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PhD-Degree

Should people in History Ph.D. programs stop taking students because of the job crisis? American Historical Association president Vicki Ruiz is making that decision:

I remain hopeful that our efforts will widen opportunities for current Ph.D.’s. However, this optimism is tempered when I reflect on the job prospects for my recent doctoral graduates. Out of four accomplished junior historians (with seven prestigious research prizes and fellowships among them), only one has secured that elusive tenure-track position. Of the others, one has retreated from view, while the rest remain freeway flyers and/or part-time administrators. Trite as it may sound, it breaks my heart to watch them struggle.

With an additional four mentees in the pipeline, I have placed a personal moratorium on Ph.D. recruitment. I respect and support colleagues who desire to guide a new generation, but my priority remains on the career paths — inside and outside the academy — of people with whom I have a longstanding mentoring relationship. My personal moratorium embodies my hope that the association’s Career Diversity project will stimulate the retooling of graduate programs to prepare our students for wider opportunities. That will take time. In the interim, some of us are likely to slow the pump of history Ph.D.’s into the overflowing adjunct pool.

I have complex feelings about this. A couple of notes. First, I am somewhat associated with the American Historical Association pilot project Ruiz mentions to get programs to rethink graduate training because I am an alum of the University of New Mexico, one of the included schools because it punches way over its weight when it comes to placing PhDs in both academic and nonacademic positions. In February, I went back to UNM to talk about some of the things I do, joining a group of fellow alumni and a few others discussing their experiences. I really don’t know if it was helpful for current Ph.D. students there, but I hope it was. I do have to say that I took verbal exception to what AHA head Jim Grossman had to say and didn’t say at this event, which was basically to a) ignore the fundamental reasons why there are no jobs (the disappearance of history lines and adjunctification) and b) to tell every history PhD to basically be a business major and learn how to read a spreadsheet and learn to budget (a worthy enough skill, but no answer to the problem). On the other hand, it is absolutely vital that we assume that PhD students will not get an academic job, whether at Harvard, New Mexico, or South Carolina. This should be the assumption of every PhD advisor and every PhD student. Sometimes the student will strike it rich and win the lottery from any of these schools! I did and I know some people from all these schools who have in recent years. But usually they won’t. To me, that’s the first step advisors must take. What are students being trained for? Can advisors or other mentors offer skills that will get students actual jobs?

But even outside of that, I think the assumption that we shouldn’t take PhD students is a bit more problematic. Not that I disagree with Ruiz per se, as she takes an obviously defensible position. But the reality is that there aren’t good jobs anywhere in this economy outside of select fields. And some of us–myself included–are very smart in some ways, but not in the ways that this capitalist economy values. So the moral question around accepting PhD students I think revolves around whether they are funded or not. I would not be comfortable accepting students that are not funded. But if they are funded, at least they aren’t going into debt, or much anyway. To me, this is the fundamental difference between the PhD and law school. If the student is just delaying their income earning potential, such as it is in this stage of American capitalism, then that’s one decision and a potentially defensible one. If they are going into debt for that PhD, that’s a horrible idea. I find that a compelling dividing line.

But then I don’t know. There aren’t good answers. And the balance between giving students the opportunity to pursue their intellectual dreams and career goals versus placing them at a disadvantage in their lives going forward is not an easy one to maintain. I figure many of you will have thoughts on this.

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  • Rob in CT

    There’s a glut (supply > demand). So you reduce the inflow of new PhDs and some of the graduates who can’t find work now can, hopefully. Things obviously can’t go on the way they are.

    I agree with you on the debt thing – that is a good dividing line. But even w/o the debt, you’re still investing ~6 years of your life into getting a PhD, and the job prospects on the other side are terrible. Opportunity cost. So you’re also right that advisors need to understand this and explain it clearly to students.

    I’m really glad my best friend is both lucky and good. History PhD in 2012. 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 he had 1-yr visiting professor gigs. 2014 he gets hired into a tenure track position.

