FoPKK II: Academia’s Other Untouchables

Today’s FoPKK contribution comes from Melvin Peña, aka @kittenry on Twitter, who first captured my cold, post-academic heart when he expressed his appreciation for “Thesis Hatement” with a be-Tweeted reference to the greatest movie of all time (“I didn’t have to read it, Dottie. I lived it.”)

If you want to know what academia is really like, there are two groups of people whose stories you should listen to–who also just happen to be the exact groups of people whose stories the academic establishment want to disappear. The two Untouchables of Academia are as follows: Untouchable Group 1: Adjuncts. Untouchable Group 2: People who do not complete the doctorate.

The single most dishearterning thing about academic socialization is that in many programs (although I hear whispers that this is beginning to change?) PhD students are prepared solely for the career of a tenure-track professor, one they have between a 0.5-25% chance of getting, depending on which asshole’s statistics you feel like paying attention to on any particular day. The ugly truth about graduate school is that a bright-eyed PhD student is far more likely to end up as either an adjunct or a dropout (or sometimes both!) than she is to end up on the tenure track. And yet, during graduate school, unless you go out of your way to do things most graduate students don’t do (for example, search out information that will make you feel very defensive and freaked out, which grad students already are 24/7), the stories of real academia often stay silent, largely due to the superstitions that the Untouchable-ness of us Untouchables might be contagious. You can imagine that being dehumanized by the very institutions to which we gave (often) a decade of our lives makes for some amazing self-esteem (at least it does with me; Melvin’s story is his own).

Melvin is extremely brave and generous for sharing his experience with us, and although every individual case is different, the sense of loss, isolation, and a total lack of support and even recognition that you still exist from from the institution that was your entire reality for your entire adult life is unfortunately all too common with the many PhD students who do not complete the doctorate.

NOTE: although PKK comments are overall respectful and kind, as with all FoPKK posts, any and all negative comments will be moderated out. Haters gonna hate, but with my Friends you can hate somewhere else.


english 105, winter 2009 by Alan Chan on flickr.

This essay is my contribution to the ongoing, and recently more ferocious, discussion of the perils of academia. It is not a blanket denunciation of the profession, nor is it an advice column on whether prospective doctoral students should or should not go to graduate school. Neither is it, in Graham Greene’s beautifully-succinct phrasing from “The End of the Affair” (1951), “a record of hate.” If this essay is anything, it’s an obituary for my quixotic quest to become a tenured English professor at a top-ten university, to have a publication record with breadth, scope, and influence, and most importantly, to make a difference in the lives of university students. I started filling out applications to Masters programs in the fall of 1998 and officially withdrew from my doctoral program without finishing my dissertation in the summer of 2011. One doesn’t dedicate the first fifteen years of one’s adult life (counting the aftermath) to such a pursuit unless one has, or develops, dedication verging on the religious vocation of medieval anchorites. That was my experience of academic life, fit for an epitaph: “Asceticism with almost no hope of salvation.”

From the start of my harrowing, solitary sojourn through the wilderness of academia, I knew that educating students was not the point of obtaining a doctorate in English literature. At best, it was a distraction from research. At worst, it was…well, it was a distraction from research. I dutifully wrote in my Ph.D. cover letters that my aim was to become “a productive scholar-teacher,” a phrase suggested to me by an advisor; one that paid lip-service to instruction while tacitly genuflecting at the major precept of academia, “publish or perish.” All the same, I found, even as a TA during my two-year Masters program, that I had a vocation for teaching undergraduates. In fact, it was my most cherished and secret goal since before I could drink legally. Whether I was TAing for 25 at a time or 75 over a week, acting as primary instructor for 15, or giving a guest lecture, I never felt more at home or more alive than when I had the opportunity to teach university students. It is the only part of academia that I miss, and I do miss it, every day. Part of the lasting pain is the knowledge that I’ll never again do something I loved so much.

