Smart People Doing Foolish Things

Many of you probably saw the article in Slate a couple of weeks ago arguing passionately that nobody should go to graduate school to study literature. The author’s experience is typical for most people who graduate with PhDs in literature in that she hasn’t gotten a tenure-track job. She earned her PhD in German literature in 2010, so she might some day find that elusive TT job, but it doesn’t sound like she’s planning to stick around academia working for below minimum wage as an adjunct instructor. And good for her. The week after brought this insightful analysis at Aljazeera of the “adjunct crisis,” from another recent PhD who also can’t find a TT job. It’s much more analytical and less emotionally wrought than the Slate article, including speculation (and that seems to be all that’s available on the subject) of why presumably intelligent and well educated people would submit themselves to adjunct conditions.

One political scientist argues that it’s “path dependence and sunk costs.” Once people have spent so much their lives and money aiming for the TT job, it’s apparently hard to realize that you rolled the academic dice and came up craps and should just move on. Indeed, that analogy is rather poor, because if the 6% chance of finding a TT job in literature that the Slate article estimates is correct, you’ve a far better chance of beating the house at craps than you do of getting that job.

The Slate author provides a psychologically devastating alternative to relying on statistics:

During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why.

My only criticism of the statement is that I believe she put in the second person what was obviously a personal experience. I’ve known people with PhDs and no TT jobs and none of them thought themselves worthless, regardless of whatever bitterness they might have had about the experience. Several of them were philosophers, so maybe that makes a difference.

Based on a lot of people I’ve met, it’s not that they view themselves as worthless; it’s that they view any other work than traditional professorial work as worthless, or at least beneath them. This attitude shows up occasionally in librarianship, where people with PhDs who will never get TT teaching jobs sometimes decide to “settle” for librarianship. One person told me to my face that with his PhD in philosophy he couldn’t get a decent teaching job, but since he was willing to settle for being a philosophy librarian he wanted my advice on getting one of those jobs. Talk about rhetorically challenged. I didn’t feel particularly resentful, because I have a great job and he doesn’t. I told him there really weren’t many jobs for philosophy librarians as such, and I probably should have added that with that attitude he probably wouldn’t get any available ones anyway.  Tens of thousands of highly educated people with that attitude would rather work for low wages and no benefits than do anything else.

That attitude puzzles me, but then again I never had the sense of entitlement some people seem to have about graduate school. It’s that entitlement that provides me with brief moments of irritation in what is generally a sympathetic assessment of the plight of adjuncts and what their plight says about higher education, namely that it’s being priced out of the market for the vast majority of Americans while its quality is being reduced by reliance upon poorly paid contingent instructors the universities view as disposable. If there’s an economic term for something that’s increasing in price while decreasing in quality I’d use it, but I don’t know what it is, unless it’s “scam.” Or, more likely, “bubble.” Regardless, it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone so obviously intelligent and well educated who then whines and complains about how much worse her life is for pursuing that education.

It’s also difficult to understand how someone could have begun a PhD in 2005 without knowing what was going on in higher education, but that seems to have happened. It puzzles me that so many people finish humanities PhDs and only then realize they won’t get jobs, because people not getting jobs was the most obvious part of my graduate school experience. I started grad school at a top-20 English department in 1992. By 1994 two things were obvious to me: first, I found the study of literature increasingly boring, and second, that even if I finished a PhD I almost certainly wouldn’t find a good TT job. I didn’t have William Pannapacker around to clue me in. All I had to do was look at the jobs people in my department were getting, or not getting. One year the best job someone acquired was in Arlington,Texas. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Arlington as far as I know, except that it’s hot as blazes down there in the summer and I’d left the south partly to get away from the excruciating summer heat. But when you’re on the academic job market, you don’t get to think about things like that. You go wherever you’re fortunate enough to land a job. Another person got a job teaching a 5/4 load at a regional university in a much cooler state. I wouldn’t have minded at all going to that university, but a 5/4 load? That’s brutal, especially when every class is going to have 25 or more students. No, thanks. And most of the people weren’t getting TT jobs at all.

