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Should you get a PhD in history?


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This is a modified version of a post I made under the forum "decisions, decisions.

 

The most important question, I think, you should be asking yourself in this season of acceptances is not which program you should go to, but if you should go to grad school at all.  The history job market is very bleak.  It may well be better when you graduate, but it may well not be.  There are troubling trends like MOOCs that, many people think, will  restructure much of education in a way that will reduce the number of tenure track hires.

 

How bad is the job market currently?  According to Harvard, as of the fall of 2012, only 52% of Harvard PhDs who got their PhD in the humanities from 2006-2011 had an academic job.  (And it looks like, based on some other data they report elsewhere, that about 1/3 of those are in non-tenure-track positions.)  23% were "unemployed and searching."  (Due to self selection bias in reporting, this data probably underestimates the number of unemployed.) [1] And those numbers are those of one of the most prestigious grad schools in the nation.  Here is what Chicago history's numbers look like: https://history.uchicago.edu/sites/history.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/Placement%20Statistics%202002-2011.pdf

 

Many people in history from elite programs, for instance, spend several years after graduating twisting in the wind with low-paid, time-consuming, and short-term lectureships and visiting assistant professorsips before either get a tt job or quitting academia.  If you are really committed to an academic career, you may well be signing up for a PhD + several years of uncertainty and scrapping by after that.  While it is hard to get accurate numbers,  it looks like only 33% of Yale's history cohort of 2012-2013 got a tt-job.

 

Of course not all subfields within history are made the same.  Some of your fields have excellent job prospects; others, terrible.  20C US and Europe after 1789 appear to be the worst.

 

It behooves you to research the matter and think about the kind of bet your are making.  You are giving up 5-8 years of pay, and more importantly, 5-8 years in which you could be launching a different career.  When you graduate at age 30 with a PhD, you will have opened a few doors (for instance, you are an attractive hire for a private high school), but shut many more.

 

I am not saying you should not go.  Personally, I have found getting a PhD immensley rewarding.  But it has also come at a great cost.

 

[1]http://history.fas.h...s-2006-2011.pdf.

Edited by graduatingPhD
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p.s. if you want to see what the job market looks like today--and what jobs you could have applied to--here is where most US jobs get listed:

 

http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/History_2013-14

 

When you look at these postings, you need to keep in mind how large your subfield is, i.e. how many people who are likely to be applying for any given job.  For tiny subfields, a few job posting coud give everyone in that subfield a pretty good shot.  In the largest fields like US history, however, a job can easily get 300+ applications...

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Reading this reminded me of this article: Important Life Lessons: What's the Most Important Life Lesson Older People Feel You Must Know?

 

A summary (from the article):

 

1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones. The biggest career mistake people make is selecting a profession based only on potential earnings. A sense of purpose and passion for one’s work beats a bigger paycheck any day.

 

2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy. According to the experts, persistence is the key to finding a job you love. Don’t give up easily.

 

3. Make the most of a bad job. If you find yourself in a less-than-ideal work situation, don’t waste the experience; many experts learned invaluable lessons from bad jobs.

 

4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind. Develop your interpersonal skills if you want to succeed in the workplace. Even people in the most technical professions have their careers torpedoed if they lack emotional intelligence.

 

5. Everyone needs autonomy. Career satisfaction is often dependent on how much autonomy you have on the job. Look for the freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you, without too much control from the top.

 

I'm 31 and starting my PhD this fall. I don't anticipate having a TT position until I'm almost 40. However, I'll be doing what I love. If I take care of myself and my brain, I can easily continue doing that into my late 70's or 80's.

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There is some outdated and some overgeneralized information in the post above. 

 

The most important question, I think, you should be asking yourself in this season of acceptances is not which program you should go to, but if you should go to grad school at all.

 

This may be the "most important question," but where you go definitely matters. It matters a great deal on the job market -- more than anyone is really led to suspect. More on that below.

 

There are troubling trends like MOOCs that, many people think, will  restructure much of education in a way that will reduce the number of tenure track hires.

 

There are troubling trends like adjunctification, but MOOCs have been proven to be a flash in the pan. The attrition rates are atrocious, meaning they're not likely to substantially replace credit programs at non-elite universities, and they lack the ability to facilitate connections that more elite universities provide. In short, getting worked up over them is very 2012.

 

How bad is the job market currently?  According to Harvard, as of the fall of 2012, only 52% of Harvard PhDs who got their PhD in the humanities from 2006-2011 had an academic job.  (And it looks like, based on some other data they report elsewhere, that about 1/3 of those are in non-tenure-track positions.)  23% were "unemployed and searching."  (Due to self selection bias in reporting, this data probably underestimates the number of unemployed.) [1] And those numbers are those of one of the most prestigious grad schools in the nation.  Here is what Chicago history's numbers look like: https://history.uchi...s 2002-2011.pdf

 

People freak out when they see numbers so terrible from places like Chicago and Harvard, but you ought to keep a few things in mind: these are huge programs with a vast diversity of people. Quite a few won't be looking for academic jobs, will leave academia for personal reasons, or will place constraints on their academic job search like location that will make it impossible for them to find a quality job in their field.*

 

Of course, you may now wonder why I said where you go matters if this is the case. It's because the most elite programs don't necessarily have the best placement record, either. It's a shame no one's done this for history (the data may be too large), but someone put together a placement ranking for German Studies recently, and it's amazing how terribly Harvard and Chicago come out despite their reputations:

 

http://pankisseskafka.com/2014/02/24/adjunct-nate-silver-the-real-placement-rates-of-german-phd-programs/

 

I've seen data on Cornell PhDs in history going back to 1989, and most have pretty solid jobs. Are they all tenured at Stanford? No, but most are not struggling in precarious adjunct positions, either.

 

tl;dr the most elite institutions may not place the best on the academic job market, and aren't great indicators of that market (but will place well in nonacademic jobs* so you don't have to fear for your life). That said, a lot the dreary data is unquestionably true when it comes to institutions much lower down the chain than maybe the top 25-50 or so.

 

Many people in history from elite programs, for instance, spend several years after graduating twisting in the wind with low-paid, time-consuming, and short-term lectureships and visiting assistant professorsips before either get a tt job or quitting academia.  If you are really committed to an academic career, you may well be signing up for a PhD + several years of uncertainty and scrapping by after that.

 

I see many people who graduate from elite programs doing postdocs for a year or more before landing a job. Yes, it sucks moving every year to a new postdoc if necessary, but it's nowhere near adjunct hell. Again, most graduates from elite programs who wind up in the least desirable work situations are constrained by family ties to a certain area or something. You won't do well if you can't deal with the notion of conducting a national or international job search. This has more to do with your personal situation and preferences than the PhD. 

 

---

 

Am I saying I think going and getting a PhD is an unquestionably fantastic idea? No, I'm just questioning some of the logic above based on the data I've seen and on my experience. In general I'd say it's important to go to the best program possible -- but to make sure that program isn't overselling its elitism. Bad numbers coming out of Chicago are not necessarily indictative of the field as a whole.

 

---

 

*One thing worth noting is that there's higher attrition from academia among people who got their PhDs from the most highly ranked (top 5 or so) institutions. Maybe their life expectations (paycheck, location) were higher. Quite a few have jobs that are better compensating than academic history (in finance, consulting, etc.) Yes, there are people from Harvard who have been on the adjunct track too long, too. But a Harvard PhD will take you places other than adjuncting at a community college if you wind up stuck doing that when it's not what you want to do.

Edited by czesc
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 According to Harvard, as of the fall of 2012, only 52% of Harvard PhDs who got their PhD in the humanities from 2006-2011 had an academic job.  

 

FYI, Harvard thinks History is a Social Science.

 

I can also say that 100% of Harvard history grads in medieval europe in the past ~10 years are employed, minus two who did not enter the job market for their own reasons.

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Reading this reminded me of this article: Important Life Lessons: What's the Most Important Life Lesson Older People Feel You Must Know?

 

A summary (from the article):

 

1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones. The biggest career mistake people make is selecting a profession based only on potential earnings. A sense of purpose and passion for one’s work beats a bigger paycheck any day.

 

2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy. According to the experts, persistence is the key to finding a job you love. Don’t give up easily.

 

3. Make the most of a bad job. If you find yourself in a less-than-ideal work situation, don’t waste the experience; many experts learned invaluable lessons from bad jobs.

 

4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind. Develop your interpersonal skills if you want to succeed in the workplace. Even people in the most technical professions have their careers torpedoed if they lack emotional intelligence.

 

5. Everyone needs autonomy. Career satisfaction is often dependent on how much autonomy you have on the job. Look for the freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you, without too much control from the top.

 

I'm 31 and starting my PhD this fall. I don't anticipate having a TT position until I'm almost 40. However, I'll be doing what I love. If I take care of myself and my brain, I can easily continue doing that into my late 70's or 80's.

