I spent six years in my Ph.D. program. Looking back, I think the experience had six relatively distinct stages:
Application Year: “This graduate program will be great. I’ll get to study the things I enjoyed as an undergraduate, and they’re going to pay me enough to get by in an exciting new city. And when it’s all done, I’ll become a professor and get to write books and teach classes at a research university or maybe a liberal-arts college. I won’t be rich, but I’ll be comfortable, and I’ll be doing useful work without having to sell out.”
Years 1-2: “This is really hard. Everybody speaks in ‘theory’ all the time, and they all seem to know so much more than I do. And I’m taking on all kinds of extra work as a research assistant so I can pay my rent. How can I possibly read 2,000 pages a week, keep up with my research projects, and learn a second foreign language? I’m going to fail my qualifying exams. I feel like an imposter. Maybe I should leave.”
Year 3: “OK, maybe I can do this. I did pass my exams, and I won an essay prize and published a few things. Teaching sections for two different courses is hard, but I’m learning a lot, and I have plenty of time ahead of me. I’m enjoying reading books, gathering research materials, and thinking about my project, and I can make real progress on writing the dissertation in the summer.”
Year 4: “If I’m going to make any progress on my dissertation—which I’m starting not to like—I can’t keep teaching so many sections, research assisting in the summer, and adjuncting on the side. Nobody but my adviser cares about the dissertation. I’m getting worried about all those recent graduates who haven’t found jobs, except as adjuncts and postdocs. But everyone says the market has to improve.”
Year 5: “I’m 30, and it seems like everyone I grew with up has a steady job and a real life. I’ve sunk so much time and money into this career path, but the academic market isn’t improving. I hate my dissertation, but I have to finish it. Let me take on some other, shorter writing projects. I should borrow some money, but what if I can’t find a job? I’d better start going to those alternative career panels. (I just hope no one sees me.) I’m starting to feel depressed. I wonder if there are any adjunct jobs I can find to pay down my credit cards this year?”
Year 6: “The job market was supposed to change, but it seems like hardly anyone is finding an academic position: just adjunct work. I’ve got a dissertation completion fellowship, but it only covers about half of my living expenses. I’ve had to borrow a fearful amount of money. I rarely leave my room; I’m depressed all the time, and dealing with stress-related ailments. (I’m spending too much time scanning the Internet looking for positions of any kind for which I might be qualified, even though I still want to be a professor.) A decision has been made: This dissertation is never going to be perfect enough: Here, just take it, and please let me go.”
And after year as a part-time lecturer, and an expensive and stressful season of interviews, I found an academic position at a liberal-arts college in the Midwest. Despite my obvious shortcomings, I was one of the lucky ones—there’s no way I deserved a job more than many who did not find one. And it’s much, much harder today than it was then.
The happiest moments of graduate school for me were getting accepted with funding into a good program and the first year after my qualifying exams: when the future seemed full of potential. Apart from those times, graduate school was a struggle to keep up, followed by a slow descent into depression and resignation. Just because I had a positive final outcome—after several difficult years—doesn’t mean that reforms aren’t needed. It’s not enough to say, “I made it.”
I think it’s important to provide the financial support needed to allow graduate students to finish quickly without significant debt; programs should limit enrollments, if necessary, to make that possible. The dissertation should not be such an isolating experience; it’s time for doctoral programs to accept more collaborative forms of scholarly production. Instead of shaming students away from nonacademic career paths, programs should encourage them to explore alternatives to traditional academic careers. Most of all, the entire profession should organize itself to reverse the trend towards casualization of academic employment.
The implied contract of graduate school is that one accepts several years of low wages in return for a good chance of finding a position in higher education. That’s exactly what I thought I was getting into, and most prospective graduate students still think that. More than anything else, on top of the isolation of the dissertation writing process, it was the fear of unemployment—and the perception that one had to be “perfect” to have a chance at getting a position—that produced the unhappy final stages of my graduate education.
It’s risky to assume that one’s experiences are representative of an entire institution, but whether or not that is the case, I think there is a consensus that graduate education—and the academic labor system—are in need of substantial reforms. And I would argue that prospective students and their advisors should seek out programs that are implementing them.