“Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life”: A Selloutyoursoul Reader Writes In

Why a Ph.D in English is false advertising and how to rebuild your career and find meaning outside of academic jobs. This article talks about some of the grad school cliche students I’ve met and why new thinking is needed in order to reform higher education in the humanities.

Yesterday, while checking my blog’s analytics (the tool you can use to see how people find your blog), I found that a popular  search phrase people use to find my site is this: “Ph.D. in English useless  destroyed my life.”

I found this incredibly sad. To think that out there, in some library or little apartment, a newly minted Ph.D. in English is punching that awful, absurd phrase into his keyboard.

And what are they expecting to find with that search phrase? If you are reading this right now I’m sorry that my blog can’t offer you more direction.

But I thought for today, as a change, I wouldn’t write about my story.  Instead, I would write about those other students who stayed much longer in grad school than I did.

This post is about the friends and peers I left behind in grad school.  The ones who woke up today, dragging their book bags to class, walking home from the bus, and for those still up there, in the library for years and years working towards that massive goal of getting a Ph.D. in the humanities.

And for those searchers out there, typing “Ph.D. in English useless destroyed my life” into your MacBook with a wall of books at your back and a pile of debt, all I can say is that you’ve taken the hardest step.

You’ve accepted that graduate school is a trap and now can begin to rebuild and move onto something else.

These portraits are my friends, my peers, and some of the grad school cliches I met along my climb and fall.  You can judge my snapshots as harshly as you want.  But these are the people still running. They are real.

The Grad School research superstar

He was born to be a professor.

He published 2 articles by the end of his undergrad.  The first year of his Ph.D., he published a long article on Hegel in a leading journal, and then an article on some mystic philosopher I’ve never heard of.

He has been studying philosophy since he was 15 years old.  Not the pompous kind of studying.  Not like me. Not carrying around Plato’s Dialogues and reading a few pages in public places.  He has been systematic.  He is an authentic thinker.  He belongs in the university.  His role is as a professor.

In his third year of his doctorate, he begins to study Kant, publishes a book chapter on ethics and being, and gets an article published in Critical Inquiry.

Grad school money flows to him.  He easily makes more from his scholarships in grad school than he would as an assistant professor.

If he hadn’t gone to grad school in the humanities, he could have gone to law school.  It would be sad to see a rich kid who barely passed the LSAT take on this guy in court.

Or he could have analyzed stock.  He could have written a best-seller about marketing strategy or built a business with the same systematic accuracy which he used to understand the philosophy of Kant.

But he got into a very prestigious university. He was offered money and was miles ahead of any of his peers.  He was offered a place among professors. They welcomed him.  He was one of them.

This year I hear from him.  He is still busy, publishing a chapter in the Rutledge Guide to Something, revising his dissertation with a Post-Doc, a little tired, but busy. This was his first year on the job market. No interviews.  But this year the market was especially brutal.  So, he goes back to writing.

He will try again next year, keep running.  What else could he do? He’s too far into it now. And he still has 2 years of a Post-Doc to pay his rent.  He still has his monograph to publish.  He is still flourishing and coming of age as a scholar.

So next year.  The second year of the Ph.D. job search. We will wait till then.

But isn’t it strange that when applying to grad schools he was eaten up, courted, money was thrown at him, grants, fellowships, and (I imagine) effusive praise from his professors.

Yet after his dissertation, he has gotten his first taste of the most difficult transition: from professional student to professional scholar.

He better get a job.  And a good job.  A job where he can create, think, and research.  Not just teach 101 classes.

Because if he doesn’t get a tenure job it means that the humanities is simply wasting talent.

It means the humanities just finds talented young people, encourages them,  develops them, indoctrinates them into their culture, harvests their energy to fill their journals, and then sends these people drifting, wasting their time and abilities.

If you aren’t going to use our thinkers to their best potential, then give them back academe. Or don’t hold them there so long, waiting.

I’ll hold my judgement a little longer, but he better get a job.

The confused artist

He doesn’t say much in class.  But when it comes time for him to deliver his presentation, it shows that he works hard.  He is a little behind the latest theoretical trends and his dissertation proposal sounds vague.  Something on modernism and time.

That’s because he doesn’t really care about scholarship. He tells you, as you walk to class, that he is writing a novel.  Working on his novel, as if everyone has one.  I didn’t.

He sees graduate school as work.  It isn’t his passion, but a legitimate way of trying to be an artist.  He is safe to fail at his creative work here.

