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Even though today is Friday, this post is not ABF—neither arbitrary nor facetious (and certainly not fun).  I suppose it’s my own fault that I have to make this clear at the outset, since I have been known to make up “letters” from imaginary “readers” now and then.  But the following letter is quite real, as is my reply.  The person who wrote to me, earlier this week, suggested that I might post the exchange (so long as I deleted his/her name), in the hope that s/he could get some further advice in comments.  So, dear readers, if you have further advice, offer it in comments!

Dear Dr. Bérubé,

After reading your “Employment of English” at the tail end of my master’s in literature in 2007, I had pretty well sworn off my fanciful idea of becoming a professor. I come from a modest background and my parents have been hit pretty hard by the recession, along with most of my extended family. Making those kinds of sacrifices of time and lost income with very little hope of a job at the end just seemed dangerous to me.

I went back to journalism to weather the coming economic storm because I had an in at a large newspaper. (I had been a reporter for two years before the M.A.). Of course the recession has hit newspapers very hard. In the last four years my newspaper has let go of half its staff which once numbered nearly 1,600. I find myself compromising more and more and writing fluffier, stupider stories than ever before. Though I believe in watchdog reporting, I can’t say I do much of it, and I hold little hope of doing much anywhere else right now.

What was once a distant second in terms of a career is starting to look like my best option, and I began studying for the monstrous GRE subject test in literature around February of this year. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m making a huge mistake. I’m married now, 29, and I’d like to have a small family eventually. I’m a solid writer, was awarded best thesis in my department upon graduation, and I Really Care about literature. Of course I realize there are probably a lot of other people fitting my description with PhD’s who won’t find work anytime soon.

It may be an inexorable dilemma I’m facing, but I thought I’d ask what you thought. Should I drop the PhD plans and get on with finding decent pay for decent work? Is there any hope of a job in or out of the academy for an English PhD? I don’t want to hurt my wife or future family by making a foolish choice, but I get the greatest satisfaction from writing, reading, researching and teaching. I’m in a fix, and I’d really appreciate any thoughts if you can spare the time to write back.

G. (not his real initial)

Dear G.,

Thanks for writing to me, and for reading my old book as well.  I wish I could say that things have gotten better since 1997-98—and if I wanted to equivocate, I could say they have, because the market for English PhDs did indeed improve between the years 1998 and 2008.  It wasn’t great, of course, but it wasn’t abysmal.  Now, it’s abysmal.  The financial collapse is still having ripple effects, not only on private colleges’ endowments but also (or especially) on state budgets, and I’m convinced that we’ll see a second shock to that system once the stimulus money disappears.  Over the next decade or so, I’m guessing that states are going to face one severe crisis after another (infrastructure, pensions, K-12), and higher education isn’t going to be one of the priorities.  So I’m not sanguine about the near future of public higher education, and I doubt whether the private colleges and universities will be able to expand as the publics contract.

What that means is that the precipitous drop in jobs listed with the Modern Language Association—from 1826 two years ago to 1380 last year to about 1000 this year (a 24 percent drop followed by a 27 percent drop—the details are all here in this .pdf)—may turn out to be a structural depression that lasts for years.  The early-90s drop eventually let up around 1999, as figure 1 in that report shows.  If this downturn is as bad as that one, we’re looking at a “recovery year” of something like 2015.  But if this downturn is worse, as I fear, then I’m not sure we’re looking at a “recovery year” at all.  Instead, we might be looking at something like a jobless recovery, in which the new positions in English are overwhelmingly off the tenure track.

I truly wish I had better news from the front.  I realize that journalism, too, is going to face one severe crisis after another, and I don’t think its future is much brighter than ours.  So part of me wants to say, “eh, between journalism and doctoral study in English, it’s pretty much a wash.” But I hesitate to say this to someone who’s 29 and wants to start a family one of these days.  If you were to start a PhD program in 2011-12, you’d be looking at another four-five years of study, followed by ... well, maybe followed by a better market in the years 2015-17, but maybe followed by a bleak market in 2015-17 made bleaker by all the people who didn’t get decent jobs from 2011-15.  You don’t want to be adjuncting when you’re 35, this I know.  And I don’t see how it’s possible to raise a family on adjunct wages (though many people manage to do it nonetheless).

