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.