Thoughts on life after the PhD
“The life of the mind is born of fear,” writes Sarah Kendzior, referring to the fact that William Pannapacker and the small number of academics who have spoken out about the crisis in higher education have almost all felt compelled to use pseudonyms. Whatever side of the debate you may be on, I’m at least grateful that more and more people ARE speaking out, that more adjuncts are unionizing, and that potential and current humanities grad students can now make more informed decisions about their futures.
The numbers don’t lie, and they’re worth repeating. 70% of faculty positions are now held by adjuncts. This means that 70% of current humanities grad students, should they seek university jobs, are likely to end up making less than $25,000 a year, living without health insurance or any job security beyond the end of the current semester, and knowing that they could be fired at a moment’s notice without recourse.
The solutions to the crisis in higher education are still a subject of fierce debate, and I’m happy to see people from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds adding their voices to the conversation. At the same time, I think it’s important to clarify what academics and former academics are and aren’t arguing about.
1. Nobody is saying that ALL grad school is bad.
For the most part, people like Rebecca Schuman, William Pannapacker and Sarah Kendzior are talking about humanities PhD’s, not all graduate degrees as a whole. While law school, medical school, and graduate degrees in the hard sciences surely have their own problems related to academic infrastructure and post-grad school job security, those problems are fairly different from those faced by humanities grad students and adjunct professors.
2. Nobody is claiming that a degree should guarantee you a job.
I don’t think anyone who’s writing about the crisis in higher education thought they were guaranteed to get a job. But when you spend eight to ten years of your life working toward a degree, I think it’s reasonable to hope for decent odds. Say, fifty people applying for a single job, and not a hundred and fifty. Or a hiring system that’s a little more transparent, where you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars just to get an interview and then wait months to find out whether you got it, and maybe never find out directly.
No, there are no guarantees. But the odds should be a lot better.
3. People are giving “don’t go / go” advice based on their experiences and their areas of expertise. They’re not making anyone’s grad school decisions for them.
Advice is just advice, and people can take it or leave it. No one (to my knowledge) is barricading the doors of grad school admissions offices or refusing to write letters of recommendation. If someone is really determined to get a PhD in literature, I doubt that a single article or blog post (or even five or ten) is going to change their mind. My nutshell advice is “just don’t go,” but when I sit down and talk with potential grad students (and I’ve talked to a dozen or so over the past few years), I lay out a lot of pros and cons, ask them questions, and let them ask me lots of questions. And I encourage them to seek out lots of advice and opinions, and then make their own decision about grad school.
4. No one is assuming that potential humanities grad students are blind to the realities of the job market. But it IS safe to assume that they don’t always have access to all the information they need.
Prospective humanities grad students aren’t encouraged to ask questions about things like job placement and what to do if they can’t find an academic job. And even if they do ask questions, the people they ask may give vague or misleading answers.
When I got into grad school, the very act of *getting in* and getting funded seemed like such a huge accomplishment that I barely thought about things like jobs. That was ages away, at least six years down the road! Sure, I’d done some research and looked at the numbers, but the realities of academic job-hunting seemed so distant. All I could think about was the exciting new life I was going to lead, the papers I would publish, the new discoveries I would make.
I was naïve, and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t alone. And few of the professors I talked to gave me any indication that I had anything to worry about when it came to jobs. Sure, I should have pressed them more on that issue, but I was new and wide-eyed and didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with anyone.
In the past, most potential grad students got a pretty limited perspective on grad school—a very rosy one. Nowadays there are still plenty of people who will paint that rosy picture for them, but other voices have been added to the mix. As long as everyone is speaking to the truth of their own experiences and assessments, I don’t see a problem.
5. People aren’t advising against humanities grad school just because they’re angry / bitter / jealous.
A lot of people are angry, I’ll give you that. But when you read WHAT they are angry ABOUT, I don’t get the feeling that they’re jealous, or that they hate academia as a whole. Most of them have a deep love for the idea of “the life of the mind” and are angry because opportunities to participate in it have been steadily shrinking for years. They don’t begrudge those who DO get tenure-track jobs, but they’re angry that those jobs are available to fewer and fewer people. While Rebecca Schuman’s piece in Slate was more of a rant (and again, I think it was a justified one), the majority of writing in the “don’t go to grad school” camp tends to be a sobering collection of numbers and experiences. People are angry, but the anger has a rational basis.
6. (Almost) no one is saying that getting a PhD in the humanities isn’t intellectually or spiritually rewarding.
It can be very rewarding. Some of the “don’t go to grad school” writing has been critical of grad school itself and the kind of learning that takes place there. But most of it has focused on the structural problems within academia, not the question of whether getting a PhD is intellectually and spiritually rewarding.
My own grad school experience was very rewarding, and like Katie Roiphe, I’d like to believe that I use plenty of the skills I gained in my everyday life and in my current job. But even if a literature PhD is rewarding, it is wrong to present it as a viable path to a full-time professorship, and to encourage the idea that any job other than full-time and tenure-track makes a new PhD a failure.
If you want to get a PhD in literature primarily for the intellectual and spiritual rewards it offers, great. But you should have access to hard data and honest assessments of what your post-grad school career prospects are.
To sum up: provided that everyone is speaking to the truth of their own experiences and providing honest data, more information is a good thing. Everyone can still make their own decisions about whether or not to go to grad school. They can read go / don’t go articles, they can read the Chronicle of Higher Education, they can look at the job and placement numbers, they can consult with current grad students and professors. Even though my own advice is not to go, I’m fine with people pursuing a literature PhD as long as they are making a very informed decision.
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