Is The Academic Life The Life For Me? (or: What Do You Do With a BA In English, Part XVII)
May 9, 2011 11:31 AM   Subscribe

I think I want to become an English professor. How would I go about it?

So, I've been thinking about what I want to do with my life. I know that what I'm doing now (menial clerical work for the government, and a part-time telemarketing gig) ain't it. I really don't want a straight, normal, office job. I love reading, love literature, and love writing. I even like talking about all those things. I got my Bachelor's in English after all. So, I think that sort of qualifies me to pursue the academic life.

The big questions here are:
1) How much further student loan debt am I likely to accure in pursuing this? I know I need to get a Master's Degree. A Doctorate too, perhaps. I'm already $40,000 in debt, and that's bad enough...

2) Does it make a difference when/where I go to Grad School? I'm pushing 30, and it took me six years to get my damn BA (thanks to an ill-fated dalliance with studying Computer Science at Polytechnic University), so I gotta wonder if the best time for this has past...

3) How does one actually apply for a job as an English prof? Is it like a regular job with résumés and applications and interviews—just with my thesis attached?

4) What are the chances I could get a gig at a university in a city? I'm not a rural/suburban/small college town kind of guy.

5) What am I not considering about going into this? I know I'm missing something.

Obviously, going into academia is a medium-to-long term goal. I don't want to do it lightly. Any advice is appreciated.
posted by SansPoint to Work & Money (60 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Oh dude, you might want to read this article first.
posted by slightly sissy tea hound at 11:33 AM on May 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

This is a temptation every English major must confront and overcome. Getting a city English professor job is like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, while wearing a blindfold. And then lots of people hate it anyway.
posted by Victorvacendak at 11:36 AM on May 9, 2011 [35 favorites]

1) If you can't get someone to pay for your Ph.D., you shouldn't do it. Period. A program which does not offer to waive your tuition and hook you up with funding for at least five years (usually in exchange for teaching classes or doing research) is not serious. Do not consider an offer without full funding.

2) It absolutely matters where you go to graduate school. There are hundreds of applicants for every academic job, and the better (read "prestigious") your program, the better your odds.

3) Academic hiring isn't all that different from traditional hiring in that you submit applications with your CV--your thesis generally isn't included--and do interviews if they're interested. It is a bit different in that academic hiring tends to have a pronounced annual cycle in ways that traditional employment doesn't, but the actual process is not that dissimilar from any other professional job.

4) Slim to none. Those are basically the odds of getting any kind of teaching job period, but no offense, you don't sound like the cream of the academic crop (Six years for your BA? No masters? A few years doing unremarkable, entry-level white collar work?), which means that like the rest of the market, you won't be able to be all that picky about where you end up. Most universities aren't in big cities anyway.

5) That from your questions, you know almost nothing about what this field is actually like. Start here.

Look, there's really only room in the academic market for the rock stars these days. Those people know who they are. If you have to ask, you aren't one.
posted by valkyryn at 11:38 AM on May 9, 2011 [19 favorites]

I'm sorry if this is a little sharp, but you sound incredibly, woefully naive about the entire schlep that is going to grad school and earning the PhD necessary for becoming an English professor. Like the article above points out, only half the people who graduate from Yale University, an English program tied for second place in the entire United States, got jobs last year. The possibility of getting a cushy tenure-track position ANYWHERE (this means at Boise State University, let alone any institution in a cool city) is next to zero these days.
posted by slightly sissy tea hound at 11:40 AM on May 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

Any advice is appreciated.
Run away, run far far away. The horror stories are not hyperbole.
1. Lots. A Ph.D., and even that's no guarantee (nb: see horror stories). Lots of debt, plus lost wages that you could have been earning during the underfunded stint at grad school.
2. Yes. It does make a difference where you attend grad school.
3. It's an incredibly soul-sucking, devilish, confidence crumbling ETERNAL process. Today's article, "Tenure As Hazing" doesn't go far enough in its characterization of the grad school and tenure process.
4. Almost none. Seriously.
5. You have not identified any serious reason why you should even begin to begin to begin to even remotely consider such a thing. And you obviously have no clue what it all means, which is not a judgement, but if you were to jump into this process without educating yourself about the insanity, sheer insanity of it. "A suicide mission" is how one recent article explains it. That article has been passed around the grad school listservs and friends, and people are not debunking it, and they are not claiming that happens at "other" schools but not theirs. Instead, there is a profound sadness that this system, and our decisions up to this point, have been so seriously misguided that the term "suicide mission" stings sharply in its accurate portrayal of our collective resignation.

Shall I go on?
posted by barnone at 11:46 AM on May 9, 2011 [11 favorites]

1. You need a PhD.
4. Extremely slim -- slimmer than slim. Hundreds of qualified PhD holders will compete for the elusive job. Many of them will have been gunning for this job for their whole lives.
5. You are missing a dose of reality which is that academia is in crisis right now, especially in the humanities, and that many or most of the people going into it, even those much more prepared than you are, will get chewed up and spit out. Many people come out of a PhD less qualified for most jobs than they did at the outset. Your job prospects might actually decrease.

There are many training programs (e.g. at community colleges) that offer much better job prospects for a much lower upfront cost and much shorter training time (one year vs. eight?). Some of these might fit your skills and desires. Think realistically and strategically about options outside of academia.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:48 AM on May 9, 2011

1) You absolutely should not pay to go to graduate school in the humanities (except maybe if you already have the money on hand and are doing it for personal reasons and understand that you're unlikely to get a monetary return on the investment). You should only go if you can get a teaching assistantship or research assistantship that comes with tuition remission. And you absolutely need a PhD; the masters isn't going to cut it.

2) Pushing 30 is a normal time to go to grad school. Your age shouldn't be a problem. Where you go does matter, though. The prestige of the school can be important, but even more important is making sure there are some heavy hitters in your specific area of study who are willing to work with you.

3) You get a job by networking with people at the institution where you get your degree and publishing your ass off. Then, when the time comes, you'll submit a CV and, if you're very lucky, do interviews (which will probably include some sort of teaching assessment). There should be people at your graduate school program who can walk you through this process.

4) Chances are slim. To get any sort of tenure-track position, you're going to have to have a better publication record and be better at networking than the majority of your peers, and even then you don't usually get your choice of locations; you go where the jobs are. A community college is a more likely possibility, but it won't pay as well, and even there, there will be competition.

5) What you may not be considering: the job market for English professors is very, very bad. Most of them are adjuncts working for peanuts. Tenure-track jobs (which are the only ones where you're likely to make an okay salary) are extremely difficult to get. Getting such a job will involve negotiating academic politics and networking as much or more than it will involve being good at analyzing and writing about literature.

Now that I've likely discouraged you, let me add that for the (very) few people who do get tenure-track jobs, it can be a highly rewarding career. The pay isn't spectacular, but it's okay, and the lifestyle has a lot to recommend it. If you're totally committed to it, you can make it work. But you should know what you're getting into.

(On preview, a lot of what valkyryn said is spot on.)
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 11:49 AM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was in college, I had the good fortune, as one of the best students in the English department, to participate in the search for a junior tenure-track professor at my liberal arts college. The candidate was to teach early U.S. literature, in addition to whatever was required in the core curriculum.

We received over 300 applications from candidates all across the globe, most of whom were really very capable indeed. It was an eye-opening experience for me; I had wanted to get my own PhD, but it was immediately clear that there was no way I was going to put myself through that. This was in the late nineties, and the thought of the crushing debt had not even occurred to me. Or the fact that I'd be moving all over the country trying to find jobs.

Don't do this to yourself. It is a lovely pipe dream, but it is not going to be fruitful. In better days I might recommend becoming an English teacher in a high school, but even that is really not a great option these days.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:57 AM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

The one person I know who has a tenure track position in English is in a small town, was already working as an instructor there, had to compete for the position and is making more now but still probably less than I do at a run of the mill office job. People I know who get into academia seem to be so passionate about what they study that they are willing to sacrifice nearly anything to get to follow their studies. Your questions make it seem like you are not that interested and wouldn't want to make sacrifices.
posted by oneear at 11:59 AM on May 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seconding barnone, Admiral Haddock, oneear, and others. I'm usually dismayed when I see such sharply worded negative advice on AskMe, but in this instance it's warranted. They're trying to save you a lot of lost time, lost money, and heartache. You simply will not get the faculty job you're fantasizing about. It doesn't sound as if you have the driving, monomaniacal passion that is ultimately its own reward in academia (and there are few others). Which is not to say you don't have passion about literature per se -- but it's not the same thing. (Nor will you be "betraying" or giving up on yourself or your literary interests by not going to grad school.)
posted by a small part of the world at 12:07 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love reading, love literature, and love writing. I even like talking about all those things. I got my Bachelor's in English after all. So, I think that sort of qualifies me to pursue the academic life.

Um, no, it qualifies you to be an English major. Being a professor is a whole actual job, not just a lifestyle.

First things first: Are you driven to teach English literature at the university level (and do you have an idea of what that entails) and/or do scholarly research (and have an idea of what that entails?)

Nthing that it's almost impossible to overstate the complex, competitive, political nightmare of getting a tenure-track job in the humanities right now.
posted by desuetude at 12:08 PM on May 9, 2011

My community college had SEVEN HUNDRED applicants recently for a poorly-paid tenure-track philosophy position in the ass end of nowhere (once tenured and with significant seniority, you can make all of $35,000/year, apparently!). That's what you're up against. This line almost makes me feel like we're being trolled: "I think that sort of qualifies me to pursue the academic life."

That said, if you think you have a passion for teaching English and introducing others to the joys of literature, there are jobs in primary and secondary education that may be for you. You can get your teaching certificate with a program like Teach for America (which can also help pay off prior student loans) or Alliance for Catholic Education without going into further debt while learning on the job. The job market isn't awesome for English teachers, though it's better coming out of TFA or ACE, but the next step is to get certified for ESL or as a reading specialist or similar, and then there's a pretty decent job market out there.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:08 PM on May 9, 2011 [13 favorites]

I'd actually like to respond to some of valkyrn's comments:

1) If you can't get someone to pay for your Ph.D., you shouldn't do it. Period. A program which does not offer to waive your tuition and hook you up with funding for at least five years (usually in exchange for teaching classes or doing research) is not serious. Do not consider an offer without full funding.
Even with funding, which might be $18k in a good program, it is almost impossible not to go into at least some debt. And almost nobody finishes an MA/PhD program in 5 years. The last few years without funding can be brutal. You can patch together a bunch of options, but it's incredibly tenuous, takes an extraordinary amount of time to organize, and it's still not paying that well -- while you're trying to finish a dissertation. Sometimes with a young child at home, since the end of a Ph.D. is also coinciding with the tail end of high fertility for women (35ish+). You have to be extremely frugal to make it on $18k a year in many college towns. And you are sometimes paying for your own health insurance on top of that.

3) Academic hiring isn't all that different from traditional hiring in that you submit applications with your CV--your thesis generally isn't included--and do interviews if they're interested. It is a bit different in that academic hiring tends to have a pronounced annual cycle in ways that traditional employment doesn't, but the actual process is not that dissimilar from any other professional job.
I'd disagree. It's incredibly different from the traditional hiring process for most jobs. I don't have time to go into all of the reasons, but having seen the process from both perspectives, the way in which the hiring committee and "voting faculty" discuss your application (that is, if you made it to the campus interview stage) can be outrageous. It's hidden behind the "it's a job for life! We have to be sure!" justification, but it is so much more than that. That's not to say other jobs don't have complicated hiring processes. But the academic song and dance is extremely idiosyncratic and punishing.

There are lots of good folks in academia. There are good departments, fun classes, rewarding moments, the feeling of contributing to education and generational conversations, but the system itself is.... beyond screwed.
posted by barnone at 12:09 PM on May 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Alright, alright. Point taken.

This just makes me wonder what the hell I can do besides menial office work.

(I've ruled out teaching at the primary through high school level already for multiple reasons.)
posted by SansPoint at 12:12 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

there's really only room in the academic market for the rock stars these days. Those people know who they are. If you have to ask, you aren't one.

Right. The sort of person I envision having a successful academic career in English literature is the sort of person who won an award for "best thesis" at a prestigious undergraduate institution, then got into a fully-funded Ph.D. program at a top-5 English Literature program and had a prodigious publication record and probably organized workshops at top-tier conferences.

This doesn't sound like you. High school teaching is a great alternative if you can find a good one with good students.
posted by deanc at 12:12 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could consider teaching abroad, after some preparation. I taught composition at several fairly good colleges in mainland China and could easily have parlayed that into teaching composition plus literature/reading-difficult-texts. Most people who teach English abroad don't like teaching composition - too much marking involved - so you can build up a nice little specialty if you're committed to providing good feedback to your students.

After a lot of soul-searching, I gave up my lifelong dream (or at least, a dream I'd had since I was seven) of English professor-hood. I've been sad about that - less challenging work, no support for in-depth reading, no change for scholarship - but as I've watched my friends finish up their graduate programs and almost universally fail to find work, I have come to feel that I made the right call. The only person I know who got a job (at a so-so school in a hick part of the country) was the most spurious, least-scholarly of the bunch, but very handsome and charismatic.
posted by Frowner at 12:14 PM on May 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Successfully finding a full-time job as an English professor (either tenure-track or lecturer with some job security) is very much like succeeding in making a living as a musician or an artist. It's possible, but the odds of failure are much greater than the odds of success.

Like success in music and art, success in academe involves having a passion for what you do. As an English Ph.D. student, what you will do is write literary criticism (seminar papers and dissertation). Much of that will also involve writing about literary criticism. It's not enough to love reading literature and to love writing; you need to love writing about interpreting literature. Even if you see yourself in a position at a teaching-oriented college, not a research university, you have to do the research to get a Ph.D. and you will have to publish some of it in order to get a job and then get tenure.

Passion isn't enough, though. You also have to be really good at it. As in, you got mostly A's in your undergrad English courses (the occasional A- is OK). Then there's a healthy dose of luck.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:14 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you considered getting into technical writing? You could maybe move from telemarketing to tech support and then try to work your way up from there to QA or tech writing. You might need to take some evening classes along the way.
posted by hazyjane at 12:26 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You seem to be convinced it is a bad idea, but I wanted to throw this video into the mix, as it seems appropriate.
posted by procrastination at 12:29 PM on May 9, 2011

It's incredibly different from the traditional hiring process for most jobs.

Not necessarily from the perspective of the applicant. And hiring for attorney, physician, and other professional jobs where they're looking for partners more than just employees is actually quite similar.
posted by valkyryn at 12:32 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a terrible idea.

But I want to add about going back to school when you're 30...

1. You'd have to work on applying and all that... so add another year or 2 for that.
2. You'd have to get your MA and PhD... add 6-9 years for that.
3. You'd probably have to adjunct or do a postdoc or 2... add a few more years to that. [and possibly additional student loan payments during that time]
4. Then you finally get a tenure track job! Wahoo! 7 years until tenure.
5. Then you go for full professor... add 7 years.

Anyway, my point is, that you're really screwing up your financial life by going back to school because you'll accumulate more debt and reduce the years which you'll be able to put money away for retirement (grad school years plus adjunct years plus (probably) assistant professor years).
posted by k8t at 12:34 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

What can you do besides menial office work? This already got mentioned, but I'll phrase it differently. You seem to want to go back to school. There is an alternative that requires just as much hard work, offers just as much in reward, and doesn't cost a dime.

Volunteer somewhere. Keep your current job for just a few more years. Volunteer a few places until you find somewhere that suits you well. Make it your second full-time job, really throw yourself into it. Become a part of that community. Contribute a lot, and you'll learn a lot.

After you've been doing it for a long time (so long that you forget you're volunteering, because it's just this thing you do), you'll find that you have taken on new skills and responsibilities, which will qualify you for jobs that right now you can't even imagine.
posted by aniola at 12:39 PM on May 9, 2011 [9 favorites]

I've no experience in studying in the Humanities, but I am getting a PhD in another discipline. I wonder whether it might be easier to be an English prof in another non-English speaking country?

Also, there are places outside the US where one can study and it is not as expensive. Just to give a little more perspective, as it seems that the conversation is quite US centric. The savage system of tenure does not exist everywhere.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 12:48 PM on May 9, 2011

Response by poster: You know what? Fuck volunteering—at least as a job-finding/career-building strategy. I've got two jobs already just to make ends meet. I'm sick of this idea that I should bust my ass for free in the hopes that I'll get something better coming my way. I assume my services are valuable, and that I deserve a check for what I do.

Maybe it's an entitlement mindset, but you know something? I worked my way through college, earning paychecks. I didn't intern. I couldn't intern, because to pay the bills, I had to earn a fucking check. I work two jobs now. I barely have enough time to do the shit I want to do for myself (including stuff that I actually care about like my writing). Volunteering is fine if a) I had the time and b) was doing something that I would want to do for free.

Yeah, this is going to read like petulant whining no matter how hard I try for it not to be. I no longer care.
posted by SansPoint at 12:50 PM on May 9, 2011 [18 favorites]

Fuck volunteering—at least as a job-finding/career-building strategy.

It is not a job-finding/career-building strategy. It is about doing what you love, interacting with people who do what you love and finding fulfillment outside your professional life. Very few people get to do what they love professionally, the rest make enough money that they can ignore they don't what the love professionally and the rest of us now have hobbies and volunteering where we can find some inkling of self-actualization.

It is having a modicum of control over you life. You might not be able to get that job you want, but there's nothing stopping you from doing whatever it is you like to do.
posted by geoff. at 12:58 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

SansPoint, the advice people generally give in situations like yours that are basically, "how can I switch jobs/what do I do with my life?" is to point you back to your college's career office and to start going to your college's career fairs (I get the impression that you still live in the same town you went to college in).
posted by deanc at 1:01 PM on May 9, 2011

You do jobs for which you need a degree, but not necessarily in a particular subject.
You reference a computer background; leverage that. Jobs for people who can speak geek and write well:
Middle manager at a tech company
Technical writer
Tech reporter/blogger (not lucrative for most)
Management consultant
Sysadmin, DB admin, other admin (probably at a small, local place unless you have substantial experience)
posted by willpie at 1:04 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: geoff Understood, but I get that from my personal work (writing/etc.) which I barely have time for these days.

deanc In short: my college career office is useless. I can't come up with a good metaphor to explain just how bad they are. (Temple University. When I went in, I sat down with someone for fifteen minutes, who gave me vague advice, a cursory résumé once-over, and told me to go home, register for an outsourced job posting site and take a long, pointless online examination.)
posted by SansPoint at 1:04 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey you sound like me on the whole "won't work for free" issue.

Some things you could look into - grant writing, communications director (for things like hospitals or retail stores. I just applied for the position of Director of Retail Communications for Destination Maternity on Spring Garden. Position is still open as far as I know. you basically write and update employee manuals, create sales blitz flyers, etc), PR.

Sales for a legit organization usually affords you a lifestyle with a flexible schedule to work on your other interests.

Look for jobs at Temple. They had a few openings last week when I checked for managing the student center and such.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:13 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I mean it sounds boring, but that's because it is. Don't look for your life in work. Look for it outside of work, and to that effect you should focus on streamlining your jobs to one that gets you by, even if it's not a sexy glamourous position.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:16 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: WeekendJen Let me just finish my year with my current full-time job, and I'll get on that job hunting thing. This post was really intended to be about long-term stuff 'cause at least what I do full-time now is tolerable enough. I didn't expect it to devolve into shouting and screaming about avoiding grad school and academia at all costs.

I spent a year more-or-less out of work save for my part-time phone job with the theatre, after getting fired from a sales job. I am not going back into sales again. Ever. Not on your life. I would rather kill myself. There is no hyperbole in that sentence. Sales is not for me.
posted by SansPoint at 1:19 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hello, welcome to the real world. Do you think English majors are the only ones who are working 2 jobs just to make ends meet?

I want to commend you for looking to better yourself and your life. Like many, many others, this means looking at different options, thinking outside of the box, and sacrificing some dignity to get ahead in the world.

I was an English major with a technical writing degree. For years, I worked at an amazing full-time job at a nonprofit using some of my English degree skills. It paid shit, so I worked part-time to supplement my income until my late 20s. Yeah, that's right, I worked 8-10 a day during the day, and then another 6 hours a night 3x a week to make ends meet. I eventually segued into a completely different career that didn't care that I had an English degree, but did care that I worked hard, communicated well, and gave a shit about what I did.

I probably represent 80% of all English majors out there.

No, I take that back. I probably represent 80% of any college graduate.
posted by HeyAllie at 1:22 PM on May 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I didn't expect it to devolve into shouting and screaming about avoiding grad school and academia at all costs.

We've seen enough AskMeFis from desperate grad students and former grad students that we could see where this was headed and were trying to save you the trouble.

Does your college have career fairs? Even after I had left grad school, sometimes I would drop by career fairs and talk to the representatives recruiting for positions.
posted by deanc at 1:30 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sales is not for me.

There's no shame in saying that. Sales works well for people with specific personality types, and some people have it and some people don't. The thing is that employers figure that salesmen "pay for themselves," so they are willing to hire lots of people to do "sales" even if they're not a good fit for the job. (I'd be an awful in sales)
posted by deanc at 1:32 PM on May 9, 2011

I have a PhD in the humanities*, and recently landed (miraculously!) an entry level position in another industry**. While I've decided to step away from an academic career for a bunch of reasons (mostly my age - I'm 28 and I've never *not* worked in a university), I don't regret my PhD for a second, and I do see enough job openings in my field to make me think that if I really, truly, with all my heart wanted to pursue it I could.

There's a lot of sky-is-falling talk here in this thread about working in the humanities, and it's true, it's tough, but it's tough for everyone. There were over 900 applicants for 6 entry level positions at the company I'll be working for in June. It's just plain old difficult, but the difficult part is figuring out which tough thing you want to try and do.

Doing a PhD made me grow up. It taught how to write on a range of scales, from abstract to paper to entire dissertation. It taught me the value of research, and theory, and critical thinking. Teaching is both the best and the worst. And I also found a really wonderful community of peers. I can also definitively say that I'm an expert on one tiny little trivial thing, but it's MY tiny little trivial thing, damnit!

But - BUT - the advice here is still spot on. It's exceptionally hard, very lonely, very isolating work, and if you can't get a fully funded position I wouldn't bother.

If you think you've got the fire in the belly for it, if you have questions you want to answer, then go for it. It's really fucking hard, but so is everything right now.

* the sociology/social studies of science end of cultural studies, not English.

** a creative role in the most corporate of corporate sectors - I sold out hard, and I love it.
posted by nerdfish at 1:43 PM on May 9, 2011 [9 favorites]

I love reading, love literature, and love writing. I even like talking about all those things. I got my Bachelor's in English after all. So, I think that sort of qualifies me to pursue the academic life.

This qualifies you to live a rich and informed life, not the academic one. If you love reading, and literature, and writing, then write. Start a blog, and try your hand at short fiction or Nanorimo. The academic world is a tough, tough slog these days.

Here's a datapoint: A good friend of mine has published a number of pieces of short fiction in reputable magazines, published a book of novellas, and did her PhD in American Lit at a top ten University supervised by a scholar of international repute; she currently considers herself very lucky to have a job teaching first and second year college students at a school that doesn't even have an MA program (though they're working on it). Another datapoint: I'm seriously planning on starting an English PhD in the next year or two, despite the fact that my current job in University administration is decently paid, secure, and unionized. The technical term for this is "insanity", and it's only, finally, after realizing that it's a singular passion that won't go away that I am taking the deep breath and pursuing it. However, I am, if the Vancouver property market doesn't crash and the zombie apocalypse doesn't come, going to inherit several hundred thousand dollars in the next 15 or 20 years. I have no expectations of an academic career at all, and will count myself extremely fortunate to end up teaching anything anywhere; it's only a measure of potential financial sercurity that would make this choice halfway to rational. Do it if you love it, but don't expect anything from it. And again, if you love to read and write, then read and write. Or take an ESL course and go and teach overseas, perhaps. But academia is a shark pool of dimensions which might shock you. Wishing you the best.
posted by jokeefe at 1:52 PM on May 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

There are jobs teaching in community colleges, which can be very satisfying. But quite likely hard to justify based on cost of degree vs. pay.

Do some aptitude and interest testing; your college career center should be able to help with this. Visit a library and find out what the current best resources are for career choice; What Color Is Your Parachute used to be standard.

From my perspective of many years in the world of jobs, Do you like to work with people? How much? Perhaps you should be a college career counselor. It's my experience that three are many under-qualified people in this position. You could totally shine.

Do you have technical skills/aptitude? There's growth and creativity in web design.

Do you have strong grades? Most lawyers I know do a lot of writing. Law jobs in big firms are scarce, but there are other options, like government. You can actually accomplish good things as a bureaucrat.

Do you like to work with numbers and/or data? Lots of jobs, and more on the way.

Spend some time with a reference librarian researching the job prospects in various fields and the job attributes/aptitudes for various careers. I was an English major. I've changed careers several times, and have mostly done wok that is interesting, or with interesting people, or that pays okay, in various combinations.
posted by theora55 at 2:03 PM on May 9, 2011

there's really only room in the academic market for the rock stars these days.

Just to reiterate--the people who get tenure track positions in English these days are under 30, have received multiple grants both from their institutions and from national granting agencies, started publishing in serious academic journals while still in grad school, and probably have a sideline in poetry or music or something interdisciplinary going on, as well having managed to cultivate a network of mentors and referees to help them along their way. That's what it takes. I don't want to deter you from it, but you might want to look at part-time graduate programs and try not to get too heavily into debt. Good luck.
posted by jokeefe at 2:06 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in to say that I liked Eyebrows McGee's suggestion of teaching ESL. It's a great service and you could help turn people on to English lit and language. You don't have to teach kids, either, if you don't want to (someone in my family did this and taught mostly adults).
posted by en forme de poire at 2:25 PM on May 9, 2011

If you love English lit and want to teach, but don't want to teach kids, I suggest that you look into courses for adults finishing their high school diplomas (aka adult basic education, upgrading, remedial, GED classes, or developmental English). You can teach the equivalent to Grade 11 or 12 English Literature, but your students would all be 19 or older. I have experience teaching these courses and also first year college level English, and to be honest, I didn't find it all that different.

What I like about teaching adult upgrading:
  • motivated students (in general); usually no classroom management problems
  • small classes
  • total freedom over my choice of literature and teaching methods--my students are expected to deal with adult themes/language in their assigned readings
  • no contact with parents--in fact I am legally obligated to keep my students' academic info private
  • diverse group of students
  • rewarding and meaningful work--I really feel I'm helping these students improve their lives, because it's very difficult to function in society without a high school diploma or GED
What I don't really like:
  • it's exhausting--I spend over double the number of hours in the classroom with upgrading students as I do with college-level courses, and there's just as much marking and prep
  • students tend to have a bigger set of life challenges and barriers than traditional college students, and I sometimes don't know how to help them
  • sometimes I have to deal with students who have gotten where they are through social promotion without additional intervention, and do not have the skills/ability to function at that academic level. However, to be fair, I also have also taught first-year college students in the same boat.
Requirements for teaching these courses will vary depending on where you live, but the minimum would be a bachelor's degree, and most places would require you to have a BEd or a bachelor's plus a master's.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:31 PM on May 9, 2011 [10 favorites]

I came in to give you all the dire warnings, but I see others sufficiently did this, so I'd like to add a different suggestion:

I love reading, love literature, and love writing. I even like talking about all those things. I got my Bachelor's in English after all. So, I think that sort of qualifies me to pursue the academic life.

Actually, it does. Not the academic-as-a-job life, perhaps, for all the reasons given above. But you might well be very happy DOING postgraduate work in English literature, as long as you don't expect a job at the end of it.

If you can get into a funded program, sure, you might only be earning less than $20,000 a year, but you already said you are working two jobs to make ends meet, so maybe that's not less than your current situation. And it would be paying you to read, write and talk about literature. (And teach, so if the reason you rule out primary/secondary school is because you don't like teaching, don't forget you will probably end up TAing if you do a PhD.)

Yes, a PhD is really really hard work. Most PhD students burn out and go through depression, especially near the end. But a lot of that is due to seeing the reality of the job market, and stress due to the unrealistic expectations they feel on them due to that market (must have stellar teaching record, must publish, must write best thesis ever, must win awards...) Certainly that was the case for me. If I had not (so incredibly desperately) wanted a job in academia (and I"m not quite there yet - I'm a postdoc now), I might not have found that final year of the PhD so terrifying and overwhelming.

If you think you might be interested in the PhD without trying for an academic job afterwards, apply for some (funded!) programs. See what happens.
posted by lollusc at 4:25 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I realize that it's generally considered bad form to derail an AskMe. However, I think the OPs original question has been answered and contiinuing to pile on reasons why academia is a bad idea is kind of moot and insenseitive at this point. Thee question has now self-morphed into how to figure out what to do.

So my suggestions are to skip the career office for now. Instead get some aptitude testing done. Figure out what skills you want to use (is it the writing or analysis that you like about English) and figure out what jobs use them. Now here's the hard part: You can't figure out what jobs use them by sitting around and thinking. The reason you can't do that is that most jobs that are out there you've never heard of. Did you know there are medical photographers? Or that there are people whose job it is to redesign filing systems? Or that there are people whose job it is to track down every apartment building in a city and find out how many coin-op washing machines they have? Obviously none of those are for you, but there's a job out there that you've never heard of that is for you. When you get aptitude testing done, you'll get some suggested jobs and you can look them up and learn what they are and find out if maybe they are for you. Some kinds of testing will look at your interests, some at your skills, and some at what you value in a job (would you rather make a lot of money or be secure? have a clear mandate or do your own thing? know what you're supposed to be doing or design your own job? work on deadlines or set your own timelines? etc.)

For what it's worth (which is probably not much given how little info I have to go on), I think you should look at grant writing and editing and other kinds of writing based work if you really want to work the English degree angle. Entertainment writing is something a few people I've known who have left academia have moved into: reviewing plays and concerts and albums and movies for alternative weeklies and local web sites (yes, they make their full-time living from this). But yeah, there's a good chance that the job that's best for you is one I haven't heard of either. You need a resource to tell you what jobs are out there -- and give you a good sense of what those jobs entail -- so you can figure out which one is for you.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:27 PM on May 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

What I have to say about grad school in the humanities has been said above. The long and the short is, it's very tough and probably best avoided. For a lot of people who enjoyed humanities undergrad work, grad school seems like a tempting prospect because the work is interesting and at the end there is the promise of this prestigious job with various perks. But the process is really hard and the job market, even for those who make it through, is seriously awful in ways it's hard to see from the outside. That's why people are kind of jumping up and down about it. If you click on your tags and look through archives questions about grad school, you'll see this is a question that's been asked several times before and got roughly the same kinds of answers. If you were absolutely on fire to go into academia, and your professors in undergrad were pressuring you to go, then it might be something to think about - but if you're just thinking of it in loose terms, it's better to find something else.

I know you're frustrated by a long series of unsatisfying jobs and job-searching. It sucks.

One piece of advice I see a lot is to try to come up with a personal "brand", picking out some elements of your own profile that fit together into a picture of what kind of work you're looking for and what strengths you bring to the table. It's easy to get down on yourself or on the job market (all the jobs suck, or, here's a list of jobs I don't want) but for obvious reasons that's not so productive. "What Color is your Parachute" goes through this in some detail and has some good pep-talk sections too. It's a good way to remind yourself of what hiring managers are looking to hear from you, and helps you to think about longer range planning -- helps to think in positive terms about what you're best at, too.

Another thought is to get some credential that leads directly to a job - a nursing degree, a technical computer certification, etc. Maybe a teaching certificate could lead to non-teaching jobs such as writing textbooks or online educational materials?
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:27 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you know your spot on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator or can take even an informal assessment of it, take a look at Do What You Are by Paul D. Tieger & Barbara Barron. Lots and lots of jobs and strategies for your type.
posted by jgirl at 4:52 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've always thought the military needed more poets. I'm actually not being arch or snarky. You could do a hell of a lot worse for career advancement, a steady paycheck, and unusual opportunities.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:21 PM on May 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you're interested in working in academia, what about university administration? If you already have an office job, you can probably get some kind of office job at a university. You might even get tuition assistance at one point and then you can pursue something else. If you decide you like it, you can consider graduate school for university administration. There are tons of different jobs at universities. I know someone who works in admissions, a student alcohol and drug abuse prevention office, a housing department for minority engineering students.

My other idea: go to some job hunt website and look up the jobs you would like to have in a few years. See what the requirements are. Figure out how to get there. Alternately, look up people who have jobs you want at different organizations and see how to get there. Make a list of 20 places where you would love to work, see if they're hiring, apply for jobs. Try again in a week.

The economy sucks. The situation in academia sucks. The fact that sometimes our dreams aren't actually achievable sucks. But none of those things have anything to do with you. Focus on you. You can do this.
posted by kat518 at 5:23 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Like another person mentioned, I worked in the English office at my small (2000 students, undergrad only) decently regarded midwestern liberal arts school. There was a decent sized English faculty, maybe 15 or so teachers. My junior year, there were two openings, one for a tenure track position, one for an adjunct position. We got over 500 applications (bear in mind, we're talking about 15 years ago, things are worse now, from what I've heard) and I was asked to help sort them. I wasn't allowed to look at any CVs, but a lot of them were written on school letterhead/sent in school envelopes. We had applications from Princeton, Harvard, Yale, all over. About half of them were tossed in the garbage. When I asked why, the office manager told me words of wisdom I've never forgotten. She said, "There's a bottom of the class, even at Harvard." Applications were tossed for even the tiniest formatting errors. To make the task as manageable as possible for the hiring committee, the office manager scanned each application, looking only for reasons to throw them out. Even so, the committee still looked through roughly 250 of them.

In the end, though, the tenure position went to an adjunct already at the school, and the adjunct went to the creative writing teacher, both of whom were pretty clearly deserving of the spots. Those two jobs ended up getting filled from within, and those 500 had essentially wasted their time.

I had, myself, wanted nothing more than to become a lit professor. Seeing that process was essentially reality slapping me in the face and telling me to wake up.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:26 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got two jobs already just to make ends meet.

Even if you were considering a phd in a robust field with great employment prospects, you need to think through the realities of living on a graduate stipend. It's not dire poverty, at all (I actually saved money during most of my time, and I was far from alone), but $14,000 to $20,000/year, often in places with fairly high costs of living, won't let you live and consume like you might have become accustomed to, and at the level many of your wealthier peers (with parental support, trust funds, or money from their previous careers) will be doing all around you.

And there are costs throughout. You'll want to always have a newish computer, because your entire academic life will be in those electrons, and a dead computer while you are typing an important paper is sucky. You might need or want to travel for research, to learn a language, or to meet key people. If you go to a high-end school, you'll get access to some limited conference funding, but the reality is that going to conferences will cost more than the department will give you. (If nothing else, you will want to go out for drinks in the evening, for example.)

It's totally, 100% possible to go through grad school without taking on any debt, even without having wealthy parents or access to a working spouse. I did it, and so do many other people. And dire as the overall job situation in the humanities is, colleges are still competing for good candidates. Yes, you might receive 500 applications, but they aren't 500 star applications; a significant fraction of those 500 sort themselves out of the competition by not including the required materials, not having good recommendations, or not being able to write a decent cover letter.

That said, the people who do well in grad school and stand out on the job market (who are giving papers, publishing, winning top awards and grants, etc) are the kind of driven, nakedly ambitious people who would do well in a corporate job, at law school, or on a reality show like Survivor. They aren't abstract, wafflely types -- they are competitive, high-energy, and willing to work cruel hours. If that describes you, then I'd say you should go to grad school regardless of all the naysayers. If not, then follow any of the great suggestions other people have put forward.
posted by Forktine at 5:28 PM on May 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

If you are sufficiently crafty and manipulative, it might be possible to claw your way to a decent spot in the academic food chain. If I were you, and my credentials were unremarkable, I would perhaps start off at a school with a good "terminal MA" program, that prides itself on placing its grads in good PhD programs. I would then treat the program like a professional school. It's not about passion for books or literature or any of that bullshit; it's a place to learn the norms and standards of academia. Start publishing immediately. Try to turn seminar papers into papers you can submit to professional journals. Cultivate mentors and colleagues by attending conferences. If you can't get into a US PhD program that is suitably prestigious, perhaps apply to grad school at a high end Canadian institution like McGill or to Oxford or Cambridge (which can be much easier to get into than Yale, NYU, Harvard or Chicago).

I knew a student whose strategy was to climb into an Ivy League classics PhD program by first getting a Master of Divinity at Harvard or Yale where it wasn't that hard to get in. She thought the cachet of the Harvard or Yale MDiv would help her get into the PhD program. In academia you see lots of people gaming the prestige system in very clever ways. Even if you're not objectively the best, if you can play the game effectively you might succeed.
posted by jayder at 6:52 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey, I am in a fairly menial office position that has, over time, become so much less menial that my boss basically asks me before making any decision about anything ever.

You know where I work?

I work in academia.

And you know what I did my first year working there?

I took four courses in French and a creative writing course.

Then I went on to pursue my Masters, which due to having a baby, I have yet to complete.

I'd really, really, really like to move up in academia. Particularly in this institution, because I love working with the people I work with. I love undergraduate students, and even though I'm not a huge fan of much of the way this institution is run compared to my alma mater, I have a pretty good time.

I get in at 8:45 or so, and I leave at 4. I pretty much can take whatever days I want off without problem, and my benefits are helluva amazing.

I have a very academic life without being an academic. Sure, I still have to go to work 5 days a week, but my work comes with the advantage of, most of the time, being able to leave it at home. It's taken nearly 6 years, but I'm likely to get a promotion in my current job, and I keep looking for something to open up that I'm more interested in (advising, program coordination, etc.).

So, it may not be feasible to plan on going into academia as an English professor. Many fields lend themselves well to completing a Ph.D. later in life --- my boss didn't start his until he was in his 40s --- but those are programs where your past experience has direct relevance on the degree and more classes/requirements can be waived upon entry. English isn't one of those fields, unfortunately. But just because that's the case, it doesn't mean you can't otherwise be in academia (and let me tell you --- being an academic department assistant at a university on the smaller side is a pretty sweet gig for quality of life).

I am also pushing 30. I really, really, really am ready to move up, but I'm also content with where I am for right now. I overall like my job. I know I'm capable of more. I'll get to a higher position eventually. Give some thought to working in academia, not as a professor, and while you're there, take advantage of whatever tuition benefits you get. You may find you like other academic options than being a professor better.

