The other day, I was talking to a departmental colleague about a student who's planning to go on to graduate school, and we somehow got onto the question of talking to students about the difficulty of the job market. My colleague told me she doesn't think it's her job to inform the student that the job market's bad. In fact, my colleague said, she'd feel a bit hypocritical telling a student that the job market's bad when she got a job.
I said that I try to balance telling students how much I love my job with how difficult it is to get a job, but that I do think it's important that they go into grad school with their eyes at least a little opened about the job situation. I want my students to understand that PhD programs use grad students, but that actually getting a degree and then a job is seriously tough.
My colleague disagreed, and said that students already know about the job problem anyway, by the time they're thinking about grad school.
I was amazed, because I really had no clue at all until I was into my PhD program that the academic job market was bad (and had been for years, and probably will be for years); seriously, I must have been incredibly stupid and naive not to realize it, in any of the three schools I'd been to previously (an R1, a CC, and a Regional U) before my first year in a PhD program.
My colleague said she'd been aware of it basically forever. And then stopped, grinned, shook her head, and said that her father was a professor of English, and maybe that had something to do with her knowing. A goodly proportion of our students are first generation college students, and they just can't have access to the kinds of information my colleague learned as a kid. So, she agreed, we probably do need to tell our students.
Later, I was out to dinner with my gang; I'm the only lit person in the bunch, but we're all humanists, pretty much.
We're all moaning about grading and enjoying an evening of escape complete with a great dinner and wonderful conversation. And of course we get to reminiscing a bit about grad school, how wonderful life is when all you have to do is teach a couple hours a week, sit in a couple classes, and read your eyes out.
It does, indeed, seem tempting. It would have been a lot more fun at the time if I hadn't been so incredibly stressed about the possibility of finishing my degree and getting a job.
I remember a grad school friend noting once that when men in our program talked, they talked about when they'd finish their degree, and when the women in our program talked, they tended to talk about if they'd finish their degree, until at some point, usually in the final year of writing, you'd notice a shift in the way a woman talked, as if she'd convinced herself that she actually would finish her degree, and she'd start using when instead of if. My friend noticed when she made that shift, and since she'd pointed it out, I noticed when I made the shift.
But few had the confidence to use when to talk about jobs.
There were people who didn't finish for whom I was really happy because they made a decision to leave a program that wasn't making them happy, preparing them for a job they didn't want. For them, leaving was right. I knew a few people who were cut, but my program wasn't viscious about cutting people (though, of course, I feared for several years that I'd be cut).
But I knew more unhappy people who couldn't bring themselves to leave though they weren't happy doing grad work and didn't expect to be happy teaching; some of them just seemed to hang on and off, getting by.
Then there were the people who'd finished their degrees who were working as adjuncts, year by year, until they got a job elsewhere or the department cut them loose in order to provide adjuncting spots for the next folks. Basically, you adjuncted there because you hadn't gotten a tenure track or other job in your first or second year on the market, and had finished your dissertation.
I adjuncted for a year there before getting my first tenure track job, and when I did, I noticed something that I'd participated in without consciously noting it before. People who'd finished but hadn't gotten tenure track jobs were sort of treated like pariahs by a lot of people, not consciously, but it was like people who hadn't finished didn't want to see us, wanted us to disappear, to comfortingly have or get other jobs. But that we'd gotten the degree but not the job meant that not getting a job was a painful possibility for most, and a likelihood for some.
Remembering, I know I treated other adjuncts before me that way, especially the people I didn't know well enough to think of first as friends rather than first as another grad student. It's not something I'm happy about.
In a way, being an adjunct smelled of failure, and no one likes the smell of failure. Being an adjunct was also, for many of us, a great opportunity to get some further teaching under our belts, to be able to talk more convincingly when interviews came our way, and to practice actually communicating about literature rather than being a grad student.
I wonder how happy I could have been in grad school if I hadn't worried all the time about being cut from the program or ending up jobless, unemployed, living on the street.
Here at NWU, we talk to our students a lot about what kinds of skills they're learning as liberal arts students, and how they can translate those skills to do well in all sorts of different career options (we also talk about being engaged responsible citizens, but they're more worried about job potential).
In many ways, my thinking has been changed by my experiences here at NWU. I do love my job, but I recognize in myself the same kinds of skills that make people valuable at other jobs, too. When I was in grad school, "job" meant one thing, and one thing only, a tenure track job at a college or university of some sort. I think it would have helped me immensely in grad school to learn to think of myself as a person with lots of skills which I could use toward different kinds of career opportunities, and to think of those career opportunities as potentially fulfilling, engaging, and exciting.
Where I sit now, I work with people who see an undergraduate education in English or other liberal arts areas as valuable in and of itself, and as good preparation for meaningful life work. By extension, we see MA and PhD work as great preparation for professing, but also as even deeper preparation for the kinds of critical thinking and communication skills that are really valued by a broad range of employers. No, those employers don't care that you know lots about Shakespeare. But they do care that you're really good at communicating complex ideas to a variety of people, that you can understand and analyze information in texts, that you can manage people and time.
I feel relieved by that realization, somehow. The world of employment possibilities wouldn't end if I lost my job here, though I'd certainly be upset and distraught. But it's good to realize that there are other paths I could have taken that would have led to other experiences, perhaps as happy, or more happy.
Maybe that's the message I should try to get across to students who want to go on to grad school in English? Focus on the fact that the degree really isn't only of use if you get that elusive tenure track job, but that getting it can be meaningful in other ways, and potentially for other engaging and exciting work?