In saying all of this, I haven’t so much as addressed your conviction that you’d be happiest with a job that involves writing, reading, researching and teaching.  It is indeed a great job, even when all the committee work is factored in, and of course I think that the desire for such a job is not only entirely legitimate but (in a perverse sense) completely sane.  Which is to say, I’m not one of those people who grouses relentlessly about how the profession is rotten to the core and spits out everyone who Really Cares About Literature and rewards only the hyperprofessionalized theorymongers with icewater in their veins.  As you’ve probably gathered from my old book.  The only question, as I see it, is whether the profession of literary study will offer a sufficient number of those great jobs for the people who aspire to them.  And I fear that the answer is no, that the odds of any one person getting one of those jobs is extremely slim.  Now, in one sense that’s the Monte Carlo fallacy at work, because your odds of choosing any number between 1 and 1000 is 999:1, and yet you chose a number!  So yes, obviously, somebody is going to get some decent job here and there.  But should you take that chance?  That’s your call in the end, because only you can answer the question of how much of your life (and your family’s life) you’re willing to juggle in order to give it a shot.  But I do feel an obligation to be as explicit as I can about just how steep the odds are, and how severe the personal sacrifices might be. 

I hope this helps, though I expect that it will simply make your inexorable dilemma seem even less exorable, and more of a dilemma.

Best wishes,
Michael Bérubé

P.S.  Don’t worry too much about—or study too long for—that monstrous GRE subject test in literature.  As I learned in the course of writing this little essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 41.5 percent of English departments require the test.  By contrast, 96.2 percent of departments require a writing sample—and for good reason, because it’s the single most important piece of information in an applicant’s dossier.  Which is to say what I should have said earlier: go ahead and apply this fall, and see what happens.  At that stage, after all, you have nothing to lose save for the application fees.  When you have a better sense of what your options are next spring, feel free to write to me again to talk them over.


Posted by on 06/25 at 10:21 AM
  1. Today’s news tells us that home mortgage rates are at a 50 year low, a fact useful only to those who already have a home and an affordable mortgage, thank you. What this tells those who can parse subtext is that banks again have an ocean of money to lend and again have not a clue as to where this money might be effectively invested. So, home loans it is, again.

    Seems like only yesterday they were telling us civilization would end if we didn’t raise $700 billion for them by the end of the week.

    So we did.

    If the lifetime cost of a tenured professor is, say, $5 million, we passed on endowing 140,000 lifetime university chairs in favor of saving the jobs of a pitiful few that were demonstrably not up to actually performing at the jobs we saved. We don’t seem to have learned much from this experience.

    Captcha: speak. (Wags tail vigorously.)

    Posted by  on  06/25  at  01:41 PM
  2. Should I drop the PhD plans and get on with finding decent pay for decent work?

    Yes.  And please let me know where you find it.

    but I get the greatest satisfaction from writing, reading, researching and teaching.

    See if there’s a community college nearby that could use an instructor, and do the other three in your spare time.  Most of what actually interests me, I have to pursue away from the source of my current paycheck (though staying in academia helps with those intellectual pursuits, because of the library access).  If I hadn’t been repeatedly assured of what a terrible teacher I am, and already sunk so many years into my present basket of skills, I would probably consider the community college route.  I might yet.  Becoming a pharmacist would take too many additional years of schooling.

    Posted by  on  06/25  at  02:49 PM
  3. G, no great wisdom here, just that I stopped with an MA—had kids, and it is hard to be a mom and a PhD candidate at once, though many have done it well-- and have regretted it ever since. I ended up—I was going to say, “In academia,” as I have taught 20 years in colleges. But nope. I teach as an adjunct, and I’m not in academia any more than my dentist is.

