April 30, 2013
Every few weeks or so, someone writes another article about how humanities Ph.D. programs are a bad choice and how grad students are either victims who have been bamboozled into a dead-end career in a dying field or are the children of privilege or—my personal favorite—a drain on society. And while it is certainly hard to choose a favorite among such a long list of choices, the most recent incarnation of this popular pastime is charmingly entitled “Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor.” In it, Rebecca Schuman hopes to disabuse her readers of a misconception that she apparently assumes they all hold:
“Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D. So perhaps you, literature lover, are considering pursuing this path.”
This particular article spawned a wave of online and in-person discussions among the graduate students I know, and I think it’s worth talking about them a bit. See, I happen to think that Ph.D. students deserve a bit more defense and a lot more credit than the internet seems willing to provide.
To start with, some of us may well have applied to graduate programs without thinking about all the financial and employment implications. But most of us didn’t. Many graduate students took time off between undergrad and grad school and are by no means oblivious to how the “real world” works. I worked in finance for two years before returning to academia. Others have taught at a variety of levels. By and large, we came into this graduate school thing with our eyes open. We knew we would work hard for 5 to 7 years, that we wouldn’t make a lot of money along the way, and that we weren’t guaranteed a job when we were done. We still chose graduate school, and not because we were told the workload was only five hours a week or that we could just talk about books as our job. We chose it for the same reasons that so many people choose a career path. We chose grad school because we thought (and, for the record, still think!) that it would lead us to a career that we would find fulfilling and we were fortunate enough to be able to pursue a career that we could enjoy.
And that sort of leads me to my next point—namely, the claim that grad students are a privileged lot. I will gladly admit to being fortunate. Not everyone gets to pursue a Ph.D. and spend their time studying things that they love. We do, and I’m acutely aware how fortunate that makes us. That does not, however, make us all a slice of the 1%. At Michigan, we are paid a perfectly livable amount (due in large part to our fantastic union). We can pay rent and buy groceries and go home to visit our families over holidays. That is certainly not to say that we are rolling in cash, a la Scrooge McDuck. I would love to imagine that we can credit Arrested Development and Tony Hale’s masterful depiction of Buster Bluth with the idea that academia is populated with the children of privilege who want to be lifelong students because they have no skills and no need to hold down a real job. In truth, I have no idea where this idea comes from, but it is certainly out there. Sure, some of my colleagues have wealthy families. Some of my colleagues are also the first person from their family to go to college. It turns out that (shockingly!) we aren’t a terribly homogenous group. There just isn’t a lot—good, bad, or indifferent—that can accurately be said about all graduate students.
So with that in mind, I would like to ask as nicely as I know how that people please stop writing these sorts of articles about grad students. I understand that Rebecca Schuman and others are unhappy with their career choices, but it just doesn’t seem terribly constructive to publish things like this:
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.)
Academia has its own pros and cons and its own unique quirks. Our job market and job search isn’t exactly like other fields, but every field has its own weird idiosyncrasies as well as its own disappointments and challenges. Being unhappy with your career choices is not something that’s unique to disgruntled academics. People feel disgruntled and unfulfilled in jobs across the entire career spectrum. It would be foolish to think that academia would be an exception. Working long hours isn’t unique to our field either, and for anyone reading the news in any capacity, it’s impossible to think that underemployment and unemployment are problems that only face academics. See, my generation entered the job market at a particularly lousy time, and we’re all learning to deal with the fact that we won’t have our dream jobs (at our dream salaries) handed to us. We’re all figuring out how to find some balance between what we want to do with our lives and what will pay the rent. And a lot of times, that’s a hard process.
But you know what isn’t helping? When the internet at large insists on disparaging our choices en masse. We’re a diverse group of people who came to grad school from all sorts of different backgrounds and with all sorts of different goals. I worked in finance for two years and decided that I wanted a chance to teach and study something that I love. My best friend Jacqui came here right after finishing her undergraduate education. Others did Master’s programs or taught high school or worked for non-profits or assorted other jobs. We all got here from a different place and by a different route and we know the risks inherent in our field and our career aspirations. Most of us—in the face of all the naysayers and the less-than-ideal job market trends—are happy with our choices. If we could go back and do it all over, most of us would still be here.
In the end, we love what we do. We teach at a top-tier university and we get to study topics we’re passionately interested in. Please, please stop trying to talk us into regretting this decision and trying to talk everyone else out of pursuing graduate studies. We’re adults who made adult decisions and we’re very happy with those decisions. We’re just tired of having to read about why we shouldn’t be.