Humanities Graduate School: Go? Don’t Go? What’s a Would-Be Ph.D. To Do?

William Pannapacker has published, over the last several years, a number of widely influential pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education and, this past week, in Slate, criticizing the ethics and economics of graduate programs in the humanities. His most widely quoted take-away point, for would-be Ph.D. students, is: if you don’t have private funds to support you both during and after graduate school, just don’t go.

Why? Because the university economy, always precarious, has imploded.  Tenure track lines are being replaced at all levels with poorly compensated adjunct positions.  The hopes of Ph.D. students to live “the life of the mind” as a university professor–to have a life something like that of their advisor’s– have become vastly unrealistic.

And yet, Pannapacker argues, graduate programs each year take in cohort after cohort of new Ph.D. students to boost faculty egos, to maintain the prestige of the department as a “Ph.D.-granting program,” and to staff classes that faculty no longer teach. They admit these students with full knowledge that the vast majority of them will have no chance for regular academic employment (ie, with a liveable wage and benefits) after completion, but conceal this knowledge through a highly circumscribed advising ethos that focuses entirely on each student’s dissertation project, and what Pannapacker calls “The Big Lie of the Life of the Mind.”

So year after year, cohort after cohort of Ph.D. students dedicate hour after hour to the research and writing of scholarly dissertation projects, struggling over minutiae of citations and shades of meaning, attempting to please their dissertation chair and committee, without being told the truth by anyone in the department: that for the vast majority of them, the hoped-for tangible gains from this exercise are unlikely to materialize. For many, the result of 10 years of time and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of expense is crushing debt and the systematic underemployment of adjuncting at $2000 or so a class. Some Ph.D.s marginally employed on the fringes of the academic system have ended up living on food stamps.

Meanwhile, the privileged tenured faculty ignore the wholesale disintegration of the academic economy, and their increasingly ethically untenable place within it, and label any less than optimally employed Ph.D. (ie, any not in tenure track positions), as a shameful “failure” who “never had what it takes.”

Pannapacker’s essays elicit a simply extraordinary amount of response from all sides.  He has clearly touched a nerve.  His Chronicle essays have prompted an outpouring of anguished stories from unemployed and underemployed Ph.D.s who thank him for telling the truth about their dismal experiences during and after their Ph.D.s, and leveling accusations at the departments that, they believe, systematically misled them. Writes one:  “We are supposed to love our intellectual labor enough to give it away whether we are paid to or not. The love is often there but it does not pay the bills. That tends to sour the relationship.” (mjelly33, Big Lie of the Life of the Mind, comment #5)

His pieces have also drawn outraged rebuttals from many who insist that all is well in the academy, or at least not as bad as he suggests.

The fiercest rebuttals seem to rest on one or more of the following arguments:

  • I got a Ph.D. and I am currently employed so there is no problem with the system.
  • I am getting a Ph.D. and I love it, so there is no problem with the system.
  • I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but I did not get the Ph.D. to be trained for a job, so there is no problem with the system.
  • I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but the opportunity to think great thoughts about the humanities is priceless, so there is no problem with the system.
  • The point of the humanities is to think great thoughts and any association with things as vulgar as jobs and salaries is unseemly.
  • I am a working class person, grad school is a better option than most others I had, and how dare Pannapacker or anybody tell me what I can and cannot do.

The only position among these with which I have sympathy is the last.  Personally, I appreciate Pannapacker’s use of overstatement to force his point.  But I also appreciate that it is not an optimal position, irony aside, to tell working class young people to abandon their goals, and to leave the world of humanistic inquiry to the elite (even acknowledging that Pannapacker comes from a working class background himself).  As a number of commentators have argued, graduate school with funding can be a responsible and considered financial choice, regardless of its future outcome, for those who may not enjoy a wide range of other options, or who are comfortable with financial risk.  I make the point elsewhere on this site, on the page “It’s OK to Quit,” that I don’t believe in telling someone to abandon their dreams just because their dreams are difficult or next to impossible to accomplish.