    And it hurts, because I could do it-- study lit and teach it too. Oh, well.
    A bit of advice-- think about where the jobs are-- as MDS mentioned, community colleges do hire PhDs and have tenured positions, and lord, that’s where the jobs are. I mean, aim for Harvard and Yale and a 4-year college, but don’t think if the Ivy League isn’t calling, you have to go to law school.

    The jobs are also in teaching comp/writing. I suspect that in the near future, even tenure-track lit profs will be teaching maybe 1 or 2 sections of lit, and 2-3 sections of comp.  So get some experience teaching the freshman courses.

    A couple extra experiences will help you get a job. 1) ESL training. This doesn’t take much (and you might already have it), but most universities now really have come to depend on foreign students and their high tuition, and so ESL-ready teachers will be prized.
    2) Writing center experience (tutoring). Again, this is just a way of showing that you’re really versatile and can do a lot of different stuff. This will help you get that all-important first tenure-track position.
    3) MFA programs are suddenly hot (because lots of affluent older students come back to fulfill a dream, I think).  If you can get a book of stories or poetry published… well, do. smile
    4) Learn to teach online. It’s an easy way to pick up extra cash, and you can make it seem really cutting-edge on your CV.

    But mostly, go ahead, go back to school. So maybe in 2015, you’ll be looking for a real job and you won’t get one and you’ll be depressed and think you wasted your time. But you didn’t. You got to study lit for 5 years and write a dissertation and have lots of great discussions in a very pleasant atmosphere (campus).

    You won’t have made a lot of money, but you know what? You will have a good time thinking good thoughts, and that’s worth a lot.

    Best of luck. Don’t give up like I did, okay?

    Posted by  on  06/25  at  05:02 PM
  4. Caveat: I am not a teacher.  But I used to live down the road from a private secondary school.  It didn’t pay its faculty a whole lot, but it provided a house (big enough for a small family), was in a beautiful location (Sedona, AZ) and like most secondary schools, wasn’t in session during the summer.  I have a brother working on his PhD in English in Phoenix.  If I thought he would take my advice, I would tell him to go work at that school.  There’d be teaching, challenging students (some bright, some screwed up), time for reading and writing, and some excellent research facilities down in Phoenix.

    After a particularly hard day at my present job, or when I see a copy of Arizona Highways, I think about trying to get a position at that school.

    I hear that Arizona’s state legislature is compounding the economic hardship in Arizona with truly crazy, destructive tax laws (i.e., no revenue to pay for anything except pink underwear for Joe Arpaio’s prisoners), and private secondary schools have always struggled with their finances, but it might be worth looking into.  Oh, the school is the Verde Valley School.  They have a website.

    Posted by  on  06/25  at  05:06 PM
  5. Dr. BDH, from my understanding of schools, it’s almost impossible to get a job at a particular one.  If you have to support a familiy, you have to take a job that turns up no matter where it is.

    I already commented on this at Crooked Timber and can’t crosspost my comment.  But for this particular individual, as opposed to the general case, it matters where they physically are.  There’s a whole lot of more or less overlooked jobs in the nonprofit sector that take a lot of college-people-with-writing-skills, but you can only get one if you live in certain places.  They aren’t too bad if you’re interested in the subject for itself, because they are usually springboard jobs to something else that pays better, which means that you either get to move on to something better after learning the subject, or, if you stay, have a good chance of becoming management of some sort.

    Posted by  on  06/25  at  06:07 PM
  6. I think that “G” should apply. And if “G” gets into a program that he likes, he should start thinking from the start about the experiences that might help him stand out down the road.

    Student council, departmental rep., get involved early on with the MLA or ACCUTE (or whatever other professional organizations you find appropriate). Maybe there are particular branches of Journalism that are more likely to be marketable in the future? “New media” seems promising.

    mds’s advice to get some experience teaching at community colleges also seems like a good idea, since so many people seem to attend CCs these days. 

