Tuesday, April 09, 2013

OK, once and for all: Is getting a Ph.D. in literature a waste of time?

Yes. No. Oh, who can say?

Well, in theory, I should be able to say. I got my Ph.D. in comparative literature [redacted] years ago, and I'm one of those twisted yet oddly grateful souls who didn't become a professor. I ought to have warnings and/or encouragement to offer those on the front end of the process--not to mention solace and/or encouragement to those, possibly drifting in adjunct limbo, who are now thinking of stepping all the way out. 

But I must start by saying: are we really still having these arguments? Really? Literally these same laments, and dismissals thereof, have been flying about for longer than the [redacted] years since I first ignored the warnings aimed at me. Nothing has changed. Tenure-track jobs still prove more elusive than starring roles in feature films. Universities continue to admit more grad students than they can ever hope to place in such jobs--because they supply cheap academic labor, because they represent the next generation of a culture and philosophy that at least some people hope to preserve, and because they still want to come. So it shall ever be, evidently. And while we non-professors--eventually--generally find satisfying alternative careers, we still seem to have no good answer to the question, What is a literature Ph.D. for?

My experience is just one experience. And even [redacted] years later, I find myself unable to wrap it in a comprehensive, persuasive ball of wisdom. Here, then, are some random questions and the answers I would give you, today, if you asked.

Would you do it over again, knowing what you know now?

Are you still glad you did it?
Most days, yes. It has undoubtedly opened doors, though the person on the other side has often been surprised to see me there. I've learned to use that surprise to my advantage.

Did you learn to think better?
Probably. Yes. What kind of a question is that? I will say I learned to pay very close attention to language, although the attention was focused through a very narrow lens. Emotional reactions, including simply taking pleasure in an author's beautiful words, were right out. I hope that's changing. I now believe that this is a much better way to think about--and with--literature.

Did you learn to write better?
God, no.

Could you have tried harder to get a tenure-track job?
Yes. But the answer is always yes, isn't it? The best advice I ever heard was: If you can do something else, you should. I felt that I could, indeed, do something else, though it took me awhile to figure out what that was. Not everyone has the luxury of that kind of time, though.

Did others fail to warn you sufficiently?
I doubt it. We all think we're the exception. Sometimes we are. Warnings can scare off the ambivalent, but not the truly determined.

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