Thoughts on life after the PhD
I had a monumentally awkward academic moments several years ago–I like to think of it as a “realist vs. idealist” moment. I was having dinner with a poet and a group of people who’d helped organize a reading series including said poet and several undergrad poets. I mentioned that our graduate department was working on a professional development curriculum, one that could help literature PhD’s gain more real-world skills.
He put down his drink and glared at me. Actually glared. “Real-world skills?” he said, his voice dripping with contempt.
My mind raced. Of course. This guy is a poet. A published poet. He probably thinks I’ve just insulted his entire existence, insinuating that literature is frivolous and not something with any use in the “real world.” Shit.
I think I managed to redeem myself in the poet’s eyes by very quickly explaining that it was a poor choice of words on my part(it was)–I was referring to skills like resume and cover letter-writing, preparing for academic job interviews, etc. Of course I didn’t think that writing literature was useless in the real world–I was getting a PhD in literature, after all–but the reality was that only a tiny number of people get paid solely to write poems (or write about poets). He went back to his drink and the conversation moved on.
Several years later, this encounter still represents to me a fundamental disconnect in the humanities–the idea that people who study literature and art are somehow “above” mundane concerns like eating and paying rent and medical bills. Granted, these days most humanities graduate departments have a professional development component–some version of “how to get yourself published” and “how to prepare for the academic job market.” But now the disconnect happens on a different level. These courses, well-intentioned though they may be, are preparing graduates for jobs that no longer exist. They assume that every grad student will be seeking a tenure-track job at a top-tier university. And while some of us may be seeking those jobs, very, VERY few of us are going to get them.
Inside Higher Ed recently published two articles that set off a lot of venting on this subject–mostly on the familiar theme of “departments need to stop misleading grad students and own up to the fact that jobs aren’t just scarce, they’re basically nonexistent” (the comments are a lot more informative than the articles themselves–one of my colleagues rightly said that every prospective grad student should be required to read them before applying). I’ve experienced similar frustrations lately, to the point where every time someone in my department sends a prospective grad student my way, the first thing I do is to politely give them a condensed version of everything I’ve written on this blog. I tell them that I really don’t think they should go to grad school in the humanities unless 1) they will not incur any debt as a result of doing so, 2) they are very, VERY flexible about their post-PhD job possibilities, and 3) they have done extremely thorough, independent research on the current state of the university and the academic job market. And even if those three things are true, I tell them, my general advice these days is *don’t do it.* If departments aren’t going to be honest (or are going to be vague), I feel like grad students have an obligation to spell out the ugly truth.
But back to professional development. I think one reason these IHE articles touched so many nerves was that professional development courses can seem like an exercise in absurdity, especially when they’re mandatory. Sort of like being forced to do a ton of planning for a trip you know you’ll never take. Why prepare a dossier, practice job talks, and focus on so many other job-hunting techniques that are really only valid in academia when academic jobs are so hard to come by?
It’s clear that that professional development courses really need to widen their focus. Like the “Alternative Academic Careers” series that I wrote about last year, which finally owned up to the ugly secret that PhD’s need to start looking outside the university for gainful employment, professional development courses need to start teaching PhD’s how to find non-academic jobs. Of course there can still be a focus on the dossier and the job talk–I’m not saying those skills are entirely useless. But in 2011 they can’t be the only skills that these courses teach.
I’d say that the best way to make this happen is to stand up and ask for it. The response, of course, will depend on the professor–some may roll their eyes at the idea, but the more realistic ones will hopefully see fit to invite guest speakers who’ve managed to make a post-PhD living outside of academia, and include tips on building a resume for non-academic jobs. If enough grad students start demanding a more realistic approach to professional development, hopefully departments will catch up.
The comments in the IHE articles are, as usual, pretty depressing and defeatist–with good reason. I don’t want to paint an unrealistically rosy picture here by arguing that simply overhauling professional development courses will make post-PhD life easier. But I’m not giving in to despair just yet. If enough grad students stand up and demand what their departments owe them–honesty about the academic and non-academic job market for PhD’s, practical advice from people with a diverse range of careers–at the very least we can hope that grad students will feel informed enough to make better choices when it comes to their post-graduate careers.
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