Is The PhD Trap a Trap? (II)

The Thomas Benton article on the PhD trap that I cited last week makes a good case that young people enter graduate programs, especially in the humanities, blind to the terrible job prospects that await them in the university world and then are socialized to cope poorly with this situation once they’re finished. But he falls into a sort of grad student trap of his own in his depiction of the life of, well, the grad student. In fact, the trap he describes, the dire life-botch of setting out for a Ph.D. and then for an academic job, is only a trap (or only necessarily a trap) when viewed through a sort of grad student logic and pathos. That is, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of any freestanding pleasures of pursuing a humanities doctorate that might do some, if not all (but maybe all!), of the work of justifying that loopy decision. He reinforces the strange and unfortunate phenomenon by which the people least capable of seeing what is cool and special and potentially ecstatically fun about being a grad student are grad students. I saw this first hand (like really first-hand, as in, in the mirror). Benton talks about how grad students are socialized in various maladaptive ways. But he doesn’t talk about maybe the most directly harmful socialization grad students undergo, which, in fact, the general thrust of his several articles serves to reinforce: You enter a Ph.D. program and breathe in the supposition that your life is supposed to suck.

Maybe it’s the assortment of cautionary cases wandering the halls: the 13th-year ABD whose name nobody who’s still in the department has ever known, the guy who can’t nail down a dissertation prospectus after seventeen tries and now no longer makes eye contact or washes his hair, the guy who unexpectedly lands a dream job before finishing writing and then can’t finish because of the teaching load and then in desperation tries to present for defense the twenty pages of notes he transcribed over the summer, which just gets him failed, and then fired. You look at these people and think, there but for the grace of God, and also but for the endless fun-free days I intend to commit to this Sisyphean slog, go I. Whatever it is, people who think they should be actively trying to be unhappy are probably more easily convinced that they have no choice but to push grimly towards a single tolerable option, which is a tenure-track job and which, by the way, exists only in myth (but keep on plugging!). Maybe if grad students found it easier to see what probably most other people could see – that, even in conditions of relative penury, spending your days in reading and seminar discussions and teaching and occasional writing in a subject you have semi-officially declared yourself to be really interested in, as well as in bunches of casual conversations on elevated topics and elevated conversations on delightfully weightless topics, not to mention just living and working near/at a college, surrounded by college kids (many of whom are under the convenient misimpression that you’re really smart and knowledgeable) is actually pretty great – they wouldn’t view their grad school years as some woeful offense against the rest of their lives that can only be redeemed by a tenure-track job at a university, any university, anywhere. (That’s a funny thing that I’m tempted to attribute to this anhedonic ideology: the total persnicketiness about what category of employment one will entertain, combined with the quasi-religious acquiescence in the geographical location of one’s eventual job; it’s like a priestly calling to the already-miserable: Just because you’re not in grad school anymore, that doesn’t mean you have to stop hating your life!)

Like I said, I entered grad school determined to suffer for the sin of entering grad school. I had a lot less fun than I should have, and I did a much poorer job than I should have of realizing I was having fun when I was. I wasn’t alone. We were a virtual cult of suppressed enjoyment. Luckily, I also have this strong urge to rectify my mistakes, for the benefit of others, through systematic instruction and advice. It turns out I’m very good at teaching things that, when I first tried them myself, I was very bad at. Two examples of this jump to mind – surfing and Habermas. I’m pretty sure there are others.

Benton offers some white-knuckled suggestions in “this earlier article”:, but they pertain to applying to, not abiding within, the humanities Ph.D. program. My few suggestions pertain mainly to living in a grad program happily enough that you don’t have to entertain “thoughts of suicide” (another touch of real-life drama from Benton) in the event that you can’t land that job at the University of Alaska, Nome.

View the Ph.D. as an end in itself: I was going to say “Focus on the journey rather than the destination,” but a Kantian phrase seemed more appropriate than a greeting card, given the topic. View the idea of an academic job as just one of several options that await when you finish your dissertation, or when you leave “voluntarily” after all your professors start whistling and looking at the ceiling when they pass you in the hall. Deemphasizing the brass academic ring is hard once you enter, because the departmental geist wants to constantly draw you into gloomy speculation about jobs, the shitty job market, the lack of jobs, the fact that departments and universities aren’t replacing dying faculty or else are replacing them with robots and call centers, etc. But I think the grim job-talk has special purchase in an atmosphere where people are already unhappy. I wasn’t even sure I wanted an academic job when I started, but then giving in to talk of the job market started to seem like the most reliable path to my overriding goal of being miserable. Benton creates great drama out of the idea that a Ph.D on the resume of a private-sector job-hunter is only slightly less damaging than a line noting you have a criminal record as a workplace murderer. I have no statistics on this, but the people I know from my field (political philosophy) who left academia have found good jobs in things like banking, consulting, and finance, not to mention the foundation and non-profit world. A couple went straight from grad school to top law schools and from there to the typical six-figure associates jobs. Having a humanities Ph.D. certainly doesn’t hurt if you need to go with such an expedient. At the least, it will help you kill on those sentence correction parts of the GMAT.

Try not to take too long: What I’m saying overall is that getting a Ph.D. but not an academic job is perfectly consistent with non-desperation in job and life after grad school. Commenting on my earlier post, Kristoffer Sargent notes “For a dude, being poor through your late twenties, when you are at the peak of sexual desirability to both nubile floozies and prowling cougars — these are high costs indeed.” So obviously you’d want to minimize those costs by not taking fifteen years to write your dissertation. (There was something else I thought of writing about the opportunity costs of not spending your twenties on a university campus, but discretion got the best of me. It’s a tradeoff is all I’ll say.) A corollary of this is: Be willing to cut and run. If you’re mindful of these opportunity costs, and the dissertation is looking like an endless task, quit. This will leave you with an M.A. and not a Ph.D. on your resume, which is either a net benefit, if you believe Benton, or distinction a surprising number of people will find irrelevant or unnoticeable.

Take an occasional moment to note that your “job” for the time being is to read books, some of them “great,” and talk about them: Self explanatory.

Take up a dissertation topic might get you sent to cool places for research, language-learning: I had friends in Florence, Rome, and Paris while I was in a medium-sized city in northern Bavaria. I don’t want to complain. I’m just saying it could have been better.

Socialize outside of your department: Pity parties are less self-sustaining when everyone is complaining about different things.

Socialize outside of the grad school: A corollary of the saying “Misery loves company” is “Misery hates unmiserable company,” and also, “Misery is less fond of company that is less miserable.” A few years into grad school and my social circle was composed of law students, undergrads, townies, the odd slumming professor, and Ph.D. students from my own and other departments. The obligation to be miserable was starting feel less binding.

Don’t turn up your nose at the undergraduates: As a humanities grad student, you may be entertaining critical cultural theories about commodities (or, anyway, modes of commodification) and gender and power and the like, phenomena or “practices” that you are supposed to vigilantly oppose (or at least be pervasively “suspicious of”) but that seem like the very building blocks of undergraduate life. Or you might just be a snob or something. Whatever it is, get over yourself about the undergrads. Go to undergrad bars. Go out with undergrads. I entered grad school convinced that Duke undergrads were spoiled rich kids and listened to crappy music. So a lot of them were, and did, but a lot of them were at least as natively smart as my grad school colleagues, and almost all were markedly less miserable. I started grad school wringing my hands about should I date undergrads blah blah blah, and then I married a (fantastic) woman I met when my dissertation was already finished…when she was a senior. So maybe I’m not the right person to ask about the Ph.D. as a path to mere personal enrichment. It does feel kind of like cheating, now that I think about it.