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.


Too Much School, so…Back to School?

Some days come poorly off the mold. Their shape is not symmetrical. The joints don’t fit. They wobble. These are not the “worst” days—those seem to come off the line perfectly shaped to suck. These poorly-formed days just suck life out of you. Minor annoyances and substantive problems scrape against each other without quite coalescing into a proper crisis. You get through them, but that’s usually the best you can manage. They’re not quite bad enough to inspire any feeling of victory when you come out the other side. Today is one of those, grumbly nearly from the get-go.

If you’re keen on integrating the following thoughts into the course of my blog, they go with the loose sequence that begins with “Of Carrots…” and continues with “Get a Job, You Schlub.” It also includes the “Cut” series, though those are more tightly tied to the practice of scholarship. There’s not really anything about writing in it, unless you count wanting to write. (You can imagine that as a subtext through the whole post.) This isn’t a plea for sympathy, just a snapshot from the inside of trying to make a life as a post-academic.

I have been living in Austin for six months. I have been looking for a full-time job pretty much that entire time. I am still looking. I substitute teach three or four days each week, usually a 30-40 minute drive from our apartment. The other weekday is reserved for hunting full-time employment. Often, I don’t know where I’m going to be working until I get up at 5 a.m. to start stalking the district’s online substitute system. (During the day, good jobs are often gone in one or two minutes. That’s particularly tough when you’re actually at a school doing your job.)

It sucks, even without mentioning the conditions when I get to work.

Like adjunct faculty, substitute teachers are not eligible for benefits…nor are they eligible for unemployment insurance. Pay is low. I make more on a real per-hour basis than I did adjuncting (where my hourly rate was based solely on the time I spent in the classroom). Oh, and my PhD? It entitles me to exactly the same daily rate as any completed four-year degree. It’s still not a living wage, and I still don’t feel “employed.” It’s certainly not a career, and it’s more supplement than support for my family.

Long-term job searches are draining as hell. The last time I had a job that I “chose” was in September of 2012. I’ve been “on the market” since then, although I did not do any serious job-hunting between finishing my oh-fer on academic applications in April and moving to Texas in August. I’ve been lucky in that my partner eventually found work, and that we had some savings. Things have gotten tight, but never quite desperate.

The problem is that looking at job listings gets a little more like staring into the abyss every week. Human resources people and departments at the kind of companies that list jobs on-line are as indentured to formulae as university search committees. Miss a keyword or have the wrong job title and you go straight to the circular file, no matter how qualified you are. The more rejections I get, the harder it is for me to look at a listing and think “I can do that” rather than “there is no way in hell I could even get an interview.”

There have been studies on this stuff , and reports. They don’t offer much positive.

My doctorate is an unhappy limiting factor. I have the option of leaving a seven-year gap in my resume or owning up to my years in academe. Mostly, I just have to hope that the relevant people read my cover letter and that I can sell them there. For entry-level positions, I seem overqualified and likely to jump ship when some imaginary university comes calling. Jobs beyond entry-level tend to require specific work experience that graduate school failed to provide, even if I otherwise have sufficient knowledge and skills. HR filters are not set to account for these things. My post-relocation network is also thin—another obstacle to getting the all-important foot in the door.

The upshot of all this is that I have too much education to get a job…no matter how many times I’m in a school and an incredulous teacher says “You have a Ph.D. and you’re subbing?” I find it very reminiscent of a recent post and the ensuing discussion over at Pan Kisses Kafka. It’s a similar catch-22 in that you allegedly need experience to land a tenure-track job, but experience as an adjunct counts against you because if you were good enough, you would have gotten a tenure-track job right away.

For me, it is looking more and more like the solution to too much education is somehow more education. That might mean doing alternative teaching certification and going from “substitute” to “permanent” secondary teacher. It might involve getting third-party certificates in various software and programming platforms. One way or another, I need to gather up some keywords and documentation to cover up all the education I’ve already got.

Nothing seasons a wobbly no-good day quite like irony, naja?