Thursday, November 17, 2005


Ask the Administrator: Stopping the Cycle of Abuse

A young Midwestern correspondent writes:

I am a History-Secondary Ed major at Midwest State and will be finishing my student teaching next fall.

As this is early in my career, I still have many options open to me. I know I will teach high school history for a few years, but already think I’d like to pursue a career somewhere in higher education, either at university or a junior college. I’m fully aware that grad degrees are requisite, but outside of that, I’m really in the dark about entering the higher ed world. So, my questions are:

What advice do you have for someone considering these areas,
at this early stage in their life?

What would you have done differently?

What books, journals, magazines or people should I consult to prepare me?

At the risk of alienating my entire readership and everybody with whom I work, I’d strongly advise against targeting a career as a college history professor. That’s not to say that adjuncting would be out of the question – those opportunities look to be plentiful for the foreseeable future – but I wouldn’t give up the day job.

The reasons have nothing to do with your ability, about which I know nothing. They have to do with the job market in the field, the length of training involved, and the opportunity costs.

The job market for history professors is dreadful, and has been for a generation. In fact, you can strike the word ‘history’ from that sentence and replace it with any liberal-arts discipline without invalidating the meaning. It’s absurdly difficult to find full-time work on which you could make an adult wage. I consider that unlikely to change, since the combination of increased vocationalism among students (the single largest undergraduate major in the US is business), cost pressures on colleges, and the repeal of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty means the only way for colleges to cut substantial costs is through hiring freezes.

Oddly, the same is not true of high school teachers. Since (at least to my knowledge) there’s no such thing as an adjunct high school teacher, and since high school curricula are much more prescribed and classic than college curricula, history teachers who retire actually get replaced. (There’s a GREAT dissertation in this for some ed.d. I’m just sayin’…) Your chances of finding an actual job as a high school history teacher are far better, and tenure in public high schools usually comes much faster than at most colleges.

The length of training for college professors is dysfunctional, archaic, and abusive. Ph.D.’s in liberal arts disciplines usually take about 7 years (including the master’s), though that can range anywhere from 5ish well into the double digits. That’s after four years of college. Master’s degrees are much quicker (2 years or so, usually), but it’s increasingly difficult in many states to get a tenure-track job with only a Master’s, even at the two-year level. (Admittedly, this impression may stem from my location in the Northeast. Credential creep may not have hit the heartland quite as hard, yet.)

During those (let’s say, 7) years of graduate school, you will live on a pauper’s income, falling farther and farther behind your peers who got real jobs after college. If you go straight through, let’s say you hit the market at 28. Even if you score a tenure-track job your first time out (which is highly unusual), that’s 7 fewer years during which you were building up equity in a house, stashing away money for retirement, and generally enjoying life. (The cost of income foregone is what economists call ‘opportunity costs.’ Most academics try very hard to repress this knowledge, since it’s profoundly depressing.)

(A more realistic scenario would have you hitting the market multiple times, bouncing from one-year temp gig to one-year temp gig, before landing a tenure-track job. Each new job would involve a substantial geographic move, often across time zones.)

So at 30 you finally land a tenure-track job that pays about the same as what you could have made as a high-school teacher at 23. Of course, if you became a high school teacher at 23, you’d have tenure by 30, and probably several years’ worth of equity in a house.

A more life-friendly option that would still allow you to teach in a college would be to get the high school teaching gig, use tuition remission to get a Master’s degree in history while you’re working there, and then sign on as an adjunct at a nearby college. It’s not unusual for high school teachers to adjunct at cc’s in the evenings or on weekends; it gives them some extra income, and a chance to stretch their pedagogical wings. More importantly, it allows them to have lives.

I know that one of the first commandments of academia is Thou Shalt Reproduce Thy Own, but I can’t in good conscience. If you manage to get a fellowship to Harvard, then by all means, knock yourself out. But if your graduate institution is likelier to be Midwest State or its equivalent, don’t. Just don’t.

