Our case worker at the welfare office sat behind a Plexiglas wall. A slot near the desk and a circle of smaller holes at eye level allowed for the exchange of paperwork and small voices. On the other side of the glass, the woman was equipped with a computer, pens, and a bottle of hand sanitizer which she pumped vigorously several times upon sitting down. “We don’t get the same desk every day,” she explained.
Mom sat next to me twisting the strap of her purse around her palm as the case worker explained the application process.
“How old are you?” she asked me.
“In school full-time?”
It was 2002. I had finished most of my high school classes the previous semester and planned to leave for university in the fall. I was going to study creative writing in Montreal, eight hours from home by car. It was as far as I could reasonably get without a plane ticket, and I still believed then that education alone would take me the rest of the way toward a better life.
“They told my mom on the phone I had to come since I’m not working?” I explained.
She shrugged. She was just following the rules, and exuding good cheer with all the sincerity of a decorative pillow embroidered with Live, Laugh, Love.
“What are your plans for work?” the woman asked me, her lacquered fingertips hovering just above the keyboard.
I leaned toward the glass. “I want to be an English professor.”
She swallowed a smile as if I proposed something childish like “movie star,” even if “English professor” was more practical, I thought, than my true ambition: writer. She blinked at me, and for a moment I worried that my entire future was dependent upon that woman typing the chosen occupation into her government form, as if my having the intention carefully articulated in my own mind wasn’t enough.
Finally, I realized she wasn’t interested in my career goals, but my survival. “I was waiting tables at a restaurant before,” I said quickly. “Maybe I could get something like that again.”
The humiliation was pointless in the end. The paltry amount of funds the worker approved to top-up what my mom received in child support and the wages of her part-time jobs – cleaning motel rooms during the day and working retail at the mall across the street from the motel a few evenings each week – wasn’t even worth the time it took to complete the monthly paperwork.
I have returned to this memory several times in the past two decades. Sometimes the case worker’s pinched face and the clickety-clack of her fingernails on the keyboard have spurred me to work harder, to “hustle” as so many of my fellow millennials say. At other times, when motivation ebbs, I recall her skeptical expression as if she knew all along how things would turn out: I earned a doctorate in literature (as well as two other graduate degrees) but I’ll never be an English professor. My failure to land the dream job didn’t come down to talent or desire, but economics. The journey from graduation to the tenure track is long, and I couldn’t afford the fare.
A 2018 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted that 53.6 per cent of all university teaching positions were on contract in the 2016-2017 academic year, the same year I completed my PhD at Western University. I applied for every related teaching contract in my area and received none, though you’ll still hear tenured professors speak of part-time university teaching, and full-time college employment, as the old stand-by for those who can’t reach the tenure track. This is false. English and creative writing doctoral graduates compete for a seat at the proverbial table in endless rounds of musical chairs. The music stopped playing years ago, and there just aren’t enough seats for everyone.
Beyond the dire employment numbers, there are other compounding forces that keep early-career scholars from lower-income backgrounds out of the ivory tower. As in my case, these forces are set in motion long before the acceptance letter from the graduate chair arrives. I funded my undergraduate studies with a hefty loan from the Ontario Student Assistance Program – a loan which came due six months after full-time enrollment in my PhD program ended. This looming deadline kept me on track to finish my dissertation before my funding ran out, but without a postdoctoral scholarship or part-time teaching opportunities lined up, and no parental home to return to, I had to take a full-time office job to begin making loan payments (and pay the cost of living, of course). The position was entry level because the private sector still largely fails to recognize doctoral research and teaching in the humanities as “work experience.”
While universities have made great strides in bolstering inclusion on campus, the issue of class (which intersects with a range of other oppressed identities) still remains absent from the diversity conversation. If the academy truly desires greater representation in its ranks, it would provide robust postdoctoral support and dismantle the exploitative adjunct system. Instead, higher education remains hostile to those of us from a lower-income background because it continues to operate under the presumption that one has infinite resources (such as parental or spousal support) to invest years in the optimistic labour of postdoctoral life. Perhaps if I had struggled longer to collect a string of teaching gigs – four months in Newfoundland, say, and another four in northern Manitoba – while still writing and publishing, someday I might have received the full-time job I had hoped to attain. Call me a pessimist.
When I entered graduate school, the best advice I received was to avoid accruing further student debt and to treat the program like a contract job that wouldn’t renew. In other words, I was to finish my dissertation as soon as possible. I was fortunate to have an excellent supervisor that helped me meet my timeline and, crucially, my non-academic work goals, but many candidates don’t receive that support. Some professors still train their students at the speed of a medieval apprenticeship while encouraging more novitiates to enter through the gates. Meanwhile, measurable financial support after graduation, in the form of teaching or research contracts, remains nearly non-existent (though I do get semi-annual emails from my alma mater asking for a donation.)
Liberal arts apologists rightly claim that a humanities education sharpens students’ critical faculties. Academia must turn this skepticism toward its own myths. The arts professoriate isn’t just an endangered profession, it’s nearly extinct. While doctoral studies provide a unique opportunity for serious study, we must ask if a doctorate with no future is really worth the loss of crucial earning and career-building years in which one could contribute to a pension or other retirement savings, and repay debt? Perhaps these are just the questions of an elder millennial staring down the next three decades of his career and a mortgage, but these concerns will only become more urgent for the following generation, and the economic risks of pursuing a PhD even more stark.
I’ve made it out the other side to a financially stable life by taking a well-paying, if boring, public sector job for which I’m now very overqualified. I’m not sharing my story as an invitation to a pity party, or because my story is unique, but, rather, because it’s so common. Higher education still runs on the misplaced belief that more studies, regardless of the field, will lead to a richer life.
This month, graduate programs will be mailing out their letters of offer to prospective doctoral candidates. Students from lower-income backgrounds shouldn’t accept. Graduate education in the humanities remains a luxury only the wealthy can truly afford.
Kevin Shaw is an Ottawa-based writer and editor.