Hi! This page is intended for those who have family or friends who are in graduate school or have completed their PhDs and are working as college professors.
Neither of my parents graduated college, and none of the members of my extended family have worked as a professor or had their PhD while I was in graduate school. The world of academia was a mystery to me when I began my graduate studies in 2007. (Completed as of 2016! Nine years!? What took so long? See question 9.) I’ve learned quite a bit since then, but I still think that many things remain largely a mystery to my parents and some of my friends. From talking to other first generation graduate students, my sense is that this is a very common problem. Consider this page a Frequently Asked Questions about the weird world of academia.
(If you have a suggestion for a question or a supplement to an answer to a question, please e-mail me at pjwerner1[at]gmail.com.)
TWO NOTES (added 26/5/2017):
1. As of now, this list is geared toward friends and relatives of PhD students and faculty members in North America. Many of the questions will generalize to Europe, but not all of them will. Unfortunately, I do not have the same knowledge of the inner workings of European academia. (If you are familiar and would like to add some more Europe-centric questions and answers, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
2. This list is intended for friends and family of PhD students and academics. It may provide a very superficial background about academia to a prospective first-generation PhD student herself, but it would be woefully incomplete if you are considering entering graduate school yourself. Thankfully, there is a Wiki that you may find extremely helpful to read about all sorts of aspects of academia, which can be found here: How to Prep For Grad School While Poor. Go check it out--it is going to be infinitely more useful for prospective grad students than this guide.
FAQ for Friends and Family of Graduate Students and Academics
1.We have a good university where we live. Why did she move so far away to do her graduate studies?
Graduate studies is much more specialized than undergraduate studies. She is very serious about being trained by the best people in her preferred area of specialty as possible. Academics tend to have to be more flexible about where they live--such is one of the sacrifices we make in order to study and teach what we love.
To give an example: Perhaps you live in Iowa and you know that the University of Iowa has a PhD program in Philosophy. First of all, your family member or friend may have applied and not been accepted--positions in graduate programs can often be extremely competitive, and it isn’t uncommon for prospective graduate programs to apply to anywhere from five to 30(!) programs. But she also may have not even applied because the University of Iowa has specialists in certain fields--say, ethics, Wittgenstein, or whatever--but not in the fields she wants to study--say, Buddhist Logic or Environmental Aesthetics. She wants to go where the Buddhist Logicians and Aestheticians are, and that may be far away, unfortunately.
Getting into a good program is also very important for one’s job prospects (perhaps too important, but I digress…), so she may want to have gone far away to increase the chances that she can continue to study and teach what she is passionate about for a longer period of time.
2. What’s the deal with Teaching Assistantships?
Teaching assistantships, or as we call them, TA-ships, have a few different purposes, depending on your perspective. But from the standpoint of the TA--your family or friend who is a graduate student--they have three benefits: (a) they generally cover your would-be tuition for your courses, (b) they provide a stipend, which, if you’re lucky (and cheap, and have no dependents, etc.) you can live off of, and (c) they provide graduate students with an opportunity to get some experience teaching, which most of them want to do for a living. The stipend and tuition waiver that TAships provide are absolutely invaluable for reducing the debt load that a graduate student has to take on. This is absolutely crucial given that many even excellent graduates may not immediately find a job, and some never find positions within academia. (More on this below.)
Universities, in return, get a very cheap source of labor. TAs can assist in teaching ‘discussion’/’review’ sections of classes (smaller groups that meet to review what was covered in a giant lecture hall), all sorts of grading, and even sometimes teach introductory courses of their own.
However, it is worth mentioning that TAships provide a very meagre sum of money, so don’t be cruel to graduate students if you hear them complaining about their stipends! At some places, stipends are not living wages at all. Here’s a story to help this sink in. At one of my graduate student orientations, one of the sessions was about the local food banks and how to access SNAP (food stamps) if necessary. This wasn’t in case we were laid off--this was because anyone with any children, unforeseen expenses, or even just expensive prescriptions could be food insecure. Imagine trying to write your dissertation--what is basically a book--in such conditions.
3. And Fellowships?
Fellowships are a lot like TAships, except minus the teaching part. They provide a source of income (again, usually meagre) so that a graduate student can focus 100% on their work. Their length can vary from one semester to multiple years.
