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The Ph.D.

[ 133 ] November 13, 2011 |

Larry Cebula offers an argument we hear frequently: that no one should go on for a Ph.D. because there aren’t jobs. Cebula covers the basic points: delayed income earnings that will never pay off, massive debt, living in horrible parts of the country, etc.

It’s hard to argue against him. Like Paul’s many excellent posts on the problems with law schools that you have read here over the last few months, which I am going to force any student of mine who wants a letter for law school to read in exchange for the letter, it is probably a very bad idea to go for a Ph.D. in history.

But I hesitate a bit. I am a graduate of the University of New Mexico. This is not an elite institution. It is marginally a top-50 Ph.D. program. It has strengths in certain areas (Latin America, U.S. West, U.S.-Mexico borderlands) but you wouldn’t want to go there for anything else. Theoretically, it should be really hard to get a job with a UNM Ph.D.

However, every single person I know who was a serious student at UNM and who wanted to go into academia has a job. Every single one. Without exception (at least on the U.S. side of things). Almost all of these are tenure-track jobs with a few newer scholars presently in very fine visiting positions. And I know people from several other less-than-elite institutions who are doing very well for themselves too (Arizona, UNLV, and Nebraska come to mind). Those who chose to do something else other than academia have also succeeded in their chosen fields. So what’s the deal with this?

Just thinking out loud here because I’m almost positive no one has done any studies on this, I am wondering if there are not certain Ph.D. programs that are preparing people for the realities of the modern market more effectively than more traditionally elite programs. You might need that Yale Ph.D. to get that job at Brown or Vassar, but that’s not a lot of jobs. And people coming out of New Mexico, who have been forced to engage in public history just to pay their way through the last years of graduate school (I did historic preservation work at Los Alamos National Laboratory), probably aren’t going to get that Brown job. But we are getting positions of quality, including myself.

I don’t mean this to brag on my Ph.D. program (well, maybe a little bit). I do indeed think it’s a terrible idea to go get the Ph.D. in 2011, wherever it may be. But I’m also wondering if there are not better ways to train historians (and presumably students in other disciplines) that will make them more competitive on the job market as it now stands. Because I don’t think just writing a great dissertation and having letters from big-name professors and a big fellowship is enough anymore. I think you need to have real teaching experience, be able to teach online, have experiences that will resonate with the average undergraduate at your directional state school. You need to be flexible, do a lot of different things, and prepare for a world outside the academy. You’ll probably need those skills because you probably aren’t getting that academic job.

On the other hand, those very skills that have prepared you to do something else may also separate you from the pack in a traditional academic job search, as they have with me three times, and as they did with other people I know. In my case, that meant blogging, creating historical markers, doing some consulting work, etc.

No conclusions here, just some random thoughts. I’m not saying that less elite programs are by and large placing students at a greater rate than more elite schools. That’s probably not the case. I will say though that any Ph.D. students needs to be as flexible and multifaceted as possible and I’m not sure that traditionally elite Ph.D. programs are prepared to train their students in this way.

…..To ground this in a bit more hard evidence, 4 UNM Ph.D’s received tenure-track jobs in last year’s job cycle. That is more than some much higher ranked departments have placed in the last 5 years combined.

…..Roger Whitson has a really intelligent reply to Cebula, with specific recommendations to both graduate students and departments on ways to improve job prospects outside of the collapsing tenure-track market.

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  1. Pinko Punko says:

    If as a society we cannot support the generation and study of knowledge, I don’t see how any could claim that the US is some sort of historical bench mark as many would like. The value of much higher education is abstract and is really only supported by there being enough money in the economy to allow it to exist outside of easily quantifiable outcomes, which higher ed antagonists would like to use to shape the debate. This is not to to claim that higher ed is only a privilege of a society with cash to burn as it were, just that the more abstract the value of the pursuit the greater difficulty in winning any debates about its usefulness, especially for cobag bloggers who like to trot out “just so ” stories about teachers with MFAs in puppetry, or likely internal feelings about their own superiority existing without advanced degrees or credentials. I wonder to whom I allude?

    Anyhow, excess capacity in the system is a huge problem in the life sciences where the entire enterprise is run on grad student and post-doc labor (cheaper than long term employees), and then these folks go into the sausage grinder because there are not jobs for them long term. Part of this is the nature of funding being temporary or project based. It is easier to staff a class of temp employees that can graduate out the door or be let go with breaks in funding. It is not a good system and does not function without growth, so it can be rightly criticized on those lines.

    • Linnaeus says:

      Anyhow, excess capacity in the system is a huge problem in the life sciences where the entire enterprise is run on grad student and post-doc labor (cheaper than long term employees), and then these folks go into the sausage grinder because there are not jobs for them long term.

      At one point in his book, The Last Professors, Frank Donoghue makes the observation that Ph.D.’s are actually the “waste products” of graduate programs, i.e., the point of graduate programs is increasingly to provide low-cost labor to a university. The fact that a program may actually produce Ph.D.’s at is incidental, as they’re no longer useful to the institution at that point.

      • mpowell says:

        Well, Dave’s scathing criticism aside, I think there is a motivation for some people to get a PhD. It’s just not financial. You do it because you like learning, because you like the flexibility you have to do research that interests you (yes there are constraints but they are different than the ones you will find in private life) and you are just not ready to move into private work. And maybe you are holding out hope that you can get a decent position as an academic. As long as you are not going into debt, it’s not an absurd decision.

        • Linnaeus says:

          That’s certainly why I originally decided to do it. I certainly made mistakes along the way, and I learned things about academia that I only could have learned by being in it. Since then, my goals have changed. But I don’t think the original goal was absurd; I just wasn’t fully aware of what was in store for me.

  2. Dave says:

    Because I don’t think just writing a great dissertation and having letters from big-name professors and a big fellowship is enough anymore. I think you need to have real teaching experience, be able to teach online,

    I’m trying to be charitable and find a way to gloss this as something other than “Go Fuck Yourself.” Maybe, “Congratulations, go fuck yourself.” I can just imagine this letter: “As a prominent gray eminence, I can attest to the fact that Dr. So-and-So’s dissertation was remarkable, a real intervention in the field, and s/he is also able to teach online.”

    I’ll share some hard-earned wisdom here. There is no good reason to get a Ph.D. Most people do it because they were good at college. They sign up for grad school bent on repressing all knowledge of job markets. They are assisted by grad programs and grad directors in doing just that, through admissions coddling and lies. Early grad students go through coursework playing the same game they’ve always played, but more arrogantly. The motive force here is essentially to be patted on the head for being so smart by some imaginary person for whom one’s adviser is a stand-in, except that one’s adviser does not pat one on the head, but instead does not fucking care. Why would they? You are just a graduate student.

    Either then one graduates, in which case one continues to chase the approval of persons both imaginary (“You’re so smart!”) and real (“Maybe you’ll get tenure!”) These so-called Assistant Professors are insufferable, and spend lots of time blogging about how much work they have to do/have gotten done/how great it is to be an academic even in Fucksville, Alabama because We Serve the Truth or some shit. (If they are male, this will not be a public blog, it will be more like a stream-of-consciousness for an audience of one.) Most of these people get tenure and spend the rest of their lives as discontented assholes, fighting with department chairs for release time, begging an indifferent administration for a few dollars, and thinking of the most collegial-yet-subtly-cutting retorts with which to jab other academic pricks who really just want to be patted on the head at conferences. Every now and again you will publish a middling-to-stupid article in Who Gives A Fuck Quarterly which will be read by ten people, all hoping to nit-pick it and score points in the reckoning, again, of someone who does not exist.

