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Now, as this first semester back at university draws to a close, that initial feeling of intellectual alienation has been replaced by something else entirely: relief.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

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“[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.