I recently wrote an article for Slate that went, to my immense shock, what I like to call “academic-viral”–so, like, not viral in the “Keyboard Cat” sense, viral in the five-figure Facebook “likes” sense. When Dan Kois at Slate asked me to submit something that would channel the four years of rage and self-hatred that resulted from being–largely unsuccessfully (though not wholly)–on the academic job market after finishing my doctorate in 2010, I made a calculated decision to do it.
The decision went like this: I am probably not going to get a job anyway, so why not take advantage of having nothing to lose, and tell the truth, and put my damn name on it while I’m at it?
Speaking of which–you’ll notice that my name (which is Rebecca Schuman) isn’t really anywhere to be found on this blog, and that is precisely because in 2009 when I entered the market for the first time, I was absolutely terrified that something on it–perhaps a sad rumination about a failed relationship, perhaps a giddy slideshow from my trip to Istanbul–would cost me the tenure-track job I would otherwise surely be in the running for. So I anonymized this ridiculous blog that has, I am pretty sure, gotten about 2000 hits in its entire ten-year existence, and then I went one step further and password-protected it, and then I forgot the password and stopped posting on it altogether. This is the mark of someone truly delusional.
How did I get to that place? I endeavored to explore this in the only way I know how: with a lot of swearing and some cold hard facts, in a public forum with my name on it (well, all right, that’s not the only way I know how, but it seemed like a good idea at the time).
Before I submitted the piece to Slate, I ran it by several people to ask if it seemed whiny, entitled or overly obnoxious/alienating from the profession. Either those people hate me, or they vastly underestimated the vitriol of your average academic/non-academic, because many of them (including my dissertation adviser, whom I adore, and my father, whose motto is “Don’t Burn Your Bridges”) assured me that, although necessarily bitter given my experience, the piece was funny, endearing, truthful and brave. Again, I am seriously considering the possibility that my family and few remaining friends secretly hate me.
Anyway. So, I don’t read Slate comments (I’ve been instructed not to do so by my editor, and made a solemn promise to my partner as well), but I gather that there is some serious hateration in there (minor versions of which I’ve experienced on Twitter–me and my HUNDRED FIFTY FOLLOWERS, HELLO TRIPLE DIGITS, I AM INTERNET FAMOUS. Wait, what? Never mind), and maybe a few misunderstandings that are probably the fault of me trying to condense 4 years of complicated feelings into 1500 words. Here are a few in no particular order, and my wholly unedited attempt to address them.
1. I hated my PhD and was bad at it. This is not true. Actually, I loved my PhD while I was doing it, and–even given all that has happened after defense–I hate to admit it, but I might even do it again. MIGHT. I was one of the strongest students in a strong department, the apple of several professors’ eyes, and I sincerely enjoyed the process of writing my dissertation, which I did with little drama in 3 years flat (one of which was spent on a Fulbright grant in Vienna, which is where this blog leaves off in 2009 before picking up again about a year ago, but being updated VERY sporadically, as it will continue to be).
2. I believe there’s no value in a humanities PhD. Katie Roiphe has already descended from on high to chastise me about this (or, I think she has–she didn’t deign to mention me by name in her tepid rejoinder), and it couldn’t be further from the truth. As I said in the piece, I believe there is immense and immeasurable worth in pushing oneself with the level of rigor and discipline only possible with the most advanced study one can do. However, that is not the issue I was talking about. What I was talking about is this: in academia, for reasons I didn’t really get to go into but will talk about a lot in the coming weeks, graduate students are really indoctrinated to believe that they MUST stay in the field, no matter what. This is a very damaging and universally pervasive attitude, but one that most graduate students–unless, like Roiphe, they already come from wealth and fame, and don’t really have to worry about a job like us plebs–have a very hard time escaping. I did manage to escape, but it took some serious work. I would like to help current graduate students in the mid-indoctrination phase avoid my fate in the future. That is the main thing I’d like to “leverage” whatever platform I get from this to do.
3. I didn’t get a job because I am not good enough. This may be true; it may not be. Nobody will ever know, because so many people don’t get jobs now that all of them can’t be terrible, and I know, personally, several mediocre hacks who happen to be the personal pets of high-ranking oligarchs in the Old Boys’ Club who got great jobs despite no publications, terrible evals and a largely poor reputation in the field. But, for what it’s worth, I am good. I have a book under contract that is, if I dare say so myself, quite interesting, and deals with a subject matter both previously unexplored in my field and is quite rigorously researched, using the secondary canons of two separate disciplines (and, for what it’s worth, tackles the most difficult philosopher of the 20th Century). I have published several articles in the top journals of my discipline. I have–and again, I’m going to sound like an asshole here, but bear with me–a true love and passion for teaching, and have been called a “truly gifted pedagogue” by supervisors, and my evals are among the best in every department I have ever been in. I am good. But so is nearly everybody else these days, and it is very important to keep in mind that being “good” has absolutely no correlation to getting employed. People who have gotten lucky want so badly to believe that this is a meritocracy, and I can see why. People who still hold out hope want a reason to, and I can see why.
