You Cannot “Future-Proof” a Profession That’s Grumbling To Itself While It’s Being Buried Alive

That’s a quote (slightly paraphrased for headline-osity) from my first-though-twelfth grade classmate and current labor-organizing hero Robin J. Sowards, who is currently in a very interesting discussion with Michael Bérubé over on my public Facebook feed. I wanted to reprint it here because of its accuracy and sheer genius in phrasing.

I also wanted to return, for a second, to the misguidedness of “future-proofing” the humanities PhD by turning it into a watered-down “entrepreneurial” version of its former self. As someone who went from PhD to self-employed “entrepreneur” (or, as I like to call it, fuckup-preneur), I am particularly offended by the water-it-down provisions of the “New PhD” (aka Executive Literary MBA), and here’s why.

Although I am, on most days, very proud of my unexpected “career turn” into journalism and general shit-stirring, if I were to be totally, completely honest? I still wish, often and with a lot of pain, that I were a university professor. Not a real one, by the way–bogged down in petty vendettas with “colleagues” out to sabotage me, terrified for my professional life every time I say a single word with personality in it–but the realized potential of what a university professor can and should be (and, just sometimes, is): A teacher-scholar who creates challenging and fun courses for my students, and who writes a few articles and a book or two about very difficult things, and who performs service to the institution that allows me to have this job.

I repeat: Despite my bluster and swearing and burn-it-down bravado, on many days I still very much wish I had “made it” as a professor, and still very much think a large part of the gifts that I have to give to the world will sit unused and unwanted on the shelf until they rot.

Do you know what makes me feel better on those days? It’s to know that no matter how much of a failure I was or am in academia, I still wrote what my advisor—looking directly at me and stopping mid-walk so he knew I knew he really meant it–called “a brilliant dissertation.” I turned that dissertation into a book that displays the kind of singular scholarly commitment and totalizing rigor that is only possible because I got a doctorate: A real doctorate, whose journey required pushing my brain to the absolute limits of what it was capable of doing, and then pushing it a little bit further out than that. I have a doctorate in German. I used it to write a book about Kafka and one of the most difficult philosophers who ever lived. It contains totally new insight, and completely original research that is itself based in and strengthened by the scholarly conversation decades-long. It was the most rigorous experience of my life–one I entered into specifically for its rigor. It is the one thing that nobody, no FULLPROF, no obnoxious Slate commenter, no hate-mailer, no lifeboater, nobody can take away from me. I am a scholar now. No matter what I choose to do with my life, I will be a scholar until I die. It is the one bit of comfort I have after dedicating a decade of myself to a system that otherwise shut me out, and whose gatekeepers continue to try to put me in my place (i.e., far away, and quiet quiet quiet).

I work outside of academia now, pretty successfully. But do I wish I’d taken workshops on blogging, public engagement, collaboration, entrepreneurship and more pedagogy (I did, actually, take many workshops on pedagogy)? Fuck no. There are problems with today’s PhD study, make no mistake–and they often involve “advisors” who are terrible at giving advice, who harm more than they help, who think trial by fire is the only way into the club that will actually not let their charges in anyway. But those problems most acutely involve the jobless hellscape that greets PhD-havers. It is an understandable and noble idea to try to adjust that hellscape so that it offers more and different jobs. But watering down the PhD–and make no mistake, a five-year “re-imagined” PhD is a watered-down PhWhatever–will take away the one thing that nobody should take away from a generation of scholars left on the shelf to rot. There is, as Robin says, no way to “future-proof” the PhD without undergoing simultaneously a contingent-faculty revolution. Everything else is just self-serving smoke.

33 thoughts on “You Cannot “Future-Proof” a Profession That’s Grumbling To Itself While It’s Being Buried Alive

  1. Random question: if academics (not just the MLA) are suggesting that graduate departments offer these workshops, who will offer them? I foresee these workshops either a) being offered by already overworked tenure track faculty b) someone from an academic office on campus who may or may not know how or why an academic would use those workshops. Would they want someone with a PhD to teach them? Does the degree matter?

