broken heart · grad school · job market

When should you break their hearts?

It’s convocation week, and the young woman in front of me is 22, well awarded, radiant with success and flanked by three proud parents. “Yeah, I’m pretty excited,” she says. “I got into my top choice MA program! I don’t know where I’ll go for my PhD, though – everybody says it’s a good school, but who knows – maybe I can go to England, or the States? I just, you know, I really want to be a professor.” Charming blush.

And here I am again. Do I say, “Oh, that’s wonderful news: congratulations! You must be so proud.” Or do I say, “Sweetheart, I’m begging you, do not make that tragic life decision. Graduate school will steal your soul and eviscerate your self-esteem, and at the end of six excruciating years – if you’re fast – you’ll realize that the only job you’re trained for doesn’t exist. From then on, your life will be an interminable grind of underemployed misery punctuated by periods of paralyzing anxiety, all in the service of a vocational delusion.”

She smiles; I smile, lie. Not the right moment to break her heart.

Maybe the right moment is lunch with our promising MA student and her co-supervisor. The student’s had a wonderful year: earned a perfect GPA on her coursework, taught for the first time, to rave reviews, won a major national scholarship, landed a visiting appointment at a university in New Zealand as well as the travel grant to support it. “And what are you thinking of doing after the MA?,” I ask, carefully. “Oh, a PhD,” she says, surprised by the question. “Can I ask – I don’t want you to take this the wrong way – but can I ask why you want to do a PhD?” “I want to be a professor,” she says, “like you.”

I can hardly pretend to be surprised. Everything I do for her, all the guidance and the letters and the feedback on her written work, my mentoring and my modeling, the suggestion of things to read, all of this is designed to help her achieve her goals, which include Becoming a Professor. She would be a conscientious instructor; she has the capacity to influence a discipline. I want people like her – hardworking, imaginative, smart, and kind – to be my colleagues. I want her to be a professor; I want that job – professor – to exist for her.

But that job doesn’t exist plentifully, and if commentators on the academic job market are right to describe the dearth of academic jobs as structural rather than temporary, it’s not likely to return anytime soon.

It’s easy to say that you should disclose this dreary situation to students – but when, exactly, and how?

Undergraduate convocation clearly isn’t the right time, and the whole concept of graduate education is pretty abstract in the first few years of university. Early in the PhD? Too late: they’re already committed. At the end of the PhD? Way too late: the last thing a dissertating student needs to hear is, “Your thesis needs more work – even though it won’t get you a job.” How about during the Master’s? Maybe, but MAs are short – doctoral apps are due at the end of the first semester – so you might want to practice greeting enthusiastic new students with a hearty, “Welcome to graduate school! But don’t get too comfortable.” (Of course, that might also entail conceiving the Master’s as something other than a pre-doctoral degree – but I digress.)

Maybe there’s never a good time to share bad news. But even if we can bring ourselves to break students’ hearts, I’m not convinced they can hear what we’re saying. “Yeah, I know it’s a tough job market,” said one would-be professor earlier this year, “but somebody has to get those jobs!” “I’m sure things will get better,” another one shrugged. “I’m going to be really strategic about my research,” said a third optimist. How do you respond to such blitheness?: “What’s the weather like on your planet?”?

Underneath my reluctance to break students’ hearts is a virtual hibernaculum of unresolved feelings: anxiety that I might be wrong; remorse that I haven’t managed to strengthen the humanities and turn the tide of public opinion (or, more to the point, the tide of public funding); pedagogical self-doubt; survivor’s guilt; concern for the future of my students; and my own professional and intellectual heartbreak at a future without these people in it.

21 thoughts on “When should you break their hearts?

