“Why is it always the historians?” I muttered to myself after another little dustup on Twitter, another historian posting some jaunty, gaslighting, evasive, disaster-normalizing, “fellow-historians, give me your best advice for advisees applying to PhD programs!!” while insisting nobody say “don’t go” because OP’s students were allegedly “already well informed about the job market.”
Another historian giving me pushback when I press the issue.
Another historian finishing with a predictable “shut up, grifter.”
Ugh, historians… I muttered, clicking away.
Then I paused.
Why IS it always the historians?
It cannot be random.
After all, it was a historian who did this. And who did this. And who did this. And who used to come at me back in the early days through whisper networks from my two previous institutions of U of Oregon and U of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Now, granted, I know I have haters in plenty of other fields. But none of them pop up like whack-a-mole and shout “Yer a grifter!” at me before ducking back down underground.
(In my mind it always sounds like this:
No, that’s only historians.*
Why IS it always historians tho?
As I sat for a minute, my mind flew to a line by Anne Helen Peterson I just read last week.
It’s a line I have not been able to stop thinking about.
This is the line.
The context: Northern Idaho medical professionals are afraid to go out in their scrubs in because they’re being attacked by COVID-denialists who accuse them of killing unvaccinated patients in the service of the covid “conspiracy.”
Peterson’s line struck me, more than anything I’d ever read, as a plausible explanation for the motivations of COVID-denialists. I’ve watched as they’ve gone to their deaths screaming that COVID isn’t real, and I’ve been gob-smacked that they are willing to, literally, die on this hill. Their world view – that COVID is a vast conspiracy, and by extension, that FOX News is right, and that they are just victims of fear-mongering by bad-faith coastal elite actors (and by extension, that their version of conservative, white, gun-toting, Trump-loving rural “heartland” America is fundamentally the only proper, good and correct inheritor/inhabitor of America) – has been so devastated by the unyielding reality of the Delta variant that only a conspiracy (nurses are killing unvaxxed patients to keep the “Delta lie” alive) can make sense.
But, whoa, I thought. This is weird. Why would THIS line, about Idaho anti-vaxxers, come to mind first when I try to think about historians, job market denialism, and Karen-is-a-grifter discourse?
Well actually…. In about a minute it was pretty clear.
Historians, among all the disciplines, are apparently the least able to cognitively tolerate the collapse of their world within the larger collapse of academia. Confronted with the loss of their status as unassailably good, right and proper; their status as the inheritors of the mighty and unassailable heritage of not just a discipline, but THE discipline: Mighty History, the Queen of the humanities, source of all wisdom; confronted with all that, they freeze, and turn to conspiracies.
Everyone is confronting the same economy. But it’s History that apparently can’t cope. And so it’s History that has decided to shoot the messenger and accuse me of conspiracy. In this case, being a con (get it–con?) artist whose only motivation is dirty, self-interested, and suspect.
History, and historians, cannot be bad, or wrong. They can only be good, well-intentioned, necessary, indeed essential, and above all: innocent.
A world without History, and historians, is literally… unthinkable**
And the periodic online hysteria is, I guess, the academic social media version of anti-maskers throwing tantrums in the Krogers.
[Pause for the requisite #NotAll disclaimer. I hope it’s evident that I don’t mean all historians here. It’s not all historians who freak out at me. But (almost) all the people who freak out at me are historians. What’s the name for that again, logicians?]
Pause also for humor:
Now, if you’d asked me before, I would not have guessed it would be History to fall prey to this discontent, but rather Classics, or Philosophy or maybe English. And let me reiterate: I’m sure I have haters in those fields, as I have haters in ALL fields! But again: folks from these fields don’t run around making a spectacle of themselves like this.
“La la la I can’t heaaaaar you!” is what this all looks like to the rest of us. But just like the covid-denialists are certain that only THEY understand the “truth” about the “plandemia” and that the rest of us mask-wearing, vaccine-getting folks are gullible sheep, so this vein of historians view all of YOU – the ones who appreciate The Professor Is In and come here to the blog, or to my podcast and social media for good advice, conversation, and snarky humor- as ignorant, befuddled victims of my grift. You are my marks, as it were.
