So You Want To Go To Grad School (in the Academic Humanities)?
October 2, 2021 12:16 PM   Subscribe

"Graduate school application season is upon us and so I wanted to take this as an opportunity to talk about it. Every year, I talk with undergraduate students who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in the humanities, who mostly come to me because they know that my graduate school experience was relatively more recent and so they hope I can offer some useful advice beyond what they might get from a more senior academic who attended graduate school decades ago. So this week I am going to give all of you a version of the advice I offer those students."

"Starting with:

Have you tried wanting something else?

...

And I suppose at the outset I should warn you that this may be a bit more raw of a post than normal, as it is based on my personal experience and what I’ve observed in the experience of many of my close friends and colleagues (although I have data to substantiate the core points). That said, I really hope this serves as an informative essay both for people contemplating graduate school but also for folks who want a sense of how we currently train professors."
posted by Carillon (86 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just read this and thought about posting it too, it's a pretty withering take on the subject, but a heartfelt one. It seems on point as far as I can judge, but I haven't been around grad students for awhile, so I'm no expert on the subject to say for sure.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:21 PM on October 2


I read this recently, and for me one of the stand-out passages is:

When you make the decision about graduate school, make it assuming there will be no job at the end of the tunnel for you, ever. Because there probably won’t be, no matter how driven, intelligent and capable you are. Those things don’t matter much at all; the academic job market in nearly every field in the humanities is so full of qualified candidates for whom there are too few jobs that the job search has become almost entirely random...

I think this is something a lot of young people pursuing various kinds of careers should be very cognizant of, especially when the career in question is notable for attracting people who are deeply passionate about what they're doing, and willing to sacrifice a lot to get it. I think being passionate about your work is good and rewarding, and balanced competition can help drive a degree of meritocracy. But when the job market gets to the point where competition for positions becomes too fierce or even effectively random, it creates an environment that leads to the exploitation of people fighting for those positions, and where the only insurance against said exploitation is being wealthy, which is rather the opposite of meritocracy.
posted by Alex404 at 12:40 PM on October 2 [23 favorites]


I love Devereaux's work in general, and agreed with the thrust of this piece; my humanities grad school journey was a little bit different from the path he lays out here, but winds up the same in all of the big-picture ways that matter. I was really struck by the powerful simplicity of his statement that "graduate school is a condition of shared suffering, whereas undergraduate education is a condition of shared freedom."

I'd never thought of it that way, but once I saw it crystalized in words I realized he's 1000% right there.
posted by COBRA! at 12:46 PM on October 2 [20 favorites]


Looking at my own information, in 2016 during my PhD, my gross pre-tax income from my stipend was just short of $16,000 a year, though some of that was taken off to pay fees (tuition was ‘remitted’ but fees were not); mercifully healthcare was included (it is often not).

Ouch, that is really low. I made more than that in grad school almost 20 years ago, and it looks like the current stipend rates for humanities and social sciences at that institution are more than double what the author was getting (assuming you get summer funding, which not everyone does).

But although things like stipend and workload are going to vary by institution, none of that challenges the author's points and conclusions about the issues in the humanities.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:09 PM on October 2 [4 favorites]


Also, if you do manage to get any sort of job, it will likely be one where the institution you work for is trying to fuck you as hard and as frequently as it possibly can.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:09 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]


I totally wanted to go into a humanities phd program way back then, for exactly the reason Devereaux describes, I had not tried wanting anything else. I really just wanted to continue being a college student for as long as I could and did not understand the extent to which that was not what a good graduate program would be. Anyway, good thing for the many, many in depth and comprehensive warnings about why it was such a bad idea we’re available online when I was considering it. Ten years earlier and I might have made a huge mistake, or actually more likely gotten rejected as an obvious dilettante.
posted by skewed at 1:10 PM on October 2 [4 favorites]


Also, the point about finances is not a fucking joke either. At points in my graduate career, I not only qualified for EITC, I qualified for SNAP as well (which, in hindsight, I would have taken if I had known it at the time). Nobody in your program will tell you that it's not actually normal to live like this, and what resources are available to you. You will be assumed to be on equal footing with students who have "family money."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:20 PM on October 2 [18 favorites]


My wife went back to school in 2015 and got a PhD in the humanities (her defense was about a month before the pandemic hit the fan). She's currently finishing up a second postdoc, which is essentially a job, and her employment situation moving forward is uncertain at this point (but not unpromising), but the main thing is that her entire program was fully funded by various grants and there was no way she would have gone through with it otherwise, because we're not made of money.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:22 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


I should add that for her, at least, it was a sometimes quite stressful but mostly positive experience, in large part because she had a fantastic advisor she knew, respected and trusted from her undergrad days. Some of her colleagues in the same program have had terrible experiences with their advisors, which makes an already arduous undertaking much, much more difficult (which is one of the things Devereaux talks about in TFA).
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:26 PM on October 2 [3 favorites]


The line that stuck out the most to me was:

I have found it easier to become profitably famous on the internet than to get a permanent job in the field I have a doctorate in; let that absurdity sink in for a minute.

It's a very salient point made even more absurd by the fact that him and plenty like him are still teaching and doing independent research. There's budget for adjuncts apparently but not for faculty. He had a tweet earlier too about 'staleling' and how PHDs from 2020 and 2021 are gonna be screwed over even more.
posted by Carillon at 1:38 PM on October 2 [8 favorites]


Ouch, that is really low.

Not really? I'm in the same discipline as the author, but in 2016 was at a slightly more elite state university and I believe my stipend there was about 19k? So, yes, more than 16k, but not dramatically so. There were though a number of different money pots if you knew where to look, for conferences, research, etc. some that were more or less automatic.

Anyway, unlike the author, I did try to do something else for four years after college, and it was precisely my failure to do anything else that lead me to apply to grad school - my first year of grad school marked the most I had made in a single year since college, and the first time I had health care. The last job I had before grad school was working part-time scheduling for a cleaning company. Grad school looked like a pretty good deal at the time.

But I still agree with the overall advice, with a caveat. If you can craft a dissertation that will have non-academic applications, do it. Knowledge for knowledge sake is dead, but I do know people whose academic work could speak to policy wonks, NGO-land, tech, etc. who have made a reasonably smooth transition to another career path afterward. It's significant that the author works on ancient history - nobody outside of museums really cares much about that - not only are there not academic jobs for those folks, there aren't many non-academic jobs either. Basically, for better or worse, people need to consider the market for their research beyond the academy.
posted by coffeecat at 1:49 PM on October 2 [4 favorites]


Thank you so much for posting this. I have a young friend who is eager to pursue a humanities PhD, which no one in their orbit thinks is a good idea. Perhaps these insights from a stranger with direct experience will carry more weight.
posted by PhineasGage at 2:12 PM on October 2 [3 favorites]


In the sciences, grad students make in the upper thirties to mid forties at the same institutions where the humanities are under $20,000.

Also, it used to be possible and common to do a PhD in five years - my dad petitioned for a sixth year to do some additional work over and above the usual process. It did him no good, since the bottom fell out of the English-professoring market right when he finished and his choices were adjuncting-avant-la-lettre, moving my mother, me and such of our possessions as we could afford to ship to a teaching position elsewhere in the world (which he didn't want to do because the pay would have meant we could not afford to replace our furniture) or leaving academia. So he left. His one good grad school friend offended the administration by being a minority and involved in various leftist causes, won a suit for wrongfully denied tenure and retired years later still an associate professor. (That is, to non-academics - the institution had to give him tenure because of the suit but they didn't have to promote him, and not making full professor after making it to associate simply was not a thing, it was pure spite.)
posted by Frowner at 2:20 PM on October 2 [7 favorites]


I'm surprised that the author didn't mention Bucephalus among the companions of Alexander; there's a lot of good horse sense in this post.
posted by sy at 2:24 PM on October 2 [5 favorites]


Also, if you do manage to get any sort of job, it will likely be one where the institution you work for is trying to fuck you as hard and as frequently as it possibly can.

"At least you're in show business"
posted by thelonius at 2:32 PM on October 2 [3 favorites]


Grad school dropout here. I got into a PhD program without knowing most of this stuff. Worst decision of my life.

I left after 3 semesters, once I realized how miserable I was going to be for the remaining 6? 7? years. I didn't know what I wanted, but I knew I wanted something else. Best decision of my life.
posted by etherist at 2:32 PM on October 2 [16 favorites]


This is such a scathing indictment it's hard not to conclude that the Trump Administration was scarcely less functional than graduate education in the humanities.

