Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Trying is the first step towards failure

I've been doing a bit of obsessing over some shit lately (in a constructive rather than destructive way; which is key to remember to do for everyone else out there in a similar mood), and had recently decided that this whole 'If you don't get a tenure-track job sometime soon after you receive your Ph.D you're a steaming pile of failure' path that we (and our peers, and our advisors) set ourselves on by entering graduate school is (to continue with my preferred imagery) a mountain of bullshit no one has bothered to clean up or mention after being tossed into it.

Lately, my conviction in this conclusion has been wavering. I mean, fuck, I would be a failure if something I've devoted at least 10 years of my life (including undergraduate) to philosophy, something I felt like I was good at, were to suddenly disappear and I was left with 250 pages and at least 2 years of work on a topic that, apparently, no one in all of the philosophical world cares about; right?

But, just as I was about to give into this thought, fellow Smoker Yousaidsomething points me towards this entry over at Bitch Ph.D. ringingly endorsing this article in the Chronicle by Thomas Benton on why no one should pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities. You should really read both posts, but, in case you don't have time, here's Benton's little gem on the topic of failure:
If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it's right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.
Nail. Head. Hit.

The moral: don't give in to the expectations that make us feel (wrongly) like failures if all doesn't go according to a plan others have constructed for us, start thinking about other things that might make you happy in case the very possible scenario of not getting a job happens, and heed Xenophon's timely advice:
Grad school has to be about the journey, because there's no guarantee that there will be a career, or even a first job, at the end of it. If you don't love the trip, it's not worth continuing on it.


steven andresen said...

I remember reading about the British coming to see that their government was paying for fewer and fewer graduate program positions and higher learning in general. I think they wrote about how the government thought an educated workforce was valuable up to a point. When the people got so smart they started to complain with good arguments, then, the government thought it was time to cut back.

Isn't that the idea here? We don't need so many grad schools or graduates to do service jobs. Over educating the population is just going to make people unhappy....

Philosophy Prof said...

If I had to do it all over again, I would apply to enter a philosophy phd program straight out of undergrad, and try to finish in five years, and then just plan on applying to law school afterwards if the tenure-track prospects didn't look so good. That would have decreased the stress (and the absolutely-everything-is-at-stake attitude) of the graduate school years, and I would have been able to get a (hopefully) funded education that would last for a lifetime. Indeed, I would have gone to the best-fit program that admitted me with funding (and if I didn't get in anywhere I wouldn't attend of course). So I don't think that people should avoid graduate school in the humanities, unless for some reason they want to enter the rat-race right away.

Snively P. Whiplash said...

A greater sign of failure would be the inability to create and consider other options, especially given the current economy. A PhD in the humanities alone might not be that lucrative, but a PhD in the humanities combined with a post-bac degree in science, business, medicine, or law might prove very promising. It might be a bitter pill, but it's better than keeping one's head in the sand. There are too many of us for the same shrinking field.