• September 5, 2015

The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind'

An Academic in American Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

A year ago, I wrote a column called "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go," advising students that grad school is a bad idea unless they have no need to earn a living for themselves or anyone else, they are rich or connected (or partnered with someone who is), or they are earning a credential for a job they already hold.

In a March 2009 follow-up essay, I removed the category of people who are fortunately partnered because, as many readers wrote in to tell me, graduate school and the "two-body problem" often breaks up many seemingly stable relationships. You can't assume any partnership will withstand the strains of entry into the academic life.

Those columns won renewed attention last month from multiple Web sites, and have since attracted a lot of mail and online commentary. The responses tended to split into two categories: One said that I was overemphasizing the pragmatic aspects of graduate school at the expense of the "life of the mind" for its own sake. The other set of responses, and by far the more numerous, were from graduate students and adjuncts asking why no one had told them that their job prospects were so poor and wondering what they should do now.

I detected more than a little sanctimony and denial in most of the comments from the first group and a great deal of pain and disillusionment in the latter. The former seem used to being applauded by authorities; the latter seem to expect to be slapped down for raising questions. That's why they write to me, I believe. They want confirmation that something is wrong with higher education, that they have been lied to, systematically.

Some people have mistaken my position that graduate school in the humanities is fine for the rich and connected for the view that that's how it should be, as if I am some kind of smug elitist. It often happens that readers—looking only at an excerpt from a column—mistake practical advice about coping with a harsh reality for an affirmation of that reality, instead of a criticism of it.

One reason that graduate school is for the already privileged is that it is structurally dependent on people who are neither privileged nor connected. Wealthy students are not trapped by the system; they can take what they want from it, not feel pressured, and walk away at any point with minimal consequences. They do not have to obsess about whether some professor really likes them. If they are determined to become academics, they can select universities on the basis of reputation rather than money. They can focus on research rather than scrambling for time-consuming teaching and research assistantships to help pay the bills. And, when they go on the market, they can hold out for the perfect position rather than accepting whatever is available.

But the system over which the privileged preside does not ultimately depend on them for the daily functioning of higher education (which is now, as we all know, drifting toward a part-time, no-benefit business). The ranks of new Ph.D.'s and adjuncts these days are mainly composed of people from below the upper-middle class: people who believe from infancy that more education equals more opportunity. They see the professions as a path to security and status.

Again and again, the people who wrote to me said things like "Nobody told me" and "Now what do I do?" "Everybody keeps saying my doctorate gives me all kinds of transferable skills, but I can't get a second interview, even outside of academe." "What's wrong with me?"

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)

Unable even to consider that something might be wrong with higher education, mom and dad begin to think there is something wrong with their daughter, and she begins to internalize that feeling.

Everyone has told her that "there are always places for good people in academe." She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there's something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.

This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What's left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?

She was the best student her adviser had ever seen (or so he said); it seemed like a dream when she was admitted to a distinguished doctoral program; she worked so hard for so long; she won almost every prize; she published several essays; she became fully identified with the academic life; even distancing herself from her less educated family. For all of those reasons, she continues as an adjunct who qualifies for food stamps, increasingly isolating herself to avoid feelings of being judged. Her students have no idea that she is a prisoner of the graduate-school poverty trap. The consolations of teaching are fewer than she ever imagined.

Such people sometimes write to me about their thoughts of suicide, and I think nothing separates me from them but luck.

Scenarios like that are what irritate me about professors who still bleat on about "the life of mind." They absolve themselves of responsibility for what happens to graduate students by saying, distantly, "there are no guarantees." But that phrase suggests there's only a chance you won't get a tenure-track job, not an overwhelming improbability that you will.

Some professors tell students to go to graduate school "only if you can't imagine doing anything else." But they usually are saying that to students who have been inside an educational institution for their entire lives. They simply do not know what else is out there. They know how to navigate school, and they think they know what it is like to be a professor.

There should be a special place in hell for the professors who—at the end of an advisee's 10-year graduate program with no job in sight—say, "well, academe is not for everyone."

The main point of another column I wrote six years ago ("If You Must Go") is that students considering graduate school should "do their homework." But the problem is that there is still almost no way—apart from the rumor mill to which they do not really have access—for students to gather some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions). Programs often claim that graduates who are working as adjuncts or visiting faculty members are successfully placed in the profession.

Most departments will never willingly provide that information because it is radically against their interest to do so. I can see no way for that information to become available unless it becomes part of accreditation or rankings in publications such as U.S. News and World Report. Perhaps departments might start offering details if students started demanding it in large numbers, with support from organizations such as the American Association of University Professors. Maybe it's possible for graduate students themselves to start gathering and reporting this information on a Web site.

Graduate school may be about the "disinterested pursuit of learning" for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.

If you are in one of the lucky categories that benefit from the Big Lie, you will probably continue to offer the attractions of that life to vulnerable students who are trained from birth to trust you, their teacher.

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon "the life of the mind." That's why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.


1. gerhen - February 08, 2010 at 02:19 am

How refershing to hear someone who does not shy away from the truth about academe and its proponents. I would add that anyone who is willing to look overseas might have a better chance, and certainly somew rich experiences, at universities elsewhere. There are easy ways to see what the reputations of foreign institutions are as far as compensation and working conditions.
Geri, PhD--yes, Jordan and now Lithuania

2. dvdjenk - February 08, 2010 at 07:18 am

I too have a Ph.D. and have been unable to find permanent academic work, despite a raft of publications and high praise from students. For over ten years I held one and two year positions at prominent universities, moving my family from city to city until they, and I, had had enough. Academia will lead to anything, I now realize, provided you have the good sense to get out of it.

3. amnirov - February 08, 2010 at 07:29 am

Too true. Too true. There should be law requiring PhD programs to post statistics regarding their graduates' employment.

4. viscommprof - February 08, 2010 at 08:40 am

I am one of the lucky ones.

I was a newspaper writer/editor for a decade. I saw my position and my opportunities erode, and I saw no future. I had nothing to lose, so I went back to graduate school, and eight years later (including five long ABD years) I got a degree, a tenure-track job and, eventually, tenure and promotion.

I feel the ground shifting again.

I see today's lead story in the Chronicle focuses on the successes of the for-profit colleges. State Universities, of which I am a product, are just about out of reach financially to the blue-collar (does that even exist anymore?) social strata from which I come.

The privatization of education is part of a 30-year trend, and the University of Phoenix and its cohorts are natural outgrowths of that trend. A certain political party "privatized" financial aid, burdening students with heavy loan debts replacing grants and now-impossible-to-get work study. The trend also shifted state support away, forcing universities to privatize may servies in order to maintain operations.

Though I am as secure as anyone, I remember hitting the proverbial wall in newspapers. I reached a dead end professionally a little before the industry slipped into the vortex. I fear public higher education is at the edge the same way newspapers were a decade ago.

And just as with newspapers, there is no telling how it will all shake out, but we do know the future will be poorer and harsher.

And as with the media, higher ed really needs to come up with a new model to survive. Hand-wrinnging does no good.

We need to look at our options and try something new. But rather than change, I see educational leaders dig in their heels and push for more grants and more research as the grant wells dry up.

Why does something have to break before we consider new models?


5. mjelly33 - February 08, 2010 at 09:09 am

Thank you for this article and the prior articles on this topic. I wonder if full-timers are discussing them amongst themselves inside departments. It's not something would see as an adjunct unless I were to initiate the conversation. And since there are quite a few of us competing for the courses I'm not particularly motivated to put what appear to me already defensive people, putting in very long weeks, on the spot.

I would like to add to the litany of structural abuses the explicit expectation that if we want a prayer at a "real job" we will self-fund and publish in our "free time" (= time/resources we are supposed to provide the academy for free). To protest this expectation offends the "life of the mind" ideology in which we are supposed to love our intellectual labor enough to give it away whether we are paid to or not. The love is often there but it does not pay the bills. That tends to sour the relationship. p.t. Adjunct, 2 universities

6. agusti - February 08, 2010 at 09:35 am

I largely agree with these articles, because I have experienced most of what Benton talks about. One thing I'd like to see, though, is some response from other faculty columnists in the Chronicle. I'm always impressed by the deafening silence that follows the appearance of his articles (comments like this one notwithstanding). I'd really like to see some relatively high-profile faculty members, willing to identify themselves, weigh in on this topic. My suspicion is that most of these folks know he's bascially right but wouldn't want to be caught saying so or even engaging in a counter-argument. Benton is providing some important, truth-telling monologues. Where's the dialogue?

7. jim1967 - February 08, 2010 at 10:35 am

It's important not to romanticize academics or the life of the mind. But it's also important not to romanticize the life of the brother who "makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate." The company he works for is no doubt under even more pressure than are academic departments, pressure to squeeze work out of people for minimum pay and benefits, and he can probably be fired at a moment's notice, and he breathes a lot of crap into his lungs, and his job is too hard to do after age 55, and after he's got the basics down it might be mind-numbingly soul-suckingly boring.

8. jovanevery - February 08, 2010 at 10:49 am

This is the key issue: "The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled."

And it is much wider than graduate school in the humanities.

We are telling kids that are good at school that they have better opportunities than others (and kids that are not good at school that they are doomed). Then we are telling kids who are good at school to stay in school. We (including politicians who make policy that entrenches this) are telling kids that being good at school is the key thing needed to earn a decent living.

This is ALL lies.

The fact that we then compound those lies by telling the people that are good at university that they should stay in university and that if they are really good someone will eventually pay them to stay in university is just the icing on the cake of lies.

The biggest problem is that the structure of schooling requires being good at doing what you are told and doing it well. Smart people who innovate, do things differently, show a bit of creativity do not do well in school unless they stifle those qualities. The longer you stay in, the more they are stifled.

But in almost all satisfying work, innovation and creativity are required to do well. Including academia. And the longer you have been in school, the farther down that stuff is buried.

This is why the debate should not be confined to this particular column.

9. dizflores23 - February 08, 2010 at 10:50 am

I think this analysis could go in a different direction and reach the same conclusions. Rather than attempt to show that graduate students have been duped (an argument many will chalk up to sour grapes), why not show more of the material costs of years of graduate school? I'd like to see a careful analysis of hidden costs of grad school, such as 1) the long term cost of dental care after living without dental insurance for over seven years; 2) the additional amount of debt a student accumulates during a long job search that stretches over several years; 3) the degree to which graduate students lag behind in retirement savings compared to others in their age group; 4) the amount of their own money a grad student or new doctorate spends on professional development (including moving expenses) that is never reimbursed, even as a tax write off; 5) the number of grad students/doctorates who postpone having children or any number of other personal interests until they are financially stable.
I see mention of these problems here and there, but have yet to see a comprehensive study.

10. mgilbertson - February 08, 2010 at 10:52 am

As the mother of a son who had to study philosophy, even though I long thought it would ruin his life. I am extremely disenchanted with academic promises. He was the brightest in his class, always competitive, ready to do the hard work, and optimistic that he could secure a job that would be fulfilling, even if it didn't pay so much. Now he's making $30,000 a year as a permanent (yes, that's what they say) adjunct at a major university, bored with teaching the same introductory class over and over and never making enough to afford a decent life. We help him year after year and now that we're retired, it's getting harder. I only wish he'd never even taken that first course in philosophy!

Thanks for blowing the lid off this hush-hush topic. It helps.
Pat Gilbertson

11. mhick255 - February 08, 2010 at 11:15 am

Is anyone in the humanities addressing these issues? Not by writing about them, but by working to change academic structures?

12. sbussey1 - February 08, 2010 at 11:18 am

I read this and can't help but think that the problem is either caused or exacerbated by tenured faculty who no longer wish to teach what they were hired to teach--introductory and undergraduate courses. Graduate programs provide a source of teaching labor that frees up faculty to teach the "good stuff"--upper level and graduate courses in specialized areas.

I have actually sat in a meeting at a private university with a Master's program in English, where tenured faculty suggested creating a Ph.D. program so they wouldn't have to bring in visitors/adjuncts to teach the basics. They could also further reduce their own teaching load from 3/2 to 2/2. The idea that it might be less than ethical to create a graduate program to benefit their own professional life was never raised.

I love the idea of adding placement records to rankings. It would be a small step to force schools into evaluating the consequences of their programs for ALL the participants--not just the tenured facuty who enjoy offering 3 hour seminars on a pet subject.

--A survivor, on the tenure-track, but still bitter about what it cost to get there.

13. stefanaries - February 08, 2010 at 11:18 am

Recently at a conference the issue of academics who take work doing research or analysis for organizations that some might consider morally suspect--e.g. the CIA, the military--came up. An hour into the discussion no one had mentioned that many of the people applying for these positions had found it impossible to find even visiting work in the academy. When I raised the issue an uncomfortable silence settled over the room and then someone changed the subject.

14. boiler - February 08, 2010 at 12:02 pm

The job market is brutal, we all know that. Grad school is a gamble, and most people shouldn't take it -- a good thing to point out. But this business of "The Big Lie" and graduate school "designed as a trap" is foolish and counterproductive. The thrust of this column is that graduate faculties are deliberately brainwashing students about the "life of the mind" in order to suck them into exploitative and unproductive careers. That simply isn't true. The lack of data, the bad career advice, the unrealistic expectations, all of these are not the product of some conspiracy, but of a poorly organized and often anarchic system that has developed without any overall plan at all. To improve it, we need to think about the systemic patterns that produce it, not seek out some tenured villains to blame it on.

Take the lack of placement statistics. The article says that "Most departments will never willingly provide that information because it is radically against their interest to do so." Well, no. They won't provide that data because in most cases they don't have it. Large graduate programs in the liberal arts are strikingly anarchic places, in which both faculty members and students act as free agents, and in which department administration is weak and understaffed. It can be difficult to get a list of the graduate students who are enrolled, let alone those who aren't around any more. Is this a good thing? Of course not. Should there be a mechanism for gathering and reporting this data? Of course there should. But the fact that there isn't reflects a general orientation toward organizational structure in many programs, not some Machiavellian urge to suppress unflattering information.

Likewise with the notion that programs indoctrinate their undergraduates in the virtue of the "life of the mind" in order to trap them in exploitative graduate educations. Certainly some professors exalt the "life of the mind" -- why wouldn't they? They like it. But the idea that they're doing this to cultivate crops of vulnerable grad students verges on the paranoid. It doesn't answer to the experience of any faculty member I know, and even as an evil scheme it wouldn't make sense. Why brainwash your own undergrads, thus impoverishing your alumni donor base, in order to support whatever grad program somewhere else they wind up going to?

The academic education and employment system that we currently have involves a staggering waste or youth and talent, and it desperately needs reform. But it's not a system engineered by some elite to achieve some nefarious end. If we approach it that way, we're not going to fix anything.

15. kelsky - February 08, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Thank you for writing this, and for your other columns. I'm a tenured professor at a big 10 school, and just finished a 5 year term as department head. I've been advising grad students for 15 years, and since my first year as faculty have been running a professionalization workshop that is all about the lie that graduate programs shamelessly perpetuate--that the work of graduate students is about the 'life of the mind.' It's about exploiting a structural underclass to keep full time faculty out of the classrooms, and it's about the egos and status-greed of individual faculty whose sense of self worth derives from the number of graduate students they advise.

There is an almost total lack of accountability to the graduate students we admit in terms of a transparent and honest preparation for the real job market.

I do put some blame on the students who allow themselves to be willfully misled for 5-10 years of their lives. There is no excuse for failing to ask, and keep asking, responsible questions about employability and market conditions. That is the main take-away point of my workshop.

But the lies that our graduate programs are organized around are the core structural issue: The lie that academic work is somehow above market logic; that preparation for a tenure track job lies primarily in intellectual brilliance rather than concrete job skills and quantifiable grants and publications at the time of the Ph.D., that most advising faculty actually give a shit about placement....

The system is ethically bankrupt. I am walking away from my tenured position (to go into business for myself) this year because I don't want to be part of it any more. There are well meaning faculty out there. But few, very few, who are willing to tell themselves and their students the truth about our conditions of labor. And the kicker--they know Marx chapter and verse.

16. dank48 - February 08, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Sure, more education means better employment than less education, but the law of diminishing returns applies.

Most people would realize intuitively that, say, acquiring six Ph.D.s is unlikely to result in an income six times that of a person with "only" one. The truth is that the returns begin to diminish far sooner than that outlandish extreme. And departments are breath-takingly quiet on the subject of employment prospects. This is not solely because the departments don't have the information. One suspects that a department that wanted to be straightforward with its grad students could somehow figure out how to get the information, or what the hell is the point of having a Ph.D. if you can't do basic, simple research?

17. stephanie44 - February 08, 2010 at 01:30 pm

Thanks for writing this; it's very valuable, especially to those of us who came from the kind of class background you describe. Your structural analysis seems to me right, but I would go even further and say that the "life of the mind" is not just a fantasy that keeps the whole machine running for graduate students, it's a fantasy that can only disappoint the few people who manage to make it through the door to a t-t faculty job. Most of what happens at the kinds of Big 10 Universities that @kelsky describes, and at which I also work, is about keeping the creaking machinery of the meritocratic fantasy in place. There are precious few hours to actually interact with students, or to really do research. Most of what faculty do is endlessly review and evaluate other people -- their colleagues, their graduate students, potential graduate students, undergraduates, committee members -- according to some standard of "excellence" the constant invocation of which is supposed to protect us from the certain knowledge that whatever standards we cling to for our "research" lives is increasingly ill-equipped to help us understand the systemic failures going on all around us at every university. The worse everything gets, the more evaluation we do, the more gatekeeping, the more inspection of standards, the more discussion of who we are and what we do. It's an amazingly good way to keep us from actually seeing what's right in front of our faces.

Those rare folks who actually got a t-t job have received a great gift, but they have not received a golden ticket to enjoy the "life of the mind." That's the last -- though to be sure, a very good -- trick the meritocracy plays on the people who are overidentified with it. When I look around, I see that there are plenty of faculty members who do enjoy that quality experience of thinking about their own thinking, but I can also see that they came in with the kind of privilege that made them less identified with the university, rather than more.

18. geraldherrin - February 08, 2010 at 01:38 pm

I was a doctoral student in history when I stumbled into the realization that I would never have a "real" job in academics. One, exactly one, professor in my department refused to take doctoral students unless they could prove independent means. He was honest. After working as a clerk in the same library I had almost lived in for years, I finally decided on another job path: I became a registered nurse and was intoxicated with the multiple job offers. And I found the work more honest, more rewarding, and more diverse than anything in the academic world. I loved my academic life (although it wrecked my first marriage as it did to most of the others), but nursing, medicine, hospitals and caring for the seriously ill has been a real blessing.

19. agusti - February 08, 2010 at 01:48 pm

Kelsky - YOU should write a column for the Chronicle under your own name and tell your story. It's precisely the kind of contribution needed so that Benton isn't written off as a lone voice tinged with sour grapes.

20. aharvey1 - February 08, 2010 at 01:57 pm

I was in graduate school in English, good at what I was doing. My third semester I was fortunate enough to read Pierre Bourdieu's “The Field of Cultural Production” (1993). This book gave me a clear realization about the value of a PhD in English. I think it goes deeper than graduate schools taking in more students than they can place. Our culture just doesn't place value on literary knowledge the way it once did. Now I'm in nursing school!

21. gsmorris - February 08, 2010 at 01:57 pm

I bought the business about retiring baby boomers. I bought the business about how "good people can always find positions." I bought the business about the "life of the mind" and the humanities' sacred mission.

Unfortunately, Benton didn't start writing these articles until long after I was in grad school, and I wasn't prepared. And I did everything wrong, by his list - I'm not rich and don't come from a rich family; as the first person in my family to go to college, I have no connections besides those I have made myself; I had a family and believed that a higher degree would make it possible to better support them; and, as I would have been warned had Benton written 8 years ago instead of 1, my marriage and mental health have been strained nearly to the breaking point.

And yes, I feel duped.

Recently administrators in our department had a meeting with all the soon-to-be PhDs about the state of the job market. Their advice: stay in grad school as long as possible. Stay in grad school teaching their intro classes as grad assistants with minimal health benefits and salaries that qualify us for food stamps and Medicare. Our other alternatives? Leave the program for academic positions that have NO benefits and salaries that qualify us for food stamps and Medicare. Or leave academia altogether for the worse-than-uncertain position of looking for private-sector jobs without any significant private-sector experience.

I wouldn't dare say that my advisers and administrators are bad people. On the contrary, they are good people. The INSTITUTION, however, is pure evil, and has trapped us with the promise of security and satisfaction. The administrators, advisers, teachers - they don't tell us because they are also cogs in the machine, or bacteria in the belly of the beast.

Here's something I can do because I am an English ABD - quote Shakespeare:

"They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us."

Here's something else I can do, because I like Texas singer-songwriters - quote Steve Earle:

"Just because you ain't paranoid don't mean they ain't out to get you."

Gabe Sealey-Morris

22. kelsky - February 08, 2010 at 02:04 pm

@agusti: i was in dialogue with the chronicle about doing a column for grad students based on my workshop, on the job market and how to prepare for it, just when the whole economy came crashing down around our ears 2 years ago. I then felt that my advice had become obsolete--since it was geared toward an awful job market, not a non-existent one, or as I said to my final PhD student this year, a challenging job market, not a disintegrating industry. I'm not sure how much there is to say that hasn't been said by Benton and others as we collectively emerge from the mass false consciousness that has ruled academia for the last few decades. Except perhaps about the choice to leave. And that is still a (tremendously risky, perhaps foolhardy) work in progress!

23. aydub1978 - February 08, 2010 at 02:09 pm

Benton's analysis seems to me dead on - really irrefutable. And yet among the many things that trouble me at the end of reading his columns (including a hefty dose of survivor's guilt - I got a t-t job when I was abd) are the following.

1. Without implying that Benton himself is an elitist snob - I really don't think he is! - here's another cruel paradox: the best way to rid the academy of this "life of the mind" crap is to change its class makeup. And the best way to do that is to populate it with people who don't have the means to put themselves through a PhD program. I teach at a public R-1 with lots of first generation college students from diverse backgrounds, and have really conflicted feelings about what to say to an undergrad who's thinking about grad school. Obviously I want to be honest about the costs of that choice - but I'm not sure I want to talk these students out of it altogether. Academe needs more professors, administrators, public relations directors and former students who can preach the value of the humanities not just to starry-eyed undergrads but to the wider public. Academe needs to better represent the country at large. It's not going to do so if the only people getting advanced degrees are prep school and ivy league alums who sailed through the system, at least financially. I don't hold Benton responsible for solving this problem, but it's a problem that his comments bring to the fore for me.

2. Which brings me to the other problem of whether there's a way to maybe not give the whole system up for lost right now. Benton's accurate diagnosis is matched with only one prescription: "Just don't go." Which I think is a fine and pragmatic and ethical starting prescription. But how do we get to a better point in the future in which that's *not* the only viable prescription? How do we make a case for the humanities that provides programs with the resources to fully fund their PhD students; that provides liberal arts colleges, and divisions within universities, with more tenure adn tenure-track hiring lines; and that makes it possible for those not on the tenure track (by - gasp - *choice*, even?) to make decent livings through adjunct teaching? For these questions I think we need to start rethinking our broader sense of what we're doing in undergraduate classrooms and as institutional players.

And I think it means sending some of our best undergraduates to grad programs with a *very* realistic picture of the profession, and a keen desire to change it.

24. drhank - February 08, 2010 at 02:14 pm

Sbussey1 and Kelsky have identified the dirty little open secret that's most responsible for this problem at doctoral institutions: graduate students are a cheap source of subservient labor for teaching all of those pesky freshman- and sophomore-level courses and for doing the scut work in labs.

I was able to catch the institutional effectiveness/assessment wave a few years ago when my Ph.D. in English from a Big 10 school didn't open any of the doors that I thought it would. My salary and benefits are as good as those of most tenured profs at my current school, but I'm really not doing what I want to do.

Benton is absolutely on target here, as the classic switcheroo is foisted on idealistic grad students every day--the life of the mind is proffered, but the grind of teaching the courses that tenured profs wouldn't deign to sully themselves with is the actual article of exchange.

Quick solution for public universities? State legislation that requires tenured or tenure-track faculty to teach at least two lower-division courses each semester. But that will never happen for the reasons previous respondents have noted.

25. jeffreywindsor - February 08, 2010 at 02:28 pm

Boiler (#14) sounds like the most rational one here. As a PhD student in English myself, I came in knowing what I was getting into, and with enough experience in the non-academic world to be comfortable with the risks involved. Sure, the costs are high and the potential for failure is great. But I had a similar experience as an entrepreneur -- and no one is saying that entrepreneurship is a big lie.

Consider marriage as another risky endeavor: nearly half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. These risks are well known, and yet people still get married. Despite the 50% risk that it'll end in misery, people fight for the right to participate in it. So why should a risky job market be any different?

We needn't be otherworldly life-of-the-mind-ers to desire a job in academia. Some of us who are not independently wealthy have experience enough to hope for a career in the humanities despite the risks: it beats the hell out of the software business.. Mr. Benton's beef really boils down to an "implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life." He is (still) upset that that implicit promise is a fantasy. Neither I nor my fellow grad students participate in that dream world.

26. artaxia - February 08, 2010 at 03:27 pm

As much as I am horrified at the exploitation of graduate students by universities, and as much as I think that professors and administrators who abuse graduate student labour should be excoriated for it, I do have to ask the uncomfortable question:

Why is it that the premise of this argument is that graduate students are brainless children? Why do they not have any agency in this? And why no responsibility for doing the due diligence to find out what the risks of graduate school really are?

I actually do *not* think that the risks are being deviously hidden, though it's true that research universities don't exactly trumpet them either. Grad student teaching has been going on for quite a while, as has the adjunct system. Would you go to law school without ever talking to law students and junior lawyers about their job conditions and satisfaction? Why go to graduate school without talking to grad students and junior or adjunct faculty?

