In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here.
Thesis # 21: As with the effort to enter any profession, a price must inevitably be paid–economic as well as social–in terms of the other activities and goals one might instead have worked toward and possibly attained. Candidates must therefore not only be as deliberate as possible in determining which costs they are willing to pay and which they are not, but they must also learn to trust their own judgments when, regardless how their job search turns out, they someday look back on the decisions they once made.
by Katelyn Dykstra Dykerman
I have started writing this blog post no less than four times. Each time I look at the completed piece and despair that I have not said exactly what I wanted to. I think the trouble is because this thesis is perhaps the most challenging one to get right: how to maintain balance in graduate school so that when we leave we 1) do not regret the decision to do it in the first place; and 2) we do not look around us and discover we have lost friends, alienated family members, and missed out on a lot of “life” we wanted to have. Given that I have not yet completed my PhD, I am not sure that I am qualified to say what I do and do not regret. But what I can say is that I have taken on a lot during my PhD and am still standing. Along the way, I have learned a few things.
Since I started my PhD, I have had the sneaking suspicion that no one really wanted me to do it (with the few exceptions of me, my Master’s advisor, and my grandfather who is still stuck in the world in which a PhD in the humanities was as amazing as being a “real” doctor). I received a slew of emails from professors, family members, and friends discouraging the decision(s). Some in the form of serious articles like this one, and some humorous, such as here and here. The consensus seemed to be, why not get a “real” job with your already challenging Master’s degree. Or, better yet, go to law school and have a job assured (a fallacy, as this article asserts).
Certainly, a PhD would only make me overqualified for jobs in the “real” world, and I have a family to feed. I couldn’t possibly put the financial burden solely on my partner to support us and our two children while I wiled away my time in the stacks of the library. (I will refrain from bursting with distain at the privileging of law and medicine over a PhD in the humanities, but let it just stand here that while I do not understate the importance of doctors and lawyers in this world – we need them – we also need professors who are passionate, and respected for what they do. We do save lives, in our own way). So, the question stands: three years in, do I regret it? The answer is unequivocally no. And trust me, my answer is a fully aware one. With a number of friends currently on the job hunt, I am no stranger to the bleak job market. Nor am I enchanted with the idea of becoming a professor.
Moreover, as you all likely know, a PhD is really hard work. Since I began my PhD I have really tried to treat it like a “regular” nine-to-five job. This is something that I noticed in my Honour’s advisor that I envied, and thought was smart. I start working once my children go off to school, and usually I quit once they come home. Occasionally, I pick it up again after they are in bed. And, rarely, I will spend a Saturday in the stacks, or making endless pots of coffee in the graduate student office in my department. Lately, it has been more frequent to see me in the office late at night, or bleary-eyed pouring over theory on a Saturday afternoon, because I recently wrote my second, and final, candidacy exam (applause). But, studying is not all there is to a PhD, no no. These days it means proving you can BE a professor, which means service and publications as well. It means working other paid and unpaid jobs, not just to boost the CV, but to find out if you actually want to spend the rest of your life in the hallways of the university. For me, I have had as many as three paid positions at one time while working on my MA and PhD, as well as numerous unpaid positions, committee appointments, and volunteer jobs, including the president of my department’s student association. Even so, I cannot be sure that any of this will secure me a tenure-track position, ever. While I am one of those hopeful grad students who dream equally of an academic job and another unnamed position doing something in my field, I cannot be assured of that either. The conclusion here is that I spend a lot of time away from my family, both in mind and in body. I struggle to be present in both, but often find my mind drifting to Djuna Barnes, grant applications, or the last department meeting instead of hockey practice. And so, I feel guilty. Really guilty. All the time.
All of this said, I do think graduate school is worth it, if for no other reason than it allows PhD’s some years to do exactly what they dreamed of doing – reading books, thinking deeply about a question, hanging out with really smart people, living in the queer time of graduate school just that little bit longer – before heading off to “the real world.” So, I have six tips for how to get through a PhD in the humanities, because I like lists:
1) We will never not feel guilty, so measure the amount of guilt you can manage. How many hours can you spend at the library before the guilt of leaving your dog at home alone begins to outweigh your productivity? Go home. Walk the dog. And while you do, try your utmost not to feel like you should be working. Compartmentalize. When you work, work. When you quit to watch Buffy, relish it.
2) Do not be afraid to prioritize your graduate student friendships. Someone once told me that the friends you make in grad school are the ones you will keep forever, because not only did you survive a grueling process together, you also get each other’s passions, and that is a rare thing indeed. You need them, and they need you too.
3) Get involved on campus. Sit on committees. Get involved in your Graduate Student Association, and with your department council. It will not only expose you to the kind of service work you will be required to do should you land an academic job, but it will show you what other skills you have, and what you enjoy doing and what you do not within a pretty non-threatening environment in which people are very exited to mentor you.
4) BUT! Write your thesis. Study. You will not regret spending time working on your dissertation. But you will not remember the fifth committee you did not spend time on, and no one will hold it against you that you do not come to a meeting because you were writing. That is what you are ultimately in grad school to do.
5) Exercise and eat well. I once came upon one of my brilliant colleagues on the elliptical while reading Faulkner. I was astonished (and still am) that she did not motion-sick puke all over the machines. But, it is worth the risk to make sure it happens. You will not be able to get back the damage you did to your body (especially your liver) in grad school. Mitigate that damage by biking to campus, or by reading on the bike in the gym, or making time to go with a friend to a yoga class. Whatever it takes. Take a page out of Taryn Hine‘s book, and publically announce your plans on the internet, so that someone holds you accountable.
6) I believe what I, what we, do is important. And I refuse to lose sight of that. I believe academic labour is a kind of activism, and that combined with community based activism and work, what we do has, can, and will change the world. I believe teaching undergraduates to critically think about the world around them is a beautiful thing. A necessary thing. Perhaps even a life-saving thing. Having attended The University of Prince Edward Island, a small teaching-university, for my undergraduate degree, I spent a lot of time with my professors. They shaped me. They taught me how to make my anger productive, how to take my emotions into the community, how to turn theory into a theatre performance. Now, I know this sounds like idealism, and it is. But, does that necessarily make it less important? Idealism is, I argue, the only straw we have to hang onto through this process, because the rest of it is designed to sink us.
Katelyn Dykstra Dykerman is a PhD Candidate at the University of Manitoba. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on twentieth century medical, cinematic, and English language literatures through the lens of intersex, transgender, and queer theories. She tweets from @katelynjane.