A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Should you go to graduate school in the humanities?

Should you go to graduate school in the humanities?

No, because you will find yourself surrounded by neurotics who wring their hands and solipsistically lament “the state of the field.”

Yes, because you will find yourself surrounded by thoughtful individuals who engage in continuous critical self-examination about their work and its place in society.

For about the past month, my Facebook feed has been filled with discussions on this question, should you go to graduate school in the humanities? This question typically accompanies links to articles exploring the question. It started with this piece in Slate, and  has continued more recently with this piece in The New Yorker, with several others in between.

It’s good that these articles are being written. Going to graduate school represents a substantial investment of time and energy on a kind of professional development that, given the precarious nature of the academic job market, entails tremendous risk. That being said, I haven’t read these articles. When one of my Facebook friends posts them, I never click on the link, and I often hide the post from my Facebook feed. These articles aren’t for me—they’re for those who haven’t yet made a decision that I made many years ago. I know that, at best, these articles will provide me with an opportunity to pat myself on the back and say, yes, going to graduate school was the right choice. A far more likely possibility is that these articles will leave me with a feeling of regret about a choice that I can’t undo. I’m prone to anxiety as it is—I don’t need Slate or The New Yorker to help me on that front.

Which is why I’ve been surprised that so many of my friends have continued to post these articles and engage in lengthy discussions of them, since most of these friends are are, like me, on the tail end of their Ph.D. and thus not the articles’ target audience. After some discussion with a few of them, it became apparent that this wasn’t about wallowing in their depression, as I often suspected. Nor was it about figuring out what to advise someone were they to ask if they should go to grad school (like the articles’ titles suggest). It wasn’t even about how our field is perceived by the middlebrow intellectual audience that Slate and The New Yorker represent.

Instead, these articles are serving as a vector through which people can communicate their existing feelings of anxiety about the future. There’s an element of self-flagellation to this that I don’t appreciate. By broadcasting their regrets about their decision to go to graduate school, many graduate students not only insult themselves; they also insult others who are in the same precarious situation. But the fact that these discussions appear to be so damn common among later-year Ph.D. students indicates that they are filling a real need—a need that our graduate programs are not filling.

There are two personality traits of people who get into graduate school: ambition and inquisitiveness. These two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, if you want to be successful you had better be both. But graduate programs—top-tier graduate programs in particular—are not equally skilled at cultivating both sides of their students personalities. As the job market has become more competitive, the culture of graduate school has, in many tangible and intangible ways, done more to cultivate ambition, such that, by the time you complete your Ph.D., acquiring a tenure-track job has been imbued with a symbolic importance that far exceeds its practical importance

But practically speaking, those jobs simply won’t be there for many of us. Taking a broad view, I’m frustrated with the academy for not doing more to adapt to the technological and economic changes that led to this situation. Had the field adapted, it might’ve better demonstrated its worth and there would be more jobs out there. But more immediately, I’m frustrated with the academy for perpetuating an outdated sort of tenure-track fetishism that places blinders on its students at a time when they most need a full range of vision.

The reason many later-year Ph.D. students are posting “should you go to graduate school?” articles is because there aren’t many “should Ph.D.s get professorships?” articles out there. But that’s the question we are—and should be—asking. Many of us lack the professional guidance necessary to navigate this job market as it exists in 2013. How might it be possible to subsist as an adjunct professor or a lecturer? Where does one find international job opportunities? What about high schools or community colleges? What about administrative positions or libraries? What private industry jobs might value a humanities degree, and how do we market ourselves towards those jobs? Is it possible to teach at a university on a part-time basis while doing other things? How do we address the two-body problem?

A focus on narrowly defined professional ambitions—the tenure-track professorship—makes just asking these questions an exercise fraught with anxiety. But graduate programs have a responsibility to answer these questions, and to do so early in their students’ graduate careers. If graduate programs did that, it might be possible for their Ph.D.s to see that there are many ways to succeed as members of an academically-literate intellectual community regardless of whether or not they are "academics" in the most conservative sense of the word. This is necessary on a practical level to ensure students' financial well-being, but it’s also necessary to ensure their emotional well-being. And I think that they would be easier questions to answer if graduate programs cultivated inquisitiveness the way that they cultivate ambition. If graduate programs don't start doing this, then we’ll all just keep freaking out on Facebook.

ADDENDUM: If graduate schools do want to narrow their students' options to the tenure-track professorship, they're free to do so, but they had better accept far fewer students into their programs. If they still want to exploit graduate student labor, they had better provide those students with more professional options.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say thank you for this post, which I somehow happened to stumble upon in my own bit of self-reflection about pursuing graduate school.