As a recent Twitter exchange between Bryan Klaus and Zunguzungu has highlighted, a significant part of demonstrating that you’ve been properly socialized as an academic is being able to recite Grim Facts about how terrible the job market is. We’re all familiar with this: “It’ll take me ten years to finish this degree because I’m being exploited for cheap teaching labor, and once I’m done, I’ll be on food stamps teaching in a community college located deep within a coal mine,” etc., etc.
I’ve indulged in such grim speculation myself. What I always question, though, is what function it really serves. Why this rush to make sure everyone knows you’re as jaded and cynical as possible? In discussion with Brad, we started to converge on the idea that it’s a way for academics, especially men in the humanities, to think of themselves as tough: “Yeah, I took this self-destructive path, because I’m just that bad-ass.” It’s the idea of the humanities PhD as a self-inflicted cigarette burn. Surely the women will swoon: “He’s really smart, but he’s purposefully giving up his chance for a viable middle class lifestyle — he’s so dreamy!” And the women who do this get a chance to show that they’re one of the guys, too, not some wimpy idealist.
If this is satisfying to people, I say they should go ahead — it’s not as though if we came up with a better way of stating the problem, administrators would respond by opening up more tenure lines. But I do wonder if there’s a better and more honest way of talking about why we do this despite the odds. At least I’ve tried to develop a coherent way of thinking about it, a way of acting with some kind of integrity in what are objectively very difficult circumstances.
My approach has been that the job market is apparently very random. We can follow all the best advice in the world, but it still comes down to the preferences of a handful of people at some randomly-chosen department and the outcome of a power struggle that probably no one outside the situation could ever fully understand or predict. So aside from broad guidelines (try to publish in good journals! present at conferences! get teaching experience! finish!) that 95% of PhD candidates are following anyway, there’s essentially no way of tailoring yourself to the job market.
Under such circumstances, the only thing you can do is be true to yourself. Use your grad school years (and as many years after as you can hold out without going crazy) to do what you want to do and what you probably wouldn’t be able to do under other circumstances. For me, that included language work, serious reading in the intellectual traditions most important to me, and serious writing that intervenes into debates I find compelling and important — and more recently getting the privilege of introducing young people to those intellectual traditions and debates.
All of those things are worth doing, and I wouldn’t have been able to do them otherwise. I maintain that they’re worth doing even if society isn’t willing to pay what they’re worth. I could’ve made a lot more money, or at least had a lot more job security, doing other things, but I don’t think those other things are likely as worthwhile, and having a full-time job takes up a lot of time, particularly in the kinds of professional fields that college grads try for — so that I wouldn’t have been able to do basically any of the things I’ve done during my time as a grad student and young academic. I would’ve kept reading regardless, and I would’ve wound up a well-informed person and a good conversationalist, but I never would’ve written the books and articles I’ve written, nor would I have been able to teach anyone in any kind of sustained way.
The fact that I chose what I did doesn’t make me a cynical badass, and I also don’t think it makes me particularly “idealistic” — after all, it’s not as though I’m making some noble sacrifice for the common good: I’m doing what I want to do and what I enjoy. I’m proud that I’ve been able to publish this much. I’m satisfied that I’ve done a good job of teaching and that students like me and my colleagues here want to advocate for me. Having made these choices might adversely affect my quality of life further down the road, but in the meantime it’s greatly enriched my quality of life compared to working 40-60 hours in some office.
There’s no sacrifice involved here, because I didn’t finally do all this stuff so that I could get a job — I want to get a job so that I can continue doing all this stuff! I want to get tenure so that I can finally stop worrying about where the next paycheck is coming from and have all that emotional energy freed up for my work. The fact that it might not work out doesn’t make me a jaded self-destructive badass, it makes me a person living in a world where we don’t always get what we want.