Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Should I Go to Grad School? Perspectives from a Fresh Humanities PhD.

About a month ago, I successfully defended my dissertation. Two weeks ago, I walked in my university's graduate commencement, and I'm guessing in about six months I'll be shipped a copy of my actual diploma. Predictably, I'm less interested in celebrating this achievement than asking the awkward question - Was it Worth It? Going to grad school probably seems like a very attractive option for some in the currently dismal job market, but there are a lot of travails to the process. At the root of many of the problems confronting current grad students are some big issues that will, if anything, be even more acute for future students, issues that are or will hit the humanities hard. So, what follows is a not-too-brief introduction to a few things to consider before you make a life-altering decision.

These are, I should say up front, not the most important questions confronting educators or universities – with the rising cost of undergraduate education threatening to turn America into a caste society, the travails of grad students are arguably ruling class woes. I want to have that discussion at some point – but it's hard to exaggerate just how far I feel from being an elite at this moment. Let's start with a number – 30,000. That is how many dollars I now owe the U.S. Government (as well as, to be honest, Citibank) to repay debts incurred to get me to the PhD. The vast majority of that debt was run up in the past year, when the economic situation in Iowa led to the reduction of T.A. lines and left me scrambling to survive. This is an overwhelming number to me, and it's not small by objective standards, either – if I'm very lucky, I'll be aiming to pay it off in five years, in which period I will have paid something around five thousand dollars in interest – a loss of income that will resonate down the line of my life until I die. And this is to say nothing of all the income I was foregoing in the six years I spent applying myself primarily to unpaid classwork.

But even my considerable debt pales in comparison to the situations of many of my fellow grad students. I got very lucky at the beginning of my studies, entering with a good fellowship. Even with the relatively generous support for standard-line T.A.s at Iowa (our salaries are middling to low, but we have great health care thanks to our union) a teaching assistant's salary is nearly impossible to live on – I took out my first loans during the first of two years I spent off fellowship, and I would be shocked if many T.A.s on standard appointments weren't taking out loans, despite the university's implicit assertion that a T.A. salary is enough to live on. This, I imagine, is what leads to the situations like one I recently heard of, a PhD student who left with $70,000 in loan debt. (This post is not about M.A.s or MFAs, but I also have a cousin carrying something like $120,000 after going to art school – an obscene, oppressive number).

And what waits when we've dug ourselves these holes? Well, admittedly, assessing the jobs situation right now is kind of like inspecting a house during a flash flood – with state budgets being gutted everywhere for the past year or two, it's no surprise that hiring freezes and unfunded searches have become a momentary norm. But as we in Iowa well know about floods, what happens in a moment can take much longer to clean up, and there are more than a few doomsayers calling this an inflexion point for the strategic defunding of the humanities by corporatist university administrations everywhere. At Iowa, there surely will be blood – the past year has seen a grisly round of administrative assessments that represent an overt effort to eliminate 'underperforming' departments – that is, those which don't attract enough undergraduate tuition to fund themselves. Programs in American Studies, Cinema and Comparative Literature (a department that I believe was once home to Guyatri Spivak, may she sleep on her own abrasive prose), as well as German and other languages have been in the crosshairs of the cost-cutters. This means even fewer jobs for curent and future PhD students in those disciplines.

Even in an expanding field such as communication studies, the short-term is terrifying and the long term is uncertain. In my graduating class this year, out of something like 15 newly minted PhDs, three landed tenure track jobs, four or five of us got temporary postings (I lucked into a postdoc), and the other half have been offered exactly nothing after six or seven years of toiling in the salt mines. Historically, this is anomalous to say the least – Iowa's Comm grads traditionally do extremely well in the job market, and hopefully things will get back to normal once the economy turns around. But even if that happens, the backlog of the jobless from this year will be competing again next year, and there's no telling how many years it will take to work through the nationwide backlog.

Even that scenario might be optimistic. What if administrations choose not to open the funding valve back up , and this dearth of jobs becomes the “new normal” in Comm Studies? It would, of course, make us look a lot more like other humanities departments, where the long odds of getting a tenure track job somehow continue to lure enthusiastic young people into a system of intellectual sharecropping. Long story short, financially and career-wise, there are an abundance of reasons why pursuing a PhD is a bad bet. Even if you're among the talented, driven, lucky few who do end up in a tenured position you're forfeiting a great deal of income, and I haven't even covered those poor souls who never finish.

Pshaw, I hear you scoffing. We're not here for anything as tawdry as income.

First, I must point out that this high-mindedness is itself a powerful expression of privilege. Second, every new graduate student should be thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that a PhD is a professional degree – you are being trained and accredited to be a professional teacher and scholar, and if you are pursuing a PhD with some vague notion of satisfying intellectual curiosity or laying the foundation for a career as a public intellectual, you should be firmly paddled by the D.E.O. and given a library card as a parting gift.

Third, of course, your delusions of grandeur are absolutely right. Getting a PhD in the humanities is about something much bigger than a job. It's about getting more disciplined in your thought, becoming a better writer, and developing your gift for criticism. It's about wandering, awestruck, through the beautiful forest that is the world of ideas, and eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil every day for the rest of your blessed life. Anyone who pursues a PhD without just this kind of awe and hunger should be shown the door even more swiftly than the aimless dreamer. Careerism is, after all, often contagious.