    Based on what I’ve seen on the market for History PhDs, that’s pretty great, even accounting for the fact that his PhD is from one of the universities that dominate the field.

  • djw

    So the moral question around accepting PhD students I think revolves around whether they are funded or not. I would not be comfortable accepting students that are not funded. But if they are funded, at least they aren’t going into debt, or much anyway. To me, this is the fundamental difference between the PhD and law school.

    This is really the key, at least to me. If people are funded, and not misled about the likely range of outcomes (which doesn’t always happen, of course), they’re accepting a low-paying but interesting and personally enriching job. (That’s certainly how I understood my decision to enroll; I didn’t think I’d ever actually get an academic job when I started; I figured I’d have to do something boring and dreary eventually but this is nice way to delay it). If a PhD program in the humanities, or much of the social sciences is accepting students who pay tuition and not employing them, that’s not really any more defensible than the law schools.

    Indeed, as the options for most college graduates in such fields continues to shrink, a funded PhD starts to look better relative to the other available options, as the opportunity cost shrinks.

  • AngusMc

    I made the decision to get a History PhD in the mid-2000s when the situation was already bad. Even though I ended up in a tenure-track position, I still regret making that choice. I’m underpaid (mid-40ks), overworked, not respected in the slightest by the rest of society, and facing a life of living paycheck to paycheck and retiring in relative poverty because I didn’t start working and saving until my mid-30s. And I’m one of the “lucky” ones.

    Every PhD student thinks that they will break the odds and land a well-paying, respected academic job when they graduate. 90+% are fooling themselves.

    Meanwhile, my sister got a 2-year community college degree and is pulling in 100k in the private sector. Go figure.

  • rdennist

    As a sociology PhD (without research prizes) I can tell you that I would not trade my time in graduate school for anything, as I went for the intrinsic value and that is what I received.

    However.

    It would be nice if the faculty recognized this problem and was qualified/gave a damn for people who realized before entering the market that academia was not where they belonged. It would be nice if job placement was the priority.

  • Thom

    It was already bad 20 years ago, when I finished my Ph.D. I was in a highly-ranked program, but in my sub-field at least, not all of us got tenure track positions (and not all of those got tenure).

    My History department in a liberal arts college very rarely encourages students to go to Ph.D. programs. (We have two grads from the last 6 years in Ph.D. programs, one of them in a different but related field.) (Both of these students, by the way, are from small Texas towns and are first generation college students, both are women, and one is the daughter of Mexican immigrants.) But we haven’t gotten to the point of saying never.

  • Davis X. Machina

    I want to say one word to you. Just one word.: Plastics Logistics.
    There’s a great future in logistics. Will you think about it?

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      There are entire MBA programs focused on logistics these days.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Getting all that stuff from Chengdu to Long Beach is a job of work.

        • Unemployed_Northeastern

          Until some computer programmer somewhere figures out a way to automate all of the scheduling and puts nearly all of the logistics people around the world out of work. Not too dissimilar from how Malcolm MacLean’s shipping container put untold hundreds of thousands of longshoremen and dockworkers around the world out of work a half century ago.

          • NonyNony

            To be fair, though – the general logistics problem in the real world is suspected to be an AI-hard problem. As in we would have to get to the level of machines having a general purpose intelligence on par with humans to solve it completely. If we hit that level, then it won’t just be the logistics folks who are out of a job.

            (We’re really good with planning algorithms where we put unrealisticly strict constraints on them, though. People think that means we’ve solved 90% of the problem and that last 10% should be easy, but most of that 90% got solved by the 1970s and we’ve had only incremental improvements in planning ever since.)

    • Brett

      You jest, but that likely is the future down the line, when 90% of jobs will be some form of “robot shepherd”.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    How many faculty have the actual option to refuse to take on new PhD students? My contract specifies that I must perform any supervising duties assigned to me by the Head of the Department. I don’t have the option to point blank refuse to take on people to supervise. I am thinking that there are probably similar contractural obligations by faculty working in the US.