One reason that academia was such a trial, and one I’ve rarely seen discussed, is that I had no real external anchor. This allowed the cult mentality of academia to overwhelm my entire life. Doctoral programs in the humanities are extremely isolating – if not entirely masturbatory and solipsistic – endeavors. The monastic imagery I invoked earlier is appropriate. Having romantic relationships, developing non-academic friendships, making money, establishing good credit, and starting a family – all these things and others which drive and motivate people – were tossed aside as irrelevant without hesitation. My devotion to the “productive scholar-teacher” ideal, which I subscribed to from the first drafts of my first graduate school applications, meant that no sacrifice was too great as I chased, with the complete madness of Tennyson’s Ulysses, after “that untraveled world whose margin fades / Forever and forever when I move.” The longer I pursued the ever-receding horizon, the less able I was to relinquish the quest.

I had no constant, professionally or personally. My committee evaporated while I was still on campus: The most senior professor retired. The second left for a different university just as I finished coursework. The third told me that she would not chair my committee. Teaching, interacting with students, and making a difference in their lives were the only reasons I had left for persisting. In spring 2009, my funding was stopped, I taught my last university class, and moved home to live with my parents, where I was to complete my dissertation. If I wasn’t working, I was feeling guilty about not working, or planning what the next session of working would entail. My life was a perpetual morass of anxiety, insomnia, terror, and despair. The only reason I rose in the morning was the knowledge that, eventually, it would all pay off, and I would be able to teach again. It was all I had; it was all that mattered. The returns were more than diminishing. The dissertation prose I produced amounted to increasingly disjointed phrases and sentences. In early December 2010, I was staring at my computer, feeling empty and hopeless. I blinked, and when my eyes refocused, it was like looking at the “mad papers” in Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” (1748).


paper x, from letter 261 of samuel richardson’s clarissa.

I was terrified. I erupted into tears, right there at my table in the coffee-house. I could not understand what I was doing, but, because it was all I’d ever done, I held on for another seven months. The morning after I formally withdrew from my doctoral program in July 2011, I felt that my life was over. I was not a loser. I had lost. I had failed utterly, apocalyptically. I stopped getting out of bed entirely. To this day, when I’m talking to people, I’ll hear myself ask, “Does that make sense?” I was so alone and thought in such malformed, dissertation-oriented academese for so long, that there are moments when I honestly don’t know whether the words coming out of my mouth are comprehensible.

Exhale. Nearly two years have passed since I formally withdrew from academia. I’ve mostly deprogrammed. Mostly. I’m still actively seeking out what new paths my life might take. It’s been through the interventions of two people with doctorates (one in psychology, one in “everything”) that I’ve started finding my way out of the howling void. For years now, I’ve shared my story with whoever was willing to listen. It became a compulsion; the only way I knew to answer the inevitable question, “So, what do you do?” Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me burns.” I found a therapist who has patiently heard my story, countless times, in countless iterations. Her patience, guidance, and capacity to listen, talk, and engage with me has had a greater impact on me than the academically-sanctioned wisdom of all my graduate school advisors combined. It is only because of her constant support that I am able now – three years after our first meeting – to tell my story in so public a forum.

As I said, I’ve “mostly” deprogrammed. With a gap in my overdeveloped need for minutiae, I started watching “Doctor Who,” a show with nearly fifty years of episodes, spin-off media, and its own body of contentious critical commentary. As my academic life drew to a close, I found a sympathetic figure in the Doctor. Like me, he was often preoccupied by the loss of a world he loved, though he never quite belonged there. After fighting and losing my own version of the Time War – complete with distant and forbidding combatants who occasionally donned robes and funny hats – I too was without a home and without a community. What I find most impressive and salutary about the Doctor is his resilience, resourcefulness, and boundless optimism. No matter how frequently he is met with scorn or hostility, he never stops trying to help. Between my doctor (therapist) and the Doctor (Time Lord), I’m moving beyond the “Life-in-Death” of the Ancient Mariner and toward the idea that I might regenerate. I may not totally escape the traumas of my past, but I can, and must, start a new life.

