No, Studying English Literature Was Not a Waste

“Well … that was a waste!”

This is an open letter to every baffled customer who has stated the above (or some variation thereon) upon learning that I have not only one, but two degrees in English Literature.

I understand your confusion: when you casually ask me what I am studying in school and when I will finish, you do so under the assumption that entry-level retail is the domain of high school graduates or those currently pursuing college diplomas and university degrees. That someone could have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and still be working in retail is simply unfathomable to you. Widespread underemployment among young degree-holders is still a relatively new phenomenon that does not gel with the old “go to university, get a well-paying job” adage that you and so many others hold sacrosanct, so I can forgive you for that awkward moment of silence we both endure when I tell you how many degrees I have.

What I cannot completely forgive and wish to address is your conclusion that what I did during my first seven years in university must have been a “waste” because it did not directly and immediately translate into a job that utilizes my skills as a researcher and writer. When I smile sadly, shake my head, and say “that’s not how I see it” as I ring in your purchase at the cash register, what I mean is this: I did not study English Literature at the university level — initially, that is — because I thought of it as a means to career-oriented end; I studied it because it made me think in ways that few other academic subjects had ever done so before, in ways that will affect me for the better until the day that I die.

My first semester in university was miserable — partly because I missed my family, but mostly because I did not feel as though anything had changed. The idea of university that I had built up in my head during my final two years of high school was a naïvely optimistic one, full of difficult, probing questions and smart, competitive peers. When I instead found myself bored to tears in introductory science classes that rehashed everything I’d learned the previous year, listening to dull professors reading out their Power Point slides verbatim, surrounded by hundreds of classmates who seemed more interested in their MSN conversations than anything else, my dismay could not have been greater. I stopped attending lectures. My grades tanked. I considered dropping out.

And then things did change the following semester when I took the second of my two compulsory first year English courses. My instructor was a young, energetic Ph.D. candidate who stood out in stark contrast to the English professor who taught me during the previous semester — both in terms of the way he taught, and in terms of what he taught. I cannot recall the name of every novel we studied during those sixteen weeks (it was, after all, a class I took more than seven years ago), but there are at least two that I can remember vividly: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. With those two texts alone, we considered, among other things, the hubris of creation, the depths of depression, the capriciousness of memory, the atrocities of nations. More importantly, we considered these ideas in dialogue with one another. The answers were seldom held out to us on a silver platter in the form of a Power Point slide; we had to think critically about questions and engage with one another on a level that went far beyond anything any of us had experienced in high school, where so many of our peers actively loathed reading and learning. It was a welcome, completely unexpected change.

I hope you noticed the shift from “I” to “we” in my previous paragraph — because that, for me, accounts for much of what made the rest of my university experience so intellectually fulfilling. The study of English Literature, if it is to be done well, cannot occur in a closed-off, isolated crucible; it is almost always a conversation between two or more individuals that is wholly reliant upon convincing argumentation and effective communication. In the years following that revelation — even as I flip-flopped between majors — I honed my critical thinking skills, learned how to articulate my ideas clearly and concisely, had my mind repeatedly blown by the insights of brilliant professors and peers, and made friends that I will forever love. Somewhere in the middle of it all, I found myself caught up in the grand idea of turning the experience into a long-term career in academia. Was it disappointing that the plan did not pan out as I would have liked it to pan out? Incredibly, yes. Was the whole endeavour consequently a “waste,” as you suggest? Emphatically, no. Those experiences did not occur in a vacuum; they are with me always, and I am happier for them.

What I would tell you in person, if I had more time to work with than a retail transaction typically allows, is that I do not believe a degree’s worth hinges upon the sort of job one can acquire after graduating — unless, of course, we are talking about professional degrees that are designed with the intent of preparing students for specific careers, in which case the waters become a bit muddy. I would also encourage you to not extrapolate blindly, as far too many of you do when you take to the comments sections of online articles and decry the decisions young adults make to take so-called “useless” subjects in the humanities that “doom” them to low-paying “careers” in the service industry, citing as evidence people like me who take those jobs temporarily because earning a living while figuring out the next step is better than being unemployed.

That Person Who Sold You Something in a Store, B.A. (Hons), M.A.