Which could only mean that the entire enterprise is probably on the verge of collapse.

But our whole society is in such bad shape that any successor is likely to be worse, and empower people who are even worse than the average graduate advisor.
posted by jamjam at 2:39 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


But that’s my point: graduate school is a condition of shared suffering, whereas undergraduate education is a condition of shared freedom.
Hmmm. I'm in a very different field. But, my experience was the exact opposite. Undergrad was a constant struggle to compete with jerks over assignments that one doesn't actually care about, graded by faculty who don't particularly want to be teaching those classes and governed by inflexible institutional rules, while simultaneously struggling to buy enough food to live on and trying to figure out how to start on a career one doesn't know anything about. Grad school was, basically, being told "let us pay you a living wage to spend all day doing cool shit, while surrounded by brilliant and kind people who go out of their way to help you, for as long as you want." I got lucky in very many ways, and a lot of people don't get lucky, but I always find statements like this weird. Grad school doesn't have to be awful. I like being faculty, but it's a lot less fun than being a 3rd year grad student.

Also, as someone who was astonished to make more money as a grad student than either of my parents ever made after working for decades in real jobs, it takes effort to feel too bad about financial hardship. Grad students absolutely should be paid more. And they sure as hell should be unionized, and have good healthcare and childcare. But, some perspective would be nice. Getting pay in the global 5% of income while working half-time and spending the rest of your day as a student with access to world class resources isn't exactly a bad deal. It's worth fighting to make it better. But, let's not pretend it isn't already a lot better than most people can ever expect, including the people who cooked your lunch and emptied your office wastebasket today.
posted by eotvos at 2:42 PM on October 2 [15 favorites]


This is an excellent article that should be given to any undergraduate student thinking of pursuing graduate studies, especially in the humanities.

I grew up idolizing history, classical studies, and the "life of the mind." I have a bachelor's and master's degree in European History; the master's is from a British university you've all heard of. I have a happy life now, at age forty, because I spent summers as an undergrad working for a close family friend. He was a bookkeeper for 3-4 small businesses and needed an assistant. So, I would put down the history books every April and go work balancing the books for small manufacturers and landscaping companies. It helped me realize that alongside wanting to pursue "the life of the mind", I also wanted a level of financial and work security in my life. So I hedged my bets by taking a one year master's program before jumping into a doctorate.

My master's degree revealed to me that academia was a deeply dysfunctional career with very little reward for too much risk. My advisors were pretty frank with me, although not to the level of this guy. I remember one of them pointing out a particular Ph.D. student and telling me that she had the best chance out of any of the current doctoral candidates at a "normal life" because - get this - she had a trust fund from her wealthy family in the eight figure range. It's much easier to be a successful grad student when you can pay for the entire program in cash along with a nice apartment, wardrobe, research tools and vacations in Switzerland. And even this woman struggled for five years to find a tenure track job after getting her Ph.D! (yes, I kept tabs on her career!)

I flew back from the UK with a MA and sat in my parents' basement for a few months, wondering what to do. I decided that I could not justify the effort and anguish that would come with an academic; I'd rather go to work in finance. This line of work has its own issues, but I can afford a reasonable lifestyle and raise a family on the salary, and indulge my academic side by staying subscribed to some journals and attending lectures from time to time.

My personal opinion is, unless you are like my former colleague and have a guaranteed source of income or wealth that is not dependent on your academic career, do not go into academia. And even if you can sidestep the poverty entirely (boy that "if" is really holding up a lot!), given the massive dysfunction of the modern university system, you have to deeply interrogate yourself as to whether you are prepared for the mental and emotional stress that comes with an academic career.

I hope this guy, other academics, and especially former academics, continue to speak very bluntly and frankly about the real cost of pursuing an academic career.
posted by fortitude25 at 2:45 PM on October 2 [12 favorites]


Yep @fortitude25 I loved doing my PhD on the computer/art boundary (so half in the humanities). It was 3-4 years of getting paid a bursary to explore and develop my own ideas, with great support from my supervisor and the rest of the group. I fully realise not all PhDs go so well, but for me it felt like a huge privilege.

I think the problem with writing like this is that it assumes that leaving academia is failure. I find this really strange, doing a PhD should hold great intrinsic worth, and if you don't end up continuing a career in academia, so what?
posted by yaxu at 2:56 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


I think the problem with writing like this is that it assumes that leaving academia is failure. I find this really strange, doing a PhD should hold great intrinsic worth, and if you don't end up continuing a career in academia, so what?

If you set your 20s on fire working really hard on something you like and it doesn't pan out and you're left in debt with a degree that is literally worthless for getting any other job so uh I guess Starbucks is probably hiring, so what?
posted by sinfony at 3:03 PM on October 2 [17 favorites]


The classic triumvirate is also mandatory reading:


Just Don’t Go

-
Just Don’t Go Pt 2
-
The Big Lie about the life of the mind
posted by lalochezia at 3:12 PM on October 2 [4 favorites]


I ask every applicant to our graduate programs, "Supposing you spent seven or eight years doing classes, TA-ing, and writing your dissertation, and no job ever came of it, would you feel it was a total loss? Because we can't promise anything." My institution gives a decent stipend and healthcare, so the missed-opportunities cost isn't, at least, flanked by debt and misery. It's such a crapshoot in the best of cases. I think all the time about the objective benefit to society that having a lot of highly educated people (in any specialty) represents, and the colossal waste that ensues from not giving those people an opportunity to "do something," as we say, with their degree. I am all for making graduate school an option that reasonable people would consider taking. The part of that that can be done within universities is a moral obligation. The rest involves such redesign of economy, society, etc., that we'll need even more highly educated people to show the way.
posted by homerica at 3:17 PM on October 2 [6 favorites]




> I have found it easier to become profitably famous on the internet than to get a permanent job in the field I have a doctorate in; let that absurdity sink in for a minute.

perhaps that is not absurd at all: it might be fairly predictable from a bit of back-of-the-envelope estimation of which fields or trades are in demand, how much supply of labour is trying to fill that demand, and in which markets & channels one might be able to profitably ply one's trade.

maybe there could be regulation requiring informed consent before someone can commit themselves to grad school: candidates take a few basic courses on business, economics, marketing, personal finance
posted by are-coral-made at 3:35 PM on October 2


I am so glad I pulled the eject lever during my MA. Once I realized that there was never going to be a job for me and that even if a job did materialize it would go straight to a graduate from Harvard no matter what I did? I gave up. Not one more dollar, drop of sweat, or tear.
posted by 1adam12 at 3:37 PM on October 2 [3 favorites]


A thesis of this sort is not just a super-charged research paper: the expectation is that this paper should do original research, that is push the bounds of human knowledge. from the article.

I don't think the author is being
flippant. For history, it was the make or break deal. By this time, the overlap of history sets in. I recall covering Marx in the separate classes in the same semester. by my third year I was a drift between English History. but it was one particular advisor who laid out in 10 minutes exactly what I needed to do to pursue advanced degrees in Asian studies. it was intensive, primarily in languages and would take me away from home for a very long time. but then I had another choice to make when I found out my father was dying.
easiest choice I ever made.
posted by clavdivs at 3:48 PM on October 2 [3 favorites]


I taught undergraduate art and design for almost 20 years. I always tried to dissuade my students from pursuing an MFA. They are almost all unfunded, extremely expensive and no amount of adjunct salary is going to pay for the massive amount of student debt you’ll have. Design students rarely, and I mean rarely need an advanced degree unless you plan on teaching. And as an artist an MFA is dumb unless you plan on teaching. And again, good luck landing that full time tenured position. I have an MA but I went to school in Europe so my education is free. But seriously, an MFA is stupid.
posted by misterpatrick at 4:41 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


I am grateful I never had any interest in grad school. But also in general it seems worthless in most cases to "do what you love" for a day job if your interest is not useful/moneymaking in the first place. I read the comments and someone asked what to do about their love if history and one person suggested YouTubeing- that may be the most reasonable suggestion! What you love can only be a hobby, better to be an accountant or whatever isn't expendable so you can afford to be alive.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:55 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]


I'm now picturing the edge of the circle of knowledge inching out so far that no human can manage to get there, no matter how narrowly they focus or how hard they push themselves. We will keep sending exhausted bodies crawling toward the edge, but none of them will reach it.
posted by clawsoon at 6:14 PM on October 2 [10 favorites]


The other day I was watching a lecture about Barbara McClintock, discoverer of jumping genes and many other things, and one of the reasons that advisors were reluctant to take her on was that advisors in those days were expected to find jobs for each of their graduate students, and they thought it would be hard to find a job for a woman no matter how talented she was.

