Today, a reader left a valuable comment on an older post of mine. I thought that I would share it.
In the comment, the reader shares his or her personal story about the danger of specialization in PhD programs. Literary theories and department trends come and go–leaving the PhD student to put down a five year bet on which scholarly trend will win.
Victory means an average job, teaching at some college. Losing means a dissertation topic hiring committees scoff at and no job at the end of your program, a miserable bet. In academia, grad students pay the ultimate price for scholarly fads–their careers.
As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway . . .
Here’s the comment:
I entered [ grad school] as an older student, who was already educated and knew what I wanted my dissertation to be on when I was an undergrad. I got several grants and scholarships, finished with low student debt, and finished ahead of schedule. Several professors liked and helped me, including a “big name.”
But I was at odds with the “theory” of the day. The slightly older generation of scholars I cared about (including my “big name”) were all out of fashion, and I realized several years out that a tenure-track job wasn’t going to happen.
I take little comfort in seeing how those once-dominant and seemingly all- consuming theories have almost completely receded like a spent wave, leaving a few tenured barnacles who caught the wave at the right time and are now irrelevant space-wasters in the academy. Not only was the “theory bubble” analogous to the financial bubble, it was directly parasitic on the latter. All “theory” did was to make the humanities a laughingstock among that portion of the educated public that bothered to care. It contributed directly to today’s cynicism about higher education.
Grad school wasn’t a terrible or angst-ridden experience for me: just a complete waste of time with regard to my subsequent working life, except for the “chance” to spend 18 years as a low-paid adjunct with no security while working other jobs, none of which had anything to do with what I spent grad school doing, and trying to develop an alternate path. While the personal qualities that helped me get the degrees were still relevant in my subsequent jobs, the credentials themselves were of ZERO value in my working life, and I often conceal them to avoid intimidating or alienating others.
After years of temporary, part-time jobs that that ended for reasons other than my performance (my boss’ contracts with clients ran out, etc.)—including making sandwiches in a coffee shop in my early 50s while looking—I now have a fulfilling (but still low-paid) job with colleagues and bosses who like me and where I can be productive, so I can’t complain too much given today’s employment climate.
But if I hadn’t spent those years in grad school, where would I be in this field now? A lot farther ahead.
In my undergrad, we all bought big books on Derrida. We spent hundreds of dollars on those books and hundreds of hours reading and writing about them. One hot summer, I insisted reading Derrida all day for two months. My girlfriend was naturally mad at me–I wanted to sit in the house reading theory; she wanted to go to the beach. I was 22.
Only a few years later, at a grad school conference, we all laughed at Derrida. We laughed at theory wars. And jubilantly ran towards the next fad: historical analysis. In the few short years at grad school, you make an enormous bet on your future.
Even worse, the professionalization of research turns lives into trivial details. What is hot and trendy in one department is laughable crap in another. Methodology is pure ideology–everyone has got one, everyone knows they work and interpret that world within that framework, and the easiest, cheapest way to attack someone’s research is to attack their methodolgy. There is no defence.
What do you think? Is this another giant grad school risk? The danger of choosing a subject, only to emerge five years later from the archive to find your work outdated?
Who pays the price for scholarly fads?
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