Should I Do A Foreign Ph.D.?

I think Mayhew and Kelsky should weigh in on this. My vote is no, no, a thousand times no, but I am failing to convince. Perhaps I am wrong.

Background: We have a few older, very accomplished, full professors who, long ago, were undergraduates here. They went away to graduate school and eventually made their way home. Some of them even did one of their graduate degrees in foreign countries. Then there are two or three younger, also accomplished faculty who were high school students here.

A characteristic all of these people share, however, is that they never assumed they would be hired here. It happened, but it might not have. In some cases I am not even sure it was their first choice — it was just the choice they got. The advising problem this creates for me is, I have senior students who believe that they will be hired here. All they have to do is get a Ph.D. elsewhere, after which their department of choice will be waiting for them.

It is possible, in fact, that this was true at some time in the distant past. But it was not even true for those full professors nearing retirement we have on staff who are originally from here, and it was even less true for those two or three assistant and associate professors we have who went to high school here and to college and graduate school elsewhere.

The following scenario even took place during my early time here: there were M.A. instructors of the truly old fashioned kind, the ones who publish and do other professor style work, and the institution wanted to move them up. They said: we know you and we need to upgrade this place. Get a decent Ph.D. and you can be on the tenure track. It won’t mean much of a raise now, but it will put you in line for better raises later. And this happened but I emphasize: only to those who had been approached for it. The senior students, however, have decided that Ph.D. elsewhere = job here, and I have failed so far to convince them otherwise.

In particular, I have had each of these two questions several times:

1. My honors thesis was overkill good, you said so yourself. You said I had too much material for an undergraduate thesis, but that I could save some of it for an M.A. or Ph.D. project if I liked. Well, I am now in touch with a program abroad which requires no graduate coursework, and is very interested in my material. All I have to do is go there and write it up, and I will have a Ph.D. in three years. I will be a professor!

Me: Do not go there, no. No, no, a thousand times no. There are no jobs in that country; their professors are trying to come here. Their undergraduates are applying to graduate school here so as to put themselves in line for jobs in this country. You are a strong candidate for a good U.S. program that will give you training you really need via coursework and examination, and put you in a position to be truly competitive on the job market.

Student: Why all the doom and gloom? Professor X [N. Ed.: PhD, 1970] went to that university for hir Ph.D., and ze is internationally renowned.

Me: Yes, but Professor X’s fieldwork was precisely on that region, so it made sense, and Professor X had an M.A. from another famous U.S. university already, and it was 1970, for fucke’s sake!

Student: Your pessimism is limiting my development as a person.

2. My family lives here and is powerful here, and I expect that if I do a Ph.D. somewhere, I will be hired on as a professor. I feel that the most convenient way to accomplish this would be to enroll in a foreign program which requires a dissertation only. That way, I could spend most of my time here. I might even be able to do my dissertation defense on Skype.

Me: Look. I know you and I am also realistic about our institutional needs. If you were hired to the tenure track here with that kind of a degree, I and my semejantes would not object. I am sure you would do a great job teaching the B.A. and M.A. students we have in your field – there is no Ph.D. program in your discipline here – and I’d be perfectly willing to give you the chance to see if you could publish well enough to make tenure with that kind of training. With people like me feeling as I do on this matter, and with the political connections you have, it could work out for you – if the state gives us a line in your subfield. Every day that looks less likely, though, and if you want a Ph.D. and an academic job you really ought to get the best degree you can – a degree which will do you good in the long term, not just be convenient now.

Student: But Professor Y [N. Ed.: Ph.D. 1975] went to that university, and look at hir now, ze is a star!

Me: Yes, but Professor Y’s goal was always to do a certain kind of research. Ze is a star because ze is a star. By chance ze was trained there and is here, but hir goal was always hir work, not this particular location! Also, ze went physically to that university, and stayed there to work in person with those professors and that library’s documents!

Student: Yes, but now there is the Internet and Skype. It is the same, is it not?

Me: No, no, a thousand times no!

What say you?


4 thoughts on “Should I Do A Foreign Ph.D.?

  1. Give your students the URL for the Chronicle’s fora, and tell them to check out the threads for graduate students and especially the job-seeking threads. They may not believe you, but possibly crowd-sourcing the conversation will be more convincing.

    I get this too, though not very often. The academic job market is so far out of students’ experience that they have trouble believing it’s not like getting a high school teaching job, or like going into the business world, where jobs can be created if someone really good turns up.

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