What’s Really Broken about Humanities Grad School

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

You’ve heard the advice, and it’s completely correct: Do not go to grad school in the humanities.

Do not go for history. Do not go for literature. Do not go for philosophy, classics, or any other field.

Pace Freddie, this isn’t just me trying to make you bobos feel better about your well-paid but less-than-intellectually-satisfying jobs. Nor am I trying to make you more aware somehow of the current economic conditions. (Note the cross purposes, but I digress.)

No. Granted, that’s Slate‘s business model, but this thing is a lot bigger than Slate. Tim Burke first wrote that piece about history grad school back in 2004 or so. I know, because we read it as grad students. It was our samizdat, back when graduation seemed a long way off and when, paradoxically, the harrowing of the job market was all too close.

The complaint here is not about the current economic moment, and it’s not about any people outside the academy. History grad students care not at all for either one. Sorry, I was a history grad student, and we didn’t. Reading for eighteen hours a day breeds indifference.

But rather than carping, which I’ve already done somewhere else at length, I’m going to offer a solution.

It’s time for humanities graduate programs to recognize that their primary function has changed. By the numbers, graduate programs used to be about replicating the academy — about making sure that there will be enough professors around in twenty or thirty years to still have an academy. That is, grad school existed to continue the cultural and professional memory of the university system, to include both the asking of really good seminar questions and also simply the American academic accent — to my ear it’s an arch, slightly effeminate mid-Atlantic that tends to slur the sibilants. No, really. I talked that way too, God help me.

Well. Goodbye to all that. For nearly the last two decades, the large majority of people who earned history Ph.D.s have never become professors. They have become publishers, writer/editors, journalists, actors, critics, lawyers, staffers in our vast nonprofit system, political activists (yay!), and a wide variety of other unclassifiable jobs. All of which have one thing in common — they demand exceptionally strong interpretive, writing, and reasoning skills.

That’s not going to change anytime soon, so it’s most likely time for the academy to teach to the test. I suspect that all parties involved would be better off if it were simply admitted that the job market (the universities themselves most definitely included) has repurposed humanities grad school. Intended for one thing, it now gets used for another.

The academy is reluctant to admit it; non-academic jobs are still an indication of failure. Truth be told, I spent years describing myself as a “failed academic.” I resolved to stop only after my last promotion. In view of some of my cohort who are still on the adjunct treadmill, it seemed pretty heartless.

But I can’t say that I got where I did with much help from the academy. Oh no. People ask how to get a job like mine — another of those subtle hints that I’m not actually a failure — and I tell them that I basically have no idea. It’s not the job I set out to get. I still have a shelf of unwritten history books in my head, and I probably always will: The cultural history of Lent in the Old Regime. The connection between Jansenism and Mesmerism. What on earth was meant by communing with the dead via mushrooms in New France. The French Revolution in the works of the 19th-century French liberals. And on and on.

I miss that career. I have every right to. But I don’t really have the right to complain. I am well aware that I won a lottery of sorts. Nothing at all in the academy guided me toward a decent non-academic job.

When I spoke with a senior faculty member at my graduate school, noting that most of us, even at Johns Hopkins, were certainly not going to get tenure-track jobs, and when I suggested that the department might do well to explore career counseling further afield, I recall that I was shot down pretty hard. “We can’t dilute our mission,” I was told.

Well. I have absolutely nothing against replicating the academy. It should be replicated. I did well by it, and so did plenty of others, and I hope it’s still around for my grandchildren. But to pretend that self-replication is all that grad school is about… that does a disservice to most grad students.

The large majority of Ph.D. students shouldn’t be told that they have failed if they don’t land an academic job. If that’s true, then the majority of the academy consists of failures. These students shouldn’t have to slink off to sites like Escape the Ivory Tower for therapeutic deprogramming. They shouldn’t have to turn to books like So What Are You Going to Do With That? for realistic career counseling.

The academy has come to depend on graduate student labor. Graduate students get something valuable out of the academy, even if they don’t end up as professors. If they’d both adapt to their new roles rather than trying to ape their academic grandparents’ career trajectories, they could get on with the business of learning, teaching, and eventually getting some pretty decent jobs, wherever those may be found.

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62 thoughts on “What’s Really Broken about Humanities Grad School

  1. I suspect that all parties involved would be better off if it were simply admitted that the job market (the universities themselves most definitely included) has repurposed humanities grad school. Intended for one thing, it now gets used for another.

