Why a Ph.D in English is false advertising and how to rebuild your career and find meaning outside of academic jobs. This article talks about some of the grad school cliche students I’ve met and why new thinking is needed in order to reform higher education in the humanities.
Yesterday, while checking my blog’s analytics (the tool you can use to see how people find your blog), I found that a popular search phrase people use to find my site is this: “Ph.D. in English useless destroyed my life.”
I found this incredibly sad. To think that out there, in some library or little apartment, a newly minted Ph.D. in English is punching that awful, absurd phrase into his keyboard.
And what are they expecting to find with that search phrase? If you are reading this right now I’m sorry that my blog can’t offer you more direction.
But I thought for today, as a change, I wouldn’t write about my story. Instead, I would write about those other students who stayed much longer in grad school than I did.
This post is about the friends and peers I left behind in grad school. The ones who woke up today, dragging their book bags to class, walking home from the bus, and for those still up there, in the library for years and years working towards that massive goal of getting a Ph.D. in the humanities.
And for those searchers out there, typing “Ph.D. in English useless destroyed my life” into your MacBook with a wall of books at your back and a pile of debt, all I can say is that you’ve taken the hardest step.
You’ve accepted that graduate school is a trap and now can begin to rebuild and move onto something else.
These portraits are my friends, my peers, and some of the grad school cliches I met along my climb and fall. You can judge my snapshots as harshly as you want. But these are the people still running. They are real.
The Grad School research superstar
He was born to be a professor.
He published 2 articles by the end of his undergrad. The first year of his Ph.D., he published a long article on Hegel in a leading journal, and then an article on some mystic philosopher I’ve never heard of.
He has been studying philosophy since he was 15 years old. Not the pompous kind of studying. Not like me. Not carrying around Plato’s Dialogues and reading a few pages in public places. He has been systematic. He is an authentic thinker. He belongs in the university. His role is as a professor.
In his third year of his doctorate, he begins to study Kant, publishes a book chapter on ethics and being, and gets an article published in Critical Inquiry.
Grad school money flows to him. He easily makes more from his scholarships in grad school than he would as an assistant professor.
If he hadn’t gone to grad school in the humanities, he could have gone to law school. It would be sad to see a rich kid who barely passed the LSAT take on this guy in court.
Or he could have analyzed stock. He could have written a best-seller about marketing strategy or built a business with the same systematic accuracy which he used to understand the philosophy of Kant.
But he got into a very prestigious university. He was offered money and was miles ahead of any of his peers. He was offered a place among professors. They welcomed him. He was one of them.
This year I hear from him. He is still busy, publishing a chapter in the Rutledge Guide to Something, revising his dissertation with a Post-Doc, a little tired, but busy. This was his first year on the job market. No interviews. But this year the market was especially brutal. So, he goes back to writing.
He will try again next year, keep running. What else could he do? He’s too far into it now. And he still has 2 years of a Post-Doc to pay his rent. He still has his monograph to publish. He is still flourishing and coming of age as a scholar.
So next year. The second year of the Ph.D. job search. We will wait till then.
But isn’t it strange that when applying to grad schools he was eaten up, courted, money was thrown at him, grants, fellowships, and (I imagine) effusive praise from his professors.
Yet after his dissertation, he has gotten his first taste of the most difficult transition: from professional student to professional scholar.
He better get a job. And a good job. A job where he can create, think, and research. Not just teach 101 classes.
Because if he doesn’t get a tenure job it means that the humanities is simply wasting talent.
It means the humanities just finds talented young people, encourages them, develops them, indoctrinates them into their culture, harvests their energy to fill their journals, and then sends these people drifting, wasting their time and abilities.
If you aren’t going to use our thinkers to their best potential, then give them back academe. Or don’t hold them there so long, waiting.
I’ll hold my judgement a little longer, but he better get a job.
The confused artist
He doesn’t say much in class. But when it comes time for him to deliver his presentation, it shows that he works hard. He is a little behind the latest theoretical trends and his dissertation proposal sounds vague. Something on modernism and time.
That’s because he doesn’t really care about scholarship. He tells you, as you walk to class, that he is writing a novel. Working on his novel, as if everyone has one. I didn’t.
He sees graduate school as work. It isn’t his passion, but a legitimate way of trying to be an artist. He is safe to fail at his creative work here.
With an office and undergraduates to teach, he would be protected from failure. Just another professor without enough time to finish his creative work. Just another writer who makes their living at teaching.
I like him. The last time I see him we joke about how we will never get jobs. We laugh at the impossibility of our future careers ever actually happening. It’s hilarious.
We laugh at the Director’s anecdote about how he tosses out dozens of applications from newly minted Ph.D.’s everyday. That’s hilarious too.
