Home / General / Is It “Irrational” for People to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities (Or Even in the Sciences)

Is It “Irrational” for People to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities (Or Even in the Sciences)

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No, no it is not. After all, the job market for college graduates except for a very few fields is pretty terrible everywhere, at least in something having to do with the field of choice. What, are they supposed to go to law school? Go become teachers and be attacked by politicians? I guess they could drive for Uber! What a future!

But we have a national narrative that the humanities are worthless and that people are “irrational” for getting a Ph.D. in those fields. Aaron Hanlon in the L.A. Review of Books:

In a fascinating way, the NSF data challenges a long-standing narrative about job opportunities by field of study. We’re used to thinking of — more accurately, maligning — humanities students as idealistic, unsystematic dreamers prone to “Peter Pan syndrome,” irrationality, and reality avoidance. Humanities PhDs struggling to find sustainable employment don’t garner much societal sympathy, largely because it’s considered axiomatic that a person with a humanities PhD has no business thinking she possesses economic value. But when the scientists and engineers — the ones confirmation bias demands we view as rational and pragmatic — are caught in a rough job market flirting with something that looks like quixotic delusion, we’re forced to rethink our assumptions. Once it appears that it’s not just humanities students making unadvisable career choices, it suddenly becomes more difficult to victim-blame unemployed doctors (of philosophy) as a whole.

Indeed, when it comes to explaining the seeming contradiction of increases in earned doctorates alongside diminishing job prospects for PhDs, we’re still wedded to the irrationality narrative we’ve unfoundedly ascribed to humanities PhDs. This is the case even though 75 percent of earned doctorates in 2014 were awarded in science and engineering.

The irrationality narrative has accompanied even some of the best analyses of PhD job prospects. As a follow-up on an earlier attempt to explain why people keep pursuing humanities PhDs, Jordan Weissmann provided a telling compilation of Atlantic readers’ responses in 2013. Weissmann’s own conclusions include, per the familiar narrative, the idea that “arts and humanities students aren’t necessarily the most career-minded or pragmatic individuals,” and PhD seekers “aren’t aware of how much debt they might take on in the process of earning their Ph.D.”; readers responded along similar lines. In fact, of the 11 categories Weissmann’s roundup uses to organize reader responses, three deal with suggestions about asymmetric information (people do PhDs based on some form of ignorance or misunderstanding), three deal with suggestions about student irrationality (people do PhDs because love of subject, or of being a top student, blinds them to harsh economic realities), and two are corrective points of information that don’t offer a theory.

If we compare the tenor of Weissmann’s findings in 2013 with that of Laura McKenna’s 2016 Atlantic piece on “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s,” we see a common premise in spite of the new data: there must be something lacking or irrational about the choice to pursue a PhD. McKenna’s concluding set of questions, simultaneously genuine and rhetorical, suggests as much:

Why hasn’t all this [employment] information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors — why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary […] ? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside the university?

The problem is not people getting a Ph.D., whether in English or Chemistry. The problem is not that schools are producing too many graduates. The problem is that we are engaging in a national disinvestment in valuing the graduate degree and thus there aren’t jobs.

We’ve presupposed a scenario in which there really is a massive oversupply of PhDs, and thus PhD students must be irrational for treading into an oversupplied labor market. But that’s simply not true. PhD “oversupply” is just a euphemistic way of talking about the fact that colleges and universities haven’t met student-generated demand with a commensurate supply of full-time, tenure-track faculty. Instead, we’ve rendered the majority of faculty contingent, increased administrators and administrative staff by 85 and 240 percent, respectively, over the past 40 years, and created a massive holding pen of temporary postdoctoral positions in STEM. If we look outside of academia for good measure, we see similar evidence of increased dependency on contingent labor, decades of stagnant wages, and no increase in leisure time to accompany increases in economic productivity. In this light it becomes harder to claim that PhD students are especially irrational or shortsighted, since so much of the broader US workforce is facing similar problems.

So why do people pursue PhDs despite grim job prospects? For one, because job prospects elsewhere haven’t been great either. Though PhDs are a skewed sample for all kinds of reasons, they also have a lower unemployment rate than master’s, bachelor’s, associate’s, and high school diploma holders. Accepting the five to seven years of employment and insurance benefits that come with a PhD is hardly an easy decision, but in light of deteriorating stability in nonacademic jobs, and the low unemployment rates of PhD holders, it’s hardly an irrational one either. In fact, it’s reasonable to think that a society continually touting the value of STEM research, a college education, and the “knowledge economy” does value PhDs. It would be irrational to think otherwise.

Perhaps the most compelling reason one pursues a PhD, however, is what it means beyond the immediately commodifiable. When we say it’s irrational — and worthy of ridicule — to pursue any kind of education that doesn’t maximize earnings, we’re effectively pathologizing healthy desires to learn and teach, and to pursue a course of research with long-term benefits. In fact, prestigious funding schemes like the MacArthur Fellowship offer no-strings-attached funding precisely because they get better results by untethering fellows from immediate financial pressures. This is also the idea behind no-strings and open-access funding developments in biomedical science: if you want results, you have to think long-term in ways that markets don’t always support. The PhD is hard work, typically with day-to-day teaching, grading, or lab responsibilities, but it’s also a rare opportunity to pursue research that you care about but the market doesn’t, all while keeping the lights on.

Instead of hiring people with a Ph.D. as a tenure-track professors, colleges and universities instead have to build some new buildings, provide some ever fancier dorms, and most importantly, take the money for themselves to their escalating salaries, perks, and new administrator positions.

It’s completely fine to get a Ph.D., although at this point one should understand that a) you should never go to a program without a good funding package and b) you aren’t going to get an academic job at the end of it unless you are very, very lucky. But there also needs to be pressure for universities to invest in hiring these people, including in the humanities. But the managerial MBA class that runs the universities and especially the Board of Trustees has no interest in this.

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  • J. Otto Pohl

    This article from a few years back is about my Dept. Chair. But, it is probably even more valid today especially regarding the Mideast and East Asia.

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124536653296629273

  • NewishLawyer

    Why do most people go to college?

    I grew up in a town where most of the adult residents had college or graduate educations (lots of lawyers, doctors, etc.) I always sort of knew since day one that I would attend college because 97 percent of people who graduate from high school in my hometown do.

    By the time I was a high school senior, I knew I wanted to study theatre and go to small college instead of a large university.

    This seems to be relatively to very rare in the United States. People are also shocked that I was allowed to be a theatre major by my parents. They were also shocked that my parents expected me to get an advanced degree of some sort because they found it important to show advanced knowledge in a particular subject.

    Do other parents sit down their kids and say “this is what you can study in college?” Are other 17 year olds more sensible and understand that studying theatre isn’t going to lead to stead employment?

    I imagine that many people attend university because of vague notions and understandings that it is the way to a middle class job. Many might enjoy an odd class here and there but they are not necessarily the types who enjoy school.

    People who go to grad school are people who really enjoy school and studying. I love school. I love the romantic ideal of academy (I feel like a sucker for all those beautiful college brochures with pictures of stone buildings and fall leaves.) If I could get a genie wish for a career, I could easily see myself wishing to be a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast or Northeast (near or in a major city.) It would also always be fall in these dream probably.

    This probably makes me very weird.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      Most students here or at least the male ones are told by their parents that they will be engineers and that they do not have an option of studying something else at university.

    • Murc

      Why do most people go to college?

      Economic opportunity. Period.

      Do other parents sit down their kids and say “this is what you can study in college?”

      Yes. All the time. Or, more bluntly, “If you want us to subsidize your college education your major must be acceptable to us.”

      This is regarded as good parenting, and to a certain extent it is. The rationale is that your responsibility is to ensure your offspring enters the adult world able to fend for themselves. Legally speaking, you become an adult at eighteen, but if you’re a college-bound middle-class person, practically speaking adulthood begins at 22. Many parents do not want their children to enter the job market and find out they have no marketable skills and a degree credential that causes an HR screener to chuckle sadly before tossing their resume in the shredder.

      I imagine that many people attend university because of vague notions and understandings that it is the way to a middle class job. Many might enjoy an odd class here and there but they are not necessarily the types who enjoy school.

      Correct.

      People who go to grad school are people who really enjoy school and studying.

      This is not actually true. Many people go to grad school because the skills taught and the credential provided are necessary. Do you want to go into business, become management? Well, you need an MBA. Are you a teacher (itself requiring a grad school credential many places) who wants to move into administration? Gotta get a SECOND grad-school credential.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Esp an MBA if you don’t have an undergrad business degree. There’s also no shortage of liberal arts majors going to grad school for various degrees and certificates that they think will be more practical on the job front.

      • NewishLawyer

        I was thinking grad school for academics, not professional programs like MBA, JD, MD, MSW, MPA, D.Pharma, etc.

