It starts out as an innocent attempt at small talk. I’ll be leaning out the drive-thru window of my workplace; reading Hemingway or Chaucer for my next assignment; talking to a new friend I met at the ice cream social. Here comes the classic American icebreaker: what do you do?
“Oh, I’m a college student,” I reply.
“That’s nice. What’s your major?”
“English,” I quip happily, proud.
This is about the time I notice an expression of confusion mixed with pity on the other person’s face. “Oh, you poor thing” is what I imagine they’re thinking. The next question (and I think almost all English students have encountered this) never comes as a surprise, “Are you going to teach?” At first, I dreamed of becoming an English professor with high hopes of research, writing and prestige. Now if that question rears its hideous head, I emphatically answer “No.”
As I progressed through my undergraduate career, I began to wonder why so many people asked that of me and my classmates. Were we doomed to only a life in academia? Was academia so bad of a career choice? Did our society see us as only useful for teaching? I had to know if I was making a mistake in my career path.
I had seen other warning signs that life as a doctoral candidate was going to be more than I bargained for. I knew that earning a Ph.D. was going to be a tremendous amount of work, but I knew I was more than capable. I have always been an honor student. I love learning almost more than life itself. Books are my friends, and the written word has always been my venue for creativity. However, as time went on—and I befriended some doctoral candidates who could give me the lowdown on the process—I developed an increasing anxiety about debt, and more importantly job prospects. I decided to do some research. The results were startling, disturbing, and frankly not what I wanted to hear.
No more than one-third of all professors in the nation have tenure or are on tenure-track (www.nea.org). Adjuncts—who are largely abused by the system and get few, if any, benefits—compose the remainder. Tenure does not make the professor immune to termination, but instead offers much needed and sought-after security. The requirements vary from university to university, but it often involves publishing several scholarly articles and writing at least one book.
This process itself is fine, and those who earn tenure deserve it, but it can be difficult to complete the process if one wants to have children during this time. I understood why tenure was so difficult to obtain, but I worried if I could hold out long enough to see the end. It takes two years for a master’s, then an additional two-three years (and longer sometimes) just to pass the exams and write a dissertation. Once the dissertation was successfully defended, I would be awarded my holy grail of scholarship. Sadly, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and my husband and I had future mouths to feed. I wasn’t sure if I could be patient enough. I wasn’t sure I could afford to be patient enough. The doubt kept compounding, and I needed to make a decision: continue the road to Ph.D. or find an alternative.
I asked for the advice of my Honors professor, Dr. J. I asked her if I was on the right career path, if becoming a professor was the right thing for me to do, and what advice could she give me if I decided to proceed with becoming a professor. Firstly, she believed that I could do it and that I could be an excellent professor. My faith was restored, but it was short-lived. Just when I thought I was right all along, Dr. J. warned me of the hierarchical snobbery involved in academia. She received her master’s and doctorate from Yale; she’s one of the leading experts on WWI literature. She worked diligently, tirelessly, to get that prestige. She then told me of a former student of hers that had begun a doctoral program at our university. That student got a job in publishing. The verdict: she dropped the program and now she makes more money than Dr. J.
There was more. More? I thought the worst was over, and I dreaded hearing what came next. She told me that for a Ph.D. to really shine and get a great job was to attend an elite college. The old adage rang true again: it’s who you know rather than what you know, and getting into Yale or any other prestigious university was the ticket to professor stardom. Here I was a first generation college student who had to pay for college myself at a state university. Could I get into Yale? Probably. I’m graduating summa cum laude with honors in English. I’ve been an accomplished student, so I didn’t doubt my abilities. But there were plenty of other stories about Ivy League schools that wrinkled my brow, making me squirm when I thought about attending one of those schools. To further deepen the wound, she informed me that a Ph.D. from a lower-tiered school (such as the one in which we were employed) was “doomed” to teach at a community college or a lower-tiered school. It didn’t matter if I was just as well-qualified, or even more qualified, than someone from Harvard or Columbia; if I didn’t have the watermark of an Ivy League school on my doctorate, I was sunk.
Her final words of advice were, “If you can only see yourself being a professor, then go for it. If you can see yourself doing something else, I advise you to do that instead. It’s a long, arduous road. You have to know if it’s right for you or you’re going to waste your time and money. It’s a highly rewarding career, if you’re in it for the right reasons, but you have to know if it’s for you.”
I was in it for the right reasons, right? I wanted to help students achieve their highest potentials, but as I interviewed other professors, I found that it wasn’t the golden road that I imagined. I have a love for writing also, but getting a MFA seemed just as pointless (if not more so). I would be corralling myself into academia, unqualified for anything other than teaching, tutoring, and writing on my own time if things didn’t pan out.
I care about money more than I thought I did. I still care about helping people, but this is my chance to ascend my socioeconomic status. Law seems like a good path.
Ever since I was a small child, I had been involved with politics. My childhood crush was Al Gore, and I wanted to be the first woman president. In high school, I was told by teachers that I would be a really good lawyer because of my argumentative nature and ability to be forceful in debates. I never thought that I would end up as a lawyer because of all the bad reps they got, but then I realized these were dishonest lawyers who betrayed their character and oath of decency. My top choice for law school is the University of Colorado-Boulder, but I won’t be too torn up if I stay at the University of Kentucky. I want to be an environmental lawyer because I can’t stand how much corporations and our species have destroyed our planet. There has to be boundaries. There has to be a push for new research and regulations. I may work for a firm, or for the EPA, or even on my own one day. I may even miss academia and decide to teach law after a long run as an attorney.
With a law degree, I can help society and still make a decent living. I will still have prestige, important connections, and the chance to publish only with a better chance of getting ahead in life. Don’t get me wrong, I fear the future; I fear the uncertainty of law school and forging a career. I fear how I will change. I fear the moral ambiguities and challenges I will face as a lawyer. I know I can do it. I know now, after much introspection, that this is the right choice. I want my children to have a better life than I did. This is my chance to do it, and I will. Being an English major does not mean a narrow path into academia. Teaching is certainly noble, and necessary, but it is not the English major’s destiny. I started out with one dream and ended with another. I must weather the winds of change, and the winds say this change is good.
About the Author
Shelby Bevins-Sullivan is a senior at the University of Kentucky, graduating in December. She loves poetry, prose, cupcakes, pretending she's a mad scientist, comic books, and collecting strange hats. She lives in Lexington with her husband, Joseph, along with her two fur babies: Amuset (kitten), and Molly (puppy).