The Ph.D. Conundrum

I recently followed a link to yet another post giving advice on “what to tell your graduate students.” This is something I worry about a lot, not just for the Ph.D. students I currently advise but for the B.A. and M.A. students who come asking for advice and reference letters, so I clicked over with interest. This latest one, at Inside Higher Education, responds to an earlier piece by Lennard Davis in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Davis explains how he tells students the secret to their future success:

First I inform them of the current job situation, whatever that is at the time. I don’t sugarcoat the dismal nature, say, of today’s academic market. But I also say that I have had very good success in placing my graduate students. Then I make it clear that the first thing they need to do is start thinking about the minimum requirements for going on the job market.

They often look a little stunned to be getting a lecture about professional development when they have just come in to ask me if I’ll be on their master’s-thesis defense. But I think it’s not just the early bird who gets the worm; it’s the very, very early bird.

The next thing I do is set the bar for the minimum requirements in my field. To even get into the race, I tell students, you need three published articles, two or three book reviews, attendance and paper presentation at professional conferences, and, ideally, a contract for the publication of the dissertation.

As others (including some in the comments) have discussed, these days even a student who meticulously and miraculously accomplished all of these things still might not win the job lottery; Davis’s piece problematically implies that students themselves bear the responsibility for their success or failure on the job market, that if they only do everything right, they will be OK. Plenty of “very, very early birds” will go hungry because there are so few worms at all; the idea that the best, or earliest, are the ones who are rewarded is one of the more demoralizing aspects of a failed job search. Davis also shows a discomfiting anti-intellectualism, in the guise of pragmatism, in his suggestion that students should be “strategic” in selecting their thesis topics. His advice here is also not as practical as he makes out: academic fads come and go, and by the time the student has completed 3-5 years (or more) of research and writing on that trendy topic, the jobs might all be in a different area. With outcomes impossible to predict or control, I’d think the only certainty is that students should do work they are passionate about and think is intrinsically interesting and important, so that whatever happens on the job market, they won’t regret the investment of their time and passion.

I do think we need to tell our students something like what Davis says: they need to understand that there are very few tenure-track positions available, and that if they hope to be competitive, they have to professionalize and publish. But we shouldn’t tell them, or even let them persist in thinking, that there’s any formula that guarantees they will win. The majority of them will not end up in tenure-track positions. So what else should we tell them?  In the Inside Higher Ed piece, Christine Kelly offers a corrective to Davis’s essay, focusing in particular on what she feels is his belittling of non-academic options:

First, tell them that even if they follow all your advice and build a strong C.V., the reality is there are not enough tenure-track jobs for all the Ph.D.s, so many candidates will not receive offers. Let them know that if they do not get a tenure-track job they are not failures. . . .

Second, tell your students there are viable career alternatives where they can use their skills. Don’t suggest that their options are between a tenure-track job or a low-level dead-end job . . . Tell your students that while they prepare for their academic career, they should also explore their alternatives. While they are doing all the activities that may help them land a tenure-track job, they are also developing skills that will be useful in other professions.

Kelly’s piece seems sensible and level-headed to me, overall, especially her point about having “honest and open” discussions about career prospects and non-academic options. I don’t think I’ve personally ever belittled or shut out anyone who talked to me about non-academic options, but there is a sort of cult-like assumption within the academy as a whole that anyone who’s got anything on the ball intellectually ought to want to join us, and it would be better all around if we stopped imagining that our goal as departments is self-replication. One of Kelly’s comments points out that she “still seems to regard careers outside academia as consolation prizes when she talks about students who seek ‘non-academic careers when they don’t land faculty positions.’ What about those of us who wanted the PhD but not faculty position?”I agree that her phrasing reflects the assumption that the first choice of all Ph.D. students is a professorial career.

That said, I myself have never once met with a prospective or current Ph.D. student who wasn’t primarily interested in the Ph.D. as preparation for an academic job. At least in my field, in my experience, people want a Ph.D. because they want to become professors. They are the ones who see non-academic options as second-best, because that is not what they were aiming for when they started down this path. And if someone came to me and said they had different career goals but thought they’d do a Ph.D. along the way, I would discourage them.

