If you've been reading Culture Study since 2019 you know
Jessica Dore wrote about the difference between cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative therapy in her newsletter (“Offerings”) this week. She posits that the former puts all of the blame and responsibility for maladaptive behaviors on the individual, while the latter acknowledges the role of other actors, communities, and social structures - and does so through re-telling one’s story to oneself.
This piece gave me the foundation for a new story about my decision to pursue a PhD, do a million self-destructive things to earn it, but ultimately take a different path.
There should be no shame - the different path is a thriving legal practice that allows me to think about the thing that “feels nourishing and explosive and electric all the time” AND comfortably support my family. It’s great, I’m grateful, there but for the grace of grantors go I, etc.
Yet, there is still so much shame. I ultimately didn’t make it work, and that means I wasn’t as “good enough, smart enough, potential-filled enough” as everybody thought. Right?
Or maybe I “left an emotionally and financially exploitative system,” in an act of self-care, strategy, and emotional maturity. Maybe I stopped hanging out in all the wrong places and asking for affirmation from all the wrong people. Maybe I deliberately got out, and just can be grateful for the freedom and opportunity to do so, which isn’t available to everyone.
That’s a hell of a new narrative. Thank you.
I wonder about the class dimensions of academia as a MLM, too. When I was in graduate school I lived on a maximum of $17K a year, which had to cover research trips and conferences etc. I couldn't get another job because I was an international student, and I couldn't get loans for the same reason. But I couldn't wrap my head around the exploitation, because I grew up without money. To get paid (something) to sit and read books of an afternoon blew my mind. I wasn't working a physically demanding job (my dad was a tire fitter), or on a job site for hours and hours (it didn't occur to me that I was actually working hours and hours, because so much of it was from home). I was the equivalent of the Steve Zahn character in "That Thing You Do" who goes, "a man in a REALLY NICE camper wants to sign us to a label!" It felt like abundance. It absolutely was not.
One frustrating consequence of the overproduction of PhDs is the pressure it puts on the non-academic job market too. I work for a government agency with lots of field work jobs that used to be great opportunities for people with trade skills (e.g. carpentry) but no advanced degrees. Recently the candidate pool has become flooded with PhDs who can’t find jobs in academia. They have a leg up in the hiring process because of how government agencies reward points for education, but they often lack the necessary skills and any real world job experience. This is a lose/lose - they’re often unhappy because they feel like they have settled for a job beneath their potential, and the work suffers because their skills are a poor fit for the job. So there is a real domino effect on other industries outside academia that I haven’t seen as widely discussed!
I’m a new reader and appreciate your work! I could relate to this piece from my perspective as a 48 year old pharmacist. In ‘99 I was set to start a PhD fellowship program in Medicinal Chemistry just after finishing pharmacy school with a bachelor’s. I really don’t even know if it’s what I wanted to do, but I know the idea began exactly as you wrote: a professor saying “maybe you should think about grad school.”
But then, as it got closer to my start date, I started hearing this growing voice inside me: Don’t you want a baby NOW? I remember thinking: What’s the point of “women’s liberation” if we feel pressured to follow the highest career path possible? Liberation should be about choice, right?
On top of that, having it all didn’t seem to be working out for the older women I saw follow the PhD path. And I kinda knew that even if “having it all” were possible — for me personally — it’d be overwhelming and I’d probably end up sick.
I was so lucky to have a partner who would’ve supported EITHER choice, and that was a HUGE thing. So instead, we bought a house and had a baby the following year.
I always thought I’d go back later to at least get my PharmD, but never did. Babies, jobs, moves, life drama, kids in college; it just never made sense.
I currently work as an oncology specialty pharmacist, and most everyone around me is a decade or more younger. Sometime between my generation and theirs, the standard requirements of getting clinical jobs out of college became four years pharmacy school (often after four years undergrad), a one-year general residency followed by a specialty residency.
Things that you used to just learn on the job, you now have to pay for through tuition and opportunity costs from lower-paid residencies. On top of that, there are fewer jobs with guaranteed retirement benefits. Costs have been shifting to the base. And this base, filled with young pharmacists, is also “increasingly resistant.”
I was a tenured professor, leaving, like so many, during the pandemic when the final shoe dropped at my institution, which was eventually sanctioned by the AAUP for its bold disregard of academic process. --It closed several programs without any clear rationale after setting up a sham of a program review process, and fired many of my tenured colleagues who had given their lives to the institution and our students. My program, too, was up for closure, and survived --but my trust and commitment did not. I'm very happily working in industry now, and looking back, I cannot *believe* that I worked myself into the ground for 13 precious years of my life for pay that was often less than what our students make in their first year after graduation.
Even before that all crumbled for me, though, I found it SO HARD to have this exact conversation with the many bright students I worked with: "But what if 'my dream' was actually just a fear of other options, an addiction to compliments, and a few well-written undergraduate papers?" (What a line, AHP!) But I did, often.
The hardest part was that it felt like gatekeeping. Here I was, sitting on the other side of my wide desk in a comfortable office with huge windows that let the sun flood in even on the coldest winter days, telling them that I made it but that they likely would not. I had that conversation with love and compassion and care, and acknowledged to them that I felt like I was gatekeeping and yet explained why I felt I had to do it anyway. Most of them still ignored me and went proudly marching into graduate programs, collecting more gold stars and heavy piles debt.
I also struggled to make visible the invisible labor, including at times those office sessions with them, without making them feel guilty about said labor. (I did this only with the students I knew best, who I trusted would understand it.) Even so, this is another of the many forces inviting us back into the narrative of passion rather than the realities of burnout and exploitation, this desire to care for students and yet also never name that care as a burden.
So what's changed since 2019? Certainly more of us are calling the bluff of academia's passion narrative, and more institutions' politics are now laid bare. But I think it will still take more time to know whether this topples the fragile structure, or just allows for the next wave of shoddy repairs and window-dressing.
For me what has changed is that the students are less willing to be exploited. I have had this nagging feeling since right before the pandemic that the labor systems built on the backs of our students are about to come undone. Then the pandemic came along and accelerated it. More and more students are coming into the program I work for and saying "No, I don't think I will do this labor, thanks." The graduate students at our university just unionized and I think there will be more unionizations to follow across the country. This is all fantastic and I fully support our students in not being exploited, but what is killing me is the obtuseness from the higher ups. There is no increase in budget to allow over hire labor to replace the students labor, there is no plan for how the business model we built 50+ years ago needs to adapt, there isn't even a plan to make a plan. (Other than maybe our leadership jumping ship and leaving someone else holding the bag!?) Every time myself, my co-workers and my supervisors bring it up in meetings it's met with hmms and nods and note taking. The pyramid's foundation is crumbling, the institution refuses to see it and insists we all just keep on keeping on at the same rate as always and it is so, so exhausting.
Lordy. This line.
"But what if 'my dream' was actually just a fear of other options, an addiction to compliments, and a few well-written undergraduate papers?"
Although I'm hesitant about the use of "addiction" here -- maybe susceptibility or gullibility to compliments since it happens in the context of so many other starvings.
But also, to add on to the survivor biais element -- what sort of twisted self-gratification is going on when professors systematically encourage *their very best students* to *be just like them*... because that's the ultimate outcome for the *very best* ... [full disclosure: I am a professor.]
I'm in my fifth year of a PhD program at UC Berkeley, and just wanted to say that though it has been clear for a long time that the University of California doesn't protect its graduate students, or adjuncts, or non-tenured professors, the recent grad student / postdoc / academic researcher strike really drove that home for many friends in a newly brutal way.
I am scared of leaving academia (so many unknowns! the path is much more obvious for finding a postdoc, even if it would require moving and continuing to do research, which I have discovered I don't actually like that much), but I think the costs of staying in a system designed to reward people who can endure constant stress without collaboration or support is starting to feel too high to me.
After 2 decades of working in higher ed (mostly as a full-time first-year and advanced research writhing instructor but also with brief stints in admin; always contingent), I left at the end of the summer. I took a remote position as a technical editor, and I regret nothing. (Except, maybe, not leaving earlier?)
My firm works with Government Agencies, and we get acceptance/rejection comments back from them on the documents we deliver. And the rush I feel when we get a document I worked on “Accepted without Comments”? It’s exactly like when I got As on papers/projects throughout school—from elementary school through my various grad schools. Recognizing and reflecting on that reaction has been...harrowing.
I bring this up because I’m wondering to what extent ALL of American education functions as a kind of MLM. I believe—deeply—in education at an individual level. But I also see the system, from the first time students enter it at 5yo through all of the post-graduate options, as forming students to work within and prop up the system for the benefit of others—superintendents, presidents/boards, future employers, parents who need/want the kids out of the home, etc.—rather than for the students’ own benefit.
I see my own work in higher ed as climbing the MLM pyramid—to a point. The system rewarded/pushed me to dig in deeper, but it also kept me at arm’s length in my contingent contracts and repeated denigrations. It also purposefully pits its employees against each other in toxic, damaging ways—the ugliest interactions I had were *always* with tenured faculty. (Which is not to say all tenured faculty are bad but is saying the system sets up non-tenured faculty and staff as natural adversaries for tenured faculty to continue to climb the pyramid.)
