Criticism / Susanna Compton Underland
:: The Value of a PhD? ::
About six months after taking a staff job at my university, functionally leaving the tenure-track job market in American literary studies, I met up with a former mentor of mine while visiting the city where he teaches. I was happy to find that I could still catch up with a dissertation committee member outside of the graduate school context, even more so because Kevin had ties to more than just my dissertation: in a sense, he represents the entire arc of my doctoral career. Years after taking his Civil War literature course my sophomore year of college, I came across his first monograph in the library while working on a dissertation prospectus about religion and sentimentalism—precisely the topic of his book. How uncanny, I thought, that I wound up in the very same subfield as him. I reached out, we crossed paths at conferences, and eventually he joined my dissertation committee. And now, from dual sides of academia, we were something like peers. Over lunch, our conversation ranged topics from campus politics and the joys of new parenthood to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” sketch (1850). I had just picked up The Scarlet Letter after months of finding no time for reading while acclimating to my new administrative position and was floored by the relevance of Hawthorne’s writing to my own experience. I explained to Kevin that it seemed like Hawthorne had hit the nail on the head in describing what it means to shift from literary pursuits to more bureaucratic work. I was heartened by Hawthorne’s spin on the merits of this kind of change in work, particularly in terms of embracing a different set of colleagues. And I had genuinely laughed out loud when Hawthorne pokes fun at his former set of eclectic literary acquaintances, issuing the sick burn, “Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.” [i] Those of us departing work in English departments might similarly chuckle about the relief of leaving some colleagues behind—who, I joked, is my Bronson Alcott? [ii] Kevin laughed along with me before quipping, “You might be the only person who has ever enjoyed reading ‘The Custom-House.’”
What made reading “The Custom-House,” a text often deployed to varying degrees of success as a teaching tool, so pleasurable to me at this juncture in my life? Well, there was the reading, and then there was the talking about the reading. I enjoyed connecting to Nathaniel Hawthorne through our shared workplace experiences, and I enjoyed returning to conversations about literature with scholarly colleagues. My conversation with Kevin represents an ability to bridge a past life as a doctoral student and scholar with a future as an academic administrator. Much has been written about doctoral graduates having to give up on the tenure-track job market. Those of us who spent the better part of a decade in training for a job that no longer seems to exist have had to reconcile what we lost; our respective fields of study have also had to come to terms with what our departure means for scholarship. [iii] I had certainly harbored dreams of becoming a tenure-track faculty member and spending the rest of my working life researching nineteenth-century American domestic fiction, and I don’t exactly find in my new work a perfect realization of intellectual purpose. But in “The Custom-House,” Hawthorne articulates a certain sense of self that I found to be helpful for developing a new intellectual orientation toward the value of my work, past and present. Taking up Hawthorne’s reflection on his brief stint as surveyor of Salem’s Custom House, the goal of this essay is not to grieve the tenure-track path (or to celebrate higher ed administration, which is not without its faults), but rather to explore what it means to chart a new intellectual path. What does my PhD mean to me now?
A bit of backstory: about a year ago, I accepted a full-time staff position managing an honors program at the university where I completed my doctorate in nineteenth-century American literature. I felt happy about my transition to a staff job on campus because the tangible circumstances of my work improved, namely my salary and my routine. Transitioning to administration from research and teaching was also satisfying because it was a choice, a difference from feeling like one’s life is in someone else’s hands. After some years in limbo on the academic job market, writing the next article, proposing the next conference panel, working toward the next round of applications and interviews, to sign a contract was to end the cycle—a relief in itself.