“the doctor, doctor, fun,” from “The Waters of Mars” (2009).

I want to make a difference and live a meaningful life, to form friendships and be part of communities, to write compellingly and make good art. In the last six months, those things have started to happen, largely because the academic shrouds of guilt, shame, and failure are falling away. I love my new home, North Carolina, and by going to lots of local concerts, I’ve started recognizing people and being welcomed by them. I wrote a review of a local musician’s new record and it was excerpted in a press review by the record label. In February, my art – which I started making in 2007 as a form of escape from my dissertation – was published for the first time in a local literary arts magazine. My third coffee-house exhibit in three years commenced at the start of May.


A couple of Sundays ago, I got an email from the editor of an academic journal. An article I’d written, submitted, and last heard anything about two and a half years ago is apparently going to be in print this fall. Nearly two years after I officially withdrew from my doctoral program, I’m to become a legitimate, published scholar. The most gratifying thing is that my sole entry in the MLA bibliography is going to be an article about the importance of friendship. It’s a much more generous epitaph for my life in academia.

Melvin Peña lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is here to help.

27 thoughts on “FoPKK II: Academia’s Other Untouchables

  1. Bravo! I love your metaphor about being like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. My first year at my new, non-academic job I would tell my colleagues my wild-eyed stories, even when it was obvious that my intensity and burning anger were scaring them a little.


    • Thanks so much, @wernherzbear! The very idea of the solitary wanderer has been an affecting one to me for a long time. Years and years of isolation gave me a lot of sympathy for cries of, “I alone am left to tell the tale.” It took being out of academia for the last couple of years for me to understand – more profoundly than any critical commentary could – the mariner’s compulsion to repeatedly tell his story. After a while, you find yourself telling the story because that’s what you do, it’s who you are. Thanks so much to Rebecca for “Thesis Hatement,” which gave me the final push to share it with so many more people than the mariner’s “one of three.”


  2. This really moved me. I the intellectual work that is being done now should be so much more of a focus than the bureaucracy or the grinding soul leeching work assigned to academic underlings. Were are the next classics going to come from?
    I understand that someone has to make coffee. I understand that there is research and TA duties that need that need to be preformed. The issue that I have is that while Michelangelo and Leonardo were working in workshops for Masters gaining proficiency at their craft (doing tasks that I am sure were equally demeaning) their brilliance was eventually recognized because there was an outside source of review (in their case patronage).
    I don’t think that adding another level of bureaucracy would be helpful. However a union to protect yourselves and provide advice and financial assistance would not go amiss. The professors and even the adjuncts are organized and provided some level of protection. Kudos to Mr. Pena for sharing and for being so courageous, even in vulnerability.


    • Thanks so much for commenting, Justin. One of the hardest things to deal with, in terms of the apprenticeship aspect of doctoral work, is what happens when the masterwork goes uncompleted?

      The pressure of writing a book that only three people ever read in embryo becomes so intense over time. When those three people keep sending you back to the drawing board for years, as they did with me, over the use of a single word, how on earth can you keep a broader vision of what it’s all for? Teaching was how I tried to justify it, but then, teaching is completely unimportant to those gatekeepers, so you end up feeling guilty about the ways you try to tether yourself to anything that seems real.

      It’s good to hear you think I’m courageous. I’ve never really had the perspective to see it in myself, but hearing and reading people saying it so many times and in a variety of ways over the last couple of days…I’m starting to believe it. I’m just glad that people are seeing it, reading it, sharing it, and responding to it. It’s a relief.


  3. In 2006, I was wait-listed and then denied admission to a doctoral program in English Rhetoric and Composition at a large, Midwestern state university. The letter stated they “had hoped to admit (me) but could not secure funding” and that my application “interested (them)”.