    Or else you get out of grad school and do something nice with your life. Or, better yet, you never go. Choose wisely!

    • wiley says:

      Someone once remarked on how, in American society, when you’re a child (a child in a relatively stable and caring environment) you’re surrounded by people who make a big deal about every little accomplishment and milestone on your part, your birthdays and holidays are excuses to shower you with gifts and praise, you’re fussed over and quite often the center of attention; then when you grow up and actually work very hard to accomplish something, but nobody gives a shit. You’re just an adult.

      Maybe we have it kinda backward.

    • John says:

      A lot of this seems right, but it’s also poisonously cynical. You take this incredibly derisive attitude about academia, and then suggest that, alternately, you could “do something nice with your life”. What, exactly, would that be? Your post is just Ecclesiastes for Academics – all is vanity, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and so forth. What career choice couldn’t be described in such a negative manner by someone without any sympathy for it?

      • Dave says:

        Oh, I would say any career choice that revolves around the exchange of money for labor.

        Academia, obviously, starts with the imperative, “DANCE, MONKEY,” and offers in exchange almost guaranteed misery.

        • elm says:

          How much have you spoken with actual academics? Sure, we love to gripe about little things, like how rarely we get sabbatical or how our dean doesn’t provide enough resources for our research, but most of us also love our jobs. It’s a great gig and I can say without hesitation that even if I won multiple millions in the lottery, I would still do what I do (though I’d probably buy out some of my teaching duties. 1 course of semester, alternating between grad and undergrad courses, would be just about ideal.)

          • Dave says:

            How much have you spoken with actual academics?

            Oh, this is rich. I have spoken with actual academics my entire adult life. I really do dislike the game, and have no sympathy for the players–who, by and large, are capable of harboring stunning delusions by the time they’re on the tenure track and will recite them for anyone who will listen. I’m sure you have a great gig! Why don’t you talk about how great it is with the adjuncts who do most of the teaching in this country?

            • elm says:

              Oh, your argument is limited to adjuncts and not to all of academia? That’s quite a bit different than your original claim made it seem.

              Adjuncts are, by and large, treated quite poorly. I both support a reduction in the number of adjuncts in favor of tenure track hires and an improvement in the pay and conditions for adjuncts. On the other hand, I did adjunct before I got my tenure track job and, while it was nowhere near as good as tenure track, I still liked it quite fine. But, I guess I enjoy the field I’ve chosen to go into. My sincere sympathy that you seem to not be so fortunate.

              • Dave says:

                No, my argument is not limited to adjuncts. If anything, it’s directed foremost at the kind of people who think that adjuncts are somehow separate from “all academia.”

                • elm says:

                  Adjuncts are part of but not the entirety of all academia. Really, are you struggling with this? If you had an argument that applied only to Associate Professors and no one else, I would also claim it didn’t apply to all academia.

                  You claimed that academia offers “almost guaranteed misery.” I offered the perspective that I and all the academics I know (full disclosure: I am tenure-track and I interact more frequently with other tenure-track faculty, so the set that I know is definitely a non-representative sample) are very happy with their jobs. You said, “Talk to the adjuncts, then.”

                  So either your argument doesn’t apply to non-adjuncts or it’s wrong.

        • John says:

          Do you really think it’s difficult to make similar poisonously cynical cases against virtually every other form of employment on offer?

          Once you’ve decided to look only at the negative aspects of something, of course it’s going to look pretty terrible.

          Most people who are successful at their jobs become complacent and callous towards those still struggling. Most young people choose career paths without having much of a sense of why they’re doing it, besides a quest for external validation (although different kinds of external validation for different paths). Most people complain about their jobs, and most people will not be superstars at the top of their chosen profession. That’s just the world. What does any of it have to do with academia?

          Your post actually ignores all of the actual reasons that getting a PhD is often a bad idea – the lack of tenure-track jobs; the adjunct grind; the lack of viable alternatives once you’ve gotten the PhD. It’s just nihilism.

          • Malaclypse says:

            Say what you will about the adjunct trap, but at least its an ethos.

          • Dave says:

            It’s not just nihilism, really! It’s (I hope) some kind of corrective to the happy stories academics tell themselves about the profession.

            Academic work is not a “hobby” you just happen to get paid for. It is not a disinterested pursuit of knowledge. It is not Nerd Heaven. As far as I can tell, these seem to be the chief, if implicit, good reasons people can give for getting a PhD. They’re not good reasons to get a PhD! They’re just happy delusions! In which case, you know, you’re the nihilist here.

    • I’ll share some hard-earned wisdom here. There is no good reason to get a Ph.D.

      I’ll tell my neurobiologist friend she should stop doing her Parkinson’s research. Thanks!

      • elm says:

        Your friend’s belief that she might actually make a difference and improve the world is just a happy delusion. In reality, deep down, she’s bitter that she can’t get an additional semester of release time from her chair.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          And she’s also deluded about the many completely pain-free ways of exchanging labor for money that exist outside of academia. If only she had chosen any other profession she would never have had to worry about groveling to superiors, tedious make-work projects and meetings, and doing things that earn little public recognition. False consciousness is a sad thing.

          • Dave says:

            Holy god, here in this very post Loomis describes a situation in which a stellar dissertation, along with LORs from Top Experts is not good enough to land a job, and that you also must demonstrate that you can teach online! People in the profession actively seek to dissuade people outside the profession from trying to reproduce it!

            Yes, I’m sure you all love your jobs very much, but remarkably, you seem not to consider that your jobs exist in a stunningly broken set of institutions, conditions which you yourselves admit to. If that’s not delusion, I don’t know what is.

  3. stickler says:

    Well, as someone who managed to get a job with his PhD in History (!), I think I’ll sympathise with Mr. (Dr.?) Loomis.

    At my (Big 10 then, no names, but Bobby Knight was, ah, somehow affiliated with a certain sports program) institution, History graduate students were groomed for careers at Research 1 schools. Hell, it was an open secret that all the Berkeley and Harvard and Chicago faculty would never actually hire a Big 10 Ph.D. for their own department.

    Yet I — and almost all my cohort, so far as I know — got our Ph.D.s, our requisite dose of bitterness, and JOBS. At liberal arts colleges, CCs, state colleges, and the odd Catholic University. (Emphasis on “odd.”)

    Dave is of course correct: there is no good reason to get a Ph.D. in History. On the other hand, if you get a job where you can talk about your hobby every day, that’s not so bad. Is it?

