I had just logged in to update this blog (finally) when I stumbled on Lauren’s brilliant post about the latest jobs report for PhDs. I especially like how she calls out M. Berubé for being clueless about the real problem which, indeed, has nothing to do with the fact that people don’t like Shakespeare anymore. When we talk about a labor crisis as if it’s merely a symptom of cultural decline, we don’t sound much different than a talking head on Fox News blaming the recession on single mothers. In fact, here is an assessment of remarks Berubé made at a recent conference in Washington D.C. with which I concur.
What I had intended to post today is on a related topic. I had another conversation with a would-be Humanities PhD student and it made me want to throw myself off a bridge in despair. Instead, I write.
In the last months, I have become friendly with one of the women (and they’re all women) with whom I share an office at my current adjuncting gig.
She told me some time ago that she was preparing to apply to the same program from which I graduated. She is interested in my field, and she’s about my age. So obviously we’re soul mates now.
I did not say anything about this grad school plan of hers at first. I vacillate between warning people right away or waiting for them to ask. Who am I to tell someone I just met what to do with her life?
Recently, she started complaining about all the bureaucratic stuff required for her application. I took that as an opening. I said, “are you sure this is the right decision for you?” I proceeded to tell her a little about my experience, my current situation, and about all the people I know in the same boat. In fact, I hardly know anyone not in that boat. It’s a heavy boat. And it’s taking on water.
Immediately, upon hearing that I have left academia after completing the program she wants to enter, she gave me a pep talk. “You have to go back on the market. Don’t give up!”
I know she’s trying to be nice, but why does everyone fall back on this standard response to life’s challenges? I felt as if I were talking to one of my students, many of whom write the same paper over and over again in every class: “things are tough for a while, but if you persevere, everything will work out and you’ll be a stronger person” blah blah blah.
I explained that I have no plans to return to academia. “I am just telling you to go in with your eyes open,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she said, “I plan to apply for a 5-year fellowship. Then I can really take my time in the program.”
When she said this, I realized I was not talking to someone who is just stubborn or believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that she will beat the odds. Nor was I talking to someone who had done research and decided to ignore it.
No, I was speaking to a whole new species of Wanna-Be Academic: the person who has absolutely no clue about anything related to graduate school in the Humanities.
How was I to continue the conversation? What strategy would I choose?
I said, “five years? The time-to-degree is more like 9 years. That is true nationally and also in the program you are trying to enroll in.”
She blinked, unconvinced. “Really?”
“You will not finish the degree in five years. No one does, especially while teaching.” (Of course, I did not mention that most people who enter that program never finish at all – ever.) “So,” I continued, “there’s a good chance that at the end of five years the money will run out and you will find yourself back here sharing this office with me.”
I tried to be serious/funny. Like, “isn’t it amusing that one could work for five years and end up back at the beginning? Doesn’t it make you want to cry?”
I also advised her to do some research. “Have you talked to anyone else who has been through the program or is currently enrolled?”
She admitted that she had not. Nevertheless, she dug in her heels. “I guess I am just convinced this is the right career for me. I just love teaching.”
I still can’t believe anyone thinks earning a PhD in a Humanities field is preparation for teaching. Nor can I fathom that anyone would take the path of grad school without doing at least a little Googling to find out things such as: how long do these programs generally take anyway? Or, even better, what are people on the internets saying about getting a PhD these days?
Nope. Nothing. Our conversation was perfectly pleasant. I was extra careful not to lecture. But I advised her to do some research before diving in. She is very nice and seemed more concerned about me by the end of our conversation.
“It sounds like you’re burned out,” she said sympathetically.
That comment made me a little angry. For the record, I am not burned out. I have never been less burned out in my entire life.
Frankly, I was offended to have my experience dismissed as a case of simple burn out, like a week in the country would cure me. If I were an accountant talking about the terrible job market for accountants, no one would call me burned out. Yet, somehow, a post-academic can’t be trusted to know what’s up.
Now that I have written all of the above, I feel guilty for saying these things about my friendly office mate. The job market is not her fault. Still, I hope she doesn’t get into the program. I really don’t.