Friday, April 5, 2013

Give advice or heap ridicule, but don't call one the other

As will surprise no one, as busy as I am, I can't fail to respond to something.

There has emerged a new genre in online magazine writing, in recent years: the essay that pretends to be offering advice to potential humanities grad students, while actually offering only mockery and scorn. There have, in fact, been dozens of this types written, scattered all over the internet. And they are defined not so much by the constancy of their opinion but by their self-undermining nature: by taking such luxurious pleasure in mocking potential and current grad students, these essays ensures that very few who need to hear them will be willing to listen. Dr. Rebecca Schuman, visiting professor at Ohio State University (and thus employed, unlike many millions of people in this country) has a perfectly typical example of the form. It's notable only for the exceptional purity of its resentment and projection. (Actual URL: there_are_no_academic_jobs_and_getting_a_ph_d_will_make_you_into_a_horrible_person. Yeah, I trust this post to be an honest extension of advice!)

Now, we can make a few conclusions from this piece, but they aren't really about the PhD job market. Dr. Schuman does not really present an argument against getting a PhD in the humanities. An argument would require evidence, which she does not provide. She says that there are 150 applicants for every tenure track job in her field; where she got that figure, who can say? It's funny; I would think that the requirement to show where your facts comes from would be the sort of thing you learn in a graduate program. In any event, I don't doubt the accuracy of that figure. The odds are very low. But even if we take those numbers at face value, the notion that every one of those 150 applicants is equally worthy of being employed is stupid. There are programs out thre that have very high TT employment rates. They're hard to get into. But they exist. And, indeed, that's where Dr. Schuman's anger comes from: because it's not literally true that nobody gets employed in TT jobs (in fact many thousands do), there's anger to be had at the fact that she isn't so employed. Yet.

If I was actually interested in the well-being of PhDs, I would start with this (cited!) information, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics-- which shows, in fact, that the well-being of PhDs is in fact quite well protected.



Typically, I tell people not to go to grad school. That's the advice I give, generally. And I do rather stridently. But when I do, I make it actual advice, by which I mean, it comes from a place of respect and a sincere desire to help. I don't pretend to offer advice when I'm actually offering contempt and mockery. And I also recognize that the vast majority of PhDs are in fact in far better shape than the national average. They have an absurdly low unemployment rate of 2.5% and weekly earnings twice the national average. As with any statistics, there's plenty of individual variance within there. But the data are unambiguous: the vast majority of PhDs end up fine. Many or most of them won't end up as TT professors, and for many of them, that'll be a disappointment. But in a country with such vast poverty, unemployment, and general economic hopelessness, PhDs are doing fine. My general advice stands: don't go, unless you are merciless in your self-criticism, if you are mercenary in how you pursue particular fields and research interests, and if the program has a very high placement rate. My own program (not department), for instance, has a 100% TT hiring rate in the history of the program, a time-to-degree of 5.4 years, and better than 90% graduation rate for people who finish their preliminary exams. (Could I easily be one of the people left without a job, though? You betcha.)

To assert that you are offering employment advice for PhDs, without considering data like this, is either deeply misguided or deeply dishonest.

There are smart and stupid ways to pursue graduate school. I laid out my version of the smart way here. But I certainly understand that I could end up on the outside looking in. And you know what? I'll figure that out. As someone who has endured actual human hardship, I guess I just don't see that kind of rejection as the pit of despair that Schuman does. My natural response to her talking about the spiritual death of not getting a TT job is to say, first, I think she needs to readjust her definition of suffering. And, second, what a terribly narrow, sad definition of the world, or of success.

If I end up not getting a tenure track job somewhere, I might be a full-time adjunct. Or I might get a job at a community college. Or I might go into industry, as a small but consistent number of the graduates of my program do. Or I might teach high school, which I would love. Or I might do any other set of things. But I will survive. And if I do, I'll cherish these years. Because every single day, I feel challenged and fulfilled. These have been the best days of my adult life. I say that without reservation or hesistation. I've gotten paid to go to school and to teach and to work with brilliant people, every day. I cannot tell you how often I am reminded of how lucky I am. And whatever comes, comes. I've been poor before. I'm not afraid. For some of us, the thought of working a 9-5 office job is far worse than living an economically precarious existence. To choose the latter over the former is an adult choice that an adult can make. Besides: you think that there's gonna be such a thing as a job, for much longer? All the people who squeeze into a cubicle every day are the next downturn away from being worse off than the most overworked funded grad student.