  1. At least you're worrying about it. I'm constantly surprised by colleagues who shrug off these concerns and repeat the whole “it's going to get better” line that we've been hearing for decades. Oh, and also by colleagues who blithely argue that “growing” our own Ph.D. program is a good idea. I'll add your post to the list of links I now send every bright young thing who comes to see me about applying–including Thomas Benton's CHE columns. I also warn them not to romanticize the job itself: the disillusionment might not end even if they are among the very lucky ones who end up on the tenure track. I know for me it's an ongoing process! But like Macbeth, I'm waded in too far now to make it worth going back. I think


  2. I have a MA in the humanities and after much soul searching decided not to do a PhD. The MA didn't get me much in the job marketplace — I ended up in a call centre initially. (Although I have since found a more inspiring career!) Nevertheless, I think that degree gave me all of the wonderful things that a degree in the humanities can give you: a permanent bullshit detector, courage to read academic research in any field, etc. I don't regret it.

    What I do wonder, however, is why it seemed that my professors and the system only saw a tenure-track position as the ultimate outcome of the MA or PhD track. I feel like I made compromises during my grad school life because “I wouldn't get a job” in academia if I didn't. Instead of pursuing the questions that I wanted to pursue, I did what was in vogue.

    In the end, I didn't want an academic job and no one in the outside world cared about my thesis topic at all. I wish that I had had the courage to write on my own interests. I think that my academic experience would have been more positive if I had followed my passion.

    I agree that students should be told the realities of their job prospects and the realities of academic life, but maybe there is also room for a broader perspective here. There is a place for graduate degrees in the “outside” world. This path also had its pitfalls, but I think that some of the soul-crushing aspects of graduate school could have been avoided for me if all of my decisions had not been based on a future academic career which I did not want in the end.


  3. Ha! (That's a rueful 'ha' …) I remember, Heather, when you were my supervisor and I was a fresh young goth, you asking what I wanted to do with my PhD, and I remember sitting up in surprise and saying “Be a professor,” with an implied “of course.”

    And I am a professor. And all of us who are professors get caught at that point: I made it, didn't I? Who am I to act as a gatekeeper, basically telling these students they can't do it, when I did it, and I …. (you can insert your own imposter syndrome survivor guilt narrative here; I'm sure it's unique to your own situation).

    As for counselling on opportunities outside of a professorship, how could I do that? I've been in the bubble since 1992. Here at Waterloo, our MA degrees have a coop option that's been really successful and that's a great start. Maybe something similar at the PhD level?

    For now, I'm counselling all the PhDs I work with (teach, supervise, dissertation committee) to have a Plan B that they work toward even as they work on the PhD. Volunteer for something. Develop a network. Find a part-time job. Be entrepreneurial. It's a lot to ask, really.

    But mostly, I get stuck on this: the basic hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do.” Ouch.


  4. I don't think it's hypocrisy to make sure they understand that no matter how talented they are and how hard they work, their chances of ending up where we are are slim. Sure, it's a difficult thing to say partly because we have the careers they (think they) really want. But we're the ones they are looking to for advice. I think your “have a plan B” advice is excellent, but as you say, it's a lot to ask of them.


  5. I have to wonder who these grad students are whose hearts have yet to be broken. From the moment I first pondered entering academia, I have been warned time and time again that there are no jobs. I have certainly had to reconcile myself to understanding my PhD as a vocation at the same time as pouring all my energy into “professionalizing” as hard as I can because, naive though it may be, I do want a career in academia. If at the end of this four (fingers crossed) year journey all I have to show for it is having spent four years doing what I love, I will try not to be bitter. But I certainly won't be able to say that no one ever warned me.

    That said, I find it hard to believe that all those professors who have counseled me against following in their footsteps believe that there is no place for higher education in the humanities anymore. Surely there is value to this degree, regardless of career prospects. And if we are truly seeing the end of the professional academic, then it's time to start having serious conversations about how we can continue to foster all of the wonderful things about humanities education in sectors beyond the university.


  6. What rich commentary. My own personal view is, like Nancy B's, that we should be thinking about both Master's and doctoral degrees as more than pre-professorial training grounds (esp the Master's) – but as Aimee points out, we are most uncertain how to do this. What buoys me is repeating “Just because I do not know how to do this does not mean it cannot be known.” (A known unknown, right?) Hannah, I'm moved by your use of the term “naive” here: aren't all passions “naive” – isn't that what makes them so gobsmacking and so precious? @Rohan: yes, oh, yes….

