• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Mothering at Mid-Career: Advice to my daughter (and other bright humanities undergrads)

Dear Mariah,

January 19, 2010

Dear Mariah,

As you head back to college for your second semester, I find I don't really have any important advice for you about right now. Things seem to be going well for you so far and you're figuring out what you want to do just fine on your own. But I can pass on the conventional wisdom now being provided to people like you who are enjoying your humanities programs: don't go to grad school. That's what all the pundits are saying — you can find articles almost anywhere you look: here in Inside Higher Ed, for example, and of course in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which seems to have a masochistic pleasure in these pieces, if you ask me) as well. The job market is at an all-time low. Earnings are down. The job itself is becoming more outcomes-oriented, more administrative, less rewarding. The benefits aren't as good as they used to be.

I tell my undergrads all this when they ask me for recommendations. Nonetheless, they still ask, and I still write them. And I have some former students who are currently enjoying their time in humanities graduate programs. (You can read a great piece here, also in Inside Higher Ed, about why people still go when it doesn't make sense to do so.)

It's because of those students who love what they do that I can't with good conscience tell you not to apply to graduate school. Thankfully, you're still only halfway through your first year, so you may make other decisions by the time you graduate. But the fact that you spent your break first finishing up your fall semester papers (after coming home with bronchitis before the term ended), and then ordering and starting to read your spring semester books, suggests to me that this whole academic enterprise actually gives you some pleasure.

Tonight over dinner — your last night here in town before you head back for the spring semester — it came up again. And your father gave you his take on things. As you've probably heard ad nauseam, he didn't love graduate school. He did meet me there, so it wasn't a total loss. In fact, even if he hadn't met me, it wouldn't have been a total loss — he learned a lot. He enjoyed doing the reading, and going to class, and living among people for whom argument was a pleasure (and I don't mean the Fox News kind of argument). But in the end, he went there for job training, and the job not only didn't exactly materialize, it also turned out not to be the job he wanted. So, while those years weren't a complete waste, the competition, the test-taking, the grade pressure, and the constant demand to say something new were, in the end, more unpleasant than the pleasures of conversation and reading that he derived.

But I loved it all. The tests were an intellectual challenge. The books were great, and so were the professors and the other students. Working and living among people who had made similar commitments to mine was new and entirely enjoyable to me. And — and I think this is key — I didn't actually realize it was all about job training until quite late in the process. I'm not alone in this. I note that the terrific history blogger, Tenured Radical, says something rather similar about herself—

I speak as someone whose success as an academic was relatively unplanned, and in fact, a great surprise. My original decision to go to graduate school was both wildly irrational (I had a very hazy idea of what the outcome would be) and pretty rational (I knew I was good at school.) I believed that becoming more knowledgeable would push my plan of being some kind of intellectual ahead, but I just wasn't sure what kind of intellectual that would be. What I now consider in retrospect to have been wildly good luck on a really bad job market (the year I got the job at Zenith there were exactly four tenure-track openings advertised in my field in the entire nation) meant that I never committed emotionally to having a tenure-track job prior to getting one; nor did I have to make a difficult decision about what to do if I were not employed as a university professor.

I, too, feel that I was both "wildly irrational" and "pretty rational" in my decision to go to graduate school, and that I was not at all committed to the idea of a tenure-track job right up until the point when I got one. I also still like to think that I was once employable outside the university — I'd done all kinds of work while in and out of college and graduate school, after all, and had never been out of work for more than a day or two when I wanted to work. This sounds smug, but I don't mean it to be — I had some pretty terrible jobs, but I could support myself.

So, to that end, here's my second piece of advice, and I really mean this one: get a good summer job. Keep your campus job this semester, and either parlay that into summer work or find something else that pays. Start paying your own bills — not because I don't want to (though, of course, eventually I don't) but because it will make you feel competent rather than helpless, open to experience rather than trapped by inexperience.

Enjoy all those "frivolous" humanities classes you're signed up for this semester. They don't add up to a job, or a major, but they do sound like fun. Enjoy it all — and then, get a job. Oh, and call home every now and then.


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