Maybe My Mother Was Right After All

So this year's job search is over, and like the vast majority of humanities Ph.D. students, I didn't get an academic job. This was not unexpected; when I applied to graduate schools, I got at least one application that came with a letter saying "Look, if you want to do this, we won't stop you, but you should know that most of our Ph.D.s don't get jobs in the field." I knew this, and went into the field anyway. So I'm not saying I wasn't warned.

Now, admittedly, I did not know the exact numbers when I got into it. I was also told that my particular program had a "100% placement rate!" - a major factor in choosing this particular program, and a fact which, I have since discovered, is not exactly "100% true!" Even so, our placement rate is better than that of the department overall, and we enjoy a good reputation, so I did dare to be hopeful. I am going to be hopeful next year, too, when I hit the job market again. But right now, allow me to be a little bitter. And take it with the appropriate grain of salt. (And god, I hope I can figure out a way to get this site to stop coming up when you google my name. I took my name off all of the pages, and still it comes out first when you google me. Anyone with ideas on how to fix that, please tell me.)

To go to graduate school in the humanities, you absolutely have to love what you do. If there's any part of it you don't like - teaching, research, writing - you will not make it through. And loving them isn't enough; you also have to be excellent in all three areas, or you probably won't get a job. The kicker, of course, is that even if you are excellent in all those areas, you still are more likely than not not to get a job.

Because according to the Modern Language Association - what the AMA is for doctors, the MLA is for us - there are around 900 Ph.D.s awarded in English every year. And every year, there are around 150 tenure track positions open. And even us English folks can do the math on this one; every year, at least 750 new Ph.D.s don't get tenured positions; probably more, because they're competing with the folks from last year who also didn't get them, and the folks from the year before. (After three years without success on the market, conventional wisdom says, you are unhireable.) So even allowing for attrition, we're talking around 2000 people competing for 150 positions. And most of these 2000 are highly qualified, brilliant people. Most of whom will not be able to get a tenure track job.

Now, outside of tenure-track jobs, there are a couple other options. The one most often mentioned when you're in the humanities and can teach basic writing skills is "there's always adjuncting." This means teaching introductory classes on a course-by-course basis, and you're paid a flat fee per course (usually around $3000) with no benefits and no job security. And let me tell you, even if you really love teaching, four classes of basic composition will make you hate it at least some of the time - like when you have 100 essays to grade and everyone's decided to write, poorly, about the university's problem with parking spots.

Or you can go outside of academia, knowing that your Ph.D. will actually mark you as "overqualified" for a wide range of jobs, and most of the jobs you're likely to find would probably have hired you with just a B.A. or Masters', so your Ph.D. ends up pretty much worthless in your professional life - and while you can continue your work on your own time, don't fool yourself; when academics see someone in a conference program listed as an "independent scholar," they're far less likely to take that person seriously, and I can't recall the last journal article I read by someone who didn't have a university affiliation.

So, without that coveted tenure track position, you're probably going to either take a subsistence-level adjuncting job with no benefits, or you're going to do something that makes no use of your graduate school training.

Which, of course, is why I am now wondering if, perhaps, my mother was right, and I should have just gone to law school lo these many years ago. Or just jumped into the working world, doing nonprofit administration or something similar, where I had some experience. Would I be better off without my Ph.D.?

Right now, sadly, I'm inclined to say yes. Sure, I probably would not have enjoyed doing the corporate law job that most people end up at before they can manage to get a position as a lawyer at a nonprofit; and the burnout rate for administrators in the nonprofit world is high. But at least in the case of law, not enjoying something is a much easier cross to bear if you're making an actual salary. I hardly make more than the undergraduates I teach pay each year in tuition (the in-staters; out-of-staters pay more than I take home). Hence the point about really having to love what you do; even the average starting salary for professors in my field is under $40k, which sounds lovely to me but which third-year law students would scoff at. And with law, once I paid my dues (and my student loans, which are now looming), I could have actually done something tangibly useful; it's a little hard sometimes to see how teaching English classes really helps anyone, even though, in a better mood, I would argue that it does.

I guess at some point, I turned thirty, and then got even older, and living like a student didn't really work anymore. Not knowing whether I'll have a job in three months, not going to the dentist, trying to stretch a year's worth of contacts into two so I don't have to go to the eye doctor, not even deciding whether or not to have kids because at this point there is no foreseeable financial future - it's getting old. And maybe more to the point, after ten years of college and graduate school, at some point you get tired of waiting and want to actually live your life, instead of living in training.

Lately I've been having lots of dreams in which I am much younger, when I am still in high school or early in college and I still have the chance to make different choices. Sometimes the dreams turn out crazy weird - I don't really think my life would've been better if I'd chosen to bust up a manicure salon when I was a kid, though it turned out great in the dream - but all of them leave me with the same feeling when I wake up. It's the feeling of having missed my chance; of fading possibilities, of my options narrowing, and of not having the choices I had once. And even though I think to some degree that's a natural part of getting older, it's really tough to look back and think that yes, maybe the last six or eight years really were a mistake.

(And what's more, that feeling is a damn sad way to start your day.)

Who knows; maybe next year, I'll get the academic job I want, and those possibilities will open up again. Maybe I'll get a great job outside of academia where I use what I've learned in my dissertation. And maybe at some point I'll start believing again what I always used to tell people, which is that the experience is worthwhile even if you don't get the right job. But right now, I will tell you graduate school is all about apprenticeship, and apprenticeship is all about "sure, it's not that great now, but you'll end up doing something you love," and if you don't end up with that, you have to wonder why you spent so much time grading crappy essays about parking.

And even if I do get that tenure track job, I will probably still tell anyone who asks that no, you probably shouldn't go to graduate school.


19. March 2006


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