April 12, 2003

Still Thinking About Graduate School in the Humanities?

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams
From me when I first found you

-- The Pogues, Fairytale of New York

Sometimes, the rhetoric of economic self-sacrifice that prevails among teachers reflects what the old Marxists called 'false consciousness.' There is an artificially constructed 'supply-demand imbalance' between faculty positions and qualified candidates. So, in the desperate competition for academic jobs, wages can be lowered and benefits eliminated (with the questionable promise of a 'real' job later). Seeking to preserve their dignity and enhance their status, many teachers come to believe that their unrequited toil is a form of good citizenship or even spiritual devotion. The intensity of their rhetoric is often in direct proportion to the degree of their exploitation.

-- Thomas H. Benton, "Should We Stop Fooling Ourselves about Money?"

Ah, the old Marxists. I miss the old bastards. I really do.

My introduction to the old Marxism was the "Introduction to Political Science" course that I took during my first year at university. The professor (whom I now realize was either an advanced graduate student or an adjunct lecturer, but at the time I knew nothing of academic rank and hierarchy...would that I had remained in this state of innocence!), the professor was a young, but not too young -- say early thirtysomething -- Marxist from the old school. He was smart, he was articulate, he displayed flashes of wit and occasionally of brilliance, and he spoke with withering scorn of the mystifications of bourgoeis ideology. And all of this in a German accent. Be still my heart. Of course I had a crush on him. I can still see the diagrams that he furiously sketched out on the blackboard: base and superstructure, the Canadian class system, the whole rotten-borough system that was rotting to the core. He went at that board with anger and eloquence, chalk to chalkboard as though launching a campaign: the words rang, the chalk dust flew, and my heart thrilled to the attack. Talk about sublimation.

But I digress.

On to part II of my ranty-flavoured "Thinking about Graduate School in the Humanities?," in which I betray my bourgoeis heart. Petit bourgeois am I in upbringing (a topic about which I may blog in future), bourgeois am I to the core.

So then:

In my opinion, the application forms for humanities Ph.D. programmes should carry the warning: "Enter at your own risk." The fine print should read: "The risks include poverty, shame, humiliation, and clinical depression." You will of course find no such warning on the graduate-school application forms. And incredibly enough, even at this stage in the game, you may still encounter tenured faculty members in said programmes who refuse to even consider the very sensible proposal of limiting graduate-school admissions in order to address the problem of an oversupply of academic job candidates, and who justify their position with such nuggets as, "Well, nobody's forcing them to go to graduate school." The more fools they. And the more fool you if you don't ask yourself some pretty tough questions before you sign on with them.

Now, when I entered grad school 9 years ago, the tenured faculty members who were actively recruiting and encouraging new entrants should have known that many of these aspiring members of the profession would not find jobs. But let's cut them some slack. Let's grant them the somewhat dubious claim that they didn't realize what was going on in their own profession right under their very noses. Today they do know. Nobody can now claim not to know what are the dismal prospects for employment in the humanities. And yet there are many humanities faculty who still refuse to limit entrance rates to their graduate programmes. What does this suggest about these "professions"? To me it suggests an impulse toward professional suicide. A course here, a conference there, another grant proposal due today, another article due tomorrow, the games must go on, the life of the mind must run its course...But make no mistake: we are in sudden death overtime, with only ten minutes remaining.

Now let me try to explain just why it is I think you should think twice (no, thrice) before embarking on a Ph.D. in the humanities.

A humanities Ph.D. takes many, many years to complete. The pursuit of this degree involves an enormous investment: not just financial (e.g., salary foregone) but mental, psychological and emotional. And entry and/or attempted entry into the profession places you in a peculiar sitatution, wherein you experience a strange combination of the conditions of both alienated and unalienated labour. The conditions of alienation are bleak enough, and they are real: low wages, unemployment, under- or sub-employment, genteel poverty, exploitatation, and ramen noodles. For more on this theme, I recommend you spend some time perusing the pages of workplace: the journal for academic labor.

At the same time, if you have the passion and the interest to stick it out and finish the degree, you will probably also experience a kind of unalienated labour. You're not punching a time clock and putting in X number of hours to earn X number of dollars. No, no, you have your "work," and your work becomes an important part of who you are. You will develop and deeply internalize an identity as someone who does/as someone who is this work. You are your work, and your work is who you are. Well: I've punched a time-clock, and I've completed a Ph.D., and I'd like to let you in on a dirty little secret: unalienated labour is not all that it was cracked up to be by the old Marxists. A bit of fishing, a bit of criticism,... well, it's just not like that. You don't go fishing. Or at least, you don't go fishing very often. And when you do go fishing, you can't really fish, because you're too busy fretting about the criticism you should be doing instead: "Why am I fishing?! I should be criticizing!"

