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I'm going to be a college professor
October 26, 2010 5:46 PM   Subscribe

So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities. Also. (Previously)
posted by shivohum (90 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
A related video: Reading and Time: A dialectic between academic expectation and academic frustration.
posted by bewilderbeast at 5:49 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


So you want to get a PhD in the Social Sciences: get your liver function tested now, to establish a baseline.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:53 PM on October 26, 2010 [21 favorites]


That "little girl" voice synth is pretty good.

Could've done without the strawmanning of the student, though. Not even I sounded like that, back when I was considering (haaaaahahaha) getting a PhD in the humanities.
posted by pts at 5:55 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Social and natural science isn't so bad. The humanities grad students at my school unionized. The science ones did not. The widespread belief was that they didn't need to, since they get treated about as well as lab techs. I think it has to do with how professors pay for themselves using grad student labor. If your science grad student burns out and takes the project you got a grant for down the tubes; you're screwed since the others in your lab / workgroup will probably not be able to pick it up easily. If the grad student whose economic contribution is TAing burns out, you just get another.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:00 PM on October 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


mmmm. That's nice and bitter.
posted by fuq at 6:04 PM on October 26, 2010


As someone who was once considering a PhD in the humanities, I laughed, I cried, I've decided to show this to most of my peers who haven't yet decided against it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:05 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe if the creator of this video had done a PhD in the humanities, they'd be able to write something coherent on the topic, instead of making another dull, lazy text-to-video piece of crap.
posted by ssg at 6:06 PM on October 26, 2010 [13 favorites]


Yes that's the sound of the ''meritocracy" collapsing.
posted by wuwei at 6:08 PM on October 26, 2010


I kind of still want to be a college professor, and I'm not just saying that to sleep with that hot blonde girl.
posted by boghead at 6:18 PM on October 26, 2010


No food for you grad students till you grade 3000 papers!
posted by azarbayejani at 6:19 PM on October 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


Oh shit.
posted by loquacious at 6:24 PM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Don't get me wrong, the job market is awful, but Benton's essay isn't without its critics.

Betting on being the exception to the rule is a bad policy, but a lot goes into figuring out what the rule is. The employment rate for a discipline overall is useful information, but it may be outweighed by the placement rate of the department, which itself may be outweighed by a high attrition rate in that department, and so on.

But no matter what, have a few back-up plans.
posted by Marty Marx at 6:27 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cartoon people have big fuckin' heads.
posted by jonmc at 6:33 PM on October 26, 2010


Related (and hilarious): So You Want to Go to Law School.
posted by xekul at 6:36 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


"I think whoever wrote Beowulf was cheating off of The Hobbit."
posted by maudlin at 6:42 PM on October 26, 2010


It's all true.
posted by bardic at 6:45 PM on October 26, 2010


One of the most interesting things about watching my peer group as it has evolved has been making observations about the faction that went into academia. One portion of that faction recognizes and is continually vexed by the Byzantine structure and expectations and limitations of academic life, yet is completely sure that was the right path for them to take and is basically satisfied with a life of teaching and research, if frustrated about the job market. Another faction is nothing but bitter, and I can't help but think that in general, these were people who talked themselves into this path, or let themselves be talked into it, without the requisite manic degree of self-sacrifice and hyperfocus that it actually requires. I suppose these things are somewhat helpful as deterrents for the unsure, but there will always be the obsessed and passionate few who believe in the increase of knowledge and who doggedly, and happily, pursue it. I always think these diatribe-type things are more reflective of the variety of individuals who consider academia as a path at some point than the realities of academia itself, for those who elect to be there.
posted by Miko at 6:46 PM on October 26, 2010 [12 favorites]


I'm not exactly glad I got my MFA in creative writing, as I probably could have figured out that I'm not a poet some other way, but I am real glad that I didn't listen to my professors and get a PhD.

(Also, I hated the actually English lit seminars I took, except for the ones in children's sci-fi and stuff. So there's that, too.)

Oh shit.

Hee, told ya, loq.

(Told my husband, who is an MA student in history, the same thing, too. But then, he's loaded. It's a whole 'nother ballgame when you don't have to worry about debt. Maybe. But also, maybe not.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:49 PM on October 26, 2010


"the increase of knowledge"

Have you ever actually read a contemporary PHD thesis in English? (From an English department, that is?)
posted by bardic at 6:50 PM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


This makes me so very proud to be a SUNY-Albany grad. Go Great Danes!

(Seriously, go. No German, Spanish, or French, how the fuck is that a university??)
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 6:52 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm currently getting a PhD in the humanities, although I'm still in the coursework/generals preparation stage and I'm not teaching yet. What can I say? We all love bitching about the job market and how awful the books/courses/students/workshops are. Mostly, though, I think this is because grad students just love to complain. Humanities grad students are the worst, because we're also "intellectuals," and intellectuals always have an exaggerated idea of their own importance and what they are entitled to.

First of all, we're all fairly generously funded, and many of us even manage to pay off student loans. Second, we have to read lots of books--roughly 300 over two years--but in many cases really reading the book is totally unnecessary. A few book reviews, a skim, and a dash through the introduction will often tell you everything you need to know for an exam. (General exams in our program are a total joke, a two-hour oral examination that barely anyone ever fails.) Third, if an outsider calls what academics get during the summer a "vacation," he'll always get an angry lecture--but guess what? When we're not at the archive, we're hitting the beaches and the bars and the tourist spots, except we're using sweet, sweet grant funding to pay for it. Fourth, sure, you might work a lot, but if you like you can sleep till noon, drink on the weekends, and get your work done in the middle of the night. Fifth, the professors are generally well-fed, reasonable, busy people and don't feel the need to exploit you for much of anything.

I can keep going, but you get the picture. Basically, at least in my program, it's nice work if you can get it. I can't think of a better way to spend my twenties, considering that other people my age are scraping by in temp positions or are permanently unemployed and living with their parents. It'll be hard to get a job in my field, sure--but lawyers have it even worse, since they usually have crippling debt and their job prospects are awful right now. My plan right now is to spend a couple of years on the market and then dump the whole thing and go into something computer-related instead.

The universe does not owe me a remunerative, dignified, prestigious academic position where my students are brilliant, my load is 2/2, and my tenure requirements are low. The fact that many people now producing these kinds of pieces seem to believe that it does is just a mark of their class privilege or irrational wishful thinking. At this point, the humanities are largely parasitic on the sciences and other university functions, and humanities jobs should be appropriately shitty. As far as I'm concerned, the best I can hope for is a tenure-track position that gets me to the rainbow before the whole tenure system collapses under the weight of its own uselessness. If I don't get one, why the hell would I blame anyone other than myself, for going down this road in the first place?
posted by nasreddin at 6:52 PM on October 26, 2010 [25 favorites]


While it is of course true that a PhD in the Humanities is hardly a fast track to a decent job within the university as a teacher, so too, the universities themselves have been changing for the past number of years and now come increasingly to model themselves upon corporations, for which read
http://chronicle.com/article/The-Making-of-Corporate-U/124913/?sid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medi
posted by Postroad at 6:55 PM on October 26, 2010


In 2003 I was accepted to both MA programs to which I applied, in Art History and in Urban Planning.

