To grad or not to grad

There’s been a lot of handwringing lately among academics interested in the academic job market over the question of whether one should advise anyone to go to grad school in humanistic disciplines (presumably including the humanistic social sciences like anthropology). To be sure, the job market has been terrible for the past 40 years and this year’s offerings have been mediocre at best, as the financial crunch has (at minimum) decimated endowments and produced an extremely wary attitude among state legislators responsible for public funding. There have been a couple of rather mediocre, although not entirely wrong, articles in the New York Times of late, bemoaning the academic job market and the prospects for graduate students.

But I want to talk about a couple of articles entitled ‘Just Don’t Go’ by Thomas Benton, a regular columnist in the fantastic Chronicle of Higher Education Careers section, which are of interest to me because they are written by a working, tenured academic in the humanities (links here and here). Benton argues that the only honest thing for faculty to tell prospective graduate students in the humanities is not to go to grad school; the prospects are simply too dim, and the waste of effort and of human productivity so immense, that the best thing to do is to give blanket advice not to go. He knows, of course, that many (most?) students who receive this advice will still apply to grad school, because they are drawn to intellectual life.

It’s unsurprising that such advice would become more pertinent in a down job market, where grad school might seem like a safe haven to ride out the economic maelstrom. Benton nevertheless notes that this is not just about this year, but about a general trend in academic employment over many decades. He’s absolutely right: academic employment is sparse and not about to improve dramatically anytime soon, possibly ever. Many people who complete a PhD will never work full-time as tenure-track faculty. And so he is also quite right that discouragement is a rational strategy for faculty confronted with multiple students interested in pursuing the doctorate.

Nevertheless, I find it intellectually dishonest and generally unwise to advise interested students, ‘Don’t go to grad school’. First, because to do so would be the height of hypocrisy, and would be perceived by many as a statement that I (as someone who ‘made it’) don’t think that my students have what it takes to make it. Second, because I think that if you gave every student that advice, some students would take it who shouldn’t, and others wouldn’t who should, with the potential result that the next generation of scholars would consist of those too foolish not to listen to their professor’s good advice. Third, because telling someone anything is less desirable than giving them good information and allowing them to make their own decision.

I do think that there are far too many PhDs in anthropology, and indeed in most of the humanities and social sciences. At the very least, there are too many degree-holders on the job market in comparison to the number of jobs available. While the number of jobs available in academia fluctuates, in most disciplines it has increased modestly over the past 20 years, while the number of candidates has increased dramatically. This Malthusian logic dictates that one’s chances of getting a job are not that great.

The reality is that approximately 50% of PhD graduates in anthropology will eventually end up on the tenure track somewhere (most often within five years of obtaining the degree, after which your chances decrease as you are perceived rightly or wrongly as ‘damaged goods’). Another 25% will end up in professionally-appropriate positions in the public or private sector (this is particularly relevant for anthropologists, for which there are well-defined non-academic yet professional jobs), while the rest end up somewhere else – but very few end up unemployed altogether. Are these chances good enough for you?

They might be. Of course, up to 50% of people who start the degree do not finish, and so saying that 50% of PhDs will hold a tenure-track job eventually is incomplete, because it does not account for the many students who never finish the degree. Now, virtually no one admitted to a doctoral program ‘fails out’ in the sense that they lack the intellect to complete the degree. By far the most common reasons, in my experience, for people not finishing the PhD are a lack of money or a lack of motivation.

Motivation is not just about ‘having the will to persist’, although that’s important. It’s about developing a network of social relationships, especially with mentors but also with peers, that allow you to feel good about continuing in the program, to be intellectually rewarded and validated, and to remain on track. I was particularly blessed, as a student, to have some top-notch mentorship, but I regret to this day that my peer group was neither as large nor as close as I would have liked it to be. And I know plenty of people who had or have situations less congenial than mine, and who found themselves stranded without any meaningful support. This problem only gets worse if you are underfunded. The reality is that while persistence is the key, persistence can only be realistic when you have a lot of support. So I think it’s worth telling students to research programs as thoroughly as possible, and to find schools where they can plausibly work with multiple people.

Similarly, money really is central, and is one of the reasons why, even though I don’t advise students, “Don’t go to grad school” outright, I do advise them not to go to grad school if it means taking on substantial debt, and realistically, only to go where they have funding. For some students who can achieve admission to a top PhD program right out of a BA, or for others who can find a funded MA program, they are in good shape to move forward. For others, though, an MA means taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt only to go into a PhD that may only be poorly or partially funded. To finish the PhD you may need to take on a lot of extra non-professional work or go even deeper in debt, possibly taking longer than your peers because of demands on your time. If you have sources of income to allow you to do an unfunded MA, more power to you.