This wasn’t some hidden conspiracy. Everyone knew about it early on in their graduate school career. Is that not the case now? Heck, my first year in grad school the department had a meeting of faculty and grad students just to talk about the problem. (Besides the general sense of malaise, the only thing I remember clearly about that meeting is that some sexagenarian associate professor hired in the 1960s complained that new assistant professors were making more than he was. He didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing.) Given that a lot of programs don’t publicly give out their placement statistics, it might be understandable that someone would start a program with a naive hope for the perfect TT job, but once you’re in a program all you have to do is look around. Are people getting jobs or not? It’s an easy question to answer, and your likely fate should be pretty clear. Someone should do a study on why so many people continue while knowing the odds are against them rather than just speculate.

It was very clear that my chances of getting a job I’d want in a place I wouldn’t mind living were almost nil. So I desultorily finished my MA work and started teaching rhetoric as an adjunct while also working halftime at the local public library as a circulation clerk. I didn’t feel bad about myself, or feel that it was somehow beneath me to have an MA and be checking out videos for $10/hour alongside people with high school educations. A job’s a job. I also didn’t resent the department I left. They let in a lot of grad students every year to teach first-year courses, many more than could ever find TT jobs. It was a bit of a racket. On the other hand, I got a lot of good teaching experience and a few years free to read a lot. I didn’t make much money, but then again I didn’t need much money. I’d never had any money anyway. And it certainly never occurred to me to be resentful of the system as such, even though it puzzled me why so many people stayed the course, finished their PhDs, and then stayed there teaching as adjuncts making the same thing I made teaching as an adjunct, all the while complaining about not getting a job.

There was possibly no resentment because I didn’t bother finishing a PhD and didn’t “settle” on being a librarian. I just sort of stumbled into it since Illinois’ library school seems to suck in a lot of humanities grad students looking for something to do. The years I spent teaching and studying have been highly useful for my library career, so it would be foolish to resent the fact that while I at one point wanted to be a professor, and still think I would have made a pretty good one, academia didn’t owe me a TT job. Graduate school turned out rather well for me. I had no money when I graduated college, and neither did my parents. I was able to go to school for free, get some experience, find a wife, make some friends, and get paid $10K a year to teach four courses. It seems like a pittance, even though 20 years later it’s still what a lot of adjuncts make who aren’t in their early twenties as I was. Because of that opportunity and the ways I’ve exploited it, I’m a first generation college student from a poor family in the south who works at an Ivy League university library. My wife, an ABD dropout from the same program, now works as a test developer for ETS. There are worse fates. Almost up until she died, my mother would ask me whether I thought grad school in English was a waste of time. My answer was always definitely not, even during the time I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Education is always good. You just have to know what to do with it.

So all this overheated rhetoric about how foolish it is to go to graduate school doesn’t do much for me. By smart people doing foolish things, I don’t mean that the foolish thing is to go to grad school or even earn a PhD in a field without jobs, but to feel sorry for yourself and complain about it afterward. To turn the historically rare privilege of advanced education into an excuse to complain shows a lot of arrogance but not much perspective. A couple of years ago someone was asking around for advice about her daughter going to grad school in some humanities field. My advice: if she’s interested in the subject, the school supports her with a stipend or assistantship, and she can get a degree without going into debt, go, but assume that a tenure-track teaching job is not going to happen and plan accordingly. Graduate school is only a negative experience if your expectations for where it leads differ from the well known statistical likelihood that you won’t get a TT job, and even humanities grad students should have a basic grasp of statistics. There might be social, ethical, and political issues with the increasing use of contingent adjuncts in higher education, but seeing grad school education itself as the problem is a personal issue. I never thought I’d say this, but going to grad school in English was one of the best decisions I ever made.

12 thoughts on “Smart People Doing Foolish Things

  1. I too read the Slate piece, but I don’t think the author was merely complaining about her fate. Rather, I think she intended to make a highly public declaration about the realities of graduate education and the job market for full time — forget TT — instructors. To answer your rhetorical question (“Is that not the case now?”), the answer is, not surprisingly, “it depends.” For too many, these hard facts are not introduced by their professors, not taken up in seminars, and come much later as a rude and unpleasant awakening. Like you, I was fortunate enough to have a professor who felt obligated to blast the scales from the eyes of her blinkered charges. Her lectures on the job market were bone-chilling enough that I dropped out of a PhD program in Film Studies after a single solitary semester in order to save my pennies for library school. Pannapacker’s essay may be widely read, but only by those who are likely to turn to CHE for news. I hope this Slate piece helps many would-be grad students to more seriously contemplate their plans.