    It feels like there are shenanigans going on, though. I read somewhere that there are more Journalism graduates every year than there are jobs in the industry. That feels like someone, somewhere, is getting rooked.

    Now, I’m a huge fan of humanities degrees… I got mine when college cost about six grand a year. I don’t know that I’d be a fan of humanities degrees for twenty/year. That, too, feels like someone, somewhere, is getting rooked.

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    • I think I know what I meant to say. Insofar as degrees signal things about the holder, they signal less reliably once everyone knows that they are interpreted to signal things.

      That is: once everybody knows that they signal, they cease to be useful as signals.

      I wonder what dynamics will be changed with official recognition of the new and improved signals that are sent with a humanities post-grad degree. It seems to me that, like last time, the signal will be made significantly less useful.

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      • I disagree. Maybe it’s only at the margins.

        That is: once everybody knows that they signal, they cease to be useful as signals.

        I think that’s wrong. It seems to me that the signal ceases to be useful for signaling X when the signal begins to include Y, and Z, and A…

        I think that’s Jason’s point: an advanced degree used to signal Professorship! Now it can – and does, to some extent – signal other things. And continuing to look at the signal according to only one metric does a disservice to institutions and motivations involved in getting a PhD.

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        • Yes!

          Another aspect of this signaling is that it runs in the opposite direction, too: I’d walk into a prospective employer’s with a history Ph.D., and they’d ask what was wrong with me. “Why aren’t you trying to be a professor?”

          Then I’d say something lame and shifty-sounding about a tough job market, and they would assume I was a drug addict, and that would be that.

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            • A lot of what seems to be vexing you on this thread is simply that you haven’t been keeping up with the years-long conversation taking place all over the academic humanities blogosphere.

              I gave you some very useful links in the post that might get you up to speed. I recommend that you follow and read them. Maybe then things will make more sense.

              In essence, I’m saying that the “actually crappy” school of thought is more or less correct. But I’m not dwelling on it.

              Why not? Because FYIGM. Well no, not really. Because — this was the point of the post — because I have some idea of what a solution might look like.

              You’re looking at a solution and saying “this is pointless, there isn’t a problem here.”

              Go out, read up on the problem, and come back.

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              • I’ve gone out of my way to say that I’m not saying there isn’t a problem. I’m aware a lot of people think there’s a serious problem. That history piece reads to me like a piece of straight-talk advice to people without enough information about what they’re considering, not a warning to stay away even of you know what you;re getting into

                But not going to go read up, because I’m not going to go to grad school for humanities. (If I change my mind, then I will.) All I’m doing is trying to give a sense what impression your experience and reflection on it here gives.

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    • I don’t know that I’d be a fan of humanities degrees for twenty/year. That, too, feels like someone, somewhere, is getting rooked.

      Someone is. All the students are. They have been ever since the government decided that cutting funding for public universities and expanding student loans to compensate was a good idea. (At least, that’s what happened in Canada – tuition’s a lot higher here now than it used to be, although not so high as in the States).

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    • I don’t know that I’d be a fan of humanities degrees for twenty/year. That, too, feels like someone, somewhere, is getting rooked.

      That’s one of the primary complaints from the OWS community.

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  2. “People ask how to get a job like mine — another of those subtle hints that I’m not actually a failure — and I tell them that I basically have no idea.”

    Positive Liberty when it was your solo blog. That’s how you got the job.

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  3. For me this is the key take-away: “The large majority of Ph.D. students shouldn’t be told that they have failed if they don’t land an academic job.”

    Regardless of whether or not people agree with your proposal (which of course some WILL see as diluting the mission), I think the above should garner a pretty wide consensus.

    Reading the slate post my first and primary problem was with the idea that because the author didn’t obtain a TT (at least right after completing her PhD), the degree was somehow a waste, and or she had somehow failed, or rather, been failed, by the system.

    My girlfriend is currently applying to lit programs. She’s applied to schools of a certain calibur knowing that if she even wants a shot at getting a job in academia in the crowded lit field, she needs to attend a program with a certain amount of prestige and networking capability.

    More importantly though, and more realisitically, the programs provide medical insurance and a stipend–so she won’t rack up debt. Best case scenario she gets in somewhere–worst case scenario after that occurs is she gets an advanced degree in a field she loves and is serious about that will only help her advance in her current career (publishing).

