Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

“Just Don’t Go,” Part…I’ve Lost Count

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 image that most people have of a post-PhD job–reading books, summers off, job security–is a complete myth.
  • After four years of job hunting, Schuman has come to the conclusion that the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct.
  • The odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you–around 150 people apply for any tenure-track job.
  • There is intellectual reward in the exploration of scholarly problems, but it is next to impossible to get paid a living wage doing it.
  • The reasons for the decline in humanities jobs aren’t 100% clear, but it’s clear that things aren’t likely to change in the next 5 to 10 years, if ever.

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.

9 comments on ““Just Don’t Go,” Part…I’ve Lost Count

  1. Kathryn
    April 6, 2013

    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.

    So the people with brilliant minds, provocative and marketable dissertations, drive, persistent and well-connected advisers, and a willingness to sacrifice a lot who didn’t land tenure-track jobs aren’t unlucky, they just didn’t deserve tenure-track jobs?

    For even a small field like Japanese Studies, any given job (and there aren’t many of them) can have more than 300 applicants, and there are ley lines of privilege and connection that no individual candidate has control over. What’s more, when you actually look at what these things are, they’re awfully petty. Maybe one candidate connects with the head of a search committee over dinner because she just happened to grow up in the same neighborhood of New York City. Maybe another candidate has an awkward dinner with a search committee because she has pre-menstrual cramps and feels weird about asking for aspirin. Maybe the undergraduates like one candidate too much and the search committee feels threatened. Maybe the search committee finds out that another candidate is both female and married, which is never a good combination.

    Obviously brilliance and talent and drive and good looks aren’t enough. Since every job opening has so many extremely qualified applicants, what it really comes down to is who is a “good fit” for any given job, and it’s almost impossible to identify what that entails in any given situation. One might almost say that any given candidate has to be at exactly the right place at exactly the right time with exactly the right connections and exactly the right ascribed status.

    I think that, like most privilege, academic privilege (or whatever you want to call it) functions in such a way as to make itself seem natural, and the illusion of meritocracy in academia is one of these functions. Luck plays a HUGE part in getting a job, even for very talented people.

    Academia is totally broken, and I agree with you so much about not making your academic identity your whole identity and being enough of a brilliant and talented and persistent and well-connected and well-rounded person to seek a job outside of academia. It’s a great message, so thank you for spreading it!

  2. gradland
    April 6, 2013

    Kathryn, you’re right–I *definitely* don’t think that the people who don’t get the jobs are being denied because they didn’t work hard enough or didn’t have the right combination of assets. In the case of my friends and colleagues who’ve gotten jobs recently, I think their assets were a big help, but of course timing and being a “good fit” for the job was a factor.

    As I’m writing this I realize that part of me still wants to believe in the meritocracy, even though the reality is that so many academic job placements add up to the “ley lines of privilege and connection” that you mentioned. It’s probably also because I rationalized my own decision to opt out based on what I perceived as a lack of assets (Japanese skills not good enough, dissertation not marketable enough, no significant publications or book deal), even though HAVING all those things certainly wouldn’t have come close to guaranteeing me a job.

  3. Pingback: Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion | Clarissa's Blog

  4. Z
    April 7, 2013

    I never got broken down and remade to only be able to function with academics in graduate school, and I certainly would not support a graduate program that did that, it is presumptuous and ridiculous and unnecessary.

    I did notice when I became and assistant professor, though, nobody else seemed to know how to move or make any friends except in the department, it was pathetic and they were miserable.

    Academics can get pretty abusive to people who want to use their PhD for something else, which is also ridiculous. And yes, I am against Humanities grad degrees except at great places for people who really really want them and are funded and know how to maintain a sense of self outside school. And I think most people should plan on other kinds of research careers with those PhDs, not academic jobs.

    Not that I am against research, academia and so on, it is just that the conditions in most places are not favorable for the development of a research program, a life, and so on.

  5. gradland
    April 8, 2013

    Z, I’ve definitely heard stories of academics being really hard on other PhD’s who opt out of an academic job–I think I’ve been lucky that it hasn’t happened to me. I suppose the whole insular workplace community thing isn’t unique to academia, but given the heavy course load and committee duties that a lot of junior faculty seem to have, I guess it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to make friends and build a life outside of academia.

  6. pan kisses kafka
    April 12, 2013

    Ermegerd, thank you SO much for writing such a nice post about the article. As you can imagine, I got a lot of vitriol from the entrenched. I have definitely managed to extricate myself from the hive mind–obviously I had chosen to leave the field before I wrote the Slate article!– but it took a lot of work. I applaud you for doing what I should have done and moving on to better things sooner. You’re an inspiration! -Rebecca

  7. gradland
    April 12, 2013

    Rebecca, thank YOU for putting into words what I’m sure a ton of people were already thinking! It seems your article has generated plenty of response articles on both sides of the debate, so I’ll probably post some sort of follow-up / round-up soon. I’m really glad that these discussions are slowly moving out into the open so that potential grad students / new PhD’s considering their options can at least make more informed decisions about their next move, regardless of whether they decide to stay in academia or move away from it.

  8. pan kisses kafka
    April 12, 2013

    Cool! If you do a link roundup, will you link to my blog too? I’ve added some more thoughts on the whole thing there. My little WordPress name should be a direct link. (Obviously don’t do it unless you WANT to…). Thanks again.

  9. Here
    May 30, 2013

    It’s probably necessary that this kind of viewpoint becomes the standard one for a little while, to counteract the years where the myth of Ph.D to tenure track job $90,000 starting in any field you want was propagated.
    Of course, like you said, with enough talent, luck, and sacrifice you can pull of just about anything. The problem is figuring out whether you’re one of those with enough of that talent, luck, and willingness to sacrifice before you make the leap.

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