Besides, I knew the odds going in. I studied and researched. Being a grad student, after all, is essentially to say that you want to be a professional researcher. If you don't do the necessary research first, I have limited sympathy for you.

I don't doubt that some people need to hear her message. I  do regret that she voiced it in a way designed to eject as many people from it as possible. But understand, potential graduate students of America: Rebecca Schuman is not writing to help you.  She has nothing but contempt for you. She writes, instead, to mock you and ridicule you. She does this because it is a very easy sell to a website that makes its money through mockery, and because she's angry. Be very skeptical of your urge to go to grad school. Check the numbers. Study up. Be ruthless in your self-evaluation. But Dr. Schuman? Don't take her personally. Her baggage is only that. And more, listen to your gut: whatever else she's doing, she's not offering advice. Advice doesn't come wrapped in this much contempt.

22 comments:

Gerry Canavan said...

A comment independent of the larger thrust of the essay: I don't think the provided chart does this argument much good, alas. The slide from "literature PhDs" to "all PhDs" alongside the slide from "recent PhD" to "all PhDs" completely muddles the comparison that's being made in Schuman's piece -- I don't think it can be denied that both literature PhDs and recent PhDs face worse prospects than the median PhD holder.

Jim said...

That graph, which I love and hate, should have fine print that reads "Past performance does not guarantee future results."

The most recent public data that BLS has for new advanced degree holders is shows that in October 2011, their unemployment rate was 8.6%.

(See this report: http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2013/02/art1full.pdf)

The unemployment rate for all bachelor degree holders, 25 and up for that month was 4.4%.

Freddie said...

I get what you're both saying. What I'm interested in, though, is a comparison to the national numbers.

Jim said...

I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time, yes?

Two separate statements:

1) Things are probably worse that they've been for the last 30-40 years for everyone, even at the top of the educational ladder.

2) Still the top of just about any ladder in the US is doing far, far, far better than the middle or the bottom.

They can both be true. That people focus on #1 at the expense of #2 is unfortunate, but certainly understandable, yes?

Rebecca Schuman said...

Thank you for reading, even if you disagree. The piece came from a place of very real anguish in my heart, a place of stark and intense emotional honesty. I put my name on it because I know hundreds of people who have been broken like I have, but who are still too scared of future search committees to say anything. The many, many sincere expressions of thanks and tales of feelings of worthlessness and dejection have been worth the heaping of open scorn that has come from those who are still deluded into feeling that this is a meritocracy, rather than an oligarchy. There are *at least* 150 applicants for every position for which I apply, because the search committees tell me so. Are you calling dozens of independent search committees liars? I don't mean to be an asshole--you know what? I do. I do.--but how. in the everloving. world. can you even think, for a second, that the job market for humanities PhDs is anything but abysmal? I didn't "provide evidence" because I only had 1500 words, and the MLA Jobs Report provides all the evidence you could ever need.

Freddie said...

I'm sorry, but that is a comprehensively nonresponsive comment, and one that consistently and flagrantly misrepresents my point. You might check all the times in this post where I point out that, in fact, the tenure track job market is terrible. That isn't my point. My points are twofold: first, that almost anyone with the social capital necessary to get a PhD is already a winner, and that we know empirically that most such people end up just fine in context with the rest of our country. And second, that what you offered is not, in fact, advice. Advice comes from a place of respect and a genuine desire to help. If that's what you were interested in providing, than your article is one of the most thorough rhetorical failures I've ever read in my life. But, again, I don't think giving advice was your purpose.

If you are broken by your inability to get into a certain profession, then I think that perhaps being broken in this way will be good for you in the long term. Evolve your perspective, or find yourself subject to the feelings you describe again and again. In the meantime, think of a country full of people who have worked dead end minimum wage jobs or survived entirely on public assistance, making very often less than what you made on your stipend, with no health care and no hope. Then find the courage to survive.

visibly agitated said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roland Dodds said...

"If I end up not getting a tenure track job somewhere, I might be a full-time adjunct. Or I might get a job at a community college. Or I might go into industry, as a small but consistent number of the graduates of my program do. Or I might teach high school, which I would love. Or I might do any other set of things. But I will survive. And if I do, I'll cherish these years. Because every single day, I feel challenged and fulfilled."