We laugh about why they don’t make it. Outdated research interests. Books about theories that were fashionable five years ago. Confused blends of cultural theory and formalist theory. We won’t make those mistakes.
We laugh at the terrible presentation from a fellow grad student we just heard. The student’s thin sliver of an argument, packed under weeks of fact digging.
Or laugh at the schizophrenic multi-disciplinary research interests of mature student, tracking the relationship between neuroscience and Shakespeare. Try to find a department interested in that.
We laugh at the class, laugh at Toni Morrison, make up stupid titles for our papers, and congratulate each other on our fine work.
Then one day, I disappear. I got tired of laughing at the absurdity of one day finding a job with a Ph.D.
I wonder what happened to him. I hope he finished his novel, instead of his dissertation.
The popular, professional smart young women
They like each other. They like their professors. Other students like them. Their professors like them.
That’s because they are pretty, smart and professional.
For some reason, they all study Victorian culture. Visual culture. Social politics. The sexual politics of this and that.
They do everything right, including having each essay with the accepted title style. “Bleak Houses: The History of Martial Violence in Victorian Culture.” Or, “Serial Fiction: Jack the Ripper and the Influence of Low Culture on the Novelistic Discourse.”
They talk about the Strand as if it is still in circulation. They read over and over the longest, most terrible, most highly trampled novels in the language. But never mind that. They like it.
They are the first to attend conferences. They win awards. Most of the awards. The department hands them awards. The department hands them research positions, grants, and medals.
And who wouldn’t? They know how to network. They aren’t the “tortured genius” in the corner. They have more than just a wide collection of criticism quotes to offer.
If they weren’t in grad school pontificating about the diorama or finding ways to reinterpret the sludge of Dickens into an new exciting format, they would have bullet careers in marketing, advertising, law degrees, sales, and glide up the corporate ladder.
It seems like they don’t even work. Yet, they produce articles, winning presentations, and write great lesson plans. They work very hard. They are meticulous, ambitious, and very nice.
They want traditional things. A good job, accomplishment, a big house, maybe children. But they delay those things to get Ph.D’s. They are investing, building, waiting.
They deserve jobs. I think they probably have an edge. Being outgoing, optimistic, and a nice person has to tip the scales when you are faced with two candidates with the same qualifications.
They also deserve jobs. And success. They’ve done all the work.
The perpetual, self-delusional adult grad student
He has just returned from Europe, and the three month trip allowed him, as he tells you on the bus, “to really continue my study of literature and culture.”
As nobody else seems to be able to make their grad support stretch much past rent and bills, let alone a trip abroad, it seems likely that his intellectual odyssey has some other form of support, like a parent.
He dyes his hair to cover the gray and one day decides that he isn’t a student anymore. School is his job.
And so, he begins to dress like a new assistant professor, carrying his books around in a briefcase.
He tells me one day while we are waiting for class to begin that his career plan is to, simply, “swap roles with the professor, go from student to teacher.”
I look around the room and realize we all have that same idea. The economics seem a little off.
But he doesn’t like games. He doesn’t like the administration side of academe, the chase for grants and awards, and so his name doesn’t appear much around the department.
But he is there. He walks through the hallways, greeting a professor in German.
Herr Doctor. The professor says something in German. And his response, a laugh with nein, nein, Herr Doctor.
I was never convinced he was fluent.
He sits in the Grad student lounge, drinking coffee and reading the campus paper. He has been there for years and years. I don’t even know who his supervisor is or what he is even writing on.
When a professor takes us out for drinks after a seminar, he gets drunk. He talks about “the ruined landscapes of literary history.” It seems a little vague for the 7th year of study.
He tells us that he intends to spend his lifetime trying to understand Saint Augustine. Or Virgil. Or one of the great books of Western Civilization.
He is a humanist. He hates his graduate seminars as they make us write small essays like undergraduates. Grad school is his arrival. He feels that he has made the transition from student to scholar.
During class, he speaks cryptically about Shakespeare. The professor looks embarrassed.
The professor has been called “one of the most prolific literary scholars in Canada, an intellectual force of nature.”
The professor has written 11 scholarly works.
And the professor probably wonders at what point during his prestigious lifetime did grad school stop being a place for serious academic training for a few elite young scholars and turn into an extended career delay for undergraduates, a fantasy land for over-grown adults to imagine their love of Shakespeare and culture would one day translate into income and a title.
I still see the student around town. He crosses the street, with a sharp coat and briefcase. He is heading somewhere. Determined and well-dressed.
The confused, the hopeless nerd
The hopeless nerd.
