And then I realized I was warping young minds, not shaping them
January 23, 2011 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I am working towards a PhD, but do not want to be a professor. Am I wasting my time?

Situation: I am in the first year of a doctoral program in the humanities, coming straight in after completing my master's in the same field. My advisor is very excited about my work: after successfully finishing a risky and large MA thesis, he envisions that my doctoral research will be groundbreaking as well and will help give me a good shot at landing a decent gig as a professor when I finish (optimistic perhaps, given the economy, but a nice sentiment nevertheless).

The thing, though, is that I've come to the realization that I came to the academy because I wanted to do research. Not teach. I want to be a researcher, not an educator.

I feel bad about this*. My department talks a lot about the importance of undergrad education and learning good student-centered teaching. But after almost three years of acting as an instructor, it's come to the point where I cannot deny that teaching --which I started out feeling uncomfortable with, but had hoped would become more fun as time went on-- is not my thing**. It's gotten to the point that when I walk to my classes in the morning, I sometimes secretly pray that a bus might hit me so that I can go to the hospital and cancel on my students. I just don't want to be there.

When it comes to my coursework and research however: pow! I love it. I am all dreamy in love with reading journal articles and writing stuff and going over my methodology and spending days in the field and etcetera. I may be the only student in my cohort who actually thinks to herself, "I cannot wait until I have to write my dissertation. That is going to be so awesome!!"

So - while I was love to stay within the academy to do research, I have the feeling that this won't be possible, because as a humanities person, it is not as though there are pure-research positions available within universities (right?). They expect you to teach. And even at an R1 institution, where they are going to (ostensibly) deemphasize teaching in favor of your publications, the mere thought of spending the next 40 years grading and lecturing makes me want to cry.

I guess my questions are: is it worth it for me to continue towards this PhD if I am starting to suspect that I don't want to be a professor? Is there any way I can turn this degree into a research position outside of a university setting if I do decide to go through with it? Or are there places within higher education that would still be open to me? Either way: how can I go about forming connections now that will let me find out which setting might be amenable to continuing my research? Or is it better to bail now and save myself the time and stress?

If I were one of those biology- or chemistry-focused types, I suspect it would be easier to answer this question. But as it stands, I write about cultural and artistic responses to social and structural issues. I have no idea where my skills and research (as neat as they may be) would be in demand in the "real world."

Some points that may help guide your thinking:

- I have six years of prior professional experience, albeit in a field I was hoping to leave (hence the decision to go back to school)
- I am also an artist (albeit without a traditional art education background). My research, in fact, takes advantage of this, so much of what I do is work grounded in theory...that then goes out to the community (instead of the journals) in the form of exhibitions or interdisciplinary collaborative works with some MFA students I know. This is the type of work that I want to continue.
- I am not the best at networking and finding informal opportunities. Any suggestions on how to fix this would be helpful.

Sorry if this rambled, but I feel I need some suggestions on a direction before I go out and burn any bridges or make any rash decisions. And given the number of grads/scholars on askmefi, I thought this would be a good place to engage in such rambling.

* Hence the sockpuppet.

** I don't know if the reasons why matter, but it comes from a mix of external and internal factors. Ask any questions about this if you feel it would be relevant information.
posted by sock puppet of mystery! to Education (46 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Recent Economist article about how getting a PhD is a waste of time (economically).
posted by johngumbo at 2:48 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: There are very few people out there who'll tell you that they love *every* element of their jobs. Hopefully for most the positives outweigh the negatives & sounds to me as if the positives you'll get out of a research career in the humanities (and that's what a professorship *is* after all: they are research posts) are huge.

It also sounds as if you have issues with teaching that could be overcome with the right help and advice, but no-one is going to help if you don't ask them.

*My* advice would be to go talk to people who already hold professorships in your field and ask them (informally) for their advice.
posted by pharm at 2:48 PM on January 23, 2011

Can you find other people who have PhDs in areas similar to yours who aren't teaching and find out what they are doing with their degrees? You're right though, if you had a chemistry PhD I could give you a dozen job ideas but with a humanities/sociaology PhD, all I have heard of people doing with those degrees is teaching.
posted by MsKim at 2:49 PM on January 23, 2011

Are you in debt for your MA and/or undergrad? If so, then spending 7 years getting a PhD you're not sure about is a bad idea. If you're not in debt, can live happily on a PhD stipend, enjoy your work, and are comfortable with the idea of maybe having to start from scratch once you graduate, then why not go through with it? I'm in a vaguely similar position (although I'd love to be a professor-- just trying to be a realist about job opportunities in my field), and have been looking around for summer internships that could lead into potential interesting career tracks that utilize my skill set. For example, since my program requires that I learn a million languages, I'm looking into State Department tracks. If you find your PhD program exciting and you're not in debt (have I mentioned DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU ARE IN DEBT), don't throw this opportunity away just because you don't like teaching.
posted by oinopaponton at 2:59 PM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: oinopaponton brings up a point that may be useful: I am fully funded, both receiving free tuition and stipend. I am poor as hell, but I am not paying for this.

