As a PhD student in the humanities, I hear this question ALL. THE. TIME. When I think about it, this question is really just the semi-polite version of “What the heck are you gunna to do with that?!” I get it. People want to be polite. I appreciate that. But I can also read between the lines.
Regardless of whether I get the polite or impolite version of that question, my response has now degenerated into an audible sigh, an eye roll, and a brief “Yes I want to teach,” or “I could do a lot of things,” followed by an immediate change of subject. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about what I want to do or that I don’t want to have this particular conversation with that particular person. What it really boils down to is that I’m exhausted from having to defend my career choice to those who think I only have one option.
Wait…I want to be what?
Back when I first decided to major in English, it seemed like everyone around me started saying, “Oh she wants to be a writer,” meaning a novelist. It took years of me replying, “No, I don’t particularly want to do that,” to get my family to stop telling people that was my chosen career path. Once I started going to graduate school, the “Oh she wants to be a writer” turned into “Oh she wants to be a professor.” The problem now is that I do want to be a professor, but I also know that there’s a good chance that it won’t happen. I am fully aware that less than half of us get tenure track professorships. I spend a lot (maybe too much) of my time thinking about and doing things to grow skills and experience that will allow me to apply for a number of jobs outside of academia.
But, how, in just a couple of minutes of small talk, do I convince the worried (and frankly judgy) aunt at Thanksgiving dinner who’s just asked “So, you want to teach, right?” that there are actually a number of things that I want to do and could do and that teaching is just the easiest and quickest response that she’ll accept without me having to launch into a long-winded explanation about how my education has supplied me with a large number of skills and experiences that qualify me for jobs outside of teaching? It’s exhausting.
Don’t worry, you’re marketable!
It seems like everywhere I turn, there’s another article, blog post, or book telling me (or any other humanities PhD student) how to gain skills and market those skills to get a job outside of academia. And don’t let what I’m about to say make you think I don’t appreciate the advice. I relish it. I’m grateful for it. I’d probably feel lost without it.
But teaching all humanities PhDs to market their skills and experience to gain jobs outside of academia isn’t necessarily solving the underlying problem that one degree equals one career path so often assumed in the question “so….you want to teach, right?”
The Linear Career Path Problem
The issue with that question, that horrible, insidious question, has to do with society’s sanctioning of linear career paths. Somewhere along the line, it seems like the linear career path for humanities majors became teaching. But why? Why do any of our careers have to be linear? More and more recent graduates are changing jobs with more frequency and waiting to start their “career” until they’ve done some exploration first.
While the damaging assumption that career paths must be linear may be disheartening when it rears its ugly head at a family get together or while making small talk at the local coffee shop, its downright infuriating when it shows up within academia itself. For every article, blog, or book telling me how to get a job outside academia, there’s another article, blog, or book telling me that most professors even have trouble reaching outside the linear career path when it comes to advising their students.
So if more and more of us are told to focus on the skills and experience we gain that are relevant to a number of jobs and less on the approved linear track for our specific degree, then shouldn’t there also be less focus on the “major that will get you a job” (which is just code talk for the linear career path) and more focus on the experience of education itself?
I am fully aware that due to the Great Recession, a number of factors cause many degree-seekers (among others) to argue that there should be more focus on the linear career path in order for us to rebuild the economy. However, for many humanities graduates that argument also reduces the number of perceived career possibilities to ones that were approved at some point in the past as the linear path to follow. But, as the articles, blogs, and books I link to above note, humanities graduates have a wide variety of marketable skills. And several recent studies in English and History indicate that the job market for PhDs in the humanities might not be great but also aren’t as grim as many of us may think.
Still, none of that really gets at the people like my judgy aunt who ask “so…you want to teach, right?”
Perhaps the way to do that is to change the way we think about education (and thus career choice) from linear to lattice, which might also help change “so…you want to teach, right?” from the judgy aunts of the world to “so…what’s next?”