That Awkward Protestantism

The real reason for getting a PhD?

The real reason for getting a PhD?

I was going to write more on the subject of reading, but I was distracted by a conversation over at Historiann, where the comments thread revealed what is probably one of the most pernicious, and most peculiarly American assumptions about labor in general, and academia in particular. This assumption takes many forms, and has very different proponents, ranging from tenured faculty to former graduate students and some sections of the “old media”. It’s the idea that “entering a humanities/social sciences PhD program, if you’re not guaranteed a professorship at the end, is a useless waste of your prime earning years”.

Now let me add the caveat that there is much wrong with the structures of academia today. Adjunctification and the continued refusal of PhD programs to address the state of the job market desperately need to be addressed. But what academia does not need are more self-inflicted wounds – the reinforcement of the idea that a PhD is only good for teaching, a quiet acceptance of the idea that people’s value is determined only by their labor power and earning potential, and a refusal to think of graduate students as actual people with some agency and decision-making abilities. And these are precisely the implications of this “academia as narrow professionalization” discourse.

First, there’s the assumption that a PhD in, let’s say, history is good for one thing exactly – research and teaching in History. A number of discourses feed into that. There’s the claim, largely anecdotal, that having a PhD is a disadvantage when applying for non-academic jobs. The story is that employers are afraid of overqualified candidates (this is just a pit stop for them until they head back to academia), or that PhD candidates are not taken seriously when applying for positions normally intended for entry-level college jobs.

There are several problems with this story – it underplays the complexities of the labor market, for one. A lot of things goes into job hunting – networking, self-representation, demonstration of interest, personal qualities, and it’s not clear that controlling for all of those things, PhD-s come out worse off than other candidates. Indeed, the very comprehensive survey by the American Historical Association on history PhD job identified only two people (out of a sample of 2,500) who were unemployed and “none of them occupied the positions that often serve as punch lines for jokes about humanities PhDs—as baristas or short order cooks.” This fits well with the national data which puts PhD unemployment rates at around 2-3% (compared to the roughly 7% overall unemployment rate). Okay, add the usual caveats about the importance of contingent labor, and just how many people are actually happy with their jobs – but again, these problems are common to the job market as a whole, they’re not PhD specific.

The deeper problem is that this “PhD as professionalization” discourse presents the decision to get a PhD as a very specific and economic calculus. To those who say that a PhD gives you a lot of flexible, transferable, and useful skills, the critics respond – yes, but you don’t have to spend 6+ years getting them. There are much easier ways to do that. There are Master’s degrees, internships and other kinds of credentialing that get you faster to the place you need to go, whether it’s consulting, the non-profit sector, government, museums, or secondary teaching.

This assumes both that there is no value to the process of getting a PhD other than preparation for a specific career, and that graduate students are making uninformed decisions, because the alternative-academic career is always framed as a substandard, “inefficient” decision, rather than an thought out one.

But of course, people make career decisions based on non-economic factors all the time. In fact, given the rates of graduate stipends, you’d think that most people going into PhD programs have to be prioritizing other factors besides money. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of hanging out with a bunch of smart people. There’s the privilege of being able to devise and execute your own independent scholarly project. There are the rough, yet flexible hours. The scenery can be quite good if you end up in anthropology, history or another of those traveling disciplines. It’s a way to live in countries and places many of us would not have otherwise access to due to prohibitive work visa restrictions that do not apply to students. It’s a 50/50 chance of getting an academic job… (again, judging by the AHA survey), which is not much – but more than you could say about any other job that does not involve getting a PhD. Many people come to a PhD program after five or six years in the work force, which is not seen as weird – all the more puzzling that people doing the reverse keeps on being labeled as somehow “poor judgement”.

This does a disservice to PhD students – who actually reflect on these things all the time. In this age, in this economy, mid-life career changes are common enough – people routinely spend a couple of years after college in consulting and then go back to school for an MBA; they work at non-profits, but then decide to become doctors; they move to Brooklyn and freelance for magazines before going to law school; the practice law, and then enter PhD programs. The reasons for these decisions are complicated, and rarely boil down to economics, “making a career”, or some such. And nobody should tell them they’ve “made a mistake”.

