Given the dismal academic job market described by numerous writers, you’d think humanities Ph.D. programs would have shuttered their doors, boarded up their windows and hung a sign on the front entrance that reads, “Out of Business.”
On the contrary, a recent Inside Higher Ed article  shows the number of humanities Ph.D.s rising by over 500 graduates between 2010 and 2012.
Why haven’t humanities students scattered like rats fleeing a sinking ship?
I earned my Ph.D. in English in 2004, and on average, I competed with 400 other applicants for each job I failed to get during my three years on the market. I understood I’d face these grim prospects during graduate school, but I told myself they didn’t matter. I told myself I studied for the sake of my love for the subject, not for the sake of a job.
Are today’s graduate students also on the passion track?
I wonder because for me, it wasn’t true. Passion lured me through the door, but something else bolted that door behind me.
Secretly (and perhaps I held the secret even from myself), I believed that I would succeed, that I would be the one to get the job. I must have. Otherwise, why did I spend years of Mother’s Days barricaded in my office instead of hanging out with my husband and young children? Why did I sneak out of my brother’s wedding reception to finish a paper for an inflexible professor? What of the vacations I spent revising articles for publication? And that harried and expensive 16-hour drive I made from Virginia to Florida with my six-week-old daughter and three-year-old son so that I could put a conference presentation on my C.V.?
It makes sense that I would respond to the professional imperatives of my degree. This is the psychology of overachievers, right? You don’t end up in a doctoral program to begin with if you don’t see yourself as somehow exceptional. I only needed one job dangling like a bone over a racetrack to persuade me to run. With the bait in sight, I believed I could win.
Our culture has all kinds of positive ways to describe this attitude. We call it self-confidence, optimism, faith in the self. We call it chasing our dreams.
I still value all of these qualities in myself, so if you have found yourself in similar shoes, I don’t fault you your passion or your tenacity. The problem is that academe exploits this mentality, admitting Ph.D. candidates to programs for which the pool of tenure-track job opportunities has been shrinking for decades. In the most recent statistic, the oft-cited annual report of the American Association of University Professors claims only 24 percent of university instructors currently hold tenured or tenure-track jobs.
By replacing tenure-track positions with contingent ones, universities not only benefit from the tuition you pay for your leap of faith, they benefit again from your cheap contract labor when they refuse to recognize the expensive credentials they conferred upon you in the first place. In this light, “chasing your dreams” looks more like a trap than an exercise in optimism.
I stuck my foot right into this trap, first by using my love-of-subject to discount the bleak job market and second by falling prey to the temptation of academe’s token jobs. I didn’t see it coming. The lines grow fuzzy when you’re immersed in your scholarship, but there is a difference between passion for your subject and fealty to a career that does not exist.
I have never for a minute regretted my education. I don’t regret that I read Morrison, Faulkner, hooks, Milton, Baldwin, Adorno, and Wollstonecraft. I don’t regret that I became a better writer, as I’d hoped to do. I don’t regret that I learned to evaluate my sources, read and think critically, or synthesize expansive amounts of research — the usual bullhorn tenets of why we should study the humanities.
I do, however, have regrets. If the Ph.D. was always about self-enrichment and not about carving out a career path, I should have treated it differently. I didn’t need to turn my life upside-down to put lines on my C.V. because no one outside academe, and not even those inside academe who would eventually hire me as an adjunct, would ever care to see them.
Even my regrets are riddled with conflict, however. This is where I’m supposed to advise you to avoid my mistakes and take it all less seriously. If you’re really on the passion track, or even on the alt-ac track, and not on the secretly-hoping-for-tenure track, then take the pressure off and treat your scholarship like you would any other serious hobby: as something you value and enjoy but wouldn’t set above other things like your family or your job.
As a hobbyist, you can go to class, write the papers, soak it all up. Let the education speak to your passion, open your mind and confer a broad range of intangible skills. But if we’re going to deprofessionalize the degree, no need to publish or present your research unless you feel moved to do so. No need to jump through hoops for your professors, miss important personal events to meet their deadlines or lose sleep when they disapprove of you or your scholarship. You will not need their recommendation letters after all.
But advocating that we turn the humanities Ph.D. into a set of glorified adult education courses makes me squirm.
Is that just my indoctrination showing? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. The splinter of the passion track is that it concedes victory to a university system happy to let low-wage work turn the humanities Ph.D. into an expensive extracurricular activity. I value the rigor, the research and the writing too much to want to see the profession disappear.
Passion may justify the scholarship of some, but the reason for offering a doctoral degree in any subject should be that the degree will produce experts in the given field, experts who can reasonably expect to earn a living wage for their continued cultivation and dissemination of that expertise (inside or outside of academe).
If a Ph.D. program can no longer justify itself in that way, then passion can’t save it. Worse, it acts as a cover, for students as they chase the token jobs, and for the university as it cannibalizes its own departments, corralling Ph.D.s. into its ever-growing contingent labor force.
Deb Werrlein works as a tutor for dyslexic learners and as a freelance writer/editor. She is also finishing a memoir on graduate school, adjunct work, and her decision to leave academe. She blogs about the book and her post-ac life at www.professornever.com.