Here is a true story of my transition as a graduate student in the humanities to a search for a job in the real world. This article will give prospective grad students an idea of what to expect if you decide to leave academia. It also will give encouragement to other failed academics.
It’s April. I’ve spent 7 years studying modern poetry. Now, I have to try to find a job in the real world outside of fellowships, conference papers, and the grinding fear of not having a paper published. Now, I have to find an employer impressed with scholarships and research interests, rather than real skills. It’s April. It’s the end of term. My last fellowship of $1,150 has been cashed and I have 10 days to find a job before my money runs out. I’m fucked.
* * * * *
“Isn’t April the cruelest month?” asks my American literature professor, obviously bored with his exams to mark as he has been sending dry jokes down the hallways of the English department for the last 20 minutes. The Renaissance scholar, a nervous young man fresh from Ontario, responds with something in Middle English from Chaucer. I don’t get that one, but still smile. Pompous at the bitter end.
I am sitting on the floor, reading some of Ezra Pound’s fascist radio speeches. The students have mostly left campus and now the halls are left to graduate students and a few straggling honor students. We all seem to be making excuses to hang around campus. I’ve come to ask for advice about sinking my academic career.
This is the last week of my last term as a Master’s student. I’ve just picked up my final fellowship chequeˆ’$1,100 to my name before the university sends me out into the world with the distinction of having spent the majority of my youth earning not one, but two English degrees.
I feel guilty. Now I will pay for the years of aesthetic contemplation and isolation from the world. Nobody will hire me. My friends, family, and rivals will finally get the satisfaction of hearing about my last prestigious accomplishment. “Now, the years of theft and starvation.” A line from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that has, for some reason, been looping in my head for several weeks.
The professors stop talking. They return to the solitude of their windows and screens and sit in their bright carpeted offices, lined with big important hardcover books. These are the tenured. The fortunate grad students at the other end of the tunnel, reaping their modest reward. They speak with big vocabularies, and make jokes you need a passing grade on a doctoral competencies to get. These are the ones who managed to turn the fantasy of living off the ability to read big books into a livable wage. I wish I was one of them.
In the younger professors, the ones faced still with that last most important hurdle of getting tenure, you can still feel some of that graduate student anxiety. But it will fade.
I wanted, still want, my own office with a view of the dark courtyard garden beneath the English department. My title. A few stupid jokes on the office door. A reputation for not ever trying very hard. Accomplished, yet unprofessional. As if it just happened to me one day. Magical me. The comfortable system slipping cheques into your mailbox at night. The mortgage paid. The giant living room filled with books, emptying out into the bright Victorian street. Being apart of the machine, the everlasting system, and floating above the crude reality of menial jobs, boring statistics and business plans, and the meritocracy of political and commercial ambition.
My American lit. professor walks past and leans into the office of the Renaissance scholar. He is tall, dark, and bookishˆ’like an older Jonathan Goldstein from CBC’s Wiretap. They make plans to go hear Nancy Armstrong speak about Darwin and Victorian Culture. They don’t sound excited.
Nobody is ever excited about Victorian culture, except the throngs of young, smart pretty women that the discipline seems to swallow.
I sit in the hall and stare at the old pictures on the English Department hallway. Linguistic jokes. Obscure paintings. I wonder what their wives think. Another lecture tonight. Another visiting expert. Another theoretical break-through, another list of professional responsibilities created and sustained by the department. I wonder if it leads to tensionˆ’is there the same level of respect about their discipline and all the self-importance made to the rather regular development of knowledge? Or would she prefer him to just stay home and watch America’s Got Talent, rather driving 20 minutes to the university to hear about the paradoxes of Darwin. I’ve spent 6 years at this campus, and 5 of those in these hallways. I’ve never met one spouse.
My supervisor’s door opens, and I give a little knock. He smiles warmly and offers me a chair. I like him. My supervisor makes you want to be kinder, less aggressive about your work. He is a true thinker. He doesn’t care so much about publishing thick books on obscure authors or making what the stuffy professor down the hall terms “theoretical interventions” against everything he reads. He only means good for everyone in the world. I don’t hold anything against him, and think he deserves everything he has.
We start to talk. First about Wallace Stevens, then about ethical responsibility, and then, finally, the Ph.D. job market. His tone turns a little quiet. It’s a subject most professors don’t really talk about. They’d rather talk about your brilliance, your ability to discern nuance, your ability for the discipline. Everything else is supposed to fall into place. Or, as is often the case, you disappear one day from the hallways and are replaced by a new bright mind.
I can tell already that this visit won’t solve any of my uncertainty about continuing with a Ph.D. in the humanities. But when I tell him I am considering dropping out because of the lack of tenure-track jobs, he reveals himself to be a terrible career counselor. His advice is this:
–He will retire soon. So that is one job open soon.
–The good ones always get jobs.
–York University is a good, if not politically divided place to work.
–Modern man must live with contradiction.
Yes. And modern man must earn a pay-cheque.
Lesson: professors are qualified, wonderful individuals. But they don’t know much about much the current economic flow of the world except the job they got. It’s not their responsibility to plan your future. They went from high school to undergrad to graduate school to post-grad to a teaching job to tenure. They are the lucky ones. Don’t listen to them.
I leave his office, and walk down the stairs to the ATM. My last cheque deposited. Thirty days to transition from a trafficker of aesthetic theory to an employee someone will hire.
On the bus home, I open my laptop and look at my resume. My skills apparently are ethical theory (Levinas), radio technology and the fascist poetic babble of Ezra Pound, and Old English. This is a lie. The Old English. I only liked the sound of the professor’s voice, lulling the old rhymes. I take it off, replace it with German which, according to some strange humanities’ grad logic, a future employer might be able to put to use. Other than degrees, I have a long list of academic awards, some papers I’m working on, a few conference presentations, and my research assistantship.
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