Academia (n): the world of university scholarship | WHY I THINK THE PHD IS WORTH IT, Part 1

If you know me personally (which, let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you probably do… if not, and you found this post interesting/helpful after you read it, leave me a comment below), or you’ve checked up on my page recently, then you know that this summer I’ll be finishing up my current job in order to start my doctoral studies this coming August.

Despite being absolutely thrilled that I successfully navigated the trials and tribulations of the PhD application process and landed a spot at my top choice program, I want to be careful not to approach this topic in celebratory tones only. Given the current economic climate and the impact the downturn in the economy has played on higher education, this is not a decision I took/take lightly, and I think that’s an important thing to say. I think of the purpose of this entry as two-fold, and will be split into two entries, the second to be released at a near-future date: 1) it’ll allow me to take my position on the very hot-button issue of whether or not pursuing a PhD is worth it, and 2) it allows me to offer my particular stance/rationale as a creative writer pursuing a doctoral degree in composition and rhetoric (instead of the potentially more obvious choices of literature or creative writing).

The State of Things

For many out there, the argument is, why bother? From the “So You want a PhD,” videos on YouTube, to Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s “12 Reasons Not to Get a PhD” (which include relatively widespread statistics that fewer than 60% of doctoral candidates complete their degree in 10 years, and that more than 50% of faculty with jobs are part-timers), to Rebecca Schuman’s “Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor,” (wherein Shuman says “When it comes to graduate school, you should just chuck the ladder before you try to climb it,” and offers a lot of the scary realities of the dissertation and job market trials and tribulations), to the Economist‘s “The Disposable Academic,” (wherein the author re-emphasizes output of PhDs does not match job demand in the market),  to Mary Anne Mason’s article “The Future of the PhD,” (wherein the author urges program faculty to take greater responsibility for their doctoral candidates’ potential futures outside of academia)… the picture being painted is far from rosy. Even if you do secure a full-time teaching job, your teaching philosophies are tested by consumerist expectations of higher education (which is understandable, students want the most “bang for their buck,”) and the arrival of MOOCs, among other things I’m sure yet-to-come. Being a college professor, far from “the least stressful job,” in America, requires individuals to prioritize teaching, service, and scholarship differently than might be desired, and in the case of women in academia, “[m]ost women, it seems, cannot have it all—tenure and a family—while most men can.” (This is saying nothing, of course, about the plight of the adjunct professor, whose situation is just now becoming a more visible component in the conversations surrounding higher education and is certainly a position in academia I can continue to avoid, if possible).

Shortcomings of the “Do/Do Not Get a PhD” Arguments

I don’t intend to shortchange the value of the statistics or opinions thrown out by the articles above. The statistics are important and the opinions are warranted. It seems to me, however, that the pieces written by graduate students are more about finding solidarity in the struggle, when I’d rather they tell me what they’ve learned so I can better navigate the system. On the faculty end, the arguments seem to be cautionary tales aimed at weeding out the those candidates who are pursuing the degree because they’re not sure what else to do, or who are thinking about the PhD only because they love the subject are of their research, rather than offering any real solutions for how to develop those passions in a practical way.

Clearly passion for your research area is the baseline requirement, but Pro-PhD sentiments often do express overly romanticized notions of advanced study as pursing what one loves (and being paid to do it), or “to achieve something significant,” so I don’t really blame the authors of those cautionary tales at all. I’d absolutely argue that the pursuit for new knowledge, the time to write, and the significant conversations with my faculty and peers are good primary reasons to pursue an MFA (the incredible value of those years for me, even in hindsight, is perhaps for another entry), but thinking about the PhD in this way seems like a real misstep, and I think it’s important to have current professors emphasize that wanting to learn for the sake of learning is not enough. Anyone considering the PhD should be thinking about his or her passions AND the practicalities of future employment in academia.

Fortunately, professional development experiences are becoming more common, and there are some voices out there giving good practical advice about publication submission, attending  professional conferences, and the like (Lennard J. Davis) that express how doctoral experience is transferrable to non-academic jobs (Angela Brintlinger), even and those that call on their colleagues to accept fewer PhDs to reduce the saturation problem (Leonard Cassuto). I think these articles take a spin on the conversation that doesn’t get emphasized enough: that programs are thinking a lot about how to help their students gain experiences beyond scholarship, and offering more and more support for navigating the job market when the time comes. Clearly I think professional development opportunities should be an important part of a potential candidates decisions during the application phase, but I’m not sure the word gets out enough that this should be the case.