I do have a student loan debt from my undergrad, but it is small (currently under deferment, which isn't ideal, but yeah). I went through my MA program debt-free. I wish I were earning more money, but it is not as though I am going to be living off of loans while I do this.

Oh, and in theory: I should be finished in a little under four years. Those are famous last words, I know, but that gives you an idea of the timeline I am talking about here.
posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 3:10 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: I have a Ph.D. in the social sciences and am also very research-focused. I've worked in both academic and non-academic jobs, and there have been times where I've wondered if I had just been better off going straight into industry and getting more hands-on experience instead of being in school. However, I'm glad I finished. I don't have any issue getting research positions outside of academia--often a PhD is a requirement for the research jobs I am interested in, and it puts me at a higher income bracket. I also have the option of teaching, which, while it's not my favorite thing, is a nice safety net to have. It saved me when I was facing a long stretch of unemployment, and it's nice to be able to pick up extra adjunct positions here and there for extra cash. It's a great way to fill the hole in my resume while I'm between industrial research positions, and it affords me the time and resources to still do some research on my own, if I want.

So, if you want flexibility, stay and finish the Ph.D. If you are 100% positive you will be able to get jobs without it, and that you can get by without the safety net of teaching, then drop out. It might also be wise to consider staying until your MA is finished, so that you have something to show for your time (and it will look better on your resume for those research positions).

FWIW, I had the same feelings after my first year in grad school, but I'm really glad I stuck it through. I learned a huge amount that I apply quite often in my research.
posted by Fuego at 3:14 PM on January 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Do you have any kind of mentor (ie not your supervisor) or someone else you can talk to about whether there is any reaslitic opportunity to be able to develop a career based in research only? in many fields this would be difficult but possible, though this might not be true in your case. If you have no mentor it might be worth casting around to see if there are any people in your discipline you can find who have managed to carve out smething along those lines and ask advice abotu how they did it.
posted by biffa at 3:17 PM on January 23, 2011

Getting a PhD in the humanities can make you *less* employable for any job but college teaching. That's the job I want, so I'm staying; if that's not the job you want, you should really think about leaving. Even if you're receiving full support, you'll still come out behind financially after 7 years. It's the nature of the beast. If you're not receiving full support, or you have any debt, or you're going into debt for the PhD, in the long term you'll be happier the sooner you stop.

Is there any way I can turn this degree into a research position outside of a university setting if I do decide to go through with it?

The only alternative I can think of would be certain types of (sought-after) library and archive jobs. But even these may require switching to a good library science program instead of where you're at.
posted by gerryblog at 3:17 PM on January 23, 2011

Sockpuppet, I was in a similar position. I left my profession to return to school for more training and found myself lured by the siren call of academia. I learned too late that being a professor isn't really what I want to do. I ultimately finished my degree last year, but I'm still looking for full-time work, in part because the PhD is something of an albatross around your neck. Many nonacademic employers consider a PhD in something other than the hard sciences a liability, believing (rightly or not) that it has little relevance outside of the classroom. You should also consider that the time spent working on your degree is time not spent working in the field, building a portfolio, developing contacts and doing other things that might make you more employable. Finally, oinopaponton makes a very important point about money. If you're not receiving financial support from your department or a fellowship, the PhD is almost certainly going to be a net loss for you.

If you're still uncomfortable with teaching at this point, I would advise you to start looking for an escape hatch. You already know that even the jobs at R1 schools will require you to do at least some teaching. I wish I could tell you what you might be able to do instead, but if I knew that, well, I wouldn't still be looking for work. What I can tell you is that it's only going to get harder to leave the longer you stay. Once you make up your mind, you should find something else to do, quickly. It doesn't have to be your dream job. But when you do find your dream job, you'll probably have an easier time landing it if you're coming from somewhere other than the ivory tower.
posted by Rangeboy at 3:18 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: Depending upon what area of the humanities your in, there is always museum work. It is almost impossible to land a job as a curator at an art museum (except for some of the smaller ones) without a PhD these days. As with pretty much all jobs there is some administrative work, but for the most part, you will get to do research and even publish, but you won't have to teach. You get to work with actual objects. Granted these jobs are elusive and they don't pay spectacularly well, though if you work at the right museum and rise high enough the pay can be decent, quite good for the humanities anyway. I can't speak to other types of museums, but imagine the same could be true for some history museums.

Without exactly knowing where to direct you, I also imagine there are non-profit organizations, particularly in the DC area where your humanities PhD would be an asset. Perhaps grant funding organizations such as the NEA or NEH, or some sort of major foundation for the humanities. Those would probably not allow you to do the type of research that interests you though.
posted by kaybdc at 3:24 PM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

If the area you're working in has relevance beyond teaching, maybe you can find a foundation to fund further research, write books, etc. Look around. And if you love your thesis material and you believe it's important to other people, you can, with a clean conscience, do that work and then share it, maybe through multiple outlets.

