22 October 2008

The Pursuit of Happy-ness

In a recent post on RateYourStudents.com, a person responded to a question about whether to tell prospective grad students the truth about their job prospects by saying:

"Anyone who advises someone into graduate school should be sent to advise young men and women to volunteer for active military service in Afghanistan, because their chances of happiness are better there."

I'm feeling that right about now. But at the same time, I can't help but think that if I had known my job prospects would be so dismal, I still would have done the degree. I can honestly say, I didn't know. When Mountain State recruited me for my MA, they showed me an impressive list of their job candidates from the last 8 years--97% were in tenure track jobs within less than three years. You'll get a job coming out of this school, I was assured. By the time that I came to Prairie state to do my PhD, I knew that the market was rough, but I also "knew" that people who were well prepared, with publications and teaching experience, could still do just fine.

Maybe they can, in theory. I'm not so big on theories lately.

The bottom line is that I don't think anyone who wants to go to grad school should be dissuaded from going after an advanced degree. I have come to believe, at least for the humanities, that there needs to be a bit more honesty about what it is you're going to do with that degree.

In my field, people don't get non-academic jobs. Or at least, that's the myth. Instead, people stick around in adjunct hell, basically with about as much standing in the department (and funding) as a public school substitute teacher. But that's the dream, right? Just keep teaching part time to pay the bills and someday that little liberal arts college in the sky will learn of your existence and come to find you.

Once you're out, you're out. Right? And getting out means giving up on being an intellectual. Right?

I can see why people adjunct, really, I can. They get to keep doing what is comfortable for them--teaching, hanging out in academic buildings, reading obtuse theory. And if you're happy making a living doing that, then I think it's great.

But I also think that part of the misery of the job market could be ameliorated if grad students got more guidance with non-academic jobs. You know, the kind that only give you 2 weeks vacation a year and make you wear *gasp* suits to work. Five or more years of living the grad student life--even though you really do work around the clock--can make anyone nervous to leave it behind. The scheduling freedom is a wonder in and of itself.

I can't help but think, though, that hundreds, probably thousands, of smart, capable PhDs are adjuncting because they don't know what else to do. That to leave the halls of academia is to become a failure. There are moments, for me, when it surely feels like that. And then I think about how exciting it might be to get up every morning and go into an office, to have a job with retirement benefits and health insurance that includes a prescription plan and allows me to see a doctor that specializes in something other than mono and STDs. In a real doctor's office.

Because it's true that it would be miserable to be on the market for four years, as the writer above is/was. But it must also be true that it's possible to take your time in grad school as your first career, the one that most people aren't lucky enough to have, and to go out and find something else that makes you just as happy. Right?

1 comment:

SteveB said...

Hey LD. I haven't commented in a while but I'm still around. Basically I want to give you a big hug at the moment, but since I can't do that, I can just reaffirm that you do have options. Maybe not all of them are great ones, and maybe not all of them mean the small liberal arts school in the sky. But some of them are great opportunities.

Believe me, as I learned first-hand, there's nothing wrong with a second career (or probably a third, fourth, etc.) There ARE other jobs out there that will make you happy. Some of them are even at the small liberal arts school in the sky. When our favorite car salesman was talking to me about Mountain U. the same figures were trotted out, same 97% job placement, but as we both know from our friends and others who got their doctorates recently, Mountain's placement rate is slipping. That's just the way it goes sometimes.

"Once you're out, you're out" seems to be the way an older generation did things. And I'd like to think I haven't stopped being an intellectual even though I don't regularly read Foucault anymore. In fact, many intellectuals I know wouldn't waste their time on Foucault :)

I agree with you that it's easy to see why some PhDs in our discipline spend their lives in adjunct hell, and for some it's not a bad choice. But I would disagree with anyone that thinks leaving academia means failure. Sometimes things just don't work out. Sometimes after doing one thing for a few years you just get tired of it and want to experience something else. Sometimes you just find something else that excites you more. Sometimes financial or family circumstances necessitate a move and/or a different job. I don't think it's a waste to get a PhD, but I also don't think it's a mark of failure to leave that PhD aside.