Oops! Sorry, innit! [Ted Lasso reference]
But I am just the messenger. You all know that. Many of you are trying to act in good faith. But some just… can’t, because their worldview just won’t allow it. And as in the quote above, many are suffering as a result.
Shoot at me all you want, the devastation remains.
Here is the devastation:
(deep gratitude to Ben Schmidt (@benmschmidt)
for his steady reporting here and also here)
Ben Schmidt wrote in 2020, “Out of a train-wreck curiosity about what’s been happening to the historical profession, I’ve been watching the numbers on tenure-track hiring as posted on H-Net, one of the major venues for listing history jobs…. First, the worst of the pre-great-recession years was better than the best year since it.”
[2021 data seems to be a bit unclear as yet].
Ya gotta love the AHA tho. They open their 2021 jobs report with already obsolete good news! “Over the past several years, the academic job market for historians has shown clear signs of reaching equilibrium. This stabilization was welcome news compared to the freefall of 2008–10.” Colleen Flaherty was a bit more blunt in her piece about the report in Inside Higher Ed: “That’s pre-COVID-19 and related widespread hiring freezes, however, meaning that this temporary stability in the job market is already over.”
Instead, historians (and History as a field, through the AHA) have been at the forefront of the rearranging deck chairs part of the titanic collapse of academic hiring. They have led the way in insisting that History PhD training can be maintained at its current level by simply trumpeting the “unlimited” alt-ac and public history “opportunities” a History PhD supposedly delivers. No need to reduce admissions! No need to fundamentally change what we do! Just sprinkle in a bit of alt-ac fairy dust and we’re golden! And ignore and attack anyone who implies otherwise.
[Let me add that all of this makes this Japan anthropologist quite sad because actually history is my joy, my hobby, my great love, and all I read in my free time. Right now I’m making my way through a study of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, for reasons that are obscure even to myself. But I can’t stop. I’m a history addict. I love the field as much as anyone. But… it’s dying. Like all the rest of ours with less illustrious pedigrees!]
Historians, you have yet to grasp that the “data” are both irrefutable and yet also insufficient. And this is why the claim that “I showed my students the data” in no way fulfills your professional responsibility within this catastrophe.
PhD applications are fueled by emotion and denial. Not because applicants are naive or ignorant or dumb or gullible, but because they lack sufficient context. Structurally: it’s not that they don’t get it, but that they can’t. Because academia is a truly strange niche, with rules and practices and economies all its own. And nobody understands it until they are IN it. And by the time they are IN it, it’s too late to get out without massive harm, in terms of identity, self-esteem, confidence, and indebtedness.
As a tenured friend exclaimed over coffee this past weekend, when Kel and I were regaling her about Oregon coast Darlingtonia plants –the only carnivorous plants native to North American, which consume wasps by dazzling them with pretty colors and then confusing them once inside so they get trapped and can’t escape — “Oh – just like academia, lol!”
Yes of course PhD students can get out, at some point, but it’s the damage – emotional, psychological, and above all financial – that accompanies the exit mid- or post-PhD that SHOULD MATTER TO YOU, but clearly doesn’t.
The data are irrefutable in that they are evidence that you must change what you’re doing, and stop recruiting PhD students into what is at its best a pyramid scheme. And it’s insufficient because the students themselves, while brilliant and insightful, are not driven by logic or data in their visions of the Life of the Mind that PhD programs dangle before them, and the harm cannot be stopped by sending along a link, sharing a table or graph, or even having a couple conversations about “how bad the market is.”
Historians: you are doing harm, and you are denying it.
“La la la I can’t heaaaaar you!” says History.
One Entire Decade ago – yes, in 2011 – I wrote, “For years now, many professors have used the abysmal job market as an alibi to entirely neglect career advising for their doctoral students. ‘Well, the job market’s impossible,’ my former colleagues*** would say, airily, ‘of course I always tell them that. And for too many professors, that’s where their sense of responsibility to their advisees’ career prospects seems to stop.”
And yet to return to where I began: in this Year of Our Lord 2021, an assistant professor on Twitter asked for advice for new PhD applicants that must not include the advice to “just don’t go,” because, she claimed, “she had shown them the job market data.” And gave me attitude about doing it. And had a tenured follower who chimed in, “[Your students are] so lucky! Don’t let a Karen with self-serving motives discourage you!”
Because god knows, historians, your motives aren’t self-serving!
But here’s the thing. And it’s always been the thing. Grad students for the most part enter PhD programs because they want to be professors. And they have no structural ability to grasp the job market “data” at point of entry because they lack the necessary context. By the time they get the context, it’s generally too late. They’ve invested too many years and too much of their own money (through catastrophic debt, usually) to easily or painlessly depart. And non-academic jobs are NOT best prepared for with a History PhD! Come on, this is obvious to the non-deluded: the PhD is generally a really shitty, time-consuming, and staggeringly expensive and inefficient mode of preparing for non-academic jobs.
And debt is not parenthetical to this calculation. When graduate school debt is the fastest growing debt in America, when grad students make up under 20% of students but almost 40% of loans, when 25% of graduate students take out more than $50K in additional debt, and a significant number of humanities PhDs have debt of $100-300K, debt is central, while virtually always shrouded in secrecy and disavowed in official disciplinary and departmental discussions.
NOBODY talks about the debt because then historians would have to talk money. That filthy lucre. And money is what, even in 2021, one must never acknowledge, because money-talk, donchano, is self-interested, and…
…tenure track and tenured historians work for free, drawing no salary, only do history out of altruism, and personally benefit in no way whatsoever from the continuation of graduate admissions.
To the non-delusional: you may find PhD debt figures here, with 2021 updates, and plenty of historians in the list (also, please add your own story!).
So, you know, if – GOD FORBID – I’m still doing this Professor Is In gig ten years from now, in 2031 [WHEN I AM 67 YEARS OLD], I am under no illusions that some portion of the seven tenure track/tenured historians remaining in America will STILL be writing jaunty (wHaT i wIsH i KnEw wHeN i StArTeD gRaD sChOol ) advice threads for new PhD applicants, and still calling me a grifter. Because History departments and History PhD programs have to keep going, keep recruiting, and keep claiming their innocence, even when it’s all entirely fantasy.
For a surprisingly not-gaslighty [yet silent on grad school debt] collection of short essays by historians about the collapse of History, read this April 2021 compendium, The Academic Jobs Crisis: A Forum, in Passport, the publication of the Society of American Historians of Foreign Relations, edited by Bessner and Brenes, but for the love of god avoid the convo among three tenured profs, which includes lines like, “do you think it’s gotten worse since the 1990s?” and “I think it’s gotten harder to get tenure track jobs,” “my advice is make sure you have your eyes wide open!” and “we need good people in the academy” [KK: who is “we” in this formulation, perchance?] and “There are so many interesting exit ramps on the road between year one of graduate school and year one of a tenure-track job—or, more likely, year one of an adjunct professorship….I think it’s courageous to take them when they make sense. There are lots of different ways to love history and be successful” and “One of the things that’s vertiginous about all of this is that history is so present in our contemporary political and social discourse,” and “let’s keep this conversation going!”
*Check the first (of likely many!) angry (and abusive) comment from a historian in the comment thread below, which IN NO WAY proves the point of this post!
***It was a couple Historian friends I had in mind when I wrote this, ironically.
Maybe you’re just a crap excuse for a human who comes to other people’s social media unannounced and full of garbage and fire because you’re looking for a fight. Sit down.
No one is picking on you, child.
Karen Kelsky says
Good thing this is no way proves the point of my post, lol.
Earlier in September AHA posted a resource on applying to graduate school. It was from 2006. They have their head in the sand, and it is utterly irresponsible.
Historians tend to have a better view of the market because for a long time there were more jobs in history than in other disciplines. Your analysis is not compelling. I find it strange to assert a vague psychoanalytic correlation between historians’ mindsets and their allegedly flawed interactions with you. Your accounts of their supposed misbehavior are vague. This generalization is too vast and is poorly-executed—it’s a good way to alienate a whole discipline. No one involved in your strange twitter fight is a covid denier and it’s off-the-mark to have made this analogy. There are quite a few jobs right now for people working on long-marginalized and neglected topics. When was the last time you saw a call for “Assistant Professor of the History of Resistance” and such? There are many jobs for those working on the history and culture of black diaspora. Are labor conditions highly problematic? Yes. Is academia going away? No. Finally: it’s EXTREMELY problematic for white, cisgendered, middle and upper-middle-class people with PhDs to INSIST that people of color, poor people, and non-cisgendered people not get PhDs. Or to insist that those people are incapable of understanding the cost-benefit analysis. Universities aren’t going away, and they need professors. Those professors should be people of color. We should all agitate for better labor conditions at all levels of academia, from staff, to grad school, to tenure. You have a role in this conversation, but some of what you’ve said lacks critical analysis and is out of line.