  4. Steve Fountain says:

    I have thought a lot about this in the past few years. I plan to comment more fully on Larry’s blog, but you are on target that public history may be a difference in success. I have stopped writing letters of recommendation for students seeking entry to PhD programs in the Liberal Arts and Humanities. If they want to enter an MA program, I continue to help them out – with as many warnings about reality as I can put in front of them.
    I think one of the differences between the supposed “top tier” programs and UNM (which is certainly in the top tier in the fields you mention) is that they – the Ivys or Ivy emulators – will not deign to engage with something as pedestrian as Public History. Their programs are one-way tracks to an academic job or nothing, and too often, it is nothing.
    Meanwhile, the only students I currently oversee with job offers are in public history while there is pressure to eliminate all MA programs in favor of PhD programs. Meanwhile we have a system that needs PhD students to operate the big tuition/FTE-driven courses with little consideration of the actual job market awaiting them.
    Perhaps most telling on this point is the following from William Deresiewicz in The Nation (May 4, 2011): “At Yale, we were overjoyed if half our graduating students found positions. That’s right—half. Imagine running a medical school on that basis. As Christopher Newfield points out in Unmaking the Public University (2008), that’s the kind of unemployment rate you’d expect to find among inner-city high school dropouts.”

  5. Linnaeus says:

    I go back and forth on this question. On the whole, though, if an undergraduate student came to me and said she or he was interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in history, I’d probably warn against it, or at the very least strongly urge that student to spend some time doing other things for a while, after which the student may decide that a Ph.D. isn’t the way to go. Or she or he may still want to do so after careful consideration of all relevant factors. If that happened, I’d say 1) prepare to do nonacademic work, as that’s what you’re more likely to get and 2) it’s okay to bug out if it’s not working out for you. Worse things have happened.

    I’ve remarked about my own situation a few times on this blog, so if folks would rather not read it, feel free to skip ahead to the next comment. Put bluntly, I’ve pretty much done everything that Cebula and many folks on this blog would, understandably, say never, ever to do. I borrowed a lot of money, the amount of which I will not reveal out of embarrassment. I’ve taken “too long” to finish (still not, actually, but getting there). I’ve even stopped teaching and now I’m piecing together several other jobs. Do I have any regrets? Maybe a few, but I honestly don’t know how many things I’d do differently if I had the chance. Bottom line is that I still have many years left to live and suicide is not an attractive option, so I just have to pick myself up, chalk some things up to lessons learned, and move on. If I have to be someone’s cautionary tale, there’s nothing I can do about that.

    I will say though that any Ph.D. students needs to be as flexible and multifaceted as possible and I’m not sure that traditionally elite Ph.D. programs are prepared to train their students in this way.

    I’d say most Ph.D. programs aren’t prepared to train their students in this way. Mine isn’t, although it’s starting to get a clue.

    • Lee says:

      PhD programs are kind of like law school in that law school doesn’t train people how to be lawyers, it trains them to teach the law. Very little of what I learned in law school is applicable to my work as a lawyer.

      Likewise, PhD programs, especially in the humanities, seem designed to produce scholars rather than college professors or people capable of writing on history, literature or philosophy for a mass audience. And I think that teaching students seeking in PhD programs how to write for a mass audience and an academic audience would be highly useful.

      PhD programs should also try to get their students to teach at a lower level than college/university. My public high school had more than a few PhDs teaching in it. Not all PhDs are going to be able to churn out the amount of research necessary for a tenured professorship or even get a job at the college level. There is no harm in teaching at a high school level. There might be great value in having a high school history teacher or literature teacher with a deeper understanding and passion for the subject than an average teacher.

      • mpowell says:

        I would say this is true. I had a European history teacher in high school with an MA and the difference in enthusiasm and knowledge was noticeable. It was a terrific high school class.

    • DrDick says:

      Here at my little third tier school, we actively advise students considering graduate school that there are very few jobs. I personally also advise them to apply to better schools if I think they are any good. Our graduate program also primarily focuses on those areas (mostly outside of academia per se) where there is the greatest job growth.

  6. Marc says:

    The sciences are not the same as the humanities (and the situation varies wildly from one field to another in either.) Could you please clarify / amend / whatever to define what you’re talking about? Science PhDs tend to get good jobs and don’t go into debt, as they are paid stipends and don’t pay tuition (in most cases, again.)

    The fraction who get jobs at research universities is not that high (about 1/5 in my field), with a comparable number in liberal-arts colleges. (We just did a retrospective of our graduates; our numbers are a bit better than the norm but not drastically so.) However, the remainder are largely doing very well. (The market for math whizzes in fiance is down a bit, but we’ve had a good long run where the people who left the field could make much more than those who stayed in it.)

    And, honestly, has the job market in the humanities ever been that good?

    • Walt says:

      I honestly can’t imagine a way Erik could make it any clearer he’s talking about history. Delete every word from the post other than “history”?

    • Jonathan says:

      If the only way you can make a living is by leaving the field in which you were trained, what’s the point in being trained in that field? Why get a degree in Physics to enter Finance? Why not just get a degree in Math, Business, or Economics?

      I’ll say to you the same thing I said to Erik. You’re old. Middle-age begins at 25. You don’t understand what the situation facing actual young people today is. Your experience is worthless because the environment in which they took place is gone. You’re better off becoming a diesel mechanic or an RN than a PhD.

      • Murc says:

        You’re old. Middle-age begins at 25. You don’t understand what the situation facing actual young people today is.

        If you think that people who are 25 are 1) middle-aged, and 2) that their experience is ‘worthless’ because the environment that, if they’re like most grad students, they either got out of a year ago or are still working in, you’re wrong. You just are.

        • Murc says:

          That should have read ‘are still working in, has changed so dramatically it’s been rendered moot, you’re wrong.’

          I guess my brain is riddled with dementia due to my advanced age.

        • Jonathan says:

          Median life expectancy is 75. Divide that into three equal sections. 0-25 is young, 25-50 is middle-aged, 50-death is old. Middle-age begins at 25. Erik is much older than 25. More like 35 as it’s been 12 years since he got his MA. He’s not young, his experience is outdated. People who are actually 25 have been driven to take to the streets over the job market, among other things, so I’m guessing they would agree with me.

      • John says:

        This is idiotic. Erik just got a tenure track job last year.

      • Marc says:

        That’s silly. To begin with, I know what the career tracks of our students are; it’s simply false to claim that they are not getting academic positions.

        And the people who don’t are, by and large, getting training that does apply to other areas. Doing original research by solving equations on computers, for example, is a valuable skill with broad reach. This does differ from what happens in the humanities in important ways.

        Of course, some people don’t position themselves in that way, or learn skills that don’t transfer well. The solution there is better mentoring and training, and that’s something that our department spends a lot of time thinking about and trying to do.

    • (the other) Davis says:

      I’ll dissent from this, at least as far as math goes — especially since we’re basing this on personal experience. I finished my PhD five years ago, when things were ostensibly better. Over the course of three job application cycles (three years), I secured the following job options: (1) Take a tenure track job at Murray State University (and become a single, Yankee city-person in a tiny southern town far from my friends and my family). (2) Take a non-tenured, indefinite position at NCSU with a 4/4 teaching load, online course-development responsibilities over the summer, and an expectation that I would do research in math education (one of the members of that department earnestly told me he thought tenure as a concept was on its way out). (3) Continue with my adjunct position at Seattle University, which I had obtained through personal connections, and hope for an early departure of the dean who refused to allow the department to consider me for tenure-track — because I obtained my PhD at the nearby University of Washington.

      I did get a couple of calls from finance companies when I finished my PhD, but if I had wanted to work in finance I wouldn’t have bothered getting a math PhD.

      When I finally gave up on the professorial life, I realized my department had not prepared me for a job search outside academia — I simply had no idea what I could do with my degree. (I still refused to consider the finance track, both because I still had a soul at that time, and because the market had seriously gone south.)

      The major irony, for regular readers of this blog, is that I decided to go to law school — and that it’s working out well for me on the jobs front.

      • (the other) Davis says:

        I’ll also add that another of my advisor’s students who finished with me has also failed to obtain a tenure-track position in the years since we finished, though he’s still chugging away as an adjunct at a small college.

        I think the problem is not exactly one of employability in this case. It’s that we went into PhD programs with the expectation of lining up careers in academia, and it wasn’t until we got out that we learned that those expectations might have been unreasonable — and that we should have been setting ourselves up for other options while we were in the program.

        • Marc says:

          That’s a conversation I have with graduate school applicants, that we have with students once they arrive, and that I regularly repeat with students when I’m working with them. If people aren’t doing this for their students they shouldn’t be advising graduate students, period.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Erik, I know it’s hard to get people your age to understand this, but I’ll try. You’re old. Judging by the info on your CV, unless you were some kind of Wunterkind, you’re an early member of Gen-X or a late Boomer. That mean’s you’re old. As an old person, your experiences from the early part of your career mean fuck all to anyone of grad school age.

    Let me put it bluntly. Boomers ate the future. There is no other way to put it. Baby Boomers ate their seed. And by seed, I mean the future. Those CC and State schools your friends got jobs at? Their budgets have been slashed. They won’t be able to keep all the teachers they have now. ow will they be able to make more? Public history jobs? Their public funding has been slashed and private donations have declined precipitously. Even if you go into something commercially marketable like Engineering, CompSci, or Mathematics (hello Wall Street), there’s little chance of ever paying off the non-dischargeable debt you will incur on your way to getting your PhD.

    From a strictly rational, Homo Economous perspective, there is no reason for anyone to get a PhD. The institutions that allowed you get get your doctorate are dead or dying. The future done got ate.

    That this state of affairs spells doom for our civilization is unfortunate, but the inevitable consequence of the Boomers. Like all teenagers, they couldn’t imagine living past 35. They were so sure they’d burn out in a flash of nuclear glory. They partied like there was no tomorrow. Because of this, there isn’t going to be a tomorrow. I can only take comfort in the fact that since the Boomers are by and large going to live well into their 70’s, most of them will be with us to suffer the collapse of our civilization.

    • Sargon says:

      Someone who is almost definitely under 40 years old is a late Boomer? Are we defining “baby boomer” as “anyone born before 1975” now?

      For that matter, someone who got his Ph.D. in 2008, has obviously been on the job market a lot in the past couple years, and just got a tenure-track job doesn’t know fuck all about the current job market? Were you even reading the right C.V.?

      • Jonathan says:

        A Boomer is generally recognized as anyone born between 1945 and 1965. I estimated Erik to have been born between 1970 and 1975. It’s possible he either delayed his education in someway (such as military service) that would make him older than that projection. That’s why I put Gen-X before Boomer as it was more likely, though not certain.

        And being in the job market for a few years is incredibly different from entering the job market for the first time.

        • Western Dave says:

          1945-1960 is the Baby Boom. not 1965. It’s been creeping up for the past couple of years. As a proud Gen Xer (b. 1967), you’ll be lumping me with the baby boom soon and that’s just wrong.

        • Harv says:

          Do you have even a single clue?

          I hate to break this to you, but believe it or not, the economy may just be getting better by the time individuals starting graduate school now will be coming of age. Most of the PhD’s I collaborate with (academic MD here) are encouraging students with talent to start graduate school and to weather the storm in grad school (like the job market is all that great right now). History is probably a bit tougher, but sometimes the alternatives aren’t that great

    • Murc says:

      Erik isn’t even forty. Calling him old seems out of line.

      Furthermore, Erik refers repeatedly in this post to the people who were in the same cohort with him at UNM. He finished at UNM… three years ago.

      You’re saying that his experiences of three to five years ago mean fuck-all today? I am skeptical.

      • Jonathan says:

        Old as in not young. It’s a really hard concept to communicate to a 30-somthing that they’re not young anymore. 71% of their life experience is of being a young person. It’s a rather deep seated notion that “Old People” are all people older than you, rather than people your own age.

        And I’d like ot point out that three-to-five years ago was before the utter collapse of the global economy and the subsequent deep and brutal cuts being leveled at our educational system. Going into a job market at the height of a boom is an entirely different animal from going into the job market after the bust.

        • Murc says:

          “Old” does not mean “not young.” I would agree that you stop being young sometime in your mid-twenties. You don’t start being “old” until much later than that. You could make an extremely technical case for it, but the vast majority are going to think that referring to someone who is thirty as “old” is ridiculous.

          • cpinva says:

            when i was 15, a 30 year-old was ancient to me. i’ve grown up since then.

            i assumed mr. loomis was referring to a phd in history, not science/math/finance, which are different animals entirely. myself, i wanted to double-major in english/history, i also enjoyed having a roof over my head and food in my tummy, on a regular basis. i majored in accounting, and minored in econ instead. eventually, i passed the cpa exam, or survived, take your pick. i have worked in the field (auditing/tax law) since. this was in the mid-70’s.

            the job market for history phd’s (and english/social sciences) sucked then, as it does now, and probably will forevermore.

            in spite of young jonathan’s assertion to the contrary, the economic collapse of 2008, etc. had little direct effect on funding for the humanities, that area has been consistently on everyone’s budget slash list since at least the reagan administration, if not before. it may have simply accelerated the process, but it certaintly didn’t start it. were the economy to recover fully, unemployment disappear, and tax revenues come pouring in, funding for the humanities will continue to get cut, the monies going to (seemingly) more economically viable programs.

            you may not like it, but that’s where we, as a society, have decided greater value lies.

    • dave says:

      In my experience, going for a PhD is certainly a crazy thing to do, and has been for the last 30 years at least. But many of the crazy people I have known to undertake it, both in my own generation and more latterly, are enjoying fulfilling, if not stress-free, careers doing something they love and value. Which is rather the point, I feel.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        …has been for the last 30 years at least…

        That should almost certainly read “40 years.” Those of us who went to grad school in history in the mid-to-late 1980s can attest that we had it better than those who went to grad school in the 1970s.

        • DrDick says:

          The same is true in anthropology. When I got my Ph.D. in 1987, only 20% of new Ph.D.s in the field got academic employment. I struggled for many years in the academic contingent market, but have had a stable and decent paying job doing what I love for the last 14 years and would not trade it for anything.

          • Furious Jorge says:

            Sadly, it doesn’t look like I will get the opportunity to advance beyond “academic contingent,” as my financial situation has degenerated to the point where much much more is needed.

            I remember my advisor telling me how I’d be much better positioned than the geology students I knew, because “geographers get jobs” (his words exactly – I will never forget them). Well, this is my fifth year on the job market, which means I have spent more time looking for a tenure-track position than I spent earning the damn degree that qualifies me for the job in the first place. My CV is pretty good, actually, with a book from a respected publishing house, a number of publications and a shitload of AAG presentations. And what’s worst of all is that over those five cycles, I’ve made the cut for exactly one campus visit – and that was in Flint, Michigan.

            And of course I would have taken it without a second thought.

            I’m envious of people like you, DrDick. All I wanted was a career where I could spend much of the day writing, thinking, and talking about the subjects I was passionate about. Honestly, I don’t think that’s really too much to ask, but the realities of the marketplace have kicked any optimism out of me.

            • Linnaeus says:

              I empathize and sympathize. I often feel much the same way. On the other hand, I learned a lot about the academic environment that I didn’t like, so when I came to the conclusion that I had to figure out something else to do, I felt a little liberated, oddly enough.

            • DrDick says:

              I know what you are going through. I spent a decade in the contingent market before lucking into this position. Do not give up hope, but you have to be realistic. I was on the verge of leaving the discipline when I got this job.

  8. djw says:

    In a weird way, I wonder if the epic economic catastrophe has, if anything, made the PhD in humanities/social sciences a slightly less terrible idea. I still try and warn students away from it, but:

    1. Your entry into the job market is far enough down the road that the current disastrous job market might have plausibly improved. Probably not, of course, (I suspect we’re entering a lost decade or more), but it’s more plausible than, say, law school (where the numbers are just as bad, if not worse) or a 2 year professional MA.

    2. More importantly, if you get funding (and obviously if you don’t, you shouldn’t), it’s actually a job. A low paying one, of course, but still: what’s the unemployment rate for those under 25 with humanities/social science degrees? 30%? More? And how many of those jobs are part time, service industry, etc? Before, when the economy was functioning, you could talk about about all the lost earning/advancement opportunities with some plausibility. Now? A five year funding offer in a PhD program in a lot closer to the median financial outcome for ages 22-27, even if it’s leading nowhere in the end.

  9. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    What I find a little odd about this post–and this thread–is that Larry Cebula (correctly IMO) focuses on the deteriorating conditions of academic employment in the linked blog posts, but that these go largely unmentioned in this post and thread.

    At the heart of Cebula’s argument is that there are fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs. He’s not, in fact, saying that it’s always been crazy to get a PhD in history (though it’s been nearly a quarter century since it’s been an easy career path). He’s saying that it’s becoming crazy to get a PhD in history.

    I agree with Erik that some PhD programs do a better job preparing students for the job market than others (and that a handful of “second tier” programs are often among the best at this…because they have to be). Having taught briefly at a midwestern public university with a high-second-tier history PhD program that absolutely didn’t do this, I can tell you that it makes a difference.

    But the core problem here is the changing structure of academic employment. And I guess I disagree (in part at least) with Cebula’s decision to treat this as just a fact of nature (or history). Those of us who are tenured or tenure-track faculty can have an impact on that structure. We need to think much more concretely about tranforming universities in a positive direction.

    We can, at the very least, endeavor to produce fewer PhDs (which is, I should say, a slightly different proposition from merely telling our best undergrads not to become PhD students).

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Right–there’s no question that the academic model of employment is broken, etc. Cebula explores that sufficiently, as do many other posts from academics basically everywhere. I assumed that knowledge among readers and took the question in a different direction.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      I meant to write “though it’s been nearly a half century since it’s been an easy career path.”

  10. Furious Jorge says:

    I look at my Ph.D. experience pretty much the same way I look at my military service: an important experience that had a lot to do with the person I eventually became, but not something I would have done if I’d had the information then that I have now.

    And certainly something I would try like hell to talk my own children out of, if they ever showed any interest in it.

    • DrDick says:

      I certainly understand that and actually faced the question in a way last spring. My oldest grandson, who is 15, emailed me saying he was interested in becoming an anthropologist. I did not tell him not to do it, but did point out that requires a PhD and how much work and commitment that entailed and then told him there are not very many jobs in the field. I left it up to him to decide what he wanted to do. Unfortunately, he does have my bad example to draw on.

      • Furious Jorge says:

        Yeah, I certainly hope I would handle it that way too. You gotta trust them to make their own damn decisions at some point, my own experiences be damned.

  11. […] humanities: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot Be a Professor. Erik Loomis replies that no, you can, just not if you go to Duke. Now he tells […]

  12. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I know one guy who got a PhD in American Studies from UNM. After a number of years adjuncting he ended up working in Kyrgyzstan across the hall from me for a few years. He then went to work in Afghanistan at AUAF for two and a half years. Now he is back in the US, but unemployed at 60. But, he never got a tenure track job in the US. So that is one data point against your claim of 100% placement for UNM.

    • djw says:

      Erik was perfectly clear that with respect to New Mexico, he was speaking only about the History Department.

      In general, my understanding is that interdisciplinary PhD programs, with a couple of exceptions, have placement rates considerably worse than traditional disciplinary PhD programs.

    • H. Wren says:

      Yes, but Erik is only focusing here on the history department, and people who have graduated in the last few years. American Studies is a different field entirely.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      American Studies at UNM has a ton of graduate students, few of which have received tenure-track jobs that I know of. I am strictly talking about the history department.

      • Kim says:

        I’m going to second Erik’s post here, as another recent (2008) grad from UNM History. It ain’t easy, it ain’t pretty, and I would (and do) advise against the PhD – but UNM did a pretty good job in preparing us for our futures. My entrance letter said “Congratulations, you will spend X amount of dollars, X amount of years, and be totally unemployable. Welcome to the program.” I adjuncted for 10 years and am three years into a TT job now. I did not graduate with a PhD in American history, but Medieval European, so I should be even _less_ employable. I know whence I speak. Of the eight people who entered with me at UNM, two did not finish – one of whom is on his way, but is already employed in his field. The remaining six of us with degrees, five work in academia, and one does not, but she works with her local historical preservation society and owns a B & B. Was it worth it? I can’t speak for the others, but it was for me. It would have been if I didn’t end up in the field either. I got a PhD because I wanted one – not because I thought I’d get a job.

  13. […] than comment, I thought I’d add my take to Erik’s post below. Essentially, I don’t think it’s possible to make generalizations like […]

  14. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I am sure Erik got his job by a combination of factors that are completely unavailable to many people like myself. First, there is a huge amount of luck. Second, I am sure he knew the right people and certainly his adviser knew even more right people. Third, he is ideologically suited to American academia being a leftist. Hence he faced no ideological gate keeping. Finally, teaching experience is valued by US universities above all other qualifications and being a TA at UNM beats any amount of publications a person may have. A fact that nobody ever admits. So yes Erik got into the elite and he can now look down upon failures like myself who will never get a job at a US university because they are not among the chosen.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Finally, teaching experience is valued by US universities above all other qualifications

      Which is why full-time adjuncting always leads to good results.

      Seriously, this is pretty completely wrong, in my experience.

      So yes Erik got into the elite and he can now look down upon failures like myself who will never get a job at a US university because they are not among the chosen.

      I think you really misread the post.

      • Furious Jorge says:

        Which is why full-time adjuncting always leads to good results.

        Yes, thank you. I’ve been adjuncting for four years now with absolutely no luck at all on the TT job market. So sorry, J. Otto, but your theory doesn’t hold water.

        • We’ve been through this before. Pohl is unable to make the obvious distinction between “a certain minimum of teaching experience is necessary for most tenure-track American jobs” (true) and “teaching is far more important than publications in getting a tenure-track job” (the opposite of the truth.)

