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Sunday, April 12, 2009

PhD Employment: Horror Stories

A story from the Chronicle of Higher Ed forum:

I'm sorry if this is really just a vent but any advice about how to sort my head out with this would be much appreciated because it's like some horrible itch I keep scratching until it really, really hurts...

I'm in my second VAP and have been teaching full-time for almost 5 years now - PhD 6 years ago - a book on the way, most of another one developed, two edited collections (both with big cheeses in my humanities discipline), three international conferences organised, plus quite a few articles - plus I've supervised something like 20 MA dissertations, several of which have gone on to do PhDs (though necessarily with other people because I'm temporary and can't supervise them). I love my current department where I now have several close friends among my colleagues (all of whom are at least bearable even genial), I love the city it's in though it's hundreds of miles from the place my longtime partner and I own and where I now only visit on the odd weekends, and I love my discipline. I'm a great teacher, a great colleague, and I work as hard as I can to be a great scholar. I have a strong reputation in my field as a new voice, and apparently I have excellent references. People tell me to keep publishing, keep publishing, keep publishing and "I'll definitely get a job eventually".

The flipside of all this is that I have the obvious complete lack of longterm job prospects and the longer I'm hanging around out here, the worse they seem to get. I argue regularly and horribly with my partner about what and where our future is going to be (and not least whether we are going to have any children - because I'm now close to 40), drink too much wine when on my own (which is now most of the time since I'm here and he's there), wake up in the middle of the night riddled with worry, and generally suffer from bouts of depression which increasingly seem to be interfering with my writing. I am so incredibly sick of hearing that "I'll definitely get a job eventually, you're so great, how could you not, it's unthinkable..." I feel like I'm actually in the middle of my career and yet somehow I've managed not to have a proper job yet. I'm too exhaused and too old to slum it and rough it through life any more. Unless something comes up, I will be unemployed as of June, with big debts, some of which I incurred in moving to where I now work. There have been no jobs (permanent or otherwise) in my field this year. Of the many jobs I've applied for over the years, I invariably come second. I'm so close to the end of my tether with it all, and just think maybe I should go home, get pregnant (if indeed I can) and put all the degrees etc. behind me as a wrong turn made years ago from which I should recover by starting in some new career doing something completely different. I.e., wipe the slate clean, stop asphyxiating myself with anticipation as I wait for life to begin, and start breathing and living for the first time in my thirties...

Anyway, that's my life as it has stood for a while. Now lady fortune has dumped on my eiderdown some more, in a manner that really feels like it's going to tip me completely over the edge. My department recently made three permanent appointments, none of which was in my area or close to it - understandably given that they need faculty to cover key areas that aren't currently taught, though I keep hearing over and again from colleagues how desperate they are to keep me, how there's going to be a post for me soon, blah blah blah. So I didn't apply for any of these posts, and yet somehow feel as depressed as the losing candidates must feel - because all of them went to completely new PhDs, in fact one of them doesn't even have a PhD yet, in their first job interviews. And one of them is a former student of mine. I just feel totally and utterly eclipsed, crushed, ashamed of myself, old and useless. What did I do in a former life to deserve this one?! To top it all, my lovely head of department came skipping in to my office, asking whether I was as excited as she was about these new appointments...

I'm not suicidal - but I feel like I'm close. I've got lots of writing to do in order to get some articles done before the summer but I'm really beginning to wonder whether it's actually worth it. It seems like somebody out there is trying to tell me something: "give up".

Sorry for this rather long pointless message - but any advice on how to jig my brain back towards something like acceptance or neutrality (even if not contentment) would be wonderful.


  1. I know several people in this position, but you know the crazy thing? I suspect she'll stick with it, hoping it will change but feeling miserable and allowing it to completely destroy her life. I have two friends in particular who have been complaining about these same issues for several years now, but are still hanging in there.

  2. Yes, it's an interesting phenomenon. Being stubborn is usually a good quality. But probably not in this situation. I would understand a person struggling for 10-20 years to become a millionaire. At least the reward is high if you succeed. But but it doesn't make sense to fight for 10-20 years to get an average paying job! This is just insane!

  3. In my department, there are about 9 people who finished their PhDs over five years ago, but have hung around to keep TAing for a few hours a week. When I see these people, they look so disappointed. But this also creates another problem: blockage. Because many of the ex PhD students hang around to continue teaching, there are very few teaching posts for PhD students who are meant to begin TAing in their second years in order to gain teaching experience. Alexander, have you looked at the ratios of grad students/job available. You'd be shocked! Let me know if you find any recent figures.

  4. I don't have any recent figures. But I've heard from insiders that a job ad at decent school generates a few hundred applications...

  5. This is in my field, and I don't think my field is as bad as humanities in terms of employment prospects....

  6. I have a solution: cut the Humanities! :D