Why I’m Breaking With the Academy
Two things off the bat:
First, I’m not, technically, out of the academy. My title is a bit misleading. I still teach at a school in Eastern PA as a lecturer, for four classes a year. I also haven’t lost all of my academic knowledge, and I guess I use some of it in my main work now, my podcast No Cartridge. But in terms of the wide and ranging search for a tenure track job? At least in the traditional sense, that’s dead for me.
Second, I am not writing this as a rebuke to any of my advisors. I don’t have an axe to grind, believe it or not. I got my PhD at the University of Illinois, Chicago — I loved studying there and I loved the department. On the first day of orientation, Walter Benn Michaels told us that we probably would not get jobs. The seeds of arrogance that led us all to pursue the program anyway were set in way way earlier than that, and I don’t lay any blame at UIC’s feet. Similarly, my dissertation committee — Nicholas Brown, Michaels, Jennifer Ashton, Anna Kornbluh, Nasser Mufti, and Andrew Hoberek — were inspirational and helpful. They have all done innumerable kindnesses for me, and none of them are at fault for my current position. Finally, my colleagues — too many to name — are also people I still esteem quite highly. Again, any successes they have are occasions of only happiness for me.
So why write the essay then? That’s a good question, and one I’ve been pondering a lot. It’s not easy to face your own failures, especially when you spent 13 years and an entire identity developing the harsh conclusion of those failures. Looking back at 34 and seeing effectively less earning potential than I had at 22 is sobering and sad. And if I’m the only one to blame, isn’t this just pointless self-flagellation? I hope not, but I won’t lie that it’s kept me from writing this for far too long. The thing I’d most like to avoid is some kind of pathos-soaked finger pointing, an explanation for why my life has gone so far from the plan, or whatever. Because, of course, my life is fine in a lot of ways! I have two kids, a lovely wife, a place to live, and a podcast that I like making. I get to teach sometimes. And I got that PhD.
But the latter bit always makes me pause a little because that whole terminal degree thing counts as an achievement for sure, but never really feels like one. Put another way, whenever anyone hears that I have the PhD, I get a lot of compliments or congratulations, and they’re all quite nice, but I can’t help but feel they’re completely undeserved. Like when your mom congratulates you for making breakfast on Mother’s Day and it doesn’t exactly matter if it’s good or not. The conditions and context of the act matter a lot more than the results.
If that’s true, then my PhD is more of a hard-earned anchor than anything else. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute, in retrospect, of doing my PhD. I loved reading books, arguing about books, and developing extremely complicated theories of why those arguments matter. I know a lot of disenchanted doctoral students will say that they don’t believe those arguments anymore, but I’ll be honest and say that the conclusions I came to about aesthetic autonomy, the history of the novel, and the latter half of the American 20th century in literature are still conclusions I think are unassailable. I won’t bore you with those here, but the point is that I cared and still care about the work I did for the 5.5 years I was in my program. And I’m proud of my dissertation, and proud of my ability to finish it in the time I did. I really think it’s an accomplishment.
But, like, people do those accomplishments all the time without giving up 9 years of their life. The massive fan fictions that people publish and have pride in with no readers are generally not written in lieu of building one’s resume. First novels, or crackpot self-published manifestos, or artistic shrieks of prose — these are all pretty compatible with a normal trajectory in life. Graduate school is not. Graduate school is a tacit agreement with the university you’ve convinced to have you that, for the next 5–15 years, you’re going to opt out of the world and study in the hallowed intellectual vastness of the academy. Then, even though “the market is bad,” you’ll apply for a job and, if you work hard enough, you’ll get a position at a university. There your years of worldly divorce can go on until you’re ready to retire or, probably, until you’re too old to make it to your one lecture course in the fall.
It’s a fascinating deal, and in many ways it seems like a great idea — enjoy intellectual rigor for five to seven years, really work out some ideas, and leave with a prestigious degree and a sense of accomplishment (and maybe even a job!). In reality, the issue with all of this is the under-examined material one gives up in this agreement — you don’t have to be invested in the world, but the world also doesn’t need to be invested in you.
