Friday, December 19, 2008

I read the news today, oh boy

I have been reading (and very much enjoying) the Odyssey all week--next to Lattimore, Fagles reads like Beatrix Potter, so it's been easy and fun. But I have been thinking more about grad school, so that's going to be the substance of this post.

I've mentioned that I feel like I don't know much about grad school, and academia in general. I do know that I am getting myself into something very intimidating, which is a large part of why I have been putting it off for so long. There are no jobs for English Ph.D's! What English jobs exist are given to adjuncts! But don't hesitate--the longer you wait to get your Ph.D, the harder it will be to snag one of the three remaining jobs!

It just seems like such hubris to say, I am good enough to do this. I have the talent, the work ethic, the sheer luck it would take to make it past all of these obstacles and land a tenure-track job at a good school.

There's a long-standing joke at Reed that every student thinks he or she is the one who is secretly not smart enough to be there. The durability and the ring of truth to this joke are such that one year's orientation t-shirts read something like, "You are not an Admissions mistake."

I never felt like an Admissions mistake, exactly--my test scores and my post-high school grades were such that I figured it made sense for me to be there, and I never thought I was stupid or anything like that. But I did frequently feel outclassed: I didn't make it past a year at my lousy public high school, and here were all these kids who'd already read Hawthorne and Dickens and Virgil (in Latin!), who'd already heard of Derrida and Foucault, who knew what postmodernism was or could at least convince you that they did. What had I been doing all these years, I wondered. Look, my high school was going to allow me to take AP English as a sophomore (the only student for whom they'd ever made such an exception), but I gave up on trying to do the summer reading because I was bored by Huckleberry Finn. Either I was the epitome of wasted potential or people just kept thinking I was smarter than I am.

To a certain extent, my obvious inferiority was a boon. I worked all day, every day in a fever of terror, convinced both that I was at a serious disadvantage and that everyone else was studying even harder. I was at something of a disadvantage, having arrived at Reed as a junior with less education than many freshmen, but the panic induced by this awareness served me rather well. By the time I realized that I was achieving more than I'd anticipated (I would have been delighted, at first, to find myself in the middle of the class, as long as I was even passing), I was accustomed to making school my entire life, and by then it didn't seem like so big a sacrifice.

In any case. Although I think they appreciated my earnestness and dedication, I don't think my professors were grading me out of pity or because they knew I was trying; I must have been producing good work. And Ph.D preparation is a constitutive element of Reed as an institution (check out the statistics on female Reed grads obtaining Ph.D's in English lit). All of which is to say: Reed is good at preparing people to earn Ph.D's; I was good at Reed; therefore I would probably do well at earning a Ph.D.

Should that be comforting? It's not really comforting. The entire process--GRE to applications to acceptance to dissertation to job searches to tenure-track positions to actually earning tenure and being a good professor--seems impossibly complex and overwhelming. I must be crazy to entertain such an idea.

Of course, earning a Ph.D. needn't entail becoming a professor. Before I got my current job, I spent a number of months as an intern at a publishing company. My boss there--another Reed graduate, who'd even had the same thesis advisor--had a Ph.D from an excellent large public, but had decided not to go into academia. She said that her English doctorate served her very well in the publishing world, allowing her to skip immediately into the higher echelons and avoid years of working her way up. Given the choice between spending my time getting a Ph.D and spending it attempting to work my way up in a company or industry, I think I'd prefer the Ph.D: I really love school and I do well there; I don't want an advanced degree solely for the purpose of getting a particular job.

In a way, though, even that is terrifying. Getting an English degree for the sake of it? That just seems so impractical, almost laughable.

I mean, I would like to be a professor. I think? I loved Reed, I love literature and language, I love learning new things, I love being surrounded by people who are intelligent and curious, I even love having crazy deadlines and way too much to do. So it makes sense to go into academia... sort of... right?

BREAKING NEWS: Young white woman with English degree from small liberal arts college isn't sure what to do with her life; contemplates graduate school, feels inadequate; writes boring blog post detailing all her neuroses and self-doubt. STORY AT ELEVEN. Also: World Leaders React.

1 comment:

Clare said...

Is there anything else you would want to do close to as much as this? I know that's how I picked my post-Reed plan.