The information may have been harder to come by in the past (though the market *has* been bad since the 1970's, if not as disastrous as these past few years). However, most PhDs graduating now made the decision to attend graduate school with the internet at their fingertips. How can people sign up for research degrees without researching the job prospects of those degrees?

Any adult, signing up for any educational degree, volunteer/internship opportunity, or paid job, should do a cost-benefit analysis of the opportunity. What do I stand to win? What do I stand to lose? What are my best and worst-case scenarios if I do this? And am I willing to live with those risks? What are my values and desires in life, and is this opportunity consistent with them?

Unfortunately, doing that would mean facing some hard decisions, but if more prospective grad students made hard decisions, these problems might not exist. (The solution doesn't have to be top-down, in other words.) For example, if all prospective grad students decided they would not do a PhD unless it came with a full funding package that would have them teaching a minimal number of courses, and that the funding would have to be enough for them to live on without going into debt, universities would be hard-pressed to fill their programs. The system is dependent on people, *educated* people, acquiescing to their own exploitation. If grad students asked about placement rates, rankings, time-to-graduation, and if they looked at faculty lists online and saw which degrees actually get jobs, they might decide not to go to certain schools for the PhD, even if it meant not doing a PhD at all.

I write this as a person who is definitely not one of the priviledged, and who knew that I couldn't allow myself to go to grad school unless it: 1., was top tier in my broader field and in my specialization, and 2. provided a full and reasonable funding package. Going into debt was not an option for me, nor was a 10-year PhD. I had seen first-hand how long it could take talented, brilliant people to get t-t jobs, and I had researched the job market online, so I went into it with my eyes open. I also asked myself, at regular intervals during graduate school, whether I was *still* ok with the risks I was facing and with the possibility that I might have to begin anew. I was, so I went on.

In other words, I researched the job, and I made decisions that would allow me to live within my means. And that is what any educated adult should be able to do.

27. dstrya - February 08, 2010 at 04:20 pm

My response to any budding grad students who mention the "life of the mind" is always the same:


28. emmiluisa - February 08, 2010 at 04:21 pm

Is the situation as tough for students in the social sciences as well? I imagine so, but I am an undergrad, trying to decide whether to go to grad school in the social sciences (public health) or to med school. I was wondering if one of you might have experiences with graduate studies in the social sciences/health sciences and job prospects thereafter. Thanks.

29. isambard - February 08, 2010 at 04:42 pm

It can't be true that absolutely nobody should go to graduate school; however rough things get, there' some turnover. But perhaps what's needed is rethinking graduate work in humanities; if people were appointed earlier, and PhDs were less fetishized - and there was more scope for doing research later in one's career - it'd be easier for new entrants to have a look at academic life and leave if they didn't really like it. It's the horror of investing ten years in the attempt to get started that is so appalling; giving it a try and then doing something else is much less appalling.

30. luigi - February 08, 2010 at 04:53 pm

Practical advice: Think about teaching in a good high school. I have former students (law) who are having fulfilling careers in high schools. My children have had Ph.Ds as high school teachers. In a good school district, the pay is comparable, the benefits are great, publishing is optional, the hours are reasonable, and high school students have inquiring minds.

31. flatfilsoc - February 08, 2010 at 05:39 pm

I suppose because I had a long career in the "outside world" and suffered through the corporate downsizing era of the late 1980' and early 1990's, I did not have any illusions about whether the "life of the mind" would lead to job.

When asked to the displeasure of members of my committeee, what are you going to do? I answer, be a secretary or administrative assistant with a PhD. I knew going in that a Social Science PhD was a personal dream with little or no direct financial payoff.

32. deliajones - February 08, 2010 at 05:44 pm


I'm a Trustee at a public liberal arts college and we are planning to begin offering a degree in public health in fall 2011.We have been presented with a great deal of information about the job market for people with those degrees, and it's a field with growing prospects AND one where a B.A can lead to a job. We're going to link this program with the math department to create an optional concentration in epidemiology. I am a Ph.D. myself and I know how to analyze statistics, so this isn't just a pretty song-and-dance for trustees, it's a real, viable option.

33. anonscribe - February 08, 2010 at 06:11 pm

If you don't get funding with health care, don't get a Ph.D. in the humanities. I have funding and health care through my package, and my life is swell. I see other grad students (with the same package) stressing out all the time, and I don't completely understand it. I mean, sometimes a deadline gets close and one has to clamp down, but in general this is a pretty relaxed life. I teach one class a quarter and make 18K a year (at large public U). Apparently, I'm supposed to spend 20 hours a week teaching this class, but that's never happened. Any reasonable person--after doing it the first time or two--should easily be able to do the necessary work in 12 hours. So, twelve hours a week, 18K a year, tuition paid, full benefits. Sounds pretty good to me.

As for job prospects when one gets out, the MLA "Profession" edition has seemingly reliable statistics about this. Roughly 50% of Ph.D.'s will get full-time, tenure-track employment within 5 years. From my department (ranked between 25 and 50), that pans out--about 2/3 of our students get TT jobs within the first three years (this includes CC work). I've known the people who haven't gotten work, and they either didn't deserve it or had extenuating circumstances. The former group weren't good enough for university faculties and they were too arrogant to take a tt job at a CC. The latter group includes those with kids who spent a decade writing their dissertation, those with illnesses that prevent them from doing well, etc. Luckily, in our department, those who graduate and don't get placed are often extended lecturer positions with the U. These pay 40K with full benefits, a reasonable living, I think.

So, to summarize, 18K a year for four to five years (six without MA), full benefits, reasonable workload (including academic work other than teaching), 33% chance of dream job, 66% chance of middle-class employment teaching comp, and I get to spend five years with no boss, reading and thinking about interesting things that give my life meaning? I know, it's an awful deal.

I think the main problem--and Benton points this out--is that too many students get sucked up in the "life of the mind" nonsense. So, when they end up faced with underemployment or a CC job that would provide a middle-class life teaching comp, they despair. They thought the Ph.D. meant they would get to spend their lives teaching people only what they care about, reciting Wordsworth in front of a packed auditorium, or rallying undergraduates behind the cry of La Raza! But, if you look at these decisions, as I did, purely from the standpoint of a job/career, then it stacks up pretty well next to lawyering (don't have to work 60 hours a week or take on 150K in debt), nursing (don't have to watch people die or work 12-hour shifts), or anonymous corporate manager X (don't feel like a doofus spouting corporate newspeak while spitballing bald white guys).

Is it like Dead Poet's Society? No. Does it beat ripping apart your joints doing manual labor like my brother (who spent his twenties convinced college was a waste of time, only to find arthritis beginning to creep into his 30-something body, at which point he went to college and on to grad school)? All the way.

34. mrswho - February 08, 2010 at 06:37 pm

Amen! Preach it, Brother Benton! I sent a copy of your column "Just Don't Go" to one of my former grad students in a terminal MA program in an obscure field at a 2nd tier state school. Finally, he and his mother understood a little better why I was discouraging him from applying to PhD programs.

35. atana09 - February 08, 2010 at 07:16 pm

Thanks M. Benton for the truthful yet inevitably controversial essay.
The "life of the mind" has been subjected to a lingering malaise which has spread insidiously into academe. Like it or not the moment when academe chose to mate itself with the massive educational debt profiteering rampant in the US higher ed system; the life of the mind became little more than the conceptual prostitution of intelligent, idealistic and unbelievably naive students. And the street corner upon which the arts and humanities students are banished to stand is often inescapable and quite disillusioning.
The problem is how those of us in the field can remain ethical when our employment is premised on selling the deceits that degrees in softer fields, such as arts and humanities, will get our student progeny some meaningful economic life? Very hard to do knowing that under current conditions they stand about as much chance of a successful career as seeing Sasquatch dancing on the rim of a UFO.
Part of the problem is the perception which lingers from the halcyon days of educational funding back in the 60's and early 70's. Then a humanities degree, both bach. and grad, did not entail the costs and debt inherent to our current system. And so even if a student did not make it in the field the damage was limited. But many old profs still dreamily espouse what is now a long gone condition...follow your bliss, live the life of the mind...forgetting that their students end up as little more than lifelong sharecroppers to educational debt. Newer profs often dare not tell the truth, lest they lose the jobs which pay (sort of) for their youthful indiscretions with the 'life of the mind'.
And worse is the adjuncts are often the people who have managed to remain in the field...and they often make about the same as a good newspaper route.
The complete tragedy of it all is the lenders in the temple have despoiled and then cast off the ruined corpse of the 'life of the mind'. And after the maggots are brushed off those in academe are still expected to sell its charms.

36. mastodon - February 08, 2010 at 08:00 pm

comment number 26 by "artaxia" is absolutely spot on.

i'll take it one step farther. if you come into this profession not knowing the risks and odds, which have been widely publicized now for many, many years, then you don't belong in it because you lack the initiative to learn about that which you plan (read: fantasize) to succeed and should seek an alternative profession that requires you to stay less informed about the job market and more beholden to your superiors to lead you every step of the way, there to spark your every synapse as you ruminate on your life's choices.

things are different these days, sure, but they've been steadily developing to this point, and if you didn't see it, you weren't looking. Because of market pressures, a fresh phd today would blow away a similar candidate's credentials from yesteryear. no question. more and more publications are required for every step of the professionalization process, even in some cases, getting into a competitive grad program. i'm not saying that this is a good thing. but it is what it is. i refuse to believe that this increased intensity in professionalization in virtually every humanities department worth its weight has left the one, most important thing out: that is, the fact that the market is tough, and you'd better be extraordinary -- not grade-inflated extraordinary, not "letter of recommendation" extraordinary, not "everyone is special" extraordinary, not "generation next" extraordinary -- but extraordinary to land a job, much less apply to a grad program. if you don't know this, or cannot recognize your potential to be extraordinary (however you define it) or your own limits and/or lack of internal resources to cope with the circumstances in which you plunge yourself, then, again, seek an alternative profession.

there are far worse things to do than profess in the humanities. take it from "professor" benton aka "panic packer".

there is also a considerable amount of internalization of the "state of emergency", which is inevitable and i suppose fine as long as it doesn't replace self understanding with anger, a sense of utter helplessness and a readiness to blame anyone but yourself. for example, just look at how commenter #21 describes her/his colleagues (bacteria? come the f on) and ask if you'd ever want to hire such an individual as a colleague or have her/him as a student. nobody is stopping such a person from leaving the academy.

things are bad. they've always been bad. this is all old news, however, wrapped up in a new panic slanket. calm down, get out of this comments section, stop wasting time by fwding this link to your scared colleagues and posting it on your blog, and get to work, or do what you have to do to be happy.

37. dmaratto - February 08, 2010 at 08:15 pm

# 33 sounds like somebody I want to work with/have a beer with.

# 36 sounds like someone whose class I'd want to take

# 35 sounds like the professor I hope I don't get

# 26 makes the most sense

38. dmaratto - February 08, 2010 at 08:18 pm

Oh I forgot: I don't quite understand the idea of graduate students as "cheap, subservient labor," "academic indentured servitude" or the like. Adjuncts I get, that must be very annoying to have to hold down 3 jobs at different schools to make a living wage, they need a union. But graduate students? Dude, if you didn't want to be doing basic research and teaching undergraduate classes, then why the heck did you go to graduate school? If you couldn't get into a school that would give you a good fellowship/assistantship, why didn't you work for another few months while applying to places with better offers?

39. mrswho - February 08, 2010 at 09:45 pm

#26 is full of good points, but this one especially bears repeating:

"The system is dependent on people, *educated* people, acquiescing to their own exploitation."

I would only add "self-deluded" after the word "educated."

40. atana09 - February 08, 2010 at 09:45 pm

Dude because the cost of a humanities graduate degree is simply out of reasonable proportion to benefit. And because when people are in grad school the loans for undergrad are too oft in deferment. And so builds up the interest, fees, and god help them the capitalization of interest.
So yes, when it's all over the cost of chasing the life of the mind can result in becoming what amounts to as a academic sharecropper. It's a matter of when that lovely status takes effect, after graduation or 6 months after or etc.
For a fair proportion of us who did make professor within the last generation many are quite aware of this imbalance between ideals and real economic consequence. Because we have been subject to its pressures, much more than our generational predecessors. And so blithely stating 'caveat emptor' is not enough, for admitting that is essentially stating we know its a scam but its OK as long as our checks keep coming into our accounts.
My concern is the low return versus cost or debt for advanced degrees is gradually destroying the collegiate arts and humanities. Something which should be idealistic, expansive and present genuine opportunity has been put into a very small box without air holes and sold to the lenders in the temple.
So the dilemma is do we dare tell the truth as M. Bender has done, and hope to reform what has become a parasitic system...or happily keep collecting the checks whilst a unnaturally high number of our students end up collecting collection agency calls from the creditors?
American higher education has become too easily entranced by the dollars dangled in front of it by the lenders in the temple...and increasingly it will be harder to defend our ideals, especially in the arts and humanities, when the end cost of those ideals may be ruin for some of the students we led down that path.
I and others did not put on the tweed jacket to be the pitchman on the patent medicine wagon for magic debt. Its just as toxic as the old nostrums of the 19th century, and when the hallucinations wear off the hangover can last 20 years or more.

41. blue_state_academic - February 08, 2010 at 09:52 pm

okay, so that thick back half of the Chronicle with all those tenure-track jobs in the humanities advertised -- they're all made up? All you Chicken Littles out there, such as kelsky, who say there's a "non-existent" job market, stop bleating the doom and gloom. As bad as things are right now -- and financially they're as bad as they've been in any of our lifetimes -- institutions are still hiring for tenure track positions in the humanities. Yeah, there aren't enough jobs for everyone who's in a Ph.D. program, but it's not as bad as many people here are making it out to be.

42. elder_elder - February 08, 2010 at 10:50 pm

So, atana09 (#40), the solution is to publish a cost benefit analysis? If for no other reason, there'd an implicit value system there that only applies to some generic, archetypal student. And I don't truck in generic, archetypal students: them straw men always annoy me.

I knowingly and happily left a job that paid more than $100k to enter grad school. I had started (and sold) a business successfully; I beat the odds, but decided that it was a horrible, miserable, soul-crushing existence. Right now, I make $16k as a grad student and know that when I'm done there's less than a 50% chance I'll land a t-t job. For the past five years, I've read, taught, and written: it's been a great job. Stressful? Hell yes. Long hours? You betcha. But it beats the socks off my corporate job.

If it comes down to it, I'll head back to the corporate world. I won't be excited about it. But I won't regret my time spent earning a PhD. I might, instead, have spent my time starting a new business (and starting the business is always the fun part) and had it fail. At the end of a few years I'd might have no assets and a pile of business debts, and I would have to suck it up and head back to find a "real" job. I would argue that neither one of these is more virtuous than the other, and also argue that neither is more idiotic or evil. Either way, the cost-benefit fails, but the risk-reward (in my book, at least) succeeds. Because the potential reward of a job teaching beats working in a cubicle, even with the disparate levels of compensation.

The only way I can see the treatment of humanities PhDs as condemnable is by presuming that humanities grad students are stupid: they are too dumb to spend the few hours to search online to see the job prospects and potential salaries they might earn. I'm convinced that my advisors have not been part of some institutional conspiracy to fleece me and leave me penniless. Should we perhaps ask new applicants to produce a financial forecast and risk analysis? Perhaps have them write the equivalent of a business plan that describes employment prospects and disaster plans? Then, at least, we could stop bemoaning about how we're sending these dear lambs into the slaughter fields of the job market, because they'd have demonstrated a foreknowledge of the circumstances of the market.

Alternatively, we could presume that anyone who deserves a PhD will also have brains enough to see the world for what it is. They'll hope for a t-t job (knowing full well what the salary will be and how long it'll take to pay off their student loans) and be able to adapt when one doesn't come through. Clearly, as seen in the comments here, there are many wise enough (and unwilling to engage in the risk of the humanities job market) who will change tracks and head to nursing school. What will it take to convince you that the rest of us are just as aware? Do we _all_ need to enter nursing school?

43. atana09 - February 08, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Esteemed Elder-Elder; Yes a cost to benefit analysis should be published or at least professors should tell their students in the arts and humanities tell them what to do to make it work and what to do when it doesn't. At least before they are sold down the debtors river, directly and without sugar and cake tell them what to do to make it work and what to do when it doesn't.

And your exceptional case demonstrates part of the problem. You made some 100,000 a year prior to entering graduate school. It is to your credit you are willing to seek another calling, but with your past affluence if that calling fails it is unlikely your life will be ruined. As you note you can always go back to the corporate life and make it all back.

Now exchange your position with the son of a working class father and mother, that advanced degree is something they may have sought for generations for their family. But having gone to a soft program when that son or daughter obtains this multi-generational educational dream and it fails to provide a stable economic result...what then will they do? They won't have that 100k a year, or other assets to make up for that decision. And they will be hounded by debt, which is the poor mans hell and the rich mans boon.

And perhaps those who pursue a terminal degree such as a PhD/MFA (and all the alphabet soup variants) in the humanities & arts should know better than to believe the catalogs or even the soft words uttered by their beard and tweed profs. Men and women to whom they look as mentors. But once we reach that state of cynical realization, and we are close, yet more of the idealism inherent to the 'life of the mind' has been cast down.
And poets,writers of prose, artists and actors will pursue their calling beyond means, reason and all the warnings of the angels. Academe knows this and too often takes advantage of that particular psyche.
Either we need to cut costs to students or raise standards within humanities programs. Both are difficult choices but the alternative is to continue to feed legions of dreamers into the maws of greed.
If these trends are not abated, the only poets, artists, actors academe will have left are those will be those who are also the blindest form of fools.
In other words the lenders in the temple are doing more than binding a generation, they will blind us to those who'd provide the words and images to let us know who we are...if that happens there is no profit margin which equals what will be lost. And what then will they have made of our culture?

44. raymond_j_ritchie - February 09, 2010 at 12:15 am

I have responded to Benton's articles before. Most respondents are arts/humanities people. I have a PhD in plant science and I have published over 50 papers in refereed journals, 12 years post-docoral experience (Britain, 2x USA, Canada, Australia) and I have never had a real job. I can assure the readers here that, if anything, things are worse in the sciences. Not many rational people imagine great career opportunities in the humanities but a lot of people, particularly first-generation graduates like myself, swallow the twaddle pushed by governments, the media and universities that there is a great demand for more scientists. You do not have governments and foundations sponsoring programs to do something about "the upcoming shortage of scholars working on 17th Century English Restoration plays". Science students are bombarded with propaganda that there are plenty of jobs "for good people" and there is an upcoming shortage of scientists. It is a cruel lie. I ignored snobbish-sounding people who tried to warn me I was simply being exploited.

One correspondent has pointed out that the research skills of a graduate student should enable them to work out their likely fate. I did not understand academia, did they?

45. john_finn - February 09, 2010 at 02:14 am

The "if you were smart enough to get a Ph.D., you should have been smart enough not to get a Ph.D."-argument aka the "well, then stop wining and just quit"-argument:
Of course it's not that easy. Being smart has not a lot to do with it. Everybody who has ever been in a bad relationship but just couldn't break it up knows what I mean. It's the psychology, stupid: many of us have become dependent on the academic superego. And it's so easy: we don't see starving, unemployed scholars on TV, the general public has no clue what's going on, not even our students know (and yes we should tell them). Universities have nice shiny buildings, they have been around forever, our relatives and friends went to universities, many of us know tenured professors, you dress up, go to your convocation, your loved ones congratulate you, you get a nice diploma, which you will later frame and hang on the wall, etc. Academe is an essential part of our society. How could it possibly be an evil pyramid scheme, a Big Lie? And look at the professors: don't they have houses, families and many important looking books in their shelves? Why shouldn't we trust them when they give us the "baby boomers will retire"-pep-talk or the "there's always a job for good people"-routine?
Yes, we have all made jokes about ending up as cab drivers - Made us feel like mavericks, underdogs, academic punks, didn't it? Confirmed us in our belief that we're not in it for the money, right? That we do this because we are altruistic crusaders, martyrs even!, for the great project of the Enlightenment? But then we got older. We started to realize that academia does not care about real idealism - it wants fake idealism (=job interview idealism, you know: "playing the game", you know: those idiotic 1 page teaching philosophies you're asked to submit with your application).
Bad things don't happen to you, they happen to other people. People who must have done something wrong to deserve it. "Hey, you know that guy over there?" "Yeah, he just got a tt-job." "Cool, that proves that I'll get one, too. My faith in academe is restored." - Does this make a lot of sense? Nope.
So yes, in our research we might be empirical, logical and professional, but in our career choices (and private lives, of course) we are often as irrational as a 16-year old Twilight fan.

So is academia a Big Lie? "He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot" (Groucho Marx)

46. mbkirova - February 09, 2010 at 07:44 am

Superb and spot on, as most commenters agree. So now let's ask an even more disturbing question. Given that grad schools often turn out folks who are not well grounded in reality, and then go on to become profs and bore their students to death, why (in some fields especially, like journalism) should a graduate degree be required to work in a university at all when one has a mountain of hands-on and successful experience? Just to keep grad schools in business and continue the myth?

47. roboprof - February 09, 2010 at 07:55 am

I thought I knew the risks when I started my (top five in my field) grad program approximately 10 years ago, but I thought I'd be one of the lucky ones. I was willing to put in the work, live within my means, and finish my degree in a reasonable number of years--what could go wrong?

I based my life decisions on market conditions that changed dramatically in 2008. With my R1 degree, full-time teaching experience from visiting positions, and healthy research profile, I'm lucky to get interviews at non-selective institutions with high teaching loads. I don't have a tenure track yet, though I've managed to survive in visiting positions.

I would advise those current grad students who can live on their stipend (mine was less than the cost of living for the area my school was in, so I took on a significant commute in order to do so) not to pat themselves on the back too hard--yet. You may be lucky and get a tenure-track job, but if you don't, just telling yourself to "work harder" or "be smarter" won't help you obtain one. If you fail to be lucky and land a tt job while you're ABD, there's little that could be gained through beating yourself up over it. I'm personally considering a switch to high school teaching--if I can find a position!

48. ex_ag - February 09, 2010 at 08:17 am

I find it interesting (and sad) that people would attack Benton for an elitist view when, in fact, it is these graduate programs that convince people that the humanities are elitist.

The assumption they encourage is that one cannot read books, study history, or have a "life of the mind" without submitting first to their gentle influence. They have turned the humanities into an old boys' club and have discouraged innumerable people from participating in the humanities by implying that these degree-less folks are un-worthy and incapable.

Having led casual book club discussions in the past, I can attest to the sense of un-worthiness that outsiders feel. And I wonder how many people shrug off the idea of history clubs or reading clubs because they have been told that--not holding a special piece of paper--they are ineligible for a life of the mind?

49. itinerantgradstudent - February 09, 2010 at 10:26 am

Don't you think the example given of the woman who couldn't get any job after 12 years is a bit over the top? Most of my friends who left academia floundered for a year or so, but ultimatley ended up with well paying, fulfilling jobs. I can't imagine that having a PhD from a top school should hurt anyone on the job market unless they really had no clue how to market themselves.

I personally am a PhD candidate in the humanities, who almost chose not to go to grad school when I read the author's first column nearly 5 years ago. I am so glad I ignored his advice. I'm not sure if I'll ever get a tenure track job, and I knew that going in, but I have truely loved being in grad school during the past 4 years, and can't imagine that I'll regret how I chose to spend this time, regardless of the undeniable opportunity cost.

Of course, I've made some good decisions; I only applied to schools that offered generous funding packages and health insurance, I've kept up my non academic hobbies and relationships, and I've worked hard to find part time internships not related to my field to keep my career choices open if the job market goes badly. As a result, I have a decently funded retirement account and emergency fund, a fulfilling personal life that includes a happy marriage to another grad student (although my spouse is not in the humanities), and feel pretty optimistic about my job prospects if academia doesn't work out. Oh, and I'm also sitting in a library in Europe right now, on a generous research fellowship. As someone who grew up in a working class family, I'd say going to grad school has provided me with a nice life.

As long as one can avoid both poverty and misery, I see no reason why grad school should be discouraged. Some might think I'm one of the lucky ones, but I'd say that I've made most of my own luck.

50. runwithscissors - February 09, 2010 at 11:23 am

I would concur with the comments above that the students themselves are responsible for assessing their own job prospects and the state of the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, however, the long time lag between entering grad school and leaving gives the grad student a mental buffer between their fantasy of tenured employment and the reality of the job market. I remember telling myself upon entering grad school that the PhD takes a long time, and that anything could happen at the end. It becomes an illusive and external arena that you are buffered from until the prospect of graduating looms on the horizon.

51. cfox53 - February 09, 2010 at 11:53 am

I haven't read all the arguments so forgive me if this has not been mentioned. I am a child of the working class; neither of my parents graduate from secondary school. I hold a PhD and a clinical Doctorate. I am currently an associate dean.

I entered graduate school late (I was 26) because I knew I couldn't afford it so I worked and took grad classes until I could find a scholarship/fellowship to support me - I turned down Ivy Le4agues because they wouldn't offer full financial aid. I completed my PhD after 7 years because I was also working at the time to support myself - then I did soft money/visiting positions for about 6 years and decide to get a clinical license to allow me a steady, reasonable income. I did academic med combined with practice & Lib Ed in various combination for about 11 years and, 6 years ago became an associate dean.

I am not a naive, brainwashed child that was duped by the system. I never believed graduate school was 'career training' - graduate school was about having a better life, a richer life (read George Orwell's comments from 'Down & Out in London & Paris) - and it gave me the mental discipline and habits to be flexible and respond to opportunities. Now at 56 I know I could not have a career in construction/roofing/HVAC that my father had (& the job skills I used to pay for UG school). My Brother who went that route is on disability - I have a lot of injuries that would have put me on disability if I hadn't quit that 'life of the body' early.