I chose Art History.

* kicks self in head *

In 2005, having completed my MA in Art History, I went to Manchester to pursue a PhD in Art History.

* kicks self in head *

At the end of 2008 I completed my PhD in Art History, in a merciful 3 years due to the UK system rather than the 127 years that is required in the USA.

* kicks self in head, slightly more gently because after all, it was only three years *

Last week I got a phone call from a Romanian with whom I was in the program, who is STILL in the program, and totally isolated, and massively depressed, and hadn't communicated with me in two years, and who wanted me to look over her dissertation for her.

* kicks self in head *

I am now trying to find the time to edit 150 pages of Romanian English into English.

* kicks self in head *

Fortunately, I have time to do this because I DON'T HAVE A FUCKING JOB.

* kicks self in head, really hard *
posted by crazylegs at 6:59 PM on October 26, 2010 [58 favorites]


Meh, there are worse ways to ride out the Great Recession.
posted by boubelium at 7:04 PM on October 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


Have you ever actually read a contemporary PHD thesis in English? (From an English department, that is?)

Tempting to argue ignorance, but the answer is yes, willingly, fairly often, and volunteer to proof too. Also in history.
posted by Miko at 7:07 PM on October 26, 2010


This is just more evidence that strawmen will never make it in academia.
posted by Bromius at 7:07 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


While it is of course true that a PhD in the Humanities is hardly a fast track to a decent job within the university as a teacher, so too, the universities themselves have been changing for the past number of years and now come increasingly to model themselves upon corporations

Well, sure, but what of it? I usually see this point being made in the context of pseudo-leftist rants about how the eeevil korporit university wants humanities departments to be accountable and cost-effective, generally strung together with nostalgic appeals to the good old days of the thirteenth century and bathetic descriptions of the inestimable value of humanistic values to our society or some bullshit like that. Very few of these pieces contain any acknowledgment of the fact that, gee whiz, if society doesn't feel like paying for your navel-gazing study of mid-eighteenth-century Russian Sinology, it's just going to have to get its Eternal Humanistic Values elsewhere, and that you are in no way a necessary or sufficient part of the process.
posted by nasreddin at 7:07 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


As an undergrad who had been deadset on getting that MFA, I'm now in the long and heated process of second guessing of the whole ordeal, so I think I can give a little bit of perspective on the other end of the spectrum.

There's a large body of students who see an advanced degree less as a magic ticket to publishing and grants and money but more as something motivational, like a beacon that gives them a clearly plotted, step-by-step plan for the next few years of their life. The criticism of undergrads as being naive, as needing Real Life experience is a valid one because the culture of college is so blinding. By being different from the stifling confines of the home and so refreshingly anti-establishment in rhetoric, it's easy to fall into the mode of academia, especially in the theory-driven field of the humanities (I've been hella guilty of this). It's so entitling to be rewarded for your thoughts! And the praise you get seems to be more meaningful than the gold stars and pumpkin cookies of years past even if it's just a cliched 'insightful! but vague' that had to have been choked out over a few glasses of wine.

That's why you get so many activist groups on campus and why communities like reddit have become incredibly popular in recent years with the 21-24 crowd. We just want to be heard, to have someone rub our hair and tell us that we've got a good head on our shoulders even if what we say is really actually kind of dumb. We go to grad school thinking that it's going to be much of the same: we're already conditioned to the bell and we hope, without knowing, that there's going to be some reward at the end and so we choose to get that PhD. Because hell, it's a lot less scary than plopping yourself down in the Real World with the realization that you're never ever going to have as much fun as you did talking about the merits of deconstructionism as you did in the classroom, and girls aren't ever going to look at you and think 'hey, now here's a smart guy' just because you just happened to understand a little bit of whatever the hell Derrida was trying to get across.

And so you get a lot of people who, like me, have only recently become jaded by the process and, because of the economy, because of how much we hear about the oversaturated market of young professionals, who start applying to the Peace Corps, which went from being lax in its selection process to apparently now having too many applicants, and to other programs like JETS and ICTC. In this respect, taking the route of further education is safer in comparison if only because of the familiarity of it and so you get a lot of the bitterness present in videos like this one.
posted by dubusadus at 7:09 PM on October 26, 2010 [12 favorites]


Much of that is ascribable to a failure of the advocacy function of humanities professionals, and a reluctance to demonstrate interest in the diffusion of knowledge to the public. Not everyone, mind you, because many people are driven by ideas of access - but as a whole, there's been an abysmal failure to demonstrate social utility, on the part of the humanities infrastructure.
posted by Miko at 7:10 PM on October 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


dubusadus, I think that's an excellent analysis - and yet, is the academy to blame for the choices of people who feel this is going to be a comfortable stimulus/reward system? Most of the hurdles you have to jump on the way in do presume that the student cares enough about the path to endure the hardships that are to come. I can't think of an instance when anyone had the wool pulled over their eyes or wasn't warned that graduate education in the humanities was not a guaranteed path to success. Education in the humanities as a means to an end is a shaky game. I'm not sure at what point people get to claim they weren't oriented to what they should have expected.
posted by Miko at 7:17 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


At this point, the humanities are largely parasitic on the sciences and other university functions, and humanities jobs should be appropriately shitty.

Sounds like someone's headed for administration.
posted by washburn at 7:17 PM on October 26, 2010 [18 favorites]


Getting a phd and pursuing an academic career has been a great path for me, and 90% of my former phd advisees are employed full time in academia, most in tenure track jobs.

But by all means go on stereotyping. Keeps the competition down.

Miko has it exactly right above. It's not for everyone, but it's not for no one either.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:17 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


DON'T GO
posted by k8t at 7:24 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I usually see this point being made in the context of pseudo-leftist rants

I'm not entirely sure what a "pseudo-leftist rant" is, but I'm sure it's very arousing.
posted by blucevalo at 7:45 PM on October 26, 2010


Here's a data point. At my school six of us started in the PhD program at the same time. Two dropped out before the third year because of how brutal the program could be. One saw how the job market looked and transferred to a PhD in public education. Three of us got PhD's or are close to it. Of those three only one has a tenure track job. One is still in academia, but not tenure track. One is out of academia.

So, 1 for 6.

While the numbers for the students starting before are better, the poor kids after me are significantly worse (off the top of my head it's one tenure track spot out of more than 12).
posted by oddman at 7:49 PM on October 26, 2010


I'm not entirely sure what a "pseudo-leftist rant" is, but I'm sure it's very arousing.

In this case, "pseudo-leftist rant" means using the vocabulary of leftist activism and theory ("corporatization," "neo-liberalism," and so on) in defense of something transparently self-serving and only marginally relevant to genuine leftist goals.
posted by nasreddin at 7:51 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


There's a large body of students who see an advanced degree less as a magic ticket to publishing and grants and money but more as something motivational, like a beacon that gives them a clearly plotted, step-by-step plan for the next few years of their life.

I'll add to this a bit. I'm currently working on a PhD in the humanities, and even if I don't get a full time teaching position (which is what I've been actively working towards for years), I will not have seen it as wasted time. Although important, getting an education isn't always about a paycheck. I'm learning how to do research on a level that I wouldn't be able to do otherwise, in a field that I genuinely believe will contribute to improving the human condition. I'll find a way to use it with or without a teaching job at graduation.

I see learning at this level as a genuine calling, and I'd like to think that there are considerations at work here besides the teaching position. I'm frustrated, actually, that education is seen these days almost primarily in terms of what it can get for us at the end, instead of the kinds of people it makes us through the process. Of course being able to support oneself is vitally important, and broken promises (real or implied) to students about their future prospects is a shame. I wouldn't be able to do this at all without a significant scholarship, either, so those who go into debt for it have a special kind of pain. But I'd like to think that it's not wasted time, simply based on teaching prospects when I'm done. There is an inherent value to education beyond pragmatics. It's a good in and of itself. Good education (in general) is a prize to be treasured, simply for what it is.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:56 PM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


So, 1 for 6.

OK, but in absence of any comparative data or reference to goals it's hard to evaluate this. Was there any reason to expect something other than this kind of winnowing? Two people couldn't hack the program's difficulty, and so it's best that they're not going to move into positions where they couldn't contribute to the field. A third found a better fit in another specialty (I wouldn't call that a loss to academia). The remaining three have chosen separate career paths in academia. Tenure track jobs are going to continue disappearing, so it's kind of great that one person landed one, one is still teaching, and one is using the education in other ways. To me, I still see the problem as lying in the disconnect between expectations and reality than in the reality itself.

Only a little over half of all students entering college in the US have completed a bachelors' level degree six years later. Graduation rates from law school range incredibly widely, from lows in the 30s to highs in the 90s, depending on school, race, ethnicity, gender, and other factors. Even medical school dropouts run in the neighborhood of 10%, and note that medical and law schools have much more stringent entrance requirements including specific exams. MBA programs vary widely as well. In fact, I'm having a much harder time locating stats for graduate school completion rates than for undergrad and high school completion rates. I doubt this is because those rates are fantastic.
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Getting a phd and pursuing an academic career has been a great path for me, and 90% of my former phd advisees are employed full time in academia, most in tenure track jobs.

I think that everyone would agree that good training and especially good mentoring make a huge difference, and that there are lots of happy outcomes out there in the academy for humanities students. That doesn't say that there isn't an oversupply, or how many bad outcomes there are. Perhaps the number of trainee spots needs to be capped nationally. That's what physicians did to ensure that there wasn't (much) MD unemployment. There's always difficulty in saying who will be the successful students ex-ante, but making sure that demand matches supply would be good for almost everyone.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:03 PM on October 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


True - I work in a field outside academia which does require lots of people with advanced degrees nontheless, and we're loaded with an oversupply of graduates. So the winnowing happens when the education is done and the shit hits the fan in terms of what the job market really has to offer. Individual merit and experience become the deciding factors, because the degrees are qualifiers but not differentiators. It would behoove us all if admissions were more difficult and selective, but there we run into conflict with the desire for continual growth on the part of universities to establish and maintain new programs and enroll ever larger student populations.

I still think students are responsible for evaluating the choice to enter, but I could imagine a tightening of graduate requirements helping things across the board. That would mean that some of those perpetual students who have felt comfortable in the supervised and rewarding environment of the classroom would be denied the opportunity further progress on a more regular basis, though.

And then there's SpacemanStix's point that not everyone pursuing advanced learning plans to enter academia. There are other uses for the training, and so restricting entry based on the job forecast for academia might needlessly lock down opportunity for those whose true interests may lay in authorship, independent scholarship, public scholarship, cultural production or leadership, and other roles outside the university where advanced learning is valued.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on October 26, 2010


meat robot, I definitely think that the humanities could learn something from MD's. When I was on the job market I was completely jealous of my med student friends. All they have to do is fill out a single application with a central clearing house. The clearing house then communicates the materials to the hospitals designated by the students. (Or something like that.) Lucky bastards.

Meanwhile I was preparing 30-50 separate packets and of course each damned-special-little-snowflake of a program wanted different things, and you just have to research the precious mission statement, so that you could position yourself more attractively. What a waste of paper (because hardly any are willing to let you e-mail documents to them. no, they all want hard copies.)
posted by oddman at 8:12 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Good education (in general) is a prize to be treasured, simply for what it is.

I love this sort of attitude in theory, but in practice, I can't help but think that favoring it also somewhat disfavors the democratization of education, like we should be returning to the time when those with post-secondary education were a leisure class of gentlemen scholars who could afford learning for learning's sake and not have to worry about, you know, health care, or eating.

I'd be all about the treasure of graduate education if we were a society that took care of everyone's lower-order needs and left us all to pursue our passions. But perhaps when it comes down to it, our society just doesn't work with the traditional model of academia, a fact that will only become increasingly apparent with the awfulness of the economy, generally, and (sorry nasreddin) the increasing corporatization of the university.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:12 PM on October 26, 2010 [11 favorites]


I remember I was finishing up my degree in my last semester, and one of my professors tried to sell me on the idea of graduate school. At the time I was flattered but I was pretty eager to do some "real work", having rather liked the "real work" I did on my internships. So I declined, graduated, and found a job with fair ease, this being some years ago.

I didn't realize at the time what he was trying to recruit me for. Sounds like I dodged a bullet there.
posted by quillbreaker at 8:17 PM on October 26, 2010


12 years ago, as an undergrad English office assistant (woo, work study!), I was told to organize the folders (sealed, mind you) of applicants for the two positions available at the school the next year. One was an adjunct position, one was a tenure track position, at a small liberal arts college of 2000 students in a small to medium sized urban area. There were over 500 applicants for the two positions, which ultimately were filled by teachers already at the school (one had been an adjunct and got the tenure track, the other had been a part-timer and got the adjunct gig). It was right about then when I realized that maybe I shouldn't be pinning all my hopes on being a college professor.

