By Sara Potter
It happens a lot in my job: a student will come into my office (or a former classmate will message me out of nowhere on Facebook) and say something along the lines of, “So I’m thinking of going to grad school (or going back for my doctorate). Do you have any advice for me?” My reaction is always deeply mixed: I’m delighted that they’re considering it, and also a little sad, since often the most ethical thing I can do is talk them out of it.
As a tenure-track professor of Mexican literature (just beginning third year—tenure is far from assured), I love what I do, so I’m happy when others love it too. Having to discourage eager students doesn’t sit well, but it would also not be serving many of them to do otherwise, no matter how bright and hard-working they are—and they almost always are. It’s usually a short conversation, since about two-thirds of my would-be grad school applicants change their minds simply upon hearing me say, “You will have to move at least twice. Once for the grad program, and once for a job—and that’s the absolute best case situation.” (Full disclosure: my department offers an MA but not a Ph.D.)
Still here? All right, then we talk economics: No, you will not be able to work and go to school at the same time, or at least you cannot keep your current job. Most grad programs actually have you sign a contract promising that you will not seek other employment. Yes, you can get scholarships and stipends, but you’re still earning about $20,000 a year—and that, again, is a best-case scenario that is not available at all institutions. Four to seven years is a long time to be broke and stressed and overworked, and it takes a toll on you and your body (and the rest of your life, should you insist on having one) that is difficult to fully anticipate. Furthermore, the job market is not fantastic at the moment, and it doesn’t show signs of improving any time soon.
If they’re still sitting there, we move on to the next step: okay, so you finish the Ph.D. and we can all call you Doctor. Now what? It is at this point that the song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q starts to play in my head, albeit with the lyrics slightly changed: What do you do with a Ph.D. in the humanities? What does that doctorate make you uniquely qualified to do besides go right back into the academic system that produced you? So far, I must confess, I do not have particularly satisfactory answers to that question, and it bothers me. The most common alt-ac options are editing, translating/interpreting, and teaching high school (as if any of those were easy!). For those possessed of an extra big dose of chutzpah, it might be an option to start a business in some other field entirely (should you wish to pick up even more debt along the way) or to market oneself as a life coach, perhaps for other disillusioned post- or alt- or current academics. The Professor Is In comes to mind, as do From Ph.D. to Life and The Scholarpreneur, and their blogs have provided extremely useful advice on my own career path. These are all perfectly fine options, but there can only be so many life coaches or writing coaches out there, and then how do you monetize such a venture over the long term?
I’ve also suggested some form of government work to my students as a possibility. I took the Foreign Service Officer’s Test (FSOT) in the early spring of 2012, passed the first phase, then decided to take one good hard run at the academic market instead before attempting consulate work. There are no guarantees there either: the FSOT application is a strenuous seven-step process involving the single most random test I have ever taken, a written personal evaluation, letters of recommendation, references, interviews, and background checks of the applicant as well as his/her/hir family. Consulate work sounded great to me, but I was single and did not have children; not everyone can or wants to have a job that is so mobile. Also, I learned that your skills and education do not necessarily impact where you are placed; I had assumed I would land in a Spanish-speaking country, given my training and language skills, but a consulate worker in Mexico City told me that was not the case at all. So, again, it’s an option, but also a long shot.
Can you freelance? Do you even want to? Can you land a full-time community college gig to avoid the horrors of the adjunct class-juggling and shuttling between campuses? If you majored in something else as well as an undergrad, or if you have skills and education in another field, can you do that instead? These are not rhetorical questions. My friends with a computer science background have largely jumped ship for tech jobs, for example, and most have not looked back. It helps if you are willing and able to move anywhere and everywhere. It helps if you can market yourself in a number of different ways, and I was prepared to pitch myself in about five different directions when I hit the market myself. Still…how far can you bend before you break?
The graduate school system in this country needs to change. I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will dispute that. For now, from here, the only ethical thing I can do is to fully inform the students I advise. If they insist on going into doctoral programs after talking to me, they will do so with their eyes wide open, as aware as they can possibly be of the demands of the degree and the market, and also with a backup plan or three should things not work out as they had hoped. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for other options—people keep telling grad students to be creative in their job search when they’re at their most tapped-out (that was my experience, anyway), but the real onus to be creative is on the institutions that purport to train and prepare those students in the first place. Advisors, what do you tell your students? What do you wish your advisor had told you, or what do you wish you’d known?