“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.” – W. Somerset Maugham
Yesterday, I got an email from a former student asking for advice on whether he should apply to a PhD program in English. This is not the first time someone has asked me this, though I have mostly stopped answering because (1) people must learn for themselves and no one thinks his or her experience will be typical; (2) graduate programs generally present an unconscionably glossy face to prospective students; (3) in order to persevere in an academic career, it is necessary to develop a personal philosophy that allows you to put the work first; and (4) my own experience in academia has been highly atypical.
Still, I consider May 1 to be my 6th anniversary as a PhD in English. This remains, in spite of all my criticisms, one of the greatest (and surprisingly joyful) achievements of my life. So every year around this time, I take a day to reflect on the good as well as the bad—how far I’ve come and what I’ve had to overcome as a result of my long years in graduate school.
As part of that, I write this blog post from a place of deep sincerity, responding to the question: should I apply to PhD programs in English?
Graduate school, especially in the arts and humanities, is an existential riddle very few people solve to any degree of satisfaction. Its dimensions are so far-reaching and complex that many years can go by before those who have lived through it get any kind of clarity about what they experienced.
I might have understood a bit more, a little bit sooner, about my situation than most graduate students. As someone who spent a significant amount of time acquiring various academic degrees and certifications, I have always been studying something. I grew up in an academic household, have been incredibly lucky with finding good teaching positions, and have learned to handle “administrative prevarication” in ways that have allowed me to survive. Not everyone has this experience. In fact, my story is an exception to a very unpleasant rule.
Deep-seated career frustration, depression, and even suicide seem to be on the rise for graduate students. This would appear true even if we assumed that 50 years of back-page articles on dysfunctional academia and the perpetual ranting in the higher-ed blogosphere was inherently anecdotal. By 2016, however, we no longer have to wonder. Over the last seven or eight years, we have been getting a clearer sense of how broken graduate education is in the west. William Pannapacker (aka “Thomas H. Benton”) writes in “Just Don’t Go, Part 2” (2009) that graduate schools
play obfuscatory games with their placement records and rarely give students a realistic sense of what it is like being in graduate school — how it’s not all about the “life of the mind” as two years gradually turns into a decade of contracting horizons and growing desperation.
Of course, the lack of accurate information available to students about graduate school is not accidental; it’s an essential component of the academic labor system. Even assistant professors, who should know what’s going on, encourage their students to go to graduate school because it is professionally risky to do otherwise. One might be seen as “doing a grave disservice to the profession,” as one writer said to me in a tone of bureaucratic menace.
But of the many letters I received last month, the majority included some version of “Why did no one tell me?” and “What am I going to do now?”
More than a few confessed the depression they experienced in graduate school. Several mentioned thoughts of killing themselves, and — after a decade of reading letters by the thousands on similar themes — I was not surprised at all. It’s more than accumulated anecdotes. As Piper Fogg recently presented it in The Chronicle (February 20): “67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.”
These are actual numbers. And the reason Pannapacker remains one of my personal heroes is that his was one of the earliest and most honest voices to talk about the obfuscation that I and my fellow graduate students experienced firsthand. What once sounded like a conspiracy theory, fancifully attempting to explain why an English department could be staffed with 8 tenured faculty members and 38 adjuncts, now looks like reality.
There has (at least since the late 1960s) been a dearth of reliable data for most academic fields correlating graduate student health, subsequent career performance, and program funding. I suspect this is because acquiring such information was as difficult as asking someone to incriminate themselves in court. There is a reason the Fifth Amendment exists. The academic analogue might be labeled, “The Conspiracy of Silence in the Interests of Self-Preservation.”
It’s not hard to understand that, particularly in academic culture, speaking up at any point may ruin one’s already slim job prospects. Moreover, it is unwise to use language like exploitation, depression, long-term poverty, unnavigable bureaucracy, Machiavellian feuding, and misrepresentation when talking about what you experienced for close to a decade as you tried to get a PhD. People will tell you to keep your mouth shut and that’s largely good advice, at least from the standpoint of the strategic job search. Unfortunately, it’s not so great from the standpoint of mental health.
Maybe your experience was like mine: after two masters degrees, I completed a PhD in just over 3 years. And though I suffered some serious personal tragedies toward the end of my program, I was able to complete my work with a minimum of trouble. Compare that to Zoe Stavri who writes in her blog, Another angry woman, that her PhD program was “so indistinguishable from depression, that I am left wondering whether in fact depression is a feature rather than a bug.” Or Audry Watters, now a freelance writer and tech journalist, who received no support or leeway when her husband died in the middle of her PhD in comparative lit. On her website, hackeducation.com, Watters explains why she quit:
I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics. (“The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program”)
Historically, what could usually be found (aside from the highly suspect Bowen and Sosa Report in 1989) came from confessions made online by the disappointed and the overlooked—those who no longer had anything to lose, felt they had gotten a raw deal from the academy, and were unwilling to be complicit any longer. Sadly, more of these non-entities exist now than ever before. The upside—if such a word could even be used in this context—is that people like William Pannapacker are telling the truth—at least a version of the truth that teaches survival.
