• August 30, 2015

Neither a Trap Nor a Lie

Pursuing PhD Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

In "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind,'" the columnist "Thomas H. Benton" argues that graduate school in the humanities is based on "structurally ... limiting" the potential employment options of students. He is right, just as he is correct that there is a special place in hell for those professors who avoid their responsibilities in making graduate training honest and humane. Still, he is wrong when he concludes that graduate school in the humanities is a "trap" and a "lie."

I am arguing here for the life of the mind, or at least a version of it. I was inspired to write this by the recent articles on the topic written by Benton (aka William Pannapacker, a professor of English at Hope College), and the intense and passionate response they provoked among this newspaper's readers (The Chronicle, February 12). It would be difficult not to feel moved by the arguments and anecdotes that readers shared.

Like Benton, I have been one of the lucky ones. I had undergraduate professors who took an interest in me, and graduate professors who helped refine my work and prepared me for the job market. I am a junior faculty member on the tenure track at a liberal-arts college where I am happy. But before that, I was a visiting assistant professor, so there was a time when I wasn't sure what my future in academe would be. Nonetheless, I believed throughout in pursuing this profession.

As I was reading Benton's examples and the responses of his readers, I replayed the events that led me to my current teaching position. Considering the wreckage that is the hiring market in the humanities this year—and for the past three decades—why did I, why does anyone, decide to go to graduate school in the humanities? Are we all crazy?

I asked myself that because, for the first time, one of my own students has applied to graduate school in English. She could not be better suited for it: She is an agile thinker, a strong writer, a mature researcher, and, perhaps most important, a tireless worker. She dedicated herself to her senior thesis with a focus that seemed more appropriate to graduate students. She already is a graduate student; she's simply looking for a place to make it official.

But while I am a champion of her candidacy, I am ambivalent about her prospects for all the reasons that are recounted in the heartbreaking comments section of Benton's column, "The Big Lie." I insisted on giving her what has become known in academe as "the talk," telling her every horror story I know of professional misfortune and unfairness. It changed her thinking about how to apply to schools, but otherwise she remained insistent.

I wondered if she comprehended the gravity of the situation. Back when I got "the talk" from my undergraduate professors (in a market that was bad, although not as bad as it is now), I understood what they were saying, but it was extremely difficult, as a young person, to make emotional sense of their words. I couldn't feel the urgency that they were trying to impart. All I knew is that I wanted to be like my professors; I coveted their lifestyle.

A generation of young professors has grown up with the job crisis—it's normal to us, it's never been different. We're expert at imparting the anxiety that comes with graduate school to our students. I think that most graduate students now understand how dire it is, while still attempting, perhaps with incomplete information, to weigh the risks.

There are many ways to pursue intellectualism in and out of academe. I think of the life of the mind as the union of intellectual labor and professional success that, at its best, allows academics to explore ideas and still be supported financially. But I also consider the economic and social compromises that such a life might necessitate.

This is not what Benton would call sanctimony or denial. I do not intend to diminish the emotional and economic severity of the job market, of graduate-student debt, of adjunct teaching, of the "two-body" problem, or the host of other forces that conspire to destroy academic lives. Instead, I want to suggest that we should not discount the possibility that our students desire to live a life that involves academic ideals and intellectual study, despite all of the impediments.

One counterargument might be that only a happy few get to live the life of the mind. The kind of middle-class success that was assumed to come with graduate school in the humanities quite often cannot be achieved with a tenure-track salary, let alone adjunct wages.

Still, I was struck by one of Benton's examples in particular. He wrote about a couple who (I presume) replied to one of his articles, whose daughter had earned a doctorate in comparative literature and was struggling financially while their son "makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems" after six months at a for-profit trade school. I appreciated the example because it crystallizes the conflicted ideas that motivate most students who apply to graduate school. We want to be financially secure, but we also want to achieve a professional position that has a unique relationship to work.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I was employed one summer by its housing-maintenance department. My supervisors were carpenters and electricians who worked for the university. They could not understand why I would want to go to graduate school to study poetry. They outlined an alternate life in which I became an electrician, got paid to learn my trade, and, if I was lucky, owned my own business.They made a persuasive argument for a life I had never before imagined. But I didn't want to be an electrician. I wanted literature to be my work.

That's why I tell my students that if they go to graduate school they must love the work, because often that is all there is and often you are paid too little for it. But I also tell them that it does not mean they should avoid graduate school. Rather, they must go for the right reasons.

One of those reasons is the pursuit of the life of the mind. Not because we need another generation of teachers who are abused by stressful working conditions, unequal wages, little job security, and no health benefits, but because the lifestyle of academe is meaningful and rewarding in ways that are different from many other careers. Choosing to pursue that life—as irrational as it may seem, as hopeless as the prospect of achieving it might be—can still be a sound choice.

We—adjuncts, full-time professors, researchers, administrators, politicians, and parents—must retool how we talk about graduate school in the humanities. We can no longer present it as a professional school or as career training, with the assumption that more education and advanced degrees always lead to better lives, more income, increased happiness. Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.

What would it mean to see advanced degrees in the humanities as akin to pursuing fine arts, with its expectation of economic instability? How would we talk differently to prospective (and current) graduate students if we saw them as more like aspiring novelists or actors?

For me, graduate school was a compromise: a way to lead an artistic life with what appeared to be a chance for stability. That guaranteed stability has disappeared, even for someone like me who is lucky to have a tenure-track job. For those students who seek to go to graduate school, presenting the choice as an artistic career means that we must accept that persistent professional disappointment is a central part of the life.

Comparing the academic humanities to the arts also necessitates that we be honest with ourselves that the job market is not going to change and that the power of well-meaning faculty members to improve it is limited. The inequalities of employment in the humanities reflect structural shifts going on in higher education. I see little evidence that those good ideas mentioned in past years will be put into place: limiting graduate enrollments, reducing the amount of adjunct teaching, refining tenure standards, accepting the prestige of online publications. In fact, in the short run, some of those plans could be disastrous: Further reducing the numbers of contingent faculty members could toss a generation of already exploited teachers into the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

Instead, we must rethink what professionalization means in the academic humanities. What is it for artists to become "professional" in their training? What kinds of cues and advice do fine-arts programs give their students about their future careers? I don't know those answers, but I think that humanities professors need to talk more with their fine-arts colleagues about how they advise their students about what it means to become a working artist, or how to accept the risk of becoming an impoverished one.

The contradictions of this arts-based approach to graduate school are insuperable. We must operate with the understanding that graduate school is not necessarily a successful professional degree for most students. That may mean we need to recognize the emotional reasons why many students decide to attend graduate school. And yet I am aware that the current job market rewards skills such as focus, expertise, analysis, and productivity. We must somehow inculcate those professional skills while appealing to the contradictory desires that bring our students to graduate school in the first place despite its obvious dangers.

In that sense, then, graduate school in the humanities is not a trap. It's a choice. But it is incumbent on us to make sure it is not a lie. We should not romanticize it; it needs to be reformed in many of the ways that Benton and others have described. But I don't think the trouble with graduate school or the humanities job market is the promise of the life of the mind. Instead, we should modernize that life and understand the pleasures of those who still choose, often against their economic self-interest, to pursue it nonetheless.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.


1. zefelius - March 12, 2010 at 03:49 am

Nice to see a counter-point, especially one so cogent and thoughtful. Nevertheless, I'm somehow vexed by the comparison to how one might look at a humanities Ph.D. in the same light as a choosing to go to NY or Hollywood to become an artist or actor. On the one hand, it's simply and brutally true. We might as well speak the truth. On the other hand, it's precisely such an honest truth which can never perfectly disengage itself from various lies perpetuated in academe. Yes, we can now begin to set the record straight with future graduate school hopefuls, by being straightforward in all the ways you described above. But unless this is all that is at stake, we aren't yet out of the woods. I myself don't mind getting paid very little (in reference to your point apropos of economic self-interest), but as a Ph.D. from a decent top 20 school and plenty of publishing and conferences under my belt, I wish I were in a better position to provide my own students with a more attentive focus. But as an adjunct--with little job security and little pay--we need to pick up extra classes and also complete research to ensure our own livelihood. This quarter I've been working many, many 80 hour weeks (perhaps low for some adjuncts... I don't know) so that I can thoroughly read all my students' papers, provide them with essential comments, and also publish my own work. But I still feel that I'm falling short, no matter how much energy I put into my work and my classes. This is just a crappy situation not only for adjuncts, but in my view even more so for college students. Even with 80 hour weeks, I find I can't really address all the needs of my students---nor do I have the power to motivate them with realistic grades, as I could lose my job for low evaluations.

In sum, to say that this can be reduced to an individual choice concerning whether or not one sufficiently desires to be an academic, on par with other precarious livelihoods in the arts, is to neglect how this contributes to the downgrading of our higher education system in the U.S. I have no problem with the risks I've taken, but until adjuncts have job security and a bit more pay (so they don't have to teach so many classes), I believe that many of our colleges will continue to suffer---thus showing how this problem is much larger than a simple pursuit of the life of mind, no matter how much I myself admire that kind of noble calling!

2. occidentalir - March 12, 2010 at 06:01 am

Excellent article. Although I've recognized the importance of "the talk", I hadn't encountered a term for it, which explicitly recognizes and names an important part of advising our students. And the comparison to the job prospects of actors and artists is apt.

One element which I have not seen mentioned enough: one's prospects can vary greatly depending on the quality of the graduate program that one gets admitted to. Granted, even having a PhD from Harvard or Berkeley is no guarantee of employment -- but one's odds are a lot better than if one's PhD is from Podunk U. So a prospective academic can receive an early and important evaluation of his or her future chances right at the beginning: if you get an admission offer with a fellowship from a Top 10 program, take that as a positive sign. If you get rejected from all of the top 20 programs and only get admitted to Podunk's program, take heed. These days only the "happy few" get tenure track jobs, and you don't want to overestimate your chances of joining the "brand of brainiacs".

3. edgr6373 - March 12, 2010 at 06:12 am

[An early career sociologist in Manchester writes] Blimey, I thought things in the UK (England) were difficult for PhD students and early career academics! Doing a PhD here, as, it seems in the US can put you deep into debt and delay family and home ownership by many years. When friends envy my interesting job and varied schedule, my reply is: "you go and do a PhD then"... Take the uncertainty, the financial burden, the solitary slogs in the library, live on pasta n' sauce, and hand back your house and car. I'm not sure what to make of the role of Adjunct, since we don't really have it here. PhD's can and do teach, but this is limited by regulations and in fact availability - there isn't that much teaching to go around, in a sense. Some of us do teaching 'off the books' accross different faculties and so on, to bump up the hours, some of us do part time work in the private sector or bits of editing work here and there. You can continue to teach part time after the PhD, but again, there are limited hours and nothing in the vacations, so it's hardly a career choice. After the PhD, it's time to get a full time job as a lecturer or researcher. But that's another story...

Anyway, I think I agree with the comment above more than the actual article. It's unfair to compare doing a Phd or being an academic to being an actor or an artist, at least in normative terms, and to do so is rather defeatist. We are culturally programmed to understand that education is a meritocratic path to, at least, 'a' job, and why not a job within that same system, if one shows enough aptitude? Are we not living in postindustrial socieities where knowledge and education have become the bread and butter of the economy and those who master it something of an elite?

Academics have had to work hard within the system most of their lives in order to get where they are... Going off to be an actor or artist is exciting and insecure and often means great sacrifices, but no one ever had to study for years and sit endless exams and write endless essays in order to do a Warhol or a Depp. I suppose if I had known that becoming an academic would be as hard as making it as an artist I'd have scrapped the studying an made tracks for New York, although the original York is nearer and has an arts scene of its own...

4. kcvtb - March 12, 2010 at 07:40 am

"I have been one of the lucky ones." That's where Mulholland starts this sane response to Thomas Benton's fevered columns. Pause just there: since the first great downturn in the academic job market (1971-72), the standard story has been that the market stinks and life is unjust. This story has persisted through bad times, better times, and now again bad times. But even in these bad times, people are getting jobs, real jobs, good jobs.

My question is simple, then: why do we persist in speaking of professional success as "luck"? Does merit have nothing to do with it? Thirty-five years a professor and I'd say yes, merit has a lot to do with it. Not everything, and there are people I think should have had better careers than they've had, but the people who get the good jobs turn out to be smart and productive and engaged.

What's distinctive about higher ed is that it's a completely socialist "market" for aspiring high performing professionals. When the dead hand of government loses interest in higher ed (or inhumanities higher ed), the market goes bad, and none of the usual market strategies (making yourself more valuable) really work very well, and that's frustrating. But, well, that economic fact was one that was plain to see a hundred years ago and forty years ago and today. And yes, that's frustrating.

In a situation that is absolutely not going to change materially, with wonderful work and wonderful opportunity and a fair amount of frustration, academics should be able to be thoughtful and objective and fair-minded about what's going on. Yes, the work is exhilarating, the job is gorgeous, and getting the job you want is *highly* competitive. There are still plenty of talented young people who look at that and go for it; and plenty of people who just never make the effort. The agitation is over the ones who make the effort and miss. I'm deeply sympathetic when that happens, but I don't have the illusion that my distress is going to change anything.

5. horacewo - March 12, 2010 at 07:56 am

Well, I suppose it would be naive not to expect somebody to offer a defense; however, this is a half-hearted, predictable argument. One would hope that a tenured humanities faculty would offer a better reasoned response other than to say, well, we all make choices, even if they are bad ones.

The issue is really that Benton's article has students, parents, and the general public asking questions! And the universities and colleges-and their humanities faculties-do not like that.

The question is not whether or not students in the humanities have choices, or make a bad choice. Isn't that a tautology? In other words to choose to pursue an advanced degree in the humanities, apparently, is a bad choice.

Isn't the issue in the original article by Benton that graduate faculty either withhold pertinent information or conceal information so that students necessarily make bad choices? And what about the issue of false choices?

'Tis early in the morning, but this response really does not satisfy.

6. ewrobins - March 12, 2010 at 08:18 am

This article solidifies the recent fears I've been having of this profession as a graduate student. While I love what I'm learning and have also "coveted" the lives of my undergraduate professors, I'm in a place where I have a family, and bills to pay, and no stipend or tuition waiver to help relieve me or my family of certain financial duties. And the prospect of not having a job once I graduate is disheartening. Perhaps it's now time for me to seriously consider moving down to a middle school/high school level for my career...

7. ralphmelnick - March 12, 2010 at 09:20 am

KCVTB's comment above is spoken straight out of a privileged thirty-five year trip on the gravey train that has been, and continues to be, paid in part by graduate student tuition and fees taken with the promise, stated or implied, that a place on this train will be there for these students if they help pay for their professor's ticket by occupying a seat in the wiating room. Much of the rest of the ticket, of course, is funded by undergraduates who too often pay exorbitant amounts for overworked adjuncts and for these same rarely present tenured faculty. The "life of the mind" is a wonderful thing, but so, too, is honesty in assessing what one's pleasure has cost others.
Perhaps it's time to truly look at the scenery along the train's route and to determine if the ride for the few has been, and continues to be, worth the personal and societal costs to the many.

