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Don’t Be Afraid of Going to Graduate School in the Humanities

• June 13, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: JOKERPRO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Full-time, tenure-track professorships in the humanities are famously scarce. But that’s not a reason to avoid an advanced degree. Even if you don’t end up in academia, odds are you’ll have a job—and you’ll love it.

For several decades now, it’s been considered good practice for professors of the humanities—English, History, Philosophy, and the like—to discourage their students from studying those subjects at the graduate level. Every year, a new cohort of smart, ambitious undergraduates go to their professors’ offices with a single burning question: “Should I go to grad school in the humanities?”

“You’re exceedingly talented, and one of the best students I’ve ever had, but—no,” their professors often respond. “Professional ethics require me to warn you against pursuing my profession.” If you didn’t know any better, you might think humanities professors had all entered into a tontine, and there was literally a prize awaiting the last professor on Earth.

The official explanation for the end-times despondence is, of course, the job market. Full-time, tenure-track professorships in the humanities are famously scarce. Newly minted humanities Ph.D.s await the yearly tally of available jobs like they’re waiting for a phone call from an oncologist. Yet despite the annual despair, whenever employment for humanities Ph.D.s has been examined empirically, researchers have consistently concluded that things aren’t quite as bad as they seem.

There has never been a golden age of universal academic employment. What’s normal, historically speaking, isn’t for someone to graduate, get an academic job, and then stay in that job until retirement. What’s normal is actually the opposite.

FROM THE EARLY 1990S through today, as it became clear that the proportion of tenure-track jobs wasn’t likely to recover its Cold War-era high, most humanities professors grew adept at giving students a gentle talking-to about the realities of graduate school and academic employment.

For most graduate students in the humanities, the relevant data points are well known: In any given year, there are significantly more Ph.D.s than available tenure-track jobs. The median time-to-degree for Ph.D.s in the humanities is nine years. A third of all humanities doctoral students drop out before completing the degree. Of those that do finish, only around half, depending on the discipline, are tenured professors within 10 years.

The current thinking on humanities graduate study was neatly summarized by William Pannapacker (writing as Thomas H. Benton) in a much-discussed 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.” (Four years after its publication, it remains in the top five results for Google searches on graduate school in the humanities.) Noting the declining proportion of tenure-track jobs, Pannapacker raised the possibility that graduate students, should they not get one of those jobs, might end up “30 and unemployed.”

When well-intentioned professors talk to students about the reality of graduate school in the humanities, they tend to talk like Pannapacker. They say the decline of tenure-track jobs makes it impossible to justify continued education.

They talk, in other words, as if graduate school in the humanities is a professional school.

Professional schools, such as those for law or nursing or medicine, have a direct and designed relationship with employment in a particular profession. That’s why professional schools are always chattering about their “placement rates.” Students don’t go to law school just to learn about law in an academic sense. They also go to be placed into actual jobs as actual lawyers.

But is graduate school in the humanities the same as other professional schools? It certainly seems like it ought to be. Professors of history are members of a profession. Professors of history had to go to graduate school. So graduate school must be a professional school, right?

Well, not necessarily. It’s certainly true that graduate schools in the humanities have lousy placement rates. Many new Ph.D.s are not immediately hired into what Pannapacker and others call a “real job” (meaning a tenure-track one).

Yet these anxieties have been part of academic life for a long time. Many observers of the academic job market date the present job crisis to the 1980s, and conclude that the 1970s must have been the last golden age of academic employment in the humanities. But by the late 1970s, worries about the fates of humanities doctoral students had already begun to rise.

In 1981, William G. Bowen, then president of Princeton University, noted with obvious concern that only 37 percent of those who had earned a Ph.D. in foreign languages in the 1978-1979 academic year had found tenure-track jobs by the start of 1980. He concluded that there had been a pronounced change in academic employment in the past decade. In his view, the halcyon days had actually been the mid-1950s, when he was finishing his own doctoral degree. Back then, he added, “almost none of us” worried about finding jobs.

Worries about placement rates, then and now, are driven by an unquestioned assumption that graduate school is the same as other professional schools. To this way of thinking, people would be appalled if only 37 percent of dental school graduates found “real jobs” as dentists, and they should be similarly appalled by the placement rates for tenure-track academic jobs.

But the problem is that there has never been a time when a majority of doctoral degree recipients have found, or even sought, academic employment as their only career option. A landmark study by the National Research Council of 255,000 doctoral degree recipients from 1935 to 1960—a time when the academic job market was supposedly at its best—found that across all disciplines, only 49 percent of Ph.D.s had been employed solely as academics since earning their degree. (The study did not distinguish between tenure-track and non-tenure-track academic employment.) The majority had either never worked for a university, had worked in a non-academic career before taking up an academic job, or had held an academic position before ultimately abandoning it for a career outside of the academy.

And although humanities Ph.D.s have always been more likely than, say, bioscience Ph.D.s to find their professional homes in the academy, the study found that only 64 percent of arts and humanities Ph.D.s between 1935 and 1960 had been employed solely as academics since earning their degrees. This figure was skewed upward by the post-war boom in faculty positions spurred by the GI Bill of 1944. Between 1935 and 1945, just 57 percent of arts and humanities Ph.D.s were employed solely as academics since earning their degrees. In other words, the current rates of academic employment for humanities Ph.D.s aren’t an aberration. Things have always been this way.

To put it another way, there has never been a golden age of universal academic employment in the humanities. What’s normal, historically speaking, isn’t for someone to graduate, get an academic job, and then stay in that job until retirement. What’s normal is actually the opposite. The study’s single biggest finding was that doctoral degree recipients tended to move fluidly between academic and non-academic jobs, regardless of discipline. Between 1935 and 1960, 15 percent of arts and humanities Ph.D.s never worked as professors at all, 13 percent worked in a non-academic field and then took an academic position, and another eight percent got academic jobs and then left them.

