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Woman sits at desk surrounded by books and looks searchingly out window from which a ghostly image floats

Kay Sohini

When I was 28 years old, my father had a heart attack. Across the world from where he was being taken to the operating room, I prayed to the same forces that make me question my lingering theism every time I engage with the day’s news. My spouse, an atheist with an unfailing conviction, says that the deity of my choice is a small god. He says that a god sans omnipotence is a godmother at best.

So be it, I thought and pleaded for my personal miracle. I reasoned that my mother has nearly no one, has lost both her parents, shares space with an onerous joint family, and her only daughter lives 7,889 miles from her in a city, country and continent she has never set foot in. She couldn’t possibly lose the only person she has been in love with since she was 16.

So he survived. Stars, deities, small gods and doctors were profusely thanked. In the wake of rising medical bills, it struck me that I had made a mistake. As a barely middle-class brown kid from the backside of beyond, I had the audacity to pursue the humanities. A discipline where job security has been diminishing for decades now. A degree in English, no less. A degree in English from a public school in New York State, which trained me well enough to teach undergrads and even to write nuanced essays on very literary topics but not much else.

The humanities, in our sociopolitical climate, are crucial to our survival and yet deeply, chronically underfunded. But I was 20-something, starry-eyed about the idea of reading and writing for a living.

I did not even have the foresight to situate myself in something equal parts traditional and trendy. I studied pictures! I dove deep into graphic medicine, a field that lies at the intersection of medical humanities and graphic narratives—one that has been growing in popularity at a respectable rate but has only about 10 years to its name and absolutely no job openings. Perhaps most egregiously, I drew my entire doctoral dissertation as a comic.

When I graduated, my parents couldn’t come to see me walk because international travel during a pandemic is a complicated thing if you are from the Global South and of modest means. I have not seen them in three and a half years. But on WhatsApp, on a video call made from Long Island on a brilliantly sunny afternoon, they stared back at me in my doctoral regalia—newly hooded—and looked so proud I could have cried.

Later, they could not understand why I could not find a job. I had a Ph.D. I had all these publications. People were inviting me to speak at their universities! I had won a competitive grant open to humanities Ph.D. candidates nationwide. And I had a book contract.

“But you barely looked up from work for the last five years!” I remember my mother sounding half aghast, half incredulous at my lack of prospects.

To be fair, I did get a job. A prestigious one that famously garnered 850 applications for five open positions. I would have had a joint appointment in English and art and a studio to myself. For months, I was thrilled—especially about the studio. I wrote/drew my dissertation from the corner of my closet-size New York City bedroom, and the only time I got to make art in a studio was with 20 other students that one time I took at a class at Teachers College of Columbia. I spent time planning archival trips and penciling research plans and thinking about syllabi.

But this job was in another, much colder part of the country, quite a bit away from where I spent most of the past decade and had a support system. For several reasons spanning the practical, the sentimental and the frivolous, I did not find it in me to uproot my life for three years, notwithstanding the lure of prestige. Three years can be an odd amount of time: simultaneously too short to uproot one’s life for and too long to reasonably consider a long-distance relationship if you are partnered.

Still, on days on when my current life of book writing and freelancing gets particularly precarious, I wonder if I made the right choice to turn down a steady paycheck, albeit one that was only guaranteed for three years. On those days, my spouse—ever kind, forever practical—reminds me that it would have been more expensive for us to live apart in two cities than to not take that job at all. He reminds me of my asthma, debilitating in the colder months. He reminds me of all the very valid reasons why I turned down that ostensibly incredible opportunity, noting how the cons stacked high against the pros.

But that’s the thing with having a somewhat minor but tediously chronic illness. It’s the same with having aging parents. They are both fine one moment and need so much support the next. In the absence of a crisis, it’s easy to downplay the difficulties. On good days, it’s easy to forget that I cannot lift heavy things, carry groceries on my own, drive or even summon the energy to make three meals a day, even though I derive a lot of joy from cooking. It’s easy to forget that I do not have to think of myself as disabled only because my spouse keeps our home. Absent his labor, I would lose whole chunks of my life to depression, anxiety and asthma. I do not think of myself as disabled because everyday ableism works hard to make agents of us and because all my access needs are met seamlessly in my current circumstance.

