Thomas Hart Benton (a.k.a. William Pannapacker) has a new column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed in his ongoing "why you shouldn't go to graduate school" series: "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind'." The key paragraphs, for me, are these:
[T]he problem is that there is still almost no way—apart from the rumor mill to which they do not really have access—for students to gather some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions).
Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon "the life of the mind." That's why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.
The column has spawned an epically long comment thread. Some of the commenters are in wholehearted agreement with Benton; others complain that grad students aren't babies and shouldn't be regarded as pathetic dupes who don't know what they're getting into. I agree with that up to a point, but if my own case is any indication, it's not just a matter of knowing what one is getting into. Sometimes knowing all that still isn't enough.
I went into grad school with my eyes about as open I could have opened them. I'm the daughter of two academics, and I grew up surrounded by professor-types. I knew firsthand that you could spend years on the market without finding the kind of job you were "supposed" to get. I knew firsthand that tenure didn't prevent burnout or depression. And I knew, though I was probably in denial about it at the time, that the academic lifestyle could play hell with your personal life. When my cohort arrived for our orientation to our Ph.D program, we were all told in no uncertain terms that the job market was horrific and we should be prepared for the worst. I can't fault my program for that, though I did hear the "all those baby boomer profs will retire eventually" line from at least one person, and I don't think I ever saw cold hard data on placement rates.
But. I was a smart bookish kid who'd grown up seeing pretty much only one career path for smart bookish people. I didn't think there was anything else I could do, apart from a vague idea that I might go into publishing. When I went to my much-admired undergraduate mentors to ask for letters of recommendation, one of them said "Ordinarily, this is where I give a long discouraging speech and tell the student not to go to grad school. But you're one of the very few exceptions." (And who knows, maybe he would have been proved right. I only went on the market once. But that's neither here nor there.)
And, most of all, I was 22 when I went to grad school. The early twenties are not years in which you think ahead in any great detail. I didn't consider where I'd end up living; a life of extreme frugality seemed adventurous instead of anxiety-making; health insurance wasn't on my radar yet; and I hadn't reckoned on the loneliness factor, either. And at 22 I thought I'd be the one who'd beat the odds. Probably everyone thinks that, at that age.
In a way, I was exceedingly lucky to realize that I couldn't imagine being happy in a faculty position. It meant I had a reason to get out, and it gave me something to say in response to the people who said "You're leaving? But you're so good at this! What a waste!" I just knew I had to get out or be miserable for the rest of my career. It would have been much harder if I were still trying to piece together adjunct work.
The ironic thing is that I still believe in the life of the mind, as long as "life of the mind" doesn't mean "life of the brain on a stick" (TM Bitch Ph.D). I just want to rescue it from anyone who thinks it can only happen within the sacred confines of a tenured position.