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Off Track

Mike O’Hara* is on the academic job market for the second year in a row.  Sitting on a marble slab in Yale’s Beinecke Plaza, he pulls out a single, typed sheet of paper that lists all the open positions in his field.  “Best Bets” includes spots at ten or a dozen universities, “Long Shots” lists places at fifteen. Then, at the bottom of the sheet, there’s a slim category called “Hail Marys.”  These jobs, it seems, might only descend from heaven as a result of ardent prayer.

Mike’s wife, whom he met here at Yale’s Graduate School for the Arts and Sciences, told him not to talk to journalists about his job search.  In fact, he told me, he was sure that he would be the only grad student currently on the job market who would be willing to talk to me. Mike feels vulnerable, sensing he’s under the hawk-eyes of potential employers. In spite of the danger, though, Mike wants—needs—to get the word out about his and his classmates’ experiences.

“The mood” among his classmates, Mike says, “is one of despair.” Mike knows how slim his own odds of finding a professorial job.  The fact that he chose a rather unusual and multidisciplinary field rather limits his choices.  And all of the jobs on his list, he knows, will have about two hundred applicants each.


But Mike has seen it all before. First, a job list comes out in September. Then, many hopefuls apply. Next, the initial applicant pool is whittled down to a handful who undergo tense interviews in hotel rooms. Ultimately, only three of those get invited for an on-campus interview.  When the economic downturn hit last year, however, up to two-thirds of the jobs posted by universities suddenly disappeared.  After what he termed “a cascade of cancellations,” there were even fewer places to look, and Mike and many of his classmates were forced to stay in New Haven for another year to try again.  In this time, he’s coming up with a second book project to contrast with his dissertation. And he’s formulating a Plan B. He can’t afford to stay here another year and endure this taxing process for a third time. People have got to realize, he emphasizes, that being an academic isn’t the only way to lead an intellectual life.

Steven Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale and Master of Branford College, believes it is the fate of higher education to persist despite the ravages of the economy. “Universities, colleges,” he says. “We manage to survive.” A tenured faculty member, he has the freedom to work on the topics that fire his curiosity: a few years ago it was the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza and then the 20th century political thinker Leo Strauss; now he writes and lectures on Lincoln.  “It’s a wonderful life,” he said.  “You get to do what you care about.  Not many people can say that.”

In his course on political philosophy, he talks with great admiration for the birth of higher education, the era when Plato established his Academy and when philosophy was considered, among the Greeks, to be an expression of erotic desire. “Yale and places like this are distant ancestors of this idea of educational utopias…We’re Plato’s children in that way.”

Graduate Students on Graduation Day

But the values of today’s university system are irrevocably changed.  Discovery of the good life through studying life’s essential questions has faded out of view and been replaced by another goal: “marketable skills.”  To Professor Smith, the academic life cannot come out of a determination to lead a professor’s career: it is the work of fate.  “The subject chooses you,” he says.

But for Maggie Jones*, the subject that chose her was not enough to keep her within the world of academia.  Unlike Professor Smith, she never tried going on the job market.  Although she’s still listed on the English Department’s directory as a 6th year graduate student, she left Yale last May to complete her dissertation on her own and to teach at a private high school in Massachusetts.  The transition hasn’t been perfectly straightforward: this Victorianist, with an interest in authors like Edith Wharton and Henry James, said that high school teaching has forced her to review her “kind of lacking” grammatical knowledge.  Students balk at being assigned a one-hundred page book to be read over the course of three weeks.  Deadlines are no longer self-imposed but are very real, and she is as busy as she’s ever been.

“I wanted to have conversations about literature that were more accessible, more about human moral problems,” she said of her decision to leave the academy behind. Though her two dissertation advisors urged her to pursue a professorial career, Maggie was drawn to aspects of the discipline she felt were undervalued at the university level. While she acknowledges that she had a wonderful time at Yale, and that “the space and money and time for intellectual play at universities is unique,” she and the academic establishment had divergent priorities. She wants to read books “because they are beautiful, for their political issues, and human drama.”  Her high school students understand that.  About the passion she brings to the classroom, she says, “There’s a little bit of missionary zeal in me.”

Another scholar I talked to was, like Maggie, once on the verge of breaking with academia.  Today, his picture is featured on the front page of the glossy, vivid brochure advertising “Graduate Study at Yale.”  He is in his doctoral robe of scarlet and black velvet, wearing a cropped white beard and round glasses, grinning broadly under his tassled academic cap and holding a strange kind of university scepter topped with a globe of crystal.  He is Jon Butler, the Dean of Yale’s Graduate School, and after graduate study at the University and Minnesota and a stint at Calstate Bakerville, winding up with an offer at Yale was an incredible windfall.  Having almost given up and tried another life, he is now a foremost scholar on the history religion in America who has published award-winning books and spoken as an expert on various TV and radio programs.

