Sunday, April 07, 2013

a small chorus warning--don't go to grad school in the humanities

I deeply regret going to graduate school, but not, Ron Rosenbaum, because my doctorate ruined books and made me obnoxious. (Granted, maybe it did: My dissertation involved subjecting the work of Franz Kafka to first-order logic.) No, I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.

It's fascinating to read these sorts of pieces because six and seven years ago I was considering graduate school.  Friends told me my talents were being wasted in the non-profit sector and that I should think of going back to school.  Maybe graduate school in music or teaching or library science?  I considered library science for a time.  I even considered continuing education in accounting but I decided against pursuing more education in the end both because it seemed to hold no promise whatever of landing me any job and because I came to realize there was nothing I wanted to do that would necessarily benefit from graduate school.

I considered seminary more than a decade ago but I didn't feel any call or interest in being a pastor.  I was interested in maybe teaching and scholarly work but I realized that without a denominational affiliation I was willing to go with scholarships would be essentially non-existent.  And how badly did I really want to teach, anyway?  I had my answer, not very badly.  Teaching isn't for those who can't do, as I see it, it's for those who can do and also care enough about keeping track of how people learn to impart knowledge to people.

What I've observed in my professional life is that teaching is an actual profession and that pedagogy is something most people don't really, honestly care about.  In professional settings that are not academia nobody gives a damn about modes of learning or cognitive styles as even having a bearing on learning.  What often passes for training is someone does something in front of you and assumes that from that you  have been taught how to do stuff.  That's not even true for people who don't have disabilities, let alone for people who have them. 

For as many odes pining for mentorship as I have heard in the end there aren't that many older guys mentoring younger guys in this or that art.  Apprenticeships don't seem that common outside particular trades.  This should not shock, surprise or even alarm us, however, because the United States educational culture for generations has championed self-selecting vocation to the point where it's on you.  We would probably bristle at the idea of being told we should go into accounting when we might want to get some degree in literature specializing in Edwardian era poetics.  Or if you fail badly enough at math you might get told you didn't test well enough to get into accounting depending on how grading got done.  How grading has happened in the last thirty years is something I'm not sure I even want to know about yet.  When I was in elementary school D's and F's were still around. 

Anyway, I gave up pre-emptively on graduate school after looking into a few programs.  One program wouldn't accept me unless I already had a bachelor's degree in the same field of study.  Another was in a state I couldn't realistically get to and for graduate work in music I came to the realization that other than helping in some networking and credentialing capacities it was simply not going to add to what I was already able to do in my spare time.  There's no reason I couldn't investigate chamber music written for bassoon and guitar outside a graduate school setting, for instance.  It'd be fun if somehow I could do that kind of investigation within an academic setting but thanks to the internet it's no longer necessary to be a music professor of some sort to look into this stuff. 

A friend of mine who got a master's told me that thirty and forty years ago the sales pitch was if you simply got a master's, in anything, really, that a solid high-paying professional life was simply yours for the taking.  He's found out that was bunk and it may be that a lot of people are finding out that it doesn't matter how great you think your work is, this simply doesn't mean there are jobs for you.  It probably doesn't even really matter what your field is at this point, either.  Even my friends who got into the hard sciences like chemistry have not necessarily found lucrative employment.  They've found jobs that pay enough for them to get by and that's about it.  There's still something to be said for loving the nature of the work itself and working for causes you believe in.  Immunology to treat Africal viral diseases, for instance, has a certain reward to it even if you sometimes wish you got paid more. 

Now here's another bit that's fun from the piece and worth quoting for its own sake, a warning that despite warnings people embark on higher education anyway, particularly in humanities.  Why?  Well, simple, because we all like to think we're the exception to the rule.  We all like to think we'll beat the odds

Other well-meaning academics have already attempted to warn you, the best-known screed in this subgenre being William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities? Just Don’t Go.”* But this convinced no one. It certainly didn’t convince me! Why? Because Pannapacker is a tenured professor. He pulled it off, so why can’t you? After all, someone has to get these jobs.
Well, someone also has to not die from small-cell lung cancer to give the disease its 6 percent survival rate, but would you smoke four packs a day with the specific intention of being in that 6 percent? No, because that’s stupid. Well, tenure-track positions in my field have about 150 applicants each. Multiply that 0.6 percent chance of getting any given job by the 10 or so appropriate positions in the entire world, and you have about that same 6 percent chance of “success.” If you wouldn’t bet your life on such ludicrous odds, then why would you bet your livelihood? [emphasis mine]
Don’t misunderstand me. There is unquantifiable intellectual reward from the exploration of scholarly problems and the expansion of every discipline—yes, even the literary ones, and even if that means doing bat-shit analysis like using the rule of “false elimination” to determine that Josef K. is simultaneously guilty and not guilty in The Trial. But there is one sort of reward you will never get: monetary compensation from a stable, non-penurious position at a decent university.

See, I only got an undergraduate degree in communications and I could easily roll with the idea that Josef K is simultaneously guilty and not guilty in The Trial.  I didn't even have to spend the money and years of my life to entertain that idea.  :)  On my side of things I came to realize that if I wanted to, say, write an essay on the use of cyclical development of a four-note motto in Koshkin's Sonata for flute and guitar (which some people may even remember was something I considered doing way back in 2006 when I started this blog) there was absolutely no reason to actually be in any kind of graduate school in music to do it.  Do I have the score?  Yep.  Do I have Koshkin's fantastic Kreuzberg recording of the sonata?  Yep!  That's basically enough. 

Now a friend of mine who was already a music teacher got a master's in piano performance and for her that made sense.  It helped her get into a better pay bracket in her field of work and she's already an excellent pianist.  But as some of the linked-to authors have noted above, she's one of the few people these days for whom graduate work in humanities would make sense.  My friend gave me some wonderful advice on a piano sonata that I'll always treasure so I trust you get the idea I love academic discussions of humanities.  I've just recognized that the economic and job realities of this time and place are such that it'd be a waste of my life at this point (and maybe any other) to attempt grad work in music, for instance. 

So when I read articles of the sort I've linked to I admit it gives me a sense of relief that I don't have to second-guess myself.  I don't have to be haunted by wondering whether or not I could have really been so exceptional as to get graduate work done and beat the odds and land some job with it.  It's better for me, and exponentially cheaper, to be able to interact with scholars and professional musicians on something as arcane as bassoon and guitar literature without getting official credentials.  We live in a world where genuine love for obscure music is something you can demonstrate without having to go through the academic system. 


Andrew O'Brien said...

This isn't on topic, but I'm curious... When Mark Driscoll vacations to Orange County does he get to write it off as a business expense if he preaches at Mars Hill OC?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

One wonders if even members of Mars Hill or most paid staff get to find that out these days.