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.

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22 thoughts on “So, this is my blog, I’ve had it since 2003, but now maybe someone will read it?

  1. Academia’s really a disaster. There’s light at the end of the tunnel! Hoping you find it soon… this stuff is REALLY hard and I certainly was NOT prepared in any way for a career change. It’s been tough, but I’m feeling optimistic. Happy to talk privately if you like.

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  2. Great response and I LOVED your original Slate article even though I got complaints from those on my Facebook page when I shared it. But I think that’s more their problem in not facing reality than mine. I’m a heavily-indoctrinated grad student and I’m thinking of leaving the field. Your articles have given me a bit more courage to do that, so thank you!

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    1. Haters be hatin.’ You are very much correct in your assessment. Maybe your friends will get lucky (and assume it’s because they’re better than everyone else). Not that I am a good source of advice, but I would recommend finishing the diss if it is at all feasible, simply because for other and better jobs (for the US government, as a teacher) your pay grade is often WAY higher w/a doctorate, regardless of what in. There are also sometimes businesses that think it ads to their cache (sic) to have a PhD on staff as a [whatever], and there are other professions (esp. academic consulting or educational consulting) where it helps. On the other hand, I have several friends who decided to leave mid-diss and pursue other and better things, and they never looked back, and they are SO much happier now. I’m very sorry that you had to endure the indoctrination process and still get picked on from your culty peers. It will pass!

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  3. What you did was brave. And it’s a shame it has to be framed that way because we feel we can’t be honest about our experiences.

    Fist pump to ya.

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  4. I posted your Slate article on my fb and got a few complaints that instead of whining, you should be doing something to change the system. Well, you are. You’re writing about it. I hope you get a book deal out this. God bless you.

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  5. The “myth of the meritocracy” is pervasive, and the problem extends well beyond the ivy covered walls of academia. I suspect people are clinging to this myth even more strongly as the structural problems of consumer capitalism increasingly chip away at western (world?) civilization. Perhaps because they’re terrified of the implication that the difference between themselves and that homeless guy isn’t merit, but luck. Perhaps because they’ve been so indoctrinated that “this is the way things are supposed to work”, and that the alternatives are EVIL, that the cognitive dissonance would be overwhelming.

    I am staff at a major midwestern research university. I have worked in the private sector in the past. I have been a government contractor. This problem exists everywhere. I’m beginning to question the utility of even a bachelor’s degree; where I used to think there was never a reason not to do it, the costs (much higher than when I was an engineering undergrad in the 90s) and decreased utility are pointing me at the conclusion that, perhaps, many people would be *better* off *not* going to college. It has been the default aspirational goal for middle class families for so long now it’s completely entrenched.

    I’m getting a masters right now, and am considering a PhD (public policy), and your article (first shared by a professor I know at a smaller university in the South) has kicked off a huge amount of conversation amongst my professorial friends, and some coworkers. I hesitate to use the word “consensus”, but I have often heard the refrain “I would do it again, but I would caution others to perhaps reconsider entering programs”.

    Thanks for writing. Your Slate piece definitely did go “academic viral”, and at least in my circles was very resonant.

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    1. Thanks dude! I would join your friends in saying that I might indeed do it all over again, because I do love the literature and philosophy that I worked with, but that you have to be a very resilient person to deal with the feelings of utter worthlessness that people heap upon you if you “fail” (and again, in a market so decimated the word “fail” is relative). I absolutely agree that the myth of the meritocracy pervades outside academia, although that’s not an area in which I’m an expert, so I can’t weigh in–although, if you are bored enough to search back through this blog, you’ll see that I did work for about seven years in “real jobs” before I even decided to apply for PhD programs. When I was doing a terminal MA and working at the same time, I actually had a lot of fun, but as soon as academia became my entire life, I got really out of balance. A lot of great things did come out of my PhD–some nice friends, a great adviser, a postdoc, and most importantly my partner, whom I met in a philosophy seminar my first year–but one of them was not a tenure-track position. I, personally, am 100% OK with this, despite the pathos of the Slate article, but to get to this point I had to basically extricate myself from a very dangerous meritocracy-myth groupthink, which has involved being very painfully shunned by people I thought were my friends, but who started distancing themselves from me when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to end up one of the “chosen” (and have pretty much disowned me now). I wish you the absolute best of luck (and also hope that public policy is a more hirable field than the humanities, given that there are indeed some respected positions outside academia)!

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  6. What a great blog post (in addition to a fantastic piece for Slate). Have you looked at all at versatilephd.com? Your article kicked off a nice forum thread, and your experience is shared by so many there. The level of indoctrination in the profession (I certainly include graduate students in this group) is so high that versatilephd.com feels like a “safe place” for those who are detoxing from it.

    The indoctrination is IMO what is fueling the vitriolic response you’ve received. Its tone is very similar to the comments Lexi Lord has received for some of her excellent CHE columns on alt-ac and leaving her professorship. Equally comforting and depressing, I suppose. But the unhealthy nature of the profession probably is responsible for a lot of it. Or at least I hope it is, simply because I’d like to remain optimistic about human nature. There’s something very American about the criticism: it’s not the system, you’re just not trying hard enough!

    As for Roiphe’s response: as usual, it was eye-rollingly contrarian and dripping with privilege. I’m not sure why she keeps her job at Slate, but like a lot of other prominent people in media, it’s really (really!) not what she has to say, but the manner in which she says it.

    I’m half in, half out of the profession. I moved from a tenure track job to a lectureship in the same institution. I’m able to focus on what I really love, teaching undergraduates, without the pressures that were making me so miserable while I was on the tenure track. In particular it was the isolation that comes with research in many fields in the humanities that was making me crazy. As a lecturer, I have much more balance in my life and can now come back to scholarship with a healthier sense of detachment. Despite this I’ve had to come to terms with a pervasive sense of failure.

    Best of luck to you. You are free!

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    1. It’s like this comment was wired directly into my brain!! (Besides the part where you praised me, of course…). I feel you on literally everything you have said. I am a member at VPhD bit have been scared to read the thread because while I don’t care what entrenched academics say, I would be very hurt if my VPHD homies had a negative response to something I envisioned as a battle cry for all of us. Thank you again!!!

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