    Another random comment: I firmly believe that departments could offer a hundred workshops every week, at several different times a day. But if the graduate students want to (and believe in their hearts they will) become a tenure track professor, they will not appreciate or consider those workshops. That is problematic, but workshops do not change the ingrained mindset of academia. In a nutshell, I’m not sure that offering workshops to graduate students in the humanities will help. I wish they did.


    • I agree. They don’t even go to things that would help them do better on the TT market, like other job talks, meet-and-greets with visiting scholars, job market workshops, etc.


    • As it happens, I’ve just seen a job ad for a new position to create and organize these workshops and grease the palms of potential employers. As I wrote my cover letter a little bulb went off above my head! ! This is that administrative bloat people talk about. I, the failed PhD will be the one organizing the professionalization for grad students who will graduate from a school further down the rungs than mine was.


    • Totally. Culture change must happen before/at same time as. I wouldn’t have gone, not given the air I breathed in my dept during grad school. These workshops have to be embraced by the dept as a whole as creative, intellectual, community-building times for ALL.


  2. In the UK, a PhD is already expected to last no more than 4 years (3 of reasearch, and one write-up year) with more often than not only the first three years funded by a scholarship (like mine) if indeed you do get one. Does it make a difference in the job market? no, it doesn’t. All this is going to do is create the need for another super-duper degree that you need to have to become a professor, beyond the phd.


  3. Around 1999, I attended a university-wide forum for graduate students on alternative careers and rethinking the dissertation at a huge R1 public flagship university. Several hundred grad students came and listened to a faculty committee and an innovation cheerleader tell us about bold new ideas for dissertations. Coauthored dissertations! Multimedia dissertations! Online dissertations! We split up into breakout sessions, and the cheerleader facilitated the discussion in my group. And almost every single grad student said no, we don’t want this. We want to write real dissertations. These innovations will weaken our standing as scholars.

    So then we regrouped to share the results about the breakout discussions, and the cheerleader summarized our discussion as widespread enthusiasm for innovative dissertations. I raise my hand to say, no, actually, nearly all of us are concerned that changing the dissertation will weaken it.

    And the faculty representatives FREAKED OUT. How could I have gotten the idea that they wanted to weaken the dissertation, they asked. No one wanted to weaken the dissertation at all, they insisted.

    The “future dissertation” is an idea that’s been around at least 15 years. The idea isn’t coming from grad students. Could you imagine yourself showing up at an international Kafka conference, having a Kafka expert and book series editor ask you what your dissertation was on, and responding, “For our group project, we made a home video about the Trial. It was really funny. Wanna see it?”

    Because the people who will benefit aren’t the grad students, whose research careers will be cut off at the knees. It’s the universities and faculty who will benefit, because they won’t have to spend so much time advising students who are trying to actually finish a dissertation and get a job instead of conveniently disappearing when their usefulness as teachers has dried up.


  4. Also, what proportion of people like you end up doing something like writing for slate? Most of them are scraping by as adjuncts or underemployed in other fields. It’s as if the majority of new physicians were working as EMTs. A friend’s daughter who trained as a physician’s assistant worked for a while in a laser hair removal place but only briefly because her field isn’t glutted. Ten years in a PhD program and then a few workshops on how to blog? Give me a break.


  5. It really cannot continue the way it is, it just can’t. But I don’t want to restrict the size of the programs, because diversity. I do want to add a lot more support structure into the degree, to help students learn how to get it through it more effectively, and ALONG THE WAY envision and be ready for the job that happens after the degree. Still a scholar, YES, but probably not in the academy.


