Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

A Response to the “Just Don’t Go” Mentality

For those tired of the gloom-and-doom tone of William Pannapacker and others (myself included), Jonathan Senchyne wants you to know that some people are happy they went to grad school in the humanities.

Senchyne’s post is fairly lengthy, though definitely worth a read in its entirety, along with the dozens of mostly positive comments that follow.  I’ll sum up some of the key points here:

  • While he acknowledges that a lot of what Pannapacker says about grad school is true, Senchyne is frustrated by the Pannapacker crowd’s “just don’t go” advice to prospective humanities grad students. In particular, he takes issue with the “Don’t go unless you’re independently wealthy” argument, saying that it smacks of elitism.
  • Senchyne’s own experience with grad school in English, while at times frustrating, has overall been very positive and he doesn’t regret his decision to go.
  • Senchyne feels that Pannapacker too quickly discounts the less “marketable” skills that grad students acquire, arguing that just because those skills don’t look good on a resume doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.
  • Senchyne went into grad school knowing full well what he was getting into, and is surprised that other grad students could be so naive to think that a PhD isn’t fraught with challenges and difficulties.
  • Senchyne agrees that the job market for humanities PhD’s is tough, but that there are no sure bets when it comes to post-M.A. or PhD careers of any kind–plenty of people in other fields are dealing with a lack of health insurance, very low salaries, and a lack of job security.

Looking at my own writings on grad life and those of Postacademic, Worst Prof Ever, Inside Higher Ed, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, you could be forgiven for assuming that humanities grad students are a miserable, debt-ridden, exploited  lot. But of course we’re not–not all of us, anyway. And this is the best part about Senchyne’s post. It reminds us that there’s a lot of joy in humanities grad programs. You get paid (usually) to read and write about what you love. You’re surrounded by people who share your passion. You have the opportunity to grow and develop not only as an intellectual but as a human being.

I don’t write about it much on this blog, but of course there are many things that I love about grad school–many of the same things that Senchyne describes. And I won’t go so far as to say that I regret going, though I wish I had been better informed when I started.

The problem, of course, is that the rosy side of the picture is the only side that many humanities grad students are shown before they begin their degree. Sure, they’re aware that life in grad school and academia will be challenging.  But they’re led to believe that with hard work and dedication they’ll at least be able to get a job that pays a living wage and allows them to make use of the skills they acquired in grad school.

And for an alarming number of recent and not-so-recent PhD’s, this just isn’t the case.

So I’m still throwing in my lot with Pannapacker, and here are a few reasons why.

1. The professors who urge undergrads not to go–the ones that Senchyne criticizes–are for the most part acting based on experience and a desire to do the right thing. Those same professors will most likely still write a grad school letter of recommendation if the undergrad in question still wants to go to grad school. I see nothing wrong with someone in a mentor position giving what they think is the best advice–it’s not as if they’re preventing anyone from going, they’re just offering an informed opinion.

2. I would argue that the “Don’t go unless you’re independently wealthy” argument doesn’t really mean that grad school is only for the rich. It means “don’t go if it will result in bone-crushing debt.” Granted, most humanities PhD’s don’t foot the bill themselves, but they can still wind up with a lot of debt, especially if their living stipends are minimal. And a lifetime of debt is nothing to sneeze at, even if you’re accumulating it doing something you love. So I’ll revise that advice on my own “Good Reasons to Go” page as well–not “Go to grad school only if you are independently wealthy,” but “Go to grad school if you can complete your grad degree without a accumulating a significant amount of debt.”

3. There seem to be two extremes when it comes to writing about the humanities and the job market: either you live life entirely for your passion and spurn any attempts to corporatize your skills, or you sell your soul and think only in terms of your marketability. Senchyne criticizes Pannapacker for not recognizing the less marketable skills that humanities grad students acquire during their studies. But I don’t think Pannapacker is discounting those skills–I think he’s pointing out, rightly, that many universities cannot see a use for those skills beyond the tenure-track job. As a result, their graduates often flounder after receiving their degrees, having been led to believe that the increasingly rare tenure-track job is their only option.

