“Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life”

Last Updated on September 15, 2023 by Robert Porter

In a recent dive into my blog analytics—a tool offering insights into how readers discover my content—I stumbled upon a heart-wrenching search query: "Ph.D. in English useless destroyed my life."

Imagine the despair of someone, perhaps in a dimly lit room surrounded by towering stacks of books, despairingly typing those words into their search bar. While I wish I could provide immediate solutions to those feeling such anguish, it prompts a crucial discussion on the current state of higher education, especially in the humanities.

Rather than delve into my personal journey, today's focus shifts to the countless dedicated scholars I've encountered. These are the tenacious souls who've poured years into research, writing, and teaching, all with the aim of achieving that elusive Ph.D. in humanities.

If you've found yourself questioning the value of your Ph.D. in English, weighed down by debts and unmet expectations, know that acknowledging this is your first step towards reclaiming control and redirecting your career path.

This article is dedicated to those I've known during my academic years, each representing diverse experiences and challenges. They are more than mere 'grad school stereotypes.' They're flesh-and-blood individuals, each with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Their stories are a testament to the urgent need for systemic change in how we approach and value higher education in the humanities.

Let's dive deep into these narratives and explore how we can reform higher education for a more fulfilling and purposeful future.

The Grad School Research Superstar

From the outset, it was clear he was destined for academia.

Even before completing his undergraduate degree, he had two articles to his name. By the first year of his Ph.D., his insights on Hegel graced the pages of a renowned journal, followed by another piece on an esoteric philosopher.

This wasn't merely a passing interest; he delved into philosophy at 15. He wasn't superficially flaunting his knowledge. He's the real deal: a true intellectual who seamlessly fits the mold of academia. A professorship seemed to be his calling.

The third year of his Ph.D. journey saw him dissecting Kant's works, authoring a chapter on ethics and existence, and gaining recognition in Critical Inquiry.

Scholarships and fellowships in grad school gravitated towards him. Financially, he was out-earning most entry-level professors.

Had he not chosen the academic path, law could've benefited from his analytical prowess. Or, with his meticulous nature, he might have delved into stock analysis, penned a groundbreaking marketing book, or even built a business empire.

Yet, academia embraced him early on. Esteemed institutions wooed him with funds and accolades. He wasn't just another student; he was one of the elite scholars.

Today, he remains active in his academic pursuits, contributing to esteemed publications and refining his dissertation as a Post-Doc. However, the competitive job market gave him a reality check. No job offers materialized this year, but hope remains for the coming year. With two more years of his Post-Doc tenure, a monograph to be published, and his undying academic spirit, he's gearing up for another round.

But here lies the paradox: As a promising grad student, institutions were vying for his attention, showering him with funds and praise. Now, as he's transitioning from a diligent student to a potential scholar, the hurdles are mounting.

The stakes are high. He deserves a fulfilling position that allows him to innovate, ponder, and contribute to research, not just lead introductory courses.

Should he fail to secure a tenured position, it reflects a systemic flaw in the humanities. Are we merely nurturing bright minds, fueling their aspirations, utilizing their contributions for journals, only to then cast them adrift, underutilized?

If academia cannot harness the potential of its brightest, then perhaps it needs to rethink its approach. The clock is ticking, and for talents like him, the academic world needs to make space.

The Confused Artist

In class, he's usually the quiet one. But when he takes the floor for presentations, his diligence shines through. Admittedly, he might not always be on the cutting edge of theoretical discourse, and his dissertation topic on "modernism and time" might sound a tad nebulous.

But that's because academia isn't his endgame. In hushed conversations en route to class, he'd reveal his passion – he's penning a novel. To him, it seemed almost a given that everyone had a novel in the making. I certainly didn't.

He views grad school pragmatically, more as a job than a passion. It's his sanctuary where he's free to chase his artistic aspirations without the fear of failure.

Should he secure a professorial position with a cozy office and young minds to mold, he'd have the perfect shield against any setbacks in his literary journey. He'd then be the quintessential academic – the writer whose primary bread and butter comes from teaching.

There's a genuine charm about him. Our last rendezvous was marked by jests about the unlikely prospects of us landing academic jobs post-Ph.D. The thought itself was laughably daunting.