And PhoBwan, I'm pretty thrilled that I managed to figure out that I wasn't a writer before I got into an MFA program. Of course, getting turned down from a couple programs helped with that soul crushing discovery.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:23 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Miko, I don't really fault academic culture for being misleading; I'd like to think that I'm responsible enough to take whatever blame of unpreparedness on myself. My point is more that, as undergrads, we really don't know what we're doing half the time and so when we think about our majors and the things that we are studying in context with the vague clues we have about, you know, living in normal society, having to hold a 9-5 job, and not being rewarded simply for being the young, happy idealists that we are, we have to justify it in whatever way possible so we don't collapse in a oozing mess of nihilism.

Because really, what is the point of knowing all there is to know about the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in context with the Confucian system of scholarship and its celebration of antiquity but to write essays in the academic context and to maybe satisfy a curiosity? What's left from these long hours of research and insomniac nights is just the framework of how to write, how to research, and maybe, if you're lucky, a meta-understanding of how certain things work and so the original plan of figuring out what you can do with your life given these vague skills and this awareness doesn't so much get answered as it does get swept under the rug by all of the reading and writing.

Now what you can do with your life doesn't necessarily mean getting a job or anything as specific as I've framed it. It's just the idea of having a purpose in life and while I do appreciate what I've learned in both the academic and personal/relational sense, I still have no real idea what the heck I'm doing to do with all of it. Honestly, I probably just have a case of the senior jitters where I realize that the supremely comfortable lifestyle that I live now is going to drop out from under me but you have to understand that there's a lot of anxiety caused by all the stories of failure and the background of the recession and so videos, like this one, can end up being pretty frightening for people like me.
posted by dubusadus at 8:23 PM on October 26, 2010


Most degrees increase your lifetime earnings potential, even after paying for them. In the hard sciences, we even get paid to do the advanced degree. In the humanities or social sciences, though, the cost of getting the degree (tuition and lost earnings) ends up being more than the expected return

I wish professors spent more time talking students out of grad school.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:25 PM on October 26, 2010


And PhoBwan, I'm pretty thrilled that I managed to figure out that I wasn't a writer before I got into an MFA program. Of course, getting turned down from a couple programs helped with that soul crushing discovery.

Incidentally, I'm a writer, but not of the literary or poetry variety. Not at all. Wish I'd known I'd be writing genre fiction now, three years later, because I would have applied to Clarion and Odyssey, which are much, much, much cheaper. And also filled with like-minded dorks.

Trust me, getting into, and going to graduate school, and having your tastes and interests be constantly invalidated, is pretty soul crushing, too. There was some fun drinking there though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:29 PM on October 26, 2010


* kicks self in head, really hard *
posted by crazylegs at 6:59 PM on October 26


Not to mock your frustration, but I really enjoy that while most people would not be able to kick themselves in the head, of course crazylegs can!
posted by HotPants at 8:33 PM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Over a decade ago I was considering going to graduate school in history or anthropology. A professor I respected sat me down and told me pretty much what was in the video. He also asked me if I would be okay with leaving the West Coast and eking out a living in a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. I remember him saying words to the effect of, I know you don't want to live somewhere where there isn't a 99 Ranch Supermarket. He warned me against history, saying the field was full of internecine struggles over "theory" and that I'd hate it.....and that anthro was going through something "worse."

I didn't go.
posted by wuwei at 8:35 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


That doesn't say that there isn't an oversupply, or how many bad outcomes there are. Perhaps the number of trainee spots needs to be capped nationally.

I'll even be a little more bold regarding what I was saying before. If anyone graduates from a PhD program in the humanities and feels that they are not able to contribute to the social good because they haven't gotten a teaching job, and are unable to find ways to take solace in this fact, it should have been warning sign.

This is different from the current way of thinking about PhD eduction, but I dream of a sea of graduates who are finishing their eduction and not asking simply where the teaching job is, but about how valuable information that they have been fortunate enough to have access to can be passed onto other people in culture that are outside of the classroom. This is what education is meant to be, I think. It doesn't ignore the reality of a paycheck, but it does ask if someone would be happy volunteering to teach classes at the public library or church while working another less academically prestigious job. If not, then this is the time to think twice.

I'd be all about the treasure of graduate education if we were a society that took care of everyone's lower-order needs and left us all to pursue our passions.

I'm not sure this would be required. The point is that eduction isn't simply about a very specific kind of job that has limited seats for too many applicants, even at the PhD level. I'm assuming we'd all still work, while finding a way to make our education relevant to society. If that doesn't make us happy in the end, then possibly the PhD isn't a good option.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:35 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, that didn't put me off getting a PhD in Humanities at all.
posted by New England Cultist at 8:40 PM on October 26, 2010


Like others here, I finished my PhD and got a great job. I teach what I want and still have plenty of time to do my "research", which for me is composition. This is true of almost all of my fellow grad students. Doing a PhD is a long slog, but if you go into it with your eyes open, it can work out.
posted by ob at 9:04 PM on October 26, 2010


"As an undergrad who had been deadset on getting that MFA"

If you get fully funded, go for it.

But never, never take on a penny of debt for a humanities graduate degree.

Especially since you could travel around the world multiple times for the cost of a pay-as-you-go MFA.
posted by bardic at 9:06 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]



I wish professors spent more time talking students out of grad school.


What makes this video so amusing to anyone who has ever taught is its accurate depiction of how no matter how accurately one describes grad school and the academic job market, undergrads will just hear what they want to hear. That dissonance is both sad and funny; this video captures the funny quite nicely.
posted by Forktine at 9:13 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


he humanities are largely parasitic on the sciences and other university functions

No, from a financial point of view the opposite is more nearly true. Humanities classes are cheap to staff (low professor salaries, large sections) and are a huge cash cow for most universities. Business classes with their high professor salaries and especially science programs with their labs and ridiculously expensive journals are a financial drain in comparison.
posted by LarryC at 9:15 PM on October 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


"No, from a financial point of view the opposite is more nearly true."

I'm on your side in spirit, but having known some folks in academic development offices we lost this battle a long time ago. They follow where the grant money is coming in from, and it ain't from the Shakespeare prof.

Of course, this is for research-based universities. It's probably a different set of circumstances for a liberal arts college.
posted by bardic at 9:21 PM on October 26, 2010


Some thoughts, in numbered list form, to create the illusion of order, while realizing that I'm fooling no one.

1. I could have dropped out of grad school and did what the rest of my family did: work at crappy jobs and wait for the economy to dip so you can get fired.

2. If you teach tech comm or even composition there are plenty of jobs. You can't even hire a decent Ph.D. in tech comm unless you're a tier one program. English lit is slowly sliding into the place formerly occupied by Classics departments.

3. Even scarier is the erosion of tenure track lines.

4. Our adjuncts make $500 per class, per month. They are making between $10-$48 per hour, depending on how much time they spend out of class. So there is a strong financial incentive to do as little as possible.

5. Tonight was a rough night teaching, but overall I really like my job.

6. Most of our students have no plans to go to graduate school but we teach like they are *all* going to graduate school

7. One of my students wrote me two days ago and said his paper was going to be late because he cut off his thumb and ring finger at work. We all looked at his stitches in class today. Best excuse ever.

