A Crisis of Definition

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Throughout this blog and the books it relates to, I’m oversimplifying a bit when I refer to PhDs as the degree that qualifies one for college teaching. There are others. A lot of them pertain to professions that normally don’t have a research component, like architecture. When I finished my undergraduate degree, a B.A. in architecture, I had a fundamental decision to make. If I’d wanted to be a practitioner, I would have turned left at the fork and gone on to an M.Arch, the professional degree; because I wanted to do research, I turned right at the fork and went on to a PhD program. These are not sequential degrees; they serve different functions. And design teachers often have M.Arch’s, even as architectural historians and materials science teachers usually have PhDs.

In college departments aimed at professional life, these sorts of “terminal master’s degrees” are common currency among their faculty. MBAs in business schools, MLSs in library schools, and such. One of the more common is the MFA, the Master of Fine Arts sought out by writers, actors, photographers, painters, dancers, and so on. Although many MFA students hope to be practicing artists in their desired fields, the fallback position is presumed to be teaching. Well, that’s lovely, but the New York Times recently estimated three or four thousand new MFAs in creative writing each year, for an academic job market that totaled 112 tenure-track positions. A three-percent chance isn’t so much a fallback as it is a falldown.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the bell curve of professional success, about the one percent of one percent of one percent who get to make a living in artistic fields. There are lots of wonderful writers, only a microscopic fraction of whom become professional writers. Poetry magazine says they get over a hundred thousand unsolicited poems a year, of which they publish 300. Three-tenths of one percent. And of the 300 poems published in the magazine, how many go into an anthology, or become part of an individual chapbook that gets published? Twenty percent of those? Five percent?

We have this kind of magical thinking about what degrees do. We see that Junot Diaz or Edwidge Danticat or Michael Chabon have MFAs, and we think, okay, I want to be a writer, I’ll get an MFA too. But even if the premise were true, that ALL published writers had MFAs, the converse—all MFAs become published writers—would not hold. Every lottery winner bought a lottery ticket, but not all ticket buyers become winners. All WNBA players played college basketball, but not all women college basketball players will play in the WNBA.

So part of me thinks, is it really a crisis that only a sixth of all PhD holders will ever attain a tenure-track job? It’s not a “crisis” that hardly anybody from music programs becomes a famous musician; it’s just a fact. Maybe the crisis is that we all keep trying, at below minimum wage, working ourselves into oblivion in an industry that couldn’t care less. Maybe we should divorce training from job and just drive for Uber, wait tables, be parents, run for office, and do those things with the grace and joy that academic life has brought to us. Maybe for most of us, being a scholar will be a hobby, something that enlivens us after our workdays have ended and helps us do our day jobs with a bit more elan than might otherwise have been possible.

At least, that’s what the numbers tell us.