    In so far as a Humanities degree has lots of secondary economic benefits (even if those benefits are overpriced relative to the costs associated with getting a B.A.), an advanced Humanities degree is even better assuming the person didn’t have to pay for it.

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    • Indeed, it’s not clear from the example of Jason Kuznicki that, in the case of funded PhD programs, there is really much of any problem here at all for anyone who’s doing them for anything approaching an honest driving interest in the field, save for how they actually talk about the usefulness of PhD in the humanities in the academy.

      If this is at all true in most humanities fields:

      For nearly the last two decades, the large majority of people who earned history Ph.D.s have never become professors. They have become publishers, writer/editors, journalists, actors, critics, lawyers, staffers in our vast nonprofit system, political activists (yay!), and a wide variety of other unclassifiable jobs. All of which have one thing in common — they demand exceptionally strong interpretive, writing, and reasoning skills.

      ..then, for people with the kinds of skills and interests that would move them to even conceive of getting a PhD in the humanities, this sounds like a proposition worth going straight at, hard. Fulfilling, interesting work, using skills developed working on subject matter you find interesting, perhaps in many cases on subject matter you find somewhat interesting. With little resulting debt- again, for funded programs. From what I understand, it’s simply axiomatic that you don’t pursue PhDs in programs that will leave you indebted into six or even five figures, and I wouldn’t question the wisdom of that axiom for a second.

      But if you are sitting on an offer to enroll in a funded PhD program at a university of any prestige in the field at all, I’m having a hard time seeing from narratives like this how you stand to gain relatively speaking by declining to do so, since if you are sitting on such an offer, you are almost certainly the kind of person whose ideal set of career options would be exactly what lies most open to graduates of such programs – even though that set of options might be regarded as varieties of failure by the most securely situated of the faculty at institution where you are considering enrolling.

      That’s how it sounds to me, in any case. But I obviously have absolutely no real idea about it.

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        • Programs are very commonly not funded. I’ll have to get some numbers on it, but I believe unfunded is the default and most common.

          But really, the outside website, and books, and articles — that’s just other people kindly paying attention to the example of one Jason Kuznicki.

          Sure.

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          • It’s hard for me to know how to start to address these practical concerns to a person considering whether to just lay down the change. I don’t see how it could conceivably make sense, knowing that, in every program, there are a number of students (each year, I think), who do get funded offers, which obviously represents a statement from the university that, “We think you’re one of the couple of people who have the best shot to make this work out as a career,” knowing that, in fact, in terms of a career actually in the academy, that still means you just have an outside shot. So yes, there are unfunded programs. Don’t enroll in them, people. But if you have a funded offer in your hands to study something you really think is, generally, worth studying hard for a lifetime for four-plus years with worthies in the field, then, despite the fact that your chances for a career as a tenured professor remain slim, unless you view that as ipso facto something that lowers the value of the offer to near-zero, you still hold something pretty valuable in your hands. By your testimony and example, a lot of options will exist on the other side of that – or in any case, in most cases not fewer than you have today – even if they are unlikely to include tenured professor.

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            • But again, I don’t know. The point is that, from where I sit, despite what you say you set out to say, what you actually write fails to make it (enrolling in a funded program) sound like a proposition not worth very serious consideration by anyone who actually thinks that spending that amount of time doing that kind of serious study of subject-matter that interests you is something you, all else being equal, would like to be able to do, (which you had better have determined was the case before you even set about trying to gain such an offer). It sounds like what happens is that you study a lot, gain a lot of knowledge into one narrow area of inquiry, and come out with not materially diminished prospects for living a fulfilling (for a person with a strong native interest in a field of knowledge in the humanities, which is a high bar) and prosperous life compared to the rest of us who never manage to create such an opportunity for ourselves, and from the sound of it, on balance, with such prospects improved.

              If it’s bad, in other words, you need to make it sound worse than you do here, IMO.

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            • Let me revise that, “In every program….”

              There are programs that fund, but don’t offer funding to everyone. Then there are programs that don;t fund at all, I assume. Don’t enroll in those at all. Don’t enroll in a program that funds but that hasn’t offered you funding. But if you’ve been offered funding, what I’m saying is that, despite recommending you not enroll, this post actually offers some experience that would make me very seriously look at enrolling, maybe more positively than I had been, assuming I had an honest, driving passion for the field and wanted to study it ideally for a lifetime, but at least for four years or so.

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              • There are a lot of problems even with a fully funded program.