Perhaps more crucially, it does a disservice to what a PhD program should aim to be. The idea that PhD-level studies are only useful if you intend to do research seems ridiculously simplistic. Sure, each individual “transferable skill” from a sociology, history, or anthropology program could be taught more “efficiently” in a master’s course, but surely the process of conceiving, developing and executing a major scholarly project is both an exciting social and personal project? Even if all you ever produce in the realm of scholarship is one dissertation – is that still not a compelling intellectual journey worth taking? And one that can contribute immensely to the scholarly conversation (I see unpublished dissertations cited all the time)? And of course there are alternative ways of developing skills in critical thinking and scholarly analysis, but isn’t the point precisely that we would want to have these ways be as open and as welcoming as possible to enable people with different skill sets, learning styles and life goals to benefit from them? By defining the point of a PhD as narrowly as “academic research” and dismissing all the other benefits it offers as “not efficient enough” aren’t we contributing precisely to the kind of taylorization of work-life that we criticize in some other professions?

Look, this point is clichéd enough to be printed on a fortune cookie, but this constant defensiveness about the “utility” of the PhD, and the insistence of the tenure-track job as its only “successful” outcome is producing more anxiety than it’s worth and is preventing people from enjoying the process, as one of many good possibilities for spending six years of one’s life. Or to cite that fortune cookie: “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

Really, guys. Stop making people feel bad.


Reading strategies I: Degrees of reading

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Anyone contemplating doctoral studies should first read this little book by the French literature professor Pierre Bayard called How To Talk About Books You Haven’t ReadThe book is a provocation (a point that many reviews promptly missed) – but extremely good in reminding us that reading is a problematic activity, and one that should be embraced as such. There is no thing as “having read a book”, Bayard argues, because of the subjectivity of the reading process and the uniqueness of interpretive communities. We talk around books that we know but haven’t read, skim selectively, forget randomly and fuse what we remember together with ideas, dreams, and anxieties that are unique to us, the readers. This is a point that most humanities scholars easily accept when analyzing others,but is less often thought of in terms of personal practice.

Here are a couple of examples that are of particular relevance to those us who read for a living:

“Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

Bayard uses Joyce’s Ulysses as an example, but historians might substitute Joyce for Braudel, political scientists for Habermas, sociologists for Bourdieu, and so on. I am quite sure that every discipline has someone who is a really big deal, but is 80% of the time read through secondary works, summaries and reviews.

“[T]he books we talk about are only glancingly related to “real” books—indeed, what else would we expect?—and are often no more than screen books. Or, if you prefer, what we talk about is not the books themselves, but substitute objects we create for the occasion.”

Indeed, is this not the one of the more common ways of relating your work to other scholarship? As much as we would like to take others’ works in their own terms, this can only be done to a limit, because no other scholar has precisely the same questions as you. So what often ends up happening is that we excerpt them, read and interpret them selectively, and set them up as foils for our own arguments.

Bayard also asks what to make of the problem that all reading is – by the nature of our memory – transitory.

“We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies.”

Indeed, for doctoral students, nowhere does this become more apparent than during that ultimate rite of initiation, the year-long process of general exams reading. If you are required to “read” 150+ books over the course of a year, in addition to all your other work, the ease with which you forget their contents, even after taking copious notes and writing outlines can feel quite traumatic. The process is often quite inexplicable – two books can be equally fascinating, equally well-written and compelling, yet one of you can forget overnight while fragments of the other one remain forever logded in your brain.

The point is not that “reading” a book is a completely futile activity and that anything goes (that most common misreading [he-he] of postmodernism). Still, to be super practical about this, if we own the fact that reading is a problematic process, if we know to expect lapses of memory, fragmentary impressions, and impressions formed from reading around a book, then perhaps we can let go of that perennial anxiety of “not having done the reading” (one that remains acute long into the latter stages of the degree) – and start talking about reading as a dynamic, flexible and even fun process.

The next couple of posts will be about that.

The benefits of dissertation infidelity


Only 499 more words to go…


Here’s the thing: I have tremendous anxieties about writing. Am I starting at the right place? Are my claims nuanced enough?Have I answered the three obvious criticisms of my point? Is my prose captivating? What if I did get off on the wrong foot, followed a path I didn’t properly chart, and will soon find myself in the middle of a dark forest with the sun setting and no breadcrumbs to lead me home?