Very well said. I never earned a PHD, but I do have two Masters degrees that cost their share of cash and time. I now teach at a middle school. Sure, few days are similar to my life as a graduate student, but I still get to teach Machiavelli and Socrates. Perhaps more importantly, I get to be the first person to introduce these ideas to these 13 year olds, and that is worth a lot.

If grad students enter the "real world" willing to work in their field of choice, even if it is far removed from the uni-research lifestyle, their education will be well worth the time.

Steve said...

If you are broken by your inability to get into a certain profession, then I think that perhaps being broken in this way will be good for you in the long term. Evolve your perspective, or find yourself subject to the feelings you describe again and again.

This is one of the most sadistic sentiments I have ever come across in an academic or any other context. It's really appalling. It does no justice to Schuman's quite legitimate point that people pursue lit phds with the expectation of becoming lit profs only to find that in most cases that option is not available. You seem unable to grasp this one key fact: people do lit phds for lit jobs, not to "cherish these years" or to become a full-time adjunct. Jesus.

If you feel ridiculed, mocked, and scorned by Schuman's article, then good. Here's some more ridicule: if you are doing a phd with the expectation of becoming a full-time adjunct, you may be realistic, but you are a chump. If you are doing a phd with the expectation of teaching high school, you are surely a courageous soul, but you are also a chump. If you are doing a lit phd with the expectation of doing "industry," you are a chump. You don't need a phd for any of that! Get a BA! If you want to and if you have funding, get a Master's! You'll still be fine (looking at the BLS chart), and you won't have spent 5 years wondering if you're walking down a very long dead end.

Freddie said...

First:

It's really appalling. It does no justice to Schuman's quite legitimate point that people pursue lit phds with the expectation of becoming lit profs only to find that in most cases that option is not available. You seem unable to grasp this one key fact: people do lit phds for lit jobs, not to "cherish these years" or to become a full-time adjunct. Jesus.

That expectation is not realistic, as is easily divined from the evidence. I have sympathy for those people. But then, I have sympathy for many people, and there are quite a few who deserve deeper sympathy.

As for the rest, my life is my own. I make my own judgments and I keep my own counsel. I'm not interested in your definition of the right life. I don't ask and would never ask for your approval, for your blessing, or your understanding. The basis of adult life is the freedom to make one's own decisions and to value what one chooses to value. That notion is less and less common today, as many people need their choices to be amplified and validated by other people's behavior. But I am not among their number. I can only say again: I am acquainted with what it really means to have your life as you knew it end. And so I am prepared for professional failure. But I have a feeling your comment isn't really about me.

Steve said...

My comment certainly is about you, mate. We're both sitting here, contemplating the very real possibility you and everyone you're working with will never be hired as tenure-track professors, just as Rebecca Schuman and every phd she knows will probably never be hired as tenure-track professors, just as the vast majority of phd candidates will never be hired as tenure-track professors. Yet you talk about this possibility as a "failure," as "an inability to get into a certain profession." To me this signals that you think there's something rational about how this works. I think you're in thrall to a hypothetical search committee and the imagined rightness of its decisions, and that on that basis you're willing to write off someone like Schuman who says there is nothing good for you at the end of a lit phd program, so don't do it.

If you're working under the assumption that the academic labor market is bad but still inherently just, I'm sorry, but I think you're deeply mistaken. It does not make decisions based on what you or anyone else deserves. (I hope you would agree that the possibility that you and countless other phds could wind up as full-time adjuncts is a disgrace to the profession.) Any case, you get a job, you don't get a job: it's entirely impersonal. It has only to do with money.

So look, all due respect to your own counsel and the breadth of your sympathy and so forth: most people coming out of phd programs will likely, as you say, be fine, but it doesn't mean that they haven't also been fucked, and on that point Schuman is entirely correct.

Freddie said...

In other words, despite the fact that I've said quite explicitly that I don't think any system of market economy leads to necessarily just outcomes, and despite the fact that I've explicitly said that I know very well that I might break with the tradition of my program and not get a job, you have looked into my heart and found some part of me that believes that I think the job market is just or equitable or something. Thanks, for that. Since you are obviously new here, perhaps other commenters can inform you: for the five years or so that I have kept this blog, I have done little else but argue that there is no such thing as a just market outcome, and that I don't believe that human suffering, security, or comfort should be subject to the facile notion of "deserves."