    • AngusMc

      I can only judge from my PhD program, but we had to ask a faculty member directly if they would take us on as a student. Several of my colleagues were turned down by both their first and second choices on the faculty, so evidently faculty have some freedom to say no. How much freedom probably varies by institution.

      • Linnaeus

        My PhD program seems to work similarly. I never ran into this personally, but I have heard of faculty who are no longer taking any students at all and those who have refused to advise certain students (mostly for academic reasons, e.g., interests don’t really match, etc.)

  • bradysmith83

    As a recent English PhD from a top program living in employment limbo, I sympathize with the decision this professor has made. Since I’m making my living as res life staff (who would have thought?) the undergrads I live with always ask if they should go to graduate school in the thing they love. My wife and I always tell them to do something else first, and then come back to it if they really can’t imagine doing something else, and then only with the knowledge that they may not wind up doing what they’ve been trained to do. Our situation is a case in point–PhDs in English and Comparative literature and admin positions we’ve mostly lucked into, and contemplating staying in them so we can continue to live in our beautiful major city rather than fighting tooth and nail to take a pay cut and live god knows where. On paper, our current lives have little to do with our advanced degrees. In reality, we’d never have gotten our current opportunities–or been as good at them or been as happy as we are in general–without spending time in graduate school. Which is just a long way of saying that with generous funding (which we definitely had) it’s not always the worst decision if you play your cards right and have a capacious sense of what you might do with your life.

  • Lee Rudolph

    There is another issue (which may not apply to Eric, or to history at all, for all I know): too small a department may just not be able to teach a good Ph.D. program, where by “good” I mean one that (besides supporting its students financially, which I agree is a sine qua non) can both provide supervision that is sufficiently broad and deep, and can attract students that are truly capable of taking good advantage of the supervision that is available.

    I have (I think) whined before about my occasional regrets that I have never supervised a Ph.D. (or Masters) student in mathematics. In fact, although the department I retired from had a Ph.D. program on the books when I arrived, there was no funding available, and when I got tenure and was made chair in my fourth year there one of the first fiats from the administration was that the program had to be officially disbanded. But my whining is always tempered (at least in my mind) by my realization that the department really could not have had a decent graduate program; back when it had had one (mothballed a few years before my arrival, in return for three Visiting Assistant Professorships to help us create a new Computer Science program; of course after I’d been there three years, gotten tenure, and been thrust into being department chair, the CS program persisted but the VAPs were eliminated, along with all our part-time positions…), the program was frankly indecent, and it would never have been any better given the negative resources available. It would have been garbage in, garbage out, and much anguish for all during the garbage processing.

  • Andrew

    I agree that non-funded PhDs can be problematic, though I don’t think they’re always necessarily so. The first PhD program I was accepted into did not offer me funding, but even then I was prepared to go in anyway because it was a dream of mine, but I would have certainly done so with my eyes open to the lifestyle cost (fortunately I got a funded offer).

  • Matt_L

    I have mixed feelings about this. I think there are two debates here, one is whether individual students should pursue a PhD and what they can expect to do with that degree after they finish. The second debate is if graduate programs at R-1 universities should stop accepting students entirely or at least reduce the number of students they admit on an individual basis. Both debates revolve around a shared presupposition, that academia is a meritocracy.

    I think that presupposition is wrong and the sooner we get over it, the better. I finished my PhD where smarter people did not complete the program. I landed a tenure track job after a few years of uncertainty. The smartest person I have ever known and who also earned a PhD ended up with a career in Health Care administration. Individual results and career paths are essentially random. Yes, you have to have merit to go to grad school and finish, but that is only one variable among many when it come to the outcomes. We cannot be all Calvinist and say, “Well, I finished my PhD and landed a tenure track job because I was better than the chump adjuncting Western Civ at three different community colleges. There but for the grace of Clio go I.”

