Saturday, April 17, 2010

Here we go again

This round brought to us by Patricia Cohen, in the NYT's Education Life section: "Law students get a diploma in three years. Medical students receive an M.D. in four. But for graduate students in the humanities, it takes, on average, more than nine years to complete a degree. What some of those Ph.D. recipients may not realize is that they could spend another nine years, or more, looking for a tenure-track teaching job at a college or university — without ever finding one."

This, right here, is the problem with all these articles about the futility of getting a doctoral degree in the humanities. Do we imagine that the morbidly obese chainsmoker simply doesn't know that his lifestyle's unhealthy? As in, we, the humanities doctoral students, we know. That one could perhaps locate one of us living under a rock, convinced that he will graduate from Obscure University in three years and then get handed tenure at Harvard along with a 3,000-square-foot wood-paneled office and a team of beautiful and brilliant acolytes of his preferred gender, does not merit this "What some [...] may not realize..." nonsense. We know!

What we don't know is a) how much it matters if we're in a good program and committed to getting out in well under 9.3 years and at well under age 35, and b) what someone with our particular skills/strengths ought to be doing if not pursuing a Ph.D. in what we're passionate about.


Britta said...

Yeah, I agree. I mean, no one who goes in for a PhD in the humanities (or social sciences) is going in because they think it is a get rich quick plan. But also, the comparison is disingenuous. After 4 years of med school, doctors have to be residents for 5-6 years, and there is a huge law school crisis right now, to the point that law degrees from a bottom-tier school are worthless. Better to spend 8 years doing something you like, graduate with little/no debt, and face a bad market than spend three years, rack up $200,000 in debt, and then face no job prospects.
I also agree that it is hard no matter what to get a job, but there is also a serious difference in where you go. If you go to a top school, your chances of getting a job are significantly greater than if you go to a third tier one, however none of these arguments ever seem to address this. Moreover, the students they interview always seem to not understand that, as in "X went $80,000 in debt to get an English PhD from Western Mississippi State, and now is finding no one wants to hire him." Well, duh. You could write the same article about X who goes 200,000 in debt to go to Western Mississippi Law school, or whatever. The point is is that yes, professorships are hard to get, but the odds of getting one go down significantly if you go to a non-top program, and particularly if you just go to a diploma mill. And if you do accept a program that is not that great, and have no one telling you how bad an idea it is, then you probably don't have the institutional resources and knowledge to pursue a career as a professor in the first place.

Flavia said...

First-time commenter here, who much enjoys your blog. But I have to disagree a wee bit with the second part of Britta's comment (I agree entirely with the first part).

I don't know any exact stats on placement, and I know most about the job market in English--but from speaking with friends who teach at doctoral institutions way down the food chain, their PhDs seem to get jobs at close to the same rate that I and my colleagues from my (top-10) program got jobs--they're just at different kinds of institutions.

I don't mean community colleges, although that's also true. I mean tiny 4-year schools, often in rural areas, with high teaching loads, that hire generalists rather than specialists (which means the jobs often don't show up in the kind of searches English PhDs do, which are keyed to region/period). Most grad students at top institutions don't want those jobs, though, and those jobs probably don't want them.

Withywindle said...

I didn't realize quite how awful the job market would be going in.

Phoebe said...

Britta and Flavia,

I'm not in a position to know how much which program you're in matters for prospects later on. Whatever the case, I think it would be far more helpful to have more information from the program one's in about what happens to its graduates than to have one article after the next conflating all universities and numerous disciplines. It could be that the differences are assumed to be greater than they are, but until that's explained, the frightening stats are more easily brushed aside by those who assume their own programs aren't the ones being referred to.


I definitely entered grad school with at least two specific Plan Bs (Plans B and C?) in mind, along with a general sense that it's important not to be dead set on a job that might not exist. Plan A was and is (more than ever) academia, but I feel as though I've known from the get-go that jobs are scarce.

What surprised me about this NYT story was the suggestion that even people receiving their doctorates don't have a clue. I'll accept that some undergrads considering grad school need this information spelled out, but anyone who made it through a doctoral program without once clicking on a link to one of these BEWARE articles was probably never too interested in the academic job market to begin with.

jim said...

Anything that takes 9.3 years isn't a preparation for life. It is life.

Ruth said...

This is going to seem off-topic. I'm a former academic and I'm purging my bookshelves. I just found a copy of The Shaping of Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-century France by Jay Berkovitz. I think my meatspace friend who did a dissertation on French Jews owns it already. Do you? Want it? I'll send it to your grad school address, which you can email me privately (you don't have to give your real address to some former Jewish historian who reads your blog!) I'm sending out books through anyway, so no skin off my nose.

The difference between the PhDs I know who got academic jobs and those who didn't seems to be, the ones who stuck with it and suffered through several non-tenure-track positions and other monstrosities, have academic jobs. The ones who didn't, have other jobs. I have another sort of job. I'm pretty happy about that.

Phoebe said...


Thanks for the kind offer, but I actually do own that book already. For some reason there were a ton of them once at Labyrinth-now-Book-Culture.

I'm curious what this "another sort of job" is... Teaching? Museum? Corporate law?

Ruth said...

Corporate law! Ha ha! No. I'm editing a website for a Jewish non-profit. I flailed around for a long time, doing grant writing, adult education, that sort of stuff. I don't know, maybe I should have stuck with trying to find an academic job, but...I keep having conversations with people who got those jobs (and are reasonably happy with them) that make me glad I didn't persist, as much as I enjoyed research and teaching.