The Push-Pull of the Un(der)-Employed Ph.D.

Today, for the first time ever, I actually typed, “I hate my Ph.D.” The catalyst, as you might guess, was job search related. The thing is, that came not too long after other thoughts about Ph.D.s staying inside because of the nominal prestige of teaching at a university. (And daydreams about hunting some adjunct jobs myself.) How many of us does that prestige hold in? How satisfying is it to tell somebody we teach college students? How awkward is it do that as a preface to explaining how little money we make?

I have mentioned in passing the occasional conversations I have at the schools where I work, the ones that feature something along the lines of “you have a Ph.D. and you’re subbing?” My explanation is pretty well-practiced these days: as marginal as the pay is for substitute teaching, it’s still better than I’m likely to make adjuncting; also, I work 35-40 hours each week instead of 60-80. I mention that I continue to look for something better and more stable. Teachers tend to be pretty cool people, and nobody has pushed me back on that explanation.

In some ways, they don’t have to, because I have plenty of moments myself where I think “I have a Ph.D. and I’m subbing?” These happen most often when I am trying to cajole a defiant 7th-grader into giving me the paper dart he’s hiding behind his back, or pretending not to hear the students in the back corner talking about their boyfriends in Spanish while I try and teach the handful of people in the room receptive to learning from a sub. I ask myself—only rhetorically, since I know the answer already—how I got to where  am.

(Especially at 0:10)

Entitlement is really hard to let go. We get to grad school because we’re smart (if not always wise). We get there because we believe in education. We stay there because we believe that being smart and getting an education will get us where we want to be…whether or not that destination is practical. It is galling to think that all the years I spent in school are not enough to get me a middle-class job, that they are in fact enough to keep me out of many of those jobs. No matter how much I agree with William Goldings’s line that “Life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all,” it’s a hard thing to internalize. (Related: I think graduate schools should have the Dread Pirate Roberts’ “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” emblazoned somewhere prominent. Maybe on their application paperwork.) I want what I have earned to mean something, even as I try to get beyond the letters after my name.

There’s not an easy answer for this push-pull. I’m proud I finished my doctorate, no matter how often I wish I’d quit when they first cut my funding. I am proud that my education is diverse and deep enough that I can comfortably cover any secondary class save for upper level hard sciences. I might, these days, prefer somebody to hand me a fiction contract, but that doesn’t mean I’d turn down a stable job at a SLAC if somebody offered.

Ultimately, we deserve what we make of what we have. These days I’m trying for wisdom and detachment, and trying occasionally to make Good Art.



  1. I tried on three separate occasions to leave you a reply comment at my blog, but failed every time. Apparently my blog hates me this week (or specifically, the reply button on your comment)!

    Anyway…thank you for your thoughtful comment at my place. I’ve added you to my blogroll, so definitely keep writing!

    I am so sorry to hear about your struggles with finding work. This is definitely not an easy process – if you look back through my blog, you’ll see that I didn’t so much “find a job” as I did “continue at the job I was already at with a promotion.” I was lucky, and I fell into it, and basically every day I struggle with worries about whether my job is “good enough” for someone who went to grad school and nearly completed a PhD. This stuff is very, very hard and emotional to get through…but we’ve all done it. And you will too.

    Good luck, and I look forward to hearing more from you!

    1. Thanks so much for the original post and for the link. (There’s lots of good stuff on your site and I’m happy to reciprocate.) My comment (and this post) came on a particularly rough day of sifting job openings and collecting rejections. As you know, some days are easier than others. Engaging with other postac blogs has been helpful for me lately. I’m keeping my out for new ones to commiserate with or draw inspiration from.

  2. I respect you more than you know, or would probably appreciate. I love what you make. Looking forward to more.

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