Tuesday, November 19, 2013

PhDs and garret hermits

L.V. Anderson looks at why adjuncts* don't find other, better jobs. The piece pretty much covers it - adjuncts stay because it's really hard to go from perma-adjunct to tenure-track (yet if that's what you aspire to, it looks bad to definitively leave the field), and because, when it comes to jobs outside academia, the market's tough generally, and you can't just leave once you've committed to teaching a course.

What I'd add, though, is that someone with a humanities PhD is in a weird position in the non-academic job market. Not necessarily hopeless, just weird. For one thing, there's the grad-student stereotype - think Buster from "Arrested Development" - of someone too delicate and eccentric for the real world. There's remarkably little truth behind that cliché at this point - the professionalization of everything has included academia - but those three letters on a resume unfortunately don't announce 'smart person ready to meet challenges' as much as one might hope.

But let's say you want to avoid the grad-school stigma. Why not leave your schmancy degree of your resume? Here's why: Because doing so amounts to announcing that you were un- or underemployed for the past seven or so years. If grad school was your job - your source of income and what filled your days (and nights!) - what you have to do is convey to employers that the skills are transferrable. It probably - but what do I know? - helps to convey the extent to which grad school involves interacting with others. In an office, even. Otherwise, the fear will be: garret hermit seeks first-ever office employment.

Also! It might not be assumed that a former grad student would know the basics of using a computer. The tech-ier aspects of, yes, even humanities grad school (heavy use of Google Books and other, more obscure digital archives in multiple languages, combined with intense attention to detail; calculating grades in Excel; formatting the dissertation) aren't obvious to those on the outside, who will understandably assume that the entire endeavor involves using a paper notebook to take notes on crumbling old books. Point being, you have to spell this out.

Then there's the question of which jobs are plausible. Are you entry-level? Your first thought is bound to be that you're not, given your age (late 20s at the youngest) and given all the talk one hears of "alt-ac" - of alternate tracks for PhD-holders. But the reality is, you very well might be. Whether you're entry-level or not depends on the job, and whatever else you were doing during your PhD. (That people with PhDs are urged to consider unpaid internships may also help explain the appeal of adjuncting for a few thousand dollars.)

Oh! And! There's the not-insignificant matter of, you can't pursue a career in not-academia. You need not only to be willing to do something outside academia, but also some positive sense of what it is you'd like to do, even if it helps to be flexible. There needs to be a Plan B (or, ahem, co-Plan A), ideally one in place during grad school as well. Given the % of grad students actually getting tenure-track positions, a little career-counseling in that area, for those who don't arrive with Plans B-Z in store, might be welcome.

*Any discussing of adjuncting requires the two standard disclaimers: 1) Some people at some points in their lives want flexible part-time work, and 2) some non-tenure-track positions in the humanities (VAPs, postdocs) involve non-poverty wages and - while they add on years of uncertainty and geographic challenges for those with families - seem to look good on an academic CV, and can provide much-needed teaching experience. Also: some "adjuncting" is done during grad school, as (paid) training. Point being, there are sometimes very good reasons to be an adjunct.

8 comments:

Petey said...

"For one thing, there's the grad-student stereotype - think Buster from "Arrested Development" - of someone too delicate and eccentric for the real world."

Look. That's a really unfair (and borderline offensive) comparison. Not all people with a hook for a hand are too delicate and eccentric for the real world.

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Of course, one could try to get ahead of the curve by hiring out as a freelance electron in delivering MOOC courseloads.

Think of the frequent flyer miles you could rack up, if I understand this intertube thing correctly.

Or, alternately, one could just adjunct until the MOOC tidal wave hits. And I for one, welcome our new dark age education overloads. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted blog commenter, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.

caryatis said...

My boyfriend went from adjuncting in the humanities to a higher-paid non-academic job, simply because he couldn't make ends meet as an adjunct. It's a big hit to a person's ego, I think, to go from being any kind of a professor to an entry-level job with not much prestige. And he had to work harder. But then he met this incredibly beautiful and intelligent girl with high earning potential...

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

I kind of get the ego thing, but wonder how much of this is gender-specific. The pattern I've seen is, non-STEM grad students who don't enter with a Plan B, who are dead-set on becoming professors, are more often male. Even women who end up getting great TT jobs will, in my experience, express a certain amount of willingness to go an alternate route if need be.

I'm also curious for, uh, research purposes what the job was your boyfriend ended up going with.

Petey said...

"There's the not-insignificant matter of, you can't pursue a career in not-academia. You need not only to be willing to do something outside academia, but also some positive sense of what it is you'd like to do"

Freelance journalist covering the Syrian civil war in-country?

caryatis said...

To answer your question, Phoebe, court reporting, but I don't recommend it.

Petey said...

Second Avenue subway sandhog?

Petey said...

1. Hire 60 to 80 unpaid interns to work at WWPD Industries

2. ???

3. Profit

Petey said...

Becoming a well-compensated motivational speaker on the topic of the existential conundrum of the continued presence of Gwyneth Paltrow?