      • I didn’t need a PhD! But I’m glad I had the experience. Life is full of adventures. I’m with Aimee: it took me too long because it was like having a job with terrible support and no recognition on my part that I had terrible support. I was a situation in which I was going to fail. I did finish but man oh man it was a struggle. I could have excelled in this job/PhDing but I wasn’t helped, and didn’t even know. That’s what I want to see: real PhDs (like we both have) accompanied by real support, broadly-defined.


  6. I’m starting to feel two ways about this discussion. The first way is: of course it is right. I mean of course the churning out of PhDs for no jobs is depraved.

    The second way, though, is: let’s say we did the reasonable thing and cut all the PhD programs at all of the schools that are not super elite schools (people from super elite schools hoover up a disproportionate number of available jobs, so just cut to the chase about it). Then we’d sort of have the jobs lottery start earlier, so that people would be eliminated at a stage (application to a small number of elite PhD programs) where they could make other plans for their lives.

    And that’s the part that gets me. What are these awesome alternate plans for smart literate 24 year olds from the boonies? The “no interesting middle class jobs” problem exists for them, too, because otherwise they wouldn’t go to grad school. They’d apply for those non-existent intellectually challenging and rewarding middle class lifestyle jobs.

    And that’s not actually the MLA’s fault. I mean, the MLA may be run by elitist monsters, but they are not so elite that they actually control the late capitalist economy.

    So, yeah, a better world than today’s world might be one where we were just more brutal to many many clever 24 year olds and said “hey look into selling insurance now, you’re not going to get to have an intellectually challenging middle class job” [no disrespect meant to insurance sales, actually. But let’s say you just prefer analysis of _Jude the Obscure_ to that, which I think is a legit preference], so that they aren’t 34 and saddled with a PhD that actually makes them sort of unhireable in the insurance industry. I can get behind that as a kind of “cruel to be kind” measure. But I don’t feel excited and inspired about it.

    But a better better world than that would be one where you didn’t have to go to Yale or Princeton to think about literature on the regular AND earn an income for it, you could also do that from Dubuque or Las Cruces or Wilmington. We have enough wealth and technological capacity and etc. that this wouldn’t actually be impossible. The conversation for making that happen has to happen in a bigger space than the MLA, of course. But it seems like it would be good to also think about that aspect, because otherwise the “cruel to be kind” conversation is a little too compatible with “peasants don’t get luxuries because SCARCITY” conversation which so many of the real elites (the non MLA kind) are so so so eager to promote.

    This may seem like concern trolling — I certainly am not suggesting “PhD programs as we currently know them FIGHT THE POWER” because that is a proposition that is full of squashed flies. Or I mean, maybe they do but the unemployed PhD foot soldiers are cannon fodder in a battle that is not going well at all. okay I feel a terrible cascade of bad military metaphors coming on, and will stop at this.


    • That’s why my situation is the best: I think that in any field with less than 75% TT employment, NO PhD programs–NONE–should be allowed to accept new students until the market thins out. Nobody. No Ivies, no Stanford, nothing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There is a way, though, that substitutes for the current elites-eating-less-elites scenario a kind of generational banqueting. I mean, yes, it would be good for everyone who currently holds a PhD for no new PhDs to be produced for the next decade, and then all of the available jobs will only be clawed over by (relative) olds.

        And the justification is very strong: the youngs are naive, it’s for the best if they don’t even get to make the mistaken choice of grad school, they’ll be happier in the end. In the immortal words of Hans and Franz: here me now and believe me later!

        For the most part, I think this is right. I have only been discouraging to anyone coming to talk to me about doctoral programs. But — and here I have to have a caveat, because I use my real name and have taught many wonderful and clever undergrads over the years, and this is not meant to insult any of them — I have had one truly astonishing student during my time as a prof. I always wondered what I would do if he came to talk to me about grad school, because I knew how much joy he’d get out of being in a room full of people as sharp as he, and discussing theory with them. Luckily he never did and I never had to face that particular dilemma.