    • Michael, I agree that she wasn’t “merely complaining” about her experience, and I also agree that if the piece helps some naive college student who thinks a humanities PhD is an automatic ticket to success that’s good, too. However, I still think she’s conflating two different problems: the problem of their not being a lot of full time academic jobs in the humanities and the problem of naive people not knowing that and expecting something different. If she went to college at a traditional age and grad school right after, then the humanities academic market has been bad for more or less her entire life. The German dept. at UC-Irvine naturally doesn’t post placement statistics, but someone in the program should be able to look at the graduating PhDs and figure out how many of them are or aren’t getting jobs. That doesn’t require a professor’s scare tactics (although you were quite fortunate to meet that professor); it just requires looking around.

      Regardless, I wanted to provide a different perspective. Grad school in the humanities can be a rewarding experience if you go about it the right way, and to claim that grad school will destroy your life is far from universally true.

  2. I think you pegged it with “without going into debt.” Even though I have one, I don’t recommend someone get an MLS unless they are working in a library, see a clear career path and don’t incur debt or much debt. Too many grad students don’t look at the cost/benefit ratio and don’t really think through what a $90K student loan bill is going to do to them if they don’t land their dream job right out of college.

    • BlueBindweed, I agree completely about library school. I went to library school for free as an employee benefit because I was teaching for the English department as an adjunct. I did acquire a bit of student loan debt over the course of two master’s degrees, but not enough to be a life-destroying issue. I would never recommend library school to anyone who wasn’t already working in a library, and if I’d have had to pay for it directly I probably wouldn’t have gone. I paid for it in the opportunity costs of working as a T.A. and then adjunct instructor for 8 years, but that experience helped me get a decent first job as an academic librarian.

  3. I think this is an incredibly thoughtful response to the Slate article, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Thank you! I especially love your insight on PhDs looking to go into librarianship—I’m finishing my MLIS after doing an MA in English, and it frustrates me to no end to see PhDs with bad attitudes thinking they can “settle” for librarianship and do a better job at it than I can, who chose librarianship for the love of the profession.

    One thing I will say is that when you write, “It puzzles me that so many people finish humanities PhDs and only then realize they won’t get jobs,” I think a lot of people go into graduate school truly NOT realizing how bad the academic job market is. This is a common theme among my friends (most of whom are PhDs in English who are working adjunct positions to make ends meet): we all went into our respective English grad school programs being told that we were the best and the brightest and our futures as brilliant academics were assured. I don’t want to say that I feel MISLED by my undergrad advisor (who I still consider a close friend), but certainly when I went into grad school I had this sense that I was brilliant and everything would work out perfectly for me because everyone at my undergrad institution told me it would. I never heard a word of caution from any of my undergrad professors—no one tried to warn me that the job market for academics was broken. Luckily for me I figured out reality half way through my MA, took my degree and left the field. The point being, I really don’t think people leaving undergrad degrees for grad school programs actually DO realize what the job market will be like, because they’re surrounded by professors who are encouraging them and telling them how great they are. I I don’t think it never occurs to them to think that this might not actually be the case.

    • Lydia, I suspect you’re right about the encouragement students getting from professors being a major reason people go to grad school thinking they’re going to be the next academic star or something. I had some of that myself. I was a double major in English and philosophy, knew I wanted to go to grad school, and was having to choose between the fields. My philosophy professors told me point blank that my chances of getting a decent teaching job were very slim and encouraged me not to go, even as they were praising my undergraduate work. My English professors more or less implied that the life of an English professor was great. They now remind me of Dickinson’s line, “tell the truth but tell it slant.” But once I was in, the job market situation was pretty clear, and the grad students hanging around for a decade or more adjuncting was a motivation for me to do something else.

    • Oh, and I think going into librarianship is a good choice for a lot of people with humanities PhDs, but some of the people I’ve met making that choice seem to think it’s like being a professor, but just with less prestige and less teaching. Some, and I’m sure this is a small minority, are under the impression that subject specialists do nothing but sit around reading specialized research in their subject area all day.

