To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.

May 24, 2010 — 4 Comments

There’s another article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website about not getting a Ph.D.

Or, more specifically, about getting a Ph.D., getting a job, and, comparing one’s life with that of one’s friend who has “only a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University,” (who has somehow, with only said bachelor’s degree, and obviously against all odds, managed to achieve a satisfying job that requires him to be a lifelong learner).

But the comparison with Harvard friend leaves one feeling poor–because one is stuck living in London on a fellowship for two years but unable to afford the theatre!–as well as “constricted” because the Harvard grad’s job allowed him to travel AND read (!), while poor little one is limited to “spending time in archives,” which must truly suck.

And so, one leaves academia for the “real world” and gets her happy ending:

I live in a large city, as opposed to the small college towns where I was a professor, I live in a world of museums, lectures, public seminars, extraordinary bookstores, fantastic archives, and libraries. I live in a place that has racial as well as ethnic diversity…

I belong to a book group founded, much to my delight, by reporters who work or worked at NPR as well as many experts from other federal agencies. (from: “And if you just don’t go?” by Alexandra M. Lord)

Thank god for the real world of racial and ethnic diversity (no one said anything about interacting with people from different backgrounds! jeez, as long as they’re seen on a daily basis) and NPR book clubs!


There’s an article paired with this one that analyzes the New Yorker cover shown above. This short article analyzes how unfunny it is to represent the newly minted Ph.D. as practically prepubescent and parentally dependent.

The comments range from it’s funny (the cartoon) to chill-the-hell-out to only-a-PhD-would-analyze-this to it’s not funny.


So, fine. We’ve established that academics are easy targets for ridicule, whether they’re defending themselves against ridicule (as in the article responding to the New Yorker cartoon), or whether they are just upper class elites who think the “real world” involves NPR book clubs.

In my Phrequently Asked Questions tab on this blog, I list a number of questions about the Ph.D. (in creative writing). I admit they are not phrequently asked; I just made them up. One question is, “Should I get a Ph.D. in creative writing?” My answer is, “It’s not a bad way to go.”

Or is it?

Most articles about Ph.D.’s suggest that anyone can get one, that getting one is stupid because there’s no job at the end of the rainbow, that academics don’t know anything about the “real world” and cannot advise accordingly, and that, as the image above suggests, PhD’s are adolescent nincompoops.

I got a Ph.D. because I wanted to devote myself full time to writing and reading and thinking for as many years as I could. My husband’s biggest fear was that when I’d finished, I’d go for another Ph.D.

What I did not want: a job.

I’d had a job. I worked for six years at a high school, teaching English and running a scholarship program for economically poor kids, where I struggled (and grew) on a daily basis with racial and ethnic diversity. (I don’t  like lowering this amazing experience to a rhetorical device against the elitist quoted above, but I think it hits home the point that her version of diversity is, at most, a few “Others” in her NPR book club or on the sidewalks as she walks to her new nonacademic job.)

What I really did not want was a job.

What I wanted: to write stories, have them read and responded to by peers and classmates, to read amazing books and talk about them with like-minded souls. (Yes, souls. Sue me.)

What I did: I worked my ass off. I was the only grad student I knew with a young child. I was the only one who was also second-grade room mom. I was the only one who was also first, second, and third grade girls’ soccer coach (consecutively, not simultaneously).

I didn’t want a job. I needed a job. Why? Because I live in the real world. I had a family, I had debt, I had no health insurance, no friends with bachelor’s degrees from Harvard to compare to. I really really didn’t want to leave my city on the big river to move to my small town on the small river. But I did because I was lucky to be offered a job. Or, I’d worked hard to get a job offer, which is what one does in the real world, and I’d gotten one–a job that is. Two, actually. I took one, relocated my family, and next year I go up for tenure.

The pay isn’t great. I could make $20,000 more teaching high school with the level of education/experience I have. But, while I live in the real world, I also made choices to do what I want to do. I’m much more suited to a job that hires, and hopefully tenures me, on the basis of my creative work and teaching excellence, rather than a job that gives me a raise for simply surviving another year. (This was my experience teaching high school. It’s not necessarily representative, but it definitely wasn’t for me.)

What I got from getting a Ph.D. was six years (including M.A.) of writing, reading, talking, and listening. Experience teaching college. I regularly attended readings by major and emerging writers; I had lunch, dinner, and drinks with those writers and my professors; I participated in discussions about contemporary literature; I wrote many of the stories in my forthcoming collection; I wrote a novel that I still believe in (though it’s been superseded by new ventures since I graduated); I read the slush pile of a literary journal; I met some of the greatest, most inspiring people (women especially) I’ve ever met; I got funded to participate in writing workshops I couldn’t have otherwise afforded. (All of this shaped my “how to become a writer” philosophy/ramblings. See tab, see categories.)

Nowadays I advise graduates and undergraduates in English, and, from my perch on the  third floor of my Comprehensive Public Regional Ivy Tower, here’s my advice: Do what you want to be.

4 responses to To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.