I don’t know what I would have done differently. Had I not moved to the state in which I went to grad school, I wouldn’t have met The Wife, and my life would be unimaginably different. My career path has been idiosyncratic enough that to generalize from it would be silly, so I won’t. But I certainly don’t recommend this to anyone who could imagine himself happy any other way. The chain of abuse has to stop.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Oh man, this is so depressing. So depressing that I had to delurk (I was sent over a bit ago by Dr. Crazy). I'm 27, finished my masters in Middle East studies last year, and just started my doctorate in history at Fancy (but not Harvard) East Coast school. Is the market that bad? As someone who is still wavering in her current trajectory, should I cut my losses and drop now? Bleak. But I appreciate your advice and insight, Dean Dad!
Agreed, very depressing!! I have a question about this:

"A more life-friendly option that would still allow you to teach in a college would be to get the high school teaching gig, use tuition remission to get a Master’s degree in history while you’re working there..."

How does a high school teacher get tuition remission to get their master's degree??

And finally, is Theatre somehow the one exception to your statement about striking "the word ‘history’ from that sentence and replace it with any liberal-arts discipline without invalidating the meaning."?

No? I didn't think so.
This is a great blog. I'm formulating a question of my own now that you've killed my ideas about becoming a college Theatre prof. ;)
Let's go with your statement 'thou shalt reproduce thy own' a little more specifically: start college at 18, do something which allows you to start a job in seven years, 25. Start college at eighteen, do something which allows you to start a job in eighteen years, 36. At 36, you are on your way down the ski slope of diminished fertility, maybe you can squeeze out one kid before you get into fertility-clinic territory, tens of thousands of dollars and high chance of failure. I have no regrets whatsoever about bailing out of the academy, and I have a life, thankyouverymuch.
Wow. This is the best honest evaluation of academia I've seen in a while. (Though I might qualify it for folks like masterfraud... if you're doing a hot topic like Middle East studies, your options will be much better. If you want to study any of the traditional U.S. or European fields occupied by all those tenured folks who will stay on till they're 80, you'll have a much tougher time.)
Two pieces of advice:

First, read Timothy Burke, Should you go to Graduate School You can find it at

Second, be aware of ALL your options. One option that too few people consider is teaching in a good private high school; many of them offer salaries close to the public schools, with much better working conditions and much more opportunity to teach advanced classes. (I have a friend who has taught for 20 years at such a school; his syllabi are more challenging than comparable classes at a community college.)
At the risk of alienating my entire readership

Please, Dean Dad. I advise my best undergrads not to go into academia all the time. I was relieved when my most promising one decided she probably wants to go to law school. My other most promising one is already in law school. That kind of single-reproduction is for egomaniacs.
What I meant was "single-minded reproduction"...
Please tell me this is less true with technical subjects. I am just about to start on a grad program to get my PhD in instructional design/educational technology, or whatever the nom du jour is in your region.

I am 31 and have worked in this field since I was an undergrad. I have a house and all that, but I am giving up quite a bit to go. Maybe I shouldn't? I do think it is a bit different in this industry in part because there is a job market out there for instructional designers outside of the academy. Not the same for PhD's in history.
It may be less true for technical fields; I really don't know. The classic, traditional academic fields are definitely barren.

Rereading this morning's post, it occurs to me that it might look like I'm trying to squash hope. That's not it -- I'm trying to prevent abuse. Like the poem says, I've seen the best minds of my generation...
Monami: Don't get your hopes up. Technical fields have better hiring percentages than the humanities, but it's the difference between "damned lean" and "nearly impossible". Dean Dad is giving it to you straight.

Not to depress everyone, but I think it is foolish to consider an academic career without some sort of clear idea of what you will do if it doesn't work out. Even in the technical fields, the odds of landing a permanent academic position are hovering around 10%. And, many of those jobs will be substantially less fun and worse-paid than a non-academic post. Dean Dad is also entirely correct about the opportunity costs of the long academic apprenticeship.

As many regular readers know, I'm a scientist. My boss and I regularly try to talk our students out of going to grad school, although it hasn't worked so far. However, we send them off with a publication or two and a firm talking-to about what they will have to do to have any prayer of academic employment.
I actually agree with Dean Dad on so many levels--too many of my good friends went through the PhD process and are now barely making ends meet, hopping from adjucnt to adjucnt. Many are 40 years old and cannot afford a home or to save for retirement. And, too many professors react with glee at the thought of their students following in their footsteps.