Reasons Why I think the PhD is Worth It (for me)

Before I launch into my list, I have to be clear about the benefits and limitations of my position on the value of the PhD. I’m a couple months away from actually becoming a doctoral candidate, and therefore have yet to have the experiences that may enlighten or change my perspective on these issues. I do, however, have insight from the process of applying, and the experiences I’ve had “on the other side” of graduate study during the last three years. It largely these experiences that have made me feel prepared for the PhD, and thus more convinced of its worth for me, personally. Ok, here I go:

  1. I was accepted to a program that is a good fit for my interests and personality. The fit of the program is incredibly important. While some would argue that you should go to the program that gives you the most money, I think this is short-sighted. By all means, it’s important that the stipend be enough for me to live on, but my top priority was finding a community of peers and faculty who will support and foster my scholarly interests, and whose own scholarly work will challenge and inspire my interests to evolve in yet unforeseen ways. The biggest draw for me to my program, aside from scholars on faculty whose work I admire, was the current students. My program has several other students with MFAs pursuing their degree in composition and rhetoric, and I knew as I was considering where to apply that if their projects were being supported then mine would be, too. My other top choices would have provided this same kind of environment. Had I not been accepted into such a program, I would have reapplied to programs next year hoping for a better fit. I can only hope that my experiences there deliver on the promise of these sentiments, but everything I’ve learned since my initial acceptance tells me that this will be the case. I hope that the value here is self-evident: I am going to the program that, I think, will help me do my best work.
  2. I’ve reached a certain level of what I am capable of doing in my field of interest, and the doctorate will give me the time and community I’ll need to do more and do better. My interests in creative writing and composition studies have a lot of crossover (this will be the subject, in part, of PART 2 of this discussion), but engaging in composition studies through the particular lens of Writing Center theory and practice could only take me so far with those interests (don’t get me wrong, I think my work will always have implications for Writing Center work as well… again, watch out for Part 2). Had I been interested in pursing a position as a Director of a Writing Center next in my career, my current position would have allowed me to do that, and I might not have needed to pursue the doctorate. But since my interests have shifted toward first-year writing and writing development, I need the time, space, and community that will help me develop these interests with greater clarity. While I could do this on my own (as I did when writing the article that became my writing sample), I see a lot of value in setting aside the time to truly dedicate myself to my scholarly interests. If I manage to do so successfully, the value of the PhD will be in that I’ll have a greater range of opportunities available to me when I complete the degree.
  3. The PhD will help me as a practitioner (as a teacher) as well as a scholar. Fortunately in my field the balance between theory and practice is ever-present, but my sense is that is not always the case in other disciplinary areas. My scholarly interests have much to do with the ways in which I teach and will teach, so everything I pursue in theory has a direct correlation in practice. In short, the PhD will help me form even better links between the theoretical concepts of my field and the practice of teaching. Having a variety of teaching experiences and a secure philosophy of teaching will only benefit me as I enter the job market. I’m fortunate to have had the time I have already had to test out and develop some of my concerns over the last five years, and I wouldn’t feel as prepared as I do to pursue the doctorate without those experiences. This leads me to my final point:
  4. I have ample “real-world” experience that will be an advantage during my doctoral studies, in the practice of writing my dissertation, and in future job-searches. In addition to three years of graduate coursework, I have six years of experience outside of being a student (three years in medical publishing, and three years in Writing Center administration and teaching). My interests evolved and narrowed significantly during the last nine years since my undergraduate degree, and I can’t imagine approaching my doctoral studies without this sense of focus. This will help me as much as the experiences from my other terminal degree; I already had to sit a significant essay exam and completed a book-length project, and having had those experiences will help me feel confident about comps and writing my dissertation. This is not to suggest those things won’t be incredibly stressful, but I am also much more mature as a human being, and more aware of the impact my study habits (and even sleep patterns) have on my brain, and the ways in which I can maximize productivity without sacrificing relaxing and socializing. I feel as though I am in a position to make the most of my time in the program, which can only help me feel prepared for the future.

Athough this rationale is very personal, I hope those of you who are considering the PhD can see the value in what I’ve offered. Ultimately, if I had to boil it down, I think the PhD is worth it if, and only if, it’s the next necessary step for the kind of work you see yourself doing in the future, and when, and only when, you’ve gained enough experience otherwise to let your interests develop and narrow. I feel as though I’m standing on this precipice at exactly the right moment, and that gives me confidence and optimism in this process.

In Part 2 of this discussion, I’ll talk about the particular angle of my decision to pursue a degree in composition and rhetoric, rather than degrees in creative writing or literature, and why to me that is the obvious choice. I’m hoping I can reveal some things about what kinds of people actually pursue degrees in comp/rhet, and perhaps broaden the scope of interest for those who think creative writing degrees are the only option for creative writers.