        But this is the part that I don’t like — the part about “for your own good” denial of pleasure on behalf of others, especially in a context where that idea is *everywhere*. I mean to me it’s a little bit like the multiply divorced politicians promoting covenant marriages for everyone because they know what the heartbreak of divorce is like and no one should have to experience it.

        I guess I just mean — luring students seems to me to be wrong absolutely, and grad programs do it and justify it and it is reprehensible. But deciding the answer is “no more grad school for anybody” is, huh. Do you really mean that? If you actually had that power, would you really wave your magic wand like that?


  7. @Kathleen Lowrey:

    Let’s, for a moment, leave aside the question of the economic travesty of PhD overproduction. Even if we do that, the fact is that the “debating ideas” component of doctoral programs is not there either; prior to embarking on a PhD program, I’d completed a terminal MA degree (didn’ t pick one up “en route” to the PhD).

    I did NOT have the quality of discussion–risk-taking, playful, creative, not afraid to say something “dumb”–in my doctoral program as I did in my MA. Not at all. Both programs were at a private R1.

    Graduate school is NOT about the life of the mind anymore (was it ever?)– this was brilliantly described by Nikil Saval in his recent essay (as he slammed the door on Stanford upon receiving his degree) “finishing school.” Look it up.

    And, finally, cutting programs and admissions doesn’t make this industry more elitist than it already is. First off, schools are not enrolling “minorities” in doctoral programs (and it’s not because they’re not applying or are not available–don’t get me started on that) and, those that do enroll and finish a PhD programs DO NOT GET HIRED AS FACULTY. I repeat. People of color (especially women) do not get hired as faculty–hoity toity Ivy diploma or not.

    So, until majority white faculties (and I’m tossing in there all the “ethnic” variants that qualify as such) are willing to hire PoC the whole elitist or non elitist conversation goes nowhere. White faculties don’t feel like to actually share power with PoC colleagues or, gasp, take orders from them–all they want is to nobly write about PoC, make a cheap buck in the process, AND they get to feel good about their self appointed role as white, liberal patron saints of the colored and working class poor).

    Folding up adjunct–ing is JUST the beginning (but it is the ONLY WAY) of the MAYOR overhaul that the academy has to make if it indeed wants to live up to the distorted image it has of itself. FACULTY MUST BE DIVERSE. Get the white (and mostly male) majority profs to come back down from the cloud, roll up their sleeves and WORK. Have them teach 3/3s (But, mind you, academia is also full of upper middle class Mean Girl strategies that white women deploy toward WoC). See how quickly the inflated ego will come right back down to earth and drop the vocation, pie in the sky shtick. In the meantime, faculties: get cracking on diversifying faculty instead of talking about “diversity” or making a cheap buck out of your pretend role as the “savior, protective saints” of PoC and the white working class.


    • HI DM,

      (1) I actually did have an amazing life of the mind experience in grad school. YMMV.

      (2) I wasn’t making a point about racial diversity in grad school admissions nor in faculty hiring. Depending on how it might be done, cutting admissions might in fact make faculty hiring more racially diverse. If there were a limited number of doctoral programs, they could set whatever criteria they wanted (including commitment to overturning historical inequities with respect to race) and those would become the new face of faculty if things were set up for PhD programs to more or less produce the number of graduates for which there were new faculty hires.
      Currently, because getting a job is a crapshoot a lot depends on “luck” which looks very much like privilege as we’ve always known it.

      (3) All of that being said, slashing the possibility of grad school means turning away many, many people who would like to pursue grad school without involving them in that decision. Now, we can say “it’s for their own good”, “grad school won’t make them happy” and so on, but that is making life choices for people who are … not us. I definitely think “grad student recruitment” ( a big thing at non-elite programs) is a crime. I definitely think “lying and obfuscation about placement rates” is a crime. I definitely think “the good ones get jobs and you are a good one so don’t worry about it” is a crime. I definitely think “hey now that you are smacking into a wall of no jobs we are going to say try to figure out an alt-ac deal for yourself okay?” is a crime. But I’m not sure if I want to be the one deciding for other people whether or not it’s a risk they want to take. Definitely no *encouraging* that risky behaviour, or lying about its potential consequences, but prohibiting it? I don’t know, it makes me feel all Ellen Willis on pleasure.