    I almost can’t comprehend how lucky I am to have dodged a bullet. That’s what I think of the rejection letter I got seven years ago. So, so, so lucky.


    • The2YearLifeoftheMind, thanks for commenting. I hope whatever you did, and wherever you ended up instead, that you’ve found happiness and fulfillment in the pursuit! As I note at the start of the essay, I’m still conflicted about academia. It’s sort of like what Gandalf says about Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” something like, “he hates and loves the ring as he hates and loves himself.” The teaching, the students I interacted with, the few really amazing friends I was able to make…even living in poverty all of my adult life…I can find value in all of those things, and many others. I do lament how long it took me to recognize that indulging the few good things was forcing me to accept many more horrible things as natural and inevitable.


  4. Where do I begin with all the ways and reasons I love this article? I would like to copy and paste entire paragraphs, as I think others reading my comment would do better to have these highlighted than be subjected to my paraphrasing and close-reading (two things I was very happy to shed, cocoon-style, when I left my doctoral program in Comparative Literature these 5 years past). First off – thank you for articulating the crushing loneliness of the profession, and the gutting loneliness of leaving it (insert here 3rd paragraph, on monasticism and academia). Thank you for discussing your “deprogramming” process – mine involved an addiction to WOW (that’s right, World of Warcraft), substance abuse, an abusive relationship, and constant suicidal thoughts/desires…after a lifetime of being the straightedge, straight-A, front of the class, nothing-can-touch-me ass kicker. I just fell apart. The Doctor has been essential to my road to health, too 🙂 Finally, thank you for showing the possibilities of being a reader and writer – beyond the excruciating hogwash academia forces us to produce, your continuing love of literature shines through here; a love that can be beaten out of us by graduate school (the saddest casualty of all – to lose that refuge). I know it took me a while to find it again after my years as a Highly Trained Critical Theorist. Did you find that to be the case for you?


    • Hello Liliana! Thanks so much for your comment and your overwhelming kindness.

      I’m glad the “crushing loneliness” came across clearly enough – in 1500 words, I had to elide or leave out the vast majority of the real, substantive, as well as imaginary, but no less palpable, horrors that isolation wrought on me. One of the things I wanted to write about, but didn’t have the chance here, was that, looking around at all the people in my program, I was always so jealous of those who came into it with girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, husbands, wives, or those who found that sort of companionship while in the program. Jealous because they always had someone to go home to, to share their lives and difficulties with – even the very small circle of best friends I had by the end…I largely felt like an outsider even to them. I felt like a minor character in my own story.

      It’s a factor I rarely, if ever, see discussed in essays arguing the pros and cons of entering a doctoral program. People talk about dedication, intelligence, and so on, but what about being social? What about relationships? What about the very basic need of one person for others? If that sort of need makes me weak and undeserving, then I am weak and undeserving. I always assumed that having circles of friends, romantic relationships, and so on, were things that I’d have time for once I finished my dissertation and found a job. When that didn’t happen, I had no idea what to do.

      The “deprogramming process” seems a bit more structured here than it has been in reality. It’s been much more like one of my favourite Mountain Goats songs, “High Hawk Season,” in which he sings, “spray our dreams on any surface where the paint will stick.” I’m sorry to hear that you endured a number of the same kinds of experiences in trying to deal with it all as I did. When I mention in the essay that I felt like I had lost, it came along with many of the same kinds of thoughts and experiences as you describe. I too once thought, in my youth, that I could do anything, only, by the end of my academic life, to be convinced that I had nothing to offer and no future at all. Wherever we find comfort, whether it’s playing “World of Warcraft” (it was “Phantasy Star Online” and “Diablo” for me) or watching “Doctor Who,” finding those tiny little threads to hang on to…that we can find them at all is important.

