Since I left academia, I have run into a few people who are afflicted with what I call Humanities Grad School Delusions. I can recognize them from a distance of forty paces because I was one of them once. I too believed the lie that all the baby boomers would be retiring any day now, so there would be a job for me in academe. I too believed the lie that experts in my field are in demand, so there would be a job for me. And I too believed that I was special and gifted, so there would be a job for me. It took many years for the truth to reveal itself. Or, rather, the truth was always there, in plain sight, albeit crowded out by what my professors said and by the chicken coop of grad school. I had to leave the coop to realize that those who tend the chickens are usually foxes and wolves.
As I wrote in my last post, I try not to lord my experience over others (though academia gave me lots of examples of lording). I don’t tell anyone they’re stupid for going to grad school or anything like that. Hey, maybe it will work out for them. I sincerely hope so.
But I know it probably won’t, and I can’t stop myself from knowing what I know and thinking what I think and perhaps giving in too much to my penchant for being judgmental. On good days, though, I think maybe I am not actually a judgmental person. Maybe what seems like judgment is actually basic human compassion for people I care about.
At a recent social gathering, I was chatting with two people who are currently enrolled in a graduate program in a field closely related to mine (seems strange to say “my” field now). I could see them light up when they heard that I am a graduate of a nearby program. “Oh, she’s one of us! A kindred spirit!”
They asked me about my program. I told them I really enjoyed the coursework (I did!), but that everything after that, especially the dissertation, sucked ass (it did!). A look of concern came over their faces simultaneously, and they immediately wanted to know why. I gave them a basic run down of the reasons my program sucked ass after course work, including, but not limited to: the extreme loneliness, the difficulty of the advisor-advisee relationship, and the all-around humiliation and shame of the whole thing.
As soon as I told them this, I could see their faces light up again. The shadow of concern was gone. Why were they relieved? They were relieved because I was describing an experience that could never, ever in a million years happen to them!
“Oh! Our program [that we have been attending for only one year] is not like that! We’re not lonely! And our faculty members are wonderful and supportive!”
Thank God these two lucky grad students were smart enough (unlike me, obviously) to enroll in a better program, one that is not lonely or humiliating! I just nodded, of course. Who am I to burst their bubble? (And this gathering wasn’t really the place to do so anyway.) I suppose there’s always the chance that they’re right about everything.
But I have to admit scenes like this are turning me into a curmudgeon. I walked away from that conversation thinking, “Wait and see, children! Wait and see what’s in store for you.” And then I cackled to myself like an old witch.
I am a terrible person, aren’t I?
I am not wishing a bad experience on anyone, although my wishes one way or the other have nothing to do with what will happen to these two smart, deserving people. But I cannot help but feel that they simply do not know what they are getting themselves into. I wanted to say, “Come and talk to me in five to eight years when you’ve written a thousand drafts of some piece of shit dissertation that no one will ever read, and you’re broke and tired and too fat (or too skinny), and there’s no end in sight, and you’ve realized that no one will ever hire you. And if someone does hire you, you will most likely be a Lecturer with a 4-4 teaching load (at least) and considerable administrative duties. And this ‘job’ will quite possibly be a two-year, non-renewable appointment in a remote outpost in Iceland that will barely pay you enough to make your monthly student loan payment. Come and talk to me then, my pretties!”
But I can’t say that, can I? Because it sounds mean, like I am stomping on their dreams to live a Life of the Mind. “WAAAAA!!!! Things didn’t work out for me, so now I have to kill your enthusiasm for your ‘work.'” No, I don’t want to be that person.
Would I have believed anyone if they had told me the same thing ten years ago? I really don’t know. But there’s a chance I would have, and for that reason, I wish someone had told me. But no one did. So here I am faced with wide-eyed, eager grad schoolers that remind me of my old self. And what do I do? I let them continue in their delusions because people have to learn for themselves, as the saying goes. (Years of grad school, and I’m reduced, in the end, to clichéd expressions.)
Some time later, I was talking to a woman whose daughter has just enrolled in a PhD program in my field. I had just finished telling her about the horrible job market that I had encountered. She listened and nodded in support. Then she said, “Well, I think the program that my daughter is in will be better. From everything I hear, her field can only grow.”
WTF? I just stood there like a stunned deer. I should have said, “Actually, your daughter’s program is in the same field as mine.” But I didn’t. Why? Because what good would it have done? This woman has dreams for her child. Her daughter will be Dr. So-and-so someday, and no one will tell her otherwise.
Is there any better example of cognitive dissonance than participating in a ten-minute conversation about the horrible plight of job seekers in Humanities academic fields and then turning right around and saying, “But that won’t happen to my daughter”?
Is academia unique in producing and coddling this kind of delusion?
(I want to be clear that this believing-something-in-the-absence-of-all-evidence-to-the-contrary is not the fault of individual people like this proud mother or these well-intentioned grad students. This delusion is a product of academic culture, and it’s a product of the scary economic times we’re in.)
I have some further thoughts about deluded thinking in scary times, which I will discuss in my next post, tentatively titled: The Graduate School Chicken Coop and How It Is Just Like a Real Chicken Coop, Only With People Instead of Chickens.