It’s not that I see no portable value in the deep learning and intensive skills training acquired through graduate work in English. But at least as currently constituted, Ph.D. programs in English (at least all those with which I am at all familiar) are designed as professional training, and the profession they train you for is Professor. I’ve already written at some length about my dissatisfaction with the “skills argument” when applied to graduate school; here’s an excerpt from that earlier post:

[D]oing a PhD in the humanities will certainly enhance a student’s critical analysis and writing skills. But . . . the particular specialized demands of a PhD make it an astonishingly indirect and inefficient way to master those skills[.] Most PhD students in the humanities complete at least a year of coursework, to increase the breadth and depth of their expertise in the materials and methodologies of their field.In English, that will almost certainly include not just sustained attention to literature from the medieval to the contemporary period, but also exhausting (if not, probably, exhaustive) engagement with esoteric theorists and critics of all persuasions. One goal is to become reasonably fluent in a style of argumentation and writing that is not universally practised, as anyone who has ever coached a student initially trained in, say, . . .  philosophy, to do work in literary criticism (as I have) would know. A related goal is mastery of, or at least familiarity with, a vocabulary that really has little or no place outside the academic study of literature. [2011 update: in fact, if you use it elsewhere, people typically stop listening to or reading you!] Then follows a year of really intensive reading in preparation for a set of qualifying exams. Precise requirements vary: at Dalhousie, our exam lists are field-specific and teaching oriented. The exam itself is a grueling combination of written essays and an oral examination–aha! writing to deadlines and oral presentation skills! And of course the final phase is the production of the thesis, a 300+ page document demonstrating your ability to first create and then resolve a critical ‘problem’ or ‘crux’ that hasn’t yet been addressed, or at least not from your unique angle. Anyone who has revised a PhD thesis into an academic book knows that even that step requires changing almost the entire tone, not to mention the supporting apparatus, of the original work, and probably expanding its scope.

Arguments for treating Ph.D.s as reasonable preparation for non-academic careers continue to abstract general skills from the work we specifically ask our students to do, as if the particulars don’t matter. For instance, a colleague directed me to Kel Morin-Parsons’ essay “Infinite Hope – and for Us; or, Come on in, the Real World is Fine.” Morin-Parsons did a Ph.D. in literature but decided to seek out non-professorial options and, at the time of the article’s publication, was “the manager of the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, part of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” Morin-Parsons is very happy with her decision and urges those of us “who teach PhD students [to] think beyond the pointless dichotomy of a PhD put to ‘proper’ use in the academy versus a PhD ‘wasted’ elsewhere.” Again, I think it’s the students themselves at least as much as their faculty advisors who consider an academic job the ‘proper’ use of their graduate training, but setting that quibble aside, here’s Morin-Parsons’ case for the benefits of the Ph.D.:

the graduate programs made demands on us that developed tremendously applicable capacities. As most of us not only took seminar courses but taught or assisted with undergraduate courses, we all had experience in organizing teaching material, developing it and presenting it as lectures, managing people, and managing time. Added to this experience were the skills developed by all graduate students as they learn to conduct research—the gathering and analyzing of information and the transformation of that raw data into coherent pieces of writing. On top of all of this is the fact that those of us trained in literature can, as a rule, write well—something not always a given—and tend to understand the basics of good communication. In a world inundated with information and people trying to extract from the pile some genuine knowledge, a graduate degree in English literature can situate a person beautifully. What I have not yet mentioned is what underpins all of this—the deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general that comes with humanities education. This is not some sop to the high-mindedness of higher education in some degraded context; this is the thing that seals the deal for those taking the things they’ve developed inside the academy and applying them outside. I have grown to cherish more and more warmly a notion which, I think, we have largely lost sight in the early twenty-first century—that which proposes that a liberal arts education, as we once termed it, is to fit people not just for a particular institution but for the world. The long view of history and the insight into human action nurtured by such an education combine with the often incredible demands for production, organization, and analysis now made upon graduate students as they turn into well-trained scholars. The world needs this, and wants it—not just in the classroom but virtually everywhere else.