8. Two of my male colleagues are sleeping with hot 20-year-olds. They are not particularly attractive.
posted by mecran01 at 9:23 PM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


They follow where the grant money is coming in from, and it ain't from the Shakespeare prof.

Cash flow at Texas A&M. English and History both very profitable, Physics, Aerospace Engineering, Oceanography not so much.

Bottom line shows humanities really do make money.

But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA's educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4 million.

So the answer to "Who's going to pay the salary of the English department?" is that the English department at UCLA earns its own salary and more, through the fees paid by its students — profits that will only grow with the increase in student fees.

posted by gerryblog at 9:30 PM on October 26, 2010 [23 favorites]


I know that doesn't respond to the "grant money" line directly, but the point is English departments shouldn't need to bring in grants if they're already "profitable." They're subsidizing the sciences, not the other way around.
posted by gerryblog at 9:33 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Superb links, Gerryblog!
posted by LarryC at 9:35 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Like I said, tell it to your development officers and your deans. I can assure you they won't listen.
posted by bardic at 9:42 PM on October 26, 2010


6. Most of our students have no plans to go to graduate school but we teach like they are *all* going to graduate school

I'm trying hard to avoid turning on the rant machine so I'll just throw out this little factoid: When I was an undergraduate, in the sciences, I was interviewing the head of my department for a project when I asked about how well he thought the department was doing with regards to preparing students for employment in the field. He looked at me like I was an idiot and explained, slowly, and using small words so that even somebody with my single-digit I.Q. would understand, that the ONLY PURPOSE of the undergraduate program was to prepare students for graduate school.

Virtually none of the students from that department went on to graduate school.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:46 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Holy crap that's me.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:36 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Beating head against desk)

I just finished an MA in the Humanities in August. There is part of me that has been planning to go on for the PhD. And then there's the part of me that is probably much more sensible that knows it's probably a bad idea.
posted by litlnemo at 12:37 AM on October 27, 2010


We could stop the contraction of academia by banning federal grants and federal student aid for universities that employed too many PhDs on fixed term contracts, i.e. adjuncts. You'd still never see out current army of PhDs receiving academic employment even assuming that correction, but it'd stop the contraction. See also no scientist shortage.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:18 AM on October 27, 2010


Or just require colleges to make a disclosure statement -- % of classes taught by grad students, by adjuncts, by faculty for each department. I think students would naturally gravitate toward schools where they'll get more instruction from faculty. Of course many departments basically lie about these numbers by listing classes under a faculty name and having a grad student actually do the teaching, so there would have to be standard definitions and some kind of auditing.
posted by miyabo at 5:42 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have an MFA and am now teaching three composition classes.

The bad bargain I'd made really hit me when I was grading a paper by a business major. Despite this student's inability to craft a clear sentence and his lack of critical thinking skills, he will certainly be making more than double what I'll be making five years from now.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 6:15 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Having ranted about this subject previously on MeFi, I'm going to be a little less arm-flailing this time, but this is still a subject I feel very strongly about despite having come out of the humanities PhD process happily employed myself.

The problem isn't so much that prospective PhDs go into the field ignoring the warnings. It's more that the warnings they get are all over the place and unfocused, and the academics around them who should be doing the warning aren't.

(Well, they sort of are. I heard an awful lot of "you don't know what it's like, we have to publish all the time these days" and "the administration doesn't respect us" and "I spend hours of every week in endless boring committee meetings!" and "it's not like it was in the 60s, it's all about bringing in the grant money now, did you realise how much time you'll have to spend sitting around in your office writing out 40-page applications for funding hmmmmm?", but a) these didn't really put me off wanting a job in academia, and b) if the worst thing about your job is that sometimes it makes you go to meetings, you do not have a bad deal.)

Here's what I wish I had known before making the decision:

1) Getting a PhD is hard. Getting an academic job is a different kind of hard. Not because it requires different skills (although it does, and don't imagine anyone gets hired on their sparkling academic genius alone), but because there are far more PhDs than jobs. Getting a PhD requires being good enough, dedicated enough and dedicated enough to get one. Getting an academic job requires being good enough and dedicated enough to get one, and then getting the one job that you and 99 other people are now fighting over.

2) Academic jobs in the humanities routinely get over 100 applicants. Routinely.

3) Being a TA (or any form is a job. It is not a higher calling. Love it if you want - it can be amazing - but don't buy into the mental backflips that universities will do to screw you over financially.

I know one university, a wealthy, prestigious university that has taught royalty, which paid my friend and her colleagues (either PhD students or new PhDs; the US equivalent would be adjuncts) £20 per hour to teach undergrads. £20 per hour is pretty good. However, that was only £20 per hour of actual teaching time - marking endless reams of written work was unpaid, preparing for classes and writing lectures was unpaid, invigilating and marking exams was unpaid, office hours were unpaid. So overall, they were getting about £5 per hour, below national minimum wage. They teamed up and brought this one to their head of department, who said "£20 an hour is a lot!" Yes, but, you expect us to do several hours of unpaid work for every hour of paid work. "Well, the £20 is to cover all of that." But then it's below minimum wage! "£20 an hour is nowhere near minimum wage!" Ad infinitum.

I taught at another where the department required all teaching staff to attend all lectures on team-taught undergrad core classes. This was fine when nobody was getting paid per hour; when they shifted to per-hour pay for TAs, we asked how much we were going to get paid to attend lectures. What? Nothing? Okay, then, attending lectures is no longer part of our contract, right? They took a week to 'think this one over', and came back with the following: attending lectures is now 'training', and is required as part of your PhD if you want to teach. We are prepared to offer you this training for free, too!

If you're a TA, you are cheap labour.

4) Start publishing right the hell now. Tidy up that conference paper, pick a vaguely likely journal, send it off. It takes a long, long time for articles to wind their way to publication (my last one took 22 months between first being sent to the journal and appearing in print), and you need the practice of going through this process as soon as possible.

5) A heartbreaking amount of success in academia - in terms of opportunities for authorship, work on projects, being named as a researcher on grant bids, etc - is to do with who you already know, and what circles you're already moving in. It is a lot harder to break in than to keep going once you're in there already. Write to your field's newer/minor journals offering to review stuff, be seen at conferences and don't be afraid to talk to pretty much everybody there when you do, get your name on things.

6) When you're applying for jobs, apply to absolutely everything you're qualified to do - even if it's not in a place you'd like to work, even if the teaching part doesn't seem like what you're interested in, even if it's not where you saw yourself working for the rest of your life. And personalise your cover letters. And make sure you have a bottle of wine in the fridge for when the fiftieth one in a row doesn't even let you know you didn't make it to interview. (And while the Philosophy Job Market Blog isn't updated any more, the archives make great reading.)

