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The remote odds of becoming a professor in humanities...
April 5, 2013 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor. "Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D. So perhaps you, literature lover, are considering pursuing this path. Well, what if I told you that by 'five hours' I mean '80 hours,' and by 'summers off' I mean 'two months of unpaid research sequestration and curriculum planning'..."
posted by dfm500 (190 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
That settles it--I'm going to law school!
posted by box at 11:16 AM on April 5, 2013 [44 favorites]


Most of the literature BAs I met in life were officers in the United States military.
posted by Ardiril at 11:16 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


FTA:

"No, I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct"

IN LITERATURE.

Its better in nearly every other subject/discipline.

She really didn't know about the poor job market before embarking on a PhD in literature?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:16 AM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


They work a bit more than 5 hours a week
posted by thelonius at 11:17 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blanket “Don’t Go To Graduate School!” Advice Ignores Race and Reality?

(MetaFilter is very "stuff my Twitter feed is arguing about" today.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:17 AM on April 5, 2013 [18 favorites]


80 hours, perhaps?

I am eternally grateful I did not proceed with an English PhD, despite thinking that was my ideal career trajectory. Funnily, I did go to law school, but it's worked out.

If I could do it all over again, I'd join the Coast Guard, like Cool Papa Bell says.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:19 AM on April 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Its better in nearly every other subject/discipline.

I know plenty of PhDs in many other disciplines (and I was going to get one myself at one point), and I think most of them would beg to differ.
posted by scody at 11:20 AM on April 5, 2013 [20 favorites]


God forbid anyone have to work at the "remote Midwestern or Southern Universities." I feel that this is one of the major points included in every single article like this.

I cringe a little whenever people try to combat the 5 hours/week and summers off with an incredibly large number of what we really do instead. They both overlook the wide variation in what goes on for most people in academia (speaking broadly outside literature here). There are quite a few places where wanting a happy work-life balance is exactly the kind of thing that will get you hired.
posted by bizzyb at 11:21 AM on April 5, 2013 [15 favorites]




(MetaFilter is very "stuff my Twitter feed is arguing about" today.)

I liked being in this class better when we chattered. Twittering just sounds like Keats.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:23 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Every time somebody abandons a career in literature, an angel gets his wings."
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:24 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


scody,

I never said the job market in other disciplines was great, fine, or merely good. Just better.

People from outside the top 25 PhD programs in political science are getting good, well paying, tenure track jobs.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:25 AM on April 5, 2013


Slate's a bit behind the times, the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed this here and here.
posted by Melismata at 11:25 AM on April 5, 2013


Absolutely no one gets into a graduate program in English these days (and for the last 10 years or so) without having been told repeatedly by everyone involved in the process that the job market is crap and that they shouldn't for one second consider doing the PhD if the only outcome they would regard as "success" is getting a tenure-track job. I imagine it is true that a lot of people still think"yeah, yeah, yeah, but for me it will be different!" but no one is getting a snow job about any of this.
posted by yoink at 11:26 AM on April 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


I had to go look to confirm that she actually had made that what-she-thought-was-withering comment about those Colleges in the Midwest and South of Which She Has Never Heard, and, of course, she had.
posted by blucevalo at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


if the only outcome they would regard as "success" is getting a tenure-track job.

I think that not only do people figure they'll be different, they also don't realize at the start how they will feel about what defines success after they've gotten a PhD.
posted by OmieWise at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


She refers to her own work as "bat-shit analysis." No wonder she is taking a self-esteem hit! Her dissertation and her research sound deeply weird to me. Why try to mix Frege and Kafka? The bit of her dissertation that I read isn't very illuminating. I think it's not just that she's buried her identity in her work (she refers to it four times in this article) and now can't find a job... it's that, deep down, she knows she's buried her identity in bat-shit analysis.
posted by painquale at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I used to work for the English Department at my university and sometimes one of my lowly assistant duties would be to hand-deliver bound dissertations to fresh-minted PhDs. When I had to drive to Barnes & Noble to deliver dissertations to two separate cashiers, I decided not to pursue a graduate degree in that field.
posted by mattbucher at 11:30 AM on April 5, 2013 [73 favorites]


The single greatest decision you will ever make in your life is when you decide to abandon a PhD in literature.

Bitter? Oh, god no. Profoundly thankful.
posted by aramaic at 11:33 AM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


It looks like Rebecca Schuman got her Ph.D. from UC Irvine.

This is not to say that there's no merit to her article, but I think this would mean a lot more if she had gone to, say, Yale. Perhaps I am wrong, but I would think that those attending the very top graduate programs have better odds at tenure track.

My point here is that the notion of "don't go to graduate school in the humanities!" may not apply in all cases.
posted by Whitall Tatum at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I never said the job market in other disciplines was great, fine, or merely good. Just better.

People from outside the top 25 PhD programs in political science are getting good, well paying, tenure track jobs.


Yes, and I have friends with PhDs in political science from top programs who are supplementing their terrible adjunct positions by working on the side as SAT tutors or stocking shelves.

That's not to say that tenure-track jobs aren't literally available; my sister has tenure (with a history PhD) at an excellent college, and I have several other friends with tenure in a variety of disciplines. But it is to say that this notion that "prospects for literature PhDs are Officially The Worst, and so the author was an idiot for going into lit in the first place when she should have known that her prospects would have been measurably so much better in another field" is nonsense.
posted by scody at 11:35 AM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


FWIW, UC Irvine has a top 25 literature department.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:35 AM on April 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


No, but the author is an idiot for saying that her experience is universal and that no matter what, even if your circumstances are different in important ways (different field, better schools, more marketable research topics), you should definitely not get a PhD.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:38 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The single greatest decision you will ever make in your life is when you decide to abandon ...

... your literature major after your sophomore year. Dropping out is better than accumulating two more years worth of loans.
posted by Ardiril at 11:45 AM on April 5, 2013


Further to my comment above, I'd note that I decided to give up my dream of an English PhD after having been named to the faculty search committee as a senior.

The search was for a position in some area I had never thought about--something like pre-Revolutionary American Fiction. Even after having sat on that committee I couldn't name a single work from the relevant period.

Of course, we received 150 applications, of which I'd say 140 were quality work (some small minority were pretty bad), and a few were truly great. Not all the really great applicants made it to the final round (though I think the person who got the job was one of the really excellent ones).

All the same it was a truly sobering experience. Thankfully, for whatever reason, I had no illusions of exceptionalism, though I was a damn good literature student. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether I was put on the search committee to ensure I didn't try to become an English professor. If so, it was perhaps the best thing my thesis adviser did for me.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:49 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


But it is to say that this notion that "prospects for literature PhDs are Officially The Worst, and so the author was an idiot for going into lit in the first place when she should have known that her prospects would have been measurably so much better in another field" is nonsense.

It seems worth noting that 'are there any jobs' is a calculation (some) people do. I know people in a subject where one subfield is just horrific in terms of finding a job as there are no jobs. (I think a job opened up when I was an undergrad, about seven years ago, and there hasn't been one since.) They're not going to quit their subject and go study chemical engineering or something, but they all thought 'X is a dead end, but I like Y too' and study Y or 'I only like X enough to do a PhD and this is going to end badly' and didn't go to grad school.
posted by hoyland at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2013


I abandoned my literature PhD, and I've never felt good about it -- I feel like a quitter or that I ought to at least have hung in till the master's -- but this helps salve the wound a bit.

I'll try to remember this feeling when, after this job ends, I've got to find another job, which will probably pay $10 an hour with no benefits. I'm fucked coming and going.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


Instead of a doctoral program in Anthropology, I probably should have joined the French Foreign Legion.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had to go look to confirm that she actually had made that what-she-thought-was-withering comment about those Colleges in the Midwest and South of Which She Has Never Heard, and, of course, she had.

I would love to know why it is that the same people who want to make their living in the education industry can't fathom the notion that people all over the country would like to be educated. How provincial and snobby to believe that only people living in geographically desirable areas deserve nice things like colleges filled with professors who are engaged in their work.
posted by sobell at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2013 [22 favorites]


I'm a graduate student in sociology, which is faring better than any discipline in the humanities right now, and the rhetoric that surprised me most about the article is contained in this section:

In the place of actual jobs are adjunct positions: benefit-free, office-free academic servitude in which you will earn $18,000 a year for the rest of your life. But how did this happen?...Who cares? None of this will be sorted out in the five to 10 years it takes you to get a Ph.D.

Putting aside for a moment her irritatingly flippant incuriosity, this happened because higher education is being defunded (one is inclined to suspect) to create a vacuum into which MOOCs, charter schools, and other profit-motive-oriented educational forms can flourish. This trend is not limited to education: while this is oversimplification, the permanent political crisis that began with 9/11 has been an unparalleled boon to neoliberals and their totalizing social, economic and governmental vision, and therein lies the contemporary source of the ideology which legitimates the senseless dismantling of public goods, the immiseration of millions of private citizens and the root of soaring economic inequality in developed Western nations.

She's bitter and sad and pissed off, but she evinces no political awareness nor an acknowledgment for the causes of the situation in which she and many other bright, motivated young people find themselves. If she's so smart, why doesn't she see the real causes here and fucking do something about it? Or even say something about it?
posted by clockzero at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2013 [65 favorites]


they also don't realize at the start how they will feel about what defines success after they've gotten a PhD.

Yes! Having gotten my PhD recently, it's been interesting to watch those different attitudes come out, in myself and in my graduating cohort.

Most people I know on the market aspire to an upper middle class life. They're after a secure gig that allows them to own property and have kids. And if that's what you want, then getting a PhD in the humanities is indeed a big gamble (for most people, at most institutions, etc.). So I know a lot of people who are freaking out right now.

But I never really expected to be middle class, own a house, have kids, etc. For better or for worse, I've always envisioned my life on the "day job/unpaid artistic pursuits" model. So I saw grad school as a job that paid better than my used bookstore job, which lasted for six years and allowed me to think hard about things that I want to pursue aesthetically anyway. As long as I think about it this way, I don't feel like my life will be "ruined" without tenure, as this author says. Grad school was just a job I did for a few years, that made me smarter and happened to get me a fancy title.

But I'll admit that after having gone through the program, and having done well at it, there is now immense external and internalized pressure to pursue the middle class path. When everyone around you is telling you this, it's very hard not to feel like a tenure track job, no matter where it is and what it costs you in time and energy, is the only legitimate life. This attitude is all but recalcitrant. Even though I disavow it, and not just out of necessity but out of temperament, it's still there, hanging around.
posted by Beardman at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2013 [30 favorites]


God forbid anyone have to work at the "remote Midwestern or Southern Universities." I feel that this is one of the major points included in every single article like this.

I'm not sure why, just because you have a PhD, you should no longer be expected to have a preference in where you live (some people actually prefer to not live in the coastal cities). I understand that there are issues with elitism wrt to the south and the midwest, but at the same time it is not unreasonable to decide that a tenure-track job isn't worth having to live in a place that you dislike, far away from any support system you have.
posted by jeather at 11:53 AM on April 5, 2013 [16 favorites]


The only reason we aren't seeing similar articles about the sciences is the opportunities for non-academic employment in sciences, even in less "useful" disciplines like astrophysics and marine biology are quite a bit higher.

However, of my entire cohort of friends from grad school, only one of forty or fifty (from the #2 program in Canada) has an academic (let alone tenure-track) job. Tenured academic research jobs have essentially not existed for the last 20 years. It pinches especially hard in the humanities, but it's true everywhere.
posted by bonehead at 11:54 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think that not only do people figure they'll be different, they also don't realize at the start how they will feel about what defines success after they've gotten a PhD.

This is definitely true, and a real problem--there is such a strong culture within graduate Eglish programs that everyone who fails to get into a tenure track job is a "failure" that it is incredibly hard for students not to internalize it. And especially with older faculty, any grad student who mentions any other career plans is immediately dismissed as "not serious."
posted by yoink at 11:56 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


two months of unpaid research sequestration and curriculum planning

So, once upon a time I used to be married to a college literature (English) professor; in both positions she held while we were together she had the option of spreading her pay over 12 months instead of 9 or 10, so that she had a steady paycheck year round. Since she had this option in 2 out of 2 jobs I know of (and one was a small private school and other other a mid-sized state school), I imagine it's pretty common.

But the author doesn't even get into how often academic teaching involves working crazy long hours grading papers. It's one reason I bailed from academia at the master's level, because I discovered I'm an inefficient, procrastinating, cranky paper grader (I often suspected I spent more time grading some papers than the students had spent writing them) and being a lit professor would have been extremely difficult with that handicap.

I also didn't want to be at the geographic mercy of the random academic job market and end up, after working so long and hard on a PhD, with a job in some part of the country where I wouldn't have felt comfortable living (deep South or Texas for example), or in a rapidly-growing state campus somewhere where the English department -- stocked with deep-thinking PhDs brimming with ideas about cultural critique, colonial perspectives, historicism, neo-marxian strategies, or post-structuralism -- is only considered a service department by deans and provosts, mainly valuable for providing warm bodies to teach a couple semesters of composition to reluctant freshmen and sophomores needing to fill distribution requirements.
posted by aught at 11:56 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Beardman's comment is reminding me of a bit in Veblen: something to the effect that certain people, like professors, have to try to act like the rich even though their jobs don't pay enough.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:56 AM on April 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


And yet this dude has tenure :(
posted by steinsaltz at 11:57 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most people I know on the market aspire to an upper middle class life. They're after a secure gig that allows them to own property and have kids. And if that's what you want, then getting a PhD in the humanities is indeed a big gamble (for most people, at most institutions, etc.). So I know a lot of people who are freaking out right now.

