The Ph.D. on the side of the road

As I near completion of my Ph.D. program, I’m actually not very busy at the moment, except in the ways I keep myself busy: following the news intensively as I have done now for several years, the occasional blog post, and catching up on a lot of Star Trek fan videos. The latter are attempts of variable quality to create new episodes that can be watched, almost always on YouTube. Some of them have dreadful scripts; one has actually pretty good scripts, but only two voices—both male—to play both male and female characters in an animated series; some hearken to the original series; others place themselves in the universe of Star Trek: Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager; some place themselves in the earlier universe of Enterprise or even before. Some represent considerable investments: The producers—all volunteers—have built their own sets. Others re-use backgrounds from the official productions with CGI. Some are animated, occasionally with video game software. The video game animations are stilted and entirely unrealistic, often ruining what is for me an intensely visual experience. One series stopped doing video productions and picked up with audio-only—the loss of the visual here was, for me, too great a loss.

But through it all, I see again and again how, in the adventures portrayed, crews never abandon one of their own. People often do get killed. But if they are alive, they are rescued. Star Trek isn’t just an optimistic—probably implausibly optimistic—view of the future; it is also a loyal view of the future. For all the whiz-bang effects, people matter. Individuals matter.

While pursuing my studies, I’ve tended to leave Star Trek aside. I have, until now, been exceedingly busy with those studies. I have a personal library now consisting of something approaching 500 books, most of which I’ve actually read, most of which are non-fiction. In addition, I have amassed an archive of news articles and some journal articles. My mind has been on matters other than Star Trek, but also, I have been increasingly troubled with the militarism of Starfleet; even if their mission is primarily to explore, there are uniforms, ranks, battles, and even wars. Ultimately, the Star Trek universe is a science fiction version of the same colonial attitudes and the self-deceits about those attitudes we humans perpetuate among ourselves.

But as I await feedback on my dissertation—I hope to defend it within a month—I have found myself turning to Star Trek once again. And seeing as well its positive aspects: loyalty, hope, compassion.

I have been sustaining myself on student loans. That will be coming to an end, just as my time as a student comes to an end, soon. So one might think I should be job-hunting.

But you see, when I returned to school in the fall of 2003, I never envisioned I would go all the way to a Ph.D. The plan, never really reconsidered because no alternative ever presented itself, had been that at some point, I would find employment and quit school. It hasn’t happened.

In fact, I have not been gainfully employed since the dot-com crash in 2001. It is true that I haven’t been job-hunting continuously since that time. There are only so many résumés one can send out, so many job applications one can fill in before despair takes over. My job hunt has not been like Star Trek. My so-called ‘friends’ have abandoned me. No one answers my distress calls. The overwhelming message I get from job-hunting is that I do not matter, indeed, that I am just yet more trash left on the side of the road. No matter how many degrees I complete—and since 2003, I’ve completed a Bachelors, a Masters, and now, very nearly, the Ph.D.—I can’t even get an interview (I’ve had a grand total of four interviews in the fourteen years since the dot-com crash).

My so-called friends’ betrayal—for it is through one’s network that a vast majority of jobs are found—is a trauma on top of the trauma of a futile job hunt on top of the other traumas of my life. I’ve never been good at job-hunting; while it’s true I burned out on computer programming in 1985, I also never succeeded in finding work as a programmer after leaving a job in Selma, a town roughly 15 miles south of Fresno, in California’s Bible belt (which comprises nearly the entire Central Valley). But I have also learned that sending out résumés and filling in job applications are low-probability methods of finding work. Such inquiries pass through systems intended to filter people out, to discard them—me—like trash on the side of the road.

And surely, there are plenty of reasons to weed me out. I am old, well into my fifties. I haven’t been employed for many years. My skill set doesn’t fit neatly into any of the quantifiable pigeonholes that an intensely profit-driven and hence quantitatively-oriented society demands. And I can’t sell to save my life (and wouldn’t want to sell even if I could).

I am more than any of that. But there is only one place in my life where that has been recognized. And that has been as a student. Where, behind the curtain, I am on some level again being exploited—I have amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. I have learned much and I value that. But I have also been contributing mostly to administrative salaries and helping to enable ever-higher tuitions, with relatively little of the money going to pay my professors, more and more of whom now work for poverty wages.

So even as a student, my life has, to some degree, been about what people can get out of me, without my ever having the opportunity to actually earn a living. And somehow, that’s all supposed to magically change with a degree, let alone a Ph.D.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Friends are supposed to matter. Education is supposed to matter. And though I hate the word, discipline, such as the discipline needed to get through a dissertation, is supposed to matter. Star Trek reminds me of how it’s supposed to be. But all I see in real life is betrayal.

One thought on “The Ph.D. on the side of the road

  • October 17, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Editor’s note, October 20, 2015: This comment was originally posted on Facebook on October 16, 2015, so the reference to ‘yesterday’ would mean October 15. I invited the author, Jay Dias, to post it here the following day (October 17), but its publication was delayed due to network issues on this site.

    A student came up to me after a class yesterday. She was black and much of the talk had been about racism. She was excited, because all her work was starting to tie together: criminal justice problems here, implicit bias there and so on, but she was also afraid for me.

    You can’t talk like that, she said. You’re going to make a lot of people angry.

    And it took your article to make me see why I’ve fallen into a habit of (sometimes brutal) honesty. Because, so what?

    Maybe a white student gets mad because I don’t let them get away with denying racism. It could happen, and I could “get in trouble” for that. And so what?

    I could go to McDonalds and replace the income from my community college job. Work 20 hours a week.

    See, I read this thing and thought, you aren’t helping yourself out, man. Too much truth. People don’t like truth. Nobody’s going to hire someone who talks fringey stuff like this, who blames ageism and the rules behind the rules.

    But then, so what? They weren’t going to hire you anyway, were they? Because, ageism and bias, and the way the economy is shaped so that the only things you could do for money are the soul-crushing things, the ones that make you sacrifice your ethics on the alter of cold and hard.

    Which I suppose is all a long-winded way of saying I tend to agree with you.

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