Expected to find jobs for each of their graduate students. I wonder how different grad school would be if that were still the expectation. I wonder when the expectation went away.
posted by clawsoon at 6:38 PM on October 2 [16 favorites]


I ended up getting a terminal masters in theology, both for academic reasons and for contingent reasons having to do with life stuff. I deeply, seriously considered going on for a Ph.D., after graduating with the departmental award for graduating seniors from arguably the best undergrad theology program in the English-speaking world. But most theology programs prefer a terminal masters first, and then you migrate to another school for your Ph.D. (And you need the time, for all the damn-ass languages -- Hebrew, Greek, Latin and/or German; another ancient near eastern language depending on your specialization area.)

I loved the shit out of getting my masters. I'd do it again in an instant. I'd pay full freight to do it again! It was the most fun I've ever had with my brain. Buuuuuut I'm really glad that I did the masters first, and had some time to learn a little about the world outside of my very sheltered college experience, worked, paid bills -- by the time I finished my masters, I was pretty clear I didn't want to go on for a Ph.D., go through all the suffering and bullshit parts, working towards a job that would probably never materialize. The masters felt like all the good parts (fun! learning! amazing classmates! hella hard work! writing a thesis!) without the bullshit parts. I even got to teach as an adjunct for five years (and I say "got to" because I had a day job and a spouse, so the fact that the adjunct work paid bupkis didn't matter); I loved the hell out of it.

But fundamentally I'm happier talking about theology with you nerds at MetaFilter than having to turn up to SBL annual meetings and pretend like super-boring assholes are fascinating. Theology's a little special, in that it has a professional arm (M.Div.s in the pastorate), so there's a lot more space to be a person interested in theology and get access to the cool parts, without having to be an academic theologian with a university appointment. Theology Ph.D.s expect to spend a lot of time chatting with pastors (and randos like me), and expect that a lot of them will be extremely well-educated (lots of them even publish). But it means you can keep up with and talk to amazing scholars, without having to pretend to be fascinated by windbags who are high on their own supply but control hiring at an important university.

Every now and again, I get an idea for something I could do a dissertation on, and I think about going back for a Ph.D. (Twice I got so far as talking to potential advisors, and once I went forward to the interview stage -- four finalists for two funded positions -- before I got cold feet because I didn't want to move, and I was pretty sure I wanted to have kids in the next couple of years, and literally no woman (grad student or prof) in the department thought that was possible without the asshole male department chair turning you into a pariah.) I think at this point in my life, I probably could, and it wouldn't be a disaster -- I know how the world of work works, I know what exploitation looks like, I'm too old and mean for creepy dudes to try to get in my pants. (But I also think, man, I do not need to spend three years of my life cramming Biblical Greek into my brain to write a paper about this thing that has literally nothing to do with the New Testament; I am way too old for pro-forma requirements. And I also think, I'd kind-of rather be at my kids' tuneless elementary school concerts than grading 200 intro theology essays -- been there, done that.) If I'd rolled right into a Ph.D. from my undergrad, it would have been an absolute catastrophe, and it's honestly just luck that I didn't. If I did it now, it'd be okay. But I feel like I know too much to do it now -- maybe in 15 years when my kids are teenagers and I have free time, but with the full knowledge that it'll never result in a job.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:45 PM on October 2 [12 favorites]


Hmmm. I'm in a very different field. But, my experience was the exact opposite.

Why "But"? This is a post about graduate school in the academic humanities. Science is a very different story -- lots of people finish in five years, stipends are generally higher, more jobs at the end of the degree (not to say plentiful jobs, but definitely more), etc.
posted by escabeche at 6:51 PM on October 2 [14 favorites]


I think all the time about the objective benefit to society that having a lot of highly educated people (in any specialty) represents, and the colossal waste that ensues from not giving those people an opportunity to "do something," as we say, with their degree.

What is the objective benefit? I'm all in favor of book learnin'. But as the article makes clear, there's an oversupply of people well qualified to teach the humanities. So what is the benefit of having as many (or more, or fewer) humanities PhDs than we currently do? I mean this honestly: How should we determine the socially optimal number of people who should dedicate about a decade of their lives full time to learning these specific subjects, rather than the many other socially beneficial activities they could be doing? And even if they have already done that learning, how do we know that it would be better for them to use that specific knowledge, rather than, say, teach high school students composition? I'm not saying you are wrong: I'm saying I don't know how to even start to evaluate your claim.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:25 PM on October 2 [3 favorites]


I have a lot to say about this article, but it will have to wait for me to finish my dissertation. I certainly nth those saying that anyone thinking about a PhD in a field like mine (polisci) should read something like this before committing to a doctorate.

One thing friends and family members often find impossible to understand about grad school is that effort isn't necessarily rewarded and doesn't necessarily lead to success. The main point I would suggest people take from this article is that even if you have the best luck and abilities you are seriously gambling when drop-out rates are 25-50% and only those with degrees, publications, and strong references from a top-20-in-the-world school have any shot at the kind of job the PhD is designed to train you for.

One thing I definitely didn't appreciate when I started or even for years in the program is the period of utter powerlessness when course work is done and you fully depend on your advisor for every thing to let you keep moving. From the article:
The most important person in the process is your advisor, who is generally a senior member of the faculty in your department who shares your specialization. I struggle to find words to communicate how important this person will be during your graduate experience.. Graduate study at this level is effectively an apprenticeship system; the advisor is the master and the graduate student is the apprentice and so in theory at least the advisor is going to help guide the student through each stage of this process. To give a sense of the importance of this relationship, it is fairly common to talk about other academics’ advisors as forming a sort of ‘family tree’ (sometimes over multiple ‘generations’). Indeed, the German term for an advisor is a doktorvater, your ‘doctor-father’ (or doktormutter, of course) and this is in common use among English-language academics as well and the notion it suggests, that your advisor is a sort of third parent, isn’t so far from the truth.

If you are considering graduate school with an eye towards continuing in academia who you choose as your advisor will be very important: academia is a snooty, prestige conscious place and your advisor’s name and prestige will travel with you. But there’s more than that: your advisor, because they need to check off on every step of your journey and you will need their effusive letter of recommendation to pursue any kind of academic job has tremendous power over you as a graduate student. You, by contrast, have functionally no power in that relationship; you are reliant on the good graces of your advisor.
A PhD is an enterprise in which many people can and do fail even though they had what was needed intellectually to succeed and did all the work they were supposed to do. Know that you're signing up for that when weighing the costs and benefits in your specific case.
posted by sindark at 8:03 PM on October 2 [4 favorites]


So if your interested in the humanities but don't want a life of poverty what should you do?
Work overseas in the community sector and pursue a non-academic interest in anthropology and aide work?
There are some so so web sites on aide work on the Internet but none as compelling as metafilter.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 9:54 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


Read this yesterday, glad to see it posted here. This article is going to save lives. As someone who for a long time pined after my idealized view of grad school, I sort of pieced together the pieces of this article based on extensive conversations with lots of grad students and, thankfully, never went. Still, having everything put together so well is very helpful.
posted by wooh at 11:17 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]


[O]ne study has indicated that 39% of graduate students [in the humanities] show signs of moderate-to-severe depression (compared to 6% of the general public). Another study suggested that 32% of PhD students “are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder,” several times the rates observed in the public. Rates of mental illness among graduate students in these sorts of studies regularly match or exceed those for active duty military personnel (to be clear, I am not saying graduate school is at all like war (I lack the experience to make that call in any case), merely that it – as the studies show – seems to produce the mental disorders tested for at comparable rates...

I just had to single this out. Here is the punishment, in 21st century America, for wanting to follow a life of reading and writing, and to be devoted to something of illegible value for those who see the world only in transactional terms and crave only money.
posted by jokeefe at 11:43 PM on October 2 [7 favorites]


So if your interested in the humanities but don't want a life of poverty what should you do?

Work a boring/crappy but indispensable day job that keeps you alive while you somehow do what you want on the side. I call it "the Harvey Pekar Life Plan."