You do understand that this logic cedes "having kids" and "buying a house, however modest" to the "upper classes", right? Is the corollary "some people expect to have the upper middle class luxury of health insurance, dentistry and housing that is more than a single room with a hot plate"?

Certainly, people who want to adjunct should adjunct - but just imagine how much better your life as a peripatetic English instructor (or whatever casual employment you envision) would be if it were assumed that workers should make enough to have a decent life even in the humanities.
posted by Frowner at 11:59 AM on April 5, 2013 [47 favorites]


Oh, I just realized that Rebecca schuman's degree was in German, not English. Yeah, European language departments are in deep, deep trouble everywhere in the US--they just don't have any majors. That's a really special case.
posted by yoink at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2013


Oh, and I want to add that having kids and buying a house have not always been some kind of kee-razy, spoiled upper class dream; in many more egalitarian parts of the world, raising a child in some kind of comfort and having stable long-term housing (owned or rented/state-regulated) are perfectly ordinary features of adulthood.
posted by Frowner at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2013 [29 favorites]


She really didn't know about the poor job market before embarking on a PhD in literature?

I can't speak for this woman, but I'll speak on behalf of my partner, who is 1. not a member here, and 2. away at a conference, where she gave a paper yesterday to an audience of like four people.

She teaches French language and literature at... well, we'll call it a women's college affiliated with an Ivy League university in a major east coast city. There, now you all know where she works, but search engines won't til 2016, under "Google Infer." It's not a tenure-track position. The pay is extremely low -- as in, there absolutely are people selling coffee who make more. She teaches three classes over five days a week -- but the schedule will improve in the fall. She's definitely not being paid to produce research, but in her copious free time, there she sits, producing files chock-full of words I seriously had never in my life encountered before meeting her.* But I'm kind of a rube.

She finished her Ph.D. four years ago, almost a decade after she started it. No, she really didn't know about the sucky job market before she began. She attended one of the top two programs in her field, from an institution that inflates its "success" metrics by hiring its own graduates back for various short-term, low-paid positions. (I'm pretty sure this is widely done, but holy crap, I find that shocking!) She'd gotten her BA from one of the best colleges in the country. What could possibly go wrong?! Only a few of her classmates are doing much better.

I won't even go into what the application/interview process is like for the few tenure-track positions available each year, or what I think of the atmosphere surrounding employment in academia in general. Suffice it to say that I used to work in the corporate arena -- and academia makes all of the corporate world's most stressful, competitive, political madhattery look like playschool.

I'm a little bit ashamed to admit that I am SO RELIEVED that my son prefers programming and science to literature.

* "Interiority," "phenomenology," and "instrumentalization" are a few I just plucked out of this draft. Man, I need to get a better education.
posted by houseofdanie at 12:01 PM on April 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


Rustic Etruscan, both Paul Fussell and David Brooks also address that phenomena in their meditations on class and education in America. Fussell's solution is for professors to pretend that a class system doesn't exist in America, while Brooks seems to think that both professors and journalists are fated to marinate in resentment for being as smart as rich people yet not as solvent.

With either man, I find it fascinating that they don't question the presumption that brains should lead to wealth.
posted by sobell at 12:01 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Google Infer."

Let's hope when they use this for one of their April Fools' jokes next year they give you credit. ;-)
posted by aught at 12:12 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


My partner, Dr. Something, actually fell for Google Nose. Sigh.
posted by houseofdanie at 12:13 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Brooks seems to think that both professors and journalists are fated to marinate in resentment for being as smart as rich people yet not as solvent.

Well, as a both a failed professor and a failed journalist, this would certainly explain the molten-hot rage that I carry around with me at all times.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:14 PM on April 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


The only reason we aren't seeing similar articles about the sciences is the opportunities for non-academic employment in sciences, even in less "useful" disciplines like astrophysics and marine biology are quite a bit higher.


Overall this is true because a lot of people in the sciences have data analysis/programming skills and biology has been inflated by the pharma/biotech bubble (which is deflating.) But when you drill down into the sciences, there are a lot of fields or research topics where you might as well have gotten an MFA for all the good it will do you.

I have a Ph.D. in pure mathematics with some significant research. For entry level jobs at various businesses I have been asked "Why do *you* want this position?" not as a canned interview point but as an honest question: why would someone like me actually want this job... I sometimes feel like I would be in a better position if it weren't on my resume but then how would I explain the last decade or so of my life?

In the end it's not that different from a generation of people in the rust belt (and beyond) with specialized industrial skills or engineers laid-off in their 40s or 50s. I mean, there are plenty of places in the country where even a skilled machinist is going to have trouble finding work. I've given the best part of my life, wholly, to developing a very specialized set of skills and knowledge and then society pretty much discarded me.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:15 PM on April 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


With either man, I find it fascinating that they don't question the presumption that brains should lead to wealth.

I think it part of the instinctive protection of the American Dream mythology, that financial success results proportionally from your hard work and good character. Those of us paying attention know that in fact great financial success usually results from equal parts egotism and blind luck.
posted by aught at 12:18 PM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


There are other effects that arise when a prospective PhD student is not informed of the horrible job market that awaits them upon graduation: they don't put in the adequate time and effort to do things that will make them more employable, like networking.

A lot of the responsibility falls on those professors who are comfortably tenured.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:20 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it part of the instinctive protection of the American Dream mythology, that financial success results proportionally from your hard work and good character. Those of us paying attention know that in fact great financial success usually results from equal parts egotism and blind luck.

Success comes from paying very close attention to what will be rewarded. Playing the game and choosing the best odds. Everyone who did something that wasn't going to get them ahead is just a chump: you were a sucker to get a Ph.D. in german literature, you should have gone into the sciences. Oh wait, you were a fool to get a Ph.D. in mollusc blood chemistry, you should have gone into mathematics. Wait, you have a Ph.D. which only applies to dimensions 4 and above, why didn't you just get into computer engineering. Yeah, what good is a degree in computer engineering from a 2nd tier school going to do you anyway... just skip ahead on your career trajectory and get an MBA. Well, you know, MBA's are a dime a dozen, financial engineering is the future... and on and on.

There are other effects that arise when a prospective PhD student is not informed of the horrible job market that awaits them upon graduation: they don't put in the adequate time and effort to do things that will make them more employable, like networking.

Well, and what if they were informed and they still got a degree in something obscure. Fuck 'em, right? They probably have a trust fund anyway. And if they were so smart, why didn't they choose something which was in their self-interest?
posted by ennui.bz at 12:28 PM on April 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


In the end it's not that different from a generation of people in the rust belt (and beyond) with specialized industrial skills or engineers laid-off in their 40s or 50s. I mean, there are plenty of places in the country where even a skilled machinist is going to have trouble finding work. I've given the best part of my life, wholly, to developing a very specialized set of skills and knowledge and then society pretty much discarded me.

I think perhaps the most relevant question we can ask ourselves is this: what legitimacy can a society have when it treats the majority of its members as disposable, as non-persons whose shitty life chances just don't matter? How can we be throwaways, how can our lives be so collectively unguarded from immense structural violence instantiated as economic instability and devastation, when "we" are almost everyone there is?
posted by clockzero at 12:30 PM on April 5, 2013 [21 favorites]


The essay Blanket “Don’t Go To Graduate School!” Advice Ignores Race and Reality? that Horace Rumpole posted above is fantastic. It brings a very important yet frequently ignored perspective on how race influences the value of pursuing humanities PhD.

Please, everyone, read it!
posted by Westringia F. at 12:37 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Absolutely no one gets into a graduate program in English these days (and for the last 10 years or so) without having been told repeatedly by everyone involved in the process that the job market is crap and that they shouldn't for one second consider doing the PhD if the only outcome they would regard as "success" is getting a tenure-track job.

No, I wasn't told that teaching at the college level was a sure-fire goldmine, but I was given a lot of bad advice about how professors from the Boomer generation were going to be retiring en masse, schools would be expanding (because everyone knows you need to go to college) and academic jobs would be available. Not plentiful, but they would be there. Turns out the academic jobs that were available to me paid about $16K a year, which would be funny if it weren't true.

Oh, but don't forget there are SO MANY other things you can use your English degree for. Of course most of the people telling me this were tenured professors who were hired sometime in the years before I was born and their lives looked a lot like the middle-class lives of my parents only with more books and overseas vacations. Sigh. The adjunct grind is a lot different now and I'm not sure how aware of that some of the more entrenched academics are (or were). Things shifted a lot in the intervening years and just having a suit and a BA aren't tickets into the middle class anymore.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:39 PM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


PhD in public history here. My buddy, who graduated from the same program as I did on the same day, is now, 11 months after graduation, in a tenure track position. And I just got a position doing archival/historic work for a private corporation that has absolutely nothing to do with academics, history, or social sciences.

Both of us took less than awesome jobs right after graduation. Hers was at a tiny college in Nebraska and mine was in a mid-size metropolitan public library. She didn't expect to end up teaching and I didn't expect to end up back in the library world, but we took the jobs that were available to us and both of us networked like mad and got into positions that are waaay more like what we want to be when we grow up. Hers was in a city in the South, further from her family that she had originally wanted to be. Mine is at an institution that I would have never considered, in a million years, would have a position that I want.

Neither of us got the perfect job. I'm sure she'd rather stay in her home city, near her family and I would prefer to be with an institution that was more on the humanities side of the spectrum.

Expecting to have the perfect gig fall out of the sky and into your lap is silly and just a bit juvenile, regardless of the degree you have. And honestly, there are other fields, and other jobs that will be delighted to have a phd in the humanities that aren't associated with a university on either of the coasts. You just have to be willing to move and find happiness where you can. Or shut up and find a different field.
posted by teleri025 at 12:39 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Ah, our "passion" culture. People pursue impractical things because they feel entitled to follow their dreams or whatever with little regard for the reality of the situation. It's very easy when you're 25 and in a PhD program to not think about what you're going to do for health insurance when you're still an adjunct at 45. A PhD is, in the end, an investment in job training. If there are no jobs, it's not a good investment. No amount of grandstanding or insights into Musil or dedication will change that. It's quite simple. Perhaps it sucks, but it is the way it is and it isn't going to change, at least not anytime soon.

There are plenty of jobs that require advanced degrees, offer a lifetime of intellectual stimulation and growth, provide the opportunity to make a real, tangible difference in communities and lives, have high job satisfaction and also pay very well. Maybe throwing all your career eggs into the one basket of your niche little interest isn't tenable, but surely there are things to pursue that are still really interesting and engaging and challenging. They might require some intellectual sacrifice, but they also offer things like a good job. We never talk about the benefits of making strategic sacrifices these days when we talk about what to do with our lives.

The truth is that choosing a career is in large part a practical decision, especially if you're investing a lot of time, money and effort in the training. It really is not enough to just love it; not everything that people are passionate about should be or will ever be monetized.

I suppose it's the George Maciunas/Communist Artist Mentality in me, but I feel like these days we don't give enough credence to the nurse/doctor/engineer making more than 50k with benefits a year and reading Virgina Woolf after 6:00 life.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:39 PM on April 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


History professor here. Part of the problem with giving students sound advice is that they do not want to hear it, and do not in fact hear it. Plus, every department has one professor--whom I dub "Professor Sparklepony"--who tells all his students that they are little freakin' geniuses who absolutely should go to grad school because there are going to be load of baby boomers retiring.

Professor Sparklepony is very popular.

Here is my contribution to the debate: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor.
posted by LarryC at 12:43 PM on April 5, 2013 [24 favorites]


I feel like these days we don't give enough credence to the nurse/doctor/engineer making more than 50k with benefits a year and reading Virgina Woolf after 6:00 life.

You may have a point there, but I think that what really undermines that is the passion culture you mentioned. Work has to leave you personally fulfilled and be The Thing that you devote yourself to. People who are content to just have "jobs" and pursue other interests on the side aren't held up as good examples in our culture. There's a sense that they may be wasting their talents or not challenging themselves enough because they don't let work be their reason for living.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:44 PM on April 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think perhaps the most relevant question we can ask ourselves is this: what legitimacy can a society have when it treats the majority of its members as disposable, as non-persons whose shitty life chances just don't matter? How can we be throwaways, how can our lives be so collectively unguarded from immense structural violence instantiated as economic instability and devastation, when "we" are almost everyone there is?

The answer lies in the law of supply and demand. The more human beings exist, the more disposable each individual human being will be. Limit the supply, and the value of each individual will go up. Expand the supply, and the value goes down. Special skills can help somewhat, but even then the odds of that helping go down as the number of people grows.

The sensible response to this would be a societal contract to limit the number of children each person can have in order to ensure a decent quality of life for everybody. But since that doesn't seem likely to happen in any democratic society, it might help to think of tenure scarcity as the opening notes in the prelude to our inevitable Darwinian bloodbath.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:45 PM on April 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


Oh, I just realized that Rebecca schuman's degree was in German, not English. Yeah, European language departments are in deep, deep trouble everywhere in the US--they just don't have any majors.

I left the US in 1997 to finish my French degree (language and literature) in Lyon, and have only been back to visit the States a couple of times (the few times are mainly due to family issues). Reading things on how much education has changed in the States since I left, is like, well, reading stories from a foreign country, not my home country. I have difficulty wrapping my head around them.