        • Murc

          A lot of those are Ph.D programs. Or do you lump that in with “grad school?” (I usually conflate “grad school” specifically with a masters degree.)

          • (I usually conflate “grad school” specifically with a masters degree.)

            Really? Not only don’t I do that, I have never knowingly heard the phrase used in that way (but, of course, I might have misunderstood a lot of my interlocutors and never known it!).

            I hope we get a lot of people weighing in here with reports of their own experience using the phrase and hearing it used.

            • N__B

              I had only an undergrad degree from the between the ages of 21 and 39 and I use “grad school” to mean anything beyond a BA or BS.

              • Is your usage related to the fact (at least, I’ve been told it’s a fact) that for engineers, the masters degree is the professional degree?

                • N__B

                  Heh. While you were typing this, I was just discussing this topic down-thread.

                  Might be but my parents have non-STEM grad degrees (JD, MA in english) and I think I picked this up from them. Their generation was the first in the family to go to college (their parents were immigrants born in the 1880s and 90s and I don’t think we have to go back earlier than their grandparents to get to hardcore peasantry) and I think the concept may have been that it was amazing enough to get a college degree that anything beyond a bachelors was shining too brightly to look at.

                • Lurker

                  You are talking about the situation in European continent. In the countries with a German-influenced technical education system, there are essentially two classes of engineers: the ones with a bachelor and those with a masters.

                  Very typically, these are earned in separate programs, often in separate universities. The bachelor degree is somewhat more practical. It prepares you to work as a practical designer or e.g, a chief engineer of a ship. The masters degree is usually more involved with theory and gives a better foundation for really difficult engineering work. Similarly, the master’s degree is a necessity for advancing on the career.

                  For example, in Finland, there are four difficulty classes of civil engineering work. A Bachelor of Engineering can reach the second highest competence, but with a longer required working experience than an engineer with master’s degree. The highest competence class requires a master’s degree.

                  In Finland, the difference in entry level wage is ca. 500 euros in month.

                • Eli Rabett

                  The bachelors is a professional degree for an engineer. The masters is useful for certain positions but not necessary to take the professional engineer exam. There is also a practical experience requirement.

            • NewishLawyer

              My Masters program was grad school. Law School was Law School. I think of JD, MBA, MD land as professional school.

            • JL

              Yeah, to me, “grad school” means an academic program beyond the bachelor’s (including master’s, doctoral, and usually post-bac programs if they’re the sort intended to prepare people for grad degree work in a new field), and depending on context, possibly including professional degrees, but usually not.

          • DrDick

            I usually conflate “grad school” specifically with a masters degree.

            Nobody I know has ever done that.

            • Yeah, if anything “grad school” occasionally excludes MAs (esp if terminal), but only occasionally. They are all postgraduate degrees.

          • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

            I usually conflate “grad school” specifically with a masters degree.

            I’ve taken to referring to my time pursuing my JD as “grad school.” But that is only out of embarrassment, so don’t take it as any kind of indicator.

      • NewishLawyer

        Someone who goes for a Masters or PhD in History or Literature might really love school in ways many people do not.

        • Linnaeus

          Well, one reason I went for a Ph.D. in history was because my career choices up to that point were closed off from me and I needed to find something else. I liked history, thought I was pretty good at it, so I did it.

          Things didn’t quite turn out as I had originally planned (for better and for worse), but I don’t have any regrets for doing it.

        • JL

          Hmm. Granted, computer science is not one of those fields, and not very close to either of those fields, but I didn’t go for a PhD because I loved school. I went for a PhD because more or less because I enjoyed doing research.

      • Crusty

        The idea that an MBA is required to go into business and/or become management is mistaken.

        The best way to get into business/management is to have a parent or other close relative who is successful in business. The second best way is to have a parent who is a powerful politician. Third, the most successful people in business (working at an established company, being paid extremely well, and working up the chain) are people who got hired into those jobs right out of colleges- elite colleges. And the more elite the college, the less business oriented the degree had to be. Also, these people tended to go to work in lesser known hedge funds and private equity firms, rather than bulge bracket investment banks. The fourth way to get into business/management, I’d say is the MBA route. The MBA route is good for two paths- first, you’re in a field where you had an entry level position and then the culture in that field is to “return to school” for the MBA so that you can go back to that company or a different company at a higher salary. Its helpful that when you go for that MBA, you make connections with the other students. Or, you go for the MBA if you want to transition from one not quite business field, to something a little more hardcore business based. Beyond that, I’ve never found that employers cared about the presence of an MBA or not, rather they just cared what your previous/current job was. There are lots of other people who are successful in “business” in positions like real estate brokers, insurance brokers- basically sales or commission driven positions and the people in those positions tend to be anything from high school graduates, crappy ba’s to high end MBA’s, but the key to their success is producing results, regardless of the degree.

        If there are companies or other employers that require some kind of advanced degree for promotion in a mechanical matter, the MBA can also fulfill that role, but it is somewhat rare.

        • Manny Kant

          I think an MBA from a very elite business school is very useful. An MBA from a non-elite business school is largely pointless.

    • Linnaeus

      Why do most people go to college?

      There need not be an either-or answer to this question. For me it was a combination of liking academics, liking a subject that required a college education to do, and economic opportunity, since it was clear that the jobs that my family did for a couple of generations were going to be harder to get as time went on.

      Do other parents sit down their kids and say “this is what you can study in college?”

      In my case, no, but I may be an exception. I pretty much had a free hand to do what I wanted during the entire course of my education (including secondary education). Certainly my father had opinions about what to study, and shared those with me, but he never forbade me from considering a particular major.

      • Marek

        My parents never suggested what I should do for undergrad or grad school. They paid for most of the undergrad but not the grad. /Anedcata

        • DrDick

          Same here. The only advice they ever gave me was to find something I enjoyed, was good at, and could make a living at. My father was an engineer who had seen lots of young guys who had gone into it for the money and hated it. He said no amount of money was worth being stuck in a job you hated.

      • Philip

        I had the same experience. My parents pretty much encouraged whatever I was interested in, but my dad (a former lawyer who hated it enough he quit) did warn me off law school. I didn’t want to do law anyway, though, so it wasn’t an issue.

      • los

        About the same for me.

        Also, I didn’t know that there were university degrees that “don’t pay out”.
        Maybe my parents would have mentioned that drawback if I had chosen one of the “don’t pay out” degrees.

        Benefits of the uni/college experience that I partly vaguely expected were:
        * a greater % of more “enlightened” fellow students than those in high school (primarily regarding the MOTAS, but also regarding LCD of non-MOTAS).
        * library.

        Benefit that I expected: better real-life culture.

    • djw

      Do other parents sit down their kids and say “this is what you can study in college?”

      This feels like a big difference between my generation and today’s. Back in the 90’s when I went to college, the only people I knew who had parents trying to tell them what to major in were people with clearly overbearing to the point of being abusive parents. My own parents would have seen the notion that they should have any say in what I majored in bizarre–it’s my degree. While many in my peer group (and myself) weren’t financially supported by our parents to any significant degree for college, but even for those with parents who did support them, trying to use that money to steer them into the majors and careers you hoped they’d choose was just too manipulative. But my conversations with students today seem to suggest this is much more normal now; I hear stuff like “I had to convince my parents to let me switch to political science, they’ll let me do it as long as I keep a business minor” all the time.

      One interpretation here is that is the rise of concerted cultivation as the dominant upper-middle class parenting approach apparently doesn’t have a stopping point. The other is that as college has become more expensive and good jobs for those with college degrees more competitive and difficult to find, this kind of micromanaging becomes inevitable.

      • Linnaeus

        Your possible interpretation might not be far off the mark – I see evidence of that at the tutoring center where I work during the school year.

      • CP

        I think it’s the latter especially. The consequences of screwing up college are much higher nowadays given the cost that it takes to go there. Of course, it’s also possible to do everything “right” and still end up in the shit, which further ads to the anxieties of the parents.

      • Karen24

        When I went to college in 1981 my parents flatly told me that I could major in English or history if I promised them I would to law school — back then a viable career option. If not, I would major in business. This, from the parents of a National Merit Scholar whose tuition was covered by the University of Texas. Since I hated all math-adjacent subjects with the passion of 10,000 suns, I promised to go to law school. With my own son, I told him that it was his life and while I thought it would be a good idea to pick a major in which he could get a job afterward, including teaching, I wasn’t going to dictate and he could take his own sweet time in deciding.

        • djw

          whose tuition was covered by the University of Texas.

          In that case, what did they see as their leverage for this command? Not letting you come home on holidays?

          • los

            Not letting you come home on holidays?
            no second serving of dessert!

            Her parents boxed the knickknacks thus half-converting Karen24’s bedroom into a guestroom, but the worst was leaving a week’s accumulation of dog hairs on the carpet – so vicious!

          • When “holidays” include “summer” that can be a big deal.

            I know know if Karen24’s scholarship included room and board, but that’s also significant.

            Obviously, you can lie and say you’re going to go to law school then renege.

            Also, frankly, both follow ups ignore the enormous pressure family can bring to bear, even when it’s relatively benign. There’s a big difference in doing something your family encourages and supports and one they disdain much less are openly hostile to.

      • Philip

        My impression is that for my generation (I graduated in 2015), it’s definitely at least partly a class thing, but not quite the way you think: the true middle class and the upper middle class who are less stably so tell their kids what they can major in etc, but the stably upper middle class would never dream of doing that.

      • NewishLawyer

        I went to undergrad in the late 90s or early aughts. I can think of one girl whose parents told her she could not major in drama and another that potentially disappointed his immigrant parents by majoring in art history over economics.

        That being said, if your kid attends a SLAC, there are not so many opportunities for “practical” majors.

        I’ve anecdotally heard that parents are worried that my very elite SLAC is not good for the job market anymore. Though our admissions rate is still 25 percent.

      • Manny Kant

        Those explanations seem complementary to me, and certainly not contradictory.

    • JL

      I knew people at MIT who had their parents yank their tuition money for stuff like switching from computer science to electrical engineering. Or who spent four years pretending to their parents that they were business majors when they were really physics majors. It happens all the time, even within STEM, even in schools whose alums are all pretty employable. Sometimes it’s used as a tactic of abuse.

      • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

        Or who spent four years pretending to their parents that they were business majors when they were really physics majors.

        This seems backwards, no?

        • Crusty

          To the slightly less educated or less versed in elite hiring, business > physics.

          • And (as JL has sometimes mentioned) among elite colleges and universities, MIT has one of the higher proportions of students who are first in their family to go to college, and thus a higher proportion of students whose parents are “slightly less educated”.

            • NewishLawyer

              But you would figure that parents who send their kids to MIT would be among the “You are going to be an engineer” kind of parent that Otto mentioned.

              A woman I know went to UC-Irvine. She described most of her classmates as Asians whose immigrant parents forced them into engineering and pre-med.

              My girlfriend and her friends are from out of the country. Their high school educations seem to largely be math and science, math and science, followed by more math and science.

              • JL

                But you would figure that parents who send their kids to MIT would be among the “You are going to be an engineer” kind of parent that Otto mentioned.

                Sometimes, but not always, and a desire to see their kid become an engineer doesn’t necessarily extend to the sciences, or even to all fields of engineering. The examples that I gave in that comment – the person cut off for switching from computer science to electrical engineering, and the person whose dad really wanted him to major in business and not physics – are both real people, not composite characters that I made up. The latter, when he applied to MIT in the first place, had to make up all kinds of nonsense because he couldn’t even convince his dad that MIT only had one application for undergrads and that there was no separate undergrad application for the business school. Other real people that I knew included the person disowned for switching from architecture to media studies (who now has an MBA and a fairly high-powered job), and the person whose parents wouldn’t let her major in math unless she did a double major with computer science.

                It’s whatever field the parent thinks will make the kid money, usually. Also, there are a lot of really controlling MIT parents. It’s a big on-campus mental health issue.

                • los

                  MIT needs a parent-counseling office.

                • JL

                  MIT needs a parent-counseling office.

                  Yep. Preferably one headquartered away from the rest of the campus, so that any parents going there in person won’t run into their kids.

                  I remember a year during the admitted students’ weekend when Admissions, being very aware of these issues because they have to deal with the more controlling segment of prospective MIT parents constantly, held a forum on residential life that was clearly marked as admitted students ONLY, and then held one especially for parents on the other side of campus. And then they had Admissions staff at the students-only one to gently shove parents who tried to attend the student one out the door and over to the parent one.

              • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

                But you would figure that parents who send their kids to MIT would be among the “You are going to be an engineer” kind of parent that Otto mentioned.

                This is what I would have figured, but apparently not.

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      People are also shocked that I was allowed to be a theatre major by my parents.

      The important question is, of course, are you genuinely happy that they allowed you to be a theatre major? Or do you sometimes wish they had nudged you in a more practical direction?

      They were also shocked that my parents expected me to get an advanced degree of some sort because they found it important to show advanced knowledge in a particular subject.

      Based on your nym, your advanced degree was in law. As a fellow law grad, I feel qualified to point out that a JD is not advanced knowledge, it is instead, first knowledge. But at a more in-depth level than most undergrad programs (or did you actually take graduate level theatre classes at your law school).

      • NewishLawyer

        I think my parents rightly realized that I was (and still am too much of a misfit) to have been broken into studying something that bored me. It would have been a recipe for disaster. There is still a large part of me that doesn’t really do well in large organizations/businesses (interestingly I do fine in large cities). I’ve always preferred working in small or medium sized businesses/firms.

        I also have a terminal Masters degree that I got before law school. Luckily my education was all debt-free.

        So I largely don’t regret studying theatre but I live in a bit of aww at 18 year olds that choose to study accounting and become actuaries. I am also somewhat and sometimes jealous of people from high school who went into business/corporate/professional life right away and are now home owners.

      • CD

        Or do you sometimes wish they had nudged you in a more practical direction

        Very few undergrad majors are “practical” in the sense that they are direct job training. The key is that your brain is being trained by becoming good at something, and what matters is that you’re pushed to do better and get faculty attention. I did a Classics BA and it was by far the most practical thing I could have done.

        • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

          I got a science degree, and it turned out to be a not-at-all-practical degree. I then went to law school. So I agree with this:

          Very few undergrad majors are “practical” in the sense that they are direct job training.

    • americanpride

      My experience was about the same as yours. I went to school because it was expected in my middle class upbringing. I continued my education with a MA because it made me more competitive for my career field (and it was 80% covered). But pursuing my PhD was optional and entirely for the “love of the game” because it was both unnecessary for my career field and because I didn’t have to worry about funding. The opportunity was there, so I pursued it, and I wanted to keep my late-career options open in case I decide to move. I’m one of the few lucky ones to get through it with zero student debt and a decent career (with a pension plan to boot).

      My example is definitely not the norm. I also don’t think PhDs should focus on academia jobs – I don’t know what the ratio is to academia/non-academia. But I do think there should be greater emphasis on activism and non-academic work both from the academy and from the ‘national narrative’.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    We tenured and tenure-track faculty also have to examine the ways that we’ve helped foster the casualization of academic labor….and do what we can to change things. We can only very marginally improve things (principal responsibility lies with adminstrators, trustees/regents, and state governments), but, over the years we’ve been (however marginally) much more part of the problem than part of the solution.

    • Yes, definitely.

    • Linnaeus

      Surprisingly, a lot of said faculty don’t seem to be doing what you recommend.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      “We can only very marginally improve things (principal responsibility lies with adminstrators, trustees/regents, and state governments), but, over the years we’ve been (however marginally) much more part of the problem than part of the solution.”

      I blame the STEM status quo, who have not stepped up the effort for completion of the “B Ark” for those administrators, trustees/regents and state legislators.

    • Justaguy

      Yeah, the lack of activism on this issue on the part of tenured faculty and professional scholarly organizations is deafening.

    • mikeSchilling

      I don’t think dressing better is going to help.

  • Woodrowfan

    my school just refurbished all the dorm rooms, yet my department’s offices have mold, broken furniture, and water damage. It took us four years to get WiFi in our faculty offices and we only got it because they upgraded the whole campus. But hey, that new building they’re putting up sure looks spiffy and the high tech equipment in the classrooms will be used by at least once in the next year. Maybe twice!

    • DrDick

      At mine, many departments have had to eliminate office phones for the faculty, eliminate all adjunct positions, and reduce support staff owing to budget cuts, but we somehow had money for a multi-million dollar facility for the athletic program and hired a bunch of new administrators.

      • Woodrowfan

        new administrators to run offices to figure out why students are not staying.

        • [Note to readers not themselves employed by or retired from universities: Woodrowfan is not making that up.]

        • DrDick

          Exactly, in point of fact.

      • rm

        Wait, are you on my campus?

        . . . and this is one of those moments when I realize that all our arguments and protests are in vain because our administrators are not making decisions on their own based on local needs, but following a nationally franchised model for destroying the labor value of teaching faculty while keeping the enterprise of selling degrees afloat. There are no arguments, only money and power.

  • Murc

    It’s completely fine to get a Ph.D., although at this point one should understand that a) you should never go to a program without a good funding package and b) you aren’t going to get an academic job at the end of it unless you are very, very lucky.

    This seems like another way of saying “it is not fine to get a Ph.D.”

    You’re right about the fact that we’ve been eliminating jobs for PH.D holders in the humanities left, right, and center… but that doesn’t actually change the fact that the jobs, you know, aren’t there.