For a while, I thought that the people who offered me the incredible job would perhaps make an exception for me and acquiesce to a part-hybrid/remote-friendly setup, considering that the teaching load was (enviously) low and that my research centered on disability justice, with chunks of it based in New York. But the accommodations that made academia easier for chronically ill/disabled people at the start of the pandemic steadily disappeared before the virus did. This is not unique to the institution with 850 applications. Convenience takes precedence over accessibility, in academia and beyond. Most institutions want to appear diverse without committing to the fact that not all accommodations or changes that cater to the needs of marginalized groups are necessarily convenient.

Sometimes, the inconvenience of providing access is conflated with compromising on quality, but I digress. As a Ph.D. candidate, you worry about precarity for years before you are on the job market, but deep down—especially if you are doing well by typical (clearly not foolproof) measures—you think maybe you can beat the odds. Maybe dozens of presentations at international conferences, peer-reviewed papers, invited talks, impressive grants and book contracts will be enough to score a few extra points in a depressed job market.

But the truth is that there are too many qualified candidates and too few tenure-track jobs. Mathematically, the odds are against you. At a certain point, it also comes down to luck, a fact that is contentious to many people. Perhaps they take offense at that assertion because they assume it means that those who landed tenure-track jobs did not have to work hard for it—which, of course, isn’t true. The point is that so did everyone else who did not get a job.

Then there’s the question of timing, disciplines and marketability. My research was art based. It looked at how we can use comics and graphic narratives to advocate for environmental and health justice. It was interdisciplinary in a way that sounded cool to publishers but not to hiring committees. Or maybe it was not interdisciplinary so much as it was merely undisciplined—a little bit of everything tied together by an experimental approach to the use of comics in research communication.

To pursue art in a world that, in no uncertain terms, tells you that you should’ve pursued a higher-paying and more viable career, while consuming art (films, TV, music, even books) routinely for entertainment, is a damning thing. No one ever says that the world should be devoid of art. The ubiquity of art is such that it exists even in places that we do not consciously think of.

Artists, on the other hand, are quite expendable. Sometimes I wonder what my grandfather, a construction worker turned contractor, would make of my career choices. A refugee in West Bengal from Bangladesh, by 30 he was supporting a family of six. And here I am, hovering around the same age, in the throes of highly educated precarity, wondering what on earth I got myself into.

Conversations about casualization of labor in higher education often turn to leaving the academy for “the industry.” But what is the industry for a literature graduate? A nebulous term at best, it usually refers to publishing (a notoriously hard profession to break into and stay in), nonprofits, instructional design, project management of various types—all of which require considerable experience, which are not often a part of the typical Ph.D. experience.

UX research, a rage among fleeing academics of late, only makes room for social scientists. On Twitter, “alt-ac” advocates constantly talk about the transferable skills that all Ph.D.s apparently possess. It only comes second to their favorite mantra, networking, as though the concept does not privilege certain types of graduate students over others. It’s not that humanities grads do not have transferable skills or that networking is an inherently bad thing. But we cannot leave post-Ph.D. job security to individual tenacity and a good amount of luck—not if the academy wants to do right by its most marginalized scholars, as it claims to in its DEI initiatives.

Until we find a way to create more secure jobs in academia, we need structured training and practical professional development incorporated into doctoral curricula to actively prepare students for various careers relevant to their degree outside the academy. In most public universities, we Ph.D. students spend so much of our time teaching undergraduates when most of us will never find a career in that profession. If a part of those requirements were replaced with internships or fellowships that allowed candidates to explore various career options, they would probably graduate considerably more prepared to transition out if they want to or if their fate on the job market calls for it.

Funnily, drawing comics, the thing that made me ineligible for many a tenure-track position, is also the thing that became my lifeboat. I now (happily) make educational comics for universities and organizations that serve K-12 students. One may ask, why do a Ph.D. at all if you are going to transition to a job that doesn’t require one?

I don’t know. You certainly do not have to. Explaining why the humanities has inherent value is for another essay. Personally, I really did enjoy learning to think deeply and critically about a subject. Being a first-gen college student, getting to devote five years of my life to researching a subject I was deeply invested in and being mentored by the kindest and smartest advisers I could have asked for was unequivocally a privilege, and I am grateful for it. Criticizing something does not mean we think it is irredeemable—more likely the opposite. For my part, I only want to see the academy unbroken for people who make it a better, more inclusive and an infinitely more interesting place to work and build in.

Kay Sohini is a writer and artist based in New York City. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Women Write About Comics and The Nib, among others. Her first book, This Beautiful, Ridiculous City, is slated to be published by Ten Speed Press in late 2024.

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