I admit that the older you get, the more intolerable it is ("file clerk" sounds relaxing compared to what I deal with though--but life has changed), but it sounds like a lot of people who have "gone for" doing what they love as a job when what they love isn't indispensable end up broke/fed up/pissed off/without insurance/unemployable in their field anyway. And then, pandemic.

This guy's post, and the various other ones over the years, really do point out that putting an extreme amount of money/time/effort into this world pays off for very few.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:44 PM on October 2 [7 favorites]


..so many negative grad school views, can we maybe have some contrast, even if it contrasts some of the article.
posted by firstdaffodils at 11:50 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


What is the objective benefit? I'm all in favor of book learnin'. But as the article makes clear, there's an oversupply of people well qualified to teach the humanities. So what is the benefit of having as many (or more, or fewer) humanities PhDs than we currently do?

Well I don't know if the article makes it too explicit, but there's not an oversupply of people per se. The issue is that the university's have turned faculty jobs into adjunct positions. It's not that there's less demand but they've found a way to turn what should be solid jobs into bullshit. It's the same shit with a lot of late stage capitalism. In not sure how you can ask they question without being unaware of the entire pressures changing funding has put on so much here.
posted by Carillon at 11:56 PM on October 2 [9 favorites]


I'll show you the life of the mind!

I'll show you the life of the mind!

I'll show you the life of the mind!

I will show you the life of the mind!
posted by kirkaracha at 12:12 AM on October 3 [4 favorites]


Step 2: Know that you plan to go to graduate school in your tweens so you can have the kind of GPA and extracurricular profile which will win you admissions into the top tier of selective private schools. This isn’t the only way to do this, but prestige is rewarded at each stage, making it easier to go from a high GPA at a high income High School to a prestigious private college (read: the Ivies) to a top-5 graduate program which will also mostly be at prestigious, private colleges (who like to admit their own undergraduates or the undergraduates of their peer institutions).
If prestige is rewarded at every stage, I can't help but wonder if the "prestigious private" descriptor extends down to high school.

It's like it's all set up as a way for the very privileged to suck the juices out of the bodies of the merely moderately privileged.
posted by clawsoon at 12:41 AM on October 3 [3 favorites]


who attended graduate school decades ago

That was me, completing 3 post-grad degree programs (Brown, Harvard, MIT) cost me a total of $6,000, and yes, it was just about doing and learning. What I see my friend's children facing today, I'd say do something else.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:47 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]


In conclusion then, if you want to do a PhD in the humanities:

* Find a good supervisor, avoid toxic groups/depts
* Get a good bursary (agreed doing a PhD without funding will very rarely make sense)
* Do all this in a country with socialised medicine etc (many programmes do take international applicants)
* If you want /need this to lead to a longer term career, find an interdisciplinary interest that will open up your options (including options outside academia) rather than close them in

If the conditions are right doing a PhD should be the time of your life. Its a minefield but the dream can be real.
posted by yaxu at 1:34 AM on October 3 [4 favorites]


>..so many negative grad school views, can we maybe have some contrast, even if it contrasts some of the article.

This post doesn't need balance. USA graduate school is horrible. Friends warn friends away from horrors. (If you went to grad school you'd know that... :-P ) 'balance' or both-sides leaves uncertainty and allows people to fill uncertainty with their pre-existing views -- so please listen when people say their experience was horrible. At grad school, in their jobs, with police and the justice system, please listen.

I went to engineering grad school. Research has funding bodies in UK and Europe, and I was married to someone who got a PhD funded by a social science research council. Money doesn't exist for social science research and most of the funding came from a partner sponsor.

There's a wrinkle in the system funding this research: having people tell you how to better order society or to help people get a grip of civilisation, their circumstances or place in society, that's going to need the money and power structures to change to meet the people. So instead we have a horrible system wasting people's intellectual efforts so they fit in without changing the system.
posted by k3ninho at 1:57 AM on October 3 [11 favorites]


So if your interested in the humanities but don't want a life of poverty what should you do?

Realize that the world doesn't pay you based on what you want to do, but what it has a use for. If you want to make sculptures or sing songs or write poetry or teach philosophy, the sad truth is you probably won't be able to make a living doing any of those things. You may have to get a job doing something you don't love (because the money doesn't follow) to pay the bills. It is how most of humanity has lived for thousands of years. My grandfather was not a butcher because he had a passion for being a butcher (though he surely loved that it got him out of the coal mines). What's different now is that people believe they should be able to make a living doing what they're passionate about.

I ran out of funding before finishing my PhD. I was offered an adjunct position at a community college, but I was a single parent with two kids and couldn't accept the low pay and lack of stability and health insurance. So I got a regular 40-hour-a-week job and never managed to finish the dissertation. This pretty much destroyed me for decades - it is still, aside from deaths, the most painful thing I have ever gone through. I still see myself as a failure.

I understand how grad school messes with your head, but this adjunct situation partly exists because people who went to grad school have Stockholm syndrome and think that university teaching is the only thing worth doing. So they accept no job security, no health insurance, and extremely low pay because they can feel like they're doing what they love. These are not people who have no other options - but they often can't see or believe in other options. I'm not an advertisement for quitting grad school for the real world - I am not happy in my career. But I make enough to live on, have good health insurance, and will be able to survive in retirement, so I'm better off than I would have been as an adjunct. Universities and colleges need teachers, and they will pay them as little as they can get away with. As long as people are willing to teach under those terms, the situation will continue.
posted by FencingGal at 5:21 AM on October 3 [22 favorites]


But also in general it seems worthless in most cases to "do what you love" for a day job if your interest is not useful/moneymaking in the first place.

There's this poisonous flipside to "do what you love" that makes you into this weird ultimate loser if you don't really love futzing with spreadsheets or sending endless emails to your distance students that, yes, they actually have to read a book. Like there's this world where everyone else is singing the praises of their work, which isn't work, and everyone else goes to the office or factory floor and finds Ultimate Fulfillment but you're just a loser who can't Do What You Love.

If people really loved it, if it were really so great and fulfilling and whatever, then it would be something people pay lots of money to do on vacation. Things you have to pay people to get done are, in their totality, not things people love. And that's okay. Not loving what you do doesn't make you some kind of weird loser; it just means that your job is a job.

And yeah, of course there are those few weirdos who really do love what they do, but honestly people with that sincere a devotion to shareholder value or whatever it might be have always struck me as mildly unhinged.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:22 AM on October 3 [3 favorites]


Don't forget that in the USA, one of the two main political parties is absolutely committed to privatizing and defunding public education on all levels. And the other party has so many buckets to put under so many leaks that building up and refunding public education never really happens. But, hey, the food courts have Chik-Fil-A.
posted by rikschell at 5:33 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]


So if your interested in the humanities but don't want a life of poverty what should you do?

I made my peace with not being an academic in the humanities by rationalizing that for many of the writers and thinkers I admired were 1) independently wealthy, 2) employed by a wealthy patron or 3) simply pursued their own interests while holding down a "regular" job - think of Melville the customs officer, TS Eliot the publisher, Wallace Stevens the insurance executive. I'm guessing 1) and 2) are probably off the table for nearly everyone, so that leaves 3).

Yes, you will probably never be able to conduct research at the level and rigor needed to publish in academic journals, and you won't be able to lecture. But I think a person who is interested in the humanities has the openmindness and natural curiosity to find opportunities everywhere to investigate the human condition. I became very interested in local history and joined my town's historical association - they do lectures, walking tours, and preservation campaigns. Be prudent and do what you can to secure a reasonable living for yourself, then look around and see what opportunities there are to satisfy your interest and curiosity.
posted by fortitude25 at 5:58 AM on October 3 [5 favorites]


Wallace Stevens the insurance executive

A professor told us a story about Wallace Stevens coming to give a reading at his department. The department secretary gave him a check for his honorarium, and he looked at it like it was a piece of trash and said "What am I supposed to do with this?". She told him "Most of our poets buy groceries with it".
posted by thelonius at 6:20 AM on October 3 [6 favorites]


I made my peace with not being an academic in the humanities by rationalizing that for many of the writers and thinkers I admired were 1) independently wealthy, 2) employed by a wealthy patron or 3) simply pursued their own interests while holding down a "regular" job

These days, I see a lot of Option 4: be married to a spouse who has a high salary, as well.

And while it's not something that gets talked about a lot, even without hitting the "independently wealthy" level, there are a lot of grad students and junior faculty being subsidized by their parents. (When I was in grad school, that was probably the biggest split in grad student demographics: lots of people were getting money from their families, while lots of other people were sending money home each month out of their stipends to help support family, which puts people in really different lifestyle and opportunity positions.)