And if upon completion of your work, you fail to find a position (and this is a very real risk), you will experience it as a personal failure, and you will view your own person as an abject failure -- and this, no matter how much you know about the structure of the job system, the ratio of candidates to jobs and so on.

Now, if you were looking at a programme that took one or two or even three years to complete, it wouldn't be such a very bad thing if upon completion you couldn't find employment in your field. Granted, it wouldn't be a great thing; it would probably feel awful for a while and you would no doubt have some regrets about having spent those one to three years in pursuit of a degree that would not actually give you a reasonable shot at employment.

But how much worse to spend five or six or seven years! At a time when you could be building a viable career, and also creating a life for yourself (which might involve marriage, maybe having a child or two, possibly even buying a home or at least moving into a half-decent rental), you are toiling away in relative poverty, perhaps accumulating debt, and living under conditions of massive anxiety and insecurity. You must delay and defer so much of what many people (perhaps including yourself? be honest, now) would consider a decent, liveable life, and without even a reasonable chance that it will all be worth it in the end. And I'm not talking about fame and fortune, the pursuit of filthy lucre and lots of it, but just the basics of a modest middle-class life: say, a living wage with health insurance. Be still my bourgeois heart.

Does my desire for a modestly middle-class life betray a lack of real passion for my subject and field? Perhaps so. Certainly, I didn't always see things this way. Alas, I now shudder at the mixture of na´vetÚ and arrogance that motivated my decision to pursue a doctoral degree in history. When I first entered graduate school, I was fully committed to what I thought of as "the life of the mind" and didn't pay much attention to such sordid practical concerns. Or at least, I tended to repress all nagging doubts and questions. But I gradually came to realize that this wasn't enough, that this would not do. That though I had no interest in becoming rich, I simply didn't want to spend the next 20 years eating ramen noodles and living in a one-room apartment.

And where I had once rather looked down at those who were busily pursuing jobs/careers/marriages/family out there in the real world while I engaged in something loftier and more pure... Well, let me conclude this overlong entry by saying two things: First, if I had to do it over again, I would not go to graduate school; and second, I try hard, really hard, not to hold it against those undergraduate professors of mine who encouraged me to go to graduate school and who actively discouraged me from going to law school because I was "too smart" for a legal career. Ach. I was smart enough, I suppose, in the booksmarts way, but it turns out I was actually rather stupid: not smart enough, that is, to not listen to such silly advice.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 12, 2003 12:40 PM

The main reason for the problem is really very simple: hubris. Ask any faculty at a "Research 1" school about the overproduction (awful word that, but perhaps appropriate) of Ph.D.s and they will say the same thing: "Yes, we really wish some of the second-rate schools would stick to granting masters degrees." That, I think, is the first problem; a sort of tragedy of the commons.

The second problem is one of admissions. I can say with confidence that applications are not the best indicator of success. I myself was a (am a?) late bloomer, so when it is suggested that we limit applications to the "best" of our applicant pool, it worries me a bit. So it isn't simply a matter of cutting back the number of Ph.D.s you produce. If you cut back applicants, you rule out people early on. If you increase the rigor of the program (my preference) you end up with a lot more people working on a program they will not complete. The attrition in Ph.D. programs is bad enough as it is, this would only make it more accute. So instead, many Ph.D.s are put out on the market without a chance of competing in the market, and the schools, having granted the degree, can lay the blame on the students for not finding jobs. This isn't an easy problem to solve.

Finally, there is the larger problem of "the folks upstairs"--administrators who want to see soaring graduate enrollments. In our own department, we have managed to shelter the Ph.D. program from these demands, and growth has been largely in a terminal masters program. Nonetheless, as long as we think of the process of minting Ph.D.s as one of "production" increases in said production are likely to remain a significant metric.

One possible contribution here, in my humble opinion, would be an audit of Ph.D. granting programs that clearly indicated what each graduate was doing a year after receiving the degree, and 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years later.

