by Josephine Livingstone
I handed in my dissertation a year ago today. A month later, I stood up at the end of my defense and shook a professor’s hand as she smiled and said, “Congratulations, Doctor Livingstone.”
That feels like a very long time ago. This semester, I got my dream teaching position, but when the last class ended a few days ago, the job did too. I was filling in for a professor on leave, so I got to borrow her office and put my books on her shelf. I got to look out her window and talk to my students over a massive wooden desk; it was like living inside a waking dream.
For people graduating with a PhD in the humanities these days, the chances of obtaining meaningful academic employment are really, really bad. The river of university cash flows no more. The opportunities have thinned so drastically that hundreds of equally well-qualified competitors go up for every single position, no matter how rubbish the college or undesirable the location. One recent rejection letter told me that seven hundred people had applied for the two postdoc spots. The letter-writer sounded confused and regretful.
A fog of complacency has enveloped early-stage grad students and tenured professors alike. In the first couple years of a doctorate, the job search is so far off that it doesn’t feel real. The tenured professors are employed for life and busy with their own work, so they don’t have much motivation to warn their students of what’s coming. Both groups pretend nothing is happening, because nothing is, and a whole load of newly minted doctors lose their minds every year. Am I willing to go round after round on the job market like the guy from the movie who slugs the parking meters? No. Do I think this situation is ridiculous? Yes! But do I regret doing a PhD? Not with a single fiber of my being.
For one thing, I turned a bound copy of my dissertation upside down and now use it as a mousepad at one of my jobs. The plastic on the back has exactly the right texture. For another, the five years I spent on my PhD were the most glowingly meaningful of my life. Graduate school paid me to read and think and ponder, then gave me the skills and self-belief to construct arguments out of those thoughts. I never once got out of bed early, and yet I can read all these medieval languages! It is unclear whether I’ll ever get a proper teaching job ever again. But I won’t give up research and writing just because there’s no place for me at a university. The only thing to do must be to throw more work at the problem.
Here at The Awl, I’m going to be sending you dispatches from the strangest corners of academia. I’ll cover the grad student and the emeritus professor, the tenure-tracked and the unemployed. We’ll meet biologists, angry critics, wistful scholars, musicologists, joyful discoverers. Next week, for example, a Canadian biologist in the field of social evolution will tell us about hymenoptera and “sib-mating” (that’s biology-speak for incest). I can’t wait!
Researchers are just people, even when they win the Nobel prize. But until they earn ridiculous laurels or get a big-name job — which will never happen to most of us — academics toil in obscurity. But they’re heroic still, even when they can’t make a living. Lab Reports is going to be a series of postcards from the intellectual edge, and I can’t wait to go back to school.
Photo: NYPL / Digital Collections