    I mean, this blog has Paul Campos on the masthead, and Paul’s great crusade is “don’t go to law school if you have to assume debt to do so, there are too many lawyers as it is, you’ll end up saddled with debt and with grim employment prospects.” The reasons for that are not irrelevant, such as the changes made in how law firms operate over the past half-century, but they are secondary. When people tell Paul “the problem isn’t that there are too many lawyers, it is that there aren’t enough jobs for lawyers” he always fires back with “yeah? So? That doesn’t make a practical difference to the guy who spent some prime working years assuming a shit-ton of debt for a credential of dubious usefulness.”

    • djw

      The key difference here is that for PhD study, full funding is, if not standard across the board, pretty close to the norm in most fields, at least at the upper half or so of programs. The modern university’s economic model looks to exploit JD students for their sweet federally subsidized loan cash, but PhD students are exploited for the cheap labor. For a JD, assuming no debt is very rare, for a PhD, assuming no (or very little debt) is relatively common.

      • Linnaeus

        The key difference here is that for PhD study, full funding is, if not standard across the board, pretty close to the norm in most fields, at least at the upper half or so of programs.

        Sadly, this was not the norm in my program, even though we are in the upper half.

        • Nick never Nick

          That’s a sign that your program was exploitative. Good programs don’t have unfunded PhD students — poor programs do, and typically they are lower-prestige ones, where the opportunity for a graduate to get an academic job is far lower.

          • Linnaeus

            Something that, in retrospect, I should have understood better at the time.

            • djw

              Me too. I had guaranteed funding packages at a couple of almost-as-good departments, but I went to UW despite being offered a place on a “wait list” for TA assignments, in part because I preferred the program, but mostly because I wanted to live in Seattle. It turned out fine, because the major, and therefore demand for TAs, was such that the wait-list cleared every quarter. But if I were advising my 22 year old self today, I’d strongly advise the guaranteed packages.

              • Linnaeus

                My choices were more restricted than that, so it seemed like a good idea at the time to take what I could get. If were advising my 25 year old self today, I’d say take another year or two to save some money, improve your credentials, and then re-apply.

      • Just a Rube

        But funding is generally significantly less than what you could get with an equivalent educational background in an entry-level job (and the economy isn’t that bad that most brand-new college graduates bright enough for grad school can’t find something to work on).

        And of course, while the Ph.D. candidate is working towards their doctorate, the person who started working straight out of college is moving up the job ladder wherever they ended up.

        The comparison isn’t that far off, right down to the tendency for most hiring to come from only the top schools in the field, new grad schools being started for “prestige” and a growing movement to sell the degree by pointing out all the transferable skills you potentially get by earning said degree (the “alt-ac” movement).

        It’s true that money is not the end of all things, but it’s also important for anyone who wants to be able to eat at the end of the day.

        • Lurker

          I did my Ph.D in relatively short time. The funding was good: no tuition and on average, 2,400 euros per month (rising as the studies progressed). After getting to the industry at the completion of my degree, the immediate premium in the entry salary was about 300 euros per month, compared to guys with master’s degrees. In addition, my career has progressed much better than that of my peers without a Ph.D.

          I would say that after a few years, the Ph.D paid itself back.

          However, the funding level described above is extremely good and non-representative. With more normal funding rates, it would take decades for the Ph.D to pay its opportunity costs.

      • sonamib

        I don’t know how PhDs work in the US, but in my university in Brussels, you can’t start a PhD program without funding. I mean, it’s not because the university wants to save students from making bad decisions, it’s just that unfunded students would cost a lot of money to the university*, while funded students bring in some sweet, sweet grant money.

        In any case, I earn about €26k ($29k) per year, income tax-free. It’s not the best paying job in the world, but I don’t really have an expensive lifestyle, I’m able to save half of that. And I’m also enjoying it, so there’s that.

        *Especially if you’re using expensive lab equipment.

        • Manny Kant

          Is there sweet, sweet grant money for the humanities? Humanities PhD students at American universities are generally paid for by the university itself out of undergraduate and MA tuition. MAs pay their own way, either in cash or with student loans.

          • los

            how much are the grant-requesters paid?

      • Justaguy

        About half of PhD students graduate with no debt, only 36% of Humanities students are debt free. 25% of Humanities students have $50k or more debt and 11.2% have $90k or more.https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2016/nsf16300/data/tab38.pdf

        So, there are plenty of grad students racking up substantial debt. My school offered TAs around $18k a year to live in one of top 10 most expensive real estate markets in the US – hardly something that could be described as “full funding”.

        • Matt_L

          Yes, differences in the cost of living is a huge problem. I earned $10k when I was starting an MA program in the Rust Belt. When I moved to the big city in the Upper Midwest, being a TA still only paid $10k! Even with housemates, that was mighty tight.

          Plus you have to shift for yourself during the summer months. Or if you are doing a PhD where you need a second or third research language, you need to go to language school in the summer. Sometimes you can get a FLAS grant otherwise you pay out of your own pocket. So that means some student loans, or you are independently wealthy.

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      I mean, this blog has Paul Campos on the masthead, and Paul’s great crusade is “don’t go to law school if you have to assume debt to do so, there are too many lawyers as it is, you’ll end up saddled with debt and with grim employment prospects.”

      But this blog also has Scott Lemieux on the masthead, and his great crusade is to charge undergrads $30,000 in tuition (and another $12,000 in room and board) for a poli sci major from a university (St. Rose) most of us have never heard of.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        right, lots of Lemieux posts about the wonders of St Rose that don’t reveal his position as chief tuition-setter. can’t hardly avoid one of those crusades

        • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

          right, lots of Lemieux posts about the wonders of St Rose that don’t reveal his position as chief tuition-setter

          So … as long as you aren’t chief tuition-setter, it’s OK. And what about the “lots of Lemieux posts” about how he agrees with Campos’s criticism of law schools?

    • JL

      This seems like another way of saying “it is not fine to get a Ph.D.”

      Eh, that depends. Any PhD program worth its salt ought to be fully funding its students for at least five years or so – this has been true in STEM for a long time, and seems more and more true in humanities (my sister is fully funded as a medieval studies PhD student). “If you’re not funded, don’t go” was conventional wisdom when I was still in elementary school. And there are some fields where there’s a perfectly reasonable market for non-academic PhD level jobs. I’m not sure if I’ll end up in academia, but I’m pretty confident that I can get some kind of appropriate job with a computer science PhD.

  • djw

    you should never go to a program without a good funding package

    This is the key. As various other economic career paths have deteriorated, the standard stipend for PhD programs has not. So 25K a year for path that’s a) interesting/rewarding/enjoyable, and b) at least has a slim chance of leading to a career looks pretty reasonable compared to not necessarily much more money for a job that’s both dreary and not going anywhere.

    • Steve LaBonne

      People smart enough to be accepted into a program with that level of funding have a better chance than most of getting into a non-dead-end career, so there is still a significant likelihood that getting the PhD will have a steep opportunity cost. I’m about to turn 61, will be working a few more years as a pretty decently compensated forensic scientist, but would already have several years of a comfortable retirement behind me, on a better pension than I will end up with, and with a lot more in the bank, if I had gotten a masters and started that career in my early 20s.

    • MDrew

      To me this is the key.

      If you 1) think you’ll inherently like it – i.e., it’s nearly *how you’d like to spend that time ideally if you were freed from financial constraints and could simply follow your bliss*; 2) can get it roughly to the point of financial neutrality – i.e., you’re not making a major opportunity-cost-ballooning sacrifice of great earning potential during the time you’d be in the program (this is to say, if you can get a good funding package and don’t have uncommonly good employment prospects for a bachelor’s degree holder considering embarking on a PhD); and 3) think it’s in a field you’d be okay spending your life in in some way, very possibly other than being a university professor in it,

      …then by all means get a PhD. Certeris paribus, it should advance your ability to have a career and hold interesting jobs in the field you pursue, over having only a bachelors in it – again, even if it doesn’t give you a professor’s career. It will probably make you more qualified for more interesting jobs, whatever they may be. But if getting the PhD feels like a major sacrifice of resources (of any kind) for you, then you probably shouldn’t count on the PhD repaying that opportunity cost over the course of its shelf life. It just probably won’t.

      Do it if you inherently want to, and you can get it so it doesn’t cost you too much (in any resource that is valuable to you).

      That’s hard, though. You’re probably not that person.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    When I had just completed a bachelors in biology and looking to start a career in biomedical research, literally every single PhD I had worked for or was friendly with advised me in unambiguous and adamant terms DO NOT get a PhD in biology, chemistry, biophysics etc because basically the ground was littered with them and it was just a miserable path to tread*. I took the hint and went into public health (a hybrid hard/ “soft” science), and now medicine.

    Keep in mind: that was 10-15 YEARS ago.

    This idea that we should be steering people away from the humanities and into “STEM” (like every field within STEM has equally awesome job prospects) blows my mind.

    * (NB: most of these folks were MD-PhDs)

    • Steve LaBonne

      Yup.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      The not so implicit subtext of Loomis’ post though is that because the sciences can also suck, why not get a graduate degree in the humanities? Despite the job market also sucking. I’m not sure it makes sense to get a graduate degree in the humanities just because people with basic science PhDs are also having a tough time finding jobs.

      • CP

        The problem is that the job market sucks all around the board. College graduates are having lots of trouble finding work, much less adequately compensated work, but the reason a lot of people still apply is that it’s also gotten much harder to make a decent living without a college degree. (Yes, of course it’s possible: there are still routes to stable middle class citizenship without going to college. But far fewer than a generation or two ago).

        TL/DR: we’re all in trouble. I suppose I can see the appeal of saying that, as long as we’re all in trouble, might as well go for what you love.

        • NewishLawyer

          I don’t know if we are all in trouble. I have a hard time determining what is reality from feelings when it comes to a lot of jobs/econmics discussions.

          I agree that there are a lot of warning signs and it is untenable and immoral for students to take on ton of debt but the unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. Other warnings signs are high housing costs in the areas with good jobs.

          But I don’t like the libertarian “Stop complaining! Cell phones and video games were unimaginable in 1960!” school of thought.

          What would you consider people not being in trouble? How do we separate data from emotional feelings?

          • Redwood Rhiadra

            Remember that the headline unemployment rate only counts those who haven’t given up looking for jobs, which most people do after a couple of years of failing to find one. The employment ratio (particularly the 25-54 employment ratio) is more telling. And that ratio has been trending down since 2000. (Yes, it’s up since the crash, but it still far from the 2008 peak, and *that* peak was lower than in 2000.)

          • los

            Cell phones and video games were unimaginable in 1960!
            if only because mortgage or rent costs blow away cell phone or game costs (unless somebody buy those extravagantly)

    • N__B

      And the letters in STEM disagree with each other. I know Lee Rudolph has mentioned how math is an outlier several times. Engineering* is too, in that the sweet spot for employment is more or less at the MS level. I know firm principals who actively avoid PhDs for design positions, on the theory that they’ve spent too much time in research; if this sounds too anecdotal, I’ll add that the various professional organizations place little emphasis on PhDs.

      *I’m thinking of structural and mechanical, primarily. It may be different in different disciplines.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Its entirely possible too that for people younger than Gen X, that is, people who graduated from college with their BAs right around the time that the economy went into the tank after 9/11 or at the time of the Great Recession, going to grad school may very well have been a no brainer (not just law or business school, but going for that sweet humanities PhD). I wonder how much those two recessions helped increase enrollment.

        • N__B

          They damned well increased enrollment in the historic preservation programs where I’ve taught.

          • (((Hogan)))

            Well, sure. We keep making more history to preserve.

            • Steve LaBonne

              The Balkans produce more history than they can consume locally.

              • That seems increasingly true also of the Levant.

      • I recall some research in CS that showed lifetime salary gains for BS and MS but then not so much for PhD. Esp with long PhD the opportunity costs are killer.

        • Philip

          It helps that we’re a baby field which, honestly, no one understands well enough for a graduate degree to help at all in anything but pure research jobs. We can’t even consistently figure out what actually needs teaching in undergrad.

        • JL

          Does anybody seek a CS PhD primarily for a salary boost? That seems like a really weird reason to do it, not least because of the research you allude to.

          • Yes, people absolutely do. More people don’t know that it’s not correlated with a salary premium not least because industry jobs that ask for a PhD often have pretty high starting salaries.

            You’d be surprised how many people just keep getting the next degree and rationalise it as having pecuniary benefits, per se.

            • JL

              Huh. I sought one because it became very clear, working industry research jobs, that I’d have trouble being more than a flunky, and never have a useful amount of autonomy, or choice in which projects I got put on and whether they had any relevance to my skillset, without it. And because I got fed up with my sector of industry for several reasons, both political and practical (if I went back to industry, which I well might, I would pick a different sector). I knew that any salary boost I got would be small, and that depending on what kind of job I went into afterwards I might get a salary anti-boost. I figured that computer science being computer science, and having other employable skills anyway, I’d be able to find some kind of gainful employment whatever happened.

              • Huh. I sought one because it became very clear, working industry research jobs, that I’d have trouble being more than a flunky, and never have a useful amount of autonomy, or choice in which projects I got put on and whether they had any relevance to my skillset, without it.

                That’s *probably* true, though not as true in some other fields.

                But also you had experience with industry research. Quite a few applicants and students I talk with do not. Some, perhaps most!?, don’t even want to do research afterwards!

                One bit of bias induction might be that in universities, PhDs are generally a requirement for the highest status jobs. If your experience is predominately scholastic, you might reasonably project that bias. Cf. how people think about law school.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        The optimal degree certainly differs by field, and I agree completely that for engineering MS seems to be the sweet spot (“solid mastery of the field, but not an ‘ivory tower’ type).

        Math, hard sciences: they might throw a masters at you on the way to a doctorate, but “terminal masters” = “failed the qualifying exam”.

        CS: high-school diploma plus a successful hack of NSA seems to be the sweet spot, maybe.

        • N__B

          I thought “terminal masters” = “take old yeller behind the barn and shoot him before he fails his orals.”

          • Foaming at the mouth is certainly one failure mode for orals.

          • (((Hogan)))

            Or he just might not survive the snake fight.

        • TheSophist

          Worked for my brother. Didn’t quite hack the nsa, but similar exploits. Now makes a few million a year with no college degree.

        • elm

          I think Chemistry does have a significant number of terminal masters (DAS or one of other chemists can correct me if I’m wrong here) as a lot of the lab techs and people working in industry will have masters degrees and I doubt those are just the ones who couldn’t pass their exams.

          • Ronan

            What’s a terminal masters and why is it a negative, elm ? (Google isn’t too informative on the topic)

            • A terminal masters is your final degree (period or in a program). For some areas a masters as your last degree is very common eg MBA or MFA. MScs in the UK are another example. However, at some point in the U.S. Is a lot of programs, the Masters became a sort of consolation prize if you didn’t make it through to a PhD (sort of like an MPhil).

              • Ronan

                Ah, got you. Thanks.

              • N__B

                Surely some university Vice President is working on getting accreditation for a DBA degree.

              • CD

                Where I was, in econ, you qualified for an M.A. after two years if you’d passed your comps. Maybe 20% found this a convenient off-ramp — not that they’d failed anything, just that they’d learned some stuff, got a credential, and didn’t feel like embarking on a dissertation.

      • los

        avoid PhDs for design positions, on the theory that they’ve spent too much time in research;
        more “cutting edge”, such as “defense”, might hire PhDs, though/because the design might reqiure research.

  • Pugachev

    My wife’s alma mater recently did away with granting MS degrees in her program. The completion rate hovers around 50% (which is about average among the R1 universities, if my understanding is correct). So now the half of grad students who don’t complete the program are left with nothing to show for their time, and it will be very difficult to spin their years of study to a future employer without a MS to show for it.

    Also, the advice about needing funding is 100% spot on. But universities have some nasty tricks up their sleeves – they accept students with full funding contingent on budget availability, and they guarantee funding for fewer years than even top students can complete a program.

    But if the funding is there, ~$25k plus benefits is not a bad way for one to spend one’s twenties, compared to the other options out there.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      I had some friends from high school who got mechanical and civil engineering degrees, and were very quickly able to get middle class jobs after they graduated from college (like, less than a month or so). That also seems like a pretty good deal.

      • BruceJ

        Wow, such wondrously curated small-batch artisanal data!

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          As opposed to the people with PhDs on this thread who have decent middle class lifestyles? What are they representative of?

          • twbb

            Generational advantages?

            • Amanda in the South Bay

              Never underestimate Old Economy Steve.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Yes. My daughter is a ChemE student (rising senior) who has had very successful coop experiences and will certainly have a good job lined up before graduation, and her EE boyfriend is at Rockwell and already making more than I do (he paid off all his student loans in a couple of years). And we’re not talking MIT, but Cleveland State (her) and U. of Cincinnati (him).

      • Ruviana

        I would never have been able to do any kind of engineering degree and while I wish nothing but the best for people who think that way some of us don’t no matter what we do. I always wonder about this advice (not what Amanda’s saying here) as the true path for everyone. Not everyone can be a NBA basketball player either.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          Yes, not everyone can be a programmer, civil engineer or nurse. And ideally one shouldn’t have to be one of those to get a decent job with a humanities degree (unless you live in the Old Economy Steve world).

          • Ruviana

            Yes, exactly this.

  • a job that’s both dreary and not going anywhere

    But, enough about life after tenure!

