Yesterday, I went to a talk about finding jobs outside of Academe. Let me just say, what a lovely relief. Even though no one really talks about these things, it is, apparently, possible to make a good living and a happy life in a post-academic world.
But at the same time that this talk was extraordinarily liberating, it also made me realize just how frustrated I've become with the whole PhD system. Here's the deal--I really do want to be a professor. Not just because you get the summers off (you really don't), no just because I'll never have to wear a suit (I probably would anyway), and not because I don't know what else to do. I really do want to be a professor, because I've come to love my research and enjoy my teaching in ways that I couldn't have foreseen 6 years ago. I know the reality though.
The reality is that there are just not enough jobs out there. Only something like 40% of English PhDs get a tenure track teaching position at a university or college. That is less than a 50/50 chance of finding that happy little professorial post somewhere. The rest of the PhDs left will either leave academe or stick around in part-time adjunct positions, teaching ridiculous course loads for a tiny bit of what they should be worth. And they will adjunct for years and years, even though your chances of ever getting a tenure track position drop off significantly after 3 years, and even though they could be making far more money for less work doing something else.
So why do we do it?
My theory--and don't blame anyone but me for this one--is that we're trained to do it. After 5-10 years of being paid roughly $4000 more a year than if we'd been working minimum wage, grad students become accustom to a certain level of poverty. And, after 5-10 years of being the hip young TA that everyone seems to like, never wearing a suit or tie to class, and cultivating a fairly informal persona, grad students are in no mood to go join what they perceive as the mindless minions of a cubicled corporate culture. Put all of that together with a general understanding that to leave academia is to fail and a culture that is more than willing to pay you to continue your grad-like existence, and there's no wonder that so many of us get stuck in adjunct positions.
Now, I don't mean to insinuate that adjuncts aren't worthy or important teachers. For many people, a part-time university teaching position is exactly what they want and need. But for so many more--many of whom are the best teachers a University might have--the adjunct position and adjunct life isn't one to aspire to. No benefits. No job stability. And after 5-10 years in the graduate program, they now rank below graduate students in terms of importance to the department.
I've decided that whatever happens this fall, I refuse--adamantly refuse-- to adjunct.
It is a decision that has caused me no small amount of anxiety. After all, I've been a part of the University life in one way or another since 1997. Leaving this lifestyle is tantamount to a career change. It's a scary proposition.
But the talk yesterday helped me readjust my perspective on the whole situation. The truth is that I could see myself as a professor, but I can also see myself doing something else. Editing or publishing, or writing.
And the truth is that departments should be doing a lot more to stop herding qualified, intelligent students into adjunct land. At the very least, there needs to be a change in the way that professors and students think about post-academic life, because the truth of the matter is that over 30% of PhDs (at least in my discipline) just aren't going to be professors. It's frustrating, but burying our heads in the sand and refusing to think that we are certainly not one of those isn't helping anyone by the people in charge of getting departments to turn profits.