Thursday, December 17, 2009

"You know you're not in high finance, considering second-hand underpants."*

I'm not sure if I'm ABD now, or if this status only comes after defending the dissertation proposal, but in any case I've been a humanities ABD, if I am one, for just over a week. Still, it's never too soon to read a scary tale about 20th-year grad students and the general bad life choice that is going to humanities grad school. Why the D bit is the most problematic confuses me - isn't the dissertation why people want to be in grad school in the first place? Or is it just that, life-cycle-wise, it so often coincides with interruptions?

Anyway, in the spirit of the tag to this post, the myths in the linked article, and my own repeating-myself-probably response to them.

Myth 1: The humanities grad student chose humanities grad school over a more lucrative option.

Because this is what's implied whenever anyone points out the low pay typical of grad school. But who's to say Mr. Poetics had a choice between management consulting, launching a successful company, and poetry, and somehow chose poetry? More likely, Mr. Poetics would have found himself graduating from college into a tough job market and, if lucky enough to find a position, working some unexciting, poorly-paid job that perhaps didn't even require a college diploma. (Mr. Poetics may have chosen a prestigious English program over Starbucks.) Now, if Mr. Poetics happened to graduate from Stanford with a dual major in silliness and math, fine, he had choices. But if he's just your regular old A student from wherever without any highly lucrative potential, getting paid to study poetry, even if the pay isn't fantastic, is not the worst idea ever. Would we prefer him 'finding himself' at a mediocre law school, then finding himself in debt?

Myth 2: Humanities grad school "virtually disqualifie[s]" you from doing anything else with your life.

Disqualification should be distinguished from non-qualification. That is, a humanities degree, grad or undergrad, does not qualify you to work as a plumber, engineer, barber, banker... But nor does it prevent you from picking anything up once you're done. If you start at 21 and finish at 45, then yes, it's more difficult, but there are always the options of a) not taking decades to get your degree, and b) leaving if it looks like it'll take decades. Plus, unless I'm missing something, I was under the impression that a PhD, even if it doesn't lead to a desired teaching job at a college, can help, not hurt, with getting one at a high school. If this does not strike you as tragedy of tragedies, then yes, you have backup. If you think a PhD, any PhD, guarantees tenure, a wood-paneled office, and busty-brilliant student acolytes out of a dated novel, good luck, but no one I know who is in fact a grad student thinks like this. Even the most ambitious grad students have Plan Bs, or at least reasonable expectations regarding Plan A. As for those Plan Bs, there are no doubt certain jobs for which you'd want to play down a PhD, but conflating it with something akin to a criminal record seems excessive.

Myth 3: Humanities grad school is an echo chamber of 'postmodern' this, 'Foucault' that, and of no relevance to conservatives, sensible people.

Not quite, as I've babbled about before. Much that goes on in academia sounds lefty, ridiculous, or both to those who never bothered to find out what it is. If you're already set on rolling your eyes every time "gender" is mentioned, you are not a serious conservative critic of the academy, you're just a knee-jerk people-pleaser who knows insulting the ivory tower ups your populist credentials.

*Song lyric from Flight of the Conchords


Britta said...

The first one really gets me. I earn more than I ever have on my measly grad school stipend, so the "think of all the money you could have made" comment seems a little hollow. Yes, if I had redone my life and been pre-med or an engineering major, then I maybe could be earning a good salary out of college. Otherwise, pretty much all of my jobs (besides a temporary part-time research assistant job) did not require a college diploma, and many paid minimum wage or just a little more.

I had a job working at a wedding invitation company that probably would have hired me on full-time and paid more (at least initially) than grad school, but I don't really want to spend the rest of my life printing wedding invitations for $35,000 a year.

I have wanted to do what I am in grad school doing since age 9, and the only way to have a career in this is through getting a PhD. Given that, the chance to pursue the career of my dreams and be one of the lucky 5% at a top program with a livable stipend makes me actually feel incredibly lucky, not stupid. I mean, sure, most ballerinas don't make much money, but someone who just got hired with a ballet troop usually isn't told to give it up or think of how much more money they could make as an investment banker, they're congratulated for beating the odds and making it. If you are happy and doing what you love, then you don't need a huge salary beyond what it takes to support you to justify your job.

Of course, if you're not funded at a 3rd tier school with few job prospects, then you should really reconsider, or at least realize that your degree is nothing more than an expensive luxury purchase of the ability to put "PhD" next to your name. But it seems like people lump "fully-funded degree from top school in field with 90% TT placement" with "degree from second-tier state school with no placement record that will put you 100 grand in debt" when writing these things.

Miss Self-Important said...

So when I first saw this article last month, the first comment was purportedly from a woman who had a Harvard PhD and was now homeless. I thought that was pretty awesome, but I couldn't find it this time.

