“[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.