Posted by: Alex at April 13, 2003 01:59 AM

Alex Halavais' comments leave little left to be said. But I was struck by a couple notes:

[I]f upon completion of your work, you fail to find a position (and this is a very real risk), you will experience it as a personal failure, and you will view your own person as an abject failure--

Graduate departments are remarkably good at appropriating the success of their students, while denying responsibility for the "failures." This was brought home vividly to me in the early days of departmental Web sites, when I noticed that a top history department's page of recent graduates... only included those who had tenure-track jobs. The rest were just erased from the official memory.

But a small dissent. Uncouple academia and the life of the mind. Despite the assumption among academics that there can be no life of the mind outside the ivory tower, it is in fact the case that 1) plenty of people lead vivid intellectual lives in other professions, 2) some of those people find that the nonacademic world is a better environment in which to conduct their research, and 3) it's possible to do interesting work in lots of different places. The life of the mind is portable: it's something you cultivate and carry with you, not something that you're granted access to by the dean.

Posted by: Alex Soojung-Kim Pang at April 13, 2003 04:36 AM

Oops. Didn't convert that second blockquote tag into a close blockquote. Mea culpa!

Posted by: Alex Soojung-Kim Pang at April 13, 2003 04:37 AM

Alex H. has an excellent point about the perils of weeding people out early. I think one reason that people are reluctant to make their programs more stringent is that it means that they themselves will be throwing students out of their program. Getting kicked out of a program can (I imagine) be pretty traumatic, and soft-hearted people might be reluctant to do things like that to people they know.

If someone is allowed to finish and doesn't get a job, at least the faculty can say, "We didn't stiff them--it was the people making the hiring decisions." Not to mention that it may be difficult to predict who would get a job, if allowed to finish.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at April 13, 2003 12:41 PM

I should clarify--I don't think that the thought "We don't want to do something awful to our friend, let the market do it" is necessarily a good reason to graduate all your current students. I just think it's a motivation.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at April 13, 2003 12:45 PM

"Graduate departments are remarkably good at appropriating the success of their students, while denying responsibility for the "failures." This was brought home vividly to me in the early days of departmental Web sites, when I noticed that a top history department's page of recent graduates... only included those who had tenure-track jobs."

Yes! My department's web site lies about me: They put me down as having been "placed" because I go a postdoc. Uh, excuse me? The postdoc was a 2-year holding strategy, during which 2 years I went "on the market" and did not place.

Audits would be very good. But many faculty and administrators resist this measure, because they don't really want to look at the numbers.

There's already quite a bit of weeding out down during the 5-7 years that it typically takes to complete a PhD. Graduate school attrition rates as quite high. I agree that limiting admissions would cut off chances for some, but I don't see a better solution at the moment. The real solution would be to convert or reconvert part-time adjunct work into tenure-track work, in which case there would no longer be an oversupply of PhDs and might even be a shortage. But this won't happen any time soon, if ever.

Alex, re: your comment about the life of the mind and its portability. I want to believe this, I really do. But at the moment I just don't see it.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 13, 2003 01:28 PM

Hi there,

A well-written post, but one that should have it's own warning label: do not read if you are currently working on your PhD in the humanities or social sciences (whatever you call political theory) and have already done more than 2 years!

My solution: hair of the dog--I'm applying to law school next to possibly make my career path even longer, crazier, and more arduous...we'll see if I actually end up doing that...

Posted by: Eric at April 14, 2003 12:14 AM

Well, I suppose this entire blog should carry a warning label. Warning: this blog is written by a cranky and disgruntled history Ph.D. who is attempting to deprogramme herself from the cult of academia.

My husband left a political theory programme while ABD to go to law school. Thank God. He now has a real job and a professional future.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 14, 2003 12:49 AM

One terrible thing about graduate school not often mentioned is that a large number (in my experience, very large) of PhD candidates lose/get rid of a partner during the process. I've read an article (the precise citation now lost in the decay of memory) which discussed the reasons for this, which included both the lowered expectations of a "normal" life and how the process of forming of an intellectual identity tends to alienate you from that "normal" life. A lot of the divorces I've watched (as the husband of a grad student, all of whose close friends went through divorces) came about because the couple could no longer carry on a conversation. The budding academic simply couldn't be bothered with a 9-to5 life and two weeks of vacation when he or she was engaged 24/7/365.

The life of the mind can be pursued outside of the academy, but often at nearly equal cost. Our age demands that we prove our intellect on paper and that takes time, time that ordinary jobs do not afford. Extraordinary jobs are another thing altogether, and those are the product of entrepreneurial talent (not necessarily yours...) - the supply of which is always scarcer than need.