8. lynnewebb320 - March 12, 2010 at 09:23 am

This whole debate strikes me as silly. Tenure track academic jobs are highly competitive. Period. Get over it. While I think we can liken graduate school in the humanities to artists pursuing careers in New York, we also can liken them to college basketball players thinking they will have a career in the NBA. Most college players never play professionally -- and most PhDs in the humanities will never get tenure track positions at prestigious universities. Are there really doc students, adjunct, and one-year appointment people out there who do not know that their chances are severely limited? No one is saying colleges should drop sports programs because so few players go pro. Why should universities stop admitting students "who want their shot" to doc programs?

9. copesan - March 12, 2010 at 09:26 am

Hey! kevtb! There are not enough jobs! The job market is shrinking! Could we please not say that people who don't get jobs do not have "merit?"

Bravo to Mulholland for saying "What would it mean to see advanced degrees in the humanities as akin to pursuing fine arts, with its expectation of economic instability? How would we talk differently to prospective (and current) graduate students if we saw them as more like aspiring novelists or actors?" My friends who are musicians and actors have taught me a lot about how to approach an academic career.

10. demery1 - March 12, 2010 at 09:28 am

It might be better to say that it's not necessarily a trap, and that we need to endeavour to make sure it's not a lie. Part of the problem is that there are incentives to lie and that creates a trap.

For instance:
1. If a mid-tier university program wants to build its faculty and enhance its research productivity, student demand is an effective lever for resources.

2. If a good, not great, student asks for letters to attend graduate schools, there is little disincentive not to write, even if the student will not compete to enter elite programs.

3. As long as TA contingent labor is cheaper and less politically risky that term/adjunct labor, programs with high teaching demands will continue to have incentive to use graduate students as teachers and to pad their programs with less than top tier talent.

The answer to the hiring problem is to come to grips with academic labor problems in humanities, to promote full time and tenure track labor in all programs, and to encourage only the best programs and students to pursue graduate education.

11. grzgrz - March 12, 2010 at 09:39 am

Henry Ford was right: The world is full of educated derelicts. Mr. Mulholland, not only being such a parasite, thinks we need more. If Mr. Mulholland wishes a life of the mind, I suggest he quit asking the taxpayers to feed, clothe and house him while he is thinking. He doesn't want a life of the mind; he wants a life of leisure. It is that very dream which brings graduate students to his door; they want a life of leisure as well, and think the world owes them a living just because they have a Ph.D.

When I was in graduate school, I was astonished by the attitude of salary and career expectation of the vast majority of my cohorts. Most could not survive in a real job; that's why they desired a "life of the mind." They believed the nonsense Mr. Mulholland and others fed them, and expected to be welcomed with open arms at a major university them minute they got their hands on their doctorate. Most were horrified when they learned the truth. They knew they had been taken. The only reason Mr. Mulholland's drivel keeps attracting more victims is that a small minority actually do get their dream job, and those who don't are told that if only they keep their miserable adjunct positions, that one day they will make it to the top. P.T. Barnum would be smiling ...

12. amyletter - March 12, 2010 at 09:46 am

I would just like to point out that we artists do not accept as right and proper the idea that talented and hardworking individuals should starve for their art. Artists do age, after all, and while living on ramen noodles is fine when you're 20, by 40 you have a rather sincere need for health insurance and a retirement account, even if your life is dedicated to painting, dancing, or writing stories. The work that artists produce is also, like the work scholars produce, highly valuable to our society and culture, not to mention our economy. I agree that there is an analog between the life of a PhD and the life of an artist because both pursue a calling that goes beyond paychecks and procreation; however, neither artists nor scholars should accept this bad deal we're being offered: our value to our society and culture is immeasurable, and we should fight for the treatment we deserve.

13. lms347 - March 12, 2010 at 09:50 am

lynnewebb320- Unfortunately, I am getting over it. But if I were told 5 years ago that there was less than a 10% chance of getting a tenure-track job, I would have never gone through with the PhD. I admire people who want to give up their 20s or 30s to live the life of the mind, but I always approached my graduate career as a way to become a professional. I don't understand why it is that humanities PhDs are supposed to just accept what is. Why can't tenured and tenure track professors start working to make real change? It seems that once someone is on the tenure track or tenured then the problems of the market are no longer their problem. True-- sort of. What people like this writer miss is that the less tenured or tenure-track positions that their are, the less that tenure will mean.

14. tsb2010 - March 12, 2010 at 09:58 am

Oh, the irony. While a well-written article, it is not exactly a counterpoint to the original "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind".
If this essay reads almost like a job application - well, it is: while "Dr. Benton" writes his mind out as a tenured professor, our current author is very much on a tenure track. He still needs to convince the others in his department that he is worthy of being on the "gravy train", and that he truly believes in the "life of the mind" as presented to our students (and donors).
And to "kcvtb": yes, merit has something to do with it. But if you step back for a few moments, how many "almost equally qualified" applicants do not get the few tenure-track jobs? If you chose between 10 people for a job you can speak of merit. If you chose between 400, you can be sure that a few excellent ones will fall through the cracks. The system is perfect from the point of view of colleges/departments: you can afford to discard many fantastic applicants, because the pool is so deep. The differences betweeen the top 40 applicants for a job are probably so small that they are all within the margin of error. And getting selected out of this group -- well, this is what I call "luck". Getting into the top 10% is merit.

15. stratus - March 12, 2010 at 10:09 am

The problem I have with the artist-actor analogy is that most people enter these fields without a PhD. Which means they didn't spend 5-8 years paying tuition and accruing a huge debt.

The other problem I have is that many people who previously couldn't afford school, now, through loans, "can." And I say "can" because they probably can't, they just don't know it yet. If you get full tuition and a TA job to cover your expenses, then great, at least you're not on the fast train to financial ruin by age 28.

But many of the people I know in academia assume everyone can get funding--at least an assistantship, if nothing else--and that is why they encourage others to pursue this path. To them, it's not a big risk of anything but time, and maybe a little luxury. But it's not like it used to be, and those funding and TA opportunities don't exist for most students anymore. But debt does, in a way it hasn't before; and I worry today's students are buying into the old rhetoric and not realizing it's a whole new game.

16. jab829 - March 12, 2010 at 10:29 am

It's true, as someone rather baldly states above, that there aren't enough tenure-track jobs to go around, and that's something we just need to deal with and get over. However, I don't think that's the problem. Believe it or not, all PhD candidates do not dream of a tenure-track job as a member of the graduate faculty at a research one university. Some of us actually *want* to teach first-year composition and sophomore literature for the rest of our lives; I, for one, love teaching those courses, because they allow me to have a hand in shaping all students, not just the rarified few in upper-level literature.

The problem lies in the gulf between tenure-track positions and adjunct positions; one brings good pay, job security, reasonable workload, and power, while the other brings a 4/4 teaching load, a second job to make up for the crappy pay of that 4/4 load, poor benefits (or, worse, no benefits), and little to no job security or power. Same degree, two vastly different experiences.
And, yes, you can argue that the tenure-track professor "earned" it, but that assumes the lecturer *wanted* a tenure-track job but wasn't good enough.

Adjunct faculty are treated like second-class citizens and are always first on the chopping block when times are hard; yet, without those faculty members, universities could not exist (who else is going to teach those lowly gen ed. courses?). What needs to happen in humanities education is not fewer graduate students or more tenure-track positions; it's more respect to those educators who see this as a *teaching* degree and want to do just that: teach. In other words, I want to be a lecturer, but I don't want to have to apologize for being "just" a lecturer -- and I want to be able to have a good standard of living as a lecturer. After all, most lecturers also have a doctorate; shouldn't that mean more?

17. luskivitch - March 12, 2010 at 10:58 am

I have a friend who is a Poet who "moonlights" as an auto mechanic. He has published and is an intellectual in every sense, but he knew that he could never make a living as a poet so he fixes cars.

18. ewholland - March 12, 2010 at 11:04 am

Institutional change and graduate student/adjunct unionization are certainly in order to reduce exploitation by universities; and of course prospective graduate students should be aware that their chances of finding a tenured position are slim (like the chances of actors and sports players becoming stars). But what Benton and most commentators overlook is that the life of the mind is needed for the good of society. It's not just a personal choice or career ideal for individuals - the life of mind is essential to the flourishing of society as a whole. And I'm not talking only about business and technology (which clearly need new knowledges and knowledgeable employees on a continuing basis): without a robust and continuing commitment to the life of the mind in all its varieties (arts, humanities, sciences, professional schools, etc.), social life would become stagnant and moribund. Helping individuals make informed choices is necessary, but the issue involves far more than individual choice. That's another reason institutional reform is so important.

19. that1ndividual - March 12, 2010 at 11:11 am

A student of English Literature, I just applied to 8 ph.d. programs. My solution to all these troubles is quite simple: I vowed ONLY to enter a program that would pay my tuition and support me while I learn, research, and write.

Had I only gotten into programs that cost money, I would have accepted defeat; at least for this year.

In my opinion, if your grad program doesn't pay for you, YOU DIDN'T GET IN TO ONE. Try again or do something else.

Luckily, blessedly, I did get into a top 20 program, with 95% tuition waver for 5-6 years, a TA-ship, and a First Year Fellowship that waives all my TA duties (because I have some teaching experience).


20. huff0104 - March 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

lms347 writes that "once someone is on the tenure track or tenured then the problems of the market are no longer their problem."
Precisely. There will always be two tiers of college faculty so long as there is tenure. If there were genuine market competition (based on proper high standards), rather than monopoly pricing, the distinction between the two tiers would vanish. True, pay scales would be reduced for most who now have tenure (and continue to have jobs), and pay would be higher with benefits for the adjuncts who prove to be qualified for full-time faculty positions.
Of course, this isn't going to happen because tenure trumps everything else in academe.
By the way, lynnewebb320's NBA analogy is not apt. If a pro basketball team had tenure, most, if not all of the long-tenured players would be on the bench (if not in chairs), and temporary, "adjunct" players would be ones who run, jump and shoot in front of the paying customers.

21. grzgrz - March 12, 2010 at 11:20 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

22. cfox53 - March 12, 2010 at 11:25 am

Just a quick note about the artist analogy - from a former actor/director now an academic administrator. As an actor I took classes & training sessions, apprenticed, spent years working on my craft (while working construction, etc) - so yes, I wasn't getting a PhD (that came later) but a good PhD has much in common with the apprenticeship of artist.

23. quasihumanist - March 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

I believe that

"the life of the mind is essential to the flourishing of society as a whole."

But we live in a democracy. If most of society does not agree with me and does not wish to subsidize the life of the mind, then I have to say that my belief in democracy trumps my belief in the life of the mind.

We can make all the arguments to the rest of society that we want. If they disagree, then the right thing to do is to submit, not to try to impose our will by subterfuge. (cf. Crito)

24. ots1927 - March 12, 2010 at 11:52 am

kcvtb wrote:
"My question is simple, then: why do we persist in speaking of professional success as "luck"? Does merit have nothing to do with it? Thirty-five years a professor and I'd say yes, merit has a lot to do with it. Not everything, and there are people I think should have had better careers than they've had, but the people who get the good jobs turn out to be smart and productive and engaged."

Yes, I fully agree. There may be a certain amount of luck or good fortune involved in landing a good tenure-track job, but now that I have reached mid-career (i.e., tenured) status, I understand that luck is a relatively small part of the equation. Yes, there are many, far too many, qualified applicants for tenure-track jobs, especially in the arts and humanities. But I have served on quite a few search committees, and I've come to realize that many of those applicants are highly qualified on paper only. They have the degrees, the publications, the grants and fellowships, the letters of recommendation from big-wigs in the discipline. Some of them even have teaching experience. But I am amazed at how many of them are unable to combine that with a realistic sense of self-importance, an understanding of how they might fit into the culture and mission of the institution to which they are applying, and a simple sense of collegiality. Such broad misunderstandings of the nature of the tenure-track job and its less quantifiable requirements are usually apparent to me even from reading applicants' cover letters, and if not there, then usually through a phone or conference interview. We might get 150 applicants for a position at my university in my department, but the speed and ease with which the committee is able to whittle that list down to ten semi-finalists and three finalists suggest to me that luck has little to do with it.

25. lorenabosca - March 12, 2010 at 11:53 am

To everyone, but especially to grzgrz:

Whatever agreements or disagreements we might have with the argument presented here, let's use this forum as an opportunity to continue this very important conversation. And let's stop with the ad hominem attacks and namecalling. Seriously.

26. jnwike - March 12, 2010 at 11:54 am

Hang on a minute! Most Ph.Ds don't get tenure track jobs? That may be true, but they are supposed to get tenure track jobs. That's the whole point of graduate school. You don't go through all that to become a book reviewer. If most law students did not join the bar, or most medical students did not practice medicine, those schools would need to scale back, not tell the students whose time has been wasted that at least someone made it through and is happy, and law and medicine are still good things. The same should be true for all learned professions. Once you've started comparing grad students to disappointed artists and athletes, just give up. A college humanities faculty is not a chorus line or an NBA team. It's part of the country's education system. If it can't operate more rationally, it needs an overhaul, not high-sounding consolation or preaching about how you knew what you were getting into.

27. ariodante - March 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

An earlier poster, Occidentalir #2, makes the very good point that the prestige of the graduate program a student enters has a significant influence on their future career prospects. While a PhD from one of the best humanities programs - Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton, Yale is no guarantee of a job, on the whole, students from those places still seem to be getting very good jobs, even in the current market. Moreover, those, that for whatever reason don't get jobs, have usually saddled themselves with very little debt, not having had to pay tuition, and having received generous stipends for five years or more. There are excellent students doing fine work at less prestigious institutions but this, sadly, often makes little difference to their chances of getting a job. The academic job market is regulated to a significant (though not complete) extent by the prestige of a student's graduate institution. Undergraduates, however able, ought to be encouraged not to go to graduate school unless they are admitted to, and will be competitive in, the very best and most prestigious graduate programs.

28. that1ndividual - March 12, 2010 at 01:12 pm

Publication: The Great Equalizer.

Sure, a PhD from Harvard or Berkeley (all but) promises a comfy job, but if you start publishing essays in top journals, say _PMLA_, you'll probably fair just as well on the market.

My point: since everyone can't get a tenure track position, we have to compete. Earn the position with scholarship -- Contribute to the highest level of discussion -- Converse with those PhDs from Harvard and Berkeley -- and it won't matter where you went to school.

29. themoth - March 12, 2010 at 01:55 pm

I must echo "that1ndividual"- message #19 from above. When I had "the talk" with my undergraduate professors, the message was that if you could not get your PhD paid for (through assistantships, research grants, etc.), you had no buisness being there.
Looking back, this might have been a bit harsh, but it directly addresses the issue at hand. Yes, the funding is limited, and becoming more so. Limiting the students we admit to graduate programs to those our departments can pay for or find funding for might go a long way toward balancing out the job-market glut.

I am now ABD (in a social science disipline) and owe absolutely nothing to the public R1 institution I attend. I have earned every hour of that education through countless hours TAing, teaching my own classes, and doing research for faculty members. It has been a true apprenticeship, and one that will make me a better faculty member-- tenured or not.

30. johntoradze - March 12, 2010 at 02:00 pm

jnwike is probably not speaking tongue in cheek, so I'll address that idea.

Looking around at law, one finds that nationwide, passing the bar exam after college is far from universal. 68% nationwide, and 33% for February in 2009 in California. Bar exams vary a lot in difficulty. Then examine this:
http://www.ogdenonpolitics.com/2008/12/mandatory-reading-before-going-to-law.html Don't believe the lies from law schools.