          • elm says:

            You know what, I’ve been on a number of tenure-track hiring committees the past few years at an R1. I can honestly say whether or not the candidate had any teaching experience never came up in the committee discussions. Looking back at it, though, everyone we brought in had at least TA’d if not taught their own classes. It seems to me, at least in political science, it is almost impossible to get through an American grad program without at least TA’ing once.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      You are right only about the luck. I know almost nobody. I am terrible at networking and cannot say I have met personally any of the top 10 people in my field. Everyone else has pointed out the many other ways you are wrong.

    • elm says:

      To echo Mal, you have this exactly backwards: US universities (at least the research universities) value very little less than teaching experience (except maybe department and disciplinary service.) You get the job coming out of grad school based on your publications or your prospects for getting publications. Once you have that first job, you get additional job offers by publishing well, not by teaching well.

      Also, you write, “I am sure Erik got his job by a combination of factors that are completely unavailable to many people like myself.” You then name factors as available to you as to Erik, such as luck and having an adviser who knows the right people. (Want an adviser who knows the right people, apply to graduate school in a good department, get accepted, and then make a careful choice of who you want your adviser to be.)

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        I did go to a good department and good school, but it was in the UK so I had no connections in the US. Not that it mattered I had not been a TA at UNM so no amount of publications was going to even get me an interview anywhere in the US(I had two books and a half dozen peer reviewed articles).

        I had a lot of publications and got zero interviews despite sending out over 300 applications. The few people who bothered to send rejection letters mentioned they were only looking for teaching experience, although nowhere was this mentioned in the adverts. Often they hired people with no publications. Almost always they hired people with fewer publications. This was true even for research orientated institutions. Publications do not count at all in my experience.

        You only get that first job in the US by being a TA at UNM, having publications does not help at all if you were never a TA. I don’t know why people won’t admit this. You can not even get an interview at any US institution without teaching experience regardless of your publication record. But, you guys wrongly keep claiming that publications are always more important than being a TA. You can get hired with zero publications. This makes teaching experience much, much, more important than publishing.

        Look is it not enough that you people forced me into exile forever? You could at least be honest about how you gamed the system.The claim that publications are the most important thing in getting hired is a bald faced lie. One I unfortunately at one time believed which is why I will never be able to work in the US. But, I guess that would take away some of Erik’s Schadenfreude in looking down on people that are banned from teaching in the US because they weren’t TAs and UNM.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          So what I’m hearing here is that Otto is very bitter and cannot see past his personal experiences to larger issues. At least we know where you stand.

        • Malaclypse says:

          if you were never a TA

          There is actually quite a big difference between “they only count teaching experience, and not research” and “I went through graduate school without ever once teaching.”

          You can get hired with zero publications.

          Dude, even Donalde has a publication. You do not get a job without them.

          Look is it not enough that you people forced me into exile forever? You could at least be honest about how you gamed the system.

          I used to be an academic, but Loomis’ shameless ability to force people into exile has forced me to enter the private sector.

          The claim that publications are the most important thing in getting hired is a bald faced lie. One I unfortunately at one time believed which is why I will never be able to work in the US.

          You are teaching now, right? So if teaching is the only important thing, then you are now employable in the US. But you may want some more publications. Oh, and US employers will Google your name, so blogging extensively under your real name will hurt your job search.

          Christ, plenty of people did not get academic jobs in the US. I know, I’m one of them. And I had six years of full-time teaching.

          • Murc says:

            I’d be interested to know where Otto published. I’ve heard that unless you’re doing truly groundbreaking research or are one of the recognized top people in your field, there is an enormous bias in American academia against people whose academic and publication records are exclusively foreign, with one or two exceptions if you’re from Oxbridge or similar institutions.

            Of course, one hears all sorts of things.

            On another note, and this is addressed directly to Otto; dude, all the academics here, as well as many, MANY others, are telling you that american universities valuing teaching experience above all other experience is wrong, wrong, wrong. Either they’re all engaged in a conspiracy to exclude people like you from their cushy racket, they’re all massively mistaken about an environment they have personal experience with and you do not, or you’re simply mistaken.

            Think carefully.

            • J. Otto Pohl says:

              My two academic books were published by McFarland and Greenwood, both US based. I think most of my journal articles were in US journals as well, but I would have to check. Some may be based in Europe.

              I never got a rejection letter saying I did not have enough publications. I got a number that said I did not have enough teaching experience. If publications are more important than teaching, how come they did not say the opposite?

              • Murc says:

                I think Mal covered that; just because you specifically didn’t have enough teaching doesn’t change the relative weights of teaching vs. publishing.

                I believe you’ve admitted to having had ZERO teaching experience when you were a freshly minted postdoc? That’s a bit different than just not having enough; you didn’t have ANY. At all.

                Put it another way; if people are seeking a job candidate and its important that they have 90% of X and 10% of Y, then having 100% of X and 0% of Y is going to get you shot down. But so will having 75% of X and 25% of Y. In both scenarios X is vastly more important than Y, but there’s still a minimum threshold Y needs to be at.

                That’s my take on the situation as an outsider looking in, at any rate.

                • Murc says:

                  Oh, and having said that; it does seem kinda odd to me, again as an outsider, that even being foreign you had an extensive publication history and didn’t even score any interviews. I know personally two or three people who got PHDs from mediocre programs with like two articles to their name and they got INTERVIEWS. They had a devil of a time getting hired but they were getting called back.

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  I actually like teaching in Ghana. So I don’t mind being here. What I resent is having wasted a lot of time applying to work in the US when I had no hope of getting a job there. I also resent the false pretense that publications are what counts. Nowhere did any of the job applications I responded to say “must have teaching experience.” To me that seems unfair. Whereas you think I have only myself to blame because I did not do the impossible. There were no TAships available at SOAS during the two years I did my PhD. From what little I now know about US academics I have no real desire to work with them now or ever really. Here in Africa I am respected as an equal. I don’t think I could ever get that on another continent. At any rate I would rather have twenty good years in Ghana than waste any more time on applications.

                  I applied for a number of jobs in the US while I was in Kyrgyzstan from 2007-2010. I applied for over 50 and got one interview in the summer of 2010 for a one year position at a small private college. So I actually do have a pretty good idea about the odds of getting a job in the US. They are only very marginally better than they were and they are unlikely to ever get better no matter how many publications I have. Again I remain unconvinced that they count for anything as far as my hiring is concerned. It’s great that they help other people.

                  I have continued to publish. I have had three articles in peer reviewed journals, four book chapters, and pieces in three academic encyclopedias come out since 2006. My most recent publications saw print this fall. But, I am sure I could have a million publications and it not matter.

                  I resigned myself to living and working overseas for my productive life sometime ago. As far as work conditions are concerned, Ghana is better than most of the world. I just wish liberal and leftists academics would stop with the claim that academic hiring in the US is always completely based upon the merit of publications. It is not. I may be the only exception to this rule, but so what. A simple admission that I did not get a fair shake from the system you so vehemently defend is obviously too much to ask. But, don’t expect me to embrace your love of the system.

                • Guest says:

                  Were you even applying for tenure track positions? The one job you mention specifically is about a one-year position, which seems to indicate that you were applying for adjunct positions. Those are teaching jobs, so yes, they will tend to value teaching experience. I think you’re talking about different things here. And that’s no even counting your non-responsiveness to people’s actual experience.

              • John says:

                What? This is a total non sequitur. It is perfectly possible that it is truth both that publications are more important than teaching *and* that you yourself have a problem with not having enough teaching experience.

