Open letter to my friend, who I love, who wants to get a PhD in literature

Dear friend, you say you want to start a PhD in literature and who am I to stop you, who I love, who I want the world for.

Dear friend, you are one of the people that academia would benefit so much from. You did the work of investing in people first. You would come to academia up out of your community and you would bring your students with you. You as a professor would be a thing of grace.

Why a PhD, I wonder, but I already know the answer. I don’t know anyone who loves literature as much as you, who is as deeply committed to language and to teaching. In the years that I have known you, your love of books has been a constant, a thing of beauty.

So who am I to say that you, my friend who I love, should not pursue a PhD? Who am I, with my stable job and my twitter followers and my side projects and my doctorate, to tell you that academia will eat you alive? That it will ask awful things of you and your family, your wife, your child. That it will weaponize your identity and use it against you. That it will undermine the work you’ve done and undervalue everything you know.

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On that, I will stay silent.

You say you like how the program you’ve chosen is steeped in the place where you have made your home and the identities that you hold close. If you pursue a PhD you will be rewarded with years, maybe a lifetime to attend to these things, which matter as much as anything in this world. I want that for you.

So what, then, should I tell you?

Should I tell you that last night I thought about the book my dissertation was supposed to become and I straight-up cried thinking about the work I will never finish?

You know about disappointment. You don’t need a PhD for that.

And should I tell you about the dozens of conversations I’ve had this summer with graduate students and postdocs and tenured faculty, strangers who emailed me to ask for help finding their way out of higher education, away from the very thing you want?

You know what it means to feel trapped in your life.

And should I tell you about the very particular cruelties that I’ve seen enacted over and over again on graduate students, the way that harassment and abuse are given names like “mentorship” and “pedagogy” and “academic rigor” until you start to think that maybe that very cruelty, and the kindness that accompanies it, is what you deserve?

You have already been exploited. You have already suffered.

I cannot tell you not to pursue a PhD. Like so many of my friends who have started PhD programs, only to quit, only to be forced out, only to graduate and leave higher education, only to graduate and find academic-adjacent careers, only to graduate and become faculty and doubt their choices, I cannot deny you what has been given to me, no matter how much it failed me.

And it would be hypocritical for me to tell you not to pursue a PhD, especially not if the stipend is similar to what you’re making now, if the health insurance is what your family really needs, if you need a student visa in order to stay in this country, if you have never for one minute prioritized your earning power when making choices about your career because public service is what motivates you, not a paycheck.

I cannot tell you not to pursue a PhD.

What I can tell you is that you already have everything you require to write, to teach, to be a voice for your community. Fuck credentials. You are already extraordinary and powerful and valuable in this world.

If you a pursue a PhD, it will ask you to stifle some of what is beautiful in you, and to abandon some of what is meaningful to you. If you pursue a PhD, you may find yourself becoming complicit with systems that are cruel and even violent, and producing work that is less impactful and less transformative than what is possible now.

Only you can decide if that is a sacrifice you are ready to make.

If you choose to pursue a PhD, I will be overjoyed for you. I will rejoice when you are accepted into your graduate program, when you pass your comprehensive exams, when your dissertation prospectus is accepted, when you pass your defense. I will celebrate because these are accomplishments that are worthy of so much more joy than we ever give them, because joy is hard to come by in this world.

And if you choose to pursue a PhD, I will do every damn thing in my power to help you. I will build resources to make doctoral programs more transparent and to make academic community more compassionate. Because I do not want you to feel what I felt, to lose what I lost.

I cannot tell you not to pursue a PhD. But you are in my academic community now. And if academia is a cycle of abuse, that cycle ends with me.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, an oil painting by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, dated c. 1665.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, an oil painting by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, dated c. 1665.

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digital | humanist