    I'm struck by the disjunction between the entrepreneurial spirit of academic work in the humanities – research culture, certainly, but also my-classroom-my-kingdom – and the very institutional / bureaucratic / anti-entrepreneurial nature of our jobs. (And yes, I know my left cred is on the line when I describe us as entrepreneurial! :-))


  7. I agree with Aimee that we are often stumped on advising MAs on other job options because, well, we didn't go that route. Or did we? I ran a fascinating session for undergrads recently on what one can do with a BA (we don't have a graduate program), and I asked my colleagues to speak to other jobs they've done and how English was a part of that. Some were obvious – book sellers, ESL teachers abroad, librarians – but some were not, like the woman who worked in prisons and found that studying literature prepared her for the real-life characters she met in the penal system (not to mention all the report writing).

    I think Nancy makes a great point – it doesn't have to be either/or. It can be both/and, as long as we can articulate the value of graduate work outside of the academic career stream. I think the best way to prevent students from breaking themselves on the wheel of a PhD in the expectation of achieving an academic job is to show them how their graduate work prepares them for other paths.


  8. My own view is that emphasizing that graduate work prepares students for non-academic paths skips a bit too lightly over the fairly specific and stringent requirements they will have to meet that have little relevance to non-academic career paths. I don't underestimate the intrinsic interest and satisfaction someone may feel about the intellectual work that they do for their Ph.D., but for reasons related to the job market, most PhD programs have quite deliberately increased their professionalization components and stepped up efforts to integrate preparation for the job market into their expectations for students. It's a professional degree with one profession in mind. That could change, but the required changes would be substantial. (This is not true, of course, for the MA, which is a more flexible as well as a more varied degree.)

    There has been quite a bit of discussion about these issues in other places, some of it quite interesting. FWIW, I posted about it myself earlier this year (links below). The first post (which is otherwise not entirely relevant) includes links to several posts about graduate education from other sites, all of which sparked intensive debate in their own comment threads. (I don't know if I can use html tags in the comments so if the links don't work and anyone's interested, I can pass them by email.)This should probably count as my 2c worth! But I'm really glad to see a Canadian site taking up these questions.


  9. I certainly agree with what I take to be Heather's larger point: that we should give students an early and realistic assessment of the job market. But I wonder if we're too myopic about our own profession. Yes, this is (another) dismal time in academic hiring and yes, even at the best of times there are never as many jobs as there are new PhDs. But very similar things could be said about almost any interesting job or profession now. How about someone who wants to be a public school teacher? Or a nurse? Or a journalist? Or how about someone who completes a post-BA law degree, articles for a good firm, and then doesn't get hired by a firm specializing in the kind of law she wants to practise? It's true that the humanities PhD is a big commitment of time, but it's not unique in training students for a job that probably doesn't exist. (As I reread this comment, the last sentence seems cynical — but I don't intend it that way!)


  10. Let me take an opposite angle. I have seen many folks my age swipe a brush filled with cynicism down a young and fresh canvas.

    I am 51 years old and have held a number of positions in many different industries. I've had great successes and I've had a few failures and heartbreaks.

    Perhaps this life has given me a little perspective. As part of my business, I speak at many universities to 20-somethings on the art of combining money and morality.

    When I was writing this response, I chatted with a 30 year old post-doc and asked her to review it. She said that she wished someone had given her this advise this when SHE was 22.

    So this is what I'd pass onto that radiant 22 year old:

    – put a list together of what you imagine would be your ideal jobs. You may have a dream job (e.g. a university or college professor) but your best job may instead incorporate the same responsibilities and less of the challenges. Seek out people who do you may want possibly want to do. Politely ask them for a few minutes of their time. Ask them:

    – what they enjoy about their job
    – what they do not enjoy about it
    – how their industry has changed since they began
    – what they wish they knew when they started down their road
    – what their dream job would be right now
    – what advice they would give you as you are just starting out
    – who they might be able to introduce you to
    – what they do for fun in their spare time (we often reveal our true nature when we reveal our passions)
    – ask them how you can help them in turn (then try and do exactly that)

    I tell them that the opinion they receive is from one person only. They need to have a statistically valid sample size before drawing conclusions about an entire profession or an industry. Often when people talk about “the good old days” the days weren't golden, they were.