Karen Kelsky says
Was this written by a bot?
Universities aren’t going away? Small liberal arts colleges are closing or consolidating at a horrifying rate. https://www.highereddive.com/news/how-many-colleges-and-universities-have-closed-since-2016/539379/. Who is absorbing their faculty? And those who aren’t closing are slashing humanities programs right and left in favor of higher enrollment pre-professional programs.
So, as a white, cisgendered, person (I’d hardly characterize my current class position as middle or upper-middle) who earned a PhD in the humanities, has been leaping from contingent position to contingent position, trying to raise a small child on an income well below 40K per year and saddled six-figures of debt, what should I do? I agree that we need to address the disparities in academia, but I’m not sure what my place in the conversation is, when you are openly just saying that the professors needed in the academy are not me. I seems as if you’re just sending the message: “You don’t matter. Go away.”
Concerned Historian says
Karen: Thank you for writing this post. I earned my PhD in East Asian History from an elite university in the U.S. a few years ago. Your analysis of the problem with historians is spot on. The history professors at that elite university seemed to nurture a delusional belief that their institution’s reputation would guarantee their students tenure-track positions upon completion of the program. On my first day of grad school, I remember the department’s director for graduate studies insisting that we would all “most likely” get tenure-track positions once we completed the program. His prediction, however, turned out to be based on wishful thinking: out of the 15 students in my cohort, only 4 (myself included) were lucky enough to obtain tenure-track positions. Based on my experience, I strongly believe that history PhD programs nowadays accept too many students and create false expectations in regard to the job market. Sadly, the numbers show that most of their students end up empty-handed in the academic job market. I strongly believe that history departments need to change their approach to student recruitment and promote structural changes to their programs. Unless this happens, the number of unemployed/underemployed history PhDs will unfortunately continue to rise.
Karen Kelsky says
Thanks. I would be grateful if you’d use your name, however. I feel that the reliance on anonyumity is a big part of the toxicity of academia, and history in particular, which is filled with anon. social media accounts.
So, I’ve not really paid attention to your blog before. I think maybe (waaaaay back when I was on the job market) I might’ve stumbled across a few pieces of advice you wrote about interviewing…? maybe. I have a vague memory of your advice being useful. (!)
Well, that ship has clearly sailed. A colleague just forwarded this post to me (I’m a tenured historian at an R1 institution), and I dutifully read it, and my first thought is:
jesus, what a nasty, shitty little article. Exactly why I tend to avoid dumb-ass internet blogs like the plague.
Now, before you get all smug (“see! It’s the Historians… THEY just WON’T listen!”), I don’t have any problems with the FACTS of what you wrote. The tables are interesting (and wrong, but we’ll get to that) but they are appropriately bleak. Yes, the job market is tough and getting tougher. Yes, many historians are pretty upset about it. Yes, our grad students are suffering. Yes, careers as a professional historian are looking even bleaker in/post pandemic. Oh, and yes, the world is getting angrier, stupider, and more corrupt, and history positions are being cut to make room for more engineering and computer science positions (to generate more cubicle drones) right at the EXACT moment when perhaps a bit of perspective on (for instance) Jim Crow laws or the rise of the Third Reich might be pretty goddamn useful for Americans to, you know, learn about. Yes, I agree, it is indeed bad news for the History profession. We’re under siege.
But, jesus christ, do you have to be so nasty about it? Why do I read such glee… such delight–in other people’s suffering here?! I mean, seriously… what the HELL is wrong with you, that you would write this way??!