..so many negative grad school views, can we maybe have some contrast, even if it contrasts some of the article.

The author's description of the work load didn't ring true to me at all, both for me personally in the social sciences and for all the people I knew in the humanities. But then, the author wrote a dissertation that was more than twice the typical length ("My dissertation ended up being (tables and appendices included) 788 pages long but between 200-350 pages is more typical"), so it doesn't surprise me that they were working so many hours all the way through.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:51 AM on October 3 [5 favorites]


I understand how grad school messes with your head, but this adjunct situation partly exists because people who went to grad school have Stockholm syndrome and think that university teaching is the only thing worth doing. So they accept no job security, no health insurance, and extremely low pay because they can feel like they're doing what they love. These are not people who have no other options - but they often can't see or believe in other options.

Maybe this applies to some people, but most adjuncts I know want to get out, but adjuncting literally is the best job they've been offered. Of course, part of this is that most adjuncts I know have student debt, and so didn't exactly have the luxury of spending month upon month applying for jobs. But I know so many PhDs struggling to get the kind of job you describe - i.e. enough to live on + save for retirement, and health insurance - often because they have a PhD. I had one friend told in a job interview, "Since you've got a PhD, you'd probably not be happy with a job that requires making photocopies" (never mind that professors have to make photocopies all the time for their classes). And then once you are an adjunct, it limits your ability to look for a job to basically just the summer months.
posted by coffeecat at 6:56 AM on October 3 [4 favorites]


>..so many negative grad school views, can we maybe have some contrast, even if it contrasts some of the article.

Even very good experiences are fundamentally hard. You might not have quite the same workload as the author (History seems to be particularly heavy on reading, for example), but nevertheless your courses and research goals will be the single biggest things in your life for six to eight years. Even people who get multiple interviews and have, relatively speaking, good experiences wrt getting a position, can expect to spend 4-8 months a year filled with anxiety and stress over multiple years because of the job market. If you have a shitty chair, everything becomes significantly harder.

Grad school, is just a fundamentally hard thing to go through. There are highlights, there are friendships and successes, but there is no avoiding the realities of it.

The only advice I can give from my experience is that it really seems to help to have a life outside of your program. A spouse, friends, hobbies that have nothing to do with your academic specialty give you a chance to get away from the crush of your work. This helps. A lot.


So if your interested in the humanities but don't want a life of poverty what should you do?

So, I'm going to go against the grain a bit here. If you go through a funded grad program to at least the MA level, you can still scratch this itch as an adjunct. Adjuncting as a substitute for full-time work is not good (thought I think people tend to exaggerate how bad it is), but it's great as a part-time job.

Even at my underfunded community college adjuncts get $2200 per class, this comes out to, roughly, $20 an hour. If it's not your primary source of income, but something you do a couple of nights a week, it's pretty good. Is this fair compensation for a PhD or MA? Absolutely not, but, again, it's a way to do something you enjoy and get paid for doing it.
posted by oddman at 7:31 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]


Maybe this applies to some people, but most adjuncts I know want to get out, but adjuncting literally is the best job they've been offered.

Also, if you are someone who is still hoping to get a tenure-track job, then adjuncting is one of the few ways to "stay in academia" while you continue applying for tenure track jobs.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:32 AM on October 3


that's going to need the money and power structures to change to meet the people. So instead we have a horrible system wasting people's intellectual efforts so they fit in without changing the system.

Exactly this- it's all well and good to tell people "just don't go," and I would certainly give that advice to most in the context of contemporary graduate programs, but we still need different voices in the humanities, and the system as it stands is actively excluding them. If graduate studies are limited to only those who have independent means to pursue them, then we're just back to the Victorian era, where history winds up being written by hobbyists and diletantes, or by people like Lt. George from Blackadder Goes Forth..
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:51 AM on October 3 [7 favorites]


...so many negative grad school views, can we maybe have some contrast, even if it contrasts some of the article.

I would certainly do some things differently (like building up a non-academic CV), but I don't regret going. Like I said upthread, I made more money my first year of grad school than I was making in the post-2009 shitty economy, and I got health insurance for the first time. I became friends with an array of interesting people, and got to do a research project in another country that would never have been feasible otherwise. I essentially got paid to learn another language. Yes, there was some stress and low moments, but I could say the same of my life before going to grad school. But all told, grad school was pretty great - it's what comes after grad school that is, for most, the major letdown.

And yeah, I agree with Dip Flash re: workload. Most academics, like most people, struggle with time management. Many people got a taste of the academic life during COVID - i.e. working from home is great until it isn't. I'd be surprised if most academics couldn't condense their working hours into a 40-50hr week. Of course, there are some weeks when this is not the case (i.e. the final grading bonanza at the end of term, the week before an important writing deadline, etc.) There are some academics that spend all their time with work, and the most elite of the elite institutions demand this, but it's worth remembering many academics have never had another job to compare their job to - there certainly is a culture of talking about how much one works.
posted by coffeecat at 9:03 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]


A sad summation from Megan's mother in "Mad Men."
posted by PhineasGage at 9:21 AM on October 3


I absolutely loved my experience getting my MDiv in Hyde Park, but I had a couple of advantages that vanished during my PhD experience in Nashville.

1. I was proficient at getting $$$.

I received no small measure of anger from my peers about this. Specifically, I am a white male in a field that is seeking to overcome centuries of underrepresentation of... everyone else. I was accused of "stealing" resources from other students. Never mind the very real fact that I was living out of my Ford Focus and sleeping on a three-season porch in Chicago.
My position was that these funds were just sitting on the damned table and if nobody else wanted them why not grab them?
I quickly learned that the disparity between myself and my peers was that I went to a public university that was typically considered a fall-back school, was thrown into the giant undergraduate mulch and had to find my own way through to the end of my duel BA.
Most of my grad-school peers went to private liberal arts colleges, Great Books schools, or other places where they had access to things like "professor office hours" and "counselors" and even "study groups." I went to a school where the most important students were the football players in the com program.
I had to learn how to do academia without any grown-ups helping me along. They'd had a very sheltered undergraduate experience. I finished my terminal master's program with no debt.

2. I got accepted into a prestigious PhD program before I really understood the motives behind the existence of the program in the first place.
I was excited by the practical applications of the field and was immediately pulled aside by a third-year and advised to "stop foregrounding that stuff."
I was in a field adjacent to the "real" field. For the sake of clarity, I was accepted into a Liturgics program where now I know that the "real" fields are Theology or Ethics.
So minor and unimportant was my field of study that halfway through my first year of coursework my program vanished and I was transferred into another adjacent field - homiletics. Homiletics is to Liturgics as ... Rhetorical Crit is to American Literature.
I didn't *care* about homiletics.
I didn't want to be an historian.
Nobody cared.

I very quickly reasoned out that the only "real" reason I was there was as a placeholder to prop up the "important" adjacent fields of Theology and Ethics. Those were the students who were going to land tenured teaching positions. I, on the other hand, was going to be a worker bee to support the tenured faculty in my program.
While sleeping on a couch.
And becoming physically sick from the work load.
And eating rice and ramen.

I am eternally grateful that my breakdown came early-ish in my program. A theology student sorta clapped me on the shoulder and said, "thank God for y'all - somebody has to keep replicating the guild for the sake of the guild," and that was enough to push me over the edge.

I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I'm still a little bitter about it but I'm profoundly glad I didn't spend another six or seven years in that program. Higher ed is important. But I cannot imagine a situation where I would recommend that any of my children pursue PhDs in the humanities.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:31 AM on October 3 [9 favorites]


Exactly this- it's all well and good to tell people "just don't go," and I would certainly give that advice to most in the context of contemporary graduate programs, but we still need different voices in the humanities, and the system as it stands is actively excluding them.

I think broadly the difference between advice and policy is that advice is always focused on the micro - assuming that neither you nor the person you are giving the advice to can change any of the wider forces and considering what they should do given that fact.

I would never think that this state of affairs is a normal one. I think others have raised the point that we're not all owed a set of activities which fit perfectly what we want to do and for which we get well paid and while I think that's true, it is also true that the number of hours of university level teaching demanded in many humanities fields have decreased by far less than the corresponding permanent faculty appointments. In other words, yes if people stop studying classics as undergraduates and/or far more people start PhDs in the subject than there are faculty jobs then that will always lead to job trouble but that isn't just what's happening here.