Three things though: An English major from a top university is hypothetically qualified for (or, more specifically, hire-able at) many relatively high-paying jobs if he plans for them (primarily through summer internships or law school). Now naturally not every humanities major will want or successfully land such jobs, and will make other choices including grad school, but the claim that humanities majors could be doing something more lucrative than grad school based solely on their choice of major is not false.

Grad school is mostly a choice to pass up at least near-term higher earnings, even when it's made by people whose temperament or ideology or interests or whatever other constraints make the actual chances of them actually getting a more lucrative job pretty low. But you can't say that being a communist or bigger lover of poetry than finance is a structural barrier to lucrative employment. The state of the economy matters too, but I suspect less so for people applying to PhD programs, since the time it takes to finish the degree is probably about the same as the span of multiple economic fluctuations.

Also, while I agree that the general claim that a PhD "disqualifies" you from non-academic jobs needs to be more specific before I buy it, a PhD doesn't make you more qualified for public high schools from what I've heard. Your degree commands a high salary according to the pay ladder but you have little teaching experience to show for it. It does apparently give you an edge at fancy private schools, but again, the lack of experience might weigh against you. (Though this may be less true in your particular case, since teaching a language may not be as different at the secondary and post-secondary levels as other subjects, like advanced topics in French history.)

Finally, almost nothing that I've read this semester is relevant to sensible people, conservative or otherwise. And a very large part of it (and also class discussion and social interaction) has been either ridiculous or lefty or both (but not so much postmodern).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What you describe is quite a bit what my experience was as well - prior to grad school, there were low-paid jobs that were themselves quite difficult to get.

What's surprising to me, though, is that you wanted to do what you're doing for almost your whole life. I wonder how many grad students that's true of. I think to refute articles like this one with grad-school-as-a-calling works in some cases but not others. Sometimes, grad school's not so much a lifelong dream as the best option one has at 22.

You make a really good point re: the sort of program, one I wish I'd made in the post. What got to me about the article was that it seemed to be advising people who could go to top, well-funded humanities programs to instead go to mediocre law schools or seek out mediocre jobs. (Or, as these articles often do, to reverse time, alter one's brain to have different strengths, and major in engineering.)


Yes, the homeless comment was something. Clearly, people lose their minds sometimes, whatever their CVs once promised.

But I'm curious about the hypothetically available more-lucrative jobs for English majors. I agree that from the very top schools, if you mention the school, you have a good shot at all kinds of jobs outside your alleged area of expertise, and I have friends who've gone this route. But from UChicago and below? I'm not so sure. Yes, anyone can go to law school, but a good law school? Why assume someone who could get into a top grad program would do decently on the LSAT.

I'm assuming - and I should have made this clear - a student who could get into a top PhD program more easily than 'top' anything else. For some people, pursuing a love of poetry is not something frivolous professionally, but is itself the serious, reasonable option. If someone inclined to go to humanities grad school, with the potential to get into a good one, heeds this article's message, and he does not already happen to attend the kind of college whose name alone will offer possibilities, he a) may not get any job for a long time, and b) may, as per Britta, end up in something no better paid and far less enjoyable. To say that an English major could hypothetically make more ignores the sorts of jobs English majors really get - my sense is a whole bunch of them end up in publishing and similar, making less than many of the grad students in the same city. For others, Starbucks, and others still, it's straight to high school teaching, a job that I think we can agree the PhD doesn't prevent you from successfully pursuing later.

Not super relevant, but... although I wouldn't have necessarily thought this before teaching, I can now see that language class at the college level is about as different from the high-school equivalent than history class, if only because of the pace and the way that's accomplished. Students who've come from high school language programs in the same language often find themselves quite shaken up. I think the issue for high school would more be teaching experience versus lack thereof. I could see how a degree on its own, with no teaching experience, would not impress.

Finally, responding to your "Finally," perhaps it just depends on the field and the department? Since I'm in the humanities in Greenwich Village, I ought to be neck-deep in this, but for whatever reason that hasn't been the case. I'm surprised it has been for you. But I'd be curious to know if you think the reforms suggested in the article would make for a more 'ideologically diverse' academy.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, again, the idea about the more lucrative jobs is that you have to want them and start planning for them, usually before you graduate. This may not be something that humanities majors tend to do for various dispositional reasons, but it is nonetheless quite possible, so it's not fair to say it can't be done as though there was a big sign over lucrative jobs reading, "NO HUMANITIES MAJORS ALLOWED." The humanities majors just tend to select themselves out of these jobs.