I have written thousands and thousands of words against the idea that employment outcomes or any market outcomes are based on merit, have been published elsewhere arguing against the essential notion of merit and meritocracy, but whoops-- some guy named Steve knows that, secretly, I feel otherwise.

I suspect, in fact, that you want the world to be just, and you want the job market to reward the deserving, and you therefore pawn that notion off on me. Well, I'm sorry. I feel bad for Dr. Schuman, I feel bad for PhDs who yearn to be professors just as I feel bad for anyone who yearns for anything they can't have, and I feel bad for everyone who is trapped in this hellish system we call capitalism. But the tears I weep are because of a system-wide injustice, a horrific mess of a failed society that apportions material security based on family, chance, and received privilege. I don't feel special sympathy for the PhDs. I feel sympathy for all of us, and comprehensive disgust at the system. If you or Schuman or anyone else once mistook this for a just system, you and they are now, hopefully, disabused of that notion.

Ok, "mate"?

Steve said...

I looked into your heart and found these words:

"If you are broken by your inability to get into a certain profession, then I think that perhaps being broken in this way will be good for you in the long term. Evolve your perspective, or find yourself subject to the feelings you describe again and again."

Told me everything I needed to know.

Freddie said...

You said, "To me this signals that you think there's something rational about how this works. I think you're in thrall to a hypothetical search committee and the imagined rightness of its decisions"

That is contradicted by everything that I have ever written publicly, and stands in total opposition to what I believe. You spoke in ignorance, I called you on it, and now you're unwilling to own up to it. You disapprove of my telling Dr. Schuman that she shouldn't tie her happiness and self-conception so tightly to a process that you yourself describe as fickle and unjust? Well, luckily for us both, I'm not asking for your approval.

It's time for anybody who has not already gleaned this fact to catch up to it: the system is broken. It is rotten all the way down. Academia is not some small corner of the economy where a generally just system has happened to break down. It is as broken as the rest of our economy. Meritocracy was never real, not in the academy or anywhere else, and it will never become real. Abandon that notion. What's more, stop writing essays that call individuals out as chumps because they have been among the many who have been left behind in a broken social system. Find solidarity with them. Join them in opposing this system and calling for the next evolution in the structure of human affairs. When you make fun of people for failing in a rigged economy, you merely divide the opposition and make yourself a part of the problem. Dr. Schuman can push for real change, or she can cast her eyes down on the rubes that she thinks should feel as bad as she does. I know which is more useful, and less cruel.

Steve said...

I'll give you credit, Freddie, that's a gracious response. I suspected when reading this post, your comment to Schuman, and other posts of yours responding to similar essays (I'm not new here) that you don't think your fate in the academy is tied to Schuman's and the rest of your colleagues', your other writing on market outcomes notwithstanding. I'm looking at the paragraphs on the stature and placement record of your program in particular. (As an aside, those stats are usually presented by grad directors and are intended to mislead.) But if you say that's not the case, I'll take your word for it. I'm just not sure why you felt the need to respond so blithely to Schuman's article if you're essentially in agreement about the rottenness of the system.

Freddie said...

Well, I'm frequently a poor advocate for my own beliefs.

I'm in rhetoric and composition which, for a variety of reasons, has far better prospects than those in literature. But it's still tough all over.

Jonathan M said...

I assume, maybe wrongly, that Schuman did not write the piece's URL, so I do not hold that against her.

"And second, that what you offered is not, in fact, advice. Advice comes from a place of respect and a genuine desire to help. If that's what you were interested in providing, than your article is one of the most thorough rhetorical failures I've ever read in my life."

Whether her piece comes from a place of respect and a genuine desire to help, I haven't the slightest clue, but if someone is 5'6'' and you tell them they are delusional to dream of the NBA, respect has no bearing on its status as good advice.

Mfinkel said...

I might be misunderstanding, but you don't seem to take issue with the argument that virtually every single person with the ability to obtain a lit (or whatever) phd would be better off financially if they instead choose some alternate path. So when Schulman warns all prospective phd students to turn around, it not only sounds like advice, but like very reasonable advice.

Like a previous commenter noted, most of these PhDs will end up in positions they could have obtained without the phd. In other words, regardless of how lucky these people are not to be living in cardboard boxes, telling them not to get a phd is good advice.

Freddie said...

