risky business

As you’re aware, I’m someone who often counsels people against getting a PhD, because the academic job market is so brutal and tenure track jobs so scarce. It’s how I start and end the conversation. It’s a reflexive, constant reminder I make: you are far, far more likely to end up without a tenure track job. Now I happen to think that field and focus matter; I think it’s the case that someone who’ll be writing a dissertation on, say, effective literacy education policy for Spanish-speaking children of Mexican-American immigrants has a different equation to work through than someone who’ll be writing a dissertation on, say, Horace’s minor odes. That’s not me making a value judgment about the relative worth of those topics– I find all academic pursuits equally worthy of study, and if it were up to me, they’d all be viable. It’s just a reflection of what the system now might potentially pay for, for good and for bad. Within-field prestige matters a great deal, too, as do individual department and program hiring rates, funding packages, cost of living…. But all in all, generally, I tell people– if you can imagine doing literally anything else, do that instead.

At the same time, I’m also someone who finds the cottage industry in mocking graduate students to be a bizarre genre, full of self-contradiction, weird acts of projection, a profound lack of perspective, and rampant emotionalism. No aspect is more strange than the shifting definition of what it means to pursue a “practical” life, and no aspect funnier than the people saying “going to grad school is impractical and unrealistic!” who themselves have a career plan that is essentially “become a big-time writer in NYC!” There’s something kind of sublime about people who work in journalism telling others that their career prospects are not so good. But more seriously, this discussion features a lot of weirdness about risk, choice, and other people’s lives in late capitalism.

Take Rebecca Schuman. Schuman’s argument, in large measure, is that PhD students are rubes who deserve mockery because they continue in their programs despite the long odds of the academic job market. From this position, she generates a brand of aggressive condescension and disdain, one which takes as a given that no one could survey the odds in going to grad school, recognize the difficulty, and choose to go anyway. The rejection of the legitimate choice to pursue the unlikely goal of success in academia is essentially Schuman’s primary argument. Yet what is Schuman attempting herself, instead? She continues to work as an adjunct despite making a compelling argument that adjuncting is brutally exploitative and terribly precarious. Beyond that, it appears she’s trying to make it as a freelance writer– the odds against which are even lower than the odds of becoming a tenure track professor. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people try to be freelance writers, and the vast majority fail. Many people have convincingly argued that the odds of making it as a freelancer will grow even longer, as the economics of online writing are badly broken. It’s also an industry where success is notoriously fleeting; people scrape together a living for several years in a row, then find the bottom falls out. How then can Schuman fairly mock other people for pursuing careers where they face bad odds, when her current gig is so unlikely to result in consistent financial security?

You might fairly point out that Schuman appears to be doing pretty well for herself already. A regular gig at Slate is nothing to sneeze at. And a neoliberal site like Slate will likely have a nearly endless appetite for the particular brand of anti-academic work like hers. I admire her success and wish her much more. But the success of any individual is always taken as irrelevant in discussing the academic job market. If you point out that there are people who do get jobs– and, despite everything, thousands of people will get tenure track jobs this year– you will be told, quite aggressively, that this is irrelevant to the broader picture. Right now, my program is having its usual success, and placing our current candidates on the market. But I don’t offer that as proof of even a conditional, limited argument for going to grad school, because people insist that the success of individuals never be invoked in discussing the broader topic. If we’re going to be at all consistent, Schuman’s success can’t inform our take on the wisdom of the decision to become a freelance writer. So I ask again: by what consistent reasoning can Schuman insist on the inherent irrationality and delusion of grad students when she herself is involved in a pursuit that is remarkably unlikely to result in financial stability?

I know somebody in the offline world who is the picture of the disgruntled former academic, and regularly delivers the argument that anyone who is in grad school now will find familiar– that we are exploited chumps, who couldn’t possibly have made the choice to play these odds knowingly, who will be left devastated by the failure to get a job even if we insist that we are prepared to deal with failure and move on…. Her new gig? Aspiring novelist! I don’t think I need to tell you the odds, there.