If you just like doing research with no real useful end product -- or at least, an end product that's only useful to other academics -- that's more problematic. You can either find a way to adapt it so it's useful beyond the academy, or resign yourself to being part of the academy, or, I guess, you'd need to get out.
posted by amtho at 3:26 PM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: Another clarification, just in case: I have already been granted my master's degree.
posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 3:26 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: It's good to be honest with yourself about what you like and don't like about the job, despite the pressure to love aspect x or y. Congratulations on keeping your own head clear about this.

If you are funded and would love doing the PhD, maybe it's worth it to get on its own. (Assuming you will finish fast.)

But will you have to continue teaching through the degree? That might make it worth quitting, if you can't get external funding. You might look around to see what kinds of external funding you could apply for - NEH, NEA would be places to start, and your school may have some free-floating funding that can go for grad students working on certain types of work.

The more you apply for and recieve external funding, the more familiar you'll be with the process, and the more likely you are to get grants from agencies which like to see you as a successful past recipient of grants. There are some academic careers that are research only, or maybe teach one upper level course a year, that sort of thing -- but these are vanishingly rare and some may rely on external funding. Worth finding out about; you can certainly discuss this with someone in your department to see if anyone knows about research-focused positions in your field. It is okay to want to focus on research (in fact, in most grad departments I know, the focus is entirely on research and they don't care much about teaching).

As for non-academic careers:
See if your graduate school has an office that helps grad students think about careers outside academia, and go for a visit/set up a meeting with them. It's possible they will have ideas.

But the best thing you could do would be to imagine what you would do in the next year or so if you quit.

Look at organizations or programs you might like to work for - I imagine large arts nonprofits, or grantmaking organizations/arts administration, or something like that? Look at the biggest museums in places you'd like to live; look at the biggest performing arts venues that have outreach programs etc. See who has a job you would want, and look at their CV: do they have a PhD? What other kinds of jobs have they had, and where?

Or find academics who do research like yours and write to them to ask if they know of non-academic positions.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:26 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: Is there any way I can turn this degree into a research position outside of a university setting if I do decide to go through with it?

The only alternative I can think of would be certain types of (sought-after) library and archive jobs. But even these may require switching to a good library science program instead of where you're at.

I also meant to add library or archives. Though the field is changing and archives is increasingly becoming an academic discipline in and of itself (rather than a field made up of subject specialists) there are still jobs advertised that require a PhD in a specific subject area rather than an MLS. They are usually high level manuscript curator jobs or subject specialists at someplace like the Library of Congress. Again these jobs are few and far between, but they do come up occasionally. The problem is that the people who get them, particularly the manuscript curator gigs, tend to stay forever, so in addition to very few jobs of this type, there is also very little turnover.
posted by kaybdc at 3:31 PM on January 23, 2011

Can you express WHAT you don't like about teaching? As I'm sure you know, there are ways to adjust how you teach so that you can avoid or minimize the things that are the worst for you. Or if they're burning you out on large lecture classes, are small seminars tolerable? Would you be able to teach interdisciplinary art-and-humanities classes later on, and would that light your fire?

Lots of good advice here, just wondered if we could help at all with the teaching angle, since you probably have to teach some more to finish up.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:41 PM on January 23, 2011

There ARE research-only jobs in the humanities, but they are zillions of times more competitive, and often less secure. I don't know about other countries, but here in Australia there are a few. At our university each faculty is split into two divisions: one does teaching and research and the other is research-only. This may change in the near future, however. These jobs are permanent, but you have to be a total superstar to even have a shot.

Then there are people who spend their entire career going from grant to grant. This is also a hard track to get into, although once you have had one major three-year research-only grant, you have usually produced a shit-ton more research than people of a similar point in their career who had to teach, and so you have a better chance of getting another one, and another one and another one. I know people in the humanities in Australia who are near retirement age and who always lived off three-year research grants.

Finally, you can get a job that involves teaching, and if you are good enough to get major grants, you can buy yourself out of that teaching by getting funding to hire people to do it for you. I know someone who has done that for the last 10 years and has not taught once. I also know someone who hates teaching enough that he uses his own personal private money (i.e. a percentage of his salary) to hire people to do it for him, essentially buying himself research time. Our university allows this, as do many others.

But realistically all of these options are really really hard. And buying a house, raising a family and all the other "normal" stuff is near to impossible when you only ever have a contract for a couple of years at a time, which is the case if you are living off grants.

It's gotten to the point that when I walk to my classes in the morning, I sometimes secretly pray that a bus might hit me so that I can go to the hospital and cancel on my students.

If this is true and not exaggeration, your problem is more serious than I think you are giving it credit for. Get help now.
posted by lollusc at 3:46 PM on January 23, 2011

Teaching is part of being a researcher, fundamental to it

There are a lot of fields, even humanities fields, where the tippy-top people in the field opt out of teaching in order to have more time for research. Or they might teach, as I said, just one graduate seminar a year. It's a pretty common preference/aspiration, I think, to just be able to do your research and not have to teach (or at least, not have to teach non-specialist undergrads, or courses that aren't on your own research area).
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:47 PM on January 23, 2011

if what you want to do is research, than being an academic is a good idea. Many of the professors at research universities don't give a damn about teaching -- and the hiring committees don't either.
posted by jb at 3:48 PM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and as a data-point, I completed my humanities PhD in 2007, and have worked near full-time in the university setting doing mainly research ever since. When I taught it was by choice (because I do enjoy it). I could easily have made enough to live on without doing so. But I have no job security: my contracts have ranged from four-weeks long to one year, often with a panicky gap of a month or six weeks between each where I didn't know if I would find something else (although I always did), and I'm about to start my first three-year contract. (I don't imagine I am ever likely to get a permanent job.)
posted by lollusc at 3:50 PM on January 23, 2011

I know that sounds flippant, but it isn't. Successful in academia these days, even in the humanities, is 99.9% research. I know people who are brilliant teachers -- they can't even get rehired as adjuncts. But big names in research have blanks checks written for them.
posted by jb at 3:51 PM on January 23, 2011

Have you been teaching the same two or three courses over and over, or has it been a new course every semester? If you're not yet to the point of repeating material, then maybe it's not yet time to give up -- everything's better the second or third time you teach it.

I know this isn't the kind of answer you're looking for, but -- two years into teaching (high school) I walked into the classroom every morning hoping to get hit by a bus. Everyone had told me that teaching had clicked for them after one semester, or after two semesters, so I thought it just wasn't for me. And then in my third year it clicked.

There's a big difference between suspecting that you may not want to be a professor, and knowing that you don't. If you're unsure, consider giving it more time -- unless you see a significant benefit to getting out now versus getting out next year.
posted by sleepingcbw at 3:51 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think it makes sense to drop out of your PhD program because you hate lecturing and marking, if you love research. For one thing, however difficult it might be to find opportunities to exercise your scholarly skills in the non-academic setting, it will be more so if you terminate at the master's (especially since you don't want to return to your prior field of expertise).

If the prospect of your dissertation gives you joy, it's not "a waste of time" to complete your PhD even if you do nothing further in the field. Not to mention that the knock-on for a humanities PhD is turning your diss into a book, another opportunity that's going to be harder to find if you aren't nestled in the ivory tower.

Finally, teaching as a prof is different from teaching as a grad student. Graduate seminars and thesis supervision both count towards your teaching load and bear more of a semblance to colleague than to the kind of teaching you're doing. Yeah, unless you are awarded a research chair (which probably won't happen at the beginning of your career), you're going to have to pitch in and teach the big survey classes, but you will have grading support in those classes.

No matter what your department's rhetoric around education is, a lot of profs are ambivalent (at best) about teaching, and much prefer scholarship. Don't feel bad about it - it's not politic to admit it (at least not at this stage of your career), but it's a pretty common experience among academics.
posted by gingerest at 4:01 PM on January 23, 2011

Most professors prefer research to teaching. That's why they enter the academy. Many, even many in the humanities, in fact hate teaching. Yes, you'll have to do some of it, and yes in an ideal world students will always be taught by professors who care about educating them, but given how much you love research, I wonder if you're ruling out becoming a professor prematurely.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:02 PM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: To answer Eyebrows McGee:

A lot of my issues with teaching do tend to come from structural stuff I have to deal with: I am teaching a lot of largish intro-level lecture classes. More specifically, I am teaching a bunch of classes that are not related to my area (my discipline is very broad, comprised of many subdisciplines) because those are the most popular classes and they need bodies in the classroom to instruct. So I can teach the subject matter, but it does involve extra work because it's just not my area (and it also, uh, doesn't interest me, really). And I sometimes feel that I am unqualified and flailing. You can also insert some boilerplate statements on the difficulties that come from being a young woman instructor in a large research organization who was thrown into the classroom with minimal training. And my photocopy budget is really low.

Personally, though: I just...don't care. I mean - I want my students to do well. I want them to enjoy the class. But when it comes to those cases who need a lot of extra motivation, or who are hoping to slide by with an A, or who are only in the class because it is required (and who find it hella boring), I just...don't care. It is really difficult for me to empathize, I guess, and strive towards making a classroom environment that is beneficial or encouraging to them (maybe because I was never in their shoes). And honestly, I am ashamed that I feel this way. In many ways, I guess I can say that much of my teaching feels like an arduous performance that I undergo day after day, one that is emotionally draining and that doesn't really seem to yield any super results (for either me or my students). And while my supervisors say I am doing an okay job, in general, I just feel like I suck at it and could better spend my time doing other things.

