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. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)
Choosing to pursue that life—as irrational as it may seem, as hopeless as the prospect of achieving it might be—can still be a sound choice…. Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.
My advice: grow some balls, steel yourself, screw your courage to the sticking point, drink some Steel Reserve, and pursue an academic career if that’s what you want (or even to figure out if that’s what you want). Just be ready … gasp … do something else.
If you drop out or even go all the way and can’t get tenure, then you can enter the same rat race that all your friends entered eight years before. In twenty years it won’t matter: there are only so many rungs on the ladder, and (mutatis mutandis) they will almost certainly have been forced to wait for you while you catch up. And by the time the universe is just about to come to an end, all of humanity will share the same Web Development job anyway. On your way to that brave future, think about doing something brave.
You may swallow some pride along the way, you may have some additional struggles, you may delay your ascension to the future spouse/house/couch, but in the end you’re not going to end up working at McDonalds, you’re not going to end up homeless and alone, and you’re not going to be eternally banished from the church of middle class comfort or the sweet, sweet routine of the office job–if eventually that’s what you think you want.
It’s one thing to be aware of the costs of choosing one path over another–and there are costs to both the more and less adventurous routes; it’s another to be discouraged from doing anything courageous or taking any risks by imagining these costs in Manichean, irremediable terms.
So please don’t forgo your attempt to become the next great poetry critic because you think you will miss your last chance to get into fucking HVAC systems.