The Importance of Being Interested in Absolutely Everything

At the ripe old age of twenty-two, Kierkegaard wondered (with all the existential malaise befitting an uncommonly smart young person) if he was simply interested in too many things:

“Everybody would like their work in the world to be according to the measure of their abilities in a particular direction, in that which is most suited to their individuality. But what is that? That is where I stand, like Hercules, but not at the parting of the ways — no, here there is a far greater number of ways and it is correspondingly difficult to choose the right one. The misfortune of my life is perhaps that I am interested in far too many things and not decidedly in some one thing; my interests are not all subordinated to one thing but are all co-ordinated.” (1)

While I don’t want to seriously liken any of us to Kierkegaard (the quote is included here more for tongue-in-cheek reasons than anything else), I do want to suggest that the above statement is probably not all that unfamiliar to anyone who has been, currently is, or could potentially be a doctoral candidate. I don’t have any hard numbers to support this supposition — only the anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from many conversations with graduate students and professors alike.

If you are among the academically-inclined, there is a very good chance that you grew up reading books voraciously, that you obsessed over something new every other week, that you never felt entirely satisfied with how much you knew, and so on, and so on. In short, if you are the sort of person to whom the thought of a career in academia is appealing, you have probably always been fascinated by an untold number of things that may only be tangentially related to one another. It’s a personality trait that can certainly feel like a hindrance when you’re trying to figure out what on earth it is you want to do with your life — I, for instance, tried four separate majors (Chemistry, Computer Science, Psychology, and Medieval Studies) before I eventually settled on my B.A. in English — but I would also argue that innovative academic research could not proceed without it.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, it has been pointed out that many graduate students in Ph.D. programs eventually come to think of academia as their only career option. While this tendency is more than understandable, it is also (assuming that what I have suggested above is true) completely antithetical to the spirit of ever-evolving interest and inquiry that draws many of us to academia in the first place. You are, in effect, doing yourself a tremendous personal and intellectual disservice if your sense of self-worth is predicated on acquiring that elusive tenure-track position after you defend your dissertation.

My advice, then, to anyone who still insists upon doing a Ph.D. despite the plethora of reasons why it might be a better idea right now to give something else a try, is this: do not allow the often unethical decisions made by university administrations and funding institutions to change what is a fundamental part of who you are as an intellectual. Do not lose sight of the fact that if you are intelligent enough and dedicated enough to succeed in a Ph.D. program, you are also intelligent enough and dedicated enough to do so very many other things. Perhaps most importantly, keep reminding yourself that your interests and dreams are malleable, and surround yourself with people who support that idea. If you don’t, it becomes easy to fall into that aforementioned trap of believing that the academic career for which you are training is the only valid option for you, and that going into any other field by choice or financial necessity would signify a failure on your part.

I hear you: it is incredibly frustrating that we have, over the past decade and a half (or thereabouts), reached a point where it is no longer advisable to pursue a doctoral degree if your chief intent is to teach and research at a university for a living. It is incredibly frustrating that university CEOs administrators have ceased to look upon graduate students as valuable contributors to the intellectual community, and now simply look upon them as capital instead — as “bums” to fill an ever-increasing number of seats. It is tempting to want to pursue a doctoral degree anyway, to thumb your nose at the excessively wealthy suits and prove through your work that you are more than just a faceless, funding-securing entity.

I implore you, though: if that is in fact what you end up doing, don’t let the degree or the desired profession define you. Disregard anyone — be it a cocky, self-absorbed peer or a well-established, respected professor — who makes you feel like you aren’t being serious enough about academia if you refuse to hide the fact that you are keeping your options open because you recognize that the hiring system is currently broken. Anyone who cannot see the value in having multiple interests is probably not worth associating with in the first place. And the moment you find yourself turning into that person is definitely the moment when you need to consider taking a break from graduate school, or even leaving it behind altogether; take it from someone who did just that, and is now much better off for having done so.

While there is a lot to be said for establishing a vocational niche for yourself in accordance with your abilities, I think there’s even more to be said for embracing your natural capacity to branch off in any direction, particularly in our still unpredictable post-recession job market. You may find yourself experiencing Kierkegaard-ish levels of angst some of the time, much to the consternation of everyone you know, but you are still (potentially) better off in the long-term than those who are unable or unwilling to redefine their interests if the need arises.