The saddest, most tragic part is that only those who are tough survive. For example, I have survived because I love teaching so much, I’d do it for free and I’m ruthless about avoiding that eventuality. Others, whether through intensive networking or existing connections, survive through a kind of perpetual low-stakes patronage that can be like nepotism or hustling or just an exotic form of luck. But everyone agrees that academia shouldn’t be about these things. And, with the exception of Penelope Trunk, everyone agrees that a graduate humanities degree should not require the prospective student to have a trust fund as a prerequisite. As Alex Pang wrote back in 2004:
No one has born the weight of the decade’s terrible academic job market more than young Ph.D.s. Caught between a culture that insists they cannot leave academia, a system that doesn’t have enough room to allow them to stay, and a sense that Ph.D.s are not suited to nonacademic jobs and nonacademic jobs are unsuitable to Ph.D.s, they have too often found themselves deprived of opportunities and alternatives.
In a highly cited Chronicle of Higher Education column, “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult,” Margaret Newhouse mentions a number of unhealthy attitudes typical in this kind of academic culture, ranging from extreme perfectionism to overwhelming peer pressure to unrealistic career expectations. It’s useful to read her piece alongside a similar Chronicle post by Pannapacker in which the author summarizes Newhouse’s ideas relative to his own career:
Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.
For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. As Newhouse suggested—perhaps more rhetorically than seriously—graduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.
Science writer, Gwen Pearson, also thinks of academia as a cult and writes that the “Alternative Careers in Science” workshop she is regularly asked to give at her university is called “alternative” because “They don’t mean becoming a music composer or a patent examiner; they mean getting a job that isn’t a professor in academia. Because, to them, anything else IS alternative, and, ergo, inferior.”
For many grad students, it seems that there is eventually a “looking glass moment” in which they wonder if they truly are inferior life forms and realize that their sense of self has been inexorably altered as a result of living inside academia. Sometimes this is what you’d want: you have acquired a range of implicit and explicit methodologies for leading an intellectually curious life. But just as often, it can be shattering: you feel unfit to be or do anything other than function as a scholar in a university setting. Most people stop at that stage and grieve for the life they could have had if they hadn’t gone into graduate study, for the deep sacrifices they were compelled to make by a broken system, and for the profound opportunity cost involved.
There is an immense amount of unfairness and dishonesty integral to higher education, at least right now in the west. And it goes without saying that reform is needed. But I think Zoe Stavri is correct when she notes that even though it’s obvious reform is necessary “none of this will happen, because the problems in our universities are the same as the problems outside of our universities”—which is to say that the entire concept of an “ivory tower” as a refuge from economic and political realities is nothing but a myth:
The thing about PhDs is they are a scam. On paper, they are studying a topic that you love, and becoming an expert in it, and generally contributing to human knowledge. In practice, what actually happens is the university gets a research assistant for three years, to work on a project that they want studied that is in some way related to a thing that interests you (but is actually whatever they could get funding for). The university doesn’t have to pay a penny for this research assistant: in fact, they get paid to have you there! I imagine it would be a whole lot easier if everyone just admitted that this is what is happening, but nobody does. And instead, the whole structure gaslights and emotionally blackmails PhD students. It shifts all of the problems we encounter as employees into personal failings: clearly we’re not interested enough in this topic that we supposedly chose, and if we cared enough, we’d want to do the work.
If you want to attend graduate school do not dismiss voices like these. Remember, these people—the ones passionately describing what were perhaps life-shattering experiences—are just like you. They love(d) something and want(ed) to be part of it. They are smart, driven, accomplished. And they were cast out of a system as soon as they ceased being functional parts of its hierarchy. By rights, they should be teaching someone like you at some college somewhere. But this is not how things worked out.
Consider further that Pannapacker’s hypothetical of what could happen to any (academically successful) PhD after graduation is a point-by-point accurate description of what befell at least two people with whom I went to grad school:
Everyone has told her that “there are always places for good people in academe.” She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there’s something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.
This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What’s left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?
I write this not to scare you but to open your eyes. Graduate school is wonderful. It is also hard. It can also damage you greatly. You have to be strong, steady, emotionally resilient, and willing to look at your years of study as valuable in themselves. No matter what people say, a PhD in an arts or humanities subject is not likely to be a strategic career move. You do it because you love it and you are too stubborn not to do it. Regrets are inevitable. However, if you love the work more than you love leading any particular lifestyle, you will be able to put the work first. This means before kids, before money, before love, and before the comfortable middle-class life someone else might be enjoying with your same degree.
Am I saying you have to be a poor monk in order to do this? Not necessarily; though, I’m not ruling it out. What I am saying is that the work must come before all other things. If you can have those other things, wonderful. But they are “in addition” not “along with” or “because of.” If you think it’s impossible to work outside a university setting, read Alex Pang’s excellent blog post about this exact possibility. But, above all else, do not assume that you will be paid or even regarded as anything but cheap labor after all your work and sacrifice.
Make the work your refuge. Develop alternate forms of income if necessary after graduating. And always take extraordinary steps to ensure physical health and mental stability. Contrary to popular opinion, academia is not for the weak. And those who “can’t do” certainly can’t survive in its highly competitive and unforgiving environment.
* Note: If you are just graduating from university with a BA in an arts or humanities field and are wondering about what to do next, this is solid advice: http://chronicle.com/article/What-to-Advise-Unemployed/44491