Opportunity cost

After my last rant, I got an email asking me to elaborate on the opportunity costs of graduate school. Yes, all right.

“Opportunity cost” is a term borrowed (I believe; correct me if I’m wrong) from finance. It refers to what your money could be doing for you over there if you hadn’t already committed it over here. What you give up to pursue the choice you pursue.

For example, if you leave money in a savings account for thirty years instead of paying off your mortgage—the opportunity cost is the extra interest you’re paying on your mortgage, minus the piddling little bit of interest the bank pays you on your savings. You had an opportunity, you didn’t take it, it cost you. Simple.

Wilf Cude, like many, talks of the financial opportunity cost of graduate school. He doesn’t mean the obvious expenses of grad school, like tuition and loan interest. Opportunity cost is the income you will never earn because the time you would have spent earning it you spent in grad school instead—and opportunity cost typically dwarfs the overt costs of school.

There’s a subtler opportunity cost, too: the cost in raises and promotions of starting in the job market at a later age. Me, I’ve paid the hell out of this one, you better believe. My boss is quite a bit younger than I am; it’s a simple matter of her having done her time on the lower rungs, and me not. (If I’d had any supervisory experience, chances are good I’d have landed her job. But I didn’t, so I didn’t. Just as well, in hindsight, but even so.)

Other opportunity costs come to mind—with the crazy inflation in the housing market, a lot of places, there’s an opportunity cost to not being able to settle down. Things like that. But foregone income and lost raises are the biggies.

So much for the financial opportunity cost. Wilf Cude and I don’t by any means think that’s all.

Cude points out the opportunity cost to society of locking up smart people in grad school for however many years only to have one-quarter to one-half of them wash out. Lovitts adds to this (and I concur) the additional time cost of these folks putting their lives and their sense of self back together—not a few attriters end up (by any reasonable measure) underemployed, occasionally for quite a while. Not a few of them are physically ill by the time they leave; I’d hit the doctors a couple of times myself. Not a few are mentally ill; I was. Fixing all that stuff costs.

I’m going to point out the opportunity cost in intangibles. Family. Friends. Enjoyment. Achievement. Because, you know, I let the money and the status go a long time ago, but I still vividly resent what I paid in intangibles. The text-geeking I could have done in those four and a half years… the time I spent miserable that I could have spent happy and productive… the good books I could have read and didn’t because I was reading grotesquely gooey pastorales and craptastic Spanish imitations of Boccaccio, of realism, of French romanticism.

(Boccaccio imitations aside—they’re earlier, obviously—nineteenth-century Spanish literature is a vast and forbidding wasteland until you get to the Generation of 1898. I have utterly forgotten the Clarín and Pérez Galdós I read in grad school, and you have no idea how wonderfully happy that makes me. Dreadful stuff. Horrid bad.)

So that’s opportunity cost, in a nutshell.

I never thought in these terms while I was in grad school. I bought into the perseverance meme—if I’m only stubborn enough, if I can just hang in there, it’ll all come right. I never asked myself—I never dared ask myself—what I was letting slip through my fingers.

This is another post I wasn’t going to post, request notwithstanding. What made me post it was this entry I happened upon via Ampersand. (See comments to it at the blogger’s main blog.) If grad school taught me any lesson at all, that was it—doing nothing, continuing blindly and stubbornly along a road just to avoid turning off it, is also a choice, and often it’s far from the best choice.

Belated apologies

(Here There Bee Rantage, possibly Hurtful Rantage. Ye Have Been Warned.)

The Chicago Trib recently ran what appears to have been (I haven’t read it read it; my opinion hasn’t changed) a fairly weak, mewling entry in the “hey, what about that graduate-school attrition thing?” sweepstakes. Some blog commentary on it, here and there (try Laura, with whom I agree). Coincidentally, Invisible Adjunct got fed up with having her existence questioned, and Margaret Soltan (whom I found via Critical Mass) said a lot that rings true to me about why certain kinds of existence-questioning are pernicious.

And I’ve been (slowly) reading Wilf Cude’s The PhD Trap Revisited, after he kindly sent me a copy. (I’m some kind of expert on grad school wipeouts, you see. All I did was tell my own story, and suddenly I’m some kind of expert. Sad and wrong, that, but there it is.) Anyway, it’s quite a book. Y’all think I harsh on academia—I’m a right pussycat next to Wilf Cude. He’s furious, and he doesn’t mince words about it.

Oh, and cruising through ERIC yesterday looking for stuff for my Use and Users project, I found the abstract following (Hartnett, Rodney T. “The Information Needs of Prospective Graduate Students,” ETS 1979—and isn’t it interesting that ETS rather than any college or university studied this):

Various sources of prospective student information were studied, and a small sample of graduate students, faculty, administrators, and professional association officers were interviewed in order to learn more about the information needs of prospective graduate students in the exploratory stage. Most students reported no serious information need and, in fact, indicated that formal information sources (e.g., general directories, guides to graduate study in the specific disciplines, graduate school catalogs) played a very minor role in their choice of a graduate program. The process by which prospective graduate students choose departments is reviewed, and it is concluded that geography, undergraduate faculty members, peers, and other serendipitous factors are important influences in the eventual choice of a specific graduate program. In conclusion, it is suggested that because of the graduate students’ lack of sophistication at the time of application, their information needs are minimal because they do not know enough about the graduate school process to know the kinds of questions they should be asking; thus, there is a need for a larger guidance process to identify information needs.