This feeling borders on the good side of productive and stressful for academic stuff, because the worst I can do is imaginen writing to an anonymous reviewer, or my advisor (neither of whom is very scary, as one of them is faceless and the other one is a cuddle) – but it’s becomes a killer when writing for magazines, since I can immediately imagine three or four specific smart and/or nasty people harrumphing by their morning coffee “well here he goes on his bullshit again…”

And yet I’d like to believe that for most people in this PhD business, writing is a ultimately a passion – why else would you be in a business where your job hangs on a 100,000-word document? In our hearts, we want to be like Tony Grafton, who writes 3,500 words over the course of a long morning.

Which is probably why this passing comment on The Daily Beast turned into #graftonline on Saved By History and Tenured Radical – a challenge to finish your next project before Tony Grafton, by promising yourself to write a certain number of words per day. A number which – since not everyone is Tony Grafton – seems to hover between 500-1,000 words per day.

I’ve been trying this out on and off, and guess what – it can work remarkably well, but can also leave you feeling like a miserable wreck by lunchtime. Sometimes you have off days, you’re pondering over a particularly complicated knot in your argument, or your sources that day simply happen to be particularly boring. And that’s when the pressure kicks in again – even though you realize your writing is always tentative, you’ll eventually edit out the boring bits and rewrite the rest, in the moment the feeling of “I would never want to see this in print” can get quite overwhelming.

So here’s a suggestion that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom telling you that whatever you do, you should be pushing your dissertation forward.

Write other things. Specifically, things that are completely free of the pressures associated with writing for a formal audience. Write fiction, screenplays, poems, autobiographical ramblings, unconnected thoughts on films you watched, blog posts (how do you think this one started…), things you may want to show other people if they turn out well and if you are into that kind of stuff – but that you are not writing for other people. Do things that would be totally not kosher in your discipline, without being conscious about “experimentation”. Basically, do the stuff that makes writing fun without doing the stuff that makes it stressful.

You may find the experience liberating. The stress-free writing, without the constant superego of your advisor/publisher/peer-reviewer breathing down your neck or the necessities of the scholarly apparatus dragging the pace of your ideas to a crawl, can generate spill-over energy that feeds into your academic writing, and most importantly, can help you psychologically cement the idea of writing as something fun and exciting. Plus, you may end up with a blog or a movie script, which never hurts.

As an addendum, I think that one of the things that’s at stake in thinking about writing strategies is this false dichotomy between approaching writing/graduate studies as “your calling” (devote all the energy you have to it at the expense of everything else) or as “just a job” (you go in, do the work, get out). Of course, there’s a third option, which is “a job that is fundamentally based on a creative activity” – which means there has to be room for play and experimentation, and getting comfortable with the writing process. And while getting comfortable does by definition mean a whole lot of writing, it does not necessarily mean that the best way to get comfortable with the process is by only working on your dissertation. So maybe embrace the other options?

The consequences of being “A blemish on my career”

The Guardian writes at length over the culture of acceptance around PhD studies and mental health issues:

“Many PhD students take the view that if you’re not doing overnight experiments, missing meals, or binge drinking, you’re not doing it right.

“Some people choose to have a social life while they’re doing their PhD. And that’s OK. But I’m not,” one of my fellow PhD students tells me.

Who else is supposed to help you? Your supervisor? “A blemish on my career,” is how one academic referred to their experience of supervising a student who developed mental health difficulties during their studies.”

Now I can’t really speak to issue of messed up supervising, since I’ve been blessed with three fantastically human committee members – but it does strike me that one of the issues that should be addressed in this discussion is the bizarre disconnect between the rhetoric of disinterested intellectual engagement – “it’s not personal”, “the marketplace of ideas”, “critique instead of criticize” – and the reality of a lot of academic interactions, where the intellectual is profoundly personal. I’ve seen people who are extremely good at making their ideas supportive rather than pointed and genuinely helped people along in their thinking, but there are equally many people out there who do say things like “this student is a blemish on my career”, or are out to get people at workshops and seminars.