Posted by: Martial at April 14, 2003 02:11 AM

Yes, graduate school can wreak havoc on personal relationships and domestic life. So can post-PhD underemployment. So can academic employment and the pursuit of tenure.

One of the main reasons why my husband left grad school for law school was so that we could stay together. We saw couples go "on the market," desperately trying to secure academic positions in the same city/region. We saw no reason for optimism. I personally know and also know of a number of couples who took jobs 5 or more hours away from one another. Many have now split up.

A lot of this has to do with the general "speedup" of academic life (or what John Guillory calls "preprofessionalism"). You need to start behaving like a full-fledged professional early on in the game -- conference papers, publications, a teaching portfolio and so on -- but without the benefits of money, time and support, and within a context of constant anxiety and insecurity. All of this is inimical to the increasingly quaint and archaic notion of the "life of mind."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 14, 2003 10:34 AM

Couldn't these audits be required by accrediting agencies? Then they wouldn't have a choice.

HT, I sit here in my office at a major research university, a stone's throw from getting a PhD. So far, the choice of a program (philosophy, cultural studies, ethics, or theology) has kept me from ever filling out that application--along with the usual fear and trepidation.

But more and more you're convincing me that I'd be better off getting a creative writing masters or a liberal arts degree to get my academia fix and then go about my merry way. I know I can do the work in a PhD program, but the political bullshit would drive me batty. It's bad enough setting here on the edge and watching it from a distance.

If I had some guarantee of my boss' career path, I might do it: he's close to retirement and got tenure from writing one (admittedly excellent) book and a couple or three articles.

But then I think, will anyone listen to me without a PhD tacked on to my name? Or will the academic rat race render me incapable of saying anything meaningful anyhow?

Posted by: chutney at April 14, 2003 02:52 PM

Sorry, not HT but IA. Still coming off a 12 hour road trip.

Posted by: chutney at April 14, 2003 03:04 PM

Just a follow-up on the law school thing...

The grass is always greener. My wife is in law school now, and I took the LSATs once out of undergrad, and again after my MA, and did well enough both times to make my way into law programs. The thing that stopped me each time was that I got the impression that people were only in it for the money. And at the time, I thought this was a bad thing :).

Now, having experienced 1L vicariously, I find it intriguing, but wouldn't have given up graduate school to do it. I guess, even with all the downsides, I really enjoyed my grad program. For me, becoming a prof was really just a chance to keep being a student a while longer, with the bonus of getting paid a bit.

All that said, as a potential following spouse in the next few years, going back to law school doesn't look all together unattractive :).

Posted by: Alex Halavais at April 14, 2003 05:50 PM

I take your point about the grass being greener.

However: my husband went from a top-ranked PhD programme in political theory to a top-ranked law school, and the difference between the two was striking (and to both of us, rather shocking). Law school was a grind, yes, but it didn't foster the kind of collective neurosis that characterizes graduate school. There was a lot of work, and a good deal of pressure, but the difference was: people had prospects and they knew it. As my husband put it, by the end of the first year of law school, he could already see his future. His law school has a 98 percent placement rate: in other words, you really have to mess up in order to come out without a job. Whereas his PhD programme had a placement rate of...well, nobody can really say, actually, because they don't keep accurate statistics. But certainly, full employment at the end was by no means a given.

I don't mean to suggest that my grad school experience was uniformly bleak and negative. It wasn't. But given the fact that my field is slowly but surely being eliminated, and the growing realization that my prospects of finding full employment in the academy are dwindling down to nothing, it just does not seem worth it to have given up so much of my adult life.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 15, 2003 12:31 AM

The sense of failure that you mention is very deep. Its a way the academic institution governs the self. A bit like Catholics and guilt.

Even though my work in political life is successful and enyoyable, I still have not thrown off the sense of failure - from not gaining tenure whilst an academic. Its crazy stuff as I am far better off than I ever was in academia; but like guilt the failure is there deep inside gnawing away.

The failure makes no sense in political life but its there as part of the comportment. All the stuff about being clever, smart, educated etc etc is very effective as a mode of governing the soul.

It was the misery it caused that made me decide to get out.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at April 15, 2003 03:16 AM

I wish i had some labour alienation.

thing about the economic schizophrenia is that i can still buy consumer items made in china that i dont want

why does no one talk about consumption alienation?

alienated from the promises


i wish i could feel guilty...
but then i am out of phase

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at April 15, 2003 11:28 PM

There is a moment in every graduate student's life where you realize (and it's usually late in the game that this happens) that no amount of merit or skill or dedication or talent or intelligence can suffice to win out and obtain a good academic career for yourself. I actually think that there's some grounds for believing that a certain kind of driving ambition coupled with talent does win out in many other professional careers. But not in academia. Once you've seen a few job searches from the other side of things, you're even more aware of the random vagaries that structure who ends up with a good tenure-track post and who ends up bitter about having wasted 10 years of their lives.

Frankly, I try to discourage the students who I regard as especially intelligent in a broad, humanistic, multifaceted way from going on to a doctorate. I think it's usually a mistake. The people who succeed best are the people who can keep their heads down, their minds focused, and who are not especially restless or overly curious in their thinking. There is a kind of bright, admirable student who succeeds reasonably well in graduate school, but it's a very particular kind of intelligence. And then there's people who go on because they love learning and they think that academia is more of the same.

It's not. It ought to be, but it isn't.

The tough thing then is to figure out how to change things. Because once I do have an undergraduate who is convinced he or she is going to go to graduate school, then I feel obligated to help them be "preprofessionalized", to give them a window onto the socialization processes that are going to shape their lives. I tell them how to be aspirant mandarins. That's the responsible thing to do. If I had graduate students, I'd have to do even more of that, because it's incredibly irresponsible to try and invent a new practice all by yourself and in so doing guarantee that your students are going to fail badly on the market.

I really don't know how to think about changing the system. Maybe if we could get entire institutions to "opt out", to announce that they were by conscious design going to privilege candidates who didn't look like the very model of the modern academic in making hiring decisions? But the problem there is that the only people who survive the careerist pressures of graduate school and retain some distinctive sense of deviance from the standard model ARE deviants--e.g., messed-up and confused, or cluelessly unaffected by anything, or monstrously arrogant. Everyone once in a while a devious mensch slips through the net, too, but they tend to look impeccable on paper. If you could find a way to make it clear in a hiring process that you're looking for the devious mensches who have a passion for learning and knowledge and have managed to stoke that passion in secret during graduate school--well, you might be onto something.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at April 16, 2003 07:17 PM

I don't see how things can change either. Given the ratio of well-qualified candidates to full-time jobs, the hiring process will favour careerists with impeccable credentials and picture-perfect CVs. In such a tight "market," there just isn't room for a more creative approach to hiring.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 17, 2003 04:00 PM

I know some here have left, or wish they had, graduate school to pursue a law degree, but let me tell you, eveything you wrote in your blog entry about grad school can be applied to the law graduate. It is rough out there when you 100k in debt and some slimy firm is offering you 35k a year. law schools a re the worst when it come to being up front about employment prospects.

Posted by: walter at April 18, 2003 10:12 PM

Congrats, all. I now want to kill myself.

I made it to ABD in Philosophy and quit, for reasons well-explained here. I'm the "restlessly intelligent" type Burke mentions, not the "head down and focused" type.

So I left. But now, here I am, after a series of stupid corporate jobs, *totally* unsatisifed. I have a great wife and a kid on the way, but on the professional side, I feel like I'm squandering my life.

I suppose that, like some have said, I could create my own life of the mind--start writing editorials or something. But that takes a degree of self-starting and plugging away that many folks, myself included, just don't have. Part of the attraction of academia is a secure, structured environment where people like me can work.

It isn't that any more. But no place else is either.


Posted by: Realish at May 2, 2003 05:48 PM

Oops! I forgot to post that "enter at your own risk" label on the front page of my blog.

"Part of the attraction of academia is a secure, structured environment where people like me can work."

Alas, this was the attraction for all of us. We didn't enter because we wanted fame and fortune, but because the academy is one of the very few spaces in which to pursue scholarly work. But that space is shrinking.

Of course, I am one person offering a perspective based on my experience and observations (well, based also on the experiences of others, including some of the people I went to grad school with, who are also without academic jobs). Others have had different experiences, and others see things differently.

But with a baby on the way, the stakes are that much higher. Please do not blindly or blithely enter into a graduate programme! Get as much information as you can: talk to people, read the newsletters and other publications of the relevant professional associations, get at least a feel for the "market" (better yet, see if you can get actual stastistics).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 2, 2003 09:35 PM