But actually, that is a rhetorical question. I know *exactly* what is “wrong” with you. Your career is on the internet. This means you need clicks. You need “engagement” to sell your advertising, get your recognition, get your “views”… because that is how you get *paid.* You joke sarcastically about being a “grifter” and a “con”… but, ultimately, if you had been any LESS obnoxious, any LESS vicious, any LESS nasty in this article, my colleague would never have forwarded your blog to me. I (and most others) would have never read a measured, thoughtful, decent post. So…. congratulations???!
Maybe (if I could digress to offer a slight nudge of conscience) the problem might not “always” be with “the Historians”… those arrogant academics or wannabe academics who call you out on the sickening, gut-twisting system of sensation-for-profit in which you are intimately, deeply immersed (and have apparently devoted your professional life to…) Maybe… just maybe… there IS a better path out there. But maybe not.
Still, I digress. Your tone is shitty and nasty, but let us leave that for now, and turn (briefly) to content:
you have NO FUCKING CLUE what you are talking about when you see this as a problem with “The Historians” (as a profession). My department has been trying to grapple with this for, oh, about fifteen years now. (about five years before you Oh So Presciently Foretold that This Would Happen like a cyberspace Svengali…).
Here’s some food for thought. What if “The Historians” HAVE been thinking about this??? What if “The Historians” HAVE made dramatic changes in their graduate programs… to downsize them dramatically?? But also (and most importantly) to make sure that EVERY history PhD is fully funded, so that, if (in the probably event) that they not end up in the shrinking tenure-track lines, they’re not in debt, and can go into many, many other careers??? (I myself had a career in the corporate world before going back into History…it’s easy, and always an option.) And what if and many of our PhDs who’ve not found tenure-track jobs have found amazing, satisfying careers in countless other fields….???!!! Using skills they learned in their (gasp) free History PhD???!!
Maybe… just maybe… some of us DO care about graduate students… and still think a History PhD is worthwhile?
But then, we’re not directly profiting from grad student angst (via clicks).
–with deep regrets from an (apparently) retrograde, atavistic barbarian. May you find satisfaction in your little cyberutopia.
Karen Kelsky says
Case in point.
(Also, my good dude, you wrote this comment using an institutional email, displaying both name and institution, so I do know that you are David Ciarlo, formerly of MIT and now at CU Boulder. In future if you are hoping your rants to be anonymous, be sure and use a burner email.)
oh my god. You receive a sharp critique, and you go the doxing route?? THAT’s your answer? “Told you so!”, then… doxing??
You truly are a creature of the internet, aren’t you? (Perhaps this is why you’ve opted for this career path? Because it gives you a sense of power? Power to avenge all the slights you have suffered? That is truly… eye-opening. )
Yes, indeed, I am indeed regretting having clicked the link and bothered. I prefer not to be doxed. (and am a bit surprised by it, in all honesty) but I’m not going to lose sleep over an exchange with someone who, let’s just say, is clearly working through some Issues.
But perhaps you might try to rise up a bit, and address my point?
To reiterate: WHAT IF I and many other professional historians deeply care about graduate students? (!) WHAT IF we have (over the last 15 years) spent a great deal of time and effort and (yes) passion to try to make things better for our grad students, from better funding, to shorter time-to-degree, to trying our best to facilitate alternative-to-academia options? (and yes, our best is often not good enough. We know that. But we do what we are able.)
And WHAT IF (here’s a shocker) getting a PhD in History is not only a noble and good thing in itself (many of us do actually believe this, you’re right there) but—and this might shake you a bit—what if the work and intense intellectual engagement really DOES open up all sorts of other career options for the future? (!!) Careers that are more psychologically rewarding than cubicle drones or internet click-hustler? What if all of these would-be-historians are (in the words of Will Hunting) “holding out for something better?”
Would none of this perhaps change your own rant about “The Historians”, even a tiny bit?? Perhaps just even in tone?
(the colleague who forwarded me your blog post, by the way, had suggested a year or two back bringing you to campus for one of our alternative-to-academia sessions. I’d forgotten, but just stumbled across the email. Man did we ever dodge a bullet there.)
Karen Kelsky says
I am sorry that you are in so much pain.
Karen Kelsky says
Having said that, I urge you to read A Profession Is Not a Personality, from last month’s Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/09/self-objectification-work/620246/ ) and maybe get some therapy.
