Graduate Students

Amid Professors’ ‘Doom-and-Gloom Talk,’ Humanities Ph.D. Applications Drop

September 28, 2017

Graduate programs in the humanities have faced withering criticism for churning out a surplus of doctorates despite a tight academic job market.

Data released on Thursday by the Council of Graduate Schools suggest that the criticism could be starting to sink in. While overall applications to doctoral programs were up nearly 1 percent from 2015 to 2016, applications to arts and humanities programs declined by 7.1 percent.

The council warns against making too much of any one year’s data, because they are the result of a voluntary survey, not a census of all graduate programs. Even so, the five-year period before this year’s survey also showed an average annual drop of 3 percent in applications to arts and humanities doctoral programs.

Precisely what is causing the decline — the council calls it a "trend" — is unclear. But The Chronicle wondered if the messages undergraduates are receiving from their professors might be a factor. So we contacted a few faculty members who advise undergraduates to see if they have changed the messages they deliver about graduate school.

“'If you think you're going to get a job like mine, you've got another think coming.'”
"It certainly wouldn’t be responsible to urge anyone but one’s absolute star students who are already committed to doing it," said Elizabeth Cullingford, chair of the English department at the University of Texas at Austin, of the grad-school option. "I tell my students, ‘If you think you’re going to get a job like mine, you’ve got another think coming.’"

Ms. Cullingford wasn’t always such a tenure-track killjoy. When she started at Texas, in 1982, she didn’t pay much attention to the academic job market. Her messaging to students changed in the 1990s, when she became the graduate-student adviser and saw the tenure-track hopes of many qualified students fail to materialize. The message grew bleaker after the 2008 economic collapse. "The crash made things much worse," she said, "but they were already pretty bad."

Ms. Cullingford said she and her colleagues tell prospective graduate students to go into a doctoral program only if they are dead-set on doing so. "If you can’t imagine living without graduate school, then yes, apply," she said. "If you have any doubt at all, take some time off and think about it. Join Teach for America. Take a job, any job. Travel. Whatever. But don’t go to graduate school right away."

‘Go in With Their Eyes Open’

Another factor contributing to the downward trend could be that hypercompetitive graduate programs are scaring away potential applicants, said Stephen Aron, chair of the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles. The department admits a fraction of the share of applicants it did 30 years ago. "People may be deciding they’re not viable," he said.

Like Ms. Cullingford, Mr. Aron explains the realities of the academic job market to prospective graduate students "so they can go in with their eyes open." He also explains the importance of the senior thesis as a testing ground — a way for students to gauge their ability and desire for a professorial life. "You can’t know whether this is something you want to do until you have done a significant research project," Mr. Aron said.

Susannah Ottaway, a history professor at Carleton College, said she, too, has a spiel for prospective graduate students — one a recent graduate remembers as "our doom-and-gloom talk."

“It is irresponsible to encourage students to go into Ph.D. programs unless they are fully aware of the realities of their job prospects.”
"With the paucity of tenure-track openings in the academic job market," she wrote in an email, "it is irresponsible to encourage students to go into Ph.D. programs unless they are fully aware of the realities of their job prospects. So, what I tell them is that they should look closely at the data on job opportunities for Ph.D.s in history, and be aware of the reality of the job market, and I give them specific anecdotes about my former students’ struggles to secure those coveted tenure-track jobs as well."

But the conversation doesn’t end there. Ms. Ottaway also encourages students who are set on graduate school to broaden their approach by learning digital- and public-history skills, and to think about how their Ph.D. could be used outside academe.

"We hope that this sets up the expectation that there is not ‘a track’ through higher ed that leads from B.A. to M.A. to Ph.D. to professorship," she wrote, "but rather multiple tracks, with many branches, at every step of their advanced degree work."

Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.