7) Having a Plan B in your head for if academia doesn't work out is a not a sign of weakness, or a less-than-total dedication to your future plans. It's a really good idea. Do that.

8) There are many awesome and wonderful things about working in academia, and you are right to be sceptical of some of the more out-there woe-is-me whininess that academics get into sometimes. The jobs are great; there are just far fewer of them than there are of you.
posted by Catseye at 6:17 AM on October 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


Back when I worked for in a university, for the art department, I was gobsmacked by how many students would apply for an MFA in Studio Art without any idea what to do with it later. They just wanted to get an upper level art degree and decided to go $50k in debt to get one that's hyper competitive to get into, but with next to nil job opportunities once you get out. I started asking visiting students what did they expect to do with the degree that they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. If your answer is anything other than "I want to teach at the college level," go home now, spend 50k on art supplies and learn to create on your own. Because at the end of the day, the fancy degree won't make a you a better artist, or even give you a leg up on how to be a commercially successful artists (don't make me laugh), all it will do is allow to join the ranks of folks with MFA in hand shuttling from university to college to school looking for a teaching job and trying really hard not to think about your student loan debt and how you don't have time to create art anymore.

It did have its moments though. There was one engineering student who wanted to transfer to our graduate program (yeah, I dunno) and asked what our median GRE score was, "Well, we don't require it," I replied. Obviously elated, he then asked how to apply, I told him he'd need a portfolio of 20 works and an artist's statement. Then overjoyed at the cake program he was sure he'd found for himself he asked what our job placement rate was. I replied, "We don't keep tabs on that, but I'd guess 10-15% in the actual art and art education field would be a very high estimate." "What!?" he panicked, "Well, what's starting salary, then?" "What's minimum wage these days?," I answered. He mumbled something and hung up and I never heard from him again. I often wonder if he knew how narrowly he escaped...

FWIW I never finished my MA, and I left academics after 8 years to go freelance, so maybe I'm a bit bitter and disillusioned. But, it's better you hear it from me, kid...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:20 AM on October 27, 2010


I'm a person who survived the PhD and got a job at a college. I couldn't be happier about my job (well, in the grand scheme of things -- one is a critical thinker after graduate school and it is impossible not to find faults in everything). I heard all these discouragements along the way and many others. I persisted. I hustled. I moved around to take year long contracts. In the end, I am very glad for the path I took.

If I had ended up finishing the PhD and doing something else, I still would have considered it a worthwhile pursuit in the end. Spending so many years so close to an idea changes you, but for me, it was the best and highest level of thinking I have ever done and possibly ever will do in my life. It is a bit like being an Olympic athlete of the mind.
posted by foxinsocks at 6:36 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


1. My first year as an MA teaching intern, I made $3600, gross. I spent my entire 20s squeaking by from month to month and not saving a dime while the rest of my age group had "real lives." I worked crappy minimum-wage jobs every summer (and scrambled to find one every year). And I more or less knew all that would happen when I signed on.

2. I am a second-rate thinker with a PhD in English from a second-rate school teaching at a fourth-rate university in the absolute middle of nowhere. It's much more of a voc-tech school than what you envision as tweed-covered, pipe-smoking "academe." I have a four-four load (mainly writing and a little lit), serve on roughly 8 busy committees per year. There's not much in the way of publish/perish.

3. The administration REALLY hates faculty and becomes more like Bill Lumbergh from Office Space every minute.

4. I could make roughly 3x my annual salary doing full-time tech/PR writing and editing in the for-profit sector.

I would stick a shrimp fork in my eye before even remotely considering leading a different life or changing one bit of the career path I've stumbled along for the 28 years since I was a first-year MA student. The smartest, most fortuitous thing I ever did was go to graduate school and get a humanities doctorate because it's what I was most suited for, and because of all I learned along the way and keep learning with and from the students who give a shit. I'm aware that it doesn't work out this well for everyone and academic jobs are -- and have throughout my professional life been -- hard to get. And that is unfortunate, except maybe it does also sift out some of the people who are quite bright indeed but not really cut out for a lifetime of 90-minute meetings to distribute travel funding or morning-long discussions of department bylaw revisions.

I don't know what it is lately with this "Boo-hoo, where's my jetpack-job?" trend. The shitty economy, I guess. The sad fact is that there are always going to be fewer desirable jobs than people who desire them. You could get the most in-demand degree from the most prestigious school with the (truthfully) highest placement rates, but you may still be in the 9% who don't score a position. Very few people end up working all their lives in whatever job they envisioned doing when they were 18 or 25.

People should go into the humanities because they like studying the humanities and not if they don't. If you study in the humanities and are smart and organized and have good communication skills, you will get a job doing something and make a living wage. Or at least you'll stand as much of a chance of doing so as any other slob privileged enough to get a higher education.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:57 AM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Honestly, I probably just have a case of the senior jitters

Likely so. And there's some class-related comment to be made about the lure of continued education for comfort and safety's sake. For instance, I can't relate at all to the idea of college as a "supremely comfortable lifestyle;" though I know it is for many. For me, though, it was a six-year struggle to juggle part-time and summer work against class responsibilties in order to pay my way, fulfill scholarship obligations to maintain a strong GPA, and achieve a degree and professional certification, becoming the first college graduate in my family. I didn't view my undergraduate education as a breeze, because my life circumstances were not a breeze, and so I would never have developed the idea that graduate school and an ensuing academic career would be a breeze. For students whose expectations of education and career include a high degree of structure, open opportunity, and unimpaired constant financial security, there'd be much more potential disappointment in an academic career than for someone of my background.
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


if people want to study and write about obscure subjects in the humanities they're better off creating a blog and running it as a micropublication. you can have your intellectual riffs with academic discussions and once in a while publish your papers. and you can run ads on your site and make some money on the side.

that said, the biggest value to having an obscure academic subject blog is the ability to find peers worldwide as opposed to just inside a university department. the value really comes with the exposure and maybe even the opportunity to publish about the topic w/o having to actually have a degree.

i ought to know: since leaving academia 14 years ago, i've basically created with my blogs a sanctuary for like-minded academic runaways and maroons. blogging has allowed me to get paid these days to write about everything but the obscure humanities subject i went to grad to school for: Baroque and Neobaroque Iberian and Latin American Aesthetics.

i dont regret my ABD/MPhil in Latin American Studies, but there's a reason why I didnt take another 5 years to write the dissertation : the financial burden was, at the end of the day, not worth it.

so forget about the PhD. unschool in the subject that your passionate about and go out there and become an expert via a blog.
posted by liza at 7:22 AM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm aware that it doesn't work out this well for everyone and academic jobs are -- and have throughout my professional life been -- hard to get. And that is unfortunate, except maybe it does also sift out some of the people who are quite bright indeed but not really cut out for a lifetime of 90-minute meetings to distribute travel funding or morning-long discussions of department bylaw revisions.