  • petesh

    Shirley you’re not suggesting that the market misallocates resources?

  • Derelict

    One unremarked factor is that the PhD has become degraded because there are so many diploma mills that hand out doctorates for work that is really freshman-composition grade stuff. When I edit someone’s dissertation and it’s a quantitative study involving a survey and the number of survey responses is 3, I know that whatever this person thinks they’ve found is complete BS. When I read literature reviews and the most recent work cited is from 2001; when I read methodologies that include using Survey Monkey to target participants from known bad databases; when I get a completed dissertation that’s on my desk for “final” editing and it’s a hot mess of illiterate gibberish–I know that these “schools” are just cashing the student-loan checks and the students don’t get much of anything out of the exercise.

    If I were hiring someone for a position requiring a PhD., there’s now a long list of schools whose graduates would be eliminated before I read any further on their CV. And I suspect that there are many HR and faculty-hiring types who also understand that a PhD from Gonif University is worthless.

    • twbb

      As I work on my dissertation I have assuaged my anxiety by downloading the dissertations of people working in my field and felt much better because there is so much out there that is moderately awful.

      • felt much better because there is so much out there that is moderately awful.

        Follow the dream! write a dissertation that is immoderately awful!!

        • twbb

          To the extent I want to write a good dissertation, it is largely based on guilt over turning graduate school into a 5-year vacation from the real world. I hear about graduate students working 60-hour work weeks but it’s turned me into a gentleman of leisure, so doing a decent dissertation will help me deal with my natural neurotic guilt over that.

          My advisor is pretty firmly in the “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” camp.

      • Linnaeus

        One of my advisors likes to say, “There are good dissertations, and there are done dissertations. I suggest you write one that’s done.”

        • (((Hogan)))

          Ah, a fellow member of the cult of Done.

        • wjts

          “Is their dissertation good?”

          “It’s better than good – it’s done.”

        • Steve LaBonne

          Mine was definitely not good but definitely done, hallelujah.

        • los

          I suggest you write one that’s done
          would people recognize one of Melania’s dissertations if I chose one she has done?

    • QAMS

      I don’t think it makes much sense to judge a school based on the worst Ph.D. thesis that you happen to have seen. At most schools, it is hard to actually fail your Ph.D., just like it is hard to actually fail your M.D. or M.B.A. (or, to a lesser degree, your B.Sc.). As a result, even HPYS graduate a moderate number of nonsense Ph.Ds every year, as well as passing a moderate number of theses that were not-so-secretly written in very large part by the adviser.

      Maybe all schools should fail a lot more of their Ph.D. students, or keep them even longer… but that seems like a pretty different conversation.

      (FWIW, my own Ph.D. is in math, from one of HPS. My thesis is badly-written, has several errors, and is almost completely uninteresting. I’d say that these three attributes were shared by most people in my graduating class. Oh well.)

      • Nick never Nick

        I think it’s interesting that in your final line you anonymize yourself, but leave out Yale as a possibility. Is the prospect of someone imagining you as an alum of New Haven so unimaginably horrid?

        • elm

          Which makes me think QAMS must be from Harvard.

          • QAMS

            Oops, it was just a thoughtless typo – I’m now regretting having written anything (and especially any biographical details)!

            (Erik: love the blog; I’ll go back to lurking and leave the math comments to the much-wiser Lee, who seems to be able to keep his foot out of his mouth).

        • twbb

          “Well, I say let Harvard have its football and academics. Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life.”

      • twbb

        “My thesis is badly-written, has several errors, and is almost completely uninteresting.”

        I would suspect that 80% of people with PhDs will say the same thing, 10% lack the self-awareness to say the same thing, and 10% actually did a decent job.

    • dl

      what kind of schools are these? like for-profits? Are they Ed.D. degrees?

      • Derelict

        The worst ones are the for-profit schools. I edit a surprising number of Ed.D. dissertations from a wide variety of schools. I am no longer shocked to find people who have been teachers for decades who have not mastered the rudiments of English.

    • djw

      I not sure these diploma mills are really becoming factors in the social sciences and humanities. I’ve seen the pool of applicants for some of our job searches and if people are buying these degrees, they’re not bothering to apply for faculty positions–all but a small handful of oddball applications (often JDs or MBAs) are PhDs from the 100ish regular research universities that offer PhDs in political science, or equivalent degrees from a handful of European, Canadian, or Australian departments, so if people are buying diploma mill PhDs in political science I don’t know what they’re trying to do with them.

      • Derelict

        As near as I can tell, most of the diploma-mill types are people in government (public school teachers, mid-level administrators, etc.) who have been told getting a master’s or PhD makes them eligible for the next slot up the ladder. The public school teachers are usually going for EdD or Doctorate of Education Leadership.

        No, I have no idea what that last one is. But I can tell you that every dissertation I’ve ever had from a “leadership” candidate has been awful–muddled thinking, unsubstantiated premises, “research” that typically consists of “I asked my friends and then used them to obtain snowball sampling” to reach N=5 for a sample size. (Bonus points are earned when the next schlub down the line cites one of these bogus dissertations in his or her literature review!)

        • The Lorax

          You’d be chagrined by the number of higher ed admins who are EdDs.

        • Matt_L

          PhD’s and MAs in Ed Leadership are crap. Everyone working in Higher Education knows this. Ed Leadership programs are for people who cannot get into an EdD program or an MBA.

  • BruceJ

    When we say it’s irrational — and worthy of ridicule — to pursue any kind of education that doesn’t maximize earnings,

    This is what comes of everything being “run like a business” as if this is appropriate for every aspect of life.

    We hire CEO’s to run our universities and we wonder why we get a bloated 0.1% level of cronies administrators, constant references to ‘the customer is always right’ and treating labor like disposable lumps of distasteful meat.

    Marriage should be only approached as a question of maximizing economic benefit for yourself.

    Hobbies that do not make money should be disdained.

    Reading anything but instructional manuals is irresponsible.

    Traveling for entertainment or adventure if you’re not going to get paid for it is delusional waste of money, which is, of course, the only thing that ever matters ever in life.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Yes, advising a kid to consider not getting a Ph.D is exactly like those examples. Not.

    • CP

      This is what comes of everything being “run like a business” as if this is appropriate for every aspect of life.

      Yarp.

  • junker

    I am starting a new position this fall and found out at a kickoff department meeting last week that an astonishing 80% of our courses are taught by adjuncts. We have one masters program that is more less entirely taught by adjuncts.

    A long term departmental goal is supposedly to get that rate to 50%.

    Before getting this position I was on a year to year VAP position that I lucked into because it happened to open in my department the year I defended my dissertation. Before I lucked into my present position I had been reduced to hoping they would renew this VAP basically forever. I am in the liberal arts.

    I think you so might be underestimating how much non-academic employers seem to devalue a PhD in the liberal arts and humanities as over qualified when it comes to hiring decisions.

    I generally caution very strongly to my students against getting a PhD.

    • Linnaeus

      I’ve talked with a number of students about getting a Ph.D. in my field and related ones, and I’ve never said explicitly not to do it, but when I do have these conversations, I’m very forthright about the challenges and risks of doing it.

  • Nick never Nick

    There is nothing wrong with getting a PhD in anything that you love (if you’re funded). However, the person doing so should be asked to imagine what they’ll do with it, if they can’t get a tenure-track job; or how they’ll use it, if they have to switch fields; and asked if they’ll be OK with putting in years of hard work and then ending up working in another area. In other words, have an escape lever ready to pull, and don’t put too much of your personal worth into it.

    For myself, in Biological Anthropology back in the 1990s, my escape hatch was Thailand — I’d been a high school exchange student there, spoke the language pretty well, and knew that it offered a totally different life that could be awesome. “Next month I’ll quit this shit and go work in an NGO in Laos” I would mutter to myself as I tried to learn SAS. Eventually I did! Now I’m a Canadian health bureaucrat in Alberta. That’s how the system is meant to work.

    • Linnaeus

      Yes, a Plan B and even a Plan C is important to have.

      One thing I’ve told potential Ph.D. seekers in the past who are really focused on academic jobs is to look at where the professors at the schools they’re considering got their Ph.D.s. Those are the programs that place most of the people in academia. If you’re not in one of them, have a backup.

    • Moondog von Superman

      Did you have to pick up some other credential to get into your health system work?

      • Nick never Nick

        I did, after several years in SE Asia and Micronesia I finished a second masters in Public Health. Like someone observed above, this is a weird hybrid subject that has a lot of leeway in it; it has combined well with my anthropology background. Having the two master degrees is more flexible than a single PhD, which can specialize you out of a lot of positions.

        • Ronan

          Did you find the masters itself useful, or was it mainly just a prerequisite to get the job?( I’m going back back to do a masters in public health myself this year, as my dreams of retiring to the Med to join the drinking classes hasn’t progressed as planned )

          • I have always had the impression that the Irish Sea was no less hospitable to the drinking classes than the Mediterranean.

