PhDs at the Kiddie Table

PhDs at the Kiddie Table

(Or, “Why I Identify with Ryan the Temp”)


A weird thing’s happened since I’ve decided to leave: I find it easier to talk to faculty.

Let me backtrack and–at the risk of sounding like I’m bragging about basic people skills–say that I’m pretty fine with most social interactions. And yet I’ve had my fair share of shyness with professors. Not all professors, or all the time, but it’s definitely more self-consciousness than I’ve had with bosses or coworkers elsewhere.

And that’s the rub. I think this new confidence shows two things: (1) part of why I was shy is that I always dreaded the “how’s the research?” question, because deep down I didn’t want to do freaking academic research anymore; and (2) faculty and graduate students are not coworkers, which I’ve always known, and I’m sick of it, which is new.

This! This! It bites. (From PhD Comics, 7/25/08: .)

We as grad students are, like the faculty, teaching courses, publishing research, organizing events, running conferences, giving presentations, serving on committees, advising students, and more. But there’s an insurmountable split between us, and between us and staff. It’s like we work in the same building, but we grad students don’t reallywork there.”

My friends who have partners in the sciences tell me this divide or hierarchy is a bigger issue in the humanities. Turns out that when you’re working in a lab or on a publication with a faculty member, the social and professional walls can be more flexible. (Not always, I know, but can be.) But for most humanities PhDs, our interactions with faculty are limited to TA’ing, seminars, exams, and getting advice. We very rarely factor in a direct way to their professional success, which makes it hard to feel like we work for the same organization toward common goals.

I don’t mean to say we should make the same salary or that we have the same expertise as faculty. But let’s take a minute to think of graduate school as if it were any other job, as we’re sometimes enjoined to do. We, as PhDs, are entering a new career path (ostensibly higher education) as well as a new area of specialization (whatever our hobby-horse is). Certainly, that’s going to mean a period of career training and being on the bottom rung.

Still, if we’re thinking of this as a job, then being a graduate student is essentially a low-paid internship or temp position that lasts for 5-10+ years. The reward for sticking with it–for showing intelligence, self-motivation, and determination, while developing a unique skillset and field expertise–isn’t even a career: it’s the small chance of becoming a junior member of the career. And if we DO decide to leave, either before or after finishing, we’re often considered turncoats, sell-outs, or failures. That doesn’t sound like many careers I know.

I’m saying that we’re not on the bottom rung: we’re on a totally different ladder, leading up to save a different kitten out of a different tree or whatever it is people do with ladders these days. (Did I mention I have a white-collar job?) It’s not about being treated badly. It’s about the stupidly, untenably long entry-level position that we’re stuck in.

Maybe it would help if PhD programs were smaller and the adjunctification of academy was reversing–at least then we wouldn’t be seen as starry-eyed lambs–or if programs were ACTUALLY five years. I’d like to see more widespread acceptance of and training for non-academic career tracks (not at the expense of adjunctification, though), which would place grad students more firmly in the pre-professional category. It’s also up to grad students to act like capable professionals, not superannuated college students–and to faculty to treat them as such–but again, I think this is a chicken-and-egg issue.

I don’t want to be the bitter ex-PhD who bores all her friends to tears with her tirades against the academy. I wouldn’t trade the last several years for anything. And, frankly, if I’d read this blog when I started grad school in my mid-20s, I still would have come. I was a starry-eyed lamb.

But at this point in my life, I am ECSTATIC at the thought of being a colleague, a professional, a part of a team, a–God help us–valued employee. Call me a capitalist turncoat if you must.



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