Even if the brass ring of a real academic job is out of reach for more and more PhDs, the years spent in a program are almost inevitably rich beyond the standards of average life. You're thrown together with dozens of other talented, talkative, curious (and often enough, attractive) people, and verily, hijinks ensue, from the enlightening to the thoroughly debased. While grad students work very, very hard, it is, hopefully, at something they care a great deal about, an experience some people never get even once in their lives. After undergrad, I worked for a little over a year at a semi-professional job as an administrative assistant at a law school, and even though my co-workers were individually great people, the daily routine of an office job would have seen me dead by my own hand inside a decade if I hadn't been able to get out.

What I traded it for was the chance to become a massively more informed and subtle social critic and (as if being a 'doctor' didn't make me sound self-important enough) philosopher. Much of this comes from the seminar setting, from spending eight or ten hours per week having various genres of discussion with five or ten other very smart people. This doesn't work well for all mindsets or situations – some students at Iowa have said they feel excluded by the atmosphere of rhetorical aggression and one-upmanship, though I remain undecided as to whether this is a legitimate critique, or if successfully riding the beast is an essential part of the training. I have thrived in this environment, and I say with all humility that I am now capable of handily dismantling the positions and opinions of the intelligent but untrained. After six years, I am a double black belt in argumentation, and maybe that's worth $30k in debt.

On the other hand, I don't personally believe that my graduate program did a great job of training me to be a better writer. But I came in with many years of experience as a journalist and fiction writer, foundations of the sort that will almost inevitably progress if you're doing the amount of writing that's asked of you in grad school. And while it is momentarily frustrating that I wasn't more thoroughly disciplined in the rigors of that arcane genre, the journal article, I am at a deeper level overjoyed to report that my graduate instructors were at least supportive of my more writerly gestures, up to and including a dissertation with heavy elements of narrative nonfiction. I know there are many, many programs that are not so laid back, and if you care about writing (that is, as distinct from research, which can be perfectly passable even if it's an abomination as writing) you should try to assess what the predominant mindset is in any prospective program.

Regardless of whether your professors care deeply about good writing as a corollary of good scholarship, perhaps the most valuable dividend of grad school is the discipline it imposes on you. In some ways, it's a lazy out – I have been trained to thrive on a structured system of predictable rewards and clear deadlines, and I found it easier to stay in that system than to internalize it and find a place for myself in the world. But the structure of a PhD program is like methadone for the unmotivated and disorganized, lengthening writing deadlines progressively from semesters (for seminar papers) to years (for prospectuses, journal submissions, etc) to multiple years (for most dissertations).

By the end of this process, I for one had come to understand what was, without question, the most valuable lesson of graduate school. Writing my dissertation was rewarding in itself – thanks to a supportive committee, I was able to write something I really cared about. But what I had gained by the end was much more profound than the enjoyment of a couple of years of purposeful writing. After spending that time hacking away, day by day, on what turned into a full book-length manuscript, I came to a stark realization:

You can do anything.

If I can hang onto even a shadowy memory of this lesson, getting my PhD will have been worth the time and money. Even if I were to somehow destroy my academic career, I would have the memory of those hundreds of mornings in front of a computer screen, sometimes accomplishing nothing, sometimes cringing in frustration, sometimes speeding along joyfully. I would remember how they eventually added up to a whole, a neat concretization on paper of the chaotic thoughts inside my head. I would, and I hope I will, be able to call on that memory and its lesson whenever working on something that I cared about. Little by little, efforts add up, and become accomplishments, which become, sometimes, contributions to the world. I guess there is a romance to the experience. And I'm one of the fortunates who will be able to turn this into a legitimate career – once I'm back from my postdoc, I'll be in an excellent position to get a tenure track position, and my committee is telling me my chances for a book contract are good.

So maybe it's both self-serving and contradictory for me to say what comes next – but whatever my good fortune, the joy of the life of the mind is looking less and less like a justification for getting a PhD in an era of diminishing returns. Your chances of getting a job are going down in most fields, while the demands of even the good jobs are going up. And this isn't the only way to be a serious thinker and scholar – I look back at the intellectuals of an earlier era, and while many were tutors or educators of some kind, there seems to be little historical correlation between intellectual accomplishment and membership in a discrete professoriate. One can't expect the kind of devotion that saw Marx starving and borrowing his way through life as he wrote Kapital, but there are more sensible models that I would point out to any who saw themselves as aspiring critics and philosophers. How many great scholars have spent their days as bookkeepers, farmers, or some other species of responsible adult, and managed to write one or two great books in their evenings? One or two is the most even the exceptional among us can reasonably hope for, and the balance of a normal life can only make one's thought richer and more powerful. This is in contrast to the academic system of journal submissions, which as I'll be writing about soon, I think may actually be making us all dumber. So, if serious thought is what you're really about, you don't have to go to graduate school to develop those skills – and there are a lot of reasons to believe that an advanced degree is the dumbest possible way to get smart.

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