Though I don’t doubt she’s right that graduate students have and hone those core skills, what I’m missing is why Ph.D. work that also involves (and indeed explicitly prioritizes) expert knowledge of highly specialized kinds is the best way to “deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general.” I don’t actually think understanding of “the world in general” really describes Ph.D. work very well: this all sounds more like what we hope a good undergraduate liberal education will achieve. Maybe the subtext here is that undergraduate education can no longer be counted on to turn out good writers (not with classes of 1500, that’s for sure!) or a “deep and wide” engagement with ideas and narratives. But many specific elements of Ph.D. programs still seem to me not so much unsuited as unnecessary to the “long view and insight into human action” Morin-Parsons emphasizes. Is this really what preparing for comprehensive exams gives us? What about writing a thesis? I’m not saying that doing this work in any way makes Ph.D. students unfit for the world, but I have a hard time finding it reasonable that someone should deliberately undertake it if they have already ruled out academia as a career path. It’s too much work, not just for them, but for me, as I would have to treat them (unless we institute streaming of some kind) as pre-professional students. Their course papers would have to be just as academic as anyone else’s. They would deserve just as much time for coaching sessions before their comprehensive exams. Their thesis would still need to be defensible to a panel of academic experts, so I’d give their drafts just as much time, and guide them in the same academically-approved directions. I guess if they were self-declared non-academics I wouldn’t urge them into publication, but they couldn’t escape the pedagogical training or experience. Well, marking stacks of first-year essays is good for time-management, after all.

Now, maybe there are people who are happy to do all the specific components of an English Ph.D. with no intention of going into academic work, who find it (or imagine they will find it) intrinsically interesting and rewarding enough that they don’t mind deferring the start of their actual career for seven years or so. My disbelief probably stems from my own Ph.D. years, which were marked by unhappiness, self-doubt, and intellectual uncertainty. I actually had it pretty easy: I had an excellent funding package, a supportive supervisor, small classes, lots of flexibility in setting up my exams and thesis topic. And even so I can’t imagine anyone choosing to do a Ph.D. for the sheer intellectual satisfaction of it! But maybe there are such people, and if so, may they flourish as Morin-Parsons has. I do consider hers a good-news story (and it’s one that also takes a stand for values I share); I think it’s a story we should share with our current Ph.D. students, as part of our attempt at having those open and honest discussions Kelly mentions. They can do other things with their Ph.D.–in fact, most of them, by recent statistics, will have to–and they can be happy doing them. Happier even, perhaps, than their tenure-track or tenured friends, who are expected to do more and more for more and more students with less and less encouragement and support. We should do everything we can to encourage and help them (including, of course, steering them to the many websites and resources now available to guide and assist them, like Versatile Ph.D or Jo VanEvery’s Conscious Career Course).

Still, I wonder if a different kind of program wouldn’t make more sense for those who are really after the broadly applicable skills Morin-Parsons (and those I cite in the earlier post about the “skills argument”) focus on. Even in today’s difficult circumstances, we do need Ph.D. programs to continue training new professors (don’t we?), but we could conceivably work on streaming students into academic and non-academic tracks. However, not only are the logistics and the differentiated curriculum hard to imagine (how many academics would know how to proceed? our training has been of a different kind), but the Ph.D. means certain things, professionally, academically, so I’m not sure any single institution could just transform what they considered worthy of the degree. And what if students didn’t know, or changed their mind about, their desired goals? Maybe multidisciplinary MA programs could be devised to provide the enhanced “liberal education,” with a focus on ‘deep wide understanding’ of ‘the world in general,’ that Morin-Parsons talks about. They could include a lot of research and writing–not of the micro-specialized, often highly technical / jargon-filled kind we generate for academic publication (which has its own value, but is not of universal application or interest), but work aimed at smart nonspecialists, with lots of emphasis on editing and revision, and more focus on fitting people for ‘the world’ than (as per Davis’s advice) molding them for departmental positions.

And these remain, for me, hypothetical cases. Again, in my 16-year experience, I have only ever met with students whose interest in a Ph.D. is as a path to the professoriate. (In fact, almost all of the undergraduates are primarily interested in it as a path to a teaching career: undergraduates are often quite surprised to learn that the Ph.D. is primarily a research degree, and that the work they see us doing in the classroom, the work that inspires them to follow in our footsteps, is a fraction [and the least valued fraction, at that, professionally speaking] of the job we have.) Those who actually want to do something else are making different choices earlier on. It’s not easy to counsel someone to want something else, but that still makes more sense to me than encouraging students to pursue a Ph.D. because while they struggle through their specialized coursework, teaching, and research, acquiring deep literary expertise, they will also be, as Kelly says, “developing skills that will be useful in other professions.”

