Is doing a Ph.D. in the humanities a good idea? Here is my answer to that question.
The greatest fear of graduate students in the humanities: the cold brute facts of the outside world.
Not because we don’t think we can cut it out there. But because we somehow come to believe we are better than that world, plucked by the higher powers of education into a special rank. A place has been reserved for us. Our arrival has been expected by the wisdom of ideology, the generational reach of the system.
We have been trained to see ourselves as elite. A different breed of minds. A small percent of humans profoundly sensitive to existence, to interpret what is left unsaid in culture, to insulate ourselves from the harsh banalities of commerce and take refugee in the halls of departments. The world doesn’t understand the university. And the university, it grasps the world and watches it with more clarity than the world cares to see itself.
We sleep late. We wake and sip coffee, entering the archives of dead voices. We walk the deserted pathways of campuses, and drink wine and cheese in small garden courtyards amongst talk of the final known letter of T.S. Eliot shored away in the bosom of his last lover. A special breed. Eclectic interests. The self-importance of specialist degrees, detached into a state of willful ignorance of the mundane flow of everyday life a state which we term contemplation. We return in spring, in summer, and climb down into the archives while the rest of the student body has left for winter vacation.
Then one day some of us wake up.
For 2 years during my M.A., I researched the burial practices of 15th century Englanders, the rhetoric of fascism, Greek rhetorical techniques, Lacan and responsibility, Jewish ethics, the German post-war avant-garde, Augustine’s thoughts on language and prayer, Reformation theology and the spectacle, and the aural innovations of modernism and fascist aesthetics. I then spent the last year researching my final research thesis on post-human ethics and ecology.
For all of those hours and hours and hours spent in the library, I never researched one question. Is doing a Ph.D. in the humanities a good idea?
It happened one day just before the Christmas break. I was sitting in the university library and going back and forth between writing a final term paper on Cormac McCarthy for my American Lit. class and polishing my research proposal for Ph.D. programs. I became bored. It was around 4 in the afternoon, and the day had just begun to turn to that depressing darkness of winter. I was in no hurry. The library closed at midnight. My girlfriend was watching TV at home in our little apartment. She was used to being bull-dozed this time of year, the importance of due dates sucking every hour or every day into my vague notions of the ability of one day being able to provide for us from my academic abilities.
I decided to take an hour, and just see if others thought of doing a Ph.D. in English. I had taken calculated steps to make this dream a reality for the past seven years. I realized that in all of that time I had never done much research on the degree. I was going to receive the highest, most prestigious degree on the planet. How could a graduate degree in the humanities be a bad thing for employability?
I typed into the search barˆ’Is doing a Ph.D. in the humanities a good thing?ˆ’and was pretty confident that I would find a blend of optimism and pessimism. Something along the lines of, yes, it is hard, difficult road designed for a special mind, an ambitious type of person, but it is a road less travelled, the path outside of the normal career path that ultimately leads to a sense of deep personal worth, accomplishment, and financial security. Do it young man. Take the risk. Be brave. It will turn out. You will see. Sapere aude!
Google didn’t give me triumph. Google gave me exiles, the anger of the over-educated and under-employed, it gave me statistics on the average time of completion of a Ph.D. in the humanities (7 to 8 years, not the 4-5 years boasted by your courting program), it gave me the realistic wage expectations (less than a pool cleaner), the anxiety and despair of those who don’t make it to the tenure track (one woman described her despair at leaving academia after 10 years of preparation as ”curling into the fetus position on her lover’s floor and sobbing”), broken ambition, misunderstood accomplishments (one newly minted Ph.D. reported returning to her husband’s family with the good news that while she didn’t get any job offers she did have some interest from the U of Cambridge Press for her monograph, an accomplishment that received the family’s disappointment somehow this great news still meant that she was in her thirties without a steady income), and the elegiac moaning of a failed academic who, after not having access to a university library for the first time in 10 years, wandered the streets of the city, alone, defeated, and left to interview for small paying jobs that wouldn’t hire anyone without writing experience.
Ph.D.’s do not, despite what your professor tells, you, qualify you in the eyes of future employers to claim the status of a writer. In fact, they scream to future employers: boring content stuffed with the annoying clutter of academic prose. People don’t want to hear about philosophy. They want to know how to make more money, be more attractive, healthier, and well-liked. I didn’t believe this at the time. I do now.
My search also gave me the comments of countless academics who cried against the methodologies of the studies, the subjective experiences of failed academics, the bitter yet justifiable shortage of tenure track jobs, and the other nuances of facts that academics have been trained to sniff out.
True. There is some subjectivity in the gloom about the academic job-market. But there is also, for me, something left unaddressed.
Wasn’t the ambition and work ethic that made me succeed at undergraduate and graduate study being exploited here? I mean if there truly are a shortage of jobs in the humanities why did every professor I have try to push me to the next level? Why was there warm letters of acceptance from Ph.D. programs across the country? Why did the directors phone me, try to woo me, tell me that they would be very sad if I went to another school, and promise me more and more money?
Prestige is a trap. Graduate students become addicted to prestige. They do ridiculous things like go into law school after spending 7 years in a doctoral program.
They enter as young, bright, and the best students in their provinces, their countries, their generation. They leave filled with obscure talents, obscure accomplishments, and the inability to reclaim some of the brilliance, discipline, and creativity to apply it to achieving success in their own life–without the crutch of the university’s brand attached to their name.
I left the library and walked to the bus-stop. The university coffee-shop was closed. The trees were leafless; the campus pathways dry and cold. I waited for the bus and felt like an idiot. I wondered what my friends would think when they found out I was thinking of not doing a Ph.D. For the longest time, I was going to be a professor. I had talked about it for so long, my friends and family took it for granted. It was supposed to be the right thing to do. The smart thing to do. The only thing to do.
I wondered what it felt like to live outside of an academic track. I thought of the woman curled up on the floor of her small apartment, crying, feeling like a fool for believing in something so long only to come to the grips of being over-educated and without a practical skill.
Why didn’t I pay more attention to the world earlier? What if I suppressed this information and continued on? What if I just tackled the odds and went for it?
Mostly, I wondered what I would think of myself in five years, after I had graduated with my Ph.D., jobless, and still returning home for Christmas with friends and family askingˆ’So are you working yet? No, not yet, just revising my book. Yes, then I will finally be employable. It just takes 10 years of education, a book, and years of teaching experienceˆ’then I will able to take a $30,000 per year starting job.
But what if it ended differently? What if I ended up on the other side of Grad school, with a big comfy house filled with books, and a nice comfortable job in an English department somewhere? Was this another test to weed out the weak? Or was it the writing on the wall, the reality of things that humanities majors are so famously incapable of addressing?
It is December. Applications have been sent. The term is about to start again. The train is leaving the station, leaving some at the platform while others continue to stare out the window. The cycle is about to turn over again.