Chances of finding a job with a Ph.D. in English: Or, Snow storms, the University of Toronto, and the Gloom and Doom of the Ph.D. Crisis in the Humanities

What are the chances of finding a job with a Ph.D. in English? Here are the prospects of finding a job with a Ph.D. in English as were given to me at a meeting designed to let students know whether getting a Ph.D. in the humanities was a wise career choice.

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You wanted to get a Ph.D. in English.  You heard that professors got paid pretty good and you decided that you’d at least give it a try.  You got into grad school.  Now is the fateful day they gather you into a small room and talk about the road to tenure and the chances of finding a job with a Ph.D. in English.  It’s subtitle is “Why there are no jobs in the humanities: Or, “how to bet your future on a 30% percent chance you get a tenure position.” But anyways, here is how the talk at my university went and it was, basically, the day I decided to not get a Ph.D. in English based on the few chances for tenure and finding a job which you actually trained for.

The Big Tenure Lie: The Good Ones Get Jobs

We gather in a small room on the third floor of the English department.  It is December and a small group of graduates and over-zealous honors students have come to hear about chances of getting a job with a Ph.D. after they spend five, six, or seven years training in the discipline.

We are, theoretically, about to hear about the employment opportunities for humanities Ph.D.‘s. I’m optimistic and ready to take some notes. Mostly, I feel arrogant as I know that half of the students in the room won’t make the tenure cut.  It’s survival of the strongest.  I’ve seen many of their grades and assume that my own GPA is the highest in the room.  Yes, deep down, I am an ugly competitive person. Too bad for them.

In 15 minutes, this arrogance will be sucked out.  This will be the most depressing meeting in my adult life. In 15 minutes I go from fairly optimistic about my chances for finding a job with a Ph.D. in English to the sad truth that very few grad students actually find a half-decent job with their Ph.D. and for the rest, the slow turn away from the dream of being a professor ends with a long bitter period of denial and then finally acceptance at the dismal state of tenure and actual job places available for Ph.D’s in the humanities.

Power-Point Slide #1: There are little chances of tenured employment for new humanities Ph.D’s

The professor giving the talk is young and the theme around the department seems to be that the younger you are the more bitter you are about your choice to get a Ph.D. in English.  One of his colleagues, a young Canadian scholar, often spends his Graduate seminar class on ecology and Canadian poetics, hammering the point that there aren’t any jobs for Ph.D’s. Yes, you can teach part-time.  But who wants to labour for 10 years in poverty only to secure yourself the duty of teaching composition classes and living without proper benefits.

“But you have a job,” his class protests. To which he reports his most treasured statistic, a pool cleaner makes over $40,000 per year and has been doing so since high-school.  The cruel fate of this is that assistant professors in the arts typically make 35,000 to 50,000 (depending on the region) per year.

The glory days are over.  Being a professor in a humanities department is a hard gig these days.  The university knows that if the shinning bullet on your resume is a 300 page monologue on the genesis of rhetorical modes of mourning in postmodernist installation art, then you probably won’t be straying too far off the university.  You’ve been trained by the university for the university.  You are here at the mercy of the job market.

Power-Point Slide 2: Shrinking Tenure Jobs. Growing numbers of Grad Students Training for Tenure Jobs. Rinse. Flush. Repeat.

It’s a new trend around the department.  The director talks about how his goal is to expand the Graduate body as much as possible in order to get more funding.  The assistant professors talk about the overproduction of Ph.D.s and how the end of the road for graduate students is underemployment, becoming high school teachers (after 10 years of over-qualification) or going to law school at the tender age of 33.

This leads to an uncomfortable cross-road for graduate students.  Either admit you were wrong, naive, and silly to pursue a graduate degree in the humanities.  Or suppress every fact, dismal statistic, and collective groan of the humanities system giving way, and give up.  “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” was the headline by William Pannacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  For those chasing thesis ideas in the archives of university libraries at the time of its publication, it was a depressing rally cry.

So, in retrospect, the old humanities ship seems to be plotting this course forwards. Overproduce! Flood the market! Publish! Perish! Eat the young! Feed the Old!

The enormous dream of tenure bent over the young scholar’s shoulders.

Welcome to grad school.

Power-Point Slide 3: Welcome New Ph.D.’s to Blizzards and Low Adjunct Pay.

The job talk starts.  I don’t remember much, except sitting there in the hot little room, and realizing the reality of the years after getting a Ph.D. in English.  The professor in charge of the talk tells about his years in Ontario after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.

He was an adjunct, scraping together a living by teaching a couple classes at Toronto and York.  He would drive between the universities in his old Toyota Corolla, and in the winter-time, the Ontario snow storms would slow the freeway traffic to a crawl.  He would teach a class in the morning somewhere and then drive to the next university, often prepping for the next class in a department bathroom.  On the weekends, he would try to publish his papers, revising and submitting to journals.  He also wanted to revise his dissertation into a monograph, but was busy sending out 300 applications a month for tenure track jobs.  After four years, he finally got a job offer.  An obscure little college in the States. Most Ph.D’s will try to get tenure jobs for about five years, and then give up.  He was one of the lucky ones.

He then managed to publish his way out of the obscure college after five years.  Now, moving your family around the country is fine, but for the purpose of teaching a few English classes for $50,000 per year before taxes seems a little strange.  From the first day of grad school to his final entry into a respectable tenure track, the total time spent would be 20 years (10 in university, 5 in adjunct/job search purgatory, and 5 in an obscure college).  The big prize at the end?  $60,000 dollars per year in a mid-sized university.  Not shabby.  But not worth killing yourself and pissing away your youth for.

I sit and listen.  I can only think of one thing.  There is no way in hell that I am going to battle Ontario snow storms, prep for classes in washrooms, and train myself for ten years into a discipline that, in the end, won’t even promise me health-care.  This is not what I signed up for.  I decided to do a Ph.D., to slave away for ten years, to give the formative years of my life to a university, in order to secure a future for me and my future family.  This was supposed to be a way up, a way to improve myself, and to secure my future.

Good Bye Professor, Goodbye

The next day, I am renting a movie at my local store.  I see the job-talk professor drive by. He has a slightly newer Toyota. He stares blankly as he drives home for dinner.

I go home, make tuna sandwiches and mushroom soup, and pour some cheap beer into wine glasses. It is dark outside the kitchen window.  As we eat, I finally blurt out to my girlfriend that I’m not going to go to McGill in September to do a Ph.D. in English. I talk slow at first, and then ramble out statistics on tenure jobs, anecdotes from the internet about the over-educated and disenfranchised, and the bleak prospect of discovering after 10-12 years whether the system has a place for you or whether you just weren’t quite the right fit for the department.

She is less surprised than I thought she would be. She comforts me, and tells me I should be excited about rejoining the real world.

I am.  Humiliated, but excited that I won’t have to enter a grim work force at the age of 33. And I won’t have to battle snow-storms.  And I might even make some money.


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