Woe to the PhD Student

A good friend of mine who is interested in going to law school sent me this link a few days ago comparing the job market prospects of law students and PhD students.

Almost everyone going into academia pretty much knows that finding a tenure-track job will take a great deal of determination, good luck, good timing, and a downpour of fairy dust. With all things being equal, a select few get the job and many other qualified candidates don’t. My departmental honors advisor told me (paraphrased), “You should go to grad school because you want to learn, you want to enrich your mind. Don’t expect to find a job at the end of it. If you’re OK with simply immersing yourself in a passion that you love with no expectation that your degree will be worth anything, then go to graduate school.” (Tangent: which, of course, is why it perplexes me when fellow undergrads say, “Oh the job market sucks. I can’t find a job. I guess I’ll just go to grad school.” I’m going to grad school because I’m willing to be worked like a slave and live around the poverty line for love of literature. You want to go to grad school because you have nothing better lined up? Don’t insult me.)

I get mixed feelings when people tell me they want to go to graduate school too. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that someone is considering a career in academia not only because I personally can’t imagine doing anything else with my life but also because it’s such a great feeling to find someone who feels such enormous passion for their field. And yet, on the other hand, I worry that they don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into. They don’t know what’s involved with grad school; they don’t know the difference between an MA and a PhD; they don’t know the job market or even what the job entails and they don’t know how high the bar is set. I feel an urge to warn them, as my parents vigorously warned me, but I also don’t want to dismiss their hopes when my own are so high as well.

Sometimes, however, it does an aspiring scholar good to humble himself with the facts.

This article is not a comprehensive study, but it does give an indication of the state of the field.

In a humanities graduate program, this is what is required of you:

These programs almost always take at least six years, but often upwards of a decade, to complete. It’s common that students learn two foreign languages, though students are required to learn as many as four (e.g. Classic programs frequently require two modern and two ancient languages). By their graduation, it’s expected that students will have a distinguished record of presenting papers in professional conferences and publishing articles in professional journals, in addition, of course, to writing a dissertation which is supposed to be an original contribution to their field. These expectations are part of the reason that so few students actually complete their programs. Whereas almost everyone who enters a top-tier law school graduates, top Ph.D. programs in the humanities often have attrition rates of 50% or more. And again, among these noble few, 92% will fail to find tenure-track jobs. It’s fully expected that a Ph.D. candidate who has any hope of gaining employment anywhere should have a command of her subject that will rival junior professors in her department.

It’s not uncommon for applications for entry level, tenure-track positions to include five or more published articles and a dissertation published by a noted press (such as Cambridge or Oxford) that’s been reviewed by the leading scholars in the field. And we’re talking about hundreds of these applications for a single job that might pay $40,000 to $60,000.

Here’s what the job market looks like:

The market for Ph.D.s in philosophy of the mid 1990s was far better than it is currently, but still was farworse that the legal market of today. One widely reported study (from the Review of Metaphysics, September of 1996) showed that of 341 Ph.D.s granted in 1995-1996, only 6 had secured tenure track jobs in top 15 ranked philosophy departments by 1998 and only 11 more had landed jobs anywhere in the top 50 departments. So, of 341 Ph.D.s, only 26 found tenure-track positions within two years of graduation, or a whopping 7.6% placement rate. Put another way, 92% of Ph.D.s in philosophy failed to find tenure-track positions during this period.

Let’s all just agree that if only 7.6% of law graduates had found associate level employment within 2 years of graduation, there would be rioting in the streets. Moreover, those Ph.D. numbers are from the mid-1990’s days of wine and roses. Today it’s far worse. Duke University, a top-30 philosophy department, announced that they’re not accepting students into their Ph.D. program next year (presumably because of the current economic climate). Indiana University of Pennsylvania is requiring its faculty to explain why they shouldn’t eliminate their philosophy major altogether. Anecdotally, I know quite a few recent Ph.D.s from top 15 schools, and the vast majority of them are either severely underemployed or have left the job market all together.

And this isn’t restricted to philosophy either. In History, English and other disciplines in the humanities, the market for tenure-track posts has been extremely constrained for years. With dramatic cuts in government educational spending and corresponding cutbacks in private institutions, market conditions have become downright harrowing. Graduates of institutions outside the top twenty are likely to never find a tenure-track position at all, and even graduates from top 10 schools are likely to spend years on the market taking adjunct and terminal positions as they wait for a tenure-track position to open. Even when you get one, jobs are apparently never safe in academia. Kings College (London) is forcing all of its humanities professors to reapply for their jobs in the coming year, and the same is being required by a small university in Texas.

Whereas everyone else is so excited to graduate and be done with school, we’ve signed ourselves up for another decade’s worth. Whereas everyone else is competing for the big bucks, we content ourselves with poverty-level paychecks. Secretly, I think all grad students are just a little bit masochistic. :]

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It’s the Hard Knock Life for Us!

