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Now, as this first semester back at university draws to a close, that initial feeling of intellectual alienation has been replaced by something else entirely: relief.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.