Myth-Busting Redux (Graduate Edition)

To follow my colleagues Laura, Desiree, and Jackie, who have lately been exploring myths about English departments, students, and faculty, I thought I would explore three myths about graduate study that I encounter as Graduate Advisor.

Myth #1: You Must Get Your Degrees from Different Places. Not that it’s a bad idea to get degrees from different places. If you get your BA, MA, and PhD from three different schools, or at least from two different schools, then you meet more people, you’re exposed to different ideas, you find different library collections to explore, you enjoy life more and become more cosmopolitan, and dozens of other advantages.

But the myth I’m talking about here is more like “nobody will hire me if my CV shows three degrees from the same place, because that’s an automatic resumé-killer.”

And really, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re applying for a teaching-heavy job, the first thing they look for is how much, how varied, and how strong your teaching experience is. (Unless it’s the 25th of August and the semester starts on the 26th, in which case they look for whether your breath will fog a mirror and you aren’t currently incarcerated.)

If you’re applying for a research-oriented job, they look to see how interesting your dissertation is, and what you’ve published to establish its high quality.


Somewhere down the line, the trivial matter of where you earned all your different degrees (always assuming none of them is from Dr Nick’s All-Nite Research University) might come up over drinks, but really, nobody uses that fact as a quick CV weeder.

Myth #2: I’ll Never Get a Teaching Job Because I’m Too Old / White / Anglo / Male. Because you’re right, there are hardly any old white Anglo males in this business. Hell, there’s only one in my office.

Age: first of all, the ideal job candidate nowadays is probably someone who’s 62 years old and will retire as soon as s/he earns tenure, saving their employer decades of seniority raises. Second, no, you will not go far in the profession if your idea of cutting-edge scholarship is Cleanth Brooks and your dissertation idea is “The Influence of Existentialism on the Beat Generation.” But aside from that, ageism in the academy, from all I can tell, is at a historical low.


The same applies to worries over your various un-PC attributes: your whiteness, your native English, your maleness. The counterpart myth, “All the Jobs go to Young Black Disabled Lesbians,” is equally trite. They strike me as excuses. Yes, if you are an intellectual reactionary, if you come across as tacitly racist or with a chip on your shoulder about how beleaguered you are as a member of a majority group, you might not get much sympathy in a humanities department. If you, by contrast, keep an open mind and seek out new ideas, why wouldn’t you get a fair chance at any jobs that are going?

Myth #3: College Teaching in the Humanities is an Upper-Middle-Class Profession.

It’s not.

College English teachers can expect to make poverty-level salaries as adjuncts, working-class salaries as full-time untenured faculty, and skilled-trades salaries as tenured senior faculty.


Bob Seger had a song back when I was in high school:

I wanna be a lawyer
Doctor or professor
Member of the U.M.C.
I wanna drive a Lincoln,
Spend my evenings drinkin,
Have stock in GM and GE.

Lawyers and doctors, if they survive to senior levels in their professions, yes, they can aspire to such giddy circumstances. English professors? we drive ancient Hondas, spend our evenings grading papers, and the only coupons we clip are the ones that offer 40% off at Half Price Books.

William Pannapacker has recently made waves with a series of increasingly embittered attacks on the hypocrisy of graduate education in the humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage.

“Graduate school in the humanities,” Pannapacker concludes, “is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind.'” Despite his histrionics, I tend to agree with Pannapacker. Not about the “trap” aspect, mind you, but about the myth that lots of advanced degrees will bring you luxury cars, single-malts, and bulging portfolios.

In fact, I very much doubt that teaching English ever entailed such things unless said English teachers had them already. Teaching English is a working-class occupation. We do not control the means of production; we do not possess independent capital. We are ill-paid. Thanks to an economic principle called the Baumol effect, we can’t become more productive over time, so the only way for a school to afford English teaching and its irreducible labor-intensiveness is to keep eroding our salaries in real terms. Basically, society doesn’t value what we do, and we’re paid accordingly.


