Ph.D. or Bust

Matt Groening School is Hell

And there it was. My wife alerted me to a precipitous article in the March 7th edition of The New York Times that filled me with both dread and resolve. If you don’t end up reading it, I’ll brief you on the bad news. Humanities PhD’s are finding it harder to find secured full-time positions in the nation’s public and private colleges and universities. Interviews with recent graduates and post-doctoral fellows only serve to highlight the chill that has befallen even the most prestigious institutions, leading to a virtual hiring freeze for most humanities disciplines.

I had been told that my ascent to the world of a tenure-track position would be easier than, say, the previous few generations, since there was a consensus among faculty members that several programs would face steep retirement numbers in the coming years, which would inevitably lead the way for more junior hires. But the cold reality of this recession seems to have had the opposite effect: more and more senior faculty, facing diminishing savings, are sticking it out just a few more years. Even still, my limited experience with departmental politics and budget-conscious deans have taught me that contract instructors and part-timers with no job security have become the favored option. We’re far cheaper to hire and as students we’re forced to accept the meager pay and benefits as our initiation to the world of professordom.

The net result of this system — in my estimation — is a department of instructors that have little or no time to pursue research projects that constitute the backbone of any real academic’s career goals. It can also lead to departments that are filled with instructors who are overtaxed and underpaid, if only because their tenured counterparts are salaried employees with benefits. The path to promotion, higher pay, fewer teaching obligations, and more research time is in danger.

So that’s the current reality. Not promising in the least. But for some strange reason I am compelled to finish what I started. Not because I feel the obligation to finish, or am out of career options, but because passion drives me. There’s nothing else I want to do, and if it means an uphill climb, then I’ll make sure to prepare myself and my CV for battle. I will drink plenty of water; I’ll speed bag through more film theory; I’ll spar with in-depth film analysis until I’m dizzy.

Last summer, several newspapers cut their film columnists and reviewers citing budgetary cutbacks, leaving some critics to write (for free) on blogs like this. I have attempted to avoid this pitfall — and the relatively short review space of the popular press — and thought professional film criticism was the safer bet. Now my odds may not be so favorable.

I should have known that this career choice would be an uphill climb, if only from the strange looks and even stranger questions that came from family and friends. I have spent the better part of five years explaining, correcting, and laughing off what constitutes the running commentary of my young adult life. For the record, as a film studies PhD I write on and about film — I don’t make films. Nor do I teach students to make films. I’m not a film critic in the way that you might know that term. I wrote for and edited a newspaper once, but I don’t currently write for one. I know people in the industry, but they’re probably not featured in US Weekly. And no, this isn’t part of my journey to law school or business school. To top it off, the cultural tide has been rising against the plight of grad students everywhere. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy agree: grad students are the worst.

Writing the Damn Thing

The dissertation itself is an altogether different story. If a summary description of a college professor’s job duties aren’t obvious enough, then the duties of a PhD candidate lurk even deeper in the cave of confusion and befuddlement.

During an interview for CBC Radio last year the interviewer asked me off-air about my project on film sound technology and style. I told him quite honestly that it was a multi-year ordeal with no real conclusion in mind; I’d have to let the research speak for itself. He was floored. He couldn’t imagine spending four, five, maybe even six years on the same topic. His world of news and current events, where things change by the minute, runs at 100 miles an hour, which is completely anathema to a researcher’s slow and methodical pace. I told him it was my job to investigate those things to make up the finer-grained points of contemporary art practices, namely film and television. With that in mind, the breadth of time matters very little; just ask anyone studying 19th century German romantic opera.

So, the interviewer finally asked me how I could tolerate the repetition. I told him I hadn’t thought of it. It was an honest answer. It takes as long as it takes to formulate the argument, make my points, and then conclude the bastard. Perhaps the strangest thing is that I found his horrified amazement to be the abnormal attitude. I thought, Who wouldn’t want to spend their time studying the things that excite their curiosity and fill their creative spirit?

Most people, apparently.

My interviewer would eventually pack up his things and start texting his boss about his next story, the next big thing. Meanwhile, I’d still be at my desk thinking, writing, and revising my thoughts on the same story.

In a certain way, the task of writing a dissertation never scared me as it seems to frighten some. Mostly, I’m scared of those around me who expect results…now. Just write it. Write something. It’s only your thesis, not your life’s work. Just write it. Cull together your blog posts and call that your thesis. Don’t try to be original, just write it. Does it have to be 300 pages? Try for 200 and pad it with big quotes.

It’s an endless tirade that usually begins with someone’s head poking through the office door with a look of anticipated excitement. They’re thinking, “Are you finished yet?” half-expecting you to say yes.

The Obsessive Cinephile

Watching a movie more than once isn’t considered obsessive. Spending a few years writing a 400 page tome devoted to the history of moviemaking borders on obsessive. It might also help sprout a few gray hairs. But most importantly the obsession is derived from a passion to write, share, and communicate the art of cinema with an audience. It’s about figuring out the details for myself, reveling in the research, the analyses, the theorizing, and the historicizing. And a few more gray hairs.

Some rules for living with a PhD candidate — or knowing one — might include the following:

1) Avoid asking most “when,” “what,” and “why” questions. You’ll only be disappointed with the roundabout, even flaky answers you receive.

2) If you observe your PhD candidate not putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, don’t panic. He or she is thinking it out up here (points to brain). Watching episodes of Maury and scrolling through might also help ferment the big ideas, too.

3) If your PhD candidate laughs at your conventional work hours, don’t get angry. They must live with their work 24/7 since it exists solely in their heads until they can successfully spill it out on some choice bonded 8.5 X 11 paper, where it will eventually sit on a bookshelf and collect dust for the rest of their life. Once in a while a grad student will ask to see it and they will mistakenly think that anyone can write one of those.

4) Just play along with their belief that other people are interested to hear their ideas on obscure topics. It makes dinner conversations a lot more enjoyable.

5) An academic readership of 5000 is bestseller material.

The humanities PhD candidate may not be an endangered species, at least not according to the Times article which has us backstopped and overflowing like law students, but creative thinkers have never had it easy. In an early meeting with my thesis supervisor we cajoled that we’re “idea men,” not quite ready with answers, but only more questions. And there’s something charming, if not completely noble about that. The wonderful thing is that even if this wasn’t my profession, I’d do it anyways. I’d be tucked away in some cubicle, in some other job, writing and analyzing and pushing the conversation on cinema even further. And that’s the real reward.

I’ll let Bart Simpson sum it up for us all:

Bart and Grad Students


  1. Jenn Huzera says:

    Wow. How uplifting. Hope you’re doing ok!

    Now, the good news– I’ve been accepted into grad school (Carleton’s Film MA)! Yay?

  2. Rick G. says:

    Thanks for sharing. I can only imagine what it would be like to undertake such an endeavor as you are. As with all things, sometimes the only one that can truly understand and enjoy the things we do is ourselves. To undergo so much that a seldom few can comprehend should make it that much sweeter once you finish, but of course, it’s always so much richer when others can grasp what you’re talking about and even for the briefest of moments, follow along and gain some insight.

    Perhaps in continuing to manage your blog as you have you will affect others to view films with a critical (educated) eye and can share more of those experiences you encounter when you’re battling out “the bastard.”

    It’s one way to bridge the gap. I certainly enjoy your posts and the clear, succinct style of your writing. I try as much with my own papers, so thanks for the primer.

  3. Obi-Mon says:

    I know. It’s hard. I don’t envy you. Luckily, you’re super-smart so I’m sure you’ll get there… 🙂

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