            • Ronan

              Sometimes an artist has to aspire to a larger canvas.

          • Nick never Nick

            It is useful — public health is more than just a bunch of platitudes about the Social Determinants of Health (though it is those too). Mine was specialized, but it included epidemiology, a lot of specifics about certain infectious diseases, and a couple of ways to approach thinking about organizations.

            • I learned from an MPH who, years after that degree, got a psychology Ph.D. in the program I was lightly attached to, that at least some public health programs (notably hers…) require coursework in gross anatomy including up-close-and-personal work with human cadavers.

              • Ronan

                You sure that wasn’t just the Christmas party ?

                • los

                  keeps the course lab fee affordable

          • Cool! I hope it’s fun for you.

            • Ronan

              Thanks, Bijan

          • Nick never Nick

            The thing is, Public Health is a huge field. Kind of like anthropology, you can go into it from multiple angles:

            epidemiology (a fairly simple science)
            hospital management (boring as fuck)
            social-science public health (I know all about the people I serve and refrain from insulting them)
            program management (you need some technical knowledge, but end up spending all your time on invoices)

            And then there’s the entire field of where public health meets nursing: if you’re not a nurse, you’ll always be at a bit of disadvantage in the field.

            I studied International Health, thinking that I would do some awesome shit on the Thai-Burmese border — and then my program made it very clear that health programs should be run by governments, and the responsible NGOs supported them in doing this, and refrained from getting into the cowboy shit. So my wife and I had a kid and we emigrated to Canada. I thought for a while I’d go work in Nunavut where my International Health education would have come in handy, but I found a job in Alberta first.

            • Ronan

              Yeah, I’m going the epidemiology – infectious disease route. I think a lack of a medical/biology background will work against me in some areas, and probably getting to some levels, but as far as entry level to mid level it seems not too much a hindrance. (And that’s good enough for me)
              It seems in the international public health realm (which is what I’d prefer to do as well) the main entry level for field epidemiology is through orgs like MSF and Merlin? (That’s my impression from inquiring around anyway). I might have a problem there with languages (which I can look to improve) and perhaps industry preferences for higher status programs, though I don’t think either are necessarily overly limiting. Otherwise I’m there seem to be opportunities in health systems across Europe, and I don’t have a problem moving.

              • Nick never Nick

                Look at your program carefully — if you want to be a field epidemiologist, then you should do a masters in that, not in public health. Public health normally includes epidemiology, but not in the intensive qualitative way that working in it requires. A lot of countries have national-level field-epidemiology training programs, and it would be a lot easier to get real experience in these than it would with MSF. There are plenty of tenured scientists who do field epidemiology for free when there’s an Ebola outbreak — MSF is more concerned with getting IV drips and a person who knows how to run them to a clinic.

                International Health is a frustrating field. When you go into it, one of the first things you learn is that you aren’t filling a need for a medical worker — you’re filling a need for a medical worker who has funding to treat people, and can write a report in English to the people who provide the funding. There are plenty of local medical workers who are trained but have no funding; you hire them for a few years to work for you at a 10nth of your salary, then another NGO hires them away from you, then all the NGOs pull up for some reason, and the local people and medical workers are left there with highly unstable medical care. There is a role for the big emergency organizations, but sustainable public health requires a commitment from governments.

                Look at the trop-ed network in Europe, that’s where I got my degree. It has a very diverse set of core offerings, from the highly medicalized (Antwerp), to the anthropological (Berlin) with everything in between. I took one of the medical ones, which complimented my background in the social sciences.

                • Nick never Nick

                  note, meant ‘quantitative’, not ‘qualitative’

                • Ronan

                  Sorry, only getting back to this now.
                  Yeah, it is epidemiology and quant focused. I ran it past a few recruiters/people in the area and they said it looked okay. Not to the extent of the top programs, but (1)they (the top programs) seem to be training, in large part, for people going into academia (2) I think opportunities are still there to learn independently with institutional/expert support etc.
                  True about the free labour provided by highly qualified experts, but it seems to me they’re generally outliers (ie tenured profs generally aren’t running small scale surveillance systems, but more often flying in for the big ticket events. So I’m not overly concerned about that as it’s a different market entirely) But I’m not really putting all my eggs in the one basket here, just spitballing ; ) (the national field epi training programs tend, afaict, to expect more experience, so people start and train in the international orgs. This is afaict anyway, comparing the qualifications/experience expected in the area domestically and internationally)
                  Thanks for the pointer to trop ed, I’m gonna look into it further. I might continue to bend your ear on this in the future, god willing

  • sum goy

    as always, I love the barbed dig at Uber drivers. what a pitiless plight those wretches must live.

    is there any section of the working class Loomis despises more than Uber drivers? too funny. For two years in a row I have made MORE as an Uber driver than I ever made in the five years I “served” as an adjunct at the land-grant research university where I did all my graduate work. driving the same kids I once taught writing to is not just more profitable but a lot more fun, but I guess there are some proletarian positions Loomis considers just a tad too lumpen. alas.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      you would seem to be the exception to the uber rule. congratulations

      • Steve LaBonne

        Wonder how he’ll be doing when he’s my age.

        • los

          for some, squirting the mustard onto the hotdog never gets old.
          (and seriously: if this is true for some persons, then I think that is good.)

  • ArchTeryx

    And herein I post my usual tale of woe about being a hard scientist PhD in his 40s who has:

    A) Never had the luxury of anything but ever shorter temp gigs, and
    B) Has been unemployed going on 3 years.

    And this is in one of the ‘hot’ fields, molecular virology. Even in the midst of the Zika craziness, an RNA virologist sits idle and broke. There’s your PhD value right there.

    • Nick never Nick

      I have friends in this position, with PhDs from an elite program in physical anthropology — it’s no joke at all, they are really in the same situation as Victorian governesses who spoke multiple languages, played musical instruments, and still had to depend on unstable, poorly-paid positions as tutors. Their educational accomplishments are increasingly devalued as they get older, and they aren’t even considered for respectable post-docs. The jobs they get undermine their stability by forcing them to move around; they’re unable to save money and lack health insurance.

      • ArchTeryx

        It’s funny, that. The only source of income I current have is tutoring, and that market is so crowded there’s not a prayer of earning enough even to make rent. If not for a very close friend, I’d be living out of my car or dying under a bridge – no exaggeration, and no hyperbole.

        And that’s the hidden problem with the postdoc-go-round – age discrimination. Eventually, you simply age out of postdoc positions, and then what? A brand new career as a Wal-Mart greeter? Not all of us have the physical stamina to hold up to McJobs even if we can hide what we are long enough to get them.

        It’s a bleak, bleak world out there if you’re a Ph.D. in virtually anything.

        • (((Hogan)))

          That’s true outside of the academy as well. Queues in labor markets generally work in reverse: the longer you stand in line, the farther back you move.

          • ArchTeryx

            And that’s my greatest fear: That I’ve reached the point of no return and made myself permanently unemployable.

            • Nick never Nick

              That happened to me once — I quit my job to go back to grad school, and then the 2008 crisis wiped out all the NGOs where I was going to work while I finished my thesis. If my wife hadn’t been Thai we would have been totally destroyed; as it was, I lived with her parents in their village for about 3 years. I didn’t think I’d ever work again, that events had turned me into an Asian peasant — there was no possibility of finding a job remotely in the US at that time. We had a kid and decided to emigrate to Canada, where I was able to work in public health. Looking back, there were good things about every stage, but parts of it were kind of tough at the time.

              The cruel thing about a PhD is that it comes with such an idealized version of how life should be with one that it makes it painful to try something else.

              • Srsly Dad Y

                Have you ever shopped a memoir? Your story sounds compelling.

                • Nick never Nick

                  Nah, Thailand’s full of Westerners like that.

        • Rob in CT

          Damn. First, sorry, that sucks for your personally.

          Second, goddamnit what a waste (it sucks for all of us).

    • I’m very sorry for your situation.

  • Yankee

    Should mention, high school and junior college classes are by and large being taught by people without good understanding of their field. Big market potential there.

    … the irrational part is how much money you spend, which is only going to be justified by the equivalent of breaking into the NBA. Surely not sustainable for somebody who runs the Science Fair. As things are.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Should mention, high school and junior college classes are by and large being taught by people without good understanding of their field. Big market potential there.

      High school administrators, especially building-level ones, mistrust subject area expertise. It makes them feel inadequate — their highest degrees are invariably in education, is my guess. An MEd counts for more than an MA, though, of that I am sure.

      What they want for a teacher of X is enough hours of X to get the certificate endorsement, but no more.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        kind of the Trump “I don’t want anyone smarter than me working for me” attitude? *that’s* encouraging

      • TheSophist

        Might be true in public schools, not so much in private. We just hired two newly-minted PhDs to fill English and history positions.

