Just Don't Go, Part 2

Brian Taylor

March 13, 2009

In my previous column, I argued that the only people who can safely consider seeking a graduate degree in the humanities are wealthy, connected, supported by a partner, or already employed and seeking enhanced credentials (The Chronicle, January 30). A few readers seemed to think I wanted to reserve the groves of academe for social elites, as if I were dreaming of a restoration of "Fair Harvard" in the Gilded Age.

But what they mistake as an argument affirming the status quo is actually an observation about the way things are: The financial and psychological costs of graduate education in the humanities are too great to bear when the job prospects for graduates are so limited.

Some readers wrote to say that, as a professor, I had no right to squash the dreams of prospective graduate students. But I am not the one squashing the dream. That's already been done by decades of policy decisions in higher education and the failure of our profession to do anything about them. Students' doctoral dreams are beside the point: They should come to us for information, not affirmation of their fantasies about a profession that no longer exists, except for a privileged few.

There is one criticism about my last column that resonates with me strongly: that turning students away from graduate school is abandoning the values of the scholarly life. One letter writer lamented that my soul had died. Others — usually older, tenured faculty members — said that I had overlooked the value of learning for its own sake, underestimated the joys of the "life of the mind," and placed too much emphasis on making a living. Similarly, several beginning graduate students expressed how much they "love" their subjects and how they are not, at the moment, overly concerned about their job prospects. Both groups see my advice as, essentially, calling for the end of humanities education.

Of course, I am calling for nothing of the sort. I have, however, lost confidence in my profession to organize itself for the benefit of those it claims to serve beyond the undergraduate level. I am convinced that graduate students have to look out for themselves, armed with accurate information, a skeptical mind-set regarding institutions, and an eye for opportunities outside academe.

It is striking how often the word "love" is used by defenders of the current job system in academe; they would never use the word in their serious work. There is a double-consciousness about graduate school in the humanities. We often pretend that it is a continuation of the undergraduate, liberal-arts experience when it is really — like law school and medical school — professional training for one kind of position: a research professor at a university, and, failing that, a teacher at a liberal-arts college.

All of which comes back to the point: What good is professional training for a job that you are not likely to get, after a decade of discipline, debt, and deferred opportunity?

Who are these people who think you can spend from two to 10 years with no realistic career goals in mind? They seem to assume that a graduate student will remain childless, or will have no responsibility to care for elderly parents, or will never have any health problems. They assume that there will always be someone else to pay the bills and wash the clothes, while the bohemian geniuses pursue their exalted calling. It's a kind of infantile narcissism: placing one's desires above all the other obligations that adults generally assume.

Some may say all the hand-wringing about the majority of humanities graduates who do not end up in tenure-track positions is overblown. I mean, lots of doctors don't get their first choice of residency. But a more relevant question is, How many trained physicians are never allowed to practice medicine at all? Would we consider thousands of unemployed doctors a waste of societal resources, to say nothing of the costs to the individuals involved? Would they feel sadder about a neurosurgeon who wanted to cure Alzheimer's disease working as a bartender?

So I do not wholly trust anyone who applies the word "love" to graduate school; such language strikes me as possible only from a position of naïveté or privilege. The rhetoric of sentimentalism is used by people who are not willing to interrogate the reasons for what they do, or, more likely, the reasons for asking others to do something irrational.

Academic labor is a precisely tuned system: Provide no more costly tenured positions than are needed to keep the graduate students coming and the adjuncts working. And, when that balance begins to arouse skepticism about the fairness of the exchange of labor for opportunity, the rhetoric of "love" becomes all the more powerful: "We don't need to pay you fairly because you are doing it for love." (Such a bargain should particularly alarm women, who are now the majority of graduate students in the humanities and the overwhelming majority of adjuncts.)

Job prospects in the humanities have been bad for almost 40 years. In the next decade, following the current recession, I expect that we are going to see even more constrained circumstances. Many private institutions will close, sending hundreds of professors back into the labor market. For-profit and online education will continue to expand, and the nonprofit survivors will have to adopt similar strategies, including cutting costs, increasing staff flexibility, eliminating tenure, allowing for much larger student-faculty ratios, and exploring untapped, nontraditional markets through online and hybrid education.