I don't know what that means nor do I want to try to interpret it too much; mainly it's very unsettling.

And FWIW anecdotally, I did finish that French BA, with a minor in Music (finished in the States for the minor), and have worked in translation/documentation/functional software testing (related to documentation), successfully, in Finland and mostly France, ever since. Got my MA in comparative literature a couple of years ago, from a French university, and it has directly led to a promotion in the company I work in, which is an IT consultancy. The skills I have found most useful living outside of my birth country, were all learned in my literature and music courses. Listening, interpreting correctly, evaluating information in a balanced manner, research and especially how to determine which type of research is pertinent, acknowledging and making the best of difference (music's particularly good for that, but foreign languages are as well), teamwork based on genuine mutual respect and earned trust (ditto music), and being able to determine what role you are playing in a given situation and how others may react to that. That last one is extremely important when you are a foreigner.

These are transferrable skills that any company should be happy to have, and it really makes me wonder why on earth the humanities have increasingly become a sort of laughingstock in the US, whereas they have not followed this path in many other countries. None of the IT engineers I've worked with over the years here in France has ever laughed at my literature degree; they sometimes went, and new hires still occasionally go, "?!?!" waiting to see if and how I'll prove myself in their field (it now being 7 years, I can say I have), but the degree itself is always viewed with respect, as was my choice to do my Masters in comparative literature. Only a couple of people asked me why I didn't get an MBA or the like, and it was not to diss on the lit degree, but simply because it was what they would have liked to do if they could.
posted by fraula at 12:47 PM on April 5, 2013 [16 favorites]


it might help to think of tenure scarcity as the opening notes in the prelude to our inevitable Darwinian bloodbath.

What is this I don't even.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:47 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]



If there are no jobs, it's not a good investment. No amount of grandstanding or insights into Musil or dedication will change that. It's quite simple. Perhaps it sucks, but it is the way it is and it isn't going to change, at least not anytime soon.


Oh, but the jobs still exist. They're just called "adjuncts" now. What's different is no that there are no jobs, it's that the pay for those jobs and their benefits is now going into someone else's pocket
posted by tyllwin at 12:50 PM on April 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Here is my contribution to the debate: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor.

Open Letter to My Students: Fuck you, I got mine.

Ah, our "passion" culture. People pursue impractical things because they feel entitled to follow their dreams or whatever with little regard for the reality of the situation. It's very easy when you're 25 and in a PhD program to not think about what you're going to do for health insurance when you're still an adjunct at 45. A PhD is, in the end, an investment in job training.

What if everyone pats you on the back for pursuing a hard science? You think you have it all figured out and you don't: everyone in this country is just staring slackjawed at the guy with the $80K BMW saying "Fuck you, that's my name."

We don't live in a "passion culture" we live in one where everyone is patting themselves on the back for being smarter than the next guy
posted by ennui.bz at 12:51 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Its better in nearly every other subject/discipline.

We have a stock of post-docs in Biochem, Molecular Bio that are just waiting for profs to die so that new positions open up. I heard about this, didn't rate my chances as very high of prof-ing up after the first two post-doc positions and chose to Master out and into a much more open (and less slave like) work environment.

We had a guy who was on his third post-doc, now he's in Oklahoma doing a post-doc by-any-other-name (pre-tenure research assistant professor or some such thing). I do not want to go down that road.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:56 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nor would I want anyone else to suffer that without knowing well in advance of what they were getting into.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:57 PM on April 5, 2013


The answer lies in the law of supply and demand. The more human beings exist, the more disposable each individual human being will be. Limit the supply, and the value of each individual will go up. Expand the supply, and the value goes down. Special skills can help somewhat, but even then the odds of that helping go down as the number of people grows.

This is arbitrary rhetoric, not dispassionate rationality. Because people want and need goods and services, when there are more people, the market becomes bigger as well, so your claims along that line don't really make any sense to me. I think what you're saying is a blind and uncritical legitimation of existing power structures, not a convincing explanation of why our economic/governmental systems must make the lives of most of humanity extremely difficult.

The sensible response to this would be a societal contract to limit the number of children each person can have in order to ensure a decent quality of life for everybody. But since that doesn't seem likely to happen in any democratic society, it might help to think of tenure scarcity as the opening notes in the prelude to our inevitable Darwinian bloodbath.

But there's no empirical evidence that that would actually ensure a decent quality of life for everyone. China's one-child policy's effects will play out in the decades to come, but so far, it has not been the clear driver of improved quality of life for everyone there.
posted by clockzero at 12:59 PM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


They're so cute when they're bitter.

The high drama of it all is so exciting too.
  • A 2010 graduate has not received tenure by early 2013! Her life is ruined!
  • The most important decisions you'll ever make are in your early twenties!
  • Literature students are bad at math!
To be cutely dismissive this all falls under "Young People Problems."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:01 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


...this happened because higher education is being defunded (one is inclined to suspect) to create a vacuum into which MOOCs, charter schools, and other profit-motive-oriented educational forms can flourish. This trend is not limited to education: while this is oversimplification, the permanent political crisis that began with 9/11 has been an unparalleled boon to neoliberals and their totalizing social, economic and governmental vision, and therein lies the contemporary source of the ideology which legitimates the senseless dismantling of public goods, the immiseration of millions of private citizens and the root of soaring economic inequality in developed Western nations...

What exactly are you blathering about here? Because whenever I see public education being defunded in favor of "free market" solutions, it's usually some zealous doughy little Republican championing either the entities you reference or some bill in Congress to further undercut public education. Trying to ascribe it to some "liberal plot" is just complete hogwash, and the rest of your statement is just irrational faux-intellectual tea party/tinfoil hat sputtering...
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 1:03 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Admiral Haddock: Of course, we received 150 applications, of which I'd say 140 were quality work (some small minority were pretty bad), and a few were truly great. Not all the really great applicants made it to the final round (though I think the person who got the job was one of the really excellent ones).

bonehead: However, of my entire cohort of friends from grad school, only one of forty or fifty (from the #2 program in Canada) has an academic (let alone tenure-track) job. Tenured academic research jobs have essentially not existed for the last 20 years. It pinches especially hard in the humanities, but it's true everywhere.

Is there a push for humanities PhD programs to drastically increase admittance/performance/rigor requirements, so all the graduates at least have a reasonable change of getting on the tenure track? That would seem like the decent thing to do, if only the truly great have a shot.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 1:05 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Tell me no lies-

Dr. Schuman is in her mid thirties.

Not being steadily employed is a big problem for a woman in her mid thirties if they are planning on having kids soon.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:05 PM on April 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


"The sensible response to this would be a societal contract to limit the number of children each person can have in order to ensure a decent quality of life for everybody."

But there's no empirical evidence that that would actually ensure a decent quality of life for everyone.

Isn't there? I strongly suggest that you do some research into the socioeconomic and political byproducts of the Black Plague ravaging Europe.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:06 PM on April 5, 2013


We have a stock of post-docs in Biochem, Molecular Bio that are just waiting for profs to die so that new positions open up.

I just watched a documentary on this very subject and I have some bad news...
posted by griphus at 1:07 PM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


CosmicRayCharles: "Neoliberal" is now used mostly to describe what I'd call "state of nature" capitalism, despite the name: a movement to the right of the spectrum advocating unregulated markets. You two are agreeing, not at odds.
posted by tyllwin at 1:09 PM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just watched a documentary on this very subject and I have some bad news...

Damn you, West! Daaaaaaamn yoooouuuuuu!
posted by Slackermagee at 1:13 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The sensible response to this would be a societal contract to limit the number of children each person can have in order to ensure a decent quality of life for everybody."

But there's no empirical evidence that that would actually ensure a decent quality of life for everyone.

Isn't there? I strongly suggest that you do some research into the socioeconomic and political byproducts of the Black Plague ravaging Europe.


So... what we need is a non-lethal genophage as seen in Mass Effect?
posted by Slackermagee at 1:14 PM on April 5, 2013


CosmicRayCharles >

What exactly are you blathering about here? Because whenever I see public education being defunded in favor of "free market" solutions, it's usually some zealous doughy little Republican championing either the entities you reference or some bill in Congress to further undercut public education. Trying to ascribe it to some "liberal plot" is just complete hogwash, and the rest of your statement is just irrational faux-intellectual tea party/tinfoil hat sputtering...

I think you're a little confused, friend. Neoliberalism is not the same thing as liberal:

"Neoliberalism is a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalization, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and decreasing the size of the public sector while increasing the role of the private sector in modern society." (Wikipedia)

wolfsdream01 >

"The sensible response to this would be a societal contract to limit the number of children each person can have in order to ensure a decent quality of life for everybody."

But there's no empirical evidence that that would actually ensure a decent quality of life for everyone.

Isn't there? I strongly suggest that you do some research into the socioeconomic and political byproducts of the Black Plague in Europe.


You're conflating limiting reproduction with a plague that killed millions, and those can be expected to have extremely different effects, so your argument still falls short on the evidence.
posted by clockzero at 1:15 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Spouse of an English Ph.D. here, at three years after graduation. Things are getting better. Mrs. Robots even turned away a spring session gig. It seems to me that it is best to let go of the tenure-track goal. It can remain as a possibility, but you really have to deal with the cards in your hand. Some of them may be better than you think.
posted by No Robots at 1:16 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


fated to marinate in resentment for being as smart as rich people yet not as solvent

If only I could be as smart as rich people...
posted by straight at 1:17 PM on April 5, 2013


FWIW, UC Irvine has a top 25 literature department.

What does that mean? Is this related to NCAA or something?
posted by KokuRyu at 1:18 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It means that their department isn't a crappy department.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:19 PM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


About 12 months ago (February 2012), a professor from my alma mater bought me lunch and asked for input into a new diploma program she is putting together to pitch to the university. She also suggested that I teach one of the courses.

Great! I thought. When would they like me to start?

Oh, sometime in 2015.

I have no idea how people put up with the slow moving bureaucratic culture of universities. It must be maddening dealing with lotus eaters all day.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:23 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


>It means that their department isn't a crappy department.

Compared to what? By what objective ranking? Punctuation and spelling? Use of passive voice?

Maybe this is an American thing, this ranking of universities, and comparing the prestige of this university's English department to the prestige of that university. Totally bizarre.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:24 PM on April 5, 2013


This is a lot of chewing on one's gums...I was aware some 20 years ago, and probably before that, that the market for lit PH.Ds was lousy.
The question to ask: How did this happen since there are now more students than ever attending colleges in the U.S.

1. who made the change?
2. what changes were made?
3. who fought to prevent changes?
4. What were the standards used by regional accrediting agencies for percentage of tenured and full time faculty "back then." and what are they now?
5. Will the situation revert back to what it had been or will it worsen from what it currently is? Why?
posted by Postroad at 1:24 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is there a push for humanities PhD programs to drastically increase admittance/performance/rigor requirements, so all the graduates at least have a reasonable change of getting on the tenure track?

Graduate students are incredibly valuable! They teach a lot of stuff and you only have to feed them once a month, as long as there are plastic cups of wine available.
posted by houseofdanie at 1:25 PM on April 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


There are plenty of jobs that require advanced degrees, offer a lifetime of intellectual stimulation and growth, provide the opportunity to make a real, tangible difference in communities and lives, have high job satisfaction and also pay very well.

And all you have to do is take on six figures of debt to attend a top medical/graduate school, and then move to rural North Dakota to find this magical oversupply of meaningful, stable, high paying jobs as a physician/engineer/etc.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:29 PM on April 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Most of the rankings are done by surveys of people in the field--other academics. They rate the department on various criteria. Are the faculty doing interesting work? are they publishing? do they produce grad students who do good work? etc. etc. etc.

Departmental rankings matter because the department, not the university, in effect grants the PhD. Rutgers is not the best university in the country. However, their Philosophy department is the best philosophy department in the country. Clear enough?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:29 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


ennui.bz: you might as well have gotten an MFA for all the good it will do you.

An MFA is actually pretty practical, in some ways. In the visual arts it is considered the terminal degree, so you can teach university classes without spending four years getting a PhD. There are jobs out there, if you're willing to move around. I was able to pay for my university education on my own (in Canada), and have no debt. I don't make a lot of money, but I love my job.
posted by oulipian at 1:31 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Really? Rutgers - I did not know that. I would have guessed UC Berkeley or Harvard for highest-ranked philosophy.

I am told that in certain academic fields, like art history, classics, or archeology, there are a lot of people with independent wealth. I'm not sure how true that is, compared to, say, mathematics or religious studies. But it would be a damn shame for all academic fields to turn into that. I guess it would be a reversion to the way I'm told Oxford and Cambridge used to be, paying almost honorary salaries, under the assumption that you had to be from money to be a Don.
posted by thelonius at 1:34 PM on April 5, 2013


I am in my last year of a literature PhD, so this piece has been all over my Facebook feed today. It's disheartening. Yes indeed, the academic humanities are IN CRISIS. No argument there. Most of my friends are bright, high-achieving, highly educated liberal arts grads in a variety of fields, and so also regularly passing through my Facebook feed are articles on the following:

Law schools: IN CRISIS.
Journalism: IN CRISIS
Education: IN CRISIS
Publishing: IN CRISIS
Non-profit sector: IN CRISIS
Government jobs: IN CRISIS
Fine Arts: IN CRISIS
The sciences: IN CRISIS

Off the top of my head, the only fields I can think of that are not in crisis are chemical engineering and software programming, but maybe if I had more friends in those fields, I would be more aware of their respective issues.

Given that I don't think I would have made an even halfway decent software engineer, I have to wonder what I'm supposed to take away from these articles, other than the alarmist sense that we are totally doomed and everything is fucked. Is that what it means to come of age in a recession? It's true: none of the jobs I was ever going to be remotely qualified for are direct routes to a wealthy and stress-free upper middle class life. That said, looking around, it does seem obvious that the PhD-on-food-stamps is the exception rather than the rule, and that most bright people with expensive educations and a creative bent finish their respective degrees and muddle through for a while feeling like failures, but then end up with jobs that are not exactly what they wanted, but nonetheless place them in fairly comfortable lives well above the poverty line.

Fix the problems in these individual fields, yes; repair the safety net for those who do end up falling all the way down, absolutely, but i think we could also - maybe - acknowledge our privilege a little bit, and recognize that trying and failing to achieve one's dream job and being inextricably trapped in real poverty are not remotely the same thing?
posted by pretentious illiterate at 1:41 PM on April 5, 2013 [24 favorites]


I am told that in certain academic fields, like art history, classics, or archeology, there are a lot of people with independent wealth.

My parents used to joke that I should work really hard at finding golden hordes and/or joining the metal detectorists in England to use my degree but no, I don't think this is actually true. I think there are many people who are wealthy who are interested in art collection and antiquities, but their children do not seem to prop up those fields any more than they do in other departments. (At least in my experience-- maybe this varies by university.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:41 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


All this "don't become an academic" advice sounds about 40 years too late for even STEM majors. It's positively ancient for humanities majors. It's all true of course.

In the mid 90s, we've The Big Crunch by David Goodstein or Don't Become a Scientist! by Jonathan Katz, both physicists. Recently, we've Reform the PhD system or close it down by Mark Taylor.

If you want a PhD in a STEM field though, then by all means do one. Just make sure you know how you'll sell your PhD skill to employers. In math, combinatorics, computational geometry, stocastic differential equations, etc. all sound wonderful, but develop an interest in fields like machine learning too. Ain't saying your PhD title must be ripped from the titles at an applied conference, but you must develop and maintain an interest in such directions. You could even do a PhD in non-STEM fields like linguistics if you're focused on the machine learning side.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:44 PM on April 5, 2013


Given that I don't think I would have made an even halfway decent software engineer, I have to wonder what I'm supposed to take away from these articles, other than the alarmist sense that we are totally doomed and everything is fucked.

I'm 40 years old. I have two useless degrees - a BFA (Creative Writing/History) and a BEd. I'm on my 3rd career: 1) teacher 2) govt worker, focusing on economic development 3) marketing strategy.

My takeaway? Be entrepreneurial right from the start. Add value. Create value. Create something.

Thanks to the demographic shift, relying on any sort of government career (outside of healthcare) is just not going to work for the next 20 years, since government has no money, and this includes teaching at the postsecondary level.

Create a company. Create something scalable. Entpreneurialism can be learned (and this does not mean selling shit on ebay).
posted by KokuRyu at 1:48 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


what changes were made?

I think one part of what changed is a broader societal attitude toward the idea of guaranteed permanent employment. There is some degree of parallel between universities reducing tenured positions and corporations phasing-out pensions.
posted by cribcage at 1:52 PM on April 5, 2013


My takeaway? Be entrepreneurial right from the start. Add value. Create value. Create something.

Congratulations, you agree with Thomas Friedman.
posted by codacorolla at 1:53 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


1. She really didn't know about the poor job market before embarking on a PhD in literature?

2. I was aware some 20 years ago, and probably before that, that the market for lit PH.Ds was lousy

Neither of these remarks could be written by anyone who really understood the current state of the academic job market, which collapsed epochally in 2008 and has never really recovered — and likely will never. All reasonably recent Ph.D.s have been awarded to people who entered their doctoral programs under radically different economic conditions, and reasonable expectations, than those under which they're exiting and searching for employment.
posted by RogerB at 2:04 PM on April 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Is there a push for humanities PhD programs to drastically increase admittance/performance/rigor requirements, so all the graduates at least have a reasonable change of getting on the tenure track? That would seem like the decent thing to do, if only the truly great have a shot.

There is definitely lots of talk and hand wringing on the issue. The problem is that having a graduate program is very important to the prestige of your department, both within the individual university and in terms of your competitors in other universities. And to run a viable graduate program you need a certain number of students. Not only that, but if you can get good quality students, the more you admit and see through to their doctorate, the higher your prestige. So while we might all agree that "it would be better if there were fewer people geting Ph.Ds" it's not really possible to coordinate a real reduction across the board when each department is an individual actor making its own decisions in competition with other departments.

By the way, although graduate students are deeply committed to the belief that the real reason we need them is to be miserably exploited TAs, that's not really true. Typically it's cheaper to use miserably exploited adjunct lecturers than TAs. We want the graduate students because "teaching graduate students" is what you do as a "real" Professor.
posted by yoink at 2:05 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Congratulations, you agree with Thomas Friedman.

I think you'll find that Thomas Friedman agrees with me. So it's okay if you agree with him this one time - I've got you covered, prof.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:07 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


And all you have to do is take on six figures of debt to attend a top medical/graduate school, and then move to rural North Dakota to find this magical oversupply of meaningful, stable, high paying jobs as a physician/engineer/etc.

? You don't need to take out massive amounts of debt or move to North Dakota to get a good job in healthcare or engineering. Heck, at the university I work at, our undergrad engineers graduate with around 30k in debt but have 90% employment in their degree fields within 6 months and make an average starting salary of 70K with benefits. And most of them stay around here (Portland, OR, of all places, not a bastion of job abundance).
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:09 PM on April 5, 2013


Maybe this is an American thing, this ranking of universities, and comparing the prestige of this university's English department to the prestige of that university. Totally bizarre.

I can't think of a substantial university system in the world where Universities aren't ranked in this way. In many countries the rankings are more formal (and "official") than they are in the US. What country are you thinking of where a degree in field X from University A is automatically assumed to be just as prestigious as a degree from any other university taken at random?
posted by yoink at 2:10 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've wondered if a longer term solution here might be only hiring professors from industry. So you should only be considered for a professorship if you've done a strong PhD, left academia for industry, and continuing to do strong academic work while working in industry. It'd resolve almost all the current career path problems because almost everyone who leaves for industry just stays there happily.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:13 PM on April 5, 2013


MisantropicPainforest wrote ...
Dr. Schuman is in her mid thirties.

Not being steadily employed is a big problem for a woman in her mid thirties if they are planning on having kids soon.

Then she best get to work on that rather than writing articles about how her life is over.

And given that I'm in the middle of changing careers in my mid forties I'm still going to put this under young people's problems.

I'm sorry her PhD made her feel entitled to a job. It's not working out. Time to move on.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:19 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then she best get to work on that rather than writing articles about how her life is over.

Writing articles is a form of employment.

I don't know what the point of your comment is. Somewhere someone has it worse, so who gives a fuck?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:25 PM on April 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Departmental rankings matter because the department, not the university, in effect grants the PhD. Rutgers is not the best university in the country. However, their Philosophy department is the best philosophy department in the country. Clear enough?

Second best. NYU is far and away the frontrunner (but Rutgers is a clear second).
posted by painquale at 2:37 PM on April 5, 2013


I thoroughly enjoyed graduate school. My professors were kind, helpful, and bent over backwards to get me a job. In grad school, I noticed a strong correlation between a student's merits and his/her odds of getting a tenure track job. I continue to notice this in my current position. I don't work 80 hours a week, or anything like that. The administration at our school has always treated me with respect. I did not kiss ass to get tenure. My job is awesome.

Sorry.
posted by Crotalus at 2:44 PM on April 5, 2013



2. I was aware some 20 years ago, and probably before that, that the market for lit PH.Ds was lousy..(I was quoted on this)

since I said this let me expand...I have been out of the academic world for a long time, but way back then there was a tenure track and there was no tenure--loss of job. Then there developed nation wide, a two track system..that indicated the turning down of the market.
Back then, regional accrediting groups said that you had to have no more than ten percent of teachers who were part timers; and schools were judged good if a huge percentage of faculty were tenured. That too changed.
Schools began to follow the corporate model: hire more and more part timers and adjuncts, grant fewer and fewer tenure slots and thus save money and benefits and have greater control on teachers...full timers went along with this (I got mine, so who cares), and accrediting roups did not bother to complain about the changes.

It is true that things are substantially worse today in most fields, but -now note this--faculty years ago did not bother with part time teachers...They were 2nd class and so ignore them and their complaints..so too grad students. result: changes came about and a major expansion in the use of cheaper labor.

Now if the the cost cutting was as big as I think it is, then why is tuition going up and up, year after year? Answer: the percentage of administration jobs expands non-stop, and this drives up costs at the same time that full time salaries are cut substantially by reducing the number of full time positions (salary, pensions, benefits).

As in most things, universities were slow to catch up to what took place in corporations etc., but now they follow that model...and colleges seldom if ever have union affiliations that include collective bargaining arrangements. of course not: faculty usually think of themselves as working well above the people who call for strikes for grievances in their fields.
posted by Postroad at 2:51 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, boohoo:

"the required 60-page dossiers to satellite campuses of Midwestern or Southern universities of which you have never heard;"

Sounds to me like a coaster finally got "schooled". Sucks to be her. I laugh at her and all of her New York-bred colleagues who now sit in "Midwestern or Southern universities of which you have never heard". Hint: in the Midwest and South we say "universities that you've never heard of". We may stick prepositions on the end of sentences, but at least we have jobs. While they might not be "dream jobs", they pay a lot better than dreams.
posted by readyfreddy at 2:52 PM on April 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


yoink: The problem is that having a graduate program is very important to the prestige of your department, both within the individual university and in terms of your competitors in other universities.

thelonius: I am told that in certain academic fields, like art history, classics, or archeology, there are a lot of people with independent wealth. I'm not sure how true that is, compared to, say, mathematics or religious studies. But it would be a damn shame for all academic fields to turn into that. I guess it would be a reversion to the way I'm told Oxford and Cambridge used to be, paying almost honorary salaries, under the assumption that you had to be from money to be a Don.

I don't think it would be such a bad thing for certain academic disciplines to require reasonable amount of "fuck you money" as a prerequisite for formal study. They have some duty to ensure that their students will be paid a livable wage to use the skills and knowledge they've been taught, even if that means the students end up paying themselves out of their own pockets.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:53 PM on April 5, 2013


The universe didn't provide the dream job I always wanted! But! But! But I REALLY wanted it!
posted by chasing at 3:04 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think it would be such a bad thing for certain academic disciplines to require reasonable amount of "fuck you money" as a prerequisite for formal study.

You realize, I hope, that you're advocating for the elimination of those academic disciplines as actual professions?

And why would you suggest that scholarly work be formally and explicitly put outside the reach of everyone except the fantastically wealthy rather than advocating for a living wage, which would also be accomplished by requiring academic institutions to conform to a legislated standard of pay?

The universe didn't provide the dream job I always wanted! But! But! But I REALLY wanted it!

That's not what this article is about. This is more of a "I trained for years to qualify for a certain profession, and now there are no jobs". I mean, would that be an appropriate response if this person learned how to be a plumber but graduated during a time when there was a glut of such tradesmen?
posted by clockzero at 3:13 PM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


The specialized profession that I trained for over a decade to join was restructured into poverty-wage temp work by corporatization while I was still training for it! But! But! Internet shitheels told me it was REALLY my fault for "dreaming" of a job in my profession, because it made them feel so wonderfully SUPERIOR!
posted by RogerB at 3:13 PM on April 5, 2013 [26 favorites]


@The friends of Crotalus: Is he always like this?
posted by No Robots at 3:13 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Neoliberalism, baby. No one should feel safe. It's taking us all down the road to serfdom, one cherished institution at a time.

But on the other hand, as a tenured humanities professor, let me say that there is a profound sense in which a couple of generations of academic humanists have brought a particularly ugly version of the neoliberal decline upon themselves, in complicity with the morally adrift and economically insane American university as an institution. I include myself, by the way. Any of us who are inside have had a hand in it.

And I say it with some detachment. I may have another 10 or 15 years to go if I'm lucky enough to survive that long, and almost all my own PhD students (and there are a lot of them) have gotten good jobs so far, so there's that.

Of course it's a racket. Name one industry that isn't a fucking racket.
posted by spitbull at 3:26 PM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Maybe this is an American thing, this ranking of universities, and comparing the prestige of this university's English department to the prestige of that university. Totally bizarre.

I can assure you that my Plant Science department in my university in Australia is very aware of where it is ranked; in terms of student success, in terms of competitive grants received, in terms of papers published - and how how it contributes to the wider university's ranking.

The thing is, however, there is a fat tail on this stuff. Those "top 25" departments? Not really that much better than the next 25, in reality. And the bottom 25 aren't awful, either. People get caught up on this stuff instead of just concentrating on doing their job as best they can.
posted by Jimbob at 3:29 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


You realize, I hope, that you're advocating for the elimination of those academic disciplines as actual professions?

