*That is, if you are thinking about entering a Ph.D. program in the humanities.
by Ella Dean* ‘00 (*Ella Dean is the author’s pen name)
Let me start by saying that if I had read this piece, over a decade ago, I would not have been convinced. In my naïve arrogance, I would have thought “But I’m better than her. I can do it.” And I would have been totally convinced of my superiority, my specialness, my intelligence. After all, wasn’t I Phi Beta Kappa at Wellesley? Hadn’t I written an Honors Thesis? Hadn’t a brilliant Wellesley professor told me, after reading said thesis, that I had to go to grad school because I was such an insightful, incisive writer? I was not unsupported in my delusion that I was special.
So for all of you special, brilliant women, please read my cautionary tale with empathy. I don’t want to be a cautionary tale—in fact, I hate it—but I would like someone, somewhere to learn from my mistakes. And going to grad school was probably the biggest mistake I made in my twenties—hell, in my life (in contrast, going to Wellesley was probably the best decision I made.)
I decided to go to grad school because I was bored on the job (working at a nonprofit, trying to make the world a better place) and because I missed school. I missed the intellectual conversations, the sense of working toward something, even the way time was organized at school. I missed the sense of community. I missed my brilliant Wellesley sisters. And I missed having my brilliance validated on a daily basis.
I applied and was accepted at multiple schools. Not only was I accepted, but also, at two schools, I was offered the top fellowship. Not the top fellowship for my department. No, the top fellowship for the entire graduate school, offered only to one or two very special students in the entire entering class. I went to the top school for my degree and got the top fellowship to support myself. How could I not feel validated in my choice to go to grad school?
Grad school was, in short, a grind. I worked really, really hard. I made a couple of good friends. But, compared to Wellesley, it sucked. It didn’t have the community (most people were older and/or had families) and frankly, I had better conversations with my Wellesley friends than I had in classes at grad school. I dreamt of Wellesley almost every night for two years. I missed it.
But I made the best of it and applied myself. I excelled in my coursework (ask any of my professors), I presented at multiple national conferences, I published several articles, including one in a peer-reviewed journal. I finished my Ph.D. in six years (that’s really good. Many people take 8-10 years to finish.) I did everything “right.”
And then I applied for jobs. This is the part where it all starts to fall apart. I didn’t get anything my first year, but my home institution hired me to teach for a year. Teaching was incredibly hard, but I was really lucky to be teaching only three classes one semester and two classes the other. Of course, they paid me LESS than what I had made eight years ago, working at a nonprofit, but I was getting teaching experience. Surely I would get a job next year, what with my stellar credentials AND teaching experience?
No. The next year was so much worse. I was rejected from every job to which I applied… and my year of grace for my student loans was up. I could only find a job teaching one course, one semester. My advisor hired me as her assistant, which paid a small wage. I had to get a deferment on my student loans But I worked hard and networked. I got an article published in an anthology edited by the TOP scholar in my field.
In my third year out, I got another full-time position as an adjunct. I taught four classes each semester, with three course preps (that means that I taught one class twice—Composition.) I was excited to teach at a nationally recognized liberal arts school. I was excited to apply for jobs with their letterhead. I was excited to be teaching new classes.
Friends, that year kicked my butt. I worked my ass off.
And I still didn’t get a tenure-track job. I had an interview for an incredibly crappy job in the middle of nowhere—teaching four classes each semester with a ton of service work. Needless to say, I did not get that job. I was somewhat relieved.
I was offered another year of teaching full-time at Nationally Recognized Liberal Arts College (NRLAC). I said no for personal reasons (all right! I’ll come clean—I had a baby and I wanted to spend time with him.) But I said I would teach part-time. I was supposed to teach two Composition courses. Instead, four days before I started, they changed it to ONE course. And overloaded it. I was paid—with Ph.D. in hand, teaching experience at that same school, teaching the same course—a total of $1,600 for that one course. To put this in perspective, the tenure track folks were teaching three courses a semester. Let’s multiply that by six for the equivalent full-time salary shall we? That’s $9,600. Hmmm… the full-time faculty were probably making around 60,000 a year. So… they were paying me more than SIX TIMES LESS than what they would have paid their full-time, tenure track faculty. And with no benefits. The joys of adjuncting!
Another year of applying—another year of rejections. Oh, and I had another publication. More conferences.
I asked NRLAC if I could teach full-time the next year and they said no, sorry, budget cuts. But would I be interested in part-time teaching? No thank you. (Please see the paragraph above. Especially the part with no benefits. And by the way, health insurance for myself and my son costs about $500 a month because my husband works at a very small firm and getting insurance through his work would actually cost MORE.)
So… here I am… five years out from my Ph.D. And what do I have? A mountain of student debt (Yes, even with the top fellowship. Some of that is because I was stupid with money…. But only about half.) Between my husband and I, we own quite a nice house’s worth of debt. About a quarter of a million dollars. No, I’m not exaggerating.