But, I mean, come on--the humanities are genuinely different than they were 28 years ago. For example, I look at what's happening in creative writing and can't be anything but surprised by the bad advice I was given by my undergraduate professors. Though many of them were successful writers and poets, none of them had MFAs--most had subject MAs and a small handful of books. One had no more than a bachelor's. That's all that was required years ago because there were hardly any 'terminal degree programs in creative writing'--now they number in the low hundreds. Hell, the number of PhD programs in creative writing is increasing every year, and many students feel that they have to scramble to get yet another terminal degree to be competitive for the job market, when in many cases the people who wrote their grad school recommendations all those years ago didn't spend any more than two years in grad school. And all those people who do MFA consulting celebrate the increase in the number of funded programs, but even funded graduate programs are cash-cows for universities, because now they don't have to hire anyone--adjunct or tenure--to teach freshman comp or technical writing or whatever. I know TAs who are only making double what you were, 28 years ago, to teach a 4/4 load. This isn't a system that only favors those who want it bad enough, or are good enough--it's clearly a system that favors those either willing to take on debt or who come from economic privilege, who are young enough not to be encumbered by children. The bar is set higher than it used to be, with fewer rewards in terms of pay, in a worse economic climate.

And, frankly, I've never heard of a white-collar job that doesn't require some form of meeting attendance. I know it's mentioned in the video, but that's probably the least broken part of the whole system. But I do think it's somewhat wrong to characterize what's going on with grad school an academia today as "Jobs are always hard to find; if people don't make it they aren't really cut out for it."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:13 AM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'd be all about the treasure of graduate education if we were a society that took care of everyone's lower-order needs and left us all to pursue our passions.

Yes, or left us all to pitch in where we felt we could be helpful. In which case, we could react to crazylegs' comment I am now trying to find the time to edit 150 pages of Romanian English into English by saying "oh, coool" instead of "oh, fuck"
posted by Jagz-Mario at 8:40 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


PhD dropout (ABD) in Computer Science here. When I was in academia, I got to see the non- (in- ?) humanities job markets, specifically CS and Biology, and they were absolutely terrible.

I am grateful that CS jobs exist outside of academia, because only one of my class landed an academic position (non-tenure track) and even including the year or two before mine, only 1 out of maybe 10 got teaching positions.

Those who remained in acadmia were willing to slug it out for a shot at a postdoc or adjunct position or lectureship at a non-research college.
posted by zippy at 8:43 AM on October 27, 2010


I have a PhD. I work in a university-affiliated laboratory, and I like my job, but it's much more difficult than I thought it would be.

That said, these sentiments are ridiculous:

I could have dropped out of grad school and did what the rest of my family did: work at crappy jobs and wait for the economy to dip so you can get fired.

The alternatives are not (a) work in a crappy, dead-end job, or (b) get a Ph.D. and consider adjuncting to be your normal life. If you're smart enough to get a Ph.D., you are/were probably smart enough to put together a good career without a Ph.D. I get the impression that some people think that a Ph.D. in the humanities is their one way to break out of the small towns they grew up in where no one else ever leaves.
posted by deanc at 8:55 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I hope I didn't sound that naive when I talked about going to grad school back in the dark ages, but I'm pretty sure I did. It really was my good luck that I never went on to my PhD. I felt awful about it at the time, but I can see now that I don't have the right sort of personality to be happy in academia even though I loved the research.

(I would have been great at the research. It's the actual teaching part I would have sucked at. And university service.)
posted by immlass at 9:04 AM on October 27, 2010


A close friend was enrolled in a class at American University where the instructor (I dunno if she was a TA, adjunct, or what) also worked at Starbucks. When students asked why the instructor wore her green Starbucks apron to class, the answer was that, unlike the university, Starbucks provided health insurance.
posted by exogenous at 9:10 AM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, you're right about much of that. But I would somewhat separate the creative fine arts fields from the humanities in the traditional "study an art/subject rather than practice it" sense. And the thing about people who are really devoted passionately to a specialized area of study blogging rather than grad-schooling is totally brilliant.

There are a bajillion more and better avenues for people with libartsy and creative interests so they can avoid the whole racket of post-baccalaureate academe if they want. Some of my students now with creative writing desires (and we just have a minor) also take web design courses and small business management classes so they can more effectively self-publish. Why does anybody bother to pay mucho dinero to attend grad-level writing workshops when you can probably have six free ones per week just here on MeFi?

Creative writers have always had to work day jobs -- but even though those jobs in academe are relatively sparse, the fact that there is a giant lucrative creative writing MFA/PhD industry means that those programs have to be staffed by someone, so I imagine there considerably more poets and novelists per faculty capita employed at universities than there were a few decades ago. Just nowhere near as many as the MFAs and PhDs the programs churn out.

In the traditional fields of study, of course things have gotten tougher -- we unsuccessfully battle the administration's Must Grow Bigger, Must Enroll More, More, More marketing efforts and cynical manipulation of a poverty-stricken population. Thank god we don't offer graduate degrees in the humanities! And we strongly, strongly discourage undergrads from going to grad/law school. But a lot of things have remained true. In English, unless you get an Ivy or Ivy pretender doctorate, it is hugely unlikely that you'll ever get a tenure-track job at anything more glamorous than a minor regional state university if that -- unless you happen to specialize in tech. writing or journalism (electronic, multi-media) or another high-demand, low-supply niche. This has been the case for 30-40 years; it's just more so now.

The year I graduated, I had 10 job interviews when most of my peers, even in the sexy speciaities, had 0, 1, or 2 and nobody was getting hired anywhere. This had nothing to do with being the best or brightest or second-best or third-brightest. A) I was completely done with my dissertation, wrote it in one calendar year, and did my doctoral program in 5 years; B) I had a long, varied track record of demonstrated teaching competence; C) I presented myself as someone who would happily teach whatever it was a joint needed me to teach and was enthusiastic about learning and constantly worked to improve my teaching.

If you really, really, really want a college teaching job in my field, you very well may never get one or only get adjunct work. There's a lot that is out of your control. I'm fully aware that my college could shut down tomorrow and/or toss me out on the street. Tenure doesn't protect you from "retrenchment" or program closure or various sneaky ways of thinning the herd. In which case, I'd freak out, breathe into a bag, and find some way to put food on the table.

But there are things you can do to improve your odds. Sure, publish and do conference papers, fine. Here are the things you could do to get hired at my school:

1. Finish your graduate work in as expeditious, organized a manner as you can while still paying your electric bill.
2. Have whatever arcane interests you want, but also be a generalist.
3. Take lots of teaching practicums, cheerfully enjoy teaching lots of different courses. If your school allows, teach developmental writing, ESL, business writing,advanced comp, science/tech writing. Work at the writing center. Do some freelance writing or editing outside the univ. For god's sake, teach online. Get some recommendations from profs who can and will speak to your teaching skills, not just those who praise your intellect.
4. Sincerely, visibly like doing all that stuff.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:22 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


so forget about the PhD. unschool in the subject that your passionate about and go out there and become an expert via a blog.

