at the student counseling center helpedher to realize she wanted out, which in turn opened her eyes to the factthat every academic-in-training must face: the tenure-track jobs of herIvory-trimmed dreams are practically non-existent.

Had she stayed long enough to defend a dissertation, Melahn'spost-academic prospects would have been bleak. She likely would havestruggled to eke out a living as a post-doctorate student teachingundergraduate classes and doing research under a full professor. Shewould have been glued to the lab at odd hours of the day and on weekendswith no money or time for a social life or vacation. If the researchdidn't produce a decent paper, she would have needed to apply foranother post-doctorate position and repeat the cycle. With goodrecommendations and published papers, there still was no guarantee shewould land one of the good jobs that come with health benefits and alivable salary.

Still, Melahn, like countless other grad-school students facing thisreality, found the prospect of leaving academia very scary. Not only wasthe university life all she knew, it was all her professors knew. Afterall, the whole idea of graduate work in the humanities and sciences isto build credentials towards admission into the sainted circle of professorhood.

"One advisor tried to stop me," says Melahn, who works atManhattan-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 ofthe world outside academia. They think you'll be sleeping on a parkbench."

McDonald's pays better

Less than half of English and foreign language doctoral candidates landfull-time tenure track jobs - the good ones - within a year of receivingtheir degrees. The prospects for science students aren't much better.Instead of hiring more full-time professors, universities are exploitingcheap graduate-student labor and part-time workers. A Ph.D. who doesn'tland a full-time job can expect to make anything from $1,000 to $7,500to teach a semester course, says Cary Nelson, an English professor atthe University of Illinois, Urbana, who penned Will Teach for Food: Academic Laborin 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. Facultymembers are now being employed for the same kind of money as McDonalds'workers."

Although the academic job market crisis has received some mediaattention over the past few years, universities have done little tochange their culture, Nelson says. Suggestions to broaden programs, suchas linking an English doctorate to library studies or biology tocomputer cross-training, typically go nowhere. In recent years, somegraduate-school departments have introduced Ph.D. candidates toalternative careers by providing guest speakers from the outside worldor even offering semester-long courses - efforts Nelson doesn't considerenough to alleviate the situation.

~Outside the academy, however, several students who have successfullyentered the job market maintain websites and listserves offeringextensive advice to students, everything from how to market skills toresearching 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 changethe nature of their programs."

More than 50 percent of students who enroll in post-graduate programsdrop out, a figure only slightly higher than it has been over the past30 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 graduateschool has dropped over the last five or six years, causing somedepartments to downsize. His English department, for instance, enrolled350 students in 1970. Today, 120 students are pursuing Ph.Ds, but only55 percent will likely stay to the end. In the past, about two thirds ofstudents stayed long enough to defend their dissertations.

Still, Nelson says, the glut of grad-school students dramaticallyoutnumbers the number of decent jobs out there.

"It's a churning phenomena," he says. "Students drop out, others keepapplying, particularly to the prestigious schools."

Mentor advice: stop whining

Emily Toth, author of Miss Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women inAcademia, suggests graduate schools shouldn't be expected to become morecareer-oriented. Rather, applicants should get smarter about theirfuture prospects when they enter a PhD. program. In reality, the marketfor professors has been dismal since 1970. Among Toth's cohort at JohnHopkins University, in fact, only seven percent of her 30 classmatesfinished with PhD.s. Only six went on to academic careers. Three remainin the field.

"It surprises me how many people go into graduate school in English anddon't even know it's a job crunch," says Toth, a professor of women'sstudies and English at Louisiana State University. "You can go into gradschool with the idea that you are going to learn skills, but this is notprimarily about job preparation. It's brain food. What's hard for peopleis that they expect it to do both - to give them brain food and to putfood 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 inthe position of finding a new job.

Portnoy's Complaint

The fact is most students enter graduate school blissfully ignorant oftheir career prospects, experts say.

Grad-school drop-out Sean Portnoy says he hardly considered the jobmarket for professors until he was far along in his cultural studiesprogram at the University of Southern California. He started attendingjob-related meetings in the department and found out that few grads weregetting good jobs.

~ "I think people like me who started grad school in the early '90s weremistakenly sold a bill of goods that, because a lot of professors wouldbe at retirement age when we finished our doctorates, we would get thosejobs when the professors retired," he says.

What's really happening, however, is either old professors are clingingto their posts (there's no mandatory retirement age for professors) orschools decide to split job responsibilities among assistant professors,adjunct staff or graduate students. The use of part-time faculty almostdoubled between 1970 and 1993, according to the U.S. Department ofEducation.

Students are considered lucky even when they land tenure-track jobs at astate school in geographical dead zones, says Portnoy, who left beforecompleting his dissertation. But most of his friends who stayed in theacademy are still on the job prowl, often after years of trying.

He started seriously thinking about getting out a few years ago aftertalking to friends about their summer plans. They were reading as manybooks as possible and spending as little money as possible.

"And I'm thinking, we're almost 30 years old. I can't keep living mylife like this," says Portnoy, an associate producer at Manhattan-basedZDNet, an online source on computer technology.

Hear No Evil

The truth is students typically don't want to hear about their grimprospects when they start grad school, says Nelson, who makes his breadand butter researching and writing about such topics. Every year duringgrad-school orientation, in fact, he reduces the amount of material hepresents on the realities of the profession. Students just don't want tolisten.

"It isn't just that nobody tells them," he says. "People just aren'teager to hear that bad news."

Susan Glueck, who will be working for a scientific journal aftercompleting a post-doctorate program at Indiana University, says herstudents from lower socio-economic backgrounds are typically morerealistic. They know an advanced degree in science can be a careerenhancer and approach it that way.

More privileged students, she says, tend to view academia as pure andbeautiful. She counsels them to resist the urge to embark on researchthat doesn't have real-life applications unless they've really thoughthard about the challenges that lay ahead.

"I've been in this long enough to know there's two things you need tomake it in academic biology," says Gleuck, who received her Ph.D. fromCornell. "You have to have a never-ending passion for this stuff. Youhave 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 belucky."

Melahn, the information architect, got lucky in a completely differentway. Immediately after defending her master's degree thesis in horselocomotion in 1996, she hopped a plane to London and walked into an HTMLprogramming job. She didn't know Internet coding but was able toconvince her employer,, that she could learn it easilyenough. From there, she has advanced her career in small Internet designcompanies.

The salary range for information architects in the New York metropolitanregion is $60,000 to $100,000. If she stayed in academics, she says, shewould likely be making $30,000 to $35,000 while finishing up apost-doctorate degree and trying to get a full-time job.

"I don't care what anybody says. It's better in the real world," shesays. "You can search for your soul anywhere. You might as well get abigger salary while doing it."


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