I might be misunderstanding, but you don't seem to take issue with the argument that virtually every single person with the ability to obtain a lit (or whatever) phd would be better off financially if they instead choose some alternate path. So when Schulman warns all prospective phd students to turn around, it not only sounds like advice, but like very reasonable advice.

I'm deeply bored of this conversation, but of course, "virtually every single person" is a profound distortion. Many thousands of people get jobs as English professors every year. They percentage of total PhDs is low, and in many ways, that's what matters. But to turn that into "virtually every single person" is a distortion that says more about your emotional attachment to the argument you're making than to the truth. What's more, you have no idea what the path of particular lives take. Many people very well could have their lives enriched, in many different ways, by getting a PhD that does not lead to one particular job. And in fact, I myself know quite a few. You guys are speaking with total certitude about vast generalizations. That's not how adults should function.

So why do you do it? Because of what getting a PhD represents: an act of passion and love. And that risk, taken of passion and love, represents a challenge to everyone who works a job they hate and continues an existence they know to be unfulfilling. So the urge has to be destroyed.

Ethan Gach said...

"Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D. So perhaps you, literature lover, are considering pursuing this path."

Surely no one actually holds this view, and if they do, after undergrad, let alone during or after obtaining a PhD, I have no sympathy.

"Well, someone also has to not die from small-cell lung cancer to give the disease its 6 percent survival rate, but would you smoke four packs a day with the specific intention of being in that 6 percent?"

So here we have the comparison to a victim of cancer. A much more devastating set of years, then lit grad school, by far. Much more ruinous. This excerpt becomes more and more shameful the longer I consider it.

"monetary compensation from a stable, non-penurious position at a decent university."

If only we could all have that, after working so hard! So here we find out it's not that the program was ruinous or psychologically devastating, it just didn't get her the money and job security.

Unfortunately, as best I can tell, if your passion is to do something in the humanities and/or arts, then yes, good pay and job security is something you sacrifice, and while that may not be fair, anyone who does not see that as the end game does not deserve the space to point out that fact.

I really can't go on. Her essay is dreadful, because it is so self-indulgent, and offers melodramatic warnings "don't go!" rather than use the experience to tell someone else, "What they might have done better," OR, more likely, tell us all WHAT it can tell us about the university, or the state of literature at large, something the essay only nibbles around the edges of while asking questions it has no intention of even attempting to answer, even though those are the questions that actually might matter, at least matter a little more than the sharp disappointment of one individual who is already better off than half her peers.

Ethan Gach said...

I can understand the disappointment, but the essay goes so far beyond that, to a place where many of us lowly plebes who work soul-less office jobs while trying to scribble and read in our free time can not possible fathom.

If you go to study something because you love that something, and love studying it, than it should all be worth it. This is the kind of reaction that should provoke the author to wonder if maybe they made the wrong decision to enter grad school, not because they're having trouble getting a TT job, but because that trouble is causing them such existential angst despite the fact that she is still in a position to pursue, in material comfort, if not luxury, that which she claims to love.

http://germanic.osu.edu/people/schuman

This is like someone having a child, not realizing the hard work and heartache that can be involved, and the costs, and to simultaneously tell others, I love my child but also don't ever try to have one yourself.

Rebecca Schuman said...

Yeesh. I shouldn't have read this thread. Please remember that I am a human being, all right? Freddie, you are what my battle-worn friends and I call "mid-indoctrination." The view that surrounds you, that academia is a true meritocracy and that it's OK to heap scorn on people like me because we failed, and that if you fail similarly you'll be just fine because you're not weak-willed like me--this view is very dangerous. Not to me--I'm fine. I wrote the Slate piece (which got a very provocative headline put on it that I didn't write, as is custom with all of journalism, just ask Mitt Romney!) only after I had made the decision to leave the market and move on with my life. There are amazing things ahead for me. I wrote the piece not as a jeremiad, not as mockery of mid-indoctrination younguns such as yourself, but as a requiem for the career I myself was indoctrinated to believe I should have and want, despite the statistics, a requiem for my field in general (Germanistik und neue deutsche Literatur, Freund, und NICHT Anglistik, wie Sie so oft sagen), and an amalgam of the anguished cry from an entire underclass of recent PhDs still too terrified to say anything against the industry that indoctrinated them. Also, and most importantly...*ahem, blows pitch pipe*: U MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD?