A Graduate Student's Life: "a Permanent Sense of Inadequacy and Dread"

October 16, 1998

Graduate school is not just learning a discipline; it's internalizing a permanent sense of inadequacy and dread. Even in my happiest moments I'm plagued by fears of my own unworthiness. Why aren't you working? Why haven't you published more? Why can't you find a job?

More and more, it seems that nothing we do is enough. The requirements for tenure-track consideration seem to have moved from an interesting dissertation and some experience as a teaching assistant to a book contract and several years of full-time teaching. It's not uncommon these days for job candidates to have scholarly credentials superior to the tenured professors who sit in judgment on them.

For the happy few who find positions, the workloads are up and the salaries are down. Last year I was interviewed by three schools, two of which offered an eight-course teaching load and paid less than $30,000 a year. None of those schools offered me a job, but I was told in gracious form letters (with rubber-stamped signatures) that I should feel honored to have been selected from over 400 applicants for an interview.

Here I am facing the market again, hoping that this time I'll be granted the rare honor of a tenure-track position that will probably pay less per year than the typical signing bonus given to a newly minted M.B.A.

I come from a working-class family in Philadelphia. I grew up admiring teachers. They were the only professional people to whom I had regular access. And many of them paid special attention to me. Nevertheless, I didn't dream of being a professor when I was an undergraduate; I just wanted a decent job and a chance at a middle-class life.

After college, one company after another hired me to work 40 or more hours a week "part time" without benefits. For a time, I was a "nutritional consultant" for a diet program that gave people liver disorders. I sold lifetime health-club memberships to people who didn't need them and couldn't afford them. The only job I held that wasn't morally offensive was loading trucks in a warehouse. I wasn't using my education, but at least the Teamsters union, for all its faults, provided workers with some bargaining power and dignity.

During this time, my college advisers told me that there would be a huge demand for professors a few years down the road. I liked writing. I liked doing research, and I thought I would like teaching. A graduate school offered me a fellowship. And over the next eight years, I gradually became an academic and could hardly see myself doing anything else.

Along the way, I accumulated my share of publications, fellowships, awards, and a wide range of teaching experiences. For a long time I thought each new achievement brought me one step closer to becoming an assistant professor.

Now I'm 30 years old. I'm mired in debt. And my wife, Teresa, and I are expecting a baby early next year. At family gatherings it's getting hard to find anyone who understands why a Harvard Ph.D. can't earn a decent living.

Little did I know that academia was becoming a perverse exaggeration of the corporate culture I had fled.

Now I'm nearly finished earning my doctorate in the history of American civilization. Influenced by Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, my dissertation examines self-refashioning in 19th-century Anglo-American literary culture. My research is interdisciplinary, but I'm primarily a candidate for jobs in English and cultural studies.

I plan to speak at the American Studies Association conference in November and to attend the Modern Language Association convention in December to support the growing academic labor movement and, I hope, to interview for positions. Though I'd prefer to work in the field for which I've trained all these years, I've decided that I must also look for appropriate positions in academic administration, publishing, and management consulting. I'm even going to submit to the so-called retooling process for humanities majors: a crash M.B.A. program at the Harvard Business School.

One way or another, I'm determined to leave graduate school by the end of this academic year, to restore my battered self-confidence, and to get on with my life.

So I check these job postings every week, wondering whether all my work and aspirations will be for nothing. Each scrap of news fills me with hope -- "The Number of College Students Reaches an All-Time High" -- or despair -- "Percentage of Tenure-Track Positions Reaches an All-Time Low." Every day I swing between extremes, feeling helpless one minute and empowered the next. I just keep scanning the job lists and doing everything I can to make myself into what the market wants.

Again, it's time to revise the C.V., request new recommendations, supplement the teaching portfolio, set up a grandiloquent Web page. Above all, network. Be ubiquitous. And keep writing. Like the characters in my dissertation, with each year a new "William A. Pannapacker" is created and submitted for the market's approval. We'll see whether there are any takers.

What drives so many of us to the brink of madness is the apparent randomness of the academic hiring process. We all know of people who have published successful books who can't find a job while others are hired before they finish their dissertations.

And even if you do everything right, so have hundreds of other candidates for the same job. Perhaps the department doesn't want the strongest candidate; perhaps they favor certain factors that have nothing to do with your qualifications.

Whatever the complex forces that keep the long-promised full-time positions from opening, we are all too inclined to blame ourselves rather than express our outrage at the academic job system.

Unfortunately, the exploitation of graduate students, adjuncts, and part-time faculty members has become business as usual. We provide about two-thirds of the undergraduate teaching, and we are paid less than would be legal in any other occupation. Each year thousands of us go through the hiring process, hoping that by some divine intercession we'll be chosen. A few of us will be saved -- enough to keep the rest of us invested in the system.

Meanwhile, more and more of us are finding that there are other socially conscious occupations. The corporate world I found so distasteful and hostile years ago seems refreshingly wholesome and welcoming by comparison.

But if you're determined to stay, I am convinced that you have more to gain by organizing with your peers than you do by accepting the current job system and blaming yourself for your failure. At the very least you will recover your self-respect by fighting back. I feel better already.

Bill Pannapacker is a candidate for the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association. He welcomes letters and can be contacted through his Web site at