Grad School Is a Bad Idea, But So Are Many Things Worth Doing

Graduate school, especially in the humanities, has been receiving very bad press for a long time, but 2013 has already produced a bumper crop of essays about the Ph.D. process.

Ron Rosenbaum's Slate essay "Should You Go to Grad School?" decided that you shouldn't ("Please don't waste your life this way"); Rebecca Schuman's "Thesis Hatement," a dispatch from a more recent victim of the institution (which also appeared in Slate), directly analogized life on the academic job market to scenes out of Kafka. Slate editor Katie Roiphe replied with a brief post, "Thesis Defense," defending some of the intellectual aspects of the experience while allaying none of the material precariousness.

Since if you're the kind of person looking at grad school in the humanities, you're probably also the kind of person who reads Slate more often than you'd like to admit, these essays made the rounds. Josh Rothman, who is now the archives editor at the New Yorker and was a grad student at Harvard, added this thoughtful essay a couple days ago. (Whether they are on a tenure-track or not, when confused, angry, or pensive, the natural response of the former English Ph.D. candidate is still to write out their troubles.) 

And that's just this year. I keep a list of these kinds of pieces, and I can show you the Economist tearing apart graduate school on multiple continents in 2010; the Chronicle of Higher Education's in-house Jeremiah categorically warning away any and all applicants; a blog giving 100 reasons to stay away from any kind of grad school; the Forbes blog position; even essays from former grad students in lab sciencesa book (one of several, actually) — and this is only part of the list.  

I keep the list because I take these essays seriously. Every time I see one, it relaunches the same cycle of uncertainty and doubt about whether I really want a career as an English professor — that is, if I'm even be able to find a job working as one — that has looped through my head almost continuously since 2008. Every few months, I wonder whether there's some other vocation, or, short of that, some other industry that I could pursue instead. 

I'm bothering to write this blog post because, in all these dozens of pieces about graduate school, I haven't seen anyone write about what it's like to actually consider the other options you have if you're a person with the set of talents and interests that would incline you to consider going to grad school in the humanities in the first place. What I've found is that almost every line of work you might consider has prospects that are just as dim as in the academy, if not more so. 

Journalism is in free-fall; most Internet writing's unpaid, the minnows in the pool of traditional-media jobs are turning to cannibalism, and you can't count on being able to support yourself with freelance work. Ditto for publishing. Artistic writing — novelists, poets, etc. — combines the worst aspects of both (and those lives always been hard).

Every public school teacher I've ever had has told me not even to think about following them — not in an era of No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, rapid charterization, and state legislatures who don't hesitate to tar the entire profession as a bunch of overcompensated whiners. Lawyers and law students tell you that their job market has never been worse— and that's the option that's supposed to be "selling out." Jobs as a public servant — also scarce — offer lousy pay for being a cog that's powerless to fix the creaking machine it's in (and don't forget that our federal government has never employed so few people in modern history, and certainly won't until Congress passes, you know, a budget). 

These walks of life cover a lot of important ground. The last thing that we should want is for our young people — or "new labor market entrants," or whatever you prefer — to avoid these lines of work, and especially the most talented among them. Set aside the English professor: a world where the best minds and hearts choose not to become public defenders, schoolteachers, journalists, editors, state or federal congresswomen (and men), securities regulators, and the like is a world that quickly falls apart. You do not want these jobs to be occupied by the incompetent and ill-qualified.

But if you are lucky enough to have your pick of fields, you are repeatedly warned away from all of these. You're encouraged to do something safer, clearer, more promising. For those of us who are not natively gifted computer programmers—and what an exciting time to be one of those — there's always a job you could take at McKinsey, or someplace similar. Or you find an industry that looks like it's going to be around for a while — pharmaceuticals, or tech, or shipping — and you position yourself for a job in marketing or communications or management. 

I don't think that this necessarily represents ethical compromise. There's nothing wrong a priori with consulting, drugs, technology, shipping — and those industries need good people, too (and especially ethical people, who can keep them on the right track). But the problem is that you don't want them all to be involved in the optimization of various private enterprises. You don't have to be able to make it rich in other fields — in fact, you probably want people who have a certain amount of indifference to wealth — but you hope to at least have a stable, tolerable life where you can take your kids to Old Navy in a used station wagon every fall for back-to-school clothes. Right now, even that simple level of stability that comes with finding an entry-level job is in question. Honesty about the challenges of a career in the academy or journalism or public service are good, of course. I'm grateful for all the warnings I've ever received. And, what's more, I don't laugh them off, or think they're exaggerated. To the contrary — I'm terrified. But I think that the world — or at least its labor market — may be a little too good at shooing people my age away from those other walks of life that are so important. 

My point (and I realize it's been long in coming, so thank you for sticking with me) is this: don't tell us, unconditionally, to run in the other direction for a better life and numerically more forgiving prospects. Tell us that—even though it is a hard and precarious career that awaits—journalism, the university, public education, civil service, and the like have never more desperately needed people committed to being quiet, thankless saviors.

Tell us that these institutions and industries need good people to fight for them — to fight for their very existence, to reform them from the inside and make them better — and, moreover, that if you enter them, you should enter them with precisely that mindset. If you truly believe that something matters, then it is worth fighting for. These institutions will crumble without someone with a sense of vision and creativity to fix them. That will be hard — but, if this labor market teaches any lessons, it's that many things worth doing are hard, and that not every form of worth translates into economic worth. Inculcate us with a sense of crisis, yes — but also with the message that only courage can fix that state of crisis. A little bit of a Messiah complex wouldn't be the worst thing at a time like this (at least, not if you work at a newspaper). 

In the humanities, this would go along with a realization that it's not enough for a modern professor to do their research, teach their classes, and go to a minimal number of faculty meetings. We need professors with ambitious visions for how to fix the academy — its system of accreditation, its labor market, and the tenuous role of the humanities within it. And they need to be able to weather the politics, bureaucracy, and inertia of the academy, as well.

Despite the acknowledged need for change, all institutional pressures bear down upon young faculty to keep their heads down, toe the line — and if you're lucky enough to ever secure tenure, by then you have kids, and no time, and too much work, and then what?

The only way anything will ever be fixed is by telling the few people that do decide, against the odds, that they want to try to have an academic career that they will also have to save higher learning itself from the very earliest stages of their professionalization. There are over 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States. It will take a lot of humanities professors with a vested interest in engaging with the workings of university administration and reform to effect meaningful cultural change within them.