And no job in sight. Whether tenure-track or full-time adjunct.
So why did I fail? Why couldn’t I get a tenure-track job?
I had excellent letters of recommendation (my advisor read them for me, to preserve confidentiality.) I had my degree, teaching experience, publications, ideas, and I’m pretty collegial. I can even be charming, on occasion. Was it me? Could I have done anything better? Trust me friends, these are the questions that keep me up at night. These are the questions that writhe about in my gut, twisting and turning and gnawing on my soul.
The honest answer is that I don’t think so. Sure, I could have published MORE and in better journals, I could have NEVER slept… but the problem is larger than me. The problem is that way more people are admitted to grad school than can ever get jobs.*
I applied to about twenty jobs each year. About four or five of these jobs (in a good year) were a really good fit for me. And the rejection letters I got for those jobs informed me that while I was a special snowflake, 400 other special snowflakes had also applied. That means that just 1% of us got jobs. 1%! And when one is applying for a position as a professor, one is not competing against Joe Schmo or even Jane Durane. One is competing against people exactly like oneself—smart, dedicated, hard-working Ph.D.s with publications and teaching experience.
In other words, the system is fucked.
On a side-note, a non-academic friend was shocked that I only applied to 20 jobs. She had applied to hundreds! I tried to explain that things were different in academia and that I had applied widely, really widely. This explanation fell flat.
So, for those of you in the humanities—if you guess wrong about what is hot or a growing field, if you follow your passion and do what you really love—you are 99% likely to be fucked over.
After my experience—five years of rejection on the job market—I made the decision to exit academia. The catalyst for this decision was the discovery that the only job I could get teaching full-time was to teach four classes of Composition a semester (which is incredibly labor intensive) at a university an hour away…. And, in addition to that backbreaking labor, to ALSO tutor three hours a week in the writing center. So basically, a fifth class. I could not do that. I would not be complicit in my exploitation.
But leaving academia has been heartbreaking. As bitter as I am, under that bitterness is a vast lake of sorrow and disappointment because I really do love reading and writing and teaching. And I’m really good at it. I just want the professorship they offered or something close to it—a tenure-track job (or even an adjunct job) teaching a reasonable load, with time to continue to write and research for a fair wage. For 99% of us, that promise is a lie. Having made my traumatic, heartbreaking decision—accompanied by many storms of sobbing—I wiped up my tears and started researching and applying for jobs.
Then the other shoe dropped.
My ten years of hard work and teaching, my degree—all are meaningless outside of academia. Right now, it is hard to get a job anywhere, for anyone. But when companies look at me, they see someone without any “experience.” They see a teacher, who is, in their minds, useless.** Having a Ph.D. has made me well-nigh unemployable. In fact, I’ve gotten advice to leave it off my resume entirely… thereby creating a ten year gap in my employment history. No, thanks.
Right now, in addition to our house of student loan debt, my husband and I are racking up a charming chalet of credit card debt to fund our extravagant, having-a –roof-over-our-heads lifestyle. I’ve been looking for work for four months and I have nothing. I’ve seen a recruiter, I’ve contacted temp agencies, I’ve had a million and one informational interviews (in which they all tell me to build my network and explain how my skills are “transferrable”, the first of which I’m doing by meeting with them and the second of which I would be more than happy to do if I ever got to the actual interview.) I’ve written and rewritten my resume, had various contacts look it over, and practiced interviewing with my BFF. I’ve worked my network, I’ve thought creatively about where I want to work, I’ve blah blah blah.
My BFF (incidentally, my Wellesley roomie) was working as a receptionist at a nonprofit when I started grad school. She rose through the ranks and became their Director of Development and then she moved to another organization. She is awesome. In the ten years I spent earning my degree and working as a professor, she spent working at a nonprofit. She owns a house with nifty solar panels and has a rewarding job that pays well; I have a ton of student loan debt, no useful experience, and no job in sight.
I thought that going to grad school was the smart thing…. But I’m here to tell you that it isn’t. Save yourself. Go get a job. ***
*Why? To make the current professors feel like they have something important to do? Partly. Partly because Grad school is an apprenticeship system and the crappy introductory classes that the faculty don’t want to teach are pawned off on the grad students for “teaching experience.” This would be fine, except that these poorly paid apprenticeships don’t actually lead to jobs. So they admit grad students to teach under grads, graduate them, they fail to get jobs, but the university doesn’t care because it has another class of entering grad students to teach its undergrads.
**Don’t get me started on our society’s lack of respect for teachers, K-12, college, pre-K, all of it. Just google Jon Stewart Teachers vs Bankers.
***This is a highly personal confessional account of how going to grad school was the worst decision of my life, but if you want to go do some research and see what others have said about getting a Ph.D. in the humanities I recommend searching for columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education (e.g. http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846/), reading Penelope Trunk (with a giant caveat and some salt), and google post-academic.