18 Comments to The Ph.D. Conundrum

  1. Anabelle's Gravatar Anabelle
    April 18, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this topic lately… after a year in my PhD and the really competitive program I am in, I wonder if I should focus my professionalization on something other than tenure-track teaching.

    Don’t get me wrong, the first thing I wanted to do when I started graduate school was to become a professor… but I find myself looking at other, much more motivated students who have already published during their MAs, become part of 3-4 committees in the student union or the department, etc… and I realize that either my motivation is deficient, or maybe I’m just not that interested in the “academic life”. Knowing that there are possibilities outside of the tenure-track path is encouraging: I’ve already started doing some freelance writing, and given my experience in office jobs during my early 20s I know I could land a job in the communications department of any office, private or government.

    I think that the question really gets down to knowing the costs of dedicating your life pursuing a tenure-track job. I’m starting to believe that it’s not worth (for me at least) to put my future and financial stability on what has literally become a lottery. I realize that unless I start not sleeping at night, I can never catch up to those with years of service with student associations and already one or two publications and book reviews to their name. I have absolutely none of that, and I know that my chances are reduced by that much.

    So, the question remains: do I get out of the PhD with my sanity still intact and a pretty useful MA, or do I keep going just to get the “Dr.” and for the satisfaction of a challenge faced and conquered? I give myself another year to decide whether my dissertation project can sustain my interest for the next three years and to test my abilities as a teacher; otherwise, I think withdrawing makes the most sense.

  2. April 18, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I agree – doing a PhD for the broadly applicable skill set it provides makes no sense at all. An MA in English appears to be equally impressive in this regard, but without the weirdness of prospective employers refusing to hire you because they think you’re going to chuck them to go loll about like a lazy bastard in the ivory tower. Besides being too much work, and the “wrong” kind of work for easy translation into non-academic settings, PhDs are, for most, too much time being broke and uncertain.

    Because of the perpetual money problem, I spent a lot of time doing paid work (both academic and non-academic – availability was the main criteria) to help fund my studies….which, of course, delayed completion of my dissertation and made finding the time to publish anything almost impossible.

    My advice to those contemplating the PhD in this job market would be – do it if you must, because you want to be a professor and absolutely nothing else, but know that getting a job in academia now is next to impossible – and if you think you’ll be the exception, don’t bank on it. Further, I’d tell them that unless they have either a very good funding package or are indepently wealthy, it’ll be close to impossible to find the time to professionalize in the ways that are required to have even the slightest chance of getting interviews that aren’t at a community college 500 miles northwest of The Pas.

    That said, it’s the work I did in order not to starve to death during my PhD that has allowed me to relatively easily make the transition to a non-academic career-path. That necessity turned out to be a friend…but a friend that made my initial plan, to become a professor, even more difficult than it already would have been.

  3. April 18, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    This is the kind of discussion of this issue we need more of. I, too, have focused mainly on those already there who face what is a horrible job market. And I read in your piece support for that kind of work.

    But you make a very convincing case for not pursuing the PhD at all unless the academic career is a goal (even with alternatives in mind) and the first comment makes me realize that this means also addressing the issue of “quitting”. If most students start on this path with an academic career in mind, what do we do when they discover this may not be what they want after all, especially if that realization is related to your prescient points about teaching?

    Not only do we need to stop undervaluing alternatives, we also need to recognize that quitting might be a sign of strength. I know at least one person who took several years (with his registration on hold, thankfully) to make that decision (he decided to quit eventually) and has had considerable success since.