Newly minted attorneys (if they have passed the bar) are competing to land $35,000 a year positions. Sound familiar?

What does it take to make partner in a law firm? It takes at least 10 years of working your behind off, often 20 years. It takes collegiality and a bit of politics. It requires showing you are worth it. And most attorneys don't make partner, don't land cushy positions making $200K a year or more. Sound familiar? And once you make it into one of those highly coveted partner slots, you will still have to work, albeit with clout, and now with the added burden of having to judge who will make partner. Sound familiar?

So what are the viable options for a PhD in humanities aside from professor? High school and grade school teaching; novel author; grade school teaching; upper administration in public and private K-12; marketing and sales in almost any area; federal employment for CIA, DOD, HUD, Department of State, etcetera; state government jobs; county jobs working with foster children. Those are all similar or better jobs than one can find on a college campus.

Just like attorneys who don't make partner, the key to success is not to bemoan one's lot. Some attorneys become writers of novels and screenplays. One must broaden one's targets. It's a rich world of possibilities out there.

If you do broaden your prospects, you will find that "the life of the mind" is not confined to campus. Some of the richest life of the mind veins are outside academia.

31. tonycontento - March 12, 2010 at 02:28 pm

A minor note to grzgrz, Dr. Mulholland is employed at Wheaton, in Massachusetts, a private university. You tax dollars are not funding him in any way. If, however, you are referring to the subsidization of student loans that Mr. Mulholland may or may not have accepted, then please do me this favor: email me your address and I will send you a check every year for $254.54.

How did I arrive at this figure? Well, the total 2009 budget for educational loans is $138 billion. This includes all loan programs, not just the two subsidized programs available to graduate students, but so be it. I'll be generous and assume that 1/4 of all funds are going to graduate students. That's $34.5 billion. A high number, but so be it. Under the assumption that you don't want your tax dollars going to fund graduate education in the liberal arts, that represents 1.1% of the total federal budget of $3.1 trillion. However, tax revenues that year only totaled $2.7 trillion. I'll assume by your charitable tone that you are in the top 5% of earners, thus responsible for 56.7% of the $2.7 trillion ($1.53 trillion). So, 1.1% of $1.53 trillion is $16.8 billion. I'll divide this number by the 6.6 million households in the top 5% and that yields $254.54.

Less than $300 from the top 5% of earners in Americans every year is going to fund graduate student loan subsidy programs. Those of us making less than $160,000 per household would have a lower burden.

If your $254.54 will prevent you from spewing bile about your tax dollars funding graduate liberal arts education, then I'll gladly pay, because I believe in federal subsidies for higher education. I feel that it increases the strength and prominence of our nation. And people like yourself, more worried about your pocketbook than the people in your community, will only weaken us. So, please, allow me to pay you to remain silent.

32. jab829 - March 12, 2010 at 02:48 pm

@ that1ndividual:

I don't think debt is the issue here (though, by the way, I too have been fully funded during my PhD; good luck living on your $12,000/year stipend when your program won't allow you to have a second job). Yes, it's especially unfortunate for those who emerge with a PhD, $50,000 in student loans, and no good job prospects, but even without the debt, it's a terrible situation. The problem is that these programs are grooming us for tenure-track positions most of us won't get, and some of us don't want. Frankly, I don't want to be a researcher; I want to be a teacher. But to have a sustainable future, I have to focus on the aspects of academia I hate ("publish or die"; faculty politics; serving on committees; etc.) rather than the aspects I love (collegiality; teaching; outreach; etc.). The current job climate, along with the gulf between tenure and the hard-scrabble life of lecturers and adjuncts (who carry the bulk of a department's teaching and outreach on their backs), is making me want to drag this degree out for as long as possible. After all, as a graduate student, I can at least keep the romance alive; from what I gather, once I graduate, I'm doomed.

33. ledzep - March 12, 2010 at 02:52 pm

"No one is saying colleges should drop sports programs because so few players go pro."

Actually, many people are saying almost exactly that. Or, rather, they are saying that NCAA athletes are exploited, placed in situations where they are highly likely to fail academically, and this situation is perpetuated by coaches and institutions promoting wildly unrealistic ideas about the chance of going pro. So your counterexample just proves the point, actually.

The cases are parallel: the young people in question make their choice on the basis of unrealistic expectations - they think they are prepping to go pro or become a professor for life, when in reality they are providing cheap labor for the institution, and only a tiny minority will ever reach the desired goal. So the institutions don't challenge, indeed positively encourage, the unrealistic views of these young people, because that keeps drawing them in.

So, to be more precise, people aren't necessarily advocating a complete cessation of college athletics or graduate school in the humanities, but they definitely are advocating a change in the way institutions recruit and exploit people.

34. zefelius - March 12, 2010 at 02:54 pm


Your make a fair point: "Most college players never play professionally -- and most PhDs in the humanities will never get tenure track positions at prestigious universities. Are there really doc students, adjunct, and one-year appointment people out there who do not know that their chances are severely limited?"

But as I mentioned in comment #1, the issue shouldn't be divorced from its overall context. I don't think this is only about the individual decisions of young graduate students, but this truly affects the entire college environment today, at least where there are adjuncts and lecturers. I say this because there's simply no way--no matter all of the long, hard hours--for us adjuncts to teach at the highest level, in the most attentive way, for our students---especially as many adjuncts are compelled to spread out their attention and commitment in many different directions to make ends meet. Teaching so many classes, having little job secutity, and not having the power to give accurate grades for fear of losing our jobs, means that education will only worsen for U.S. students in the near and distant future.

So this isn't just about so-called whining PhDs.

35. ledzep - March 12, 2010 at 03:00 pm

If it needs to be made more obvious that college athletics uses the relationship to pro sports to exploit students, notice that the NBA has instituted a rule such that players have to be at least one year out of high school to enter the draft. It couldn't be more transparent what that is about: it encourages top players to go to college for one year, just to get that out of the way, and everybody (but the player) benefits: the players are effectively forced to go to college for a year, which helps the athletic department sell tickets, milk boosters, etc. The NBA gets players who have been groomed through what is really a minor league program, without having to pay a dime.

An interesting twist, while I'm on the subject, is that players can get around this bit of exploitation by going abroad to play professional basketball. That takes a pretty confident 19-year old, however.

36. susca - March 12, 2010 at 03:21 pm

to thatindividual:
You have missed the point. Being fully funded at a top-tier school in your PhD program will not guarantee ANYTHING on the other end in a humanistic discipline. You have not yet reached the point in your career that is the topic of the article. I would suggest that you are in denial.

But good luck. Even with merit, you'll still need luck.

37. dxulib - March 12, 2010 at 04:35 pm

I think the comparison with the fine arts is appropriate. Both my wife and I earned B.F.A degrees from an elite (and very expensive) fine arts college. I was given "the talk" on several occassions,in different ways, and from various professors and peers. I had flirted with the idea of pursuing an M.F.A, and a career as a professor,but as a result of these candid discussions, decided it wasn't for me. We wanted to make art, not necessarily to teach it. My wife and I had few delusions about what we were undertaking. We had no intention of trying to support a family through sales of our work. What we valued was the luxury of being able to engage with world-class faculty and fully develop our intellectual and creative abilities. We simply pursued a path in the discipline about which we were most passionate.

We knew full well that in order to cultivate our work beyond college would involve a non-traditional career path. After several years of career exploration we both decided upon graduate school, Library Science for her, Higher Education Administration for me. No the job market is not good, even for entry level administrators, but we were both luck enough to secure positions that enable us to get by (actually, I have "pieced together" two part-time jobs in higher ed. She has the full-time position). Do our jobs relate to our passion for art? Not really. Do they offer other rewarding opportunities to make meaningful contributions in academe? Certainly. Do the provide us with a lifestlye that enables us to carve out space in our busy lives for making artwork, work that is on our terms and not those of the market, gallery owners etc.? Absolutely. My point here is that there are many paths to "the life of the mind".

The issue is how each individual defines it. Perhaps it is time to no longer cling, with such desperation, to the romantic ideal of what the life of a scholar is supposed to be like (be it in the humanities or the arts). Once that narrow notion is released, the idea of what "a life of the mind" is can be broadended and become more inclusive. After all, one of America's greatest poets, Wallace Stevens, composed many of his poems on walks to work as an Insurance Executive.

38. masttg - March 12, 2010 at 05:00 pm

to tonycontento:
Here! Here!

39. grzgrz - March 12, 2010 at 06:13 pm

I think I hit a nerve. I suspect both tonycontento and masttg both feed at the public trough. I do not. I have six jobs, noe of which are supported by public money. I resent subsidizing people to live a "life of the mind." Create something worthwhile, and make your living that way. If you want to have a life of the mind, go right ahead. Just don't expect me to pay your bills. I certainly don't expect others to subsidize me when I live my "life of the mind." The prevalent attitude of entitlement among those with higher education disgusts me.

40. jnwike - March 12, 2010 at 08:14 pm

It's "hear, hear."

41. dmaratto - March 12, 2010 at 09:57 pm

Ah, yes. This subject ... again. If it weren't for constant articles about the academic job market, or lack thereof, "The Chronicle" would be little more than the higher-ed version of USA Today.

If you'll all be so kind, let me try to provide a bit of a different perspective than most, coming from an anthropology background, and now working in colleges as an adviser.

There was a time (say, from medieval era to the 19th century) when the university was the domain of the elite. There were some colleges, but since most couldn't read or write, much less undertake higher education, the market for these was small (i.e. low demand for colleges, therefore low supply of students), so there wasn't a great need, nor was there a want, for professors, either.

Starting with the Moriill Acts in the 1860s, higher ed. in America starts expanding, with more colleges and universities being founded. So more students start going to college, and more professors are needed (rising demand, rising supply). However, there still are not a terrible lot of people who can qualify for higher ed.: academically, or they're not allowed in (no women, no blacks, etc.), or they can't afford it, or they are not thinking they need college at all (industrial revolution). So there is a balance, in a way, and it stays until the mid-20th century.

Then we have WWII, and afterward massive numbers of returning GIs take advantage of post-war prosperity and the generous government support for higher education at the time (founding of the NIH, NSF, GI Bill, etc.) Colleges see an explosion of enrollment, and they must expand their facilities, their program offerings -- and the faculty. This only increases into the 1950s and 1960s as the baby boomers start going to college. Additionally, women start going to college in numbers never seen before, and desegregation begins to take effect, allowing minorities the opportunity to further their education.

This is a time of unprecedented prosperity (though social upheaval) in the U.S.A., and it is the golden age for the colleges and universities who reap the benefits of a great economy (e.g., the California Master Plan) and the demand for their services. This leads to a huge spike in the number, prominence and position of faculty at most universities (high demand from students, and yet a still lower supply of professors = jackpot).

Since the 1970s, however, the U.S. economy really has been in a series of ups-and-downs, the baby boom ended, Cold War dragged on, post-industrialism set in, leading to the slow but inevitable decline of American manufacturing and the middle class that came with it. While more people have a college education now than ever before, this means there are also more programs, and more universities, and more doctorates, than there used to be. There are tons of Ph.D.s in every discipline, so it isn't rare or special anymore (in cold, hard, economic terms).

However, people are still thinking in the idealistic way, that this is like the 1950s-1960s, and they are deluded, for whatever reason, into believing they can have that lifestyle of autonomy, respect, privilege, contribution to general knowledge, etc. This would be akin to thinking you want to be a doctor, so you could make house calls, deliver babies, perform surgery, fix Little League players' sprained ankles, and be home for dinner at 7. While that was the M.D.'s life in the early 20th century, it's gone now. Ditto for a police academy recruit wanting to just walk the beat, or a trucker who dreams of "the open road." It's a fantasy out of the past, not current economic or social reality.

As Jimmy Buffett sang, "My occupational hazard is, my occupation's just not around."

42. onthemarketnow - March 12, 2010 at 10:34 pm

@ that1ndividual: I got an even better funding deal at my top-10 program 6 years ago, as did the rest of my PhD class. We were psyched! Now 90% of us are or will soon be unemployed. Grad school is a really enjoyable way to spend 5-6 years, but even being a top student at a top program isn't going to get you job in academia. Everyone thinks they'll be the exception because they're really, really smart and talented. But everyone else in all those other top-20 schools are really smart and talented too and there simply aren't enough jobs for every well qualified candidate to have one. This is a mathematical reality. By all means, go to grad school--it's great!--but spend your time there planning for a non-academic career. You shouldn't listen to an anonymous internet poster though--when you get to campus in the Fall track down a 5th or 6th year graduate student, ask them about the market, and listen well.

43. ignoramus - March 12, 2010 at 10:39 pm

"Poverty has been reckoned the crowning beauty of many a heroic career."

~William James, from "What Makes a Life Significant"

44. zefelius - March 12, 2010 at 11:30 pm


Your historical and anthropological perspective is helpful, and I thought it was articulated quite nicely.

Still, I find this issue being perpetually framed by the wrong questions, and thus the wrong set of opposing views which subconsciously reinterate the false presuppositions attending those questions and issues. Thus, when you conclude "It's a fantasy out of the past, not current economic or social reality," I think once again the mark has been missed, as I alluded above in comments #1 and #34.

Whether or not young graduate students are following such a fantasy deflects our attention from a more pressing matter (albeit one which subsumes the former): just as K-12 is continuing to suffer today partly as a result of the low prestige of teachers, and our inability to fire the bad ones (see this week's Newsweek), U.S. higher education will continue its downfall as long as we fill classrooms with low paid adjuncts who have neither prestige nor power. If they don't even have the power to give students low grades for bad work, the future of education is in severe straits, especially considering that the percentage of adjuncts is now more than 70% in the U.S.

So to all those who continue the tough talk of "get real," "stop lying to yourselves," or "get over it," don't forget that this issue isn't merely one which concerns the idiosyncratic ideals of us adjuncts, but more importantly the very future of our students' best interest (though they may not know it) to be taught by faculty who are well-respected, have secure jobs, and the power to give accurate grades.

45. jaded_and_fading - March 12, 2010 at 11:46 pm

To the talented college students who are pleased to find themselves accepted and "fully funded" for a prestigious doctoral degree in the humanities, I would advise you to pat yourself on the back for the recognition, and run, not walk, in the opposite direction.

It's what I wish I had done when I was accepted, 10 years ago, to a top-5 English department with full funding. After working my ass off for a decade (grad school is dominated by stress, hard work, and anxiety, not pleasure), I have my ph.d. and teaching awards galore, I'm broke (deep in debt, actually), have been unable to find any job inside or outside the academy (Starbucks and Borders never even bothered to call me back), and, desperate to one day support my family, am reviving a career in medicine I abandoned so long ago. While it was easy to rationalize the passing years as a taking advantage of the luxury of my carefree 20s to follow my dream, I am now painfully aware of having wasted 1/5 of my productive adult years in a completely fruitless pursuit.

That's why I have little patience for this piece's prescriptions for honest dealing with prospective graduate students, which In contrast to Benton's trenchant articles, strike me as vague ("modernize" the life of the mind) and downright laughable (take lessons in transparency about the prospects for gainful employment from fine arts faculty).

46. chronicletemes - March 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Well, I entered graduate school at Columbia feeling very lucky, and now - 22 years later - I still feel that anyone on this planet able to spend years studying among thoughtful and serious scholars and colleagues is privileged in the truest and best sense of the word.

