7 responses

  1. Sapience
    April 16, 2013

    For context, I’m just about to graduate from a PhD program in Literature. I don’t regret very much about grad school at all, and I don’t think it turned me into either an emotional train-wreck or a horrible person. But I do think there are three things graduate students contemplating a PhD in the humanities need to believe before they attend, with only a very few exceptions:

    1. If you cannot find someone else to pay you a reasonable wage for the “normal” term to get the degree, you should not attend. If your graduate school prospects do not pay close to a living wage stipend for the area, you should be applying to different schools; and you should not have to compete every year to find out if you will have funding. Otherwise, the stress of figuring out how to live will likely materially damage your ability to survive and thrive in graduate school. If no one is willing to offer you a stipend to attend, you should seriously rethink whether you are cut out for graduate school; this isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions, but for 98% of people, the graduate degree is not worth going into debt.

    2. The work you will do in graduate school is a good in itself, and not just a step to a tenure track job. (This was, I think, Rebecca Schuman’s problem.) If your teaching and research while a graduate student are not rewarding enough, your tenure track job probably won’t be either. From everything I can tell, a tenure track job is harder and just as soul-sucking as graduate school, because now you have to do everything but at twice the pace and without the safety net. That’s not to say every single moment has to be sunshine and roses, but the general trajectory of your teaching and research needs to have some intrinsic value to you. If you can see its intrinsic value for society, even better.

    3. “Graduate student” or “academic” cannot be your only identity. Academia is structured to make it so that it’s hard to succeed and be anything other than an academic first, but to tie yourself too closely to that identity means you will probably take every criticism as a blow to your ego, and you will have a good chance of becoming either a masochist or dangerously depressed. Having some sort of stable identity that does not depend on your academic achievement will allow you to be a better graduate student and academic because you’ll be able to have some sort of objective distance from criticism.

    • Micheal Hickerson
      April 16, 2013

      As others have said, great comments about identity. The same is true in business, ministry, or other vocations. If your identity is tied too closely to the work you’re doing, what happens when that work suffers, when you experience setbacks, or, as we all encounter eventually, you aren’t able to do the work anymore?

  2. Joel
    April 16, 2013

    Sapience is right. You must have an identity outside academia. We are supposed to have our identity first and foremost in Christ. Look at how much the NT talks about “in Christ!”

    I firmly believe that my job (and tenure) are because of God’s faithfulness, not my talent or hard work. Seek first the kingdom. If The Lord upholds you, you are unassailable. If not, you are lost and nothing can help you. And faithfulness to God is no promise of earthly success: sometimes getting what you thought you wanted is a spiritual tragedy but “failure” is a “severe mercy.”

    Learn about Paul’s life: he threw it all away. Wealth, status, power, his education, his comfort, etc. He was a “fool for Christ,” but I don’t think he regrets it.

  3. Bo Cheng
    April 16, 2013

    I don’t have a PhD, nor would I ever aspire to have one. But from a spousal perspective, PhD in humanities seems nearly worthless from a employment perspective, especially if your focus area is in one of the less known subjects. My wife graduated five years ago. There were NO academic positions with long-term prospect available nationwide. The best available are a few one year appointments or postdocs. Perhaps if you are young and single, you can tough it out. However, if you are married with family, there is no way you can move your family across the country for an unstable job that barely pays minimum wage. Academia, seems to me, is structured in a way that is anti family and anti long-term relationship. Even with all the talent and luck, you have to aim at success singlemindedly, unencumbered by family or relationships. Outside of academia, I am not sure what the value of a relatively obscure PhD would do for you. I am not saying that the degree is of no value. In fact, I think it is of great value on a personal level. However, as far as stable employment is concerned, many of the humanity disciplines seems to me a waste of time.

  4. Hannah
    April 16, 2013

    I really appreciated the points about having an identity outside of graduate school. It’s so important to remember that, and to have events or disciplines or regularly scheduled fun that reminds you.

    I decided not to pursue tenure track at this point in my life, after finishing a Ph.D. in English literature in 2011. While I’d certainly advise anyone considering a Ph.D. in humanities to think about it carefully on a practical level, I have been amazed by some of the skills it helped me to develop, and by how useful they’ve been. It helped me to think much more clearly and articulately, and many writing tasks that would have taken me hours and hours before are much more manageable now.

    I know this will sound odd to some, but I think that the Ph.D. in literature helped me to communicate better with people as well. It forced me to think carefully and to do the patient work of articulating what I thought about complicated ideas and emotions. Though it sounds strange, I genuinely think that I’m better at communicating with friends and family because of the Ph.D. I’m sure that there would be other less complicated ways to improve one’s communications skills, but it worked for me. :)

  5. John Milliken
    April 17, 2013

    This post includes statistics on unemployment rates to rebut the claim that you’ll never get a job with a Ph.D. While the stats are interesting, I think they are beside the point here for two reasons. First, they include Ph.D.s in the sciences, where the employment picture is completely different than that for the humanities. Second, the concern really isn’t about employment as such but employment as a professor. Here I can only speak from first-hand experience in the field of philosophy, but in recent years the number of those on the market securing tenure-track positions is somewhere under 20%. The remaining 80% either get nothing at all or choose to adjunct or take up one-years posts in the hopes of better luck in next year’s lottery. So for the majority of those graduating with the Ph.D. in philosophy, it is very much the case that they will not get a job–at least not the one for which their education prepared them.

    • Micheal Hickerson
      April 17, 2013

      Thank you for your comments, John. If you look at The Atlantic article that I link to in my footnote, it includes stats for humanities PhDs. The difference between the humanities and the sciences is mostly in terms of earning potential, not the unemployment rate. Humanities PhDs make, on average, right around the median income for average US workers (roughly, if my memory is right, so forgive me if I’m wrong). That’s a strong argument against going into debt for a humanities PhD, spending a long time finishing the degree, and perhaps even enrolling as a full-time student, but not necessarily against the degree itself.

      In her article, Schuman made a blanket statement that “you will not a job” with a humanities PhD, which I strongly disagree with. If we want to talk solely about tenure-track faculty jobs, then you’re right – that’s a whole other ballgame. James K.A. Smith has written a good series on graduate school that includes good advice about tenure-track jobs.

      I plan on including a discussion of tenure-track faculty jobs in a later post.

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