It's convocation week, and the young woman in front of me is 22, well awarded, radiant with success and flanked by three proud parents. "Yeah, I'm pretty excited," she says. "I got into my top choice MA program! I don't know where I'll go for my PhD, though - everybody says it's a good school, but who knows - maybe I can go to England, or the States? I just, you know, I really want to be a professor." Charming blush.
And here I am again. Do I say, "Oh, that's wonderful news: congratulations! You must be so proud." Or do I say, "Sweetheart, I'm begging you, do not make that tragic life decision. Graduate school will steal your soul and eviscerate your self-esteem, and at the end of six excruciating years - if you're fast - you'll realize that the only job you're trained for doesn't exist. From then on, your life will be an interminable grind of underemployed misery punctuated by periods of paralyzing anxiety, all in the service of a vocational delusion."
She smiles; I smile, lie. Not the right moment to break her heart.
Maybe the right moment is lunch with our promising MA student and her co-supervisor. The student's had a wonderful year: earned a perfect GPA on her coursework, taught for the first time, to rave reviews, won a major national scholarship, landed a visiting appointment at a university in New Zealand as well as the travel grant to support it. "And what are you thinking of doing after the MA?," I ask, carefully. "Oh, a PhD," she says, surprised by the question. "Can I ask - I don't want you to take this the wrong way - but can I ask why you want to do a PhD?" "I want to be a professor," she says, "like you."
I can hardly pretend to be surprised. Everything I do for her, all the guidance and the letters and the feedback on her written work, my mentoring and my modeling, the suggestion of things to read, all of this is designed to help her achieve her goals, which include Becoming a Professor. She would be a conscientious instructor; she has the capacity to influence a discipline. I want people like her - hardworking, imaginative, smart, and kind - to be my colleagues. I want her to be a professor; I want that job - professor - to exist for her.
But that job doesn't exist plentifully, and if commentators on the academic job market are right to describe the dearth of academic jobs as structural rather than temporary, it's not likely to return anytime soon.
It's easy to say that you should disclose this dreary situation to students - but when, exactly, and how?
Undergraduate convocation clearly isn't the right time, and the whole concept of graduate education is pretty abstract in the first few years of university. Early in the PhD? Too late: they're already committed. At the end of the PhD? Way too late: the last thing a dissertating student needs to hear is, "Your thesis needs more work - even though it won't get you a job." How about during the Master's? Maybe, but MAs are short - doctoral apps are due at the end of the first semester - so you might want to practice greeting enthusiastic new students with a hearty, "Welcome to graduate school! But don't get too comfortable." (Of course, that might also entail conceiving the Master's as something other than a pre-doctoral degree - but I digress.)
Maybe there's never a good time to share bad news. But even if we can bring ourselves to break students' hearts, I'm not convinced they can hear what we're saying. "Yeah, I know it's a tough job market," said one would-be professor earlier this year, "but somebody has to get those jobs!" "I'm sure things will get better," another one shrugged. "I'm going to be really strategic about my research," said a third optimist. How do you respond to such blitheness?: "What's the weather like on your planet?"?
Underneath my reluctance to break students' hearts is a virtual hibernaculum of unresolved feelings: anxiety that I might be wrong; remorse that I haven't managed to strengthen the humanities and turn the tide of public opinion (or, more to the point, the tide of public funding); pedagogical self-doubt; survivor's guilt; concern for the future of my students; and my own professional and intellectual heartbreak at a future without these people in it.