Resetting Priorities

Beyond looking for jobs, writes Monica F. Jacobe, new Ph.D.s need to ask themselves tough questions about what really matters.
April 18, 2011

About this time last spring, I had just accomplished something that, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, over 30 percent of people who enter humanities Ph.D. programs never do: finished my doctoral degree. At the same time, though, I had succeeded in doing the thing I had been joking about for months: dissertating my way to unemployment.

So, one warm evening on my porch, I forced myself to come to terms with the simultaneous accomplishment and failure of that moment. In the end, I did get a job; however, this is not an article about that success, about "keep trying and you’ll get there." Instead, this piece is about that moment on the porch, where I was an unemployed, newly minted Ph.D. who was about to lose her health insurance and half of her meager annual salary as a result of succeeding at the whole point of graduate school.

The many people who face such a moment in this profession — be they new Ph.D.s or folks just tired of the annual cycle of anticipation and rejection — need to ask themselves a few specific questions, some of which I asked myself then.

1. Why are you doing this? It may seem obvious but isn’t. Some academics are driven by contact with students, with the "light bulb" moments of the classroom. Others thrive on their research and need library or lab more than anything else. Some people will need some combination of both to feel satisfied in any way with their work lives. Knowing what drives you to get up and do it all again each day will help you see what professional paths really will make you happy, as so rarely will any of us find employment doing exactly what we have been trained to do — and trained to dream of doing.

2. What can you not live without? This profession is one of sacrifices, and each of us is willing to make different ones. In the end, I was willing to leave my home of a decade and move to a town where I knew no one. Others may not be able to move and choose to leave academe for private industry, living without many of the features of faculty life to maintain their family. I have even heard people, as unrealistic as it seems, say they would never apply to or take jobs with a teaching load higher than 2-2 or without a world-class research library because of their drive toward research. But whatever choices you face going forward, you must know how far you are willing to go — geographically, certainly, but in so many other ways — before you can consider where you might go professionally.

3. What role does "work" play in your identity? That’s an academic way of asking about your priorities and acknowledging what you get from your work besides money. This is the ego question, and it is the hard one. For me, it meant facing the fact that I still buy into the venture of higher education and value humanities beyond "skills" teaching — despite years researching and writing about — to say nothing of working in — a labor system that seems not to share my values. In this moment, ask yourself about your need for university affiliation, about institutional prestige, about your need to brag about a light teaching load or the successful graduate students you mentored into this same complicated set of choices. Go ahead and face those secret aspirations and fears; they will show themselves eventually, whether you acknowledge them or not.

4. Given all this, are you being realistic about your prospects? This question might require you to educate yourself about the history of the job market in your field, though I advise people to start doing that as early as possible in their graduate careers (and even before applying to doctoral programs). In my field, English, for example, application pools range into the hundreds, and full-time, non-tenure-track positions are becoming a common first step — and often only step — in an academic career. I have met and spoken with soon-to-be-Ph.D.s who expect to sail into a tenure-line faculty job at a research university within driving distance of their current homes. The reality, of course, being that most new Ph.D.s in crowded fields will spend years working at several universities at once just to make enough to barely support themselves, to say nothing of job security longer than six months. To come to terms with your own career possibilities, you must know more about that career than your own research field and the name of your professional organization.

The most important thing I realized that afternoon on the porch of a place where I no longer live is that I wasn’t a failure if I didn’t get an academic job — in part, yes, because of the simple numbers game demonstrated above. However, the real reason I wouldn't have been a failure is that I had accomplished something important: freeing myself from the confines of "graduate student" and opening up the possibility of facing these questions, hard as they were and will continue to be. I was free to shape — to write for, to publish for, to teach for, to work for — myself.

And that meant and will continue to mean setting my own goals and defining "success" for myself. And the reality is, as the kind of jobs most graduate students are taught to want and expect disappear with increased contingency and the erosion of tenure, "success" for new Ph.D.s — in fact, for all academics — has to mean quality of life. We aren't taught anything about that in graduate school, usually, so we have to learn it for ourselves. Identifying and being honest about your own priorities and needs is the only way to go forward when you end up in the place so many people do these days — without the jobs they wanted and not sure what to do next.


Monica F. Jacobe teaches writing at Princeton University.


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