Until then… thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Academia (n): the world of university scholarship | WHY I THINK THE PHD IS WORTH IT, Part 1

  1. Thank you for this insightful, articulate, and well-reasoned post on the costs and benefits of pursuing a PhD in the humanities. As someone in a similar position as you (several years of life/work experience, specific research interests that would benefit from established scholars, focused teaching goals, etc.), I’m particularly interested in how you came to this decision amidst so much evidence that the job market is frightful and in what comprises that “greater range of opportunities” you mentioned above.

    Specifically, my question for you is this: how do you reconcile Rebecca Schuman’s assertion that there are no jobs and the market is all-but-nonexistent with your claim that getting a PhD is worth it if it is the next *necessary* step in the kind of work you imagine yourself doing? (“You” in the general sense.) Presumably, Schuman once thought that a PhD was the next necessary step for her own career goals. And I may tell myself that if I want to be a tenure-track professor of literature at a four-year college, it is necessary for me to get a PhD. That is, in fact, true, but as Schuman points out, a PhD is no guarantee of the tenure-track job.

    I suppose the question embedded in my question is…is pursuing the doctorate worth it if a tenure-track position is NOT the end goal? So much of the current discourse about pursuing a PhD seems to be in line with stormcloud-treatises like Schuman’s; it’s easy to be discouraged from pursuing academia, as it seems that the “dream job” of being a teaching scholar who actually does get paid to do that work is increasingly rare.

    • Hi Jill, Thanks for your comment! I think part 2 of this entry (which I’ll work on soon) will answer your questions in some ways, because I’ll build on what I meant by the passion/practical balance I think is necessary in this day and age for people considering the PhD. Schuman herself acknowledges she chose a specialized focus that hasn’t been attractive in the job market, so I think potential PhD candidates have to think about what will make us marketable from the start.

      For me, it seems to be about diversifying your experiences enough to open up multiple options for future employment, while still remaining focused and specialized in your research interests to be (potentially) attractive for that tenure-track hire. My own rationale for this will come up in part 2, but for now I’ll say that a huge part of the reason I chose to focus my interests in composition and rhetoric is because that focus, combined with my previous experience, will open up more possibilities for me in terms of employment. Some writing administration positions, for example, are full-time faculty or staff positions (but not tenure-track), and I think I’d be happy returning to writing administration after the PhD. I think pursuing the PhD CAN be worth it if the tenure-track position is not the goal, IF (and only if) you’re interested in the other options that are out there (and they do exist!). I think those of us thinking about the PhD have to be realistic, and really ask ourselves if we’re interested in the other options out there.

      Let’s be honest, the tenure-track position is the ideal. Positions are rare, but not non-existant. For anyone thinking about the PhD for that purpose who hasn’t yet had experience “on the other side,” of academia, I’d recommend going out and talking to some faculty members to see what their teaching and service loads actually require so you have a sense of what kinds of experiences to seek out as a PhD candidate. Then it’s about making sure your potential graduate programs offer graduate students experience in these areas. For you, specifically, if you’re interested in a teacher/scholar position (teacher first), then your ideal position might be in a small liberal arts college. If that’s the case, many literature professors in such colleges have to teach first-year writing (composition), so gaining experience in pedagogy and composition and perhaps even pursuing a dual-focus or getting a concentration might be an option. Faculty positions at small colleges also require a lot of service, so if you can get experience serving on committees or mentoring other graduate students, that’ll be attractive in the job market.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts in response to this… but also do keep an eye out for Part 2!

      • Hi Moriah, that all makes a great deal of sense. I think what is so anxiety inducing for me about making a decision to apply to PhD programs is that looming element of the unknown. We can’t know what the job market will be like in five years (though I am hopelessly optimistic and choose to think it will have improved), and we also can’t know how much education will have moved online and what the state of small liberal arts colleges will be in the future. (I DO want to end up at a small liberal arts college, so I hope they remain relevant as our education system becomes increasingly commodified.)

        I look forward to reading part 2 of your thoughts on going back for the PhD. I expect I will be in a similar boat in a year or two, provided I get accepted!

  2. Pingback: Academia (n): the world of university scholarship | WHY I THINK THE PhD IS WORTH IT, Part 2 | here now, myriads

  3. Pingback: Student (n): A person who is engaged in or addicted to study. Const. of, in, or with defining word prefixed, indicating the subject studied. | here now, myriads


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