This is why  I am up at 5 am, poring over Alfred Harbage’s Annals of English Drama, 975-1700: An Analytical Record of All Plays, Extant or Lost, Chronologically Arranged and Indexed by Authors, Titles, Dramatic Companies, &c. (among the 21 other texts stacked on my desk). 

I love research, I really do. I love wandering into deserted sections of the library and cracking open dusty books that probably haven’t been checked out for decades (or at least years). Sometimes I even like just reading off different titles and visualizing how much knowledge and insight exists in just that one library.  I find it really exciting that I get to learn so much stuff that we never even touch in class.

But no matter how you spin it, deadlines suck. Especially deadlines imposed by arbitrary school schedules. *Brain explodes.*

Life in a Cardboard Box

“What is research, but a blind date with knowledge?” – Will Henry

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As an English major, one of the questions I hear most often is: “What do you plan to do with your major?” and other variations of “What do you want to do with your life?” These well-meaning skeptics tend to appear in the form of Asians, pre-professional majors, and engineers. At Thanksgiving gatherings with family friends, I get either the sympathetic stares reserved for “Girl-Destined-To-Live-In-A-Cardboard-Box” or eager suggestions for me to go to law school or switch to business. It seems to me that most people look at college as more of a vocational school than a center of knowledge and exploration, intended to advance our understanding of the world we live in and acquaint ourselves with the greatest minds of human history.

Of course practical preparation for the real world is important. There’s no doubt that necessity and therefore money is a powerful motivating force. But I can’t help but think that there’s something more to life than “bread and butter.” Like the ascetics of Buddhism, I tend to believe that materialism and physical needs are paltry compared to our spiritual well-being and somehow, even though I understand the benefits, I can’t bring myself to forsake my intellectual interests for a bigger wallet (not that I’m against money in general – if you happen to love a subject that also brings in the big bucks, more power to you).

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However, despite the inconveniences of always having to defend my major, I do think that it is a valid question. Why literature? Why research? Why academia? There seems to be a strain of anti-intellectualism in America that discourages the life of the mind, the pursuit of the Ivory Tower. The common thought is that spending too much time in scholarly endeavors renders one useless in the actual society, but personally, I think this is an unfair stereotype. I don’t think there is anything more pure and beautiful than the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

A couple weeks ago, I bought a stack of books from an English Department book sale, one of which being The Art of Literary Research by Richard D. Altick (1975). The pages are yellowed and the book has that old library smell, but I like flipping through it whenever I’m having an academia-induced anxiety attack. One quote at the very beginning of the book I think sums up the attraction of studying literature:

“In no other subject is the pupil brought more immediately and continuously into contact with original sources, the actual material of his study. In no other subject is he so able and so bound to make his own selection of the material he wishes to discuss, or able so confidently to check the statements of authorities against the documents on which they are based. No other study involves him so necessarily in ancillary disciplines. Most important of all, no other study touches his own life at so many points and more illuminates the world of his own daily experience” – Helen Gardner, “The Academic Study of English Literature,” Critical Quarterly, I (1959).

These factors led me to the study of literature and they are also what keeps me here. I’ve been given advice to just fulfill my intellectual curiosity in college and then go out and get “a real job,” but I don’t really see how I can do that. You can’t really satisfy a thirst for learning in four meager years, or even in a lifetime. In the final (and my favorite) chapter, Altick describes “The Scholar’s Life” and every time I read it, I’m reminded of why I want to spend my life in academia.

“The scholar really never ceases being a scholar. He may firmly lock his office door at the end of the day, but he never locks or sequesters his intellect. Consciously or subconsciously he continues to mull over the problems his restless curiosity about books and history has set loose in his mind, and sometimes, at the oddest moments – at 3 A.M. or while taking a shower – a bright new idea may come to him from nowhere… The bookish excitement that has led them into the profession permeates their lives.”

“No other profession offers so legitimate an excuse for reading great literature. And though the siren song of research may lead us to spend many hours in realms far removed from art, if we learn our lesson correctly, they may sharpen our understanding and appreciation of the masterpieces to which we are devoted.”

“Though time is always short, we have the lifelong company of books; and what is more, we have good human companionship… Love of books and a consuming interest in the intellectual and esthetic questions they pose make brothers of men with amazingly different backgrounds and tastes. In scholarship there is no prejudice born of national origin, creed, color, or social class; we live in the truest democracy of all, the democracy of the intellect.”

I’m willing to concede that Altick’s portrayal of a career in literary scholarship may be a bit idealized, but I think its a beautiful ideal to aspire to. At its best, research can be infinitely rewarding.

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(Clearly, I have not been disillusioned yet.)

On a final note: Who else is really depressed about Pushing Daisies being cancelled? Let’s mope together with some pie (dosed with homeopathic mood-enhancers), knitting, and pop-up books. 😦