Why you shouldn’t go to grad school in the humanities

I cannot find a whole lot of criticism with the argument presented by Thomas Benton (real name: William Pannapacker of Hope College). It certainly is a very tough job market out there for doctorates in the humanities and I regularly have very frank conversations with my students about whether or not they should go on for a doctorate. If you are fully funded and, in the worst case scenario, are willing to “lose” 5 years of your life then fine. But there are very few guarantees. I have likened it to this: Imagine you want to buy a $100,000 Ferrari. You give Ferrari all that money and then you have to get the car around the track in a certain time. If you don’t make that cut they keep your money and the car. Same thing with the doctorate. You give the university your money and if you don’t complete the dissertation or thesis to their satisfaction they keep the money and the degree.

That does not mean that I think we don’t need more good PhD’s in the humanities out there. But we must be realistic about it. I wasn’t, but things have worked out for me. I guess I was just luckier, or maybe even more talented, than I realized.

Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go

It’s hard to tell young people that universities view their idealism and energy as an exploitable resource

Nearly six years ago, I wrote a column called “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” (The Chronicle, June 6, 2003). My purpose was to warn undergraduates away from pursuing Ph.D.’s in the humanities by telling them what I had learned about the academic labor system from personal observation and experience.

Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.

As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:

  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.

Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them.

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