Many private schools have on-campus recruiting for major firms during senior year, and it's open to anyone. Business internships are open to anyone (example: my roommate, English major). Consultancies hire from many majors and pay extremely well. Advertising and marketing takes them. Law school is usually a good option since the LSAT should be quite accessible to a clever humanities student (no math required). Then there are all the humanities-ish fields with unimpressive starting salaries but possibilities for advancement that outpace the salary scale for grad students, like journalism (senior writers make six figures and have great perks--though like publishing, it is now a troubled industry), technical writing, government, and non-profit administration (depending on the non-profit). Again, my point is not that these are better or necessarily more choiceworthy than grad school, just that they are available as alternatives if you wanted to make more money and planned for it.

Also, if you attend a low-ranked university, it may be as difficult for you to get into a top grad program as it will for you to get a cushy job. At least from what I saw at various admitted students weekends last year, about the same rotating cast of 30 students get admitted to every top program in my discipline, and usually one at most comes from a school outside the US News top 25. My impression is that for students from less well-known schools, an MA is often suggested for a leg up, and therein begins the debt.

Political science does deal with contemporary politics, and so is in some ways more obviously prone to become a partisan pep rally than 19th century French history. However, my history class this semester was as inclined to such behavior as any political science class. I don't know what the solution is, but a good deal of the problem comes down to the use of partisanship and ideology as a means of forging social bonds on the assumption that everyone in your class/department/dinner party agrees with you by virtue of being in right-thinking academia (conservatives being too dumb or greedy to show up at such places) and it's your small group against the entire big, bad Bible-thumping, Bush-supporting country.

Anonymous said...

I agree with MSI that humanities students at good schools have myriad employment options that are vastly more lucrative than graduate school stipends. At my own undergraduate institution, the top Wall Street financial firms (some of whom still exist!) were more than happy to take philosophy, history, literature majors who had made it thru the (fairly onerous, in my understanding) interview process. Those jobs required critical thinking and writing skills above all, rather than vocational preparation in finance, for example.

And the students who got those jobs earned quite a bit of money by virtually anyone's standards. None of this suggests that any percentage of the students in humanities grad schools eschewed more lucrative career options, but the idea that such options are less available to such graduates then they might be to all but a very select group of graduates strikes me as unpersuasive.

Also, a question for Phoebe: in this statement, you seem to be implying that UC is not a very top school:

"I agree that from the very top schools, if you mention the school, you have a good shot at all kinds of jobs outside your alleged area of expertise, and I have friends who've gone this route. But from UChicago and below?"

To which I ask if you are serious? Is it really the case that even an undergraduate UC education is not regarded as a very top school? I have some familiarity with the city and the school, but obviously have never attended school there, so perhaps I am mistaken as to its overall rep. But I would almost certainly put UC as a very top school in virtually any educational endeavor whatsoever. No?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The barrier isn't being an English major. It's being an English major who isn't also quantitatively talented (in a demonstrable, post-high-school way), or a law school grad, or a graduate of a school whose name alone allows other factors to be overlooked.

And no, to respond to Daniel Goldberg, UChicago is not, in my experience, such a school. Basically, there are good schools, then there are no-explanation-needed schools. Chicago often requires an explanation. To get the interview, assuming you didn't take econ, math, and statistics along with English, it helps not to be from an explanation-needing school.

As for journalism, yes, some make money eventually, but so do some actors. (How are "senior writers" different from big-name, book-writing profs?) Even pre-crash, that seems an odd field to suggest as a more stable option than (funded) grad school. I don't know much about the other fields you mention, so, point taken.

Re: ideology... I'm not sure how worked-up to be about the assumption that everyone's a Democrat, which I agree often exists. I want to respond, but this will probably take another post.

Matt said...

Even 4 or 5 years ago, before things _really_ started to tank for newspapers and magazines, journalism was a very hard field to make a real living at _unless you had connections_. If you had an in with a paper or magazine you could walk right in to something. Otherwise you had to be really lucky or willing to risk working at small-time papers for little money (around 30K/year- more than a grad stipend but not much to raise a family on) for years with no guarantee that you'd ever move to the big-time. Now, of course, it's even worse.

What might be throwing Daniel off about Chicago is that, among academics, it's very well known and respected. It's considered a top school by they. It's just not as well known by average people or businessmen and the like. (It was rated 7th best in the world by the not stupid OS world university rankings, and somewhere between 15 and 5, depending on how you add things up, in the NRC rankings, for example.) So, it's obviously an elite university, but doesn't do much on PR with the general public.

Miss Self-Important said...

"It's being an English major who isn't also quantitatively talented (in a demonstrable, post-high-school way), or a law school grad, or a graduate of a school whose name alone allows other factors to be overlooked."
Right, but 1) such a person could become a law school grad by going to law school, and 2) going to a school no one has ever heard of makes grad school admissions more difficult too. Brand name schools (including Chicago) open many doors--corporate and academic.