The one who has been trained to think that school is the only place that welcomes her, that grad school is her reward for years of studying and exile.
Grad school is a way to turn her passion for books, mythology, and love for esoteric areas of expertise into social prestige and income. She is the most committed and I don’t know how it ends for her.
She gives long, long presentations, making allusions to the difference between the original Old English text and its bastardized, inferior translation every two minutes.
Her presentations are so long that the professor stops her and asks her to finish. She doesn’t listen but concedes by speaking faster and faster.
Every word is a pearl that she has to share.
In her essays, her footnotes explode into other footnotes, which reference other footnotes and begin rival the bulk of her essay.
I would be surprised if anyone on the planet, other than herself, has read a single one of her footnotes. She loves the apparatus of her text, and loves calling it an apparatus.
Her ambition is extreme.
During a class presentation on a modernist writer, she will suddenly break out laughing and then explain that while she was reading the last section she almost switched into Old English. You are encouraged, by her, to interpret that as evidence of her fluency between the two languages.
She continues to write papers after she has graduated, posting her latest results on Facebook. She is now an independent scholar. She is invited to talk on Medieval topics at conferences. She has been to over 15 conferences, almost all of them on her own money. I have never heard of any publications.
She is smart. She has won awards. She could have done other things. She lives 500 years away from her own historical moment. She is proud of that.
At a career fair, she tells us, the recruitment officer from a government agency asked if she was interested in hearing about their positions. She told them she doubted they could use her expertise which is a Ph.D. in Old English poetry. I’m sure they agreed and flagged down the next accounting diploma.
Does she know how hard it is to get a tenure job as a Medievalist?
Think of all the English departments in North America. Think of your own English department. There might be 20 professors who teach modern and contemporary literature.
How many Medievalist professors? Two, three?
How many positions across North America open up every year? Twenty? Ten?
Whatever number it is, it will be a number that will only shrink. The children of the future will not be studying Beowulf. I have two English degrees and I never even read it.
She is betting her future on a dead language. It is a past language of empire that has long been buried. Latin, Greek, Old English—in 50 years, nobody will care to learn them. Hardly anyone cares now.
But these things make her happy. They are what she wants to do. You can’t grudge her for that.
She will most likely continue as an adjunct. She might teach a few community college courses on Chaucer. Or, maybe land a tenure job, but the odds are against her.
Maybe she will be happy with that. Maybe having a Ph.D. is all she needs to feel accomplished. Maybe she likes to feel like an exile, a fringe scholar.
Maybe grad school is right for her.
Leaving, at last, the cliche of me
And then there was me. I’m out there somewhere, on some grad’s blog. The guy who used to talk a lot in class, and argue aggressive points, and then who started to talk less and less. Silent judgements. Withdrawal.
I call these the doomed humanities majors. But that is extreme. They aren’t doomed only a little lost.
A PhD in English doesn’t destroy your life. It’s just false advertising. Grad school is false advertising.
It spits you out somewhere you never expected to be. It leads you towards a final goal, which turns out to be another goal, a new set of challenges to climb.
And you are tired at the top. You only packed for 10 years of flux, not 20.
The purists will argue for preserving the humanities: it is the proper study of knowledge which shouldn’t be made to answer to commercial demands.
But higher education is too formalized to be called pure learning. It is too geared towards the production of new knowledge, new scholars, new theoretical interventions to be a place where thinkers come to dialogue and to sit and converse in the garden.
Grad school and the chase for tenure is a rat race just like any career. Only it has a very low chance for success and very modest financial reward at the end of it.
That doesn’t mean it needs to be destroyed. But it needs to be rethought.
When I told my Director I was dropping my PhD scholarship because of the job market, I expected him to say: don’t be silly, our graduates get jobs. We are one of the top 25 universities in the world! We place Ph.D’s in tenure track jobs all the time!
But instead he said that I had made the right decision not to do a PhD in the humanities if “my only reason for doing so was to get a job.”
Yes sir, it was. To be able to think for a living was the nice perk. But I did expect to get some sort of compensation for my work.
Sorry for being such a vulgar, thoughtless, and commercial fraud.
Why higher education in the humanities won’t survive
Change is one of the least thought about topics in university because the university is, as it exists now, reactionary. It studies change after the world has exploded its shape into something the old patterns can no longer recognize.
The university is a parasite; it needs the world more than the world needs it.
Without change, all of those cliche grad students I talked about will reappear next application season. They will go on to publish monograph after monograph until the library finally closes down due to the fact that nobody reads monographs except to find something to argue against in another monograph.
Your children will meet them. You might teach them.
“If you follow the same steps as everyone else, you will end up in the same place.”
Make a new pattern.
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