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Knut Hamson

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This came today in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go

It's hard to tell young people that universities view their idealism and energy as an exploitable resource.

Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go

It's hard to tell young people that universities view their idealism and energy as an exploitable resource.
First Person
No Future Here


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?

Unfortunately, during the three years that I searched for positions outside of academe, I found that humanities Ph.D.'s, without relevant experience or technical skills, generally compete at a moderate disadvantage against undergraduates, and at a serious disadvantage against people with professional degrees. If you take that path, you will be starting at the bottom in your 30s, a decade behind your age cohort, with no savings (and probably a lot of debt).

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe. (That's another topic I've written about before; see "Is Graduate School a Cult?" (The Chronicle, July 2, 2004.)

I fell for the line about faculty retirements that went around back in the early 90s, thanks to the infamous Bowen and Sosa Report. I still hear that claim today, from people who ought to know better. Even if the long-awaited wave of retirements finally arrives, many of those tenure lines will not be retained, particularly not now, in the context of yet another recession.

Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.

Nearly every humanities field was already desperately competitive, with hundreds of applications from qualified candidates for every tenure-track position. Now the situation is becoming even worse. For example, the American Historical Association's job listings are down 15 percent and the Modern Languae's listings are down 21 percent, the steepest annual decline ever recorded. Apparently, many already-launched candidate searches are being called off; some responsible observers expect that hiring may be down 40 percent this year.

What is 40 percent worse than desperate?

The majority of job seekers who emerge empty-handed this year will return next year, and for several years after that, and so the competition will snowball, with more and more people chasing fewer and fewer full-time positions.

Meanwhile, more and more students are flattered to find themselves admitted to graduate programs; many are taking on considerable debt to do so. According to the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, about 23 percent of humanities students end up owing more than $30,000, and more than 14 percent owe more than $50,000.

As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:

* You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.

* You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.

* You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.

* You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.

Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them.

It's hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy — and lack of information — are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it's right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com. For an archive of his previous columns, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/an_ academic_in_america.

What do you tell students who want to go to graduate school? Personally, I tell them two things:
1. Don't bother applying to any program that won't fund you.
2. Don't go unless the degree is enough.

The rationale behind #1 is that any program that doesn't see it's students as an investment is more trouble than it's worth. Funding may be limited, it may be incomplete, and you may have to off-set that with work or loans. But to borrow the whole amount is foolish.

The rationale behind #2 is that, even if you everything right, you may never get a job. Forget the tenure track; you may never get any academic job. There are no guarantees, and the market has been bleak for long enough for us to realize that things won't change. (Well, not until several programs drop their graduate programs entirely and stop flooding the market...but that's another post for another time.) I tell my students that the degree, the learning, the love...they have to be enough.



Yes, this. I absolutely would not trade for anything the amazing experience I had getting my MFA in poetry, and having shouty arguments in a sports bar over whether it was classist to prefer Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton. What was fierce and wonderful was being surrounded by others who cared about these things.

But I still have a bad case of adjunctivitis, with no benefits, and I transcribe audio files on the side to afford to pay my own insurance. So when and if I enter a Ph.D. program, they need to show me the money, and I need to walk in with no illusion that there's a job waiting for me at the end of it.
I've run a small history M.A. program for ten of the last eighteen years and we generally admit two types of students: a tiny number of extremely talented students who are using this as a stepping stone to a Ph.D. elsewhere and a somewhat larger number of students who are using the M.A. to complement their B.Ed. or MLIS or what-have-you. Every few years we get a faculty spouse who wants to pursue an interest, or a retired individual who's just enjoying the study. It's never more than half a dozen students between our two language streams.

Many applicants are surprised that we discourage so many and that we will turn down people with A averages if we feel that they aren't a good fit. As you say, the world doesn't desperately need a tonne of people coming out with advanced degrees in the humanities.