        • Davis X. Machina

          I began my career private, and you’re right, mostly. That’s how I got into the biz. Subject area degrees from good schools. And administrators who don’t think Phi Beta Kappa is a frat.

          Public schools are constantly a-whoring after whatever the latest methodological panacea is, so the only degrees beyond the basics that gets any attention is something in the edumacational field.

          • Steve LaBonne

            Toward the end of my non-illustrious academic career it seemed that discussions of improving teaching were beginning to involve more and more Ed.D.s and the derp they bring with them. I wonder how far that has progressed and whether the trend is also affecting private secondary schools.

            • TheSophist

              In general, I suspect that the answer is yes. We certainly went through a derp-heavy phase about five years ago. Fortunately, these days the administration pretty much trusts senior faculty to do their thing. Every class I teach I designed myself, and I honestly don’t remember the last time an administrator had something critical to say about my syllabi. New folks get watched closely, though.

              There is definitely a sense that if you want to go into admin you need an M.Ed or more, even if it’s from U Phoenix or similar. That’s not a good trend.

        • Bill Murray

          I would caution generalizing past your own school, I know of private schools that would never hire a PhD and at least one public school whose faculty was 10-20% PhDs

          • TheSophist

            Fair, but what I have heard from colleagues at schools similar to mine increases the size of my anecdata.

            I suspect (definitely small sample anecdata here) that non-Jesuit (or similar) religious high schools don’t do the best job of recruiting very qualified faculty

        • los

          I recall two public elementary school teachers who were sour.
          I don’t how to judge non-“stem” courses, but almost all of my HS teachers were at least OK (except for a history teacher).
          Majority of two-year college classes that I took were taught by very good teachers. Without some political pull, a bad two-year college teacher soon has no students.
          A cheerfully idiotic TA “taught” a breadth course at university. Other teachers/professors were good enough or better, though some were “eccentric” or boring. None were outstanding, as far I could judge.

          Also, studio art teachers tend to be very accepting :-)

      • Yankee

        Culture change! Make the change you want to Be! When you hit the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up!

        p.s. school boards are everywhere

  • Srsly Dad Y

    Today’s moment of pedantry: a “tight” labor market is exactly the opposite of what the Atlantic thinks that means. And they stayed with that headline even after commenters pointed this out.

    Also the Atlantic was for years a prime offender in tossing references to the “well known STEM shortage” and even “STEM crisis” into articles about poverty and education. I think they may have stopped this, but only very recently.

    You gotta wonder if anybody really edits that thing anymore. Sad! But at least McArglebargle is gone.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    How about a little data? That always seems to help. Goto:

    https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/whats-it-worth-the-economic-value-of-college-majors/

    This is the massive Georgetown study of the amount of money, career paths, and graduate work done by people who graduated with degrees from various college majors. It’s based on the 2010 census so the data is iron-clad. Two things to notice:

    • As was said above, unemployment rates for most college grads are pretty low on average and their incomes are pretty high by comparison to non-college workers. And bear in mind that this was at the top of the Great Recession.

    • Going on for grad work usually leads to a considerable jump in income. (I’m a political scientist by trade; for us, it’s 62%.)

    The conclusion I reach is that, if you are looking at the money involved, it varies as to whether it makes sense to get a Ph.D. Sometimes it does, sometime it doesn’t. But most people don’t go on for a doctorate in, say, religion for the money.

    As a side comment: the market for Ph.D.s in political science is actually pretty decent. Why, you might ask? Because back in the 80s when the grad glut in POLS first showed up, the main actors cut back on the size of their programs by half or better and they’ve kept the level at that point. The result is that as the Baby Boomers retire, there’s space for new positions. The adjunct plague is there alright and can’t be ignored, but the smaller number of Ph.D.s has paid off. Many other disciplines didn’t do this when they should have.

    • Steve LaBonne

      The scientists haven’t done it because they depend on the cheap labor. Not just of grad students but the much more valuable labor of postdocs, who of course can’t be postdocs without being grad students first.

    • Thom

      “But most people don’t go on for a doctorate in, say, religion for the money.” A board member of the college where I taught once made a very similar comment to me in a small discussion about various issues, including salaries. As I did not have the wit to say at the time, yes, but we also did not take a vow of poverty.

  • Thom

    A person getting a Ph.D. also needs to understand that even if they do get a tenure-track job, they will probably only be able to do so by being very open about where they are willing to live. And they need to realize that for 6-8 years, they will be just getting by, not saving anything and having very little for luxuries. It can be worth it for some people, but it is hard for someone who has not done it to understand what the trade-offs are. I’m glad I did it, and for me being a professor has been much more satisfying than being a lawyer, but can’t say that I recommend it for most.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    But the managerial MBA class that runs the universities and especially the Board of Trustees has no interest in this.

    I’d be curious to know what percentage of top administrators at, say, the 50 public and top 50 private US universities have MBAs. Say presidents, vice presidents, avps, provosts, vice provosts, chancellors, deans and associate deans. I suspect the % is close to zero, given that almost all of these people at universities I’ve attended or taught at came up through the ranks of various disciplines. The exceptions might be vps and avps, where legal and financial job requirements meant drawing from a different pool.

    But the use of “MBA” and “neo-liberal” reminds me of Dan Quayle’s sneering “liberal governor of Massachusetts” (re Dukakis) — lazy epithets intended to condemn without much meaning and as a substitute to substance.

    • Crusty

      You’re correct, but I think that in many cases, those presidents, provosts, etc., will find a back-door way to get some MBA advice, special advisor to the president, special counselor to the president, executive vice president for facilities and personnel management, or sometimes just an outside consultancy contract.

  • gmoot

    At my university, a fair proportion of the legions of new assistant and associate deans and deanlets are humanities PhDs. I shudder to think of the unemployment rate for these folks if/when administrative bloat eases.

  • MDrew

    Um. Wow.

    #1, the proffered diagnoses are not mutually exclusive. There can at one and the same time be too may PhDs being awarded (to say nothing of sought), while at the same time there aren’t enough (and declining) good positions for PhDs (“for PhDs” meaning, for which a PhD is a positive if not necessary qualification/attribute). Which is to say, there is a limit to how many jobs we should expect there to be for which a PhD actually is a good qualification (not even just academic jobs!). This is simply a consequence of another position I believe Loomis holds: you shouldn’t need (even!) a college degree to get a good job. Even if we had “enough” such positions, there could still be too many PhDs being awarded. There is not a 1-to-1 relationship between the number of PhDs we award and the number of jobs in the economy we think befit such an education. As we keep awarding more and more PhDs faster and faster, there can be “too many” PhDs being awarded, even with a growing demnd for them (which there isn’t). At least, this is under a presumption that PhDs should lead to PhD-befitting work under some preconception about that that we have. I’m actually down with a model in which PhDs are presumed to be sought equally as much by people interested in gaining that degree of education, who are okay then spending their working lives as baristas, as by people expecting to teach academic subject matter to high school graduates. Every single person who wants to and can get a PhD simply for the sake of it, should, by my lights. But they’re not owed a particular class of job as a result. But that’s not the model we’re discussing nor, I presume, one most people here are much interested in embracing.

    #2 The concept of “demand for jobs” is hilarious. Jobs exist because there is demand for things that need to be made using labor. That creates jobs. In an economy in which boats are the driving consumer (or for that matter producer) commercial product, there will be lots of demand for boatmakers, less for carmakers. If you choose to educate yourself in carmaking, that doesn’t give you standing to claim that your “demand” for a job of X status and pay in carmaking is being scandalously unmet. Factors in production follow demand, not the other way around. Getting a PhD in, well, anything, doesn’t entitle you to expect to teach twenty-somethings for $X per year with Y degree of job security and status. There is no such demand that is creditable.

    It’s fair to say that educational institutions may be getting in the way of suppliers of classroom learning (or for that matter of research ability) meeting demand for those (I guess by using funds to meet demand for other aspects of campus life?). But whether or not that’s true, raising the concept of a rising “demand” created by the rising number of new PhDs to work for X dollars with Y status in Z type of institution is a reflection of the very picture of the modern clueless, entitled academic.

  • JL

    Since I’ve mostly talked about my own non-humanities experiences…

    My sister is a PhD student in medieval studies, where the academic market is a joke. I don’t think she’s being irrational. Eccentric, but not irrational. She’s at what I gather is a top program. She’s fully funded (her stipend is higher than mine). She really wanted to go for being a medievalist, studying medieval plays/theater, if she could. She has another area of work in which she has both professional and amateur experience – not a high-paying one, but one she could survive on and would enjoy – and has kept her foot in the door with that world, as she knows perfectly well that she might not get the coveted tenure-track job.

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