    Go for it and see what happens. I graduated last year with a PhD in an obscure field, and was not sure what the future held. Before last summer was over, I went from an adjunct to a full-time position that is now tenure-track. I feel blessed, but I would not regret the experience of earning my doctorate even if it had not worked out so well (or at least that’s what I tell myself, although I have some pretty bitter friends).

    Posted by  on  06/25  at  08:46 PM
  7. Hello G (though that is not your given name i have been assured):
    There are a small number of alternatives to your grand design that are worth investigating.  Community colleges and online universities are indeed hiring, and sadly they are hiring from the pool of recent Ph.D.s and let-go faculty from universities; but they are hiring and expanding.  You could pursue an MFA, which would make you eligible for better jobs (and then later dive into the doctorate). 

    As Rich mentioned there are not-so-great paying jobs with non-profits who need high quality writers for all manner of productions.  Some of these positions are in places you might consider as better quality environments: where the cost of living is lower, are closer to natural settings, and offer proximity to various state universities.  One of the jobs that seems to be depression proof (for totally inexplicable reasons) is public relations officer in governments.  Many active newspaper journalists are looking in that direction. 

    Lastly, if you are a really excellent writer, you could offer your newspaper publisher the opportunity to hire you as an online reporter.  I have mentored students who found such niches that provide an income with lots of freedom.

    Posted by  on  06/25  at  10:03 PM
  8. Of all my almost- or recently-PhDed cohort, not a one of us is unemployed. If you need the security of an academic job on the other end, do not go to grad school. But if you are worried that you will be committing your family to a life of street wandering, rest assured that you should be able to find something. And if that something is teaching a bunch of comp classes, community college classes, or high school classes, it may not provide the income level that you dreamed of, but it will feed you, and people have raised families on much, much less. Your situation is even further improved if your wife can contribute to the household income.

    Also, who’s to say that if you don’t go to grad school you won’t be sick of (or fired from) what you’re doing in four or five years anyway? In which case you’d still be starting anew, perhaps with better stuff, but anew nonetheless.

    If your wife is an academic or is otherwise tied to a specific location, don’t go to grad school. If you cannot get into a program that entirely funds you (meaning: no loans necessary), don’t go. If you could find a job with your MA that would allow you to teach/research in some capacity and that you would feel satisfied with, quit wasting time deliberating and go get that job! 

    If you decide to go for the PhD, only go to a program that offers you lots of teaching opportunities. Teach ESL, technical writing, and business writing if they’re available--these will be marketable in a number of fields, both inside and outside the academy. If your school offers editing experience or coursework, take that too. All of these things will provide skills that can go on a resume or a c.v., and if you’re able to weather the uncertainty of not knowing where in the hell you’ll end up, you stand a good chance of finding a position that allows you to do some or all of those things on your most wanted list.

    Posted by  on  06/26  at  02:41 AM
  9. G., consider this before you have kids:

    Leave the country, and teach English in Singapore, Brazil, Italy, China, somewhere.  Make money tax free (at least US taxes).  Come back in three years with a nest egg that lets you have a low mortgage payment on a house, and the PhD idea won’t seem so bad.

    While you are over in one of those other nations, consider writing a novel based upon your observations of life there, if not based upon your experience (I am firm believer that there is more to literature than “Write what you know.") Put enough sex in it, and get yourself a gay or lesbian character, and you might even find publishers bidding to pay you lots of money to publish your work on Kindle/Nook or whatever is coming down the pike these next three years.  You can hide a “Big Idea” in the book, but most publishers get hives from anything that made Sinclair Lewis so famous and great to read.  Business is business, and they have the bucks to pay, however…

    I’m a lawyer who wishes he followed his heart 20 years ago to get that PhD in History.  Too late.  Family began in 1993 and from then on, it was take care of the family.  I wrote a book as a corporate lawyer, but after that company crashed and burned, I was stuck in litigation ever since, and if you think you can write a good book and be a good litigator, well I’ve got news for you:  The only way to do is to neglect the emotional needs of your family.  And that I wouldn’t and won’t do.

    You’re 29, not 39.  Go for the gusto.  Your spouse should first look into what she can do overseas that is transferable.  If it’s transferable, take the leap.

