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Friday, June 25, 2010

Suggestions welcome

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 Michael on 06/25 at 10:21 AM
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