I studied what I felt most important to study, and chose research projects that expressed my personal passions. I was conscious that I needed to do the work I felt compelled to do, rather than chase the trends, precisely because I might not get the jobs we all hoped to get.

Now, years later, I've been a non-tenureable faculty member at an Ivy, a foundation head, a graduate school president, a consultant, and am about to become the head of an independent grades 6 - 12 school.

Lucky, lucky, lucky. Shame on me if I were to complain about this path that opened before me when I was young, and not still illuminates my life.

47. ignoramus - March 13, 2010 at 12:51 am

Dear "tonycontento":

Since "grzgrz" won't take any "public money" (include yours), then, would you send it to me instead?

254.54 would go a long way for a lost soul like me who got caught in the big, bad Trap/Lie of getting to do all this for free (plus get a bit of a stipend too!): study, read books, and listen to lectures for free; teach college courses; travel to conferences and give papers; publish in journals; and many other things my parents and grandparents who never went to college could only dream of.

I could espcially use the extra money for a therapy session because I am super-terrified of the employed professors arguing over whether a "life of the mind" is super-bad or just sortof-bad.

As I see it, the life of the mind -- and the heart, soul, and body -- is always a good thing whether it leads into or out of a university. Schools do not have a monopoly on wonder, but they sure help. And, afterwards, I may take that wonder to laying bricks or something else.

Sure, good things can be painful and even tragic, but the ancient desire for wisdom is never bad -- even when its reward is nothing but wisdom.

Ya, I know, "knowledge for knowledge sake" is passe -- I got that memo too. Well, how about "being for being sake"? My point is that a life lived is better than one squandered on trying to make a living. (Or, maybe Tolstoy is passe too.)

Anyhow, sorry I got off track. Could you please send your kind gift of 254.54 to me instead of "grzgrz"?



48. grumpygradstudent - March 13, 2010 at 04:58 am

Having worked for 20+ years in both federal and corporate jobs since my BA, and prior to my starting the graduate school and adjunct process, I can tell you that it is the same everywhere. Of the millions who enter whatever rat-race of a profession they choose, only a small percentage will make the long term cut.

For example, by law in the active duty US military officer corps only 60% of those who desire to stay on beyond their initial obligation (which means the pool is already atrited) will be allowed to stay on long enough to draw a 20-year retirement (the military's version of tenure) - and then there are more and more cuts to reach the stratosphere of the highest officer levels (there are only 9 4-star Admirals in the Navy)

In Major League Baseball, of the millions of kids who started Little League many years ago in the US, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Japan, only 730 will take the field this year on Opening Day 2010. And of those, only a small percentage will last long enough to retire, and even fewer will make the Hall of Fame.

And of the millions who enter business, how few get to reach the corner offices?

Regardless of the profession, I've found that the keys to success are all the same: continued, sustained, performance. Provide value-added to the team, the organization, the institution, and if you're lucky, the world. BTW, value-added also includes inter-personal relationships. If you've got the highest publication or sales rate, but you're also a dirtbag to your colleagues and students, then you're not really providing value-added.

Frankly, I think that grad schools should adopt the NBA approach: no grad school until you've worked at least 4 years in a real job. Having experience puts grad school education in perspective. And there's an interpersonal benefit - there's nothing that people outside academia hate more than some snotty MBA or PhD who rolls in fresh out of Ivory Tower U and starts laying out the latest in post-modern theory with no real-world experience behind them.

But on the other side, I've been in meetings where the technical director who got their PhD later in life is accorded massive respect when they walk into the meeting. There needs to be a better interactive feedback loop between academia, the public policy world, and the business world. A PhD is not just an apprenticeship to eventually succeed some hypothetically retiring professor, By taking on the hood of a PhD, one should really acknowledge an obligation and opportunity to provide that critical value-added in any combination of three aspects. A PhD's sights should be set on the really big picture. To paraphrase Spiderman, with great education comes great responsibility.

49. grzgrz - March 13, 2010 at 08:56 am


You wrote "Schools do not have a monopoly on wonder."

Well said. That is the most intelligent statement yet posted on this discussion board. A "life of the mind" does not require subsidization.

50. post_modern - March 13, 2010 at 10:19 am

Very true #49! I also held many jobs before completing school. I have worked in construction, restaurants and cubicles. Trust me the grass only seems greener. In fact, it was that experience that motivated me to pursue a career that involved doing what I love. So, I went back to school and studied art, but I went back with a plan. I attended top five programs for undergrad and grad school (full ride and stipend for grad). Speaking of my MFA, I am surprised at how quickly some of you dismiss the rigors of becoming a successful artist. While grad school was one of the best times of my life it was difficult enough to make me consider dropping out more than once. Furthermore, a great many working artists have terminal degrees and even if they do not, no one moves to New York or LA and gets handed the keys to the city.

Back to my plan. While in grad school I diversified my studies. I became proficient in many forms of art: painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography and drawing. Thus increasing my marketability.

After grad school it took me exactly six months to find a good job. For the first three months I devoted eight hours a day to applying for jobs, both academic and private sector. At three months I ran out of money and had to get some kind of job which turned out to be painting houses, so then I spent a couple of hours after work everyday applying for jobs. At six months I got the call, while standing ankle deep in mud on a construction site, offering me my current position at a small university.

My position is not TT and I only make $35000 a year, but I get to teach and it is permanent and full-time. I live very well on 35k a year (even with massive student loan debt; approximately equal to what I owe on my mortgage) because of a key element of my plan. I am single and do not have children. I do not want to insult any married with children types out there, but, really, how did you think that was going to affect your situation? Especially if you married an aspiring professor. What are the odds that both of you will get a job teaching at the same school, or in the same city?

I am currently applying for TT positions and I think I will probably get one, but if I do not I will try again next year. Searching for a TT position, then and now, is stressful, scary and frustrating for me, but I have never once thought of blaming the system. I knew what I was getting into and planned accordingly. Sure I may have gotten lucky somewhere along the line, but I had to have the substance, attitude and tenacity required to take advantage of that luck. I was, and still am, fully prepared to focus my efforts in a new direction if I do not achieve my goals.

There probably is a better system and I truly hope we figure out what that might be. However, I doubt that any system will eliminate the highly competitive situations that result when many people desire a limited resource.

51. tonycontento - March 13, 2010 at 11:13 am


From your comments it sounds like you are richer than grzgrz, or even myself. You seem to have a clear sense of self and an understanding of what is important to enjoy a well-lived life.

I was offering grzgrz the money to remain silent. I'd pay you to continue speaking.


52. youheardithere - March 13, 2010 at 11:21 am

It's been interesting to read the comment thread on this essay along with the comments on the Benton essay to which it links itself. But it's especially interesting to see that the discussion still remains stuck -- is grad school a lie? Is it a trap? Is the life of the mind a ploy to lure unsuspecting grad students into a position where everyone already knows they will fail? No. But that doesn't mean that grad school is good, that it was ever ethical, or that the life of the mind exists only there. Grad school is a job, even if you are fully funded, and it should lead to a job, but in the humanities that isn't likely anymore.

lms posted on this thread that if he had known five years ago that his chances of getting a job were under ten percent, he would not have gone to grad school. That's a reasonable enough statement. Except for the fact that five years ago his chances would have been vastly improved because the global market hadn't crashed. Most people in most jobs can say the same -- if they had known five years ago that the economy was going to collapse they might have made a different game plan. They didn't, which is why universities are paralyzed and can't figure out how to keep their core mission alive. The question is this: does this current job market indicate rot that has been growing at the heart of the humanities for over 20 years, or is it better understood as a larger crisis, one that tells us once and for all that universities are not exempt from market logic?

One more thing: Thatindividual argues that publication might help because it's the great equalizer.
It isn't.
Plenty of people publish and don't get jobs. More publication just feeds the fantasy that it's all about merit.
It isn't. It's about luck. And it's about timing. If you went on the job market three years ago, you were lucky and you had good timing.

53. jaded_and_fading - March 13, 2010 at 11:29 am

post_modern: "I live very well on 35k a year (even with massive student loan debt; approximately equal to what I owe on my mortgage) because of a key element of my plan. I am single and do not have children."

Here I was thinking the academic labor system was at fault for dumping me and nearly everyone else in my cohort out on our asses after a decade-long commitment to the profession; thanks to post_modern, now I see I'm the one who caused my own suffering for falling in love, getting married, and deciding to have a child. If I'd only followed your plan, now I'd be set!

54. skaking - March 13, 2010 at 11:37 am

jaded_and_fading: "now I see I'm the one who caused my own suffering for falling in love, getting married, and deciding to have a child."

well, actually, yeah. if you're looking for economic security, and you're married with child, why on earth would you look to do something so insecure financially? if you love art so much, do it by all means, but suffer the pains gladly. don't whine about the financial hardships -- you can always do something else. no one's going to take away your phd. if it bothers your spouse, get out. if s/he doesn't mind the suffering, then suffer. marx lived a life of poverty (even with engels's support). if it was good enough for him...

55. neoconned - March 13, 2010 at 12:06 pm

i think the pro-sports analogy is an excellent one.
the NBA doesn't need tenure because after two years as an NBA star you will have earned enough money and set up a lifetime's worth of potential endorsements, whereas after the first two years as an academic star you will not have even paid of your student debt.
so the NBA does effectively have tenure, in the comparative sense
all this talk about abolishing tenure because of the (supposedly, albeit in some cases truly) unproductive tenured faculty would be the worst thing for academia. i know un-tenured contract research professors in european institutions. they can't write books or undertake any project likely to take more than two years to complete because they will appear to have 'not been working' -- kill tenure and scholarship will become market-driven twittering; let's not even start about academic freedom...

56. septentriones - March 13, 2010 at 01:40 pm

grzgrz writes that 'A "life of the mind" does not require subsidization.' This echoes Ronald Reagan's infamous comment that the taxpayers should not be expected to subsidize researchers' "idle curiosity." But Reagan was wrong, and so is grzgrz. The "idle curiosity" Reagan disdained is more properly called "basic research"; and without subsidization, basic research in many important areas would grind to a halt--and so would the technical advances that this research makes possible. Similarly, it has been a truism for several thousand years that "wisdom is born of leisure." It is a rare individual indeed who can do back-breaking manual labor, or its service-sector equivalent, from sunrise to sunset and then sit down to think great thoughts in their spare time. In most fields the life of the mind requires access to good libraries and the freedom to use them effectively, time to read widely, energy to think deeply, opportunities to exchange ideas with other good minds, the serenity to let one's thoughts roam where they will, and a chance for serendipity to work its occasional magic. Absent all that, what passes for the life of the mind often produces only the sort of pseudo-intellectual drivel that permeates the public arena today, with consequences that are becoming all too evident. If society is not willing to subsidize a genuine life of the mind, then for the most part it won't get one--in which case it deserves the collapse into stupidity and barbarism that will inevitably follow.

57. that1ndividual - March 13, 2010 at 02:15 pm

Believing you will get a tenure track job after finishing grad school is not denial. Maybe it's something close to denial, but it's not exactly the same.

I know this is going to sound cocky -- people probably won't like it -- but I'm going to get one because I'm special.

It doesn't matter (to me) that 90% of Ph.D.s won't get the job they won't, because I aim to be in the other 10%.

I'm determined to do so, and I believe it will work out better for me than for the other 90% because I'm special.

You have to think this way, or else you'll fail. If you "prepare for a non-academic job" because you believe you're likely to be a part of that 90%, then you've determined your future already.

Those tenure-track jobs are for a special few: I have no trouble seeing myself as a part of that top 10% -- hell, I'd still think this way if it were only 1%.

This is a game for individuals. You have to worry about YOU, not the statistics. Probability has nothing to do with what happens in reality. If only 10 out of a hundred people will get a job, that means nine other people and me.

If you don't have this kind of attitude, that's good news for me and those other nine.

58. kedves - March 13, 2010 at 02:32 pm

I think it is a mistake to argue about whether academia is or isn't the life of the mind. Why should anyone care if our work somehow transcends the body or is a job that we do as well as we are able? That's a personal matter. This ongoing focus on the personal benefits of intellectual work leads us to minimize dangerously the enormous social benefits of college and university teaching and research.

I'm not in the humanities. My concern in this issue is that I am the one who has to have "the talk" with humanities-program-bound students when they ask me for letters. Their faculty in their programs shirk the responsibility. I sacrifice to work in the job I chose and it is not a great job. I've done other jobs, and this is what I'm suited for. I don't want to discourage talented students from finding the same enjoyment in work that I have. I do want them to know what they're getting into. By letter-request time, they don't want to turn back. All I can do is warn them about the snares.

The market is structured to produce more PhDs in some fields than there are, or will ever be, academic jobs for all the talented people who want them. The market is structured this way because universities like having grad students for faculty to teach, like them for the prestige that grad programs bring, like them for their cheap teaching and research labor, and--in some cases--like the loan-paid tuition these students bring. It is dishonest to talk only about students' choice but not to acknowledge the structural factors leading to oversupply of grad programs, including some bad ones, and oversized admissions within even good programs.

The responsible things would be to increase competition at the graduate admissions phase of the process, and for departments to work more closely with career planning offices to give talented undergrads information about satisfying careers outside of academia, with or without additional degrees.

If we are using an NBA or performing arts analogy, then humanities faculty must be among the most persistent and best of any faculty on campus. They have been selected by a more rigorous process than many others. I hope your students appreciate you, humanities faculty of America!

Mulholland's argument reminded me of a quotation:

"Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," Rumsfeld said. "They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here."

59. jaded_and_fading - March 13, 2010 at 02:46 pm

#55 skaking: "if you're looking for economic security, and you're married with child, why on earth would you look to do something so insecure financially?"

Ah, another iteration of the old "you can't be complaining, can you -- you knew going to grad school wasn't the most brilliant career move!" Thanks for your portrayal of me as a whining idiot. I'm always surprised to see such attempts to defend the status quo coming most frequently from graduate students themselves who have yet to face the job market -- those same people who would never stand to have people outside of the academy call their work leisurely dilettantism.

The whole point of Benton's articles, and of his suggestion that there is a lie inherent in humanities graduate education, is that graduate programs present themselves -- in form and substance -- as professional training, and that through omission and blatant deception (I've seen both in spades), postpone until the end of that professional training the realization that one will likely have *no* job for a decade of time and effort. I'll gladly admit I'm a fool for falling for that ruse, but please spare me the cartoonish characterizations and incoherent life advice.

60. ignoramus - March 13, 2010 at 02:50 pm


You missed the rest of the sentence. After I wrote "Schools do not have a monopoly on wonder," I continued to write, "but they sure help."

Likewise, it sure helps to have a sponsor or seven who belief in you -- or, whether they believe in you or not, are willing to help you out anyway.

I have made it through school with the primary support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as a Gates Millennium Scholar. As a married graduate student, with two wonderful children, I also get help from my university (in exchange for teaching), the government (we qualify for health benefits and WIC), art patrons (I play guitar professionally as a side-job), and the kindness of senior scholars who believe in me and my work (I have been given many gifts, some big some small, by various mentors and sponsors of my work).

The four of us live in a one-bed room apartment and we don't eat out much, have Internet, or cable television. We use the library, public parks, and have a zoo membership. Don't cry for us, though, we are very, very happy. We love our life. There is so much beauty in a small home, pristine from mindless media and distractions like this screen you are reading.