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  06/26  at  09:02 AM
  10. While Michael makes the case against going to grad school in the best way, someone should make it in the worst way. That person should be me.

    Now, my dear G., you have done well to ask Michael about job placement, and he has answered you honestly. However, let’s imagine you didn’t have to good sense to ask Michael, and instead applied to graduate school, and because you’re smart and like to read, etc., you’re admitted. This is something you want to do, but you’re not sure it will be worth it in the end. So you ask the director of grad admissions the question you have already posed.

    Here is what the admission director thinks at that point (and read the whole thing):

    The notion of a measurable “placement rate” is always a misleading fiction, though it’s so often bandied about by English-department graduate-admissions directors (the ones more duplicitous and unscrupulous than myself, of course). Placement rates, like all outcome assessments, like the No Child Left Behind Act, provide individual departments and our professional organizations—in my case, the Modern Language Association and the Association of Departments of English—with unlimited opportunities to lie.

    So, in the world in which you relied on a grad director to give you the information you want--information you want to use to decide what to do with five-to-eight years of your life, there’s a good chance you’ll be lied to. Then, should you choose to attend this program, you will spend five-to-eight years working with such people as this director.

    Not saying this is definitive or damning, just the worst way to construe the grad admissions process. Even accepting that there is a certain amount of b.s. bandied about to persuade people that grad school is what they want may not be a reason to write it off; just consider going in that faculty don’t necessarily have your interests at heart.

    Posted by  on  06/26  at  03:25 PM
  11. I got my phd in poli sci, not English, so my experience may not be that relevant, still, there are parts that are similar.

    The phd took much longer than I expected (8 years—and it was full of self-interested people who have lots of power over you who do not have your interests at heart—as va above says).  I got a tenure track job in the midwest—a place I did not like, but it was the only place I got an interview and I felt lucky to get the job.  Stayed there for 4 years, finally gave up and went back to southern California (where I came from) and I’ve been doing the adjunct community college/cal state thing since then (going on 6 years). 

    I actually like the adjunct life-style—gives me the free time to do what I want—I’m not interested in writing a book, but I could do that with my free time.

    It’s not that secure (particularly with the budget crisis now), but I’d go with those who suggests you follow your heart if it is at all feasible—but do it with your eyes wide open.

    If you’re not careful, even if you get an English phd you still might end up working for DARPA creating narratives to help high school students (our soldiers) sell our policies to the Afghan people:

    Posted by  on  06/26  at  10:46 PM
  12. I hesitated to jump into this thread, because I have two sons in PhD programs: one in film studies and one in literature. I really don’t need to be more worried about their employment prospects than I already am. That said, I encouraged them to follow their hearts but to do so with their eyes open. Like Milton, it seems they “can do no other.” Their PhDs will have to lead somewhere, even if not to an academic job. And I don’t think they will ever regret their years studying film and literature.

    It’s true you’re giving up several years of career-building and pension planning. But life is uncertain, and you have to be somewhere. That somewhere should involve doing something about which you’re passionate.

    Like aliz, I was once in a PhD program but left because I had 2 small children, no insurance, and a fear of borrowing money for childcare. I spent years underemployed, but for the past 8 years, I’ve had a job in publishing that I love. I have no regrets about going to grad. school, even though I didn’t finish. I’d have spent my whole life looking over my shoulder wondering if I had the goods. And there’s no question my years studying literature have informed everything I’ve done in my life. I was a single mom with an income that put me in the category of the working poor for many years. But we had books and conversation, and that seemed to be enough for my kids.

    God, I just realized how Pollyannaish this sounds. Just to be clear, I’m also cynical and bitter about the lack of universal health care and affordable childcare in the US. Access to those would have changed our lives.

