Knowing when to quit

When I was still working on my dissertation, but near enough the end of it to begin looking for jobs, the question loomed: how long to keep at it? Asking this of some senior faculty members over a post-seminar dinner, I received the canonical answer: three years. “If you’re on the market for three years and you’re good,” I think it went, “you should get something — maybe not something great, but something.” In my case, good or not, this turned out to be surprisingly accurate. After a fruitless first run on the market pre-PhD, and a post-PhD year spent adjunct teaching at various New York universities and colleges, I got both a tenure-track job offer and a multi-year postdoc my third time out. For a couple of years, at least (I took the postdoc), I didn’t have to think about when to quit.

This was shortly before the Great Collapse of 2008, and though it should be said that jobs in my field were not exactly there for the asking even then, the situation in most fields, mine included, is now immeasurably worse. How long to keep at it is a question that confronts everyone from the outset of the process, and suggesting that adults with bills to pay spend three years applying for maybe four or five tenure-track positions — at whatever random assortment of North American campuses happen to be hiring in any given year — is not something even the most comfortable senior faculty do quite so readily. This does not mean they instead offer rich insights into non-academic employment options; how could it? All it means is that they have less and less to say. They — me too — are members of a declining class. We are not, on any meaningful scale, training our professional successors. We are, instead, inculcating and evaluating a set of skills, habits and bits of knowledge that in most cases will at best find incidental use in other contexts than those in and for which they came into existence.

So the question of when to quit comes up again, not only for those still hoping to make it, but — in a very different and yet closely related way — for those fewer and fewer of us who have made it. When do we stop pretending that the overwhelming majority of PhD programs (some of them started baldly for the sake of supplying graduate teaching labour; others, God help us, for the prestige they would bring to second-tier institutions) are there to train a next generation of tenure-track scholars? When do we stop pretending that the lack of such jobs isn’t fatal to our programs’ rationale, because PhD programs are necessary to teach “employable skills”? (They aren’t.) When do those of us who believe that the skills and the knowledge we teach do actually matter but know the jobs for those who have them don’t actually exist think about something besides starting yet more graduate programs based on the same flimsy logic and cynical NextGen boilerplate that’s brought us more new deanships than it has tenure-track jobs? When do we quit? And what do we do instead?

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