Is your PhD worthless?

| April 8, 2011

PhD drones line-up outside academia


Come on, be honest: are you really that special? Are you sure you’re going to be one of the dwindling few – those graduates who go on to get a tenure-track position at a university?

Nerve like that is uncommon in one who has read the news. Especially the ‘commonplace’ news which is, strangely enough, rather hard to find around here. But everyone hears things, now and again. What matters is if you actually listened. If so, you might have caught wind of what this report, issued last year, had to say:

“Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell below 30 percent in 2009. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors” [emphasis mine].

But, then, it’s kind of hard to listen when you don’t want to be distracted from staying true to ‘the’ dream. Especially a dream which, we are continually assured, is available to those who have the necessary faith – those who will stop at nothing in their attempt to force a recalcitrant reality to fit that dream.

Of course, it’s not really news to anybody who has the ears to listen that, despite operating like tenure is the norm, the majority of those who comprise the professoriate are itinerant adjunct instructors. But, trust me: I understand – your eyes probably skipped across the figures buried in the paragraph above. So let me specify exactly what ‘majority’ means in this case. Well, for the figures from 2007, let’s compare 50.3%, the figure representing adjuncts, to the 31.2% of professors with tenure. The only ‘norm’ here is for these jobs to be offered without any benefits or retirement contributions, without long-term contracts, and with wages so low – often a mere $1,500 per course – that adjuncts need to commute between 5 such temporary positions at different universities to be able to earn anything like a liveable wage.

But you might already have heard that somewhere, too. Said, you like to think, by someone merely in passing. So what is the news in this story?

The news is what this means for your options, as they stand right now. The news is what you must do about this situation.

Because the implications of the figures on academic employment mean only one thing: you (and I, with you), as an aspirant PhD, are neither special, nor extraordinary – in fact, you and I are the most expendable resource in higher education right now. It is the exploitation of our time, our labor, our drive to accomplish those cherished values at all costs that allows universities to hold adjuncts to ransom for $1,500 per course, with no benefits or long-term security. It is our ability to seemingly be manipulated and exploited at every turn, as both graduate students and recent PhD’s, that is the biggest profitability factor in the ‘bottom line’ to which all universities are so brazenly beholden. We are exactly what L. Ron Hubbard is said to have wanted in his plans to make money. Like members of a cult, our faith in the worth of a career in the life of the mind seemingly knows no bounds.

So why do you persist in the pursuit of this long vanished reality? Do you really think you’re more special than me?


To voice the simple question that you, along with most faculty, don’t want to hear is something – a tone, perhaps – to which you can become accustomed. Try this brief opening for size:

“Where is the data on alumni who have graduated from this program into non-academic careers?”

But, of course, nobody knows about them. They are the ones who failed – the ones to avoid, at all costs. To raise the past like that is is to risk, by dint of association, bringing the taint of failure alongside you into the present: the present that you occupy under the auspices of your advisor. And advisors, as we all know, are apparently employed to tell you how – with current conditions, though, it ought more likely to be why – you should try and make your future look just like the past they so conspicuously enjoyed. If you worry that the future, right now, merely proffers the worrying habit of not resembling the past, then you’re definitely not the right kind of student. You only have to ask an economist to know that the academy, like the big banks, has got the future covered rather nicely – heads they win, tails, you lose.

Who were we talking about, just now? It’s easy to forget – those faces we used to see in the corridor, those names our advisor has known down the years – we, after all, have something better to do. Those unmemorable unspeakables – unspeakable? unmemorable? I wonder which happened first? It’s hard to say in this climate – are the same people who have done what you do now: they toiled each day, searching the world at large in quest of a hard-won knowledge of the truth. And what they found, those PhD’s who could understand what they saw, is that academia doesn’t care to think them extraordinary. But it is, in fact, precisely those unspeakable individuals who are worth talking about, exactly those unmemorable students who are more special than you would care to believe.

For they are the few – the isolated figures who, being willing to stop dreaming, have done dreadfully mundane things like make their PhD appealing to employers through inventiveness and lateral thinking. Doing this, they have been forced to use their research skills for non-academic ends – not just to calculate the realistic odds of landing a tenure track job, but also the sheer cost, in personal terms, of holding out for that job. And, rejecting the glory of an indentured apprenticeship to an industry which views them as worthless, they have compiled a compelling case for the idea that their PhD has transferrable skills;¬†skills which many employers say are desperately needed, but which they weren’t aware are found in spades in those graduates who have the commitment to complete a PhD. You can sometimes find them, but only if you have the eyes to see. Rather than being emblazoned across the prominently featured, but seldom updated ‘placements’ section on program websites, their names are buried somewhere on the long and daunting ‘list of the departed’ – or the alumni database, as it is known to the likes of you and me.

But those type of skills don’t just make a case for themselves – unlike, allegedly, holding a PhD within academia. You need to have applied them in an open setting and earned them on merit before you can claim the right to say they are yours. And if there’s one way to provide the proof-of-skills an employer needs, it’s by getting yourself right under their nose: it’s called, in decidedly non-academic jargon, working an internship.

Think you can’t afford to work an internship and attend graduate school full-time? Think again. Remember: you’re not enacting the vacuous script laid out and followed to the letter by so many clever but hapless thinkers before you. You’re reinventing yourself, asking questions which are unwelcome, exploiting resources – networking, anyone? I hear the Columbia Club in midtown ($125 per year for graduate students under 35) is pretty good for that – which other people haven’t thought about, or which they don’t know are there in their credulous willingness to see only tenure as the badge of success.