I also want to say that it is really easy to think you will never be happy in a job that isn't academic when you are finishing up 16 years of spending your days in school. I was one of those people. But there is something to be said for financial stability, job security, and free time in the weekends.
Great post, Dean Dad. But instead of being all out discouraging, I think we need to be honest about the difficulties and rewards of being a prof or a grad student.

I linked back to your post in my response: I think PhD granting institutions need to cut down on admissions (without making their admissions less diverse than they already are).

I can't figure out how to do track back, sorry.
Er ... From the not really other side - sorry if you've heard the story. Went in to grad school as a high flyer and pissed it away because I never knew I was a high flyer. Maybe coming from a non-academic background gives me a slightly different perspective, but I never actually tried to live on my fellowship except the DAAD when I was in Germany. I always worked. Spent several dissertation years working outside academia, which was great in only two ways -- it proved to me that I have the ability to work outside academia (in fact, one of my old bosses is still trying to recruit me to do grant writing for his company 'in my spare time' -- but it's about $20k per grant), and it proved to me that being a college professor is the place I feel most complete and happy.

But I am also one of those people who doesn't have a TT job, let alone tenure, and I'm over 40. No house, no savings, but a growing retirement fund, because adjuncts in my state get full benefits if they teach over 50% time.

That said, I tell all my undergrads not to go to grad school. Then I tell the ones who can't be dissuaded that they may work outside of academia in the long run, and not to go unless fully funded.

I hope I'm doing OK on the market ... I did really well last year -- 10 short lists, 5 campus interviews, two 1-year offers, both of which are probably going to go to TT ...

But if I don't get a job in the next couple of years, I can't see that I can afford to keep doing this. It's a real gamble.
Wow. This is really intense. You have all given me a lot to think about, so thanks especially to you, Dean Dad. It's upsetting to hear real-life stories about how bad the chances are. I'm single, I'm just starting, and I'm in history. This is all very anxiety-inducing; I need a drink.
Bravo, Dean Dad! I was pointed here by someone who knows about my own chequered (to put it mildly) history in academia.

Too few people telling it like it is. Thank you for being one of them!
So why is it so hard for Professors to admit to this reality? I'm currently in a graduate program in Sociology, and I've made it quite clear to everyone that I'm cutting and running with my MA. I've been told to 'keep in quiet' numerous times, completely ignored, and shunned because apparently the terminal MA makes me a 'less serious student'. I just don't understand how, given the realities of the job market, my Professors can in good conscience continue to encourage so many students to pursue a career in academia! In our department, no other career choice seems to exists - and there is no acknowledgment of the competitive market. the assumption is, when we complete our PhD's we will go on to become professors at research universities. It is extremely frustrating!
As a historian, I agree with basically everything you say. :-}

The one caveat I offer about your alternate path for this student is that the MA-along-the-way model presumes there is little desire to research and engage in that side of academic life. Now, granted, the question seems to have come from someone who is more interested in this from the teaching angle than the research angle, so you're probably right. But the getting an MA and adjuncting is great for teaching in the higher ed context, but not the research side of things. (I'm not saying that research is impossible in that context, but it's harder.)

The opportunity costs - yes, they do suck. My credit card bills are telling me this all the time.

I do tend to try to dissuade students from going to graduate school. This was especially frustrating at my last job, because I had senior colleagues who assumed as a matter of course that the best option for an excellent history major was going to grad school. Thankfully, my current colleagues are more realistic. But mostly I try to dissuade students because they have so little idea of what it's going to be like (which I also try to explain to them, of course!).
Christ almighty, yes. Unless you've got a stellar background and a free ride at Harvard/Yale/Stanford, don't do it! In the March 2005 AHA Perspectives, there appeared a study that reported that TWO-THIRDS of all PhD in history awarded in recent years did not land tenure-track jobs. I expected the letter columns of subsequent issues to be full of discussion of this--but, no, not one of the tenured or tenure track readers of the magazine thought it important to respond. Graduate programs in history have strong incentives to be dishonest when it comes to the academic job market. Do something else.
Yes, depressing, but sobering? Unfortunately, no. As someone remarked somewhere else, for those of us who've gone on to the phd and are now (for better or ill) embarking on the job market, we couldn't have gotten this far without encountering the unfortunate reality of the market/profession (speaking mainly for the humanities folk). Thanks, though, for sharing your thoughts.

I myself think that success in a phd program (at at any school, really) has a lot less to do with 'intelligence' or 'genius' (however those terms are defined) than determination and the belief in one's ability, which, when push comes to show (and if often does),
is what will get one through to the other side.

Oh, yeah, and the job? Timing--which is a frustrating variable inasmuch as we both do and don't have any control over it, and either of which we only ever realize (to the extent that we do) after the fact--for better or for worse.

Which is to say, basically, that one can do everything right and get that t-t job, and that one can do everything right and not get that t-t job.

Liberating? Maybe. I think so, at least, even as I despise this personal/impersonal structure of the market (and do so precisely because it's at once both personal and impersonal). Eh.
I'll second most of what Dean Dad has to say, and add my own $0.02.

I've taught 3+ years in public K-12 schools, and another 10+ years at the post-secondary level (two year colleges and universities). I have a credential for K-12 and an MS in my subject area.

In my view, most K-12 teaching jobs suck, especially when compared with full-time post-secondary work. It is not impossible to find a good K-12 teaching job, but it is not easy.

The pros of K-12 employment: it is relatively easy in most major urban areas to get hired to teach in K-12. In some subject areas (math, hard sciences), they are *always* looking for fresh meat. The hours for K-12 are usually predictable, and later, if you want to moonlight as a road scholar at your local community college/big university, it's not so hard to get your schedule situated so you can do one or two night classes very comfortably. If you have an advanced degree in your subject area (not a worthless education degree like so many K-12 teachers get), you'll be something of a big fish in a small pond, as most K-12 teachers have just a BA/BS, or a BA/BS with a worthless education degree. Your advanced degree will also move you over a few columns on the K-12 salary schedule, so you'll make a few thousand more per year than many of your coworkers. Tenure is typically much easier to get in K-12, and I think it's generally much easier to transition to administration in K-12 if you tire of the classroom. If you're a go-getter, you can become an elite in K-12 much more easily than in the post-secondary arena. For example I know a K-12 teacher who writes state standards/curriculum, and she is treated like royalty at her campus, working banker's hours, teaching a half-load, and can basically tell her principal what her schedule will be from semester to semester, etc. Finally, if you are fortunate enough to get hired at a really good school, you can find yourself teaching some really excellent students. Some public K-12 schools are elite institutions, and you can have a great career teaching in such a place.

There are many cons associated with K-12 employment, however, and in my view, they far outweigh the pros. To begin with, K-12 is usually managed according to the mount olympus model. The faculty has minimal input with respect to just about everything. When the administration says "jump," you, the teacher, will jump.

In K-12, you not only have to deal with the students, many of whom don't want to be there, but you frequently have to deal with their parents, too. Parents can really be a pain sometimes; ask any teacher with a few year's experience working in K-12, and chances are they can tell you a few horror stories. In particular, dealing with the parents of students who are socio-economically well-off can be exceedingly vexing, and depending on how unsupportive your administration is, you can find your (already minimal) authority undermined by weak administrators and unsupportive, meddlesome parents.

The pay in the K-12 world is often substantially less than what you find earn in comparable full-time work at the post-secondary level. Benefits, too, are usually less generous. Many K-12 schools are currently struggling to cover the cost of benefits, in part because of the increasing cost of same, but also because the accounting rules regarding those benefits recently changed. These changes will have a long-term impact; they will make it harder for more public schools to offer reasonable raises and provide reasonable benefits. Public post-secondary institutions are also struggling with the same changes, but so far as I know they are generally in a stronger position for a variety of reasons which I will not go into here.

The working conditions in K-12 are often worse than in the post-secondary world. At the public school where I used to teach, the only building on campus that had A/C was the administration building; all the classes were held in 1950's-era brick buildings with barely functioning heaters and no fans or A/C. I had to buy my own fan to keep cool on hot days.

When I worked in K-12, I had to calculate & submit my grades seven times per year (including summer school). I wasn't allowed to give a semester "F" grade unless the student had failed all three segments of the semester.

Every year when I worked in K-12, the proportion of the incoming freshmen who were "social promotions" (kids who failed one or more years of middle school) increased. My last year, 40% of the freshmen class were social promotions. As one administrator I knew once put it, "you can't make chicken salad from chicken shit."