Bourgeoise nonsense? Certainly! But between the years of 22 and 30, most people are screwing up and finding themselves in different jobs that turn into slightly more sustainable jobs that then turn into some okay-but-not-perfect career. Then they have some stability moving forward. Or, hey, if that’s not for you, then 22–30 is when you build your brand. You write your novel, you make your album, you put out the podcast that changes your life. You make yourself into a commodity. Gary Becker, a real son of a bitch and a Chicago School economist, was obsessed with the idea of human capital, that the “means of production” in the 20th century was not a factory, but the body and potential of a person themselves. The worker, Becker tells us, is their own means of production, and by using that means to produce a more valuable commodity of worker, the individual has bypassed Marx and valorized his own capital. Go to school, learn a language, read a book! It all adds up and helps your earning power down the line, you crafty capitalist, you.
And while this is vile rhetoric…it’s not wrong, per se. Not in our current moment, where literally who you know and what you’ve done is the gold standard. And I know what you’re saying, I hear you — a PhD, that’s wonderful experience and proof that you’re a damn good writer! Sure, it ought to be, yeah. But the flipside of human capital is that if we treat people like credit scores and bump them up based on positive attributes, then we’ll need to bump them down as well.
In the few interviews I’ve ever gotten to in job applications, I’ve heard the concern that I won’t be able to connect with regular people due to my erudite ideas. I’ve heard the concern that I’ll be too slow in writing because academics take forever to finish things. I’ve heard from people I’ve pitched to that my ideas are smart, but too smart for the moment. I’ve heard that my writing is excellent but it doesn’t have the sort of punch and snap needed for quick, internet style prose. Put simply: if an employer sees PhD on my resume, then they will assume I can write, but that what I write will be of no use to them at all.
Indeed, the main thing a PhD is useful for is making you suitable for work in the academy. And the academy knows this all too well. While tenure track jobs exist — I should know, I’ve applied to hundreds! — the far more common thing is to get work as a lecturer, often dead-end labor paid out via contract and not nearly as lucrative as full-time work. Also, of course, no benefits. And while these positions have been and are still filled with retired teachers, they are more and more filled by people like me: smart PhD holders who literally cannot get a school to call me back.
So that’s where I find myself now. I’m good only for the academy, and since the academy knows that, my skills and training are worth…less yearly than I’d make working fast food. Arbitrary rule changes — I was told I could only teach four classes this year and lost 10,000 dollars in salary as a result — are the norm with contract labor like this, and there have been many times I’ve counted on three-months salary from a class that just vanishes in an instant when kids decide not to take it. I’m not on the radar for advancement, if you’re wondering that, and my actual contribution to the department is simple and elegant: I provide cheap but professionally exceptional labor for classes that tenured professors simply don’t have the time or interest to teach.
And so that’s where I’m at, and it’s why I’m trying very hard to move on to a new chapter. All I have available to me is the skillset that I earned through hard work in a PhD program — and all that gets me, sadly, is the opportunity to try and pick up classes by the handful here and there. Most jobs assume I’ll bolt for a better opportunity (it’s not there) or won’t hire me because I will demand more money in salary. I’ve been through the list, and there are some I’ll pursue! But by and large, the only thing that I can do is something that I now refuse to do as a career.
I will not be a career lecturer, so long as it entails a precarious employment at the whim of enrollment and interest, and I encourage anyone considering a PhD to make the same choice. My professors trained me very well to succeed in the field of literary studies — and hopefully I can make them proud through the podcast and my writing. My agent, Erik Hane, is supportive, and I love my work. But, it doesn’t pay many bills. And it involves begging for scraps and hoping for friendly pity. It is not what I or my advisors signed me up for…at least not knowingly.
Ultimately, to be totally cringey and honest, I get frustrated and defeated sometimes because I have a head for the written word but I don’t have the connections, voice, or nerve for writing outside of the academy. And after spending years and years in what is billed as a meritocracy, I just expect to get opportunities. Obviously that’s silly. But you’d be surprised how long and rough that’s been to learn.
Sadly, the academic system relies on people making my decision and then never giving up on the opportunity cost of 10 lost years. I hope to move on soon, and I would encourage anyone who is considering taking the plunge to think long and hard before they do.