Protect and Survive

It’s annual review time again in my PhD program, which means a set of new goals for the coming year. And my, has my list gotten short:

1) Finish the dissertation
2) Send a chapter of the diss out for review to a top journal in my field (that is, rhetoric) in August or September of this year.
3) Find a fucking job.

It’s this last one that has me, oh, not worried, exactly, but on the edge of unease. Todd Platts’ recent post at Inside HigherEd, I think, suggests why:

Like many recently minted Ph.D.s I am witnessing the shattering of my dreams of becoming a full-time college professor by the vagaries of an academic job market destroyed by a fledgling economic system.

And that’s the second sentence! Way to drop the bomb in paragraph 1.

For two years, Platts, a new PhD in sociology, has been searching far and afield for some sort of gainful academic employment. And, despite “put[ing] a little piece of myself into every job packet,” he has “come up empty-handed every time.”

As he notes, this is not a new story in his discipline of the social sciences, or in mine, in the humanities; indeed, of late, there has been an ongoing conversation on Inside HigherEd and in similar online spaces about the “heartbreak,” as Platts puts it, faced by many PhDs fresh out of the mill: there are no jobs–or not the right ones–to be had.

But what struck me about Platts’ piece, above all, was this: Platts cannot understand why he can’t get a job because: he’s done everything “right.”


He “maintain[s] an active publication track in a hot field of study – zombies.” His teaching “receives high marks.” He’s twice presented at his university’s colloquia. He’s “even presented a paper at the Midwest Sociological Society that would become a book chapter.” And all this, he says, despite serious health setbacks in recent years.

So why, Platts wonders, has he not found a job? As he puts it, “I have poured my heart and soul into sociology. I feel I have received so little in return.” He has done all that has been asked of him. Why has the universe not recognized his efforts in kind?

Platts’ story, his sense of disillusionment and disbelief, the similar stories I’ve read and heard of late, speak to the sense of control that we cling to as humans, as graduate students; that sense of certainty that, no matter how strange and scary the world may be around us, we have some agency over what happens to us. If we work hard and carefully hoard our accomplishments, like the ant in the old fable, we will, we MUST, be rewarded with nothing less than our survival.

I want to think this way too, most days.

But Platts’ story also reminded me of–I know this is weird but stay with me–the British television public service announcements from the 1970s aimed at helping the civilian population to prepare for, and thus ultimately live through, nuclear war.

The campaign was called Protect and Survive.

You can watch the whole series of cartoon films on You Tube, if you like your nightmares of the overly calm British variety. In retrospect, they are fucking terrifying in their naiveté: gather enough water and food, they tell you, enough suitcases and boxes full of sand in which to entomb–I mean shelter–your family for at least 2 weeks, and you’ll have the privilege of burying family members outside once the fallout has subsided.

In the early 1980s, as the environmental effects of a nuclear war began to be understood–props to Carl Sagan on that one–there was a push back on British TV against this hunky-dory message, one that began with a graphic half-hour program called QED: A Guide to Armageddon and that culminated in the seriously, do not watch this if you are at all sensitive, hell, at all, it is that motherfucking horrifying film called Threads.

The message of those films is: guess what? You can prepare all you want or not at all, but when it comes down to it, if the bomb hits, you have no control over what happens. In fact, the films openly suggest that you don’t want to survive a nuclear exchange. You’ll be better off dead.

Ok, so, the academic job market is not the equivalent of Cold War-era international relations. But. We as grad students can do every damn thing that we’re supposed to: we can publish. We can network. We can finish our dissertation on time. We can have “perfect” job materials with nary an error or errant sentence in sight.

In the end, though, when The Event of graduation comes, we don’t have a hell of a lot of control over where we end up, over what happens to us. There are forces at work–economic, administrative, alchemistic–many of which we can’t even SEE, much less exert any influence over.

You can do all the right things and not get a tenure track job.

This isn’t the bill of goods that some of us have been sold. But it’s the hard honest truth.

So the easy answer would be, what? Do everything that you can “right”?

Ugh. That’s bullshit. Because no one, even people that care about you, that have your best interests at heart, can agree on what “right” really is.

One member of my committee is worried that I write porn, that some employer may find me at AO3. Another is concerned by the titles I’ve proposed for dissertation chapters THAT I HAVEN’T EVEN WRITTEN: too cheeky, they said. Too unserious.

My diss director, bless her, has her eye on my establishing myself  as a rhetorician, rather than (just) a fan studies person. So, as I noted above, she’s encouraging me (rightly, I think) to get something from my diss out for review to a rhetoric journal ASAP.

My dad’s worried that my tattoos might hurt my job prospects. Oh, Dad.

Let’s face it: if a hiring committee can get past all the talk of porn, Wincest, and religion on my CV, I’ll be halfway there.

Now will I proofread my job materials and make sure they’re formatted in a logical manner? Of course. Will I keep trying to learn how to network (I suck at it) and, you know, write my damn dissertation? Hell yes.

Will I worry about not getting a job? Yes. But I won’t be wasting my time building a shelter in my basement. I’ll muddle along. I’ll protect my best interests and hope that, when the chips are down, I’ll still want to survive to face the academic aftermath.

2 thoughts on “Protect and Survive

  1. Also keep in mind that the market has basically bifurcated–there are two cycles, the pre-MLA one and the post-MLA one. Most of the R1 jobs are listed in the fall, virtually all community college jobs come up in the spring. Teaching jobs are scattered through both. A few are unsuccessful in the early fall and get re-listed in the spring. Be brave. Check every Thursday night.

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