With an office and undergraduates to teach, he would be protected from failure.  Just another professor without enough time to finish his creative work.  Just another writer who makes their living at teaching.

I like him.  The last time I see him we joke about how we will never get jobs.  We laugh at the impossibility of our future careers ever actually happening. It’s hilarious.

We laugh at the Director’s anecdote about how he tosses out dozens of applications from newly minted Ph.D.’s everyday. That’s hilarious too.

We laugh about why they don’t make it.  Outdated research interests.  Books about theories that were fashionable five years ago.  Confused blends of cultural theory and formalist theory. We won’t make those mistakes.

We laugh at the terrible presentation from a fellow grad student we just heard.  The student’s thin sliver of an argument, packed under weeks of fact digging.

Or laugh at the schizophrenic multi-disciplinary research interests of mature student, tracking the relationship between neuroscience and Shakespeare. Try to find a department interested in that.

We laugh at the class, laugh at Toni Morrison, make up stupid titles for our papers, and congratulate each other on our fine work.

Then one day, I disappear. I got tired of laughing at the absurdity of one day finding a job with a Ph.D.

I wonder what happened to him.  I hope he finished his novel, instead of his dissertation.

The perpetual, self-delusional adult grad student

He has just returned from Europe, and the three-month trip allowed him, as he tells you on the bus, “to really continue my study of literature and culture.”

As nobody else seems to be able to make their grad support stretch much past rent and bills, let alone a trip abroad, it seems likely that his intellectual odyssey has some other form of support, like a parent.

He dyes his hair to cover the gray and one day decides that he isn’t a student anymore. School is his job.

And so, he begins to dress like a new assistant professor, carrying his books around in a briefcase.

He tells me one day while we are waiting for class to begin that his career plan is to, simply, “swap roles with the professor, go from student to teacher.”

I look around the room and realize we all have that same idea. The economics seem a little off.

But he doesn’t like games.  He doesn’t like the administration side of academe, the chase for grants and awards, and so his name doesn’t appear much around the department.

But he is there. He walks through the hallways, greeting a professor in German.

Herr Doctor. The professor says something in German.  And his response, a laugh with nein, nein, Herr Doctor.

I was never convinced he was fluent.

He sits in the Grad student lounge, drinking coffee and reading the campus paper. He has been there for years and years.  I don’t even know who his supervisor is or what he is even writing on.

When a professor takes us out for drinks after a seminar, he gets drunk.  He talks about “the ruined landscapes of literary history.”  It seems a little vague for the 7th year of study.

He tells us that he intends to spend his lifetime trying to understand Saint Augustine. Or Virgil.  Or one of the great books of Western Civilization.

He is a humanist. He hates his graduate seminars as they make us write small essays like undergraduates.  Grad school is his arrival. He feels that he has made the transition from student to scholar.

During class, he speaks cryptically about Shakespeare.  The professor looks embarrassed.

The professor has been called “one of the most prolific literary scholars in Canada, an intellectual force of nature.”

The professor has written 11 scholarly works.

And the professor probably wonders at what point during his prestigious lifetime did grad school stop being a place for serious academic training for a few elite young scholars and turn into an extended career delay for undergraduates, a fantasy land for over-grown adults to imagine their love of Shakespeare and culture would one day translate into income and a title.

I still see the student around town.  He crosses the street, with a sharp coat and briefcase.  He is heading somewhere. Determined and well-dressed.

The confused, the hopeless nerd

The hopeless nerd.

The one who has been trained to think that school is the only place that welcomes her, that grad school is her reward for years of studying and exile.

Grad school is a way to turn her passion for books, mythology, and love for esoteric areas of expertise into social prestige and income.  She is the most committed and I don’t know how it ends for her.

She gives long, long presentations, making allusions to the difference between the original Old English text and its bastardized, inferior translation every two minutes.

Her presentations are so long that the professor stops her and asks her to finish.  She doesn’t listen but concedes by speaking faster and faster.

Every word is a pearl that she has to share.

In her essays, her footnotes explode into other footnotes, which reference other footnotes and begin rival the bulk of her essay.

I would be surprised if anyone on the planet, other than herself, has read a single one of her footnotes.  She loves the apparatus of her text, and loves calling it an apparatus.

Her ambition is extreme.

During a class presentation on a modernist writer, she will suddenly break out laughing and then explain that while she was reading the last section she almost switched into Old English.  You are encouraged, by her, to interpret that as evidence of her fluency between the two languages.

