1.2 At the Threshold of the Job Market
I currently reside in that strangest of territories where I am simultaneously in an English Department as a graduate student in the final stages of dissertation writing and on the threshold of the job market. Just this week, I both fired off a progress report to my dissertation supervisor and exchanged emails with a friend about a potential job. Sounds great, but there’s a catch – at least it’s a catch to me. The job is located in that vast terrain lying outside the academy. For some, that’s a step in the right direction. To work a nine-to-five job with a good wage and benefits and an annual performance review does sound better than the starting wages and endless reviews by students and peers that permeate the life of an academic in a university or college.
But for me, a great loss accompanies turning away from the university grounds to face the non-academic job market, and I feel it needs to be addressed as more than an unfortunate but for many graduands an inevitable circumstance. My decision to devote substantial job-hunting time and energy to the non-academic sector is increasingly encouraged in the academy in general and, more specifically, in doctoral programs designed solely to develop professional academics. Disconcertingly, I find that when I talk about this necessary state of affairs facing humanities doctoral students I am greeted with an unsettling set of comments that in turn require critical counter-responses. So, just what are these comments?
1. “You start a PhD because you want to address a compelling question not because you want an academic job.”
More than one humanities faculty member has offered this comment (rebuke?) to me. To which I now respond: well, yes and no. You cannot begin a doctoral program without a compelling question. Moreover, it is the compelling nature of this question that gets you through candidacy exams, the long solitary years of research and writing, and finally, the defense itself. While you address this question with all that you can muster, you are immersed in an environment permeated by compelling academic, intellectual work of all sorts. Like the graduate students around me, I work feverishly, fighting bouts of inadequacy and riding the rollercoaster of funding decisions. And I cannot help but wonder: is this same comment posed to medical graduates when jobs are hard to come by for them as well? Do we expect them to enter medical school without the expectation of a job following their training?
It seems to me that humanities doctoral students are expected to live by different expectations than other parts of campus. Am I to understand that humanities’ research is a less serious or necessary pursuit than medical training? It’s not, but we all know how people will typically respond to this question. Just weeks ago, I heard a political candidate ask quite vigorously how fine arts graduates are socially and economically useful. True, in my discipline of English, a ‘Dr.’ will not entitle me to write prescriptions or diagnose an individual’s illness; however, it will enable me to examine real social problems (and teach others to do the same) that literature so compellingly depicts and critiques. My particular research goes beneath the nuts and bolts of medical research, diagnoses and treatments to ask fundamental questions about the assumptions that ground how medicine does its work. I think my work is important. However, situating it as a ‘compelling question’ that is of interest to me alone relegates it to an activity like taking piano lessons in my spare time. Valuable to me, to be sure, but irrelevant beyond my own personal world. I suggest that this attitude is at the root of and even encourages the paucity of funding for humanities’ programs and is the assumption upon which programs are being erased from university campuses. Modern languages? Women’s Studies? Religious Studies? Nice pastimes for financially-enabled students who don’t know what to do with themselves. Socially necessary? It seems to me that neither governments nor universities really believe that they are. By withholding funding for programs and voices that refuse to ignore suffering in local and global contexts, both institutions conflate fiscal conservatism as a means to balance budgets with a social conservatism that trivializes such research and teaching. All of these small programs, amazing for the work they produce on shoestring budgets, are currently endangered or have been eradicated because they are not financially profitable – the litmus test for university departments, even those that do not have mandates to develop products for eagerly awaiting corporate R and D departments. My critique of the current situation is not borne of petulance but of a distressing awareness of the decimation of the very departments and programs that challenge damaging and dangerous hegemonies that shape our worlds and offer students the tools to pierce through thick layers of ideology disguised as a necessary reality surrounding them both on campus and beyond.
2. “There’s never been a time when graduates have been fully employed.”
Of course. One must live in a bubble to think otherwise. Nonetheless, when one is competitively situated in an academic department, when one’s work receives interest both within and beyond the campus, one can hope, however tentatively, that there might be a chance of a job after convocation. However, the decimation of departments by hiring freezes, the number of nearly-retired who must recoup their lost retirement savings and delay their departure from the academy, coupled with the suspected erotic aura that Canadian universities give American job candidates while their own graduates go wanting is a disastrous combination. This current situation in the humanities threatens its very vitality, its role as a site of necessary cultural exchange relatively free (I am a realist) from corporate ideologies and governmental pressures. I am not arguing for 100% hiring but only for a reasonable rate that represents the tremendous value that humanities offers a society not always free to stand back and take a broad look at its ideas and practices.
3. “It’s not the what, it’s the why.”
Another statement that seems, at first glance, to be irrefutable. It’s the basis for guest lectures by graduates now working in non-academic fields: ‘See, I wrote a dissertation on Beckett and now I’ve translated these skills so that I can work in the Pension Department.’ Perhaps I’m being cynical here, but again, I think about that hypothetical (?) medical student’s equivalent: ‘Yes, I’m trained as a neurosurgeon, but I just love working in the medical library.’ Medical students, in fact, do face a similar dilemma as humanities’ graduate students – they work and train in world-class, highly competitive institutions and then must consider bracketing off that experience simply to gain employment. Both are travesties.
Nonetheless, I turn my face out to the employment horizons in order to locate meaningful work that will pay off my amassed debts and afford me a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. In preparation for this re-orientation, I reworked my Curriculum Vitae into a Résumé, transforming the ‘what’ into a ‘why.’ Moreover, acting on advice to reframe my experience, I removed my scholarships and fellowships, my conference presentations and publications, in fact erasing the past number of years’ work from my record. Retaining, of course, my teaching experience, its reassuringly practical nature something which potential employers could relate to. (And, I propose, an attitude shared by upper administration when English Departments appear to be valued more for their compulsory introductory courses than their specialized sub-fields of research.) I get the need for the editing and translating work necessary in redirecting my ‘what’ to ‘why,’ but to say that this is a painless procedure would be to lie.
So, my love of teaching the ‘what’ of my field must now become simply the ‘love’ itself, directed to quite different groups with quite different goals. I do love to introduce people to new ideas and to engage with students as they work through them and make them their own – or pitch them out and proffer an entirely new set. Yet, in a move to the non-academic world, the stimulation of critique and intellectual challenges must give way to the ‘how to’s’ of a more practical nature. Critique and creativity in policy-writing will go some way for me, but this work will never have the deeply engaging draw of sustained cultural critique unfettered by small ‘c’ conservative mandates.
Don’t get me wrong – I am far from Eeyore, that baleful, gloomy donkey in Winnie the Pooh that irritated me every time I read a Pooh story to my children. I will endeavor to make my future job challenging and meaningful. I will always strive to produce my best work. I will make connections, however whimsical, with my now officially secret past life. I will find ways to satisfy my intellectual curiosities. Even at this moment, I fantasize about teaching one university course in order to keep my academic passion burning, even if the flame will be somewhat smaller than it is now. I will encourage young people to enroll, if not in a humanities’ graduate degree program, at least in some of its undergraduate courses. I will continue to believe that all students must engage their intellects and critical skills even while they prepare for a competitive, volatile job market through more ‘practical’ and economically ‘profitable’ university programs than English. I believe this is especially important now, as our global economy jettisons important critical abilities in order to pursue that unquestioned and relentlessly vanishing horizon of competitive profitability.
Dorothy Woodman is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.