Blanket “Don’t Go To Graduate School!” Advice Ignores Race and Reality?

When I decided to return to graduate school I was about as devoid of prestige as one can be. I was old, from a no-name undergraduate university (worse, maybe, an HBCU!), I lacked social capital, my undergraduate performance was fine but not stellar, and I did not know the difference between sociology and anthropology.

Fortunately, I grew up with a library card and a mother who made it seem like the passport to everything I would ever need to know in life. My motto is if they’ve written a book about it, I can likely figure it out.

So, that’s where I started. I went to the library and the bookstore (remember those??) and I spent months poring over everything written about academia and graduate school. Along the way I saw lots of stories like this one from Slate today. It’s on the far right extreme of the “don’t go!” advice market but it is indicative of what that advice entails. It’s some combination of an assessment of the academic labor market, the odds of tenure track appointment, the high cost of graduate school, and the emotional toil.

That advice is not wrong.

It is, however, a bit disingenuous about the implied comparison always being made. Namely, that one can do better.

But, what if one can’t do better? Like me, five years ago?

This is the case for many black students and I will try to unpack the Pandora’s box of structural and social processes that make it different. I do this not to judge what is, again, not wrong advice. Instead, I do it so that we can think more fully about how complicated any blanket advice is and how we should always interrogate our position in our advice and, most importantly, how that might be different than the position of the people on the receiving end of our (usually well-meaning) advice.

It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp

As the saying goes, when white America catches a cold, black America already has the flu.

The labor market has always been inhospitable to black labor. That has changed some, through a combination of social policy and well, social policy. But, as Sharon Collins points out in her carefully crafted empirical analysis of black class mobility, the changes that wrought the growth of the black middle class were fragile (indeed we’ve already witnessed the end) and primarily driven by public sector hiring. There are lots of reasons for that. One that is important to remember here is that the public sector is most sensitive to political mandates. The private sector is significantly less so. As a result, black people have been over-represented in bureaucracies because bureaucracies are most sensitive to affirmative action policies.

That’s not changed overly much. That’s why Obama’s reduction of the public sector as the private sector picked up hiring over the past three years has been devastating for black workers. We work in the public sector because equal opportunity hiring laws counteract biases in hiring that make a white felon more likely to be hired than a black applicant with no criminal history. We stay in bureaucracies because those same equal opportunity laws require that promotion criteria be explicit, published and uniformly applied regardless of sex, race, gender, etc. which counteracts the documented bias that transmutable, opaque “discretion” produces.

Credentialism is often rewarded in bureaucracies because it is a simple, relatively unambiguous designation of “qualified” that conforms to bureaucratic desires to remove discretion from decision-making. Ergo, credentialism — literally here just meaning the process of formalizing knowledge or qualifications by attaching it to some kind of certificate or degree — can be disproportionately important to black folks who are disproportionately hired by, employed in, and promoted according to the standards of bureaucracies, which reward having a credential.

That makes graduate school a lot less stupid of a decision.

I see this in my interviews with for-profit students, many of whom are black. They are not crazy when they intuit that they “need some letters behind [their] name”. They are actually pretty accurately assessing the economic and social landscape in which they are embedded.

Plainly put, black folks need credentials because without them our “ghetto” names get our resumes trashed, our clean criminal records lose out to whites with felony convictions, and discretion works against our type of social capital (and weak ties and closure of information) to amount to a social reality that looks and feels a lot like statistical discrimination.

A graduate degree can also signal that you are not “that kind of black person”. It can say that not only, ideally, do you have some special skills but that you won’t go all Sapphire in a department meeting or steal someone’s hubcaps out of the company parking lot, or whatever the en vogue, deeply seated fear is that motivates  implicit discrimination in hiring decisions these days. We are not crazy when we think we need more education for the privilege of being underemployed.

We do.

But Academia Is Different

Well, it sure is different (*ka-ching*), but the difference is likely not as acute or meaningful for some of us as it is for others.

Academia may not be a traditional bureaucracy but we forget that public colleges are embedded in state governments, making them more like the public sector is some ways than the private sector. That is particularly true when you account for the fact that many black PhDs end up working in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many of which are part of state college systems. It is not totally beyond the realm of possibility then that black students should engage with some sectors of higher education similarly to how we have engaged the Post Office. That is to say, credentialism is rewarded and, thus, we should pursue it.

The nature of the rewards, however, seems to be what trips up a lot of this advice.

And that is rooted in some fundamental, unexamined privilege.

