This is a cautionary tale, told to deter individuals from enrolling in graduate programs. The names were not changed to protect the guilty.
How and why I applied to graduate school.
I entered graduate school the first time in the fall of 2000. I had applied to the PhD program in Economics at Auburn University in 1998. I was subsequently informed that I needed to take Intermediate Macroeconomics and Intermediate Microeconomics in order to be admitted. A limited budget and my personal life delayed my enrollment, but I was finally able to complete the required courses in the spring of 2000.
In hindsight, I should have stayed at my job and not bothered with graduate school. Or college, for that matter. It all began when I was an undergraduate accounting major at UNLV. I had previously flunked out of North Dakota State University, and I quit attending Moorhead State University in 1992. Many of the professors I had taken classes from at those institutions were either incompetent or assholes. Some were both.
After quitting the accounting program at Moorhead State, I spent the next few years working at a Walgreens. I was eventually promoted to Assistant Manager, but I was not being allowed to do my job to my full potential. The manager of the store was making sure that he had a hand in everything. I would often complete my order for items that my sections were low on, only to find out on ‘truck day’ that Marty had doubled some of my orders and cancelled others. The only thing keeping that store profitable was the Walgreens business model; if Marty had been running his own business he would have been bankrupt years before.
So I did what any sane person would do: I quit my job and headed to Las Vegas. I had mentioned to one of my uncles that I was thinking of returning to school but I didn’t want to return to the local universities. He had been living in Henderson, Nevada for years, and said that “we have a university here.” Well, that caused my sense of adventure to kick in and I checked it out. At that time, many of the western states were participants in the Western Undergraduate Exchange program. The WUE program provided lower tuition rates to out-of-state students from certain states. As a result, I would end up paying more at UNLV than I would at home, but less than if I was classified as a regular out-of-state student.
I had other motivations for going to UNLV as well. My friends had all graduated from college and moved on, and I felt I had to do the same. I had ended a relationship with a horrible young woman that I kept running into when I was out and about. I was intrigued by leaving behind the familiar. I didn’t know anyone in Las Vegas outside of my uncle’s family, and it would be a test of my ability to survive on my own.
And I succeeded. I finished up my bachelor’s degree in accounting in four semesters. I made the dean’s list in my first semester. And I met some…very interesting people. After graduating, I moved to the Denver area where I performed accounting for several firms over the next few years.
Bitten by the econ bug
When I was at UNLV, I didn’t hang out with the other accounting students. They were all boring, uptight people with no personalities. Everyone I was hanging out with was an economics major, and that’s when my interest in economics was piqued. In my free time, I went to the university library where I discovered Austrian economics. I learned of the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. At that time, Auburn University had a PhD program in Economics and PhD students could have their graduate tuition funded through fellowships from the Mises Institute.
So, a plan formed in my mind. I would earn a PhD in Economics from Auburn University, fully funded by one of these fellowships. I would then secure a job teaching at a small liberal arts college. My interest in earning a PhD was so that I could teach; I had no interest in doing research and publishing articles that almost no one reads. And this brings me back to the point in time where I applied to the PhD program in economics.
Graduate school and me
Unknownst to me but knownst to others, in the intervening year and a half between my initial application and my completion of the required intermediate economics courses, the PhD program in Economics at Auburn was discontinued. The program was the victim of a petty conflict between two of the trustees. In order to get back at another trustee who opposed him, Bobby Lowder and his cronies on the Board of Trustees engineered the demise of the PhD program.
This wouldn’t have been a problem for me, except that the program was eliminated in April of 1999 and I was not informed of this fact until February of 2000. After I had quit my job and was taking the intermediate courses in economics. I should have taken this as a sign of things to come, but I was told that I would still receive a stipend if I enrolled in the Masters program in Economics so I went.