Yes - there is lots wrong with Grad education - but don't try fixing it on the backs of the working class - don't romanticize manual labor - ask anyone from the working class if they would rather be out in the 12deg weather shoveling snow today or here in my office. Ask my friend Michael is he would rather be recovering from his broken knee (and the chronic pain and stiffness to come) from the FT job of heavy labor with no benefits or teaching as an adjunct. Yes - their is much wrong but demonizing the graduate education system is no help, romanticizing the world of manual labor is no help. Perhaps we should truly examine Graduate education - start with a 'tabular rasa' and truly look at the remnant of an old German education system and see if it still serves us (and I'm sure parts do) and to the extend that it doesn't change it. But I suspect this won't happen. We desperately need to do the same type of thing for UG ed and, though we have been talking around it for decades there has been little real movement except in isolated pockets and think tanks (for example, why are we not seriously considering the 3 year UG degree and radically new models of education as have been discussed by AAC&U, Carnegie Foundation, etc - again this is going on but only in isolated pockets)


52. texasguy - February 09, 2010 at 11:54 am

Before embarking on any educational endeavor, we should first find whether there is actual demand for the skill we plan to gain.

53. phikaw - February 09, 2010 at 12:39 pm

There is much that could and should be criticized and reformed in the social and institutional structure of graduate education. Benton's analyses are helpful in pointing out some of the problems. At the same time, I have to agree with those who protest that graduate students are simply blindly led down an exploitative and hopeless path. I began graduate school 30 years ago having been very bluntly and explicitly informed that there were no jobs. I knew exactly what I was getting in for (with one exception, below). I lived frugally and incurred no debt while in graduate school. I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it, I did earn the Ph.D. and was lucky to get a tenure track job (as did nearly all in my grad school cohort). Given academic salaries, I am well behind in retirement savings and will have to work much longer than people my age who worked in business or other professions, and that part I didn't at all realize when I started. Until the recent recession, job prospects, at least in my field, were actually improving relative to when I had earned my degree. I don't have graduate students, but to any undergrad students who expresses interest in graduate school I give the same unvarnished information I was given. All that said, however, Benton has made many trenchant points about structural problems in graduate education. But, they are ones that institutions need to address and it isn't helpful to simply characterize graduate students as blind and uninformed victims. To be sure, there are some who are clueless and immature, but there are plenty who are not.

54. careerchanger - February 09, 2010 at 03:44 pm

This comment
... should a graduate degree be required to work in a university at all when one has a mountain of hands-on and successful experience?
Reminds me of my situation and a proposed solution, at least a move toward a solution. With a BA in English and 15 years in corporate software documentation I wanted to put my experience to work as a college English instructor, for which I thought (and my advisors too) that an MA would be adequate. While it does appear that I may eventually land a full-time teaching position, it is disappointing how many institutions require the PhD for writing positions, even those with an emphasis on professional, business, or technical writing. If their search committees would simply be willing to insert the little phrase "PhD or MA and significant, relevant professional experience" into the position descriptions--and to take such applicants seriously--I think more corporate professionals, ready for a career change, would be attracted to academia, partly motivated by desire to give back to the community via teaching. This would provide several benefits for business, academia, and both types of professionals. It would begin the process of bringing academic programs more in line with business needs by bringing practical experience into the academic world. The students would be more well-informed of the realities of both business and academia. This would in turn open doors into the business world for more academics, simply by the process of forming more connections, which would benefit all those PhDs who cannot now find employment in academia. Schools would benefit by forming more connections with businesses for internships, service learning opportunities, and other cross-cultural exchanges of knowledge and capital. I see no reason why this should not apply to the sciences as well as the humanities. An MA provides quite enough theoretical background to teach introductory courses, so (search committees) why not consider the benefits for everyone of opening the academy doors to professionals willing to spend a few years learning this level of theoretical and pedagogical background?

55. tensk - February 09, 2010 at 04:14 pm

Hi, folks. I'm another one of the survivors: after many very hard years of insecurity, I've ended up in a t-t job I'm happy at, but I am only here because of some lucky, lucky breaks. I've been trying to get my FT colleagues to talk about these very issues, and while many are sympathetic, some cloak themselves in exactly the "life-of-the-mind" position Benton so aptly describes.

At the risk of sounding like a contrarian, I want to ask people responding to Benton: if we believe in what we're doing (not in the cultish sense -- I mean, if we believe that we have something important to offer our students as educators in the Humanities), shouldn't we be organizing to rebuild the institution of higher education instead of, or at least in addition to, inviting ourselves to kick it over? I mean, do we want smart, starry-eyed students interested in educating people NOT to enter the academe? I agree that it's a disaster as it stands, but do we want to assure that our profession dies with us? Forgive me for sounding naive, but are we not expressing a lack of faith in our ability to organize -- or rather, unionize?

Another thing: I give copies of Benton's essays to any undergraduates who come to see me about the prospect of graduate studies. This current cohort of undergrads would be getting their PhDs in 2020, roundabouts. I tell them that things are awful now and are very likely to continue that way for the foreseeable future. But I also tell them that current practices are unsustainable, and that there are many people who ARE struggling to get "part-time" (ha) and graduate instructors a real living wage and that we are also fighting for a dramatic surge in hires at the t-t level. By the time they graduate, it is possible -- really -- that they might make a decent wage doing something they think is critically important.

I should add that the provost at our university is proposing to cut all of our TA lines because he claims, on the basis of his reading of Benton's articles, that it is unethical to have a graduate program. Some other senior administrators, in the meantime, are proposing that we EXPAND our graduate program so that we take in MORE tuition-paying students.

In solidarity.

56. dsclaussen - February 09, 2010 at 04:19 pm

No one has mentioned yet the issue of length of Ph.D. programs. Several here essentially say that their finances, marriage, entire lives were ruined by spending 7-10 years on a Ph.D. and not getting a tenure-track job, or that all would have been ruined, after spending 7-10 years on a Ph.D. if they hadn't landed a tenure-track job. Relatively few Ph.D. programs REQUIRE 7-10 years, either in terms of work being done or institutional policy. Most are set up officially as 3-4 years. (From the day I started my Ph.D. in a social science to the day I defended my 250-page dissertation was 2 years, 7 months. I am not brilliant and I certainly took no shortcuts, nor did I receive any breaks.) It would have been a lot easier for me (and for most anyone else) to walk away from academia after 2 years, 7 months in a Ph.D. program if I hadn't landed a tenure-track job (I did get such a job) than if I had spent 10 years at it, but why in hell would I (or should anyone else) have spent 10 years on a 3-year degree in the first place?

57. ianative - February 09, 2010 at 04:49 pm

Wow, if t-t faculty at your institution are purposely developing programs aimed at exploiting graduate students, I think you're working at a place that has a much more organized faculty than any I've been at. I'm sitting here pondering how many meetings I've sat through where a group of academics couldn't even manage to agree on -- for example -- where to store the department's audiovisual equipment, let alone engage in the machinations required to oppress an entire generation of students.

58. 11332462 - February 09, 2010 at 05:01 pm

I suspect we're past the point where many people are reading the posts, but I feel compelled to offer one anecdote. Though I'm fully aware of the risk of generalizing from anecdotes, I think this one is revealing. I'm a provost at a very good liberal arts college, and formerly was a full-time faculty member (at two other schools) in political science. My daughter graduated from a good university and, after a few years working abroad and in the U.S., told me she was interested in going to graduate school with the aim of getting a Ph.D. and becoming a college professor. Had I been Prof. Benton -- this is my daughter, remember -- I would have urged her to do something else. The last thing her mother and I wanted was for our first-born to get on the endless treadmill Benton and many of the posters describe. But I simply encouraged her to do her homework -- about graduate programs and the job market, in particular -- and made sure she understood what she was getting into. As someone who hires faculty, in all fields, I certainly understand the realities of the job market, the growing reliance on adjuncts, the possibility that getting the Ph.D. would take a long time, etc. But I knew this was something my daughter wanted and needed to do. Long story short, she got into an excellent graduate program with adequate funding, stayed focused on completing the dissertation, and this year -- the first year out of grad school -- has begun a tenure-track position at a solid research university. She's in political science, not the humanities, so I don't claim her experience applies equally well across all fields, but if one were to read the posts one might conclude that encouraging folks to go to grad school in ANY discipline is to tragically misguide them. Well, I did encourage someone -- a person whose welfare is more important to me than my own -- to do so, and the outcome has been very good. And, I'll add, her desire to do so was fueled by her embrace of the BIG LIE so blithely dismissed here -- i.e., the life of the mind.

59. pvenkman - February 09, 2010 at 05:22 pm

The phenomena that Benton describes are familiar enough to anyone who has pursued an advanced degree in the humanities. Although rather than positing that a cabal of Oz-like wizards selling snake-oil to the unsuspecting undergrad primarily afflicts academia, I would assert that problems confronting the academic labor market (particularly in the Humanities) are primarily structural. It was once an entirely closed shop --a very small number of tenured faculty staffing a relatively small number positions in relative few established disciplines. Over the last half century there has been a small explosion in the number of disciplines, programs, centers etc. . . that have helped convert that shop into a factory. This in and of itself is not a bad thing (how can accumulating more knowledge and systematizing the means of preserving, transmitting and augmenting it be bad?), but for Universities trying to remain Universities while containing labor costs they have, like virtually every other industry in the U.S., have resorted to staffing more and more of their operations with non-Union workers, part-time workers, independent contractors etc. . . (Microsoft leaps to mind in America) and so a two-tiered workforce (not unlike what exists in France or Spain) has emerged. There is a privileged group who enjoy modest but reasonable compensation, full benefits and extraordinary job security while there is a vast pool of temporary workers who enjoy none of these things. This strongly suggests that the current levels of compensation for the former are not sustainable. I would hazard to guess that the ratio of temps to perms is changing and changing rather rapidly to reflect this reality.(What would really be interesting is if someone stripped all those over 50 out of the labor pool and considered how many left held tenured positions, I am fairly certain the results would be rather terrifying). The problem is that opportunity cost of the intangible benefits academia affords (which is what Benton really so eloquently describes)is simply becoming too high to attract intellegent and imaginative people into academia. The apprenticeship is too long, the odds of becoming a privileged worker too short and if current trends continue will grow even more acute. If you eliminate the security of tenure, decent benefits and living wage altogether , there will be virtually no tangible benefits left to attract any but the most committed so much so that s/he probably should be. And yet maintaining the status quo is sure to spread quite a bit of misery inequitably. Unless colleges and Universities begin to radically reimagine their structures (i.e. a collaborative model in which relatively proximate institutions aggregate to create a "meta-University)and with it streamline their labor force (I think they call this "right-sizing" but the upside is that holdovers would enjoy a better material existence), it is only going to get worse.

60. gsmorris - February 09, 2010 at 05:34 pm

In response to #56 - when commenters use the shorthand 7-10 years for a PhD, they're referring to total grad school time - including the MA, time taken off for childbirth or illness, the prolonged time it takes to finish a dissertation from afar while working, and so on. From my experience - and for me it's been 8 years from beginning graduate school, with time working as an adjunct between degrees - most of the grad students I've known HAVE needed that long, because real life tends to intervene on the ivory tower. That includes a colleage with MS who continues to work toward her degree despite the physical incapacities that come with disease; another with a degenerative back disease who must take time off frequently for physical therapy; women who have taken off semesters to have children; and at least four who moved away from their university programs as ABD for a partner to find work, and now must now balance dissertation-writing and adjuncting to make ends meet and pay for adequate insurance. THESE ARE THE NORM, yet graduate programs seem to be designed with the assumption that the only people taking graduate degrees are single, healthy young people who are going to live cloistered lives as if they were medieval clerics.

So, apparently, you should not go to grad school unless you're monkish enough, healthy enough, or independent enough to get through graduate school without falling in love, having children, getting sick, needing to work, or pursuing other interests.

For #57 - I don't think anyone has truly suggested that humanities faculty are getting together to plan how to exploit grad students. We are saying that the current academic institution - with limited funding, economic pressures, systemic inequities, and all of the other problems we all recognize - obliges humanities departments to design or acquiesce to programs that exploit grad students and adjuncts to save money (salary and benefits) while also obliging them to create ideologies that make students and adjuncts accept and excuse their own exploitation in the name of "living the life of the mind," "paying your dues," "playing along," or whatever other psychological justifications are necessary. And the people who generally enter grad school are just the right kind of people to fall for these justifications - "good" people who believe in education, want to get along, and naturally avoid conflict.

But maybe you'll just dismiss me and all of these struggling grad students I've known in the past 8 years as losers, children, or ignoramuses who never should have gone to grad school. There are certainly enough commenters here who have implied that very thing. And that's precisely what each one of us is supposed to think - that we're the smartest, toughest, most dedicated - in short, the best, too good to ever fall for a systematic, institutionalized scam.

61. blueberrycrunch - February 09, 2010 at 06:49 pm

I'm happy for #58's daughter who found a great tenure-track job. I truly am. However, your story illustrates one of the points made by Benton in his articles--namely, that well-connected folks tend to do better on the academic job market. As you yourself mentioned, you are "a provost at a very good liberal arts college, and formerly was a full-time faculty member (at two other schools) in political science." And, lo and behold, your daughter got a job as a political science professor. I'm not saying that nepotism was involved in your daughter's success or that your daughter didn't rightfully earn the job. In fact, I'm sure she did work hard and earn it. But it's funny that you seemingly fail to understand that your connections, experience, and advice were an important factor in your daughter's success in academia.

62. dnewton137 - February 09, 2010 at 06:52 pm

There is little I can add to this extraordinary deluge of comments on Professor Pannapacker's admirable article, but I feel compelled to make one observation and a plea.

First, a few words about this observer. My career in higher education, beginning as a freshman, is in its sixty-first year. My perspectives include those of student and faculty member at all levels, and administrator at many levels including campus and system chancellor. I'm a physicist, not a humanist, but if my Hindu friends are right and I have another incarnation coming, I plan to live it as a historian.

But maybe in another universe. The central message that emerges from this flood of opinions and ideas is that the academic humanities are ill, perhaps terminally ill. Yes, we in the sciences have our problems, including, for example the semi-infinite postdoc phenomenon, but I see nothing approaching what is described above. If the humanities were trivial and worthless, one could simply slough them off with "C'est la vie," and ignore them. But my own academic life has convinced me that they really are at the center of the intellectual universe (sharing that space with the sciences, I hope). That means that this serious current disease of the humanities must be treated and cured! Who must do that?

I disagree with Gabe Sealey-Morris (Comment 21) that academic humanists are "good people" but that the "INSTITUTION is pure evil." The principal characteristic of a true profession is that, for the most part, its members determine the characteristics of its practitioners. Most leading academic humanists are shrouded in the comfort of academic tenure and largely determine all academic matters in their institutions. If their "INSTITUTIONs are pure evil," they are to blame.

So my plea is this: "Physician, heal thyself!"

Don Langenberg

63. blueberrycrunch - February 09, 2010 at 08:58 pm

Re #56, a three year PhD is not even remotely possible in my field. We are expected to do three years of coursework (24 classes), attain proficiency in multiple foreign languages, spend at least one month per year doing fieldwork (for our advisor's project), teach for two years, and write a dissertation of approximately 700 pages--that's the average length of all dissertations submitted in my program over the last decade. And those are only the program requirements. In order to have any chance of actually getting a job upon completion, we also have to give conference talks, work on articles, go to teaching workshops, etc. We're lucky to finish in 7 or 8 years. I would seriously question the legitimacy of a PhD that was completed in 2 years and 7 months.

64. justsayingthis - February 09, 2010 at 09:35 pm

Yes, there is very real decrease in the marginal value of the second degree.

Yes, there are people with engineering degrees and nursing degrees who are unemployed.

Yet if you want to question the value of education, look at the numbers:

The same arguments could be made for an expensive liberal arts undergraduate degree: debt, uncertain future, and fierce illusions about the life of the mind. The same can be said for starting a business, running for office, or any other difficult endeavor. The cost is certain, and the payoff is not.

65. dwunsch - February 09, 2010 at 09:49 pm

I was at Seattle University, a wonderful Jesuit school, when, at 19, I decided I loved philosophy. My dad was visiting on a business trip, and I told him that I wanted to major in philosophy. He said, "Son, we are 100% behind your studies, and we will help you get your degree regardless of what you decide to major in. I just think you should ask yourself this question -- do you want to do all that work, and get that degree, and then come back to live with mom and me?"
I still like philosophy, but earned two degrees in math and the Ph.D. in electrical engineering while working in industry. Now I have an endowed professorship at a good university.
Thanks, Dad!!!
Nobody else would have been able to convince me...

66. johnvknapp - February 10, 2010 at 12:35 am

Humanities degrees and cultural values --

While Mr. Benton is right --so far as his local critique goes -- he neglects to mention the larger cultural values where one CEO in a financial corporation gets "only" a 9 Million $$ BONUS this year, an amount that alone could fund at least 500 doctoral students at 18K for that year. So, our culture has shifted its radical values from the "life of the mind" to the "life of the dollar" (ie, finance) and no one is surprised???

BTW, one suggestion for newly minted Ph.D.s: investigate secondary teaching. The public schools could use well educated and good teachers -- if only we and they could get over the prejudice that college profs don't know how to teach teenagers.
They do -- or at least could quickly learn (assuming they've had prior college teaching experience) -- but that's a horse of a different color.


67. thebigal - February 10, 2010 at 12:57 am

I received a free education: MA, PHD, as a TA. I'm now tenured. Even if the job situation had not worked out, the journey would have been worth it. My advice? If you want a life of the mind in academia, avoid the silly Ivy League schools unless you get a free ride. Find a good university that understands a student should never pay a plugged nickel for a graduate school education in the humanities because the return on the investment would be miniscule. Take yourself seriously as a wayfarer in a flawed world and don't listen to vapid columnists like the one whose banalities fueled this comment. And good luck, my friend.

68. realtyannie - February 10, 2010 at 05:36 am

To those who put partial blame on the grad students themselves, for failing to figure out the situation before it's too late, please consider this. There is a cultlike quality to many disciplines and many departments. Promising undergrads are flattered and wooed. Who is promising? Anyone used to being praised for academic achievement. Anyone who knows no other form of success. Anyone capable of smiling and nodding and agreeing with the minor nobility who supposedly have their best interests at heart. Those who question anything - the system, career opportunities, faculty competence - are treated like simple-minded, troublemaking losers.

69. grant33 - February 10, 2010 at 07:07 am

I don't get all of this. I always felt like we knew in high school and college that one would never make a lot of money if one chose to be a humanities scholar, and that becoming a humanities professor would be a long, hard road. I feel like it was presented in many ways to becoming an actor. A few make it, but the chances of doing it as a full-time career were slim. I heard this message from parents as well as friends, and probably even professors. Hmm.

70. prof291 - February 10, 2010 at 08:08 am

I'm impressed by the arguments made here. To extend them to another area, the clergy don't make a lot of money, so therefore what they do is meaningless. And since anyone can read, for example, the Bible, specialized education is pointless. In fact, in some denominations there are no ministers. Therefore, no one should train for the ministry.

71. saranac - February 10, 2010 at 08:16 am

The article has a lot of truth in it.

Let me make one simple suggestion to would-be grad students. Ask your would be major professor about their former students, how many graduated and where they are working now. Great major professors take pride in their students achievements - mine even has all of his former students on his web page - their current position - and if they are in academia - a list of all of their students and where they are now. Ask questions.

72. prof291 - February 10, 2010 at 08:26 am

Whoops, I posted to the wrong discussion. It's bad to post early in the morning. Sorry.

73. farm_boy - February 10, 2010 at 09:40 am

This is the most important article I've ever read in The Chronicle. Ironically, I chose the "life of the mind" because I thought it was more honest than the business world. Now I know I was wrong, and now I'm 50.

Yes, I was naive. But I don't think blaming victims is helpful.

Yet I'm fortunate compared to many. I have a renewable instructorship which pays the bills, and I am finally taking advantage of nearly free tuition and taking classes I should have taken 30 years ago (in a practical scientific discipline). At least I'll be able to get a taste of the discipline I should have chosen.

There is one other aspect not explored in this article: many tenured positions suck. I once had tenure at a pretend university where the admministration kept standards at a junior-high academic level. I was told my program would be cut if I didn't graduate more students (who simply weren't college material).

So even some of those who "make it" are in for a huge disappointment.

74. cbaab - February 10, 2010 at 11:39 am

Another point that must be made--and another element of the "Big Lie"--is that this persistent idea of "transferable skills" is pretty much a laugh. C'mon. If it were the case that these skills were indeed transferable, why would the transition out of academia be so hard? Yes, of course plenty of organizations need writers and researchers, but unemployed PhDs make lousy candidates: because often they're coming into the workforce reluctantly and resentfully (and sometimes with an extremely off-putting sense of superiority), and because their supposedly transferable skills are actually poorly suited to jobs outside the tower. Professors who've never worked as publicists, technical writers or ad copywriters couldn't tell you this because they don't know it themselves; most of them, in my experience, don't have enough respect for these professions to know anything particular about them.

But as an MA who now works as a social media director at an ad agency, I can tell you there's a huge difference between academic writing and copywriting or doing PR work. And that it's ludicrous to submit academic writing samples for these kinds of jobs. I'm not pointing this out to discourage anyone. In the interest of not being excessively negative, I should say that freelance writing can be a decent bridge into the 9 to 5 world. Unemployed grad students or PhDs who want to break out would be well advised to write some arts/ music/ book/ community pieces for the local alt. weekly, so as to have some writing samples and something to discuss in the interview other than your fascinating dissertation. With just three or four of these samples, you can present yourself as a successful freelance writer, not just another unemployed MFA or PhD.

Anyway, that's one way.

75. dcbetty - February 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm

One problem is when students and faculty think that the only way to HAVE a "life of the mind" is to go to grad school. I suggest prospective grad students start hanging out with writers and artists. In my experience, ideas that in academia are treated as revolutionary are in fact concepts that artists and writers outside academia often explored literally decades earlier (and without a PhD). Academia is indeed a fantastic place to explore the life of the mind-- but it is also often conservative, derivative, and uncreative in its thinking, even among those who fancy themselves radicals.

Scholars might as well go be with the artists, for becoming a credentialed intellectual (by going to grad school) now has a high likelihood of landing people in the exact social and economic situation experienced by artists and writers -- no, or very little payment for your "real" work, and little interest or even notice shown by the rest of the world. The difference is that writers and artists usually have few illusions about their moneymaking prospects, so it's totally acceptable for artists to have "day jobs" that no other artist would ever fault them for having so that they could continue to do their work.

Academics, on the other hand, tend to be much more mainstream and narrow in what kind of moneymaking work is acceptable, and a lot more worried about social status. (What else can you say about a profession in which teaching high school, or publishing an essay in the New Yorker or a book aimed at the NPR-listening public, is seen as evidence of unseriousness and will, in all likelihood, be detrimental to your career?)

These days, though, scholars, like writers and artists, must accept that what they do, they must do for love (because no one really gives a damn about it except your peers), and persevere even if they have to work at Whole Foods during the day to do so. In the world outside academia they can find a fascinating group of people living an often far more adventurous "life of the mind" then you will find in a university. (and believe it or not, some in this group will be reading the same books you are, and have interesting things to say about them)

The cost is that such scholars will have to give up on the idea of upper-class social status, and know that mainstream academia will now consider you a loser/crank and probably never let you back in. The benefit is that you can work free of intellectually-restrictive career-ladder restraints. And that might produce work so interesting that you could become a professor someday after all -- especially if/when the current academic model finally destroys itself.

76. barryaldridge - February 10, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Oh, boo hoo hoo. New, low-paid workers get exploited? Unhappiness with your choices in life? Feeling you were misled into an unsatisfying career? No job guarantees? Welcome to the real world.

Try eliminating tenure. Enforce a mandatory retirement age. Require professors to teach more classes. All faculty should be subject to job, pay and benefit cuts when times get tough. Retention and promotion should be dependent upon regular evaluations.

There's no rational reason for tenure. All the arguments for it boil down to "that's how it's always been done." You've all identified the problems with your profession, are any of you brave enough to face up to the solutions?

77. johntoradze - February 10, 2010 at 01:39 pm

No rational reason for tenure? Excuse me?

Tenure exists so that academics can tell the truth as they see it without fear for their job. Period.

Relative to the problem of the economically worthless PhD credential, the cure is simple, if unpleasant. Train at something else.

- Learn to program in SQL.
- Get a Real Estate license.
- Pass the General Contractor's license exam.
- Get a securities license.
- Get an Enrolled Agent certification with the IRS.
- Go into sales. Take a position in commission only sales if it is all you can get, buy some sales books and learn by doing. Sales doesn't care about degrees or lack of them. But wallpaper helps with customers.
- Go into Marketing and Public Relations. Again, if all you can get is a position working for free for a while, do it. If you tell an employer you are that motivated, and you really are, you will find somebody to take you on.

Sales is an excellent profession for a PhD that isn't marketable. Why? Because there is one characteristic of a good salesperson - persistence, otherwise known as grit. All other character traits pale into insignificance, that is why salespeople have such radically different personalities.

But get out there and start.

78. afprj - February 10, 2010 at 01:50 pm

"This is the most important article I've ever read in The Chronicle" - I totally concur.

79. zbicyclist - February 10, 2010 at 03:10 pm

Benton is sincerely trying to help. Listen to what he says.

"78. johntoradze" provides good advice. I'm not so enthused about the "working for free" path and would recommend working for some money, even if a little, but that's nitpicking at excellent advice. Retail's also a place to start, if only because you can work your way up into retail management with a combination of reliability, sales skills, and a bit of people skills.

Also, look at what your siblings and cousins do for a living; you might find that congenial as well.

80. steveguynup - February 10, 2010 at 03:12 pm

Hmmm, with the underlying premise that colleges are not like vocational schools, its natural that graduate programs take that to more extreme levels. Factor in tenure and the belief by most professors that what they know is important, you of course get a system whose focus is not on jobs.