In terms of what I would get out of teaching smaller seminars and the like: sure, that sounds more appealing, and the brightest moments in my teaching experience have been those times when we've actually managed to general real and fruitful discussion in the context of these lecture classes. But I don't have any experience teaching smaller groups, and based on how they are divvying up the courseload, I won't get the opportunity anytime in the near future.
posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 4:12 PM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm a recent math PhD who felt exactly the same as you but with the teaching/research roles reversed. I literally fantasized about the exact same bus thing, but it was because I didn't want to finish my research and I wanted an excuse to quit the program and just teach. The thing is, teaching undergrads got me so incredibly excited (yes, even Math for Liberal Arts and Calc for Engineers) that I knew the best way for me to get to do the thing I love was to do the research. It got me through the dissertation, and since then I've learned to enjoy the research, though not nearly as much as the teaching. I don't know how transferrable my experience is to yours, but there you go.
posted by monkeymadness at 4:27 PM on January 23, 2011

OP, be wary of the advice some are giving that the good academic jobs don't involve teaching--I think you already know that getting an academic spot at all in humanities in a long shot and the R1 positions with mostly research are exceedingly hard to get. Counting on getting one of them is foolish. It doesn't sound like a 4/4 teaching load (which I hear is common) would make you happy.

Have you thought about whether you'd like doing research in a more marketable field? Or even a field that doesn't have so many huge survey classes? Maybe there are some social science fields that you could get a masters in and open up government and non-profit careers. Personally, I wouldn't keep going in that degree until I could identify specific alternatives to academia for people with the PhD.
posted by parkerjackson at 4:38 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: > I am ashamed that I feel this way.

I think you should work really hard on getting rid of this feeling. It's like being ashamed that you're not a chess grandmaster. Very few people are born teachers; you're not one of them, and neither am I (which is one reason I left academia). There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. People are different; that's one of the great things about being human. You're very good at, and love, one aspect of academia; unfortunately, the way things are structured it's very hard to get that without a package deal that includes a lot of teaching. That's enough of a dilemma right there without adding to it with an unmerited load of guilt that will merely cloud your vision and make it harder to figure out what you want/need to do.

Your problem is this: you don't like teaching, but the profession you are training for requires it (almost always). You can 1) go through with the PhD (since it costs you nothing but a few years of earnings) and then do something else; 2) go through with the PhD and continue on in academia, trying to maneuver your way into a situation that involves a minimum of teaching and a maximum of what you want to do; or 3) get out now. I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you that you need to analyze it in those terms and not beat yourself up about not being something you're not.
posted by languagehat at 5:03 PM on January 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I have a lot of people in my immediate social circle who have PhDs (mostly social science and humanities PhDs) who are not academics. I was actually commenting to my (PhD ex-academic) better half the other day that of our entire social circle, I could think of only one person who appeared happy to be an academic. Pretty much everyone else tried it for a bit after getting their PhDs and decided it wasn't for them, or tried it for a bit after getting their PhDs and decided it wasn't for them, but are still working as academics and are miserable.

I happen to live in a "company town" where the company is government, so my sample is completely biased, but I know many people who are very happily working in the public service with PhDs from all sorts of areas. Their PhDs are necessarily relevant to what their day-to-day work is, but the sorts of research, writing, etc skills you gain in a PhD is what allows them to do their jobs well.

I also know people who got jobs doing or managing research in organisations that aren't research specific but do need people with research skills to do certain jobs. One of my contemporaries from when I did my PhD, for example, was working for a fire department. The fire department does bits and pieces of research as part of their broader work, and they need people with real research experience to manage these projects. Her PhD was in a completely unrelated field, but her research skills were still broadly applicable.

Personally, these days, I think that if you go into a PhD with the idea that you're guaranteed a secure academic job at the end of it, you're deluded. The Economist article linked above looks at the ratios of graduating PhDs to academic job vacancies, and really, the odds are appalling. But if you love research (and it sounds like you do), then a PhD is still a useful way of opening doors (and, IMHO, entirely justifiable as an ends in itself, not just a means to an ends).
posted by damonism at 5:21 PM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One more thought: we tend to enjoy doing things we are good at. Getting good at teaching might well mean you enjoy it more. There's a stupid and unhelpful narrative out there that some people are just born to be brilliant teachers and there's nothing you can do if you are not one of those people. This is just not true. Your university no doubt has a lot of teaching training programs and resources - they just may be well hidden, and are almost certainly not compulsory. Even if you do these programs and find them not of great practical use, they will buoy your confidence, and the opportunity to reflect on your teaching practice once a week or so will be very helpful too.