  4. Another aspect of the Slate piece that people are overlooking is the author’s snobbish implication that the only worthwhile jobs are at R1s in major metropolitan areas. These are, of course, not only relatively few in number but more importantly are the very institutions that are testing the limits of the percentage of adjuncts it’s possible to run a university on. 60%? 80% why not go to 90% if people are willing to work for nothing– it’s a desirable metro so there are lots of candidates there.

    As the industry contracts in the wake of state budget cuts and TT jobs dry up as bureaucratic managers trim labor costs, the remaining TT market will be largely in the liberal arts colleges and in places outside of large metro areas that lack large pools of cheap adjunct labor. My college has hired consistently throughout the financial crisis, including six TT positions in English literature (we’re replacing retirees 1-for-1). But too many people like the author of the Slate piece seem to think such jobs are below them, because we are hired primarily to teach.

    Me, I’m quite happy with my 3/3 load, small classes, and a salary that’s at the 75th %tile of the AAUP scale. I wouldn’t trade it for an R1 job at twice the pay. But as a veteran of many search committees it’s quite clear there are many grad students who feel the only worthwhile jobs are at those big metro schools with 2-2 loads and “prestige.”

  5. Hi Wayne. Nice to see you rocking the library world! Meself I done went and got an MDiv and started a church here in Urbana. Still need a little help paying the bills though so still working half-time at the UFL desk (and ref desk). It’s a perfect combination. Let’s hear it for pricey degrees that allow you to do what you want to do…regardless of whether or not it’s what you initially had in mind. Thanks again for the Toyota. Cheers, Seth.

  6. Seth! Long time no nothing. I have to say, I haven’t missed the UFL circ desk. Since leaving that job, no one has ever tried to hand me a library card that they just had in their mouth. Good luck with your church.

  7. A little behind, catching up on the archives here, but I thought I’d add that Penelope Trunk, a popular career/entrepreneurship blogger has also written a substantial amount making the case against grad school, with a slightly different bent (caveat emptor if you don’t like wackiness):

    I agree that professorial encouragement leads many people to naively pursue graduate studies in the humanities. I don’t know if it is a universal trend, but at my undergraduate institution I noticed a substantial increase in departments, institutes, and professors strongly encouraging students to pursue grad school in just the few years I was there, as if it were a ‘nobler’ choice than entering the workforce, perhaps out of some dean’s motivation to generate some great statistic reflecting the ‘impressive’ percentage of alumni who pursue further education (I graduated in the late naughts). So, an increase in social pressure, in a way. I had all sorts of professors shepherding me towards grad school, but chose the librarian path instead, cognizant of the realities of academic work/life [lack of] balance and job prospects. I couldn’t be happier. Granted, I realize I am one of the very lucky ones, with great colleagues, stimulating work, and a salary commensurate with cost of living. Plus the academic freedom is so much more abundant-I don’t publish professionally, but with no research obligations, I am free to read, write, and banter at my leisure. And my philosophical education is as relevant as ever.

    I think the phenomenon of ‘elite educational entitlement’ is just another symptom of the out-of-control exceptionalism that was bred in an atmosphere that preached ‘anything is possible if you work hard and put your mind to it.’ Not only is this not true, but it often leads to people taking foolish risks to ‘follow their dreams’ (not that all foolish risks end in disaster, but we shouldn’t be teaching our children to be so out of touch with reality at such an early age). It’s totally possible to work your tail off and still be left clawing at the the walls of the economic/social/academic, etc. gutter. In an age when so many people are defending liberal arts education by citing how it teaches students to ‘think outside the box’ and apply creative solutions to problems, it’s rather tragic that such a large cadre of graduates with liberal arts degrees are afraid to break out of the cage of social affirmation that supposedly exists in academia (I don’t quite understand the fear of not being able to integrate intellectual habits into day to day life…if your education hasn’t taught you this, then you’ve learned nothing!). As I think I commented on one of your posts about the importance of rhetoric and philosophy in library education, I was more disappointed than ever to discover the level of disillusionment in members of my MLS class. To deceitfully encourage these students is a very bad introduction to the profession. By and large, people are afraid of sacrifice, which they better get over if they wish to survive the rest of their adult lives.

  8. Doesn’t seem much different here down under. I recently applied for a graduate scholarship, pinning my hopes on having a higher GPA than the regulations state was usually successful.

    Turns out this year, even a higher GPA (‘A’ grade average, as opposed to ‘A-‘ average) wasn’t enough. Talk about academic inflation!

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