The thing is, as long as we buy into the fiction that academic research can somehow be as “professional” (read: impersonal) as, say, mass-producing rubber ducks for a living, we’re enabling this behavior.

For one, not even mass-producing rubber ducks is an impersonal affair – even though we’re dealing with a collaboratively made product that is tangibly other than the person making it, people still take pride in their job and feel bad when criticized.

There’s no way around the fact that we live in a world where authorship matters, and having your ideas dissected is going to have an emotional resonance – even if it’s done in the most courteous, constructive way possible.

Combine that with the uncertain job market and it’s no wonder then that so many of my friends feel consistent anxiety over whether their advisor likes them, what they should say at the next departmental workshop or whether their ideas are ready for the public.

I wonder if one of the solutions would be for departments to push graduate professionalization further than simply telling people how to frame their paper comments, but to openly deal with the fact that the boundaries between academic lives and personal lives are blurry, and that academic commitments can have broader, personal consequences. What would such professionalization look like?

On why New York is the best place to go to graduate school.

It's either this or collegiate gothic.

It’s either this or collegiate gothic.

What, you ask? What about the neogothic campuses, the intense and intimate academic atmosphere, the greenery and constant sight of bustling undergraduates, all the stuff that gets put on university websites and seems to embody the academic dream? What about the lack of commutes, housing problems, insanely long shopping lines, and people barfing on the subway.

Well, going to graduate school in New York rocks precisely because it forces a daily distance between yourself and academic dream. Look, when I was applying to history programs, one of my favorite professors sat down with me and recounted her own Princeton experience, not that long ago. What stuck with me was one sentence: “It’s just another job. It can’t be your life. Block time for it, and block time for things that are not it.”

It was excellent advice, but extremely hard to put to practice. There is no nine-to-five schedule to academia, and in fact, there are plenty of aspects that force you to step out of a routine and have your work spill over to every other aspect of your life. Whether it’s writing final papers or grading them, talks and workshops that start at 6:30 or conferences that take up entire week-ends. It’s not like any job does not have moments of high-pressure overwork – when I was working in journalism, I often got up at 4AM to head to a remote town to cover a spring festival and worked weekends when national crises arose – but there was at least an acknowledgment that these are exceptional circumstances that ought to be rewarded, rather than just par for the course.

So it is tremendously helpful, if the logic of New York real estate forces you on a crowded train every night for half an hour. It’s time you get to spend with yourself (this is something, I’m told at yoga, is really important) – and while you could conceivably spend it reading for your dissertation, you quickly discover that squeezed between 8 million commuters, you’re better off listening to a podcast, or simply, your own thoughts.

It’s also a constant reminder that the world is larger than grad school, which, as anyone who’s lived on-campus can tell, is tremendously easy to forget if you spend 90% of your time at your university. And I mean this both in the positive and negative sense – you are reminded that there are plenty of other exciting things out there that people are doing, and that your job is not so special that you should sacrifice your life to it… but also that not everyone gets to make their own hours and travel around the globe for their research/conferences. Which, despite being awesome, is also all to easy to take for granted once you get used to it.

It also imposes a natural break into your day, one that you’d otherwise have to create solely through self-motivation. I’ve made it a rule to never write at home (partly because I can’t, since the allure of other things like sleep and cooking tends to be quite overwhelming) – which means that once I jump on that train, I’m done for the day. Sure, I might read, do e-mails or other incidentals, but no big stuff. And man that feels good. Plus, there is no decision fatigue involved, because you just get on the train when you get on the train (usually as you’re starting to feel hungry).

Finally, if the PhD does not work out, hey, at least you spent six years of your life in New York!

The male performativity of the graduate seminar

Is this who you're up against in Historical Methods?

Is this who you’re up against in Historical Methods?

Last week, I ran into a faculty member who wanted to share their thoughts on a recent workshop where a graduate student presented a dissertation chapter. “It really felt collegial and friendly, I feel like events like these are really what make this school special – you really get the vibrant exchange of ideas there!”