Still, Benton's just a bit too cynical for my taste. This comment on his qualifications of who should go to grad school:
"You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere"? Maybe it's just from working at a small university, but I don't see a lot of people around for whom this applied. We don't hire within the patronage network of esteemed scholar A or powerful professor B. Yes, having a strong advisor who'll go to bat for you and help seek out opportunities is great, but you don't come into grad school or get hired based on your family background, at least not in my experience.
That is really disheartening. Of course, we're not getting the green light to go ahead and interview any of the candidates who applied for our advertised position. It's a really bad year for jobs, any way we talk about it.
It really does depend on what field you are in. While I would never encourage a student to go to a grad program without funding (unless it was something directly vocational, like law school, library school, M.A.T., etc.), as a sociology prof I know that our Ph.D.s have many opportunities outside of academia if they sell themselves right that can provide full-time careers both economically and intellectually rewarding. I do wish that someone had told me how hard it would be to get a job when I was going in--and I would tell students now to be aware of those difficulties, to know how little control they'll have over where they live and what they do if they go the academic route, that they need a backup plan, etc. But it's still a totally different ball game when your students have non-academic opportunities.
Do those jobs really exist? Everyone keeps saying this but I can't figure out what these non-academic opportunities really are. They seem to require specialized background/experiences that most people don't get in graduate school.
No specialized background--just quantitative data analysis and research project management. Thing grant writing, market research, program evaluation, Census Bureau, etc.
All students have non-academic opportunities. Regardless of their degree.
I only teach first-year college so this never comes up. However, I agree completely with your advice. Even an M.A. in the Humanities can be funded.

Students sometimes think there is only one thing in the WHOLE WORLD that will make them happy-- one MA or PhD, one city, one job, etc. I think we can encourage them to have a wider perspective about their life possibilities.

I think we should warn them against those useless cash-cow MA degrees. If you're going to get a graduate degree in some random liberal artsy thing, at least get free tuition and a stipend out of the deal. (Granted you might have to work hard for it, but at least you won't end up with more loans).
I agree about the importance of helping students keep an open perspective on things. Not only does it take some of the anxiety out by creating realistic expectations, but there are hidden advantages to some places where one might not want to be originally. I originally wanted to be in a big city. Yet because of the vicissitudes of the job market, I ended up in a smallish one, and teaching lower-division courses not in my main specialization, yet in gorgeous nature, with great colleagues, some really good students, lots of genuine student interest in my discipline, fantastic benefits. And we rent a little house where I can have a dog (something less possible in a big city). I didn't know it would be this way + now I am happy that I got the chance to experience these things. Job market as an adventure.
While I understand and appreciate the sentiment, I find the article somewhat limited in its use, especially re. the recession. Every field of employment is being hit by the recession; it's not like choosing a different profession will provide insulation from a global economic disaster. Yes, academia is suffering--things are tough all over. That said, I do tell my students that they should avoid paying for their graduate educations--pay for a master's, maybe, but don't pay for a Ph.D. If you can't get someone to fund it, take it as a sign and do something else, unless you are independently wealthy. And I also tell them to do their degree with the knowledge that in this day and age, the end result doesn't have to be a typical academic career--statistics are against it, but more importantly than that it isn't always that satisfying anyway, and it's worth considering the many other options that exist for highly educated and talented people. I've chosen an atypical career (I teach as an adjunct half-time and work as a policy researcher for the government half-time, and love both positions), and hope that students realize that a tenure-track academic appointment is not the be-all and end-all of intellectual life.
Very true. And even if they want to teach, they need to be open to the possibility that they might not end up teaching their favorite form of literature or they might not end up teaching at a charming little private liberal arts college.
I generally agree with points 1 and 2, although I wobble on 1. for people who won't get funding because of their grades, and are returning as mature students or whatever to 'make up'.

But the article? The cynicism seems to me to be turned up to 11, and I find nearly nothing in it that resonates. I can only assume the job market in the UK is vastly better than in the US, or (and this is extremely possible) that I've been lucky enough to stay away from the institutions and courses that do have adjunct culture, vast oversupply of staff, yadda.

And in terms of non-academic jobs, there are heaps from our Masters and PhD courses, which are extremely well regarded (humanities). Off the top of my head, in the last two years or so, I can think of a woman working as a reseracher for the BBC, a couple of museum staff, soeone went to an academic publisher and another to sub-edit a popular science journal, and a guy working as a researcher for the Houses of Parliament. We also had one grad become a priest - does that count?
Well, I would argue that if people are not getting funding because their grades are not good enough, then perhaps they should rethink graduate school entirely.
You don't know anyone who screwed around as an undergraduate (or had a terrible time of it for other reasons) but managed to mature as a person in their 20s?
I know I didn't get the grades I could have in my first degree, but I got lucky. I'm not sure I'd want to write someone off completely if they weren't straight A students at 21.
That's not what I said, and you know it.