And what happens when you’re done? For an indeterminate period, you will likely be underpaid and underemployed, while paying back student loans and trying to find a job. If I had had any substantial student debt at all, I simply could not have afforded to work in academia for the four years following the completion of my degree. I could not have supported my family, and I would have left the discipline, not out of a lack of ability, but simply out of a lack of funds to continue the search in a tight job market. And the market is ALWAYS tight.

Another factor influencing post-degree success on the market is institutional prestige. It is a sad fact that academic disciplines are, and always have been, hierarchical in a way that is rarely recognized by most undergraduates. To demonstrate this, you need only go to a faculty list from a department and see where the faculty got their PhDs. You will find that the vast majority of tenured and tenure-track faculty got their degrees from the top 50 or so institutions in the world (for that discipline), with the top 10-20 schools being very well represented indeed. Not coincidentally, these institutions have the highest degree of student financial support for PhDs (although not always the highest degree of emotional, psychological, and other forms of support). It may be true that only 50% of PhDs in humanistic disciplines ever hold TT jobs, but nevertheless, if you attended a high-ranked institution, your individual odds may be much better.

So, if you have the good fortune and ability to attend one of those programs, then you will find that your chances of employment after completion are very great. If not, well, your chances will be less. What’s more, you should prepare for the fact that even if you do get a PhD, you will probably work at a less prestigious institution than the one you graduated from. Everyone can think of exceptions, but that’s just what they are – exceptions to an overwhelming statistical probability. And because many smaller and less prestigious institutions don’t even have anthropology departments (as opposed to, say, biology or psychology), attending a less well-known institution can harm your opportunities for finding academic employment at all. Unfortunately, few departments provide detailed information about where their graduates end up after completion, and those with poor records have the least incentive to do so.

Now Benton wants to argue that the solution to this is to develop/train/find/invent/construct graduate students who do a PhD with no expectation of an academic career. And I think at some level it’s good advice to students that they need to prepare for the possibility of a non-academic career, not only psychologically but also in terms of the skills they obtain. This is particularly true in disciplines like anthropology which do have significant (although not always obvious) professional outlets where PhDs earn a decent living outside of academia.

But more to the point, I think that the sorts of people who should be considering graduate school are those for whom the actual process of going to grad school is enjoyable and rewarding for its own sake (despite its struggles). One thing I do tell my students is to ask themselves, “If I spend six years in grad school, even if I never get a job, will it still have been worth it?” If they can honestly answer yes, that the process of learning and intellectual exploration is worth it for its own sake, then they should do it; if not, then they shouldn’t. And again the money comes into play – if one has to go into massive debt to do it, then it’s certainly less likely to be worth it.

And even further, I worry that while Benton is right about the job market, and right about the need to inform students of the realities of the market, he’s asking more of academics than anyone would ask of other professionals. We don’t tell artists not to do art, and the chances of financial success as an artist are far, far dimmer than the prospects for an academic. We don’t tell baseball players not to try out for the minor leagues just because the chances of them ever playing major league ball are minuscule. (The baseball analogy is one that a friend of mine mentioned to me some years ago and that I have been using ever since to talk to non-academics about the model under which academic employment works.)

And finally, I despair that Benton, while laudably promoting the vision of the grad student who doesn’t have the least expectation of a tenure-track job and expects to work outside academia, unrealistically imagines a world where anybody cares about the PhD outside of academia. It is a sad reality that PhDs who work outside of their fields completely (not just outside academia, but outside any profession where their disciplinary training is relevant) often have to conceal the fact that they hold an advanced degree in order to find work – the PhD actually serves as a deterrent to employers. Without denying that there can be a role for a ‘public intellectual’, I do deny that there is room for public intellectuals who are divorced entirely from the academic world and its own peculiar economy. Benton is imagining a world that simply does not exist, never has existed, and for which no plausible means exists by which we might bring it into existence.

My feeling is that of course we should apprise our undergraduates that their chances of success are not 100% or perhaps not even 50%, and then we should take every possible step necessary to ensure that the best and brightest students who are going to go to grad school anyway, regardless of what we say, have the maximum chance possible to have the sort of productive career that we ourselves enjoy.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

6 thoughts on “To grad or not to grad”

  1. As an undergraduate interested in graduate work who has on one hand been encouraged by professors, and on the other hand read both Benton’s and the New York Times’s articles, I really appreciate this thoughtful and thorough discussion of the situation. Your article fills in a lot of the blanks between either side, and provides practical and nuanced advice. Thanks very much for adding your two cents.

  2. Good points: I also remind students who get funding that it is also a privilege to get 15,000-23,000 a year to work on your own project, even if you don’t secure an academic position. As you note, it is very difficult for artists and other groups to get this sort of money to carry out a project for an extend period of time.

    I think giving students an idea that they should have a Plan B is responsible but I also think, as you state it quite well, you should not deter them if grad school is indeed what they would like to do.

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