My facebook feed is filling up with friends and colleagues bemoaning their choice to do a PhD and status updates that express hatred and anger about their dissertations. I felt this way too during my very long revision process. I think most people have moments of deep regret at some point on the road to completed dissertation. Moments of doubt and loathing seem more the norm than the exception.
In discussing the emotional impact of the PhD with one of my colleagues – also a recent graduate – we noted the difference in attitude post-PhD and post-MA. We left our MAs believing in ourselves. We carried an arrogant confidence that we knew everything and could do anything. Getting a job after my MA was no problem. I was bold. I spoke with authority. I’ve watched friends complete MAs and hit the ground running filled with a sense of immense accomplishment.
I contrast, at the end of the PhD, everything seems to be thrown into question. A PhD teaches you that maybe you don’t really know that much at all, that all of your knowledge can and will be rigorously questioned at every turn. PhDs self-deprecate too easily. We say things like, “I don’t have any work experience,” or “being a grad student sure beats getting a job.” We characterize ourselves as being outside of the real economy. But the truth is, no one gets a PhD without working. Be it for pay or not, we have experienced real work. Research, writing, deadlines, teaching, all-nighters, life-balance negotiations, alienated friends and family – our PhD work lives have had their toll and have allowed us to develop a number of crucial skills, both academic and non-academic.
Now, I know I’m generalizing here. Not all MAs leave their degrees to happily land a dream job, and not all PhDs struggle to come to terms with the inadequacies of their dissertations. Some people write awesome dissertations and land awesome jobs. But for many PhDs, there seems to be a prevailing negativity about their work, their life choices, and their prospects. We are our own worst enemies. In discussing my degree with a group of acquaintances, I joked that I was struggling to find work because I have “no work experience.” Now one of those acquaintances mentions the fact that I have “never worked” each time we meet. Because I made a self-deprecating joke, there are now people in my life that believe I have never worked and somehow, because of my fancy education, expect to get a good job without ever having to “work” for it. Of course I have worked and I continue to work, very hard in fact. The point is, we are too quick to characterize our PhD lives as non-work. By self-deprecating, we feed the stereotype of grad-school as a bad life choice. This reinforces anti-intellectualism and makes it harder for us to articulate our skills in relation to the job market, which is admittedly bleak these days.
In part, we could solve this problem with better professional training. Not all PhDs will land academic jobs. This is a fact that grad programmes need to come to terms with. Knowing how to compile an umpteen page CV will not get us a non-academic job. We need a system in place that allows us to articulate things like academic publications and major research projects as “real work” that counts for something in the private sector.
How do we make academic work “count”?