                First, many people don’t actually get decent jobs. Second, there’s the opportunity cost. Your twenties are an important decade, and there are likely to be some very strongly competing uses for them. And third, soul-crushing failure really isn’t that much fun. I was very, very miserable as a later grad student and as a just-earned Ph.D.

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                  • Even soul-crushing success can be not very much fun, from what I’ve seen.

                    “study something you really think is, generally, worth studying hard for a lifetime for four-plus years with worthies in the field” is about… 20 percent of most funded, end-up-with-tenure-track-jobs-therefore-“successful” humanities grad students’ participation in the academy during the PhD experience? As far as I can tell, knowing many many of them. And they mostly have to cram THAT part of things into the interstices, around all the other crap they are expected to do.

                    If someone hands you a fully-funded lottery ticket to do exactly the kind of graduate study you would do as independent scholar, BY ALL MEANS, you should go to graduate school. Just seems like there are an awful lot of golden tickets out there where the gold is just a veneer for a contract of indentured servitude. It may be relatively cozy indentured servitude, with benefits; it might even be better than some of a particular person’s other options; but the associated misery, looking at it from the position of a sympathetic observer, never seemed worth it to me.

                    (Yes, I am in grad school these days, despite my best intentions to the contrary for most of my life. Yes, I’m fully funded. No, I’m not an indentured servant. Yes, despite the amount of misery it causes me, there’s a lot of pleasure, and real gain in it too. But my grad program is more like a liberal arts undergrad – there are about 30 people in my cohort, and most of our teaching is done by tenured professors. I actually have a post about my own experiences in the hopper, if it is deemed coherent enough to be shared. Suffice it to say, as ambiguous as they are, I’m SO MUCH HAPPIER than any Ph.D. candidate I have recently known.

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                    • My only point is this: if it’s crappy, if you made a mistake, make it actually sound crappy. If you make it sound pretty okay really, then people are going to think you just aren’t as happy with it as you expected to be, which I think people generally find to be the case with almost all decisions. People are going to be looking for whether you’re saying you’re, on balance, at all happier you enrolled than not, not for whether all your hopes were fulfilled. Despite once dropping the “you made it sound like” qualifier in the last comment I wrote here, I’m really talking about how Jason made the actual outcomes for people sound, not whether it really is or isn’t worth it for most people.

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                    • When I read a post structured the way this one is, I assume the links are part of the post – or at least, relevant background reading. So, I had assumed you at least skimmed Jason’s links.

                      For me, at least, this wasn’t a “what it is like” post. It was a “what can be salvaged” post.

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                    • Even if Jason links to them, what other people say is what other people say, and describe, and what Jason describes (and has done) is what Jason describes.

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                    • Even if Jason links to them, what other people say is what other people say, and describe, and what Jason describes (and has done) is what Jason describes.

                      Would it have made you happier if this post were three times as long, and if I’d just cut and pasted everything the other folks said?

                      Because if your answer is “yes,” I suspect that you hold that opinion entirely alone.

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                    • You can’t ever make their experience yours. So however much you want to point at theirs, if your description of your situation and people you personally know creates an impression that’s different from descriptions you point to, then it does. That’s not changed by pointing to them.

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                    • You can’t ever make their experience yours. So however much you want to point at theirs, if your description of your situation and people you personally know creates an impression that’s different from descriptions you point to, then it does. That’s not changed by pointing to them.

                      Oh for crying out loud. You mean I’m not allowed to link to people and say that they’re right? Not without writing a personal essay?

                      Pedantry like this is the reason I blocked you on Twitter, and I have to say I’m much happier as a result.

                      If you are seriously telling me that I’m not allowed to say that I agree with someone — that my experience is consonant with theirs — then I give up. You’re making completely arbitrary demands just for the sake of finding something to complain about, and I’m not going to honor them.

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                    • All I’ve tried to do here is try to communicate the impression that your own reflections here (which can create their own impression regardless of links to other accounts) gave me. I didn’t tell you what you can or can’t do. I communicated far more interest in the matter than I actually have in it as well, so I’ll just disengage now. I’m sorry to find that our interactions continue to be bad experiences for you.

