In Praise of the Arts and Huge Manatees, or, Where’s My Job?

You can't be mad at me for leaving the blog for months, not if I bring you A UNICORN!!!

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

– Carl Sagan

Well, HELLO AGAIN, you fabulous unicorns of delight! I have been away from the bloggernet for a while. You might have assumed that I was gone for good, but in actual fact I was just busy slaying the Balrog in the depths of Moria. By ‘Balrog’, I mean ‘thesis’, and by ‘Moria’ I mean ‘the library’. Although both processes may result in an elderly man shouting ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS!’

Having recently staggered out of the university library after a long imprisonment*, pale and shaking, my thoughts turn once again to the Great Big Real Job In The Sky, to which all good PhD students hope to ascend if they are very good and commit no heinous sins, such as Chicago-style referencing, or citing Wikipedia as a source. Given that I’m in the final year of my socially and culturally invaluable doctorate (snort!), my thoughts have been turning to the GBRJ for some time now. And I conclude, after extensive empirical research, that there is no GBRJ and that all arts and humanities students are doomed – doomed! – to work either in call centres or, if we’re really really lucky, to become hipster baristas at the local artisanal-organic-cooperative coffee place. I’d like to offer a suggested revision to the well-known ‘Kids! Don’t do drugs!’ slogan: KIDS, DON’T DO HISTORY. OR LITERATURE, OR ART, OR PHILOSOPHY. If my predictions for the future are correct (based mostly upon Futurama and old episodes of The Jetsons), we’re all being replaced by robots and the Internet anyway. When machines inevitably rise up against humanity, you’ll find me making a valiant and glorious last stand in a library, fighting off hordes of malevolent Kindles while defiantly yelling out quotations from Pope and Balzac and Waugh. While Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice plays in the background.

But as ever, I digress. (This may be why I ended up doing what I do for a ‘living’).  It is a cliché universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a PhD must be in want of a postdoc. Problem is, there are lots of persons-in-possession, and only a handful of relevant postdoctoral jobs. Second problem: I’m not yet in possession. I don’t expect to have the PhD signed-sealed-delivered (I’m YOURS!) until the end of the summer. Nonetheless, I’m applying for everything that looks even vaguely relevant. So far, nothing has come to fruition – although I am still waiting to hear back from quite a few applications, and there are more applications coming up.

But I can’t deny that I’m worried. Worried about how I’m ever supposed to get a damn career started, if there’s no way in to begin with. Worried about how I’m going to pay down the debts I’ve accrued from self-funding the first couple of years, and how I’m going to pay my way in the future. My research stipend runs out in September – what do I do then? Yes, I should be able to find some kind of job to pay the bills, even if nothing academic has come up by then. For the love of cheesecake, my CV is three pages long! I’ve had more jobs than Cthulu has face-fronds. In no particular order, I’ve been a sales assistant in half-a-dozen different shops, a museum guide, an editorial assistant, a waitress, a recruiter, a museum curator, a press officer and (currently) a teaching assistant in my university department. So I’m sure I can be one of those again for a while, if I really have to. But – with the exception of curating and TA-ing – I don’t want to. Before you point at me and shout accusations of ‘Ingrate!’ or ‘Snob!’ (or maybe even ‘A witch!’), remember this. Telling a postgraduate that she can’t have that career in academia after all is like telling Red Rum that he doesn’t get to run the Grand National. I’ve been trained for this, so to speak. While I can’t claim that I’ve been hankering after a professorship since the age of 11, it’s probably fair to argue that all the academic sweat and toil I’ve undertaken in life has led me to this point. With a PhD in the History of Art, I’m supposed to become either a university-based, academic art historian; or a researching curator at a ‘big’ gallery. That’s the plan, right? That’s my Grand National. But so far, nobody is giving me the chance to run the race.

I went here. Can I have a cookie now?