  4. April 18, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    As a (soon-to-be) fifth year senior, the graduate school market is something I’ve been trying my hardest to pay attention to of late. I applied at a number of institutions (some prestigious, some not. some local, some not) and wasn’t accepted at any of them. This rather rude slap in the face by reality – made worse by the fact that, admittedly, I’ve gotten a great deal of the things I set out to achieve, academically – made me stop and think twice about whether or not graduate school, and the process of applying for a second time, was really worth it to me. I’m still deciding, to be honest, but I have to say that sometimes all this pushing for practicality kind of got to me. Yes, I want to know going in to a journey like graduate school just how likely the chances will be that I’ll get a job. I’m all for being able to afford a house, and maybe even food every now and then. However, as a young 22 year old, sometimes I wonder if it’d be better to sugar coat it for a while longer.

    Job markets change, widen, and shrink rathr rapidly. So do job plans, thesis options, and areas of study. However, sometimes I wonder if all of this “practicality” about the market and the push for quick distinctions between “academic” and “non-academic” career paths shoots the academy in the foot, putting of those who may face entry challenges but don’t lack the desire for those three little letters by overwhelming thoughts that OH MY GOSH IF I DO THIS I’LL NEVER GET A JOB AND HAVE TO RESIGN MYSELF TO LIVING WITH SMITTY ON THE CORNER IN HIS CARDBOARD BOX EEEKKKK. Maybe that’s the truth, but let me live in my delusion a bit longer. At least until after the comps exams. But that’s just one opinion from a confused undergraduate. Thanks so much for a great post on a great topic!

  5. Liz Mc's Gravatar Liz Mc
    April 18, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    This is really interesting to me, because I’m basically the same age as you, w/a similar PhD experience, and ended up in academia but not with a tenure-track university job. I wish people had talked to me about the reality of the job market more (don’t think Kelly was at UCI when I was!), largely because it took me a while to get over feeling like a failure and realize that I am probably happier in my community college life than I would have been in a tenure-track job (certainly ended up in a better city than a lot of my tt friends!).
    I’ve gotten to do a lot of interesting things I might not have been able to do elsewhere (right now I’m chairing our rough equivalent of faculty senate, for instance).

    I think it would be crazy to pursue a humanities PhD without the intention of trying for a tenure-track job. If you don’t come out of undergrad with those good general skills, there are better ways to get them (my college has a 2-year professional writing program with a great record of placing grads, for instance).

    I think “you” (professors) should talk to students about alternatives–and be clear that not even great students who do all the “right” things (which I didn’t exactly) will all get jobs. But I also think you need OTHERS to talk to them about this. After all, profs know how to get tt jobs and what those are like, but don’t typically have first-hand experiences of alternatives. When a friend was running the professionalism seminar at SFU she got me and others to come talk about community college teaching, for instance. I’d talk about the pros and cons and who it was a good fit for. Because those “alternative” work places, academic or not, sure don’t want PhDs who think that they are failing by coming to work for us and that we’re only marginally better than Starbucks!

  6. April 19, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks, everyone, for these thoughtful comments.

    @Anabelle, it sounds like you would get a lot out of exploring the information on the websites that aim to support humanities PhDs interested in non-academic options. That might at least add some additional perspective as you consider your options, and help mitigate against any messages you might get that only professorial jobs really count.

    @Colleen, you and I are on the same page here. One problem is, though, that everyone I talk to who wants to be a professor seems to expect that they are the ones who will be OK in the end. It’s very hard to get through that confidence. These are good students, after all, who are used to being rewarded for their academic excellence with success–and you can’t say it won’t happen again, just that the odds are against them. And you have to say this while trying to be clear that you are not saying it because they aren’t academically gifted, which is also hard to get them to hear. Sigh.

    @Chelsea, it’s good that you are thinking about these issues now. It’s not simply about being practical and thus devaluing the Ph.D. work, though. There’s value in the work, but the process is long and very difficult, nothing “sugar-coated” about it. And it seems very unlikely that the academic job market (at least for tenure-track faculty) is going to widen suddenly, or at all. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a piece that presents the most negative perspective (the comments show that his arguments don’t persuade everyone, but the whole discussion is worth looking at, I think):

    @Liz, the professional writing program sounds like just the kind of thing we should steer strong undergrads towards, along with publishing programs like SFU’s (just for instance). You are absolutely right that we need other people to talk to them. We are on the front lines here, because we are their teachers and advisors, but most of us have very little (or way outdated) non-academic experience. Especially for senior people (more senior even than me!), even the experience of the academic job market is not really reliable.