      • It boils down to the industry not wanting to face the awful realities in the mirror–because things are too cushy for the upper echelon. Cutting back enrollment drastically, ensuring the enrollment and adequate support for VERY diverse student bodies and, in turn, HIRING these diverse scholars is the only way to go. The two problems are intrinsically linked and fluffy “strategies” such as those in the MLA proposal (and recent AHA pronouncements) are not going to change a darn thing.


  8. Making the degree shorter is not the best idea, especially if you want a research job. I finished my Ph.D. in 5 years (I already had an M.A., so this was hardly lightning speed). I felt hurried and harried throughout, wanting a job, wanting to please mentors who trumpeted at us the necessity of FINISHING, DEFENDING, and GETTING THROUGH. The job market for humanities Ph.D.s was already dissolving by the late 1980s, and this was their solution. Sound familiar? I did exactly what they told me to do, whipping off a dissertation, squeezing a couple of articles out of it, and defending pronto. Two years later, having taught full time in the interim, I did finally get a tenure-track research post, but I was completely unprepared for a merciless publishing clock. To make things worse, most of the university presses had stopped taking literary monographs. By the time I managed to write a real (slim) book and land a book contract, it was too late for my clock, and I was denied tenure. A fellow grad student who arrived in my program the same year I did had a different advisor, one who told him to slow down, write a book, and wait to defend until he got an offer. He defended SIX YEARS after me, with a publishable, deeply archival scholarly work in hand, one he had had the leisure and support to research and vet. Ten years after being denied tenure, I remain an adjunct who has never again found a full-time academic job. My friend from grad school? He has tenure at an Ivy.


    • Crazy, just crazy, what poor mentoring does to morale and career. We make it or break up accordingly. Where were people like the Professor is In when I was in grad school? Good grief. BTW–I read your budding blog…what a voice, really beautiful. (on that note, while I don’t write a check to myself, I’ll treat myself to a lottery ticket every so often–all it does is purchase a little hope and happiness for 24 or 48 hours…but it’s totally therapeutic-sure beats a $200 shrink session I can’t afford!).


  9. Kathleen Lowrey: The idea that PhDs from elite schools are scooping up all the jobs is mostly incorrect. It’s actually kind of a pernicious myth. It’s difficult to track down the real placement rate of grad departments, since what the departments claim is rarely trustworthy, and you might be in a field where it’s just not practical to do yourself. But in my field, there are ultra-elite schools at the top, middle, and bottom of the pack, and some solid but hardly elite schools at the top.

    Grad programs are expensive. It sucks up resources and faculty time to give grad students the training, opportunities, and mentoring they need to succeed as scholars. Consequently, grad programs are already denying the opportunity to pursue grad study in the humanities to many people, because they can only provide a sufficient level of support for a limited number of people.

    So let’s go ahead and close some grad programs. If a program is committed to creating scholars whatever happens, and students are committed to becoming scholars whether or not they get a job, fine. But let’s close the programs that DON’T want to dedicate the appropriate level of resources to graduate training. Let’s close the programs with the crap assistantship support and the high TA teaching loads. Let’s close the programs that subject grad students to a climate of shame and fear so they won’t notice that their seminars are a joke. Let’s close the programs that don’t provide the research opportunities, the intellectual rigor, or the time-consuming mentoring that the grad students have come for.

    So fewer people will be able to study the humanities at the graduate level. At least those who do won’t be suckered into programs that aren’t actually providing what it is that the students came for.


  10. Thank you for the MLA analysis, which focuses exclusively on the dissertation/advising time drain on t-t profs not
    on the cruelty of the job search.