On the other hand, if someone asked for advice on what they should do, that advice might still be, "don't do it", even if I would prefer a world where that wasn't true.
posted by atrazine at 9:31 AM on October 3 [3 favorites]


advice is always focused on the micro - assuming that neither you nor the person you are giving the advice to can change any of the wider forces and considering what they should do given that fact.

Right, otherwise known as "you can only take care of you." You don't have the ability to change the entire system. The entire world isn't going to band together and change anything for the better as a united whole. The entire grad school system sucks and isn't going to change for the better. All you can do is look at the situation and see how well you can fit yourself into the set rules, or not, and if it's worth it to try to contort yourself to fit into this or not.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:20 AM on October 3 [1 favorite]


If you set your 20s on fire working really hard on something you like and it doesn't pan out and you're left in debt with a degree that is literally worthless for getting any other job so uh I guess Starbucks is probably hiring, so what?

As someone who literally worked at Starbucks to pay the rent while I was ABD, I don't think they are hiring; they've shut a lot of stores since the start of the pandemic.

I have very mixed feelings about graduate school in the humanities (or, indeed, most social sciences and non-applied maths/sciences). I went for the classic bad reasons (not knowing what to do, doing well at undergrad and thinking that graduate school would be similar), and I ended up at a program which offered good financial support but poor professionalization support (no helping you re the job market). But, at the same time, as someone not from an educated family, it also did offer skills and opportunities I might not have had. I took classes on database design, did a lot of self-teaching on information management to do my research (not a euphemism for coding, but actually thinking more about how to organize information, references, data, etc.) that I continue to use in my current work (as a project coordinator).

I did lose about 10-12 years of potential earning (because 6 years is laughable if you have any issues). But it's hard to do a counter factual on what I might have earned. Some people who graduated about the same time as I did moved on to permanent work and progressed through an organization/organizations. But others ended up working contracts and/or part-time for years on end, making about the same amount of money as I did, but without getting any credentials on the way.

I think sometimes the calculation is also about your other options. If you are accepted into a good graduate program with full financial support, and your job prospects weren't great to start with (because maybe you're from a working class family, you went to a middling university and your options out of a BA consist only of underpaid administrative work), a graduate program in the humanities might be a leg up. But probably only the masters - and only if you can use that to make connections to other job possibilities. Because the chances are a rewarding job in academia are really, really slim. I know a few people who made it -- and many more who didn't. It's like hoping to be a Hollywood star. Even the best actors might not make it, because they don't have the right "look" (aka research topic) - and it's no reflection on them.
posted by jb at 11:15 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]


Maybe this applies to some people, but most adjuncts I know want to get out, but adjuncting literally is the best job they've been offered. Of course, part of this is that most adjuncts I know have student debt, and so didn't exactly have the luxury of spending month upon month applying for jobs

I'm not trying to be snarky - I literally don't understand the part about not having the luxury to apply for jobs. I'm 25 years out from graduate school and still paying off student loans - it didn't stop me from searching for nonacademic work. If loans are through the federal government, you can apply for forbearance if you don't have any income - I've done that more than once. When I quit grad school, I temped for at least six months before I found a full-time job - so I was earning some money. If the problem is the academic calendar, that could potentially be one way for people you know to get out. I'm not saying it's easy, of course.
posted by FencingGal at 11:28 AM on October 3


It all comes down to the money. The ressources for research within the humanities and some social sciences (and as jb says, non-applied math and physics) are small and the applicants are many. So the pressure is intense at every level.

But after reading the post, I am also reminded that the people who want to do graduate studies are not always the best able. I've lost count of how many talented students I have encouraged to apply for grants who have politely declined, and unfortunately also of those I have tried to help after they entered and discovered that they had no idea how to manage their own time for several years.
When I think of it, the few scholars who have fitted right in, from an academic perspective, have at the same time struggled to fit into a culture full of people with imposter's syndrome who have managed to fight their way into tenure, but not to acquire fundamental interpersonal skills. When I think of it, I'm tired.
posted by mumimor at 11:39 AM on October 3 [3 favorites]


My grad school experience is both equal parts hell and joy, but I will say this -- graduate school is really useful and important for those who are first-gen and QTPOC, because it allows for career mobility and wage/health insurance stability that is very difficult to come by for those backgrounds, but only if you plan to not stay in academia after, and ideally, your grad school should be funded. Although I am not a first gen student, I am a disabled QTPOC. When I got to grad school, I finally got access to getting diagnosed for my mental health conditions and low-cost, sorely needed dental care during when I got access to the amazing University of California Student Health Insurance (UC SHIP), which allowed me to get accomodations to finally succeed in grad school, and even that was hell to get for the first two years of my grad program. But I would recommend going to graduate school and always thinking of a way out and always networking and always trying to find a way to connect it to industries that are not purely based in academia. You also have to learn how to defend yourself from predatory academics who are not interested in your journey, but are purely concerned with their own career trajectory. Finding good, thoughtful mentors who are invested in your success and are genuine people you want to connect with, are also important.

In reality, the hidden curriculum is -- you need to get really, really good at surviving and pivoting and doing research, and completing projects along the way, and working hard to avoid staying stuck in the university. This is what I find missing from almost all the articles saying "stay away from graduate school." It doesn't take into account how much these networks can be so important. But the other level is, how do you get comfortable with creating and building these? It's just so enormous what is required, to the point that I'm doing a part-time research gig and helping design a research study of what happens to LGBTQIA grad students at my school.

(As a note, if this resonates with any of you, do not hesitate to DM me here so we can chat more, we have to stick together and help eachother out.)
posted by yueliang at 11:47 AM on October 3 [8 favorites]


I literally don't understand the part about not having the luxury to apply for jobs.

A real, serious job search for something that might be the entry to a career takes a lot of time and effort.

One of the ways adjuncting is a trap is that you probably can string together enough courses to sustain a lower-middle-class lifestyle in a desperately-treading-water way. But if you're adjuncting enough to keep your head above water, you're likely spending 60-80 hours directly working + ancillary stuff like driving all over creation and are tired as fuck outside those hours. There are big chunks of the business day that you can't take calls. Taking time off for interviews might burn bridges with one school or another.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:48 AM on October 3 [5 favorites]


Right off the bat I will say that things are extremely bad in all sectors of the academic job market, and much of what Devereaux says I agree with. But I also think that Devereaux here exhibits a certain type of myopia that is endemic to the “top-20 program” (his words) world of academia. (More broadly, this means people trained or working at R1 or “research-1” institutions.) This is an attitude I notice in the vast majority of these types of pieces on humanities graduate school (the “don’t go” or the “quit lit” genre) that come across my media feed. You do get this attitude drilled into your head if you go to a top-20 program that these programs are the “real” academia and all the non-R1 colleges and universities are “not real” on some level. I had this attitude until I began working at a series of small regional public universities with non-selective admissions — basically a small step “up” from a community college if you are looking at it from that angle, but let’s not say “up” as if we are using the R1 scale of judgment. We simply fulfill a different societal function for a different group of students. We do have graduate programs and we do place students in teaching jobs at community colleges and similar institutions.

Let me cut to the chase to avoid writing an overlong comment. Devereaux doesn’t really seem to have ever thought about community colleges seriously or know anything about the non-R1 sector of academia. He is so focused on the (allegedly) “top” 1%-5%. When you Ctrl-C “community college,” his one mention is responding to a commenter about how it used to be possible to teach at a community college without a PhD, but not anymore. The question he’s not considering, and the one that people from his milieu never consider, in my experience, and perhaps are so trained as to be incapable of considering — is whether there are graduate degrees that might be more desirable at the non-R1 level than those from “top-20” programs, which famously do not teach you how to teach or relate at all to students seeking education in the non-R1 sector. I.e., if you were wanting to teach at a community college these days, where should your PhD come from? Not from fucking Yale; your job application will get tossed in the trash right quick. It will be assumed that you don’t really want to be there. Institutions like mine prefer to hire from institutions whose faculty and student bodies more closely match our own, so a degree from a top-20 program is actually a disadvantage here. I will add that our graduate programs also have had fairly respectable success recently (I don't want to exaggerate) in placing our graduates in teaching positions at similar / less-research focused schools and outside academia; our students do get jobs. His dismissal of the “alt-ac” path is extremely ignorant. Just because R1 schools generally do not prepare you for alt-ac jobs, he assumes that no other types of schools do. Many of our students have gotten these types of jobs, and we do try to prepare them. (I don’t want to suggest that all of our graduates get jobs, of course; the market is brutal at all levels, as I began by saying. But isn’t that the case for a lot of professions right now?)
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:14 PM on October 3 [11 favorites]


demonic winged headgear, while I mostly agree with your point and it is a good suggestion for those who need to move on from wherever they are stuck, the whole point of a PhD is that you want to do research, rather than teach. I love teaching so I am open to alternatives, but on the other hand I specifically love teaching ambitious young people who are interested in what I tell them, and the one semester I tried a less ambitious setting was not happy, even though I was a popular teacher and made friends with the staff. It's a dilemma. I've moved on to STEM now, because I can, and it works for me to some extent.
posted by mumimor at 12:42 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]


One of the ways adjuncting is a trap is that you probably can string together enough courses to sustain a lower-middle-class lifestyle in a desperately-treading-water way. But if you're adjuncting enough to keep your head above water, you're likely spending 60-80 hours directly working + ancillary stuff like driving all over creation and are tired as fuck outside those hours. There are big chunks of the business day that you can't take calls. Taking time off for interviews might burn bridges with one school or another.