If we're comparing a sub-50% PhD completion rate to journalism, journalism is more probably stable. I don't think that 50% of entry level journalists switch professions for failure to get a better second job (though maybe now...).

Finally, I agree with Daniel Goldberg that Chicago is a top school in pretty much every respect that matters to Chicago students. That is, like the claim that a PhD disqualifies you from all other work, the claim that Chicago is not recognizable to most people is based largely on a sample that includes people in segments of the market which either Chicago doesn't train students for (fashion design, plumbing, engineering, etc) or where alma maters don't matter very much in the first place (school teaching). Where it matters for you, me, and aspiring i-bankers, Chicago is known.

Britta said...

I think several things are getting confused. I think we are comparing top students at top schools with ALL students in PhDs. Yes, as a whole, PhD programs have a low completion rate and an abysmal hiring record. But that's (in part) because you're including the stats from all the Western Alabama State Universities as well as all the Harvards. Yes, a top student with a humanities degree from a top university has a lot of options, including a good grad school. From that perspective, going to grad school is no worse a decision than going to law or business school, and significantly better if that's what you want to do with your life.
Below the top tier, your fucked if you choose a lot of careers, including and especially the ones listed above, because for 30 years, humanities majors who don't know what they want to do have been going to law school, trying to make it in journalism or publishing, or getting MBAs, creating a huge glut of lawyers, MBAs, journalists, etc. Except, unlike being unemployable with a PhD, being unemployable with a JD or and MBA also probably involves several hundred thousand dollars of debt. Non-profits are also an over glutted market, and the pay is even worse than grad school. I know many grads from top schools who work 80 hours a week doing utter crap for less than 15K a year in the name of a "noble cause." My best friend did Americorps (an extremely competitive program) and lived in NYC on $10,000 a year doing office work. In what way is that better than grad school?

I mean, yes, there are other careers out there, but like grad school, they involve a significant amount of capital outlay in terms of time and/or money, say for a professional program, years put in working your way up an apprentice program, etc. They're not the sort of thing where you're like, "Hmm...what should I do with my life. I know, I'll try being a lawyer for a few years, and see if I like it." In terms of actually decent jobs you can actually work right out of college (as opposed to ones that can lead to decent things later on), they are really few and far between.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I doubt if we'll settle here the question of what kind of a school UChicago is in terms of name-brand-ness. At any rate, if you're in a doctoral program, it's that university/program you'll probably be associated with, unless you're looking to switch fields and your undergrad institution was much more prestigious.

"I don't think that 50% of entry level journalists switch professions for failure to get a better second job"

It's long been plenty difficult to get an entry-level job in journalism, quite possibly more so than to get into a top, well-funded grad program. At least, I was ostensibly more qualified senior year of college for the former than the latter, and yet... Anecdotal evidence suggests my experience was not unique.

Anyway I think Britta's right to point out the investment in money/loans that alternatives require. Law school's only a good investment if you have the wherewithal to get into a good one and get the right kind of job after. I'd imagine there are many students at good colleges who could get into a top doctoral program in the field that interests them, but only a mediocre law school, just as there are others who could get into a top law school and not much in the way of PhD programs. There's something to be said for going where you're more likely to excel and impress.

PG said...

I majored in English, econ and bioethics and got a weird little variety of job offers out of college:
government - Bureau of Labor Statistics in San Francisco ($25k to live in what was then the most expensive city in America);
nonprofit - PIRG in Austin ($18k, actually more doable);
profit - an HMO in DC area ($38k, very easy to live on).

Maybe this was just a UVa thing, but it seemed reasonably easy to get a job in the government -- particularly in the Foreign Service, since this was just after 9/11 -- if you were decently literate and not lacking in social skills. Private sector jobs were a little tighter due to the recession and UVa not being a place like Princeton where Goldman recruiters would hire anyone.

Still, I only knew a few people who went to non-professional, academic grad programs, at least right out of undergrad. To me, getting into academic grad programs seemed scarily difficult, either because it was something like econ that would require *advanced* econometrics, or something like bioethics or English where I was pretty good but I could identify people who were equally good or better and who worked harder and wanted it more. Similarly, going into law teaching requires much more in the way of credentials than just getting a law firm job.

So it seems incredible to me that people who can get into graduate programs that are as highly regarded as their undergradute schools were would have difficult getting a non-academic job. The only way I could see it happening would be if academia doesn't put as much weight on face-to-face interviews, thus getting the smart-but-stammering.

If I've had enough sleep and know what I'm supposed to be talking about, I tend to be articulate to the point of glibness, so my general social ineptitude is invisible in an interview scenario. Give me an interview, 8 hours sleep and an hour to look presentable, and I can make you forget that C in Federal Income Taxation. If I'm judged solely on grades, however, I'm probably screwed, which may be why academia seems harder to enter than other career fields.