It is difficult to be embedded in higher education today, particularly if you study it, and not be acutely aware that academic labor is changing and likely not for the better. Adjunct labor conditions are pretty deplorable: low pay, long hours, little prestige, no mobility, etc. When we are in that we can forget that our crappy jobs can be someone else’s upward mobility.

I suspect part of our not understanding this is ideological. To recognize that crappy is relative is to undermine our own fragile, tenuous class consciousness. It’s an old problem. Unions had similar issues as they tried to bring black, brown and white labors together through their shared position in the class structure. The problems arise when your shared position isn’t exactly shared. Focusing so narrowly on class to the exclusion of structural racial projects can put you in this quagmire. Black poverty is not the same as white poverty. That’s not the fault of white poor people but is a function of a  complicated mix of social constructs, organizational processes, politics, history and probably magic. It’s complicated. It is also inconvenient, particularly when you really want and need people to focus on deplorable class conditions. So we like to sometimes ignore it. We do so to our peril.

When we obscure those meaningful differences we end up counseling black students considering graduate school that it is a waste of time and money. We do that because our class consciousness says this whole pyramid hierarchy is a scheme and those at the bottom are losing.

The thing with losing is there’s always some construct of what constitutes “winning”. The dominant construct of winning is rooted in  privilege and biases.

Winning is different for different folks. I think of Boudon‘s work which I likely oversimplify when I call it a cross-sectional, longitudinal, empirical analysis that conludes that we’re always from where we’re from. Apologies to the philosopher Rakim but sometimes it ain’t where you’re at but is indeed all about where you’re from. Part of Boudon’s argument for me is about social distance being as important to understanding mobility as status occupational/income/prestige outcomes. Basically, if I get a master’s degree that increases my labor value to $45,000* it can sound like crap to a person who went to graduate school, got a PhD and earns $50,000. However, if my parents didn’t have their GEDs and I grew up helping my mom clean banks after hours for her janitorial freelance business — one of her three jobs — I have actually traveled quite a bit of social distance. That can make the value of my graduate degree different than the value of yours.

Don’t Go! Unless…

Maybe too many people are going to graduate school but not too many of all people are going to graduate school. I am suspicious of declarations of an institution being dead the minute I show up to it in my party dress. But, I’m not a starry eyed loon when it comes to the fissures of distress in the academic labor market.

They are there. They are real and we should engage them. But on the road to the revolution let us not forget that folks still got to live.

Let us not engage the change that needs to happen in academic labor by telling people who could stand to benefit the most from credentials that we have socially constructed, through racism and classism and sexism, as more necessary for some than others that graduate school is a net negative. Because it is not.

Instead, let us consider a calculation of social distance, aspiration, returns on investment, prestige and cost. Let us give students a patchwork quilt of tools to determine that graduate school math for themselves rather than a blanket default condemnation that is rooted in our own social position, experiences, and privileges.

Surely, an entry-level administrative job or low-status teaching job is not the life of the mind with summers off and adoring undergraduate groupies. But it can represent a legitimate career option for someone who is not choosing among hopeful tenure jobs at the Ivies but instead is hoping for a call back when her name is Lakeisha or a job offer when she doesn’t have a family member who is an alumnus, or for whom there is no implicit “better” career option out there just waiting for him to show up.

And I am talking to myself here. I check myself constantly on leanings towards some prestigious option that might exist for me but not for others (and it may not even exist for me). I talk to my interview subjects or I go home for the holidays and I make sure I remember that as we are studying and advocating for structural change, real people have to navigate those structures every day as a matter of survival. If they should overcome the hurdles of an inauspicious low-status start in life (like I did) and discover that academic labor is even a thing that exists, let’s not advise them to do something better when all empirical evidence suggests that for black, qualified workers there often isn’t a “better”.

If you can’t consider that in blanket advice to “don’t go!” please send your students to someone else, somewhere else.

*I don’t argue that we should not be concerned about differential returns to credentials but our concern and advocacy should not obscure or denigrate what is, at the individual level, a legitimate, rational choice that many black students face.

ETA: My mentor, himself black with a PhD, had some comments to make on this subject on Twitter. See Sandy Darity’s reasons for a black student to consider carefully advice that he or she not attend graduate school.

72 thoughts on “Blanket “Don’t Go To Graduate School!” Advice Ignores Race and Reality?

  1. Bravo Tressie! This is such powerful piece. I read the Slate article and it didn’t sit well with me, and I think much of what you touch on here resonates with my own biography/background. I know I’m in a really privileged position, and there are still times when I feel I don’t deserve to be here, and I wonder whether that feeling has to do with the fact that neither of my parents went to college and I don’t really “look” like your typical humanities professor. At any rate, this is a brilliant essay and I have to say that when I first met you when you were a rising senior, I thought YOU were one of the most sophisticated and careful thinkers I had encountered among any undergraduates I had ever met/taught. Your intellectual prowess was evident then and has only grown since.