“Contingency Plans? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Contingency Plans!”

Regrettably, I have allowed almost two months to slip by between writing my last blog post and this one. I have a very valid reason for doing so, however: since early May, I have been hard at work on my third degree, a Bachelor of Science that will eventually become a Bachelor of Nursing if all goes according to plan. The little free time that I’ve had between classes, labs, and work has been devoted to committing reams and reams of biological information to memory — a process that, during the first few weeks of the semester, felt rather alien indeed after approximately seven years of abstract thought.

Now, as this first semester back at university draws to a close, that initial feeling of intellectual alienation has been replaced by something else entirely: relief. Why relief, you ask? Well, like so many graduate students, I had somehow managed to convince myself over the course of my M.A. that I could not see myself doing (or enjoying) anything else — that researching and teaching as an English professor was the only thing that would satisfy me intellectually and professionally. It only took six intensive weeks of biology lectures and laboratory work to realize how utterly wrong I was on that front.

This brings me back to the problem of employment uncertainty that I mentioned in my previous post, and specifically to a piece I read on Inside Higher Ed today that encourages graduate students to Have a Contingency Plan. Brief précis: Nate Kreuter laments the all-too-common trend of well-meaning faculty members advising bright, earnest students to pursue or complete graduate work in a given field if and only if they “can’t imagine [themselves] doing anything else,” goes on to suggest that students who follow this “shockingly bad advice”  have “really lousy imagination[s],” and concludes with a glowing endorsement of all things alt-ac. This is hardly anything new, to be sure, but I agree with a lot of what Kreuter says and appreciate his bluntness — “lousy imagination” jab aside. Far too often, the advice columns penned by (usually tenured) professors on Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, et. al. reek of survivor syndrome, so it is refreshing to read through a piece that does not attempt to hold anyone’s hand.

If there’s one thing that Kreuter’s article lacks, though, it’s an appreciation for how much of a challenge it can actually be to reverse the “I-can’t-do-anything-that-isn’t-this” mantra that some graduate students end up repeating to themselves and ultimately believing of themselves. It’s all very well and good to present a logical, well-constructed argument against the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. with the primary goal of working at a university as a tenured professor, and another thing entirely to rewire a person’s thought processes. That is, I think, why so many people read articles like Kreuter’s and either brush them off as so much fear-mongering, or acknowledge their truths without ever acting upon that acknowledgement. Until very recently, I used to be one of those people — and I withdrew from my program a year ago. The psychological paradigm shift that was necessary for me to go from “I only want to be a professor / I can only be a professor” to “I can do any number of things” was enormous, and I somehow doubt that it would have happened if I had continued on with my Ph.D. I don’t claim to be a representative case at all, but I also hardly think that I am a unique case.

So while I do agree with Kreuter’s suggestion that current students and faculty need to educate themselves about non-academic job options, I think that as far as long-term solutions go, the “develop a contingency plan” route is only viable to a point. For something like that to truly work, a  large-scale restructuring of the way that graduate schools collectively think would be necessary; otherwise, students who continue to believe that professorship is the only option for them will likely not take those contingency plans seriously. And even if it is possible to normalize the idea of actively pursuing non-academic careers after completing a Ph.D., what, then, is the ultimate point of graduate school? Advocating for that sort of change is, as far as I’m concerned, the equivalent of  saying “we’re going to spend the next four to seven years training you how to be professors, but we think it’s totally cool if you don’t become professors, and think that you should be cool with it too.” I realize it’s a more ethical and realistic approach, certainly, but it also feels a terribly counterintuitive — like encouraging medical students to pursue non-medical careers.  (As an aside, yes, I’ve heard the “graduate school is not a professional program” argument many times, and I don’t buy it — that’s the subject of another blog post entirely, though.)

There is a lot more that I could say about all of this in relation to some of the broader concerns I have about graduate school and unemployment uncertainty in general, but since it is my hope with these posts to generate discussion more than anything else, I’ll leave it there and encourage you to chime in if there’s anything you’d like to add or disagree with.