Ironically, my new office was directly across the street from the English department building. I could see my dissertation advisor’s office window from my own. While it felt like I had made a significant career shift, I was also merely moved to the other side of a plaza where I had met students during outdoor office hours and vented to friends about fellowship season. This physical proximity to my former department represented how I wanted to feel about my job: that it would not be that different, that far away from my academic training. I would still be involved with a humanities-skewing curriculum, I would still interact with students, and I would remain a part of the academic community. Ultimately, for the most part, I was not wrong. And when it came to the things that would change (the extent to which every hour of my day would come to be organized by Google Calendar, for instance), I found in Hawthorne a solace.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) was already an established writer of tales when, in 1846, he was appointed surveyor of the Custom-House in Salem, Massachusetts. This transition was Hawthorne’s own figurative move across a plaza, from his literary home in Concord, where he wrote Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), to his government post in Salem. Hawthorne frames much of his time in the Custom-House through his colleagues, who differ from his prior, literary comrades in their businesslike demeanors. And at least for a while, Hawthorne finds the applied utility of his new position inspiring:
I took it in good part, at the hands of Providence, that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past habits; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever profit was to be had. After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect like Emerson’s; after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations, beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in his hermitage at Walden; … it was time, at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. (21)
Not to romanticize graduate school as “wild, free days” (“fellowship of toil” is more like it), but Hawthorne’s assessment of this change in workplace scenery was akin to my own, thrown as I was into a 9 – 5 world of spreadsheets, spreadsheets, and more spreadsheets. At its best, the academic profession can feel like “indulging fantastic speculations, beside [a] fire of fallen boughs.” Working with a mentor can feel like “living … within the subtile influence of [a great] intellect.” (Explicit comparisons of anyone living to Ralph Waldo Emerson have been redacted to protect the egos of those involved.) At the same time, I was happy to step away, to “exercise other faculties” and engage with, as Hawthorne will later suggest, the real world. Hawthorne’s new colleagues are “men of altogether different qualities” from Emerson, Channing, and Thoreau, but Hawthorne embraces the fact that the other men of the Custom-House “care little for his pursuits,” presumably uninterested in literature or his literary past (20). They teach him about the new and different talents of businessmen. So too, even if my expertise in nineteenth-century women’s domestic fiction did not come up in conversations by the water cooler, I quickly learned how to write a faculty contract; how to scale a program budget (up following sizable campus investment, and then down following the consequences of a global pandemic); how to make sure someone’s parking permit gets activated on the right day. No small thing, really. Campus parking enforcement is aggressive.
But in addition to the benefits of learning new skills, Hawthorne also describes what all of this change means for his identity as a writer. He admits, “Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment in my regard. I cared not, at this period, for books; they were apart from me.… A gift, a faculty, if it had not departed, was suspended and inanimate within me” (21). I felt this too. I had not necessarily lost the researcher or writer inside me; my staff office, decorated with a wall of bookshelves for which I had repeatedly asked, suggests that I was at least clinging to the vestiges of a researcher or writer outside of me. Even so, that version of myself did feel “suspended and inanimate.” For a time, I had read very little at all, either for pleasure or to attempt independent scholarship. Throughout my life as a student of literature, I had certainly taken breaks like this, and I had always thought of my brain as needing rest from the rigors of critical reading. “Suspended and inanimate” describes a pause, rather than a stop. So, in those months when I was first learning the ropes of my administrative position, books might have been “apart” from me, but they were no further away than at the times during graduate school I indulged in watching hours on end of The Bachelor franchise (truly a brain-suspending exercise). Perhaps the months before I picked up The Scarlet Letter and its prefatory essay were just an extra-long Monday night—a break from exertion.
Hawthorne likewise emphasizes that the departure of his literary faculty is temporary. He reassures the reader that all was not lost, and in fact, all was still readily accessible: “There would have been something sad, unutterably dreary, in all this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my own option to recall whatever was valuable in the past” (21). It is in this moment that Hawthorne provided a bit of self-help, prompting me to contextualize my new position in recollections of my prior experience. What stands out is Hawthorne’s emphasis on his “own option,” a choice within his control. By holding on to his past experiences and their value to him, Hawthorne can reconcile himself (he says, anyway) to the new reality of his place in the Custom-House. Here, Hawthorne inspired me to ruminate on what was “valuable” in my past as a scholar and student.
Anyone who has completed a PhD in the humanities can enumerate its challenges, which make the perceived lack of a return-on-investment that much more painful. In short, did the degree cost more than it was worth? The abysmally-low stipends, the imposter syndrome, the competition with equally-deserving peers for too-few fellowships (or, alternatively, the feeling that someone less-than-deserving has scored one), the power dynamics with (and among) faculty—all these are familiar. My father recently speculated about the kind of retirement savings I lost over the course of my doctoral career, presuming that I would have had a full-time job with benefits during my twenties if I hadn’t attended graduate school. In response to that trade-off, I sometimes feel a compulsive need to itemize the benefits of sustained literary study. Like an English department extolling the practical uses of their English major to concerned, skeptical undergraduates and their families, I can lay out here the many skills learned and honed in graduate school that I use at my staff job today: the ability to gather and consider different perspectives before forming my own argument, to self-direct a project or initiative and build a timeline for its completion, to revise something over and over (and over) with patience. And I can’t help but think that doctoral graduates are more equipped than anyone to spend months teleworking with no one but themselves to keep us on task. That skill has to be worth something, right?
Hawthorne consistently uses such language around worth, which is to say market value, to describe his own vexed feelings about his two occupations as surveyor and writer. As I mentioned, while working as surveyor, Hawthorne is consoled by the fact that he can draw on what was “valuable in his past,” and he similarly supposes that there might be “profit” in his present occupation (21). Ultimately, though, Hawthorne does escape the Custom-House and return to his fully-creative life. Thus, “The Custom-House,” written retrospectively, treats Hawthorne’s staff job (as I like to think of it) as useful only insofar as it is a temporary position. The Custom-House, Hawthorne writes, “might make me permanently other than I had been, without transforming me into any shape which it would be worth my while to take. But I had never considered it as other than a transitory life” (21). Hawthorne ponders what might have been had he remained a surveyor: he might have changed, permanently, and that change might not have been worthwhile. Notably, though the Custom-House job centers on monetary value, for Hawthorne, “worth” is connected to Romance.
Hawthorne maintains that the worthwhile shape of his self must retain an intellectual warmth conducive to writing. He shares that The Scarlet Letter could never have been written if he remained a surveyor:
The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of corpses, and stared at me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might have once possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!” (27)
Hawthorne’s internal conflict between malleable warmth and cold rigidity resonates with some perceptions of leaving academia. After years of living on so little in order to pursue scholarship, it can feel like selling out to trade in your adjunct contract for the security of a salaried job. One of the first questions a mentor asked me when I told him about my new position was “What’s the salary?” This came from a kinder place than “Go, then, and earn your wages!” but even so, I wondered what I had “bartered” for my “pittance of the public gold.” [iv] Certainly not the next great American novel, but perhaps some kind of undefinable quality of “my intellectual forge.”
So, where does this leave me? Nostalgic about the early, thrilling days of learning? Vindicated to have left a profession that contributed nothing to my 401k? Somewhere in between, of course. On some days, the fact that I spend hours translating personnel categories into financial object codes does make my brain feel like a “tarnished mirror” that reflects only a “miserable dimness” of a creative life (27). Hawthorne admits toward the end of the sketch, “I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs” (29). Had I ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor criticism (ouch) only to become a tolerably good manager of an honors program? I think not, in part because I can continue taking my cue from Hawthorne, who imagines an alternative to the tarnished mirror.
For Hawthorne, merely remembering his literary past becomes untenable; he must return to his creative life in full. “It was a folly,” he writes, “with the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a world out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty of my soap-bubble was broken by the rude contact of some actual circumstance” (28). The Scarlet Letter and its preface, now known for representing Hawthorne’s theory of Romance as characterized by moonlight, could not have been produced while the writer was immersed in the sunlight of a staff job. Lucky for me, a person not trying to imagine a new world, but rather to find joy and creativity in my own, Hawthorne supposes a different intellectual orientation:
The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualize the burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters, with which I was now conversant. (28–29)
This feels doable. I remember interviewing for my staff position and insisting that my PhD would make me a good administrator, a more thoughtful, imaginative administrator who could bring a bit of the misty humanities to our expense spreadsheets and policy manuals. Indeed, I continually say things like “This budget has to tell a story!” (I am fun to have in meetings.) But even beyond the utility of my degree for my “alt-ac” job, the value of the PhD is bigger than work. I have long gotten past the idea that one’s PhD is only valuable insofar as it begets a tenure-track job. But here I find myself insisting that my PhD is valuable insofar as I use it at an administrative job. When I really consider Hawthorne’s advice to diffuse thought and imagination through the day and spiritualize the burdens in our lives, I am not just thinking about making the “petty and wearisome incidents” of higher ed administration more palatable. Rather, I recognize in this passage an entire mode of living, one Hawthorne would call Romantic, a mode I cultivated while truly immersed in nineteenth-century literature and arguments about womanhood, morality, domesticity, and the afterlife. To be sure, it is a privilege to have a full-time job with benefits and a retirement plan. But the value of my PhD is not about the job I did or did not get, it is about the person I became: a person who can see in moonlight and sunlight just the same.