Boy, doesn’t that sound familiar, twenty-five years old though it is—and doesn’t it give the lie to “They know what it’s like going in—why should we care when they wash out?”

I have so much to say it’s choking me. I don’t even know where to start.

Well, all right, let’s start with some of my friends and family, the ones who happen to be tenured or tenure-track college professors. At some time or other, faced with my story, they’ve all patted me on the head (well, one hit out at me hard, but let’s let that go) and said either “It wasn’t as bad as you remember it,” or “Your story isn’t typical.” Every single last ONE of them has found occasion to say this. (If you think I’m talking to you, you know what? I probably am. And I probably have the link or the email to prove it.) Who the hell do you think you are, Dorothea Salo, to be pointing fingers?

When I last heard this, not long ago at all, I metaphorically tucked my tail between my legs and whimpered myself into a corner. Yeah, sure, who do I think I am? What do I know?

Wait a minute. Hold the damn phone. What do they know?

Aha. Aha. They don’t know, any more than I do, and they’re the ones who are supposed to. They’re dog-paddling in the same sea of ignorance I am. They don’t have the inside track on attrition rates; they’re stuck with the same limited and hobbled studies I am, and they show no signs of having looked into graduate attrition even in their own departments (where applicable; not all these folks teach in graduate-degree-granting departments).

Now, in fairness, if I’d started out grad school in SLIS, I’d have a very different tune to sing. I suspect it’s the same tune a lot of people can sing. SLIS, despite some glitches, is basically good to its people. It’s not the only place of its kind. In the sea of ignorance, what to cling to but one’s own experience?

But see, if I grant that of my friends and family, then it follows that they know less than I do about attrition and what it can do to people—not only are they not attriters, not only are they not in an attrition-heavy environment (quit laughing, I said I was ceding this point for the sake of argument!), they don’t have an attrition story on the Web that has attracted a steady stream of attrition stories since its appearance. So they have earned the right to dismiss my experience how?

What occurs to me off the top of my head is that my ex-department didn’t just happen to me. It happened to the thirty-some-odd people who entered with me, and the seventy-some-odd who were there before me, and the I-don’t-know-how-many who stayed afterward. They didn’t have exactly the experience I did, of course, but they too went through silly pointless ground-level courses and carcinogenic mimeograph machines and stupid departmental-secretary power games and weed-’em-out MA exams and very likely more that I never endured. It is not, damn it, just me. And from the email I get, it is not, damn it to hell, just my ex-department.

When I answer the stories I get in email, I try to remember to say, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Because, you know what? I have yet to hear that myself. Fellow attriters, random visitors—they’re not in a position to say it, really, so it’s not terribly surprising that they don’t.

Now, I’m not (despite appearances) stupid. I know it’ll be a cold day in hell before anybody in a position of influence at the UW-Madison, much less in my ex-department, steps up to say that some of the things that were done to me weren’t right. I don’t expect that. I don’t even think it’d be useful, really; it’d be useful for them to sit at a table with me and use my experience to start fixing what goes wrong, and I’d sit at that table, too—but that’ll be an even colder day in hell.

I would really truly like to understand, however, why people with no skin in my ex-department’s game unanimously prefer writing me off or belittling me to expressing a minor amount of regret to me.

Which brings me back, in a roundabout sort of way, to Wilf Cude. He’s an adjective-and-adverb kinda writer. If you read the book—and I’m finding it worth reading—pay attention to where he uses the adjectives and adverbs, even if you think (as I do) that they get a little excessive. They’re a glowing neon sign pointing at what really makes Cude mad—and as I said, he’s plenty mad.

He’s mad at the waste of people’s lives. It’s not just the lifetimes lost to graduate school, nor is it the loss to academia itself (he believes as I do that academia more or less gets what it deserves there, good and bad). He hates the economic, physical, and psychological damage that academia causes attriters and non-attriters alike, the same damage that none of my tenured/tenure-track friends has thus far cared to acknowledge happening to me. He hates the opportunity cost (there’s a really rocking section on the opportunity cost of graduate school; I want to excerpt it for Straight Talk, because he says it better than I currently do there), to the students themselves and to the society that grad school removes them from. And he’s just livid at whatever it is that makes academia first fail to acknowledge, then fail to acknowledge the extent of, then fail to acknowledge any responsibility (individual or collective) for, attrition and its discontents.

In its way, Wilf Cude’s anger is the acknowledgment and apology I didn’t realize I was waiting for until I saw it. It’s really about bloody time, I must say. I’m happy to accept it.

End rantage, for now. I daresay at some point the stars will align again.