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“Outing” Plan B

You know you’ve thought about it. You don’t want to, but you do. But each day as you tenderly polish the prose and craft the structure of your beloved dissertation into a finely honed rhetorical machine, you ask yourself that pesky question. And you probably hate yourself for asking it. You talk to your colleagues about ‘existential crises’ (how many of these are we allowed?) and stress management, about how isolating it is to be an ABD graduate student, about how everyone was buzzing at MLA this year about the adjunct labor issue and how we should improve the working conditions of those poor people who are driven to that sort of work because they can’t find a job in the market, or they are ABD and have run out of funding. You tell yourself you won’t ever be in that position because you have ideals, you have work ethic, you have talent, you have publications, you have awards, you have connections, your dissertation director is unprecedentedly famous, the work you are doing is going to change the face of scholarship. You believe that the knowledge you create and share is important. You believe your work important. You are here because you believe. Your belief is a beautiful thing. I share it. I don’t want you to let go of it. Ever.

What I want you to do is drag that monster out of the closet and look it in the eye. Doing so does not mean you have given up. Fear is a choice. Acknowledging the existence of Plan B will not change who you are or your potential to make a difference in this world. It does not mean you are not a brilliant writer and researcher, a humanist, a thread in the tapestry of knowledge woven by the finest minds of our generation. It does not mean that hiring you would not be one of the best decisions the search committee at pie-in-the-sky university has ever made. It does not mean that your dreams will not come true; you do not have to relinquish plan A in order to entertain plan B. Living with Plan B, dusting it off, feeding it a little, even allowing it to occupy as much space in your head as Plan A will not cause it to grow into Godzilla-who-eats-graduate-students. Talking about alternative career paths with your colleagues is not a jinx that will ruin your career. And if it causes them to express doubt in your commitment to your chosen profession or the future of the humanities (a battle in which we are all furiously engaged), then it is because they are even more afraid than you are. So let’s all quit being cowards and break out of these boxes in which we have confined ourselves, these mental prisons in which we crouch chanting mantras like “tenure-track” and “R1” as if our inner peace depended on it.

I want you to face this monster because you yourself have made it into what it is. You choose to ignore your options. And part of the problem is that your advisor doesn’t want to talk about it either. The ‘curious irony,’ as Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman phrased it in an article in Thc Chronicle last fall, is that “most [graduate school] orientations include a reference—in the best cases even some focus—on ‘alternative’ careers. But the default, the hope, the gold ring, is the tenure-track position.” And we all want the gold ring. We are all here to win. That monster in the closet has the word ‘failure’ scrawled across it with a sharpie, and failure is not an option. You think you won’t be one of those poor people who has to resort to adjunct labor (because that is the only alternative plan our training allows us to envision). Well that’s all fine and dandy that everything is going to be sunshine and roses because you say so. Now put down the ice cream already. Of exactly what are all of us so afraid?

I am not aligning myself with all those annoying writers and bloggers who pen articles with titles like “Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional train wreck, not a professor,” writers whose very negativity is contributing to the problem rather than solving it. They are amplifying our anxiety and we despise them for it. The trend of writers who warn young scholars against Ph.D.’s in the humanities, forecasting a bleak career of long hours, little pay, and the formation of identities that are inextricable from academe have become so widespread that grad students are begging them to stop. Case in point is U of MI grad student Amy Pistone’s recent blog post, “We’re Flattered, but Please Make the Articles Stop.” She writes, “In the end, we love what we do . . . Please, please stop trying to talk us into regretting this decision and trying to talk everyone else out of pursuing graduate studies. We’re adults who made adult decisions and we’re very happy with those decisions. We’re just tired of having to read about why we shouldn’t be.” Amy is tired, I’m tired, you’re tired, all the grad students and professors on Facebook who reposted her excellent blog are also tired, but of what exactly are we tired? Why are we hating the haters?

We hate these articles because they make us feel like our already mentally exhausting jobs are, in the end, worth nothing. By your 5th year as a grad student, after 500+ hours spent alone with your dissertation, it can be difficult to hold on to those ideals that brought you to the “go” of this road in the first place. We are getting to the point where our future is a big question mark, and that, friend, is what frightens us. So I propose that we stop having conversations about the negativity of the haters, stop envisioning Plan B as the failure of Plan A, and stop making it taboo to talk about the applicability of the unique skills we have gleaned in the Ph.D. process to fields outside of academia.

At Kalamazoo this year it was refreshing to see that Professors are starting to recognize the importance of having these conversations. In a panel titled “What Now? What Next? A Roundtable Discussion on Graduate Studies and Employment” sponsored by the Medieval Academy Graduate Student Committee and recommended to this editor by their fabulous chair Liza Strakhov, graduate students, Professors, and Ph.D.’s working in fields like publishing, industry, and digital humanities convened for a discussion about the state of the academic job market. The hope of many was that the panel would address such questions as – What responsibilities does the academy have? How can we provide our graduate students with the vocabulary to communicate their skills in a wider variety of disciplines? How can we help our students both consider and locate alternative positions outside traditional academia that will be intellectually fulfilling?

While our esteemed panelists had the best intentions, much of their advice was anecdotal, as is often the case in these alternative career seminars. The message is “I found an alternative career which I love, but my path towards it was haphazard.”  One panelist even went so far as to cite “dumb luck” as the defining factor that brought him to a career in publishing. While undoubtedly all of our mentors want us to succeed and want to help us succeed, they are talking less about diversification and more about how to create more tenure-track jobs so we won’t have to resort to the notoriously evil and spirit-crushing Plan B. These proposals for creating more jobs are excellent: maintain full-time faculty in our departments; make the salary gap between full and part-time labor smaller so adjunct labor is not such a draw, and provide lecturers with more job security. While this all sounds well and good, is it practical? How exactly will our departments manage to sell these changes to a bureaucracy that increasingly cuts funding for humanities programs rather than furthering the improvement of labor conditions? Is the state of the job market actually going to improve anytime soon? And will we find the answer in refusing to address the issue because it is “negative” and we are so down-trodden from 14-hour days alone in front of our computers that we simply can’t face anymore negativity?

Ignore it and it will go away. “Don’t give up hope. There are still tenure-track jobs out there” one of the panelists at Kalamazoo urged, and you could feel the collective sigh of relief in the room. But despite all this insistence that we “remain positive,” the elephant is chortling in the corner at our blindness. We are perpetuating the notion that alternative career paths – curating, high school teaching, corporate business – will not allow us to continue the cultivation, creation, and dissemination of knowledge to which we are so committed. Is it impossible for us to imagine ourselves instead as “public intellectuals”? Certainly this is a notion that has become nearly extinct in our society (as one panelist phrased it). My point is that we need to come to understand that working outside academia is not selling your soul. You can still share your ideas, your creativity, your research, the fruits of your labor, in other venues. We should indeed stay positive, and part of this is realizing that graduate school is a rewarding experience in itself. We are not wasting our time – it never was about the paycheck. These years of honing our skills, of learning self-discipline, of solitude and angst, these years are not wasted – no matter what the end result. I know very few Ph.D.’s who cannot say they learned about more in graduate school than Elizabethan poetics, Medieval hagiography, translation theory, antiquarianism, and the Crusades. Graduate school fosters within us a sense of self-knowledge, makes us better citizens of this world and more compassionate and informed human beings. Academia lights a fire of inquiry within us that needs to be shared outside of our cloistered ivory towers. So take heart, friend, and think about all the gifts that your hard work has given you. Think about what all your mentors and friends in graduate school have taught you. But more than anything, talk about this issue.  Talk about it with your advisor, with your committee members, with your colleagues, your parents, your spouse, your boyfriend, random people in the mailroom at work. Quit shoving it back into the corner of your closet and quit feeling guilty that it exists.


Works Cited

Grafton, Anthony T. and Jim Grossman. “No more Plan B.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 6 May 2013


Pistone, Amy. “We’re Flattered, but Please Make the Articles Stop.” Graduate School Blog: Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan. 30 April 2013.


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