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  Murc:

                  I am not a foreigner. I am a US citizen by birth. I just went to the UK for my post-graduate work because SOAS had a good program and I got in. See if I had a small publication record and teaching experience I would have at least gotten an interview. That seems to make teaching more important than publishing. You can always get published. This is not true with getting teaching experience. There you quickly run into a Catch-22 if you were not blessed enough to get the UNM TAship. Getting teaching experience if you miss out on getting a TAship is in fact very near impossible. Getting it in the US is impossible. Your only realistic choice is to either give up on academia all together or move out of the US for the length of your working career.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Getting teaching experience if you miss out on getting a TAship is in fact very near impossible.

                  You are teaching now, right? So, having made an enormous error in never teaching while in school, you have now corrected that error, and can now go on the US job market.

                  Or you can blame Loomis for your travails. I’d cut the poor, halfway-to-dead guy some slack myself.

                • elm says:

                  J. Otto is right that having a non-US PhD can put you at a disadvantage on the US market in many fields. This may even be unfair. This is unrelated to whether teaching or research gets one an academic job.

                • DrDick says:

                  Elm,

                  I have two friends with degrees from non-elite British universities who got jobs here, though not immediately and not without creating their own professional networks.

                • elm says:

                  DrDick, no doubt that it isn’t impossible to get jobs in the US from foreign schools. I even know someone from a Dutch university! It’s just more difficult, at least in the disciplines I’m aware of, and, like you suggest, tends to require building of networks in the US after grad school. Most of the non-Oxbridge people I know who’ve migrated over to the states managed to first get a post-doc or visiting job here before getting any interest from tenure track positions.

                • Murc says:

                  I am not a foreigner. I am a US citizen by birth.

                  I apologize for the mistake on my part. That was just sloppy.

                  See if I had a small publication record and teaching experience I would have at least gotten an interview. That seems to make teaching more important than publishing.

                  I’m going to try this one more time before giving up:

                  The presence of a minimum requirement that you have to meet in teaching to be considered for a job does not, in any way, make teaching more important than publication. There are MULTIPLE CRITERIA. Each has a different weight. Each also has a minimum standard. The presence of the minimum standard does not change their relative weights.

                  And as others have said, you have teaching experience NOW. Hell, you ought to be able to leverage that, right?

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  I have teaching experience now, yes. But it is in Asia and Africa so I doubt it would help me at all in getting a job in the US. The anti-foriegn bias is just too extreme. I can leverage it to teach until I am 60 here in Ghana which is what I will probably do. Applying for jobs is a lot more work than actually doing one and getting paid for it. Had I known that there was no chance of getting even an interview in the US I would never have wasted time applying. I should have instead been looking at Africa in 2004. True, not applying to every history department in English speaking Africa was in part a failure of my imagination. But, the insinuation here that I deserved to be unemployed from 2004 to 2007 and that I deserve to be banned from ever working in the US because I got my PhD from the University of London rather than UNM is a bit much.

                • Murc says:

                  I have teaching experience now, yes. But it is in Asia and Africa so I doubt it would help me at all in getting a job in the US.

                  Do you KNOW this? You say you have two books and an extensive publication record; I don’t recall if you’ve continued to publish or not since you began teaching. If you’ve been applying to schools and getting shot down even with an extensive publication record and extensive teaching experience, that’s one thing, but you don’t even know.

                  the insinuation here that I deserved to be unemployed from 2004 to 2007 and that I deserve to be banned from ever working in the US because I got my PhD from the University of London rather than UNM is a bit much.

                  The insinuation hasn’t been that you don’t “deserve” to be banned from ever working in the US because you graduated from University of London. The insinuation has been that getting a PHD without ever teaching a single class or ever being a TA or having any teaching experience at all made you unemployable as a university teacher in the U.S regardless of how sterling your CV was in other areas.

                  I can’t speak to anti-foreign bias in the academy; as I said, I’ve heard things, but I’m an outsider. But you seem to be really pissed off about having to work abroad. REALLY pissed off. You talk about it here and at Crooked Timber and a couple other places a lot. And you know, fair enough.

                  But you also by your own admission don’t know if you’re still as unemployable in the US today as you were in 2004, you don’t seem to have a ton of interest in finding out, and you continue to assert that your PHD from the University of London makes you permanently unemployable in the US despite tons and tons of other people, people who actually extensive experience with American academia as both students, job seekers, and teachers that you do not have, telling you “no, that’s wrong.”

                  Either all of those people are wrong, they’re all lying to you, or you are the one who is wrong. You would think you would be EAGER to be wrong. Champing at the bit to be wrong! After all, if you’re right, it means you will indeed live in exile for the remainder of your productive life, whereas if you are wrong, you might have a couple of really shitty years as you teach in Ghana AND search for a US job, but then you can return here.

                  Under those circumstances I would WANT to be wrong. A giant pack of other academics or those with experience in the academic job market telling me I was wrong would fill me with hope.

        • cpinva says:

          i had no idea history phd’s held such power!

          Look is it not enough that you people forced me into exile forever?

          not to be mean, but have you considered the possibility that your effervescent personality might possibly have played an itsy bitsy part, in the difficulty finding gainful employment you’ve experienced?

          One I unfortunately at one time believed which is why I will never be able to work in the US.

          you know how people hate perky, cheerleader types, consider toning it down a tad.

        • Harv says:

          Definitely backwards! From my own education it was quite apparent that most academic PhDs and MDs are not always in possession of great teaching skills! Indeed, you didn’t have to be with this people for long to sort out that they were brought on for their abilities as researchers.

          My own academic medical career in Canada has really only had one driving force: sheer luck! I got my dream job at the university where I did my residency only because I lucked into a great fellowship program in upstate NY. Once I had been accepted into the fellowship, my old university had me sign a contract to make sure I came back! I went from being surplus to a potential asset in the span of a day. I’m now 7 years in and going for promotion to associate. It wasn’t a sure thing, but it sometimes works out….

    • djw says:

      being a TA at UNM beats any amount of publications a person may have

      Once again, it varies considerably by discipline, but this isn’t half as true as you think it is, and you’re drawing conclusions far stronger than you can reasonably draw from your own experience.

      I teach at an institution that has a much greater focus on teaching than research. You won’t get an interview in my department–and most others–without a publication as well as some teaching experience. Research-oriented jobs in PhD granting departments often hire people with little or no teaching experience.

  15. Tucker says:

    Just turned 60 this year and I will be applying to Doctural programs for next fall. I’ve been in the public sector for 35 years so I’m one if the boomers who ate the future. I hope I’m accepted so I can give up my job to someone earlier in their career path. Why now, because I have time and experience and want to continues to the development of ideas and not only things. I can also afford to do it now. Whether they take an old guy or not, who knows? I want contribute to the field and to be taken seriously outside of the commercial arena, one needs a Doctorate. Just a different perspective.

  16. Dirk Gently says:

    It’s not only that doctoral programs ill-prepare their charges for the bare fact of what the academic job market is and is likely to be going forward–a fact that alas I only became aware of after I started looking for jobs at around year 4 of my ultimately 6-year Ph.D. And don’t get me wrong, this is a huge problem. But there is also a massive disconnect between the REAL WORLD skills and knowledge that one acquires while doing a Ph.D. and the ability of one to market these skills outside of academia. Here I’m thinking of analytical and research skills, writing skills, and the ability to “learn up” in fairly comprehensive ways. These are tangible things that people learn in almost any field, yet for some reason it would seem putting down “Ph.D.” on one’s resume in applying for a non-academic job is an assured way of having it land in the trash.

