Thoughts on life after the PhD
This is the second in a series of posts on “Alternative Careers for Literature and Humanities PhD’s,” a roundtable discussion organized by a professor in my university’s English department.
Skipping around a bit, the third speaker (we’ll call him Mark) earned a PhD in English literature and has been teaching in private high schools ever since. He came to his career somewhat by accident–having just entered the job market, he heard through a friend that a rather progressive high school in Berkeley needed someone to teach an intensive, one-week course. Freshmen and sophomores would read Joyce’s Ulysses in a single week–seven hours a day, page by page, with accompanying activities and discussions (everyone around me murmured that this sounded like a very cool idea). Initially Mark said no, but the pay was excellent, and so he went for it. He described it as one of the most inspiring experiences he’d ever had with education–getting up every morning very early, taking the BART to the school, and feeling genuinely excited to go to work (a lot more excited than he’d been feeling about his research). The approach was straightforward: read the book and talk about it, without bringing in a huge amount of literary analysis or outside criticism. The students were hard workers, very bright, and everyone got a lot out of the experience.
The school liked Mark and hired him to teach English (more on the “We like you so we’ll find some way to keep you around” tendency later). While he initially saw high school teaching as a temporary gig on his way to a tenure-track professorship, ultimately he found the work so rewarding (and the money so good) that he stuck with high school teaching and never looked back. For him, the only real downside is the loss of an intellectual edge–the focus is very much on helping the students to “experience” literature, with few opportunities to really analyze literature at the PhD level. There’s also no real opportunity to write or do research–you get summers off, but most people spend them refueling and planning next year’s classes. For Mark, though, the gains far outweigh the losses. You get to be engaged with literature on a regular basis, you’re in an environment where teaching is highly valued, you have wonderful colleagues, the pay and the benefits are excellent, and you can essentially teach your dissertation if you like (you’ve got a lot more creative control over what your students read than you would have as an adjunct or even a tenured professor).
As someone who got a secondary teaching certificate in 2000 and spent a truly horrible semester trying to student-teach in a public school but feeling much more like a bouncer / security guard, I really responded to Mark’s story. I’ve spent the last ten years trying not to feel guilty about abandoning the noble profession of public school teaching because I just couldn’t bear the frustration, the meager pay, the long hours, and the seeming impossibility of having any impact in a class of forty students, many of whom have serious behavior problems. The idea that I could teach high school students who actually wanted to learn, who even wanted to learn about literature, sounded amazing.
I was curious, though, about the public-vs.-private issue. Mark admitted that he and almost all of his colleagues dealt on a daily basis with feelings of guilt that they weren’t using their skills in the public school system, that they were teaching only the wealthiest kids in the nation. But they just couldn’t bear the thought of working in public schools, particularly California public schools. One of Mark’s colleagues justified it this way–they might be teaching the elite, but they’re teaching the people who will likely be future senators and CEO’s, and they’re doing their best to make sure those people have a deep appreciation for the humanities. Some of them also volunteer in the public school system, where they feel they can have more of an impact than they could as full-time teachers. If I ended up teaching at a ritzy public high school I’m sure I’d wrestle with guilt on a regular basis, but damn, it sure sounds appealing.
For those interested in private high school teaching, Mark recommends checking out high schools in the area that you want to live in. Introduce yourself to administrators, ask to observe classes, and stay in touch. Private high schools love to hire PhD’s whenever they can–with such high tuition costs, it looks really good to prospective parents to have PhD’s teaching their children. Most private high schools don’t require that you have an official secondary teaching certificate, the most important thing is that you’re passionate about your subject matter and can connect well with kids. With so many teachers and people moving / going on maternity leave on a regular basis, positions are available almost every semester. Unlike adjunct teaching, high school teaching doesn’t necessarily make it impossible for you to land a tenure-track professorship–several of Mark’s colleagues taught for a year or two at a high school and are now professors (I’d imagine that if you do it for more than a few years, though, you’re limiting your options in the tenure-track market).
One interesting fact that came up several times during the discussion was the notion of retaining valuable employees. The three representatives of alternative careers–publishing, film industry, and high school teaching–said pretty much the same thing: if they like you, and if you find a way to make yourself indispensable, they’ll find a way to keep you on. In Mark’s experience, this definitely seemed to be true of high schools–even though he was initially hired for only a week, the school found a way to retain him because they valued his abilities. The same cannot be said for the university, where a one-year contract is usually just that–a one-year contract. The previous speaker, John, urged participants not to buy into the myth that universities will find a way to keep you after your contract is up because they “like” you. They may like you, but when your contract’s up it’s up, and it’s rare that a university will go out of its way to create a whole new position for you. This, for me, was yet another appealing aspect of high school teaching: the idea of being appreciated for your skills to the point where an institution would actually put forth effort to keep you around.
Next post: working in the film industry (or how a lit PhD can lead you to researching snake accuracy for Anaconda)
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