Every few years, another publication discovers that becoming a tenured professor at a research university is hard work. Most recently, it was Slate, which ran an essay by Rebecca Shuman which, fittingly for an essay about literary study, had two different titles depending on whether you looked at the text on the page or the title in your browser:
- Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor.
- There are no academic jobs and getting a Ph.D. will make you into a horrible person: A jeremiad.
Neither title is all that catchy, but you have to give them credit for clarity and SEO.
Schuman shares her regret at going to graduate school. I could tell from her opening paragraph that she was going to be in trouble.
Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D. So perhaps you, literature lover, are considering pursuing this path.
Her conclusion, after having this false dream thoroughly driven from her system:
I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.
Is Earning a Ph.D. a Dead-End Street?
Perhaps some numbers might help put things into perspective. Let’s dismiss the idea that you’ll “never get a job” if you earn a Ph.D.
As of January 28, 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the following:
- Unemployment rate for all workers: 6.8%
- Unemployment rate for workers with a Ph.D.: 2.5%
- Median weekly earnings for all workers: $815
- Median weekly earnings for workers with a Ph.D.: $1,624
So, the unemployment rate for people with a Ph.D. is less than half median earnings are nearly double, than that for the average US worker. While Garrison Keillor’s sketches about a literature Ph.D. working the drive-through at a burger joint are funny, they don’t reflect reality. Certainly, some fields (computer science, engineering) have more employment options than do humanities Ph.D.s, earning a Ph.D. in literature is not a one-way ticket to Hooverville.
The Big However: It’s also not a one-way ticket to a tenured professorship, especially if your vision of “tenured professorship” is sipping Mai-Tais on the beach while pontificating about Toni Morrison and raking in a guaranteed paycheck for life. Becoming an academic superstar, like 31-year-old tenured Wharton professor Adam Grant sounds like a pretty sweet gig, but read this article about his “secret to productivity” carefully — paying close attention to his wife’s comments near the end — and reflect on the amount of drive, effort, and sheer luck required for that kind of academic success.
It Will All Work Out for the Best. Maybe.
I’m not going to offer you bland reassurances like “You’ll be fine” or “It will all work for the best.” Frankly, I don’t know how it will work out for you. As my father-in-law is fond of saying, life is full of disappointments. I will offer instead some truths, which may or may not be reassuring:
Becoming a tenured professor is extraordinarily difficult. It has always been difficult, and it’s becoming more so as the number of tenured positions shrinks. Any number of things can go wrong at every stage of the process, and it’s an extremely competitive industry in which to land a good job. I think part of the challenge of becoming a professor is that, at some point along the way, you stop being a student (where satisfactorily meeting explicit requirements results in a passing grade) and begin a career (where nothing is guaranteed, even if you do everything right). But then I don’t know of any worthwhile vocation that is easy.
Graduate school is a path with many destinations. Most graduate degrees, including a Ph.D., prepare you for a number of possible careers. Just because you don’t become a tenured professor doesn’t mean that your degree has been a “failure.” Further, failing to complete a Ph.D. is not the same as “failing.” I wish I had the link, but I remember a study which found that Ph.D. “dropouts” reported higher job satisfaction and earnings than their peers who completed the Ph.D. One of our ESN mentors has observed that graduate school is an excellent time to reflect on who you are, who you want to be, and what you want to do with the rest of your life.
In addition, just because you love biology, this doesn’t mean you should dive into a biology Ph.D. program, even if you are accepted into one. Virtually every subject area has both professional and research degrees, and there is a variety of options even within those two great divisions.
You can prepare yourself for the greatest chance at success. Perhaps the worst thing you can do is enter graduate school with misperceptions about your prospects, no specific goals, and no clear plan for reaching your unspecified goals. Whether your goal is “become a tenure professor” (which I would advise only in certain rare circumstances) or something more modest, you can some basic steps to prepare yourself for graduate school and beyond.
The Getting Ready for Grad School Seminar
ESN has created a seminar curriculum called Getting Ready for Grad School. It’s intended to be offered by campus ministers for juniors and seniors thinking about graduate school (whether a Ph.D. or professional program), but there are plenty of resources within the program that can help individual students.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to introduce the seminar through a series of blog posts, explaining the rationale behind the curriculum and offering a summary of the resources we’ve compiled. If you’re a campus minister or college administrator, I’d love to hear your thoughts about offering this seminar to your students. If you’re a student, whether just considering graduate school or already enrolled, let me know what else you would like to see included. If there are resources that have helped you, let me know.
The introduction to the seminar can be found on this page of the blog. I’ll be introducing the core curriculum and additional resources in future blog posts, but feel free to explore them in the meantime. I’ll also be sharing links to helpful articles and resources written by people smarter than myself who have also reflected on the difficult problem of succeeding in graduate school.
What do you think about Shuman’s take on earning a Ph.D.? If you’re an undergraduate, what do you want to know about graduate school? If you’re already in graduate school, what do you wish someone had told you?
- If you want a stronger case for not going to graduate school, be sure to read William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”. ↩
- Jordan Weissmann offers a detailed breakdown of Ph.D. employment and earnings in The Atlantic. The article is titled “America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists,” but this is in comparison to previous generations of Ph.D.s, not in comparison to their peers who don’t earn Ph.D. Weissmann concludes, “Most these Ph.D.’s will eventually find work — and probably decently compensated work at that. After all, the unemployment rate for those with even a college degree is under 4 percent, and in 2008, science and engineering doctorate holders up to three years out of school had just 1.5 percent unemployment.” ↩