Held in Reserve
You can forgive yourselves if you missed this recent New York Times article on the challenges of life on the outside for recent PhDs; as they say about pretty single women and cross-town buses, there’ll be another article just like it along shortly. By now, we can expect the responses will fall roughly into two categories: 1. “This just shows you how bad the economy is when even PhDs are out of work!” and 2. “If you got a degree in the humanities, what did you expect?” Or, to quote the commentator in Airplane! “They bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say let ‘em crash!”
Well, it’s all true. Getting a PhD in the humanities is all balled up. I’ll get to that, but first let me relate how I got to talking about all this the other night at our local tavern, standing vigil at the bar with Joe, a guy who plays drums like a beast and has done so in the trifecta of legendary Hamilton bands: Teenage Head (briefly), the Forgotten Rebels, and Simply Saucer. By day, he’s an auditor (I believe) for a company, father, and family man. He’s also got an M.A. in Medieval French with several years of Latin under his belt. As a fellow Latin-lover myself, I’m sure he also fantasizes about the day in which we will prove the naysayers wrong about our usefulness by giving Caligula directions after some time machine mishap.
Joe related that our mutual friend Rob, “says you and me are nuts for getting the degrees we did!”
Me: “Well, sure, we’re nuts. Everybody knows that!”
Joe: “Medieval French, the Ottoman Empire, who knows what you can do with all that?”
Me: “Ah, it makes no difference how practical it all is. We’d have done it anyway. It’s a calling. Nothing can be done. You have to follow your obsessions to the best of your ability! If mankind was practical, we’d still be living in caves!” (I will note that we were a few drinks in by this point.)
And yet, even in our economic slough of despond, graduate schools are still packed with impractical young people. You can imagine mothers in aprons crying at a kitchen tables across the heartland, “Why, oh why, does he have to throw his life away on higher education?!” Senior academics worry all the time that these students are not sufficiently warned about the unlikelihood of landing a career in the field after grad school, but really it doesn’t matter. You don’t go into graduate school because you have a good sense of priorities.
This passage from Brother David’s recent post on the subject is great:
Who are them? Who knows. My parents? Teachers? The bloggers who would delete my trenchant comments instead of responding to them? All of them? Does it matter? Probably not.
I don’t know what the good reasons are for going to grad school, but I’m pretty sure “to show them” isn’t one of them; not for me at least, not where I am in my life. There are more interesting and important things for me to do.
That doesn’t mean I’m completely over it.
It’s great because it tells us something we already know, but don’t know we know. Plenty of people go to grad school for the same sort of “because it was there” reason that plenty of people climb Mount Everest: they have to prove something, mostly to themselves. Is this practical? Probably not. But how much of life is practical? When I try to explain my time in graduate school, my first answer is that my father told me as a teenager, “Don’t tell your mother I said this, but I think you’re stupid. I really do.” I’m not sure if spending eight years in graduate school proved or disproved that notion! But it was necessary to show myself that I could get through it. And, most likely, truth be told, I went to graduate school to figure out why I’d gone to graduate school.
Now, I feel myself held in reserve. Having been paroled from both academic and married life, I am pounding the pavement daily looking for any job that can pay my rent. Luckily, I have a sense of humor because I can recognize the comic aspect of someone as waspish, retro, and given to absentminded skylarking as myself trying to convince the manager at some Mall store- say “Carpet Diem”- that I really will find lifelong fulfillment preaching the good word of retail services to grumpy middle aged women. “Please give me a chance! It’s true that I got a PhD, but I’m better now!”
On weekends, I work in a dish-pit, where I have educated the line cooks about the religious origins of coffee-brewing and applied critical analysis to the larger business to explain to management why they’re still losing money. Incredibly enough, I am still liked. In the meantime, I sing in a band, book shows, and am developing a historical walking tour for a gallery downtown. I still wake up every day excited to be alive in the world. I am thankful for that.
And here’s another thing- having gotten through the ordeal of graduate school and successfully defended my dissertation, I can’t imagine anything else that would be harder or that I couldn’t do.
Admittedly, the folks I know with Master’s and Doctorate degrees are uniformly unemployed or underemployed. The problem facing PhDs on the outside is all those false notions they and others have about life on the inside. The “ivory tower” cliché is mostly tripe; yeah, they’re a bit weird at times, but academics are professionals like any other and not precious eccentrics unfit for normal life. Too many of them leave the profession with a false notion that they can’t do anything else, forgetting they’ve spent years learning how to conduct research, solve problems, analyze complex systems, communicate powerfully and effectively, edit documents, complete large-scale tasks, motivate others, and think seriously in a focused way through issues that have baffled others before them. In other words, they’d be an asset to most large organizations. Conversely, those companies tend to be fairly myopic when it comes to who and what skills to exploit and how. What is needed, it seems, are headhunters who specialize in making academics into productive members of society. No egghead left behind!
And all of us could do with less fear. Life is uncertain for everyone, even those with the most practical plans, but uncertainty is the cornerstone of every adventure, is it not?