  2. I AM SO GRATEFUL FOR THIS PIECE OF WRITING. I will pass it on everywhere I can. As a Native American scholar/writer, graduate school and academia have given me “cred” in ways nothing else would have. Plain and simple. Sure, there are drawbacks and yes, it’s getting harder – like everything else. Higher education ain’t what it used to be, but that is not always a bad thing. Thank you.

  3. I definitely appreciate this perspective and realize now that I posted that simply because it confirmed my own current conclusion/experience that I should probably pursue a job outside of academia after I make a final decision about my Master’s program.

    Education is definitely a huge equalizing force in our society, and I recognize that, as a white gay person, I come from a position of privilege that may negate the necessity of extensive graduate work. I made the decision to attend graduate school due to my difficulty in securing employment straight out of undergraduate and thought that continuing education would be the ticket to a fulfilling position.

    However, I DO feel that the graduate school environment, structurally, is a major trigger for mental health issues like depression (statistics back this up, and I think this piece makes some ableist assumptions in not addressing that) with the prevalence of unrealistic expectations, the never-ending impetus to produce, the pangs of guilt for not thinking about your project 24/7, the long periods of time out of the work force. This has been one of the major reasons that I have decided NOT to continue with a PhD from my Master’s program, and I increasingly believe this may be a common experience (I have multiple friends who have had to take breaks because their experiences have exacerbated/triggered major mental health issues).

    I’m also not convinced that graduate work in humanities and long-term pursuit of a PhD are not methods for pursuing the type of social justice work I am interested in. While graduate work fosters critical thinking and engagement, we also have to be mindful that the academe is rooted in exclusions and power and can foster elitism and pretension. The esoteric language can make knowledge production and discourse inaccessible to the general public… And I have begun to wonder whether institutions rooted in exclusions, so enamored with “publish or perish,” so stuck on elaborate vocabulary when straightforward explanations can suffice, can ameliorate institutional power differentials and really foster TRUE equity in our societies.

    I certainly agree that the blanket “Don’t Go to Graduate School!” is counter-productive, but I also think that major changes and paradigm shifts need to occur regarding the PhD and dissertation processes. So maybe the advice should be: think carefully and critically when mulling over the decision to attend graduate school.

    1. Thanks for reading. I’m trying to piece together the conceptual framework of my argument to see where the ableist assumptions are. So, as I meant it, the argument is: “don’t go” advice excludes reality of statistical discrimination of blacks; “cost” of credentials for blacks, as a result of that statistical discrimination reality can be different formula than it is for non-blacks; thus, let us not indiscriminately counsel black students to not go to graduate school. Maybe you are saying that the mental health risks are part of the costs people should consider? If so, I agree with that. I suspect it is subsumed in my suggestion for a patchwork tool approach of helping people determine their position in the social structure when they make grad school choices. If that is not what you meant then I apologize. I’m just trying to nail it down so that I don’t miss it in the future.

      1. I apologize for using the words “ableist assumption” – I think that was too strong a characterization of your argument. In no way did I want to invalidate your argument. I mainly just wanted to communicate, based on my own experience and the experience of peers, the major mental health concerns that graduate school presents in the form of multiple, varied and sustained potential stressors. And even that issue should be intersected with questions of race/racism and gender equity as addressed in this Feminist Wire article:

        Erica Williams seems to have attained some degree of balance but what about people who really struggle with that? I’ve also read some horror stories about the huge mental health and physical health costs of academia to black women. Again, absolutely not a reason to indiscriminately discourage black women from applying and attending but definitely factor(s) to take into account.

        I definitely agree with everything you have said about indiscriminately discouraging black people from graduate school. I absolutely think structural racism and the equalizing effect of education are huge factors that should be considered in the careful mulling of a decision to go to graduate school.

        However, I do think that the mental health risks should also be a huge factor in that decision and should receive far more attention within programs than they do. Studies like this one only seem to scratch the surface of the problem:

        I personally am interested to investigate a few major questions regarding graduate school/academia and the impact on mental health:

        Does academia simply exacerbate mental health struggles in people who are already diagnosed, who have had a history of mental illness or who are genetically/psychosocially/environmentally prone to mental illness? Do academia and graduate school induce adverse mental health outcomes? Or are adverse mental health outcomes induced by a combination of both factors?

        Do we simply need to address mental health outreach among graduate students and make sure students are aware of services?