We'd chuckle over tales of the Director discarding heaps of applications from fresh Ph.D. grads. We'd mock the reasons some don't make the cut – antiquated research focuses, books championing now passe theories, or muddled amalgamations of cultural and formalist theories. We vowed not to tread those paths.

We'd jest about that recent lackluster presentation we'd attended or the bizarre research interests of another peer – something about correlating neuroscience with Shakespearean works. Talk about finding a department that'd champion that!

Classes, literary icons, and our self-devised amusing paper titles became subjects of our shared humor. We often lauded each other's works amidst these lighthearted moments.

But eventually, I faded from that scene, weary of the relentless jesting and the looming uncertainties of a Ph.D.-driven career.

I often ponder his fate. Did he prioritize his novel over his academic pursuits? I genuinely hope so.

The Popular, Professional Smart Young Women

They're well-liked by peers and professors alike, and it's not hard to see why. These individuals shine with their combination of intelligence, professionalism, and charm.

Interestingly, they all seem drawn to Victorian culture. Topics like visual culture, social politics, and the intricate sexual politics of the era captivate them.

Their work stands out, and not just because they follow the conventional title conventions like “Bleak Houses: Exploring Martial Violence in Victorian Times” or “Serial Fiction: The Impact of Jack the Ripper on Novelistic Narratives.”

They discuss historical publications like the Strand as if they were today's bestsellers. And while they delve into some of the most complex and explored novels in the English language, their passion for it is evident.

These scholars lead the pack. They're the first to show up at conferences, the ones collecting awards and accolades. Departments recognize their value, rewarding them with research positions, grants, and commendations.

Their networking skills are commendable, and they're more than just the typical intellectuals. Their contributions go beyond just quoting critics. In a parallel universe, one could easily picture them acing roles in marketing, law, advertising, or rapidly ascending the corporate hierarchy.

Their efficiency is awe-inspiring. Their consistent output of quality articles, outstanding presentations, and thoughtfully crafted lesson plans is a testament to their dedication and hard work. They're driven, detail-oriented, and genuinely affable.

Traditional milestones like stable careers, impressive accomplishments, spacious homes, and families are on their wish list. But they've momentarily set them aside to pursue their Ph.D.s – always strategizing, enhancing, and anticipating.

In the competitive job market, their mix of optimism, outgoing nature, and affability could likely be their edge. When faced with candidates of equal academic standing, their personalities could very well be the deciding factor.

Their commitment and perseverance undeniably make them deserving of success and professional opportunities. After all, they've put in the work and then some.

The Perpetual, Self-Delusional Adult Grad Student

Fresh from a three-month European sojourn, he gleefully shares tales of immersing himself deeper into the realms of literature and culture. While most grad students juggle bills and rent, his travels hint at an alternate source of support, perhaps familial.

With grey strands masked with dye, he evolves in his academic identity. School becomes more than just an institution for him - it becomes his professional calling. Dressed in the attire of an assistant professor and toting a briefcase, his transition seems almost complete.

While waiting for a class, he unveils his career vision, aspiring to transition "from student to teacher." A glance around the room echoes this sentiment among many, though the practicality of such dreams seems questionable given academic economic dynamics.

Not one for academic politics, his name seldom graces departmental announcements. Yet, he remains a constant presence, occasionally conversing with professors in German. His casual "nein, nein, Herr Doctor" responses, however, leave me skeptical about his fluency.

Years have passed, but he remains, a staple in the Grad student lounge, sipping coffee and perusing campus newspapers. His academic pursuits remain as mysterious as ever.

At a casual outing, he gets intoxicated, rambling about the "ruined landscapes of literary history" - a topic that seems abstract for someone in their 7th year. He envisions dedicating his life to understanding literary stalwarts like Saint Augustine or Virgil. To him, grad school signifies his transformation from a mere student to a dedicated scholar.

In class, his ambiguous remarks on Shakespeare receive mixed reactions. On the other end of the spectrum is the professor - hailed as "Canada's prominent literary scholar and an intellectual dynamo," boasting 11 scholarly publications. One can't help but wonder if the professor ever ponders when graduate school transitioned from elite academic training to an extended hiatus for literature enthusiasts hoping to turn their passions into careers.

Every now and then, I spot him in town - impeccably dressed with his signature briefcase in tow, always heading somewhere with unwavering determination.