My attitude is, if those disciplines can't employ their graduates with a living wage or any wage at all, then they already aren't actual professions. They either need to shape up and create good positions for their graduates or make sure their graduates can create good positions for themselves. I don't really care which.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 3:30 PM on April 5, 2013


I'm finishing upmy PhD at the moment, but no matter how closeI get to the finish line I often find myself thinking I don't like my job, and I don't think I'm going to go anymore.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:33 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


just remember Melville got to be awesome by going whaling and reading Shakespeare. I don't know, this comforts me as I teach community college composition in the hood.
posted by angrycat at 3:35 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I suspect if you take more than 6 years to finish a PhD. you really shouldn't expect universities to be clamouring to give you a tenure track position. You've potentially already demonstrated a lack of productivity in your chosen field.
posted by srboisvert at 3:37 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


man Melville what an adventurer

if I only didn't have student debt I don't know what I'd do

rent an apartment I guess

get a cat
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:38 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


My attitude is if those disciplines can't employ their graduates with a living wage then they already aren't professions. They either need to shape up and create good positions for their graduates or make sure their graduates can create good positions for themselves.

But the whole point here is that these disciplines are being defunded by legislative bodies, and that at the same time, administrative culture is shifting toward questionable market-oriented models. Recently-minted Ph.ds are having trouble getting jobs not because their work doesn't constitute a profession in some transcendental sense, it's because the institution of higher education itself is being dismantled by people who can profit from destroying a public good. Don't you get it?

Look, this is complicated stuff. Saying "Well I think they should fix those problems they're having" is naive and simplistic in the extreme.
posted by clockzero at 3:39 PM on April 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


I suspect if you take more than 6 years to finish a PhD. you really shouldn't expect universities to be clamouring to give you a tenure track position. You've potentially already demonstrated a lack of productivity in your chosen field.

What are you basing this on? Even in top programs at great schools, the average time to graduate can easily be six years, though it varies across disciplines and programs of course. And people who take six or even eight years to graduate can become excellent scholars. Finishing graduate school isn't easy or quick, as a rule. You say you suspect that your suspicion is true, but what do you actually know about the subject?
posted by clockzero at 3:44 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


It can take a long time to write your first piece of original scholarship while you're teaching classes to pay your rent because your program only funds people for five years.

Well, in other countries, you're only funded for 3 years, and are out on your arse after 4. It would be illuminating to examine the employment status of people with those PhDs compared to US PhDs. I doubt they are any worse.
posted by Jimbob at 3:46 PM on April 5, 2013


Well, in other countries, you're only funded for 3 years, and are out on your arse after 4. It would be illuminating to examine the employment status of people with those PhDs compared to US PhDs. I doubt they are any worse.

Funding periods are not determined at a national level in the US, and I'm not sure you're right that they are in other countries. I'm also not certain what you mean by "out on your arse"; are you suggesting that the institutions kick them out of their programs if they're not done by then? Do you have some kind of evidence that other countries force all of their higher ed institutions to do that? Because I think that contention might betray a fundamental lack of understanding about what graduate school is on the most basic level.
posted by clockzero at 3:59 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Part of the problem with the advice in this article is that it extends to anyone who wants to achieve greatness in any field. Being a great writer, musician, journalist, comedian, chef, charitable organizer, actor, or whatever... most people who try to pursue their dreams in these fields are bound to fail, and will often suffer a terrible opportunity cost when they could have been growing their IRAs and building experience at the desk job they'll eventually end up at.

Still, I don't think everyone should just be advised to aim for the safe jobs. There's something to be said for knowing the risk but shooting for the dream.
posted by painquale at 3:59 PM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


I can't think of a substantial university system in the world where Universities aren't ranked in this way. In many countries the rankings are more formal (and "official") than they are in the US. What country are you thinking of where a degree in field X from University A is automatically assumed to be just as prestigious as a degree from any other university taken at random?

Canada.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:01 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


are you suggesting that their funding runs out after 4 years, or that the institutions kick them out of their programs if they're not done by then?

In Australia, you get funded for 3 years. If you take longer than that you have to start applying for extensions and justifying your continued existence. If you're there longer than 4 years, your university starts losing money they would have received when you graduate. You're damaged goods.
posted by Jimbob at 4:02 PM on April 5, 2013


The thing is, however, there is a fat tail on this stuff. Those "top 25" departments? Not really that much better than the next 25, in reality. And the bottom 25 aren't awful, either. People get caught up on this stuff instead of just concentrating on doing their job as best they can.

Well said, and I wish I had thought of saying this first (there are reasons why I did not pursue a PhD, obviously).

On the other hand, when Americans talk about the ranking of a university, I tend to think it's more about the prestige of a university, and the social capital and networks (ie, privilege) one can amass simply from graduating from one. Which bothers me, since it's all supposed to be about merit rather than one's pedigree, right?
posted by KokuRyu at 4:04 PM on April 5, 2013


Well, in other countries, you're only funded for 3 years, and are out on your arse after 4. It would be illuminating to examine the employment status of people with those PhDs compared to US PhDs. I doubt they are any worse.

In the US, more than in many other countries, you're expected to do a lot of teaching during your PhD, which adds to the time required (and also covers funding).
posted by jeather at 4:04 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Canada.

What, really? That's definitely not true for the Canadian graduate programs I'm familiar with, less so for the professional and medical schools (see how many more corporate law jobs a class from U of T gets compared to Western), and even for undergrad programs, universities obsess over their Maclean's rankings.
posted by painquale at 4:18 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


But on the other hand, as a tenured humanities professor, let me say that there is a profound sense in which a couple of generations of academic humanists have brought a particularly ugly version of the neoliberal decline upon themselves, in complicity with the morally adrift and economically insane American university as an institution. I include myself, by the way. Any of us who are inside have had a hand in it.

I dunno. I have spent the last few years as a professor in academic governance, and I have to say that we have fought pretty hard against these things. It's a losing battle, I expect. I am at a state school, and the state is not dedicated to any sane approach to the funding of higher education that I can see. In the past 20 years, the state funding has been cut by maybe 2/3, while the demands of federal and state (and accrediting agencies) push up the number of non-tuition-producing administrators. To balance this, there are constant cuts in tenured positions, and everywhere, it seems, a sort of management-by-crisis that prevents any sensible hiring practices, development of programs, or even mid-range planning.

On top of that, the Humanities are generally so disillusioned and panicked that they are unable to develop coherent strategies for change, and the STEM fields aid and abet the process by withholding their voices, since "it's not their problem" -- yet. I think Math and Physics departments are very vulnerable to being reduced to service departments to their more applied brethren (who won't speak up then, either), and they are too busy laughing at the Humanities to notice the gleam in the eyes of the administration, who, to be fair, are stuck with their own dirty end of the stick, trying to do something innovative to maintain their profile while they are constantly dealing with budget shortfalls.

I guess the rosy outlook is that, once state funding hits 0, things will stabilize. Maybe.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:18 PM on April 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


Look, this is complicated stuff. Saying "Well I think they should fix those problems they're having" is naive and simplistic in the extreme.

That's not what I'm saying. What I am saying is they should limit the damage. If they need X graduate students for prestige reasons, then they need to make sure those X students end up in decent jobs or can afford not to.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 4:45 PM on April 5, 2013


My observation is that things aren't as bad in my field, yet, but even though we're on the way to 9 billion people who all need to eat, agricultural science is rarely discussed as an option. My agency does world-class research, and demand for our services is likely to remain high indefinitely. I will admit, though, that I'm probably spoiled. As a mid-career PhD scientist with a decade of experience I actually turned down a 12-month research faculty appointment at a Research I, Land Grant university because they wouldn't hire with tenure. The day may come that I really regret that decision, but there are opportunities out there for people interested in academic careers. My friend working on a PhD in performance studies, though, I don't know what he's going to do. That's a shame, because he's a very good scholar and a skilled teacher.
posted by wintermind at 4:50 PM on April 5, 2013


What are you basing this on? Even in top programs at great schools, the average time to graduate can easily be six years, though it varies across disciplines and programs of course. And people who take six or even eight years to graduate can become excellent scholars. Finishing graduate school isn't easy or quick, as a rule. You say you suspect that your suspicion is true, but what do you actually know about the subject?

I dropped out of a PhD program and am married to a tenured professor who has in the last 5 years evaluated dozens of tenure track job candidates.

You mention the average time as if that should be a criteria for getting a tenure track position but you need to keep in mind that average means a lot of people got that same degree faster than average (particularly since one end of the distribution can skew almost to infinity for some people). They either went on to do post docs or got jobs before a slower PhD candidate did. They are in the same job market with more qualifications.

I do think the job situation is dire for academics and the landscape is changing pretty dramatically but I don't think the writing on this topic really reflects honest appraisals of just who should actually get a tenure track position. It certainly shouldn't go to average scholars and that is part of why I quit (I suspect I was pretty below average).

Someone who flounders in grad school trying to finish a PhD would just die in a tenure track position where in addition to meeting the targets for tenure, which are significantly more onerous that completing one project, they will find themselves with the additional burdens of teaching more courses, supervising undergraduate and graduate students, and post-docs, applying for funding and participating in their department's and school's administrative duties (which is a bigger part of the job than anyone ever tells you). The job doesn't get easier once you are on the tenure track. It gets a lot harder until you have tenure and by then you have internalized most of it anyway.
posted by srboisvert at 4:52 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Between this and Suzy Lee Weiss I'm feeling a disturbing lack of sympathy today, and I'm a t-14 Law School grad with no prospects.

Here's my thought about a literature PhD. Do you want to teach? Did you get into this field because of a love of literature and getting others to understand literature? Awesome. Go teach.

It might be that you have to teach high school. That school might not be in a place where you want to live. I know how frustrating that is - go teach. If you truly feel like you both deserve to be a college professor and could do nothing else, well, now you're in the big leagues. And I mean this as a sports metaphor.

Those collegiate positions are elite, few, and far between. Now think about the draft in pro sports. Maybe a couple of top prospects can wheedle their way into going to the city the want, though LeBron is the only one I can think of off-hand, and most will go to cities that people of their talent, income and celebrity would never reside in if not for the fact that they work there.

And if it's a smaller school, still, well, them's the minor leagues. Go and take your position and be thankful that you have it and work your ass off to get to the majors if that's what you want so badly. I love literature. I love scholarly works on literature. I think we need them. But the people doing them are about as in demand as pro athletes are, in terms of a job market. If you can't grok that then you are just another example of "privilege that is pissing me off today."
posted by Navelgazer at 4:52 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


(on the other hand of all that, the toilet-bowl-shittiness of the job market is not the fault of current PhD candidates and I don't want to find myself parroting the facile opinions of the Wall Streeters whose fault it largely, actually is. But in reality, it's a tough market, and you're going to have to sacrifice to do what you love, in almost all cases.)
posted by Navelgazer at 4:55 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


These two comments are absolutely spot on:

tyllwin: Oh, but the jobs still exist. They're just called "adjuncts" now. What's different is no that there are no jobs, it's that the pay for those jobs and their benefits is now going into someone else's pocket

clockzero: Recently-minted Ph.ds are having trouble getting jobs not because their work doesn't constitute a profession in some transcendental sense, it's because the institution of higher education itself is being dismantled by people who can profit from destroying a public good.

The humanities career crisis is not happening because academics are airheads or brats or because there's no work to be done; it is happening because humanities departments can no longer afford to hire tenure-track professors at the rate they used to because universities no longer provide the funding they used to. In many public universities, this is because the university has less money to go around because of state education budget slashing; in private universities it's harder to stomach because tuition increases at a steady rate of 2% or so a year (my alma mater is now at $43,688 for tuition alone; $56,546 including housing and fees. Even if only half the undergrads are paying that full amount, that's almost $150 million a year in revenue from the students alone-- not including the fact that many private universities make tons of money both in investments and in buying up land and renting it out again to local businesses).

The problem in both cases is that the faculty has almost no say in where a university's money goes when it comes to hiring. The reason the adjunct market exists at all is that demand for humanities PhDs is actually pretty high -- someone qualified has to teach all the undergrads -- but funding unfortunately does not follow the rule of supply and demand on college campuses.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:00 PM on April 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Well, in other countries, you're only funded for 3 years, and are out on your arse after 4. It would be illuminating to examine the employment status of people with those PhDs compared to US PhDs. I doubt they are any worse.

If you are talking about a UK PhD I think you might want to re-examine that statement. I spent the last 7 years surrounded by those 3 year PhDs. They do no coursework and just one project to get their degree. In North America they call this a Masters Degree.
posted by srboisvert at 5:02 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it's really hard to go from a UK DPhil to a US teaching position in a lot of fields because the teaching opportunities are so much rarer and your research is often more hyper focused, which means you might not be qualified to teach survey classes or interdisciplinary options. The time involved really is due to a structural difference in the programs.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:20 PM on April 5, 2013


The advice I hear about doing a PhD only if you can't imagine doing anything else couldn't be more wrong. You should only do a PhD if you know you can do ANYTHING, with ease, and this is the thing you like best of all of them.

I know lots of people in their 30s and early 40s with tenure and, to a (wo)man they finished their terminal degrees while in their 20s, usually in 5 or 6 years if a PhD, from a top ten program, and are profoundly competitive and intense people, the kind of people who could just easily be commanding a batallion in Afghanistan, doing open heart surgeries, or running portfolios on a trading desk, and know it.
posted by MattD at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I got a BA in literature (would you like fries with that?) and was pretty sure the only careers available to me would be academia or writing the descriptions on the labels for beer: ...a full-bodied deep golden ale that is surprisingly subtle and delicate... I debated going to grad school for awhile but figured that would pigeonhole me into getting on the professor track. I instead decided to take some time before committing to that career path.