        Or is there something fundamental and structural about the graduate school experience and/or academia itself that exacerbates/induces mental illness?

        And, of course, I would also be interested in knowing more about the impact of structural racism, gender inequity, heterosexism, disableism et cetera on mental health outcomes within graduate school.

        1. Ah yes, I know that series at TFW. I edited it. 🙂 I definitely think mental health concerns should be part of the equation. Thanks, again, for reading and commenting!

  4. Thanks for a great post. I have felt the pull of don’t-go messages and also the power of critiques such as yours. Here’s my position: I’m white, middle-class, and late-deafened. I went to grad school out of a consuming passion for intellectual pursuit, and gave little thought to the larger social positions and practices in which my work would occur. I was severely deaf when I entered my PhD program, and profoundly deaf when I finished and went out on the job market. That was 16 years ago now, and my path in academe has been difficult in ways very different from the usual public discourse about the higher ed job market. I had a cochlear implant some years ago, with great results — but this raises its own complexities. Part of my address to my situation has been engagement in disability studies and learning more about the various intersectionalities.

    So I wonder what I would say to an undergrad with a significant disability, eps. one that cannot be concealed, who wanted to get a Ph.D. in humanities. On the one hand, academe badly needs people with these different bodily, sensory, and emotional experiences; we can contribute a great deal that probably won’t happen unless we’re here. On the other hand, I know too well the extreme difficulties such a student would face in school, on the market, and in the (improbable) job. Since persons with disabilities already face much lower employment prospects, it might be better for someone to pursue lines of work where they have a better (i.e., less diminished) chance of employment and development. On the other hand (yes, I know that’s three hands), some kinds of academic employment, if one can obtain it, would be better than the person’s other options.

    It baffles me. But your general point that don’t-go assumes unstated social positions and reinforces existing power structures is well-taken.

  5. Thank you, fantastic article! I completely agree that in the Humanities at least, grad students (especially doctoral students) are often from EXTREMELY privileged segments of society. Even those who don’t usually hold undergraduate degrees from prestigious institutions and all the associated helpful social connections that can be derived from having attended such institutions for 4 years. The “don’t got to grad school” articles are definitely written with the assumption that intended readers do enjoy many, if not all of the above privileges and have the option of exploiting significant professional and economic development opportunities in their 20s, opportunities they will be missing out on if they spend that time in graduate school. For someone who doesn’t have access to those opportunities then graduate school probably does offer an invaluable opportunity to leverage their real intellectual talents into something visible and marketable (the letters behind their names that can help circumvent the roadblocks of employer prejudice to a certain extent).

    I would love to read your point of view on the difference in value between MAs and PhDs for such would-be grad students from nonprivileged backgrounds. For the racially, ‘cultural-capitally’ and economically privileged demographic it is often said that a masters’ degree strikes the right balance between investment of effort and time out of the job market, whereas spending the time and effort required to get a PhD is mad overkill. However, we are definitely moving (at least in my area, again, Humanities) towards a situation where academic adjunct opportunities are PhD only. Does it perhaps depend on their field?

    1. Sorry, that should be “Even those who AREN’T from privileged demographics originally usually hold undergraduate degrees from prestigious institutions… etc.”

  6. Interesting viewpoints. I’ve been struggling with whether i should saddle myself with upwards of 200 grand in debt to get an advanced degree. I personally think that an advanced degree in a scientific discipline has a better ROI than one in the liberal arts, for the most part. We need more AMERICAN scientists, because scientists are being imported from all over the world. I think grad school for science may be the way to go.

  7. You are much, much smarter than me (this should go without saying, but I wanted to let you know that I know this!). There isn’t much I can add to this–which is by far the most reasoned and best critique of the many I’ve gotten in the past few days–but I would like to say that from my experience, my own field, German Studies, is overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly a boys’ club still, despite there being as many female professors as males. The men, the ‘alte Herren’ as we call them, call all the shots. Anyone who threatens the oligarchy is squeezed out or ignored altogether. But, listen–if ANYONE deserves to beat the horrible odds, it’s definitely not me. It’s you. Not just because you’re smarter and better than everyone else, but because you seem to be doing things for the right reasons, and you seem immune to the cult mentality to which I fell prey. ~Rebecca Schuman

    1. It gets so frustrating when I hear someone else I know talk about the lack of jobs for women who have PhD in the humanities since it seems as if white old boys club is alive and growing contrary to all that feminist theory stuff that we dealt with at grad-school. Yes, the men are clearly calling the shots and anyone who threatens the oligarchy is squeezed out or ignored entirely. I do suspect that this is because those who are squeezed out are probably smarter and better. The key thing is to just ignore those who say ‘no you shouldn’t or no you can’t’ and to just carry on despite the cult mentality…my view is that it won’t last forever and I’d rather have my own mind.