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                  • But, I’d point out that the “failure” part is basically my whole point: that was a function of your expectations. I look at the value proposition of a funded program as described in this post, and, assuming spending one’s twenties with one’s nose in the books is on it’s own terms at least barely desirable, which it really has to be for anyone seriously thinking about obtaining a PhD in the humanities by their early thirties or so, I’m not really seeing something that would make someone who would in any case like to undertake that kind of scholarship as a thing actually worth doing think that they should seriously reconsider. Opportunities exist on the other side that probably don’t on this side, and you’ve gotten to do something you want to do, while getting paid (something) to do it. It’s only if the whole thing is viewed as a waste if one particular kind of prestigious gig doesn’t come one’s way that the proposition seems to increase the chance to have to deal with soul-crushing failure in life. (And I’m sorry you experienced it that way, truly. That bums me out.) But if it’s something a person wants to do, if she doesn’t have to lay down cash to do it, or indeed hold other jobs that are of less interest to her while doing it, then it seems like the set of opportunities you describe people having once they’re done is unlikely to be bad enough to convince someone that it’s a bad idea. Unless they only “want” to do it assuming they’ll be able to be a tenured professor on the other end. In that case, the numbers just don’t work; failure to have that be the result makes it a pretty risky proposition.

                    That’s not to say that you’re not right that there are serious problems with funded programs, or that you’re not right that the actual set of opportunities is not good enough to make it so that people should really think that. I just happened to think you didn’t make them sound bad enough that that’s what people with such inclinations would conclude.

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    • i was going to write something on this particular topic but contra jason i’m far too close to the belly of the beast (secondhand, mind you) that i was unable to come up with something that wasn’t entirely soul-crushing. so please take this salt heap with what i’m about to say.

      ethan: don’t assume the phd will actually help her unless she’s in a top 10 – 15 level school. it’s not necessarily true in the broader job market. even publishing. perhaps especially publishing, where i’d actually counsel people to consider mba (also from a top program) with a focus on digital marketing. it’s no longer the 1980s. a lit phd may or may not be a boon as an editor (a lot of these folk are not the best writers, technically speaking), but as management within the field, it’s more useless than not, any more than an advanced degree in music theory would help one get a job in the record industry.

      if she’s going to go ahead no matter what, i would also strongly counsel that she focus on composition and rhetoric. if you’re going to spend seven or so years getting a phd, might as well maximize your chances with something with the broadest possible application. stay away from medieval, modernism, etc. if she can’t do the comp stuff, go for the most post-colonial ish thing she can focus on, as that’s the theory track with the most pizazz right now. it doesn’t matter if it’s what she’s really interested in as that is the road to ruination – though obviously if she’s an heiress or whatever then all of this is crazy silly sidebar stuff.

      novelty is your god now. never forget that. novelty above all other possible factors is what gets interest, which is what helps you network, which is what helps you get a job. and dear god is networking really, really, really important. far more important than a dissertation topic, though again, networking.

      also helpful to remember is “something something something late capitalism something something something deleuzoguattarian”. i’m presuming she’s pretty left wing already but if not get used to having a public and a private face – it matters. not as much as some hinky dink talking head from fox news might pretend, but a hell of a lot more than i would have thought ten years ago.

      keep in mind that right now it is not uncommon for a position in the middle of a very rural state – with few if any solutions to the “two body problem” as i’m told it’s called in the biz – at a middling college or university to have 300 – 500 applicants. i don’t think it’s going to get any better, especially as a period of belt tightening is underway at most midrange schools to try and staunch the bloodloss of their reputation by accepting fewer students and demanding a higher caliber of student, meaning less classes to offer, especially the remedial/redux of high school composition and intro to lit classes.

      whether this means they’ll expand tt positions or move away from them, i don’t know yet. my assumption is that this will be moot when the student debt thing reaches a crisis and the first really big name university or college (i.e. one with a d1 sports program people care about) implodes. so it may all be a giant practical joke in the end.

      jason may be heartened to hear that even in the godforsaken rotted hellscape of lit, some programs are turning away phd applicants at rates that would have been unheard of even two years ago. professors are now telling talented students that maybe wasting ten years of their life in the pursuit of a dream which was unusual in the late 90s and now basically a unicorn is not the coolest way of accomplishing what they actually want. (in many cases they really want job security forever and forever, in which case a therapist is all that can be recommended.)

      on the other hand, perhaps this trend will thicken and in 2023 the market will need more professors than ever before at tenure track prices. i am not exactly rushing to place a bet on this outcome, but weirder things have happened.