4. He used to work while he was an undergraduate student. Why can’t he keep his job while he is in graduate school?
Well, first of all, if your loved one has a TAship, he does have a job. And it’s also worth noting that many TA contracts require that a student not have a second job. (Why? Well, my impression is that this is largely because students who try to work a second job get completely overwhelmed and suffer greatly in their studies.)
But there is a more important thing to say here, and I don’t think this can be stressed enough: Unlike undergraduate study, graduate study is absolutely a full time job. Things are much more intense, standards both of workload and of work quality are higher, and there is no clear sense of one’s work being “finished”. What I mean by this is that even when your loved one has completed the papers he needs to complete for his classes, he will also feel some pressure to submit papers to various conferences and for publication. The more one does this in graduate school, the better placed one is to get a job upon graduation.
I’ll expand on this a little bit in the next question.
5. She always seems stressed out, and is constantly emphasizing how busy she is. Even over Winter/Summer break she claimed she had work to do! Isn’t this just typical Millennial complaining?
No, no no. Graduate school is extremely difficult. Graduate students are training to be professional educators and researchers. That isn’t just a matter of taking classes and then passing exams or writing papers. Graduate students who want to succeed will want to read books that they aren’t explicitly required to read for class; they will want to revise papers for the purpose of sharing their work with colleagues, and not just to get good grades. The responsibilities on graduate students extend beyond the end of a particular semester.
Please believe me about this, because sometimes pretending as though graduate students live a cushy life can be dangerous and isolating in a way you may not know. You see, graduate students and academics suffer mental illness at a rate three to four times higher than the general population--around 50% of graduate students have depression and/or anxiety to the level where it affects their well-being.
By implying, or even worse, explicitly saying, that your loved one has an easy life can be very alienating. So please be careful here. She’s not lying when she says that she is very busy, or very stressed out, etc.
6. He is getting his PhD. Assuming he succeeds (no trivial matter), why is he always telling me he might not get a job? That can’t be possible, right?
In my experience, this is the hardest thing to convince people who are unfamiliar with academia. Most (though not all) graduate students in the humanities have the goal of becoming full time college professors. (In fact, there is something of a debate about what else our training makes us good for, or whether we are destined to be hyper-specialists.) But it turns out that there are more PhDs than there are full time positions. In my discipline (Philosophy), I have seen it estimated that there are three Philosophy PhDs for every one position (in North America). Your loved one is not lying, nor is he just being humble or self-deprecating, when he says he might not get a job. Excellent teachers and researchers do not get jobs.
7. But I know someone at the University of X! Couldn’t I pass along my loved one’s resume* to her?
Unfortunately not. This is just not the way that academic hiring works. In order to hire a full time professor, an academic department (philosophy, english, history, etc.) must convince the administration that a position is needed or desired. Then (and only then), a search is begun. Generally, academic hiring takes place on a somewhat set schedule. Calls for applications go out in the Fall, first round interviews in December-January, and then what are called ‘fly-out’ interviews in January-April or so. I’ll talk more about this below. For now, the point is, that just knowing someone at a University is not going to help her get a job.
* Sidenote: We call them ‘CV’s, for Curriculum Vitae, in academia. (My understanding is that some careers outside of academia do this as well? I don’t know.)
8. What’s a publication (in this context), and why does he obsess over getting them?
A publication is just what it sounds like. Academics generally publish in two forms: Books and articles. Articles are not like news articles or things like that. Rather, articles get published in academic journals. Academic journals are specialized publications dedicated to your loved one’s discipline or specialty. You won’t see them on newsstands, because the only people that tend to read them are other academics. They are jargony and people outside of the particular discipline tend to not understand what they are saying. (Journalists and college press releases sometimes try to explain things published in journals in a way that the layperson can understand, with mixed success.) Similar things are true of books: They will generally be published with dedicated academic publishers (like Oxford University Press, for example), and so the standards are also very strict. Much as with articles, books tend to be jargony and targeted toward other specialists, rather than something you might find on the bestseller list on Amazon or some such. (Though that’s not always the case. Sometimes philosophers publish books that are more accessible, but this is the exception rather than the rule.) So publications are written by and for specialists who share a lot of background knowledge.
Publications are extremely important for graduate students and academics. They are one of the most important determinants of one’s chances at secure academic employment. And journals, especially the best journals, are very picky about what they will publish. So this is why your loved one is panicking about revising his paper a 35th time before submitting it to a journal.