  8. Thanks so much for writing this. I actually have just applied for a doctorate program (in Education), amidst rampant comments from family and colleagues of, “Why the HELL would you do that?” I know damn well that I will go into debt and not have a whole lot of new opportunities waiting for me at the end of the train. So really, I’m doing this for ME, because I’m smart enough too, and simply because I know that I don’t represent the stereotypical ‘type’ of person who has a doctorate (my lust for disproving they hype) – that’s good enough reason in my book. Intellectual degrees are social collateral, which one can use as a weapon to raise up their community. Thank you for validating!

  9. Thank you so much for posting this. I couldn’t understand what didn’t sit well with me about the Slate article because those fears really hit home, but this is a glass of fresh water. For me, to get a PhD is going to be so much fucking uplift that my colleagues cannot understand. Thanks for getting it.

  10. Thank you so much for this! Most of my students are first-generation, many of them students of color, and I struggle with how to advise them about grad school…especially coming from a not-super-prestigious state school. This post is really helpful!

    1. Thank you for reading! For students of color and first-gen (and especially for those that are both) the trick is to get as much prestige as they can for as little cost. It’s not a precise algorithm but there’s a point where paying $60k for a name that is more or less equivalent with a place that has a small stipend is probably ideal. And above all, go someplace with a culture that will get them FINISHED! Attainment is super important for black students. That’s my free advice. It may be worth exactly what you paid for it. 🙂

  11. Schuman can’t land a tenure-track job, but based on the excellence of your work, it’s pretty clear that you will. 🙂

  12. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve enjoyed my 13 year nonacademic career, much of which has been enabled both by my PhD as a credential and my grad school time as a training ground; I’d also read the Slate piece, which I already knew was problematic, and I really appreciate reading your perspective — in many ways, I’m glad I did grad school for its credentialist benefits and as a vehicle for social distance, which were terms of analysis I didn’t previously have. Answering the question of whether or not someone should go to grad school is much harder, though…

  13. I agree with what you’re saying, oftentimes the “don’t go” feels like exclusion from something others are enjoying, ie academic job and its benefits. At the same time, as someone deep in the PhD vortex, and with a disability, sometimes I wonder. I don’t know that I could have been convinced not to go. I was young, idealistic, I knew there were bad experiences, but I had such a lovely undergrad experience with a mentor, etc. I saw this sort of advice when it was offered 6-8 years ago, but I figured, I will be the exception. Academia has problems, and women, people with disabilities, immigrants, etc, need to be represented. I want to mentor those students like my mentor did! What I didn’t foresee, and wish there had been more of, was talk about how the constant fight to be heard, to not be invisible or overlooked, to constantly be fighting against sexism, ableism, racism, is hard work. It’s tiring. I’m too tired and beaten down to want to stay to pave the way for others. Because as previous commenters alluded to, my mental health, and my physical health, have taken a beating from the constant fighting against -isms. I keep knocking down their obstacles, but new ones keep popping up. I appreciate your point, though, that the degree can mean something else outside academia. I’m trying to figure out what that is, and if for me, it’s worth it.

    1. It refers to Saaphyri Windsor, a contestant on Flavor of Love who got into a fistfight with another contestant over who had claimed a bed in the house. The episode ended with Saaphyri being literally carried from the house, kicking and screaming. Going “all Sapphire/Saaphyri” is when someone goes crazy in an extreme way and acts “ghetto” when they don’t get their way. It’s an unfortunate stereotype that gets unfairly attributed to black women. Here’s a link to the altercation in question:

    2. @ Reza and Terrell

      Sapphire stereotype is rooted in American History. It didn’t originate in Flavor of Love:

      The Sapphire Caricature portrays black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing.

      From the 1800s through the mid-1900s, black women were often portrayed in popular culture as “Sassy Mammies” who ran their own homes with iron fists, including berating black husbands and children. These women were allowed, at least symbolically, to defy some racial norms. During the Jim Crow period, when real blacks were often beaten, jailed, or killed for arguing with whites, fictional Mammies were allowed to pretend-chastise whites, including men. Their sassiness was supposed to indicate that they were accepted as members of the white family, and acceptance of that sassiness implied that slavery and segregation were not overly oppressive.

