Prefer experience to education

So I’ve got another couple friends now who are dipping their toes into the first-job water, and finding that water mighty cold. Fairly typically, they are thinking about going back for post-graduate education.

I don’t think that’s wise, and I’ve said so. Remains to be seen whether they listen.

I’ll say it right out. Once you have a bachelor’s degree, experience matters more than education. A ton of education without experience looks suspicious to employers, and I can’t say I disagree, because of all the folks who flee into graduate school to avoid the bruising slog that is the first-job search. Who wants to hire frightened people? (Answer: nobody you want to work for, trust me.)

Thing is, the search for a first job is always, always, always a slog. If you’re going to grad school because you think a job will just magically fall into your lap afterwards, please, please don’t. It won’t happen, and you’ll just end up hating graduate school and hating yourself for going.

Go do some work first. There’s lots of work out there that doesn’t require any particular specialization. If you don’t know where it is, your first job is to find out. And yes, a lot of that work sucks, but that doesn’t mean you don’t learn from it.

My new-librarian acquaintance is still looking. I know her pretty well, and as much as I want her to find a job, I find myself stopping short of actually recommending her to people. I myself wouldn’t hire her. It’s not even the lack of experience—it’s all the rough edges that a first job knocks off you that she still has, and the ceaseless virulent childish cynicism that would make her terrible to share an office with.

I don’t know how to fix that. Any suggestion from me that her attitude is part of the problem is only going to be met with—you know, attitude. But I’d lay odds that if she’d had a few jobs in her early 20s, she wouldn’t be languishing without so much as callbacks now.

Given the choice between a bad job and a bad graduate education, always take the job; at least it pays you, whereas you have to pay professors to maltreat you. Given the choice between a bad job and a decent graduate education—if you have no work experience, take the job. It’ll be worth far more in the job market than the additional degree. I absolutely guarantee it.

What do I do now?

I got another “Straight Talk” fanmail today, this one asking rather diffidently if I would be willing to suggest some next steps after leaving graduate school. I’m not exactly a Horatio Alger story, but what the hell, I’ve got some disorganized thoughts, so why not?

The immediate need, of course, is for positive cash flow, which means work. Any work. Whatever work you can land; you won’t be doing it forever anyway. Temp agencies, limited-term work (colleges, universities, and government are major sources of this), waitronning, (the dreaded) retail, whatever. Just stop the financial bleeding, however you can.

You can’t afford to be disdainful of the workaday world at this point. In fact, in my experience the folks who have the worst time transitioning out of academia are the ones who never let go of it. Temping and retail are beneath them, they’re horribly underpaid for their intelligence and (perceived) social status, and every day they haul themselves home from work lamenting their former role and status as academicians. If this is you, train yourself out of it. It will blind you to opportunity where you are, waste precious brain-cycles that deserve better use, and make you so bitter and miserable that you may damage yourself permanently. Grieve if you need to, work through what happened to you if you need to (I did both), but don’t define yourself by your old academic identity. That’s gone. Time to roll up your sleeves and start building something else.

What’s more, that precise brand of disdain for the non-academic is what the rest of us hate most when we see it in academia. You won’t be doing yourself any favors in your workplace if you exhibit it; you must respect non-academic work and the people who do it. A well-honed curiosity will help you here. Do you know what a comptroller or a mid-level manager or a sysadmin actually does with her day? Well, don’t be contemptuous—watch and learn instead.

You must also respect time and experience (rather than hurdle-jumping) as determiners of one’s height on the employment totem pole. The people around you did their time as peons while you were in grad school. You need to do your time now; this is part of the opportunity cost you’re paying, and there’s no point in feeling all self-righteously indignant at it.

If you don’t see yourself in the previous few paragraphs, good for you! If you’re anything like me, you’ll get quite a charge out of becoming self-sufficient. Treasure that new confidence; it’s an asset.

If possible, the strategic thing to do is find work that will let you check off the ticky-box beside “supervisory experience” on future applications. If this means riding herd on slackjawed teenagers, so be it. This is the one thing I didn’t do during my topsy-turvy years that I wish I had. The other thing you want out of your first job(s) are good references—people future employers can call who will say nice things about you. Try to avoid working at places that “don’t give references.” Do so if you must, but you’re hurting yourself some.

I don’t usually have to tell ex-grad-students to be frugal, or how to be frugal. We already know how. Once you start having a bit of extra money, pay down your debts and build up your savings. You broke academia’s chains; why do you want the bank chaining you up? Set yourself free. Pay off your debts as fast as you can.

Once you’re solvent and indefinitely (if not necessarily ideally) employed, you can start looking around you a bit to see how the world works. See somebody doing a job you like? Ask them how they got there. Read blogs whose authors talk about their workplaces. Read the business pages in the local newspaper, especially the squibs about small local companies you won’t have heard of. Go to your public library and read the job ads in trade publications (it’s okay to start with newspapers, but you know what they say—that’s only a sliver of the available jobs).

Lots of books purport to tell you what you’ll be good at and enjoy doing. Any public-library reference librarian can help you find them. I never got much use out of them myself, but de gustibus non disputandum est—and I lucked into what I wanted to do anyway, so I didn’t spend a lot of time with these books to begin with. The one book I will recommend specifically is Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity (discussed briefly here), which advocates selecting a career path through varied experience rather than navel-gazing.

It may take years before you land the Ideal (enough) Job. You may cycle through several other jobs (I certainly did). You’ll probably make some mistakes (boy, did I ever!). You may need more education or specialized training. You almost certainly have to do some time on the bottom of the totem-pole. Back to basics: as long as you keep your financial head above water in the meantime, the occasional misstep or blind alley won’t kill you. You’re not in academia any more, so one strike doesn’t send you to the dugout forever. Stand up, dust off your knees, and get back out there.