I actually left a PhD program due to such self importance. (I'd have a Doctorate now, if the paperwork finally gets through)

Comically, I teach undergraduates in game design now and broadly speaking they tend to ignore my comments on good design and rush head long into the software and special effects. They typically do poorly, as software skills and special effects cannot save a poor design. If I'm lucky, some students realize the value of design near the end of the course - but sadly then course is over and the cycle repeats. Graduate school might help them, as it helped me, but I recommend they go out and try to work for a while. With professional skills, many graduate programs will pay them to come and fill the very gap you speak of :)

81. jae_kennedy - February 10, 2010 at 03:18 pm

I admire the honesty in these articles, and for what it's worth, I lay out the financial, emotional and time costs of doctoral education to any students who ask for letters or advice.

But it seems like this is part of a bigger problem - a sizeable minority of Americans seem to think they deserve personal validation, emotional gratification, and financial stability from their workplace. Admittedly, that would be nice, but it isn't very realistic. Lots of people get caught in this lie, not just professors.

Popular culture has replaced co-workers with family - a lot of my students watch "The Office," just like I watched "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," but we could probably come up with a hundred other depictions of the corporate workplace as our main source of attractive romantic partners, social support, entertainment, and personal insight. You won't consistently get this in a Humanities Department, or anyplace else in America.

Let your job be just a job, even if it's being a doctoral student or a low-paid academic worker bee. Invest the rest of your time wisely. Get a pet, ask someone out on a date, join a club, get a hobby, go to church, get politically active. Seriously, life is too short for careering.

82. justanotheradjunct - February 10, 2010 at 03:52 pm

I read this article with a sinking sense of familiarity; I am beginning the disheartening process of looking into nonacademic options for my future, and I realize I'm lucky to have steady and interesting adjunct work.

I do take issue with some of the blaming of the grad students for their willful ignorance that's going on in the comments. Yes, the job market has been dreadful for years, but before the economy crashed my department talked about their placement rate, and it was well over 80%, and many of the people who ultimately didn't get jobs were unable or unwilling to move outside of the major urban area in which we were located.

Then the economic crash came. Many jobs were cancelled. This year, hiring was down significantly. I'm now told that I'm getting stale as a candidate. If I hadn't had the statistics I'd had, I would have made other plans years ago. As it is, the only thing that's kept me from leaving academia already (beside the forlorn hope that maybe one more time on the market is the charm -- because everyone knows someone who . . . ) is that the job market is pretty dismal on the outside right now, as well.

83. gsmorris - February 10, 2010 at 04:10 pm

To #82, Jae, I don't think any of us expect life to be like the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I think what we do expect is that, after giving the prime of our youth - prime career-building years - to an institution that demands complete dedication (and I don't know what it was like when you got your degree, but just making it through a doctoral program today takes complete dedication), that we should get at least a fair shake at financial stability. We're not asking that anything be handed to us on a silver platter - just what we EARNED. Something at least more than a shrug and a pat "It's tough everywhere."

And the way to start it is by reforming a decaying system from the ground up, including a lot of the things people have already suggested - stop taking on more grad students than the market can bear, end the tenure system altogether, require professors to teach those lowly classes they shuffle off to adjuncts and grad students, and stop telling the lie that the life of the mind is worth any sacrifice. Maybe it is, when you're 25, single, and can put off your bridge work or student loans. Not when you're 30+ with a family, having spent most of your 20s reaching for the brass ring. It won't help those of us who are already in freefall, but it will end an abusive cycle.

And that's exactly what it is - an abusive cycle. Those of us who are beginning to speak up about it aren't whining - we're breaking the silence of the abused relationship. I'm tired of telling people I got these bruises running into a door.

84. chattahoochee - February 10, 2010 at 04:45 pm

i worked for myself for 15 years, very successfully (although not in HVAV :), went back to school and earned a phd, and have now worked in higher ed for 13 years. working in higher education still beats working in the real world, where, as the ghostbusters put it 'they expect results'. i am over now 55, and no one really expects results, just face time. for me, i expect to have weekends and holidays off. that may sound too simple, but it is surely not as negative as this article. oh, teaching psychology, watching jon stewart and stephen colbert amount to the good life for me.

85. 22213708 - February 10, 2010 at 04:47 pm

Solution: drop out of the Ph.D. programs and go to library school. I did and I am now firmly esconced in the lap of luxury while simultaneously enjoying the life of the mind. I make big bucks, am respected and loved by faculty and students alike and am immersed in great books, great videos and great porn sites...

86. new_anth - February 10, 2010 at 05:34 pm

The conclusion I draw from this article (matched by my own experience with the job market) is that it is unethical to encourage people to enter PhD programs.

87. emich2722 - February 10, 2010 at 06:27 pm

I'm curious as to what Benton and other commenters here think about how this advice applies to international students -- a group who are attracted to graduate study in the US for a wide variety of reasons. I would argue that for many of us international students, a US graduate degree in Humanities is a marketable degree in our home countries because it makes us look like the kind of people who can take initiative, jump through hoops, work within given (in this case immigration/legal) parameters, take initiative, adjust to new environments etc...and it usually gives us excellent English skills to take back to our home countries. So in a way we have an advantage over US students because the rest of the world rightly or wrongly holds US graduate education in high regard, or living in the US in general in high regard.

For foreigners who are looking to be academics in the US I'm sure they face just as many, if not more, obstacles as aspiring US academics do. But I know international students in practically every Humanities department at my Flagship State U and Big Private U 20 miles away, so maybe they are a part of what keeps Humanities departments alive.

I hope my English can be understood and my ideas are clear...

88. zbicyclist - February 10, 2010 at 06:29 pm

83. gsmorris: "We're not asking that anything be handed to us on a silver platter - just what we EARNED."

What you earned is a PhD, so you've got what you earned. It's as if you won a gold medal in some Olympic sport that has no commercial value.

Now you need to figure out how to support yourself. You may be right about the need for reform, but it's hard to see the revolution happening before your student loans are due.

89. allisong - February 10, 2010 at 09:42 pm

Everything you've said about the humanities is also true about the sciences. The only reason it might not be perceived as poorly is that there continue to be more private and govt sector positions for science phds than for humanities phds, so at least they have alternatives. But they don't know those alternatives, and have been deceived over and over again into thinking those alternatives are beneath them, somehow unfulfilling, and require skills they don't have and didn't learn.

They told the science undergrads that the tenured faculty would be leaving in waves in the late 90s and early 00s, and that there'd be a zillion new positions available (especially for women.) Of course, some did retire. But no new positions opened. They told the undergrads and grads that professors would get them academic positions by word of mouth, not telling them that they would be one of 200 applications for a tenure track position at a third tier state school. They told their grad students to work insanely to run labs for the professors and gave them nothing for it, not even necessarily credit for their findings.

The best of the best compete in a lottery for academic positions. No one else has a chance at all.

90. arij1978 - February 10, 2010 at 10:54 pm

You might be surprised, but a very similar discussion is going on in the world of law schools right now as well, as many students who dreamed of being corporate all-stars only discovered later that 6-figure starting salaries at major firms are the exception, not the rule, and they are being forced into low-end or temporary work at low levels of pay. And this despite the fact that nearly all law schools already disseminate some of the statistics (e.g., post-graduation employment rates, median salaries, industry sector) that this article proposes. While the prospects for the young attorney do not seem quite as dire as this article indicates for the humanities graduate, the problems of high student debt, opportunity costs, and dashed expectations exist there as well, without the corresponding allure of "the life of the mind."

91. science_professor - February 10, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Quick comments:
#89 - nice commentary on state of science academe

I would like to point out that some programs in the sciences are giving this sort of information. The Stanford Neuroscience program has an alumni list - public - with every graduate and his/her current position. But this is rare and new...

Other quick things
(1) like some other commentators, I am struck that such intelligent people feel that they are "fooled". I mean this honestly and not in a mean way.
(2) I would like to address the grad students and recent grads in really horrible positions (sorry if that sounds pompous... it does to me too):
--nearly every commentator is an excellent writer. This IS a valued skill.
--Public/private school teaching... they really need smart people.
--view your degree as like "being an artist" - there never was any real chance of it paying off. It's life experience/ your life path - which is now changing...
--as a graduate student, if you are feeling this way... start exploring other options. Volunteer as an unpaid intern at some company. True story: my last unpaid intern - and I told him he would never get pay from me - ended up getting training grant money that I arranged, money for school (equaling - in the end - he was getting paid $18/hour @ 40 hours/week, not so bad) and also got "thrown work" by another nearby lab... at about $50/hour (NOT an exaggeration). This was simply because he worked for two months for free and showed me he had serious skills. This was an undergrad - no degree...
--many businesses would like to have a blog/website that written in good English. Offer to help them for free for a while. You may be surprised how they find "well, you know, we can pay you to do some of this too..." or "we have this position and..." I'm serious here - my mother owns several small companies and this is a way in.
--this last thing sounds trite but... be daring and experimental, so if strategies don't work/you hate them... drop them immediately and no blame.

I'd like to apologize if any of this sounds insulting or obvious, but I truly do wish all of you the best with this difficult time.

92. yinandyang - February 11, 2010 at 01:56 am

Another excellent article by Thomas Benton, whose courageous and honest voice is always appreciated by this reader. Bravo, and encore.

Allow me to offer a different perspective, though, on the issue of a student's financial situation going into a PhD program. I am a PhD student with access to family wealth (and please hear me out before passing judgment). There is no question that this money has eased the burden of graduate studies in more ways than I will probably ever know. But it does *not* ease the burden of the "life of the mind," or rather, the burden of its lie. I still have to prove myself to myself as an independent intellectual, and this has nothing to do with money: my parents' wealth is not my success, because I did not earn it. I reap no personal satisfaction or pride from my trust fund, though I do ease my monthly financial strain with it, for which I am naturally grateful. But I enter the academy with an equally exposed ego.

The alluring promise of the "life of the mind" is that, by sheer dint of my own intellectual merit, I will propel myself to a position of respect and self-respect. I will lead the good life, in the classical sense, and I will have earned it because I am intelligent and my work is well-respected, irrespective of who my parents are. So the betrayal behind this academic mantra has as brutal an impact on my self-esteem as it does on anyone's. Is my financial future destroyed when the academy turns its back on me at graduation, and I am jobless and depressed? No. But money is also just money, and the far more precious thing to lose is one's self-respect. Robbing students of it is the worst crime of a faulty system.

93. zenwitch - February 11, 2010 at 03:33 am

I've been thinking seriously about returning to grad school because after finishing my BA in philosophy '74 and master's in history of religions '77, I was too burnt out to pursue the PhD I was hoping to get before I'd turned 30. In 1977, when I actually did open up a newspaper with my completed masters degree, it really hit hard: I wasn't qualified for anything! Obviously, I wasn't expecting those degrees would get me a job anywhere but thankfully I had drafting, architecture (from an earlier major before philosophy) and deft skills at embellishing my resume so I did get some decent work. I took a bunch of odd jobs that I parlayed into a technical writing job then as a manager of marketing, then consulting, all in the explosive new field of high tech opening up in the late 70s and 80s. After all that work in humanities, I discovered I loved working with computers. It was fun and exhilarating to be in such a fast-moving environment. During those years, after thinking I would go into academics, I wondered how I would've managed to survive in the slow-moving world of the university. (Recently, at a party, a friend told me about his brother who worked at Microsoft as a technical writer, with a PhD in linguistics. I thought: Oh, god, he's doing what I did when I didn't have any marketable skills but he's doing it with a doctorate. That has got to hurt. Although, at least he's employed.)

In the early '90s I moved on to filmmaking because the digital revolution I worked in for so long on the east coast finally made its way to the west coast and enabled many people to consider independent filmmaking, which is what I've been doing until now. Now I feel like I want to reconnect my earlier love of philosophy with my real-world skills in film and go back to grad school.

But grad school in the US? Ugh, I don't think so. The British system seems much saner: You don't teach at all, you do one year of studies then Write Your Dissertation and Get It Done. They really put a time limit on you without the pretenses of being a minion of the grad system.

In fact, it seems like the American grad school system is a lot like the Hollywood studio system: An entrenched old-boy system where a few superstars get the money and access to power while another tier of professionals, still doing well, gets gigs that they do well by & keeps them in the limelight, but that upper echelon of A & B listers are supported by the large underclass of servant-wannabes who are constantly hoping by association or luck they'll "make it big" and pierce the bubble. (And it's not that the underclass isn't talented or smart, there's just so much room at the top and not everyone's going to get in. But, shhh, it's a secret!)

The one big difference now between those two worlds is the indy film revolution has at least provided some degree democratization, even though the studios and distributors still control the access to the majority of the screens. But you can, theoretically, make a killing off of one film (Saw horror film franchise, Blair Witch, Clerks, El Mariachi, to name a few) and then call your own shots. So maybe there's hope that the influence of digital technologies may have a democratizing effect on making a living in academe also. (I know that seems naive but possibly distance learning and new school technologies might open up new avenues.)

My only question is whether to even bother with a PhD when I've already got a lot of real-world experience to bring to the table.

94. zagros - February 11, 2010 at 05:58 am

The problem is not only in the humanities but also in the social sciences and, it is especially acute, with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. I have one (awarded back in 1996), was a Fulbright Scholar with publications upon my exit from the ivory tower of my elite private research university with my doctorate in hand. I was destined for greatness (or so it was assumed) but had to go and work for the government for several years after academia rejected me. Political science departments said I was an economist. Economics departments said I was a political scientist. All seemed to agree on one thing: an interdisciplinary degree in political economy made me qualified in no fields, not in two.

I worked the adjunct track while working as a government economist in state government (not doing "research" but rather doing more mundane but vitally important work for the state and advising policymakers on matters of economics) for several years (teaching as many as three courses a semester ON TOP OF a full-time managerial job in state and local government) while publishing about 1 research paper every year, often in top-tier journals. I only was able to return to academia because a foreign university decided to hire me virtually sight unseen. Yet, despite publishing MORE than the tenured and tenure-track folks in the departments where I was adjuncting and receiving better teaching evaluations, I was never given even the courtesy of an interview when tenure-track positions came open.

Indeed, my colleagues were shocked when, in 2003, large foreign research university in a developing world country decided to hire me virtually sight unseen. Three years later, I was able to secure a tenure-track position back in the United States and received tenure and promotion to associate professor two years later.

I have published two books (and am working on a third) and averaged 3-4 academic papers a year each year since returning to the United States. My pathway is now what many said that it should have been but it took me a decade to even be on the tenure-track at a university in the US even though my publication count vastly exceeds that of most of my contemporaries who graduated when I did and entered academia immediately.

What have I learned from all of this? (1) Getting a job in academia *is* a crapshoot and there are a lot of built-in biases. TO THIS DAY, people still disdain my interdisciplinary Ph.D. and wonder how I could possibly be qualified to teach and do research in so many areas (although the proof is in my publications); (2) my experiences have made me a better academic. I understand what it was like to be an adjunct and what it is like to be a tenured professor. Honestly, I work less than I ever did and do not understand why people think it is so hard to get published. Most don't devote the time EACH AND EVERY DAY to research that is required to get quality work out. Research needs to be made a priority as much as teaching and service if you want to succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of academia(sleep less so); (3) I NEVER recommend that a student go for a doctorate. I still feel betrayed by the "noble lie" that there will be "thousands" of jobs available because of retirements. I, for one, am NOT going to be retiring at age 65. I can't afford it either financially or emotionally, having diverted myself from the academic pathway for so long, and, besides, I *am* having a blast now that I have won the lottery of a tenured position; and (4) if I had to do it all over again, I *wouldn't*. Even though I am blessed and thankful for what I have now, it was a journey I would not wish on my worst enemy. Furthermore, there was always a very good chance that I would never succeed.

95. zagros - February 11, 2010 at 06:20 am

One more commentary on the pursuit of the nonacademic life for PhDs:

Although many ascribe that this is a fine pathway (and it is, especially if you choose it in advance, as many do), it is not what you "sign up for" when you pursue a Ph.D. The problem for academic is that ALONE among the doctoral-level professions (law, medicine, dentisty, veterinary science being the others that immediately spring to mind), one cannot be a professor without being hired by someone else. Of course, in each of these other cases, one must pass certifications that are not required of the doctorate, but once one does (and one can do so without worrying about impressing someone else--just study hard and one can pass the bar, for example), one can usually work for oneself in the profession.

Thus, the ability to get a job in the profession is contingent not only on our own abilities but also on how those abilities are seen by others through their own colored lenses.

It is for this reason that going outside of academia is seen as a "failure" of sorts, even if one receives a decent salary and benefits. I never went for my doctorate with the idea of doing anything other than teaching at a university (not even a community college) but I wanted to do both teaching and research. By the time I was finished, I was applying to community colleges (reject: too involved in research) and universities (reject: interdisciplinary Ph.D.) with no success. At big foreign research university, where I eventually was given my first full-time academic position some 7 years after receiving my doctorate, the big complaint was that I was actually spending too much time on teaching and not enough on research (despite publishing more than my colleagues) and, furthermore, why did I have to publish in so many $#@%ing areas (the bane of the interdisciplinary scholar). One can never win, it seems.

Still, if I wanted to do work that didn't require a Ph.D., I would not have pursued a Ph.D. in the first place. The inability to secure full-time tenure-track employment in academia for so many years was a strain on my marriage and made me very unhappy. So although no one "owed" me anything and I didn't "earn" a place in the academy, it was not a pathway that I would have chosen had the veil been pulled off the secret that was still being coveted in the early to mid 1990s. My unhappiness, like many would-be academics was compounded by the singlemindedness that I displayed that served me so well in pursuing such a career path in the first place: I was going to be a professor come hell or highwater and so I pursued this goal relentlessly even after being rejected by academia more than 1,017 times (yes, I still have all of those rejection letters...). The irony is that some of the schools who rejected me back when I was pursuing a Ph.D. have actually contacted me at various times to ask me to apply to them for more senior positions now that I am well established.

You are never valued by others until someone else values you (indeed, my interviews increased exponentially after receiving a posting a major foreign research university even before I had anything to "show for it" in terms of more published research and each year I went on the job market after that point not only did I receive more interview offers but they were at "better" schools with my current employer having a graduate program and a teaching load comparable to that at my old foreign research university).

96. belovedsnail - February 11, 2010 at 07:16 am

I can't imagine anyone will really read down this far!

I graduated in the early/mid-1990s with a terminal degree. I thought I had been very clever, took time off before graduate school to earn money, chose a school that would give me a full ride with health insurance, and continued to work (waitress!) through grad school. So in that way, I was lucky. I didn't graduate with mountains of debt.

After graduation, I became the idiot student in your article. I was first generation with secondary education in my family. I had no idea what schools to apply to or how I should do that. My program had not provided any practical information or support. And this was largely pre-Internet, remember, the information out there was pretty scarce.

I was really happy and felt very lucky, actually, that I easily got TA jobs. I thought this was a good sign. (I know, I know-- idiot.) I loved teaching, actually. I didn't realize you weren't supposed to love teaching-- you were supposed to bitch and moan about it and try to find other people to take your teaching jobs so you could do your oh-so-critical scholarly research. (In the sciences, I kind of get that, but in the humanities?! Please!)

Anyhow, after a few years and many offers for TA jobs and no tenure-track jobs, life happened. Family circumstances back home meant my direct financial support was necessary. I had to get a real job. So I did. I was lucky there too. I stepped over into IT consulting based on nothing more than good communication skills and an early affection for the Internet. And I stayed in business.

Many of my friends are still in academia. And I'm often surprised and offended how people perceive folks who don't do academic jobs. Some of my friends acted as though I had joined the Moonies, not a consulting firm. I've had telephone conversations with desperate weeping friends who said things like "I can't stand to work in a big box where nobody reads books!". I mean-- what? It's as though they couldn't imagine there is a life of the mind outside of academia. Does anyone realize how insulting that is to oh, say, everyone else?

I'd love it if academia focused more on initiating this much-vaunted life of the mind in the outside world. More focus on teaching skills to reach more first generation scholars-- make them love books! What about outreach to the larger community? What about University sponsored history or literature reading groups open to the community? What about chairs to historians who make history understandable to the layman? What about more focus on community colleges?

97. belovedsnail - February 11, 2010 at 07:56 am

for TA in my above comment, substitute "adjunct", please. sigh.

98. mrsbooks - February 11, 2010 at 10:53 am

Forty years ago, at the age of 24, I left a low level job in pharmaceuticals to get a PhD in a non-practical but "intellectually exciting" area of science. For personal reasons I had to leave the program with an MS and re-enter the pharmaceutical industry but with a higher level, better paying job. I learned from my graduate advisor that at age 26 I was going to a job that paid more than he was making with his PhD. I moved on to a great paying, fulfilling career as a director and department head with my lowly MS. My advisor subsequently did not get tenure and god knows whatever happened to him. He disappeared off the face of the academic map. That was four decades ago. Looks like nothing has changed. This is not a new phenomenon. And I was so lucky that I never finished that program.

99. copesan - February 11, 2010 at 11:09 am

To "boiler" who wrote "But it's not a system engineered by some elite to achieve some nefarious end."
Of course not. But it become nefarious through the unwillingness of the tenured to even talk about the situation. At my university, a top-notch research institution, when the president was asked to if we shouldn't be talking to graduate students about careers outside academia, her response was to sneer, "we don't train cab drivers here." I.E., anyone with a phd without a tenure track position is a failure to be disparaged. (Kind of an insult to cab drivers, though -)

100. rhodekei - February 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

How about looking at some data on the issue?


While we're in a bad economy now, I'd imagine the figures still hold. Higher degrees pay off.

Both my wife and I got doctorates from top-rank programs and institutions, in 2.5 years each. We did not starve ourselves or our children or destroy our lives, adn we had TA-ships. Then we got jobs, in fine arts and humanities. It was hard, but we entered our programs with solid, workable plans for maximizing the time and coming out in position to compete strongly. We also did get the life of the mind part that we wanted, though most of that has come in the form of what the learning has allowed us to continue to learn. Grad school is not your last chance to think! Don't dawdle there on that account.

I earn less than I could in other areas, and I paid a bit more to get there. But the life of the mind that I've genuinely gotten has been well worth the money in my books. I'm glad I had the opportunity. And that's what graduate education is: an opportunity, essentially an entrepreneurial one. It's a shame if anyone is selling it as something else, but I sure never saw anyone do that.

101. bolmanl - February 11, 2010 at 12:55 pm

The market in the humanities has been bad for a long time, with a chronic oversupply of Ph.D.'s that has lasted longer than a lot of people predicted. That's partly because because the end of mandatory retirement enabled baby boomers to keep working years longer than their predecessors did, but more because of shifts in the academic job market as a result of much larger social and economic factors.

But it's worth noting there are fields with a desperate shortage of Ph.D.s. In management, a shortage of qualified faculty is driving salaries in some fields through the roof. If you come out this year with a Ph.D. in accounting, finance, or economics, you can be pretty sure of a tenure-track job at a salary well into six figures.

102. jnwike - February 11, 2010 at 01:24 pm

Someone stated that the author has "sour grapes." No, he's a tenured professor, so he can't have sour grapes. )He may hate himself, but he doesn't envy himself.)
Nor do I think that he has accused the comfortably tenured of being part of a conspiracy. They may in many cases be complacent, oblivious, and unwilling to change the system, but that's not a conspiracy. It can still be a bad system without being planned by those who do not suffer its bad effects. The problem is not that the winners planned the mess, but rather that they don't mind it and have a strong motivation to deny that it exists.
Although there may not have been a conspiracy, it is discouraging to think that any of those who manage to avoid adjunct-land spend their time on self-promotion, avoidance of undergrad teaching, writing and publishing unreadable and unread material, exploitation of the labor of others just as qualified, and pontificating about the value of a liberal education to others who have gone broke trying to pursue one.

103. index_finger - February 11, 2010 at 01:40 pm

I feel like I am reading my own autobiography in many of these letters (I now have dental insurance so I can finally chew on one side).
I have never regretted my M.A. degrees, but the 6.5 years I spent on a Ph.D. did nothing but bankrupt me -- all for the pleasure of a "ABD."

104. zynka - February 11, 2010 at 03:10 pm

One problem is that far too many students are admitted to graduate school. Self-serving professors and administrators admit far too many students to their programs.

And far too many people feel that they are entitled to attend graduate school simply because they have a "passion" to do so.

Stiffen the requirements for entry to graduate school. The whole system will eventually improve.

105. jinx220 - February 11, 2010 at 04:48 pm

I earned a master's in English in 1980, and opted out of a Ph.D. program because politics were so mean and the scholarship was headed in directions I found less than compelling. My husband opted out of continuing on to earn a Ph.D. in history after earning his M.A. in 1982 because the job prospects were so dismal; there were 150 applicants for a history professorship in Minot, North Dakota!

Both of us have gone on to have interesting and rewarding careers, for which our liberal arts degrees did a good job of preparing us because we were forced to learn to write well. Both of us benefitted from our master's programs. But the real education we received was our observation of the hostile political environment and the celebration of pedantry.

So here's my question: Did those of you who spent the extra six to eight year (in our era, it was 3 to 5) years to earn the Ph.D. think you were the exception? Did you have a mentor who made promises that didn't pan out? Or did you practice what I think is one of the most powerful human impulses -- denial -- despite your observations that 1 out of 100 new-minted Ph.D.s found a rewarding job with supportive colleagues?

I don't ask this out of spite - and I hope that's not how my question comes off. But I'm genuinely curious as to how people trained in critical thinking don't focus those abilities on a pragmatic assessment of their future prospects?

106. gsmorris - February 11, 2010 at 05:08 pm

Jinx - easily answered. Drank the kool-aid. Believed the cult. A perfect storm of blue-collar education-faith, passion for literature and teaching, well-meaning and encouraging but oblivious or out-of-touch mentors, and willful denial based on the belief that I had no other skills and any other life besides academia would be debasing failure. Come over to the department where I study and work. The basement offices are full of people with the same story.