      Please read more about the history at:

  14. Though I am not African-American, I came from very low on the socioeconomic ladder. For reasons related to my socioeconomic status, when I went back to college in my late 20s, I had only a GED and minimal work history beyond temp jobs or messenger jobs in NYC. I wanted to go to graduate school for history for all the same intellectual reasons as most others, but I, too, was in a situation where going to graduate school was a smart economic move. I was offered admission and full funding to a great program in my field and the stipend and health insurance I receive are more than I could have expected in the private sector in the middle of the recession, even with having just acquired a BA. So, I have always thought similarly about the “Don’t Go!” articles and arguments, i.e., that they seem to make narrow assumptions about those intending to go to graduate school of, if not whiteness, then at least of a certain socioeconomic standing of which $25,000 and a stipend is not a step up.

  15. Almost all the advice about not going to graduate school refers exclusively to PhDs. Getting masters degrees is completely different, and I think that’s probably the sweet spot for people who want to have more specialized skills without overspecializing in a field. Unfortunately, a bachelors degree, especially in the social sciences, doesn’t count for much regardless of your race. That’s one reasons MBAs are so popular these days.

  16. Thanks for an excellent post. The point of comparison for Ivy League graduate students in the humanities, in my experience, are friends and peers who have become doctors, lawyers, management consultants, or who have otherwise entered the murky world of white collar (and usually white) prestige. It’s not unreasonable to make these comparisons *as an individual*, but not to assume that everyone faces the same set of choices. It all depends, as you say, on one’s point of departure. And in addition to credentials there are social codes, connections, and other kinds of social capital to be gained from graduate school. At least, I certainly found that to be the case. I understand you to be asking us to see clearly what the true sets of choices are, and to help students to properly set up the equation in their own lives. I couldn’t agree more. Part of what I see as difficult–in my own life, and in the lives of those around me–is accurately identifying the costs and benefits of life choices in the face of class anxiety and a particular kind of depression or melancholy that can arise when facing economic precarity. Your work makes that more clear.

  17. blanket advice is always problematic. i am surprised that there was no mention of the issue of student debt slavery. most people who go to grad school do so on loans. much of the education system is a business that lures people in with the promise of better wages and then saddles them with horrendous debt. that scheme disproportionately harms those with less privilege. the blanket assumption (unquestioned in this post) seems to be that grad school will improve your social capital and financial well-being. that is not true, and a harmful message to spread, especially for people of color. grad school is just a small step up from payday loans and lottery tickets — a gamble on a future that probably won’t be there.

    1. I am not sure why this misreading of what I wrote has happened more than once but I will give this one last go. As I say, explicitly, the decision to attend graduate school must be more than a consideration of price but not one that should happen absent a consideration of price.

  18. Whoever wrote this misunderstands an issue even more fundamental than the non-discussion of race: “now” is fundamentally different from “then.” What crazy world are you living in that black people can somehow easily get jobs even at HSBCU’s? I’m surrounded by people of color who just can’t get jobs and, yeah, I’ve been helping them not commit suicide (there I said it). An adjunct? Even that’s not happening. This attack on “privilege” actually mis-thinks another type of “privilege”–the privilege of institutional affiliation. If you even got a tenure-track 2 years ago, that is fundamentally different from what’s happening today.

    1. I do not know what an HSBCU is but I do know that the majority of black PhD holders are employed in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. That is, then, a mechanism for explaining the importance of credentialism in hiring blacks with PhDs. It is not suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that it is evidence of the general labor position of blacks with PhDs. And, to be clear, I am talking specifically about blacks and not the more amorphous (and here meaningless) “people of color”. For that I would examine BLS statistics on the difference in exposure to unemployment which is pretty clear that blacks with PhDs are less exposed than blacks with less education.

    2. Let me thank you for the email, Khanh. No, I do not have a job I can give your black friend. I also find that I do not have jobs to give out to the millions of black people that are chronically underemployed and unemployed in all sectors of the labor market. That is unfortunate for both me and for them.

  19. I sincerely appreciate your eloquent critique of the Slate article, which hit home for me in many ways, but did seem a bit sensationalist and generalizing.

    Nonetheless, while I certainly take the commentary you’ve made here as both instructive and more deeply thought-out than the Slate piece, I don’t think you’re fully engaging with the article’s central point.

    That central point, as I understand it, is that too many of us–and, frankly, especially those of us who are under-represented in academia–get broken on the wheel and end up both in a tremendous amount of debt and with an incredibly low sense of self-worth.