    The problem I had with the cartoon wasn’t that the recipient moved in with his parents and had no job. Big deal – who said a PhD would make you automatically employable? It was that it was being compared to getting a 3rd place ribbon. After slaving away for 8.5 years to earn mine, with the coursework, the comps, the data collection, the analysis, the countless conferences to network at – I’m comparable to a 3RD PLACE RIBBON WINNER AT A NO-NAME CONTEST?!!!

    I have no articulate response. Fuck you very much, New Yorker, and [5 f-words redacted; one per post, please].


    I think you’ve grossly over-simplified my argument.

    My article was written in response to the article by James Mulholland who wrote about encouraging his undergraduate student to go directly to grad school so she could “live the life of the mind.” Muholland’s article was written in response to Thomas Hart Benton’s various pieces (Just Don’t Go). Mulholland set up a series of false comparisons in his piece—as when he compared his work with that of electricians. My article was simply intended to create a better and more accurate comparison between the bright individual who walks away with a BA, although he could have gone to grad school versus the bright individual who stays in the academy.

    What was rather interesting to me was that John and I had, in some ways, very very similar intellectual experiences although we chose different routes. But John somehow wound up with a healthy career and a good bank account and he lived in places he loved. When I talked to John, we were both 36. I was a depressed former professor who had lived in places she hated, barely scrapped by financially, had no money saved, no idea of what I could do, and was living on unemployment. He was employed, had moved up the ladder professionally, owned a house, and was living a full life. At 36, this was an upsetting revelation and one I did not think about when I decided at 23 to go to grad school.

    I went to grad school not really understanding what options existed (and they are mind-boggingly diverse). I also had, as most 23 year olds have, a very poor understanding of the sacrifices academia would require (I actually left my tenure-track position because I could not bear living in the rural Northwest—I found it intellectually stultifying). I’d like to encourage 21 year olds to understand that an intellectual life can be found in many places. Some people may still prefer to go to grad school even with that knowledge but some may make other choices…and given the fact that the academic job market is a lottery that is not a bad thing.

    Just a couple of quick comments on some of the details you have misread.

    I’m really puzzled by the comment about “seeing but not interacting” with diverse groups. I work for the federal government—in large part, because I wanted to work in a diverse workforce. The federal government is one of the most diverse workforces in the US. Why, on earth, would you assume that I don’t interact with my colleagues? And why on earth would you assume that I chose to work in a diverse environment if I was not interested in interacting with people with diverse backgrounds?

    But the comment was also deeply puzzling to me as I actually live in a city that has a minority white population. I live in Brookland, a Washington DC neighborhood with a fascinating history (it was one of the few racially mixed neighborhoods in the city). I realize none of this was discussed in my article but the speed with which you leapt to your conclusions was quite astonishing to me…and…also painfully wrong (my husband and I chose NOT to engage in white flight; and I am the child of parents who made a similar decision in the 1960s and 1970s [I attended a junior high school which was 80% African-American and a high school which was 45% African American]). I was troubled in academia by the fact that I worked in very white environments b/c this was completely alien to me, my experiences, and my values.

    I have also been really troubled by the obsession on the fact that John went to Harvard and my book group has people who work at NPR. I used those examples simply to show that very very bright people don’t go to grad school, their minds don’t atrophy, and they still can and do have a role in shaping public opinion. Had I not given examples, I would have been criticized for failing to provide examples as has happened in other pieces I have written. I want to point out, and this is a fact that is often lost, that people outside of academia are bright and interesting—just as bright and interesting as academics are. So living and working outside of academia does not mean that you will have to sacrifice in that regard.

    Finally, I’d like to clarify the general point I was trying to make in the article. My point is not to tell students to go or not go to graduate school—my point is that very few really understand the diversity of options available to them and even fewer really understand the sacrifices academia requires. I think there needs to be a better and more comprehensive discussion of the many options 21 year olds have. Period.


    Dear Ms. Lord,

    My suspicion is that we have more common ground than differences here. I really support your claim and mission that students should have a much better understanding of the range their options as they decide whether or not go to graduate school.

    Your Beyond Academe web site looks like an excellent resource, and I share your interests in history and literature and decent shopping. I also think it’s super valuable for PhD’s to be out in society, communicating, as you do, to legislators and politicians, with a larger sense of history.

    That said, in terms of the text of my post, I think there’s a fine line between “grossly over-simplifying” something and isolating a feature or two for caricature. For example, I’ve got a prominent chin, and if a cartoonist or caricature artist draws my face, it’s not my nose that gets bigger, it’s my chin. That’s because I do in fact have a big chin, just as I think your essay does have a whiff of elitism, which I emphasized (I wouldn’t say obsessed on) in my post.

    I appreciate your response and your discussion of some personal decisions, and sorry it’s taken a while to respond. I’ve been thinking about how to reply. My first thought, honestly, was just to remove my post, or the part about your article. Mostly because I think you are doing good work with your web site and, really, I don’t want to give it or you any bad press. I’m still open to that option. Thanks for writing, and feel free to contact me directly at parkerk at iusb dot edu.

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