Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Masters or Ph.D. by Robert L. Peters Ph.D.

(Book Review)

To date, this book has had no little impact on my thought process about graduate school.

I first ordered this book over a year and a half ago off of Amazon, when I was beginning to seriously consider going back to school. And this book pretty much talked me out of it.

It painted a picture of long degree programs and a dismal job market afterwards.
Contrary to popular belief, the author claims, Ph.D. programs take much longer than the 4 years advertised. A history Ph.D., for example, takes a Median total time of 8.6 years as a registered student (and a median of 11.3 years including time off students sometimes take for personal or financial reasons). Meaning if I started now, I'd be into my 40s before I finished.

Of course, if you follow the advice in this book, the author claims you stand a much better chance of betting the odds and getting out on time. But then he paints a very bleak look at the job market once you've finished your degree. Academic jobs (which is essentially what I'd be looking at with a history Ph.D.) are extremely competitive to get, and many Ph.D.s struggle to find employment, or are overworked at low-paying jobs.

All of that was enough to convince me that this was something I didn't want to rush into. After reading the first few chapters of the book, I put it down and decided likely as not the middle chapters about picking and writing a thesis would never apply to me.

At the time, however, I was under some pressure from my fiancee to sort my life out and choose some sort of path for the future. So, I decided to try and transfer my interest in European history into a degree in Japanese history. To that end, I enrolled in a Japanese University to try and get my Japanese up to snuff for reading historical documents.

Half a year later I was feeling overworked, and was single again and had no commitments. So I dropped out of Japanese school, and began thinking again about pursuing a graduate degree in history.

So, a year later, I picked up this book again and started reading through it again.

And, once again, all the horror stories in the book did a lot to convince me that, free and single or not, academia might not be the best career route.

Nonetheless, this time I stuck all the way through the book from the beginning (application process) to the end (finishing your thesis and finding employment). So, as I do whenever I finish a book, I write it up for my book review project.

Since I read this book only as a potential grad school student, I have no way of knowing how accurate or applicable much of the information in here actually is. But if you go over to the Amazon website, you can find lots of actual grad students and professors who swear up and down by this book.

My experience only allows me to review this book on its readability.

For which I give it full marks. This was actually one of several books about grad school I ordered off of Amazon at the time, but of all of those books, this was the only one that was remotely interesting to read.

Part of this, it must be admitted, is the fascination of a train wreck. Peters makes his points through real life anecdotes of people he knows or has interviewed, and he has amassed a great collection of grad school horror stories which makes for interesting, if slightly unnerving, reading for the potential student.

But the book as a whole is just plain well written. Peters is a surprisingly good writer. I say surprisingly because his background is in the sciences, not the humanities. But he's obviously learned a thing or to about how to write a readable paragraph, and there's even a chapter in the book about how to write well.

If I never end up going to grad school, obviously much of the information and advice in this book will never apply to me. But I think large parts of it does have carry over value into other facets of life. The section on writing well, for example. As with the section on dealing with stress. And the section on finding employment.

All in all, a very readable and interesting guide to graduate school. Whether the advice in here is good or not, I'll have to leave to others to judge. And whether much of this book ends up applying to me or not remains to be seen.

Link of the Day
In Some Alternate Universe ...
and But of course


Whisky Prajer said...

Books like this one are indispensable, even as they make unusual demands from the reader. I only trifled with the thought of an advanced degree, and realized after watching friends continue that I had neither the temperament or the desire to jump aboard. 15 years later most of them are teaching, but really only one of these friends is gainfully employed (i.e., tenure-tracked) by a university. Every one of them, however, has some incredible stories of just how crappy an up-and-comer can expect to be treated.

I did, however, have literary ambitions. This book (PDF) and this post forced me to reassess my expectations, as well as my motivations. I'm probably still reassessing, because once "I'm gonna show everybody in Smallville" was removed from the motivation platter, I started thinking differently about nearly everything. Hard to say if that's good or bad, really. Just as it's difficult to assess beforehand if one should continue the academic process, even if one isn't finally confident of its efficacy.

Joel said...

Yes, I think I've seen that book and that post before (probably linked to off of your blog).

I've met several grad schol drop outs in Japan. To be fair, they didn't have any horror stories about how they were treated personally, but a lot of them got 2 or 3 years into a degree, and then just realized it wasn't going anywhere and there was no job at the end of the tunnel.

I think all of us who are somewhat bookish flirt with the idea of grad school, or literary ambitions, or both. that doesn't mean it's a realistic career path for all of us. But I think it will always be in the back of my mind at least.