    Part of the reason why I went to grad school as a bookish, Appalachian woman was that I wanted to be taken seriously, too. As a white person from a sorta-working-class-sorta-middle-class background, I fully recognize that I have more privilege than many people in this society, but working toward my Ph.D. did a horrifyingly thorough job of revealing that there are plenty of folks in the supposedly liberal and meritocratic academy who do not think my gender or my cultural pedigree qualifies me to belong in their faculty club–and that they will work very, very hard to exclude me from it. That, for me, was part of the trauma of grad school, and I would imagine that it can be much worse for grad students of color.

    1. Well, as an actual graduate student of color let me point out that being disqualified from all pedigreed groups is standard modus operandi, across all segments of the labor market and social structure. I am not choosing between acceptance in academe and non acceptance in, say, retail. I am choosing among choices constrained by racism that makes the cost and benefit of my choices qualitatively different from non-blacks in similar class positions. That was the point of *my* article. I say at the outset that I do not think the Slate advice is wrong but that it doesn’t apply equally. I think it sucks that I might have to consider extra costs to signal that I am not dangerous or incompetent but thems the breaks.

  20. I appreciate this article greatly but it doesnt address the hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans people are taking out to get advanced degrees. How does that aspect nuance your critique?

  21. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this! I’ve had similar qualms about “don’t go” columns for years, but have never been able to articulate them as wonderfully as you did here. Coming from a working class background, getting a Ph.D was not only empowering, but a good move financially since it enabled me to pursue my passions without having to worry about money ( I had guaranteed funding), and introduced me to professional circles that were closed to me otherwise. If I came from a background where I already had access to these opportunities, getting a Ph.D might not have made as much sense (saying nothing about how much I truly enjoyed the process of getting it). As it stands though, I feel like I entered graduate school with relatively little class privilege, and left with a great deal.

  22. “I have actually traveled quite a bit of social distance. That can make the value of my graduate degree different than the value of yours.”

    Valid point. But when measured against the market value, which may be quite low in a context where 76% of faculty are adjuncts, Im not sure how the personal value of the degree matters.

    Or why your structural picture of black labor market forces won’t also apply to academia?

    If a job candidate has a “ghetto” name or doesn’t come from family background with high social capital, won’t they still be disadvantaged in the academic job market?

    Perhaps as a current grad student you don’t want to think this structure will apply to you or that you will be one of the lucky ones. Or perhaps you do not seek a faculty job post PhD.

    I look forward to future analyses which take on the challenging issue of why the tenured faculty in the academy are not speaking out on this. Al Jazeera just had a good post on this.

    Getting a PhD meant a lot to me too, as the first in my lower middle class white family (extended) to go to college. It came at some costs – resulted in a lot of social distance from my family of origin who I no longer resemble in terms of body habitus, political or social views or religious belief. And I don’t have much in common with many of my colleagues who were “to the academy born”.

    There has been a profound structural shift in higher education. You’re right that different groups experience that differently. But it seems as if you think being black and of “humble” origins means that the “indentured servant” model of adjunct faculty is an acceptable step up (or you don’t think it will apply to you )

    1. It is actually rather insulting to think that I can not make a reasoned argument that is not somehow about me personally. Granted, I am black and that experience informs my interest but it doesn’t skew empirical reality. Unemployment for blacks is statistically higher at every attainment level, but credentialing does lessen the rate and exposure to long-term unemployment:

      So, the choice between unemployment, no employment and low level employment when “low” is related to one’s social distance can be very different for blacks. It may be an individual penalty for structural failings but almost everything related to racism is that.

      Also, your crude reduction of my argument to income ignores all of the social signaling that I say is also important. If you narrow hiring of PhDs and graduate degree holders only to academia then you may have a point. But a graduate degree can have signalling value for blacks beyond academia in ways that improves their life chances. Overcoming social closure and stigma has indirect economic benefits beyond a tenure track job, or even academia. All things I have already said in the essay and in the earlier comments.

      1. But the thing is, you’re talking about college-educated black folks by default when speaking about the decision to get a PhD vs. a decision to do something else. I’m not sure that getting a PhD in German literature or medieval history is the kind of credentialing that will lessen their exposure to long-term unemployment.

        1. I am confused as to why an article about graduate school wouldn’t be talking about educated blacks.

          However, I think you either overestimate return in BAs for blacks or the racialized nature of status competition. According to BLS blacks with graduate degrees are less likely to be unemployed than blacks without a BA and blacks with a BA. Further, as the overall number of all BAs increase their effect for black workers declines relatively (again, status competition). But that is just about functional outcomes. I repeat that social signaling and social closure can be bettered with a graduate degree and I think that matters.

