Although I’m certain about finishing my MA, I’m not sure about getting my PhD. If you read accounts like this one from Thomas H. Benton in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I would be one graham cracker short of a Smore for enlisting. The comment trail to the article is equally interesting. Benton has hit a nerve. I’m one of those gals who actually likes to do a lot of research on prospective opportunities/fields. My independent studies confirm the bleak conditions Benton describes. Finding a tenure track position in the Humanities post graduation has only slightly better odds than becoming an astronaut. Yet, I chuckle at a number of descriptions offered in the piece, including the idea that teaching and research assistants are some sort of cogs in the machine, an exploited labor force with the evil tenured bosses spitting on them from on high.
In the private sector, this form of “exploitation” is known as internships or junior staff. There are many junior staffers who think they are above such menial tasks as teaching freshmen or making copies. Those elitist jerks miss loads of opportunities. Perhaps I watched The Secret of My Success with Michael J. Fox one too many times, but delivering those copies to the CEO and having a conversation in the process embodies an entrepreneurial spirit, not some laughable masochistic grad student behavior. Same with teaching freshmen. News flash for Benton: at some universities (read NYU) competition for even these teaching jobs is fierce, as it should be.
Does NYU have more delusional hordes than most schools? Perhaps.
Is NYU a different animal because it is private and absurdly expensive? Perhaps. And this question of expense leads me to another point.
Benton derides the “life of the mind” as some fantasy world. Is it any more of a fantasia than the working class HVAC brother he touts in the essay? When I completed my undergraduate degree in English, well over a decade ago, my dream was to become financially independent. There were many who forecasted doom simply because I chose to major in what I loved. I owe Professor Robert “Rocky” Rockabrand for dispelling such myths.
To be fair, there were plenty of thunder heads; starting my career was extremely hard–right up there with divorce, home foreclosure, losing a job, pregnancy–or so I hear. Would it have been any easier if I had majored in Business? No, partially because I’m less talented/interested in determining break-evens or traditional ROI. I did my research then, as now. I began in marketing/public relations at a theater, and for a time I really wanted to be a journalist. I worked connections and landed a fancy freelance gig with a wildly respected daily newspaper, working at night while I slaved away at Arthur Andersen (Benton should’ve been there! Hello disillusionment. ) during the day. There was a hiring freeze at the paper. Even in the late 90s the media had a chronic cough. They couldn’t hire me full-time, and I am so grateful because I would’ve been miserable.
After limited experience and observation, I came to the conclusion that journalists had it really, really bad–PhD holding bad.
I stuck with public relations so I could work with my journalist friends, yet eat filet mignon on Tuesdays.
This “strategy” or life plan worked much to my satisfaction for many years over the course of many companies, none greater than my last, the venerable PR agency, Waggener Edstrom. I was living Benton’s private sector fantasy, driving around in my dream car fueled on healthy paychecks, benefits and only a B.A. in, gasp, English. Had I a family to enjoy and help support, I probably would not have left. I did not radically change my life because I was a bitter bunny either; I took a giant risk because I wanted something more. Divine providence, hard work and many mentors brought me to NYU, not some brainwashing professorial cabal. Grad students are, by my estimation, better than your average exploited worker at making informed choices. Benton is kind to write with such truth, and he will no doubt help many students. Yet, this is his truth, not mine.
I admit the mounting debt from student loans looms large. I miss the Caesar salad at El Gaucho, and my sweet Mini Cooper S. Double for my Portland friends or my adorable dog, now happily retired with his grandparents in Florida while I read Heidegger in Brooklyn. The other side of my ledger is looking plump though too, filled with big ideas about the fate of the media in this country, critical theory, even I Love Lucy. I’m learning kaleidoscopes from brilliant faculty and fellow students; I’m happy… for now. Keeping my fantastic life of the mind going will come with continued sacrifice, yet it also will come with value–a value determined by me-the little worker, dear Benton. I will weigh my choices once more, as soon as I finish reading The Death and Life of American Journalism with relish.
For a lovely retort to Benton check out Matt Feeny’s essay: