This story was shared by a reader recently. They have given me permission to share it here anonymously. Rarely have I seen the sickness of the PhD apparatus so clearly articulated. “Toxic hope” is another way of saying Berlant’s “cruel optimism” (2011), “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” And in 2021, it has surely moved beyond cruel to toxic. Why do faculty still behave like this? Is this not a kind of evil?
At my PhD graduation ceremony in 2018, the departmental speaker (a tenured prof) proudly listed all the jobs English grads, including the PhDs, were getting post-graduation. Not one of them related to the field directly. I recall the line “Our graduates go on to become yoga instructors, butchers, or to retrain in tech,” but it was much longer than that.
While this might seem like he was voicing a mistimed indictment of a field that has not successfully prepared students to market their skills for a world in which faculty jobs are ever scarcer, he meant it as uncritical praise. “How adaptable the degree, and our graduates with it!”
I kept thinking about how a couple of months before, I’d heard the same person say “People who deserve tenure track jobs get them” at a workshop on navigating the market.
I kept thinking about how the jobs listed at graduation either didn’t pay a living wage and/or required additional training. I kept thinking about how little he clearly thought of all of us.
A lot of it, especially for recent PhDs, boils down to feeling like we hear a narrative of toxic hope until literally the moment we graduate.
It’s hard not to read it as a ploy to extract high-quality, low-wage labor, then release us into the world older, broker, and often with worse job prospects than we came in with. For those tenured profs working with grad students, that part of the job has changed, and many are not handling that reality ethically.
- Sad Thursdays: The Student Perspective on Academic Hiring Practices (in Anthropological Archaeology)
- The Professor Is In HAS Changed, Part II, or I Don’t Give a Flying Fuck What You Wear
- How Would You Mentor Graduate Students? Another #Facepalm Fail
- Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post I
- On Foregone Earnings, or the Economics of Adjunct Life (A Guest Post)