Friday, May 15, 2009

Advice from Dad about grad school

Okay, this is not completely blogriginal. It was a contribution to another online community that I habituate, and someone asked that I blog it. Since I have been struggling to finish two other entries, it made perfect sense. So, here it goes.
My oldest son is graduating from UCLA in a few weeks and will be entering graduate school in the fall in Musicology/Ethnomusicology. He understands well the bleak job market for PhD’s in the humanities and also understands that a career in higher education is fraught with problems in the best of times. My wife and I are both proud of his accomplishments thus far and are pleased that he had several graduate programs from which to choose. Following is the advice that I gave him as he prepared applications and then made a decision about which program to attend. I hope that it will be of help to those of you who are still in programs.

1. Do not leave undergraduate school for a humanities degree without substantial training and background in quantitative research methods. I deal with PhD students and graduates who have not taken a course in math or statistics since their sophomore year in college. I recently worked with a newly graduated PhD in English who had not taken a math class since her junior year in high school which was in 1996! She had NEVER taken a statistics course at all. She was frustrated that many of the higher ed administrative jobs she was considering wanted a background in data analysis. My son decided to double major in Music and Sociology because the Soc major would give him access to two research methods courses he would not have otherwise been able to take as a Music major.

2. Do not leave graduate school with a humanities PhD without substantial training and background in quantitative research methods.
At some point after his first year, he has to decide on straight musicology vs. ethnomusicology. I have encouraged the ethno choice largely because a certain amount of ethnographic research training is mandatory in the program. I have pointed out to him that he will likely have gobs of tuition credits during his time and he should avail himself of that funding to take classes in multivariate analysis, assessment, and research methods from either sociology or psychology. (I used some of my “free” tuition to take courses in the MBA and social work programs)

3. Do not leave graduate school without some sort of “external” experience. He will be attending a program in Southern California and there at numerous museums, social agencies, and business/industry opportunities around. I am pimping internships/part-time jobs in market research or business development in the recording industry along with summer fellowships in federal and state agencies.

4. Demand to be taught to write and publish. He is still ambivalent about whether or not he wishes to become a “professor” upon completion of his degree, but he realizes that the training is largely geared to produce faculty and the missing component in almost all disciplines is mentoring in the process of producing academic publications. We discussed this two years ago while he was still an undergraduate and he approached two faculty at UCLA, before the third agreed to mentor him. It has been a good two-year apprenticeship that resulted in a published article and an understanding of what it takes to give birth to one, tiny published piece. He has already begun to hint to the faculty who have not officially seen him that this is one of his primary goals.

5. Always know where you are and never get too concerned about where you are going. One of the frustrations that I have in working with any client, but especially PhD’s, is that they cannot stay grounded in the present. They are always “out there” in the future. So much so that when the future gets here, they are not prepared for it. The way that I put it to him was, “Don’t spend all of your time planning for a job or future that may not exist when you finish. Grab opportunities that interest you now, even if they may entice you to leave your program or change your mind about what you want to be.” I shared that the best thing that ever happened to me was doing an internship in a hospital while in my religion graduate program that convinced me that I wanted to be a counselor or psychologist and not a priest or philosophy professor. I left the graduate program and eventually ended up where I am today.

6. Have an active Plan B. I have a clinical license that I have seldom used recently, but it was great in tiding me over when fellowship money was tight. During my last two years of graduate school, while my classmates were eating ramen noodles and living on $15,000 a year, I was working as a contract therapist eight hours a week on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings for $50 an hour and providing clinical supervision at a community clinic for another 4 hours at $75 an hour. I was able to give up my TA assignments in the last year of my program so that I had much more time to write and collect dissertation data. He has already lined up gigs with public music entities which will pay a modest amount and give him contacts in arts commissions in SoCal and he will complete his teaching credential next month.
So there you have it, more useless advice from Dad.


  1. Great post. I especially like #5 as advice. But would also add, that if you stop enjoying where you are for a significant length of time, to rethink why you are there.

    I loved almost everything about grad school, but quickly realized I wouldn't love being a university professor, and so moved on.

    (Fortunately, I had the back-up-experience and skills needed to move on easily, not out of carefully planning, but because I found lots of things outside of my area of study interesting.)

    In addition to (or instead of) quantitative skills, you could also add that taking some courses that allow you to learn a good grasp of basic world and national economics as something you shouldn't leave without.

  2. Hi you have nice informative and advised blog, i like it.