She continues to write papers after she has graduated, posting her latest results on Facebook.  She is now an independent scholar.  She is invited to talk on Medieval topics at conferences.  She has been to over 15 conferences, almost all of them on her own money. I have never heard of any publications.

She is smart.  She has won awards.  She could have done other things.  She lives 500 years away from her own historical moment. She is proud of that.

At a career fair, she tells us, the recruitment officer from a government agency asked if she was interested in hearing about their positions.  She told them she doubted they could use her expertise which is a Ph.D. in Old English poetry.  I’m sure they agreed and flagged down the next accounting diploma.

Does she know how hard it is to get a tenure job as a Medievalist?

Think of all the English departments in North America.  Think of your own English department.  There might be 20 professors who teach modern and contemporary literature.

How many Medievalist professors? Two, three?

How many positions across North America open up every year? Twenty? Ten?

Whatever number it is, it will be a number that will only shrink.  The children of the future will not be studying Beowulf. I have two English degrees and I never even read it.

She is betting her future on a dead language.  It is a past language of empire that has long been buried.  Latin, Greek, Old English–in 50 years, nobody will care to learn them.  Hardly anyone cares now.

But these things make her happy.  They are what she wants to do.  You can’t grudge her for that.

She will most likely continue as an adjunct.  She might teach a few community college courses on Chaucer.  Or, maybe land a tenure job, but the odds are against her.

Maybe she will be happy with that.  Maybe having a Ph.D. is all she needs to feel accomplished.  Maybe she likes to feel like an exile, a fringe scholar.

Maybe grad school is right for her.

Leaving, at last, the cliche of me

And then there was me.  I’m out there somewhere, on some grad’s blog.  The guy who used to talk a lot in class, and argue aggressive points, and then who started to talk less and less.  Silent judgements.  Withdrawal.

I call these the doomed humanities majors.  But that is extreme.  They aren’t doomed only a little lost.

A PhD in English doesn’t destroy your life.  It’s just false advertising. Grad school is false advertising.

It spits you out somewhere you never expected to be.  It leads you towards a final goal, which turns out to be another goal, a new set of challenges to climb.

And you are tired at the top.  You only packed for 10 years of flux, not 20.

The purists will argue for preserving the humanities: it is the proper study of knowledge which shouldn’t be made to answer to commercial demands.

But higher education is too formalized to be called pure learning.  It is too geared towards the production of new knowledge, new scholars, new theoretical interventions to be a place where thinkers come to dialogue and to sit and converse in the garden.

Grad school and the chase for tenure is a rat race just like any career.  Only it has a very low chance for success and very modest financial reward at the end of it.

That doesn’t mean it needs to be destroyed.  But it needs to be rethought.

When I told my Director I was dropping my PhD scholarship because of the job market, I expected him to say: don’t be silly, our graduates get jobs.  We are one of the top 25 universities in the world! We place Ph.D’s in tenure track jobs all the time!

But instead he said that I had made the right decision not to do a PhD in the humanities if “my only reason for doing so was to get a job.”

Yes sir, it was.  To be able to think for a living was the nice perk. But I did expect to get some sort of compensation for my work.

Sorry for being such a vulgar, thoughtless, and commercial fraud.

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  1. Hi there;
    I read this column today and saw it was published four years ago. All of the personas were very astutely drawn — I was just wondering what happened to the “superstar” graduate student you mentioned. You said he didn’t get a job on the first round, and that if he didn’t get one next year, it would show what a sham humanities is. So did he get a job? (I’m going to be applying for jobs with my new PhD (that God not in English) soon so I’m curious.) Thanks!

  2. This is the most ridiculous and whiniest statement I have ever heard. As someone who holds a PhD in English myself and has never taught one day in the classroom, I can tell you that you never learned your discipline and you don’t deserve to be in the classroom. And English degree, especially a PhD is one of the few degrees where you can do anything you want. Not every business hires lawyers, but every business needs editors. Not every business hires doctors, but every business needs proofers. Not every business needs accountants, but every business needs creators. If you’re so stupid that, after eight to twelve years of studying your discipline, you don’t know how to sell it, that’s your fault for never learning how to apply your education to yourself. A PhD, itself, is about proving how to make your education applicable and why you’re the one who should do it. That’s not the fault of the degree. That’s your fault. Plain and simple. You don’t deserve a PhD because you don’t understand it. Sell your garbage somewhere else.