But, maybe you think I’ve mis-spoken, or been a tad rude. Ask yourself this, though: is it really my tone that you find offensive?

A grad student, yesterday. Don't worry - it'll only probably happen to you.


Let’s play a little game. I’ll say something only a Humanities PhD – nowadays held to be the most comic kind you can get – would think to say, and let’s see if it has any substance. I’ll say something which, now that the value of your degree is estimated only by economists and those who are accountable to shareholders, is often seen as whimsical or outright laughable because it is reckoned to have no use-value on what we like to think we know as ‘the market’. I think I’ll go right ahead and quote Kierkegaard (out of context):

“Do not think I wish to intrude upon your secrets, but I have just one question to put to you, which I think you can answer without making too free with yourself. Answer me honestly and without evasion: do you really laugh when you are alone? You know what I mean – I do not mean whether you ever, or even often, happen to laugh when alone, but whether you find this lonely laughter satisfying?”

It could be merely a stupid, rhetorical question, right? Who bothers to answer those, nowadays? We’re busy, after all. But, I digress. Those clever PhD’s who’ve read their Kierkegaard will doubtless know that he’s addressing the reader about the merits of a marriage, and will be quick to scoff at the meretriciousness, the very pomposity of my presumption to wheedle this desperate badge of apparent erudition into my post. That may be so. But I don’t, unless I’m mistaken, hear¬†you laughing.

Now, why would I go and spoil it all, again, and say something nasty like that? Because, my doctoral friend, I think the sense – nevermind the context – of what Kierkegaard said applies directly to you. Why? Because you take your PhD so deadly seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that you’re willing to continue spending money on it, or else to delay earning any money, or contributing to your retirement – and, at the same time, to continue disregarding the writing which has been so rudely daubed across the walls of the academy for decades. You’re even willing to mortgage the freedom and security of your future, the happiness and felicity of your lifetime work-life balance and your chance to have a family you actually spend time with, to boot, for the hopeless illusion of the present, with its broken promise that a PhD will give you that single shot at living the life you see tenured faculty take for granted.

But, whilst you might not have a say in whether or not the academy will finally admit you to their ranks – and, if you are admitted, it’s worth asking whether you’re OK with spending 7 years doing the dirty work no senior professor wants to do, all on the gamble that, once again, you’ll be one of the lucky ones offered a place on the proverbial tenured lifeboat – you alone control the attitude which you adopt towards gaining the PhD.

If you talk with faculty, adopting the grave tone reserved for the serious business of the true academic, you are already, no doubt, far too familiar with the mindset which goes with it. After all, you wouldn’t have come this far, spent this much, and invested the worth of your entire future on this path if you didn’t already believe, along with them, the fundamental truth of the academy’s unique bottom line: that the PhD is the 5 year initiation, and the rank of ‘professor’ the one valid indicator of success – that everyone, regardless of the uniqueness or variety of their personal reasons, who does not reach this goal is a failure. And in a meritocracy such as is academia, who likes to talk about failures?

But, and we’ve been waiting for this proof, where exactly does the notion of failure come in to this? Does it sound like failure to work regimented hours so that when you walk out of the office/kitchen/truck/bar door you leave your ‘working’ day behind? Or to be able to see your family and friends with your mind free to concentrate on those moments, and those moments, alone? Or to earn a salary, especially after a couple of years in the job, that allows you the ‘luxury’ of buying new products, owning a decent car or two, going on foreign vacations a couple of times a year – maybe even sending your kids to a private school? Is failing having the freedom to pick a job in a location which suits where you wish to live?

Or is the real notion of failure desperately similar to being able to do none of these things, even by the (average) age of 37 (when your preliminary, non-tenured, assistant professor career is finally meant to start), despite having attended (no doubt) an illustrious string of the most prestigious, wealthy and well-connected ‘gate-keeper’ institutions on the planet?

But, hang on a minute – weren’t we talking about Kierkegaard laughing alone, just now? Yes – as you wish. I’m going to spare you a tedious misquotation of Kipling ‘laughing’ at ‘success and failure just the same’ and come right out and say it: stop caring about your PhD. Even better, stop caring whether you get a tenure-track job. Do your research – after all, that’s what you live for as a PhD – and work out, as Kierkegaard would have it, what it is that is really edifying for you. Is pursuing the life of the mind at all costs – both financial and personal – really the only means to validate your life? If you can say that out loud at midnight, and laugh at the thought, then you are the most sane person in the room: because you have just given yourself back your options. After all, with our extensive education in the field of humanity, we know laughter is attendant on irony, irony on the fact of not letting something ever be thus. Insanity, on the other hand, is repeatedly trying the same thing over again, regardless of whether it works.

Perhaps I might be, according to academic orthodoxy, considered an idiot, but I don’t see a whole lot of self-worth in being exploited, lied to and deceived by a convenient fiction. But if you can fool yourself that you are exempt from the rules and conditions which prevail in the modern academy, then you will most likely be that most unhappy of beings: the fool who cannot afford to laugh at himself, even when he is alone. And ‘alone’ is the solitary state in which anyone like that – and, indeed, anyone who has mortgaged their future on a single bet which could never pay-off as advertized – will inevitably find themselves, every time they reckon the sheer cost of the bill they’ve paid, and will continue paying, to earn those three singular letters, not all of which are even capitalized.