      I do still love literature; I still love everything about my field, the long eighteenth century…I’d just become convinced that my writing was shite and that my thoughts didn’t matter. I’d kept a journal or various web-logs over the years. Over time, even those fell away. For the last few years, it was mostly a notepad file where I’d scratch out random, incoherent thoughts. Eventually, I started a tumblr so that even if I just shared a picture, it was proof of my continued existence. It has taken from July 2011 until now for me to see and start to believe that I have things inside of me to say, to share, and that people seem to enjoy reading. It’s a good start.


  5. The mad papers look very interesting, I should read Clarissa, did not realize it was that interesting in general.

    Do they really, nowadays, not tell people about the job situation? My degrees are from UC Berkeley – PhD 1987 – and they told us we would be unemployed every day, practically. I do the same but not as brutally.

    Also, is it really true people are encouraged not to have friends outside academia and so on? I’ve noticed that people from the East seem to be that way, but they were so unhappy.

    Many do fall apart at dissertation time and I would like to understand this. I left the country for 18 mos. on a fellowship and when I got back my cohort had not written anything and were all freaking out and fighting with each other.

    N.B. JM retracted.


    • I have documented evidence of at least one top US program deliberately keeping employment statistics from its students. Unfortunately it’s TOP SECRET :(. I can’t jeopardize my source.


    • Z,

      No. Please don’t ever read “Clarissa.” That is wholly unnecessary. The professor who assigned it for the fall quarter – don’t get me started on the insanity of the quarter system – of the first year of my PhD program, asked us to read it in its entirety over the summer. I did. It’s pretty much all I did that summer – read and annotate 1500 pages of unabridged eighteenth-century morality. Talk about self-indoctrination into a cult. Man, alive. I mean, yeah, it is interesting; I’m fascinated by pretty much anything, but no, don’t read it. In a way, “Clarissa” is sort of the story of my graduate school experience – a young, lower class person becomes basically the slave/prisoner of a gentleman who tortures her psychologically, possibly defiles her, and then she dies. And the best part? Richardson basically sets that narrative track up as a moral exemplar.

      They do tell you about the job situation, but when you’re courted, as I was, by several top-flight doctoral programs, you choose one, jump through endless hoops, start feeling worthless along the way, before making it to the dissertation proposal, when your advisors tell you, “oh, this will be an important dissertation, and it will become an important book,” it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you’re going to be the one who beats the odds.

      As for being encouraged not to have friends, that was my own fault for being complicit in putting myself in a situation where 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all I would allow myself to think about was what I wasn’t reading while I was reading, what I wasn’t writing when I was writing, and what I wasn’t publishing while I was reading and writing. Trapping oneself in that kind of life doesn’t leave much room for meeting new people, much less developing the few friendships I had in my own department. The outside friends I did have were mostly from the coffee-houses I sat at while doing the reading, writing, and worrying.


      • Very interesting re Clarissa.

        I went to graduate school where I was, which felt like home, so I had my undergrad friends, friends from work, friends from high school that had also gone to that university, and friends from civic organizations and so on. I also was in Comp Lit which means interacting with people from various departments and so the whole thing was less insular. To move to go to graduate school, to go into English, and to be convinced you are getting a job, puts a whole other spin on things.

        In my first job, people were very envious of me because I joined civic and recreational organizations not connected to the school, for the precise purpose of having recreation with people not from work. But it is what I do when I am on some research trip abroad.

        I went to UC Berkeley. There were a lot of people from the East and they would criticize us natives for not working all the time, not looking tired enough, not appearing to suffer enough, and so on, but we got as much done or more than they.

        I had trouble later on in academia, due to things that happened outside of it, in life, and was going to quit, had a good plan. It was AMAZING the pressure I got to stay and very soul crushing. It is this experience that gave me insight into that of the non-finishing PhD and also the contingent faculty person who keeps being told to hang in there when it is not realistic. When you narrow your options as directed, and then things do not go as the people pressuring you planned, you pay the price and it is also implied it is all your fault. It’s very damaging.


