reflections on my decision to enter grad school

So, if you have a PhD and work in academia (the college and university system), or know lots of PhDs and academics (people who work in said systems), you have likely seen far too many articles about the state of the job market, and quite a few blog posts about the pain and frustration of applying for jobs in academia. But if you’re not a part of those two categories, here’s the short version: there aren’t enough jobs out there for people who earn PhDs in the humanities and social sciences and it really, really sucks to spend 5, 7, or 10 years earning a degree only to be unable to find a job in your narrow field at the end. Now, I know a lot of my friends are saying, “No shit. It hasn’t exactly been a cake walk outside of ‘academia’ or whatever the hell since 2008, either.”

I could go into how it’s different. The years of earning nothing or next to it make a difference. It’s not a treat to come out of school at 30 or 32 or 35 without any savings or retirement accounts, only to discover that you have to start over, that you can’t get the jobs you thought you had trained to get.

But, here’s the question: Do I regret going to grad school? I don’t. I am an historian, and that is much more than my profession. I approach every second of my life as an historian, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I can answer the big questions: the why and how of the American Revolution, the movements of people, politics, and stuff that produced the Industrial Revolutions, and I can talk for a long time to anyone who will listen (or just to myself) about why all Americans think they’re descended, intellectually if not genetically, from the Puritans. I think I can still probably tell you more about the history of celebrity in North America than anyone else out there. I can also have fun with the everyday stuff. When I sit on my front porch steps and see kids riding their bikes in the middle of my road, I think about the strands of time, change, and culture that made that happen. I can see the strands almost, pulling us all together through some pretty crazy stories and shifts of time.

Should my undergraduate professors have discouraged me from applying to grad school, because it turns out that I was one of those people who would eventually quit looking for a job in academia? First, of all, how could they have known? And second of all, it would not have worked anyway. My undergraduate thesis was really very good. I look at it now and think, “That was a high quality piece of undergraduate work,” and, lord knows, I know how to judge that now. My hours spent writing that thing in the Natick Public Library remain some of the most vivid, happiest hours and weeks of my educational life and I wanted to keep doing that, and to do it in more depth. They were right to think I could make it in graduate school. How could they have known what would happen to me personally and to the economy to push me away from academia?

What else would I have done? It would be nice to have more financial security right now, but I had a lot of fun in grad school. I loved my classes. I loved my research. Much of the time, I loved writing my dissertation. If I ever finish and publish the novel I’m working on, I will know that I could not have done it if I weren’t an historian. The real people I learned and read about, the true stories of the past, they are part of my narrative of humanity. They permeate every page I write, just as much as they influence how I see the world. I can’t imagine my life without the people I met in the archival documents anymore than I can imagine my life without the people I’ve met in the flesh.

I understand that some of my colleagues and friends feel trapped. I certainly feel that way at times, too (a lot…). It’s hard. It’s scary. I get that I’m different, because I only did a full search once, and because I actually decided internally, well before I could admit it to myself or out loud, that actually, I don’t want a tenure-track job, or to be obligated to keep writing and researching in American history. I think that, much like what I’ve experienced before, a lot of us are grieving the loss of some very significant life dreams. It’s going to ┬ábe different for all of us, and I’m not really up for judging how anyone comes to term with how much the job market sucks.

I had a family, and a husband who found a job that suited him in a field with even fewer options than mine, even if it was in a place that made me miserable (sorry, Oxford friends, but it is true). I don’t know how things would have worked out if that hadn’t been true. Maybe I would have been motivated to keep trying to like academia, to keep searching for a job, to get myself interested again. It’s impossible to know, so it’s pointless to regret.

But, still, I’m scared I won’t ever get anything published and that I’ll end up having to settle for a job I’ll like even less. I’m scared I’ll be bored. But I got to spend seven years thinking, reading, talking, and writing, and making some really smart friends. The last four years, outside of my family life, have been hard and boring. But graduate school, whatever happens next, that was lucky.

One response to “reflections on my decision to enter grad school

  1. Sara – This is really interesting and thank you for posting. I like your perspective and am glad that grad school was such a positive personal experience for you. I am still so conflicted about this myself! Perhaps if I weren’t in the thick of editing my dissertation right now, I could clarify my thoughts on my own situation a little more :) I will just say that the academic job market is a big huge mess in Mathematics, as well, and I’m angry that the cult of academia says we need to do just one thing, when that one thing isn’t really possible.

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