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Introduction: Putting the PhD to Work—for the Public Good

  Introduction: Putting the PhD to Work—for the Public Good

In the introduction to Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, Katina L. Rogers notes the broad remit of her book. Its intended audience includes not only PhD students, but also anyone who might consider getting a PhD, as well as, of course, those responsible for shaping the futures of graduate programs and graduate students. I’m a master’s student in library and information science, and, by my estimation, there is little risk that I will ever decide to pursue a PhD in the humanities. Still, I was able to identify a few points of connection with my own experiences.

Based on the results of her “Humanities Unbound” survey, Rogers suggests that many incoming PhD students aren’t furnished with realistic expectations of their chances on the tenure-track job market. She allows, however, that transparency in this area may be improving, and I am inclined to think that’s true. The disastrous state of academic employment is something that I’ve been aware of since high school. At that time, my interest in linguistics was developing, and I began to be curious about what it would take to pursue a career as a linguist. Linguistics, for whatever it’s worth, is usually considered a social science, but as far as career prospects are concerned, it isn’t much better off than any of the humanities disciplines. It didn’t take me long to find all of the “Do Not Get a PhD” blog posts from recent graduates whose post-doctoral lives were not turning out as they had expected. By the time I began my bachelor’s degree, there was no way for me to claim ignorance of the situation, and I more or less crossed the PhD route off my list.

Still, majoring in linguistics as an undergraduate was a foregone conclusion for me; it was one of the only fields that consistently held my interest throughout high school and college. Despite my continued fascination with the subject, my undergraduate experiences did little to change my mind about graduate school. There was no lack of transparency among most of the linguistics faculty, who carefully insinuated that many people start PhD programs and that significantly fewer end up finishing, or that it was a very good thing to work for a year or two before contemplating further study. There were some mixed messages, however. From time to time a professor would recall a perceptive observation that a former student had made in class, invariably concluding by revealing that this student was now pursuing a PhD in linguistics at a top-ranked university. The implication was that we should all strive to be more like that student. Rogers writes that graduate students will quickly "read between the lines" whenever a particular career path appears to be held up as the ideal. As an undergraduate, I think I experienced an analogous situation. I got the sense that, while most people should not get a PhD in linguistics, to do so was a sure diagnostic of excellence in the field. The concept of excellence appealed to me, so this message gave me some pause.

It wasn’t until junior year that I got a firm idea of what I actually did want to do once I finished my bachelor’s degree. I happened to notice a posting for a student research assistant job working on a digital scholarship project through the college library. My rationale for applying was that technical skills would be useful to me no matter what career I ended up pursuing. However,  I found that my time working on the project was more determinative than I had expected, and, like Brandon Walsh, whose reflections on the University of Virginia’s Praxis Program appear in Ch. 3 of Rogers’ book, “the thing that really stuck was how the work was done.” That was how I came to the decision to pursue an MLIS. In some ways, it was comforting to be applying for a “professional” degree with a clear set of job positions in its sights (assistant librarian, archivist, etc.). But I was also secretly glad to have an “excuse” to go to graduate school without feeling like I was being impractical. Yes, the degree would add to my student debt, but at least it wouldn’t take me five or ten years to complete, and while the library job market is not a picnic, I was comforted by the notion that it’s not as bad as certain other career paths.

The MLIS suited me for another reason. Working as a library assistant for a year after graduating with my bachelor’s degree taught me that I like library work—not just the “fun” project work that I did as a research assistant, but also the daily tasks and decisions involved in cataloging materials or helping patrons. When I ask myself, as Rogers suggests, what kinds of problems I like to solve, the answer looks something like that, and I am not sure that teaching full-time would be as compelling to me. For that reason, I was intrigued by Rogers’ attempt to normalize the notion that a person might attempt a PhD without any intention of seeking a tenure-track teaching position. In spite of everything I’ve said, I have sometimes thought that I might still consider a PhD if I thought it made sense for me; for example, if I wanted to go into library administration and perceived that a PhD would be useful. At the same time, I’m also aware of conversations taking place around library credentials. Many suggest that the almost universal requirement of an ALA-accredited master’s degree attached to librarian and archivist positions is already an unnecessary instance of gatekeeping that only exacerbates the whiteness of the profession. For that reason, I can’t be so quick to discount the issue of “credential creep,” despite Rogers’ assurance that “the benefits of encouraging highly trained humanities practitioners to pursue broader career goals far outweigh the potential drawbacks.” Rogers is perhaps right in saying that a similar discussion of master’s programs would require a separate book, but the issues themselves aren’t entirely separate; because of the weight that doctoral education carries, a book about master’s programs would not have the luxury of omitting PhD programs from its analysis.

Peer Reviewer: Sam Risak

 

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