Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle
Erin Bartram is a visiting assistant professor of history who has been looking for a tenure-track position since she earned her Ph.D. in 2015. A few weeks ago, she decided to stop trying. She made her decision public in an essay — "The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind" — that she posted on her blog and republished in The Chronicle.
"I got a Ph.D. in history because I wanted to be a historian," Bartram wrote. "Now I have to do something else." At first, she said, she suppressed the sadness she felt — "I didn’t feel I had the right to grieve" — and then she released it.
Bartram’s essay has generated a vesuvian outpouring of responses from all over the virtual academic quad. There are scores of comments on her blog post. Her essay has been retweeted more 2,000 times on Twitter, and repeatedly reblogged.
What does all of this attention mean? To answer that, we must first understand that this sort of essay isn’t new. Contemporary academe supports a genre that has been dubbed "quit lit." The storyline — "I am leaving academe because … " — has proved catnip to academic readers. Some read quit lit out of curiosity, because they can’t comprehend how anyone could just walk away from our profession. Others clearly sympathize with a fellow traveler walking a hard road.
Bartram’s essay has quickly gained a prominent place in a quit-lit subfield that might be called "pushed-out lit." Up to now, the best-known work in that category is probably Rebecca Schuman’s anguished "Thesis Hatement," which was published almost five years ago.
A scholar of German literature, Schuman checked all the right professional boxes and still didn’t get a tenure-track job. Like Bartram, she treaded water for a few years in the contingent labor market, and then decided that she had had enough. Her account of her departure from academe blazes with anger.
Like Bartram, Schuman made a loud noise when she slammed the door shut on the academic job market. Her essay attracted thousands of comments, and eventually got her a job as a higher-education columnist for Slate. Today she writes about a variety of topics. As a successful freelance writer, she still criticizes the doings at colleges and universities, but her tone isn’t quite so angry. Now she sometimes defends professors, and this year she even went back on the academic job market, although her bid ended without a job offer.
Bartram is obviously angry too, but grief animates her above all. Her grief leads her to question the value of her scholarly work ("Valuable to whom?"), her learning ("utterly useless"), and how the time she spent in academe "doesn’t matter in the way that I hoped it would."
We need to respect Bartram’s feelings — and from where I sit, that starts with trying to understand them. We also need to look at the meaning of those feelings to Bartram’s thousands of readers. The academic job market has fallen to historic lows since the 2008 recession but it also has been true for years — generations, it must be said — that plenty of Ph.D.s don’t get tenure-track jobs. Why has Bartram’s story of not getting one gone viral?
"I sent Bartram’s blogpost to a number of different types of friends and colleagues," wrote Nathan Ballantyne, an associate professor of philosophy and a colleague of mine at Fordham University, in an email, "and the reactions I got are radically different. Nobody is reading this powerful piece in the same way." Some of his respondents focused on Bartram, others on the scene of her sadness: the academic workplace. Some felt for her, but others questioned her decision to leave the discipline along with the profession. For Ballantyne, the varied responses reflect how the issues Bartram raises "are connected to our identities as scholars and students, gatekeepers and outsiders."
So we might say that her story is a Rorschach blot that shows each of us who we are as academics.
As for Bartram, she sees herself as a failed academic. Now that she’s ending her academic career, she says, "I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m good for."
Maybe it’s just my Rorschach moment, but that’s the comment that jumps out of the essay for me. When someone with a Ph.D. doesn’t know what she could be good for, it surely says something about how she’s feeling, but it also says something about graduate training and academic culture.
When we say that graduate school teaches a lot of valuable skills, that’s not just puffery. Doctoral students learn to work with information in sophisticated ways, and to communicate to different kinds of audiences.
Yet graduate school also teaches students that only a professorship truly justifies the long chase for the Ph.D. The message that a tenure-track job is the only honorable career goal can be implicit, and not always intentional. But the fact is: The doctoral curriculum is modeled on the work of a professor at a research university. It emphasizes research skills over pedagogical and collaborative ones, and we who dispense that curriculum too easily allow our students to default into the singular pursuit of a professorship and the foreclosure of all other alternatives.
For me, Erin Bartram’s grief raises an instrumental question: How can we change graduate education so that it doesn’t set people up to feel like failures in the face of a likely outcome? We might start by honoring the range of career possibilities that students face. The wider world needs more Ph.D.s — but (and here’s the rub) only if they’re happy to be in the wider world. When we treat diverse careers with scorn, we invite graduates like Erin Bartram to mourn as they contemplates those nonacademic paths.
Bartram may stand out for her beautiful rendering of her sadness, but there’s nothing unusual about her story. Most Ph.D.s don’t become professors, but that’s only a problem if we teach them to feel like failures when that happens. Bartram herself knows that; she says her sad employment outcome is "probably what was always going to happen."
Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius know it, too. They’ve been writing about it for more than 15 years, in multiple editions of So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia, first published in 2001. When they write, "We understand that being forced to leave a career you love because of a weak job market is heartbreaking," they might have been speaking directly to Bartram.
Their book is also talking to people like Bartram when they warn that "if you think that you can’t possibly be happy outside academia, you probably won’t be." Despair can be its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of my own doctoral students recently described the academic job market as "a desert." (She now works in the corporate world.) We should teach and prepare our students with that reality in mind. Above all, we have to respect the diversity of career options they will have to choose from, not just the one we occupy.
That doesn’t mean encouraging graduate students to abandon scholarly pursuits, but it does mean integrating other skills they will need outside of the university as well as within it. For example, students pursuing Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences need to learn how to work collaboratively. Not only do employers value such experience, but it would also help with scholarship. When we teach with our students’ career needs in mind, we bring our work into line with theirs — and with the professional world that we share.
Bartram’s "reflections reveal something about the devastation of our labor system," says Ballantyne.
Yes. And they also reveal something about the values of the research culture that socialized both her and everyone else that went through a doctoral program.