    Practice the art of communication and leadership, join Toastmasters; an amazing organization that will look good on a resume and provide confidence and feedback you will never get from a classroom or a novel.

    Practice this question “If I could do one thing better, what would it be?”

    Practice this question “What is it I did right that you valued?”

    Keep your word. If you say you are going to do something, then do it. Or apologize.

    Most people treat networking like dieting. They only do it when they have to, and they stop immediately upon reaching their goal. Instead, you should adapt a healthy lifestyle of adding value and staying in touch with people.

    Your destiny is often determined by the people you associate with so you should surround yourself with good people who have your own best interests at heart (enough to give you a kick in the butt when they think you are making bad decisions.)

    Heartbreak is a part of life. Cynicism is not. Hearts get stronger after being broken. But cynicism builds a callous on our soul.

    Above all, each of us is responsible for what paint goes on our canvas.


  11. Precious few, those of my friends and colleagues who love their jobs. Those that do, are working in fields where any- and every-one would have said “oh, sweetheart, there won't be any jobs there for you!” Artists. Professors. I count myself among the lucky, as well, in this job I built for myself (curate a gallery space, educate kids about art, throw arty parties – and get paid for it?!?!).

    the world is cruel unbalanced and unfair a million ways, but “what happens to a dream deferred?” i say, if, against all odds, these students complete the phd and still WANT a life in the academy – let them strive. pull push and wallpaper their homes in PFO's. eventually they will land on their feet, with equal parts skepticism and satisfaction. this is part of what it means to become a professional. in any field.


  12. I love this discussion and it is very timely for me as I am actually contemplating signing up for a PhD.

    I think that there may be ways of supporting those who might not end up in an academic career within the curriculum and not as add-on or extracurricular activities.

    Let me tell you the rest of my story. My first MA was in Comparative Literature. That's the one that landed me in a call centre. A decade later, however, I did go back to graduate school again and I did a part-time, online MA through the Extension faculty at U of A. In contrast to my first degree, this experience was amazing. The degree required a “project,” not a thesis. Because I was paying for my own degree, I had a career outside academia and my first thesis is incomprehensible and gathering dust, I decided that I wanted to write something that mattered to me and something that might just matter to those around me, including those outside academia.

    I discovered autoethnography and I wrote my project on my experience as a new mother and my sudden obsession with researching my family history. Because I wanted to write this for a wider audience than just my supervisor, I started think seriously about how to create narrative tension, how to hook my audience, how to incorporate serious academic thought with my narrative, etc. Despite my degree in literary criticism, I had never, ever thought about the craft of writing narrative.

    When I was done my project, I shared it with everyone I knew. This is something I could have never done with my previous academic work. While I would be the last to call my project a perfect work, the results were astounding. My uncle, the fire chief, volunteered to copy edit it for me. My aunt, an academic, called me in tears, moved by the story. The graduate studies assistant wrote to me after I submitted the final copy to my department and said that she had started reading my project and had read it right to the end. This work and this educational experience CONNECTED me to those around me rather than isolating me in a world of academic discourse.

    This experience left me wanting more, hence my contemplation of the PhD. But I know the reality here. It would take a unique situation for me to replicate this experience in a PhD, although I haven't quite given up the hope that there might be something out there for me.

    What graduate school did not teach me the first time around was to consider audiences other than academic ones — something which I consequently learned in the professional world. I'm not sure that it has to be this way. I did learn to translate big academic thoughts into a compelling narrative in graduate school. But I was in a safe place, on the periphery of the system, and no one was telling me that this wasn't the route to academic glory.

    But given my experience I would ask why, if PhDs in English aren't finding work in academia, they cannot they not also be encouraged to write for other audiences about their passion for literature or the importance of their thesis topic. Can't they experiment with genres like autoethnography or creative non-fiction? I suspect it would make them better scholars and would give them portfolio pieces to prove to employers that they are capable of speaking languages other than egghead. Just some food for thought…


  13. what a great post, and wonderful comments.