I may or may not get an academic job for next fall. I know that. But self-pity is a mindless trap, a straightjacket of the imagination. If I don't get an academic job, then we will move into a cheaper place (with more space, ironically) and I will keep job searching, writing, playing music, and will hone my interpersonal skills as a waiter or a bartender.

Regardless, I work hard. But I don't live as/on an island. I need people. I need help. I need love. And they need me in the very same ways. In the end, our needs are met and the simplicity of our life makes us happier, we self-righteously think, than the American status quo -- we carry zero debt (other than a few deferred student loans from my wife).

Maybe the lesson in this overdramatic series is that academics have forgotten how to live the "good life." Intellectuals once modeled the "life of the mind" through their own selfless lives, but now they want to live mindless lives while being paid for mindfulness -- or being paid for their ability to raise capital in transnational university-corporations. Intellectuals have always required sponsors, and they have always produced more than they were “worth” for human culture.

Well, as I see it, one of these things is not like the other. If we are truly mindful, in the deepest sense, then we will offer a re-enchanted way of life -- as tragic as that may be -- as an alternative. We surely won't wring our hands because we can't keep up with pop culture and try to live a life that is deeply countercultural all at once.

So, "tonycontento," send me all the help you want to -- I'll pass it on someday, I promise. And "grzgrz," get a life -- a thick, deep, tragic life. Help somebody and allow yourself to be helped, even by the government. Chances are, you already do when you drive on public roads, use public libraries, or visit a public park. If you don't, then you really should. Especially the libraries and parks, they're great!



61. grzgrz - March 13, 2010 at 02:51 pm


You wrote:

"It is a rare individual indeed who can do back-breaking manual labor, or its service-sector equivalent, from sunrise to sunset and then sit down to think great thoughts in their spare time."

I'd hate to live where you live. I meet these "rare" individuals all the time. I know hundreds of people who actually work for a living, and actually create things, and they think much greater thoughts than this whole discussion board put together. Just this morning (3/13/2010) I visited a friend of mine whose average work day is 14 hours, including the weekends. (I wonder what yours is?) I stopped in to see him while he ate his lunch. I knew that was the only time I could catch him. He introduced me to Richard Rorty a few years ago. I think he understands Rorty better than the so-called intellectuals who have all this spare time you speak about. His simple philosophies, his comtemplative and peaceful nature, and his love of learning makes him a joy to converse with. If everyone thought like he did, this earth would enjoy a peace we could never even dream of.

What makes you think that people can only think great thoughts when someone else pays them to do so, or when they are sitting down? Can't people have great thoughts when they are working? Your elitism stuns me.

W. Edwards Deming revolutionized the Japanese auto industry (as well as the world's) by teaching auto executives that the best decisions often come from those doing the real work. The best philosphers and thinkers, in my opinion, come not from the ivory tower, but from people who actually work for a living, with no expectation that society owes them anything.

Why was HE not chosen for subsidization to have a "life of the mind?" His philosphy of hard work, coupled with a love of life and a taste for great literature makes him a much more desirable citizen than someone who expect me to pay their bills why they sit around and think.

I agree with your statement that basic research is critical, and I support subsidization of those people and institutions who do need the time to really make important discoveries. In some areas, I think we need more dollars. (Cancer research comes to mind.) I would much prefer to subsidize cancer researchers that those who study literature.

"Wisdom is born of leisure?" Give me a break! Did Abraham Lincoln gain his wisdom from leisure? Or was it during his decades of hard work (as well as studying great literature which nobody paid him to read) that he developed a philosphy that saved this nation? Why do some insist that only people wit a lot of spare time can appreciate good literature?

If it wasn't for millions of people like my friend who actually create something, and make our economy thrive, there would be no money to spread around. The capital that these people create makes it all of this subsidization possible. So why you are busy "thinking," the people who have put it within your grasp to do are out busily making sure that you can continue to do so. And whether you believe it or not, they think great thoughts, too. You just have to be listening to hear them.

62. gsmorris - March 13, 2010 at 02:57 pm

Jaded and Fading - I share your pain and your name. As I said in a comment over on Benton's article, grad school is great if you're young, single, healthy, and wealthy enough to throw away 6-8 years of your life without repercussions. But as soon as you're stupid enough to age, fall in love, have children, get sick, or be without a trust fund, the world-wide economic depression and rapid disintegration of humanities higher education is all your fault. Because, hey, it's all based on merit, you know. You and I aren't special enough to be perpetually 22-year-old, independently wealthy models of monkish hermitude and perfect constitution.

63. grzgrz - March 13, 2010 at 03:04 pm


Thanks for the kind words. My favorite places within 25 miles of where I live are the public library and the local university library. Places of great solitude and the opportunity for a "life of the mind." As for the parks, every summer my son and I travel to a national park for a week of backcountry hiking. Ken Burns was right when he said that the National Parks were America's best idea. I think we should spend much more on our national parks. By the way, a hard-working machinist from Wisconsin was the primary driving force behind the national park movement. He was also widely read, and nobody subsidized him! Many argue that he was the greatest thinker ever produced by our nation, but he never got paid to think!

64. septentriones - March 13, 2010 at 03:09 pm

grzgrz: So your working-class friend introduced you to Richard Rorty. Good for him. But Richard Rorty was precisely one of those ivory tower intellectuals whose wisdom was born of leisure. He entered the University of Chicago at the age of fourteen, mastered in philosophy, then went on to Yale for his Ph.D. He spent most of his working life at snooty places like Wellesley, Princeton, and Stanford. His doctoral dissertation was entitled "The Concept of Potentiality"; his autobiography was called "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids". Has your wise working-class friend written anything comparable? If so, by all means let us know so we can read it. The fact is, if Rorty had spent his life doing manual labor fourteen hours a day, it is unlikely that either you or your friend would ever have heard of him.

65. grzgrz - March 13, 2010 at 03:19 pm


You make a very good point. I do not deny that wisdom can spring from leisure. In the case of Rorty, it clearly did. My point is simply that wisdom does not spring only from leisure. Surely we can agree on that.

66. ignoramus - March 13, 2010 at 03:26 pm


I guess I don't understand what you mean by 'subsidy' or 'subsidizing'? Good enough for Rorty, parks, libraries -- even university ones -- but not good enough for whom exactly? So, I guess my question is what do you mean by a 'subsidy'?

67. septentriones - March 13, 2010 at 03:27 pm

grzgrz: And by the way, you are dead wrong if you think I'm one of the "elite". I have done my share of grunt work over the years; in my present position I am neither paid to think nor encouraged to do so, and I am pretty sure that people who bag groceries make more per hour. But it is precisely because I recognize the limitations of such a life that I understand the importance of paid thinkers to the long-term health of our society.

68. septentriones - March 13, 2010 at 03:42 pm

grzgrz writes, "I do not deny that wisdom can spring from leisure. In the case of Rorty, it clearly did. My point is simply that wisdom does not spring only from leisure. Surely we can agree on that."

Of course. But given that wisdom seems to be in short supply these days by almost everyone's account, would it not be a good idea to go for as much of it as we can manage? And if, as you admit, wisdom can spring from leisure, and since we already have a huge national investment in sprawling universities which are perfect venues for cultivating the life of the mind, would it not make sense for society to spend some of its hard-earned capital on subsidizing those universities so as to maximize the amount of wisdom we produce?

69. gsmorris - March 13, 2010 at 04:09 pm

grzgrz and septentriones:

It's not wisdom that is born of leisure these days - it's publications. And I think we could all agree that in the current humanities climate, a publication is about as meaningful as a Boy Scout merit badge. Probably less meaningful.

Yep, I made up my mind. Definitely less meaningful. At least if you earned a merit badge you learned to tie a knot or did a good deed. Publication on its own just means you found a place in one of the hundreds of journals created for the sole purpose of filling out the resumes of grad students and professors in our "p.o.p." environment. (Not to cast stones at my own glass house.)

My advisors warned me against ever taking a job as a university adjunct or in a community college because of exactly that - that the long hours would prevent "professional development" because I wouldn't have time or energy to research and publish. Or, in other words, teaching, the profession I thought I was preparing for, would be a waste of my valuable time. And because I believed them, I'm now starting from scratch trying to convince community colleges and high schools that I know how to teach even though I've been on the university track all these years.

70. beatitude - March 13, 2010 at 04:24 pm

grzgrz seems to think that working at a university of institution is a form of government subsidized leisure. Why is it assumed that writing, thinking, and research aren't a form of work? I am a tenured professor and I work my ass off teaching a 4/4 load (200 students semester)--including hours of prepping lectures and discussions, reading (sometimes rereading) up to ten books a semester that I teach, grading papers and exams, endless committee work, attending student academic functions--as well as writing conference papers, articles, and working on a second book under a contract deadline. Am I being subsidized to think? No, I am being paid to work at a job our society obviously values, since the people of the U.S. generally believe that everyone should get some form of higher education, which usually includes a good dose of the liberal arts (for many reasons).

71. zefelius - March 13, 2010 at 04:57 pm

The NBA analogy is bad for a simple reason: NBA stars aren't responsible for the education of our nation's students.

That's why I've tried to argue above, in a few comments, that so much of this arguments has been framed improperly, by means of a false dichotomy or false antitheses.

Why? Because too many of us argue either that the PhD's who don't have TT have only themselves to blame (hence the "get real" and "stop whining" comments) for taking the risks they have taken, or on the other side some grad students and faculty argue they love what they do and don't mind the risks at all, even though they are only making $35,000, or more like $30,000 once loans are substracted.

Neither of these positions have mentioned the U.S. undergraduate experience very often, at least in terms of how our students suffer as a result of being in classrooms taught by low paid, barely respected adjuncts and lecturers. Even though I have a PhD from a top 20 school, worked with renown professors, receive great student evaluations, publish every year, etc., I still don't have the power to grade my students properly for fear of losing my job. Nor do I feel comfortable giving students recs, as I know my rec counts for less than one from a TT faculty member---yet those faculty members often teach less than us adjuncts and so naturally students go to the adjuncts for recs.

So, I guess I'd just like to say one more time that the debate hasn't been framed in a helful way by Mulholland or those who argue one of two sides which don't take into consideration -- not only the personal satisfaction of us as individuals in our profession -- but more importantly the learning process of our own students. As I see it, this process is failing our students to a higher degree every year, and I don't see it turning around all that quickly.

72. skaking - March 13, 2010 at 10:02 pm

# 60 jaded_and_fading: whatever the structural issues are with the system, you need to consider how that system works at the moment and how it impacts the individual, not what you/i/we/they need to struggle to somehow make it into something better. that's fine and all as a short term and long term goal, but there is an immediate need to feed bellies. my broader point under the snarky exterior of comment #55 is that choices need to be made.

i made my choice at the beginning of the last decade (no, i'm not a grad student) when applying. coming out of a not-so-high status dept, i gave myself three years then i was out. i made the decision before applying for jobs that under no circumstance was i going to live the adjunct life, or even the serial 1-2 yr VAP life. (while not as bad as today's market, it was no picnic in the early 2000s and lots of folk did not get the coveted tt jobs.) first two years, nada. so a one year VAP (stroke of luck/networks), then some contract work (poverty level)and deficit spending (i.e., credit cards). not so bad as i was single and had some savings from the one year gig. third year, nothing came through, so i was already applying for private sector and nonprofit jobs. luckily at the 13th hour i got an interview in april then job offer for a tt gig. i was not the greatest candidate coming out of my (slightly better than mediocre) grad program, nor am i the brightest burning thing out there, but i've done ok research wise (book and half a dozen articles) and have proven my worth. my point is, it could have gone either way, though i'm totally happy that things turned out this way.

and yeah, they were telling us the same shpiel when i started grad school in the early 90s about retiring baby boomers and expanding market, but when it got time to apply, we too realized that it was a big lie. a lot of us on figuring that out were prepared to walk away from this "life of the mind" if needed be and not be ground down into hyper-exploited labor. the question is of course now how many of this generation's potential greats who don't make the cut through no fault of their own will be willing to walk away?

73. amnirov - March 13, 2010 at 10:13 pm

You know how we have fishing quotas? We should have PhD in humanities quotas. Better yet, there should be a 10 year moratorium on producing any PhDs in the humanities. None. Let the environment stabilize. Right now, it's sort of like a red tide algae bloom of scholarship. It's best to keep everyone out of the water until it goes away.

74. berkeleydude - March 14, 2010 at 05:15 am


Has Weird Al's perspective on this from the artistic side...

75. performance_expert - March 14, 2010 at 06:36 am

Perhaps the author fails to see "Hollywood" as the mind-control propaganda industry using extremely (emphasis) controlled distribution upon a geographically and media-dependent populace. You think the recent last decade heavy emphasis on booty-shake gangster-rap music video and war-pornography is due to market demand? Try and ask any progressive music artist about their music seeing the light of day in the US.

76. performance_expert - March 14, 2010 at 06:45 am

New World Order "Globalization" of manufacturing, technology, commodities and natural resources, but when it comes to commercial distribution of movies, culture, and music, USA is tightly controlled, no outside influences allowed. 'Got to keep the plebs on track. Actor Gary Cooper had some interesting things to say about Communist ideology in Hollywood, that the "artist" class was to be a protected and well taken care of adjunct section of government. These seems to be the case today with the parade of personalities constantly promoted by the US commercial media, "official" magic government stories and gossip about manufactured celebrities, most of whom no one knows anything about accomplishments. It is very strange and has become very vacuous. But one thing is sure, like the banking bonuses, performed with a heavy hand.

77. performance_expert - March 14, 2010 at 06:54 am

Maybe the Skipper Dan in the webmaster section of "The Chronicle" will make it so links are active in the posting section, put the brakes on cut-n-paste.

78. lucia2 - March 14, 2010 at 10:45 am

I'm confused by #16's comment that tenured jobs come with "good pay." I teach at a small liberal arts college where I have been for 12 years. During the school year, I teach 6 courses, direct a minor program, serve on multiple review comittees, chair a major committee, and have a large advising load. During the summer, I'm expected to publish. I earn $55,000 a year and pay $700 per month for health insurance for me and my family. This is not "good pay." I had minimal student loans, but still had to ask my family for help during my first few years on the job.

79. notthatkindofdr - March 14, 2010 at 12:27 pm

As a recent Ph.D. holder in English and still on the market, I believe Mulholland argues the right point but in the wrong direction. Humanities Ph.D. programs should do MORE to professionalize their students for jobs inside and outside academia. That would take some innovation. Students need more internships and less teaching, better connections with institutions outside of academia, some courses in more practical disciplines, and dissertation projects that are more than a shitty first draft for a university press monograph.

And oh gosh, here I quote Milton: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd virtue, unexcersied and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."

Faculties need broader experience. The life of the mind shouldn't be cloistered. Ph.D. students should be encouraged to learn and to apply their skills and knowledge of the world to the world (the world outside the ivory tower). Ph.D. programs need to encourage and nurture that engagement; faculties should lead by example.

Humanities Ph.D.s should be more professionalized, not less.

80. post_modern - March 14, 2010 at 02:01 pm

Money is really what this discussion is all about, right? Some people are given the opportunity to earn it in their desired profession and some are not. Is our education worth what we paid for it and did all that money go to support those tenured, gravy-train-riding, good-for-nothings that were/are our professors and mentors? (We are all products of these good-for-nothings, yet some feel that they are worthy of usurping the gravy-train. How does that work?)

Most of the criticism seems like veiled sour grapes, but some of it does have merit. So, what do we do? As I wrote earlier, I believe there is probably a better way, but we have to figure out what that is. None of the current suggestions that I have read about make much sense to me.