Meanwhile, Mrs doctoryes picked up her MA in fine art, and I saw what it was like to compete for spots on faculty and work towards getting tenure. Those who don't get into the system are expendable and always on shaky footing. Getting into the system seemed like an endless slog of networking, brown-nosing, and backstabbing.

So I tossed post grad work out the window. Now I design video games and am very glad life led me to do something I love.
posted by doctoryes at 5:24 PM on April 5, 2013


@The friends of Crotalus: Is he always like this?

Well, in my defense, I was responding to the author of this awful article. But on this particular issue, I'm afraid the answer is "yes." Every week I hear comments from students about how Visiting Professor So-and-so informed them that he is oppressed and exploited and can't get a job because of the Man. Sadly, it usually isn't the Man. Very few people who try and fail are willing to admit to themselves that they just couldn't publish in top journals, or that no one gives a crap about their esoteric research agenda, or that they couldn't teach their way out of a paper bag, or that they lack social skills. Surely there are great people who haven't been able to find the tenure track job they deserve. No one disputes this, nor that these folks constitute an increasing share of those on visiting contracts. But those who occupy tenure-track lines and those who don't are not interchangeable groups. Never have been.

The job market is terrible right now, and the decline is has gotten steeper, but it has always been tough, and people contemplating a Ph.D. in the humanities and social sciences have always been warned. Decades of voice lessons don't guarantee a career in music. Acting lessons don't mean you'll be in the movies. And a Ph.D. in French Literature doesn't guarantee a tenure track job. I respect people who throw caution to the wind and pursue their intellectual passion, but you are not entitled to make a living pursuing that passion. If you feel exploited being an adjunct or a visitor, do something else. Your Ph.D. is not a contract with society.
posted by Crotalus at 5:27 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you are talking about a UK PhD I think you might want to re-examine that statement. I spent the last 7 years surrounded by those 3 year PhDs. They do no coursework and just one project to get their degree. In North America they call this a Masters Degree.

I was referring to Australian PhDs, and I am one of them. Graduated six years ago. I've spent the last six years working alongside US PhDs, and we're working on the same projects, publishing in the same journals, and I can't see much difference, apart from the fact that they're all bitter about how much time they wasted. This is science, I'll admit, not the humanities, but still my question stands - what benefit to academic ability does a 6-year PhD actually offer compared to a 3-year PhD?
posted by Jimbob at 5:35 PM on April 5, 2013


I can't think of a substantial university system in the world where Universities aren't ranked in this way. In many countries the rankings are more formal (and "official") than they are in the US. What country are you thinking of where a degree in field X from University A is automatically assumed to be just as prestigious as a degree from any other university taken at random?
Canada.


I'm not sure which Canada you're talking about, but it's not the one with the queen and the maple leaf on the flag and the mounties and the prime minister with Lego-man hair.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:51 PM on April 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


what benefit to academic ability does a 6-year PhD actually offer compared to a 3-year PhD?

It will vary by school and subject. In psychology it means a publication count head start mostly but the 6 year PhD usually includes a Masters level research project so that means two potential publications plus there will often be a comprehensive exam at the better schools meaning the candidate has dedicated about 6 months of cramming to passing an indepth exam on the entire field. The first two years of the PhD, during what is often counted as a Masters typically involves coursework as well.

So in a word: Breadth.
posted by srboisvert at 5:58 PM on April 5, 2013


Your Ph.D. is not a contract with society.

Is a DDS certificate a contract with society? Is an MD a contract with society? No educational credential is, if you stop to think about it for even one second. That's not the problem here. You're conflating medium- and low-tier academics' employment options vis-a-vis their inherent merit as scholars with the merciless disembowelment of higher educational career opportunity itself. In other words, to make this simpler for you, if publicly-funded higher education itself weren't under attack, it would be much more likely that those lower-achieving people would be able to get respectable professorships at community colleges or 4-year colleges where they'd make a good wage that allowed them to live with dignity and do good work at a non-elite level, while the best graduates would be assured of plum tenure-track jobs at the top schools.
posted by clockzero at 6:04 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure which Canada you're talking about, but it's not the one with the queen and the maple leaf on the flag and the mounties and the prime minister with Lego-man hair.

I actually agree with him. Canadian universities are strikingly similar in overall quality compared to the wild variability of some other countries.
posted by srboisvert at 6:05 PM on April 5, 2013


Having gone to both a middling prestigious and a very prestigious university in Canada, I can say for sure that there may be no "official" ranking, but we are not immune to the universal human tendency to rank each other based on where we went to school. So maybe our universities are "similar in overall quality", but try telling that to a U of T grad ;)

I cannot add much else to this thread except that I thought I wanted to do a PhD in literature, but an MA was quite enough for me. I loved the experience and it was one of the most productive and happy times of my life -- but another 6 or 7 years of it would've killed me. I came dangerously close to falling for the trap the author describes.

Instead I went back to my original plan which was teaching. A quick one year B.Ed. and straight into a full-time job. Sure, I won't be soaring through the intellectual heights, but it's rewarding and secure and the pay (in Ontario) for a teacher is quite good. Of course, that job market is also depressingly poor at the moment. I don't envy anyone making career choices in the academic field these days.

Final food for thought: My MA earns me a little over $1000/year in bonus "allowance" as a high school teacher. A PhD earns you a mere $300 more on top of that.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 6:40 PM on April 5, 2013


Canadian universities are strikingly similar in overall quality compared to the wild variability of some other countries.

Undergraduate educations are pretty comparable from school to school, and maybe the universities are comparable in "overall quality." But the original question had to do with whether rankings were worth considering when looking at particular fields. Even in Canada, there's just as much variability in graduate and professional degrees as there is in the States. I'd much rather get a philosophy Ph. D. from the University of Toronto than Queen's or UQAM.
posted by painquale at 6:45 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


... to make this simpler for you

Thanks for making it simple. Demand for different kinds of professionals waxes and wanes with the vicissitudes of the culture and economy. Declining demand for professors in the humanities and social sciences did not begin suddenly, nor did the the proletarianization of the professoriate. Both trends have been steady for well over a decade. Even when I was in grad school in the 90s many of the colleges in the region relied heavily on adjuncts to round out their course offerings. No one who enters a Ph.D. program in Classics or Germanic Studies could possibly be surprised by the state of affairs in these fields. Just as no one who packs their bags and moves to Hollywood should be surprised when they end up waiting tables. (Alas, if only Hollywood was making more movies there would be more jobs for those "lower achieving people.")
posted by Crotalus at 7:46 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dear Crotalus....no no no. It has not always been thus. Even a dummy like me was able to get a job at a university teaching Lit, getting tenure, and working a full and productive number of years. As I noted earlier in this thread, things began to change and I was aware of that change as it took place. When you say "things always," I suspect you really mean in your time of being aware of those things. I am referring to a time well before that.
posted by Postroad at 7:52 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have a BA in English. My plan most of the way through college was to continue on in my studies with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor, admittedly based on some of the more superficial reasons Schumann described in her article (not so much the Summers off or 5-hour workdays, but definitely the getting paid to read and discuss books for a living without having to worry about getting fired part).

Many years removed from the decision, the reason I ultimately decided to forgo this plan seems wildly immature and short-sighted, based exclusively on pettiness and jealousy. I couldn't stomach the idea of living as a poor college student for another (X) number of years while most of my college friends would at the same time have already started grown-up jobs with real incomes. So I instead fell into a career in technology sales where I remain today.

Whenever my job gets too stressful, which, being a high-pressure, demanding position as sales is pretty frequent, I get wistful for the other life I could have led, discussing Dickens with undergrads in between puffs on my favorite pipe. I do appreciate articles like this for bringing me back down to earth.
posted by The Gooch at 9:12 PM on April 5, 2013


Thanks for making it simple. Demand for different kinds of professionals waxes and wanes with the vicissitudes of the culture and economy. Declining demand for professors in the humanities and social sciences did not begin suddenly, nor did the the proletarianization of the professoriate...Even when I was in grad school in the 90s many of the colleges in the region relied heavily on adjuncts to round out their course offerings.

Demand seems high, though, and by your own admission it has been since the 90s: there are more people going to college than ever and plenty of people going to college in absolute terms. And nobody's saying that there aren't adjunct positions available; demand for adjuncts is actually increasing, but they're awful positions and pay too little. There is a wage setting mechanism separate from demand, in this case, and it appears to be effected by a constellation of factors including the withering away of funding and the colonization of higher education administrative environments by profit-oriented institutional logic, which are themselves interrelated. You're making a pretty big assumption if you take for granted that all wages are finely-tuned to a point determined only by the variation of demand and that demand itself is not affected by other factors, but in this case I don't even see how that's part of the problem.
posted by clockzero at 9:17 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


A lot of this thread leaves me feeling depressed.

The point of getting a "tenure-track" line isn't to get a really cushy, prestigious job. The point is that tenure-track is what counts as job security.

If you're not tenure-track, then you work on a yearly contract. This means that, at the end of any school year, the school can just decline to renew your contract. And you're out of a job. Now, I know, the notion of a layoff is pretty common, and I know that even year-long job security is something a lot of people dream for.... But, please, consider:

You have to move cross country for an academic position. If you lose your job, that doesn't just mean you hit the want ads and start looking around: it means you have to be willing to move any-fucking-where in order to keep your livelihood. It means uprooting your entire family. It means spending a couple thousand dollars to transport your stuff (or discard it all and purchase new-to-you stuff in the new location). It means being displaced, and somewhere new, and having to start all over again. Every. Single. Time you switch jobs.

So, you're hired as non-tenure track faculty. Congrats! Now you have a job!...For a year. But next year? Well, maybe you'll be kept on, but maybe you won't be. So maybe you should invest in, say, a new mattress (because your current one got pretty ripped up in the last 2000-mile move, and squeaks a lot, and leaves you with neck aches every morning), or maybe you shouldn't (because if you have to move next year, do you want to worry about transporting or selling it, and you're still in debt from the last move). Maybe you should look into a nicer apartment (because the one you quickly rented when you first showed up in town is kind of cramped and far from your job) or stay where you are (because, if you have to uproot and move to thousands of miles away in a year, you'll regret going through the pain of moving across town this year). Maybe you should start a family (because you're of an age) or maybe you shouldn't (because your position doesn't really have family leave, and how much harder would the next move be if you were pregnant or had a child?) Maybe you should start to seek out friends (because you are alone, oh god so alone, and everyone yu know lives thousands of miles away) or maybe you shouldn't (because you might be leaving a year, and it'll hurt even more to have to say goodbye to a new group yet again). And, of course, it'd be really nice to buy a house, settle down, and just live a very frugal, simple, lower-middle class lifestyle... But you barely make enough money to scrape by, and you'd be a fucking idiot to buy a house when you don't even know if you'll be in this state in a year.

If you don't have tenure-track, you are utterly disposable. And if you are utterly disposable in a profession that requires moving thousands of miles for a job, you're left in a state of flux and anxiety.

Yeah. Many people have it worse. I'm not saying that life as non-tenure-track faculty is the worst; that would be ridiculous. I just think that, perhaps, many people in this thread don't get why it matters whether one can get a tenure-track gig. It matters because a tenure-track position is the only way to have a life rather than scrambling around the country, without any security.

If this is just what the job was meant to be, fine. People could know ahead of time what they were getting into. But you can't really know ahead of time. You can know the job market sucks, sure, and you can know that it's hard to get a job... But that's different from understanding that the entire structure of the profession is set up on a dying model. The only reason why academia works is because academics are expected to move from one location (say, New York) to another (say, LA). They're expected to do this because, it used to be, the jobs were worth it: you'd be paid a living wage and you could be secure enough in your position to be able to buy a house or make roots in the community. It was worth it, because of the security of tenure. But, now, because it is cheaper to hire 6 adjunct faculty members to teach one class each rather than hire a full-time, tenure-track professor to teach them all, tenure is disappearing. But the requirement to uproot and move anywhere in the country (or the world!) isn't. So, you have a profession with demands: be willing to move anywhere in the country at any time for a job, on your own dime -- but, oh, that job will pay $18k a year, have no benefits, and you might be unemployed in 9 months.

A lot of people in this thread want to blame those starry-eyed new Ph.D.s who find themselves out of work. Maybe they didn't show a lot of foresight. But it makes me sad for us to be tsk-tsking at folk who really are just asking for a simple, secure job in a profession. Maybe if there really, seriously weren't a demand for their skills, it'd make sense. Maybe if it really were a pie-in-the-sky dream to live a frugal, simple, lower-middle-class life by teaching at a college, I'd go along for it. But, there IS demand for their skills. We live in a society that needs professors. It's just that, like others have said, professorships are being turned from a job with a living wage to a low-skill, low-wage job for the desperate.

I feel like I've said too much and nothing. I am angry, and sad, and frustrated with a Marxian rage.
posted by meese at 9:20 PM on April 5, 2013 [28 favorites]


srboisvert: If you are talking about a UK PhD I think you might want to re-examine that statement. I spent the last 7 years surrounded by those 3 year PhDs. They do no coursework and just one project to get their degree. In North America they call this a Masters Degree.

Masters Degree students do coursework, and at least here, they often take more than 3 years. It can get kind of ridiculous; my degree is taking 3 1/2 years, and I'm quoted 5 at least five more years if I want a PhD after that. I'm probably not going to do it (at least not yet), because I refuse to be poor for that much longer.

