Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shakespeare won't pay the bills

Dear Prudence today includes a back-and-forth between Prudie and a would-be grad student. Skim or for all I care do an explication de texte of the following:

Q. Corporate Career or Art Career?: I am in my mid-20s. I have been accepted in an extremely competitive theatre arts program in the U.K., 3,000 miles from my hometown, and had plans to start my MFA this coming fall. While it will cost me a lot, in both time and expense, I feel that it is a great opportunity and am excited to begin my future education. However, I had my yearly performance review with my boss last Friday and he has told me that he sees great potential for me within our company and wants to put me on the fast-track to management. We are not talking about managing a TCBY here. In a couple of years, I would be making about triple what I am currently making now. My dilemma is this: Do I stay, start a business career, and make more money, or do I go to grad school to pursue my artistic dreams but have no guarantee of being able to get a job in that field after graduation? I don't want to throw away a good opportunity, but it looks like I'm going to have to do so either way. My husband has said that he supports my decision either way and will follow me if I leave the States, which is awesome.
A: First of all, there is nothing wrong with managing a yogurt store . Lots of thriving careers have started that way. Second, I'm probably the wrong person to ask since every day I am grateful that my teenage daughter expresses no desire for a career in the performing arts. Of course, there's always the chance you could be the next Helen Mirren, and I'm wrong to tell you to stick with your job. More likely, you will spend tons of money on your MFA and then work at a yogurt shop while you're hoping for your big break. I think a career in business can be full of excitement and creativity. If you can see it that way, then stay. But if you will spend every minute wishing you were in England being a star, then go.
Q.RE: Corporate Career or Art Career?: Thanks for the advice. Actually, I'm not the acting type; the degree that I would be getting would be in Shakespeare Theory, so my plan was to get a job in secondary education teaching Shakespeare to undergrads. I'll definitely have to think about it some more, but it's nice to know that there are people out there who won't judge me for "selling out" if I do end up going the corporate route.
A: How about if, with all your big corporate earnings, you get a season subscription to your local Shakespeare theater. Or you fly to London once a year to take in as many plays as possible. Trading in a thriving career to take on a lot of debt in the hopes that you can teach Shakespeare to uninterested teenagers sounds like a recipe for feeling all your tomorrows creep in this petty pace from day to day.
First, the narcissistic, the personal, the least racy over-share ever: The letter reminded me of something I hadn't thought of in years - that right before learning I'd gotten into my dream grad program, I had the possibility of getting a more interesting and better-paid job at the same organization where I already worked. Before I found out how great of a possibility that was, I confessed to my plans for the fall, which put me definitively out of the running. I suppose my situation's not quite comparable to that of the letter-writer, if only because I made more last year as a grad student than my salary was at the real-world office job I had in my between-college-and-grad-school year. The market has told me where my skills are more valued, which turned out to be, of all things, studying French.

Now the more general. What's confusing is that it's virtually impossible to know, from the information provided, what, exactly, the letter-writer is choosing between. She (assuming a husband-haver to be, in most cases, a woman, although in the field in question this is perhaps a stupid assumption) wants a job in "secondary education teaching Shakespeare to undergrads." Isn't "secondary" high school? In the U.K., it apparently begins at 11. Does the letter-writer want to teach middle school, high school, or college?

Whichever it is, how is an MFA the relevant degree for teaching English at any level? And - and forgive me if this is something specific to MFA degrees - are there really degrees in "Shakespeare," as in, in the works of just one author, or degrees that promise jobs teaching that which one finds most interesting, defined so narrowly? The grad program is, according to the letter-writer, "extremely competitive," but it doesn't seem as though she knows what the program even is - or maybe she does but doesn't want to give away too many details to a public forum? She ends up coming across as the stereotype of a prospective grad student, who loves some ridiculously mainstream subject, who doesn't realize it's been done to death, and who refuses to contemplate the practical consequences of life choices. In other words, if "she" is neither she nor he but the creation of the advice columnist, I wouldn't be surprised.

Meanwhile,  the other option - big bizness - looks a bit hazy. Her boss "sees great potential" for her and "wants to put [her] on the fast-track to management." If she opts for that route, she "would be making about triple what [she is] currently making now." (Emphasis mine.) None of this seems to be in writing. The boss could lose his own job, or could be dangling the prospect of big bucks in front of a reliable but not amazing employee, with the hopes that she won't quit. She has not, at any rate, been offered a job that pays three times what she currently makes.

Finally, there's this: "My husband has said that he supports my decision either way and will follow me if I leave the States, which is awesome." Is this husband himself a freelance Shakespearean or a corporate hot-shot? This is the difference between Art meaning starving in an alley (or serving frozen yogurt) and Art meaning maybe the kids can't switch to private school till high school.

In other words, the variables are many, of which few indeed are available to Prudie and her readers. Why am I pointing this out? Because this is how every single discussion of grad school plays out. (Enjoy the latest installment if you have yet to do so.) We get a whole lot of generalizations - programs that pay livable stipends are conflated with ones that cost a fortune. Elite programs where simply having the name of a particular university on a CV is a plus are mixed up with ones where everyone will express shock that Obscure U even has a program in Obscure Studies. Medieval Studies gets conflated with Chemical Engineering. The Grad Student eats ramen and wears black turtlenecks, wakes up at 3pm and speaks in jargon.

At the same time, all alternatives to PhD programs are viewed as one and the same - the Great, Unnamed Stable Career, which might not sound like much, but which is what anyone sensible would have done. The GUSC promises 100% job safety till retirement, and has immediate openings for any recent college grad willing to forgo the chance to study poetry. Unemployment what? No, no, every grad student has turned down a theoretical GUSC. Because the woman considering grad school who wrote in to Prudence has such a GUSCy GUSC lined up, I offer the possibility that she is, in fact, a fictional creation. But I study literature, I see fiction everywhere.


