You’ve heard that you shouldn’t go to grad school in the humanities. But what if you have gone–here is the true story of my attempt to learn how to adapt my skills and find meaning outside of the Ph.D. job trap.
You’ve heard about the doom about why you shouldn’t go to graduate school in the humanities. But what about if you’ve gone to grad school, received a MA or Ph.D. and now, after giving up the idea of teaching, are looking to sell out and start a non-academic career?
It’s not an easy question to answer. But here is my take, anyways.
With grad school, I had the next ten years planned out. Get my Ph.D. Publish a book. Find a job. Publish more, drink coffee among leafy campus pathways, make obscure jokes with my overeducated friends, think deeply, get married, collect my fat cheque from my mailbox every month, live in a nice house, have children, a big dog, and flourish. Simple. Lots of hard work. But simple.
When I decided not to do a Ph.D. in the humanities, I found myself somewhere I never expected to be: feeling like I had actually made a terrible decision over the last years. Even worse, I had wasted years developing a skill set that now, it seemed, I would never use.
I didn’t know how to find a job in the real world, and stood many years behind my peers in job experience. Even harder, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I thought that I had already sorted that out years ago and had worked hard to make it happen. I wanted to be a professor. Now what?
My resume was a string of academic prizes, degrees, invited talks at international conferences on “post-human ethics” and “the aurality of fascist poetics,” and a few half-learned dead languages such as Old English which might have helped me in business negotiations had I been born when humans were still trading with dwarfs in Middle Earth.
Slowly, I realized that I would have to wake up.
A Day in the Life of a Recovering Grad Student
It’s Wednesday. I can’t sleep and walk to the bathroom. On my way there, I realize that it is over. I will never be able to tell people that yes, I am a professor at a prestigious research institution. I will work an ordinary job. I will be just like everyone else, a mediocre, second-rate mind.
People when they meet me for the first time will not know about my education, my accomplishments, my ability to think. I will be just as everyone else is. I am nothing special. Failure waited for me at the end of it all, just as my less confident self had suspected.
I walk to the bathroom and the house is warm. I have been researching a new job for myself: technical writing. I see my life in a cold instant. I am 60, an ordinary little old man with a fat face and thin arms drained of any muscle. A life spent writing instruction manuals for refrigerators. “This is the man who writes refrigeration manuals; he wanted to be a professor of literature, but just didn’t make it.” I could have written something with permanence. Instead, I will write documents that nobody reads. I have wasted my life.
I walk back to the bedroom and climb into bed. My girlfriend rolls over. It’s just about morning. Late night drunks yell as they wander to the parks to sleep, kicking the recycling bins placed out by the streets. I think back over the last few years. I am waiting for an answer. My bookshelf is crowded with big important books that I won’t have the time to read anymore.
It’s time to find a job.
My alarm goes off and brings me into a warm room with rain hitting the streets. I walk to the kitchen and remember I need to put my work clothes into the dryer. It’s November and I work outside as a landscaper. A few months ago I was teaching Frankenstein to young undergraduates. Now I cut the lawns of rich people and dig trenches in the rain. I’m glad I remembered to wake up early and put my laundry in and think of it turning down there in the basement. I will need lots of gloves and sweaters today.
In our bright little kitchen, I drink coffee next to the window. The rain begins to stop. I’m downloading podcasts to listen to at work. I have been doing this for years–endlessly consuming podcasts about Melville, polytheism, Athenian democracy, music and thought, Locke, and any other aspect of Western culture that promises to deepen my vocabulary and to make me a bright and sensitive thinker.
This morning I do something different. And it makes all the difference. The first step out, the first action against paralysis in a long time. I begin to download podcasts on writing: how to write fiction, how to write advertising copy, PR, marketing 101, how to manage people, how to write a business plan–anything that might help me make money from writing. For the first time in 7 years, I am about to spend my days learning about something other than philosophy, art, and cultural theory.
It was a big day for me.
Jobs Beyond Academe: How To Shed Your Academic Skin
Because when you finally decide to try to find a job with your graduate degree in the humanities outside of tenure jobs, you suddenly realize you don’t have much to say about anything anyone cares about. It’s as if all of your accomplishments, all of your long nights spent working, have been wasted.
That’s because the world doesn’t care about your ability to speak Greek, your ability to complicate simple things into logical aporias, your archival skills, your publications in prestigious journals nobody has ever heard about.
Or, the world might care a little. They might think it is interesting. Get a Ph.D.; it’s a wonderful conversation starter at a dinner party. But not interesting enough to simply land you a good job outside of the university without some years of struggle.
Because the world doesn’t really want to know what epistemology means. It doesn’t want to hear about your politicized rant against Lacan. It doesn’t care that you can see past the visuals of Avatar into its underlying racial anxiety.
You are an exile. And if you tell that word to people “exile,” they will roll their eyes as it is a pretentious thing to say. And it is.