4. I am a bad writer. This is entirely possible; check out this blog! I’d particularly recommend 2004, when I took the re-election of George W. Bush ridiculously harshly. Ha! Or 2005, when a three-year relationship ended. Or this, what you’re reading right now! It sucks, because I’m writing it because I can’t sleep, because I’m sitting at home alone, because the “cushy” postdoc I’ve had for the last 2 years has made me live away from my partner and wrought unquantifiable toll on my well-being because of this! ANYWAY! But, trust me: plenty of abysmal writers get great jobs in academe every day, because the whole thing is a fucking lottery.
5. I am an entitled, whiny, horrible person who will never work in any field again, ever. There are days when I agree with this assessment, but the day “Thesis Hatement” went up on Slate is not one of those days. That is the day I decided it was worth the vitriol to stop being a simpering coward on the off-chance that someone, somewhere will let me be a professor someday.
6. I was not willing to work in remote locales because I am a coastal elitist. Oh, if only you could have seen me tottering around the campus of an absurdly remote Ohio university, hoping to Gawd that they’d hire me. Oh, if only you could have seen the three days of preparation that went into a conference interview for a school in the South so remote and so football-obsessed that it makes my current employer look sports-averse. I would have sobbed in gratitude for these jobs, even though it would have meant a long-distance arrangement with my partner that was likely permanent, and may have destroyed my relationship. Because here’s the thing. These jobs that still exist, in shitty locations that I am all too eager to take–they present a terrible dilemma for any family with a dual-career couple, because there are little to no opportunities for anyone’s spouse or partner, especially if that person works outside academia (mine works in the field, but that’s neither here nor there). The days of the spousal hire are long past, because this is a buyer’s market, so why should they care? So when you say that it’s my fault because I’m not willing to live and work in total isolation from everyone I love, I wish I could say FUCK YOU, why should I have to do that? But the sad part is, I might have done it.
BONUS #7 (updated 4.9.13). I am a screechy jerk who is difficult to work with and everybody should be aghast to have me as a colleague. So, first of all, although I can be quite sarcastic in my sense of humor (which is often unsuccessful, though that doesn’t stop me from trying!), I am actually a sweet, thoughtful and sensitive person. JUST ASK MY MOM. I set myself up for an absolute walloping by putting this out there with my name on it, and I know I did, but the funny part of all this is as a colleague I am actually a dream to work with: extremely considerate (I sub for my my coworkers when they have to miss class! I am early to meetings! I go to talks! I go to parties even though I don’t drink and hate being around alcohol!). I was, in fact, considerate enough to show the piece around to some of my current coworkers before publishing it (they cautioned me not to, of course, but not because what I said wasn’t true–but because ours is an industry that demands cowardice from underlings OR ELSE). But, here’s the funny part of this. I’m not talking about anyone *I* know of course, because I love everyone I know, but academics on the whole lends you to meet some seriously narcissistic, intentionally difficult, abrasive, no-social-skills-having, borderline-psycopathic motherfuckers. You academics out there know this is true (and if you don’t know any…then you ARE one). So the idea that my “difficult” personality would in any way jeopardize my employment prospects is sadly mistaken (though this is actually yet another way in which the hiring process is ten kinds of wack). The fact that I was willing to lay bare the truth of our job market, and jeopardize PhD program recruitment, will probably blackball me for a few years until there is nothing left but adjunct work anyway (adjunct work and MOOCs. Robots and underlings! IT’S THE FUTURE!), but the personality I took on when I wrote this piece actually makes me more like a “real” academic than I am (in reality, I am usually just the kind of conflict-averse, simpering coward that does well in this industry).
DOUBLE BONUS 8. And, finally, a reasoned response to the few instances of actual and outsized vitriol (rather than interesting and valued critique based on misunderstandings that were probably my fault for not writing a 9,000 word piece) I’ve gotten in the past few days, that encapsulates my scholarly rigor and professorial deportment as completely as it can: U MAD? O, U MAD.