I'm all for people going back and getting whatever education they want. However, that education needs to be paid for somehow. If someone who does not have the grades to earn funding from their program of choice decided to go back anyway - decides that they are willing to go into debt for an education - that's fine. People go into debt for houses, cars, furniture, travel, etc. I don't mind debt; the question is, what will we go into debt for?

However, most people who enter graduate programs don't think that way; they are there, for the most part, as part of a path that leads them somewhere, generally a job. By entering into a program as a second-class citizen, one enters with an extra load to bear. Nobody entering into programs this way likes to hear this, but those who don't earn funding are looked at differently than their colleagues who earned funding. They are seen as less qualified. They will have to work twice as hard for the same respect (and the perks that come with that respect, like choice positions, professional connections, etc.). The fact that they will have to often earn money elsewhere will cut into their time for research. They start the program towing an anchor, and often that anchor gets heavier, not lighter, as time progresses. Yes, it's possible to overcome this, and I'm sure we both know people who have. But the fact remains that graduate school as a path to a profession is a process of making the pool smaller, of cutting people who don't cut it.

And this is sad. I wish more people would go to graduate school just for the education alone. And if those people choose to do so without funding, that's great. But then they can audit/sit in on classes, without earning the degree. But I know very few people who entered graduate school who valued the education more than they valued the degree.

From my observations (anecdotal evidence), the job market in the UK for people with random college degrees does sound a lot better than it does in the US. I'm not sure why that is, but it is. People with random 4-year college there that I knew seemed to get much better jobs, faster, than people in the US. Is the competition here greater? Hmmm...
The proportion of people with undergraduate degrees has only recently changed significantly. When I started as an undergraduate just over a decade ago the proportion of my generation with university degrees was about 25-30% (for my mum's generation, it was closer to 15%, if that). The new Left government set an arbitrary target of 50%, which they are not far off achieving now.
What it's left us with is a very divided society, where about 45% get an undergraduate degree, while almost 40% leave highschool without what are considered basic qualifications.

We also don't have college degrees; if you get a degree, it's a university :D
does that mean that 45% of the full-time teaching staff are adjuncts (whatever that means)?

I'm trying to do the maths in my head, and I wouldn't be surprised if where I am (let's say firmly in the top 10 of the UK R1s - we just had the ranking and people are still arguing about it...) about 45% of the teaching offered to the students (including supervision for coursework and seminar style work rather than lectures) comes from people on fixed-contract jobs, and PhD students. The difference seems to be that all those 'adjuncts' are people working on specific research projects and fixed-term post-doctoral positions, who are largely teaching on the side. The only exceptions are a few semi-retired people, or a couple of people doing part-time PhDs as mature students who make most of their living through teaching fees; but that latter situation is pretty unique across the UK academic system.
My previous institution (also probably top 10, at least top 15) probably had less than 30% teaching by non tenured staff, partly because it offered a lot less face-to-face support and a lot more formal lecturing as part of its remit. But again, there, the only 'adjuncting' was done by post-docs who were probably only doing a few hours a week, if that, or by the odd PhD student who were very well ahead in their work, and doing it more for the CV than the cost (the amount of teaching you could get would, maybe, pay three months' rent over the year. maybe!).

It's not unusual for someone in the life sciences to complete a whole PhD and a two or three year post-doc without ever coming into contact with a student. It's not ideal for them when they're on the job market, but it's a very different culture. Things change once you get out of the top 50 or so, but not enormously. I don't know anyone who has made a life teaching on short-term contracts in what we'd call tertiary education; there's a big divide, however, between a 'university' and a 'college'. Those in further, rather than higher education, might do exactly that and I'd guess than in the bottom 10 - 20 universities you could probably find some mature staff who are teaching-only *and* on fixed-term or part time contracts. I know that a couple of the better unis also have a dual career-track with research fellows on one side and teaching fellows on the other; there's a slight pay differential, but these are effectively tenured jobs, just weighted towards research or classroom time (Aberdeen does this, that I know of).

All of which is probably why I never heard the term 'adjunct' until I joined a_a

July 2010



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