We are entering a period in which large numbers of tenured faculty members will be released under "financial exigency" only to be replaced by adjuncts doing essentially the same work for no benefits, no job security, and much less money. Those future adjuncts are the current crop of prospective graduate students, following their dreams, embarking on a "life of the mind," doing what they "love."

Some readers argued that I needed to use more subtlety than "just don't go," and that students should be free to make their own choices. I agree, but few faculty members are adequately informed to make fine distinctions, and students are not able to make reasonable predictions about the futures of various disciplines. (One letter writer said, without irony, that we should be sending students to programs in library science.)

Moreover, any field that is hiring now may not be hiring in six to 10 years. Some reasonably conscientious advisers tell students that they should go to graduate school only if they "could not consider doing anything else," but the students haven't tried anything else — and neither have most of the professors. Given professors' lack of information, students' naïve trust, and the overall ambiguity of the future, the easiest thing to do is fall back on our faith in doing what you "love." I've done it myself.

Graduate schools are not much help either. They play obfuscatory games with their placement records and rarely give students a realistic sense of what it is like being in graduate school — how it's not all about the "life of the mind" as two years gradually turns into a decade of contracting horizons and growing desperation.

Of course, the lack of accurate information available to students about graduate school is not accidental; it's an essential component of the academic labor system. Even assistant professors, who should know what's going on, encourage their students to go to graduate school because it is professionally risky to do otherwise. One might be seen as "doing a grave disservice to the profession," as one writer said to me in a tone of bureaucratic menace.

But of the many letters I received last month, the majority included some version of "Why did no one tell me?" and "What am I going to do now?"

More than a few confessed the depression they experienced in graduate school. Several mentioned thoughts of killing themselves, and — after a decade of reading letters by the thousands on similar themes — I was not surprised at all. It's more than accumulated anecdotes. As Piper Fogg recently presented it in The Chronicle (February 20): "67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health."

For those who, after reading all this, still want to seek a Ph.D. in the humanities, I would recommend the following reading list: How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, by Marc Bousquet (New York University Press, 2008); Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young, by Anya Kamenetz (Riverhead Books, 2006) (and see her April 20, 2004, article in The Village Voice, "Wanted: Really Smart Suckers"); Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education, by Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt (Routledge, 1999); Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty — and the Price We All Pay, edited by Michael Dubson (Camel's Back, 2001); and The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, by Frank Donoghue (Fordham University Press, 2008). And, while you're at it, search the Internet for traces of the now-vanished, legendary blogger, "The Invisible Adjunct," and read The Chronicle's forums on graduate school and the job market (see

One probably could not devise a better system for keeping people with humanistic values away from power than by confining them to decade-long graduate programs with a long future of transient adjunct positions making less than the minimum wage. Given that likely future — and the need for more people who appreciate literature, history, philosophy, and art in the "real world" — I remain strongly against sending students to graduate school in the humanities, with the exceptions I noted last month, if their goal is to become a professor.

In fact, I would like to make the list of plausible candidates for graduate school even shorter. Some letter writers rightly pointed out to me that preparing for an academic career on the basis of your partner's financial support is a very risky proposition, given how graduate school breaks up many seemingly stable relationships. What if the partner loses his or her job? What about the impact of children? What about the "two-body problem" (i.e., not being able to find jobs within commuting distance of each other)? If you go to graduate school, you should assume that you are on your own.

There is, however, another category of student that I would like to see going to graduate school, although I would not ask anyone to take on such a collective responsibility. Perhaps members of a generation that enters graduate school with no expectations of an academic position — who never even consider, for one moment, that they will become tenure-track professors — will bring about positive change in the way things are taught. Such students will be less beholden to advisers, and empowered to demand that courses have some relationship to existing opportunities. With an eye to careers outside academe, they will challenge the tyranny of the monograph; they might seek technical skills; they will want to speak to a wider public; and they will be more open to movement between academe and the "outside world" than previous generations, who were taught to regard anything but the professorial life as failure from which one could never return.

The task of the rising generation — who will still go to graduate school for "love" no matter what I say — is not to succeed in academe in the conventional way. It's to transform academe by finding ways to bring their passions to a wider world, where they are most needed, and, in the process, to change graduate education in the humanities into something to which students can be sent without ethical reservations.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at