Why a PhD, Why Not & How To Know: Everyday Magic, Day 102

“So You Want to get a PhD in the Humanities?” the video is called, and as soon as I watched it, I was yelling, “Yes, that’s exactly how it was!” to every statement the incredulous and hanging-on-for-dear-life professor was saying. There are hardly any tenure-track jobs, most PhDs in the humanities work like dogs as adjuncts earning poverty-level wages, tenure-track holders are increasingly threatened by the rising tide of our countrymen who make fun of education and believe colleges should be stripped of federal funding, and the way through most PhD programs is akin to wandering a parking lot the size of Rhode Island in 112 degrees with a fever and without being able to find your car.

When my students and former students ask me what I think of them getting a PhD, I try to tell them everything, including some of what I went through as a poet in, at the time, a critical-theory-focused department which, coupled with failing my comps unanimously and completely (everything was so connected in literature that it was hard for me to make declarative statements), led me to quit my program for a year. But then I also tell them: I went back and finished.

At the time, all I knew was that I was supposed to do this, and I would find out why later. Turns out that instinct was true. With doctorate in hand, I was able to teach at Haskell Indian Nations University, one of the great educational and cultural experiences of my life. I also had the credentials to get hired at Goddard College in 1996, which I found, despite my belief that such a wonderland of social change and meaningful education could exist, my academic home. Of course, all academic institutions are pretty crazy, but that’s another story. I was also able to found Transformative Language Arts, an emerging academic field as well as a profession, edit a book on it, and start an annual conference.

Having a Ph.D. is, otherwise, not that useful, and for the most part, I don’t even put those letters after my name hardly ever because they tend to either alienate people, piss them off, or in the case of my fellow Lawrencians (highest percentage of PhDs and Kwik Shops in the U.S. — I know there’s a connection there), bore them.

Considering a Ph.D.? What I tell people most of all is this: Do it if you sense this is absolutely what you have to do, your calling despite all the obstacles, and if you’re well aware that everything in that animated video is also true in most cases. Don’t do it if you feel like you need this degree to be considered smart enough, good enough, important enough or cool enough. Lots of brilliant people don’t have doctorates, and plenty of doofuses do. Listen to yourself and find, even if you’re in a PhD program which is battering every ounce of self-esteem you might have at the moment, how to trust your own instincts and innate intelligence most of all.

5 thoughts on “Why a PhD, Why Not & How To Know: Everyday Magic, Day 102

  1. Thank you for this one. It’s so on target and describes so much of what I just went through. I wouldn’t change it for the world (I love my job teaching and needed it to unlock the Ivory Tower), but…..

    Anyhow, for whatever it’s worth, I love your writing and sincerely wish we were geographically closer. I can still remember with complete clarity walking together, arms linked around your neighborhood and thinking that there was at least one person in my bio-family that understood me.

    Hugs to you cuz!

  2. Hugs to you too, cuz, and thanks for the good works. Yeah, it’s a wild ride when it comes to the doctorate, and let those ivory walls fall! At least we understand each other!

  3. Thank you for this, Caryn! I appreciate your honesty and clarity about the process — and, in response, I’m grateful to still be wavering about whether or not going back for the PhD is the best decision for me right now. There are other ways to teach, other ways to study, to be able to have time/funds to study (there’s my biggest struggle: I want to be funded to learn!)…


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