On another note, I think it's stupid to judge a PhD or Master's student by how long their degree takes, because the quality and nature of their thesis or dissertation is usually the main determinant of that. My program took too long because I bit off way more thesis than I could chew, but I still think that what I've done should reflect better on me than a short, crappy thesis done quickly.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:48 PM on April 5, 2013


In philosophy, it used to be that if you had a PhD from a top 25ish place, and were at least a good student in those departments, you'd land a TT job in 2-3 tries. Many landed them on the first shot. But then the financial crisis happened, and hiring froze. The number of jobs were cut in half, and even really good people from very top places weren't getting hired. I think, though am not sure, that we'll be back to where we were before 2007 in another 2-3 years.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 10:18 PM on April 5, 2013


If you're 21, going into a PhD program fully funded is a great deal. I mean, 15K/year guaranteed, gain teaching experience, possibly get an editing credit in the most popular anthology of American poetry in the world, moonlight for a local magazine and get your first publication credits, meet some interesting people, go to some great parties, and then drop out with an MA in English which is actually kind of a golden ticket if you want to get into international ESL.

Or so I've heard.

Don't take a nickel of debt to do it, but if you've got the academic chops for a good GRE, and good academic writing sample, and managed to charm two or three of your undergraduate profs, go for it.
posted by bardic at 10:27 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


srboisvert: " what benefit to academic ability does a 6-year PhD actually offer compared to a 3-year PhD?

It will vary by school and subject. In psychology it means a publication count head start mostly but the 6 year PhD usually includes a Masters level research project so that means two potential publications plus there will often be a comprehensive exam at the better schools meaning the candidate has dedicated about 6 months of cramming to passing an indepth exam on the entire field. The first two years of the PhD, during what is often counted as a Masters typically involves coursework as well.

So in a word: Breadth.
"

With all due respect, you're still being really dismissive of UK PhD graduates based solely on the length of the doctoral portion of their studies. Everything you just described: Masters level research + one MA/MSc and/or an Mphil degree (which is pure research), publications, exams and teaching are required for the admission and funding and completion of every PhD program I looked at in the UK. I've never heard of anyone going straight into that "three year" PhD without at least a masters degree in hand, bringing the total length of time and "breadth" to equal that of an American PhD. Just fyi.
posted by sundaydriver at 1:14 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


An undergraduate degree from the UK is typically much, much more specialized than an undergraduate degree from the States, which is why they can get away with such short PhDs. There's no undergraduate shopping for courses or dilly-dallying about in a bunch of different subjects: you decide what you're going to specialize in when you're 17, and then you set to it. The UK doesn't have a coursework component to their PhD programs because they're expected to have already done the equivalent in their undergrad. When a British student enters an American doctoral program, it is often striking how much better prepared he or she is than the rest of his or her cohort.
posted by painquale at 2:30 AM on April 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: 15K/year guaranteed, gain teaching experience, possibly get an editing credit in the most popular anthology of American poetry in the world, moonlight for a local magazine and get your first publication credits, meet some interesting people, go to some great parties, and then drop out with an MA in English which is actually kind of a golden ticket if you want to get into international ESL.

Or so I've heard.

posted by supercrayon at 4:15 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


meese hit the nail on the head. Bravo for that post.

I would like to add that in addition to all the structural problems, PhD holders need to have some solidarity and stop taking these adjunct positions. I understand if that is the only job offers you are receiving, but IMO the entire situation would be better off if these people refused to adjunct and worked for a temp agency until a tenure-track or post-doc opened up. It would be better paying and more stable, of course, but it would help stop perpetuating this madness.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:00 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh for the love of. There's always two conversations going on on threads about this topic. On the one hand, there's the conversation about whether individual grad students are fucked. This is a very short and boring conversation. The answer is (almost always) yes. The second, more interesting question is whether we are all fucked if everyone going into advanced research is fucked. This is a much more interesting conversation. Unfortunately, half the people in the room don't even acknowledge the possibility of that conversation, and are just totally baffled that not everyone enjoys shouting "HAW HAW LOOK AT THE FUCKED ACADEMIC."

I think that if research becomes exclusively the province of the rich, the quality and import of the research will absolutely plummet. I also think that this is important outside of the STEM-type fields that people think of when they think the word "research." It's beyond problematic if the people responsible for understanding and teaching art and literature are exclusively rich, because it grants the rich just way too much of a say in how we conceive of our culture going forward. In contemporary America, nearly everything is carefully set up to flatter the rich. Re-democratizing the humanities is, well, it's kind of important if we ever want to become a democratic culture again.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:07 AM on April 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


>> What country are you thinking of where a degree in field X from University A is automatically assumed
>> to be just as prestigious as a degree from any other university taken at random?
>
> Canada.

Who is doing the assuming or not-assuming? I am not Canadian and am aware of many top universities worldwide, Oxbridge to Tokyo. To me there definitely appears to be a prestige pecking order among Canadian universities, with McGill, Toronto, and UBC up at the top. McMaster and Montreal are on the list somewhere, and the rest are the Canadian peers of the "Midwestern or Southern universities of which you have never heard" as the lady in Slate put it. No doubt you can get a fine education at many of those Canadian universities that haven't made a blip on my radar, just as you can at many of those anonymous midwestern/southern universities in the US. But that's not at all the same thing as prestige. (Just ask metafilter what it thinks of the intellectual life of the midwest and south.)

Actually that's kind of related to the thread. If you wanted a tenured professorship at a top university but didn't get one, and had to settle for something in the midwest or south, or--shiver--a community college, what will metafilter think of you?
posted by jfuller at 8:05 AM on April 6, 2013


The Disposable Academic
posted by modernnomad at 9:25 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's no easy solution to this problem. I'm an academic, soon to defend my PhD, and I just got offered a tenure-track position in my field, but I had to leave my current country to get it. In my field (law), the problem of oversubscribed PhDs to available positions is nowhere near as bad as it is in other fields, but it's definitely beginning to be felt... and teaching in law schools doesn't even involve a huge number of non-tenure-track contract positions as in other fields, at least not in the same way -- upper year seminars are often taught by adjuncts, but they're all lawyers who just want to teach the occasional course, not people trying to break "into academia".

One possibility might be to have stricter guidelines in each department about how PhD spots are advertised - there needs to be clear data that says "this is how many PhD students graduated from this programme over the last 5/10 years, and here's where they are now."

Beyond that, simply cutting the number of PhD spots would be a good idea, but of course universities are loathe to do that because it's source of revenue for them. But it is particularly a good idea however in non-STEM fields... at least with a STEM PhD, there's probably a decent private sector job waiting for you. In non-STEM, a PhD is generally looked upon with suspicion by the private sector - it symbolizes to them a person who probably can't hack a 9-5 office job.

A separate issue is that there is no clear link between successful completion of a PhD and success as a researcher or professor in non-STEM fields - I think most people feel it is a giant, expensive, annoying hoop to have to jump through, which is what makes it truly problematic when people jump through the massive, expensive, time consuming hoop they've been told to jump through, only to find there is nothing waiting for them on the other side. If universities lost this mentality that completing a doctorate somehow proves anything other than the ability to complete a doctorate, we might begin to change the way we hire people, and prevent people from wasting 5 years of their lives.
posted by modernnomad at 10:19 AM on April 6, 2013


there needs to be clear data that says "this is how many PhD students graduated from this programme over the last 5/10 years, and here's where they are now."

Damn right. I always tell applicants to make our competitors show them their exact placement record for the last decade.

I also have a rough rule of one in, one out. My program has taken to taking a year off here and there from admitting new cohorts while we get everyone now in the program placed. But trying to talk whole departments into a performance-based accounting as a basis for admission and funding is a hard, hard sell.
posted by spitbull at 10:46 AM on April 6, 2013


Don't take a nickel of debt to do

Oh and that. Indeed, if you are not funded fully for the PhD, you are at a huge comparative and competitive disadvantage from the very beginning. Any humanities or social science PhD program that collects tuition from its students deserves to be de-accredited, in my opinion. Do that and we pretty much solve the problem.
posted by spitbull at 10:49 AM on April 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Any humanities or social science PhD program that collects tuition from its students deserves to be de-accredited, in my opinion. Do that and we pretty much solve the problem.

Of course, this means that, in many cases, you are subsidizing graduate education out of undergraduate tuition, and there are problems with that, too.

In my somewhat cranky comment above, I think I make it sound like there is a conspiracy of the STEM disciplines to undermine the Humanities, and I don't think that is actually true. Part of the problem is that academia is made up of people who are pretty smart. This is generally good, but it does have side effects -- smart people are usually fairly adept at gaming systems, and there is a certain defensive arrogance built into intelligence, especially when the intelligent person knows that they don't have much respect in the wider world.

In the US at least, lack of respect towards intellectual pursuits is pretty endemic. There are pretty much no public intellectuals (with the damning with faint praise exception of political pundits) and intellectual pursuits are eyed with suspicion, if not outright contempt. Never mind that our society would be a mess without them; the US doesn't value labor, either (and see where that has gotten things). Anyway, no academic is unaware of this. So academic interactions often contain a degree of contempt toward other disciplines -- the Sciences disparage Humanities, the Applied Sciences Disparage the "Pure" Sciences (who disparage them right back), ad nauseum. The faculty disparage the administration, who were originally hired to do the work that the faculty did not want to do, and the administration disparage the faculty, which, now that the administration has considerable power, has worked poorly for the faculty. State funding disparages everyone, following the lead of the electorate, who would not be able to say a useful thing about how Higher Ed actually works if you offered a million dollars for a correct answer. (And I guess I am disparaging them; what can I say? It's been a frustrating week.)

And, when we add tight resources into the mix, we have people doing their best to protect the turf that they understand and allying themselves with the people they see adding value to their own efforts. Which often creates a balkanized situation within a university, which is exploited by administrators and various policy makers, who, to be fair, are under their own pressures and are just trying to make things work out for themselves.

Then, we add in the oversized value placed on research -- it's great, but it doesn't pay the bills. I am reasonably sure that, if the research endeavor of most (maybe all) research universities had to pay 100% of its costs (including all personnel costs, the costs of the buildings, the fundraising efforts for those buildings, housekeeping, groundskeeping, etc), they would be out of business within a few years. Graduate programs are the same way -- faculty like them for a variety of reasons, but they do not pay their way. Pretty much the only thing that pays the way is undergraduate tuition, and undergraduate teaching is usually not much valued by faculty and administrators or policy makers (as a whole; there are definitely exceptions). So the reward system is almost entirely inverted -- what faculty get prestige for, what they are promoted for internally and lauded for professionally is not the main financial support for the university. Which is really unhealthy.

I am not calling for the elimination of graduate programs or research; they are important for a host of reasons I'm not going to argue here. But we do need to find a way to reward undergraduate teaching, develop the sense of Higher Ed as a critical economic engine in most states and support it appropriately, streamline governmental interference in the operation of institutions (not eliminate, but if you have 4-6 external agencies asking for different kinds of evaluations and not paying for the people doing the evaluating, you are dragging resource from the actual productive functions of Higher Education), restore state funding to sensible levels. This latter is a critical detail. The purpose of tenure, remember, is not to give some blessed few job security, but to protect serious thinkers from political manipulation. And I am am reasonably sure that one of the reasons for the decline of state funding for Higher Edin the US since the 80s has to do with the Right wanting to destroy institutions that have been not very cooperative with the efforts to remake the US (I suspect one of the reasons Science gets a pass, besides their economic utility, is that scientists, as a whole, having skipped as many Social Science and Humanities classes as possible (and knowing which side their butter is on)) tend toward more conservative politics). So those of you of lefty leanings enjoying the battering that the academy is taking might ask yourselves if you are playing into the hands of your political opponents.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:54 AM on April 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I have seen, and suffered under, such a complete lack of ethics and humanity by tenured professors that I take immense pleasure at the fact that the concept of tenure is dying. We need a system in which everybody should have access to the best education we, as a society, can provide and the tenure system, which has encentives contrary to that goal, needs to go.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:25 PM on April 6, 2013


We need a system in which everybody should have access to the best education we, as a society, can provide and the tenure system, which has encentives contrary to that goal, needs to go.

Right! Everything will be so much better when anyone with money or power can pressure a university into firing a professor who they disagree with. Publish a paper about something that a university sponsor finds inconvenient, such as the consequences of fracking? Fired! Write a book about something politically controversial? Fired! Teach a class about something that is demonized in popular media, like Marxism? Fired! Tenure exists for good reason: to protect accomplished academics from political interference and the vagaries of what people with money find acceptable.
posted by oulipian at 12:40 PM on April 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


That tired argument is absurd. No other field has such immunity from responsibility, why should educator be any different?
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:46 PM on April 6, 2013


It's not an argument; it's literally the reason why tenure exists. Sorry if you don't like it and sorry that you had a bad experience with tenured professors. Most of the ones I know are wonderful, kind, and incredibly hard-working people, but there are bad apples in any field I guess.

In any case, the death of tenure would not be the end of the world if it were replaced with a viable alternative for those who want to make a living teaching at the college level (although it may indeed be the end of progressive or controversial research). Instead, we have desperately underpaid and miserable adjuncts on one-year contracts, which is nothing close to "the best education we, as a society, can provide."
posted by oinopaponton at 12:59 PM on April 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Tenure exists for good reason: to protect accomplished academics from political interference and the vagaries of what people with money find acceptable.

