Letters About 'Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go'

Brian Taylor

February 08, 2010

Just Don't Go

 Your message is the one I have quietly been giving for 15 years. ... As a person who interviews and hires faculty (very few anymore), I feel sad for the many that leave the interview room hoping for the position when I know they will not get an offer.

Terry Peek
Vice president for instruction
Wenatchee Valley College

I am also an associate professor of English at a small school, and for several years now I have been explicitly advising my students to avoid graduate school in English. It pains me to do so, but I feel that I must.

When students reveal their academic ambitions in their senior year, I spell out the conditions you delineated in your article, and their faces fall in dismay. I show them the graphs published by the MLA and refer them to articles about the decline of tenure-track positions. I tell them about my professors' reassuring me that there would always be jobs for talented students, even though the job market had already gone into free fall.

Some I have persuaded to think along new lines, but others just seek the advice they want among my colleagues, some of whom are happy to feel validated by seeing a bright English major accepted into a graduate program.

Your point about professors "cloning" themselves is dead-on correct, and it also suggests something that should be obvious in this profession: In a world of static or shrinking numbers of professorships, each person who holds such a position needs to send only one student to graduate school in his or her entire career.

An Associate Professor


Why Did No One Tell Me?

I will put my house up for sale this spring. All for three initials behind my name, a pile of rejection letters, empty promises, and overwhelming debt in a harsh economy. I am now working at a job I had just coming out of college. I would like to say that my adviser is not intentionally misleading students, but he is not so far out of the loop that he cannot know that most of his graduates have seemed to fall off the face of the earth and are never heard from again.

A Ph.D. in the Humanities

I can't think of any other institution besides academics where people participate in it for a decade or more and still have no idea of its realities. Why is this? Soldiers understand the military once they enlist; law students generally know the realities of the profession by the time they graduate: How can pre-academics who have worked intimately in college for so long not know what's going on "behind the curtain"?

Clay Motley
Assistant director for academics
Honors College Faculty
Western Kentucky University

Looking back, I can say it was without a doubt the most destructive four years of my life. The introduction to academic politics and political correctness was shattering. And I learned that unlike the sciences, in which a person from time to time actually has to produce something useful, a career in the humanities to a large measure is little more than being voted into membership in a club. Brian Vanlandingham

Former graduate student
Systems programmer
North Carolina Community College System

I'm a grad student in English, and I've been struggling with feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness all year. I came from a small undergrad college, and I was built up by my professors into thinking it was instrumental that I attend grad school. I never actually gave it much thought—I just assumed that I had to go. Lately, though, I have been thinking about my future and just how bleak it looks. I think that I have convinced myself that I'm just not good at anything outside of academics.

A Graduate Student

Why does all of education have to be about careers, jobs, and making a living? Why make the humanities a vocational technical pursuit? Why discourage becoming (like you) an educated person? When it comes down to life, wisdom is the finding out that it is who you are being, not what you are doing, that really counts. Money is necessary, but after the basics, there is much more that jobs cannot satisfy. One other note: A career and a job are not synonymous.

Tony Guarisco
Graduate student
Louisiana State University


Who Should Go to Graduate School?

 If a student would consider it worthwhile to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities even if she knew there would be no job at the end, only then should she actually do so. Of course, this doesn't mean that getting the degree is a particularly bright thing to do, but asking that question at least ensures some level of honest self-reflection.

Shawn A. Miller
News editor
Daily Republic
Fairfield, Calif.

Much as I wish I could find fault with your arguments, my father's experience (graduated around 1994) as a historian and that of his colleagues only reaffirms your point. I also thought your list of reasons to consider graduate school was simultaneously amusing and saddening; of the half-dozen or so friends I have currently pursuing their doctorates, four meet the criteria of independent wealth, and a fifth comes from a line of well-connected academics.

A Graduate Student


Job-Market Experiences

I recently received my Ph.D. in English and am doing the adjunct thing; this is my second year on the job market, and I am appalled both by the amount of applicants on the market and that there has been no concerted effort in the academy to deal with this (such as placing a freeze on accepting graduate students for a couple of years). A Ph.D. in the Humanities

It is so depressing to watch otherwise intelligent people completely ignore the odds against them and persist in the belief that they are vastly superior to the swarming masses of Ph.D.'s in search of tenure-track jobs. I was freaking lucky to land a full-time faculty position at a wonderful school that also happens to be a community college. Most of my graduate-school peers looked at me with abject pity until now, 15 years later, when they are still adjuncting at three different places. The last time we had a position open in English, we had hundreds of applicants—hundreds!