It was a complete revelation to me that there is actually an academic discipline that researches how teaching and learning works, and there are peer reviewed studies on what works well and what doesn't. If you are good at research and enjoy it, set aside a day now and again or a few hours once a week to read the literature on teaching practices, plan "experiments" to carry out with your own teaching, and analyse the results.
posted by lollusc at 5:30 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am finishing my degree in the social sciences and I, too, have discovered that I don't want to teach (though I discovered this later than you did). I am finishing the degree because I put a lot of time and money into it, and because I think it might come in handy - a PhD can be useful when it comes to applying for certain positions in government, hospitals and social service agencies. At times when I am feeling productive and optimistic, I also realize that I am finishing the degree because I feel like I want to share my research results. There is joy (sometimes) but it's been really, really hard, too. I have made a lot of sacrifices in order to be able to finish, and it's been harder to finish since I realized that I don't want to be a professor.

I suspect that if you want to work in research with a humanities PhD, you will need to augment your degree with training in a substantive topic such as epidemiology, library science or business. In applying for non-academic jobs, it would be important to portray your PhD as an example of your passion for learning and how you have come to learn discipline, critical thinking and keen writing skills. If you love research and love to write, you can finish your degree and make it useful. But please be sure you are passionate about it, and know it's hard.
posted by analog at 5:33 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: Most college professors are unqualified and flailing when it comes to teaching. :) We require K-12 teachers to undergo extensive training; we send college professors into a classroom and say "You know a lot of stuff. Hope you don't suck at transmitting it in via this relatively bizarre method!" (And I also teach survey courses mostly well outside my area. There were a couple of course reading I'd actually never seen before until the week before I taught them, the first semester I taught!)

I actually enjoy teaching, my reviews (from my students and from my dean and department chair) say I'm pretty good at it, and I have a lot of the same complaints you do. I found this book really helpful (i didn't read it until I'd been teaching 2 or 3 years) in giving me strategies for coping with things that were problems for me, and for giving me some outside-the-box strategies to change it up a little. Also, if you give any objective tests at all, learn to love giving them by Scantron or online if you haven't already. If a machine won't grade it, I won't give it.

(And I think teaching is INCREDIBLY emotionally draining. When I teach evening classes I come home EXHAUSTED but so keyed up that I can't sleep. I sometimes need a glass of wine to unwind. One time I was standing in front of my class ready to start and I had NO energy and I said, "Guys, I need like five more minutes to gather my energy and get myself keyed up enough to lecture. So run to the vending machine or finish your reading or text your mom and we'll start a few minutes late." I just really had to make an effort of will that night to gather up enough energy to do it. And I LIKE talking to big groups of people. Clustering my classes on certain days helps, so I do all my high-energy stuff at once. For other people it might help to spread them out.)

"Personally, though: I just...don't care. I mean - I want my students to do well. I want them to enjoy the class. But when it comes to those cases who need a lot of extra motivation, or who are hoping to slide by with an A, or who are only in the class because it is required (and who find it hella boring), I just...don't care."

Yeah, truthfully, I don't really care that much about those students either. I'm there to teach the people who want to learn. I'm not their mom or their personal academic trainer. If they can't be bothered, well, that really seems like their problem. They're nominally adults. I am upfront about "Hey, I know a lot of you are here because it's required, but a lot of this is interesting stuff and I hope we'll find ways for you to connect to it." (Hm, that's not how I say it at all, but I can't think how I phrase it, lol.) I teach philosophy but I'm also a lawyer, so I tend to connect a lot of the philosophical concepts we're discussing to current legal controversies, which sometimes gets them excited when they can see how it actually does matter what the limits of knowledge are, or what a person is, or whatever, in a concrete way. Your connections to art might illuminate things in really great ways for your students who aren't interested in the field for its own merit.

But, yeah, if they don't want to be there, don't feel bad about it. And don't take it personally. It isn't about you or your skills or merit as a teach or a human being. Half the time it isn't even about the subject, it's about whatever else is going on in the student's life.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:44 PM on January 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am an art history professor at a relatively low-prestige state school (sorry, school, but it's true). We are, however, a research institution. What people say about teaching not being at all important in such places (research schools, no matter how crummy) is true, even though as someone who enjoys teaching and wishes some of her colleagues would do it better, I hate to admit it.

It is true that once you're repeating classes, they'll become 85% less burdensome. Oh, and also: I choose which classes I teach out of a long list. Pretty sure I'm never going to teach 19th-century European art ever, especially since we have a lecturer who loves it. Teaching gets better when you're on the curriculum committee.

If you land somewhere with a grad program, you'll have graders and maybe even TAs. Heck, some places use undergrads as graders (which is a horrifying thought if you're at a school like mine, but might help you out).

It is also true that I was happy -- no, ecstatic and gleeful to an embarrassing degree -- when my teaching load got reduced to 2-1 (from 3-2). This is because I get more time to do my research, which is why I'm here (and why they want me here) -- and also because the load reduction is the result of my heavy involvement with a sort-of-research-related teaching project that doesn't actually involve teaching (we're building a museum; and it does involve supervising student interns, but that is a very different kind of teaching!).