The system is rotten—from its earliest interactions with students to the dangling of tenured lines to a select few at the end—and I am still grappling with the impact nearly 40 years in that system has had on me.
Law school. It’s a much more open secret now, but still many people don’t understand there are way more law school seats than well-paying lawyer jobs. The barriers to enter law schools are too low, which appeals to 22 year olds who have always done well academically but are afraid of numbers (so no biz school) and are too practical for PhD programs, but don’t quite know what else to do. Law schools obscure their employment statistics, and they’re often cash cows for universities because they can charge full tuition to the majority of each class, and people are willing to believe they’ll get the grades to get the Biglaw jobs to pay for it easily. Sadly, the vast majority don’t, and they end up regretting it.
Love this post! When I was in my early 20s in the recession, Penelope Trunk was saying this that grad school was a pyramid scheme. I ended up getting a master’s, which I do not regret, despite the loans. Today, I do higher level scientific writing and research I couldn’t do without a grad degree. I’m well paid in industry and the work is meaningful. Still, I’ve always longed to “complete” my education and get the ‘doctor’ in front of my name. However, going back and getting a PhD may actually make me less employable and could hurt my chances of making more money. It’s a sad state of affairs, and like many other MLMs, PhD programs seem to target women.
I’m startled by how many things in my life had aspects of MLMs. I’ve had two very different professional careers; in each case the odds of financial success were slim and the requirements to become professional were a significant source of income to their gatekeeping institutions.
But the biggest MLM I’ve experienced was in the horse world. A love of horses morphs into an obsession with proving one’s talent and resolve. But this is a fixed game: it’s nearly impossible to reach the peak of equine competition without an endless supply of money or a close relative who’s in the horse business. Or both. I treasure my years of owning, raising and showing horses. But I also grieve for my younger self who believed she was somehow flawed because she never could compete with the Big Guys.
Amazing article. I have a MSW and although the career options were good (even better these days), I relate to the pride I felt of being noticed when several professors suggested I consider a PhD— it was like being singled out for specialness. Didn’t go that route and now am glad for it.
Now, in my role, I sometimes see people going for what are, in my opinion, sketchy online PhD programs mostly to delay their loan repayment obligations (hello, you will never get out of debt!!) or because of the same feeling that it will show something remarkable about them- and in my field, it will not translate into a more interesting job or better pay. It feels very predatory.
Finally, the Capellas and the like - I could go on and on. While there are some very good online degree programs in behavioral health, and an excellent therapist I supervise came out of programs I would not have recommended, by and large, what I see is people who may be ill suited for this type of work (maybe they don’t have great social skills, though they really care about helping) get into degree programs and eventually clinical internships where the job of trying to shape them or sadly, weed them out, gets passed along to already overburdened community agencies. In a more traditional academic program, possibly they wouldn’t have been admitted or would have at least been identified as struggling and coached by faculty. Never seems to happen in the for profits.
Anyway, thank you for this piece, your beautiful writing and your podcast which I LOVE.
Just here to emphasize this passage:
“I wanted a way to think about the things I was thinking about for the rest of my life. All I needed was that one teacher to tell me I could. What I didn’t realize is that there were, and are, so many paths, professional and otherwise, to think about those things for the rest of my life.
To suggest as much, though, feels subversive — or at least un-American in some weird way. Of course you should pursue your dream! But what if “my dream” was actually just a fear of other options, an addiction to compliments, and a few well-written undergraduate papers?”
This was essentially my path to the PhD also. The only reason I didn’t spend longer being churned into the pyramid base was because a) I had enough skepticism and resistance to being scammed drilled into me by my immigrant father to realize that I was in fact being scammed by this system and b) I have a clear-eyed partner who discouraged me from adjuncting and encouraged me to find something full time with benefits.
I always appreciate your comments re: academia and i tell my students (at an R1; i have a PhD but am staff who also gets to teach) to not go to grad school. many of them are shocked bc that’s not the message they get from their communities or other profs, but i try to explain to them that it’s really not worth it and there are a lot of other paths they can go down that don’t involve huge amounts of debt.
i think allowing people to get PhDs in the humanities is unethical and the professionalization info has to be taught alongside the TT goal, otherwise it’s not only unethical but creating so much anguish when grad students go on the job
market (and even before that). my mental health took such a dive in grad school i didn’t know if i’d finish or even make it out alive and i’m not alone in that.
also i wrote my diss on Mormon feminism so i love the LuLuRoe piece here ❤️
Book publishing. I don’t know in what way it might be an MLM because it’s so opaque, but it feels like one.