Higher EducationRequired Readings

RR: 7 April 2013, Special Topic: Should I Get a Ph.D.?

Should you get a Ph.D.? Should you encourage your undergraduate students to apply to graduate school?

An article in Slate is currently drawing a lot of attention for its embittered treatment of humanities doctoral programs. As is so often the case with online articles, the comments following the piece are more intriguing even than the piece itself, so I encourage you to scroll.

Additionally, the Slate author links to this older piece on the subject of graduate school in The Chronicle of Higher Education that is also worth reading, along with the comments it generated.

I have a Ph.D. in literature and was fortunate enough to find a tenure track job, but that doesn’t mean pursuing that graduate degree hasn’t come with sacrifices. My salary is low and my work hours long. The years it takes to get the terminal degree and then, finally, the solid position are years in which you earn ridiculously low amounts of money, usually without benefits and certainly without accruing retirement savings. And I have tens of thousands of dollars in loan debt that I will be repaying with my mediocre salary for the next 20 years.

The author of the Chronicle article has another one from 2010 in which he takes on the idea of the “life of the mind,” arguing that the mantra of the “disinterested life of learning” is unrealistic and unavailable to anyone who isn’t independently wealthy. In other words, if you need to use income earned from a job to feed yourself, love for poetry makes weak soup.

This is all distressing. I do love my job (and poetry). But I have a partner who earns twice what I do. (His Ph.D. is in mathematics and he works for a large company.) Without our combined income, I would live much differently and worry a lot more about things like paying for our son’s college and saving for retirement. Also, exploitation of adjunct labor has become a true embarrassment to the profession. I worked as an adjunct for three years; it’s not a good gig. How do we fix these problems? I wish I knew. Maybe you know.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. April 7, 2013 at 11:19 am —

    I’m well aware of the tenure-track job climate (there was an interesting post in Sociological Images about this recently: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/03/29/how-many-phds-are-professors/). I’m still going to pursue a PhD and a TT job because it’s what I want to do. But I recognize that there’s a chance that I won’t get a job, so I have other ideas for what I can do if that doesn’t happen.

    When I was speaking to a well known anthropologist recently about attending the program to work with him, he basically talked me out of going to that program. He was all doom and gloom about getting a PhD and told me that I’d be wasting my time and money. I get why he did this, but all he did was convince me not to attend that program. I don’t want to be in a program with an advisor who thinks I’m wasting my time–that will not make for a great relationship. I’d rather attend somewhere that my advisor has enthusiasm for my project and will help guide me on a path to increase my chances of finding a TT job on the other end.

    I guess this is all to say that there are certainly TT profs out there discouraging people from applying to graduate school completely, but also discouraging them from doing it in order to get a TT job. I’m not sure how many people go into PhD programs in general intending to get TT jobs, but I know many people who are in PhD programs now who do not want to stay in academia.

    The solution to these problems? Well, the way I see it, there’s a couple of issues. One major problem is the way education is shifting to a business model. This is probably the most disturbing to me. Pushing as many students through in as little time as possible–typically with gigantic classrooms full of hundreds of students, or online coursework–doesn’t allow for the best pedagogy. Also there are funding problems. Cuts to budgets on the state and federal level make it difficult for schools to hire faculty. Plus, there are many fields where there’s an oversaturation of PhDs. All of these things combined (I’m sure with other problems as well) make it hard to offer any solutions, and make it really easy to be a jaded cynic.

  2. April 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm —

    It’s all very frustrating. Along with the corporate model have also come larger and larger gaps between professor pay and admin pay, which don’t exactly boost morale. (I mean, what do these deans and vice presidents think they are, football coaches?) Grad school was my favorite time of life so far; I want my students to have that experience too. I’m not sure their experiences will be so like mine, though, and I hate to think of them saddled with even more debt and struggling to find work.

  3. April 8, 2013 at 9:23 pm —

    I agree that the academic job market is a major problem, and of course a distressing one to a late-stage PhD such as myself (especially without publications, as we are now increasingly expected to have before even earning our degrees). The constant chatter about the problem in various outlets, of course, has proposed lots of “solutions”: refocusing PhDs to non-academic purposes (which seems a bit…drastic), streamlining degree programmes so students aren’t as trapped or indebted at the end (at the cost of thorough preparation), or reducing the overall number of graduate students (perhaps with the added guarantee of complete funding for those who do make the cut).

    These all have major problems, and even the last of them, which is probably the least bad, carries the unfortunate reality that those students who do not make the initial cut fresh out of undergraduate school never even get the chance to pursue the path and see what they get out of it. It would inevitably lead to our losing out on some stellar scholarship, even while it might be a somewhat fairer system than one that rewards those most willing or able to pay or go into debt to give the old rat race a try. But even without a job at the end, I would hope we could start treating humanities PhDs a bit more like we always /say/ people should regard humanities degrees more generally: a chance to develop the self and the mind, to truly think critically and deeply, and to experience the true intellectual humbling and rebuilding that (at our current standards, anyway), clever undergraduates will almost certainly never have to face.

    What really needs to happen, and I hope will happen soon, is that the Adjunct Project results in some degree of organization among adjuncts at the national level that forces schools to pay them a living wage. This would at least discourage their current exploitation and force some restructuring of the system as it stands.

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