Me and the Ph.D.: A Defense and A Meditation

21 Jun


Today I try something new.  As part of my effort to broaden my blog’s scope, I will take an opportunity to publish something I wrote that never got published.  A few years ago, a recently minted literature Ph.D. wrote a scathing condemnation of the humanities’ Ph.D.  It was a pretty brutal piece, and a lot of friends and colleagues shared it on Facebook and through other forms of social media.  I found the article to be a little whiny and EXTREMELY hyperbolic (which has become the default style of internet discourse, I fear).  And so I set out to write a response and have it published in the Huffington Post or some similar aggregator of blogs and opinions, but I got no takers.  So if no one will publish my post, I will do the next best thing (save keeping my damn opinions to myself) and self-publish.  So, without further ado, I offer my modest defense of the humanities’ Ph.D.


Over the past few years numerous scholars have taken to the internet to condemn the humanities’ Ph.D., or at the very least question the financial, intellectual, and emotional benefits of graduate education.   My membership in  “The Versatile Ph.D.” , for example—a list serve for people with or pursuing advanced degrees—has not resulted in me learning more about the diverse uses of a humanities doctorate (my main reason for joining the site in the first place), but instead subjected me to countless laments about the ways in which graduate education destroys marriages and families, limits intellectual curiosity, and ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of a tenure-track career in academe.  This last point (the narrowing of the tenure track) was most cleverly expounded upon in Larry Cebula’s 2011 posting, “No, You Cannot Be a Professor,” a biting and brutal explanation of the realities of professional academia. And most recently my Facebook page was awash in repostings of Rebecca Schuman’s Slate piece, “Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor,” an apologia in which Schuman laments her pursuit of a literature Ph.D. and rails against the field’s failure to adequately reward her (or, in fairness, most recent humanities grads) with an appropriate tenure track position. 

Having recently completed a history doctorate at a large and competitive research 1 institution, I can certainly attest to the truth of the above-cited condemnations of the humanities Ph.D., and I routinely advise smart, young, ambitious history educators and public historians to avoid the pursuit of such a degree if at all possible. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the overwhelming vitriol which has emerged in these recent denouncements of the humanities Ph.D., particularly in the forums of The Versatile Ph.D and Schuman’s Slate piece—a somewhat overwrought screed in which she bitterly compares the foolhardiness of graduate study and the pursuit of an academic career to carelessly smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and hoping you don’t get lung cancer.

To be sure, graduate education has the potential to be an all-consuming, soul-crushing, pursuit, a seemingly Sisyphean process in which the individual’s intellect, insight, and intelligence are routinely challenged, questioned, and discounted in an effort to socialize them in a particular set of intellectual and discursive behaviors.  And yes, the rewards bestowed on those who survive this intellectual boot camp are precious few.  This is due both to the changing business model of the university, as well as to the failure of graduate programs to adequately prepare their charges for careers beyond the academy.  Two or three years removed from their hooding ceremonies, a number of my colleagues, exceptional historians deeply steeped in the practices and traditions of academic history, have been unable to secure full-time employment in their chosen field.  And what is more, I have a number of dear friends who received their doctorates over a decade ago who continue to move from adjunct gig to gig like so many jazz sidemen. Indeed, one of my colleagues has only somewhat jokingly suggested that we should cease to describe the search for post-graduation employment as an academic “job market” and call it instead a “job lottery.”

The truth of these struggles and challenges notwithstanding, there was much about my graduate experience which was incredibly valuable, rewarding, and irreplaceable.  And in light of the Ph.D.’s recent bad press, I would like to take a little time defending the pursuit of such a degree—not because it’s a good idea, mind you, but because if the five or so of you who read this article find yourself inexplicably drawn to taking the degree, it is worth remembering the rewards such study bestows.

First and foremost my graduate studies helped me form a vast network of smart, inspiring, kind, and generous friends. You read that right…friends.  Despite the intense competition for TA positions, attention from professors, as well as fellowships and other funding, I can honestly say that my colleagues in graduate school were, and continue to be, good, good friends. Thanks to the diversity of historical study at UCLA, and the way in which scholarly research and the job market, such as it is, has dispersed my colleagues across the country and the world, I can count on coffee or meals with longtime friends in a great deal of the US, Europe, and the Middle East, making times away from my family a little less lonely.  In December-January (2008-2009), for example, I spent a cold, dark, and somewhat lonely month in Jerusalem doing dissertation research at the Central Zionist Archives.  Thanks to Facebook, my graduate student friends in country quickly arranged to dine with me, spend the Sabbath with me (Jerusalem all but shuts down on Saturdays), and share in my discomfort with old-school Israeli bathrooms, in which the only thing that stands between your shower and your toilet (no tub, mind you) is a thin, plastic curtain.

Graduate school friends are like your friends from summer camp or a high school sports team.  They have shared in your struggles and frustrations.  They’ve sat in the same library as you for hours on end and furiously written book reviews and other works to meet the end of the quarter deadline.  Like you, they have the inside scoop on which professors were generous with their time, grades, and funding, and which professors were just colossal pains in the ass. And this kind of shared experience lends itself to a predictable and heartwarming camaraderie. One Friday night several years ago, a drunken graduate colleague and I (who was just as drunk) sat around my apartment and railed at one of our professors as our non-graduate student spouses looked on.  We decried our mentor’s admiration of an earlier form of graduate training modeled on the German University system.  We loudly and angrily condemned his unrelenting questioning of our dissertation proposals and other work, and then, as the powerfully inebriated often do, we did a 180 and expressed our undying love for him, for his generosity, and his commitment to our emotional and professional well-being, and somehow, we felt a little better about our lot in life.

