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Grad School's Not the Problem, You Are

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Several times per semester an article gets forwarded around amongst the students in my PhD program with a message that is some variation of the following: Doctoral studies are pointless, serving only to make students miserable and unemployable (see, for example, here, here, and here, among many others). Needless to say, these are depressing, discouraging reads for those of us already pursuing advanced degrees.

The latest, and most hyperbolic, example of this rapidly expanding sub-genre is Rebecca Schuman's piece, "Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor," which was published last month in Slate. While Schuman is writing specifically about the humanities, others have covered similar ground in relation to the social sciences, including my own chosen discipline of anthropology.

The arguments expressed in such articles are based on an antiquated and retrograde attitude towards the form and purpose of doctoral studies. Writers such as Schuman who complain about the misery and futility of their PhDs, tend to view these degrees as four to six years of self-sacrifice and toil undertaken in order to achieve a tenure-track professorship. The problem is that such jobs are increasingly hard to find. While there may have been an era when the majority of PhD graduates obtained university faculty positions, today only 31 per cent of Canadians with doctorates hold full time jobs in academia.

In spite of this, however, many PhD students continue to believe that any postgraduate position other than a professorship (or perhaps a really good postdoctoral fellowship) represents a personal failure. No wonder so many of them are chronically unhappy: They've set themselves up for disappointment. Schuman sums this up in typically overwrought terms:

"By the time you finish...your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you."

Contrary to the hyperbolic assertions of Schuman and her like, however, a PhD in the humanities or social sciences need not entail years of misery followed by a lifetime of poverty and despair. A doctorate can be a phenomenal experience if approached in the right spirit. The solution is to rethink the form and purpose of graduate studies.

We need, first and foremost, to do away with the idea that the only valid reason to undertake a PhD is in order to become a professor. Doctoral degrees -- and, more importantly, the concrete skills and experience acquired through PhD research -- can be an invaluable qualification for any number of positions in the public and private sectors. PhD holders also earn more over the course of their careers than those with Bachelor's or Master's degrees, regardless of whether they work within the academy or outside of it.

More importantly, one's doctoral work can also have intrinsic value, contributing to one's personal growth and to the world at large. Indeed, one of the most distressing aspects of Schuman's article is the dismissive attitude that she adopts towards her own research. She seems to view a PhD thesis as equivalent to the SATs: It is simply a test that one must pass in order to receive the promised reward of one's academic toil. Content is irrelevant.

The idea that a PhD is simply something that one must "get through" in order to become a professor also underlies another problematic aspect of many doctoral students' attitudes towards their degrees: The belief that, in order to be successful, one's studies must consume the entirety of one's time and energy. This type of self-sacrifice may have been "worth it" when there was a good chance of attaining a plum, tenure-track position upon graduation. These days, however, single-minded focus on research often engenders self-doubt and depression, as students read yet another article about dismal job prospects in academia and wonder, "what am I doing this for"?

A narrow focus on one's research at the expense of outside interests, social activities, and physical and mental well being, I would argue, is also actually detrimental to one's job prospects. While students who devote themselves almost exclusively to academic research and writing may emerge from their studies with a few additional journal publications, this often comes at the expense of developing the social skills, breadth of interests and abilities, and personal connections that are vital in today's job market. While these qualities are particularly vital for the 69 per cent of graduates who will seek jobs outside of academia, they are important for jobs within the academy as well. While quality academic publications remain the most important qualification for faculty jobs, I have observed two job searches during my time as a grad student and both times the candidate who was the most confident, personally likeable, and engaging was awarded the position.

At the risk of being too harsh, Schuman comes across in her article as bitter and self-pitying, and even goes so far as to describe herself as an "emotional trainwreck." She writes that by the end of her doctorate, she had no friends left outside of academia, that any joy she had once experienced in her work had been "theorized to death," that she had been "broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy." Given this, it is reasonable to wonder if perhaps Schuman's single-minded focus on academics might be part of the reason why she is having so much difficult finding a job. Certainly she doesn't seem like somebody I would want to share an office with.

I enjoy being a PhD student. I work hard and gain great satisfaction from my research, which has brought me to Cameroon to work with an incredible organization dedicated to advancing indigenous rights. I have also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate courses, engage with great works of theory, and be inspired by my classmates. I have done this while maintaining my connections with friends outside of academia, as well as pursuing a number of non-scholarly interests and activities. I suppose that I could have more publications if I sacrificed these things; that I could go to more conferences, teach more courses. But I choose not to allow the fact that I am a PhD student define my entire life.

When I complete my studies I would like to find a professorship. Not because it is a high paying job where you "only have to work five hours a week," as Schuman asserts, but because I would like to continue teaching, writing, and exploring ideas and issues that I believe are important. But if I am unsuccessful, as I very well might be, this will not "destroy the very fabric of my being." Doing a PhD will have been the source of wonderful life experiences. It will have made me not only a more competitive job candidate for whatever position I do end up pursuing, but a happier, more well-rounded, more well-adjusted person.