My position is, rather:  go in not just with “your eyes open” (as so many Ph.D. program apologists insist) but with a strategy and a game plan.  Calculate your chances from start to finish, and maximize them with strategic choices about *which* program, *how much* funding, *what* topic, *which* advisor, *how much* TA-ing, *how* to cut corners, *when* to be selfish, *where* to network, *how* to schmooze, *where* and *when* and *how often* to publish.  And so on.  Find the job ad for the type of position you want and make every decision based on reaching that goal.  Get out quickly.  Don’t count on your advisor.  Don’t fixate on the dissertation.  Protect yourself. Collect your own set of transferrable professional skills.

With this set of calculations, it may be possible to optimize the humanities graduate school experience to, at least, minimize risk of debt and maximize potential for employment.  I make no apology for this language. No one can change the world if they can’t afford food and health care.  That is the point of The Professor Is In.

But to return to Pannapacker: it is unfortunate that “just don’t go”–Pannapacker’s most incendiary claim–has become a red herring drawing attention away from the courageousness and power of his larger critique.  He is the first to speak the truth, in the baldest terms, without neo-marxist theoretical trappings or jargon, about the great hidden economy of the academy, and the studied silence–or in cases, sanctioned ignorance–of the professoriate that maintains it.

It is a dishonest and unethical system.  Not all faculty who operate within it are personally, individually, dishonest or unethical.  Many are sincere, and doing their best to advise their Ph.D.s.  Their best simply isn’t good enough.  No amount of advising about an intellectual project is good enough in the current economic conditions of the academy, in which Ph.D. students have become the serf labor of a stratified neo-feudal system that is maintained by an administrative elite, in which the professors themselves have little real power, except over their own students.

The solution is not for working class students to turn away.  The solution is for the professoriate to tell the goddamn truth.

The solution is for Ph.D. advisors to speak directly to the inequities and exploitations built directly into the reliance on teaching assistant and adjunct labor in their departments, and to the silences around the real potential for tenure track work for their graduates.  The solution is for the professoriate to admit that they too are increasingly disempowered “workers” who draw a wage, and to acknowledge and train their Ph.D. students as wage-earning workers as well.  The solution is for “employment skills training” to be made a central element of every responsible humanities graduate program in the country, by which I mean: training for both academic and non-academic employment.

Without Pannapacker, the shameful ethics of humanities graduate training would still be hidden behind a veil of bullshit.  The masturbatory bullshit of those professors who get off on the miniature stageshows of intellectual prowess that is Ph.D. advising.  The bullshit of departments and administrators who mouth the benefits of the life of the mind while running the university like a corporation.

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Humanities Graduate School: Go? Don’t Go? What’s a Would-Be Ph.D. To Do? — 16 Comments

  1. Amen, sister.

    I’ve been astonished by the amount of handwringing there has been over Pannapacker’s rider to the “don’t go” advice, which is “go if you’re independently wealthy.” It was a mildly silly way to make an important underlying point: a Ph.D. is no guarantee of steady employment, much less upward mobility.

    When students come to me with thoughts of grad school in English, I tell them some version of the following. “Getting a Ph.D. in the humanities means committing your 20s to the life of the mind. It’s a fine thing to do, but only do it after you’ve thought hard about what it would mean for you to be a stellar student, work hard, do everything right, yet still find yourself staring at 30 with no job, little non-academic work experience, and no money (while all your old college friends are starting to move upwards in jobs with prestige and responsibility, buy houses, raise families, and all the rest of it). If you can imagine that future self saying, “but yeah, I got to spend those years thinking about ideas and now I’m ready to reinvent myself as a non-academic!” then go for it. If you can’t see yourself being comfortable with that kind of worst-case scenario, then grad school probably isn’t for you–because the worst-case scenario is a very real possibility.”

    You offer excellent advice on this blog, though, on how to avoid the worst-case scenario.

  2. All right, I think you know my thoughts on this but nonetheless: what if the odds of making it are so low as to be equivalent to a lottery? What if trying your best-est, and your most strategtically, simply doesn’t sway the probability enough? I have to agree with Pannapacker on this count; there are too many people with advanced degrees to think that meritocracy is in play at all. That’s not to say your advice isn’t sound, and that it won’t improve the odds; it’s just that I’m not sure I could ethically recommend that anyone should go to grad school, even while I still believe that there’s a dire need for class diversity in the academy. Its a tough call that way — but in the end I do fall more on the “just don’t go” side, simply because I think the odds are too stacked against anyone who isn’t already set for life.

