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.