      1. To Real Steven. As a matter of fact, you ignorant bum, McDonald’s does happen to hire MANY writers, communicators and people who are masters of English language. They just don’t flip burgers. So, yes, McDonald’s does have plenty of those jobs. Your problem is, you never learned how to market your degree and that’s your fault, not the Ph.D diploma. Call me pompous all you want, but just because I learned I, not that piece of paper hanging on my wall, am the degree and if you can’t figure it out after earning any kind of degree, then you don’t deserve anything more than a piece of paper hanging from your wall. The purpose of the Ph.D is to show you can make an impact on the world, of which a demonstration is required to receive a Ph.D. in the first place. If it’s pompous for me to recognize this as a Ph.D holder, then so be it because, no matter what your diploma says, if you don’t know this as a doctor yourself, then you are no doctor. You may have passed the classes to earn that Ph.D, but you failed to understand the core of what you were supposed to learn in the process in general. That’s your laziness and ignorance, not that piece of art you have hanging on your fridge or wall or wherever you put it. If I’m pompous, it’s because I’ve earned that right. You haven’t because you clearly have no understanding of what it means to be, not own, a Ph.D.

    1. Darren, with respect, you have solid points but I think you may be missing the bigger picture. A Ph.D. – a doctor of philosophy – is about the study and love of knowledge; it is a research-based degree that culminates in a dissertation. One does not become an expert in Victorian post-transcendental Freudian readings of Kant (that’s in jest) to become a glorified copy editor. One can be an editor, proofer, or creator with little more than an undergraduate or master’s degree. In fact, having a Ph.D. for those positions is overkill that represents over $240,000 in unearned income over a 6-year degree period.

      It doesn’t matter that you *can* get a job or that you can “sell” your degree; the point is that in the humanities, the degree itself does not lead to its intended job – academia or research – in the overwhelming majority of cases. These are not cases of poorly-qualified individuals – these are smart, sharp, highly qualified people. Sure, many of these students should have picked a career with better prospects, but these programs also know that they are also admitting far, far more students than they will ever successfully place in the very careers that the students are pursuing their degrees to obtain. A Ph.D. should never be something you need to market. The field is saturated and yes, for most of those who entered the field with hopes of an academic career, that degree is often worthless.

      1. The only person who would make statements such as “not every business needs lawyers” or “accountants” is someone who knows nothing of the real world. Enjoy your useless degree. I’m loving the $350k I made last year as a tax attorney.

  3. Hi Issac,

    I am but one person with a perspective. I wrote the words because that is what I felt. As for “It also seems unethical that this article shows up when I look for PhD programs,” I am afraid you’ll have to take that up with Google.


  4. This is what a Ph.D really means:

    You know more and more, about less and less, until you know everything about nothing.

  5. This is the best website I’ve seen a while.

    PhD’s are a major waste of people’s time and energy. I’ve known enough people with an MA who earn less than 30k a year. People with “experience” in academia (teaching, tutoring, etc) who never were able to secure a job that actually IS secure. Tenure track? The odds are better for winning the lottery. Those positions are being replaced by adjuncts and part-timers with no benefits or guarantees of teaching even the next semester.

    The amount of debt people who are getting their PhD accrue is insanely high. The only reason to go is if you have it paid for by someone else.

    Academia is a pipe dream, built upon student’s back’s and days in the library studying obscure garbage that their professors have directed and controlled them to write.

    You are their slaves, their bitches, the sad creatures they possess to use and abuse until they retire and steal money from your paycheck in taxes.

  6. So you updated this post and cut the “smart, nice, professional young women” who all study the Victorians and are doing this instead of becoming lawyers or rising up the corporate ladder? Maybe the original post was condescending, but the portrait you painted of that type was accurate. I majored in English and I met them in spades. I guess someone accused you of being douchey and got you to take it down.

    the post is douchey but accurate anyway, so why update it to just make it slightly less douchey and accurate? Just lean into it and don’t be cowed by social pressure. Since you’re a blogger and not an untenured academic you can speak your mind without fear of censure.

  7. He cut that section because it was a thinly-veiled portrait of two TENURED PROFESSORS at the school both he and I went to and I’m assuming they got wind of it and asked him to take it down. He was stupid enough to use the titles of their actual published work to make fun of female Victorianists. He wasn’t just being condescending to some imagined category of person, he was mocking two grown women who have been immensely successful in the field in which he was not immensely successful. If you’re going to write a blog post about the types of failed intellectuals you encounter in grad school, why include an anecdote about remarkably competent and intelligent women? Answer quickly.

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What Should I Do After Grad School in the Humanities?

What Should I Do After Grad School in the Humanities?