Pannapacker bemoans the lack of “real jobs” in the humanities, but lots and lots of us have real jobs. We keep them as real as possible by working for what prison guards or truck drivers make. And folks, that’s not as tragic as Pannapacker insists. Lots of prison guards and truck drivers, after all, own their own homes, have hobbies, and get out to see the occasional movie or NASCAR race. If it would mortify you to be seen at the Motor Speedway, well, the Fort Worth Opera has $20 tickets. Culture, precisely because it’s consumed by the underpaid, is often an excellent bargain. Reading is still pretty much free.

The most important thing for people to know about college teaching as they go into it is that it’s a working-class occupation. Some initial myth-busting on that score can save a world of grief later on.

— Tim Morris


  1. Excellent points, Tim. Graduate students take heed, it makes a big difference to your success in the profession to know this up-front. But I have a sneaking suspicion you’ve figured out the low pay part by now 🙂

  2. Good myth busting. One must love teaching and researching. And, frankly, most of us would get fired from other jobs. 🙂 The assumption that those in higher education make good money is somehow akin to the idea that gifted kids are well behaved.

    I had a student who is preparing for his grad school ask during Marxist theory this week where grad students and profs ranked socio-economically. I told him that we are like the court jesters…we have access to pieces of the good life, but we are absolutely not the finger snappers. I like your Cool Hand Luke image, though, perhaps next time I can say, “We are those who eat 50 eggs.” Still, I’d rather be doing this than anything else (something that we have to remind ourselves of, no?). As long as no one asks me to fill out a TPS report.

  3. When I was a post-graduate student at the University of Manchester, I was in a course on Old English paleography with an undergraduate student who was unusual, in those parts, for being both working class and from the north (the vast majority of students at Manchester being middle-class Southerners who had flocked there due to the music scene). I remember one day we were reading an essay by Helmutt Gneuss, frequently described as the greatest living Anglo-Saxonist, and a formidable German scholar. The undergraduate student at one point said something along the lines of “What does this Gneuss do?” at which point the teacher looked nonplussed and said something about philology. The student said, “No, I mean what does he do for money?”
    At the time it seemed very funny, because I was imagining Helmutt Gneuss flipping burgers or something in between parsing difficult Latin sentences, but I think it was quite revelatory of attitudes about what constitutes “work.”

  4. you also have to look out for the “celebrity scholar”–people like simon montefiore who DO manipulate their scholarship into paying for a high class lifestyle. almost everything they do seems a touch dishonest–did that new insight come from reasoned study or is it just something they’re trying to sell? this comes from an undergraduate who has seen the homes quite a few professors–i trust the ones who drive ancient Hondas, not the ones with grand pianos in their living rooms.

  5. Wonderful post, Tim — and so true. I was one of those students who bought the idea that being a professor meant living a rather luxurious life. Where I got this idea I don’t really know, since both of my parents work in higher ed., and we were a decidedly lower class family. Well, I’ve learned my lesson well and recognize myself as a working class cog, who nonetheless gets the intellectual reward of teaching literature. It’s a strange combination.

    But, I have to say that I still hear the “all degrees from one institution = career suicide” one all the time. Where did it come from and why does it have such legs?

  6. Speaking as a middle-aged, Anglo/Celtic-American guy who’s working on his second degree from UT-Arlington, I find this sort of reassuring.

  7. 1. I have accepted myth 1. The main reason is that I’ve heard (via gossip & rumors) that its best to have experience in different higher ed systems and to be exposed to different scholars.

    2. Would someone coming out of retirement be competitive?

    (I have seen that film still. What is the film? I have seen it and cannot place it).

    3. I would tie myth number 3 with assumptions of who has access to art appreciation, opera, theatre, literature…Many such events are expensive to attend. Knowledge in such culture implies a degree of leisure, too. If someone is working two part-times jobs, does that person have the leisure to develop art appreciation? Could this be why this myth prevails?