107. rambo - February 11, 2010 at 05:40 pm

grad schools need to required work experiences outside of academia before applying. And yes, the rich and wealthy students (who are mostly liberal Democrats and the limo liberals) are very condescending and not team players. I like the adjunct profs who have more work experiences than the famous PHDs who are mostly into theoretical.

108. categorical - February 11, 2010 at 07:06 pm

I think it's very misleading to say that there is an oversupply of PhDs in the Humanities. If there is an oversupply, it is slight. The real problem is the undersupply of tenure-line positions. The student population has nearly doubled since the early 70s, but the number of tenure-line jobs has risen very little.

Another way to say it would be to say that during the last 40 years, administrators, sanctioned by strong ideology currents, have been slowly converting teaching at the college level into a McJob.

That's the real problem we face.

109. bigriverraft - February 11, 2010 at 07:18 pm

He mentions how it affects the family, but not the spouse. I warned my wife six years ago that quitting her job and pursuing the Ph D really wasn't what she should do. But she felt she would have regrets if she didn't. Long story short: she did and had to relocate for her studies--something against my better judgement, call it love, made me quit my job and foolishly follow. Now we are both broke, unemployed, and she is ABD. Additionally, Ph D studies are famous for causing divorce. If I could only travel back in time.

And he is so right about the well connected. I came from a lower class family but earned two masters, and I was one of the brightest in each program. Those doors didn't open easily for me, and one of my main professors wouldn't write me a letter for a Ph D program. But I saw a young lady recently get a tenured position from an institution where her mother is a tenured faculty. I know this lady. She went from her bachelors degree to a Ph D program. I have read her research published in online journals--it's pretty simple stuff, but I bet she gets tenure just because of her mother who is very respected.

I have also taught for six years as an adjunct. And without making generalizations, I noticed that some of the brightest, most insightful students aren't the rich and well connected. Most often the rich students may be smart, but they sometimes can't think outside the box; i.e., they were brainwashed. That may be why there is a blue collar connection to this dream.

110. jinx220 - February 11, 2010 at 07:20 pm

I've heard other people make your observation, Categorical, and I think that's true to some degree. A lot of colleges have frozen the size of their tenured departments and enlarged the number of adjuncts they hire. I don't know if this is good for students - in that it keeps the number of highly specialized classes like "Literature of Witchcraft" that indulge a tenured professor's pet project of the moment or if it means that students get indifferent instruction delivered by angry and frustated people who see their dream of a pleasant life receding behind low pay and heavy class loads.

However, while earning his master's, I remember my husband telling me his observation that the brightest, most highly motivated students were either quitting with a master's or quitting a year later. His observation was that, at many schools, earning a Ph.D. in the humanities was an endurance contest. If you could navigate the political shoals (a couple of friends didn't and are now ABD)and endure low pay and mean politics long enough, you'd get the degree.

One wake-up call my husband received was from his mentor, a young Canadian Ph.D. who invited my husband to follow him back to his Canandian insitution. "However," he said, "you're an American, and you won't get any financial aid. Your wife is an American, and she won't find a job. If you're independently wealthy and want to live in Canada, come ahead. Otherwise, bail out."

Another member of the history faculty returned to New York state to teach public school because the salary was higher and he had better benefits. (!) This at a university that ranks among the top 10 schools in the U.S.

I wonder if some of this culture comes from a time when only the independently wealth pursued academic degrees. One of my undergraduate English professors told me a story of being offered a prestigious fellowship at Yale, where he was earning his Ph.D. in the 1950s. He had to explain that he couldn't afford to take it, because the stipend was less than he earned as a teaching assistant and his wife was expecting a baby. The Yale professor looked appalled. "Well, of course you're not supposed to LIVE on it," he said. "Don't you have funds?"

111. slahey3 - February 11, 2010 at 07:27 pm

Phew; the quantity of responses suggests this deserves something more than a column. I came to many of the conclusions of Benton while still in grad school at a Big State School in the 90's. Then I used the history end of my abilities to research American college professors a bit. It seems that the number of jobs for humanities professors started off very small, and only grew between 1945 and the mid-1970's. By the mid 90's the writing was on the wall; no more growth. We had experienced a fluke, and the fluke had ended.
I continued on for simple love of a manifestly un-employable subject, and almost unbelievably, found a job at a small jesuit college. for other reasons, I resigned and entered the priesthood (episcopal). I've ended up at my wife's Big State School with a wonderful job, largely because I just quit wanting it so badly. Scholarship had become my hobby horse, and it still is.
Our dept is considering a grad program in Religious Studies, and we are very very sensitive to the uncomfortable reality described on this site. The only factor that encourages us is that, what with seminaries closing, many of the clergy are in need of a reasonably priced and available resource for continuing education.
Thanks for reading down this far. If you're a grad student in the humanities, know that just as virtue is its own reward, so is scholarship its own reward. Expecting anything else, like a tt job, is not terribly realistic, but then, you can't eat virtue either, can you?

112. dmaratto - February 11, 2010 at 07:35 pm

"Well, of course you're not supposed to LIVE on it," he said. "Don't you have funds?"

Bingo. This is exactly the attitude of higher ed.

113. tweettweet - February 11, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Sorry to be a naysayer, but I find these kinds of so-called honest reports appalling. I grew up in a family that both understood the merits of higher education, but also emphasized the enormous value (and profit) of learning a skilled trade. When I chose to pursue a graduate degree in the humanities, I did so knowing there may not ever be a point where I found a "perfect fit" tenure-track job. Nothing in life provides those kinds of guarantees. Even plumbers occasionally fail at running a profitable business. I think it sorely underestimates the intelligence of young people who pursue advanced degrees to speak to them of rising unemployment and vanishing tensure-track jobs, as though there were no point trying to make anything of themselves as academics. Most of us walked into this industry with wide-open eyes, and chose to pursue it anyway, because we love what we do. what's more, the majority of these "tell-it-like it is" articles are being written and circulated by academics with stable, tenured or tenure-track jobs. These are hardly the people who've struck out in the academic job market. Why are they trying so hard to discourage those of us willing to work hard and take our own shot at making it as scholars?

114. wonderingphd - February 11, 2010 at 11:56 pm

I found the column interesting but I'm a bit puzzled. In my professional society's page for job openings, the top of the page has a link for a study that shows that 70% of those with Ph.D.s in the humanities will get T-T positions within five years of graduation. Benton makes it sound like in the majority because I've passed five years now, publishing and adjuncting, but still have no T-T position but according the study pointed to by the Society of Biblical Literature, I'm in a fairly small minority. So which is it? Am I in some huge majority or a small minority, which makes my academic failure all the more awful?

115. globalme - February 12, 2010 at 07:44 am

Well maybe it's time for the rest of us to be like the Chinese--not just mainland Chinese but Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysian and American Chinese who are Asian-oriented. To Chinese parents there is only one type of major, both undergraduate and graduate: engineering. Most college-bound Chinese are expected--or forced, if necessary--to study engineering. The good news with that is (a)graduates will actually make a good living, and (b) our country needs a lot more engineers. As backups, there are always law, science and medicine. Once we achieve a proper balance, there will be more room for the humanities Ph.D.s.

116. pvenkman - February 12, 2010 at 09:42 am

In response to #104
"Stiffen the requirements for entry to graduate school. The whole system will eventually improve."

This is not the going to do anything. It is an issue of over-capacity. There are too many programs churning out too many Ph.D. There needs to be a serious reduction in the number of Ph.D programs in the Humanities if you want to help assuage the miseries of the academic job market. I am against this on ideological grounds, not simply because I am a professor at a 2nd tier PhD program in my field (I am), but I am strongly opposed to converting a Ph.D in the humanties into a credentialing device for employment in a specialized field. A Ph.D in the humanities should not be reduced to an instrument that facilitates the pursuit of other ends like a JD or MBA. If we eliminate every "superfluous" program (fat chance!)in order to better match "supply" with "demand" it will be the last stake in the heart of advanced study in the humanities in my view --A Ph.D in the humanities should be pursued for its own sake and if you go to graduate school for any other reason you are making a mistake.

117. electric_mouse - February 12, 2010 at 11:01 am

I like this article because it mentions two things that I've always seen hushed up in these discussions: (i) the role of class, and (ii) the hereditary nature of professorships.

In the 1980's, a 'RACE [class] GENDER' discourse started circulating in academia that almost entirely ignored class. White students would go into a class where they'd be berated for enjoying 'white privilege', then they'd come to think left-wing thought had nothing to offer for them and go vote Republican [just like the corporate trustrees wanted.] There would be endless hand-wringing about the difficulties women have in academic careers, but never any recognition that men were hurt by many of the same problems. (Just women seemed to make more rational calculations about how much they wanted to suffer.)

As the child of a construction worker and a sales clerk [who maxed out all the numbers both the general and subject GREs], I felt completely out of place in an Ivy League graduate program: although I was only explicitly told I was unwelcome once or twice, I got the message on a subliminal level almost all of the time.

I felt isolated; I couldn't find any literature about people like myself. Most of the other graduate students had parents who were professionals.

I got my honorable discharge (PhD) and was one of very few of my graduating class who took a postdoc. So far as I know, 2 out of 50 graduates in my year are still working in academia: both of them are female children of professors -- simultaneously privileged and affirimative action cases.


If I told this story to almost any academic, this story would be dismissed as "sour grapes"; a story of personal failure: yeah right, it's the story of failure of 1900 out of 2000 PhDs produced a year in my discipline. It's absolutely insulting that people who are so intelligent can be so brainwashed.

And yes, it is brainwashing. Coming from a working class background, I had no independent information about becoming a professional. My parents, my high school teachers and my undergraduate teachers all thought I was brilliant. How could I possibly fail? Once you're in "the system" you're surrounded by people who sacrificed ~everything~, often their lovers and their children, to have an academic career: the message is that you succeed at that game or you just don't exist.

People at the age of 20 just don't have the perspective that you have when you're 30 or 40. As you approach middle age you're very aware of the doors you've gone through and the doors that will be forever closed to you. At 20, you feel like you can recover from anything -- just like a lot of teens don't think smoking cigarettes or doing drugs is going to hurt them.


Something missing from this discussion is the social role that higher ed plays in society, particularly at the undergraduate level. Primarily, it plays the role of making our society look like a meritocracy: in the Ivy League, a growing number of average children of the elite rub shoulders with a shrinking fraction of brilliant children of ordinary means. This has the effect of making the average rich kids seem smart and seem meritorious.

The effect of the system is to sort people out into strata, while making it seem that you're responsible for where you wound up. People are dazzled by a system that carefully shows people very limited dribs and drabs of information, that dazzles parents and incoming students with beautiful buildings, respectable-looking professors, and many signs of stability, progress and affulence.

When you're in school you don't have any contact with older people who aren't in "the system"; you're not exposed to people who have lived different life paths and might have valuable lessons to teach you. When I talk to undergraduates about my work as a programmer, they often think I'm a "computer scientist;" I've got a lot of respect for computer science, but people in school don't get to discover that there's a world of software engineering that isn't really taught in academia.

Most people who "get failed" by the system are entirely duped into believing they experienced a personal failure, a moral failure. Anybody who wises up is dismissed as having "sour grapes"


Another angle is the nature of work outside the academy, which has been an increasingly depressing story since the 70's, pretty much for the same reasons things have gotten worse in the academy.

An adjunct at an ivy league school has a sign on our door berating the job insecurity of adjuncts. Yet, why shouldn't plumbers or computer programmers have job security? Wages have been stagnant for most of us in the US for the last decade -- the debt bubble managed to hide the way globaliazation has devasated both our manufacturing and service economies.

We're just about to see the industries that have resisted globalization take a big hit too because those people, ultimately, get paid by those of us who have been globalized and we just don't have money to afford their services anymore. The finance sector has grown cancerously; although it has vast wealth, it's not longer capable of productively investing that wealth. Looking at the way Washington is unable to police the financial sector, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that we've lost our republic.

118. nassa - February 12, 2010 at 11:25 am

I agree with Benton's comments about the Big Lie. But I want to add a little stop-gap measure to help those graduate students who are already "trapped" or are about to be. Perhaps the one thing that humanities departments can do to help their graduates (i.e. that is provided that they are not exclusively training them to support their own privileges) is by "partnering" their programs with other disciplines. As I am a History PhD one can imagine history graduates to be valuable workforce in a variety of industries provided they take an inter-disciplinary approach to their training. For example a PhD in the history of medicine with training in medical research and management could be a valuable employee in several medical fields from hospitals, to pharmaceuticals, to bio-engineering companies, to government advisory, etc. Equally, PhDs in environmental history with right practical training can and should be valuable employees for environmental consultancies and green energy start-ups. PhDs researching financial industry could take up finance and economics courses to position themselves as analysts and advisors. PhDs specializing in the regions of the world could be made more expert in international relations and developmental economics (I am a Russian History PhD with no clue about either of those things). PhDs with interest in the history of religion and atheism could be involved in perhaps national security studies (currently it is Islam that is considered a threat, earlier it was Soviet atheism, Tibetan Buddhism is a major problem in China, etc.). This of course could change the whole assessment process for a PhD, shifting from squarely research and dissertation, to practical field experience and measurable outcomes in assisting projects and developing industries. Perhaps such industry-based PhDs should be admitted based on their practical experience similarly to many MBA programs that admit only students with industry and business experience, who can put together practical projects and perhaps some industry-based funding to achieve measurable breakthroughs in their fields. Finally, such approach would be relatively easy to realize because all of these disciplines are already taught on campuses and implementing them into PhD training would create a cross-pollination of applicants and approaches, generating external funds and links to non-academic job markets. This would also have an added benefit of working WITH the "life of the mind" crowd rather than against it, which is of course much easier than the alternative. I don't know am I alone in this? I'd like to hear from people on the panel.

119. stachael - February 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I agree with tweettweet. Perhaps some of us are willfully entering 'the trap' in order to change it. And to add to nassa's proposal, I think this is an incredibly exciting time to be a part of scholarship. My classmates and I are constantly discussing the reality that departmental walls are beginning to crumble, and the ability to pursue scholarship across several departments, when coupled with new technologies, creates endless opportunities for scholars at all levels. Just think: these realities are going to expand our knowledge of history, humanity, science, and the world. Expanding our knowledge. Isn't THAT the point? What is the alternative? Shall we leave it to the tenured to continue cloning themselves? Professor and graduate student, master and pupil, mentor and mentee ... how romantic.

It is possible to be smart about grad school. I would not be in it right now if I didn't have full funding. My funding package is worth twice as much as what I made in a total of FIVE years of working full time after finishing my BA. Having an institutional affiliation has opened doors for me that were otherwise closed. I am excited about my future. And guess what--having a cushy, tenured job at a quaint liberal arts college in Vermont is NOT my goal. I am willing to struggle, I will assert myself in order to enact change, and I have a plan B. I have a plan C and a plan D, too. The journey is the destination. If you have lost sight of that, perhaps it is time for you to retire.

120. pantologist - February 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I agree with several of the commenters about the need for prior work experience before acceptance to grad school. 4 or 5 years real world work experience is a near-universal requirement for business schools and is becoming more popular for law schools as well.

I'm defending next month for my PhD in Information Systems, after 20 years in industry and an MBA. Very non-traditional, but the combination of real world experience and academic training is HIGHLY valued. Based on the multiple TT "offers" I've been getting to leave industry and come over to academia, it could be very helpful to the humanities.

121. professormiller - February 12, 2010 at 12:20 pm

The truth is finally being discussed. Virtually everything in this article is true, with some exceptions. I do not know if there is a "quick fix" to the Humanities job market. Considering that (on average) enrollement is up at post secondary institutions in many states, then the need for full time faculty positions exist. The problem is with the miserly antics of administrators unwilling to allot money for a full time position due to the ever growing use of adjuncts. Part-time faculty are often treated as mere serfs on the "Lords Manor." Of course, they do not have to do this. They can quit. Yet, after years of living the life of a graduate student, it is quite difficult for many (not all) to transition into other careers. I would bet that there are many right here on this site that still measure their years by "academic time," that is, they think of the world in semesters rather than months and cannot truly function outside of academe. Whose fault is this? To a large extent some of the blame must fall upon graduate programs and the tenured faculty that either are too stupid to know what the real job market is like today or are unwilling inexperienced graduate students the harsh realities of life after the doctorate.
I do not know how to remedy the situation. However, I believe there is a remedy and some ideas that come to mind are: 1) post-tenure review to get rid of those that go to sleep after obtaining tenure and end up lazy, horrible professors 2) Mandatory retirement after 30 years (with special exceptions) just as it is in the military 3) Diversify graduate programs in the humanities to enable students to obtain skills that will allow them to obtain jobs outside of academe
Change has to occur. Personally, I have experienced many of the painful emotions that are described in the article. I grew up being told that education "pays" and that as long as you "work hard enough, you can be anything you desire." By the time I realized how much of a lie this is, I was too far into my graduate studies to turn back. I finished.
I did, though, go back and get an MS in another field that allowed me to work in academe until I found a professorship. It worked out well for me.
There isn't time to blame. Change does not come easily. Universities and colleges will have to be forced into change perhaps by legislation. You do not see these problems in Britain, Germany, France, or other western nations. I do firmly believe that there should be mandatory retirement after 30 years and post-tenure review.
There is power in numbers. If more humanists come together and fight for change (whatever that might be) then something positive will happen. The status of adjuncts must be addressed. They should, at the very least, be paid exactly 50% of what a full time faculty member is paid to teach the same course. Even this small measure would make many adjuncts happy.
I can only see the problem getting worse before it gets better. I know I will be branded insane for saying this but I will anyway: For those humanists that have doctorates, in debt and no job prospects, go into the army (not joking) as you'll have wonderful benefits and guaranteed retirement, have loan repayment and other perks. I was in the army. It isn't bad. You just have to forget the liberal indoctrination that you received in graduate school and realize that there are other possibilities. If not the military, then something. Giving up and being on Zoloft isn't going to be productive.
If I didn't have the secure position I now have, you bet I would do just this.

122. melhub - February 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Just now, setting up my account in order to comment, I noted that there was no way to identify yourself as 'unemployed' or 'independent scholar.' Invisible, as usual. The fact is that those who don't, or aren't, making it are either held in contempt or 'disappeared' in the consciousnesses of those who are.

Why are almost none of the comments about the fact that for years now, and at an increasing pace, jobs in higher ed have systematically been converted to part-time or temporary, tenuous day-labor? (We are now at 65% of ALL jobs in higher ed being part-time or temporary, according to the ADE.) Why have almost none of the posts referred to the possibility of unionizing and otherwise actively engaging the conditions in order to change them? I am stunned but not surprised that this discussion has mostly devolved into A) blaming the victim, or B) gaming the system as-is, or some variation of both together: too stupid to game the system.

Well, I am that middle-class kid who was told she could make it on brains and hard work. I am that woman who's been looking for a FT TT job for 12 years. I got my PhD from an Ivy school, free ride, fat dissertation fellowship, etc. Married and had a child-- first big mistake, entailed by second: moving to actually live with academic husband, after 7 years of long-distance courtship. Landed visiting positions, got a prestigious national fellowship, am working on the book-- with no job in sight, and of course depressed and broke. Am I insane??? I would have to be. I am a poet/artist type, so I thought academe would BE the day-job. Silly me. And if I sound a bit 'entitled'-feeling, I was certainly encouraged to think that my work WAS special. Of course I believed it would lead to a rewarding career.

Please think about the fact that no other profession accepts a 65% kill-rate for its trainees, not even the army. And think about the fact that there are no part-time administrators. Union-busting is still the norm, and class really does prevent professors from unionizing. Heck, the faculty union in this state doesn't even represent adjuncts because they're part-time. It is political and historical. It is not personal, in the sense of moral failings, but it is excruciatingly personal in its effects.

I will be looking for other work as soon as I finish the book, which is a quixotic project in itself. I am convinced that something said in an earlier Pannapaker article is true: "they" couldn't have thought of a BETTER way to neutralize the best and brightest-- people who otherwise might be making a difference in society-- than by sending them to grad school. It has been a hell of an education.

123. habicht - February 12, 2010 at 01:41 pm

I completed an M.A. in German in 1969, just in time to receive my draft notice. Not enthusiastic about my country's Vietnam adventure, I served 4 years in the U.S. Coast Guard (protecting Seattle from the Viet Cong); thereafter, I pursued a career in allied health, working nineteen years as a respiratory therapist, and in 1994 I left that field and began yet another "career" as a paralegal. So, like Faust, I have studied "Philosophie, Medizin, und Juristerei..." but, thankfully, NOT "Theologie." Have I ever done anything with my M.A. in German? Well, I read "Der Spiegel" online every day and am, for fun, re-reading, in German, Thomas Mann's "Der Zauberberg". And I have traveled several times to Germany and Austria with great relish and relative ease. I can assure you that, had I, personally, stopped at the B.A. in German I would not have retained either the interest or the facility in German that I now enjoy. So, was my graduate education a luxury? Absolutely, but I am nonetheless grateful for it. Would I advise an undergraduate to take out a fat student loan to get an M.A. in German? Absolutely, not. But if someday you have the time and the means to do some graduate study, go for it. You will enjoy it much more for its intrinsice value and have no illusions about its extrinsic value.

124. 11882904 - February 12, 2010 at 01:42 pm

I think the case seems somewhat overstated.

I think those of us who advise undergraduates need to be brutally honest about job prospects. They may want to go to graduate school partly because they want a job or lifestyle, and I think we need to be extremely clear about the fact that they are unlike upon being awarded a Ph.D. to get a job with tenured security--or perhaps even a tenured job at all.

On the other hand, graduate school pays a stipend, small as it is, for a job during a difficult economy, defers student loans (important for private institution grads), and allows you to study something you love for some years. It might not be the worst thing to do when you're young.

125. dmaratto - February 12, 2010 at 02:26 pm

"it's hard not to come to the conclusion that we've lost our republic."

That's what Ben Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention when asked if the Framers had made a republic or a monarchy: "A republic, if you can keep it."

Canada looking better and better by the day

126. dtbjh10 - February 12, 2010 at 04:22 pm

After a very promising start (top tier PhD, international postdocs and fellowships, Ivy teaching) I got horsecollared by the 2008 job market. I'm now in another Ivy in an administrative position. Horrors? Well, it's a job. And not bad, really. A third better than the Ivy teaching salary. Academia has a lot to answer for - and is certainly unfair - but what makes it special in either regard? Horsecollars? Unfairness? Bad packaging? Lies?? Complaining about these after the fact is just another proof that the kind of people drawn to academia and the 'life of the mind' are prone to being elitist in the first place, or have grown so in the combine. No one who needs to earn a living is safe from unfairness, broken promises or dashed hopes in trying to earn that living. Graduate students are not entitled to a job or a living or a life because they've spent 3 or 5 or 7 or 10 years pursuing a dream - no matter who has said so. Praise and backing (and articles and even books) don't translate into jobs. Unless Praise and Backing can sign the contract, don't believe the hype. Academia may in fact be broken, and it certainly broke down for me, but it's not a lie. If the hole's too deep, stop digging.

127. dmaratto - February 12, 2010 at 04:58 pm

I have a question: so who does get the nice jobs in academia?

128. gsmorris - February 12, 2010 at 05:07 pm

#124 - No, it's not the worst thing to do when you're young, and single, and healthy, and childless. But the problem is, by the time we finish, very few of us are all those things anymore. And if it's not the worst thing, there should certainly be better.

Electric Mouse has a nice summary of all we've been arguing. I nominate Mouse's response for the official Manifesto of the Disenchanted.

129. nothavingfunyet - February 12, 2010 at 06:22 pm

Some history should elucidate some of the problem. When I started grad school we were given the warning suggested here (Philosophy Departments were required to give them at the time) - Do not expect academic employment, because your chances are *extremely* poor. Then the demographics shifted, and we were told that the job opportunities looked promising (lots of retirements and a large influx of students). Given these numbers, our prospects should have been quite good. But then two killing blows happened. First, most colleges did not increase the number of tenure-lines proportionate to the increase in students, and in many cases did not fill lines that went vacant from retirements even though student demand was constant or on the increase. As a result, the number of jobs increased pretty much as predicted. But almost all of the new jobs weren't tenure-track - waiters earned more money and had better job security (I could have earned more in an entry level low-skill position working in a factory). And so, we saw an immense shift in the proportion of college teaching needs overwhelmingly filled by tenure track jobs, to being overwhelmingly filled by at-will short-term adjunct positions. While a visiting professor at one university, I was told flat out that I would likely have a tenure track job there if only the administration hadn't decided to freeze, and then reduce, the number of tenure lines, despite increasing student demand for courses. (At the time they were just getting used to filling their teaching needs with temporary labor, thankfully VAPs rather than adjuncts).

Second, colleges increased the number of graduate student admissions immensely. While I was a student, over the course of 8 years, the number of graduate students in our department grew from 30 to 120. So even though the number of jobs increased as predicted, there was also an increase in new graduate student admissions that more than offset the increase in jobs. Worse yet, as a result, hiring departments became inundated with applications for tenure track positions. They received so many that they could not possibly look closely at any of them first round. Because of this, we all were reduced to highly unreliable, inhumane, pre-selection processes that emphasized speed of elimination over carefully sorting for quality. In short, the system became more driven by whims and superficial pedigree evaluations.

If these historical explanations are right, they suggest a few simple steps: (1) ensure that the only courses that are taught by non-tenure track faculty are those that are either unpredictable due to fluctuating student enrollments, or reserved for people dedicated to location-rooted faculty such as well-qualified teachers who are committed to living in a location because of spousal commitments, or something equally important. In short, the proportion of tenure track positions should be very high in proportion to teaching needs, and the proportion should remain relatively constant. (2) Ensure that the number of admitted graduate students is reasonably proportionate to the number of likely tenure track job openings 6 years down the line. Failing that, each new graduate student should be given a no-nonsense letter outlining the statistics of job placement together with a very pessimistic letter. Finally, (3) limit the allowable applications that recent Ph.D.'s can send out. That way hiring departments can actually spend more time assessing each applicant for quality rather subjecting them to convenient speed-sorting that most of us have had to endure. That would humanize the process, and put the emphasis back where it belongs - if you do quality work, that should count, and people will see it.