Just moments earlier, I had been talking to a first-year, who had compared the same event to a pack of hungry wolves descending on defenseless prey during a particularly harsh winter (the approaching Polar Vortex 3: the Electric Boogaloo surely lent the metaphor credence).

The point is that for all the talk of civility, intellectual curiosity, and the marketplace of ideas, for someone looking in on the outside, academic discussion can resemble a war zone. This is not a new insight – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wondered in Metaphors We Live By what would happen if instead of seeing argument as war (“his position is indefensible”, “he uncovered the weak points in my argument”) we would think of arguments as collaborative dances. Bruno Latour has pretty much made a career out of a military analysis of science.

Yet the idea of argument as war, and the graduate seminar as a battleground is not intuitive – it is one of the many things we call “professionalization”. That’s why the first year of graduate school is often such a shock for peope not comfortable with this mode of discourse.

Which leads me to my point: Clearly, aggressive argumentation does not preclude sincere intellectual curiosity, a free and constructive exchange of ideas or any of these other things that academics hold dear. But it’s not clear that this mode of discourse is the best way of fostering these qualities. In many ways, it can be downright pernicious.

The most obvious problem is that it promotes a performed self-confidence and pointed critique that is demonstrably fake. In most graduate seminars, you are presented with a monograph or a series of articles, which you then proceed to pick apart for analytic flaws and conceptual problems. I remember being extremely surprised my first year in graduate school at the facility with which people in a global history seminar could talk about the concept of “civitas” in ancient Rome. It was only later that I realized that this did not reflect a deep interest in Roman history, but a willingness to basically bullshit.

At the time, however, it was enough to send me into a spiral of anxiety for a week or so – how could I match up to these incredibly intelligent people who had thought through the historiography of a field I had not even consciously thought about until recently?

It’s not just that there is something patently bizarre about a group of people all of whom are faking confidence. If graduate seminars are supposed to be places where people can test-drive ideas, and try out strands of thought that may or may not lead to something more substantial, then having to project confidence in your speech seems like an obvious obstacle to this process. It shuts down people who think they may have an interesting idea but can’t formulate it perfectly well ex tempore. It prevents people from changing course mid-way through their point. It makes people choose safe discussion points over more radical, and potentially more exciting ones (it’s always easier to deliver a well-worn critique instead of a truly novel one – if only I got a dime for every time I heard someone tear down the term “modernity”…)

Secondly, it leads to a very cruel way of treating authors. Some of the best seminars I took were led by faculty who insisted on thinking about how books were put together rather than taking them apart, acknowledging the fact that the gaps our scholarship fills is surrounded by a foundation built by others. The fact that this needs to reminded to doctoral students in the grant proposal phase only goes to show how ingrained the argument-as-war model is in the field.

Finally, there is no way around the gender problem. The argument-as-war performance is a distinctly male performance. Too often have I seen a thoughtful, sophisticated point fly under the radar, only to be picked up moments later when made forcefully by a dude who projects self-confidence (full disclosure: I too am guilty of this, although I hope I have always managed to attribute credit). It’s a particularly messed-up catch-22, because, of course, being too forceful in discourse is seen as an un-feminine trait, while not being aggressive in graduate school means that all too often you just won’t be heard.

So where to from here? One thing to remember is that the hegemony of male performativity is probably a lot weaker in academia than in a lot of other places. Luckily, many people – at least in the humanities and social sciences – are committed to self-reflexivity and thinking critically about privilege, and it’s been my experience that once people realize that a lot of us are going along with the argument-as-war mode of discourse just to blend in, it becomes a lot easier to break that. Often, when you interrupt an impassioned thrashing of a book to say “you know, I really enjoyed how the author did xyz”, you can palpably feel the stress leaving the room. So a part of breaking this cycle has to do with simply remembering that there are a lot more people in the room frustrated with the dominant style of discourse than you think.

The other thing has to do with lessons drawn for one’s future career. I’ve had the best time in seminars where faculty consciously foster an environment of experimentation and congeniality towards authors. This is hard (because it is going against the flow in a lot of ways) – but totally worth it. So I try to emulate this in my own teaching and keep it in mind for future teaching statements etc.