K-12 teachers are tasked with wearing many hats, too. In this state, the system almost requires them to function as surrogate parents in some circumstances (policing dress code violations at some campuses, watching for signs of child abuse, etc.), in addition to teaching & managing a classroom.

I could go on, but I think you can get a pretty good sense of things from what I've typed so far.

Some additional points to consider:

Since it is much easier to get into K-12 than it is to get into the post-secondary world, at least full-time, it may not be a bad strategy to do as DD suggested and grab a full-time job in K-12 while you work on an advanced degree in history or some related field. Many graduate programs allow you to do classes at night, and you can write off the tuition & related expenses so long as you are teaching in that subject area. I think it extremely unlikely that you'll get some K-12 district to pony up tuition for your MA, but you may well find that your administrator(s) could help you by working out a grad school-friendly schedule for you (for example, starting early ("zero" period) and ending early so you can run off to class).

If you're not dead-set on doing an advanced degree in history, you may want to look at the minimum qualifications for post-secondary work in your geographic region before you start grad school. You might be surprised to find that certain subject areas give you greater flexibility to apply for community college work than other areas. For example in my state, if you have a BA in history and an MA in political science, you can apply to teach full-time in either history or political science.

Personally, I think that teaching in a community college is a great job. I can make a *very* compelling argument as to why it even trumps a full-time job at many state universities. I remember when I just started in K-12 and was moonlighting at the state university. While in the mail room one night, I noticed one of the recently hired tenure-track professors had a paycheck envelope in her mailbox. Out of curiousity, I held the envelope up to the light so I could read the deposit advice form inside. I wasn't surprised to see that I, a high school teacher with an MS, was making more than this tenure-track prof with a Ph.D. from an ivy-league university.

Admittedly, I was on the clock for more hours per week-- my load was 30 hours per week, including a prep period each day, and the professor's load was only 12 hours per week, plus office hours-- though the prof obviously needs to work outside of the classroom in order to obtain tenure. Too, I realize that comparing my K-12 job and the professor's job is a little more complicated than just looking at hours on the clock and the dollar flow. But I hasten to mention that this income gap got wider when I moved to the community college; I got a $5K/year raise over my K-12 salary when I was hired full-time at the community college, and my load dropped to 15 contact hours per week. I also gained the opportunity to grab overload, which (in conjunction with summer school), allows me to earn about 130% of my base salary every year.

That professor at the state university is now making about the same base salary as I am earning. Over the years, they've gotten some nice raises, but they (big U) still start the full-time tenure track hirees in the mid-40K range, and there are K-12 districts in this state which start people with an MA/MS in the mid-50K range.

That prof can't grab overload at her university, either; she has to go do part-time jobs at local community colleges if she wants to earn more than her base salary. On the other hand, the overload that I grab at my community college counts towards my retirement, and because I'm full-time at that college, I get to come to the feeding trough first, meaning I get to cherry-pick the classes and the schedule I want, instead of taking the left-overs.

I can do a one-year sabbatical every seven years (and get 85% of my base salary while doing it), and I work four days per week (Monday through Thursday). My benefits package is worth another $25K/year, and if my state pension system remains solvent through my retirement, God willing, I'll retire at age 65 and collect about 90% of my salary annually. My institution is also committed to provide medigap insurance so long as I survive.

In a nutshell, if you enjoy teaching, I believe the community college is about the best place to ply your trade. When you compare the costs and benefits of community college work with teaching at a big U, I think the community college is generally the clear winner.
One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet as a deciding factor is motivation. For example, I got my MFA because I wanted to work on my writing and get that first book manuscript in shape. I ended up going on for my Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing because I simply had to know more about the writing process and had questions that could only be answered by independent research. I'm the sort who will always have questions, and the opportunity for a lifetime of research, teaching, and service is for me a dream come true. Yes, I did get a tenure-track job as a result of my inital search year, but from the comments I've read here and elsewhere (some very good Chronicle articles coem to mind) it sounds like the odds for that happening outside my field are not good. With that in mind, if my main motivation for the Ph.D. and the tenure-track had been teaching alone, your advice would be right on. However, even though I love teaching I also have a fundamental need to research and write. I know people do research and publish while doing K-12 work, but I also know it isn't built into the job, thus making it harder to accomplish.

