Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Give me one reason to stay here…

File under: XX Marks the Spot, No More Pencils, No More Books. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:40 pm.

Erin O’Connor, incisive as always, has some interesting commentary on a Chronicle of Education article (I’m not registered, but maybe you are) entitled “Is Grad School a Cult?” It quotes a cult expert at length, and claims to find plenty of similarities between cults and grad school, while denying a direct parallel. Like most critiques of graduate school, it focuses on the humanities - the author is an English prof - and as a math student who opted to duck out after snagging a Master’s, I can’t really comment too much on the subjects of conformity of beliefs and such raised in it. (Erin, however, can and does.)

But a few of the observations and comments rang eerily true for me. For instance, from the cult expert, cults exercise “emotional control”:

…”excessive use of guilt (identity guilt: not living up to your potential; social guilt; historical guilt)”; “phobia indoctrination (irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority; cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group; shunning of leave takers; never a legitimate reason to leave)”; and “from the group’s perspective, people who leave are ‘weak,’ ‘undisciplined.’”

Under “cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group” and “never a legitimate reason to leave”, file a handful of profs who told me very matter-of-factly that there’s nothing I’d be able to do with “only” a Master’s degree in math. You read that right: nothing. Supposedly, if I don’t stay in school until I’m thirty or so and get that Ph.D., then everything - my Master’s degree in geometry, my years of math teaching, my experience writing about math and designing courses, my job experience programming and technical writing - is for naught. Acquiring the doctorate, on the other hand, will get me financial security (*guffaw*, I say), success, popularity, and bigger breasts. What’s most frightening about this is that these profs aren’t entirely wrong - more and more employers are requiring ever-mounting academic credentials for non-academic employment, regardless of how relevant the knowledge and skills acquired in such programs are to the jobs in question.

(Aside: It’s darkly amusing to note that it’s n0t just people who hate math who think that math isn’t good for anything in everyday life - it’s also a substantial number of professional mathematicians, who think that math is good for nothing but publishing high-level research material and training others to do same - which is really the only job that requires a Ph.D., not just a Master’s.)

I could write at length about the guilt, but I’ve begun to shrug it off. More than one prof actually told me, without a trace of irony, that it was a pity that I was leaving, because I “contribute diversity to the department”. “Diversity” in the math department, I’ve learned, is a euphemism for “estrogen”, and after three years of being all but ignored in a department dominated by male professors, some of whom have been known to hold Oscar parties at which their invited guests (faculty and students, all male) sit around and assess which actresses they’d most like to sleep with, I don’t take terribly well to this view that while no professor necessarily has any responsibility toward me to, say, give me support or interesting work, it behooves us all to have me stay around and exude diversity rays. Want cookies with that? Anyway.

One commenter, Kate, writes at Critical Mass:

Grad school isn’t so much a cult as it is a pyramid scheme. A prof who’s sunk a small fortune into getting advanced degree is forced, for survival, to lure others into following the same path. Can’t make tenure without a full cadre of eager followers.

I don’t want to be a research mathematician. Others do; I don’t. I want to teach, and I want to write math books for a semi-general audience - bright high school students, and adults who think that math is interesting but who don’t have much of a background beyond a handful of undergraduate courses. These books exist - they’re what got me excited about math - and it’s become abudantly clear that graduate school isn’t where one learns to write them. The graduate chair at my school suggested that I do a History of Math Ph.D. with an older prof, one who’s been around. This is the most pertinent advice I’ve ever gotten on the subject, and if I ever go back to school in anything math-related, it’ll be for that. But many, many professors have told me that I won’t be able to write math books without a Ph.D. in math. “What skills,” I asked each of them, “will the Ph.D. give me that the Master’s hasn’t?” Invariably, the answer comes back: no particular skills for a non-research job, really, but if I keep at the research math for another four years or so, and follow that with a series of postdoctoral positions, then maybe, maybe when I’m 40 or 45, I’ll be able to get a tenure-track position which will give me enough time to do the work I really want to do.

“There’s got to be another way,” I bemoaned to one of these profs.

He shrugged. “You learn to enjoy it eventually,” he said.


  1. …and I’ll turn right back around

    (I had to finish the line, it was bugging me)

    - meep — 7/4/2004 @ 8:28 am

  2. Further: I am perfectly pleased to see the pyramid scheme ongoing. As long as my possible competition of people who enjoy math and are good at it feel like they must stay in the academic ghetto, I can demand higher wages and have my pick of projects. Ah, life is good. Supply and demand, baybee. I certainly have no interest in increasing the supply of math labor…

    - meep — 7/4/2004 @ 8:32 am

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