Pursuing a PhD in the Humanities or Social Sciences has never been an “easy” path, or one that is guaranteed to lead to the tenure-track job of your dreams. Recently, the question of the “worth” of a PhD has received a great deal of attention from journalists and bloggers.
A recent article in Slate (“Thesis Hatement”) triggered a series of responses, some pro, some con, and of varying levels of thoughtfulness (see this Slate article, this New Yorker article, this Aljazeera article, and this LinkedIn article).
As a humanities PhD (and someone who helps others apply to grad school), I wanted to comment, with some thoughts and a little advice.
A classic of the “don’t go to grad school” genre is William Pannapacker’s “Grad School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” from 2009. The problems Pannapacker outlines—declining jobs, a university system that is designed to take advantage of cheap/free grad student labor, etc—have only gotten more pronounced since then.
When I decided to pursue my PhD in Comparative Literature, I knew the job market for humanities PhDs was bleak. I listened to a great deal of conflicting advice, from parents, professors, mentors, bosses. “There are always jobs out there for the right people,” said the academics. “It would be such a waste to do anything else.” “You’ll never get an academic job,” said other people. “There just aren’t any to get. Is this what you really want to do? Spend your 20s in school, with no likely job at the end?” “Are you sure?” said my parents.
I was. I really, really was. I’d fallen in love with a fascinating corner of medieval literary studies (Old Irish!), and I had ambitious research goals. Grad school was the only way for me to get the training I needed. I figured I would deal with the job market question when I came to it. In the meantime, I worked hard: teaching, publishing, presenting papers, helping to run conferences—all the tasks of a “professionalizing” grad student.
For me, grad school was a valuable experience. My work with students ultimately led me to the work I do now. I did work I loved and learned skills I could gain nowhere else. I wouldn’t give it up. Was it “worth” big money? It was of value to me, intellectually and for my career. I didn’t go into debt—I was fully funded. At the same time, I spent the majority of my 20s earning less than $20k/year, at a time when my peers were moving through their careers, saving money, etc. This is something to think about.
We live in a society that places little value on the humanities in general. (If you’re serious about studying the humanities, you already know this: how many times have you explained what you do to people who tell you it’s essentially useless?) And the structure of the university is only shifting more towards contingent labor. If anyone tells you that well-worn myth about faculty positions being bound to open up because all the old professors are going to retire, please don’t believe it: even when those professors do retire, their jobs will not be replaced with tenure-track jobs, but with cheaper, adjunct positions.
So, if you’re a committed undergrad eager to do a PhD in the humanities, what to do? While I might sound a little jaded, I don’t subscribe to the blanket “don’t go” advice. I think the decision to pursue a PhD is intensely personal and case specific. Only you know whether your goals and research interests can be met via a PhD or another route. I advise that you consider the realities of the situation as you make your choice:
1. Don’t go to grad school to “avoid the real world” or “sit out a recession.” Go because you have goals and research interests that can only be achieved with a PhD.
2. Research funding options. Because of the realities of the job market, I strongly encourage applicants not to go to a program without funding. Don’t multiply your student debt for a PhD.
3. Take into account the opportunity costs of a long program. Be sure.
4. Take advantage of career support opportunities at your PhD program. More and more grad schools, recognizing the reality that many PhDs will never work full-time in academe, offer support for people preparing for the non-academic job market. Make yourself aware of these offerings and prepare to expand your job search.
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, Accepted.com editor and former Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center, and author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School. Rebecca will be happy to assist you with your grad school applications.