Ah, Bartleby; Ah, Humanities

Louis Betty wants grad students to know just how bad the job market is these days.
May 23, 2011

In a perfect, pre-economic-crisis world, the path from graduate studies in the humanities to the professoriat went something like this:

1. Three and a half years after beginning graduate school, you pass a qualifying examination in your field of study, giving you the green light to start writing your dissertation.

2. A year later, in the fall term of your final year, you commence applying for positions as an assistant professor.

3. Meanwhile, you put the finishing touches on your dissertation and prepare to defend it in the spring.

4. In January, you are contacted by a number of universities to which you applied in the fall. They invite you on a campus visit, during which you are interviewed by several faculty members. One of these universities is impressed by your qualifications and your scholarly potential, and they offer you a job. You accept.

5. In March, you pass your dissertation defense. You submit a revised version of your thesis to the university library in April, and in May you receive your newly minted Ph.D. to uproarious applause during spring commencement.

6. You stick around campus for the summer, possibly working on an article or on turning your dissertation into a book. In August, you pack up and head off to your new job.

You are well on your way to a successful career as an academic.

Ah, if only this was how it really was…

Since the events of 2008, which essentially crippled the academic job market, the grim realities of finding work in the humanities have been laid bare like never before. Now, the process more resembles the following:

1. Three and a half years after beginning graduate school, you pass a qualifying examination in your field of study, giving you the green light to start writing your dissertation.

2. A year later, in the fall term of your final year, you commence applying for positions as an assistant professor.

3. Meanwhile, you put the finishing touches on your dissertation and prepare to defend it in the spring.

So far, so good…

4. However, during Christmas break, after the exhausting ordeal of teaching, finishing your thesis, and applying for jobs, you begin to experience acute anxiety. Your graduate adviser asks you repeatedly if you’ve gotten any contact from potential hirers; December, after all, is when interviews are set up for the Modern Language Association conference. Unfortunately, you’ve heard nothing. Your anxiety grows, and on Christmas Eve you experience a panic attack and check yourself into the hospital. Needless to say, the holiday season has not been kind to you this year.

5. In January and February, you get no news from the universities to which you applied. Your anxiety, thankfully, has diminished, due in part to the regimen of antidepressants that an ER psychiatrist suggested you take. You schedule your defense for early March. Meanwhile, you break up with your girlfriend, or rather she breaks up with you — honestly, given the way things have been going, you really don’t remember how it happened.

6. You pass your dissertation defense — barely. All throughout this three-hour tribulation, you have the impression that one or more of your committee members would like to throw a knife at you. When you are invited back into the seminar room and told that you have passed, your thesis director is shaking slightly. Forgoing the planned festivities, you go home that night feeling that you are some kind of academic charlatan.

7. By now, you’ve given up hope of finding a real job. Because most of your friends think you’ve gone crazy and resent you for ruining things with your girlfriend, you decide to leave the state and move back in with your parents. However, rather than viewing this as a social failure of unparalleled proportions, you feel relief at being in a place where you no longer risk developing symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

8. You complete the revisions on your dissertation and submit it to the library.

Two months later, your Ph.D. arrives in the mail. To your chagrin, your middle name has been misspelled. You are well on your way to a disappointing career as a high school teacher.

What I describe above is not so exaggerated as one might think. It is, in fact, very much like what I experienced during my last year in graduate school, and doubtless much like what many other graduate students in the humanities have dealt with during the last three years after finishing their degrees: depression and anxiety at the prospect of not finding work, feelings of scholarly worthlessness, and, perhaps most pernicious of all, the ominous realization that now, Ph.D. in hand, you have become an obscure subaltern, fated to roam the university landscape from one adjunct appointment to another.

All this I had to find out for myself — no one at my home institution wanted to level with me about my chances, if they were even aware of them. My fervent hope is that in writing this I will spare next year’s Ph.D.s some of the suffering I have endured — suffering which, I believe I can claim with some confidence, I hardly deserved.

Just how bad is it? It used to be that graduate students in their final year, if they did not find a tenure-track position in the fall or winter before they graduated, at least were able to nail down a postdoc that would give them a decent salary and time to publish a few articles or a book. This system, as far as I can tell, has completely collapsed. For instance, my thesis director informed me in January — after the MLA convention, let’s bear in mind — that not a single institution was hiring A.B.D. in 2011.

All those applications I sent out? A waste of time. It’s postdoc or nothing, baby!

Ah, postdocs. I applied for positions at Cambridge, Princeton, Chicago, MIT, Stanford, Texas, and a few others I can’t remember. My optimism here was quickly quashed. In every rejection letter I received, I bore witness to fantastic accounts of 650, 800, or 1,000 applicants for 5 to 10 spots. Who in the world were all these people applying for postdocs, I wondered? Were they all as nervous and hounded by indigestion as I am? Have they unionized?

And now what am I supposed to do?

"Now what" is, well, nothing. Waiting. Waiting for the "market to get better," as it’s always said. If it ever does.

In the meantime, what should graduate directors tell their graduate students? It’s actually very simple. There are no jobs. This simple formula, repeated often, can actually serve as a palliative for anxiety. A potent meditation on the absurdity of a system that every year produces hundreds of experts in various fields but can find them no employment whatsoever, this straightforward and categorical phrase can ease the burden of disappointment.

However, should one prefer to avoid such cynical Zen guerrilla tactics, more direct forms of action are also available. In the previous spirit of making lists, let me then offer the following advice to tomorrow’s potential Ph.D.s:

1. Don’t go to graduate school. Because so many young people are seeking sanctuary from the rampant unemployment of the broader job market, the number of graduate students has increased, while the number of jobs for them has withered. You have a better chance of publishing a successful novel than you do of landing a tenure-track position. Better get to writing!

2. If you do decide to pursue graduate studies, remember that you are playing a numbers game. Like British soldiers sent to Gallipoli in 1915, only a few of you will make it out alive. If you are keen on heroism, perhaps you will have the stamina to stick things out. But never forget — bullets, like the job market, are indifferent to your courage. You had better don some serious armor.

3. Realize that you occupy the lowest rung of the ladder. The real reason research institutions have graduate programs is because tenured faculty don’t want to teach lower-division courses. Your "career as a burgeoning intellectual" is in fact a barely concealed sham in which tenured fat cats chuckle at your bustling naïveté.

4. Know your enemies. They are everyone. You and your "graduate student colleagues" are a smelly pack of famished mongrels tearing at each other’s throats for paltry scraps; your professors are the bourgeois slave drivers and elites that they themselves warned you about in that class on "Critical
Theory." Begin to suspect that the leftist virtue of the university conceals a system of privilege and good-ole-boyism every bit as sordid as the Corporate America you went to graduate school to avoid.

5. Join the Army. You can be an officer, and you’re guaranteed to receive a monthly salary, good benefits, and great deals on car rentals for the rest of your life. The only risk is that you might get killed.

And above all — keep writing. Consider the endless volumes of soporific rubbish that academics produce every year, and focus your energies on writing something that people will actually enjoy reading. You might even get lucky and write a bestseller. Then you can send a copy to those wicked committee members who tried to goad you into suicide.

The humanities is a sinking ship, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

My advice is to strap your life preserver on tight; the ocean is vast, cold, and full of terrible creatures, but better to be devoured by beasts than to drown with crazies.


Louis Betty successfully defended his dissertation in French literature in 2011 at Vanderbilt University, and will begin teaching as an adjunct professor of French at the University of San Francisco in the fall. He wrote his dissertation on French novelist Michel Houellebecq.


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