Do these things, and we no longer have a Big Lie

130. goodalchemy - February 12, 2010 at 07:55 pm

I'm in the science area and we are having a problem with really long "training" periods. A lot of us do not want academic jobs in the sciences. We just want to be scientists!! But we are forced to undergo years of training in graduate school and increasingly in Post-Docs. If we don't do this we will forever be the technicians for the "PhD" people. It's a very stupid process, most of what I need to know I already found out in the first two years of graduate, what I really need is to get out in the world with a job and learn there.

But the PhDs have totally clogged the job market, so even private sector work is hard. I could leave right now, but then I would be a technician forever. Or I could go forward, work for very little pay for years on end, then maybe get a job in the imploding drug discovery area.

Government subsidized higher education is creating a big mess. Graduate school needs to be abolished and those positions replaced with regular jobs in research and instruction. Let people's experience and other achivements shine instead of their painful sacrifices.

131. bacardiandlime - February 12, 2010 at 08:43 pm

Professormiller suggests:
"[Adjuncts] should, at the very least, be paid exactly 50% of what a full time faculty member is paid to teach the same course. Even this small measure would make many adjuncts happy."

If an assistant professor at a research university is paid $60k, for a (theoretical) split of duties 40/40/20% teaching/research/service, then this is $24k for teaching. At a 2/2 load, this is $6k per course. So that would be $3k per course for adjuncts.

Is that really going to make a difference? (some schools pay this much anyway).

132. fortunato92 - February 13, 2010 at 12:46 am

I always recommend that anyone who wants to go to grad school read The Kingdom of Absurdities, a novel the Chronicle called "vituperative." Anyone who goes to grad school after reading this is like someone who goes into the military after reading Catch 22. Good luck.


133. paulderb - February 13, 2010 at 01:18 am

#59 and #108 make the most sense here. The humanities have persistently refused to transform their practices. PhD's can't get jobs because the market is saying, "talkies," and their departments are saying, "silents." Defy your professors. Get your noses out of books and start to work in digital, collaborative skill spaces. Your professors may scorn you, but only because they are scared you won't need them tomorrow. And you won't. You'll have an array of jobs open to you if you actually live the life of the mind by imagining a new future: digital, mobile, and collaborative, NOT analog, brickbound, and solitary.

134. proteron_hysteron - February 13, 2010 at 05:29 am

I'm a little surprised that no one (as far as I could tell from a quick scan of the comments) mentioned the perennial favorite of failed grad students, teaching English in a foreign country!

In the mid-90s of the previous century, despair over my interminable ABD status drove me to Korea and Japan where I taught English at various private schools to a wide range of students all the way from elementary school age to adult (often on the same day.) It was a remarkable introduction to another culture including several close scrapes with marriage (which I just barely managed to avoid ...) and the inculcation of a lifelong love of Korean cuisine.

Anyway, I never went back to the halls of academe and by the time I received a form letter from my old university informing me that I was being dropped from the program -- about 3 years after the fact -- I was well into another phase of life.

Life of the mind ... yes, within very restricted boundaries. In grad school you have time for the approved "canon" and little else. I learned some basic critical reading and research skills, but my life of the mind has been immensely broader outside of the university than it was within it despite having spent the last few years in Hollywood where, in the "industry," advanced degrees are just one of those things one does not speak of.

135. rootlesscosmopolite - February 13, 2010 at 10:14 am

Maybe it's possible for graduate students themselves to start gathering and reporting this information on a Web site.

Long ago I was part of a union organizing drive where the employer--this is highly typical--prohibited employees from disclosing their compensation packages to each other. We strongly encouraged breaching this rule and as people became aware of outrageously arbitrary inequities in pay--unrelated to seniority, skills, or scope of responsibility--they flocked to the union which was seeking a contract with open, fairly allocated pay grades. (We got it, too.)
By analogy, I think graduate student and TA unions should collect and publicize data about working conditions and job prospects. This would give students a more realistic undertatanding of their position (and reduce self-blame), expose the cynicism of administrations that conceal the truth, and illustrate some practical benefits of unionizing: access to the truth and protection for speaking it.

136. humanities_scholar - February 13, 2010 at 10:26 am

These discussions are always intriguing to me. I'm a humanities scholar from a blue-collar background and realize that I was very, very, very fortunate to get a tenure-track job at a state university (I go up for tenure next year - fingers crossed). I know the job market is abysmal, but I have, however, seen a CERTAIN degree of choice being exerted by SOME humanities graduate students in terms of their current employment situations.

In graduate school itself, I saw a number of students -- many who came from priviledged backgrounds and were used to a certain lifestyle -- take out exhorbitant student loans not to finance tuition (many of us were fortunate to have some degree of coverage or at least an in-state tuition waver) but to make payments on new cars, fund partying (including smoking pot), buy their clothes at Patagonia and Banana Republic, and furnish their apartments from Pottery Barn. Basically, they were maintaining an upper-middle-class Northern California lifestyle, subsidized with student loans, rather than making the choice to live cheap for a few years, as many of the students from working-class backgrounds did. (And I'm not talking about students who had families to support - these were single people in their late 20s/early 30s.) Even those who were fortunate to get a tenure-track job will find it difficult to pay off $80-100 K in loans on a junior faculty salary.

Next, upon graduation, many of my classmates REFUSED to consider taking positions outside of the Bay Area. Of course, some students had parters, family, or other obligations that required them to remain there. However, others completely shunned the idea of leaving not only CA, but that they might have to live somewhere other than, say, Oakland. One of my classmates who was offered a job was OUTRAGED that they 'only' offered her $55K as a starting salary (humanities junior faculty will find this amusing).

As one poster above noted, there's no excuse to not ask, or continue to ask, about the state of the job market, standard starting salaries, etc. We DO have agency in these situations; we need to claim that agency and let go of some of the sense of entitlement and class priviledge that comes with academic work.

137. janeyb - February 13, 2010 at 10:28 am

This article is right on the mark - I have been there - I can almost hear the clicks as all the underemployed Phds email it to baffled relatives....

After protracted adjunct hell, I got a position in academic admin that forced me to read some of the lobbying papers of universities in my Canadian province. Appalling - both conceptually and in terms of 'data rigour'. Countless 'studies' arguing for more money to fund the need for 12,000 (really!) new PhDs because of a looming shortage....blah, blah, blah.

It was then that I realized universities are simply corrupt businesses. They are selling a dream - always the best and easiest thing to sell! Just like selling new condos or used cars - except that in education, young people wrongly assume that older people are like their parents, eg: largely operating in a stewardship role toward them. Wrong. Wrong. Very wrong. The (parent-age) administrators are actually feeding off the young, sometimes unconsciously, but feeding nonetheless.

More proof? Why are there any graduate programs in Piano Performance, or Painting? Truly, success in those fields is exclusively audience-driven! Why are there ads like 'do you want to be in film?' in subways? It just makes me gasp with dismay.

Moreover, the notion of 'exclusivity' conceals the notion of a high 'waste rate' eg: The currency of exclusiveness rises with the extent of the waste required. Administrators can point to their hires as 'truly remarkable quality' simply by the act of choosing them! In addition, it is the same players who are creating the notions of 'exclusivity' and profiting from the expansion of wastage. Talk about conflict of interest!!! (Then add the money!)

There are few sectors more corrupt and less patrolled than post-secondary education.

138. professormiller - February 13, 2010 at 10:55 am


Thank you for the reply. I certainly think that adjuncts should be paid 50% of what a full-time faculty member earns for teaching the same course. I didn't say it would "solve any problems." Rather, I meant that it would make many adjuncts a bit more happiness. It doesn't solve the problem of the humanities job market.
I do not think there is a quick fix. One problem is simply the huge increase in people having a doctorate in the humanities. Between 1950-2000 there has been more humanists with Ph.D.'s than ever and it is only getting worse in the sense that more are entering graduate programs. Bottom line: The nature of higher education has changed. It is much more in the business of making money (generally) than actually producing an enlightened group of scholars.
Despite the terrible fact that the current job market in the humanities is horrible, I do believe it can be repaired to some extent. I think it will take cooperative action to see change as it is not in the interest of stingy administrations to expand the number of full time positions.
I firmly believe that there should be mandatory retirement at 30 years (with an extension in special circumstances only). I believe this regardless of the job market. I also think that an tough but objective post-tenure review process will eliminate those professors that went to sleep upon gaining tenure and are no longer productive at research nor are good teachers. I know of people that have been teaching for over 45 years and I think some of them will literally pass away in their office.
So, 1) forced retirement at 30 years and 2) a strong post-tenure review to weed out those that aren't productive researchers or teachers (and we know there are many).
Of course, administrators would probably just replace these people with part-time faculty. However, I think accreditation bodies could weigh in on this if they chose to take a stand. I mean, you have some community colleges with 60-70% of the faculty being part-time. This is an outrage.
There is no easy solution. I just believe that there are solutions. The most practical for those in history and English are to obtain additional training to prepare you for employment outside of academe. For historians, you can get, for example, an MS in library science, or pursue doctoral studies at a university offering training in archival administration or public history.
Still, graduate students must be made aware of the truth. This topic should be brought up at major conferences. Just reading the responses to this article alone I see anger, resentment, disappointment, bitterness, and hopelessness. I blame the departments for continuing the "big lie."
On the other hand, no doctoral student should feel "entitled" to anything. I also believe there is a lot of status-anxiety amongst newly minted Ph.D's. For those that come from impoverished backgrounds they feel especially let down since they think (falsely) that because they spent years getting a doctorate it makes them "better" than those that didn't?
Nothing will happen until enough people come together and agitate for change.

139. griz882 - February 13, 2010 at 11:36 am

OK, I will toss my two "radical" cents into this well of wisdom.

I rather like the "life of the mind," as it does exist. After many months of soul searching I decided the real place to help people was the "real" world - so I left my TT job at a nice Boston area college joined the Army. Yes, the Army. I decided that to fight for human rights even in unpopular places and at the same time increase my experiences of the mind and the world.

The end result, I loved it. I worked with people who would likely never be admitted to the school I once taught for but they (nor I) missed it for a moment. I learned philosophies that would confound and delight the best in the department next to my old one and I learned how to actually think and teach. I learned that uniformity is not conformity and that there is more red tape in a history department tenure meeting than in the entire Uniform Code of Military Justice (which is actually quite just).

Now, that part of my life is over. My service to my country and the people I worked with done so I returned to academic life. Of course I will never get a TT job again. I don't care. I am currently doing adjunct work at three mid-west colleges and I love it. I get to teach, meet fascinating people in three area departments, and still write articles and participate in national conferences (some paid for by the schools I work for).

No, the pay is not great, but it equals a decent middle class income in a country where work is not easy to find (and it beats the work load of an infantryman!).

I think the tenure system should be scrapped for a contract system that is student centered and based on teaching, not research (something like 70/10/20 teaching, research, community service). This would open the academic market to remarkable advancements. Imagine if I were a skilled teacher and book writer and I wanted to move to a different area. No longer do I need to fear shedding my tenure-track shackles (and the enslaving income it offers). I could go where I was needed and wanted. Those among us who are great would quickly become free-agents, moving from university to university sharing their insights. Those of us who love to teach could do just that. I love reading and writing for journals but really, the outcome is quite silly in the scope of things - but sharing knowledge with a young mind that is fantastic.

Number 133 is brilliant, think outside the box. As for all the posters that cry "union," I say forget it. I no more want a union hack telling me what I want than I do a college administrator. I say embrace what a higher education offers you. Make yourself valuable. Set yourself free from a dying system and enjoy being a thinker, a teacher, and a citizen. Trust me, you will make enough money.

140. professormiller - February 13, 2010 at 12:11 pm

A) Forced retirement at 30 years of service.
B) A thorough post-tenure review process to week out unfit, unproductive, and underproductive professors.
C) New legislation (federal and state) that requires universities/colleges that receive federal or state funds to hire X number of full time faculty per year in disciplines that are required in the general education curriculum.
D) Get rid of tenure all together and make promotion and retention simply merit based. Tenure is often counterproductive.

Students: Get your head out of the clouds and realize that professors often have no clue what the job market is like. Always have a "plan B." Expect the unexptected. Don't expect anything will be given to you just because you have some letters after your name (unless they are MD).

Why are British universities not having such problems? What about other European nations with pay scales for professors that are about the same as in the US?

Departments will not change without direct orders from above. Top level administrators are not worrying about what faculty worry about. Legislation and new state and federal laws dealing directly with higher education and hiring practices would help.

Rather than be a depressed humanist up to their neck in debt and feeling hopeless: Choose a good MOS and the army, let them pay your loans back. It's better than being hopeless and you'll be rewarded for hard work. I liked it a lot.

Really, if you abolish tenure, force retirement, require a larger number of full time positions...it can only help.

141. zzoran - February 13, 2010 at 01:06 pm

In comment #87, emich2722 noted: " I'm curious as to what Benton and other commenters here think about how this advice applies to international students."

I had not commented earlier, but this is an issue I'm vocal about, and I'll way in. My experience has been in fact international students in *some* fields of study can be caught in an even more vicious trap - as my fiancee (an international) has discovered. Her grad home, Enormous State University, regularly brings in 2-3 international students from the same region to study history with ESU's notable and excellent faculty on the region. There, they discover:

* ESU degrees (or, indeed, those from Oxford or Harvard, which benefit from branding) are not recognized in their home countries without petition, a minimum 12-month wait, and the hope that academics back home don't want to jealously guard openings for their own graduate students (she regularly hears, "You can't learn our history in America" when talking to senior colleagues back home at conferences, etc.) She gave up her original dream, of returning to teach in her home country because of comments like this. This is not true of all internationals, of course, but I know a dozen people in my field who have discovered this.

* As non-US citizens, internationals will have more trouble applying for US government positions, security clearances, etc. For humanities students, this reduces chances for a major non-academic employer.

* As non-US citizens, internationals in the humanities are not eligible for most federally-funded grants. ESU itself doesn't provide appreciable field research funding for humanities students (they provide a first-year fellowship to ease "transition" -- although saving that fellowship for field research would help a great deal); nor do the faculty who heavily recruit these students. (Science students at ESU we know do much better in that regard -- their faculty fund their research). If humanities students can't obtain an SSRC, it's either another year of TAing and hoping that they pick one up next year -- or ask if their parents can fund their in-country research. (I've seen both approaches, though my fiancee has been lucky.)

* On top of all of this, internationals at ESU regularly hear advice like "don't take non-European history fields, Africa/East Asia/Latin America is just a fad," "don't worry about the job market when planning your career," "don't worry if you take 3 years to write up the dissertation, everyone does, don't worry" and -- my favorite, "Don't worry about taking a TAship, there are plenty of non-teaching jobs in American academia." Being unfamiliar with the US system, it can take a couple of crucial, lost years before they discover from other or their own research the value of that advice.

Because, of course, the concern by the faculty is prestige of the program, developing a "new school" of history and strengthening the ranking (the lust to be a top 25 program fills the air like a pheromone) -- *not* addressing practical concerns. Because practical concerns are "pedestrian," and a professor told one of our friends there.

Some, of course, will obtain residency (which makes things easier). In my fiancee's case, with US citizenship obtained through our marriage, she's hoping that she can always parlay multiple fluent languages into a government position (and take advantage of a key American deficiency in that regard).

These conditions vary, of course, and some internationals graduates enjoy either demand in private industry, or appreciative home country academic systems that hope to bring them back to teach in fields like the humanities. In the case of ESU, each year when I hear that another international student is brought in from my wife's home region, I'm overwhelmed by murderous rage that the university is bringing in students without any care for the state of the US job market, the hurdles the internationals will face or that possibly some of these students will be stuck in the middle in the future.

What's worse than a PhD in a bad job market? A PhD in a bad job market not recognized back home, as the DHS deports you when the visa expires.

Now, this aside: she's happy to have been in her program, her stress (and her irritation that whenever she mentions ESU's latest idiocy, I go on an acerbic rant) notwithstanding. She's been able to read and explore history in ways unavailable in her home country. Even if she goes into non-academic work (as she's considered), she doesn't regret most of the opportunity costs, though after 3.5 years in the PhD, she'd like to start earning a more equal income (since I finished graduate school before she did). I'm not saying that ESU shouldn't accept internationals! But I wished her program considered more the implications and difficulties facing both internationals and Americans who undertake the program.

142. mastodon - February 13, 2010 at 02:32 pm

#129 offers some great ideas. I agree with most of them, but the closing line about the "Big Lie," also part of the title and argument of this article, is itself a Big Lie. Agagin, will someone please give me an example from an admission letter, an email from an advisor (rendered anon, of course), or some other kind of even semi-official communication stating that when you get your Ph.D., you will get a job and won't have to worry about anything? Does your department offer roundtables on "applying for a job" that really say you'll get one, like, for sure? Does your department have a job-market advisor (if it has one) on the logic that the market is easy peasy and that this person is just there to blow kisses as you stroll into your TT job? Conversely, can someone (and now I am asking rhetorical questions) offer me links to story after story from the Chronicle and from Inside Higher Ed (print editions, too) that has, um, discussed this terrible crises for decades, yes, decades? And while you're at it, maybe you noticed this organization called - what's the name?, MLA?, which has been discussing this problem for, yes, decades. Decades. While you're at it, also search the New York Times and Chicago Tribune....

There is no "big lie" here. There is a really Crappy Reality. Agreed. Institutions need to hire more TT folks. Agreed. Grad programs need to retract. Agreed. But there has been no "big lie" about conditions. Come on. Don't take this "big lie" hook, line, and sinker. I'm sure you *feel* lied to, but you haven't been (see first para). Suggesting that your humble origins kept you from appreciating these facts is an insult to your family. And if you were lied to, you weren't either - again - reading the most visible professional publications in the field for alternative information (so much for intellectual inquisitiveness) or are at a crap program in which you should not have enrolled in the first place. I suspect this latter pertains to many here, but maybe - since how everyone *feels* is now the new knowing - you should have at least *sensed* that a PhD from a regional state school probably won't get you far in the academic job market, since said schools themselves seem to hire on Top Ten and Ivy candidates. I get why this comment thread is surging with dejection, blame, anger, and some good solutions along the way that I really do hope are implemented. But don't let your anger fool you about your own role in this.

And now to discuss the author himself, the source of this hysteria....

143. mastodon - February 13, 2010 at 03:41 pm

I'm going to talk about the author, whom I do not know, and make some larger points about professionalization. Stop reading now, if you feel that disqualifies my comment. There are some things here that seem, to my eyes at least, indicative. They must be said.

Pannapacker's research and teaching career seem to me quite accomplished. He's a Harvard Phd now placed at Hope College, whose own English Dept lacks a grad program. Lacking contact with teaching, mentoring, directing and placing graduate students, Pannapacker's supposed to offer something new and authoritative about how we teach, mentor, direct, and place graduate students???

I don't think so. You shouldn't either.

The only authority I can see, the only authority that is possible, is his own experience on the market and at Hope College. And this is my point: his dept. certainly wouldn't be my first pick for a job, not by a long shot. But there he is, even though he'd be a viable candidate at any top place. He shows his viability in his overlong description that cries I Am Distinctive: http://www.hope.edu/academic/english/pannapacker/bio.htm . Methinks he protests too much, overmuchly narrating his credentials in a compensatory fashion, in view of where he is now. And that's where the bitterness begins.

How do I know? Years of experience. I've seen this in graduate students with whom I've had the pleasure of working for many many years, unlike the author. And I've seen it in my colleagues who wrongly nay stupidly advise their graduate students to TAKE ANY JOB THAT COMES. It's a pattern as sure as anything, and this author is probably where he is now on account of that needless desperation issued by some crappy mentor of his. To my graduate students I advise: exert your agency and will at every last moment of the sadistic market process - namely, don't take a job you don't want. Don't. Period.

A generous reading would say that Pannapacker regrets his choice and wants to keep the crap from rolling down hill onto you guys. Were that the case, however, he'd be taking a different tack, apart from preaching to you all - many of whom don't have a PhD from a place like Harvard, much less a TT job - and telling you to give it up and saying it's a Big Lie. Realize that this reportage is both his only way to rationalize his own choice AND his only way to "mentor" graduate students, lacking any in his department. If being talked down to as Victims is how you care to be mentored, then be my guest. Again, see comment #26.

I'd rather hear from him whether he's attempted to move from Hope College to some place he deems "better," and whether he has not succeeded. That could be one of the reasons for writing this article, explaining why he is still so keen about commenting viciously on the very job market he beat in landing his present position. Who knows. But know that his frustration and vituperation has a frame, and it's not from having experience advising you all: this man HAS a TT job, and doesn't seem interested in leaving this Evil Corrupt World anytime soon. For he needs his position to write his Whistleblowing Essays (yawn), and he needs you to add a 140+ comments to keep it going. He's breeding discontent out the wazoo when maybe he should be working on finishing that monograph if he wants to move. But he'd rather write an online article that feeds off the instant gratification and release the internet offers, as everyone piles in to comment, "let their voices be heard," and seek confirmation. He wants commiseration for his choice. Sure, you want it and need it because you haven't been so luck. But commiseration with him? If you insist....

People, myself included, felt this way before the internet, and had nowhere to go but to friends and occasional conference panels, and then various list-servs in the early 90s. But realize that the only thing "new" about his article is the ugly tone, invective, and loathing - what you won't find in an academic article on The State of The Job Market In the Humanities. And THAT is what apparently many of you presently feel you need, since you are rightly frustrated.

What you really need or want is a TT job. Trust that I get it. All I am urging is that you please be careful, for your own mental well being, and that of your family: the forms of support on offer here are enabling (to use addict speak) and perhaps a bit distracting, if you as well have an unfinished project sitting on your desk.

144. crosthwaitgin - February 13, 2010 at 06:18 pm

As someone from a working class family, I found a great deal of truth in the article's comments on beliefs about the promise of education. But after finishing a PhD, I found a fantastic position at a private K-12 school and couldn't be happier.

If you're in graduate school, consider it a valid option.

Sure, your colleagues may turn their noses up at your decision to "take a step down," but you'll find educated coworkers, interested students, good financial benefits, money for research trips, and an environment that truly nurtures learning. Schools aren't perfect, and the picture isn't always as rosy as my description might suggest, but overall, I feel incredibly lucky.

145. janeyb - February 13, 2010 at 06:53 pm

I agree, it hasn't exactly been a Big Lie but it certainly has been a Big Sleight-of-Hand (as well as a Crappy Reality). Most people who were finishing their PhDs in the late 90s (moi), started university when adjuncts didn't exist and when mandatory retirement did. It never occurred to me that they would just *change the law* to change the rules of the game, enabling boomers to teach until they drop. After all, lots of far more troubling injustices continue with no reform efforts at all.

The whole movement to temping and 'de-skilling'(yes, pol sci grad) in the academic sphere, was driven by the tighter production models in manufacturing, changes to GATT that fostered offshoring, and the now dominant gibberish about a 'knowledge economy' (which made knowledge an object like other objects) that joined itself to the computer revolution. All that stuff wasn't around in the 70s and was just starting in the late 80s....

Really, who could have anticipated the vocabulary of de-skilled education: 'content-providers', 'courseware developers', 'instructional designers', 'learning outcomes' etc, etc. First, you break it down,...then you break it up. It's a lot easier to replace a 'content-provider' than a professor engaged in that ancient mysterious process of tutorship.....

The whole mess just reminds me of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Maybe we need a national study group on that book.

146. swash64 - February 13, 2010 at 07:14 pm

Thank you again, William Pannacker, for telling it like it is. How I wish your columns had been written 20 years ago. I contacted the professors at my undergraduate alma mater and strongly suggested they integrate your columns into the package of resources they provide to students who are considering graduate school. The advice you give is priceless.

147. coybean - February 13, 2010 at 07:51 pm

I hear something a little different in the article and many of the comments: kids/young adults going straight through undergrad to graduate work with little exposure to the "real world." Not having any marketable skills, not knowing what marketable skills are and having no contingency plan is not the entire fault of the institution. I am shocked that anyone in this day and age trusts any institution to provide them with guarantees or job security. I have found a cultural difference in that expectation. The brown and black people of which I am intimately aware of have no such expecations of academia or anywhere else. Accustomed to being last hired and first fired, juggling multiple jobs and "keeping an ear to the ground" they seem to understand that they are, primarly, working for themselves and subcontracting themselves to their employer. It would behoove parents, administrators and those that care about young people and are in a position to do so to instill this idea of seeing yourself as an independent contractor with ultimate allegiance to your own career.

If that includes getting a teaching certificate along the way, requiring work experience for graduate admissions or skipping it all together it seems to me that ultimate responsibility lies with the person who will benefit -- or suffer -- most from the choices they make.

148. alicenwalters - February 13, 2010 at 10:44 pm

I, too, am one of "the lucky ones". 12-years with tenure as a faculty member before I took the administrative track.

The mythology is seductive; the truth hits you like a frying pan to the face. Incompetents and predators who have tenure, and so are "untouchable". Except, they're really not --- it's just that the administrators don't want to deal with the problem. "Accidental administrators" who are marginally competent, but get supervisory positions (chair, dean, etc.) because they are the only ones who will do it, and (usually) because they have penises. Students who can't write and can't do basic math, but expect to get a college degree in their chosen profession because they are paying for it. (And, with the aging of the NCLB generation, there will be more...)

The fact is that most of us (even those of us with PhD's from top-10 universities) end up teaching at marginal colleges with marginal students and marginal administrators. The joys we find are in the frustrations we share with our colleagues, who are also waiting out their time in purgatory.

But, we still hope... My younger brother just started grad school in Communications (he already has an MLIS and 3 years in a tenure -track job at a college library), and I hope that he will elect to go into teaching rather than back to the Library. But, I'm really glad that he has the MLIS.

