No One Promised Us a Job

I’m not going to discuss “vampire” students, or academic metamorphoses, or why one shouldn’t attend graduate school. Anyone reading The Chronicle is probably already in graduate school or has decided to go or has gone at some point.

I want to talk hockey. In Canada, where I’m from, hockey is culture. Little boys and girls grow up playing hockey in winter, in summer; in the street, on backyard rinks; with friends, against friends; on weekends, on school nights; in the wee hours of the morning, in the late hours of the evening, sometimes in the middle of the day. It isn’t rare for a hockey family to plan vacations, doctor’s appointments, work hours, jobs, even meals around hockey schedules.

I never played hockey, but I spent more time in hockey arenas than I’d care to admit. I have two brothers, one of whom was drafted into the National Hockey League in 1991, when he was 19. In the fourth round, the Buffalo Sabres called on him to wear their jersey and skate off into hockey glory.

Of course, not all boys who play hockey expect to make it their profession. Some do it for pleasure, sport, or a college scholarship. But it would be naïve to think that hockey-crazed little boys don’t dream of playing in the NHL.

The bleak truth, however, is that even a young man who has spent his whole life playing hockey has an infinitesimal chance of being drafted.

Pete played 12 NHL games for Buffalo before an injury sent him back to the minors. He spent 14 years in all playing professional hockey, though it wasn’t always for the Sabres or their minor-league affiliates. He moved around a lot.

Getting drafted by an NHL team, of course, doesn’t promise secure and stable employment with that team. Playing a sport, becoming an expert, living and breathing it, doesn’t guarantee you a professional position playing that sport.

So how does that relate to academe? No field guarantees job placement. Highly skilled and talented athletes, as well as committed and exceptional students, may have better chances than mediocre ones, but they still don’t get guarantees. You may argue that athletes don’t spend money on degrees in their sport and, therefore, aren’t in debt when their training is finished. That simply isn’t true. Organized sports cost an exorbitant amount every year. Sure, for most athletes the expense is over time, but it’s a financial burden nonetheless—one that is rarely, if ever, reimbursed.

Graduate students do what we do because we love it. We produce theses and dissertations because we enjoy the subject of our study. If you’re doing those things for any other reason, you’re robbing yourself of time spent doing something you love. In today’s job market, no field guarantees employment. Even medical students are at risk of not being placed for residencies.

I wanted to become a writer. I went to graduate school because I wasn’t versed enough in literature to know how to write. It’s true I could have just spent the past four years reading everything ever written. But I wanted guidance. I wanted to be immersed in a reading culture, surrounded by a literary ambience that went beyond the simple reading of texts. I wanted to give myself the best training I could for a profession in literature.

Isn’t that the point? The training, the learning? The academy never promised us jobs. It didn’t when I applied for graduate school, in 2008. When I was an undergraduate, not one professor said I should go to graduate school to secure a tenure-track position or a teaching job of any kind. The ones who encouraged me did so because they saw that I was eager to continue studying literature.

I am no fool, nor am I resistant to the overhyped drama that is perpetuated by articles like “The Long Odds of the Faculty Job Search.” As an A.B.D. with no teaching experience, I’m well aware of my chances of making it to the academy’s major leagues—a tenure-track teaching gig.

But why should getting a tenure-track job be any more plausible and easier than getting a spot on a professional sports team? An athlete, I might add, has committed a lifetime to his sport. I, a graduate student, have spent a mere four years, with enough time off to travel in Europe.

I’m not demeaning my work. I have done well in my program, most recently passing the oral exams with distinction. And I have learned a lot, including how to write. I have accomplished what I set out to do.

I recently asked my brother if he regretted going to the NHL, especially since it hadn’t guaranteed him stable employment, then or now. He said he had had no idea that he was good enough to be drafted. He knew there were no guarantees. And he had no regrets. He hadn’t committed his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood to hockey because it would guarantee him employment in the future; he’d played hockey because he loved it.

Paige Ambroziak is an A.B.D. in comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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