    Posted by  on  06/27  at  09:11 AM
  13. A purely tangential comment, yet still appropriate i hope.  Jürgen Klinsmann, former Germany coach and soccer great, made a very interesting comment about why US soccer is not yet fully capable of becoming a world soccer power.  He suggested that we (he has now lived in the US for the last dozen years) are generally incapable of promoting soccer among the hungry inner city and poor kids in the country.  He mentioned that nearly every great soccer player (and FIFA team) are from the poor, except the USA.  The US will not be a major soccer power until we empower the poor. 

    Freedom to choose a path in life is too often predicated on the almighty dollar.  Making a choice (PhD etc.) free from considering money as the all important rubric would be risky, but ultimately the most real.  Why is the captcha “white” when i am mentioning the poor and freedom of choice?

    Posted by  on  06/27  at  12:39 PM
  14. Spyder’s last paragraph dovetails nicely with a quote I just encountered today from Tim O’Reilly (publisher of the computer tech book series):

    Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn’t be about the money.

    Because glib quotes always help when you are facing a real decision. And I have little else to offer although I did have a period in my early-20s when I briefly considered going back to school for a PhD (physical sciences, however). But I don’t think I ever had the stuff in me to complete one, and all of the PhDs at my workplace (industrial research lab) advised strongly against it on general principles. But almost all of them were PhDs who had only recently left academia for one reason or another and were feeling the sting of their perception of being “behind” in their new careers. I would also point out to them at the time that it was undoubtedly easier to say “don’t get a PhD” when they already had a PhD.

    Good luck with the decision! Whatever you do it will be a good one.

    Posted by  on  06/27  at  01:37 PM
  15. I’m a tenure track professor who loves her job and is hoping to keep it, but if I had to do it all over again, I might not go for a Ph.D.  I feel like I’m ten years behind all my peers because I wasn’t making any money in my twenties, and I have a lot of debt.  I also live in a place that I would never have chosen to live.  We’re being threatened by state budget cuts that are truly frightening, and I had a leak bucket in my office even before the economy fell apart.

    Posted by  on  06/27  at  02:23 PM
  16. Dear G,

    I sympathize heartily with your nagging longing for a life of teaching and research, and I admire you for your career in journalism. Clearly since you still have this longing as you’re working at another job and you’re thinking in a mature way, you’re not over-idealizing anything.

    My advice is of course going to really be just, this-is-what-I-did. I would recommend applying once to the best places possible for you, and SIMULTANEOUSLY putting every effort into finding another career direction for yourself. Clearly you’re not happy where you are and need a change. This is what I did--waited till the decisions on my apps came in, and compared them with what job offers I could get. In the end I had a couple of good options for jobs and one good option for grad school. Frankly, I still don’t know if I made the “right” choice—I did what felt right at the time.

    I would recommend thinking more broadly about media jobs, and consider moving from where you are. After all, you’d likely have little geographic say in where you lived if you were a professor, so you might as well be flexible now. These jobs are ridiculously hard to get too, as well as badly paid and unstable, but they can be satisfying. They might require (like a professor job) retraining, but the retraining time would be much shorter. Think about broadcast--television or radio. Think about working as an online editor of a major publication. I have friends who made enough connections in these businesses after 5-7 years to now go into business on their own as freelance writers or producers. An incredibly unstable career, and not for everyone, but it’s a means to an end of working with ideas for a living on your own terms. No, they aren’t writing social theory. But sometimes writing for an audience of <10 is pretty depressing.

    Full disclosure: I left a nascent career in journalism to go to grad school. I couldn’t have gone to a better place, but our placements have been frightful in recent years. I just got my first t-t job and I have to move away from a place I love. My friends who stayed in mainstream media get to live where I’d love to be. I don’t know what it will be like--will I still be loving this in 5 years? 10 years? 30? If I don’t, I know I will leave and try to do something else. But the truth is right now I feel insanely lucky, and ecstatic to have one of the most secure kinds of jobs possible in this economy. Now I feel I can finally start a family. I am just a year older than you are now however--I don’t know if I’d want to put children on hold, and a middle class standard of living, for another 5-9 years through grad school, adjunct jobs, etc.

    All best to you and lots of luck.