For the younger colleagues who don't have the MLIS, I advise the same thing -- get administrative credentials. Because, even if all universities go to part-timers, they will still need full-time administrators to make the trains run on time.

149. deborahhoffman - February 13, 2010 at 11:01 pm

This same discussion is taking place in law as well. I here you sneer at the thought that lawyers have problems, but the same sort of misinformation is passed out regarding opportunities in the field and then people are stuck, particularly recent grads for whom the job market is not only poor but non-existent. Average student loan burden is 100K.

150. professormiller - February 14, 2010 at 10:25 am


I applaud the author for writing his articles. They make public what has only been whispered about, at best, for 20 years. Some think attacking the messenger will somehow make a difference but these articles have proven, if nothing else, one fundamental fact: The issues raised in this article and his others need to be discussed openly, honestly, with the hope of creating a constructive dialogue to address the issue of changing graduate programs in the humanities to create graduates that can do something outside of academe (if they wish).

There is simply an oversupply of Ph.D.'s in history, philosophy, English, etc. That trend began as long ago as 1950 and has never stopped. What few could have predicted, I think, is the shameful decision to utilize adjuncts to the point of absurdity.

All students planning to enter graduate programs in the humanities should be forced to attend some type of "career awareness" seminar to discuss what options they will, in reality, have upon graduating with an MA (for those that stop there) and a doctorate (for those that want one).

The key is to supplement one's training in the humanities with something else, something that is marketable in the 21st century economy. You might not like the idea of spending an extra two years getting, say, another masters (or even BA or BS)in something that will get you a job. Even those that want to teach high school, the most competitive jobs are in social studies, English, anything other than math and science.

Pursuing a Ph.D. after you get a marketable degree (doesn't have to take that long) is the only logical thing to do these days.

There has been a "big lie". The vast majority of humanists would agree. The question now is not "who is at fault" but "What can be done now to improve conditions in the job market over the next 10 years?" The only true "life of the mind" are for those that don't have to work. Academe is not the same environment now as it was 60 years ago. We live in an age that does not value a humanistic education. What angers me is when I look at various history department web sites and read the fanciful articles "what you can do with a degree in history." Not a negative word is mentioned. This is where the "big lie" begins: by convincing undergraduates that they can do anything they want to be.

Not anymore no matter how smart you are or how hard you work. The only thing you can do is to get training in something else. Once this is done then you can earn a living and explore your options.

Much more discussion is needed as this topic is important. I thank the author for saying what needed to be said.

151. pannapacker - February 14, 2010 at 10:34 am

I am grateful for this dialogue and, as always, I am learning from everyone's observations, criticisms, and personal narratives.

I would like to respond to many of the posts here--and I may do that in a future column--but, for now, I want to affirm the comments #119 with a paragraph from the previous column in this series:

"There is, however, another category of student that I would like to see going to graduate school, although I would not ask anyone to take on such a collective responsibility. Perhaps members of a generation that enters graduate school with no expectations of an academic position--who never even consider, for one moment, that they will become tenure-track professors--will bring about positive change in the way things are taught. Such students will be less beholden to advisors, and empowered to demand that courses have some relationship to existing opportunities. With an eye to careers outside academe, they may change the tyranny of the monograph; they might seek technical skills; they will want to speak to a wider public; and they will more open to movement between academe and the 'outside world' than previous generations, who were taught to regard anything but the professorial life as failure from which one could never return."

Again, I don't think it is right to place the burden of reforming graduate education on the shoulders of students. As a teacher of undergraduates, my concerns naturally focus on them, not on the needs of graduate programs or the profession as a whole. I do not think that graduate education will change by itself; it has not done so in 40 years.

I know I am not saying anything new (other critics have written more or less in the same manner for three or four generations now), but I do think we are now reaching a tipping point when about 70% of college teachers are contingent workers and the current economic crisis has become a justification for not replacing retiring tenured faculty. There may be ways of reversing this trend, and I know the leaders of the AAUP and MLA, among other groups, are doing what they can with limited leverage. (For a more sustained analysis of the situation with recommendations for action, I recommend the recent books of Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, and Louis Menand.) But perhaps the greatest obstacle to changing the profession is the internalized concept of the academic "meritocracy," that anyone with a tenured position deserves it more than the adjunct next door, that schools with primarily educational missions are inferior to schools that focus on research; that belief--and the snobbery and condescension that suffuses acadedemic life (that there is no value but status)--keeps us from working together, and it directs our energies towards writing that next monograph while our house is on fire.

My current hope--just a piece of a larger project--is that some group or publication--maybe the Chronicle--will attempt to provide the evidence that students need to make informed decisions about graduate programs. In particular, I would like to know about attrition rates and job placement with some transparency about whether those positions are adjunct, visiting, tenure-track, and where those faculty members may be found. I am sure there are challenges to such a project (first of all, the probable noncompliance of many departments), but I hope they can be overcome. Maybe some readers have suggestions about whether that is a worthy objective and how it might be accomplished.

Thank you, again, for your affirmations, refinements, and criticisms.

152. dr_zack - February 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

WOW! Well, maybe I am living in a bubble . . . and/or just incredibly lucky.

I worked in the private sector for years and, for the most part, didn't get much out of it. Went back for my Master's and decided I wanted to be an academic . . . to make university life "my life". I got my doctorate, AND I knew it would be hard to get a job. But, after 6 months and 47 applications I landed a great TT position at a school across the country. Granted, my 10 year relationship ended as a result of the move (partly), but I have never once felt lied to or disappointed. I LOVE being a professor. I get paid well to write, teach, think, and the energy of a college campus is addictive.

I should also say that I was smart enough to do research and find good (truthful) mentors, and so I was well aware of the problems inherent in securing an academic life; I don't understand the argument that people are deceived. We should all be finding out for OURSELVES, and the information is out there. For me it was all worth it. I also managed to "track" my interests and link them to a field that was less competitive than, say, English or Sociology. I linked my real interests with a field that is less competitive and is growing, and I did so intentionally. That way I was able to find a position AND still work in the area I love.

Just some thoughts . . .

153. pterodactyl123 - February 14, 2010 at 11:24 am

I've been following the comments for a few days now. Some are particularly obnoxious, even in their seething efforts at 'self-help': mastodon. Others are particularly saddening: belovedsnail.

I graduated last spring from an R1 and landed an excellent full-time job with TT potential and a heavy teaching load. I love it! It was also the only full-time job for which I applied. I didn't expect anything more than adjunct work due to the state of the economy, and now I am having the time of my life.

I've learned a lot about teaching. I've become a confident and effective communicator. I like my colleagues and students. And although research is not the top priority at my college, it is still valued and encouraged, and I continue to lead a rewarding "life of the mind." I have to balance teaching and research, but this was always the case throughout grad school.

People should explore their options. Don't believe that only an R1 will give you the "life of the mind" you desire. My hope of teaching and doing research while raising a child seems much more realistic now than if I had landed a positin that would require me to publish a book and 3-5 articles in the next six years.

I am glad to see that people are concerned about the future of the profession. I hope those entering the field will be able to find positions that are a good fit for them. Grad students need to be optimistic and flexible. Don't be stupid, but find the community that will make you happiest.

154. professormiller - February 14, 2010 at 11:45 am


You said (and I agree),"perhaps the greatest obstacle to changing the profession is the internalized concept of the academic "meritocracy," that anyone with a tenured position deserves it more than the adjunct next door..."

Tenured faculty should be required to go through an intense, thorough, and objective post-tenure review. Academe needs a massive purgative to cleanse it of tenured, unproductive individuals. This isn't going to solve the job market problem but it will remedy the "holier than thou" attitude that some tenured faculty have. This can be done by legislation. Good-bye tenure.
Will not happen.

155. dmaratto - February 14, 2010 at 05:09 pm

dr_zack (#152), if you don't mind my asking, what field?

156. jfcostich - February 14, 2010 at 05:27 pm

In 1976, my faculty line was eliminated with the demise of the foreign language requirement. I went into what appeared to be a growth industry and 25 yrs later revived the original skill set to useful effect. Life courses don't have to be linear and the life of the mind isn't lost when initial career goals are abandoned.

157. adjuncthell - February 14, 2010 at 06:04 pm

This article is very disturbing to me, but not for the obvious reasons. Everything Benton writes is true. But, instead of offering a solution, he castigates those who encourage or believe in the "life of the mind." There is a place in the world for academia, in spite of the best efforts of the free market promoters to eliminate it. But to ensure that this place remains avaiable to everyone, instead of whining about defeat, we need to become activists who are willing to fight to change academia so that it survives. First order of business, in my opinion, is to eliminate the adjunct. There should be no adjuncts. All instructors who teach full-time should be paid a full-time salary. And those few positions that offer tenure for life and huge salaries should perhaps be eliminated. Something should be done about the way the university had been corporatized. We have to be willing to fight, to agitate, to strike, to do all of those things that workers used to be so willing to do in order to improve their living conditions. I am one of those brutalized adjuncts, but I choose to fight by becoming an active union member. Benton seems to believe we should just roll over and die.

158. john_drake - February 14, 2010 at 08:05 pm

Adjuncthell: your comment about choosing to fight by becoming an active union member interests me. How is that going to help? How many adjuncts belong to a union? What union? What power does that union have? I'm tenured, but I'd gladly support replacing part-time appointments with full-time. Tell me how.

159. tedankhamen - February 15, 2010 at 09:14 am

Yes, saying that higher education automatically means a stable future is a lie, and one that both academia and to an extent students themselves are complicit. It was nice to see that at my old high school, where in my day going to university was a be-all and end-all, teachers now are instructed to guide students to think of their options and interests before choosing a lifepath. But academia does have its uses through the discourses it supports, and one can both contribute to it and society while enriching themselves if they have the talent, vision, determination, and luck to be productive in a cultural sense. The problem comes when higher education as a business is such a moneymaker that academia is corrupted into bureaucracy, and the idea that university = set for life (although true for previous generations) attracts people looking for a guarantee who have not thought about what such a career requires. Between university hucksters selling the lie of a cushy uni job and people willing to buy into it, there is a lot of room for abuse and disillusionment.

160. zbicyclist - February 15, 2010 at 11:09 am

tedankhamen (#159) makes good points, but I'd make a friendly amendment to one statement.

It's not that "higher education as a business is such a moneymaker" so much as the fact that higher education is dependent on large sums of money [from students, governments, alumni, granting agencies, etc.]. No actual profit is required for tedankhamen's argument to hold.

161. carlajean - February 15, 2010 at 11:18 am

Thank you for writing this article, though I doubt that I would have listened to it when I decided
to go to graduate school. There is something very seductive about the "life of the mind." Maybe
it is a failing in yourself that you think that you are not going to fall into the same trap that you see others drowning in because you are somehow better or more intelligent. The comment by the person who became a registered nurse interested me because I was a nurse before I decided to go to graduate school. I was also from a working class family and became a nurse to support myself. I went back to grad school in science after I had worked for a number of years and could afford it. What people that are outside of it is don't seem to realize is that it is not a normal working environment in any sense. You don't get promoted for working hard. Sure, some students don't work hard and don't get ahead but many work their butts off and get nothing for it. The worst part is you never know how you are doing or what your advisor thinks of you. No one is honest. It is hard to get workers in your lab, and even someone you wouldn't necessarily recommend is at least a body and can do some work. I agree that it is important to be connected, and if your parents are in the system it is a lot easier for you, even if it is just for advice that most people don't get. I also knew people that had gone to Ivy League schools and had friends with parents that were deans or someone in administration, these people magically got jobs!. Another thing that people don't realize is that, just as in any profession, the boss's kids don't have to worry much about what they are going to do, they know they have a backup, which relates to your point about having independent means. I returned to nursing after it was clear that I was just treading water. It is much dirtier work than a faculty position but at least I now work with people that have morals, compassion, and can deal honestly with each other. I have health insurance, benefits, and time off to pursue interests that keep me balanced, and time and money to take care of myself. I can work extra to make more money if I have a need. I have come to realize that these things are more important than what 10 people in a department think of me. I am proud of the things I accomplished, but am very glad I had a marketable skill to return to. Many tenured professors I met were unhappy, sour, vicious people because they weren't getting the recognition they felt they deserved. They had put in a lot of time too and it just wasn't worth it, even though they would never admit it. The best thing I see is that there is finally enough pain out there to get a discussion going about it. Academia is like bad Communism, no one will say anything because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they do.

162. pontanus - February 15, 2010 at 11:44 am

I've just finished reading the letters written in response to Benton's previous essay on the Ph.D hoax, in particular the one by an associate professor who agrees with Benton, but who asks "what are ethically-minded faculty to do?" "I am a faculty member in a department," says this writer, "that continues to let in grad students (we need the cheap teaching for our comp program), most of whom are avidly encouraged to pursue the Ph.D. Does one simply refuse to take on Ph.D students and to direct dissertations?" The conclusion: it's impossible to resist internal pressures to keep the whole scam going.

It's not impossible. I'm an assistant professor, so there's been minimal pressure on me to teach grad courses in our Ph.D program (ranked in the top 15 in the country). But everyone in our department knows that we have several distinguished senior professors who (1) refuse to teach graduate courses, (2)do not direct dissertations, and (3) advise their brightest undergraduates not to even think about going on to graduate school. Two of these would be nationally ranked scholars by anyone's standard -- Ivy League degrees, prizewinnning scholarly books published by top presses, a steady record of research and publication continuing up to the present moment, etc -- and both have reputations as being among the most gifted and exciting undergraduate classroom teachers on campus.

My own field (Renaissance lit) has a special problem in that English departments in recent years have given up teaching literature in favor of identity politics, feminist ideology, queer theory, popular culture, "disability studies," etc., so none of the graduate students our department turns out is remotely able to teach authors like Chaucer or Milton or Shakespeare, but one suspects that, even if they had been grounded in traditional scholarship and literary analysis, none would be able to find jobs. That's why the position adopted by the senior scholars who refuse to have anything to do with our Ph.D program still seems to me to answer the question asked by the letter-writer quoted above. Benton's original column, the one that sparked this whole debate, was "Just Don't Go." The problem will only be solved when the most powerful and accomplished senior scholars at our universities adopt another slogan: "Just Say No!"

163. mastodon - February 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Following on #162: Practically speaking, then, if a student requests a letter of recommendation in support of his or her application to graduate school, what do you say, apart from fwding a link to this article and comments, and counseling him or her on the pitfalls? Do you say outright, "I can't in any way contribute to the growth of a system (the Ph.D. mill) that needs curtailing, so I'm sorry I won't write you a letter"?

164. jult52 - February 15, 2010 at 12:41 pm

I want to add an idea into all of this: is Higher Education a Bubble business, like real estate 3 years ago or IT 10 years ago?

It is a business that:

1) Encourages excessive expectations of future income based on its product (both undergrads and grad students typically grossly overestimate their post-graduation income);
2) Pass on price increases above the rate of inflation for long periods of time (in Higher Ed that means decades);
3) Forces its customers to pay for these price increases through taking on debt.

Sound familiar? To me, the industry has all the hallmarks of a bubble. I'm not going to call a top since I don't put much stock in my predictive powers, but there is no way academia is going to become a better profession in the future. The good times may actually be now.

165. anthrobrat - February 15, 2010 at 02:19 pm

This article is tremendously valuable in many respects. Thank you Thomas Benton! Its rare and inspiring to find someone who admits the role luck has played in his/her own success. Those who mock with "boo hoo hoo" and less adolescent versions of "this is the real world, deal with it" bespeak a trenchant American ideology of what Raymond Williams called "the ladder version of society." They implicitly argue the world is a meritocracy, but champion different merits (pragmatic survivalism in a dog-eat-dog world).

As a social/human scientist I come at this from a different angle and, noting similar trajectories for science and social science PhDs, see this as symptomatic of the technocratic society that has been emerging throughout my lifetime. A technocratic society needs technicians, not doctors of philosophy (experts) and the growning number of professional MA programs in the sciences underscores this trend. Is there a similar trend in the humanities and social sciences?

As a recent Ph.D. I've seen growing attention to the placement plight at my university, which has now created a number of post-docs specifically for their recent graduates. From where I sit, I've seen a change of climate around this subject in last couple years and though I feel the really issues are deep and structural, there's no doubt that dialog such as that in this article and the many, detailed comments, is helpful at the individual level. Thanks for all this nice deliberative discourse!

166. pontanus - February 15, 2010 at 02:59 pm

This is to #163.

You ask what happens when a student asks one for a letter to a Ph.D program. Do you outright decline?

As it happens, I talked just last week to a student of my own who had asked one of the two senior faculty members I mention for a letter. The student used the arguments you'd expect: "I know about how grim the job situation is. But if, having heard all that, and if, having done brilliant work for you, I ask for a letter, isn't it my own business whether or not I face the misery of the employment situation?"

This senior professor still declined to write the letter. His response, as I reconstruct it from my student's account, went like this: "Yes, but there's still the problem of one's own complicity. There are hundreds of third-rate English departments out there with graduate programs that have no purpose except to provide slave labor for remedial Comp programs and to stoke the egos of third-rate tenured faculty. The few 'top' programs tend to specialize in Madonna studies and identity politics, not in anything that might lead, whether or not one ever wanted to teach, to genuine education. In either case, sending students on to them is sending sheep to the slaughter. If I write letters of recommendation, then I become complicit. That seems to me to be a version of the 'good German' argument: it wasn't me, it was the system that made me do it."

The only actual quote from that reported conversation is "like sheep to the slaughter." The "good German" analogy was also something he said. I haven't yet decided what I'll do if and when I get tenure, but I found this thought-provoking, to say the least.

167. heisnice - February 16, 2010 at 08:55 am

I can remember so vividly the statement made by Dr. LaVerne L. Curry, Chairman of the Biology Department at Central Michigan University, in 1967. He was giving his introductory speech to the incoming graduate students. He said, "What we should include on every application for graduate school is the disclaimer - warning this degree may be hazardous to your future employment."

He then went on with a unique little story. "There was this child that was born without arms or legs or a body. The head would roll out of bed in the morning, roll up to the breakfast table, eat its breakfast and then roll up to the top of the couch and look out the front window at the kids playing across the street. One day the head asked its mother if it could go out and play. The mother told the head that it did not have any arms or legs or body so it could not go out and play. The head then asked how it could get all of these things. The mother told it that when it went to bed that night to pray for arms, legs and a body. Later that evening the head rolled up to bed and said a prayer - a prayer for arms, legs and a body. The next morning the head now had arms, legs and a body. He ran down to have breakfast. After breakfast he asked his mother if he could go across the street and play with the other children. She agreed. He ran down the front steps, he ran down the walk, he ran out into the street. Just then a big truck hit and killed him. The moral of the story - quit while you are a head.

168. drgarysgoodman - February 16, 2010 at 10:16 am

At the typically ceremonial session faculty attended with the new president of our liberal arts university, we heard an atypical speech.

Dourly, he stated his belief, based on demographics, that we could look forward to twenty years of austerity based on declining, baby-bust enrollments.

Within 60 days, I tendered my resignation from the tenure-track position that I had just secured with considerable effort out of my Ph.D. program. Why would I want to remain in a stagnating or declining industry?

Immediately, I launched a very successful training and consulting business in adult education, which was ramping-up. Within a few years I was earning ten times my university salary, and enjoying complete freedom and an astonishingly robust and challenging life of the mind.

Legend has it that my grandfather, who initially drove a streetcar in Chicago, tired of not having enough passengers. He convinced his partner to steer the vehicle to a busier street. At the end of the day, the entire company was waiting at the depot for the renegade transporter. When grandpa showed how much additional revenue they brought in, he was forgiven.

Education is a vehicle we can take anywhere, providing we steer away from the customary routes.

169. celiz66 - February 16, 2010 at 10:18 am

So this article was an EXTREMELY interesting read as I am a 23-year old English Lit grad currently trying to decide whether to attend grad school next year or not.

In a nutshell, I have always loved Lit and graduated in 2008 with "Honors in the Major," (100 page thesis) planning on a career in English academia. I've been accepted into several English Lit grad programs for this next fall in England(I want to focus on Victorian British Lit). The problem is, this year I have been teaching Business English at a university in Prague, and am now considering saying "no" to the acceptances and pursuing a career more directed at TESOL teaching, which would allow me to travel more.

Can anyone help me decide between these two very different paths? I come from a family where I am a trailblazer in terms of pursuing a grad school degree AND living and working abroad. I know for sure that I love what I am doing right now, and could see myself staying here for another year, then applying for a Master's in Linguistics/TESOL instead. It's just quite hard to think about turning down a year studying in a city like London, but I feel as if I were to go there, I would be turning away from the TESOL path. It feels like a "T" in the road. And I don't have a lot of people to consult as to which of these might be the wiser.

170. tzscharn - February 16, 2010 at 01:03 pm

I am not an academic, but I pursue the life of the mind in my spare time. My job is somewhat menial but it leaves me lots of spare time (at work) to read and think. My pay is adequate, my benefits good. I'm damn lucky.
My wife went to school for many years to finally earn a masters degree in social work (MSW). She has never been able to obtain employment at an agency either private or governmental that ran as ethically (i.e. for the clients' benefit) as they claimed. She has been fired as a whistle blower 3 times, and has never been vindicated. She has $90,000 in student loan debt and limited prospects for getting hired in her field (as broad as it is) because of her having "ratted" on her previous co-workers and the employers who would rather pretend they are doing a good job than actually do one.
So, don't feel alone. It would be nice if all the decent people who try to both do something good and be sucessful could win- but don't hold your breath.
The rats are winning the rat race.

171. cathalcom - February 16, 2010 at 01:17 pm

I don't know (like everyone else) if I'll get a job. But frankly, it was well worth it anyway. If you wouldn't do this stuff just for its own sake, I feel as though you shouldn't be in this business in the first place.

172. tzscharn - February 16, 2010 at 01:59 pm

If you want the learning it is always worth the effort to obtain it. But the opportunity for a career in the academy is probably very limited. It isn't supposed to be a business (just like social work), but unfortunately 'nowadays' it is a business and a hard one to make a living at. When I started college in the 1970s and 80s most of the academics were relatively secure and well-off. When I went back in this century most of the academics were working at several different locations with lousy pay and no benefits (despite being well qualified and excellent teachers). My plumber makes a lot more money than my last history, Spanish, sociology, or chemistry teachers. I make more money as a security guard than my wife with a masters degree. We need a revolution in this country.

173. tzscharn - February 16, 2010 at 02:13 pm

Sorry to monopolize. Let me re-phrase that last sentence: we need a revolution against the greedy manipulators who have hijacked this country's economy and politics for only their benefit.

174. lucianicus - February 16, 2010 at 03:44 pm

Comment 174, belaboring, read because you like it, think because it makes you happy. Work to pay the bills, accept where you are (change it) or go elsewhere.

175. eyeswideopen - February 16, 2010 at 05:14 pm

I am currently a faculty member at a prominent public institution. I am an intellectual, I love the life of the mind and thoroughly enjoy the academic life. Here is my advice for humanities undergraduates (my undergraduate degree was in philosophy...and, as an afterthought, math) - Do your graduate work in statistics or computer science or some other in-demand field. Sure, you will spend time doing excruciating work in a field that doesn't really push your buttons, but you will find a job and have the freedom to pursue questions that do push your buttons. I am heavily steeped in questions of epistemology, have co-foudned a weekly philosophy discussion group on campus with my colleague in philosophy, and spend my time with colleagues in english and history talking about questions that get my blood up. Sure, I do statistics, but I constantly engage my students in related questions of meaning, value, and truth. Disciplinary lines are arbitrary, come at what you love from a different direction, one with a freeway not a cowpath.

176. belovedsnail - February 17, 2010 at 02:38 am

153. pterodactyl123 I have to ask why you find my story particularly saddening? I find that a little nettling because it wasn't my point at all.

177. crosthwaitgin - February 17, 2010 at 11:25 am

celiz66, definitely go the TESOL route. it provides more employment options, and you'd get the enjoyment of classroom teaching. if you later decided to work in a corporate environment, you'd have the experience and skills to do so.

178. rcb43 - February 17, 2010 at 02:55 pm

celiz66, I've got an even better idea- skip the TESOL and get a master's in speech language pathology (i.e. speech therapy)instead. I taught English in Japan for a year and liked it so much that I came back to the States and got a master's in Linguistics (with a TESOL certificate)... but this put me right into the minimum wage adjunct hell everyone has been talking about here. Speech therapy offers more employment opportunities.

179. verbalicon - February 17, 2010 at 03:47 pm

I'm in @gsmorris's camp. Fell for the "early retirement" etc. lines hook, line, and sinker, when I started my Ph.D. in English at a good (yet not ivy league) school. Then came the MLA report of 1997, in which "the profession" admitted to the "overproduction of Ph.D.s" and their waning chances on a highly contested job market. After about a year of crying daily, of preparing for quals and orals, I decided to look for TA/ RAships in other departments, such as Business or Engineering, in which I could use my editorial skills to help ESL-speaking faculty with manuscript submissions (plus: No more student papers to grade). Then I found a free Friday afternoon class in programming, taught by an undergrad, and soon helped faculty design their courses' web presence. This work and the recommendations it garnered (and the resulting business portfolio) then helped me obtain my first job in the industry, as a technical trainer, for $43k a year, health insurance, a 401k, and a pension plan. So fine, I'm still ABD, and one day, I might actually finish "the book" (as in, update what I have and write up the final chapter), but after almost 10 years in engineering and a company-paid M.S. later, I can safely say that the choice to make a living outside academia has paid off.

180. pterodactyl123 - February 17, 2010 at 08:12 pm

Hello belovedsnail,

I was saddened because it sounded like you really loved teaching, and I suspect you were good at it. Of course, I am glad that you transitioned successfully into IT consulting, but it is always a lttle sad to hear about talented people who left academic because of financial pressures.

