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.