A few days ago I wrote about my decision to stop being a graduate student.

I’ve since come across this article, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a year ago.

The author unpacks the reasons why many people go to (and stay in) graduate school, including their hopes for academic jobs. He’s writing about the humanities, but wow, everything he said applies also to the social sciences.

If the students happened to notice the increasing numbers of well-published, highly credentialed adjuncts teaching part time with no benefits, they would be told, “Don’t worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available.”

This is exactly what I heard back in the early 1990s. It hasn’t happened. What I’ve seen instead is academic nomadism, increased emphasis on adjuncts who are hired for a few years then cast off when the tenure clock runs out (I read one article several years ago by one person who was in adjunct hell: teaching nine courses per semester at four different schools just to make ends meet), and plenty of brilliant people who can’t find jobs in their fields.

I remember one person who had finished a degree in English (19th-century American romanticism) who got a rejection letter from a very small, middle-of-nowhere, not-elite college in the Midwest that said something along the lines of, “Thanks very much for your application. You are obviously well qualified, but we got over 500 letters for the advertised position, and you didn’t make the cut.” At least five people I know from grad school finished their PhDs, spent a few years on the job market (and were willing to take anything), then went to library school and got an MLS degree.*

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.

Yeah, that’s something I struggled with for a very long time. That’s why I maintained my graduate student status longer than I should have. I kept thinking that academia was the only place for me, and when I finally realized that I could be perfectly happy and successful (however that is defined) outside of the academy, that was a pretty liberating moment for me.

But that’s behind me now. Onward and upward!
* But from what I hear from my librarian friends, there’s no longer any job security in that field, either…

9 Responses to “Postscript to my recent post about grad school”

  1. Imperatrixon 07 Jan 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Aw, honey, academia isn’t one, big hug-fest — there’s frustration, backbiting, and PITA colleagues, just like in the “real world”. So don’t worry about it.

    One question, though: what exactly does it mean that doctoral education in the humanities *socializes* these nerds (author’s implication [“psychologically vulnerable people” — harrumph!]) *into a profession*?

    I never did like social scientists and their wanton language mis-usage.

  2. Marshaon 07 Jan 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Oh, I know that now. But my undergraduate experience was in a small program with only four full-time faculty members, who all liked each other and got along spectactularly well. I went to grad school armed with a huge dose of wide-eyed idealism (and totally convinced of future job security) and was very surprised by what I found.
    I think that what author means is that, after years of being academically “successful,” jumping through all the hoops, and believing that if you’re good at what you do you will find a tenure-track job in your field, many people who don’t wind up with academic jobs do feel like failures. “I spent X years of my life working on this stuff, and I can’t find a job?” That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

  3. Evelinon 07 Jan 2010 at 4:15 pm

    I blame those baby boomers. They won’t retire, they won’t die, and when they do, their positions aren’t refilled.

  4. Chrison 07 Jan 2010 at 7:02 pm

    I think what really got me thinking about what the hell I was doing in a PhD program was that my female advisor’s hair was falling out from stress. Um… yeah, that suggests a healthy environment, no?

  5. Marshaon 08 Jan 2010 at 10:42 am

    @Evelin: Stupid baby boomers… *grumble, grumble*
    @Chris: Stress-related hair loss? Um, yeah, I’d say that’s never a good sign…

  6. JDon 14 Jan 2010 at 4:57 pm

    I think I got a hint of what the article says when, after getting my BA, I took a couple of years off before going to grad school. In those years abroad, I learned that having written a thesis and having gotten good grades is useless when people — whose first language I didn’t speak a lick of — ask you to tell them your life story and all they know in English is five verbs and a handful of basic vocabulary. I came back and didn’t apply for grad school. I’ll admit that sometimes I look back and sometimes the allure of academia lingers, but I’m glad I chose a different course (destinationi yet unknown!).

    I was going to tell you that G. Spivak came to speak at my university my senior year, and I totally get what you mean! Here’s a friend’s first blog entry that I thought you might find funny.

  7. MACon 18 Jan 2010 at 11:31 pm

    I quit the English graduate program because I loathed a good number of my fellow students. (Everyone in the MA program was pretty cool, but we all wound up dropping out. It was the PhD students who drove me nuts. A bunch of wankers. Realized I didn’t want to have to work with those people for the rest of my life.)

    Library school was great fun and the atmosphere was not hyper-competitive. Still, we librarians are grossly underpaid, even by academic standards, and library jobs are, indeed, harder to find all the time.

  8. Marshaon 20 Jan 2010 at 10:44 pm

    @JD: That was a pretty funny post by your friend. I see he’s studying anthropology now–does he know what he’s getting into? :)

  9. Bedeon 30 May 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Yep, same thing is occurring in Library Land. In my local library system, all mgmt positions now require an MLS. I’m one of the few in library school coming in to get a degree to keep a job instead of to find one.