    While I agree that there are academic jobs out there, I also agree with @Rohan that the young graduate student's understanding of what those jobs involve may be at odds with what they really are. Also, we are producing ever more PhDs while the market is contracting.

    That said, if the humanities are worthwhile (and I agree they are) then we must be able to know other possibilities or maybe learn about them with the students/graduates who need to seek them out.

    And there is a connection to promoting the importance of the humanities. Because if the humanities are relevant (though perhaps not in the narrow utilitarian ways demands for relevance are often made) then there must be jobs for humanists in those fields that could benefit from that knowledge.

    I also recommend some resources like an online community of mainly humanities scholars seeking (and finding) employment outside the traditional academic route. The resources for historians found at might also be inspiring.


  14. I wrote up another comment which seems to have disappeared, so I'll just give the gist this time. I think the argument that PhD training is also useful for other lines of work is partly true but glosses over the extent to which PhD program requirements are highly specialized and also increasingly preprofessional (as depts have responded to the tight market by trying harder to prepare their students to compete in it). I posted about this and related issues on my own blog earlier this year; there have also been extensive discussions on sites such as Historiann, Tenured Radical, Academic Cog, and 'Dean Dad'. Here are links to two of my posts, one not precisely on point but containing links to some of those other discussions, one more directly relevant.

    Is Arguing for the Practical Utility of Literary Studies Self-Defeating?

    The Skills Argument and the Humanities PhD


  15. This should not be a matter for individual counselling – it's an issue that should be taken care of at an institutional level by those who determine the size of graduate programs. As Nancy's experience suggests, an M.A. program can be a venue for pursuing broadly relevant and personally fulfilling research within a time frame that's compatible with the broader realities of needing to find a job and earn a paycheck. The Ph.D. is not the same thing. It's all very well to tell people to prepare for Plan B, but it's not realistic – the energy you put into preparing for an alternative career is energy that you're not putting into pursuing Plan A.

    Enrollment in Ph.D. programs will never and should never be exactly equivalent to the demands of the job market. There are people who want to do the Ph.D. for other reasons. But the numbers need to get a lot closer than they are. In law school, there is a 98% success rate in placing students in articling positions. I don't know the exact stats on how successful lawyers are in finding jobs when their articles end, but it's close to that. You may not get a job in the exact city or firm that you would choose, but if you want work as a lawyer, you can find it.

    That's because the law schools base admission on what the market can bear. It's in their mutual best interest to do so – if there are too many lawyers out there, the competition for clients will drive fees down. In academia, though, there is a built-in conflict of interest: the employer determines the size of the hiring pool. It's very convenient for universities to create a market of people who are desperate for a job and willing to move across the country, split up their families, and postpone childbearing if necessary to get it. It's difficult to even imagine what it would be like if the number of Ph.D.s produced each year were, say, only 25% greater than the number of full-time jobs.


  16. Fantastic discussion!

    I've been thinking a great deal about how to train at the PhD level for a variety of jobs–as Bea and Nancy both suggest this is a shift that needs to (continue) to happen at the institutional level if we are to effect wide-ranging change. What about humanities co-op work as a part of PhD programme? There are some universities (I'm thinking of UBC specifically) that make some room for this. Are there others?


  17. I enjoyed (if feeling that uncomfortable sensation of recognition of the truth can be called “enjoyment”) Heather's original post and all the thoughtful insights that have followed. The only point that I would add is to expand on this insight – “Maybe there's never a good time to share bad news. But even if we can bring ourselves to break students' hearts, I'm not convinced they can hear what we're saying.” This, I think, is key. I don't think they can hear us because on some level what we would be saying makes no sense. One of the things that defines our profession is the notion of meritocracy; that's what peer-review is all about. And so we and our students believe that there is some sense to who achieves whatever success they achieve. Yet, the truth of the matter is that there is a great degree of arbitrariness when it comes to landing a job as “a professor.” Even putting aside the systemic problems with higher learning (and by that, largely, I mean funding problems), the notion of “merit” does nothing to determine what institution is hiring and when; it does nothing to determine what personal conflicts inform search committee dynamics; it does nothing to determine notions of personal “fit” with an institution that might be hiring; etc. etc. So what is often hard for students to hear is that no matter how good (or even how fantastic) they may be all the way through, there is no clear, direct connection between their exemplary qualities and landing a tenure-track job. Sure, the really terrible grad students will likely not become professors…but there are a whole heck of a lot of candidates out there who are truly remarkable, but circumstances might conspire in such a way as they don't get a job that they well deserve. I think it is that disconnect that students just can't hear: “there aren't enough tenure-track jobs out there for everyone who is well and truly qualified and so those who do get the jobs aren't more qualified/better than many of those who don't, so you could spend the better part of your twenties and thirties in a job lottery.” I think that reality is so nonsensical that we can't actually believe it until we're really confronted with it; so we can tell our students all about that until we're blue in the face, but it might still take a while (and some heart break) to sink in.