I guess my point may be to pay attention to why grad school sounds good to you and even visualize what you see yourself doing afterwards. It may be as simple as this: in your vision, are you in a classroom working with students or are you at your computer or even meeting with colleagues writing and planning research? If it's the first one, K-12 offers much as a lifetime choice.
By the time a student is receiving a BA in History, it may be too late to stop the abuse. At this point the choice may be between a small graduate school stipend and an underpaid job with no relation to History at all. Graduate school is tempting from that point of view, regardless of where it leads.

My prescription would be this. Discourage the undergraduate history major to begin with, and make it tougher. The real historians and those with the drive to use history as the basis for a career in law or diplomacy (for example) will thrive. You'll still graduate enough future college professors, but the glut and resulting abuse can be reduced.
That's a fascinating take, Steve R.
In the four or five paragraphs of _Wealth of Nations_ that I've read, I recall his observation that scholarships encourage a glut of teachers and clerics, and that a) every law ever enacted by Parliament concerning laborers' wages was to drive them down, but b) every law ever enacted on teachers' and clerics' wages was to try to sustain them.

On the other hand, John Jay Chapman said (roughly): You go to college to learn how to express yourself, and the ability to express yourself has kept many a man poor.
Discouraging the undergraduate history major would drive down the demand for history faculty even more, thereby making the problem worse.

There's nothing unusual about kids majoring in history in undergrad, then going to med school or law school. Nor is there any harm in it.

The harm occurs when the undergrad decides to go to grad school. That's where we need a much more aggressive chokepoint.
"Dean Dad" nailed it...I have personally experienced exactly this situation.

The opportunities for graduating history undergrads are very grim. I would definitely never have applied to grad school had I not had such lousy job prospects.

History departments will NEVER voluntarily toughen the undergrad major however. Aside from a few enthusiasts, many (if not most) students choose the major because of the easy grading and minimal math requirements. Toughen the major and you will depress the number of majors, and the department will be left to atrophy even more.
See the average income for professors to learn about actual incomes. The average salary for a full (tenured) professor at a private university in the US is $127,214. This seems to speak somewhat against the low-income assertions.
That comment misses the point. Full professors are those who already got tenure and promotion. The entire point of the thread is that the jobs available to newcomers don't lead to tenure or promotion. A statistic like that is profoundly misleading if you don't know the facts of institutional context.
An Adjunct Aside:
I work as an adjunct at the Canadian equivalent of an ivy league school. I teach technical subjects (computer science related). I also run a consulting company and do a lot of contract research. So I'm not starving.

I chose not to go the tenured faculty route. Frankly, even in the physical sciences, it is a terrible life. It isn't the education part that is the killer. It is the oversupply of willing victims. Young faculty, even after the terrible PostDoc ride, are treated like dirt. Committee after committee, high teaching loads, low pay, high publicaton requirements, all in the time of life when you have young kids and really want to see them take their first steps and so on.

Teaching is a thrill. Working with students is great. Research is phenomenal. But as long as the meritocracy rules (and I can't think of a better system, sadly) the fact is that up to the point where you have tenure, it is a rat race and all of the forces at work drive the work load up and the pay and job security down. Frankly, my colleagues who make the same amount as I do work 80-90 hour weeks. I work 60 hour weeks, and only because I love what I do.

I'm sure history is way worse than what I do. And I'm sure the opportunities for highly paid research contracts are essentially zero. But the overall situation in the sciences isn't that much better than in history - the job prospects for a traditional professorship are probably worse in fact, because highly funded scientists produce a LOT of PhD's (because they can afford to, and NEED to, to get papers out the door to please the meritocratic system).

Don't knock being an adjunct. You can make a big difference and the pay is fine if you have other things to do. But the real slog as a tenured prof ends when you become a full Prof - when you've already survived:
2-3 postdocs
tenure track
associate prof
and you are hence about 45-50. And didn't see your kids first steps, or ....