I am also a little saddened that so much in this current job market comes down to sheer luck. I was lucky last summer to be in the right place at the right time. Many of my peers with similar credentials were not so fortunate. They are making a living as adjuncts + something else this year. The "something else" is often very interesting and closely related to what they might be doing in academia, but I know it is not the same for them as working full-time in a job that they have always wanted.

I think things will slowly get better. (Slowly). In the meantime, I think people should continue to follow their dreams against the odds and see what happens. I don't think it's the worst thing in the world to value a "life of the mind," and I think it is unethical to be a professor if you are not interested in fostering the career plans of future generations. If you've gotten to the point where you will no longer write letter of recommendation out of concern for becoming "complicit" in a corrupt system, then I think it is time for you to retire and let someone else be complicit.

181. dmaratto - February 17, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Here's a weird idea: for some students, instead of going onto a Master's or Ph.D. program, why not get another undergraduate degree?

If you are a humanities major and are good at it, and want to pursue that interest, why not pursue a Bachelor's in a field that combines your skills and desire to learn the humanities with some other, perhaps related, and maybe more 'practical' field? (thinking in terms of a normal, long term, 21st Century U.S. job market)

It might be interesting to see some of the possible combinations and career paths when the humanities and more 'practical' fields cross paths. Lord knows engineering, chemistry, biology and physics could sure use some of the skills and knowledge brought in by English, philosophy, and social science majors, and it wouldn't hurt ANY academic field to be less 'disciplined' and engage with other fields. The results might be exciting and beneficial!

182. dansbrown57 - February 18, 2010 at 04:56 pm

True, the market is frightening but it seems the author has managed to secure a job in acadame. In fact, it appears he's managed to make tenure at around the age of 40, which seems pretty good to me. Perhaps, instead of deterring non-independently wealthy individuals from persuing a graduate degree in the humanities, it would be more helpful if he shared the secrets to his own success.

183. adamw_ibew - February 19, 2010 at 01:40 am

Response to #7 jim1967 who warns us not to romanticize the life of the brother who "makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate."

I've been in grad school and I've been in the trades and technical troubleshooting definitely requires more intellectual firepower. If you think it's all about working with your hands you've obviously never tried it. The trades tend to be unionized and that is far more likely to mean $30/hour with full benefits rather than "minimum pay and benefits" which was the point Mr Benton was trying to make.

I think it was Henry Kissinger who said "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

184. meadows - February 19, 2010 at 07:26 pm

Both of my parents have PhDs and have recently retired from reasonable Academic careers. When I was in college they carefully steered me away from what was a tempting academic career. It was one of the best things they ever did for me.

I just want to pile onto one of the "little lies" in the article. I have worked in a variety of companies and non-profits in industries that range from entertainment, software, government contracting, insurance, healthcare, to manufacturing. I have worked in Europe, Asia, and America. In 20 years I have never once encountered a PhD in the workplace who was better, more productive, or even easier to get along with than his or her Bachelors or Masters educated peers. The PhDs I have worked with, or worked for, have all been without exception below average. These days when I get a PhD resume for a position for which I have hiring authority I automatically put it on the bottom of pile.

Somehow the academic environment destroys the productive "real world" workplace value of graduate students. This may only be my personal datapoint, but since so many PhDs are working at minimum wage jobs I suspect it has some global truth. I have no advice on how to change higher education, but it would be worthwhile if fewer graduate students were misled as to their likely future value in the non-academic workforce.

185. blowback - February 19, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Earlier today Benton was interviewed on a NYC Public Radio Station by a host who seemed more intent on making light of the plight of adjunct professors than in voicing any concern for what this may hold for larger issues at work in higher education. Benton's failure to call her on this was a missed opportunity to educate the general public. Not one call from a working adjunct professor was placed on the air. A person calling in who said she was working on her Ph.D in an field she was not sure of-- comparative lit.? Intellectual history? Never stated what school she attended but one could assume it was Columbia if in fact she was a graduate student. The host remarked that her mother was a professor. I wonder would this host make light of the plight of out of work auto workers? Out of work janitors? It would not be politcally correct in addition to not being very kind( the radio station will not be getting any money from me). Yet making light of the hardships of adjuncts seems more than fair to these people. The attitudes put on display here along with the remarks of #184, who claims that all Ph.D's regardless of their backgrounds are in her view always below average and so he/she will never consider them for employment. Whether #184 is who she/he claims to be will be left for others to decide but when one reads the many comments here one is left with a sense that many who claim to be adjuncts or professors or HR directors are none of these. But the need to pretend so as to convey their contempt for actual adjuncts seems to be the real point of their comments. With these attitudes which seem to be held by many is it any wonder that many adjunct professors are trapped in deadend teaching jobs because no one(like #184)will give them any consideration for any other position. This is a question which is seldom addressed but which most adjuncts, including myself, often face when looking for work or looking to enter other careers. For those who have, as I have, researched HR programs then one would know that they are often housed in Schools of Education and will know if one has looked at the journals in the field that the techniques used by HR officals often mirror the techniques of profiling. Yet the contempt to which adjuncts are held are just as much rooted in higher education. Like many who have earned Ph.D's and have spent too many years teaching as adjuncts, I was hoping to go back to school to earn a Master's in Higher Education Administration so I might increase my chances for an entry level administrative position since I had never received and still have never received an interview for such positions. However, the director of the NYU Program informed me that only individuals who already held administrative positions could apply for admission. I pointed out that I had been an adjunct professor for many years; he responded by stating that no adjunct had ever applied to the program. In fact he stated that every student in the program was already employed by NYU. Really? I would somehow have to get hired at NYU before I could gain admission to the program? My attempt to get an explanation from Middle States as to how such an academic program could be approved was never responded to by them or NYU. The program at Columbia is run in the same manner. The President of NYU who is the former Law School Dean has some explaining to do. Yet adding insult to injury does not end here. A recent entry-level position in academic support at a CUNY school which paid $48,000 to 56,000 which required only a BA and was no more than a glorified babysitting position for at risk students that required no tutoring or teaching is an example of the disconnect between what adjuncts get paid and what the staff are paid. Of course the position was not offered to me. The fact that colleges refuse to consider their own adjunct professors for these positions gives full expression for the utter contempt they have for those who actually do the hard work of teaching while the less educated staff get to make all the money.

Let me add some more specifics since too many of you above seemed not to have. I for one am tired of hearing the plight of adjuncts being explained as one of supply and demand by those who have never mastered any more sophisticated economic concept. There is no shortage of schools of education and no shortage of graduates who are certified public school teachers(according to a workshop I attended by NYC Dept. of Education 60% of graduates who are certified never teach). Yet salaries for NYC teachers have gone up 40% in 10 years so that senior teachers make up to $100,000. Yet what have many years of teaching brought me? Less than nothing. No consideration from the institutions that hire me, no consideration for the non-academic jobs I apply to, no consideration for the college administrative posts I seek, no consideration to the law schools I have applied and re-applied to.

I still recall the Asst. Dean of Admissions at Fordham Law School explaining to me why they often do not take Ph.D's into the school and certainly not Ph.D's in English. Of course they had many medical doctors and MBA's. On and on he went as if he wanted me to apologize for having earned my graduate degree. This from a J.D from Cornell who did not have any graduate degrees and who somehow was working in an admissions office rather than some better paying position at a Manhattan Law Firm. Yet somehow I needed to be put in my place for earning a graduate degree in English. The recent article in the NYTimes about the bank robber who is seeking admission to law school with the help of a Michigan Law Professor just adds to the view that a former criminal is being given more consideration than any adjunct will. Clearly my attempt to raise myself out of my working class background deserves the contempt that some of the above comments seem to make clear.

This double standard imposed on adjuncts in the humanities is a sympton of some deeper forces at work. Why do we lavish so much praise and money on public school teachers and so much contempt on adjunct professors? The recent article in the NYTimes concerning the hope of some states to allow 10th graders to begin community college is not as the article suggests an educational issue. Why pay the inflated salaries of public school high school teachers when you can get better educated adjuncts to teach for $2,000 to 3500 per class. Let me also address some of you above who think the solution is to have adjuncts teach high school. There is no shortage of high school teachers, as in my case, in english. And there is no state that will allow a college professor to just enter a high school class without having him or her earn an education degree. I have spent many years applying to Bard Early College High School without even getting a rejection letter in reply. When it first opened many years ago it was staffed by mostly retired CUNY professors but as soon as the teacher's union and NYC dept. of Education become more involved in its affairs it has reduced the presence of Ph.D's to a mere token and all the positions have gone to the usual winners in the patronage game.

More could be said about ajunct uinons(mostly useless) and about how the plight of adjuncts are mirrored in the plight of law school graduates and of those in other professions. Prof. Benton's observations parallel all too well the sad narratives of lives made desperate by a system that mirrors the winner take all values of Wall Street. However, Benton and most of the comments are telling by their lack of wider critique. The issues do not begin or end with how Ph.D programs are run. The recent indictment of the President and board of Stevens IT in NJ along with the State allowing him to keep the money he bled out of the institution for personal gain makes clear we now live in a society that is increasingly structured like a slave state in which the benefits go to a few while the misery of a diminishing life get visited onto the many. More education becomes the default cry for a society that seeks to mask a reality that no number of degrees at the end of your name can protect you from. The plight of all marginalized workers could be protected if labor laws protected workers not employers. Without a national educational system there will never be any meaningful reform.

Therefore, hear this. There is a war raging in higher education and until some of you dig your head out of the sand this profession is going to be increasingly taken over by those who seek --university presidents, deans, tenured faculty, and a general public-- to push more and more adjuncts to the edge. We live in a society organized by violence both direct and passive(which is how academics like it) and this is precisely what we reproduce in the way we treat adjunct labor in higher education and in society. There will be no change until those who are most responsible for the plight of adjuncts must face the very same fear and hopelessness that adjuncts must face every day:the fear of not finding work, the fear of not having enough money, the endless search for a way out, the hopelessness that no hope brings. Those who have had power and privilege for too long must learn what it means to live without it. Therefore, a warning to those who think that runined lives can be dimissed with mockery and contempt. With the view of Huntsville still with us, I say: think again.

186. pannapacker - February 20, 2010 at 09:06 am

Here's the link to the interview on the Brian Lehrer show (WNYC):


187. pandolfomalatesta - February 20, 2010 at 04:56 pm

I didn't read ALL of the responses, but about half of them top and bottom. A couple of brief observations:

1. It seems like alot of comments here are from English and other literature humanities; Benton doesn't bother to disaggregate WHICH humanities are most in crisis. Better perhaps to note that some discplines are actually thriving. For example, a PhD in Islamic Studies will get multiple offers these days; and there are oppportunities for non-Academic jobs for those with Arabic and/or Persian language skills and cultural competence in Islamic cultures. When hasn't there been an overproduction of English and Comp Lit PhDs? Seems to me we need to be clear about the parameters of the critique.

2. Not all faculties exploit graduate student and adjunct lecturers by making them teach intro and service courses. In my department faculty teach courses at all levels, and in fact graduate students beg to be given the opportunity to teach courses. I'm not denying that labor exploitation does not exist, my only point is that blanket accusations and charges that faculty are in some smokey backroom devising ways to make graduate students miserable is laughable (and many comments here also note this)

3. Benton and commentators here are, as usual, ignore the fake universality of the argument by generalizing about who graduate students are; assuming that class differences account for the major divide. For many of us scholars of color, graduate school in the humanities has literally saved our lives and given us the opportunity to affect the lives of undergraduates, curricula, univesity policy, communities back home, etc. Yeah, the "life of the mind" garbage doesn't help anyone; but for some, knowing what is in that muck, who makes it, and how not to live it can help avoid making more.

4. Having been a director of graduate studies for a large top-ranked humanities program for some years, I have not seen the number of applications for graduate school diminish in number in the past 5 years. And from our experience, many of the best applicants are from people who have been out in the "real" world for a few years and make an adult decision to enter graduate school.

5. The real enemy here, as others have noted, is the trend by universities to turn to managers. In the old days faculty ran the show and rotated administrative positions. Nowadays pinhead MBAs or some such "experts" come in and streamline and render more efficient the bottom lines for a common good -- meaning how to make more money by exploiting adjuncts, the untenured and eager graduate student pool.

188. notsurprised - February 21, 2010 at 07:08 am

Is anyone still reading down here? Probably not. But I'll make a point anyway, one that is blindingly obvious to me but apparently not to most of the commenters here.

The major reason English Ph.D.s are so easily exploitable is that they do not actually need any special skills to enter a graduate program, nor do they graduate one with any. In a nutshell, that is the main problem.

By special skills I mean not just math, statistics, economic theory, etc., but in particular, foreign languages. The amazing thing to me is that at the end of all that work, most English Ph.D.s do not even know a single foreign language well enough to be able to teach it at the high school level. Contrast this situation with French, Spanish, German, Italian, Classics, etc.... graduates of all these programs aren't much better off, but at a bare minimum they take away a skill set that is economically in demand at some level.

English Ph.D.s should realize their time is being wasted reading identity politics stuff, and instead insist on acquiring a marketable set of skills that they can use either in academia or outside of it.

189. mbs34 - February 21, 2010 at 01:51 pm

I have been lucky so far. I went to graduate school (in Comparative Literature, worked for a few years in temporary (but not adjunct) positions and landed a dream job on the tenure track. I even managed to have two fabulous children.

I never expected this. I did my degree for the pleasure of it, worked in the field as long as I could pull it off, making a living doing what I loved best. While it has thus far turned out well for me, it won't for most. It may not for me either. This is what I tell my students. They should go to graduate school only and only because they love what they are doing at the time they do it, and not for the future because it is uncertain. The field is such that the present is its only reward.

This is the best advice for just about any field, and even any sort of liberal arts education, in this economy.

190. irenicnoel - February 21, 2010 at 05:06 pm

Forgive me, but Mr. Benton is beginning to sound like the ivory tower Glenn Beck.

I wonder how many people on this site who laud the article, or if Mr. Benton himself, has any idea how the majority of jobs in the US are structured? Corporate America has long been using the 'underlings' to do the hard work to benefit the higher-ups. True, those underlings get 401k's, health care, and it seems a comparable starting salary with much less institutional education. However, was anyone ever a better person or a happier person with a richer internal life due to a larger 401k? I think insinuating that academia is some horrific exploitation scheme is to be very naive about the working class of America at large. And about history... since when has the upper class NOT had access to better educational opportunities? This is hardly news. It's been going on since the first college was built in the United States.

I worked my way through undergrad by working in finance. Lucrative, yes. No one could understand why I wanted to go to graduate school (and, gasp, yes...in the HUMANITIES!). Didn't I know I'd never find a job, be a lonely hermit who could never have a relationship, my teeth would fall out from not having insurance, and I'd end up a 60 year old PhD dog-lady making 25k a year at Bob Jones? I mean. Come on now.

This country absolutely DOES undervalue liberal arts, and it's short sighted and ignorant. American society glorifies material wealth over intellectual wealth. Again, nothing new there. When I was in wealth management, my lowly English degree, first mocked, led to a plethora of sheepish higher-ups asking me for help in tailoring communication to clients. Why? Because since they only cared about making money, they failed to see how pertinent the subject of English is just in basic every day communication. I'll also add that that 'useless' English degree proved to be just the ticket for complex analytical research when applied to portfolios instead of novels.

Is the solution, then, to back down and choose to abandon the liberal arts, and the humanities graduate schools, simply because society has decided to value money over learning? Are you really that conditioned? Is the solution to say "hey, I give up...I'll get that MBA after all and just read on the side". Maybe for some people. But that's playing into the system, and if you think the game is rigged (it is), maybe you should figure out a way to change the game.

Let's also consider that prospective applicants are more than just PhD's. People skills come into play; passion for your work, and yes, what prestige and value you can add to a department. Again, not so different from most corporate industries. There's a big disconnect in common sense that I see a lot... kids who went to a 4 year uni, coddled by mom and dad, then off to grad school, then indignant and horrified when fortune doesn't come walking along handing them tenure at Harvard on a silver plate. Someone needs to teach these kids how to think on their own, how to be individuals and find their own paths, how to make that research and thesis really impact the prospective employer. Maybe we can do an exchange program... humanities PhD's can teach all the highly paid business execs to appreciate learning and culture, and in turn, the execs can teach the newly minted grads how to hustle.

I think the bigger lie here is that for decades people in academia have been attempting to hold some sort of moral high ground in terms of occupation. Teaching is a very noble profession, and very respected. But in the end, it is up to the individual of what they make of themselves. To succeed in any career, you must be passionate, intelligent, proactive, driven, honest, and most of all, accept that everyone at some point fails.

Mr. Benton is entitled to his rather self promotional opinion as it keeps him published. But then again, how much can he believe in the humanities to begin with to do nothing but skewer the individuals who support it? He places a very high value on the emotional turmoil the poor, poor grad student must go through on a low salary, tons of pressure, the worries of mom and dad. Give me a break. Do you think that there are not hundreds of just as stressful, if not more stressful, jobs out there?

For the record, Mr. Benton, I'm not in it for "the life of the mind". I'm in it for the "life of MY mind", which no one controls or brainwashes but me (little psychoanalysis in there for you). And if I don't find a job upon graduation, well, I knew the risks going in. I won't blame my advisors, my professors, or the big bad institution for it.

191. prof291 - February 21, 2010 at 05:56 pm


That is indeed your personal experience. Mine is that, having worked inside and outside of academia, holders of the doctorate are among the most capable and hardworking people around. If you're not getting good performance from them, the Pygmalion Effect may be at work in your organization.

192. jaywynne - February 21, 2010 at 06:15 pm

Irenicnoel--you made me happy that I read/skimmed all the way down to your remarks--thank you for a neat and sweet ribbon on this package.

193. twofish - February 22, 2010 at 02:07 am

I find the conversation interesting because I have been able to live the "life of the mind" only I figured out quite early that I had to leave academia to do it. I got my Ph.D. in astrophysics, left academia to work as a computer programmer, and now work at a financial firm. I work on the plantation for eight to ten hours a day, five days a week, but I can go home and curl up to a nice book on algebraic topology or whatever interests me.

The nice thing about my situation is that I'm quite ethusiastic about getting young people into science and engineering and into graduate school. The only warning that I give is that you should go to graduate school knowing that you absolutely put aside and hope of getting a career in academia, and you'll be happier for it. Go through graduate school. Learn some skills allow the way that will keep you employed, work on the plantation, and the go home and read whatever interests you.

I think the basic problem is that at some point someone got the silly idea that the "life of the mind" made a "career in academia." The way that I think about it is that the "pursuit of knowledge" is like love. It's a wonderful grand thing, but you end up with total hell if you try to make a profession out of it. What I do at work is business. I work on the plantation, they give me money. If they don't give me enough money, then I leave. The probably is that if you mix love and business, then you set yourself for horrible, horrible exploitation because the people that are trying to squeeze money out of you know that you can't leave.

Also in the current situation, you really can't teach "liberal arts". The key idea of the "liberal" arts is freedom, and you cannot teach freedom in a system that is based on slavery.

194. pavurcn - February 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

The even bigger lie: that our society can get along just fine without a major, continuing investment in the humanities, and it makes no difference whether the young study them or not.

There is less demand for the humanities, fewer and lower-paying jobs, because of the Bigger Lie. But some humanists have helped to undermine their own value through some of their choices and positions.

Build a society that values humanities appropriately and more humanists will be rewarded appropriately.

195. ejb_123 - February 22, 2010 at 06:05 pm

After receiving a Master's in English, I ended up working for half a year as a dishwasher at a restaurant. After I graduated, and while I worked at the restaurant, I applied for practically every higher-ed job in the U.S. that one only needed a Master's for, but I could not even get a job at a community college. I am currently a high school teacher. I would like someday to get my PhD, but I cannot afford it right now. If I didn't have the secondary education degree to fall back upon, I suppose I would still be washing dishes. I don't know what those who have MA's and PhD's in English but who don't have an elementary, middle level, or secondary English teaching degree do for an occupation if they cannot get a teaching position at a university or a community college.

196. intelligentfool - February 22, 2010 at 11:28 pm

I received a BA Anthropology and MA Linguistics in the late 70s. Not liberal arts, but many of the arguments here are the same for the social sciences. I recall my dad asking me at my graduation how was I ever going to get a job in Anthropology. I was a bit insulted at the time, but now I can see his perspective (he was a totally self-made man in the electronics business). I was he first in my family to graduate from college.

I worked in high tech and taught at a community college, which I really loved. I started a publishing company and basically retired at 45, not wealthy, but with enough to be able to enjoy my free time and write books, which I did.

Higher ed is in a big bubble that is beginning to collapse. All the expensive buildings and highly paid administrators are taking their toll, and I'm glad I won't be caught in the middle of what will be a big disaster. I'm hearing lots of stories from educated people looking for work and how they're dumbing down their applications so they're not overqualified for the menial jobs that seem to be all that's out there.

I almost continued on for my PhD but decided against it. Now I can see it was a wise decision.

197. systeme_d - February 23, 2010 at 12:11 am

My gratitude to Dr. Pannapacker is deep, and my expression of it here is overdue.

Many students considering graduate school in the humanities come to me for advice.

I direct them to his columns, and tell them to talk to me again after reading them.


198. farang - February 27, 2010 at 10:43 am

If I had read sth like this around 30 years ago, would I have done things differently? Almost certainly! But then again, I probably wouldn't have believed it.

I also wonder why I always believed that those adjunct and visiting positions that I survived on for too long after getting my PhD were just the result of a temporary economic downturn. They weren't - they were the beginning of the end for the Humanities and the beginning of a radical restructuring of higher education. Goodbye Life of the Mind, Hello Life of the Marketplace! Am I the only one who sees things like this? I only skimmed through the 200 other posts, but I was expecting to see at least one mention of "Neoliberalism".

To repeat a positive piece of advice that others have offered - there are jobs overseas. This option is best if you have an academic interest in other cultures and are the type of person that can easily adapt. But note that many countries do not give tenure to "foreigners" and you may find yourself going from contract to contract. And, should you ever find yourself wanting to go home, you'll find your chances of landing an academic job in your own country to be even worse than when you left. Your overseas experience will not likely count for much - despite lip service to "internationalization".

199. jaesquared - February 28, 2010 at 12:39 am

Seems like the single-minded-dogged-determination mindset is what the system promotes and produces - not necessarily creativity.

(Along the lines of zenwich's post above)Even though US universities consistently rank as the highest/most prestigious in the world, I've personally preferred UK universities, mainly in their targeting of more specific interests/specializations, and allowing persons with a passion to study those specializations ... study them. Moreover, there's usually some type of industry union or organization to support graduates with such degree specializations. There arent many hoops to jump through, it takes half the amount of time to get the paper(the tuition is usually half the amount as well); basically, if you're creative enough to have a passion for such a specialization, the doors are wide open.

Perosnally speaking, I opted to first get an education in the 'real world' (ie, the world of work), and then went for a specialized social science-related MS degree in the UK (I'm a US citizen). I havent been 'stuck' at finding satisfying/fulfilling work, ever.

If you don't have the creativity to look beyond a degree, then you're destined to be 'stuck'.

200. abaugh - March 03, 2010 at 02:05 pm

These structural problems mostly (but not entirely) reduce down to labor market problems. And, somewhat surprisingly, are not restricted to the humanities but also shared with the natural sciences:


As a post-doctorate I am going to intentionally seek to diversity my skill set with the understanding that the "conventional" academic path might very well not work out.

201. kerr7920 - March 05, 2010 at 02:54 pm

Yes, the job prospects for PhDs in the Humanities are dismal and getting worse. But they've been dismal for two decades or more now. And I find it hard to believe that anyone bright enough to get into a top graduate program could have been blind to this reality upon entering, or at least not figured it out within the first two years of grad school, when there was still time to back out and pursue a different path. People go to graduate school in the humanities and social sciences for many reasons--to avoid the job market, to avoid loan repayment, to continue to live the campus lifestyle, because they love to read and talk about ideas, and even for lack of imagination about other paths. But honestly, does any sober, thoughtful person choose this path because they think the career prospects are abundant?

As a professor at a small liberal arts college, I never tell a student they should consider grad school in the humanities or social sciences. When one tells me they want to go, I tell them that while it can be great work if they can get it, they probably can't get it. I tell them about the average length to PhD, and the boxes of files from outstanding candidates we get every time we advertise for an opening. I tell them that while I love the place I work, the reason I work here is because it was the one job offer I received after three years of searching and close to 200 applications submitted. I tell them that graduate school took me many years longer than I ever imagined it would. But this rarely dissuades a student from taking the path. In part because to certain personality types, the risk doesn't seem so great at the age of 22. It does not seem then like a long tunnel with no easy exits. The perspective is quite different coming out the other end near the age of 30.

202. pstheatreprof - March 06, 2010 at 01:46 pm

I have to agree with viscommprof. At a recent conference, a former academic gave us some sobering statistics regarding the state of our profession. I began to wonder whether reinstating our PhD program was worthwhile.

However, I do not come from any of the backgrounds Benton lists in his article. My father worked in a factory and I probably should have followed in my sisters' footsteps and gotten that MBA. I would be making much more money. But like viscommprof, I was facing staying in a cubicle for the rest of my career versus doing something I felt was much more rewarding. Like viscommprof - I am extremely lucky. I have huge debt, but it is manageable. I teach at a Tier I school, I love my students, and although it took a long time to get a tenure-track position, I'm sure glad I did it.

But I would NEVER advise anyone to do the same, and I did find that Benton is right - the wealthy and the well-partnered were in a much better position to negotiate all the difficulty I encountered. But what is the difference between that and having a BFA program in Acting? What are the statistics on how many of those graduates find actual work as actors?

I don't think there is anything wrong with having graduate programs in the humanities, so long as we are up front with the statistics - in other words, we need to tell people that there are no jobs. And then it is up to them, even if they turn out to be like me (they don't listen). Also, c'mon kids, do the research yourself! If you buy a lemon and the consumer reports are out there, well . . .

I'm glad Benton is saying this, but, why is anyone surprised?

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