MacDougal Center at Hall of Graduate Studies

Sitting comfortably in his surroundings—a wide, airy office near the entrance of the Hall of Graduate Studies—Butler isn’t ready to call the current downswing in academic jobs a “crisis.” The fact that a drop in hiring has coincided with general economic decline is what makes it more of an alarming piece of news, he said.  He has witnessed ups and downs in academic hiring since the late 60s. Having trouble finding a job, he says, is nothing new, and frankly, jobs aren’t really the point. Butler makes clear that applicants are nearly always people who are there to study—not to attain a professional degree.  “I’m inclined to think that most are academically and intellectually driven to do deep study,” he says, and notes that only a minority of the students decide not to pursue an academic career after they have earned their Ph.D. After all, Ph.D. candidates are self selecting, he says.  “We don’t pursue students—we don’t go out and recruit.” Not recruiting means that there will be students like Maggie Jones who at the end of six years will find their career goals diverging from those of many of her classmates. To Dean Butler, such cases are perfectly normal; the focus should be on pursuing an education and enjoying the moment.  As we’re standing and shaking hands at the conclusion of our interview, Dean Butler smiles and offers some friendly advice to those who might engage in graduate study: don’t worry about it.  “Do what you want to do,” he said cheerily. “Close your eyes, wake up in six years and take a look around at the job market.”

Steven Pincus, the Director of Graduate Studies in the History Department, is equally unruffled about the futures of his students. Having received his Ph.D. nearly twenty years ago, he experiences a certain distance from the mood of panic on the ground.  Yet he says that the reality of the situation is far better than the perception. Most of the jobs that were cancelled, he says, were at the bottom of the heap—jobs that he believes Yale graduate students would be overqualified for. And Yale graduate students are eminently qualified to be professors, especially today. “I have a strong sense that every single one (of my students) that’s written a good dissertation has gotten a good job” he says.  Being prepared to get a good job, though, requires a lot more than it used to.  Having had several academic articles published, Pincus says, is “pretty much de rigeur,” and students are expected to “perform as professionals”.

Increased professionalization, however, comes with a cost.  Pincus becomes very thoughtful when he talks about the downside to the professionalization of scholarship.  While universities and their students benefit, scholarship itself may suffer.  “We don’t encourage high-risk dissertations,” he told me. He says that if one of his students came to him with a very daring plan for research, he would be likely to dissuade him. “It’s a much more professionalized existence,” he says about today’s academic life, and graduate students must write dissertations that conform to detailed standards if they want a good chance of getting a job.  The improvements in graduate education have been immense and there is “an overwhelming difference” in the quality of teaching that graduate students receive today as compared with the teaching they received a generation ago.  But in this generation, Pincus says with a real sense of regret, “opportunities for paradigm-shifting dissertation are lost.” It would take a true maverick, an academic rebel-genius, it seems, to write a dissertation that would shake up a field.

Paul Shin just may be that maverick, and happier for it. A fourth-year graduate student in the history of science and medicine, nothing about Paul’s approach to graduate school has been typical.  After earning an undergraduate degree in economics, he enrolled in medical school, but soon became fascinated in medical humanities, reading about the history of science on the side.  He decided to take a break—a six year break—from medical school to delve into the topics that go unaddressed in the average M.D. program: spiritualism, uncertainty, the practice of mesmerism and animal magnetism in 19th century American medicine, the vague boundaries between medical practice, magic, and religious belief.  If his interests sound whimsical or unconventional, Paul is used to defying expectation.  Compared to other medical students who are eager to get a degree and begin residency, Paul seems at home with the idea of taking even more time to study.  His interests extend far beyond his field. For Paul, graduate school has been a time to nurture a love of writing—he coordinates a “writing history” group and talks about the pleasures of writing and storytelling.  Instead of writing something purely academic for his dissertation, he muses, he’d like to end up with a book that Penguin or Viking could publish.  He talks in terms of plot and characters instead of thesis and conclusion, and heimagines his audience including his fellow physicians or his friends pursuing “complimentary and alternative medicine,” whose approach to their profession would be enriched by historical thinking.  To Paul, who reads Thomas Kuhn’s landmark history Structure of Scientific Revolutions along with his pathology textbook, doctoring and the humanities are inseparable.  “Grad school,” he says, “is this great time where you develop an understanding of some aspect of human experience.”

The last graduate student I talked to tends bar where Plato’s children go to get a drink.  Erik Graham-Smith runs the Gryphon’s at the Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale.  Last spring Erik earned his Master’s of Divinity, which he describes as a course of study in “very academic hardcore systematic theology and ethics… books with 14-syllable words.”  Unlike his classmates up at the Divinity School, Erik has had much closer contact with students in the Graduate School. At once an insider and an outsider—Erik’s degree will allow him to someday become a Jesuit priest—he shares many things in common with them.  Sitting on the chilly patio outside the warm, glowing lights of his bar, Erik talked, not without a little humor, about how the Masters in Divinity is “notoriously a degree people get when they’re figuring stuff out—it’s a spiritual degree.”  In that way it’s not unlike what a graduate degree can be for many people.  “As a recession avoider,” he says, a divinity degree is much the same as a Ph.D., and he has a number of friends who are earning doctorates but who plan on pursuing careers outside of academic research.  He’s in his mid-twenties, and pauses to tell me that his grandfather, at his age, was running a family farm.  He had already been to war, married, and had children.  Today, for those who attend graduate school, things can be much different.  Extending one’s education, pausing for a degree that will not inevitably lead to a career doesn’t necessarily have to be a waste of one’s time.  Paul, the historian and future physician, says his last four years have been “about stillness, listening, finding what’s really interesting… about life”.

Would the Greeks have disagreed?

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