9. It’s been 4 years! Why hasn’t she graduated yet?
In North America, PhD programs are structured like this. First, you take some classes for 2-4 years (depending on the program). After this, plus some hoops you have to jump through which vary from program to program, you write your dissertation. You don’t get to graduate until you have completed and “defended” your dissertation to the satisfaction of your dissertation committee (made up of 3-6 academics who read your dissertation). There is no set amount of time it takes to write a dissertation, and it’s also the toughest thing that she’ll do in her academic career--and for a lot of graduate students, the hardest thing they’ve done in their life up until this point.
While she’s writing her dissertation, she’ll also simultaneously trying to present at conferences and publish papers, and often teaching courses as well.
My sense is that the standard amount of time it takes people to complete a PhD program ranges from about 5-9 years. (The average is 8.2 years.) So don’t fret if she isn’t even close to finishing at the end of year 4 or 5!
10. What is a dissertation, anyway?
Basically, a dissertation is like a book. It contains several chapters (about 3-7) which present new research about some particular specialized topic. Dissertations are an important rite of passage for would-be professors, since they demonstrate that someone is capable of contributing new knowledge to their field of study, and they can do so independently, without the direct guidance of taking a class and following a reading list given to them by someone else.
Dissertations are not published as a book would be. Generally, the final copy of one’s dissertation goes into a University repository, and nowadays, get published online. (Once in awhile, exemplary dissertations will get published after revisions as books, but that’s not typical.) But I say that dissertations are like books because, workload-wise, they are like writing a book. This involves a lot of reading and getting acquainted with what other people think about some topic. And then thinking of something new and interesting to say! So please don’t be so hard on your loved one if she doesn’t finish writing her dissertation in a year or two.
11. So what does he do all day? He teaches some classes, but that’s only so many hours a week, nowhere near 40.
Graduate students tend to TA or teach one or two classes at a time--often multiple sections of the same class. But you’re right, the actual ‘in class’ time is not 40 hours. Nonetheless, class prep takes a good amount of time, as well as grading, which, especially in a writing intensive discipline such as philosophy, takes a lot of time. Often, grad students can have up to 100 students at a time.
Faculty can teach anywhere from one course to seven, and this comes with it’s own prep time and grading. Similarly, faculty can have, in theory, hundreds of students. Sometimes--but not often, and only at large research programs--they will have TAs to assist them.
Setting aside this big chunk of time related to teaching, both graduate students and faculty spend much of the remainder of their time researching, writing, and publishing (see above). This means a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of thinking, some talking to other researchers, taking notes, going to conferences where people present their work, and so on. Writing a paper is not just a matter of thinking up an idea and then writing it down, as when you may have taken a class in high school or college and had to write a book report or some such. We must have a good understanding of what other people have said, situate our project within that context, and this involves many many revisions and sending drafts off to others for feedback.
There are also various other administrative duties that both graduate students and faculty must undertake, such as serving on committees dedicated to organizing curricula, student clubs, hiring new faculty members, reporting to higher up administrative people, and a lot of other various and not very exciting but required work.
12. She has completed her classes. Why can’t she move back home while she is working on her dissertation?
Most PhD students stay at their institution while they are working on their dissertation. There are a number of reasons for this. It is very helpful to be close to one’s advisor and other dissertation committee members. It is also very helpful to be around other grad student to commiserate and share work with. Perhaps most important, though, is that moving away would likely eliminate one’s ability to TA, which is her source of income and tuition waiver. Other things being equal, it just makes the most sense to stay around her institution while she is working on her dissertation, both financially and intellectually. (This isn’t to say, of course, that one should never move home while one is working on a dissertation. Everyone’s situation is different.)
13. It’s summer/winter break! Why does he keep saying how busy he is?
For many graduate students and faculty members, a big chunk of time is taken up during the school year with teaching, preparing lessons, and grading. (Which makes sense.) But as you may have picked up by now, PhD students and faculty members both have pretty serious commitments to writing and researching papers (and even books) for their dissertation and publications. Since PhD students and faculty are spending a lot of time with teaching-related duties during the school year, we often find ourselves working over the break both because it helps us catch up on things that we have fallen behind on, and it also provides a nice space to do some in depth research in larger blocks of time. And paper and chapter deadlines don’t necessarily track the academic calendar, either. So it’s not just that working over the breaks is convenient--it’s often necessary.