What Do You Do With a Ph.D. in Literature?

by Cindy Au

I’m a doctor.

People sometimes ask how I managed to complete a doctoral degree in literature, despite knowing that I wouldn’t be pursuing an academic career or using it for anything.

My response usually goes something like this (it doesn’t, but let’s pretend it does):

I picture myself, an 89-year-old woman, sitting in a wheelchair and staring out over a field of wheat. I reflect back on my life, what I have achieved, what happened, who I loved, who I had been, and who I had become. I think back on that glorious period of life when I thought I’d become a scholar, a thinker, and a teacher. And I wonder after all these years why I didn’t just finish it. What was so hard back then that I couldn’t just write a few more words down on a page? It didn’t matter then, but as I stare out onto that empty field, it matters.

The camera pans in toward my withered face, moving closer and closer until my flesh blurs into pale blotches of light. As I fade back into focus, you see my body pristinely frozen inside of a cryogenic chamber, and realize that this whole thing is the creation of my aging consciousness, buffering around in a virtual retirement community, so fixated on mistakes of the past that I fail to take this marvelous opportunity to dream up an all-you-can-eat pie buffet on the Starship Enterprise.

But I digress.

Whatever the reasons (and there were oh so many reasons), I went ahead and finished a goddamn doctoral degree in English Literature, which serves mostly now to punctuate mundane office chatter with the occasional “Doctor Au” joke. Get it?

It has been just about four years since I earned that distinction, the ability to technically be called Doctor Au. I never use the title, nor would I because it seems a bit absurd, doesn’t it?

Doctors save lives. They study the origins of the Universe. They travel through space and time! Doctors do not bury their heads in books for eight to ten years and then emerge with theories of how those books might be related to ideas about things that may or may not be important to humans.

Ah, but they do. We do.

I occasionally meet other doctors of the liberal arts variety. When we discover this shared secret, conversation quickly moves onto, “How did you get out?” which is a polite way of asking, “How did you ever convince anyone that you’re fit to work in this world, given your torrid academic past?”

“I killed someone with only a bachelors degree and stole their identity!”

In reality, moving beyond academia started with acknowledging once and for all that the promised future — a stable career where one can steadily climb the tenure-track ladder and build a body of scholarship whilst teaching and inspiring a new generation of thinkers — just wasn’t really there.

Part of it involved years of slowly learning how the machine of higher education works. It’s one of the most enduring institutions we have, filled with antiquated traditions, inefficiencies, devotion to hierarchy, and worst of all, an extreme imbalance in supply and demand. For every 100 Lit Ph.D.s out there, it seemed there was one job opening (usually non-tenure track, low-paying, and somewhere remote). And we were competing not just with other new Ph.D.s for those jobs, but junior professors with a few years under their belts from other institutions looking to make a move.

I remember talking to one of my colleagues, one of the few who’d actually been offered a tenure-track job somewhere, and he mentioned that he’d be making $26,000 to start. This was 2007. My first shit-job out of college paid $24,000, and that was in 2000. None of us were doing this for money, clearly, but I calculated that I could waitress full-time for $40,000 a year. The numbers just didn’t add up.

About five years into my program, I decided I had to move on. At that point I was already over 60% to a Ph.D., so I figured I’d just finish it.

Three years later, I did.

Post-Ph.D., I moved to New York City and did what so many do when they move here: start over. To make ends meet, I took a job teaching writing at the College of Staten Island (in hindsight I wish I’d known how far Staten Island is from everything…), did some unpaid freelance writing, and dreamt of a future where I might have health insurance. I started pumping out content for my blog in earnest, and had this bold plan where I would become a writer for io9 or go work for the Syfy channel (home of my favorite series at the time, Battlestar Galactica).

My second week living in NYC, I went to an io9 meetup at The Magician on the LES and did that embarrassing thing where you approach someone you follow on the internet (in this case Editor-in-Chief Annalee Newitz) and showed her my blog on my phone. I walked home over the Williamsburg Bridge that night on cloud nine, thinking to myself, holy shit, what if this vague dream I have of writing about science fiction for the internet could actually become real?

The very next day I emailed Annalee with a few story pitches, and never heard back from her.

Cut to one glorious sunny fall day in 2009. I’m walking through Soho for maybe the second time in my life, marveling at what appears to be lost supermodels ambling about in high heels, and loving the old iron-faced buildings and cobblestone roads.

I pass by one of a million cute buildings and see that it’s a Le Pain Quotidien, a chain of restaurants that resemble the classy version of Panera. Replace You-Pick-Two with overpriced tartines, and underneath they’re pretty much the same thing.

In the window is a little paper sign indicating that they’re hiring servers. I could work there, I think. In fact, I liked waiting tables, and kind of missed it. Compared to all this writing for free and teaching for close to nothing, the thought of making a good hourly wage was titillating. I could earn that $40,000 a year and still write and do all the other things I wanted to do.

My career at Le Pain Quotidien never got started, because while browsing Tumblr in the middle of the night I saw a Kickstarter project for the first time (a project to make mail-order fig bars), immediately went to their jobs page to see if there was anything I could pretend to be qualified for (“community”), and applied.

I didn’t need a Ph.D. to work at Kickstarter, just like I wouldn’t have needed a Ph.D. to wait tables (though it adds color to both). In truth, nobody needs a Ph.D. Ok technically you need one to be a college professor, but it is not an indicator of whether you will be a good college professor. Only that you have a certain level of stick-to-it-ness.

It’s been four years since I finished and defended my dissertation, and I am still uncertain what it means to be a doctor. At various moments I’ll think, “Toiling at something I didn’t even really want for eight years builds character!” or “I’m a better writer!” or “I know some things about dead people!” I even kind of enjoy the Doctor Au jokes. (A good pun lasts forever).

Mostly I look back and recognize that the Ph.D. for me was like any person in their 20s trying to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to be doing. I still am not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I do know that when future cryogenically-frozen me virtually gazes upon the field of wheat, I can remember that at the very least I was a goddamn doctor.

Cindy Au is Head of Community at Kickstarter, where she oversees the support and growth of Kickstarter’s community of creators and backers. Prior to Kickstarter, she worked as a writer (“unpaid blogger”) and teacher covering games and comics culture. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she focused on African American Literature and Civil Rights History. She currently resides in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and loves playing games and eating pie, usually at the same time.

Photo: Jon Gos

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