Walking off a cliff

As I work my way through the final steps to the conferral of my Ph.D., expected on January 8, 2016, it isn’t surprising that my thoughts turn to the question of well, what next?

When I returned to school in 2003, and chose a mass communication major, I did so recognizing two things: First, I have bounced out of high technology three times now, landing really, really hard, with severe financial and psychological consequences. I don’t recover well from being laid off. Because I am not in any way a salesperson, job-hunting has always been very difficult and I need a career path that offers security as well as a livable income. The idea of more or less continuously searching for work in a world where jobs are increasingly temporary is a fate worse than death. I hoped that returning to school might open some doors.

Second, I recognized that the purported “jobs of the future” all might be off-shored by the time I finished preparing for them, or soon thereafter, leaving me with all the debt I had accumulated in preparation, and still no job. One aspect of this can be seen in the tech industry’s proclivity for importing workers on H-1B visas, not because qualified citizens cannot be found to do the work, but because foreign workers are cheaper.[1] Another version of this same aspect can be seen in some economists’ dubious claims that there is a mismatch between skills in demand and the skills which U.S. workers have to offer, and in employers’ bogus claims that they can’t find qualified workers when in fact the problems are that they can’t find qualified workers willing to work for low pay and that they are unwilling to invest in training.[2] In essence, what we’re seeing here is that employers resent every penny they’re paying for labor, and that they feel entitled to labor for free, bringing new meaning to the term “free labor.”

A third factor in this decision was that student loans might leave me at least a little spending money until my next job. As I finish this Ph.D., having amassed over $300,000 in student loan debt, and reached some loan limits, it seems clear that this path has reached an end.

Notice that in this evaluation I succumbed to the fallacy of understanding education as leading to employment. The value of a college education, particularly to the level of attainment I have achieved, lies not in employability[3] but rather in contributions to knowledge, research, critical thinking, writing, and other values that defy simplistic quantification. Though crucial to society, the neoliberal ideology that now governs our society generally fails to recognize these values as “profitable” and therefore dismisses them. As this occurs, academia faces an existential crisis that juxtaposes ridiculously rising administrative costs with declining funding.[4] And as it turns out, when I take a career aptitude test, the result suggests I should be a professor—a position for which my Ph.D. should qualify me—and plunge myself into the catastrophe that now constitutes academic hiring, a catastrophe in which those relatively few highly-educated folks who are lucky enough to find any position at all—and many more than universities want to acknowledge—are likely to work for poverty-level wages, little respect, little security, and few opportunities to advance to a tenure-track position.[5] Worse, as a post-disciplinary scholar, I don’t fit into the nice, neat shoebox disciplines that university departments generally hire for. Which means I need to sell myself even more effectively when I have zero (or perhaps even negative) talent or inclination for selling. And still worse, even recognizing the dismal state of the academic job market, I haven’t even the remotest clue how I might fit into anything else.

One might hope my social network might be of value here. I have numerous friends earning in excess of and sometimes multiples of $100,000 per year. Surely, one might think, one of them could hook me up with something. Instead, they seem more inclined to leave me to my fate. When, suddenly discovering the university required I hire an editor for my dissertation and that this editor could cost a few thousand dollars, I hastily set up a GoFundMe appeal to try to defray the cost. To date, one person, whom I’ve never met in person, has responded with a small donation, and not via GoFundMe. After fourteen years of failing to find gainful employment and these well-off friends having been of no assistance in all that time in finding work, it is clear that networking, the only way anyone finds work in what is largely an inside game, is not going to solve my problem.

And it is even more evident that I’m getting filtered out in my quest for work by other means. I face age discrimination[6] and discrimination against the long-term unemployed.[7] I have spent a lot of my adult life bouncing from one abusive working class job to another, enough so that I don’t dare ever put myself in that kind of situation again, especially as I approach the age where it would be nice to have some provision for retirement.

So I don’t know what to do. Earning a Ph.D. should be a happy, momentous occasion. Instead, it feels like I’m walking off a cliff.

  1. [1]Josh Eidelson, “The Tech Worker Shortage Doesn’t Really Exist,” Business Week, November 24, 2014, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-11-24/the-tech-worker-shortage-doesnt-really-exist; Karin Klein, “The truth about the great American science shortfall,” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-stem-science-math-shortage-20140224,0,6706502.story; Julia Preston, “Large Companies Game H-1B Visa Program, Costing the U.S. Jobs,” New York Times, November 10, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/11/us/large-companies-game-h-1b-visa-program-leaving-smaller-ones-in-the-cold.html; Kyung M. Song and Janet I. Tu, “Do visas for skilled foreigners shut out U.S. tech workers?” Seattle Times, May 5, 2013, http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020924182_h1bworkersxml.html; Jordan Weissmann, “The Myth of America’s Tech-Talent Shortage,” Atlantic, April 29, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-myth-of-americas-tech-talent-shortage/275319/
  2. [2]Zeeshan Aleem, “The One Huge Problem That Free Community College Will Do Nothing to Fix,” Mic, January 22, 2015, http://mic.com/articles/108934/the-one-huge-problem-that-free-community-college-will-do-nothing-to-fix; Peter Cappelli, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need,” Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2011, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204422404576596630897409182; Ryan Chittum, “The ‘Can’t Find Workers’ Meme,” Columbia Journalism Review, February 21, 2012, http://www.cjr.org/the_audit/the_cant_find_workers_meme.php; Karin Fischer, Beckie Supiano, and Dan Berrett, “The Employment Mismatch,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Employment-Mismatch/137625/; Paul Krugman, “The Structural Obsession,” New York Times, June 8, 2012, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/08/the-structural-obsession/; Paul Krugman, “Bill Clinton and Structural Unemployment,” New York Times, September 6, 2012, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/bill-clinton-and-structural-unemployment/; Paul Krugman, “Jobs and Skills and Zombies,” New York Times, March 30, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/31/opinion/krugman-jobs-and-skills-and-zombies.html; Peter R. Orszag, “With So Many Job Openings, Why So Little Hiring?” Bloomberg, August 13, 2013, http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2013-08-13/with-so-many-job-openings-why-so-little-hiring-; Matthew Yglesias, “Why is it taking longer and longer to fill open jobs?” Vox, June 20, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/6/20/8815561/job-vacancy-duration
  3. [3]Scott Carlson, “A Symposium Cautions Against Conflating Education With Job Training,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 18, 2015, http://chronicle.com/article/A-Symposium-Cautions-Against/233209/
  4. [4]Peter Conn, “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 4, 2010, http://chronicle.com/article/We-Need-to-Acknowledge-the/64885/; Terry Eagleton, “The Slow Death of the University,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 6, 2015, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Slow-Death-of-the/228991/; Colleen Flaherty, “Making the Case for Liberal Arts,” Inside Higher Ed, June 19, 2013, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/06/19/new-academy-arts-and-sciences-report-stresses-importance-humanities-and-social; Gary Gutting, “The Real Humanities Crisis,” New York Times, November 30, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/; Paul Jay, “How Not to Defend the Liberal Arts,” Inside Higher Ed, October 27, 2014, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/10/27/essay-state-liberal-arts; Michael McCarthy, “A University Is a Social Force,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2014, http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/11/07/a-university-is-a-social-force/; Elizabeth Segran, “What Can You Do With a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?” Atlantic, March 31, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/what-can-you-do-with-a-humanities-phd-anyway/359927/; Jordan Weissmann, “The Unending Horror of the Humanities Job Market, in One Chart,” Slate, July 14, 2010, http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/07/14/humanities_ph_d_employment_the_longstanding_horror_of_the_job_market_in.html
  5. [5]L.V. Anderson, “Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs,” Slate, November 19, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/11/19/adjunct_professor_job_mobility_why_it_s_hard_for_contingent_faculty_to_find.html; Kelly J. Baker, “The Impermanent Adjunct,” Vitae, February 26, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/354-the-impermanent-adjunct; Josh, Boldt, “99 Problems But Tenure Ain’t One,” Vitae, January 21, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/283-99-problems-but-tenure-ain-t-one; Ella Delany, “Part-Timers Crowd Academic Hiring,” New York Times, December 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/23/world/europe/part-timers-crowd-academic-hiring.html; Sydni Dunn, “Visiting Professorships Take On New Uses in Changing Market,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 4, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Visiting-Professorships-How/136953/; Colleen Flaherty, “No Country for Old Adjuncts,” Inside Higher Ed, September 24, 2014, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/09/24/recent-legal-cases-point-link-between-anti-adjunct-bias-and-age-bias; Colleen Flaherty, “Closed Networks,” Inside Higher Ed, February 13, 2015, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/13/study-suggests-insular-faculty-hiring-practices-elite-departments; Thomas Frank, “Congratulations, class of 2014: You’re totally screwed,” Salon, May 18, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/05/18/congratulations_class_of_2014_youre_totally_screwed/; Billie Hara, “How Do You, NTT Faculty, Pay Your Rent?” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-do-you-ntt-faculty-pay-your-rent/39146; Keith Hoeller, “The Wal-Mart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed,” Salon, February 16, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/16/the_wal_mart_ization_of_higher_education_how_young_professors_are_getting_screwed/; Scott Jaschik, “Hiding Adjuncts From ‘U.S. News,'” Inside Higher Ed, September 3, 2009, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/09/03/usnews; Audrey Williams June, “3 Things I’ve Learned About Ph.D. Students and Placement,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 23, 2013, http://chronicle.com/blogs/phd/2013/09/23/3-things-ive-learned-about-ph-d-students-and-placement/; Audrey Williams June, “Do You Know Where Your Ph.D.’s Are?” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 23, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Do-You-Know-Where-Your-PhDs/141777/; Sarah Kendzior, “Zero opportunity employers,” Al Jazeera, September 23, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/09/2013923101543956539.html; Daniel Kovalik, “Death of an adjunct,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 18, 2013, http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinion/perspectives/death-of-an-adjunct-703773/; Diana Lambert and Phillip Reese, “CSU using more part-time faculty than full-time professors,” Sacramento Bee, January 31, 2015, http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/education/article8875895.html; Mark Oppenheimer, “For Duquesne Professors, a Union Fight That Transcends Religion,” New York Times, June 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/education/for-professors-at-duquesne-university-union-fight-transcends-religion.html; Stacey Patton, “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/; Stacey Patton, “Stale Ph.D.’s Need Not Apply,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 19, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/Stale-PhDs-Need-Not-Apply/134516; Stacey Patton, “Ph.D.’s Spend Big Bucks Hunting for Academic Jobs,With No Guaranteed Results,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 11, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/A-Job-in-Academe-Itll-Cost/137823/; Stacey Patton, “‘I Fully Expect to Die With This Debt’,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/I-Fully-Expect-to-Die-With/138507/; Claudio Sanchez, “The Sad Death Of An Adjunct Professor Sparks A Labor Debate,” National Public Radio, September 22, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224946206/adjunct-professor-dies-destitute-then-sparks-debat; Jordan Weissmann, “How Many Ph.D.’s Actually Get to Become College Professors?” Atlantic, February 23, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/how-many-phds-actually-get-to-become-college-professors/273434/
  6. [6]Donna Ballman, “6 Ways To Prove You’re A Victim Of Age Discrimination,” AOL, September 10, 2013, http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2013/09/10/prove-age-discrimination-claim/; Kristen V. Brown, “Inside Silicon Valley’s cult of youth,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Inside-Silicon-Valley-s-cult-of-youth-5451375.php; Rigel Celeste, “Age Discrimination: Are Workers Over 50 Cursed in the Job Market?” AOL, August 17, 2010, http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2010/08/17/age-discrimination/; Susan Heavey, “Over 55 and jobless, Americans face tough hunt,” Reuters, May 15, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/15/us-usa-aging-workers-idUSBRE84E04Y20120515; Alexander Monge-Naranjo and Faisal Sohail, “Age and Gender Differences in Long-Term Unemployment: Before and After the Great Recession,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, November 6, 2015, https://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/economic-synopses/2015/11/06/age-and-gender-differences-in-long-term-unemployment-before-and-after-the-great-recession/; Lynn Stuart Parramore, “50 Is the New 65: Older Americans Are Getting Booted from Their Jobs and Denied New Opportunities,” Alternet, December 22, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/economy/age-discrimination-workplace; Catherine Rampell, “In Hard Economy for All Ages, Older Isn’t Better … It’s Brutal,” New York Times, February 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/business/americans-closest-to-retirement-were-hardest-hit-by-recession.html
  7. [7]Kevin Drum, “10 Reasons That Long-Term Unemployment Is a National Catastrophe,” Mother Jones, December 23, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/12/10-reasons-long-term-unemployment-national-catastrophe; Paul Krugman, “The Jobless Trap,” New York Times, April 21, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/22/opinion/krugman-the-jobless-trap.html; Annie Lowrey, “Long-Term Jobless: Still a Bleak Picture,” New York Times, June 7, 2013, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/long-term-jobless-still-a-bleak-picture/; Annie Lowrey, “Caught in a Revolving Door of Unemployment,” New York Times, November 16, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/business/caught-in-unemployments-revolving-door.html; Matthew O’Brien, “The Terrifying Reality of Long-Term Unemployment,” Atlantic, April 13, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-terrifying-reality-of-long-term-unemployment/274957/; Matthew Yglesias, “The Long-Term Unemployed Are Doomed,” Slate, April 15, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/04/15/rand_ghayad_on_long_term_unemployment_the_long_term_unemployed_are_discriminated.html; Matthew Yglesias, “Statistical Discrimination Against the Long-Term Unemployed,” Slate, April 23, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/04/23/long_term_unemployed_face_ferocious_statistical_discrimination.html

