Thoughts on life after the PhD
A large number of “don’t go to grad school” articles and essays have been written by tenured professors, and while I tend to agree with a lot of their points, there’s a bit of a credibility problem. When the person telling you that there are no tenure-track jobs available is someone who HAS a tenure-track job, you’d be forgiven for having doubts.
Rebecca Schuman, a visiting assistant professor of German at Ohio State, agrees. Her recent Slate article, PhDon’t, is one of the first I’ve seen in a while that’s written by someone in the trenches. Not surprisingly, the bitterness is palpable.
The key points (though you really should read the whole thing, and take a look at the accompanying and very appropriate image):
The article is refreshing in its (justified) anger and frustration, and also in the author’s ability to admit that some of her dissertation analysis was “batshit crazy” (in a field where a fair amount of batshit crazy passes for meaningful work). It covers ground that’s been covered before, but this time around the speaker is someone who never made it into the tenure track, not someone who’s advising from a position of relative comfort and security, and that provides a nice change of perspective.
Interestingly, in the almost-year since I completed my PhD, several of my friends and colleagues in the humanities have gotten tenure-track jobs. But I was fairly certain that these people would get jobs. They had the right combination: brilliant minds, provocative and marketable dissertations, drive, persistent and well-connected advisers, and a willingness to sacrifice a lot (read: move just about anywhere) for a good job. I would never dismiss their successes as luck, because they weren’t.
But they are a tiny percent of the PhD population, the (if Schuman’s estimate is accurate) 6%. For every one of them, there are probably more than a hundred who are jobless or adjuncting for something close to minimum wage.
There’s only one section of Schuman’s article that I disagreed with:
“So you won’t get a tenure-track job. Why should that stop you? You can cradle your new knowledge close, and just go do something else. Great—are you ready to withstand the open scorn of everyone you know? During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: You will no longer have any friends outside academia.)”
Yeah, that didn’t happen to me. But maybe that was because I quit while I was ahead and didn’t spend years being beaten down by academic rejection. I also never saw my “academic self” as my whole identity, and I’ve always had friends and circles outside of academia. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that everyone–advisers, academic colleagues, friends, family–was wholeheartedly supportive of my decision not to pursue an academic job. Tenured professors have a reputation for having their heads in the sand when it comes to the humanities job market, but plenty of the professors I talked to seemed to think that opting out of an academic job search was a wise move.
I make that point primarily for those who ARE in grad school–if you do drop out, if you do end up not seeking or not getting an academic job, it doesn’t have to destroy you. You can maintain a multi-faceted life and group of friends. And if your academic friends “scorn” you for not getting or seeking an academic job, then they’re hardly the kind of friends you want.
That said, however, if you haven’t yet made the decision to pursue a humanities grad degree, I’m still very much in Schuman’s camp. PhDon’t.
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