That’s what I’ve got. For the most part, it’s what I did, and it worked out fine. There’s nothing special about me, either. When I left grad school, I was a shell-shocked zombie with damn-all by way of useful work experience. If I can get this far, most people reading this can probably surpass me.

And I hope they do.

SLIS’s dilemma and the shell people

“It’s hard to find people to teach these things,” I heard said last week. Things like markup. Things like markup languages. Things like data modeling.

Sure it is. I believe it. That’s because the gut instinct of people who love these things isn’t to teach them—it’s to practice them. That is the root of SLIS’s dilemma.

SLIS can’t offer me a Ph.D program in which I’d get to practice; Ph.D programs are predicated on research, and practice isn’t research. They can’t offer me a job in the professoriate where I’d get to practice. Practice isn’t research, and research is what the professoriate is all about.

Yet SLIS’s master’s program needs to inculcate practice, not just research skills. To do them credit, they even realize it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bring them one millimeter closer to solving their problem.

What happens when researchers teach practicalities? Well, for one thing, you get people teaching (say) XML or indexing or thesaurus construction who have never in their lives actually tried to do it. At their best, these people do a fair job of teaching the reason for these things’ existence, the problems they try to solve. But they can’t teach people how to do them; they don’t know how themselves!

At their worst? (Here’s the snark I promised the other day.) Shell people, shoring up their ignorance and irrelevance with empty authority. A teacher of indexing software who doesn’t know the difference between an index entry with three first-level subheadings and the same entry with subheadings on three different levels. A teacher of information-seeking behavior who doesn’t grasp how unhelpful it is to spend many hours teaching future practicing librarians about time- and labor-intensive research methods such as diary-keeping and lengthy direct observations.

These people are doing their best. I can’t and don’t fault them for that. But, boy, you bring in one person who knows a few practicalities cold from experience, and students feel the difference deep in their bones. That’s why I got applauded, and I’m far from the only SLIS guest speaker who’s gotten that kind of applause. Sure, I’m a big ol’ ham—I project excitement just because that’s how I am, and people tend to respond to it. But most of it was just that breath of air from the world outside the classroom.

“A lot of the stuff taught here belongs at a community-college level,” one of last week’s sirens told me. Well, yes, I suppose so. I’ve been saying for years that markup ain’t rocket science, much to the consternation of a few people who would prefer that it be. But turnabout is fair play. I can’t do or teach the researchy type things that the professoriate does. I’ve just showed, though, that they can’t do or teach what I do either.

I don’t want to go as far as recommending a community-college model for SLIS. Community colleges have got serious problems of their own, not least among them a habit of treating instructors like veal calves. (How do I know this? I was in a Spanish department, y’all. I knew people who taught Spanish at community college. Not pretty.)

But if SLIS doesn’t manage to find a way to give people like me what we want in return for teaching, they’ll just keep right on with the shell people earning student anomie. I don’t know if they’ve got a way out, frankly, and I’m terribly glad I’m not the one who has to think about it.

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.

The myth of tenacity

A flurry of grad-school-reform postings lately, on Invisible Adjunct and Critical Mass. I haven’t felt much need to charge into the fray, for once. Mostly it’s nothing I haven’t already said. The good that comes out of it is that more people say it and more people read it—and, I dearly hope, more people believe it.

I do, however, want to quarrel, respectfully, with this:

More than anything, a PhD represents a higher level of the same thing a BS stands for: not intelligence, knowledge, talent, or luck — tenacity.

First of all, any attempt to boil down grad school success into a magic elixir (preferably one a newbie student can drink; they do ask for them, these newbies) is doomed, doomed, doomed. Every unhappy department is unhappy in its own way, and all that. The most you can ever do is improve your odds relative to the other grad students around you, and even that probably not by much.

Secondly, I’m not at all sure, based on my own case and that of others I know, that what’s really going on deserves the label tenacity. “Inertia” is more like it, I fear. I’m here, says the hapless grad student, and I haven’t got a clue in Gehenna what else to do with myself or my life except this, much though it’s not helping me or anybody else. If I leave, I’m a worthless failure, a quitter. I’ll sink into the gaping maw of Starbucks and never emerge again. I’d, um, better stay.

This is tenacity? It wasn’t when I had those thoughts. Nuh-uh. Tenacity implies an active choice to cling to something, not passively being carried along out of inability to imagine anything else. Or out of fear of the outside world.

Let’s consider, just for fun, my own so-called tenacity. I’ve often said I should have quit after the MA. Why did I persist, and what did it gain me?

Well. I got a black mark against my name for complaining about the MA exams. I had a summer’s work invalidated because it took place during the wrong six weeks. To avoid losing the money I lived on, I got forced into an overload and a pedagogically worthless extra project. I got threatened with being hauled up before the dean over a joke. My adviser dumped work on me that nobody else wanted to do, and then rated me like a five-year-old when I couldn’t find time to do it.

And what did I say to all this? Thank you, sir/ma’am, may I have another. Thank you sir/ma’am, may I have another. Thank you, sir/ma’m, may I have another. Until I finally shattered like a glass teardrop.

That’s all tenacity is, in more cases than I care to think about. Willingness to suffer abuse. Over and over and over again. Without complaint. Without demur. Without, heaven help us all, so much as question.

I tell you what, I don’t believe that sort of tenacity is any good to anyone.

I tell you the kind of tenacity I admire, though: the kind that learns to live again, after going through this. The kind that with no help and no guideposts claws its way out of the pit toward new generativity, that learns to negotiate with the world instead of hunkering down to endure in silence. The kind that despite contempt and incomprehension from former colleagues stands up to denounce what needs denunciation.

I admire that style of tenacity quite a lot.