Is Graduate School a Path to Certain Doom?

Micheal Hickerson —  April 16, 2013 — 7 Comments
A Scholar by Rembrandt

What’s this you say about “doom”?

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.[1]

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

Comparison of unemployment rates and median weekly earnings across different educational levels. Ph.D.s are second only to professional degrees.

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.[1]

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?


  1. 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”.  ↩
  2. 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.”  ↩

Micheal Hickerson

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The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

7 responses to Is Graduate School a Path to Certain Doom?

  1. 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.

    • 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

    • 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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