If graduate school in the humanities is a professional school—one whose success depends on its graduates entering and thriving in a single job over the long term—then it’s never been a very good one.

After all, the numbers haven’t changed much from the mid-20th century. The most recent study of humanities Ph.D. employment by the National Endowment for the Humanities concluded that just 60.9 percent were employed as professors. (The vast majority of them—77 percent—were tenured or on the tenure track.)

This is exactly the type of figure that people like to get worked up about: If only 60 percent of Ph.D.s are working as professors, the other 40 percent, well, aren’t. But just because two-fifths of humanities Ph.D.s aren’t employed as professors doesn’t mean that they’re not employed at all. Contrary to the myths of rampant joblessness, the same NEH study also found that only 1.8 percent of all humanities doctorates were unemployed in the sense of being involuntarily out of work, at a time when the national unemployment rate was about 5.6 percent.

So what types of jobs do humanities Ph.D.s get, if not professorships? The same types of jobs they’ve always gotten. The employment distribution for humanities Ph.D.s has remained essentially unchanged for decades. Beyond the 60 percent working as professors, the NEH study found another 20 percent work in educational institutions in a non-faculty capacity; four percent work in government; five percent work in the non-profit sector; another six percent in private business; and five percent are self-employed.

Don’t tell your thesis director, but being a professor—what Stanley Aronowitz once called “the last good job”—is not, in fact, the only good job.

These aren’t dead-end jobs, either. The study also found that even though a large number of humanities Ph.D.s don’t work as professors, only 14 percent hold jobs wholly unrelated to their degrees. More importantly, those working jobs unrelated to their Ph.D.s are doing so because they want to, not because they have to. The NEH study concluded that out of all the humanities Ph.D.s in the labor force, only six percent were employed in a field unrelated to their degree because there was an insufficient number of jobs in their doctoral field. The vast majority did what people with advanced degrees have always done: they took jobs that seemed interesting, or that paid well, or that offered good promotion or travel opportunities.

On balance, people who earn doctorates in the humanities tend to report a high degree of professional satisfaction, regardless of where they’re employed. Don’t tell your thesis director, but being a professor—what Stanley Aronowitz once called “the last good job”—is not, in fact, the only good job.

In fact, humanities Ph.D.s seeking to maximize their job satisfaction probably shouldn’t become professors at all. A research team headed by Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny, then at the University of California-Berkeley, found that, when compared with English Ph.D.s working as tenured or tenure-track professors, English Ph.D.s working in business, non-profit, or government jobs reported higher degrees of satisfaction with the autonomy of their work, the prestige of the organization, employment opportunities for their spouses, their work environment, and the potential for career growth.

And despite widespread fears about armies of Ph.D.s doomed to a lifetime of marauding part-time teaching, a recent study headed by Cornell labor economist Ronald G. Ehrenberg found that there is actually significant early-career mobility among humanities Ph.D.s. In other words, your employment fate is not determined by your first time on the academic job market. Over 50 percent of humanities Ph.D.s who start out working in non-tenure-track positions make the jump to full-time, tenure-track employment in less than three years. Those who don’t make that jump, again, do what Ph.D.s have always done: Some choose interesting work in the business, governmental, or non-profit sectors, others in university administration. A few obtain tenure-track positions later in their careers. A small minority remain off the tenure track. Virtually none are unemployed.

So it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that few humanities Ph.D.s regret their decision to go to grad school. Nerad and Cerny found that even among English Ph.D.s employed in business, government, or non-profits—fields for which their Ph.D. was, strictly speaking, completely unnecessary—64 percent said that given the choice to do it over, even knowing how things would turn out for them, they would still pursue the Ph.D over law school, medical school, doctoral study in a different field, or no graduate school at all. Overall, 89 percent of them felt that the Ph.D. was worth it, even though they hadn’t joined the profession many had likely thought they would.

Of course, subsequent non-academic employment is not in itself a good reason to go to graduate school. Just because it’s possible to take a History Ph.D. and find gainful employment as, say, a financial analyst doesn’t mean that a graduate degree in history is a prerequisite for being a financial analyst. But then again, graduate school is not professional school.

SO SHOULD YOU GO to graduate school in the humanities? Yeah, sure, if you really want to. Why not? Just don’t expect it to have a predictable professional outcome. You cannot go to graduate school in the humanities and be placed into a job as a professor, a financial analyst, or as anything else. But graduate school in the humanities has always been this way.

So if you decide to go to grad school, remember that it’s not a place to escape the larger marketplace. You may think you are uninterested in capitalism, but capitalism is interested in you. The years that most students spend in graduate school are also prime years for building a career, and the opportunity costs of graduate school—the resources that could be spent pursuing other things—are steep, and must be taken into consideration.

Luckily, the decision to attend graduate school in the humanities can be approached as you would approach any other economic decision. It may not seem like it, but doctoral programs value your skills as beginning teachers and researchers and as advanced learners. Reputable programs will offer you a tuition waiver and a stipend in exchange for these skills. Weigh the dollar amounts they offer against the opportunity costs of pursuing a degree and make a decision. Never pay out of pocket for doctoral education.

But if you do complete a doctoral degree in the humanities, you will probably not end up 30 and unemployed. Far from it. Since the 1930s, Ph.D.s in the humanities have consistently pursued a mix of academic and non-academic career paths with unemployment rates that have always been significantly below the national average. All available evidence suggests that you will get a job and that you will enjoy a high degree of satisfaction with that job.

It just may not be the job you thought you wanted.

Stephen J. Mexal
Stephen J. Mexal is an associate professor of English at California State University-Fullerton. The author of Reading for Liberalism, he has also written for The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

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