March 01, 2003

Thinking about graduate school in the humanities?

Don't do it. Do yourself a favor and do not go to graduate school in the humanities. No, not even if you burn with a passion for your field of study that will not be denied. You can deny it, and in my opinion you should.

Now, obviously it is your life and your future, and only you can decide on the path you choose to take. You are of course free to accept or reject my advice as you see fit.

But if you are bound and determined to go to graduate school, please do some research first. Talk to as many people in your field as you can -- and not just to tenured and tenure-track faculty members and to pre-ABD graduate students but also to graduate students who are nearing completion and -- perhaps most crucially -- to those who have recently completed the Ph.D. Do some research on your field, and on the specific schools/departments/programmes you are considering. In terms of the specific departments, try to get statistics on their placement rates. This won't be easy and may not even be possible, because many departments (my own included) do not keep accurate records and present highly misleading information in their promotional literature. But certainly you can find general information on the job "market" in your field. Take a good, long, hard look at the numbers, and keep this figure in your head as you contemplate your future.

As I see it, the humanities "professions" are failed, or at least failing, professions. They have failed to secure the most basic requirements for their continuation as professions. Indeed, in my opinion, no profession that treats its aspiring/junior/entry-level members the way they are treated in the humanities deserves to be called a "profession" at all. And unless they make some radical changes, and soon, I doubt very much they will survive much longer as viable professions.

Now, if you do the kind of research that everyone should do before signing on for graduate studies (please note: I did not do this kind of research, much to my regret), you will probably come across an argument (if I can dignify it with that term), or at least a response, to the current employment problem that goes something like this: Granted, the job market is not great, but nobody is forcing anyone to go to graduate school and, after all, nobody should feel entitled to a job.

And of course it is true that nobody should feel entitled to a job, because nobody is entitled to a job. But I ask you to consider the nature of this response very carefully indeed before placing your fate in the hands of those who would respond in such an irresponsible fashion to a serious employment problem in their own profession.

There are not many other professions/guilds/associations/unions in which the senior members would make such a reponse to an employment problem that had reached the magnitude of the job crisis in the humanities. There are not many other professions/guilds/associations/unions that would stand idly by and allow entry rates to so greatly outnumber actual positions, and that would allow -- indeed encourage -- the widespread use of cheap, contingent labor. While academics tend to be smart, some of them very smart, people, until very recently many of them failed to grasp a basic point that would have been readily apparent to an illiterate silkspinner in medieval Lyons: if you allow the use of cheap, contingent labor, you will depress the wages (salaries) and degrade the status and working conditions of your guild (profession) members, and you will fail to maintain your labor monopoly. Let me emphasize: There is something deeply, structurally wrong with a profession that allows and even encourages the use of cheap, contingent labor.

Well, the grass is always greener, of course. And I am well aware that it's not as though completion of a professional degree in other, nonacademic fields guarantees the degree holder a job. But in most other professions requiring an advanced degree, the gatekeepers to the profession do make an effort to keep entrance rates in line with actual or projected available positions. They don't always get it right, of course, but at least they do try. And not because they are kinder, gentler souls than academics, and are thinking things like, "Gee, wouldn't it be awful to encourage bright, idealistic young people to waste a good portion of their adult lives in a fruitless pursuit?" But rather because they realize that if they allow the market to be flooded with an oversupply of aspiring entrants, they will eventually hurt themselves because this situation will damage the profession as a whole.

Now, let's allow that in any field or profession there might always be more aspiring entrants than actual positions. And let's grant that not everyone who completes a given degree is a worthy candidate for full employment. And let's further concede that some degree of competition for scarce resources can be a good thing. How much competition, and how much scarcity? What percentage of unemployment or under-employment is acceptable? It really is a question of degree.

10 percent? Yes, fine. It seems reasonable to suppose that perhaps 10 percent of those who jump through all the hoops and complete all the requirements might not be suited to full empolyment in their chosen field. 20 percent? Well, perhaps. But here I would start to ask some questions about the profession. 40 percent? Now here we have identified a real problem. Greater than 50 percent? Well, now we are looking at a failed or at least a rapidly failing profession.

"Well, nobody's forcing them to go to graduate school." True enough. And nobody's forcing them to not go, either. But if you are considering graduate studies in the humanities, I entreat you: please take a good look at the numbers and think carefully about the meaning and significance of these figures both for your own future and for the future of your contemplated field.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 1, 2003 03:37 PM

The assumption behind your advice is very careerist--it contains a set of assumptions about appropriate life-career paths many wouldn't share. At the age of 21, as I graduated from college, I was overcome by the desire to continue my studies; my intellectual curiousity was slaked, and had no intention of walking away from what felt like an entirely unfinished intellectual project. I then spent seven years in graduate school (on fellowship or TAships the whole time), and two years as an adjunct. I was on the market for three years, getting a couple of interviews but no tenure track offers. The interviews were for jobs I didn't really want anyway, since I didn't relish the idea of living in those areas. In fact, I'd now say that my burning desire to continue the life of the mind has lessened considerably, and I'm now more interested in settling down with a stable, decent paying job in the community I want to live. I've got some decent leads, and anyway I'd be happy to adjunct another year or two while I figure it all out.

Yes, the treatment of junior scholars in the humanities is appalling, but as long as you're clear about your own goals for the PhD, and your attitude toward your life-path as it relates to the notion of a "career," these conditions are not necessarily reasons not to pursue this path. I haven't a shred of bitterness at all, I've loved my experience as a student, researcher and teacher, and I wouldn't give it up for the world. That fact that I wasn't successful in climbing some ladder to career dominance, success, wealth, whatever, in my 20's is of no consequence to me. I have no idea if that would have really worked out for me anyway, and even if it did I doubt I would have been satisfied. The life of the mind needn't be an all or nothing affair, and a good PhD program can be a great way to have a taste of it, without committing for the rest of your life.

(And to answer a common charge, no, I don't have a wealthy husband or family or trust fund to underwrite my casual attitude toward the notion of a career--just no kids and a healthy lack of interest in consumptive patterns of the middle to upper-middle class).

Posted by: SJS at November 20, 2003 05:21 PM

my intellectual curiousity was not slaked.

Posted by: SJS at November 20, 2003 05:22 PM