I am sure that there are worse things than being on the job market in higher education. Water-boarding comes to mind. Anything involving the Galactic Empire. Shoe shopping.
I don’t know.
So I will first say a few dark words, and then I will attempt something a little brighter.
The job market in general is, at the present moment, an unmitigated terror across stratospheres of class, education, and skill. I asked my students this semester, some of whom are juniors and seniors, what they thought about their job chances. One amiable and intelligent young man said, simply, “It’s shit.” I grinned without humor, because I felt the same. They and I are in the same generation, and ours is the first generation of the modern era that is grimly convinced its future will not be an improvement over the past.
And into this bleak future I proceed armed with a piece of paper that says I am very excellent at reading. Possibly quite smart. Fascinated by things that bore most sane and well-adjusted human beings. A doctorate is a set of skills best suited for financially-wracked institutions that were already drenched by job-seekers in an over-saturated market before the economy collapsed in on itself like a house of crooked sticks. One must wonder sometimes over the morality of issuing PhDs in such an environment. Add to that the simple fact that I am an expert in a field (theology) that not only features religion – of all the useless things! – but that also features a stubborn attachment to inflammatory matters like faith and Jesus really being God. Academics are quite alien to most of society. Among academics, theologians are weird remnants of a dead past. Thus I am not only an alien, I am also a dinosaur. I am an alien dinosaur. On the job market.
This is the situation into which I and my comrades in graduate school have willingly stepped. Make no bones about it: unless one of us is a creature of depraved indifference or insane narcissism, every person sitting happily amongst stacks of dusty books is unhappily aware of how harsh the job market will be when we graduate. I want to repeat that we have all willingly adopted the risk. Willingly. It is a grave and knowing decision, one driven by fervor more than calculation. Despite all the cool intellectualism that persists in such a crowd, every aspiring scholar is at heart so utterly passionate about his or her field that common sense cannot be countenanced. (Common sense would say, “Get the hell out now!”) Of course, knowing the risks and passionately facing them does not eliminate them. You could be really intelligent and talented and everything – and still not have a job. There is the very real possibility, distasteful as it sounds, that you will not be rewarded for your talent and effort.
At least when the water-boarding is over, you get shoes out of it. Or wait. I’ve mixed that up. At least when the shoe shopping is over, you die.
I have reviewed the situation with some cantankerous humor, but little hyperbole. No, the situation is not torture or death, but it is ominous and unyielding. I am being honest, and here are even more stats.
I say all of this before I move to the simple fact that I have just gotten a full-time job. At a really good college. I am excited; I am also relieved. And I am worried: about my friends, and what it has meant for us to endure all of this, and continue enduring it. I wonder whether we have been equipped, or equipped ourselves, with knowledge that will help us find the jobs we want, which also necessarily involves – and will increasingly involve – thinking outside of the often quite backwards and old-fashioned job model doctorate institutions possess: get a PhD, get a professor job, be a professor. That is a great job – don’t get me wrong, it’s sincerely what I myself have wanted and rejoice at having – but shouldn’t a doctorate be worth more than a single path?
Doctorates are awarded to human beings with high levels of intelligence and immense drive. As much as graduate students gleefully characterize themselves as outcasts good at nothing but books – cf. most of this essay – what they fail to imagine is how they might re-imagine what their skills are and how they might be applied. Surely there is imagination enough for this? My brother, whom I consider substantially more intelligent than myself, has a great job working for a good company in which he consistently applies his talent for gathering and grasping information (“academic” skills) to help his company make better, clearer decisions (the “business” stuff). One of my best friends in the world left graduate school to pursue different dreams. One of my other best friends in the world has never cared for graduate school at all, but remains as sharp as ever. Another friend I admire helps to run this, and it is awesome. Academics are constantly whining about how what they do is useful and how their interests are helpful. Well…aren’t they?
I am not at all encouraging my colleagues to bolt out of school, or drive themselves away to new sections of the working world. (Though I do think there should be no stigma against such things, and it angers me that there is one.) What I am struggling to express here is the versatility of our weirdness, and how that versatility is what will get us jobs, both within the academy and without. Discovering this about ourselves will help us no matter where we end up. It just might help us end up where we really want to be. I mean that, sincerely. Know the risks – and know your worth.