Very few people have the luxury of devoting years to a particular area of study without taking into account how it will affect their job prospects. And it’s not as if academia is divorced from the corporate world. Show me a humanities grad student who has never thought about their marketability and I’ll show you a grad student who can’t eat. Your dissertation has to be formulated with the job market in mind. The classes you design will have to please the administrators who want to fill seats in your department. If you don’t know how to brand yourself you will struggle to get research funding. And even tenured professors are called upon to “sell” their courses and their departments to bring in more tuition dollars.

So there’s a happy medium here. You can pursue your passion and not compromise what matters most to you–while remaining aware of how to market yourself. And humanities grad departments need to stop branding as “selling out” any attempts by grad students to think beyond the academic sphere.

4. Senchyne went in knowing the situation, but a lot of people don’t, especially 22-year-old undergrads who have never experienced adult life outside the university. And the information they receive can be very misleading. The people who should be able to offer them concrete facts and reliable advice are often woefully misinformed. Pannapacker is right that potential humanities grad students need unbiased, reliable information about the realities of humanities grad school before they decide to take the plunge. Reliable info shouldn’t be so hard to find.

6. Of course there are no guarantees of job security in any field, but for the amount of time and effort I put into my humanities PhD, I think it’s fair to have certain expectations. I expect that I’ll be competing with 50 applicants for a job, not 400. I expect that if I don’t get said job, my potential employer will actually have the courtesy to call and let me know. I expect that I’ll make enough money to eat, pay my rent and bills, AND maybe even have a car. The intangible rewards of a PhD are many and should not be discounted, but it is not unreasonable to expect the most modest of tangible benefits.

One other thing–emerging from years of PhD studies no more employable than you were in the beginning isn’t necessarily a tragedy if you only did it for personal fulfillment. But the fact is that many PhD’s find themselves LESS employable than they were before they began their studies. Of course it’s not all about the CV. But being told that you should leave your PhD OFF your CV, that it will actually HURT your chances in many non-academic job markets–that’s enough to make anyone bang their head against a wall.

7. Getting paid to read and write about what you love is awesome–I’m with Senchyne on this one. But the problem is that that money mysteriously vanishes as soon as you have your degree in hand. Remain a student and there seem to be endless fellowships and TA packages to keep you afloat. But the minute you actually want to do what you love as a *job,* suddenly no one’s interested. And the job that you do get will often require that you teach something completely unrelated to your interests–while simultaneously juggling committee appointments, research, and the pressure to publish, publish, publish. So enjoy getting paid to do what you love while you’re a student, but be prepared for a rude wake-up call when you transition from grad student to post-PhD life.

Senchyne’s post ends with a list of questions that I think should be required reading for any potential humanities PhD, and for the professors who write their recs. I’m making a page for it here on my blog. The gist of it: be specific about your dreams. Don’t go to humanities grad school because you love literature, or want to live the life of the mind. Go because you admire the work of professor ___ and want to work with her on research related to (very specific topic) which will eventually become a book that will revolutionize the way people think about (very specific topic). Be passionate, of course. Love what you do. Do it for you and no one else. But be informed. Be very, very informed.

Senchyne also ends his post with the words “I’m glad I went.” I’m glad he’s glad, seriously. I’m glad I went. I’m also glad that I decided not to seek an academic job. And my advice–which potential humanities grad students are welcome to take or not take–is still “Don’t go.”

2 comments on “A Response to the “Just Don’t Go” Mentality

  1. Anonymous
    August 2, 2011

    As someone who went back to school after being laid off (over 20 years in corporate America) and just recently recently my undergrad and now is going on to grad school this year, I agree with the argument regarding not advertising your doctorate to potential employeers unless the position requires it. It’s sad to say, but many times the more education you list the less likely you’ll get the job unless the job requires it. I have often told my much younger college friends that if they’re desparate to get work they should only list the amount of education required by the position. They look at me like I’m crazy but it’s true. I’ll leave the ethics arguments regarding this situation for those more nuanced in that argument than myself, but I am a firm believer of that old adage, “principles are best kept on a full stomach.” Play the game to win (and eat).

    Thanks for reading.

  2. gradland
    August 5, 2011

    True–the whole “don’t appear over-educated” problem isn’t really unique to PhD’s.

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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