Say we abolish tenure. The value of teaching will become even more quantified and forget about academic freedom or any leverage that faculty have to oppose administrative decisions. Do not get me started on grade inflation. Without tenure everyone will be a slave to the student eval. "But then we can oust the fossils who have not published in ten years and make those lines available for those of us who are obviously more worthy!" Sure a lot of boomers are just riding it out until retirement, but most are very fine teachers regardless of their publication record. You may think you are just as good of a teacher, but you are probably not. Teaching itself is an art form. I have spent more time learning how to be a better teacher than on my professional research and I thought teaching would be the easy part.

Unionize adjunct positions and provide more pay and benefits. That sounds great, but where is this money going to come from? I know my Dean is not sitting in a leather wing-back lighting cigars with one hundred dollar bills. At the end of every fiscal year I have to ask permission to buy paper towels because the department is broke until the new budget rolls in. Furthermore, people are still going to be pissed about the "adjunct trap." Admittedly, I am ignorant of all the ramifications of this theory and would sincerely appreciate someone expanding on how this might work.

Some schools have abolished adjuncts altogether. This certainly has not helped the people I know who were counting on those jobs for income and experience while they look for TT positions.

The most ridiculous suggestion has been to limit enrollment. Really? Because only ten percent of grads get teaching jobs we should limit enrollment? This suggestion baffles me. How many students should be admitted? Should we only admit one grad student for every potential TT position? Do you think by cutting down the competition a job is going to magically appear for you? If we do not have enrollment we do not have a program. Funding gets cut and TT lines are not renewed. Then no one gets the job and society suffers for a lack of humanities and fine arts.

So you cannot find a job and think you were/are being scammed. I am sorry about your situation, but as several people have astutely pointed out, graduate school is a unique and special experience with opportunities and benefits that most people do not get to be a part of. Whether or not you realize it, grad school has made you a better person and as a better person you are making the world a better place. Maybe not in the way you envisioned, but you cannot always get what you want.

“But I was told all the baby boomers were going to retire!” This is a good one. It is not a lie, the boomers are retiring, they just did not all agree on a specific date and the year of mass openings never has or will come around. In the last couple of years three of my colleagues have retired. That is a large percentage of the faculty in my small department, but on the grand scale that is only three TT jobs. It is easy to overestimate how many TT jobs that the boomers will free up. There are still only a limited number of schools with a limited number of teaching positions.

Propose a good idea and I will gladly jump on your bandwagon, but until then, if you are clever enough to get a terminal degree you are clever enough to be aware of the risks involved with your academic path. Our current system is indeed about individuals and as individuals we are supposedly free to make our own decisions even if they turn out to be bad ones.

81. zefelius - March 14, 2010 at 02:56 pm

Right..... The system sucks and thus individuals need to make appropriate decisions to either win the lottery or extricate themselves from such a decaying industry. I still think this misses the foucs of education, which should somehow be connected to our students. The last two places where I have taught as an adjunct -- the first an average sort of master's university and presently a highly respected one -- my departments have been dominated by adjuncts/lecturers in terms of the numbers. I really don't care about this in the sense of my individual satisfaction -- which is how this debate has been predominantly formulated over the past 80 comments -- but rather I just think this can't be good for our students! If the pay and prestige is so low that we aren't going to attract the best teachers and professors into our fields, and if furthermore approximately 70-75% of faculty don't have the job security to convey a sense of power in the classroom (especially insofar as combating grade inflation is concerned), then our universities will continue to fail their students (well, not with grades...). They will fail them in the same sense that K-12 education is failing our students almost everywhere in this country.

Again, I myself don't care about the prestige or low pay -- indeed I even ripped up my Ph.D. in a class demonstration last year to prove the same point to students apropos of worldly status -- but nonetheless I'm not so naive that I don't realize this makes a difference for the majority of mankind, whether in business or academe. Maybe, then, we shouldn't treat education on par with the NBA, starving artists in NY, or suchlike, unless we simply don't care anymore about the educational needs of our students. Yes, our NBA stars in America are superb, but you couldn't teach an entire country of people with the same number of players or artists who make it big---not without destroying the chances of that country to recover from its own cultural and intellectual malaise.

82. performance_expert - March 14, 2010 at 02:57 pm

posty, TT = toilet tissue? (had to have some type of rejoinder to your ready and repeated use of the pi sign).

83. post_modern - March 14, 2010 at 03:30 pm

terribly trite

84. septentriones - March 14, 2010 at 03:47 pm

post_modern writes that "the boomers are retiring, they just did not all agree on a specific date". This is not the problem; the problem is that when the boomers retire, they are not being replaced with comparable hires. Let's say three senior faculty retire from a major state university. One is replaced with an assistant professor at half the salary (or less); one is replaced with adjuncts or TAs at a quarter the salary (or less); one is not replaced at all, resulting in larger class sizes for the survivors and reduced course offerings for everyone. This is one reason the percentage of university instructional staff who are "contingent" has gone in two generations from a small fraction to a majority to, in some cases, nearly everyone.

Take a typical freshman composition class at a state-funded R1: Eight hundred students per semester scattered among fifty sections, managed by one tenured professor, one untenurable assistant, and 25 graduate TAs ... all of whom are betting the farm that some day they will get to be that one tenured professor.

How long would gambling casinos survive if they offered odds that bad?

85. amnirov - March 14, 2010 at 05:14 pm

To #79. lucia2 ...

$55k per year for working at your dream job with the summers off is far and beyond what any other US worker gets. You are privileged and should realize it. Why not check the census data and look up the average pay for a US worker.

86. pterodactyl123 - March 14, 2010 at 06:01 pm

I work as a fulltime faculty member at a Northeastern community college. I make $55K a year. It's my first year on the job. Perhaps some adjuncts should consider searching for TT positions outside of R1 universities. Adjunct positions were never meant to be cobbled together the way that many people try to cobble them.

87. septentriones - March 14, 2010 at 06:12 pm

lucia2: Where I live, high-seniority bus drivers make over $100K per year for putting in approximately the same number of working hours as any dedicated faculty member does--and you can be sure the drivers didn't spend ten years of their lives and $50K in student loans to learn how to drive a bus.

88. septentriones - March 14, 2010 at 06:25 pm

pterodactyl123 writes, "Perhaps some adjuncts should consider searching for TT positions outside of R1 universities."

Do you really think they don't? The adjuncts I know have applied at every kind of school imaginable: high and low, near and far, public and private, two-year and four-year, secular and religious, big research university and tiny liberal arts college, community college and private academy. It makes no difference, because with all those put together there are still not even close to enough tenure-track positions available for everyone who is qualified to hold one.

Have you bothered to look at the TT vs. contingent employment at your own community college? The percentage of contingent staff in CCs is typically around 80%. How nice for you that you got to be one of the 20% ... but don't look down your nose at all the others just because you got lucky.

89. septentriones - March 14, 2010 at 06:48 pm

Correction: I see that my #88 should have been directed to amnirov, not lucia2. My apologies to lucia2, with whom I wholeheartedly agree.

To continue the same thought (again directed to amnirov): At our local R1's engineering college, the students make more in their first job after graduation with a bachelor's degree than is made by many of the faculty who instruct them despite the latter having doctorates and decades of experience. How much sense does that make?

90. lotsoquestions - March 14, 2010 at 06:51 pm

How many of you currently teaching at universities couldn't actually afford to send your kids to the same universities on your salary? I think that's a fairly good metric for figuring out whether or not you're underpaid. If we're providing something that is valued at 60K/yr per consumer, and we're teaching over 100 of those same students, then we should actually be able to afford to purchase those same services for our families. How many doctors can't afford health care? Imagine if there was a situation where only the hospital admnistrators could actually afford to take their kids to the hospital if they were sick -- and the doctors had to take out loans and apply for financial aid if their kids got sick. And then people chastised the doctors for complaining on the grounds that 'the hospital is such a nice place to work'.

91. pterodactyl123 - March 14, 2010 at 07:07 pm

I'm not looking down my nose and I know I got lucky. However, I also think we all have to take some responsibility for our choices and quit claiming 'exploitation' by the larger system.

Today's NY Times has a front page article about unskilled workers who are "lured" into trade schools during bad economic times. Not unlike the elite graduates of our own PhD programs, working class people also apparently graduate saddled with debts they cannot pay, and with uncertain futures.

The "lie" that we are living, if there is one, is that America is (or was) the most prosperous country in the world. People still expect stablity after investing so much for so long, but times have changed. Face it, our economy stinks and everyone is living precariously. Education and the willingness to learn new skills may, in fact, be the thing that saves us in the long run.

92. zefelius - March 14, 2010 at 08:41 pm

septentriones (#89):

That's very well said, and I agree. I myself got a Ph.D. from a great school with a respected program, but knew it would be tough or impossible to get a job at a comparable place. Thus, for the first two years after my doctorate I sent out about 150 dossiers, including many, many community colleges. I thought I had a decent shot since I noticed that many of their faculty had master's degrees or PhD's from so-so universities. But I heard back from absolutely O community colleges.

Not really complaining, but just confirming your point that we adjuncts apply to an awful lot of places across the country hoping for anything!

93. gypsyboots - March 15, 2010 at 09:59 am

Luskivitch's friend (#17) is an auto mechanic/poet; T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk; Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive; Dana Gioia was a business executive who wrote on the side: Charles Bukowski was a mailman; Hemingway, Cather, Dreiser and countless others made a living as reporters. None of them expected to initially make a living as "writers" or living the "life of the mind." All also knew that if that were ever to happen, they had to appeal to a mass audience, not simply to a small cadre of the like-minded.

Those are all alternative ways of writing yourself into an intellectual life while not racking up huge debts and wasting years of your life on activities such as being forced to become acquainted with sterile postmodernist theories and other professional arcana that have more to do with gate-keeping than fostering a life of the mind.

Perhaps the "life of the mind" needs to be "de-professionalized" once again and re-connected with mass culture; then graduate school will be less seen as providing the only "track" to the "life of the mind."

One problem with this alternative track, of course, is that the pool of generally educated readers that once supported newspapers and general-circulation magazines has shrunk dramatically since the heyday of 20th-century journalism--even as higher education expanded and graduate programs proliferated.

94. vindolanda - March 15, 2010 at 10:19 am

Thomas Paine, whose mind had more life than seems evident here, did not go to University, nor does anyone else need to go there to have a life of the mind. All these doctorates and their supposed entitlements make me think of Scolastics and pin point theory.

95. zefelius - March 15, 2010 at 01:39 pm

I'm quickly becoming a broken, broken record, but it's not about "entitlement" vindolanda: it's about the education of our students, attracting the best faculty to support those students, realizing that without good pay and job security we cannot attract the very best teachers; and thus if we continue down this track where most faculty in the U.S. are adjuncts and lecturers, we will undoubtedly fail our students and likewise the entire nation insofar as the future of our communities depend upon skills connected with critical intelligence, as John Dewey himself so often eloquently argued.

96. septentriones - March 15, 2010 at 02:33 pm

zefelius gets it exactly right. And it's not just the quality of instruction that is being put at risk; the same forces are inflicting the same sort of degradation on academic research, where postdocs (= "adjunct researcher") are on a similar trajectory. Why would anyone in his or her right mind spend a decade or more in grad school becoming a world-class expert in physics or chemistry or biology when their most likely recompense is a few years as an overworked, severely underpaid postdoc followed by having to "re-tool" as a cashier at Walmart? As past articles in the Chronicle have documented, increasing numbers of potential scientists have decided not to take that risk, and are devoting their intelligence to other (and often less socially useful) fields where they can make a decent living. Is this really what we want?

97. septentriones - March 15, 2010 at 08:25 pm

gypsyboots wrote: "T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk; Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive; Dana Gioia was a business executive who wrote on the side: Charles Bukowski was a mailman", offering these as examples of how there are "alternative ways of writing yourself into an intellectual life while not racking up huge debts and wasting years of your life on activities such as being forced to become acquainted with sterile postmodernist theories and other professional arcana ..."

This sounds nice, but the facts of these people's lives don't support the conclusion.

Eliot was a "bank clerk" in approximately the same way that Einstein was a "patent clerk". In neither case does the term accurately convey the substance of their experience. Eliot was a "clerk" who handled foreign accounts; Einstein was a "clerk" who vetted new patents on electromagnetic devices. In former times such jobs were not typically burdened with the merciless demands of the modern workplace for non-stop productivity; by modern standards they were most likely the sort of cushy sinecure one only gets today by being the boss's nephew. And in any case neither Eliot nor Einstein remained in these jobs for long; Einstein only lasted five years and Eliot eight, after which they both moved on to more appropriate employment. In Eliot's case this meant becoming an editor and director at the publishing house which later published his own poetry. How convenient.

Nor can it be said that Eliot achieved what he did without spending years immersing himself in academic "arcana"; in fact he attended Harvard, Oxford, and the Sorbonne, specializing in philosophy and even studying Sanskrit--and anyone who has read Eliot can easily trace the impact of these studies on his poetry.

Wallace Stevens came from a wealthy family and also attended Harvard for a time. His job as an insurance executive apparently gave him a considerable amount of leisure, as he was able to vacation regularly in the "paradise" of Key West, which inspired many of his poems. Wealth, leisure, and inspiring scenery are a great foundation for a career as a poet--if you can get it. But being a prosperous insurance company executive is probably harder to achieve than becoming tenured faculty at a major university. (In fact, when Stevens was offered a faculty position at Harvard, he turned it down so he could keep his insurance company job. That says a lot about the relative value of each.) Stevens also drank a great deal, and got into drunken fights with both Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. I suppose that's one way of making an impression on your peers.

Dana Gioia attended Harvard and Stanford before becoming a vice-president at General Foods--another high-level job that doesn't exactly grow on trees. And even at that, he eventually quit so he could devote himself full-time to his writing.

Charles Bukowski was a "mailman" for less than three years. For ten years he actually was a "clerk" in the modern sense of the term--in this case a filing clerk with the postal service--after which he too quit to devote himself full-time to his writing. As he put it, the choice was to stay in his job and go crazy, or quit and starve, and he preferred to starve. He also extensively self-medicated with alcohol to dull the pain of his crappy jobs and his crappy life.

So, yes, there are plenty of different ways to insert yourself into the life of the mind without following the traditional trajectory. You can go to Harvard or Stanford or the Sorbonne and become a prosperous corporate executive or the director of a publishing house. Or if that doesn't work, you can do what Bukowski did and become a derelict "roaming about the United States, working sporadically and staying in cheap rooming houses" while you hone your craft, and then working as a filing clerk until it nearly drives you insane. And apparently, judging from the cases of both Stevens and Bukowski (and probably a great many others), it also helps if you consume lots and lots of alcohol.

98. unconventionalideas - March 15, 2010 at 08:42 pm

For what it's worth:

I spent two years at Purdue (1990-92) to earn an MA in German Literature.

Since 1993, I've been a self-employed professional carpet cleaner.

Were the Purdue years a waste?

Not by a long shot.

Some years ago I discovered the idea of being an independent scholar; that I didn't have to have a job in academe in order to validate myself as an intelligent person.

Since 2001 I've enjoyed being a tour guide at the Oregon Historical Society.

In fact, that has become my "academic career" what with all of the reading, attending lectures, working on projects, etc. that come with attempting to be a knowledgeable docent.