    The problem isn’t necessarily that there aren’t enough academic jobs, that the academy itself is dysfunctional, that many programs don’t prep well enough–it’s also that having a Ph.D. makes it MORE difficult to get a “normal” private sector job.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yes, this is a very big problem as well. So many employers don’t want to hire anyone with a Ph.D. I think there’s a very real disconnect between what Ph.Ds can offer and what the general world thinks Ph.Ds do. I suppose some of the fault for that is in the history of academia being relatively disconnected from the rest of the job market.

      • Murc says:

        To be fair, there’s such a thing as being overqualified.

        I work in IT, and we’ve passed over guys with CS doctorates for development jobs because we were really certain that if they were offered something that actually let them apply their amazing skillsets in a way more fulfilling than producing commercial code for shitty learning management systems, they’d jump ship in a second.

      • cpinva says:

        this would be the origin of the “ivory tower” of academia concept.

        I suppose some of the fault for that is in the history of academia being relatively disconnected from the rest of the job market.

        however, in my field, it’s been my experience that most of my instructors, and those i have subsequently taught with, had/have real world experience, they are not strictly academics. it makes a huge difference to the students, both in the classroom, and in advising/counseling.

    • Linnaeus says:

      Roger Whitson’s reply addresses that nicely. Don’t get me wrong, I think what you say has a lot of merit, but there are folks thinking about how to get out of that conundrum.

      • Dirk Gently says:

        True, I don’t think that this is being ignored by those seeking those jobs–I’m saying that most employers do not know what to with Ph.D.’s unless they’re specifically looking for, say, grant writers. And I’m not talking only about jobs with comparable pay and skill requirements–I mean even relatively entry level jobs where employers are probably quite skeptical of the efficacy of hiring someone with a Ph.D., no matter how desperate the applicant.

        Furthermore, I’m not talking merely about finding relevant/comparable work–I’m saying that if someone with a Ph.D. is looking for work IN GENERAL, just flipping burgers, say, s/he may even have to hide the fact that s/he has this degree, which then begs the question, “What have you been doing the last 4/5/6/7/8 years?”

        This is not merely about the mismatch of graduate training and post-graduate work, it’s about the mismatch of human capital and the labor force.

        • Linnaeus says:

          Good point. I’ve been fortunate that in the 3(!) jobs I currently have, going for a Ph.D. hasn’t worked against me. But when I go out there for something more permanent, it gets a little scarier.

        • Curmudgeon says:

          I don’t buy the skills mismatch argument.

          It’s more accurate to say that there’s an unacceptable mismatch between policymakers’ implicit unemployment rate targets and an unemployment rate sufficiently low to maximize human welfare.

          If an able bodied person with 8+ years of post-secondary education is at risk of sliding into poverty (or homelessness) because no employer will hire them even for menial work, there is a problem with macroeconomic conditions.

          Most employers can afford to absorb the costs of hiring another employee if an “overqualified” worker finds a better job. Most “overqualified” workers can’t afford not to work. A macroeconomy that allows employers the luxury of saving hiring costs at the expense of depriving “overqualified” people the necessities of life is fundamentally broken.

          • Furious Jorge says:

            If an able bodied person with 8+ years of post-secondary education is at risk of sliding into poverty (or homelessness) because no employer will hire them even for menial work, there is a problem with macroeconomic conditions.

            Well that’s lovely to know, but knowing it doesn’t help me a whit.

        • Furious Jorge says:

          I’m saying that if someone with a Ph.D. is looking for work IN GENERAL, just flipping burgers, say, s/he may even have to hide the fact that s/he has this degree

          This. Not only have I had absolutely no luck getting anywhere in a search for a tenure-track job, but I’ve also gotten basically nowhere looking for work outside academia … and I came to the Ivory Tower a bit later in life than most, so I already had some private sector experience to talk up. I’m not even getting called back for interviews for jobs that are equal in status and pay to the one I had before I went to grad school.

        • DrDick says:

          I faced a lot of rejection when looking for jobs while in grad school, owing to having a MA.

  17. el donaldo says:

    Certainly PhD programs don’t prepare people for the multi-tiered career tracks that seem to have become a permanent feature of academia. I got my PhD in English in a not-quite-elite-but-close institution, and the expectation was that everyone who applied themselves and produced a quality dissertation would be placed in a tenure-track position in at the very least a decent liberal arts college, and that was true pretty much my first couple years, but by the time I completed in 2008, well, different story.

    I have a job in academia, but it’s contingent faculty. It’s full-time, but in composition with a monstrous course-load. I’m underpaid, really, far less than the tenure-track faculty, so I have to teach all summer for extra debt-relieving cash and don’t even have the summers off to write and try to push some things through publication, something I certainly have little time to do during the academic year. Even if I got an interview at the MLA, I probably couldn’t afford to go.

    I’m most likely stuck at this level if I chose to remain in academia, and I’m finding it difficult to move outside of it. I’ll probably end up in administration before too many years go by, but it’s not exactly what I had in mind when I started this all.

  18. Western Dave says:

    I am one of the people that Erik’s older peers outcompeted for jobs about 10 years before he was on the job market. I am a specialist in the history of the American West, went to U of Michigan where I studied with top folks, and never fully went on the job market with a completed dissertation. Nor do I regret getting my PhD (importantly, I have no debt from that experience either).

    I currently teach HS in an independent K-12 (aka private school). I love it. I wouldn’t be nearly as good at what I do without the experience of graduate school.

    I did hear from some folks at institutions that I applied for jobs at that they didn’t take my application seriously because they figured I was only interested in Ivy or top liberal arts positions. There was nothing I could say in my letters that could convince them otherwise, and I’m pretty sure my advisers were clueless about how to write letters for non-elite schools.

    I really like my job, my students, and I liked graduate school. I still go to academic conferences, hang out in academic blogs, keep with my friends, and try to keep up with my field. I wish that there was less stigma associated with not doing the traditional quest for the tenure track thing, but that’s other folks’ hang-ups not mine. It’s kind of like when my mother finally stopped asking me when I was going to cease all this history nonsense and go to law school. I think more folks would move into k-12 teaching with graduate degrees if they were better prepared for it and got some strong mentoring on how it is and is not similar to teaching college.

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  20. MarcV says:

    This post was both disheartening and validating. I stopped with a BA in political science and somehow ended up in the IT field where the jobs exist, are financially good, but I don’t find very personally rewarding.

    I discovered well after college that I had strong interests in both ancient history and literature. I envied the professorial life and thought how I could get my creative writing off the ground if I had a professor’s schedule.

    But at 40, I realized that I just didn’t want the risk of going back for an MA/PHd (which I could only afford to do part-time) just to end up as a middle-age temporary professor scraping by at some state school in Iowa.

    So now I content myself with my own growing library where I am an amateur historian/scholar. There’s no money in it for me, but it let’s me pursue this interest anyway. Perhaps if I had identified this interest before college, I would have gone to a better school, earned better grades, and pursued that Phd…

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