  23. Thank you so much for writing this! As a black American women, in her fourth year of a doctorate in Anthropology currently conducting my dissertation research, your piece, and the Slate piece, and advice from “The Doctor is In” blog hits home on many levels. I struggled my first 2 years in graduate school in ways that nurtured a decidedly cynical view of academia, even after I was able to attain external full funding for the duration of my degree.

    Reading your piece, at the very least, gave me pause and reminded me to give thanks for what these four years HAVE given me so far, which namely, was the space and time to “figure out” my next career moves after leaving a job that in many ways was more demoralizing and underpaid than grad school (having student loans in deferment GREATLY lifted financial stress in ways I hadn’t realized I was carrying until I wasn’t). It has also allowed me to travel and do work in pursuit of my passions, goals, and dreams. Even with the micro and macro racist and sexist aggressions I have to deal with in academic situations, I am still a much happier person than I was five years ago when I was working a job that was eating at my soul and which I could not see another way out of the career I was in at the time. So, in the end, I can’t be that mad about my graduate experience at all. But I CAN be mad at the domestic and global political and economic situations that have created so much economic instability at every level of society, except at the 1%.

    Reading the comments section has been illuminating in another way, in trying to understand the misreading of the (sound!) argument that you are making, and which makes me wonder, again, about just what the heck I am going to do after this degree is finished. I think the comments speak to the culture of fear that permeates academia at the moment, especially if you are a PhD student. And this fear has run smack dab into feelings of foolishness over the bait and switch that is occurring for the working and middle class in general. The idea that if you get a good education, you will get a good job that can comfortably provide you with stable and secure housing and the ability to support yourself and your family, is just not working out for many.

    Reading an article published in 1969 about the emotional toll being a graduate student takes on individuals, I think this culture of fear has been present for a long time, but has been heightened in the last 5 years by world economic insecurity. For good reason, people are worried about how they are going to make ends meet, and no one has prepared or is preparing PhDs, working in a bubble of privilege, and who continue to be told that they are special and will be rewarded well for their intellectual pursuits, for a world that no longer gives the same economic value to letters in ways it once did even 10 years ago.

    Whereas a generation ago, education and home-ownership were sure paths to wealth creation and social mobility, they know are quickly becoming sure paths to poverty and social immobility. And having to confront that reality, emotionally, for many currently on the job market, makes it difficult to understand why for some, working toward a PhD is still worth the risks and costs.

  24. This is a _really_ interesting and thoughtful piece– thank you for it! I’ve been following this discussion on various forums as someone who switched majors from philosophy to mathematics and ended up a math Ph.D. and tenured professor. (I was one of the lucky ones.) I notice that everyone is talking about humanities Ph.D.’s in this discussion– so I wonder what you think about the decision to go for a science Ph.D.

    It seems to me that having credentialled quantitative skills as well as the kind of social capital that you discuss would again be additionally beneficial to black students. Certainly, discrimination is a reality in science (just as it is in the humanities), but it seems like it can’t be worse (this may be really naive of me). Plus, our programs are generally fully funded, so cost is not an issue. All of which makes me think that a science credential should be a unusually popular choice for black students, for all the reasons you’ve eloquently described above.

    Yet we don’t see very many black applicants for graduate study, so I suspect this analysis is faulty or uninformed. Do you have any thoughts on this phenomenon? Can you help recalibrate my thinking on this?

    1. Thank you for reading.

      There is a great deal to say in response to your questions. One of the main issues with black participation in science PhDs is that science is very path-dependent. In humanities and social science you can more easily “drop” into a new discipline in graduate study. So science seems to me more sensitive to inequalities in K-16 than are SS and Humanities. Having said that, as a sociologist I push myself and younger black grad students to push ourselves with quantitative analysis precisely because we are expected to not be good at quant. I say the same to women.

      1. Path-dependence is a really interesting point. I wonder if there’s anything we could do to make a transition into science easier. And how far we could go? You more or less have to have been a math major, or at least completed the courses, to go to graduate school in math.

        Of course, it’s plausible to admit students into a “four-year masters program” or something, which included by design some years of undergraduate coursework. We could even provide stipends and tuition for such a thing, if we got the applicants. I wonder if anyone would apply?

        Anyway, thank you for your response. It’s certainly food for thought.

  25. Wonderful piece. Very timely I am applying to PHD programs this fall and I can’t seem to decide between history, political science, international relations or sociology. One of my main worries is that I won’t get into any program. You sound like you know your field really well could you speak to the type of subjects that are studied in sociology. and perhaps a little about your own journal to PHD? I happened to go to my Prof today and he told me flat out that because of my low income background perhaps it was better if I just settle for an MA. If you could shed any light on the matter I would appreciate it. Thank you again for the wonderful piece.

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