[i] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings, ed. Leland S. Person (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 21. Hereafter cited parenthetically. (Among the more mundane things I miss about graduate school, surprise Norton Critical Editions arriving in the campus mail is at the top of the list.)
[ii] Bronson Alcott (1799 – 1888), father of Louisa May Alcott, was a prominent Transcendentalist and part of the intellectual community Hawthorne departed when he moved to Salem prior to writing “The Custom-House” sketch. An abolitionist and education reformer, Alcott was also an eccentric whose impractical utopian community, Fruitlands, required that inhabitants forego warm bathwater.
[iii] I am thinking here of what may be the two most viral pieces of the genre known as “quit lit,” a genre that boomed during the years I was in graduate school (from 2012 – 2019). In “Thesis Hatement,” Rebecca Schuman sardonically asserts that graduate school will “ruin your life in a very real way” and compares the academic job market to small-cell lung cancer. On the other hand, Erin Bartram’s “The Sublimated Grief of Those Left Behind” both explains the author’s feelings upon departing from academia and considers “how much knowledge … that’s just going to be lost to those who remain.” Both pieces spurred a litany of responses as academe processed the reckoning of a truly bleak oversupply of doctoral graduates.
[iv] Given that my work at a state university is indeed funded by “public gold,” it is worth noting another dimension to the idea of selling out: the budgetary tensions between tenure-track faculty and higher ed administration. Some view decreasing tenure lines as directly related to “the incremental and imperceptible increase over time of higher education administrators” (Johnson). David Graeber more flippantly names this phenomenon the “bullshitization of academic life” and describes how an influx of strategic deans and “deanlets” has required an influx of superfluous support staff. His argument has been met with defenses of administrators, particularly lower-level professional staff like me, who directly serve students and faculty, as necessary for the university to function (Rosenberg). Some view adjunct faculty and professional staff as in the same contingent boat; Lee Skallerup Bessette calls on faculty and staff to “work to try and overcome those imaginary hierarchical structures to achieve positive change.” Where we would all agree, I hope, is that resources should be directed toward making the university a humane workplace for employees of all types.
Bartram, Erin. “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind.” Erin Bartram: Doomed to Distraction, 11 Feb. 2018, http://erinbartram.com/uncategorized/the-sublimated-grief-of-the-left-behind/.
Bessette, Lee Skallerup. “Adjuncts, Staff, and Solidarity.” Profession, Fall 2018, https://profession.mla.org/adjuncts-staff-and-solidarity/.
Graeber, David. “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 May 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/are-you-in-a-bs-job-in-academe-youre-hardly-alone/.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Ed. Leland S. Person. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Johnson Jr., Michael. “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” Inside Higher Ed, 1 Nov. 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/11/01/tenured-and-tenure-track-faculty-must-combat-incremental-erosion-faculty.
Rosenberg, Brian. “Are You in a ‘BS’ Job? Thank You for Your Work. No, Really.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 May 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/are-you-in-a-bs-job-thank-you-for-your-work-no-really/.
Schuman, Rebecca. “Thesis Hatement.” Slate, 5 Apr. 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2013/04/there_are_no_academic_jobs_and_getting_a_ph_d_will_make_you_into_a_horrible.html.
Susanna Compton Underland is the program manager of University Honors at the University of Maryland, overseeing finance, personnel, and operations in support of UH students, faculty, and staff. She earned her PhD in nineteenth-century American literature in 2018 from the University of Maryland, where she taught in the English department for six years. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century American sentimental literature, with particular interest in the tensions between religion and secularity as mediated in and by domestic spaces. Underland has published articles and reviews in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, ESQ, and Journal of American Studies.