And of course you could take this thinking to its logical ends: how many people, exactly, are perfectly maximizing their potential income and perfectly minimizing their odds at unemployment? How many of the people who deliver this kind of argument against graduate school studied charts of median income and unemployment rates and jumped into those fields? Are there people who left grad school in the humanities for, say, petrochemical engineering? Why aren’t these people working for a hedge fund? Once you insist that lives that are worth respecting are the lives that are most devoted to pecuniary gain, you have reached a road that has no ending, and a particularly strange one for humanists to walk.

The truth is, the people making these arguments aren’t squeezing themselves into some cubicle to sell financial derivatives, or pursuing similarly “practical” employment, because human beings aren’t little revenue-maximizing Vulcans who live lives of perfect logic. We take risks, sometimes foolish risks, in the pursuit of what we desire. The people who get on grad students for being impractical while living impractical lives themselves are finding that other people’s risk is always far easier to assess than their own. It’s just another example of how living under late capitalism should generate solidarity but instead generates the opposite.

Some people try to be rock starts. Some try to make it in Hollywood. Some dream of Broadway. Some try to play in the NBA. They survey the odds and make the attempt despite the length of those odds. That’s not always a good decision, and oftentimes those people should be counseled to change their minds, as I have done over and over again with people considering grad school. But we recognize the legitimacy of these decisions, and sometimes even allow ourselves to respect them, despite the statistical unlikelihood of success. Grad students are simply a culturally vulnerable population, and there is very little risk in attacking them, as Schuman has taken great joy in doing in her work.

People who pursue tenure track jobs should understand their pursuit in something like the same terms, as a wild chance, as a lottery ticket. If you think that that much time and effort seems like too much to sacrifice for a lottery ticket, then I’m inclined to agree; I just know that only individuals can weigh those odds in any meaningful way. We certainly have ample evidence to see the percentages. Despite people talking as though the job market is uniquely bad now, the reality is that the academic job market has been bad for decades, in some fields for 30 years. This information is widely available and amounts to the conventional wisdom. I cannot understand how people continue to act as though it is somehow a secret that the academic job market is incredibly competitive. To be a grad student is to be a professional researcher; to fail to do your research about your employment prospects is hard to justify.

There is no contradiction in saying “the academic job market is very competitive, and a majority of people in many disciplines will never earn a tenure track job, sometimes a large majority” while also saying “there are choices that can be made in terms of prestige of program, academic program, area of interest, and topic of dissertation that can increase your personal odds.” Indeed, that’s just the plain truth. Anyone in an English department (like me) faces very long odds and must be made aware that they are very likely to never hold a tenure track job, by their programs, their professors, and their cultures. But someone who writes a dissertation on literacy practices in business schools and goes on the market with credentials as a writing programs administrator from a program with a long history of placing such students simply has better odds than someone who writes a dissertation on Sherwood Anderson from a program that doesn’t. I don’t know when or why that kind of perspective became forbidden. I wish everyone could make it, but I recognize that the market wants what it wants.

The thing about failure is that you can move on. I’ve known people who have tried to make it in Hollywood or in hip hop, who have tried to get a book contract for their novels, who have moved to Brooklyn and plugged away at a freelancing career, and who have decided in the end to hang it up. I don’t doubt that there are a lot of people who would mock them for ever trying. But they’re moving on to happy and fulfilled lives. They could be richer people now, monetarily, if they had never made the attempt. Emotionally, personally? That’s only for them to decide. And this, finally, is the aspect of this conversation that I find consistently bizarre, the insistence that the people commenting from the outside have the ability and the right to dictate other people’s emotional relationship to the risks they have taken in their own lives and to their own successes and failures. After all, Schuman’s first piece was not a sober argument about the percentages and the odds but explicitly a discussion of emotional commitments. I don’t like to call arguments emotional but that is the decision that Schuman has made, to highlight emotion. That’s the text of the piece: “I felt devastated by this and you will, too.”

That’s the only way, I think, to really understand people like the woman I know who is derisive towards other people’s career prospects while she tries to make it as a novelist. It only makes sense emotionally and not practically. It’s an important and sober point about job market conditions which becomes lost in anger and petty resentment about an unhappy result in that market. Which is fine. But there’s something odd in the way that people who make arguments they claim are ruthlessly pragmatic constantly descend into emotionalism and insult. I recognize the reasons for anger, and I value the willingness to be upfront about it. But the tendency of these pieces to descend into the authors essentially rooting for the people they are ostensibly advising to fail, and to feel the same devastation they did, is self-undermining.

