Can I still become a professor?

I feel like I've been hoodwinked -- I would go to grad school, but where would I teach?

Published June 24, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

On one level, I feel almost guilty writing to you about this, but I think out of most people, you would understand.

I graduated last May from a relatively good private college and received a B.A. in English. My original dream was graduate school. My favorite professor (and mentor, advisor and former role model) informed me "you would be doing the academic community a disservice by not going into academia as a career." I was misled into believing that all it would take to become a professor myself was years of hard work and dedication, both of which I know I have. I declined going to graduate school because none offered paid assistanceships (which I would require to pay off my student loans, as well as cover the cost of living expenses). Now, I'm very angry toward this man and I would resent him for lying to me if I didn't resent myself so much for being naive. It is very, very difficult to obtain a teaching position at the university level nowadays, especially in the humanities. Especially in English. My concentration was Elizabethan drama and philosophy, if that helps. (I don't much think it does.)

Now I am working what I feel is a dead-end job, as more or less a glorified secretary. I have never been so miserable in my life. I resent other people that I work with because I feel like they hold me a failure for being an "administrative assistant" and still having a degree. I didn't go to college to become a secretary. I don't want to work in this job for the rest of my life and end up as an "Administrative Assistant IV."

I don't know what else I can do with my career. I don't know what else I'm qualified to do, because all my advisers in college told me was "go to graduate school and become a professor." Well. That option is out. Now what?


Dear Lost,

If you want to be a professor, think like a gambler. Think like a stockbroker.

Sure, there are no jobs now. But this bad economy is going to scare away many people who are thinking just like you're thinking right now, people who would otherwise try for academic careers. So in seven to 10 years, there may well be a shortage of well-trained academics in the humanities. If you plan for it now, who knows, maybe you'll be in the right spot at the right time.

Work sucks. It's much worse than you can imagine just reading about it. I remember getting out of graduate school and thinking ... what an interesting way to learn about the world. I'll ... get a job! I went to work in the Western Electric Account Management mailroom at 44 Montgomery Street, 14th floor. There I found out "What Work Is."

That's how you learn what it means to be chained to an eternity of boredom in a windowless room under fluorescent lights performing tasks of unimaginable tedium for people who exercise absolute control over your comings and goings. You learn what it is to be stripped of your being, to be like an alien in social situations, to struggle to evince a bit of fellow-feeling for activities and lifestyles whose cruel banality seems like a medieval penalty for some unspeakable sin.

Try it. Then think again about grad school. School does not prepare you for life. School prepares you for more school. What are you qualified for? You're qualified for more school.

So think about it again. If you don't go back to school, you have to find some other kind of hustle. Become a journalist or a smuggler. Marry rich. Live fast. Dazzle the upper crust with your knowledge of Marlowe.

In school, the harder you work and the smarter you are the better you do. In a real job, the harder you work, the more of a sucker you are. The smarter you are, the harder it is to fit in.

School teaches you to do what you are qualified for. Work teaches you to do what you can get away with.

So welcome to the club. Welcome to the world. Welcome to the shithole.

Don't think like a professor. Think like a gambler. Save yourself.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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