The Confused, The Hopeless Nerd

Meet the quintessential bookworm.

For her, academic institutions have always been sanctuaries, and pursuing higher studies feels like the culmination of her relentless academic journey. With an undying passion for books, mythology, and niche subjects, she perceives graduate school as a golden ticket to transform her love for the esoteric into a respectable profession and income stream. Her dedication is unmatched, but her journey's conclusion remains a mystery.

During presentations, she often delves deep into the intricacies between original Old English texts and what she believes are less accurate translations. Often, her detailed analyses extend to such lengths that even professors have to intervene, urging her to conclude. Yet, her ardor for sharing every tidbit remains unquenched.

Her written works are unique, with footnotes branching into other footnotes. Although the depth of her annotations might seem excessive, she revels in the complexities of her craft, often referring to her text structure as an "apparatus."

Highly ambitious, she occasionally showcases her proficiency in Old English during modern literature discussions, suggesting her fluency. Post-graduation, she identifies as an independent scholar, frequently sharing her findings online. Despite attending numerous conferences, primarily funded by herself, her publication record seems scant.

Undoubtedly brilliant, she has been recognized with awards. With skills that could have paved different paths for her, she chooses to dwell in an era centuries apart from her own and takes pride in it.

At job fairs, she often faces the dilemma of matching her unique expertise in Old English poetry with contemporary job roles. With the shrinking demand for Medievalist positions across academic institutions, the question arises: Is she banking her future on a diminishing field?

Contemporary English departments largely focus on modern literature, with only a handful specializing in medieval literature. The future might even see further diminishment in the interest for ancient texts like Beowulf.

Yet, amidst these uncertainties, her happiness is evident. She finds joy in her chosen path. And while the path to a tenured position may be arduous, her contentment might lie in simply having a Ph.D. or in the pleasure of being a specialist in a rare field.

Perhaps, the academic world is truly where she belongs.

Leaving, At Last, The Cliche of Me

My story might be echoed on a graduate's blog somewhere. Once, I was the vocal one in class, known for my strong opinions. Over time, my active participation waned, replaced by silent contemplations and a sense of detachment.

Let’s label this the narrative of the 'misguided humanities majors,' though 'doomed' sounds too harsh. These individuals are not destined for failure; they're simply navigating a murky path.

Undertaking a PhD in English doesn't spell disaster. Rather, it's about realigning expectations. The portrayal of graduate school often differs from its reality. You enter expecting a linear journey but end up facing unanticipated detours, with an ever-shifting end goal. One moment, you feel prepared for a decade's journey; the next, you're grappling with the thought of another uncertain decade.

Traditionalists champion the preservation of humanities, emphasizing its role as a true pursuit of knowledge, immune to commercial influences. However, modern higher education seems far removed from this ideal. It leans more towards generating new knowledge, cultivating fresh scholars, and producing novel theories. The envisioned serene environment for intellectual discussions seems replaced by an intense competitive arena.

The quest for advanced degrees and subsequent tenure often mirrors the challenges of conventional careers, but with grimmer success probabilities and modest returns on investment.

This isn't to say the system needs dismantling. However, a re-evaluation is crucial.

When I confided in my Director about forgoing my PhD scholarship due to the daunting job market, I anticipated reassurance about our university's prestigious rank and the success of its alumni. Instead, I received an unexpected yet profound insight: pursuing a PhD in humanities shouldn't solely be about job security.

Indeed, the allure of being a paid thinker was enticing. Yet, the expectation of earning a reasonable livelihood post-studies wasn't unwarranted. Does that make me materialistic or unrealistic? I'd argue neither.

Why Higher Education in The Humanities Won’t Survive

The dynamics of change are often overshadowed in the academic environment. Modern universities, in many ways, are reactive entities. They delve into transformations long after they've reshaped the world beyond recognition.

Universities thrive on the pulse of the world, feeding off its ever-evolving nature. In essence, they're more dependent on the world than vice versa.

Without embracing innovation, we risk perpetuating the stereotypical graduate student archetype year after year. They'll continue producing niche studies, increasingly fading into obscurity, as most delve into these texts only to challenge them in their own work.

Future generations will encounter these patterns. Perhaps, even you might find yourself educating them.

A vital takeaway is this: walking the well-trodden path guarantees familiar destinations. Instead, consider charting a unique course.