Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Career Advice

Wow. I realize I haven't blogged for a while, and I realize I haven't blogged about academia much at all, but I saw something today on Slate that really struck me. At the end of an article otherwise pedestrian article on reforming Ph.D. programs in the humanities, the author, William Pannapacker, said something unexpected. Really unexpected.

A bit of background for those of you who are lucky enough not to have, or be studying for, Ph.D.'s in the humanities: Most graduate students are exploited terribly as cheap labor for undergraduate teaching so that tenured professors rarely have to leave the library. Those same professors often encourage their most engaged students to pursue Ph.D.'s, both so that the professors can reproduce themselves academically (have disciples, in other words) and because those professors have little experience outside of academia and think their students' only other choice is working for an evil corporation. Many, many, Ph.D.'s in the humanities do not get tenure-track jobs once they graduate (this has gotten MUCH worse in many fields since the Great Recession). Many of them become severely underpaid adjunct professors who earn something like $5,000 per course (if they're lucky) with no benefits and no job security. If you want to hear from some of these people, check out the blog College Misery.

I didn't know any of this before I entered graduate school, because: a) things weren't as bad then, and b) those undergrad professors tend to reassure their students that MANY people may not get jobs, but, you, of course, are not "many people." You are special and chosen, and you're going to a top-3 grad school in your field, where you will be fully funded. (Did you know, dear readers, that some students take out as much as $100K in loans to get Ph.D.'s? Even as an undergrad, I would have recognized that as crazy).

So, for the last ten years or so, various people have been writing articles in various publications that only academics read suggesting many of the solutions that Pannapacker puts forth, including: providing non-academic career advice to Ph.D.'s; publishing the rates of job placement in any Ph.D. program; and encouraging grad students to organize. Because most of these articles are written by academics (and Pannapacker is one), most of them do not include his final suggestion, which he calls "the nuclear option."

Pannapacker says:

"6. Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now. Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even the more privileged students I mentioned earlier—and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don't have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.
In order to reform higher education, many of us will have to leave it, perhaps temporarily, but with the conviction that the fields of human activity and values we care about—history, literature, philosophy, languages, religion, and the arts—will be more likely to flourish outside of academe than in it. As more and more people are learning, universities do not have a monopoly on the 'life of the mind.'"

There were five jobs nationwide in my field last year. FIVE. In. The. Whole. Country. (And Canadian universities must, by law, give preference to Canadians). Non-academics rarely believe these statistics, but they are real. It is refreshing to hear an academic admit that this may not work, even for the Ivy-League, fully-funded, Ph.D. who has not yet had to resort to adjuncting. I have never heard a tenured professor say anything close to: "It [the current academic labor system] exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both." It's as refreshing to me as it is shocking.

I'm going back on the job market this year. I very well may find another postdoc. Will it be exploitative? If I don't find one, will I adjunct, or will I do a #6?

Any thoughts?


Tarun Kumar said...

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JMS said...

From a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "The American Historical Association, for example, reports a decline of more than 40 percent in tenured openings (including endowed chairs) during the past two years; last fall there were just 52 openings altogether (though not including senior searches aimed at specific celebrity prey that are sometimes not advertised)." (Cassuto, July 10, 2011, "Faculty Immobility in the New Economy"