  7. April 19, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Yes, that certainly is a problem. I seem to recall being similarly convinced of my own chances once upon a time, even though I was told very clearly that the job market was in the midst of imploding. Maybe saying things as explicitly as you just did to me? No one ever made it clear to me, at least as I recall, that in spite of all past evidence of merit being rewarded, PhD and post-PhD life no longer necessarily adhered to such a formula. Or maybe no one could get through my confidence.

  8. April 19, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    @Jo, you are right that I do want to support students who are committed to pursuing academic jobs. One prompt for this post was looking at a proposed seminar on ‘professionalization’ we are developing in my department, which formalizes and builds on workshops and special sessions we have been holding now for several years. They cover topics like grant applications and constructing c.v.s as well as preparing a thesis prospectus and so on. There’s also a session on non-academic careers–but it’s one out of the whole year, and the overall emphasis is on doing everything we can to do what Davis says he does, that is, prepare our students to compete. We should definitely do this. But again it shows that the Ph.D. program is most coherent understood as professional training of a particular kind.

    A follow-up post I could easily write would be something like “But we love Ph.D. students.” The truth is, we do, and a further challenge to, or disincentive for, open conversations about other career options–or about the realities of academic careers–is that we all enjoy our graduate students and seminars so much. Also, we rely on graduate students for teaching (note in that piece I linked to about huge classes how reliant the set-up is on TA support, and we are in a similar, if smaller-scale, situation), we are more likely to get grants for our own research if we can make the case that we are training and supporting graduate students, and there’s also (though people are coy about admitting this) prestige attached to having a Ph.D. program. I have heard discussions about graduate recruitment that struck me as disturbingly selfish, in these respects. Don’t get me wrong, though: I think we do need to keep training Ph.D.s in English to widen and deepen the scope of our knowledge and to prepare to teach the next generations of bright, curious students. I wish there were more t-t jobs; I’d love to see fund-raising campaigns focus on staffing levels rather than facilities, and by staffing I don’t mean senior professorships of the CRC variety, but regular t-t lines. Absent such prospects, though, it remains difficult for me to encourage even the very best candidates to press ahead.

  9. Joanna Scutts's Gravatar Joanna Scutts
    April 19, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Rohan, thanks for a thoughtful discussion of this topic. I’m in that familiar academic limbo (got my PhD in English last year, lucky enough to land a teaching postdoc, going out on the market again next year, applying for other short-term positions, and on and on) and I feel as though I’ve spent the year since graduating trying to unlearn many typical grad-student behaviors – waiting for permission to try anything new, accepting anxiety and guilt as natural components of my daily life. I think the problem is that that most professors and students have never worked outside academia and have never developed a proactive, entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to focus on themselves as smart, employable people with a range of valuable skills and talents to offer. We tend to be lifelong ‘good girls’ (and I’m sure gender plays a part in this) who ask for permission and work for praise, and thus are especially frustrated and tormented when we ‘fail’ on the job market. I would encourage graduate students very seriously to cultivate strong relationships with people outside their profession – and perhaps to that end, try to study somewhere that the university isn’t the only game in town.

  10. April 19, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Good advice overall. However, the truth is not that only those who do everything right will be okay; increasingly, even those who do everything right will still not be okay. They will have to get a different kind of job.

  11. April 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    The structural points you raise in your comment are extremely important. As a sociologist, those things stare me in the face whenever this issue comes up. Faculty want to teach graduate students. Having graduate students contributes to the intellectual mileu and the attraction of an academic career. And the prestige of both the institution and the academic. And then there are the institutional pressures (our government is fond of saying we don’t train enough PhDs, and though they aren’t talking about English PhDs, the problem is very very similar in the sciences where the post-doc fellowship is now often referred to as a “parking lot”).

    I am also very worried about some of what is in Joanna’s comment. Especially about waiting for permission, not taking risks, and so on. I’m sure she is not alone. And if those are qualities that our PhD programs are cultivating in students, we aren’t doing them any favours in terms of academic careers, either. Perhaps the biggest transition issue into an academic career is being able to do the most valued part of your work (research) unsupervised, with little or no direction. No permission. No guidance (except of the very vague “publish more, get more grants” type).

