Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go

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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.

It was a message
many prospective graduate students were not getting from their professors,
who were generally too eager to clone themselves. Having heard rumors
about unemployed Ph.D.’s, some undergraduates would ask about job
prospects in academe, only to be told, "There are always jobs
for good people." If the students happened to notice the increasing
numbers of well-published, highly credentialed adjuncts teaching
part time with no benefits, they would be told, "Don’t worry,
massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty
of positions available." The encouragement they received from
mostly well-meaning but ill-informed professors was bolstered by
the message in our culture that education always leads to opportunity.

All these years
later, I still get letters from undergraduates who stumble onto
that column. They tell me about their interests and accomplishments
and ask whether they should go to graduate school, somehow expecting
me to encourage them. I usually write back, explaining that in this
era of grade inflation (and recommendation inflation), there’s an
almost unlimited supply of students with perfect grades and glowing
letters. Of course, some doctoral program may admit them with full
financing, but that doesn’t mean they are going to find work as
professors when it’s all over. The reality is that less than half
of all doctorate holders – after nearly a decade of preparation,
on average – will ever find tenure-track positions.

The follow-up
letters I receive from those prospective Ph.D.’s are often quite
angry and incoherent; they’ve been praised their whole lives, and
no one has ever told them that they may not become what they want
to be, that higher education is a business that does not necessarily
have their best interests at heart. Sometimes they accuse me of
being threatened by their obvious talent. I assume they go on to
find someone who will tell them what they want to hear: "Yes,
my child, you are the one we’ve been waiting for all our lives."
It can be painful, but it is better that undergraduates considering
graduate school in the humanities should know the truth now, instead
of when they are 30 and unemployed, or worse, working as adjuncts
at less than the minimum wage under the misguided belief that more
teaching experience and more glowing recommendations will somehow
open the door to a real position.

Most undergraduates
don’t realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions
in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable
salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other
fields requiring as many years of training). They don’t know that
you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that
you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end
of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself
exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities
professor is a reliable prospect – a more responsible and secure
choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or
an actor, or a professional athlete – and, as a result, they
don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late.

I have found
that most prospective graduate students have given little thought
to what will happen to them after they complete their doctorates.
They assume that everyone finds a decent position somewhere, even
if it’s "only" at a community college (expressed with
a shudder). Besides, the completion of graduate school seems impossibly
far away, so their concerns are mostly focused on the present. Their
motives are usually some combination of the following:

  • They are
    excited by some subject and believe they have a deep, sustainable
    interest in it. (But ask follow-up questions and you find that
    it is only deep in relation to their undergraduate peers –
    not in relation to the kind of serious dedication you need in
    graduate programs.)
  • They received
    high grades and a lot of praise from their professors, and they
    are not finding similar encouragement outside of an academic environment.
    They want to return to a context in which they feel validated.
  • They are
    emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step
    process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes,
    constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies.
    The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult
    to navigate, and frightening.
  • With the
    prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life
    in college becomes increasingly idealized. They think graduate
    school will continue that romantic experience and enable them
    to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars.
  • They can’t
    find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most
    prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new
    things that don’t interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed
    by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide
    and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
  • They think
    that graduate school is a good place to hide from the recession.
    They’ll spend a few years studying literature, preferably on a
    fellowship, and then, if academe doesn’t seem appealing or open
    to them, they will simply look for a job when the market has improved.
    And, you know, all those baby boomers have to retire someday,
    and when that happens, there will be jobs available in academe.

I know I experienced
all of those motivations when I was in my early 20s. The year after
I graduated from college (1990) was a recession, and the best job
I could find was selling memberships in a health club, part time,
in a shopping mall in Philadelphia. A graduate fellowship was an
escape that landed me in another city – Miami – with at
least enough money to get by. I was aware that my motives for going
to graduate school came from the anxieties of transitioning out
of college and my difficulty finding appealing work, but I could
justify it in practical terms for the last reason I mentioned: I
thought I could just leave academe if something better presented
itself. I mean, someone with a doctorate must be regarded as something
special, right?

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the rest of the article

January
6, 2010

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