    Once we eliminate the fiction of merit the two debates are fairly straightforward. From the point of view of perspective grad students, its wrong to restrict enrollments or demand that some programs shut down their PhD programs entirely. They ought to have the chance to pursue their intellectual proclivities in a PhD. You don’t know where the PhD leads and everyone who is able ought to have a chance to see what happens. The one caveat is that they should not have to go into debt to do so. PhD programs should not take on students they cannot fund. The reserve army of academic labor is already too big.

    Second, we should also not restrict enrollment in PhD programs because its going to make history intellectually insular. Restricting the number of PhD students is going to limit access to grad school for underrepresented groups in terms of race, gender, class, age, and intellectual diversity. If you reduce the number of programs, or the total number of people admitted to the PhD track, you are going to end up cherry picking students from tony liberal arts colleges and prestigious research universities with the same intellectual profile as the selecting committees. Fewer slots means more competition, more selectivity, and a feedback loop that just admits the people with the same cultural capital as the people already in academia.

    The obligation on History Departments that grant PhDs is to not take on students they cannot fund, and to be clear about the likely job prospects ahead.

  • DrDick

    I share your ambivalence on this topic, as anthropology is in the same boat as history generally. I, and my department generally, have been pretty lucky in getting my Ph.D.s placed where they wanted to be (not all are academics) and both I and the department are generally pretty selective in who we take in terms of their interests and career ambitions.

  • Matt_L

    Why should History PhD programs train their students for something other than academia, when they do a crappy job of training them to be professors and teachers?

    PhD programs in History spend most of their time teaching their students how to be researchers at R-1 universities. Most of us do not end up with jobs at research universities. Yes a PhD is a research degree, but if we are looking to align the degree with the careers that are out there, then we could start by making sure it aligns with what most professors actually do. For example, I teach 4/4 and the expectations for research and publications at my institution are modest. I spend most of my time teaching, working on teaching related issues like assessment, and advising students. Research is priority four or five. I did not receive any formal training in anything but research!

    At least 1/3 of the coursework and field work in a history PhD should be devoted to the pedagogy, psychology, and sociology of higher education. PhD students need a lot more exposure to the scholarship on teaching and learning history at the High School and Post-Secondary levels. PhD students should be job shadowing professors at local community colleges and regional comprehensive universities, because that is where most of them will end up if they land a tenure track job.

    Until we actually can train PhDs to succeed in their careers as professors, which includes teaching, research, advising, and administration, we have no business trying to train them for alternate careers.

    • “Why should History PhD programs train their students for something other than academia, when they do a crappy job of training them to be professors and teachers?”

      This is by no means always true. It is true at some schools. It is not true at other schools.

      • Matt_L

        Right, let me walk back from this a little bit and see if I can’t state this in a different way. My point is not to say that newly minted PhDs are bad teachers. Some individual PhDs go out of their way to learn the rudiments of pedagogy, especially in the area of writing. I am saying that producing good college teachers is incidental to the coursework and intellectual development of PhD students. Most departments want their students to be good teachers, but they don’t require it.

        Right now, we require prospective teachers of high school history to have two years of college history and two years of education coursework before they are allowed to go into a school and student teach. Then, before the newly minted high school teacher can apply for a job they usually have to pass a state certifying exam and pull together a portfolio to show that they have a grasp on the relevant standards and ways to teach them. By way of comparison, most graduate students are lucky to have a two day orientation before they lead their first discussion section. They might take a one credit class on how teach college history.

        One could make the argument that teaching several semesters as a grad student and once or twice as a graduate instructor is sufficient “on-the-job-training.” Professors leading the lecture class might mentor their TAs and help them to acquire the theoretical and practical knowledge you need as a college instructor. But that approach is haphazard at best.

        I would have more faith in PhD granting institutions if they actually incorporated pedagogy and the scholarship of teaching and learning into their curriculum. A program that actually dropped two of their eight required research/ historiography courses and replaced them with seminars on teaching would graduate PhDs with more effective teaching skills than under the current curriculum.

        I do not think that this will happen because most of my colleagues in the discipline have contempt for their colleagues in the colleges of education. Some of this contempt is understandable, but a lot of it is unwarranted. There is a lot to learn about teaching that history PhDs don’t know.

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      I was fortunate enough to gain scholarships to attend a prep school back in the day. They hired several new teachers last year to teach a variety of subjects. Every. Single. One. had a PhD in the subject they were hired to teach, and from very elite institutions at that. Wait, I take that back. One of the new hires didn’t have a PhD – the person hired to teach Government had a JD from one of the HYSCCN law schools…

      • Lee Rudolph

        I think teaching at a prep school would have quickly led me to go postal. (I would have tried to avoid the scholarship students, though!!!)

        • Unemployed_Northeastern

          Thanks! From the job seeker’s perspective, though, think of it this way:

          – Much better pay, benefits, and security than adjuncting

          – Nigh-unparalleled physical plants, endowment spending per student, etc. Use of the palatial gyms and libraries and such.

          – Most of the students are pretty bright

          – At some institutions, there is the possibility of free or very nearly free faculty housing.

          • Lee Rudolph

            But the students who aren’t bright (and quite likely many who are) are either jocks or legacies; and the latter (at least) would drive me crazy. I had a hard enough time dealing with the rich-raff at Brown; not so much at Columbia, which presumably has them but maybe in smaller numbers or from less intolerable backgrounds?

            One of my college classmates and fellow mathematics major, who I also went to graduate school with, and who had the same graduate advisor I did (until my last week, as previously mentioned here), did take a job at Milton Academy after his (perfectly serviceable, if perhaps a bit unexciting) Ph.D. He was from New Trier, and after Milton he went on to co-found Boston Consulting; his tolerance (and affinity) for the rich (and their children) was/is clearly much greater than mine ever was or ever could be.

            • Unemployed_Northeastern

              True story: Some of the wealthier prep and boarding schools of New England have teaching fellowships, essentially entry-level teaching positions with mentoring from senior teachers and whatnot. I have applied to most of them, because PSLF + possible future faculty housing + I do like to bloviate = seemed like a good idea. As is par for the course for most job applications in 21st century America, most of my resumes went straight to a black hole about a mile from the edge of the known universe. However, one very famous boarding school took the trouble to write a letter to let me know that my pedigree (undergrad: NESCAC liberal arts college, not Williams or Amherst, law school: Northeastern) was not prestigious enough to be considered for an interview.

              Funnily enough, if you select my undergrad alma mater from the dropdown box on the college recruiting section of BCG, you pretty much get taken to a blank page that, reading between the lines, says “if you simply must apply, please send your resume to gofuckyourself[@]recyclingbin[dot]bcg[dot]com.” It stands in dire contrast to the pages for a Williams or Harvard, where you are inundated with the biographies of young associates and consultants and given their emails and phone numbers if you have any questions about the interview or hiring processes.

      • My son goes to a prep school in Santa Fe. Most of his teachers have PhDs. I suppose I choose to think of that as a good thing for him.

        My daughter is a grad student in English literature. She has a free ride and just enjoys the subject. She has minimal material wants and actually makes money on her stipend. She’s not going into any debt with this and enjoys her life. On the other hand, she also has a degree in creative writing and expects that is where the jobs are. It’s amazing how many people will spend money to get an MFA in creative writing. It’s hard to argue with her.

    • Linnaeus

      Why should History PhD programs train their students for something other than academia, when they do a crappy job of training them to be professors and teachers?

      Even if one assumes this premise is true (and I’m not convinced that it is across all programs), improving the pedagogical training for graduate students isn’t in itself going to open up jobs for PhD graduates. So I think some kind of advising for nonacademic careers makes sense, although we should not have overly high expectations for this, either.

  • Cn. Naevius

    “So the moral question around accepting PhD students I think revolves around whether they are funded or not. I would not be comfortable accepting students that are not funded. But if they are funded, at least they aren’t going into debt, or much anyway.”

    Glad to see (from the post and the comments) that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’d add that students can be more or less funded, and the level is important; I think the pay of grad students is sometimes left out of these discussions, and is very much something worth making a fuss about.

    But I should add that I’m not currently (and never have been) in a position to make any decisions connected to this, so it’s all theoretical to me.

    • Barry_D

      “Glad to see (from the post and the comments) that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’d add that students can be more or less funded, and the level is important; I think the pay of grad students is sometimes left out of these discussions, and is very much something worth making a fuss about.”

      I would also guess that the level of funding is related to two things:
      1) Department budgets
      2) Desirability of the students (there’s an old saying that if you’re not supported, the department thinks that you are marginal, and doesn’t really care if you succeed).

      Note that both of those things are also related to the likelihood of getting an academic job (overall; there will always be exceptions).

      This suggests that if the department is not willing to commit to full, multi-year support, conditional on progress in the program, then the department should not admit the student. The only exception would be if the student brings support, and by that I mean full, multi-year support.

    • Linnaeus

      But if they are funded, at least they aren’t going into debt, or much anyway.

      I made this mistake, although how much of a mistake I think it is depends on what day of the week it is.

      • There’s no question that a funded PhD in Seattle or New York is different than a funded PhD in Albuquerque.

        • Linnaeus

          Right, and that’s one reason I tend to feel less bad about the debt.

  • Pat

    I’m in a STEM field, and our government funding agency is pushing hard for us to create a program that is essentially a glorified network of career opportunities. Grad students and post-docs who have demonstrated productivity can make connections with companies, non-profits and government groups, hopefully so they can get a job outside academia.

    While it’s a great idea, it’s the back-end of the program, where our graduate office works with companies, non-profits and government groups to identify jobs, that I think is the black box of the program. It redefines graduate and post-doctoral work as training that non-academic organizations might find useful. I’m just uncertain as to how many jobs are actually out there.

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    Even for folk with fully funded PhDs, there is the reality that overqualification is utter death when applying to jobs outside of your field, unless you have an Ivy League-level PhD/JD/etc. and can squeeze into a consultancy or something.

    • RVW

      True so often.

      As an HR VP of a large computer company once told me after having one too many drinks at a Chamber of Commerce event, “Some one who gets a PhD and then can’t get a job in their field is a loser. I don’t hire losers.”

      • The Temporary Name

        I’ve met lots of people who didn’t tell employers about their grad degrees.

        • ArchTeryx

          The problem with THAT is that you suddenly have a 10-year gap in your work record to explain. (Yes, getting a STEM Ph.D. can take that long, plus postdoctoral work you ALSO have to hide). So, you get put in the same black hole either way. It’s a no-win situation.

          • RVW

            I think saying you were in prison, or running guns in Central America, or a showgirl in Las Vegas, would probably be better.

  • Crusty

    If law schools, which are professional training schools on their face, can keep up the law degree has intrinsic value in and of itself charade for as they have, I don’t see why a humanities or social sciences phd program, which has even greater (and perhaps legitimate) claims about knowledge for its own sake, scholarship, research, blah, blah, blah, would stop and say hey, we have nothing worthwhile to offer you.

    In any event, so long as there isn’t deception going on, I don’t see much of a moral problem.

  • Linnaeus

    I’m working one of those nonacademic careers, and by nonacademic, I mean not working in anything having to do with higher education at all. I don’t know how instructive my case is, though: I work for a small firm whose proprietor has a view of employment that is increasingly rare in the private sector, probably because he also has a PhD in a field (anthropology) that is supposedly “useless”. In any event, I got the job not only on any merits I had, but also because I knew the person whom I was replacing and the proprietor also knows my dissertation advisor, who happened to inform me of the job opening.

  • StuckinOz

    When I went to grad school in the early 90s, in philosophy, I knew the job market was bad. But I literally couldn’t tolerate the non-academic work environment, and I loved philosophy. Since then, working conditions have only gotten worse in a lot of non-academic job fields. So I don’t really have a problem with seeing grad programs as a kind of temporary refuge for the square pegs who don’t fit in the round holes the non-academic market provides. But if we’re going to see them that way (and, of course, benefit from the labor the grad students will provide), then we’re obligated to mitigate the opportunity costs for those students. We need to provide: 1) Real parental leave and child care options for grad students who are starting families. 2) A living wage. 3) Non-trivial contributions to social security and retirement accounts. 4) Informal support for having a life outside of grad school; we need to break down this culture that tells everyone in academia that if you don’t eat, sleep, and breathe the discipline, if you have interests outside of it, then you’re not “passionate” or “committed” enough.

    • This was the point I made to AHA head Jim Grossman–for all he’s talking about how everyone needs to go work for businesses, there are lots of people who are in graduate school because they don’t want to be in the corporate world and this needs to be acknowledged. He then looked at me and said that professors need to stop saying working in the private sector is evil. Which was, uh, not what I was saying at all and I corrected him very quickly.

      It was another installment of “Erik Gets Into a Random Argument with a Relatively Well Known Person.” The finest installment of that was with the wife of John Lewis, but I’ll save that story for another time.

      • Linnaeus

        Yeah, Grossman probably overstated his case. I do think, however, that the prevailing attitude in many graduate programs is very much in the other direction, i.e., if you don’t end up being a professor somewhere, you’re a failure, a sellout, or both. There needs to be a corrective to that attitude, or if that’s not forthcoming, greater honesty from those mentoring you that they have certain expectations for your future, and if those will not or cannot be met, students should GTFO.

  • Denverite

    To me, this is the fundamental difference between the PhD and law school.

    I don’t think humanities PhD programs are very comparable to “law school.” There’s the cost, as you point out. But there’s also a pretty broad range of law schools where your career prospects — at least medium term — range from “excellent” to “OK if you do OK” to “miserable unless you’re #1 in the class.” You don’t get that with a humanities PhD program. There’s no discipline (at least that I’m aware of) where if you attend one of the top programs, and plow through and graduate without doing horribly, you’re pretty much guaranteed a tenure-track spot. There are several law schools like that — probably a dozen depending on your definition of “horribly.” (Whether the financial and opportunity cost of attending those schools is justified in light of the long term job prospects is a different story.)

    Plus, there are a number of good, regional schools (I’m thinking like UT or UCLA or Georgia) where if you do reasonably well, you’re going to have a good shot at a career as a lawyer. It might not be with a big firm starting at $160k, but it will be somewhere reputable with probably a better QOL and better future prospects. There really isn’t the humanities equivalent to that, I don’t think.

    • RVW

      “…if you attend one of the top programs, and plow through and graduate without doing horribly, you’re pretty much guaranteed a tenure-track spot.”

      I don’t know if this is true, because I’ve known more than a few underemployed Julliard and Eastman grads. But if you remove the “top programs” qualifier, it is definitely false.

      • RVW

        I think I misunderstood the context of your statement, Denverite, and we’re in agreement. My apologies.

  • btfjd

    I was a grad student in English at the Univ. of Chicago way back in the 1970’s. At one point, the Dean sent out a letter to all of us which said in essence that since there were no jobs out there, he didn’t understand why we wanted to continue in the PhD program, but we were welcome if we did.

    FWIW, I’m a lawyer, not a Professor of English.

    Plus ca’ change….

  • altofront

    Not that I disagree with Ruiz per se, as she takes an obviously defensible position.

    It’s not even remotely defensible. Her “personal moratorium” does nothing to reduce the number of students entering her program; she’s just saying to the new students, “I’m not going to help you get a job.” Which is a really shitty position to take, especially given her prominence in the field. She’ll ease the pain of her breaking heart by refusing to care about their struggles in the first place.

  • NewishLawyer

    There are a bunch of issues here and some of them kick in an inner-libertarian even though I know the academic job market is an absolute mess.

    1. How do you determine how many PhD students are needed for any given subject on a nation-wide basis?

    2. Isn’t it a bit paternalistic to say that we should prevent people from getting PhDs because of the job market? A while ago the Slate Culture Gabfest did a segment on “To M.F.A. or not to M.F.A.” Dan Kois pointed out that for many M.F.A. students, their time in graduate school would be the only years that they could dedicate solely or mainly to their art. They were mainly talking about writers but this can also be true for musicians, dancers, fine artists, etc. I don’t see anything wrong with this and I get the student loan issue but there is something bothersome to me that the decision will be made for people from above.

    3. One of the reasons I am concerned about #2 is a trickle down effect to undergraduate programs. Are we just going to live in a world of “practical” majors? How boring that will be. We need people to study interesting things even if only at the undergraduate level.

    • “One of the reasons I am concerned about #2 is a trickle down effect to undergraduate programs. Are we just going to live in a world of “practical” majors? How boring that will be. We need people to study interesting things even if only at the undergraduate level.”

      That’s already happening, often with official “encouragement” from administrators and state legislators.

      • Davis X. Machina

        How can they be ‘interesting’ if they don’t earn you lots of money? I mean, what’s the point?

        How else do you keep score? And if there aren’t winners and losers, why bother?

        • Linnaeus

          If the answers to those questions aren’t immediately obvious, then you must be some kind of communist.

    • RVW

      “How do you determine how many PhD students are needed for any given subject on a nation-wide basis?”

      Job placement rates at individual programs. If your PhD program has graduate 10 students in the past 10 years, and none of them have tenure track jobs, your program should probably be shut down.

  • RVW

    The problem existed in the same form 30 years ago when I was in grad school, but was downplayed or, worse, grad students were told “Oh it’s bad, so it’s a good thing you’re in our wonderful program.” But, those who completed their PhD and didn’t get tenure track jobs quickly became personna non grata, to be shunned by decent folk. I guess it simply can’t be ignored any more.

    Many crocodile tears have been shed, but the basic truth remains: no one gives a damn about underemployed PhDs; they are too small a group and their problem seems so “first world” outside of academia. Professors have help, administrators see filled seats, and no one who matters gets hurt. Graduate programs are hungry beasts that need feeding, and if there are casualties, that is part of cost of doing business for the university. Some individual professors may feel pangs of conscience, but the system as a whole functions as it is designed to function.

    • NewishLawyer

      Right. Only eleven or so percent of Americans have graduate degrees and I think that includes professional degrees. Most of these are probably professional degrees. Doctorates are probably at four percent.

      I also wonder if there is some anti-intellectualism in the gloating about the jobs of PhDs.

      • RVW

        The 2014 census puts doctoral degree holders at just over 1.5 % of the 18+ population.

    • Linnaeus

      Graduate programs are hungry beasts that need feeding, and if there are casualties, that is part of cost of doing business for the university.

      I read somewhere (I think it was the book The Last Professors) in which the author claimed that students who graduate with PhDs are actually a waste product of graduate programs’ actual functions.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Wait, Gough’s Cave had a graduate program???

        • Linnaeus

          Apparently a pretty good one.

          Jests aside, I should say that the author of the book I mentioned was not signaling approval of what he was describing.

  • Yankee

    Guaranteed minimum income! Then history could be for historians, without excessive concern about day job survival bullshit. Sorta like how musicians, artists, writers, and community service workers handle it.

    • Linnaeus

      Despite your nym, you clearly hate liberty.

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