At first, the graduate courses were quite a shock. I had excelled in my undergraduate courses, but the level of mathematics and work in the graduate courses were more than I had expected. My score on the first midterm was an 18…out of 100. It got curved up to a 54, but it was clear that I wasn’t studying enough. Threatened with the loss of my assistantship, I redoubled my efforts and passed all of my classes. I offset the 18 on the first exam by getting the highest score in the class on the final, and I was on my way. I completed the required courses and my thesis and graduated in May of 2002.
Alas, as I soon found out, a Masters degree in Economics is less than worthless on the job market. If you have more than a bachelors degree, you are seen as overqualified for many jobs that a degree in economics qualifies you for. On the other hand, if you don’t have a PhD then the assumption of potential employers is that you are either too lazy or too stupid to earn a PhD. Either way, it’s not good. At the time, a Masters degree in economics would qualify you to get a job working with the Federal Reserve, at some level of government, or as an instructor at a community college. But most of those positions were dead ends, as it was expected that you would earn your PhD at some point if you wanted to keep your job.
After two years of finding out how worthless my Masters degree was in the job market, I re-entered Auburn University in the fall of 2004 as a student in the Applied Economics PhD program at Auburn University. I obtained funding and a tuition waiver by teaching courses for the Economic program.
The one good thing that I got out of graduate school was the discovery that I really love teaching economics. My plan to teach at a liberal arts college was still a go. However, that changed two years later, and that experience showed me what graduate education was all about.
In order to complete the PhD program, we were required to pass three qualifying exams in Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Econometrics. We got three attempts at each exam, so my plan was simple: study my ass off for one exam at a time and fail the other(s). If my plan worked, I would pass one of the exams the first go round; one of the remaining exams on the second go round; and the final exam on the third try. I actually studied for two of the exams the first time, but I only passed one of them. My plan was working though.
And that’s when I learned the most important lesson of graduate school: if you argue with your professors, or if they don’t like you, they will scheme to get you kicked out of the program. I took the remaining exams the next year, and was shocked when I was informed that I had failed both exams. My failure on the Econometrics exam was expected, as I had focused the bulk of my study time on the Microeconomics exam. My ‘failure’ on the Micro exam was shocking to me becauseI had passed all five questions on the first part of the Micro exam.
The problem was the second part of the exam. According to my professors, in order to achieve a passing score on the exam you needed to grade out at 75% on one half of the exam and 50% on the second half. After having blown away the first section, all I needed to do was earn a grade of ‘pass’ on two of the four questions. I had passed one of the questions, and failed two of the remaining questions.
My grade on the pivotal question was ‘Marginal Fail’. I should explain that according to the faculty handbook, each question was supposed to be graded as either ‘PhD Pass’, “Marginal Pass’, or ‘Fail’. There was no provision for a grade of ‘Marginal Fail’. In other words, this grade should not have been given as it did not exist prior to the grading of my exam. And it was not ‘legal’ for them to do so, as faculty is supposed to adhere to the grading policy in the faculty handbook.
When I protested this grade, I was told that there was nothing that could be done. The professor who gave me this grade refused to change it; a simple ‘Marginal Pass’ and I could complete the program. It was not going to be allowed to happen. And despite my repeated attempts to review my answers on the exam, I was not permitted to see my exam. I came to the conclusion that the exam no longer existed; it had been sent down the memory hole so that there was no way for me to prove that I had passed the exam. This was later confirmed to me by a fellow student who tracked down the old exams. While the faculty handbook stated that exams were to be kept on file, all he found were grading sheets. The exams no longer existed.
Graduate school is not a meritocracy
And that is how I discovered, after 3 years of busing my ass, that it wasn’t how hard you worked or what you actually learned that mattered, it was how much you kissed professors’ asses that matters the most in grad school. Hell, that’s the only thing that matters in graduate school.
I witnessed much more misconduct in my four years in graduate school: a professor threatening a grad student with not being allowed to finish his degree unless he cleaned her office (he complied); a professor helping a foreign student hide from Immigration when her visa ran out and she should have been deported; rampant cheating by foreign students; grades assigned based not on exam scores but on who the professors got along with best; and professors removing items from my office door because of my comment that “economics isn’t about the math.”
