Earning the PhD and a Sense of False Hope: My Experiences (So Far) in This Racket Called Academia

Earning the PhD and a Sense of False Hope: My Experiences (So Far) in This Racket Called Academia

I completed my PhD in five years (1999–2004). (For non-academics: 4-5 years is about the minimum amount of time it takes for a humanities candidate in the U.S. to complete the degree. This varies in other countries. Also, nearly half of all candidates never earn their PhD, according to the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.)

I earned A’s in my coursework.

I held a teaching assistantship while working on my PhD. (This means that every semester I taught classes and took 9 credit hours, or a full load.)

Like all incoming grad students, I taught rhetoric and intro to literature.

But then things changed… My assistant dean asked me to create and teach a course on Shakespeare in cinema, something that (from what I recall) had never been taught in our department and certainly not by a graduate student. I agreed. I created. I taught. I loved.

A semester later, I was given the department’s large lecture-based Introduction to Film course (150 students). Again, my PhD colleagues were still teaching rhetoric and introduction to literature. Please keep in mind: I’d taken my first-ever film course only a few semesters earlier.

I aligned myself with professors whose work is well known in their respective fields.

After suffering through the first couple of chapters, my dissertation — which I proposed, researched, wrote, and defended in about 15 months — flowed relatively easily for me.

Before I defended my dissertation, I’d published one of its chapters in the top film adaptation journal, and I’d presented parts of other chapters at conferences.

My dissertation defense was mostly a breeze. It was fun (bring film clips!), the committee was attentive, and it took the members about two minutes to “deliberate” my status.

In five years, I’d earned (what I as well as others thought was) a marketable degree: my fields were Shakespeare, film studies/adaptation, and teaching with technology. With such experience, I should be able to function within an English or a film department (or possibly both).

The semester after graduation, I was asked to fill in for my dissertation advisor while she took a year-long sabbatical. If accepted, I would be given a salary, insurance, upper-level Shakespeare courses, graduate-level film courses, and the title Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) of Literary and Film Studies.

I said yes. But because of the amount of prep time and energy required to take on this position, I did not enter the job market that academic year (2005-06).

The Meat…Er, Job Market

I began to send out job applications in the fall of 2006, almost two years after I completed the degree. I think I sent out about 60 letters. There were no bites. As such, I continued to teach a classes at my alma mater and the University of North Texas. The schools are about 40 minutes apart (without Dallas traffic). But I was not dismayed. My committee had told me it’s normal for candidates not to score a tenure-track position their first or second year on the market.

The following year (2007-08) — right about the time the economy was crapping out, if you recall — I applied for at least 50 more jobs: half English positions, half film studies. I received a couple of interviews, which required me to spend money (we didn’t really have) to fly to the annual MLA Convention, sit on a hotel room bed with three faculty members, and answer their questions as though this were a normal interview process. (Seriously, MLA convention interviews are THE WORST.) After four months of waiting to hear something, I heard nothing.

The job market for the next academic year (2008-09) proved equally as dissatisfying: I pushed out some letters, gained an interview, flew to another MLA Convention, did more waiting around (academic job searches take about 9 months to complete), and ultimately received no callbacks.

So with nothing lined up for the fall, in June 2008, I hastily applied for a visiting assistant professor position in Toledo, OH, which had been published online only a few days before. I expected no response, thinking surely they would want someone from the surrounding area as the job began in less than two months. Long story short: I was offered the Toledo job, turned it down, called back a day later to accept it, and in about 25 days, we packed up our home of 9 years and moved to the Midwest for a salary of $37,000/year.

At this point, I’ve mentioned nothing of my husband, who left his (very secure) job at the University of North Texas to move with me to the unknown of Toledo, OH. In the three years we lived there, he was unemployed more than he was employed; student affairs positions are/were as difficult to attain as faculty ones, it seemed. I think my husband applied for over 100 jobs in less than a year, many for which he was way overqualified. And when he wasn’t doing that, he took up running.

Gonna brag here: the husband did not become despondent over our/his situation, grow depressed, or sit on the couch and watch television (all valid reactions, btw). Rather, he continued to seek out and apply for jobs, and in the middle of a Midwest winter, he trained for his first marathon, which he finished in four hours. (More about my husband in this post and this one.)

After I completed my tenure as a VAP at the University of Toledo, both the husband and I were unemployed. We were living on Ohio unemployment ($400/week), what we had in savings from the sell of our home in Texas (our virtual depletion of this is making our current home-buying problematic), and some funds from our gracious parents.

We had 5 college degrees between us, over 30 publications and presentations to our names, and a combined 28 years’ experience in higher education, and we still couldn’t land jobs in our respective fields. The good news: the cost of living in Toledo is low, very low.

After a year of unemployment, my husband was finally offered and accepted a job in Chicago, which is where we are now. And thanks to the recommendation of a colleague, I’m currently an adjunct at DePaul University and Columbia College Chicago, teaching film and TV courses. (More on these jobs in “Part-Time Professing: It’s Not All Doom and Gloom.”)

“Old PhDs” and Adding Fuel to the Fire

The more I talk with PhDs around the country, the more I learn that my husband’s and my situation isn’t that, um, unique. There are

  • PhDs who have secure jobs but who live thousands of miles from their families;
  • PhDs who resemble nomads moving from state to state after their lectureships and VAPs have ended;
  • PhDs who have given up on academia altogether because of the poor job market, the politics, and the bad taste it has left in their mouths;
  • PhDs who cobble together a “salary” by adjuncting at 2-4 different schools (often miles apart); and
  • PhDs who live on unemployment (until it runs out), with no insurance, and no extra income from a spouse or partner to help make ends meet.

As a professor tweeted earlier this week, “Academia is such a racket.”

firelogsBut what has recently added fuel to this (ever-blazing) fire are two tenure-track job postings in the humanities, one from Colorado State University and the other from Harvard. Within the job description, the hiring committees have stipulated a “sell-by” date. Here’s Harvard’s: “Applicants must have received the PhD or equivalent degree in the past three years (2009 or later), or show clear evidence of planned receipt of the degree by the beginning of employment.”

Such timeframes are not uncommon for post-doc(toral) positions as those departments/colleges are looking to hire recent graduates. But I don’t think I’ve seen tenure-track positions advertised this way (and I’ve been looking at job applications for a while now).

In the world of academia, these CSU and Harvard postings are getting some attention; we’ll see if it sticks. Read, for example, “Restricted Entry,” “Old PhDs Need Not Apply,” and “Why Bother? Thoughts from an “Old” PhD.”

“Is this legal,” non-academics ask me. “Isn’t this age discrimination,” others inquire. “Should I just throw in the towel now,” PhDs are wondering. After all, what we’re (finally) seeing in “print” is what some PhDs have feared all along but what has remained unspoken: some departments are looking only for fresh meat. Indeed, “old” PhDs — those with teaching and advising experience, publications, presentations, radio/TV/print interviews, book reviews, community service, etc. — need not apply.

Honestly, until earlier this year, I didn’t think my age (37! Get off my lawn!) had anything to do with my current academic state/”career.” But after the department head of a local college informed me that “perhaps my ship has sailed [for attaining a tenure-track job],” I began to think differently. And then these two job postings magnified that theory.

Certainly there are universities and colleges out there who do not discriminate in this manner and who hire candidates based on their classroom expertise, research talents, creativity, departmental “fit,” and willingness to try new things (teaching with Twittervideo-essays anyone?). And truth be told, those are the schools you want to work for anyway, right? It’s just a shame that the positions are so few and the applicant pool is so vast.

I included my personal account above because, looking back, I think I was given—inadvertently perhaps—a false sense of hope about what lay ahead for me as a new (and now “old”) humanities PhD.

Because I was offered several opportunities my fellow grad students weren’t (i.e., creating new classes, filling in for an associate professor), because the dissertation process was a painless one, etc., I was under the impression that I was somehow “special” and, moreover, that the post-doc world would take advantage of what I had to offer. But as we know, that was/is not necessarily the case.

What I do know, however: academia is indeed a racket, and it is flawed on many levels. But I enjoy teaching, and I enjoy publishing (most of the time). And I don’t think I’m willing to surrender just yet, as this “old” PhD still has some things to offer.