I have also had a handful of experiences in which I have expressed my desparation over the material hardships endured as a contingent and exploited academic labor, only to have a tenured professor try to make it a conversation about “manners.” As someone who actually had career outside academia, I find the workplace culture of the academy to be more unjust and exploitative than most, and experiences like this only demonstrate this point. I am expected to remain in my lane and not make the privileged few uncomfortable in any way, lest i be cast out as a troublemaker.
I have a side point here-
PhDs are not “fully-funded” unless you’re a certain type of student. Even though this woman embodies her name’s reputation, is frankly abusive and definitely condescending – She was right when she mentioned the transactional nature of this situation in another linked post. History students are expected to TA on top of their coursework. That’s always worked out to way more labor than advertised. Grad students trade labor for that tuition.
But… If you have children? You take out debt to pay for the child care, unless you’re lucky enough to have a spouse or partner who makes enough money to pay for it. Your stipend doesn’t cover the extra cost of child care at awkward hours in the evening, (let alone the prospect of supporting a stay-at-home parent/partner AND children).
And what about the summer? There’s no stipend then. And no summer job is going to pay enough to cover the cost of rent plus the child care required to do it. So you take out loans and save some for the summer, relying on food banks and even payday loans for the rest of it.
If you suffer an illness, injury, or hospitalization? You take out debt to cover the medical expenses because the insurance plan offered by the university only covers so many visits and the copays the plan requires are extremely high anyway.
Forget about it if you have a disability that requires heavily structured and regular appointments – that plan will also cut you off after X amount of visits.
If you live in an expensive city (like I hear Boulder is)? You take out debt because your stipend doesn’t cover the cost of living.
And there’s really no time for another job. Anyone who’s being honest knows that.
No, it’s only “free” for a certain type of student. I don’t like this woman’s tone or her attitude at all but there’s one thing she says in this post that’s right on the money if you’re a PhD student who is not that certain type:
“And by the time they are IN it (academia), it’s too late to get out without massive harm, in terms of identity, self-esteem, confidence, and indebtedness.”
Loki Maelorin says
You missed the in-text statements where the author explains that the attitude and behaviour she’s responding to in this post has been directed at her by just a few people; and they all happen to be historians.
And, you, as a tenured professor in history have responded by exhibiting the exact behaviour she’s talking about.
You seem to be quite upset and angry that someone no longer in academia is concerned about the way a few academic historians react to her writing.
Being upset and angry about the way academics, especially in non-STEMM disciplines, are suffering is understandable. As a recently-offloaded STEMM academic it’s not much better on that side of campus either.
But here’s the thing; she hasn’t addressed you personally. But you clearly FEEL personally attacked. Your whole post expresses that very clearly.
Why do you feel this is a personal attack? From someone you clearly don’t respect?
And why be so unprofessional?
Anonymous English PhD says
*stands and claps* Now do English!!
Karen Kelsky says
lol. I have MANY feelings about English, and tell many stories at parties, but nothing that really rises to blogability! It’s true that it’s really only the historians who tell on themselves like this!
Dr. L. says
Thanks for this article. From my experience,
University: “Come get your history PhD. Even if you don’t get a teaching job, employers will value the skills you learned to get the degree,”
Me: “Okay, I got the degree, but I am place bound now for family reasons, so can I get one of these non-teaching jobs you are advertising for?”
University: “Fuck off, loser.”
Same here, in English.
I went to a job market preparation workshop in my final MA year. “I’m actually thinking about community college jobs, because teaching is where my heart really lies.”
“I’m sure there’s some information about that on the internet.”
Not a single “mentor” or TT prof ever spoke to me again.
After ten years of adjuncting at my alma mater, the secretary asked if I’d be coming back next semester. “You don’t have a job yet?”
WHAT EXACTLY HAVE I BEEN DOING FOR YOU FOR THE PAST DECADE.
John Landry says
Rather than get into personal attacks, how about we focus on what’s likely to happen? All of the discussions here have no answer to the fundamental problem of demand. People (college students, college administrators, university funders and donors) are much less interested in the study of history than they were when history departments were rising over the past century. So history departments need to downsize and perhaps combine with others into a department of humanities, with fewer historians and fewer graduate students. The end result will be a great many historians outside of academia, with far less time to research and write, and eventually far fewer PhD historians. So we’ll have a few decades of drastically reduced scholarship. The good news is that we’ve had decades of extensive scholarship on a great many topics. So we can handle a few lean decades until society finally realizes that we need ongoing historical scholarship, and historians realize that we made a mistake with hyper-specialization and a lack of outreach to non-academics. If you think this scenario is a serious problem, and you’re willing to commit serious resources to prevent it, what is your plan?