The jobs aren’t there
To top it all off, I discovered a report that showed that in 2007 graduate schools would be awarding over 900 PhDs in Economics. The problem was, the projected number of jobs for PhD economists was projected to be 192. This signaled to me that (1) there were and are too damn many PhDs being awarded in Economics; (2) the wages for PhD economists was going to fall; and (3) there are few jobs to be had, even if you have a PhD. Even today, you can go to a job site like www.higheredjobs.com and see that even community colleges are now requiring a PhD. That’s right, a PhD is required to apply for a job that pays between $35,000 and $50,000 per year. Good luck raising a family or paying back your student loans on that salary.
So don’t go to graduate school
And that’s why I tell anyone who will listen that they are wasting their time by going to graduate school. All they will be doing is educating themselves out of the job market.
Still want to go to Grad School? Here’s what you will learn:
1. Your professors don’t like you. The only use professors have for graduate assistants is that of indentured servants. You will be expected to let your major professor attach his name to that paper you worked so hard on, even if he/she had nothing to do with it.
2. Even with an assistantship, you will still go into debt. Read this. I didn’t even know it was possible to get a graduate degree in Theater. And I don’t know why you would want one. I am sure that Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise skipped that part of their acting training.
3. No one cares if you flunk out or don’t finish. You are just another cog in the wheel. After all, there are thousands of Chinese and Indian mathematicians who are more than willing to work for low wages in order to escape their crappy home countries.
In fact, professors want you to stay in graduate school for as long as possible. I had my schedule all laid out so that I would be done in four years: 2.5 years for completion the required classes and 1.5 years for completion of my dissertation (I already had a topic and had done the preliminary research, including data collection). The department then proceeded to offer the same classes two years in a row, effectively making my 4 year plan a 5 year plan. When I took courses outside the program in an attempt to finish on my timeline, I incurred the wrath of the department head, which in no small part resulted in me getting booted from the program as described above. This little tyrant had peaked in grad school, and was instrumental in making sure that I would not be allowed to finish the program.
4. Most professors are at their core children who have never lived or worked in the real world. This was a shock to me. After all, one expects that people who earn a PhD are the very epitome of an adult. The reality is that most PhDs are earned by people who spend their entire lives in school. They progress from elementary school to middle school to high school to university/college to graduate school to professor. As such, they have no clue as to what the real world is like. I have witnessed fifty- and sixty-year-old men acting like teenaged girls over such important issues as who gets the bigger office, who should pass the qualifying exams, and who they want as their graduate assistants.
Having witnessed many of these middle-aged hissy fits, I must apologize to teenage girls everywhere for comparing them to professors. The teenage girls are waaaaay more mature.
There is one circumstance when it may be okay to go to graduate school. The only exception is if (1) your employer will pay for it and (2) your employer will promote you once you have earned your degree. Otherwise, save your time, money, and sanity by avoiding the junior-high mentality that permeates graduate education.
But don’t take my word for it
Others simply got caught in a common bind: the money didn’t last as long as required to actually complete and defend their dissertation. Or they had to pay for extensive travel (a particular problem among archaeologists, apparently). Their undergraduate loans piled up interest while in deferral. Or their school was in an expensive city, with a stipend that didn’t match the local cost of living.
This happened to me, thanks in no small part to the department offering the same classes two years in a row. Thank God that the school was in a smaller city with a relatively low cost of living.
Obviously, this isn’t a representative sample; people who put their entries in the spreadsheet may be (probably are) more likely to be folks who are having debt problems. But they still offer a valuable caution to people who are applying to graduate school: it’s not enough to have funding. You also need to have a time frame, and a budget, that fits the funding on offer.
Note that I had all of these things, and I was still not allowed to finish. However, the department did award a PhD to my officemate, who had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with OCD and whose PhD is a jumble of incomprehensible mathematics that was probably written by her dissertation committee.
Don’t go to Grad School. You’ve got too much to lose…