    Whether this is gender or training or some combination of both, something about that entrepreneurial spirit, taking risks and not waiting for permission maybe ought to be in that professionalization course.

  12. April 19, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Great post. It made me look back at my decision making around academic work and how I just sort of dropped out of the academic job market when I realized it wasn’t the kind of work I wanted. I was actually ambivalent about finishing my PhD after I had my second child in grad school and realized I didn’t want to just up and move to “somewhere” just to get a job. My husband encouraged me to finish so I would have the Dr. and that sense of completion (and I am very proud I finished) and I even fell into a good post-doc with some sessional teaching which only reinforced my desire NOT to be an academic. It was final when a job in my exact area in a city I could live in, still close to family came up and I had not desire to even apply.

    I took a job doing research and projects on academic life at a university instead. I’m happy. My PhD (in sociology) helps with the work but I also know I am in a different strata than the faculty I study. I’m fine with it. I did the PhD for myself in the end and while I did plan on being an academic, my life took a different turn and that’s okay.

    In some ways, moving on and feeling absolutely fine about it was risky because I wasn’t doing what was expected of me–it would be like going to medical school and not being a doctor. While I know some of my professors thought that I wasted my talents, others were happy that I found the right path for me.

    I wanted to comment because I think these stories need to be told. It might help someone quit a PhD they’re not happy in or get out of a market that’s making them poor and miserable. I agree the majority of students want to be professors, but for those who aren’t, there is a good life outside of academia!

  13. Liz Mc's Gravatar Liz Mc
    April 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    The structural issues are a whole other post, aren’t they? I think there is a lot of (unconscious) pressure NOT to support students in considering alternatives, or in leaving graduate programs, including the fact that prestige of a grad program partly depends on students finishing program and getting “good” t-t jobs. It’s in a program’s interest to have as many students in the lottery as possible.

    It isn’t only TAs that universities rely on these days, but adjuncts (I think it’s worse in the US, but bad everywhere). One of the worst things grad school does to people is convince them they CAN’T be anything but an academic. It amazes me that smart people will remain for years and years in dead-end, low-paying, insecure adjunct jobs. But honestly, everything in the system mitigates against their mentors advising them to get the hell out.

  14. April 22, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    If you wanted to “still teach literature”, you could do one evening course as an adjunct/sessional in addition to your day job in another field. In fact, there was a time when that was the kind of person universities hired as sessionals. The man who works for StatsCan and teaches a methodology course in the sociology department at Carleton, for example.

    My colleague Julie Clarenbach, with whom I teach the Conscious Careers course, has also had numerous opportunities to teach in her non-academic jobs. Not literature but writing and other things that enable her to use those skills and have that kind of impact. Not all teaching happens in universities.

  15. Kel Morin-Parsons's Gravatar Kel Morin-Parsons
    April 22, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink


    First of all, let me say it’s extremely satisfying to see a number of blogs engaging in real discussion about various elements of life in the academy, this one included. I’m enjoying exploring this site.

    I am the author of the ESC article you quote above, and thought I’d just add a bit of personal expansion/context that is, of necessity, not part of the text you read.

    No-one who knows me even casually, I think, would accuse me of being Pollyanna-ish about . . . well, just about anything, and I want to state that outright before saying this about my convictions vis-à-vis doctoral studies: Regardless of one’s goals upon entering graduate school, and how those goals may shift with time and experience, I truly believe that the only real justification for pursuing a PhD is love for the discipline, passion for the material with which one hopes to deal. I have stated more than once at talks I’ve given on working outside the academy that a doctorate will demand more than the most foolish love affair one could ever pursue, and I actually believe that. Even for the best academic position one could land, the process, for many of us, will be among the greatest roller-coasters of sacrifice and isolation we ride.

    I am, of course, speaking only for myself here, and realise that many readers of this blog may have had different experiences; I also realise it’s not necessarily the greatest or most politic idea to shrug one’s shoulders and say to a young person sitting in one’s office, wondering about embarking on a PhD or experiencing a crisis in the middle of it, “Well, kid, you know, it’s love–the heart has its reasons, etc.” Of course I don’t mean quite that–what I mean is that, ideally, the person starting doctoral studies has not only some career goal in mind, but something underlying that goal that speaks to an engagement with the material and the discipline that will be there regardless of what he or she ultimately “does with” the degree. Because I agree–there are a hell of a lot easier ways to get to the matter of making a living.