      I would mostly counsel against doing it, unless there’s really nothing else the next seven to ten years hold that will be as interesting/rewarding/socially useful. it’s one thing to follow one’s heart, but sometimes what the heart wants is largely fantasy.

      that said, feel free to ignore me, as this is about as cheerful a face as i can put on my farcical existence tethered to someone who was dumb enough to follow their dreams. at this point i’m probably not worth the rhetorical bullet. don’t weep for me as i’m already dead and all that jazz. :)

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      • All interesting points which I’ll relay to her.

        I think it’s important to re-state though that I think the problem is precisely people doing it with an eye to fulfilling some dream, rather than because spending 60-80 hours a week buried in books, research, and Foucalt/Deluze citations while grading undergrad papers for a pittance is the thing you want to do, rather than a means to the thing you want to do.

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        • it is entirely possible that some people just want to be graduate students, for sure. but it is a lifestyle that sacrifices other potentialities during this time period. if one has the luxury of meansing without endsing, as it were, then my advice/screaming into the void of a foul pitiless universe which has neither intelligence nor pity as i soil myself is absolutely moot.

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          • if one has the luxury of meansing without endsing, as it were…

            My answer to the question, “What would you do if you were suddenly without responsibilities, and had an essentially unlimited pile of money?” is that I would collect terminal masters degree in a whole bunch of subjects. Terminal MAs and MSs because up to that point it’s fun, but once you start adding qualifiers, and field exams, and the horrors that go with most dissertation processes, too much of the fun disappears. If I want to do research (and have become self-funded), I’ll do research that pleases me.

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    • “The large majority of Ph.D. students shouldn’t be told that they have failed if they don’t land an academic job.”

      And why is that? For 6 years you do nothing but interact with academics and read academic papers. You don’t get to see the use of the degree by anyone outside the academy. You’re buried in conferences addressing responses to debates about articles produced by academics. And to actually get the degree, you need to spend some time flattering academics.

      If the student enjoys academia (and most do), he’s going to go along with the flow. If he doesn’t like academia or recognizes its faults (and most students fall into this category too), the Stockholm syndrome will get him. Either way, six years of studying X will make him an X expert and an academic.

      So how do you prevent that? I can’t think of a way except for “career day”-type sessions, where non-academic paths are explored.

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  4. The post hits the nail on the head more generally for all disciplines in Grad School at the PHD level, the number of TT positions is likley to be more or less stable over time. In a stable environment a research professor should probably have between 1 and 2 grad students in his entire career, if the purpose of the degree is to replace the professor. (This also applies to STEM where funding is likley to be at best stable). There is a need for something comparable to the old Engineers degree which gives you the classes and the like of a Phd, but trains one for a more general career, for example including at least some business instruction, at least in terms of finance. (Assuming one might form a company). Also at least some how to work better on teams instruction.
    Of course this drasically reduces the supply of slave labor for the existing faculty so it will not happen until students wake up, like they are doing in law school and choose other routes. (Note the decline in law school admissions). The rise and fall of disciplines does occur but with a slower time constant. For example Geology declined from about 1987 until about 2005 as jobs got scarce, but has ticked up now that jobs are plentiful.

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    • Lyle:

      “The post hits the nail on the head more generally for all disciplines in Grad School at the PHD level, the number of TT positions is likley to be more or less stable over time. ”

      It’s worse; IIRC, the number is likely shrinking, as colleges replace tenured positions with non-tenured positions upon retirement.

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  5. What I don’t like about this post is its pervasive anti-intellectualism: reading breeds indifference; academic jobs are impossible to get, but really, who even wants one? Instead, the world wants to be like the author himself. Hmm, narcissist much? Oh wait, that remark would require you to have done reading and thinking. Just to understand reality. Never mind.

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  6. Like Ethan, I think this was the money line: “The large majority of Ph.D. students shouldn’t be told that they have failed if they don’t land an academic job.”

    You buried the lede, Jason :)

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  7. Excellent post Jason. I think you hit the nail(s) on the heads(s). My experiences in graduate school were very similar, down to the adoption of various linguistic affects, which – once I became cognizant of it – was an early realization that the Academy is as much or more about a Culture than about Doing The Work. And I simultaneously realized that I wasn’t particularly drawn to that culture. But that’s just me. (And maybe you, too.)

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  8. I know in the STEM fields the goal of the PhD is a bit different, but not by much. Departments still urge students to pursue a PhD to reseed the academy, but a Science/Engineering PhD is occasionally useful to certain research labs/positions. However, the running joke in the STEM fields is that a PhD is also a great way to price yourself right out of the market. Why should a company pay PhD wages unless the job very specifically needs that level of education – an MS is cheaper (which is partly why I stopped at an MS – that & I just can’t really come up with something I want to study deeply enough to earn a PhD).

