Unemployment and the Toil of Sisyphus

March 05, 2009

I'm on hold — again — waiting for yet another customer-service representative to decide whether the "Bank of Woe" will lower the interest rate on my (substantial) outstanding credit-card debt. While waiting, I try not to listen to the loop recording that keeps advising me to use online banking, and instead ponder my predicament.

In brief, I'm pushing 30, I'm unemployed, I have no savings and a toddler to look after, I'm in debt up to my eyeballs, I'm reliant on my husband's modest salary as an assistant professor to buy food and pay the rent, and, to top it all, I have seemingly nonexistent career prospects at the moment.

How did I, a reasonably freshly minted history Ph.D., end up in this impecunious and disheartening predicament? And, more important for my long-term mental health, why am I constantly replaying this grim laundry list of personal failures in my head, letting it loop over and over and over again as I struggle to complete daily tasks?

Am I a masochist? Have I unknowingly consigned myself to the punishing toil of Sisyphus, who, in Greek mythology, was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again each time he reaches the top, for all eternity? In my pursuit first of a doctoral degree in history and now of a tenure-track academic position, have I merely taken up my own proverbial boulder?

In an ideal world, things would have gone my way. Those enormous student loans I took out to finance my graduate education at the doe-eyed age of 22 — something my friends and I used to refer to as my anti-dowry — would be no problem. I'd write the $400 check each month, thankful that the generosity of the U.S. government had enabled me to achieve the academic dream — that is, the cushy life of a humanities professor. Sure, as my husband likes to remind me, it isn't all kicks and giggles in the halls of academe. But in my alternate, employed reality I am quite content to deal with demanding students, well-meaning but bothersome colleagues, and pushy administrators, so long as I can continue to do research, teach, write about what I love, and, critically, pay my bills on time.

In the so-called real world, on the other hand, that elusive tenure-track academic job that every young historian craves but only a handful of us attain — often three to four years after earning our doctorates — remains out of reach.

The employment prospects for new Ph.D.'s in history look particularly bleak for the 2009-10 job season, too. According to the American Historical Association, history jobs are down by 15 percent because of a number of frozen or canceled searches. Why, after spending the last decade of my life in higher education, did I have to graduate on the brink of the worst global recession since the Great Depression?

Wait a second. The loop recording has come to abrupt halt; an actual human being is on the line. I am about to have a semi-live conversation about my personal financial difficulties with a total stranger at the Bank of Woe. As the no-nonsense customer-service rep, let's call her "Susan," takes down my account details and asks how she may be of service, I feel a lump growing in my throat.

Where to begin? Do I tell her I'm full of regret for having attended graduate school with borrowed money, or that my credit-card purchases are based on need and desperation rather than mere consumer desire, or that we moved to the middle of nowhere because my husband received only one job offer and I didn't receive any? Or maybe I should just tell Susan what I am beginning to suspect is the truth: I want to start all over, go back to my early 20s, and choose a different, more practical, and less futile career path.

Then reality sinks in. This is not a free counseling session; Susan is neither a therapist nor a trusted adviser. Truth be told, Susan is the bottom-level spokeswoman of a money-grubbing credit-card company that would love to take me for all I'm worth, which, admittedly, isn't much. I'm really at a loss for words, and Susan clearly hasn't got all day. She has hundreds of other grumbling and stressed-out customers to attend to once I have aired my grievances. Her phone conversations are not accompanied by complimentary tissue boxes and soothing cups of tea.

So I steel myself to deal with the matter at hand — my inability to pay my creditors — and end up listing, at Susan's request, my family's net income and monthly expenses in great detail. After a bit of haggling and a frank discussion with a financial counselor, Susan and I come to an equitable agreement: I will close my account and make low monthly payments for the next five years, unless I find gainful employment and manage to pay the account off sooner.

As it turns out, the situation is not quite so simple after all, since the payment plan has to be approved by Susan's boss, and her boss's boss, and so on, but I feel a sense of relief knowing that I have at least dealt with one nagging issue on my growing list of self-recrimination. Now I just have to decide how long I intend to push this boulder up the hill, and when enough will be enough. The last thing I want to do is drag my family down with me, but at the same time, I hate the thought of giving up and calling it quits. Like it or not, my pride, my sense of self-worth, even my sanity, are wrapped up in the seemingly fruitless academic job search. Will Sisyphus ever learn his lesson? Will I?

I should feel fortunate knowing that my husband at least has found tenure-track employment — even if it is in an extremely remote location. Many of our well-qualified and enthusiastic friends from graduate school are drifting across the country from one temporary visiting position to another, while others, like me, are struggling to find sporadic, low-paying adjunct work. While my family is rooted to this particular spot due to my husband's new job, my long-term professional prospects will grow bleaker by the day, and we desperately need two incomes to pay our bills, chip away at our debts, and save for the future.

Since the 1990s, it has been considered par for the course for history Ph.D.'s to spend several years after graduation publishing and teaching, whether as visiting assistant professors, postdocs, or adjuncts, in order to secure entry-level jobs as tenure-track faculty members. Nonetheless, despite years of emphasis on positive job growth in history, even the AHA has recently admitted that most doctoral recipients will never achieve a position with the possibility of tenure. Worse still, many of the remaining history Ph.D.'s will fail to even obtain a full-time, untenured faculty position.

All of that leads me to believe that it is time to grow up, face facts, and quietly and resolutely take my life off hold. When times are good, tenure-track history positions are hard to find; now that we have entered a recession, they are nearly impossible to secure. I won't give up on my research or stop trying to find an academic job, but I resolve to start pursuing other, fulfilling (I hope) nonacademic options for my family's sake as well as my own.

I say that with a great deal of sadness but only a touch of bitterness because I realize that I am part of the majority rather than the minority. As I unwillingly and begrudgingly put the boulder down, I take some small comfort knowing that I am not alone.


Nicole Brooks is the pseudonym of an unemployed Ph.D. in history currently living in the South.