The other day I was telling someone about a college interview where the student expressed an interests in Gandhi and the principle of “kindness” that they wanted to follow in college. “A safe choice for a college interview” commented my colleague. How telling that the focus of their interest was on the performance, rather than the idea, evidently so hard to practice.

Also, this.

“This is not a warm and cuddly place”

It was the year of applying to grad school. I had seen the admissions rates. I had looked at reading lists. More than one of my acceptance letters had reminded me of the state of the job market. I had seen  this video . When a faculty member at a northern school confronted me with this phrase, I thought I had it figured out. Of course, under these conditions, there’s no way doing PhD in history could be warm and cuddly.

But that’s not what the faculty had meant. They were referring to departmental culture, as I was explained, to the fact that the department consisted of top scholars who traveled often, had limited time for their advisees, to the fact that they would expect a lot of work and independence from their students. There was to be no handholding.

I reminded myself that this was a school that for no apparent reasons other than tradition and the fostering of competition admitted some students with full funding packages and others with funding contingent on their first two years of progress.

I did not end up joining that program.

But this story is not unique. The same way organizational cultures vary somewhat but not tremendously from investment bank to investment bank, so are graduate programs remarkably similar from field to field, school to school, and sometimes even country to country. A few months ago, I attended a conference of European historians in Tallinn, Estonia, and it was remarkable how similarly conversations there unfolded – the same anxieties over the job market and the pressure to only consider academic careers as “successful” ones, the same humblebragging over inhuman hours of work put in to research or reading.

Again, some of this culture is a product of structural and economic forces that are similar around the world. I’ve read my Marx.

Some of it, though, functions largely a marker of distinction, a sign of initiation. Take, for example, reading loads. During the coursework years of a history PhD program, students are routinely assigned two or three books per class (that’s six-to-eight books a week, kids!) – an impossible reading load for any kind of comprehensive reading. The purpose of this – as far as I’ve heard it articulated – is to teach students to read strategically, to read for argument and method, to read with a purpose. To skim.

Now to a degree, this is true – academic reading, like ice skating, is a skill that only improves with practice. Yet there is an argument to be made that the “standard” reading load for a graduate course in the humanities – a book or two plus articles – is grossly inflated. From personal experience, a class that, for instance, comprises of a selection of chapters from several key works enables both a deeper and more comprehensive engagement. In any case, proper reading strategies are rarely explicitly addressed, students are often just expected to acquire them through osmosis.

At the same time, it generates a permanent sense of anxiety, exacerbated by the fact that there are not set “hours” for PhD studies. Conceivably, you could be working all the time. During the end of the semester, when students have to both grade and be graded, they probably will be working all the time. You get an academic version on anatidaephobia – the fear that somewhere, somehow, someone is working more than you.

What is remarkable, though, is that instead of questioning this system and working out ways to make it more humane, students often internalize it. Complaining over the amount of books one has to read for a class is done with a level of sincere despair, but also with a level of equally sincere pride – look at how intellectually accomplished I am. During the year of general exams, conversations are often about the length of one’s… list, rather than the intellectual argument that they’re making. On more than one occasion I’ve felt slightly embarassed to admit that one of my advisors only wanted thirty books in his list, believing that deep reading is better than “comprehensive” reading (can any amount of reading actually be “comprehensive”?)

What’s pernicious about this pressure to read competitively is that plays out along class and gender lines. Having done my undergraduate degree at an Ivy League school in the US, I pretty much knew what graduate reading looks like and how to do it. By contrast, a friend, whose undergraduate experience was spent in Europe still finds the reading loads baffling and time-consuming. In a world where diligence is gendered female and initiative is gendered as male, who do you think ends up doing more work?

Yet this question remains unaddressed as a problem rather than simply a feature of graduate school that one has to deal with. For one, this leads me to think that people are generally aware of the different ritualistic functions that graduate school entails, the discourses and practices that signal that you are a part of the “insiders”. Breaking these codes is dangerous stuff.

But not as dangerous as having 6 out 10 graduate students reporting feelings of hopelessness and depression. So while addressing the broader economic and social problems that contribute to this is beyond any single one of us, maybe we should have a conversation about the aspects of graduate school stress that amount to self-inflicted wounds.

So maybe it’s time to have a conversation about this.