The other day, one of my favorite former students hit me up on Facebook to ask for my help in applying to the PhD program in German at my alma mater. Now, I have nothing but good things to say about my program, the rigor of my coursework, the innovation of our comprehensive exam process, and the singularly, harrowingly individualized guidance I got during my dissertation from my former adviser, whom I love like an eccentric older cousin.
The sole fear I had when I struck out on my own as postacademic a few months ago was that laying bare the truth of my wrenching failures would reflect negatively on my Doktorvater, as my discipline calls one’s dissertation adviser with some, but not enough, irony. Fortunately, my “father” has recognized the unique opportunity public failure has given his “progeny” to speak truth to power (and to embolden others to do so as well), and though I’m sure he would not have chosen the words I did, nor do I expect him to publish any Solidarity with Rebecca Schuman posts anytime soon, I know he is proud of my unconventional path.
That said…when my former student expressed interest in being one of my Doktorvater’s new progeny, I said: “Do not get a PhD. Do not do it.” I then pointed him in the direction of Sarah Kendzior’s “Academia’s Indentured Servants,” which is the most important piece of academic journalism ever published, and my own humble “Thesis Hatement,” and finally several classics from the Pannapanopticon. My student, who had never heard of an adjunct, was made duly wary, and I was soooooooooooproudofmyself. So proud, in fact, that I took to Twitter to #brag.
William Pannapacker, it turns out, doesn’t appreciate his work being used in a purely categorical way. Indeed, he has said repeatedly that would-be students should be aware of the reality and of all of their options, and do the best research possible (research he is currently putting his ass on the line to make possible, by the way), but he, and many of my other Postac Homies (including the fantastic Jen Polk and Gradland), are outspoken advocates of Make Your Own Choices.
There is, after all, no guarantee that you, my dear potential or current grad student, will have the rotten luck on the job market I did. You may very well get a tenure-track job your first year out, at a wonderful school that is a perfect “fit” for you, with students you adore and well-reviewed books and conference travel you enjoy, and tenure, and promotion to Full, and eminence für immer und ewig.
But I’m here to say that even if I could guarantee that would be your path, absolutely 100% guaranfuckingtee it, I would say: “Do not go to graduate school.”*
And I’ll tell you why. As I’m sure you know now, having read Sarah’s article several times, the current labor system in academia is…I believe the scientific term is FUBAR. Over three-quarters of instruction is conducted by non-tenure-track faculty (like meeeeeeeeeeee), and the compensation and work structure for tenure-track faculty is also no picnic these days anywhere but at the most elite institutions (and/or if you humped your biographer—wait, never mind. Buuurn).
Meanwhile, executive administrative positions are multiplying like cicadas, and dormitories and off-campus apartments are cushier than the Ritz-Carlton. Universities have so many “partnerships” with MOOCs and for-profit testing centers and multinational corporations that they have become indistinguishable from any other corporations (although they are probably the only “Fortune 500 companies” whose workforce often contains self-professed Marxists).
The contemporary university is a modern-day feudal system, where the very few at the top enjoy a comparatively cushy life while the vast majority labor at close to minimum wage. The contemporary university is Wal-Mart with PhDs. And every single person who works in its structure, from Full Professors to adjuncts like me, is participating in what I truly believe to be a toxic and deeply exploitative system.
If a student came to me and said, “Hey, I am thinking of working at Wal-Mart after graduation. There’s a good chance I’ll go straight to upper management, but I might have to start as a Greeter,” I’d be like Good God, don’t do that if you have any other option. Because Wal-Mart, whatever their aggressive Corporate Image ads are trying to tell you, is a corporation that makes the world an abjectly worse place by driving local businesses into the ground, forcing the low-education workforce to have no other feasible option while simultaneously reminding everyone how disposable they are, and—most importantly—creating a falsely low standard of “how much shit should cost” by relying entirely on cheaply-made goods produced in overseas factories with slavery-like conditions. The entire world that Wal-Mart creates and perpetuates is despicable, and so if I had a student who wanted to go work for them and asked for my advice, I’d be like, “Maybe don’t become a cog in a system like that.”
Academia is not as bad as Wal-Mart, but it certainly operates on a similar model. Are you a 35-year-old PhD with no training for any other career, but still have to feed yourself (and possibly your children if they’re being uncooperative)? Then you have little choice but to adjunct for your three favorite local colleges, for a total yearly wage of $20,000. Don’t like making $2700 a course? No problem—there are 10 recent PhDs who still think their big tenure-track jackpot is right around the corner who will be delighted to take your place. Adjuncts are (usually) unfit for any other job, financially unable to take unpaid time off to train for a new career (or socialized out of believing they even can), and completely disposable.
This is a highly distressing system, and it’s not one that I can encourage someone to join…even at the top, as one of the “haves.” So you lucked out and got a tenure-track position with research funds and benefits. That’s great—but the simpering, deferential cowardice you will probably have to display for the six years it takes you to get tenure will prevent you from speaking up on behalf of the adjuncts who work all around you, whose credentials are probably identical to yours, and whose only “crime” is having too much relevant experience. There are many tenured and even a few tenure-track faculty who have the balls to speak out about their institutions’ treatment of adjuncts—but just as many are straight-up feudal about it.
Yes, everyone’s experience is different, and you may indeed end up with a great tenure-track job. But your fortune will be surrounded by suffering. If you’ve got no problem with that—well, then that makes you an Ayn Randian fuckwit. “I got mine, because MERITOCRACY, and screw you, Untermenschen!” Great. But why would I encourage someone to do that, to be that?
As a part-time adjunct I realize I am a complete hypocrite. I am trying to atone for this by being an “adjunct activist” whenever possible—but encouraging someone to follow my path just to be the Norma Rae of the Ivory Tower, fist aloft and $14 in the bank, is just irresponsible.
So this is why I am absolutely fine with categorically suggesting that would-be Humanities PhDs stay the hell away from graduate school, no matter their financial situation, no matter their connections, no matter their goals or background or mental toughness or whatever. The academic labor system is exploitative, even if it doesn’t directly exploit you personally. So fuck it. Don’t join this system—as a serf, or as a lord.
*NB: I am referring to Humanities grad school only. A discipline that officially presents any alternative to employ within the academy is a situation with which I have no experience, and whose socialization mechanisms are different than the Humanities.