Do what you love?

25 Aug

It has recently come to my attention that doing a PhD in humanities is, in the opinion of many who are en route to doing one or have gotten one, pretty useless.

By this I don’t mean to say that the degree is meaningless or that the time invested into scholarly inquiry is not time well spent. On the contrary, I believe that graduate study and critical analysis can be deeply rewarding, and the intellectual community into which you’re immersed can make the long journey pleasant, if not exciting at times.

What I do mean is that by conventional standards, a PhD, especially in the humanities, does not always seem to pave a direct road toward a job in academia. Yes, professors are over-worked and under-paid and plum appointments have always been hard to come by. But with an over-saturated job market, hiring freezes, and the conversion of many tenure-track appointments to adjunct gigs, hoping for a tenure-track job in the humanities even if you speak four languages and have an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. might just be an exercise in futility.

Prior to this stunning realization, I seriously debated the merits of applying to PhDs in English, Spanish, and Comparative Literature. Comp Lit is the field I love and best supports my research interests; English or Spanish would be a better bet on the job market, I was told. But entering into a department to study one might mean excluding the other from my coursework, exams, or dissertation, and it’s difficult to imagine surviving the length of a doctoral program having to commit to just one, especially when I have language interests that extend beyond Hispanic and English studies. I also wonder: how can we talk about cultural exchange and international literary trends without consulting source materials in multiple languages?

Ultimately, I’m not sure a move into English or Spanish would truly make a difference in the long-run. The ultimate thing is this: as long as I enjoy what I do; as long as I am being paid to do this; and as long as I am willing to accept that there may be no real ‘pay-off’ in the traditional sense (read: job) after completing a Ph.D., then the investment of time and effort doesn’t seem like an entirely lost cause.

Of course, if there’s no real guarantee of a job anyways, in some sense, I have to say: why does it even matter what I study? As the old cliche goes: It’s the journey that matters most. And I’m unwilling to sacrifice that journey, I suppose (however idealistic that might seem) in hopes that the end result might have a chance of turning out one way or another. We can’t know the future; even the best laid plans go wrong.

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