More than anything, I would just like to hear a coherent reason why people who advocate for ruthless practicality in the lives of others don’t live their own lives that way, and to open up the conversation to a broader discussion of how people are motivated and why. And as always, I would like for people who are all being pummeled by an immoral, winner-take-all economic system to extend solidarity to each other, and to work together towards a new model that extends basic material security for all. Then, everyone can pursue whatever their own vision of the right life entails, knowing that they will not freeze or starve if they fail.


  1. After reading your post, I went and read Schuman’s article. Then I read it again. I found her tone confessional, and perhaps satirical, and she is obviously and understandably frustrated with the state of job market in her own chosen area of specialization. I do not think her intent was to mock those in graduate school who intend to seek careers as tenure-track professors. I also read her other articles on Slate, as well as many of her blog posts. On the whole, she strikes me as sympathetic to the plight of adjuncts, and concerned about the anti-labor tactics of many colleges and universities. Accordingly, I think your criticism of her is a bit unfair.

    Reference the larger issue of whether or not potential graduate students are making informed decisions about their future career prospects, generally speaking, Americans have a poor track record of making logical assessments concerning risk, and are equally bad at maximizing utility. There is a tendency to place too much emphasis on anecdotal evidence, and to believe that our own individual odds of success are much greater than they really are. There is also a string tendency to underestimate the likelihood of relatively common negative events (e.g. car accidents) while wildly overestimating the likelihood of rare events like plane crashes and terrorist attacks. Bruce Schneier, among others, has written about this with more detail and clarity than I can hope to do. The other side of the coin, as you point out, is that details matter—which program, at which university, with what area of focus, and with what CV and recommendations—and are critical in making a reasonable judgment about the chances of success for a given individual.

    As far as the idea of maximizing potential income and prospects for employment, it is important to recognize that advice that can be supported by data may serve as good general guidance, but could well be worthless on an individual basis. For example, people with graduate degrees have higher average and median annual and lifetime earnings than those with four-year degrees, who in turn have higher earnings than those with high school degrees, and employment in the healthcare field is expected to be strong for at least the next decade. This obviously does not mean that all 18 year-olds must go to college, or that everyone in college who is uncertain about an area of study should pick something in the healthcare field.

    I think you captured the heart of the matter in saying “There is no contradiction in saying “the academic job market is very competitive, and a majority of people in many disciplines will never earn a tenure track job, sometimes a large majority” while also saying “there are choices that can be made in terms of prestige of program, academic program, area of interest, and topic of dissertation that can increase your personal odds.” And perhaps more importantly, “The thing about failure is that you can move on.”

    Just because the odds are against you does not mean you can’t succeed. Two of my former college roommates are tenured professors, one at a small school and another at a major university. A third went a different direction; he teaches high school and coaches. A fourth did not go to graduate school; he “made it” in Hollywood, although not quite to the level that he had hoped. I do know one aspiring novelist who also does some freelance writing, but he does those things on the side—he has had a “real” job to pay the bills ever since graduating from college some 20+ years ago. This is all anecdotal evidence, and of course I was decrying its use earlier. I guess my point is that life is full of choices, that if/when people make an effort to make informed decisions, stay open-minded about their options, and move on in search of other opportunities when faced with setbacks/failures, they can still find “success” even if it is not revenue-maximizing.

    I also do know some people who advocate for ruthless practicality in the lives of others and live their own lives that way—they do exist, although I acknowledge that they are rare. That still does not mean that their prescription will work for everyone, though, because as you point out, people have different goals and motivations, and one size does not fit all.

    As for your comment about extending solidarity and working together towards a new model that extends basic material security for all, well, I admire your idealism and enthusiasm. Based on my experience, all systems—government, private, and academic—are highly resistant to reform and change of all kinds. I have also encountered people who, sadly, are in a condition where they are not interested in help, new opportunities, or change, for a range of reasons. Paraphrasing The Mission, as to whether the world was ever thus, or thus we have made the world, my answer would be both, sadly.

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