    And don't get me started again on the heart break that follows even if you do end up landing a tenure-track job…


  18. I'm in a non-humanities field where the market for tenure-track positions is not quite so bleak, so I run into a slightly different problem with students who aspire to professordom. That is, if a student does all the “right” things (gets a PhD from a good program, teaches, attends conferences, sends papers out for publication, etc.), there is a good chance that she will be able to land a tenure track position. BUT there is a much smaller chance that the position will have the other characteristics she might want (beyond it being tenure-track). That is, once you start wanting to be at a particular type of university, or in a particular part of the country, etc., things get much more difficult. I understand that it's hard to say “there are no jobs”, but it's also hard to say “there are jobs, but you are likely going to have to make sacrifices in other aspects of your life to have one of them”. It's hard ask students, or to get them to seriously contemplate, questions like “are you willing to live away from your spouse or partner?” I also think that the kinds of sacrifices you might think you are willing to make for your career at 22 can look very different at 32. But I don't know what is to be done about that.


  19. Although Bea makes an excellent point about institutional responsibility for the size of PhD programs (one that echos a point of Rohan's I think), there are other pressures on institutions.

    The Canadian government has been saying we don't have enough PhD trained people! As I understand it their position is based on proportion of people with PhDs in Canada compared to similar proportion in other OECD countries and other statistical measures of our “place in the world”. But they are saying it.

    And because they are saying it, there is government policy to increase the numbers of PhD students. Provincial government funding is available. More scholarships are provided at federal level.

    The reasons departments are creating and expanding PhD programs include the fact that there is financial benefit (to the institution) to do so and thus pressure to do so. Add to that the prestige of having doctoral programs, and the fact that many academics actually enjoying teaching at graduate level and supervising students, and the availability of research assistants for your own projects…

    The big picture is very complicated.

    Being a voice against this pressure in your own institution and your own scholarly association is a good place to start, though.

    I wrote more about this here:


  20. Interesting point about the federal government's push for more PhDs, JoVE. I wonder if people with PhDs in these “other countries” have better (or even just better-known) prospects for non-academic jobs–and corollary to that, whether those being hired have humanities PhDs.

    It comes to mind because I have a close friend in the U.S.–ivy-league-trained–who, in a horrible and heartbreaking case, was denied tenure at her institution. (The college really treated her badly, which is a whole other story in itself for “this month in sexism.”) She has since decided to leave the academy and has been looking for other jobs.

    What she has recently discovered, through word of mouth, is that the U.S. gov't and the companies to which it contracts out work, seem to hire a lot of people with PhDs. There's a big concentration of Dr.-type people in the D.C. area who work for (or are paid by) the federal government.

    I wonder if the same is true in, say, Ottawa? Does the federal government like employing people with PhDs? Or do the feds just like having PhDs around as a kind of demographic or statistical decoration? I've never heard the rumour that Ottawa is the best place in Canada to get you non-academic job if you have a PhD, though it could be true. It seems like one of those questions that is empirically answerable, to a certain degree, though I haven't the foggiest idea how one would go about finding out.


  21. I apologize for being a late comer – but I have to disagree with Bea. Perhaps in a few years it will clear up, but this past year the graduating 3Ls got hit hard by the economic downturn and there's nothing out there, big or small. The few law graduates that have gotten jobs that I know of in the Washington DC area consist of contracting work, not actual legal work.


Comments are closed.