Mainstreaming the PhD, Part 1

Time was conversations about what to do with a PhD in a bad job market ended in expressions of shame, heartbreak, guilt, or rage. But lately, that conversation has been (happily) interrupted by bright pockets of snarky analysis, activism, and community building by and for those seeking careers (and a life) outside the academy.

A recent advice column in The Chronicle of Higher Education by journalist Elizabeth Segran (who earned a humanities doctorate in 2011) is refreshing in its refusal to frame the PhD problem as “an act of injustice on the academy’s part.” And while I think that her characterization of the academy as “pragmatic” rather than “nefarious” simplifies a more complex conversation about the place of privilege in higher education, her point that recent PhDs might be better served if they stopped thinking of themselves as an exploited class is well worth listening to.

There’s no doubt that too many PhDs are frustrated today by a lack of opportunity. This is particularly true of PhDs in the humanities, and even more true for those in disciplines that are about constructing narratives and not about calculating standard variations. Still, Segran argues, PhDs struggling with a bad job market have a choice to make, “with eyes wide open,” about whether to stay in the academy as adjunct laborers or leave it to pursue other possibilities. Choices, I might add, that most adults entering the workforce are obliged to make every day.

Some might criticize the very idea of choice as a liberal fiction, but I think most people who’ve managed to pursue a PhD in a first world country have some ability to affect their lives. We give up that agency when we think about ourselves as always acted upon and never acting. That’s what Segran wants to see change.

I left the academy over 15 years ago. When I did, the discourse of choice that Segran is advocating wasn’t available to me. Leaving was a personal failure that couldn’t be rationalized away by the realities of the job market (though I tried, mightily, to do so). Without the tools to think more broadly about what to do with a PhD, I was, for years, locked into a repetitive narrative of failure–of never being quite “good enough.”

Still, I demonstrated a degree of “resiliency” (something that graduate programs might think about actively cultivating in their students) and, after a year of working for the maniac CEO of a start-up software company (which opened a few doors), ended up with a career in a field that challenged me professionally and afforded me some financial stability.

In other words, I made a choice.

But it took me years to figure that out. Years where self doubt probably got in my way more times than it should have, and likely limited my choices in ways that I still don’t quite understand.

It’s astonishing to me that doctoral students and newly minted PhDs are still facing the same issues I faced 15 years ago, but today at least, new resources are springing up everywhere. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has taken up the issue of adjunct labor (prompted to do so by years of dedicated activism). The #altac and #postac movements have helped connect people seeking new ways to think about their skills and abilities.  The blogroll of recovering (or just chronically pissed-off) academics is legion and many of them have moved from anguish to awesomeness. And the cottage industry in job and life counseling for PhDs, led by Versatile Ph.D., shows no sign of slowing.

But here’s what’s really interesting. While all this has been happening, PhDs have been going mainstream. The number of colleagues holding doctorates I’ve stumbled across in my career might be skewed by the fact that I’ve spent most of it in education technology, but new data suggests PhDs are no longer working only in Ivory Towers. Graduate schools are beginning to wake up to this phenomenon, although I suspect the resources they will devote to this kind of alternative job development won’t gain ground quickly.

Does this mean that the academy is off the hook when it comes to perpetuating old models that don’t always (maybe never) put student welfare first? Of course not. We need to think carefully about how and why doctorates are granted. But in doing that, we need to think harder about whether extended, deep study has any role to play in a public life outside of the academy. In other words, while I applaud the work being done to think about what we can do with a PhD, I also want to know if the PhD (or more precisely, the tradition of focused study that it represents) can do anything for “us,” this fractured and fragile thing we call a society. I’m going to try to tackle that question in Part 2, but if you have thoughts, bring ’em on.


2 thoughts on “Mainstreaming the PhD, Part 1

  1. Thank you for this intelligent, cogent and positive discussion of possibility of life after the Ph.D. This should be required reading for graduate students along with the resiliency workshops that you could efficiently and eloquently lead. I taught and trained graduate students in English from 1979 to 2011. Some got great jobs, some good enough, and some got screwed. This didn’t, however, change much about how we trained our students. We did a pretty good job teaching them how to interview at MLA, how to write job letters, and how to teach English and interdisciplinary subjects. I don’t think that we ever taught students how use their doctorates in any non-academic way. I’m glad you didn’t let the academy off the hook. It’s time for institutional change.

  2. Thanks for your comment Carol. Teaching resiliency workshops! Now there’s an alt_career path! It’s frustrating to me that folks in the humanities especially, who face the constant drumbeat of irrelevancy, have not done a better job promoting the value of sustained learning to the wider world. Lazy? Unimaginative? Too busy? Too afraid? Uninterested? It perplexes me.

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