This is not Advice about Whether to go to Graduate School in the Humanities. To me, that’s a no brainer. If you get in and are awarded funding for a specified amount of time, and you have nothing better lined up, you go and see whether it’s something you want to continue doing. You can still apply for the same jobs you could apply for if you weren’t going to graduate school–you are not missing out on untold riches by committing to a year or two years to another degree. It seems to me that nobody can advise you on your specific situation and potential for getting a PhD when you have not yet entered a graduate program. Only you can decide what to do for yourself and only you can determine how useful your experience will be. It is hard to figure out what jobs you are qualified to do and even harder to decide if a job is something you will want to do. These things do not stop being true if you do something outside of academia and reject graduate school because somebody advised you to dodge a bullet. The difference is that people don’t feel so entitled to tell you that something’s a bullet in almost any other case.
Lots of people have weighed in productively about why those “don’t go!” essays are not helpful; I think Tressie McMillan Cottom and Karen Gregory, in particular, have offered important responses. I suppose it’s worth noting that both are still working towards their degrees and need to maintain the relevance of the paths they have chosen, but to me that doesn’t invalidate the very reasonable arguments that they make. I don’t think anybody should take advice from self-declared train-wrecks, and while it may be that a percentage of grad students in any program eventually goes off the rails after sustained unemployment, it’s still good to see evidence that many people love going to school and aren’t totally consumed in the process by the potential problems it causes them (and indeed, that staying in academia is the best way to achieve change within it).
I have very little to add to what they say about the merits of getting a PhD except to note that if you are a career-minded person who wants to define identity strictly on a career (and many of us in academia are, in fact, those people), you will find it difficult not to be emotionally affected by ANY job and any employment situation in this market. If you have become an “emotional trainwreck” because you thought you had a single career path, you would probably be the same had you chosen any other field that you perceived as having a single career path. And, lest anybody think I’m judging a trainwreck too harshly, I’ll admit that we’re all trainwrecks a few days out of the year. People have emotions and screw up and face people who suck and feel frustrated. It’s life in any job, or it’s life while unemployed. It’s gonna happen, though you might call it something other than a trainwreck, depending on your preferred metaphors.
The thing that surprises me, bothers me, and perplexes me is that the reasoning people offer against graduate school and PhDs in the Humanities seems to cut against the very virtues they tout about the Humanities and liberal arts for undergraduate majors. I’ve seen many articles about how employers want people who are agile thinkers and have broad reading and writing skills. And these same articles also mention that people don’t stay in the same jobs for their whole lives, that fields shift and transform, and that liberal arts programs are great for preparing a workforce that can handle such shifts with aplomb. Do we not actually believe it?
If we do, then we’re essentially saying that it’s great to study Literature (or History and other majors defined as Humanities and social sciences, etc.), but one needs to be very careful not to study too much, not too carefully, nor in too much depth. If you get a BA in English, you’re going to be a great employee and ready for anything; if you get an MA or PhD, well, you are not only not employable, but you’re a huge mess of a human being with a set of unimportant skills to boot.
Along these lines, then, more education does not make you more virtuous, but rather, less. More unable to grapple with normal human beings with the normal amount of education or less. Even though you have to spend a lot of your time working with other people (they’re called your peers, your professors, and your students), your ability to participate in social environments apparently declines. Even though you may use your non-work time to go to events on campus or at the statehouse or whatever, or you use the access you have in a program to learn more about politics and labor, you also maybe aren’t a more civic-minded individual than you were, because you’ve been writing a dissertation or something that makes you equipped to think only about a single thing–you probably don’t even know who your local officials are and so are probably less equipped to vote. You apparently become rigid, what with your very narrow training, and so you are kind of useless for anything other than what your program is in. In my case, it’s using language and analyzing metaphors (which, let’s face it, ONLY exist in Great Books–nooo, they aren’t the basis for public policy names or advertising campaigns or anything outside of literary texts…I mean, I can’t even watch television without thinking “Ugh, it’s not Shakespeare?! I don’t understand it!” or pay my mortgage without saying “With all my paleography skills, I still have no idea where to sign this check!”).
Yeah. I know, total bunk, and not just because I pay my mortgage online like everybody else in 2013. Anyway, this whole narrative is, I think, non-sensical, but editorials like the one published in Slate last week nonetheless go a fair distance in supporting it. I can’t help but think that nobody outside of academia reading it could take away something from it other than the idea that a person has devoted her life to something that sounds kind of silly and luxurious–and is shocked that she believed the whole time that somebody would PAY her to read books and write obscure stuff about them that the TAXPAYING PUBLIC doesn’t even understand! Frivolity, thy name is Literature Grad Student! Get thee to a nunnery, or really, an insurance company’s billing office, where you can do some work that’s currently in demand. By the same token, the professors supporting her in the endeavor must have been self-serving and deceitful folks, feeding her delusions out of cluelessness or mercenary self-interest. After all, they need more students to justify their jobs and validate their research and their own life choices. The whole academic thing seems like a dinosaur zoo where the keepers and handlers are just hoping to avoid extinction and resisting evolution out of deeply conservative and self-serving goals.
But really, what profession doesn’t spend considerable resources on establishing its importance? And why is that so wrong, especially if people aren’t profiting significantly from the choices other than having a secure place from which to be advocates of scholarship about books and good stewards for people who like books? How mercenary is that? People who can teach reading and writing at the college level ARE in fact in demand and needed; the problem is simply that university administrators are in the business of securing them without actually giving them jobs. We have to keep the real problem at the forefront of these conversations. It really comes down to allocation of resources, at the government level and at the level of university administration. Anybody pointing out flaws in other parts of the academy–the poor job training an academic program provides, for instance–has their eye on the wrong target.
When people opine that the PhD isn’t “worth” the time, money, or other kinds of investments required to get one, they put forth the narrative that even the beneficiaries of graduate programs can’t articulate the value of their own subject of study. Once we cede that the subject is unimportant, we’re really saying that there’s no reason to think deeply about the things we think about at the university. And then we’re saying it’s okay for administrators to cut programs. Fewer applications and smaller enrollments suggest that demand is low; low demand suggests diminished importance and need. If those smaller enrollments are indeed a sign of disinterest, okay. Fields change, it’s true. But if people are actually interested in studying something, but frequently told their interests are naive and silly, then the numbers go down for reasons that aren’t about a field’s lack of importance–and to me, that’s a big problem. If you have a set of administrators saying “Prove people want to take your classes or we’ll take your budget” and you have another set of people telling the people who want to take your classes to run the other way, well, you can see how neither set is actually doing anything to solve the real problems.
At my own university, top-level administrators use declining enrollments in English courses and in our graduate applications to say that students don’t see our field as important. They intend to cut our graduate program and decrease the size of our faculty. And I’m losing my job because of it. Yes, you can say that I am pro-PhD and pro-graduate school out of self-interest. But I will counter to say that my interest isn’t purely selfish. You see, I don’t think I’m a loser who can’t get a job as something other than a professor.
I have a keen sense of the things I can do and how they could translate to other work environments. And I’m also not unwilling to take a pay cut, though I’m unwilling to work without health benefits, and, I am pretty sure, unwilling to marry my partner of 10+ years to get benefits through him. I am worthy of a full-time position doing something and I’ll find a job. I may have gotten a tenure track job and I may have published a dozen articles on obscure things like horse racing and drama in 1630s England and Scotland, but my work doesn’t make me unfit to do other things. I think researching the history of horse racing is a good deal more difficult than a lot of things that people get paid to do. In any case, what I say here isn’t really about me or my prospects, because I’ll be fine. What I say here is about the arguments that justify getting rid of departments and programs wholesale because they don’t make the university huge amounts of money. The truth is, labor costs for teaching are so small that they should make the university money–graduate student labor and energy is a huge WIN for research schools, and as long as universities give students health care, it’s a win for students too. But endless building projects and newly created administrative positions with 100K+ salaries cost too much, and so frankly, administrators would prefer hiring more adjuncts than graduate students and tenure track faculty because they have no obligations to adjuncts and can use the cost savings for other things they imagine to be revenue-bearing–like hiring expensive lawyers to negotiate contracts with unions and expensive “admissions experts” and firms to “ensure” higher enrollments.
The system sucks, but getting another degree does not. Devoting one’s time to intellectual growth and other kinds of emotional development isn’t the problem; being naive about the value of these things in the marketplace is also not the problem. But responding to that naiveté with the blanket command “don’t go!” and citing your own “emotional trainwreck” is not a good solution. Telling somebody who likes to read and wants to study books professionally that they are engaged in a silly fantasy and pining for a mythical life that doesn’t exist may be well-intentioned, and I suppose it’s not even necessarily belittling or mean. But there’s something wrong with telling somebody like that–most often a young person who asks in earnest if they can continue to do something they think they love–that their ideas are the problem and they need to have different ones. Because there are people with wrong ideas in higher education–MANY OF THEM, and they’re paid well–but the folks who want to study something at a more advanced level are not the people with the wrong ideas. Save your warnings or admonishments, whether they are sympathetic and kind or bossy and smug, for people who are doing the wrong things. People whose values aren’t intellectual capital. People who are pushing education in a direction that will further existing inequalities. Why not tell them what to do? Instead of telling students “don’t go,” we should be telling the people who are really fucking things up where to go.
PS. I also wrote this as a follow up, but if somebody is determined to think people hate them, there’s not much I can do.