    • Amanda, I am not disagreeing with you in the big picture. I just have learned personally in my life not to tell myself or others what I/they can or cannot/should or should not do. People have a right to try! it’s a free country! It’s no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick! But I certainly expect Ph.D. student to arm themselves with more realistic knowledge of the risks, and less Peter Pan thinking, than most of them currently do, that’s for sure.

      • You’re absolutely correct on that count — you can’t make people’s decisions for them. And if they must go, I do think your advice is far better and more realistic than anything else out there. The edited collection advice? Dead on!

        • Yes…you can’t make people’s decisions for them. Generally they don’t like it. But if we discussing humanities PhDs its probably a good idea to find out as much as possible particularly becuase what’s really important in today’s workworld is to get training (skills) that can earn you living in the academic as well as the non-academic world.

    • Yes, indeed, I totally agree. The defensiveness has been astounding. And the circling like sharks around one tiny remark in order to avoid and evade the larger systemic critique.

  3. I left academia under the premises that Pannacker makes. It was more however than the dismal failure of the system to prepare students for the state of the economy. The system also fails to prepare students for the state of the world. My advisor shared with me that yes, they receive 900 applications for one position, but why would I work as an office clerk over the summer and not devote my time to my studies? This lack of reality where the position of professor is above real gainful employment shelters academics from understanding labor time and all that it involves. Even though I was talented and loved my work, I appreciated that I would not make it in the world if I stayed cloistered in academia. I ripped myself out of academia after completing my Masters and have worked selling cars, in an office environment, etc. I now have a real foothold in how to make things happen for myself and how to get by in this world. I have learned to network with other academics, to sell myself and my thoughts (like cars) in order to get where I need to go in academia. We are never trained to work the system, to better our situation on our own BEFORE we enter the system. We are not trained to see conferences, writing articles as sales points in our careers nor are we trained how to use those points as leverage to further ourselves along. The last point of rebuttal about working class folk, I would completely disagree with. The majority of working class folk that I have run into find intellectuals and academics highly circumspect. We do not “work” for our labor and just our mere presence comes off as condenscending to them. This is probably because labor, whether it be blue collar or white collar, does not necessarily equate to a job where thought and especially critical thought is required or wanted. The thoughts we as intellectuals pursue tend to be ancillary to the world and even those in the working class that have some regard for education do not appreciate academics as we are now. The biggest boom in higher education right now is in community colleges and we should focus our efforts there. What is a better way to make a living then inspiring someone to think by teaching them the basics of critical thought?

    • Thanks for these thoughts. I love the line, “selling myself and my thoughts (like cars)”!!! indeed, how are they different?

      • Thanks! Ha, I had no idea the selling of cars was different from selling my thoughts until I crashed and burned my way through my first couple car deals. Customers did not want to hear my dense dissertation on truck engineering. They bought the cars though I think because they found me sadly amusing. 🙂

    • I appreciate your points about being strategic and selling your ideas “like cars” – sometimes I can be too timid and I looking at it that way is helpful.

      However, I really don’t appreciate the way you’re characterizing all working class people. As someone who’s in grad school from that background, it’s a good choice for me right now, and honestly one of the best opportunities I had available to me. Oh, and even though my parents find it peculiar, they’re proud of me and they value intellectual effort.

  4. I wish I read this piece six years ago, when I started my PhD program. I was incredibly naive. I did not pay attention to those “vulgar” thoughts about one’s “career trajectory.” Being at a top program all graduate students were automatically destined for greatness of “influential work.” For years on end, I blindly worshiped my adviser, a Name, who always told me to plunge “with love and dedication” into that obscure topic of my dissertation. And the job? “The job will follow,” he always said. Oh, and he liked to add “Don’t worry about it. Focus on your writing.” While I have only my own wide-eyed stupidity to blame for my current job-less (or rather: adjunct-full) predicament, I sure wish my program had a job-mentoring system in place.
    Your advice is excellent. Many thanks for writing this piece.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, SC. I’m sorry to hear you got caught in The Lie. But may I say, you write beautifully. I hope you write a longer piece about your experience some time. If you’re still on the market, do take a look at my post ‘Why Your Job Letter Sucks (and What You Can Do To Fix It). It has a lot of good tips for making your letter more shortlist-ready. Best of luck.

  5. Pingback: Advice on Applying to Graduate Schools | OSU American Studies Program

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