    Does one need a PhD in the humanities or social sciences to get a good job outside the academy? No. Will a person with such a PhD find an interesting and often surprising array of opportunities open to him or her outside the academy? I believe so. Will a good doctoral program’s ability to foster study, a depth of intellectual engagement, the development of various skills, and an ability to encompass worldviews of length and breadth stand students in good–tremendous, invaluable–stead if they choose to step outside of the academy on their career paths? I’m an unequivocal “yes” to that one–and, in my experience, those things, nurtured and encouraged on the PhD path, can lead to more interesting, more challenging, and often, as it happens, more remunerative work than one might get otherwise. They can also give people the confidence to take those skills and reinvent their professional selves in ways that neither they (nor their profs) might originally have imagined–I have come across some stunningly bright and successful humanities PhDs who left the academy for one reason or another (not always, it should be noted, because they simply couldn’t get jobs there) and proceeded to become experts in matters ranging from technology to international development using skills they’d acquired during their doctorates, often marrying those with another passion or, indeed, developing a small, neglected area of their studies that ended up proving enormously valuable in the marketplace.

    There may well be such a thing as “overeducated” for a specific position; many of us, of course, feel that there is no such a thing as being “overeducated” for one’s life–which includes one’s work over the span of a career. If a student starts with a genuine spark at the beginning of his or her studies, the fire that, with any luck, will be roaring by the end of it will make him or her feel that the pursuit was worth it–and that, I believe, will be borne out in the pursuit of employment as well as in the art of living.

  16. April 25, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for adding this additional commentary, Kel. I agree that it’s important that this conversation is going on in a lot of places, and with a variety of emphases and perspectives. I don’t disagree at all about the intrinsic value of some aspects of graduate education for those who have the kind of passion for the subject that you invoke–though I’m perhaps more skeptical that a Ph.D. program will turn their spark into a roaring fire, partly because of the features of such programs that are geared towards professionalization rather than learning for the love of it–but also because of the less quantifiable but no less real negative effects they have on the mental, emotional, and intellectual lives of many students. (I hadn’t thought specifically of paranoia before, though.) Maybe it’s true that you can’t be overeducated for life, but if that’s really what you want, you can educate yourself pretty extensively without putting yourself through what you aptly call the “roller-coasters of sacrifice and isolation” involved in completing a Ph.D.

  17. Kel Morin-Parsons's Gravatar Kel Morin-Parsons
    May 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Of course there is no question that people with virtually no formal education at all–and this isn’t just a cliché, as I know several such persons myself, and I’m sure you and readers here do, too–can and often do become creatures of tremendous intellectual engagement in a way that no institution can guarantee. You don’t need a PhD for that–you don’t even need secondary school (but let’s hope it helps). But I think perhaps we’re speaking of two different things here. I’m not saying that I think people should simply enter PhD programs because somehow those prepare them well for life (although I happen to think they can do), nor am I saying that people who are genuinely miserable in their studies should continue with them because I sound sunny about their prospects at the other end. But people who are suffering that much from the effects of stress in their studies may not find that justified by the prospect of an academic job–which of course comes with tremendous stress and expectation itself. If they are not sustained, at some level, by an essential love for or devotion to the subject in which they set out to professionalise themselves–for whatever reason–it’ll be a terrible slog, period.

    My own experience has been that grad students to whom I’ve spoken do seem quite heartened when invited simply to look at their experience and their hard work in a different way from what they’re used to. To know that their scholarly pursuits can benefit them not just in the ways that (again, in my experience) they feel deeply on a personal level, but also on a very real professional level in more than one context, is important to them, and does seem to make a difference. So all I want to be able to say to them, in the end, is, “Yes, you did the right thing–it is worth it.” And I want to be able to say it because I actually believe it. Will my own conviction be borne out by the experience of each student to whom I speak? Probably not, all things considered. But I’m genuinely convinced that it will be with the majority of them.

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