I think you might be forgetting about one thing: what do you think happens to all those people cast out of academia with loads of debt and very few ways to “market” themselves to a private sector that don’t even want you to put your PhD on your resume (I’ve been told this)? While I agree with you that the humanities will persist, you have erase the thousands of lives ruined by a shrinking profession that has persisted in recent decades only by exploiting cheap academic labor, which are eventually cast out, often left impoverished (certainly in debt) to pursue a life of mediocrity in middle age. You are forgetting about the lives ruined by this system. I believe this is the greater concern here (to make it about the survival of scholarship is to completely misread this blog post). The problem is material and needs to be addressed as a matter of class oppression (not disciplinary quirks).
John Landry says
Thanks for pushing back. Yes, it’s unfortunate, but we’ve known ever since the 1970s that the academic job market is risky, so grad students like me (PhD ’95) knew we were taking a chance. And in the scheme of things, people with enough intelligence and discipline to get a PhD will likely end up in some kind of job. Contrast that with the millions of people truly ruined and struggling because of mental illness, broken families, weak communities, and racism. Unemployed PhDs can cry all they want, but I expect little sympathy or even much political response. We as a society have much bigger problems. Unemployed PhDs and their sympathizers will have to solve this problem on their own. The rest of us, if we believe in history, can work on reviving interest in the field or at least being ready when society does come around.
An excellent post, though I disagree in parts with the “And non-academic jobs are NOT best prepared for with a History PhD!” Yes and no, it depends.
My formative years were in a HE system outside the anglo-American tradition, so for me the idea that the main reason to do a PhD was to become an academic was utterly alien, and I had to re-think my own approach when I started supervising PhDs in the UK.
In Germany, doing a PhD is considerably more common (and there are normally no fees either), and more or less expected for those who want to take on eventually more senior roles in their organisation. When I was at school (Gymnasium, roughly equivalent to a US college I think) about a third of my teachers had PhDs, it showed, and was also massively appreciated by us pupils, as they brought a level of enthusiasm and skills to the job that marked them out – we “loved” to see them “doing research” in front of our eyes, even if they were with necessity mainly “mock ups”
In my own field (these days, though I also did a good bit of history and philosophy) , law, most senior partners in the bigger law firms in Germany will have one – my parents both did, even though they never considered academic careers. Most judges do, too (IIRC, all our current constitutional court judges have at least one, some have two, and quite a number also the higher doctorate that is part of getting a chair) .
Now you might say that that’s just obsession with titles, credentialism, and not an efficient way to run an economy, but I’d say as a result, their employer (or society) can also make a different type of demand from these job specifications. While our textbooks at school may have been outdated, the subject knowledge of many of our teachers wasn’t.
So I’d modify your statement slightly, “non-academic jobs are NOT best prepared for with a PhD” – given the way non-academic jobs are structured in the US (UK) and the widespread, unjustified disdain of academic qualifications as “impractical” by wider society” But that’s not an immutable fact of nature
Loki Maelorin says
I have pursued a PhD twice, in different disciplines. I have left both after completing substantial portions of the thesis. Both times a combination of personal circumstances and academic politics were key factors in walking away.
I still want to complete a doctorate. But I’m now considering a Masters then Professional Doctorate rather than PhD.
I would still like to work in a (practical) research role. I was a casual teaching academic for a decade before being offered full-time hours and finally a full-time contract. But that burnt me out. So much repetitive and unnecessary admin tasks; and an always-on, always-available culture.
The turnover rate was 40% by the end of the first year and closer to 60% as year 2 rolled round. I found out later that all the issues – and their solutions – that I had raised during my first year on a full-time contract we’re implemented wholesale right after I took leave.
I’m now looking into working in research roles in industry/commercial environments. Universities will need an outsider’s perspective and an insider’s understanding of their ‘purpose’ if they’re going to survive as anything like the Academy they think they are/were/should be.