It is NOT true that museums are an option for you -- I worked at a museum for 6 years and fled back to the academy because I got *no* research done there, and moreover felt myself getting stupider and stupider as the months went by. I should qualify this by saying that if your field is contemporary whatever, then museums can be awesome and innovative, and would definitely be worth pursuing for you.

As for the people who say the PhD isn't worth it for financial reasons or other insanity: I assume you knew going in that a doctoral program wasn't going to give you an MBA. Don't make life decisions into financial decisions, please. You sound like you're in an awesome place in terms of financial security to get this degree and enjoy it for what it is -- multiple years during which your job is your dream job. Even if you can never have it again, you have it now. God, I miss grad school -- savor it.
posted by obliquicity at 6:19 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get thee to Versatile PhD. I haven't participated there, but it's the recommendation that always seems to come up in PhD forums for people in your situation who want to explore employment options outside academia. Mission: "The Versatile PhD mission is to help humanities and social science PhDs develop and demonstrate their versatility as professionals." You have to register, but it's free for individuals.
posted by BlooPen at 6:23 PM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not in academia, but is it possible you're just being too hard on yourself?

But when it comes to those cases who need a lot of extra motivation, or who are hoping to slide by with an A, or who are only in the class because it is required (and who find it hella boring), I just...don't care.

I man, I went to college for four years, and as far as I could tell every single teacher I had felt this way. Some were helpful when I asked for help, but no one went all "Dead Poet's Society" on me. College students are for the most part adults, and most people expect them to be self-motivated.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:51 PM on January 23, 2011

A professor in my department who shall remain nameless said to me recently that he was "buying out" of his teaching duties for the semester to focus more on a project that required some travel. He pays a fee to the university, they take it and pass his course load off onto an adjunct who probably wants/needs it more than him, and gets paid a lower rate. The university saves money, the prof gets what he wants, and the adjunct gets a job (although this is problematic in the sense that it drives down wages for teaching in general)

If you are top of your field, these kinds of deals or other ways of wiggling out of the most undesirable parts of teaching (ie big 101 classes with hundreds of kids) seem common enough. If you really are that good, you will only have to pay your dues with teaching while you are waiting for tenure, and then after that you can probably expect to do significantly less at least at an R1.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:51 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: If you are top of your field...

This is precisely what bothers me about most of the "stick with it" answers I've been seeing in the thread, which presume that the best solution to the OP's problem is to be so in demand as a researcher that she doesn't have to teach anymore. Well, that's great advice if she really does turn out to be the very best -- but not everyone gets that slot. Graduate students in the humanities call getting any tenure track job "hitting the lottery" for a reason; the job market is capricious and arbitrary and it's brutal out there for all jobs, much less the OP's R1 dream job.

If she's thinking about leaving, she should be realistic about the field and her prospects within it, not spend six years hoping for the best.
posted by gerryblog at 9:26 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Getting a PhD in the humanities can make you *less* employable for any job but college teaching."

True, but as others have mentioned DC is a veritable mecca for non-academic PhD's what with the large number of non-profits and think tanks. I imagine in any major American city (if you market yourself correctly) a PhD can be a bonus.

Outside of major cities? Yeah, it can basically over-qualify you for everything. (I only have an MA and I know from experience that in towns of a certain size people will roll their eyes if I was ever to try and get a job there.)
posted by bardic at 9:35 PM on January 23, 2011

Are you having fun in grad school, other than the teaching?

The world is full of people who research and write for a living, in business and government. If you are enjoying grad school and don't have any better opportunities knocking at your door you may as well finish. At the same time, however, you need to be learning about and preparing for alternate careers. You won't get much support from your grad program, most of which are focused on preparing students for careers that few of them will ever actually experience. But there have been some great resources posted above to hep yo think about alternate careers.

Also--have you taught an upper-level or grad seminar yet? It is a completely different animal. It isn't likely that you will land a job where grad seminars are all you have to do, though.
posted by LarryC at 11:16 PM on January 23, 2011

Could you make a living as a non-fiction author?
posted by Jacqueline at 1:47 AM on January 24, 2011

dflemingecon- the calculation does not work out quite like that. Let's say her stipend is $20K- generous but in the range of normal for humanities. Then the opportunity cost is the DIFFERENCE between that and the wages she could expect from entry level work. Which does not exist right now in this country for the most part for people without specific technical skills like programming, engineering, etc. Her particular opportunity cost might well be closer to zero if she couldn't find any work or only part time retail.