My point?

If you are prepared to take a broad perspective on living the life of the mind, there truly is a place for everyone out there; in or out of academe.

There are no career ceilings, or hiring quotas to stop your progress.

You may though need to clean carpets in order to put food on the table.

99. technocrat - March 15, 2010 at 08:49 pm

The hand reaches into the narrow opening and grasps the morsel. Mine. Now I will be happy. But the opening is, of course, too small to pass the closed fist, and now dissonance sets in. I may keep the morsel, but not savor it, and remain immobilized or I may seek other morsels that come unattached to Catch 22. Discuss.

C. Northcote Parkinson, the Austrailian economist, observed that there are more important people than there are important jobs for them to fill.

So, why are so many bright and diligent students unable to release their grasps on the unremovable morsel? I suggest it is a compound.

Confirmation bias: my success so far validates my efforts and predicts my continued success

Age bias: I only relate to those plus three or minus two my age, and what I've heard is only from those in my own situation.

Loss avoidance: I've always been told that I can do anything I set my mind to, and I've worked so hard to get where I am. It would be a shame to throw that all away.

Innocence: The academics whose life I wish to emulate are fine, upstanding, right-thinking people who would never participate in the systematic exploitation for institutional gain of students.

Non-maturity: My prefrontal cortex is still not fully formed and I'm using all of it on my studies, so I decide my life on emotion, not analysis. So, the Talk will not sway me from reaching in for the morsel.

The goal that a humane graduate faculty ought pursue is not getting as many pairs onto the Ark as possible. Most of the creatures are doomed to be left behind in the deluge. The goal should be teaching them to swim.

I suggest that graduate students hedge their bets with study of what may still be called the Real World. They should apply their formidible learning skills against the evil day that may cast them upon the waters of the economy, there to founder. Fortunately, especially for those in the humanities, guidance abounds.

Iliad: Dealing with stupid bosses
Odyssey: Marketing
Job: Corporate justice
Xenophon: Crisis management
Aristotle: Supply chain management
Commentaries: PR
Confessions: Ambiguity tolerance
Beowolf: Task prioritization
Chaucer: Yukking it up with the guys
Inferno: Meyer Briggs profiling
Prince: Means ends management
Quixote: Delusional leadership
Macbeth: Overreaching
Leviathan: Infighting
Austen: Strategic alliances
Narrative: Don't take no for an answer
War and Peace: Balancing work and life
Nostromo: Reputation management
Mein Kampf: Meglomania
Rules for Radicals: Jujitsu
Lot 49: Networking

Creds: AB '69, MS '71, MRP '73, JD '89

100. st_leibowitz - March 15, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Seriously? Make it a lifestyle choice? Don't "romanticize it" but "think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor"(nothing romantic there)? Why not cut to the chase: "Grad Eye for the Six-Pack Guy." We could all be PA's! Frankly the only thing this article proposes is to illustrate just how deep in the muck the humanities are. Anyone who takes this ridiculous idea of aestheticizing the profession seriously deserves every bit of suffering that life gives them.

101. ex_ag - March 15, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Admittedly, I have not bothered to read all 102 of the previous comments, but I can't help but be struck by the absurdity of comparing graduate school to going "to New York to become a painter."

When one goes to New York, one is journeying to a cultural center. And one would likely have time to paint.

When one goes to graduate school, one is likely to end up in a dessicated cultural landscape, isolated from like-minded individuals who are stranded in other cultural wastelands. And certainly, this individual will NOT have time for artistic pursuits...unless grading essays is an art form.

102. songdog88 - March 16, 2010 at 02:22 am

Great post, technocrat! Dante aa Meyers-Briggs is a good one. And I assume the "Confessions" you reduce is by Rousseau and not Augustine.

Moby Dick: Know when to back off.

103. performance_expert - March 16, 2010 at 05:52 am

About a decade ago I realized that the US exploitation of healthcare cost was a primary factor driving up operations cost at US universities and that this loomed as a growing toxic cloud, when one considers adding 10% to every cost over years and years. In the US, a full 10% of GDP is paid out not for healthcare, but for excess cost due to exploitation of healthcare. 17% of GDP goes to "healthcare" whereas a more functional number from other countries with better services is 7% of GDP in a non-profit delivery of social services.

So while you idiots are blathering on about Aristotle and the Illiad, playing your violin while the forest is burning down, you might consider finding a water hose to put out the fire.

104. performance_expert - March 16, 2010 at 05:54 am

What was it? Somebody recently said they went to the hospital with a painful stomach virus and two hours later left with a bill for $10,000. for a CAT scan and a prescription. This was covered by their insurance, therefore the copay was only $1200.

105. john_drake - March 16, 2010 at 06:35 am

Good and accurate analysis, technocrat. I especially like your observation about innocence:

"Innocence: The academics whose life I wish to emulate are fine, upstanding, right-thinking people who would never participate in the systematic exploitation for institutional gain of students."

Anyone who thinks academics are like that should read the "Academic Bait-and-Switch" articles.

106. villi - March 16, 2010 at 12:50 pm

If you want to make it more honest and more like the arts, then stop issuing degrees.

You don't have to shut down phd programs; just be honest and call them something else and call your graduate students adjuncts or teaching assistants and not degree-seeking students and don't give them degrees. And if they manage to publish in scholarly journals, 3-5 published articles could serve the same function on the job market as a dissertation and a PhD. A degree and an accredited institutionalized program is a type of signal that seems to confuse some people here; so remove the cause of the misunderstanding.

107. kiwanda - March 16, 2010 at 01:37 pm

Here's a bit of reality that I don't think has come up yet: many graduate students simply lack the social skills necessary to navigate the hiring process. In a market where everyone on the short list for a job has extensive publications, lots of teaching experience, and great recommendations much of the equation comes down to "fit." I realize that in the past "fit" has been code for gender,racial, and age discrimination, but in its legitimate form there are questions like "will I enjoy working with this person for rest of my career?" Many people I knew in graduate school were brilliant scholars who any honest person could tell would never get an academic job-- they had grating personalities, were politically naive, overemphasized one aspect (usually scholarship) of their preparation, etc. Graduate advisors rarely speak honestly to students about these issues but in reality when pools are dominated by such strong applicants less tangible factors (such as professional demeanor) are often deciding factors.

That of course doesn't escuse the undeniable fact that we produce more Ph.D.s than the market demands. Graduate admissions need to be cut back and students need to be prepared for other related careers. But if people were honest with individuals about their chances at the outset-- and prepared them better for the real job market --perhaps more would realize sooner that they might not be as well suited to academe as they thought.

108. septentriones - March 16, 2010 at 01:37 pm

villi: An excellent idea. Or, even simpler, just force graduate programs to provide full disclosure of placement and job prospects, and force prospective grad students to sign a waiver before being admitted:

"I hereby acknowledge receipt of the institutional and departmental placement statistics for my proposed field of study. I understand that I have less than a fifty-percent chance of completing my course of study no matter how hard I try; that even if I do complete it successfully I will still have less than a snowball's chance in hell of ever finding appropriate employment afterwards; that neither my professors nor my adviser nor my department nor the university as a whole are obligated to lift a finger to help me before, during, or after completing the program; that this endeavor will almost certainly do irreparable lifetime damage to my career prospects, financial security, psychological health, and overall well-being; and that I have no one to blame but myself if any or all of these disasters ensue."

Don't admit anyone who doesn't sign and return the waiver; and make it a criminal offense for the university to fudge the data, to fail to require the waiver, or to in any way attempt to blunt the force of its message.

Then, and only then, would all the "you knew what you were getting into" messages make sense.

109. kiwanda - March 16, 2010 at 01:44 pm

I wanted to response to this comment as well: "Anyone who takes this ridiculous idea of aestheticizing the profession seriously deserves every bit of suffering that life gives them." While I might state it differently, I agree with the sentiment. As someone with multiple degrees and tenured in both a humanities and a natural science department, I often find myself defending the relevance and rigor of the humanities to natural scientists. We humanists simply cannot yield ground in this debate or before long we'll find the humanities relegated to some after-hours dorm meetings put on by a student book club. The humanties are of course as intellectually rigorous as other approaches to knowledge. As such we should never accept the idea that strolling off to "do humanities" in the Village is somehow equivalent to holding a research or teaching position in a university, any more than we would suggest that someone conducting research on human cloning in his garage met a standard definition of "scientist."

The system has long been broken, but I don't think we'll fix it by surrenduring.

110. technocrat - March 16, 2010 at 03:25 pm

Thank you, John Drake. To clarify on innocence, I meant to suggest that while in all apparent respects a faculty member may appear to a student as sincere in sympathizing with the plight of the student seeking an academic career, sincerity-in-fact does not guarantee that the mentor will fail to align with class interests in maintaining a privileged position by keeping barriers to entry high. Only the innocent believe that nice people are incapable of participating in nasty arrangements.

Thanks, songdog88, how could I have overlooked Melville? I actually did have in mind the bishop, who was able to pray for delayed chastity. Due to my advanced age, my reading in literature by women authors has been limited. I realize there is a distressing DWEMiness to my list. I would be delighted if others could suggest more contemporary examples that de-privilege my suggestions.

Richard Careaga

111. caedmus - March 16, 2010 at 05:07 pm

I left academe 30 years ago after attending an MLA conference at which there were some 600 applicants chasing every tenure tracked position. ABD in 17th Century Studies, I took my MFA, having studied and written poetry with Howard Nemerov and John Morris and took jobs in the Grub Street of business consulting and advertising. The great gift of my liberal over-education turned out to be that a relentless pursuit of clear thinking, writing and well supported sound argument could stand in for the business education I never wanted and never received.

My point is simply that nothing about my graduate education was lost, other than access to a life lived in semesters with ample time for writing and thinking as well as grading and lovely long holidays breaks and summers off. The business world was and remains at least as much a jungle as today's universities with their mysteriously inflationary pricing that's only slightly more mysterious than their tenure policies and politics and their addiction to faddish theories of theory--what my friend and former teacher, Alan Mandelbaum rather lovingly called "the hallucinarium of higher education."

Still, I can't understand why adjunct faculty can't or won't organize and join the AFT or the Teamsters for gods' sake and collectively bargain for what they're clearly worth. High school teachers, bless them, understand this basic principle of living in market economy--even if it doesn't always help them earn enough to live on.

Dwight Homer

112. tolerantly - March 16, 2010 at 06:06 pm

"Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too."

I think this is exactly right.

I'm a writer; I have a nice MFA, but the degree was incidental to spending two years, fully funded, in a program that I thought (correctly) would be helpful. For a living I work. I have backgrounds besides fiction, and I'm lucky and well-connected enough to be able to make a living in commercial writing, freelance. Sometimes I make enough money that I can forget working paid jobs and concentrate on my own work; other times it's round-the-clock deadline work.

I've never thought that this was any particular hardship. To have talent is lucky; to have talent and some time to use it is, I think, all anyone can reasonably ask for, particularly when the product has no substantial market. Not many people need my stories; maybe no one does. I don't think there are all that many people who need Barthelme's stories, either, let alone French-inflected interpretations of them.

113. walterbridge - March 16, 2010 at 06:54 pm

Why is working at a "real" job or teaching high school seen as the last resort? Wasn't that Thomas Benton's point in accusing programs of not preparing grad students for reality?

If more PhDs were out there happily working in the world--and teaching high school students--maybe more people would embrace the "life of the mind" as something they'd like to do. If they only see bitter people who consider themselves failures with PhDs, why would any young person want to pursue advanced study?

114. septentriones - March 16, 2010 at 08:01 pm

walterbridge wonders why more PhDs aren't out there teaching high school students. The answer is quite simple: Most high schools won't hire them. First, a PhD doesn't qualify you to teach in schools that require certification (which is most of them); you have to go back for a cuple of years as an undergrad and buy yourself a teaching license before they'll even talk to you. Second, public high schools generally have fixed pay scales that determine salary by a combination of years in position and highest degree attained, and they are required by law or contract to pay PhDs considerably more than those with only a bachelor's degree, which prices them out of range. Third, high school administrators often have the same prejudice against "eggheads" that the general population does; there is a perception that people with doctorates would be neither able nor willing to downshift to the level of the average high school student, and that they wouldn't get along well with the lesser minds of the rest of the faculty (not to mention the administration). And finally, many high schools--including especially the private ones which might otherwise be a way around all this--are so hung up on sports that the primary qualification for employment is not one's degree or experience or success as a teacher, but one's ability to coach a winning football team.

I have friends with PhDs who do teach in the public high schools--as by-the-day substitutes with no job security and no benefits, because that is all they are allowed to do. In other words, instead of bitter, burned-out college adjuncts, they are bitter, burned-out high-school adjuncts. That's not exactly an improvement.

115. septentriones - March 16, 2010 at 08:27 pm

caedmus "can't understand why adjunct faculty can't or won't organize and join the AFT or the Teamsters for gods' sake and collectively bargain for what they're clearly worth".

Short answer: Because it's almost impossible to do so.

First, in some states it is illegal for faculty (adjuncts or otherwise) at state institutions to join unions, attempt to bargain collectively, or go on strike. Since state universities are often among the worst abusers of adjuncts, this goes a long way toward squelching any incipient adjunct labor movement.

Second, even if it's not illegal, it's still an uphill battle in which the administration holds all the cards. Being "contingent" faculty means that you basically have no rights that the school is bound to respect. There are always more where you came from, and any signs of disaffection or attempts at solidarity with others similarly situated can easily be dealt with by simply not renewing you for the next semester. And in fact this kind of thing happens to adjuncts all the time, for all sorts of reasons or no reason at all.

Third, on those few occasions when adjuncts (and I'll throw TAs in here as well, since they are largely in the same boat) have managed to organize, they often find the full power of the institution brought to bear against them: retaliation against organizers and union leaders, refusal to negotiate in good faith, attempts to decertify the union or to repeal the statutes or regulations allowing them to exist at all, and so forth.

And finally, far too many adjuncts still hold on the fantasy (which is often explicitly encouraged by the people they work for) that if they just play nice and do as they're told, their day will come and they will make it on to the tenure track. Of course it almost never happens, but it's a cheap and very effective carrot--and the corresponding stick is that if you do not play nice or fail to do as you're told, you will be fired or given bad evaluations or denied the letters of recommendation that somewhere, someday, somehow might get you a real job.

So it's not as easy as just calling up the Teamsters and signing a card. If it were, it would have happened a long time ago.

116. john_drake - March 16, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Thank you for the clarification about innocence, technocrat. When I wrote my earlier comment, I wasn't thinking about people seeming nice but acting against a student's best interests, although of course that happens. I was thinking about the profs I had in grad school, some of whom were nasty human beings.