So, who’s to blame for this sorry mess? In fairness, I should at least examine the possibility that I’m not getting any jobs because I’m not good enough. To be completely honest, however, I don’t think that I am lacking in any of the essential requirements for the jobs at which I’ve been throwing myself. I have a good academic record, I won competitive funding, I’ve accrued teaching experience and (according to my ever-blessed supervisor, who I am convinced is a beardless Dumbledore) I have a strong ‘proposal of research’. Plus various other bits and bobs, like curatorial experience and conference-organising (Hello potential employers! Email me! I’ll send you a CV!). But in reality, these ostensibly entry-level jobs for which I’m applying are going to people who already have the PhD in hand. That’s understandable from an institution’s point of view – they’re betting on a ‘sure thing’ – but where does it leave those of us left to complete our degrees? From the anecdotal evidence of friends, it would seem that all but a very lucky or brilliant (or both) handful of PhD-ers are walking straight into jobs. Most of us have to spend a year or so in the wilderness, building up a record of published research (something it’s difficult to do while you’re actually, y’know, trying to write a PhD thesis) and bribing Emeritus Fellows with ice-cream and iTunes vouchers. This expectation is actually entrenched in the academic mindset, judging by the number of currently advertised ‘early career’ positions which stipulate that the PhD must have already been submitted or obtained – halfway through the academic year, which obviously rules out people like me. Weirdly, this system discourages us from completing the PhD on time. Why bother finishing within three years, as is preferred, if the jobs for which this makes you eligible don’t even open up till January-March of the following year?

I’m doing a pretty good job of blaming my situation on The System, so I might as well go on. One of the major contributing factors to this problem is that, frankly, there are too many people undertaking PhDs in the arts and humanities. More than are actually needed to fill the ever-shrinking numbers of university teaching and research posts. I’m not going to go off on a party-political rant about which government caused this or that to happen – frankly, the arts have always been impoverished in comparison to academic science, mathematics and engineering. Because our output has no tangible or obviously commercial value, we don’t receive the same levels of public and private funding, and I can see a point in the near future where the arts and humanities are seen as ‘luxury’ subjects, studied only by wealthy dilettantes who needn’t worry about the relationship between degree subject and future income (mumble, grumble, complain). But still, people come every year, clutching thesis proposals with words like ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘praxis’ and ‘liminal’ in their titles. Proportionally, few students receive funding (disclaimer: I do, now, but paid for my MPhil and the first year of the PhD with savings and part-time work). Who can blame us for coming? We’re told that a PhD is a golden ticket into a secure and intellectually challenging job. We’ve been trained and encouraged and petted by teachers and tutors and maybe parents, telling us how smart we are. The prospect of being able to call yourself ‘Doctor’ is dangled as a tantalising tidbit. And of course, it gets us out of looking for a GBRJ for at least three years, while we write about eighteenth-century satire (ahem), or James Joyce, or Abstract Expressionism, or Hegelian dialectics (the last one sounds like an intense exercise regime).

Art is lovely! GIVE IT MONEY.

In reality, of course, we are encouraged in part because our presence as students benefits the department that takes us in. Our fees pay for teaching and resources – especially those who pay international fees, Gawd help ’em. Our presence, and our output, contributes to the various official, Nomenklatura-style ‘research assessments’ undertaken every few years. And of course, we’re a cheap source of teaching labour (not that I’m complaining, because I love teaching). As a result, it’s not exactly hard to get accepted as a PhD student at the University of Somewhere. While funded places remain elusive, pretty much anyone who rocks up with a 2:1, a half-assed research proposal and a cheque for £4,200 (your first year of tuition) can get enrolled as a doctoral student at many institutions. Of course, a lot drop out, some rightly so, because they found they weren’t up to the work, or they became bored. And others wrongly, because they ran out of money, or they just missed out on funding by a hair, or they realised the precarious nature of the career for which they were preparing.

Of course, grumbling on a semi-anonymous blog isn’t going to get me a job. I’m going to keep applying. For EVERYTHING. Even though each application demands its own individual essay outlining your research experience, proposed project, relevant publications, date of your first kiss, and blood type. And if I get nothing, I’ll become a hipster barista or call-centre slave for a year, writing and researching on my own time. And I’ll reapply next year. But even then – there are no guarantees. So in a year or so I might find myself approaching 30 (wail!), still without an answer to the question: what am I going to do with my life?

*I forced myself to stay for three-and-a-half hours this afternoon. I would have left sooner, because I wanted cake, but that would have meant relinquishing my sweet-ass desk by the window to some undergraduate minion. I ENDURED. TRUFAX.

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