However, coming out of the PhD and transitioning to the private sector to do research that does not require the degree, she may incur a different sort of opportunity cost; she will be older starting out and her salary will never match someone who got a five year head start on her, so in that sense that lifetime lag in promotions and raises could add up to a significant opportunity cost, but that is also true in general comparing people who graduated with their bachelors just before and just after the start of the recession and immediately entered the workforce. Opportunity cost is difficult to estimate here for a number of reasons. Yes, there probably is some opportunity cost especially in the short term even for a funded PhD, but it's not at all as straightforward as $120K.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:17 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you hate it because you feel like you should do the impossible--motivate the unmotivated students, the ones who are only in it because they have to take your class, or because it's what fit into their schedule. If you don't care about these students, that's OK, because they don't care about your class. You can't make them care, and it's not your job.

Also, if you make R1, you will have a LOT more say over what you're teaching. Even when you do have to teach big intro classes, it'll be in your area AND you'll be on a rotation, so other terms you'll get to teach seminars on your topic of choice. I think you will find that to be a very different experience than teaching a bunch of rote stuff that you don't care about.

Also, what classes you teach and when would be part of the negotiation process when you're offered a job. If you're as good as your advisor hopes, then you will definitely have a lot of say in what you teach.
posted by amberwb at 9:19 AM on January 24, 2011

Dude, do NOT quit now. Just finish it.
posted by xammerboy at 2:52 PM on January 24, 2011

xammerboy, the poster is in the middle of the first year of a PhD program. This means they have 5 years to go, minimum. Even if you think they should continue because the degree will be worth it, it's not really a "just finish it up, it'll be quick and easy" scenario.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:41 PM on January 24, 2011

"5 years to go, minimum" - OP's in the first year of the PhD after the master's and reports in a later comment, "in theory: I should be finished in a little under four years."

Your point still holds, LobsterMitten, but it's not like OP is in the first year of grad school. Quitting now is basically taking a terminal master's degree.
posted by gingerest at 5:28 PM on January 24, 2011

Response by poster: wow - thanks, guys. I knew that asking mefi would yield a wealth of information and opinions. I am also (weirdly) glad to see that there seems to be no strong consensus on this issue; while it doesn't make my decision any easier (like a total pile-on of quit! or stay! might), it at least makes me feel a little better about being conflicted about the whole situation. I think many of you hit on some relevant issues: there may be a lack of investment on my part, but there may be some underlying (and fixable) problems with the teaching situation. Academic work is essentially a research post, but...all that fun fieldwork comes with a price. And that price is teaching.

I want to leave this thread unresolved in case there is anything else you want to add, but I thought I would throw some things in there:

- kaybdc gets an extra-shiny gold star for pinpointing exactly the type of job I would like to get outside of the academy: museum/gallery work, or something at a non-profit, arts-oriented foundation. Though I didn't get into details on what I study, those are probably the key locations where my current research could be practically applied. Plus, as an artist, I love gallery spaces, and am very much into the tangible work associated with hanging, managing, and staging works and performances. It gives me something to do with my power tools.

- Thus, I've decided to start looking into internships/job opportunities at museums for the summer months, since that would give me some practical experience, networking opportunities, and the ability to keep my options for...

- ...the day I may end up leaving the academy. Which I am not saying at this point is something that I 100% want to do. If teaching does turn out to be a nightmare I cannot stomach, it may be wise to leave. But even if it turns out to be manageable, others have pointed out the current job situation within higher education, and the extremely small chance of landing any sort of research-only gig. And I am also keeping my eyes open and am quite aware of something: even if I am a good researcher, kinda smart and stuff, and generally more productive than the other grads in my department, I know I am one of hundreds and hundreds of other similarly awesome students in other programs across the country who will be competing for the same limited number of jobs. The corporatization of the academy and all that. And honestly - I may be of a temperament that would prefer to land a research-oriented, non-academic gig in a fun city than accept being strung along as an overworked adjunct in a middle-of-nowhere town.

Basically: I am not impulsive, nor a quick decision maker, and what I kind of got from this thread is the sense that not all is doomed, but that I may want to start seriously thinking now about how I should maneuver myself into a job in the future.

And you guys were right: I heart research. It really is my thing. I just want to find the best place that will give me the best chance the pursue it, and approach it honestly, openly, and realistically.

Feel free to comment further.
I very much appreciate the discussion that was generated from my question.
I am going to mark some best answers, but really: the majority of you kicked ass and gave me a lot to think about. Hooray!
posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 6:12 PM on January 24, 2011

Response by poster: Also, though this may make me all shiny and idealistic and earnest, I do believe there is value that comes from completed a doctorate just for the sake of doing everything you have to do in order to complete the doctorate. While I don't really want to be poor and broke for the rest of my life, I am the type who is down with the idea of sacrificing immediate material gains in exchange for experience and knowledge. So adopting a wait-and-see position (at least one that falls on a realistic timeline) doesn't strike me as a waste of time, even though that may be a couple of years of earnings I have fallen behind on.

And there's always that cool poofy hat that's part of the phd regalia to look forward to. And you can't go wrong with a poofy hat, right?
posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 6:27 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

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