117. laughin_otter - March 17, 2010 at 08:58 am

The life of the mind is truly what makes life worth living, in my opinion, and I have been striving to live such a life, having been brought up in it by parents who were, respectively, a professional journalist and an English teacher. During my 5 stimulating, productive years as an adjunct instructor of composition and literature, one notion I occasionally asked my students to consider was that EVEN IF English courses didn't lead directly to a well-paying job, the life of the mind was what would lend beauty and depth to their life in any case, and especially during tough times.
So the comparison to the artist waiting tables to keep body and soul together resonates perfectly with me. It's what I have been doing off and on for forty years. An adjunct position is a lucky break, but the lack of a cushy professorship should not stop one from using one's education positively in other ways.
I have used my education in composition, literature, and comparative literature, to frame my own creative path as a free-lance writer, National Park Ranger, and sole proprietor of my own business that focuses on customized tour planning that includes local and state historical sites and lore. None of these pursuits cover my monthly living expenses, but I have an interesting life nonetheless.
I recently taught Critical Issues at a culinary institute. My course resembled a standard Critical Thinking/Advanced Composition course at a community college. The students constantly questioned the need for such a course, to the point of attempting to actually sabotage the course. I often reminded them that a top chef, restaurateur, or hospitality manager (which they all aspired to be, of course), needs to have a cosmopolitan outlook on life, a sense of the aesthetic and the finer things in life, and a broad cultural and political awareness, that such a course could impart. It's definitely not just a question of getting that chicken dish "plated" and sending it out to the dining room (as some instructors at the same institution unfortunately saw the issue).
I never got "the talk" before, in, or after graduate school. I was a "nontraditional" student, returning to get my advanced degree later in life, and I more than suspect that the department wrote me off as middle-aged single woman who just wanted to get out of the house.
Given the glut of English (and probably other humanities) graduates, relative to the shrinking job prospects, graduates would do well to consider just what "the life of the mind" really means to them, and to find other avenues to live that life, even if the paycheck has to come from some other kind of employment. It's definitely a time to think outside the box.

118. laughin_otter - March 17, 2010 at 09:21 am

Amnirov and others who call for planning and control that might avoid the collision with the iceberg, I appreciate the sentiment. But recall that we do not live in a planned economy, we live in a chaotic market-driven economy in which telling anyone What To Do is the ultimate no-no. Business and its bottom line rules. Higher education is no different.

119. lynnewebb320 - March 17, 2010 at 11:42 am

I suspect I'll get negative reaction to this, but I'm going to ask the question anyway: If being an adjunct is so bad for the adjuncts and the students, why do adjuncts accept these positions? Do they really have no other alternatives? Commenters above have indicated that they could make more money waiting tables. Why don't they? I've long thought that adjuncts prostitute themselves and cheapen what we do. If every PhD in the country refused to teach a class without a TT position, I suspect many TT positions would suddenly open. I know posters above have said that they are accepting the closest position they can find to a TT job and then encouraged by "the system" to do well as an adjunct, in case a tenure track position opens. After 40 years in the academy across five institutions, I know NO ONE who ever moved from an adjunct position to a TT line. Further, universities are notoriously class-ist. If Susie Smith is willing to serve as an adjunct, she will be seen as "adjunct material" versus TT material. IMHO, adjuncting is the kiss of death for a scholar. I really do not understand why anyone willingly accepts such a position. It is NOT the life of the mind, or the life of a scholar, but the life of a "freeway flyer" driving frantically from one institution to another without even an office. Why do people do it?

120. kiwanda - March 17, 2010 at 01:16 pm

Lynnewebb320 stated "After 40 years in the academy across five institutions, I know NO ONE who ever moved from an adjunct position to a TT line."

I think this is a matter of circumstance. I'm a tenured department chair at a top 50 liberal arts college and I got my job that way; two years as an adjunct and then they created a tenure line and offered it to me. Offhand I'd say about 15-20% of our tenured/tenure track faculty were here as adjunct or term hires first. Some schools use this as a low cost/low risk way of adding new fields on a temporary basis before committing tenure lines. Others hire sabbatical replacements and then keep them following a resignation.

As to why one might pursue adjunct work, it was my intention to take an adjunct position to gain teaching experience while I finished my dissertation, then move into the market with degree in hand the following year. As it turned out I did finish while teaching here but then a new department was created and I was offered the first tenure track position to support it.

What's certainly true about all the anecdotes in this discussion is that nobody's experience is universal. For example, despite the problems with exploited adjuncts we also have many long term adjuncts here who _do not want_ tenure track or even full time jobs. These are people with other obligations (family, volunteer work, small business) and/or other vocations (writers, poets, artists, etc.) who prefer to piecework of this nature to a permanent job. We pay a flat rate of $5K per course and courses are capped at 25, so I'll admit it's probably a bit more attractive than the $1,500 some places offer for much larger classes.

121. villi - March 17, 2010 at 02:08 pm

laughin_otter: "Amnirov and others who call for planning and control that might avoid the collision with the iceberg, I appreciate the sentiment. But recall that we do not live in a planned economy"

There are non-centralized ways to equilibrate a labor market.

Tenured faculty and chairs and hiring committees: start hiring for tenure-track positions people with MAs plus 3-5 journal publications in . And advertise your policy on your department website to make it publicly known. If you, as employers, will value MAs plus actual publications more than a PhD, then you will have a way to fight degree inflation. (Yes, i know there are other pressures to hire PhDs over MAs -- so, fight those pressures.)

Come up with industry-wide information standards (or simply invent your own) and make that information public: e.g. your program's attrition rate, how long it actually takes, odds of getting a tenure-track job coming out of your program 5, 7, 10 years after start of program.

Similarly, we are the ones who write recommendation letters for our students and there we can probably tell our students "i will only write a letter for you to the top 3 programs in the field with such and such funding conditions; otherwise, i refuse to have a hand in sending you to too risky a place."

It's in our hands. We are not victims of circumstance in an oppressive system. We also do the hiring in our own field, employ our own workers, and have a say about what information ought to be on our department websites and our personal websites. We advertise (by commission or omission) our phd programs -- those we attended and those where we are now employed -- and we also send our students off to grad school since they can't even apply w/o our recommendation letters. Each one of us has a choice in these matters.

122. septentriones - March 17, 2010 at 02:28 pm

Lynnewebb320 asks, "If being an adjunct is so bad for the adjuncts and the students, why do adjuncts accept these positions?"

One might just as easily ask why people ever get married, given that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. Or why people ever have children, given that they may break your heart some day. Or why people buy a house when they can't guarantee that they will be able to make the mortgage for the next 25 years. Or why they risk everything to start their own business when 95% of all new businesses fail within the first five years. Or why they bother to write books when the odds are 10,000 to one against ever seeing publication. Or why they accept jobs in daycare centers, or hospitals, or nursing homes, or the military, given the rotten pay, terrible conditions, and miserable long-term prospects that such positions typically involve.

The reasons are legion: Because they think it's worth the risk; because they don't know what they are getting into; because they think it will be different for them; because they think it will lead to something better; because they've been lied to by people they trusted; because they were raised to believe that there were no other options available to them; because they don't want to disappoint people who matter to them; because in today's economy they aren't good for anything else; because it's the only thing they've ever wanted to do; because they feel a "calling" to it that's as psychologically or spiritually compelling as a gun to the head.

No doubt from a purely self-centered and coldly rational point of view it would make more sense for each of us to look at the odds and decide to remain unmarried and childless, uncommitted to any particular career or vocation unless it promised instant rewards, and uninterested in making a difference in anyone else's life without cash up front. That does indeed seem to be the kind of world we are headed for--a world in which the cynical bitterness showcased by "despair.com" has become the dominant cultural paradigm. But is that really the kind of world any sane person would want to live in?

123. winstonbarclay - March 17, 2010 at 05:20 pm

This lively, articulate discussion is happening because the participants -- whether securely tenured and unemployed -- ARE engaged in the "life of the mind." I don't see anyone telling the "lie" that a doctorate is a free pass to a job in the academic world. Anyone who is smart enough to gain entrance to a graduate school should be able to recognize the odds.

For contrast, go look at the discussion boards on ESPN or CNN/SI where derisive trash-talking is about as close as any comes to "the life of the mind." If you are really drawn to the "life of the mind," you will live that life, one way or another. But it just might not be your career.

124. villi - March 18, 2010 at 12:30 am

"Anyone who is smart enough to gain entrance to a graduate school should be able to recognize the odds."

The fact is that many do not, perhaps b/c of the psychological biases that technocrat listed, perhaps for some other reasons. Should here obviously doesn't translate into is. Similarly, I'm not sure prospective graduate students and undergrads read The Chronicle. I certainly hadn't heard of it back when I was thinking of going to graduate schools.

The fact is also that it is extremely difficult to recognize the odds even if you were trying to do rational risk assessment. Good quality information about particular phd programs is hard to come by. E.g. you were accepted to a top ten program in some field. But what are your odds of making it exactly and how many years will this require and how much money? E.g. what's the programs attrition rate? What's their placement rate into tenure-track jobs? With what time horizon? Similarly, what's the current ratio of graduate students and adjuncts (supply of labor) and tenure-track jobs (demand for labor) in the humanities or by particular fields? Heck if I know? Do you?

Right now, this information is often next to impossible to find for humanities phd programs.

You get into a top 20 phd program -- is that good enough? Top 10? Or do you have to shoot for top 3? And what are your odds even then? Who knows...

125. qgnara - March 18, 2010 at 12:51 am

OMG I can't resist commenting on this. First of all, it's so great to know there's so many of us together in this misery! I went for an MFA, not a PhD, so way less investment; and I had absolutely no illusions about job prospects, so that I fled school as soon as it was done; but still... to find out that your degree is not worth a crap, that's harsh. I'm actually lucky; I've found full-time employment at a public library; but for more than two years I was doing absolutely menial stuff that was, frankly, embarrassing. I was appalled by the laziness (including intellectual) of the people who were supposed to teach me (at a well-known university!), and I cannot forgive them for it; I think they can and should do much more, to assist the after all quite innocent and dependent young people in their charge. I agree with #whatever above who says that humanities programs, with the technologizing of all aspects of our lives, should connect their students with outside institutions; publicize and advocate for the values of their skills; get them ready for the real world. If there are any department heads reading, I do hope you heed our cry for reform.

I agree also that this is a problem bigger than the issue of too many PhD's. The humanities are just not that valuable in the marketplace. A comprehensive and critical way of thinking is positively antithetical to the times, which favors mindlessness and obedience. (If you've ever had a real job, you will understand what is meant by obedience.) And it goes deeper, does it not? Modern people are surfeit people - there just aren't that many jobs to go around, period. These students in Composition or English 101, the majority of them, what are they going to do?

So yes, humanities programs should be challenged to reform (and MFA programs abolished altogether). The question cuts deep. Do we really care about the values espoused by the humanities? Higher education, the way it is, undermines those values. In the meantime, maybe we can start support groups? If we can't befriend the world, we could at least try to befriend each other.

126. septentriones - March 18, 2010 at 01:16 am

Following up on villi's excellent comments above (#130), sometimes when you do get the necessary information it's too late to do you any good. In my own case, I received a very nice fellowship to a world-class research university where I would have an opportunity to work with one of the top scholars in a difficult field which held every prospect of being in high demand for years to come; to turn down such an opportunity would have been simply insane. So of course I accepted the offer, burned all the bridges to my previous life, moved my family halfway across the country at considerable expense, signed a year's lease for university housing, and began prepping myself for what I fully expected would be the experience of a lifetime. The future looked bright until I actually met the world-famous scholar face to face for the first time in the privacy of his faculty office. He began our conversation by informing me that I should give up all hope of ever obtaining employment in my (his) field, since no one from the program had gotten a "real job" in years. He continued by informing me that my fellowship was not renewable after the first year, and that in fact the department had virtually no provisions for any kind of support whatever for most of its grad students, who were expected to pay their own way either by taking out massive student loans or else by rustling up TAships in other departments. (And then, as if that wasn't enough, he took a dislike to me through no fault of my own and kicked me out of the program at the end of my first semester ... but that's a different horror story.)

127. futureprofessor - March 18, 2010 at 01:23 pm

Fancy that. I'm still going for it.

I think the feeling is that the Humanities are too esoteric to be useful, on the surface, to most people.

But what about Jeffersonianism and "an educated citizenry." It's kinda important, the liberal arts, dont ya think? Also, look at the Humanities for what they are--a study of the creative achievements of human beings.

128. mxims - March 18, 2010 at 03:56 pm

There are still academic positions being filled, despite the dismal economy. I applied for only three Assistant Professor positions in Humanities this year, and just signed the contracts to accept one of those positions for fall 2010. For those currently on the market, keep your chin up and your self-esteem high. I'm living proof that not every job posted has already been grabbed by an "insider."

129. futureprofessor - March 18, 2010 at 04:27 pm

Also, what a fascinating debate. I've read nearly all the comments for 3 articles--Benton,Mulholland, et al--and what I find most cogent is the talk about Class. Electric Mouse, you've nailed it. Social stratification and economic determinism.

And look at us, making articulate sense of all this. Kudos to all of us with the ultimate Rosetta Stone, the ability to read and write, which is what Education is all about, thats all I ever wanted out of a liberal arts education, the tools to interpret.

Re. the life of mind...I found that grad school IS its own reward, despite the risks and costs, and I continue my adventures and encourage anyone who seeks knowledge (and Truth and Beauty). Also, Raymond Williams anyone? He understood very well the tearoom versus drinking hole dynamic, and what it's like to feel out of sorts in both Academe/Industry by virtue of his working class roots. His town/family thinks he's elitist, while his colleagues find him a little rough around the edges.

Thanks for all the posters, and for all the good ideas.

130. username123 - March 19, 2010 at 04:49 am

I feel like one of the hated in this message board: I went to a top school, have a TT job at a top-ten institution, and love my department, my students, my teaching, and research. But I chose a graduate program that promised me more funding than it offered (this is so common I'm surprised no one has mentioned it), and left graduate school with $160,000 in debt. What can I say about that? It really sucks. Every day I struggle financially. My loans are in deferment because I qualify for economic hardship. My mismanaged university furloughed its professors this year. My students have much more disposable income than I do. I do not call this job security. The life of the mind is an utterly meaningless phrase that papers over the very real contradictions that we all face, whether we have jobs or not.

131. tolerantly - March 20, 2010 at 06:08 pm

amyletter, #12: I'm one of your artists, and I disagree: I don't believe that society owes us anything in particular, let alone a regular income. We're fortunate enough to live in a country ruled by markets, which I find vastly preferable to a country governed by ideas. Fashionable political ideas are not only more dangerous to your wellbeing but more likely to interfere with your work. The tradeoff is recognizing that not many people want art and finding some other way to feed yourself and your family if you're not independently wealthy. Like a job. I'll take it.

132. joeldrucker - March 22, 2010 at 03:52 pm

Must it be mandatory to attend college -- even as an undergrad -- to live the delightful life of the mind?

133. futureprofessor - March 22, 2010 at 10:43 pm

I remember talking to a colleague at the gym regarding the PhD credential as "a trump card." Also, many go for the PhD regardless of the material rewards, for the so-called "psychic rewards," if not the sense of accomplishment at having achieved something tangible that signals what one is knowledgeable and passionate about.

Of course you can do much of this outside academia too--but you don't get a diploma for it.

134. futureprofessor - March 22, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Also, I must add...

I for one know that the GPA suffers when a 30 or 40 hour work week is added to one's workload (And I don't even want to think what adjuncts and TA's go through.) I also know (from experience) that most service-oriented or mere sustenance jobss are emotionally and physically draining to the point that prolonged study, reflection and scholarly debate are difficult at best: So much for the life of the body. Indeed who would romanticize crippling manual labor over more climate-controlled and health-friendly job? More working class people should get a chance at college (without mountains of debt!)

Finally, look at Europe: free college education to all those that qualify and want it, largely. Now, there's a thought!

135. sahara - April 09, 2010 at 11:13 am

to #134: no, college is not available in Europe to all that qualify and want it. Do your homework!

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