    Posted by  on  06/27  at  03:01 PM
  17. My advice is to go to graduate school for the sake of graduate school —not for a job. You will learn a great deal about language, literature, culture, art, and intellectual history if you pursue a PhD in English. 

    There are some specific rules you can follow to better your chances of getting a job.  (I should write “were” because since the economic meltdown, these rules may not work.) The advice in the above comments seems well intentioned but not helpful.  First, it is often just as competitive to get a CC job as it is to get a 4-year university job.  Second, the comments are geared toward teaching ESL, comp, or tech writing.  (Remember that most graduate schools allow 22-year-old master students with no pedagogical training to teach freshmen comp.  That practice may be misguided, but it should alert you that comp experience does not guarantee you a job.) Third, your letter noted that you love literature; I assume that’s what you want to teach. 

    How do you get a job?  Here are the rules that have made it easier for others in the past:

    1. Write a strong dissertation that offers a new take on the field.  Make sure it covers at least 50 years of literature.  Write on multiple authors (male and female) and genres (poetry, prose, drama).  Most importantly, choose a time period prior to 1900.  A lot of colleges make their creative writing professors teach anything post-1900.
    2.  Place two articles in peer-reviewed print journals.  These do not have to be big name journals, but it can take forever to get an acceptance; start early.
    3.  Teach as much as you can and as many different classes as you can.
    4.  Defend your dissertation prior to your job run.
    5.  Apply to every position that you qualify for no matter the location.
    This is all hard to do, but it has worked. 

    You’ll discover amazing ideas in graduate school, but the life is not glamorous. It is good to keep in mind that graduate students exist for the purpose of providing the select people who do get a R1 professorships with teachable students.  Graduate seminars (they usually meet only once a week) don’t even require grading until the end of term and it’s only one paper.  The professor can teach material related to his/her upcoming book and hear a bunch of feedback from sharp people, even if they are mere apprentices in the field.  These English departments need graduate students.  Who else will teach gen ed English classes or actually grade papers or write exams or explain incomprehensible lectures to the undergraduates? 

    Some professors prefer to teach graduate students.  Of course, it gets embarrassing when these graduate students stay so long, esp. when they no longer enroll in classes.  Therefore you’ll hear a lot soon about shortening the time to degree, but little about actually cutting enrollments in PhD programs (who would professors teach then?) or eliminating adjunct positions (who would teach comp?).  And it is pretty boring for them to read these lengthy dissertations, so they may talk about creating a new method for completing the degree, like outsourcing dissertation committees to journal referees by requiring the placement of a peer-reviewed article in place of a dissertation.  (If you think I’m kidding, check out Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas.)

    Still I’m not bitter.  Graduate school for most students is the closest they’ll come to actually being a “real” professor.  Depending on where you go, you’ll only teach two courses at an R1 university with students who can afford to major in subjects like English and the rest of the time (really, all the rest of your time) you can spend working on research (course work, comps, dissertation).  You might even get a dissertation fellowship (not unlike a sabbatical) that allows you to work on your research full time without teaching.  True, the pay is lousy, but committee work is usually on a volunteer basis.  And you’ll create a new network of contacts among other students. 

    Who am I to say all this?  I earned a PhD in English at a good enough R1 university in six years (fully funded), got a tenure-track job my first year on the market in a “decent enough” place right before the market crashed.  (I would say I was lucky – I know I was—but too many people constantly remind me of that while ignoring the “rules” listed above when it comes to their own academic careers.)

    Posted by  on  06/28  at  04:48 PM
  18. Thanks for the feedback, everyone.  I especially like Mitchell’s suggestion, @ 9, to teach English abroad for a couple of years first.  And of course I should have said something about how you don’t get to decide where you want to live if you’re on the academic job market (I guess I thought it went without saying, but apparently it doesn’t).  But remember, folks, G. has already been to graduate school—he’s not thinking about maybe just possibly taking the plunge.  He has an M.A., and presumably has already had the experience of studying literature for the sheer love (or hell!) of it.  The question is whether to commit to another 4-5 years, much of which will be devoted to the dissertation.