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      • Of course it does, just not as a separate terminal degree track.

        Best way to get an MS in a hard science is to get in to a good Ph.D program. Then, plot a two-year plan to make next to no effort on a Ph.D-level dissertation project (but serious on on an MS-level thesis projecT), take serious classes.

        Reputable Ph.D programs *pay* their students and excuse tuition. You may have to take 5 classes in a year and TA/GTF one, but you won’t go into serious debt, and you’ll come out with a degree.

        OTOH, who *hires* MS in Physics? That’s more rare.

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  9. The cultural history of Lent in the Old Regime. What on earth was meant by communing with the dead via mushrooms in New France. The French Revolution in the works of the 19th-century French liberals.

    I would totally read these.

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  10. I still have a shelf of unwritten history books in my head, and I probably always will

    I’ve got to wonder why not write at least one? If you cut the time you spend on say blog posts* and spent it on a book instead you could put something together and go looking for a publisher. After all academics are not usually salaried to write books but to teach and research, of course universities like it when they publish a book provided their other duties didn’t suffer but a think tank strikes me as the kind of employer that would feel the same way. They fit the books round a career and personal life and I suspect you could too.

    *Not that I want you gone but 10% less Jason on the League for a book in five years might increase your satisfaction more than it decreases that of your readers here.

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    • Why not write at least one of these books?

      The answer is very simple. To do even one of them properly, I would need to go to Paris and conduct several months of archival research. During that time, I couldn’t be an effective employee at Cato, and I couldn’t justify the time away from my career by saying, “You know, this really does fit with Cato’s mission.” It wouldn’t, not even the classical liberals’ historiography of the French Revolution, which is the only topic that even comes close.

      At the moment I have only a few very well-informed speculations, some reliable and detailed leads about where to find the material, and — in the case of the Lent project — a few kilobytes of translated notes. None are complete enough to begin writing.

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  11. Jason,

    A lot of this hits pretty close to home. I shall be defending (successfully, I hope) my dissertation in history in a few weeks. I’m at the frustrated stage you mention above in one of your comments. All I can say is, good post.

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  12. Great post Jason.

    I have found at least one thing worth less than a PhD in history…a bachelor’s degree in history. I loved getting the degree but trying to market it to the hiring monkey at Acme Inc or Widget Enterprises is an exercise in frustration. I agree with Matty’s suggestion…start writing. And maybe the first book doesn’t have to be genius. Stephen Ambrose became very successful writing accessible history for the masses. Crank out one or two of those and then do what you want.

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    • My BA in history was, apparently, about as marketable as yours. What helped me get my first job after college wasn’t my BA, but the fact that I worked during college. Still, if I had studied something more marketable, I probably would not have enjoyed college to begin with.

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      • I should add that I’ve never been ambitious about pushing my BA (or MA). I usually approached prospective jobs with the assumption that the hiring person would be only slightly curious about what I had majored in.

        Partly this was out of an almost snobbish notion that “I didn’t do it for the money.” But partly it’s because I thought I was being realistic. I’m also not the most ambitious, or even second-most ambitious, person in the world.

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        • I definitely spent the first five years or so after college expecting businesses to be impressed with my degrees and my jobs in archaeology and historic sites. That was my ego talking. Then I spent five years trying to emphasize my business experience. I have learned recently that a carefully-crafted resume highlights both.

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            • To you and I maybe Pierre (and thank you :) To the hiring monkey at Acme Inc they usually confused archaeology with paleontology or geology. One guy spent 10 minutes telling me about a cool rock he found. Or they somehow think you’re a snooty academic and act like jerks. It’s often loose-loose.

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              • Literally (not figuratively!) yesterday, I ran into a quasi-stranger/acquaintance (someone I see a lot on my way to work but who I don’t really know) who learned that I was studying history. He mentioned how much his father loved the history channel, and then asked me “what else is left to teach?” I mumbled something about how I like to teach introductory courses and tried to make a self-deprecating joke about getting a PHD in unemployment, and he assured me there were plenty of teaching jobs available.

                He’s a really nice guy (it seems) but it’s kind of funny how much people assume about others’ choice of profession or study. For the record, I probably will not try to get into academia.

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