The Humanities Aren’t Dying, but Rapidly Changing – and the Proliferation of Choices Can Feel Overwhelming for Graduate Students

The Humanities Aren’t Dying, but Rapidly Changing – and the Proliferation of Choices Can Feel Overwhelming for Graduate Students

The academic job hunt, as illustrated by PhD Comics

October 16, 2020

By Unita Ahdifard

When I was in my final year of “uni” in Canada (or a “college senior,” as Americans would say), I still remember the conversation I had with the professor of my favorite class, a special seminar on Shakespeare’s poetry. The class was an unusual experience for me as an undergraduate student – this professor insisted on the open-ended dialogues, workshopping and expanding multiple versions of the same essay during the semester that I later came to realize were hallmarks of great graduate seminars. I felt like my brain was expanding every day in that class, and the professor himself seemed like the archetypal academic – wild shock of hair, digressing on his points but always coming up with unusually brilliant readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He wore colorful bowties and had a full-sized piano in his office. In other words, I wanted to be him.

As I sat down in his office to go over one of the drafts of my paper, I worked up the nerve and eagerly asked him what he thought about my prospects for grad school, and whether he would write me a letter of recommendation. I remember he looked at me, adjusted his glasses, leaned back in his chair and said, “I’d be happy to write you a letter – but first, I’m going to have to do something. I’m going to try to convince you not to pursue a Ph.D.” I sat back, surprised, as the professor listed the various reasons as to why it was a bad idea – unemployment, the difficulty of obtaining tenure-track positions, the burnout. I listened, nodded, smiled, and at the end, I asked for a reference letter again, which I received. At that point, I was intensely determined. I was so eager to become a university professor, that nothing else could get in the way of that dream – job prospects, where I’d live, the relationships that would be sacrificed for the academic lifestyle. At the time, I had never been out of school, I lived in a city I loved in my early 20s, and the thought of settling down and prioritizing relationships, or overall quality of life, over academic success, was a foreign concept.

Now, as I’ve passed the “half-way” mark of my doctoral program, I think back to that moment in that office, and see how things might’ve gone another way, if I’d been feeling any less determined. Maybe I would have obtained a professional master’s in journalism or library sciences, or pursued law – a career where I could still work with words all day, which was my passion, but with more definite prospects. Looking back, my professor’s advice wasn’t necessarily inaccurate. There is a lot of burnout involved in grad school, not only from the unusual hours, constantly switching between seminars, exams, dissertation writing, and conferences, but also from the dull, consistently existential dread of “where am I headed after this?” These days, though, the dull dread isn’t from a concern about not finding employment, but from an overwhelming plethora of seemingly endless choice.

Now more than ever, humanities students are turning to public-facing career options that are either alternate to or incorporated within their academic research. Much has already been written on the lack of funding for humanities departments. The decrease in humanities tenure-track positions available, combined with the concurrent rise of non-tenured adjunct and lectureship positions, allows universities to profit off the labor of these faculty, while providing minimal employment security or benefits. As a result, humanities departments and scholars across the country have become increasingly invested in non-traditional dissertations, grant-funded collaborative humanities projects, and redefining postdoctoral employment, or “the concept of professionalization away from the one-model-of-success narrative,” to quote Sidonie A. Smith. So, if humanities graduate students are open to possibilities beyond academia, we may apply our skills in nonprofits, museums, historical trusts, or consulting. We could open our own businesses, or be a corporate copywriter. This, technically, should feel like the field of employment has opened up, and the sky’s the limit.

It is exciting, and the opportunities do make me feel like I could live life on my own terms after this degree. I’ve known for some time now that I do not want employment to dictate where I live post-doctorate, if I can manage it. I’ve decided to live in an urban space on the West Coast, and am determined to do so, whether I am employed in an academic or public-facing position. But the seemingly vast number of jobs that I could theoretically apply to has left me reeling and wondering if my approach is the best. A preliminary job search for “literary nonprofits in Los Angeles,” for example, yields dozens and dozens of organizations, but after clicking through a few websites, I realized that many of them may not have positions available, or paid positions. A search for museum internships in the city came up with similar results. While it remains to be seen how such searches play out for cities like San Francisco, Seattle, or San Jose, the wide range of non-academic positions out there seems like a dense maze with no opening in sight. For someone who always thought they’d have a straightforward career trajectory – get the Ph.D., land a tenure-track position – the post-graduation scene is looking a little nerve-wracking, to say the least.

Sometimes, I do wonder what would’ve happened if I’d not only followed my professor’s advice that afternoon in his office, but also had a different ambition far before that moment. I wonder how life would’ve turned out if I had become a lawyer or certified accountant, a job where you could choose where you live and could work your way up faster than the decades-long struggle of obtaining tenure. When I look around me at my fellow humanities graduate students, though, I see how so many of us couldn’t have seen ourselves excelling in anything else. My hope, paradoxically, lies in our mindset – with our ability to endlessly dissect and interpret, and our penchant for the unconventional path of academia, surely, we can take our skillsets and eventually find an opening through the maze.

Unita AhdifardUnita Ahdifard is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English. Her research focuses on women writers and Anglo-Persianate relations in the early modern period, postcolonial theory, and the boundaries around fictional and nonfictional genres in travel writing.