My final note --- I was going to get a Ph.D. I applied. I was accepted into four programs, two of which were some of the highest ranking ones for my field. I declined all my offers. Because I didn't get funding. I couldn't take that much on. I have the occasional sense of regret more of the lost opportunity to study that field more, but for me, it was absolutely the right decision.
posted by zizzle at 6:55 PM on May 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Teaching university is often a lot like teaching high school -- especially if you (like most English teachers) end up teaching required courses.
posted by jb at 7:33 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm seconding the idea that you should look for a full time job at a university. I have several friends who have gotten master's degrees by working for a university that offers free or extremely reduced tuition to its employees. Even if you never manage to get a job in academia proper, you'd have the enjoyment of going to school for your MA in English (which you seem pretty into), a few years of networking with people at that university, and be better positioned to both figure out if going further in your schooling is something you want and actually move forward if you decide it's worth the fight.
posted by shamash at 9:12 PM on May 9, 2011

Also I have a friend who completed a literature PhD at the top university in the world for her subspecialty (Old English). She reads Old English, Latin, Old Norse, Old Irish, as well as German. She's one of hardest working and smartest people I've ever met.

After a year of unemployment, she is now teaching English in China (she had to pay for her own acceditation). Fortunately, she's happy, as she loves travel. But she is in rural China.
posted by jb at 9:45 PM on May 9, 2011

You have both a BA in English and extensive coursework in computer science? And you want to live in a city?

Suggestion: apply for a job as a technical writer at an IT firm, put up with the straight, normal office job [with benefits] to pay off the debt albatross, and use your non-work time to take more classes in the subjects you love, to write a novel, and most importantly, to connect with others who share your interests in reading and literature. Those folks neither dropped off the face of the earth when they graduated, nor did they find careers in academia, but you will probably find them only a few cubicles over.
posted by apartment dweller at 9:48 PM on May 9, 2011

Teach in prison. I'm serious, I did this for a year and it's great. Everyone in the class wants to be there and you can press a big red button to get anyone who misbehaves hauled out. The pay is good, the library system is fantastic, you have very little paperwork and a great gym. I would rather teach half a dozen adult rapists and murderers who are giving up work and therefore cigarette money to be there than twenty five stroppy uninterested teenagers any day of the week. Never bring anything into the prison for them, remember that nobody in prison is guilty in their own mind but that they all are in reality, and you'll be out by 3 p.m. every day to write your novel or whatever it is you really want to do.
posted by joannemullen at 10:03 PM on May 9, 2011 [19 favorites]

I've never understood why people hate on English majors. I guess it's really easy to make McDonalds jokes. But I'll tell you this--there's a lot of folks out there who can't write or communicate well, and being able to understand and communicate story is downright POWERFUL.

If you can gain some tech expertise (and if you want to get really fancy, some good, real graphic design), you could do comm for a small non-profit. They need jacks-of-all trades to blog, tweet, communicate with clients, donors and staff, organize production, etc. Most of the successful folks I know who do this were humanities majors who stretched themselves. Oh, wait, you have a tech background? They will LOVE you. Scratch the graphic design. You don't need it. Unless you want it, which would be fabulously helpful to your portfolio.

But what struck me is that you didn't say one real thing about why you want to publish, research and teach, which I understand to be the life of MeFite academics via lurking here (and gave me a real awakening to my own kick-the-can thoughts of joining the ranks of academia). Loving to discuss literature does not a good teacher or professor make, more's the pity.

If you're interested in higher ed admin, I would try working your way up while getting the grad degree. Being a quality known quantity can only help.
posted by smirkette at 10:05 PM on May 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

But I'll tell you this--there's a lot of folks out there who can't write or communicate well, and being able to understand and communicate story is downright POWERFUL.

Yup, this has been the basis of my career in the nonprofit sector. I can understand and communicate with anyone on pretty much any subject (with a little jargon/background research), because I have 600 years' worth of English-language perspective and persuasive wisdom in my back pocket. I started in a pretty drudge job in my mid-late twenties and got up to mid-level within a few years largely on my curiosity (i.e. I Will Google That) and my attention to detail (i.e. I Will Look That Up Before Asking.)
posted by desuetude at 11:25 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just Memailed you, SansPoint: check your inbox.

I'm an English professor: hired in the last 5 years, tenure track (hopefully tenured very soon). I started in grad school in my 30s, and got this job when I was 40. I took forever to do my BA; I am not a rock star. None of the people I work with are either.
posted by jrochest at 12:25 AM on May 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

If you're interested in working in academia, what about university administration? If you already have an office job, you can probably get some kind of office job at a university. You might even get tuition assistance at one point and then you can pursue something else. If you decide you like it, you can consider graduate school for university administration. There are tons of different jobs at universities. I know someone who works in admissions, a student alcohol and drug abuse prevention office, a housing department for minority engineering students.

Seconded or thirded. A university campus can be a fantastic place to work, and tuition coverage is a common benefit.
posted by jokeefe at 9:57 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine is now on the way to becoming an English professor at Cambridge. He did his degree and an MA at a different university, took a year out, then moved to Cambridge to do his PhD. He's now 29 and is employed as a research fellow. It can be done.

However, my friend is very, very focused and dedicated on what he is doing. I can't say whether he's a 'rock star' - the system might be different in the UK and I know he has written for publications on his area of interest but I am not sure whether they were journals or otherwise - but he has had to put in a lot of hard work. He also did it because he has a strong , years-old passion for his thesis topic and not because he particularly wanted to make a career out of it - he was just interested in learning. I think this is the key. Another friend is on the way to doing the same, but in Maths, and in a similar way - they both focused on what interested them and academic life was almost a happy accident.

I know it isn;t easy - I wanted to do a PhD at one point but lack of any money at all and illness made it unfeasable - but I would suggest thinking about furthering your education in an area which interests you and see if professor is where you end up.
posted by mippy at 4:29 AM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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