Janet Hanks
English Instructor
New River Community College,
Dublin, Va

While I saw that the economy and job market were bad, and that the mass-retirement predictions weren't going to come true, and while I realized that my grad program seemed generally indifferent to me and my friends in the same situation, I still believed that if I had only worked even harder, played the game a bit better, I might have been successful. And so I was pretty ashamed and embarrassed—the 31-year-old with a Ph.D. living at home once again and making $10,000 a year. I didn't fully realize that the odds of getting a job were already stacked against me on the day I started my Ph.D. program in 1988.

A Ph. D. in the Humanities


What Now?

Your message is a timely and much-needed one, but I also wonder where to look for information on those who, like the people you describe, like myself, did not land tenure-track jobs upon the completion of it all. There must be hundreds if not thousands of us, and I am, understandably, intrigued by where those individuals tend to end up. A Ph. D. in the Humanities

After a grueling decade of graduate school—during which time I got married, had two children, and taught a full course load as an adjunct professor at a research university—I accepted a faculty position at a community college. Some of my former professors have expressed their disappointment and think that I "sold out" or somehow betrayed them by not following a more illustrious, research-based path (as if it were a viable option for me at this point!). On the contrary, I feel lucky to have landed a job that allows me to have a family and still teach art history.

A Ph.D. in the Humanities

With a Ph.D earned in 1989, and 15 years of adjunct teaching and several publications, I am now unemployed. I was the one who accepted less than minimum-wage-paying, adjunct-teaching positions for all the reasons you listed—I was married and could rely on my spouse's income and benefits. Now single, I have been struggling to find permanent employment for the past two years and considering removing "Ph.D." from my résumé entirely.

A Ph.D. in the Humanities


Reforming Graduate Education

Having spent the last few years counseling those 30-year-old Ph.D.'s who have no real skills and who are desperately looking for jobs, I have been dreading what I see as an increasingly bleak future for Ph.D.'s in the humanities. While I know why universities are reluctant to be honest about the situation (they benefit from the oversupply in so many ways), I have rather naïvely hoped that academics will finally begin to discuss this issue honestly.

Alexandra Lord
Creator of Beyond Academe,
a Web site for historians interested in nonacademic jobs

One additional detail that you don't mention: the pressure that junior faculty members often feel from senior colleagues to encourage more and more students to apply to graduate programs without facing the very real prospects of postdoctoral employment.

Quick and relatively easy "success stories" are sought in order to make departments look better (more active, with more "student engagement") to upper administration in this assessment-obsessed academic culture: "We sent 15 students to graduate school last year!" "We wrote 45 letters of recommendation for graduate school last year!" Instead of working on more innovative ways to make undergraduate degrees in the humanities "mean something" compared with professional or vocational degrees.

An Assistant Professor

The solution to this problem is to eliminate graduate schools that cannot provide reasonable certainty of employment for those students. This would eliminate the debt problem—since the remaining graduate schools would be able to offer adequate support—eliminate the oversupply of graduate students, and, in my very fevered utopian imagination, improve the quality of humanistic studies.


I don't think that a different kind of student is the answer. Actually I object to the burden being placed (once again!) on the students to change the sorry state of humanities Ph.D. programs in the U.S. Other answers are needed.

Do I have suggestions? Yes, of course, but I don't think there is a universal fix for every school, because the programs are too different. Nevertheless, here are a few things that may work relatively across the board:

(1) Limit time in-program to four years maximum, one of course work, one for orals, two for dissertation (we all know that's enough—if not, adjust program content accordingly).

(2) Limit any graduate-student teaching duties to two semesters max.

(3) Require an advising agreement to be signed between student and adviser no later than the end of the second year, as a condition to continue in the program.

(4) Somehow make part of faculty members' salary dependent on getting the students they agree to advise through the program in time.

A Former Ph.D. Candidate in Classics

Here's my question: What are ethically-minded faculty to do? The message to the grad students is "Just say no"—don't go to grad school, at least not in the hopes of getting an academic job. But many students are ignoring that advice—and, I'm afraid to say, I increasingly feel that the ones who are ignoring it are the ones who are least likely to be employable.

I am a faculty member in a department that continues to let in grad students (we need the cheap teaching for our comp program), most of whom are avidly encouraged to pursue the Ph.D. (we need a Ph.D. program to have strong standing within the college and to get resources). Does one simply refuse to take on Ph.D. students and to direct dissertations? This is the position I am increasingly coming to, since it is so icky to be complicit in this system that oftentimes seems to damage people's lives. However, if I myself declare that I am just saying no, I not only face the wrath of my chair and director of graduate studies, but am potentially betraying the students who applied to the program with the expectation of working with me.

Also, if one person in a field refuses to take on grad students, that just shifts the burden to someone else (although this isn't really a problem for me, since my department has been so denuded of faculty members in my field it's almost a moot point). What's a poor professor to do?

An Associate Professor of English