Because graduate school can make you pretentious. A snobby, pretentious person that talks about books nobody cares about, know things that few others care about, and will lecture you about the importance of “dialogue” and “critical thinking” for the health of contemporary consciousness. You are an exile. You are misunderstood (except for your lovely peers and loving professors). You are all alone. I know because I was you.
How to Find a Job Outside Academe: Stop Talking Like an Academic
It’s not that the knowledge produced in the humanities isn’t important for the health of our world. That doesn’t matter anymore. Because academe isn’t your world anymore so let them justify to the state and public their relevance. You haven’t been given a job in the university and you need to move on.
You need to open yourself to life after grad school. Because it ends, and it lies there in the past, and it was fun, but it is over and you must change, adapt, evolve and leave the university to its wine and cheese and poetry nights, its fads and latest theoretical innovations, its new lines of bright young students who will discover their intellectual souls and wander the green paths, and slowly leave their friends, their historical moment, their cohort behind. That’s all behind you now.
Because you can lament the demise of liberal education. You can lament the triumph of techne (notice the last pretentious, learned word with a clever blend of modernist theory and Aristotlian baggage; your journey will be slow, even my former educated self is still breathing somewhere deep down there) over contemplation. You can weep for a world that has lost its aesthetic center, and lament for a life of things forgotten outside of their utilitarian purpose. You can do and think all of those things.
But those things won’t help you. They won’t help you get out of the crap job you will most likely end up in after grad school. Like me, mowing lawns and running chainsaws with the Cantos of Ezra Pound pounding in my headphones. After graduate school has spit you out of production, after you have worked so hard to indoctrinate yourself into the total culture of academe, you will have to leave that self in the past and find a new job. You will have to find a new culture because the university doesn’t have room for you.
And if you do, it won’t be all bad. You will get rid of the anxiety of having an obscure resume and be able to turn your intelligence into a livable, sustainable wage that doesn’t rely on the charity of grants, the luck of scholarships, or the mercy of a department budget. You won’t have to fear moving to some obscure state college to teach. You won’t have to delay having children till your late 30’s. You could move to New York tomorrow. Or take a break for a few years without destroying your Ph.D. job track to nowhere.
You will be free. You will live where you want. Read what you want. Make money with whatever skill you choose to develop. And in retrospect, I was crazy to have been willing to sacrifice so much for the chance of getting a $35,000-50,000 job and the title of “assistant professor.” So much for so very little.
How To Give Up Prestige, the Opiate of the Over-Educated Classes
But to do so, I found that you have to give up something: its the single greatest thing that held me back from actually adapting from being a grad student to someone who might find success outside of academe. It’s prestige. And it is a snake around your neck.
Prestige is the death blow to graduate students who are looking for careers outside of academia. It truly is the first thing you must give up.
Prestige is what makes us refuse to remove our fellowships, book prizes, and other obscure accolades from our resumes for years after graduate school, even though these things alienate us from employers. What the hell is a refereed journal? What is a fellowship? And what does the title of your dissertation even mean? Prestige makes humanities grads think that employers care about an ability to translate Greek or speak Old English. Prestige makes you think that publishing a 300-page dissertation qualifies you for a writing job much more than some undergraduate who managed to publish a 200 word write-up about skin-care lotion in a low-brow magazine such as Cosmopolitan. It doesn’t. That undergrad is much more likely to get the job.
Prestige is what makes the graduate student, after realizing that he won’t be able to get a tenure position, and being horrified at the prospect of having to teach at a lowly high school or community college, go and spend another year studying for the LSAT and then applying to the best law schools in the country.
Prestige is the search for social validation, something grad school consistently robs you of as scholarships, high grades, and eclectic books start to appear as childish as you reach the end of your twenties.
You begin to babble at dinner parties, telling your peers about obscure accomplishments, making allusions that are supposed to be jokes until you realize that very few people actually have a working definition of Marxism, let alone are able to catch the stupid joke that you oppose capitalism because it inevitably leads to socialism. They will return your books unread as, rightfully so, the 5,000 word sentence which opens Lot 49 is hardly a tempting way to kick off the weekend.
It is too late in the decade after high school to play the game of the star student, and your constant updates about which prestigious grant you are now barely paying the rent with starts to sound like an extended fantasy–a job fantasy that your father-in-law reminds you needs to produce a steady pay-cheque if it you are to insist that this is a real career. It most likely isn’t. You can’t live off scholarships all of your life. You can’t live on scholarly publications if they don’t mean teaching positions. You have to direct your energy into something that will bring you a return.
Prestige is a trap. It is the lure of grad school in the humanities. It is their single selling feature. Instead of boasting “our graduate program has a 80% average of placing graduates in tenure positions” it gives them “we are one of the strongest, most diverse departments in the nation.”
You have to give up this drug. You have to learn to work for a different kind of success.