1. Do you want to be a professor?
My response: it's not a bad gig if you can get it, but there are fewer gigs than used to be got, and the gig used to be better.
2. Do you understand what professors really do?
My elaboration: the gig used to be better until meetings and electronic mail and the intrusions of special education got in the way. Serious departments will protect their probationary colleagues from most of the scut-work until they make tenure, but that cramps the continued development of the senior faculty, particularly as administrative burdens increase while downsizing and attrition is de rigueur.
3. Do you understand where professors really work?
Here's Professor Goldman.
Despite all the possible disadvantages--remote location, relatively low salary, long hours--a secure position at an elite university or college is a pretty great job. That's why so many people want it.You have to bloom where you're planted. The kind of student who contemplates an academic career is the kind of student that has kept his distance from the rabbit culture and the lifestyles of the boozy extroverts. And graduate school is full of similarly self-selected strivers. Thus, it doesn't matter whether you're at Stanford or Berkeley or Northern Illinois or Wayne State or Joliet Junior: your first encounter with undergraduates is going to be a shock, because you now have to deal with the life-management deficiencies of the people whose company you could avoid as a student.
But institutions with selective admissions, verdant quads, and lively intellectual community are only a tiny sliver of American higher education. The vast majority of students attend community colleges, regional state universities, or private colleges with a local or regional draw and pre-professional emphasis. So that's where most professors teach.
Would you be happy working at unglamorous institution where students' abilities and interests are likely to be different from your own? Can you imagine teaching introductory surveys, semester after semester, year after year? If not, you're unlikely to find satisfaction in an academic career.
4. Do you understand the job prospects in your discipline and area of interest?
See point 3. Pick the best program you can, and expect to be disappointed.
5. Is someone else paying?
Professor Goldman has it about right.
In the social sciences, that means the only Ph.D.s worth borrowing for are probably economics and clinical psychology. In the humanities, currently-employed teachers who receive raises for additional degrees might be another exception. In general, however, you cannot responsibly pursue Ph.D. study unless you are independently wealthy or able to rely on support from others.Many graduate departments structure their financial aid as teaching assistantships, which often involve the introductory classes the research stars are allegedly avoiding, or there's a lot of grading, particularly in writing-intensive classes.
A lucky few are born rich. Others can count on extended family to chip in. But most graduate students depend on their universities to pay their way. So you should not enroll in a graduate program unless you are certain of being "fully funded".
But "fully funded" doesn't always mean the same thing. At some universities, full funding covers tuition, but not living expenses. At others, it requires teaching--sometimes a burdensome amount. And funding is usually time limited. For that reason, it's crucial to find out the average time to completion in the departments you're considering. If it's longer than the funding they offer, don't bother.
Also, keep in mind that you may not be able to provide financial support to others for some time--or ever. Apart from a few stars, even academics who are lucky enough to have "real jobs" don't earn much money.
I must be fortunate, to be thought of as in the "star" class when it comes to earning money. But getting to the position to earn that money comes at a price.
6. Are you willing to delay starting a family?
Again, Professor Goldman has it about right.
Many young parents have told me they found it almost impossible to balance the intense focus required for graduate study and the early phases of an academic career with childrearing.Yes, and I have heard stories of intense professors advising incoming graduate students, "if your marriage survives first year, you're not working hard enough," and I've seen more than a few faculty marriages come undone, sometimes before tenure, sometimes after. There might be more at work, though, than the demands of academic life: ask lawyers or real estate hustlers or railroaders.
Most departments tout family-friendly policies, and some of them make a real effort to help graduate students with children. But fact remains the academics are expected to do their hardest and best work between the ages of roughly 25 and 35. Needless to say, the burden on women is especially heavy.
7. Are you willing to move around -- and can you afford it?
That's a serious question for economists. Yes, you have to move to where your job is, and that can mean exile to an unfamiliar part of the country or the world, irrespective of discipline. Economics, however, used to hold the job meetings the week between Christmas and New Year's, and now it's the first week of the New Year. End of semester stress, the holidays, the job meetings, beginning of the semester stress, and then the campus visits begins, just when the airlines are most subject to immoderate weather. It's a wonder there isn't more domestic discord.