  6. “productive scholar-teacher” … These prim phrases are like evil spells, and I don’t think they should be used.


    • agreed. there are all kinds of other magic words – most of them in academese or critical theory – that I’ve never been able to scrape off my retinas. One day, for example, I’ll meet Homi Bhabha and give him a good kick in the balls for the fact that I still remember, from my junior year of college, the question, “does the iterative plebiscite decentre the totalizing pedagogy of the will?”

      The thing about my current love for “Doctor Who” is that when the Doctor says something that I also remember verbatim, to wit, “The Terileptils mine tinclavic for more or less the exclusive use of the people of Hakol; that’s in the star system Rifta, you know”…I honestly can’t say that one is more ridiculous or absurd than the other.


  7. Bravo, Melvin! The Doctor got me through the last part of my graduate program as well. I have been spending the last year putting my life back together. It goes slowly, but surely. I hope one day soon I can share my story in as elegant way as you have. It is great to know that there are great people like you to connect with. Stay strong, my friend!


  8. Reblogged this on The Overeducated Girl and commented:
    I am busy working on a presentation for this coming weekend on Revelation and Popular Culture that I am giving at a friend’s congregation in IL. I have been following, and sometimes participating, in a discussion on Twitter with both Rebecca and Melvin, along with others, on the changes that must come about in academia. I hope someday soon I will be comfortable enough, and past my grievances, to speak in such an open and honest way as Melvin. Until then, this is a post worth reading and a discussion worth having.


    • Thank you so much, Anthea, for commenting! It has been an intense, bizarre, messed up trail that led me from withdrawing from my doctoral program to being able to not only write, but also to share this so publicly, and under my own name. I’m overjoyed at the outpouring of kindness and support I’ve felt over the last few days.


    • Why do you say that, nightwork? I am curious why my story would make you cower? I’ve basically laid my failures out there for anyone who will listen – there’s a sense of relief in doing so, but also one of great vulnerability. I figured, I’m not finding any substantive employment since I withdrew from my program, I guess I really didn’t have anything else to lose by announcing to the world how useless I feel in having done so.


      • I think you misread/misinterpret me here. I “cower” in the sense that I’m not bold in this way and can’t begin to explore such personal topics as well as you did. I generally prefer to write about books and film and the like without laying much bare beyond my own biases and preferences.


  9. nicely done. although none of this is a laughing matter i am laughing anyway at the fact that your journal article was published so long after the fact. i once received a job rejection letter a year after i’d applied–it was almost time to gear up again for the next MLA! I just stood in my driveway and said to the wind, “no shit, sherlock.”

    as for the relationships – i can see it would be so difficult to be completely alone. the other side of that, however, is the pressure and stress of trying to maintain relationships with people who rightly have expectations of you while also trying to play the academic game. i earned my phd with two little kids in tow and (thankfully) the most understanding partner in the world. the phd did not care about my family or my role as a mother (so much for feminism). I worked constantly to make the two sides of my life invisible to one another. I always failed. However, when i came home after teaching my last class as an adjunct, it was the hopeful and homemade cards from my kids and husband that gave me permission to finally cry. It was definately good to have them there with me at the end of the road.

    so happy to see these stories coming out. The telling is key to the recovery!


    • It’s all good, professornever, about the laughing. After I had a momentary panic – the email, which I received after hearing nothing for 2.5 years wanted a high-quality scan of an image “immediately,” sent me right back into the familiar mindset – I laughed about it too.

      I’ve heard more than a few horror stories from women about having the audacity to start families while being academics. I’m so glad that your own family was a source of comfort and strength – that’s exactly what I always imagined such relationships would provide that I completely lacked. My own family never had any understanding of what I was doing and were never interested in providing any kind of emotional support, though they were and continue to be supportive in other ways.

      The few friends I had during my academic sojourn had heavy burdens to bear as a result.


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