“[P]ermanent, Intolerable Uncertainty”: Or, Why I Left my Ph.D. Program

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a Karhidian Foreteller states that “the only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” I read The Left Hand of Darkness a few months after I withdrew from graduate school, and was struck by that particular line — not because I agreed with it, but rather because my own experience with academia’s particular brand of “intolerable uncertainty” refuted it in every way imaginable.

Like so many ambitious students, I went off to graduate school with one clear goal in mind: to become an English professor. I paid very little heed to the warnings I received about the sorry state of the academic job market in Canada and beyond, partly because I was too scared to believe them (what else was I going to do with my B.A. in English, if not the very thing for which I completed the degree in the first place?), and partly because becoming a professor was a dream I had long-cherished. Mostly, I was driven by my love of research and the self-confidence that goes in hand with near-perfect grades, multiple scholarships, and prestigious external funding. I was so sure that if I worked hard, performed extremely well, distinguished myself, and did all of the right things in the right order, I could not be anything but a professor with the academic freedom to teach and publish as I pleased. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Halfway through my master’s degree and well into the first year of my Ph.D., the capricious realities of academic employment became increasingly impossible for me to ignore. I learned that one can do all the right things, know all the right people, and publish in all the right journals, only to find oneself floundering in a dead end part-time adjunct position with very little job security, few benefits, and even fewer opportunities for promotion of any kind. To be sure, a similar sort fate is possible in just about any non-academic career — the difference being that most non-academic careers do not require an average 9+ years of training as a prerequisite.

As tempting as it would be to accuse myself of gross naïvité for not paying more attention to the warning signs when I was an undergraduate, my eventual realization that extremely few things are certain in the realm of academic employment is, I think, less a reflection of ignorance on my part than it is an indicator of what is precisely wrong with the hiring processes of our universities (not to mention the culture of obsessive professionalization that is so much a part of the grad school experience). I was a very good student during my first year and a half of academic training, and I know that I would have been an extremely good professor if the stars had eventually aligned in my favour. The daily anxiety, however, of having no way of knowing what would happen to me after I finished my Ph.D., and feeling like nothing I achieved up until that point would have any direct bearing on the stability of my career — the intolerable anxiety of being completely, utterly, helplessly uncertain — became too much for me to handle. To return to Le Guin’s Foreteller for a moment, that we will die is, yes, the only “sure, predictable, inevitable” thing in life, but that of course does not mean that uncertainty (or the effect that uncertainty has upon us) is comparatively uniform. There are degrees of uncertainty that are less tolerable than others, and a secure future in academia just so happens to increasingly fall within the “pipe dream” section of the scale.

In writing this, I don’t at all mean to suggest that it is useless or ill-advised to attend graduate school with the hope of one day gaining tenure-track employment; I merely want to use my own story to establish some of the groundwork for future (much less personal) posts about the problems that employment uncertainty can create at the graduate level and beyond. These are problems that graduate students, current and former, tend not to talk about — and I think that we should talk about them.

On Starting Over (Again)

Welcome to my newer blog!

Yes, my previous attempt at re-entering the blogosphere burned up like so much cyber space junk. There are a few reasons for this: (1) I had, at that point in my life, been out of university for four months and had trouble focusing on even the most mundane of tasks; (2) I created the blog under the provision that I would not post according to any sort of theme — which was a mistake, in retrospect; and (3) I was continuing an old trend of starting web-based projects and neglecting to see them through to the end.

A lot has changed for me since last June. For one thing, I’ve been employed for the better part of six months and have established a new set of long-term career goals. For another, I’ve gained considerable perspective (the sort that only comes with time and distance) on what it actually means to sever your ties to a professional dream you’ve long-cherished and long-coveted. I still want to use this blog as an intellectual outlet for commentary on books, films, nerd culture, &c., but I also want to write a fair bit about what it was like to withdraw from graduate school, rethink my goal of becoming an English professor, and enter the non-academic workforce. In doing so, I hope to provide a bit of experiential insight to anyone who may be in the same boat that I was in last year. Given just how uncertain the future of academic work looks to be at the moment, I imagine that more than a few of you are wondering whether or not your life jacket is functional…

As always, thanks for reading.