    Right now the system works fine for culling talent for a strange profession that requires years of foundation building and then a self-directed project. Doctoral training is not hand holding. Only self-starters will thrive in an environment that gives people autonomy and flexibility while expecting high quality work.

    Many people are flakes, some people do not like to read, some do not like write, and some find that they do not like to think, a small few find out they do not like to teach (this one is rare; even the non-readers and non-thinkers can thrive as teachers hence the big pool of talent to serve as lecturers and adjuncts). The names for these people are PhD dropouts. You won’t know you’re not suited for the profession until you try and neither do the admissions people. Admissions cannot predict who will thrive in this rigorous environment. (Look at who earned the full-funded fellowships. Look at who received zero funding, not even a dissertation fellowship. My experience revealed that the latter group became t-t profs.) Admissions could not distinguish real intellectuals from posers. Moreover, PhD program rankings do not predict success either. (Acc to research, only proof of future success was publishing as grad student not school’s perceived prestige.)

    The problem now is that the star PhDs are not getting jobs. They defend their dissertation and get the requisite publications, teaching awards, even a book contract and then poof they are gone from the profession.

    We need to do something about the brain drain of the scholars who proved their mettle. The ACLS fellowship was a great idea. It provided scholars with a stop-gap when the economy tanked; fellows should have used the opportunity to network like crazy (perhaps start lining up those scholars who will serve as tenure reviewers or at the very least new recommendation letter writers). But how is that student (or any PhD who took a post-doc or a VAP) supposed to get a job if lit departments keep hiring the next round of post-doc, lecturers, VAPs, adjuncts.

    We read and interpret literature. This is our contribution to the wider culture. The only place for us is the college or university.

    The solution is a commitment to full-time faculty positions and more mentoring of junior faculty. If your department can only afford cheap labor (adjuncts) then it should close as should your college. Shame on R1 professors who hire post-docs. News flash: No one wants a post-doc at Penn State if they could have a tenure-track job instead.


    • You’re probably right. The obvious solution is to close or more likely shrink MLA-style departments. This would begin by closing graduate programs, which would shrink faculty and eliminate many R1 research-focused TT positions. Maybe this would end up with more teaching-intensive TT jobs, but no 4-year college or university is going to hire TT faculty into positions that are primarily for delivering general education. So you have to have majors. That’s the current economic situation as near as I can figure. That situation could be changed by changing the way state and federal government funds higher ed, but even if that happened there’s no guarantee that it would change the job prospects for MLA professions.

      I think you hit the nail on the head, or maybe it’s in the coffin, when you wrote: “We read and interpret literature. This is our contribution to the wider culture. The only place for us is the college or university.”

      The first sentence is certainly true for some group of “we.” There’s no doubt that MLA certainly thinks of itself as that “we,” even though nearly 50% of the jobs in the MLA job list are for teachers of writing–rhet/comp, technical/business, creative, etc–and that has been the case for a long time.

      The second sentence begs the question of how to characterize and value that “contribution,” because clearly it isn’t as valued as it was a few decades ago, and there’s really no reason to think that’s going to change.

      And with that final sentence, well, the clear response is “and maybe not even there.”


  11. “A teacher-scholar who creates challenging and fun courses for my students, and who writes a few articles and a book or two about very difficult things, and who performs service to the institution that allows me to have this job.”
    You are doing all this! Ok, some details are different: but how brilliant that you’ve managed, in a relatively short amount of time, to be a teacher-scholar. You coach/mentor/advise (I’m not sure what words you’d use) your own clients, you do all this in your writing here and elsewhere. You do have a book coming out and publish articles about very difficult things. I think you perform, in your Slate/Vitae/pan kisses kafta writing stellar service to the community. Imagine all the things you will end up doing a few years from now! WATCH OUT WORLD!
    So much sucks about academia/higher ed etc but in a way I’m so glad that it does because it will allow your creativity, ingenuity, intellectualism, energy to be put to even better use. Maybe not today but in time. And that, for me, is awesome 🙂


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