Thank you for clarifying.
One of the things that made me decide I couldn't do the adjunct thing was that I had a friend who was teaching classes at four different schools.

A real, serious job search for something that might be the entry to a career takes a lot of time and effort.

I'm not sure what qualifies as the "entry to a career" here. My first job after grad school was at the absolute bottom in academic publishing (job title: technical library assistant). The pay was so low that my income-contingent student loan payment was zero for years. When I told one of the academics at the journal what I was earning, he asked it it was legal to pay me so little. I eventually got a job that paid me enough to live on, but it took years of searching. I've often thought I would have done better if I'd gone to work as a secretary at a place that was large enough to enable people to move up.
posted by FencingGal at 12:44 PM on October 3


I just mean that if you're adjuncting enough to pay the bills, you're already paying the bills and presumably aren't looking for just some way to pay the bills. You're looking for a permanent out away from all the precarity of adjuncting. Something where you can see a path forward that's brighter than the path you're on now.

Apart from probably not being in other very-high-precarity sectors like retail or food service, I don't know what qualifies either.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:58 PM on October 3


I think it's understated how damaging the 2008 crash was to higher education. State funding for American universities never recovered, even over a decade later.

Faced with permanently eviscerated state funding, universities are more dependent than ever on tuition revenue. The double-whammy of Trump and COVID-19 slashed foreign student admissions -- and wealthy foreign students were one of the few groups paying full-freight on tuition.

The result is inexorable pressure to admit more students, stuff them into larger classes, and fill the teaching loads with cheaper adjuncts and TAs. Research costs money, and realistically only changes what colleges an undergraduate chooses for a small fraction of them.

It may seem depressing, but from the tuition-payer's perspective, the undergraduate taking out loans is not in college for the life of the mind. They are in it to learn, but also to earn a credential which prevents them from getting shut out of a huge percentage of jobs. It's not fair to expect the student to take out loans to support more humanities hiring and research gigs -- that should be the state's jobs.

The only real solution is to tax the rich and increase state funding for schools. Schools could hire professors, fund research again, and actually fulfill their mission of educating local students. But until then, colleges face this awful dilemma: for every in-state student they admit at reduced tuition, they face a financial hit. For every rich foreign student or scion of a millionaire, they receive full freight. What choice do they have?
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 1:13 PM on October 3 [9 favorites]


The result is inexorable pressure to admit more students, stuff them into larger classes, and fill the teaching loads with cheaper adjuncts and TAs.

A corollary is universities admitting international students who don't have the background or language skills to succeed, then reducing standards by setting a standard class average to bump grades up to and making it nearly impossible to fail if you write anything at all (because giving failing grades to papers that don't even begin to meet scholarly standards would force you to bump everyone's grades by even more).
posted by sindark at 2:06 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]


I just mean that if you're adjuncting enough to pay the bills, you're already paying the bills and presumably aren't looking for just some way to pay the bills.

Right, the people I know will currently apply to any and all jobs that pay more than they can make as an adjunct when they have the time in the off-summer months, not receive a single job offer, and so it's back to adjuncting in the Fall. I also know people who eventually got another type of job, but it's tough, and it can take years of trying. It's just another downside to getting PhD...a lot of employers don't get just how bad the job market is, and so they assume the PhD-holding-applicant will eventually jump ship for an academic job.
posted by coffeecat at 4:48 PM on October 3


a lot of employers don't get just how bad the job market is, and so they assume the PhD-holding-applicant will eventually jump ship for an academic job.

I think there's also an assumption that a PhD will be generally unhappy in a boring entry-level job and will want to leave it for something, anything else.

At one journal I worked for, a PhD was hired as a copy editor. He constantly complained about the work - the same work everyone else was doing. He was miserable, and he did leave pretty quickly, moving to another city where he thought there would be more opportunities. My supervisor said she would never hire another PhD, and the person she said that to tried to convince her that the PhD in itself wasn't the problem. I'm not sure how well that worked.

In the current market, even boring entry-level jobs get ridiculous numbers of applicants - and employers look for reasons to rule people out. A PhD can definitely hurt. Even being just ABD, it took me a very long time to find a nonacademic job. Because I temped while I was looking, I wasn't bound by the academic calendar. I hadn't realize before this thread that that probably helped.
posted by FencingGal at 5:10 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]


corollary is universities admitting international students who don't have the background or language skills to sunemployment.

Yeah, my job has morphed into at least half of every day being nothing but International Problems, which is exhausting and screamingly frustrating. I get so many incoherent emails that I seriously wonder about who ever passed these people for language requirements. Is it doing anyone any favors to hand out degrees to people who can't communicate even a tiny bit clearly after 4-6 years of education?

Another reason why I am glad I never went to grad school, as my mother once in awhile tells me to, is because it would make me even more unemployable to have an advanced degree.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:40 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]


There's so much that just bugs me about the situation with higher level education, the guild-like structure works almost by design to prevent reform, once one achieves standing within a guild-like profession, having "paid their dues", it's to their personal and professional advantage to maintain the difficulties in achieving similar results by others as it enhances security and status. In the same way, claims over the importance of the knowledge to the broader society is likewise difficult to access for any outsider, being held and evaluated within the world of that elite set of practitioners who hold so much sway over who publishes and what information is passed on. If the collected knowledge is as important to the society as is claimed, then making that knowledge easy to access and widely understood should be the ideal, but that doesn't happen in practice, so if you are deeply interested in the subject you have to deal with the guild-like membership requirements or pay up to get it.

There's no good reason for this structure today, the results for the humanities speak to the harm of it, so it should be a priority to rectify the problems to allow for wider dissemination of knowledge and allow more people to access it and add to it by whatever their own abilities and means might be, even as there would still remain a need for the skills necessary to pass on the acquired learning at the highest levels. The current university system in the US seems clearly unfit to the task regarding the humanities, so it should be time to look to new models that can do better for the public, would-be scholars, and still offer protections to professors.

There is a mild irony in the appeal youtubers and writers like Devereaux, Ruth Goodman, and Lindy Beige, all posted here recently and the many others out there in how they demonstrate the wider interest in supposedly arcane subjects but are often just side projects or, as with Devereaux, things done because he couldn't get a job within his field that really help build greater demand for the subjects of various elite disciplines, thus providing justification for their societal value while the ivory towers keep barring their gates.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:52 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]


"He is so focused on the (allegedly) “top” 1%-5%. When you Ctrl-C “community college,” ... if you were wanting to teach at a community college these days, where should your PhD come from? Not from fucking Yale; your job application will get tossed in the trash right quick."

I taught for five years at a community college (2005ish) that paid $1600/class to the top of the adjunct scale who'd been there for several years and had great student reviews. When they posted a humanities tenure-track position? They got SIX HUNDRED qualified applicants with Ph.D.s SIX HUNDRED. For a shitty-ass job in downstate Illinois where the full-time tenure-track jobs paid around $50,000/year and you were expected to teach a 5/5 or a 6/6.

They hired someone with a Ph.D. from Harvard. The senior faculty all had Ph.D.s from state universities or random SLACs. But anyone coming in post-1995 was coming from a top-20, R1 school, or they weren't even getting seen.

If prestige is rewarded at every stage, I can't help but wonder if the "prestigious private" descriptor extends down to high school.