  8. “Well said” is an odd comment for a blog because in American lit I suggest that they these students do not comment that something is “well written.”

    Why is it? How is it? I state this difference because what they say is “well written” about is well in the canon once I present it.

    So those that respond to the blog as “wow,” “well written,” what/how does that contribute to knowledge? “Well stated,” too, how does that add to knowledge?

    What is a canon? What is well written? What does that mean? How does something well-written by a UTA faculty help us? Why? So what if it is well written? So what?

    Other than “wow,” what can we contribute than “wow?”

    How to get students’ question the canon? I sometimes ask them who if any of them is left out of the Norton & why; we read the TOC; and in particular, what do I leave out? Why?

    I anticipate being as fascinated by students as by my professors. If I fail, that is my failing. Why do students not pose problems to what we learn?

    The students that oppose me are the ones I want to teach/learn from. I want to maintain intrigue like I had as an undergrad student.

    I have lots of work to do as I’ve yet as a teacher felt transported and walked around campus like I did as an undergrad. If I don’t get my students there, that is no other fault than my own.

    I get no “talk back” about the canon: yet. That is my “bad” if I do not know how to cull their background.

  9. I hope that we get beyond “wow” or “well said” for UTA blogs just like my students do not say something is well written” from Norton, Pulitzers.

    Let’s get beyond grandstanding & really discourse about English studies.

    Good note: Well stated, and such, does not help me grow as a scholar. I need to know what is is well stated, why & how…


  10. Otherwise it is so soothing to know that I teach Norton stuff while I do my own thing: my own version of Norton (my version of Norton until students speak up). I choose Norton because it has crit in the back pages. Who does that other than Norton & Broadview? I remember getting my undergard Norton & noting the crit edition. Are there other editions/press from which to teach?

  11. I mention this stuff because I was so incited by my undergrad lit talks that I’d afterward just walk around campus in full thought/transport. Those seminars transported me. I don’t know how to explain the effect of it if is not felt.

    Transportation is some kind of out-of-time experience. Those talks were so good that 10 min were not enough to change thoughts that quickly & so I’d just walk around campus, rather than go to geometry, my next assigned class.

  12. What UT did for for an undergrad is place a core of intrigue.

    I have an intrigue for poetry & where do I fill such an intrigue other than with you, Tim.

    & once I leave intrigue where is absolute love in the written word paced?

    When so many that applied for a position with Craig & they have nearly all died, I place my fortitude with those that survive.

    For those that do not choose suicide: I never will, there is other ways to go. I dislike the Hughes/Plath/Wevill path

    When I talked with Kurt, another in Craig’s close friends went that way. That is not my way: how he could have fallen off of a cliff in Japan.

    I will go against any such thing/s: from Wevill to Assya’s husband’s case (Hughes), to Komunkak’s case, too; bla bla bla. Youseff Komunkakaa’s wife kiled herself and her child she had with him while he was at Princeton.

    Poets are sensitive & I will most certainly live.

    I am so against any of that.

  13. All that happened over the weekend for philosophy and art is that I met Kurt and we had tears in our eyes over Craig’s death.

    I wish to be more like him: Kurt. If he has a CV that I love and his place at UT, I wish to be more like him. He has an amazing host of donators.

  14. I thought I knew exactly what to do in grad school and afterward from Craig’s instruction. He just last may by a hike in Japan. He was my rock on how to live/navigate a career. He’s now gone & I am lost. I most certainly do not want to know about Chicago & the publication of Poetry. I just went from how understanding how academia went to full-tilt topsy turvey. He was not supposed to go missing off of the side of a Japan mountain.

    I am hurt, disoriented, confused, and such.

    I just had my understanding of poetry wiped put from beneath my feet…

  15. My favorite line and dare I write reality check: “College English teachers can expect to make poverty-level salaries as adjuncts….” I’m already there…but I wouldn’t choose any other profession. I’m where I belong.

    >Great post!

  16. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this excellent blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to new updates and will share this blog with my Facebook group. Talk soon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar