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Should you get a humanities PhD at all?


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"I really do have to look askance at a person who throws his (or her) hands up at this whole thing. There are no jobs for PhDs. No jobs for people who don't go to Harvard. 30 is old. Five years is an unrecoverable loss. No one outside of academia will hire a PhD except for private boarding schools. If only I'd gone to law school."

 

You have a persistent problem exaggerating what I am saying so as to make my points absurd and give yourself a self-righteousness high.  I said none of those things. 

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So just to be clear: you came to a message board full of people applying to English/Rhetoric/Comparative Literature PhD programs and decided that, now, in March, 5 months after applying, you will remi

I advise those who are horrified by the academic job market and academic employment conditions (exploitative! neoliberal! low-paying! no security!) to go give it a whirl in the non-academic job market

Getting your PhD in English from one of the top 10 schools in the country (like Harvard) is probably a bad idea. Getting your PhD from school outside the top tier is just insane. Sorry, but this canno

Exponentialdecay, I'm not suggesting you go get a JD or that you a wrong to pursue a PhD.  We each have to make our own decisions based on our values, skills, desires, etc.  (P.S. Way to get personal about whether I could get a Harvard MBA or not!  Whether I could is hardly the point.  Some people can.)

 

You know how I know you wouldn't be able to get into HBS? You can't separate trend from circumstance, which is like a huge deal in any kind of business analysis today, even if it is mostly used as a logical crutch. If you're going to make a, dare I say it, scientific claim, you have to hold something constant as a reference point, and you're going to have to assume a reasonable person. An individual who has an offer to Harvard GSAS, HBS, Yale Law, and the NASA mission to Mars is not an interesting case. An individual who has an offer to Harvard GSAS and a normal, undistinguished existence if that condition is not met, is.

 

What the esteemed members of this forum have been trying to tell you is that they are not that Achillean individual. They have weighed their options and they have chosen. You're telling them that they should decline Harvard GSAS and apply 3rd cycle to HBS. Is that what you're saying? I mean, I've lost the point of your argument.

 

That said, the stuff about being too old and weirdly qualified to enter the job market after your PhD is probably true. But hey, I have a lot of alma maters to turn to in the event of calamity.

Edited by exponentialdecay
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"I mean, I've lost the point of your argument."

 

1) the job market in the humanities is terrible - find specific data in your subfield and for your institution, 2) getting a tt-job often involves a PhD + several more years in a precarious position and even then may not lead to a job, 3) with concrete knowledge about your subfield and your options, consider the trade-offs that you are making.

 

In response to (3), many commentators, including yourself, suggested that the job prospects of a PhD aren't much different than the job prospects of the job market as a whole.  But such overly binaristic thinking (the market is good or bad!) is in fact not true.  Yes, the job market in many fields and industries is hurting.  Compared to many fields that potential PhDs students can go into, however, the job market in the humanities look especially bad.  If you are considering a very strong JD program, say, vs a equally ranking PhD (not so uncommon for humanities people), the humanities program is probably much less likely to give you a job in your intended field, and is more likely to require scraping by for several years after gettomg the degree.  For many people—especially people who can get into elite ones—PhD programs will be significantly more "high risk" than other careers that are likely--depending, yes, on their skill set, desires, alma mater, age, etc,--open to them.  (See Hashlinger's post where s/he introduced high-risk venture vs getting a corporate lawfirm.)  If that is a bet you are willing to make, great!

 

If you don't understand someone's point, try asking before mounting your soap box and unleashing ad hominems.

Edited by graduatingPhD
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"I mean, I've lost the point of your argument."

 

1) the job market in the humanities is terrible - find specific data in your subfield and for your institution, 2) getting a tt-job often involves a PhD + several more years in a precarious position and even then may not lead to a job, 3) with concrete knowledge about your subfield and your options, consider the trade-offs that you are making.

 

In response to (3), many commentators, including yourself, suggested that the job prospects of a PhD aren't much different than the job prospects of the job market as a whole.  But such overly binaristic thinking (the market is good or bad!) is in fact not true.  Yes, the job market in many fields and industries is hurting.  Compared to many fields that potential PhDs students can go into, however, the job market in the humanities look especially bad.  If you are considering a very strong JD program, say, vs a equally ranking PhD (not so uncommon for humanities people), the humanities program is probably much less likely to give you a job in your intended field, and is more likely to require scraping by for several years after gettomg the degree.  For many people—especially people who can get into elite ones—PhD programs will be significantly more "high risk" than other careers that are likely--depending, yes, on their skill set, desires, alma mater, age, etc,--open to them.  (See Hashlinger's post where s/he introduced high-risk venture vs getting a corporate lawfirm.)  If that is a bet you are willing to make, great!

 

If you don't understand someone's point, try asking before mounting your soap box and unleashing ad hominems.

 

 

So, you came into the forum to tell everyone what they already knew about the PhD. When everyone told you that they already knew these things, you disagreed, saying they DIDN'T REALLY know, and you were going to enlighten everyone. And then you called certain posters immature and snarky.

 

Then you continued to hammer home your message, once again asserting that people don't really know what you're talking about. When people replied with charts and statistics, you again countered with the claim that they didn't really know what they were talking about.

 

Now you say everyone is against you, distorting your words and engaging in ad hominem attacks.

 

So tell us more about ourselves, graduatingPhD. *chinhands*

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Okay, cowboy. If your classically-educated ass is gonna yap about markets, it's gonna have to crack open the macro 101 textbook and read up on two terms: opportunity cost and comparative advantage.

 

In response to (3), many commentators, including yourself, suggested that the job prospects of a PhD aren't much different than the job prospects of the job market as a whole.  But such overly binaristic thinking (the market is good or bad!) is in fact not true.  

 

 

Opportunity cost is when you decide to attend a kegger instead of doing your calculus homework. As a result of attending the kegger, you get an F in calculus. But, also, as a result of attending the kegger, you meet John F. Kennedy VIII, who hooks you up with an internship at his boutique consulting in Atlanta. Therefore, the opportunity cost of attending the kegger was the F in calculus. The opportunity cost of not attending the kegger was the internship at the boutique consulting in Atlanta. And, if we're gonna be overdeterminist, we can say all sorts of fruity shit about socialization, alcohol intoxication, and the beauty of analytical mathematics as part of the requisite opportunity cost.

 

Back to business. I stated that, given the shitty job market, the opportunity cost of doing a PhD is not so high. That means, child, that you're losing less by doing a PhD now than you would've lost five years ago.That doesn't mean the job prospects of a PhD are equivalent to that of the average person's job prospects. It means that they are less different

 

Sweet giblets, what institution conferred you your degree? The University of Couch Sophistry?

 

For many people—especially people who can get into elite ones—PhD programs will be significantly more "high risk" than other careers that are likely--depending, yes, on their skill set, desires, alma mater, age, etc,--open to them.

 

Comparative advantage is when you have two people in exactly the same circumstances, but one of those people always outperforms the other in a particular task. The person who outperforms has a comparative advantage in that particular task. There is actually a great deal of economic literature on this subject, and overwhelmingly it suggests that, ceteris paribus, if one unit has comparative advantage over the other unit, that first unit will always win. What does that mean? That means if you try to beat the 10 year old prodigy at the science olympiad, you're gonna have a bad time. If Britney tries to beat Ella at the jazz game, Britney is gonna have a bad time. If you're boring, demure, and the popular people have never liked you even though you take care to shower twice a day, and you try to break into law or front office finance? Guess what. You're gonna have a bad time.

 

If you don't understand someone's point, try asking before mounting your soap box and unleashing ad hominems.

 

Y'all know I'm gonna whip one out.

 

Y'all know it.

 

tumblr_inline_mh561bEM3t1qlkly8.gif

 

in gloriam suam.

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I think the long and short of it is this (as many others have brought up): if you know what you’re getting into, then you understand that there’s a good possibility you could be working as an adjunct for the rest of your life. You have to make the decision for yourself.  

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Having a lectureship isn't so bad. The hours are generally good, and it's miles ahead of adjuncting. You get health care. You get benefits. You get child care. No, you do not have job security or support for your own research. And yes, it's another symptom of administrators and corporate types taking over the university.

 

But I would not consider myself a failure if I had a postdoc for a few years and then a lectureship.

 

Seriously, tho. If you find yourself miserable and not being able to make heads or tails of this field ... then walk away. Leave! There's a big world out there. One must not be an academic just because one has a PhD. Think of all the other things you'd rather be doing.. And then, go do them!

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I just don't think "should you get a phd in humanities at all?" is a helpful question. I shall propose what I think are more constructive questions for people applying for humanities PhDs.

-Are you aware that you may never get that TT job at the prestigious R1? That the only higher ed teaching options may be adjuncting, lecturing, or scoring a postdoc?

-Are you comfortable with looking outside of academia for employment post-PhD?

-Are you prepared to become an advocate for higher education and the humanities, no matter where you end up? To testify for the value of learning about writing, storytelling, memory, language and poetry? To organize to ensure that you and/or your colleagues have access to health care, job stability, and paid time off? To collaborate with all branches of labor and students to guarantee that any and all students can study art and philosophy and stories?

If you answered yes, then welcome to the cause.

The reality is we can no longer teach or research without consistently defending the work we do. But I, for one, have always been down for a good fight. While I am aware of the bleak nature of the job market (I was an adjunct for three years), I am not ready to give up on the humanities. After all, books were always there for me when I needed them; now, I want to return the favor.

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re lectureships:

 

at my fancy east coast college, the math and physics departments subsist on lecturers with non-renewable contracts. it's not like the venerable tenured academics are going to teach the calc sequence to freshmen. two years ago, i had the incredible fortune of taking half the statistics sequence without having to do the lab, because they didn't hire an adjunct to conduct the labs, and none of the tenured people wanted to do it. i am completely unaware of the state of affairs in the chem and bio depts, but given the rotation of new faces in the TA and lab tech offices every year, i'm guessing it's the same situation.

 

this is not a bad thing for the STEM phds. in fact, it means that you can get a job in academic STEM without being a "superstar". colleges will always need somebody to teach the goddamn calc sequence, especially now that there's all this hysteria about the lag in STEM education or whatever.

 

on the other hand, if the humanities or social science depts are hiring, it's always for a TT job. we have a visiting lectureship in anthro, soc, and jewish studies, but that's it. does that mean that humanities graduates are better off? no, it means the opposite. it means that the administration is getting the idea that there are no labor-intensive classes in the humanities, which probably means that, when one of the professors retires, they'll just dump an extra class or two onto the existing ones rather than hiring a new PhD (this hasn't happened yet for all of the retirement processes I've witnessed, fortunately). 

 

this is just to illustrate that the existence of lectureships is not a determining factor of the health of a particular academic job market.

 

additionally, come on: all of the people we read in our senior seminar, from Benjamin to Barthes, were lecturers for part or all of their careers. most humanities phds outside of the US are lecturers on middle incomes for their entire lives; most STEM phds outside of the US are lab techs, under the same conditions. a PhD is something you do when 1) your employer wants you to get one so he can promote you or 2) when you have nothing else to do with your life. the ivory tower ideal that is decried in these articles has subsisted for the last 50 years on the backs of tax payers who fund government student loans, who didn't mind doing so for the duration of the incredible boom in US middle incomes and, then, the upper-middle income boom of the emerging knowledge economy. all of this was a historical moment. the rest of the world wasn't in on it either.

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 a PhD is something you do when 1) your employer wants you to get one so he can promote you or 2) when you have nothing else to do with your life. the ivory tower ideal that is decried in these articles has subsisted for the last 50 years on the backs of tax payers who fund government student loans, who didn't mind doing so for the duration of the incredible boom in US middle incomes and, then, the upper-middle income boom of the emerging knowledge economy. all of this was a historical moment. the rest of the world wasn't in on it either.

 

Why does it have to be a "he"?

I'd contend that the majority of people who are employed are employed by neutral-gendered organizations.

 

Is this a sign of inherent sexism in our society? Are your assumptions a symptom of American rhetoric? I dunno – perhaps someone should look into it… but only if they have nothing else to do with their lives.  

MSNBC is calling. Fox News is calling. They’re pushing all the right buttons and you’re fired up. How does that work?

A long since dead centuries old poet wrote something down about society, the universe, love – all representations of what it means to be this semi-autonomous bundle of human cells and people juices. We can engage with it critically, perhaps posit how far we have or haven’t come. Or I could say that’ll look pretty in a decorative font on my wall.

But what makes that font pretty? I hope boss man will pay me more for finding out.  

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I'm going to be an MA student at UBC this fall.

 

There's plenty of stuff you can do to get by with an English BA, MA, or PhD, including freelance writing online. The academic job market sucks, but most of us know that. It's a passion and a calling. If it's not that, you have no business being in a PhD or MA program. Most fields that are very interesting to people like us are really tough to find secure, long-term employment in.

 

It's not that the academic job market isn't worse off than many other struggling job markets. It's not much worse off than many other long-shot dream jobs. There is at least the prospect of making it and getting a TT job. It's much harder to make a sensible income making the kinds of films you want to make or writing the kind of fiction or non-fiction you want to write, etc.

 

I've looked at every profession there is. Aside from Engineering (not interested), Medical (not interested), Law (interested, but fuck it, you can go to law school in your late 30s; nobody's stopping you), and a handful of other fields (let's not even mention the financial industries), what are these magical professions that promise so much more than academia? Another thing: that lawyer earning $200,000 a year as a first-year associate is working 80 hours a week and it's not interesting work, necessarily. Moreover, she is likely working in corporate law, not in more compelling or perhaps personally rewarding areas.

 

Yes, you can find a shitty office job or write or work at an ad agency or in the cultural industries somewhere, but you can do all that after your PhD, too. Those aren't the kinds of jobs PhDs close doors to.

 

I'm still not sure I want to do a PhD, but I'm certain doing my MA will leave me nowhere near worse off than I am now. Which isn't even that bad. I work a few hours writing articles for a PR company online and make enough to pay rent and eat. A little perspective is helpful. Consider that most jobs in most highly developed countries are service and retail jobs etc. or mind-numbing, hideous office gigs with zero upward mobility. Unless you're trained for a specific profession in a professional or graduate program, or you're a fit, strong, young male capable of making oil rig millions or making an excellent income within the trades, that's mostly what's out there.

 

You shouldn't pay out of pocket for a PhD, but if you're getting tuition covered and you're getting a stipend, what the hell. As long as you really love what you're doing.

 

I'm reasonably comfortable financially, but it does cross my mind once in a while that I could be making a lot more than I am or will be for the next few years. Still, I really wouldn't enjoy that work.

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