Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Adjuncts, baristas, and bookstore cashiers

Writing for The Atlantic, Elizabeth Segran suggests that the prospects for PhDs in the humanities aren’t as bad as all that. Consider the opening sentences:

There is a widespread belief that humanities PhDs have limited job prospects. The story goes that since tenure-track professorships are increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty, the vast majority of English and history PhDs now roam the earth as poorly-paid adjuncts or, if they leave academia, as baristas and bookstore cashiers.
Notice how by moving to an absurd and unsupportable contention — that the majority of English and history PhDs labor as adjuncts, baristas, and cashiers, Segran manages to move right past what is undeniably the case — that tenure-track positions are disappearing, that a majority of college instructors are now adjuncts, that their numbers are rising, and that many (if not most) adjuncts are poorly paid. At any rate, the news in this piece is that “between a fifth and a quarter of [humanities PhDs] go on to work in well-paying jobs in media, corporate America, non-profits, and government. Humanities PhDs are all around us— and they are not serving coffee.”

What Segran fails to acknowledge is that the very telos of doctoral study in the humanities is a life of teaching and scholarship on the tenure-track. That’s what grad school is supposed to be for. And while it may be the case that PhDs are hired outside academia for, as one of Segran’s interviewees says, “their process skills: the ability to do excellent research, to write, to make cogent arguments,” it is far from clear that doctoral study is necessary or even practical in developing such skills. Five or seven or ten years in training to learn how to make a cogent argument? No.

If graduate programs are producing more PhDs than will ever be hired for tenure-track positions (given current institutional priorities in American higher education), the prospect of seeking a PhD looks ever more dubious. That some degree-holders have been able to find worthwhile employment outside academia (usually “through their own networks, without the support of their departments,” Segran says) does little to make graduate study in the humanities more appealing. Imagine going to medical school when the odds are slim that you’ll ever practice. Ladies and gentlemen, start your networks.

A website I discovered not long ago, aimed at audiences in the humanities and social sciences: 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School. It is a voice of experience. To quote from reason no. 86: “Of course, you look forward to a career — a career in academe. But graduate school can only offer the hope of an academic career. It’s an extraordinarily costly roll of the dice.”


3:13 p.m.: To the reader who tweeted that the words “the very telos of doctoral study in the humanities is a life of teaching and scholarship on the tenure-track” sound like “bitter, dusty tweed” and make her “want to vomit”: please, read those words in context and not in the form of someone else’s tweet. The words form not a sentence but part of a sentence. And the sentence expresses a sad truth that Segran doesn’t acknowledge: that doctoral study in the humanities prepares students for a future that many of them will never attain. There’s nothing of tweed (or pipesmoke) in my words: rather, there’s a recognition that “the profession” is for many doctoral students unattainable. None of what I wrote suggests that PhDs should not seek work outside academia. But I think that a doctorate is hardly a necessary preparation for being able to reason and write well.

[I follow The Chicago Manual of Style in typing PhD without periods.]

comments: 5

Berit said...

What a wonderful blog link you've included here!

It's so well-written; reading it feels like waking from a long winter's hibernation, or--well, my ability to turn a written phrase is so atrophied (or perhaps worse never-developed) that though I can muster other comparisons they are no better.

I spent my youth viewing the sort of young adulthood which can be disparaged as "professional student" with the same idealizing, aspiring eyes most children reserve for pop music divas or pro sports athletes.

For my own reasons, my current disillusionment is pretty firmly entrenched.

It is, of course, pleasurable to see an impression or two which one holds so well related and argued. Thanks!

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome.

I think it’s so important for students to have eyes wide open about grad school. I’m all for aspiration, but I can’t encourage participation in a system designed to produce cheap labor.

Matt Thomas said...

As it happens, today, April 3rd, is National Tweed Day, so it’s altogether fitting that one should choke on it, as opposed to vomit, this time of year.

Michael Leddy said...

National Tweed Day — if only I had known. I’m wearing Carhartt jeans and a cotton shirt.

Diane Schirf said...

I would like to have the knowledge and discipline that comes with a PhD even if I never "used" it in academia. For a corporate writing job, a BA has served well enough.