But graduate school friends do more than provide a shoulder to cry on.  As a diverse body of scholars interested in different fields of study, geographical regions, temporal eras, and research methodology, graduate school colleagues broaden one’s intellectual horizons.  I know that the academy is often mocked for the way in which encourages a kind of politically correct group think, but such hyperbolic, Fox News-like condemnations of the academy are largely false. I can honestly say that I learned more from my cohort of up and coming scholars than I did from my professors, and I know that a number of my professors believe that is very much the point of the graduate school experience.   Through my interactions with my grad school colleagues I learned a great deal about the history of the wider world, the field of economics, the uses of social science, and the history of American jurisprudence.  I have come to see more clearly the ways in which gender, race, and class obscure and/or enhance our understanding of the past and the world around us.  I have learned (as best I can) how to harness today’s technologies to quantifiably study the peoples of the past (and present), as well as how to use those same technologies to communicate our work to a wider audience.  And of greatest importance, thanks to these deep and fulfilling friendships, my learning continues, through conversation (in person and on the web), through correspondence, and through reading my colleagues’ works as they continue to learn and grow.

Satisfying this interest in learning and growing is, or should be, one of the greatest benefits of graduate education.  It certainly was for me.  To be sure, like Schuman, I have seen the ways in which adherence to a particular theory or methodology can limit that learning and growth. The graduate student is often taught to drop names, to be aware of the latest trends in scholarship solely to feign in depth familiarity with them in casual conversation, much in the way that an actor drops the names of the latest hot director or producer.  Still I have also seen how graduate studies can help foster greater intellectual understanding and personal development.  Familiarity with the works of theorists like Habermas, Gramsci, and Foucault, of the Yale School of consumerism, or the Subaltern Studies scholars of the 80s and 90s (see how I did that?) is, or should be, a tool meant to enhance our understanding of humanity and the world. The best graduate programs open the doors to this kind of knowledge and encourage us to continue to research and explore throughout our careers.  I suspect one can develop this habit of mind without entering graduate school, but how many people can honestly say they would do so without the compelling pressure of a 30 page paper on the subject by quarter’s end?

So yes, graduate school experience was emotionally and intellectually exhausting. It is not for everyone, and maybe it shouldn’t be for anyone, these days.  It left me deep in financial debt, as well as creating personal and professional debts to friends and family that can never be repaid.  But the experience did not leave me “an emotional trainwreck.”  Actually my wife thought it appropriate to observe that I was already pretty unstable before the degree so…there’s that.  Nor am I or most of my close colleagues sorry we took on the challenge.  The ultimate reward of graduate school was not, or at least should not be, a 300 page dissertation, or a tenure track position.  The rewards were more personal, and powerful. Quite simply I am a better person for having taken the Ph.D.  I am more intellectually open, more interested in the world and its diverse peoples, a more engaged and engaging speaker, and I am blessed with a vast network of friends and colleagues who continually help me learn and grow.  Frankly, what more could anyone possibly ask for?


2 Responses to “Me and the Ph.D.: A Defense and A Meditation”

  1. Macky Enterprises January 27, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Having read both the Slate article and Larry Cebula’s essay, I have to point out that the former is no more hyperbolic than the latter. Ms. Schuman simply uses less literary, more emotional language to make the exact same point as Mr. Cebula. She’s not being whiny, she’s just employing language in a different manner. Emotionally charged is not the same as whiny, and colloquial language is not necessarily inferior to academic language. It’s just more accessible, and arguably more influential because of that. Mr. Cebula can afford to write from an emotionally detached position; he was lucky enough to get the job he is telling young people not to pursue. Forgive Ms. Schuman for having a more passionate stance. Her argument is just as valid.

  2. erikgreenberg January 27, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

    Kenna, we will have to agree to disagree. First, there is nothing particularly academic, or even less emotional, in Cebula’s language than Schuman’s. I hardly think his sardonic assertion of rainbows shooting out of asses is common parlance in academe, nor is his use of memes. He is writing at the same level of accessibility as Schuman, and I appreciate that from both of them. And when Schuman compares the pursuit of a PhD to smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and hoping you don’t get cancer, she creates a grim and creepy metaphor that is surely exaggerated–a textbook example of hyperbole. Now, you may not characterize her tone as whiny, and that is your opinion, but I do, and that is mine. Having said that, I actually agree with Schuman’s concerns about academic group think, and ultimately she is correct that the market will not support most humanities PhDs, which is unfortunate. I have no need to forgive her because she has done nothing that requires forgiveness. I just thought her tone was somewhat overwrought and some of her metaphors were hyperbolic. You see it differently. Ultimately my piece was not really a critique of Schuman or an endorsement of Cebula. It was a meditation on the actual benefits of graduate study, which I hope you enjoyed. Thanks for commenting.

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