Probably many (if not most) college grads considering academia should go this route, but that attitude-- the idea that humanities work should be a hobby and not a career-- is one of the reasons we're in this mess to begin with.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:50 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


So You Want to Get a PhD in Political Science
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:27 AM on October 27, 2010


I have a Ph.D. in history and I now happily work outside of academia. I did quantitative US history at a time when the field was decidedly turning away from that sort of approach. I had worked as a computer programmer before grad school and was fortunate to have hooked up with the nascent population studies center at my university as an RA. I took a post-doc and did some adjunct teaching before taking one hapless crack at the academic job market. After that humbling experience I started looking around for other ways to use the skills I had developed before and during grad school. I was very fortunate to find a government job that uses all parts of my background. So things worked out but certainly not because I had it all worked out in advance. There are things I would have done differently knowing what I know now that might have made things go a little smoother: 1) I experienced culture shock upon entering grad school because I didn't have a clear understanding of what was expected of me as a graduate student, to be honest. Probably not the best idea to make such a big change in my life without having given more consideration to the demands that would be placed on me. 2) I took too long to get through my grad program--in part because funding was never really an issue given the unusual nature of the job I was doing as an RA. While I didn't feel many of the stresses that others in my program expressed, I took on more debt than I should have because of this. 3) I didn't understand that I would get relatively little credit for original work I did as a grad student as part of a collaborative effort that involved faculty. Grad students need to assert their right to full credit for their contributions and share proportionately in the rewards.

With all three of these points, the responsibility for understanding these things and responding accordingly was mine and mine alone, so I can't blame anyone for not warning me. And I received all the warnings about grad school and the job market that everyone else did. I guess my point in all this is that I pursued a graduate degree largely for personal reasons and even though I might have don things a little differently, I was determined to get a degree and I look back with pride on the accomplishment. Despite a few negative things, on balance getting a Ph.D. has been a decidedly positive factor in my life and my career. I should point out, though that all along I had alternatives because I had an unusual skill set for someone in the humanities. I didn't fully appreciate the value of that until it was necessary to start thinking creatively about career alternatives. If I had to give someone considering grad school advice, I would encourage them to take unconventional approaches to their work and find ways to stand out from their cohort, even if it might be met with disdain by some in the short run. Seek out those who see the value in your work and do your work for/with them. Having a range of alternatives is a valuable thing for someone pursuing a Ph.D. in the humanities.
posted by Dead Man at 2:53 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


That said, these sentiments are ridiculous:

I could have dropped out of grad school and did what the rest of my family did: work at crappy jobs and wait for the economy to dip so you can get fired.

The alternatives are not (a) work in a crappy, dead-end job, or (b) get a Ph.D. and consider adjuncting to be your normal life. If you're smart enough to get a Ph.D., you are/were probably smart enough to put together a good career without a Ph.D. I get the impression that some people think that a Ph.D. in the humanities is their one way to break out of the small towns they grew up in where no one else ever leaves.
posted by deanc





Let me clarify: I went to grad school, escaped my poor white suburban upbringing (as much as one can escape), chose a specialty in the humanities that was hiring, got a job in 2002, just got tenure, and now I'm drinking hot chocolate and typing this in my underwear on the couch, and hoping that we get more snow soon so I can go cross country skiing on the mornings I'm not teaching. In class tonight we're going to watch Errol Morris movies and talk about them.

So, not feeling totally ridiculous.

Note: life isn't quite so idyllic when I have grading to do.
posted by mecran01 at 8:28 AM on October 28, 2010


Betting on being the exception to the rule is a bad policy, but a lot goes into figuring out what the rule is. The employment rate for a discipline overall is useful information, but it may be outweighed by the placement rate of the department, which itself may be outweighed by a high attrition rate in that department, and so on.

Marty Marx, does the significance of 40% tenure-track placement for PhD's mean nothing to you? I mean, I know math isn't required for a Lit degree, but ... seriously, WTF? You're assuming there's a 60% turnover, so new PhD's can get a job?
posted by IAmBroom at 11:25 PM on October 30, 2010


Have you ever actually read a contemporary PHD thesis in English? (From an English department, that is?)

Tempting to argue ignorance, but the answer is yes, willingly, fairly often, and volunteer to proof too. Also in history.

You've skillfully managed to avoid answering the implied question, Miko: did you find these theses increase human knowledge as a whole?

(Typing "these theses" meaningfully was fun there...)
posted by IAmBroom at 11:27 PM on October 30, 2010


I didn't "manage" anything. I answered your yes or no question with a yes. If there was something implied, it would be clearer of you to ask it directly, because I can't read your mind and your question sounded sarcastic.

And yes, I do think the ones I read, and the papers I read for work, do increase knowledge. Most certainly and quite easy to demonstrate. A recent example was the dissertation se of sourpublication of a friend of mine, who brought to light completely new information about Herman Melville's career at sea which challenged longstanding assumptions held about the accuracy of his self-reported biography and raises new questions about his use of written and spoken-word sources as opposed to direct experience. Another (in the field of history) used historical data from recorded schooner landings in late 19th-century New England to reconstruct models of fish populations which change our understanding of the behavior of migratory fish today. And so on and so on. These are two examples of the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. If you doubt that scholarship creates and disseminates new knowledge, you don't read much (good) scholarship.
posted by Miko at 8:38 AM on October 31, 2010


I didn't "manage" anything. I answered your yes or no question with a yes. If there was something implied, it would be clearer of you to ask it directly, because I can't read your mind and your question sounded sarcastic.

-1 for reading comprehension, Miko. I wasn't the one who asked the question.

(And, chill. I was just teasing you.)
posted by IAmBroom at 10:41 PM on November 1, 2010


Then perhaps it was you who didn't comprehend the question, since you seem to be interested in a different question. Anyway, at this point it seems you're just trying to irritate, so the topic rests.
posted by Miko at 5:52 AM on November 2, 2010


Marty Marx, does the significance of 40% tenure-track placement for PhD's mean nothing to you? I mean, I know math isn't required for a Lit degree, but ... seriously, WTF? You're assuming there's a 60% turnover, so new PhD's can get a job?

What in god's name are you talking about? I don't know where you're getting these numbers, but not from anything I've said, and your complaint seems to be a deliberately hostile misreading in any case.

I'm saying that the overall placement rate is an average rate. Some departments have much higher placement rates and others much lower. Therefore, people concerned about placement rates should attend to the tenure-track placement rates of their particular department to better assess their chances. Averages: Not what you seem to think they are.

And I'm not getting a lit degree.
posted by Marty Marx at 12:54 AM on November 6, 2010


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