To a degree -- nobody's going to be at a disadvantage for having gone to Phillips Exeter. But top-25 US colleges are usually institutionally-committed to seeking 1) racial; b) economic; and c) geographic diversity. At top high schools, counselors will tell you, "Harvard never lets in more than three of our students, and we send all three, every year," or "You'll be a lot more competitive at Yale than Stanford, because Yale is always looking for western mountain students." It is a GAME, like all of the rest of it is a game. But if you can come out of an urban public school district in the midwest with Yale credentials, you may be more competitive than a Connecticut private school kid with the same credentials. Because Yale has 400 of the CT kids to choose from, but maybe only a dozen midwest urban public school district kids. And parents do try to finagle their kids into a high school district where they think the kids have a better chance of applying to colleges -- the former billionaire Republican governor of Illinois "clouted" (i.e., bribed) his daughter into a Chicago Public Schools top-level prep school (and bought an entire condo in the city to (falsely, illegally) claim residency), rather than having his daughter attend New Trier, which is typically ranked one of the 20 best high schools (public or private) in the entire US. The thing is, New Trier sends the entire top 10% of its class to the Ivies and Ivy-equivalents. Chicago Public Schools grads with Ivy credentials are comparatively rare beasts, and he and his billions calculated that his daughter had a better chance at Harvard coming out of CPS rather than the best public high school in Illinois (or any private high school). (And yes, this means that a lifelong, high-achieving CPS student, probably a minority, missed out on the slot in that college prep academy that she took, so the billionaire governor's daughter could have a better shot at Harvard.)

Anyway, my point here is, because the US funds schools with local property taxes, there are AMAZING public high schools that, if you can afford to live in the district, will do just as much for your kid as a top private high school. And beyond THAT, there are a lot of parents who will calculate their kid's odds being #20 in the class in a wealthy suburban public school district (that sends its entire top 10% to Ivies BUT your kid is competing against six other Harvard applicants) vs. being #1 in a large but impoverished urban high school or a small rural high school, where they might be the ONLY Harvard applicant, and have Harvard say, "Huh, we haven't had any students from Cairo in 20 years!"

So if your interested in the humanities but don't want a life of poverty what should you do?

One of the great things that getting involved in the Chicago comedy scene has done for me, that I wish had been a conversation I'd been having while I was in college, is the number of people who are genuinely amazing performers/comedians/actors/etc., WHO ALL HAVE DAY JOBS. Literally everyone has a day job, unless and until they get a Netflix special. People who sell out major comedy theaters, who get paid to go on international tours! They mostly still have day jobs. And lots also cobble together other income from teaching gigs and driving for uber and things like that. Actors living these amazing, exciting lives, being cast in commercials, having their performances in plays at the Steppenwolf written up as raves in the Chicago Tribune, and then working weekdays at the fish counter at Whole Foods. Comedians selling out theaters, and being insurance adjusters Monday through Friday.

Growing up, everyone I knew was a doctor or a lawyer or a banker or a teacher and their work was their identity. I literally didn't know any adults who had a shitty day job so they could do more fun things at night/on the weekends. (I knew one banker who had given up art to go into banking, and still liked to sketch, but it was a "hobby.") I wish somebody had told me when I was in high school that you can be a Serious Actor while working at the fish counter. I'm not sure that I personally would have made different decisions as I went through the educational/career process, but I REALLY thought that because I went to law school, I had to want to be a lawyer and make it my identity. If I'd known it was just some bullshit you could do 9-to-5, and then do the things you really enjoy after work, while having health insurance, I might have made very different choices.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:48 PM on October 3 [5 favorites]


I’m currently in the process of applying to PhD programs and found this helpful/good food for thought - thanks for posting it!
posted by chaiyai at 9:22 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]


My appreciation of the challenges of grad school was the result of proof-reading three theses - two Masters and a PhD. I still think that a key entry requirement should be proof-reading someone else's thesis, preferably more than one.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:16 AM on October 4 [4 favorites]


I remember the sound of Mom typing, typing, typing........she finally rented a Selectric when it was time to produce the final copy. Had to type the bibliography, which has to be perfect, really perfect. I think that alone took two weeks.
posted by thelonius at 5:07 AM on October 4 [2 favorites]


I just dropped out of a humanities PhD program. Or I should say, I finally admitted that I was dropping out over the last few years.

I didn't need the program: I have a permanent position teaching with just my masters, but I wanted it. I wanted to be called "doctor," I wanted to spend time thinking about the big questions of my field, I wanted to be in a community of learners.

But the couple of years exhausted me. Life pulled me in too many directions, and I just didn't want to read a book in a few days while I was still grading papers from my day job, all the while struggling with being politically active during these trying times. It just wasn't fun, and funding dried up.

But, here's the thing: I'm still reading, but across the range of subjects. I'm gainfully employed. I'm struggling to balance a political life with a social life, but when I can, I add to it with that elusive "life of the mind." It could be worse.

What advice do I have for everyone out there? Don't go to grad school unless you have a specific place you want to go and a road to get there. And even then, see it as just a path to get there. Sure, enjoy it, enjoy the studying and the talks with professors, but do it because it must be done. If you don't have something lined up, study for your own purposes when you can find it. It might take a lot longer, but the cost is only the books that you have to buy. We need more working-class literati, more folks that love academia yet don't live in academia.. The life of the mind was never meant to be sequestered in academic institutions alone, and I would rather my students get their undergraduate degrees and then read on the side than dedicate themselves to a brutal and underfunded system that crushes life and living. Don't run from it; walk slowly and purposefully to a better place.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:51 AM on October 4 [9 favorites]


Every so often I stop and thank my lucky stars or whatever deities look after fools, because I wandered heedless of snares into and through a masters program and out the other side relatively intact. My whole academic career has been "just smart enough to get through classes with decent grades without usually attracting the attention of a teacher," except for English, where I was highly motivated. So I didn't learn good study habits, did well enough on papers but never formally learned how to do good research, and could write well enough instinctively to mostly muddle through things. This was fine for college, but grad school was more of a shock and since my program had absolutely no guidance for How One Writes A Thesis, I floundered and floundered and floundered. At some point the program noticed that a bunch of us were in the same boat - we had left the university and gotten jobs, many of them in related fields, but none of us were able to get back into the thesis project. So they allowed us to do papers instead, and I have an MA that let me get a job that absolutely doesn't need one but which requires it anyway.

My mistakes were:
I MOVED TO THE UNIVERSITY TOWN BEFORE ACTUALLY BEING OFFICIALLY ACCEPTED. Such was my confidence? I guess? JFC, what was I thinking.
I almost got into the program but without funding. I would have said yes and happily taken out loans. But someone decided to go elsewhere and so they gave me the last funded slot available. I did not know how lucky I was. This was in the very late 1990s and the advice about only going to grad school if you were funded hadn't made its way to my ears.
I picked a lovely, lovely man as my advisor. He was so lovely that he was wildly popular as an advisor and had little time for me, because it was clear at this point that I wasn't going on to a PhD and a great academic career. This is partly why my thesis never really got off the ground. The other big issue was still fumbling through research.

Fortunately, I picked the right program for me - good but not top tier, which meant that we were collegial and not competitive, and many of us went into the same related field and still boost each other up when possible. Although I had a ton of student loans and have to this day never made over $40,000, I didn't get mired in the immense "will never be able to pay off" loan amounts, and I have a pretty steady job on a campus.

Fools and little children.
posted by PussKillian at 6:49 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]


I MOVED TO THE UNIVERSITY TOWN BEFORE ACTUALLY BEING OFFICIALLY ACCEPTED.

I did that too, with bonus of going there to try to keep relationship going. Dumped within 6 months.
posted by thelonius at 7:51 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]




If you have not read Devereaux's blog yet, let me recommend his 4-part series on the Dothraki (cw: he is not a fan).
posted by 15L06 at 2:22 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


I've only recently come across Devereaux (through Metafilter), and I have to admit, a lot of what he writes, I'm not really able to consume in a single sitting anymore, but I've been nibbling at this in bits and pieces, finally finishing it long after the party has moved on, but damn, one line jumped out at me so strongly I had to write it down on a scrap of paper currently propped up under my monitor:

if you wanted to make a living doing rigorous, path-breaking work in the study of the humanities, I’m sorry. That future was stolen from you and squandered. It is gone.

I'm well past the sell-by date on thinking about futures, and most of the time spent pondering alternate paths is more of what-if-ishness, but goddamn, that cuts deeply.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:16 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


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