Exactly. I think this is also one of the reasons that the far right is so on-board with extreme adoption of MOOCs - it destroys a liberalizing force in American politics that pretty much every child has to pass through at some point.
posted by codacorolla at 1:35 PM on April 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have seen, and suffered under, such a complete lack of ethics and humanity by tenured professors that I take immense pleasure at the fact that the concept of tenure is dying. We need a system in which everybody should have access to the best education we, as a society, can provide and the tenure system, which has encentives contrary to that goal, needs to go.

Wow. That's quite a claim. I have known a lot of faculty in my day, some of whom I have disliked profoundly, but I wouldn't accuse them of a "complete lack of ethics and humanity." Most of the faculty I've worked with could be, at most, accused of being somewhat self-absorbed and responding to an incentive system that does not reward teaching. Many of them are deeply committed to their students and devote long hours to their efforts to improve the student's learning and experiences on campus.

Abolishing tenure would actually make this worse -- part-time, short-contract lecturers have far less incentive to excel at teaching, pay attention to students beyond the bare minimum, and engage in protecting the institution from various predatory forces. They are too busy trying to cobble together a living wage to be concerned with things like that. And, believe me, without tenure, it will get down to that pretty quickly.

Your comment reads a bit like one of those crypto-"I hate teachers' unions" rants, just projected on Higher Ed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:48 PM on April 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


No other field has such immunity from responsibility, why should educator be any different?

Tenure is one facet of how academia has chosen to organize itself. It's not "immunity" by any means, and it comes with a great deal of responsibility. Academia is not required to organize itself to serve the interests of the free market.

Other institutions and systems organize themselves in different ways. I may have had bad experiences with dentists, but that doesn't mean that I think the entire system of how dentists are trained and accredited should be demolished.
posted by oulipian at 2:03 PM on April 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Anytime you start to think it'd be good to get rid of tenure, just think about the ridiculous political fights over public schools teaching sex ed, evolution, Latino studies, and what-all-else. Let's not wish for higher education to become more useful as a political tool.
posted by meese at 2:24 PM on April 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


No other field has such immunity from responsibility, why should educator be any different?

Many problems with tenure are fixing themselves. The shrinking job market means that only excellent candidates have a shot at a job, and so the quality of the faculty is steadily improving. Moreover, the bar for tenure at most schools seems to be rising. When I arrived at my institution, most assistant professors going up for tenure got it. Now at least a third are denied. My tenure bid in 2006 was uneventful, but if I was going up this year, I'd be stressed. Gone are the days when "dead wood" professors get a lifetime contract just for maintaining a pulse. Some of those people are still around. They are the bane of my existence. But most of them are set to retire soon.

I support sensible post-tenure review. "Tenured" should not be a synonym of "retired." But tenure is one of the ways professors get paid. Academia pays with security, not money. Any state that unilaterally abolishes tenure by legislative fiat can expect to experience brain drain of epic proportion from its university system.
posted by Crotalus at 2:46 PM on April 6, 2013


If you are talking about a UK PhD I think you might want to re-examine that statement. I spent the last 7 years surrounded by those 3 year PhDs. They do no coursework and just one project to get their degree. In North America they call this a Masters Degree.

The version of this I heard, here in the UK, is that American PhD dissertations are on the same level as our Masters ones. So, well, it goes both ways. Everybody's system looks weird from the outside.

As for what the hiring situation is like for people with 3-year PhDs (which for most students are more like 3-year-and-364-day PhDs, tbh) - yeah, dismal. In the Arts UK universities are also moving towards increased casualisation of academic jobs, with more and more teaching being done on short fixed-term contracts. There are hiring freezes, higher education budget cuts, and the ever-popular myth that it'll all be fixed when the big wave of retirements hits, any day now...

There also isn't really a US-style distinction between TAs and adjuncts - it's all just hourly-paid teaching labour, although PhD students won't usually be doing much of the higher-level stuff (lecturing, running your own course). And these people are cheap. Universities also pull all kinds of weasely tricks with hourly pay, as well; when I was doing my PhD, I had friends at another institution whose apparently decent pay was effectively hovering just below minimum wage once they'd factored in all the hours they were expected to do but not paid for (marking, office hours, etc.) Every year there are bright-eyed new PhD students prepared to accept pretty much any pay and conditions because "oh, I just love teaching so much I'd do it for free, and anyway I need this for my c.v. - I'm just lucky they let me have some classes!", and by the time they wise up a couple of years later (typically when the funding runs out, the pay starts to matter, and it becomes ever more clear that you're not an apprentice being trained but rather cheap labour), there's a new generation to replace them with.

UK higher education is quite strongly unionised on a national level, though, so that's a difference from the US system. I have my disagreements sometimes with the UCU, our union, but they do a lot of good work and are moving towards a stronger focus on anti-casualisation.

(Got my PhD in 2008; I'm in a pretty good full-time position now, albeit not a permanent one, and I'm no longer panicking about my chances on the job market. I am one of the lucky ones. The system is still a mess.)
posted by Catseye at 3:07 PM on April 6, 2013


Oh, and I think our PhD students and prospective PhD students mostly do get warned that the job market is really, really bad. They don't always get warned specifically enough, though; when students have spent the past 15 years working really hard and being the top of their class, "the job market is really competitive" can sound more like a challenge than a problem. "The job market is so bad that 12-month teaching fellowships at unexceptional universities where the job advert is open about the fact that they'll work you into the ground regularly get 150+ applicants" often comes as a shock.

Also, a fair number of my colleagues in the field give advice like "only do it if you can't imagine yourself being happy doing anything else with your life," and I know they mean well but this is awful advice. If you can't imagine being happy doing anything else with your life, work on your imagination.
posted by Catseye at 3:23 PM on April 6, 2013


"…you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”…"

All words are "made-up".

After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you
By Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman, Visiting Assistant Professor at Ohio State University?
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 4:11 PM on April 6, 2013


" In the place of actual jobs are adjunct positions: benefit-free, office-free academic servitude in which you will earn $18,000 a year for the rest of your life."

"Rebecca Schuman joins our department under the auspices of the ACLS New Faculty Fellows Program". Which is an external stipend and is quite possibly—and rightfully so—compensated on top of that at Ohio State.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 4:14 PM on April 6, 2013


Visiting positions are temporary; they're soooort of analogous to post-docs.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:39 PM on April 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I support sensible post-tenure review.

So do I. Pretty much, so does everyone. The sticking point is, of course, that "sensible." Wat I think is sensible and what the Provost thinks is sensible might be very different. Of course, I am correct (here is where the trouble starts).

I say this as someone whose institution is enacting such a system. We shall see what happens. It might well be a good thing, although my impression is that the number of "dead wood" professors is rather overestimated (on the other hand, I don't know all the professors on my campus).
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:22 PM on April 6, 2013


Rebecca Schuman, Visiting Assistant Professor at Ohio State University?

If she's a visitor at Ohio State, she could probably get a tenure track gig at a good community college or a small state college in one of those Southern or Midwestern states she so openly disdains. Her odds would improve markedly if she spent as much time improving her teaching portfolio as she appears to spend bawling about why someone with a Ph.D. from a middle tier department can't get a job at a school like the ones she attended.
posted by Crotalus at 5:29 PM on April 6, 2013


From this thread, you'd get the impression that all you have to do to get a TT gig at a community college is show up and say "gimme." CC jobs are very competitive, often more so than other positions. They get hundreds of applicants, like any other academic positions. Because they tend to have high pay and low (if any) research requirements, they're extremely appealing.

Sure, it's easy to get a non-TT job at a CC. You can, sometimes, do something not too different from showing up and saying "gimme" to get a class or two. But, again, that's adjunct work. That's maybe one or two classes a term for somewhere around $2500 a pop (but not more than three a term, because then you'd be pushed into "full time" and they'd have to give you health insurance). One reason why it's so hard to get a TT line at a CC is because they have so few of them: departments of maybe 2 or 3 full-time members and then a dozen or more adjuncts, each teaching only one or two classes.
posted by meese at 10:37 PM on April 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Of course, this means that, in many cases, you are subsidizing graduate education out of undergraduate tuition.

Hardly. It means you are paying graduate students less than faculty members to teach the same courses, thus saving undergraduate tuition money.

It is the longstanding structure of things. The payoff for the grad student is (supposed to be) a real job at the end. The problem is that a PhD student on full fellowship costs more than an adjunct on a per class basis.

For a number of reasons, the job numbers are skewed sharply in favor of those who went through their PhD years with full funding. If you take the programs that don't fund their students out of the mix, the PhD unemployment problem gets significantly less severe.

It's hard medicine, but it's why I favor shutting down about half the PhD programs in my own field. It would be the honest approach to a bad situation. If you can't pay your students 25 grand a year plus their expenses for five years, you shouldn't be training PhD students.
posted by spitbull at 3:53 AM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


as a bit of anecedata, sometimes tenured faculty at my institution are a little -- wound up tight? Imposing bizarro requirements on students where I am like look why are you throwing around ancient Greek at cc students taking basic comp. I always thought that it was maybe just these random folks and their personalities, but now that I am teaching at the same institution (part-time) it feels more like a way of defining social strata in the aquarium: i don't do things to piss students off, because, hello bad evaluations, which as a part-timer, hurt me. Tenure-tracks don't have to worry about that, plus there are few if any research requirements at the cc, so all the twitchiness one sees in English Departments gets transferred to the classroom. Plus, if students don't sign up for the TT faculty because of what they've read on rate my professor.com or whatever, then TT faculty take classes away from part-timers.

it's sort of fortunate that I'm in my forties in this environment; if I were in my twenties I'm sure my head would be exploding at the problems in the labor environment. The beauty of aging is you gain the superpower of Not Giving A Shit
posted by angrycat at 4:44 AM on April 7, 2013


Hardly. It means you are paying graduate students less than faculty members to teach the same courses, thus saving undergraduate tuition money.

I think we are arguing two different things. Generally speaking*, graduate programs don't pay for themselves, and they only work because there are undergraduate programs subsidizing the cost of the institution (including the buildings, staff, etc). Using graduate students as teachers does generate some income (and recover some of the cost of the stipend, true, but not enough to offset the rest of the program. Given that classes are so much smaller, reassigning the graduate faculty to teach undergraduate courses would probably be more of a fiscal boost.

I am not arguing that graduate programs should go away; much like research programs, they serve a variety of purposes on campus (eg prestige, training new academics and professionals) but fiscal balance is not one of them. Which leads to the slightly weird situation where faculty who teach large lectures, general education courses, service courses, and the like, while more critical to the financial well-being of the institution, are generally given less status. This means that professors who want to get promoted are disincentivized to do that work, and it has a tendency to get pushed off on junior faculty and per-course instructors (including graduate students), arguably the people least competent to give the students a positive experience (directly tied to retention and completion, two metrics that universities are very excited about). So the reward structure is out of whack. Graduate students headed towards an academic career should teach, preferably with a lot of supervision. After all, a doctoral program really only trains you to do research in your discipline, which is maybe 30-40% of a faculty's workload (depending on whether you measure by P&T criteria or % of the work week officially assigned) -- the degree does nothing to prepare you for the majority of your working time spent teaching and doing various administrative tasks.

*It's just possible that there are research programs that bring in so much grant and patent money that the whole operation pays for itself, but I have my doubts.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:21 AM on April 7, 2013


Blanket “Don’t Go To Graduate School!” Advice Ignores Race and Reality?
Credentialism is often rewarded in bureaucracies because it is a simple, relatively unambiguous designation of “qualified” that conforms to bureaucratic desires to remove discretion from decision-making. Ergo, credentialism — literally here just meaning the process of formalizing knowledge or qualifications by attaching it to some kind of certificate or degree — can be disproportionately important to black folks who are disproportionately hired by, employed in, and promoted according to the standards of bureaucracies, which reward having a credential.
That makes graduate school a lot less stupid of a decision.
You're Fucked, And You're Probably To Blame
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:30 PM on April 7, 2013


"Part of the problem with the advice in this article is that it extends to anyone who wants to achieve greatness in any field. Being a great writer, musician, journalist, comedian, chef, charitable organizer, actor, or whatever... most people who try to pursue their dreams in these fields are bound to fail, and will often suffer a terrible opportunity cost when they could have been growing their IRAs and building experience at the desk job they'll eventually end up at."

Blogger Freddie at L'Hote had a similar thought as you, Painquale, and also took serious issue with calling this article "advice," when it appears to actually be disappointment addled ridicule. In short, there's a lot of constructive advice on how to approach the long odds of academic big leagues, but it's not being published in Slate.
posted by midmarch snowman at 6:21 PM on April 8, 2013


Al Jazeera: Academia's indentured servants
No one forces a scholar to work as an adjunct. So why do some of America's brightest PhDs - many of whom are authors of books and articles on labour, power, or injustice - accept such terrible conditions?

"Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces," speculates political scientist Steve Saidemen in a post titled "The Adjunct Mystery". In other words, job candidates have invested so much time and money into their professional training that they cannot fathom abandoning their goal - even if this means living, as Saidemen says, like "second-class citizens". (He later downgraded this to "third-class citizens".)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:11 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always wonder if a good concept for a headhunter outfit might be, find adjuncts lecturers, force feed them industry survival tips, and get them hired in industry. Instead, there are companies like Wolfram that specialize in hiring STEM PhDs for complicated software development work, but underpaying and not promoting them, eventually most leave for greener pastures, but Wolfram makes oodles by under paying.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:51 PM on April 11, 2013






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