Am I the only one that has to explain this kind of thing to everyone who asks why I want to get a PhD? Thanks for your post. 

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I think it also depends upon being open to the idea of working in different parts of the world. There is a world beyond the US where the humanities are growing in importance, especially in the Middle East where big name universities are opening their second campuses. I think one can improve one's chances of securing a tenure track position if they cast a wider net. 

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Dear GraduatingPhD,

 

Is there a reason you've made this post in FOUR different places? I am starting to think that your intentions are not to warn anyone so much as they are something else. 

 

Confused,

Smellybug

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I've followed this person's career on Twitter and elsewhere. Many people have remarked that he could probably find a job outside the US much more easily. Of course it'd be difficult for him to move his family at this point (and he was basing all his plans on assumptions that were reasonable prior to the recession), but it's not necessarily hopeless for him. The lesson is that PhD applicants in coming cycles should be prepared for the eventuality of needing to live virtually anywhere in the world to get a job and should plan having a family accordingly. 

 

It's also worth noting that reality became more grim for many professions after 2008. I went through a cycle of job interviews that year and was lucky to receive one job offer in my field when people in previous positions in previous years had their hands full of them. 

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You are giving up 5-8 years of pay, and more importantly, 5-8 years in which you could be launching a different career.

 

 

Not to nit-pick, but I'm getting paid very, very generously to spend 5-8 years "giving up pay."

Edited by thedig13
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I do greatly appreciate the insight! But, for those of us in the humanities, there really are not a whole lot of options. Either way, if we stop now, we are going to be working retail (if we are lucky to get a job at all over minimum wage) with our degree(s) in English, German, Religion, Philosophy, and so on. Again, for many of us, there is no pay cut. In fact, a PhD stipend is more money than I have ever made (I'm in my early 30's!). At the end of the day, if I end up spending the next 5-8 years of my life working my ass off at something I love and I can't even get a job teaching High School when it's all said and done, oh well. Again, given our options, and if we secure decent funding at a good program, why the hell not? If I'm going to be working at Taco Bell end game, I might as well get paid while I am earning a PhD before my career making burritos begins. Coming from someone who has spent time making burritos, working totally awful bottom of the barrel jobs, I can absolutely say IT IS WORTH IT. If you're paying for your PhD that is another story, of course. But for most of us, even that meager 15k stipend is pretty goddamn okay. 

 

cheers

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All, GraduatingPhD is a troll/douche who has posted similar “discussions” to this all across grad cafe. He’s been on the Literature, Rhet/Comp Page, this History page, the “Decisions, Decisions” page, etc. 

 

We’re all begin to wonder what his true motives are here. 

 

Edit: I just noticed that SmellyBug already pointed this out. My bad! 

Edited by Kamisha
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I do greatly appreciate the insight! But, for those of us in the humanities, there really are not a whole lot of options. Either way, if we stop now, we are going to be working retail (if we are lucky to get a job at all over minimum wage) with our degree(s) in English, German, Religion, Philosophy, and so on. Again, for many of us, there is no pay cut. In fact, a PhD stipend is more money than I have ever made (I'm in my early 30's!). At the end of the day, if I end up spending the next 5-8 years of my life working my ass off at something I love and I can't even get a job teaching High School when it's all said and done, oh well. Again, given our options, and if we secure decent funding at a good program, why the hell not? If I'm going to be working at Taco Bell end game, I might as well get paid while I am earning a PhD before my career making burritos begins. Coming from someone who has spent time making burritos, working totally awful bottom of the barrel jobs, I can absolutely say IT IS WORTH IT. If you're paying for your PhD that is another story, of course. But for most of us, even that meager 15k stipend is pretty goddamn okay. 

 

cheers

 

Basically, this. The annual income of a graduate student or an adjunct is a lot of money to a lot of people. Most income-earning individuals in the U.S. make less than 25K a year. No matter how you cut it, the lifestyle of an academic is relatively cushy and the salary is enough to survive on; anybody who argues otherwise is, frankly, a little out-of-touch with reality.

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1.  I think people should stop lampooning the guy for presenting advice that is broadly accurate and useful.  Everyone should seriously consider, if this is what they want to do.  For those of us deep into graduate programs, how many people do you know who should have seriously asked themselves this question.  I know for me, it is more than one at multiple schools.  This post is not inherently an attack on you if you are applying or in grad school, so no need to act like it is.

 

2.  Being at the dissertation phase, I am very happy with my choice and have never liked what I am doing more, but I am not sure I would feel the same way at any program.  In my opinion, one of the most important things is not ranking but funding schemes.  By scheme, I don't mean just a number, but what service are you required to provide?  Do you have to TA most of the time, do you have to work while doing dissertation research and writing?  More than any single advantage, most elite programs allow you to actually work on a dissertation.  My opinion is based on the fact that myself and other people in my cohort have gotten very prestigious grants in spite of not being from elite programs.

 

3.  Why? Tulane is not an "elite" program, but it has elite funding.  For the last 10 months I have been doing research in various locations (8 different cities, 3 months alone in philly), on mostly my tulane fellowship and a few small grants.  I have also had enought time to apply for big grants and fellowships on the side, not having to TA or anything.  This extra time has allowed me to get (hasn't started yet) a 15K research grant, and line up a dissertation writing fellowship for next year.  When I write my dissertation it will be based on 14 months of ~40 hrs. a week in the archive, and since getting an additional year of fellowship, after finishing research, I have two years (I am a fourth year, so I still have another year of Tulane funding), where all I have to do is write, no service required.

 

4.  Knowing people (really smart people) at programs with huge service requirements, the questions has to be asked, how can your 2-3 months of research compare with someone's year to year and a half of research?  How much time will you have to devote to fellowship apps, etc. if you are working 20-30 on TAing and writing a dissertation?  I met one person who had traveled approx. 6 weeks for his dissertation, the rest of his research had to be done at or near his home institution due to teaching requirements.

 

These are probably the second most important questions.  Will this program actually fund me to be a good, high functioning academic or are they looking for cheep labor?  Can I write a good dissertation at this program, and do I have enough time to work on things like articles and big grants, that will separate my application from others? 

 

Also, it is true that most people have to post doc/visiting prof/adjunct for a year or two at least in order to get a job, it's the nature of the profession right now, although, while I wouldn't hold my breath, the baby boomer are supposedly, actually, finally retiring.  Also, unless it's the only way you will be happy in academia, don't do 20th century U.S.

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I wanted to second czesc on the "bad" elite placement records. If you're graduating 30 new PhDs a year, some will go to other careers, some will be married to fabulously rich spouses and/or refuse to live outside a major city (more often than you'd think), and some will be in very specialized subfields that are hard for anyone to get a job in. That could easily be a third or half of the cohort, and if it's a "bad year" on the market, could pull the number even lower. This is not to deny the general badness of the landscape, but to say the big schools are a somewhat unique situation.

 

Another factor is that elite universities produce PhDs who generally expect to be elite researchers, which is not necessarily what the places doing most of the hiring (small colleges) are looking for. I know that most grads from Chicago are Yale are probably willing to go anywhere, but there is an undeniable perception that they'll be restless at a small school and looking to move on. So they are sometimes passed over for candidates from say, a very strong regional school that places a lot of emphasis on general knowledge of the discipline and teaching.

Edited by levoyous
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Are there really elite programs still doing this? Most cohort sizes I see are no greater than 20.

 

That's probably high - I was just looking at the U Chicago numbers in the wake of that Patrick Iber op-ed, and they had about 20 finishing per year the last few years. But even 10-15 per year is a lot different than 3-5.

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That's probably high - I was just looking at the U Chicago numbers in the wake of that Patrick Iber op-ed, and they had about 20 finishing per year the last few years. But even 10-15 per year is a lot different than 3-5.

 

I mean, that comes out to 1 in any particular field every other year, at best. That doesn't seem absurd to me, at least.

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The thing is, if elite programs are all graduating one person in each field, and there are, say, three openings in that field in a given year, you're going to have a remainder.

 

And - though this is sort of speculative on my part - I'd assume one of the reasons Chicago students are among the biggest casualties of this (assuming equality among job candidates) is because they're often seen as equal contenders for prestigious spots as the Harvards and Princetons - but because the latter are slightly higher on the food chain, often just lose out to them - and then lack backup options because they're considered to be among the elite who would eventually want to pursue another position (or doesn't "fit" with others in less prestigious programs who may not have as-elite PhDs). 

Edited by czesc
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Berkeley admitted over 20 this year - I was at the visit day and there were at least 25 people there (and maybe even a couple more were admitted who couldn't make it). I was told at visit day that on average, there are about three people per field who enroll each year, and only 1 or 2 people who start the program fail to complete it.

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