Finding Meaningful Employment

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by a graduate student in English at the University of Cincinnati bemoans the fact that there simply is no work out there for young doctoral students in the Humanities. The student’s name is Katharine Polak and she says, in part,

For instance, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote in the January/February 2010 issue of Academe that “the only thing the Ph.D. now reliably confers is the potential for lifetime poverty and underemployment.” Apparently, though my program is excellent, I will be among the snookered, vagabond English adjunct scholars milling around the countryside, doomed to a life of the vicissitudes of enrollment and discretionary spending. Or, more likely, I will pursue my second career choice: swamp hermit. I will scream my Lacanian analyses at unsuspecting families hiking through my territory. There will be some dignity in my bog.

This is not new, of course. The job market for young people coming out of graduate school in English, history and philosophy, especially, has been bleak for some time. When our university hired an adjunct professor in philosophy some time ago, the man had been selling men’s clothing for a living — after getting his PhD at a prestigious university. That was nearly forty years ago! And more recently, when we advertised a tenure-track position the applications came in the hundreds. It is depressing. And the young woman who writes this article is correct: the professors in the graduate schools need to be honest and open with the students and brace them for the tough road ahead. Further, graduate schools in the Humanities ought to consider limiting the number of students they admit in the first place, though one hesitates to discourage people who want to continue to learn — as long as they know what’s in store for them.

I spoke with a medical doctor recently whose daughter had just completed her PhD at Yale in Art History and had no idea whatever where she would go from there. He was astonished that people could work for 4 or 5 years (or more) at the graduate level getting a degree with no guarantee of work to follow –unlike those in his field who were pretty much guaranteed a job at the outset. But at the risk of sounding unsympathetic (which I am not), I would point out that the object in earning a degree — any degree — is not to get a job. It never was or never should have been. The idea is that we stay in school in order to continue to learn. The degree simply marks stages of intellectual growth along the way. If we get a job, that’s icing on the cake: it’s not the goal of getting the degree in the first place. There’s something to be said for dignifying the bog.

But I fully realize that this is pie-in-the sky idealism. The hard realities are that people need to work, and after spending eight+ years after high school earning a PhD, one really doesn’t want to spend the rest of his or her life working in Walmart (for starvation wages) or dignify the bog with “Lacanian analyses.” But reality also screams out that the on-line universities are gaining speed and, given the rising tuition costs, will make further inroads into enrolments at the college level like nothing we have seen so far. If we think things are bad now, imagine what it will be like when increasing numbers of students earn their degrees online and don’t need to be in contact with live college professors at all!

I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with a fellow-blogger named Jennifer who is very much interested in this situation. There’s no doubt that online “education” is growing and expanding its reach — even in respectable schools like Harvard. And this situation will make it even more difficult for young PhDs to find meaningful work. But I proposed in a comment on Jennifer’s blog that some sort of compromise be worked out to control the monster that threatens to grow large and eradicate real, meaningful education. In this model, online instruction would be restricted to the lower levels of college and students would be required to attend classes on campus with live students and professors in their last two years, preferably in small classes or seminars. In addition, teaching assistants would still be employed in grading and responding to online questions at the lower levels. It is not ideal and the problems listed by the young woman in Cincinnati will continue to get worse. But it is an attempt to restore some sort of order into educational chaos that seems to be getting worse and which also threatens to make the future job market for PhDs in the Humanities even more bleak.

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3 thoughts on “Finding Meaningful Employment

  1. Of course I like this one! 🙂 Thanks for the shout-out! I saw an article in the New York Times in the past week or so about how many people with PhD’s have accessed food stamps during this economic downturn. What a scarey time. I wonder if there will always be ways to divide and ensure that one group of people will always get the advantages…like in the hybrid model you describe, if kids with more financial resources would be able to pay for more time with Professors. I have defintely found that a BA is not enough anymore for people graduating today. And with the move through the recession for kids to stay in school due to lack of jobs, it is likelyto only get worse. We are going to have an unbelieveably educated workforce, but it could really lead to a lot of people doing work where they do not use their degrees. I would have loved to continue my education, but the financial realities of doing that were a huge barrier. Anyway, such an interesting post! Thanks again for the link!

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