3 thoughts on “Walking off a cliff

  • I can sympathize, as I always sucked at networking too. Do you have relatives? Anyone on whose sofa you could crash if it comes to that?

    I never got a PhD, so am impressed — never had the attention span for it, and never impressed anyone else with my ‘analysis’ skills in the humanities. That was 40 years ago, I can only imagine what has become of that academic humanities hothouse since.

    So I have made a career out of piddling around with computers and electronics and gadgets and stuff. It worked out pretty well, but I think its time has just about come to an end. For me and for the whole macro-economy. Should have retired already, but it’s hard to forgo that paycheck…

    Have you considered going into Druidry? 😉 (I confess to following JMG’s blog here) Probably not much money in it, but perhaps some satisfaction to be had…

    • Jim, I can’t help suspecting that when you refer to “that academic humanities hothouse,” you’re referring to post-modernism, which was just about to come into its own about then. For what it’s worth, while post-modernism made points that we can all learn from, my reading of the situation now is that it’s now somewhat passé, that the writing has come to be recognized for the undecipherable mess it is, and that post-modernism as a whole is seen as having gone more than a bit too far.

      As to your main points, yes, actually, thanks to family, I have a reasonably comfortable home—and I probably should be a bit more appreciate of that than I am. But being stuck at home is, for me, like Dr. Who grousing about being stuck on one planet while his TARDIS was broken.

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