    Posted by Michael  on  06/28  at  05:46 PM
  19. "Graduate seminars (they usually meet only once a week) don’t even require grading until the end of term and it’s only one paper.”

    And there are only two grades:  A, and Why are you still here?

    You seriously do not want to borrow money for this experience.

    Posted by  on  06/28  at  05:51 PM
  20. Well, they blew up the budget in California last year and they blew up the universities too
    The teachers and the students are tryin’ to fight for a deal, gonna see what the AAUP can do

    Now, there’s budget cuts spreadin’ from state to state and the provosts can’t get no relief
    Gonna be a hiring freeze and no merit pay and the adjunct professors are hangin’ on by the skin of their teeth

    Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
    Maybe everything that dies someday comes back
    Put your regalia on, fix up your C.V.
    And meet me at the online university

    Well, I got a lectureship and tried to put my money away
    But I got debts that no honest man can pay
    So I drew what I had from the faculty credit union
    And I bought us a high speed internet connection

    Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
    Maybe everything that dies someday comes back
    Put your regalia on, fix up your C.V.
    And meet me at the for-profit university,
    Meet me at the online university

    Now our luck may have died and academia may be cold but in it forever I’ll stay
    We’re gonna publish our way to riches and gold, but put on your stockings baby, ‘cause the night’s getting cold
    And everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
    But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

    Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find
    Down here it’s just tenured and untenured and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line,
    Well, I’m tired of comin’ out on the losing end
    So I met this guy online and I’m gonna do a little teaching for him

    Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
    Maybe everything that dies someday comes back
    Put your regalia on, fix up your C.V.
    And meet me at the online university,
    Meet me at the for-profit university,
    Meet me at the for-profit university

    Posted by  on  06/29  at  01:06 AM
  21. Re: finding a job, a colleague offered what I think is a sensible suggestion. Graduate students, quite reasonably, tend to give papers at the organization devoted to their subject matter. Thus, someone writing a dissertation on Wordsworth and Coleridge attends NASSR on a regular basis. This may be good for meeting colleagues in your own field, but less beneficial for finding a job. After all, you’re networking with folks who already have the job you want. Their institutions are unlikely to hire two Romanticists, which means that connection is of questionable benefit on the job front.

    On the other hand, if you attend conferences sponsored by the regional MLA chapter in the part of the country where you’d most like to work, you’ll be networking with colleagues from a number of different disciplines. When their departments are hiring a Romanticist, you will already have an “in” if you have a “same time next year” relationship with folks in that department.

    Posted by  on  06/29  at  10:23 AM
  22. Hockey needs vuvuzelas.

    Posted by  on  06/30  at  01:47 AM
  23. When I opened the comments I thought to myself, “How soon before law school is mentioned?” Three deep seems about right, so let me throw this out there: nobody should go to law school unless they are sincerely interested in practicing law. I cannot emphasize this enough: it is not a Plan B.  You may love doing the things that lawyers do: reading, researching, writing-- but if you do not believe that you want to practice law, you will have spent a lot of money to make yourself miserable for a long time.

    The money thing leads me to my second point.  It is a chump move to pay for grad school in the liberal arts.  If you can find a department that will pay you, then what you have found is that the profession has sent you a signal: perhaps you are suited for a career as an academic. It’s certainly no guarantee, but it is a reasonable indicator.

    Posted by outside counsel  on  06/30  at  08:44 AM
  24. I realize that I am posting my comment late, but I went to graduate school in the 90s and I would do it again. I didn’t get a job (didn’t want one by the end), and I turned out okay for all of that. I learned important lessons outside of grad school that I would not have learned had I continued on the grad-postgrad-professor path.

    I think that it’s important for students to realize that their options are not limited to newspaper work, lawyering, and grad school. I have addressed my concerns with all of these issue more fully on my blog (william-heise.com).

    Posted by William Heise  on  07/10  at  08:20 AM
  25. Graduate school for most students is the closest they’ll come to actually being a “real” professor.

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