Flavia said...

Count me among the confused--and I teach Shakespeare every semester.

One can indeed be a Shakespearian, in the sense of doing one's primary research on Shakespeare, but there's no "Shakespeare" degree that I know of, nor any job that would allow one to teach nothing but Shakespeare.

An MFA would perhaps qualify her to teach in a college drama department, though the DFA is more usual. But she wouldn't get a job in a literature department--and U.K. degrees are notoriously difficult to translate into U.S. academic employment anyway.

But to your larger point: for those of us who work in Renaissance literature, Shakespeare actually does pay the bills. (My research isn't on Shakespeare, but I wouldn't have a job if my institution didn't need two people to teach the dude every single semester.) And I surely make no less than I would have in my fall-back career in book publishing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Consider my post title paraphrased Prudie, paraphrased generic don't-go-to-grad-school article. Zola and Anatole France pay my bills these days. My larger point, if I ever got around to making one, was that oh-the-humanities warning speeches never quite add up.

The GUSC is frustrating because it ignores the actual fall-back careers of actual humanities grad students and academics. Journalism, publishing, or (horrors) 'being a writer' - are these so lucrative? I looked for jobs starting before graduating from college, before the recession, and I can't say that a BA in French was a fast track to anything particular. I wasn't unemployable, but in terms of meeting interesting people, doing interesting work, and even making a reasonable living, with benefits, grad school was quite clearly the best option.

Britta said...

I agree with your general view on the "don't go to grad school" point of view, though in this girl's particular case, I would be hesitant to support paying lots of money for an MFA in "Shakespeare theory." It sounds kind of worthless, and possibly like a money making machine for broke British universities. I mean, I have a few questions: Why would universities get MFAs to teach Shakespeare to undergrads when they could have PhDs? Is her goal to be an adjunct at community college? If she wants to teach high school, an expensive MFA is not necessary, she could get a teaching degree at a local commuter college and teach Shakespeare to students.
I tend to think except for med school and maybe a top law school, going into debt for grad school is a bad idea, especially if it is an MFA.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think we actually agree on this. My stance isn't that this woman should get an MFA in Shakespeare. (Unless her husband's super-wealthy and willing to pay for it and that's the kind of arrangement they have - she only mentions he's willing to join her in the UK for it.) It's more that the letter to Prudie reads as a parody of the clueless would-be humanities grad students. The degree sounds possibly made up. The question itself doesn't make sense, because it's not clear what Artistic Dream the letter-writer is tempted by, other than, as you say, the chance to pay a lot to a British university, in exchange for... membership in the social class of people who have fancy-sounding degrees from abroad? The letter seemed designed to provoke a general job-over-grad-school response.

kei said...

I like the bold hypothesis that this is fiction; I wouldn't have thought of that even if I found suspicious claims in the letter. I was going to comment on your previous post, saying that the Vows, Modern Love, and Styles of the Times are meant to provoke drama and juicy gossip, but that really, I think the authors just write about people they personally happen to know and do the celebrate/sneer combo you mention, which seems manipulative and stooping to levels of TMZ without ever admitting to it. But now I wonder if that isn't as bad as making shit up about a potential humanities grad students on a well-traversed advice column!

What made me think this story is weird was the part about the husband willing to cross the pond with her. "Which is awesome"? Are we all 16 years old here? Are we not talking about big life decisions for two grownass adults?

Flavia said...

No, no: I was agreeing with you, and I understood you to be paraphrasing Prudie.

I'm as cynical as anyone about the academic job market, but there are jobs there--and more importantly, there are worthwhile skills (life as much as more practical ones) to be learned in grad school. I worked as a paralegal at a big corporate law firm for two years before grad school, and--perhaps because of that basic office experience--never doubted that I could find a job if I left academia, or that getting a Ph.D. (or part of a Ph.D.) would be worthwhile regardless of what I went on to do.

This is what irritates me about grad students who are all "oh noes! I have no skillz! I'm not trained to do ANYTHING but be an academic!" Prudie at least has the excuse of not being an academic--although as an advice columnist she should know that there's really no such thing as a dead end or a permanently wrong path.

(None of which is to say that the letter-writer should get this ridiculous degree. But if she wants it and has the money, why not? The GUSC will still be there--that, or some new one.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Since writing this post, I have learned that a distant relative of mine has an MA of some sort, from the UK, in Shakespeare Studies, and is currently gainfully employed in a related area. Go figure.


With letters to advice columnists, I almost think it doesn't matter if they're made up or not, because even if they're legit, they're selected intentionally, to return to various tropes that define the tone of the advice columnist in question. So you get Dan Savage picking lots of questions from those uncomfortable with monogamy, while Prudie fields the letters from shacked-up 30-something women wondering when the ring will ever come. It's quite possible someone as flaky as the letter-writer exists and wrote to Prudie, but she had to choose to pick that over the other letters she no doubt receives from less flighty students of the humanities.


The academia job-market horror stories really do rest on the idea of the GUSC, and on the idea that the GUSC is universally available to recent college grads, universally unavailable to anyone tainted by time spent in a PhD program. What gets to me most about these discussions is that academia is declared a dead-end ... but compared with what? There was an article in the Times a while back about how difficult it was to get a job at some new fast-food restaurant or chain store or something, how many applicants wanted a few positions. Everything is competitive, everything requires connections (and I can't think of anyone whose first, pre-college menial-labor jobs - and I'm not talking about internships - weren't acquired through knowing the right people.) You're better off being specialized in something.

Maybe this is my own naivete, but I can't see how being where I'm at (ABD) or further would have done anything but help me get any job I was ever interested in prior to taking the grad-school plunge.