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For the Persistent Ph.D. Impulse, Gentle Dissuasion

I teach in an M.A. program in history at a small liberal-arts college. We have a strong track record of placing our students in good doctoral programs. Because we do not offer a Ph.D., however, we are also free to be candid about why going on to a doctorate might not make much sense in financial and career terms.

Five years ago, we starting giving our students William Pannapacker’s essay “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.” Some cohorts heard this earnest advice on as many as six occasions.

To reinforce Pannapacker’s message, we would parade before the students some graduates who had rested content with an M.A. as their terminal degree and were now living rich and full lives as librarians, archivists, journalists, and editors, or who were working for nonprofits, community colleges, or elite secondary schools. We also incorporated “the talk” into our contacts with prospective students: “Yes, since you ask, our program is good at placing people in doctoral programs, but you might not know that many doctoral programs are not very good at turning their graduates into full-time faculty members. …”

Over and over again we have tried to convince students that the question of whether they were talented enough to do a Ph.D. was not the point at issue—that our cautionary tale is not merely a polite way of hinting that they are not the sharpest pencils in the box.

It worked. Bright students who had longed to be professors did not even bother to apply to doctoral programs. Instead they found gainful employment in reasonably well-paying and fulfilling jobs and started to decrease rather than increase their debts.

But after a couple of years, something strange began to happen. Some of these former students started to renew contacts in order to ask sheepishly for references for doctoral programs. They would invariably protest, “I promise you, I have fully imbibed Pannapacker, but I still cannot shake my dream.” Now I get a steady stream of such cases every year.

How are we to think about these Pannapacker-resistant strains? I am sympathetic to the standard calls for reform—for universities to hire more full-time faculty members and to eliminate or downsize some doctoral programs. Still, I think we have not thought sufficiently about the fact that the Ph.D. in the humanities sits uneasily between two career models.

The first one I will call the supply-and-demand model. This is embraced by physicians, for example. The medical profession is careful to not allow the supply of doctors to outstrip demand. The fixed number of slots for hospital-residency internships is an essential gateway to qualifying to practice medicine. (Unlike a foreign Ph.D., an M.D. from another country is, by itself, a worthless qualification in America.)

The second model is the free-to-dream model. This model allows as many people to compete who so wish, leaving financial security to the small fraction of those the market will bear. This is the model that governs the prospects of would-be professional artists and athletes.

Artists and athletes, like academics in the humanities, have chosen identity-based professions. Unlike those who do a job simply because it is a way to earn money, these careers are also splendid forms of self-expression and prestige. For a pool of aspirants much larger than the profession itself, they hold a romance that is not usually evoked by, say, retail sales or database administration. Being a professor is, in this sense, literally a dream job for many people.

Giving prospective students the Pannapacker speech helps them to consider that their aspirations might be, in terms of probability, closer to wanting to make a living as an actor than as a physician. But that still leaves the problem that we are unable to control our Ph.D. supply. Moreover, even if a tight control on supply could be put into effect, it may not be just. There are always people who want to do a Ph.D. as a form of personal enrichment, or because they have something to prove, or as a credential to set themselves apart from their peers in another profession.

Still, there is something wrong with certain Ph.D. programs’ blithely churning out debt-laden graduates who will probably not find the sort of jobs that enticed them to pursue the degree in the first place. Again we seem to fall between the high certainty of employment after training of the medical profession and the dreamer figure doggedly pursuing the goal of a career on Broadway.

Presumably most graduates of Juilliard do not find permanent positions in professional orchestras. I wonder if such institutions might have advice to share with those of us in graduate education in the humanities. They might know something about balancing a recognition that—however much we might caution—most of our students will go on harboring “the dream” with the reality that many of them will need to be prepared to embrace an alternative, viable path in life.

Timothy Larsen is a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College, in Illinois. His sixth monograph, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford University Press), is forthcoming in August.

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