Again, it would be wonderful if there were a way to make it 'better.' But meritocracy is what we have.
I made my PhD in Physics in Europe. I can remember my envy towards the less educated workers in the University building. They had better sallaries, 40hours weeks, and they were organised in strong Union (global kapitalism is destroying this slowly for them too). I had only vague perspective that it might be better some day (it is a little bit better now, but I am not working in Academia any more). I think there was very good advice from Paul Graham in some of his essays which goes something like this: You work for money and it is not shame to talk about money. Do not trust anyone who is not ready to talk about money.
adult life is shorter than many think, i agree with this blog entry that the opportunity costs of being a grad student often aren't worth it, as you are putting off major life goals that can't be put off as long as you think. many people i know who pursue this route aren't ready to start with kids and a house until their mid thirties, which is really the very latest you can get away with. if you haven't had kids by forty, its too late, same with a house. mortgages average thirty years now, and if you are getting your first house around forty, you will be paying the mortgage when you are supposed to be retired. don't bet rising housing costs will make this math go away.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I was going to apply to graduate school in a liberal arts field that I absolutely love. I was committed to the decision, and tried to dismiss the loss of sleep due to worry about finances to faint heart (I'm still carrying 30k in loans from my B.A.). The day I went to take the GRE, they refused to allow me to take it because I registered with one surname that, while it does appear on my driver's license, does not appear solo.

Apparently, my guardian angel intervened to stop me from making a HUGE mistake. Thank you for lionizing my faith in Her!!
I'm shocked that this comes as news to anyone. I've been telling my advisees this since 1993, my first year on the job.
Personally, I think that job prospects being bad (or particularly bad) for undergrad history majors once they go for the normal job market? That's crock, and advising needs to look at that.

Technical degrees will almost always hire out first, it is true. But career advisors need to work on how to teach the kids how to sell themselves. (Internships need to be pushed more, too--it should not be that someone goes to graduate school because they don't know their options.) I majored, as an undergraduate, in a very obscure field: the only one who expressed any interest in me at job fairs was the NSA and even then, that was only because I'd taken a semester of Hungarian. So it took me 9 months to find my first job by selling my computer and information skills, and then it was website management (and, admittedly, this was the 90s, so things were a little different then).

But the point is, since liberal arts pundits argue that there are skills that one gets from the education that somehow produces a more rounded individual/citizen--and a good history education even more so! What with the learning to evaluate and follow evidence--someone needs to put their money where this mouth is and make the case for the job market.

Incidentally, as someone who left a field where there's still money--human computer interface issues in web and program design--to get a doctorate in history, I'll weigh in just a bit. Students going in need to be made aware of their situation--but a lot of these comments tend to sound either like (A) sour grapes or (B) the "lucky ones" trying to get rid of the competition. I know that's not the intent, but I've heard other students here (not a top tier school, but with a fairly decent placement record and a somewhat famous area of specialization) dismiss such advice as underhanded like that. Instead of gatekeeping by some "enlightened" faculty, I'd think we'd need this more in administration and placement--make sure that graduate students get the necessary advice to move to a different job market, and the support and connections that might help.

There is also a romance of the academy that could probably be debunked. (I grew up in an academic situation, so I saw the fighting and the scramble for funding first hand.) Since the opportunity costs in academia go hand in hand with non-monetary rewards (job satisfaction, love for the work somehow), I'm not sure I see this happening any time soon. Too much is invested in a pleasant image of academics. After all, how could we expect undergraduates to pay for a liberal-arts education if colleges aren't some utopia?

(Full disclosure: I'm going to gun my damnedness for a t-t job when I go on the market. My field is tiny, which means less competition but fewer slots to try for. But I'm also working on skills and contacts for international business, should that not work out.)
Thank you for posting this. I wish my undergrad professors had tried to discourage me from an academic career. Fortunately, I stopped with a master's degree but 6 years later I'm still struggling to pay off the loans.
The average salary for a full (tenured) professor at a private university in the US is $127,214. This seems to speak somewhat against the low-income assertions.

Moreover, that survey only covers doctoral institutions, which are a minority of US campuses. A top-step full professor in one of the big state systems--SUNY, for example, or CalState--will generally top out at $40-$50K lower than that, and that's still presuming at least 20-25 years on the job.
At some point the field has to open up. There was an explosion in higher education as the Boomers came of age. I would think that there will be a vacuum when the Boomers finally retire. What is the retirement trend for Profs? I would guess around age 70. That would correlate to a massive surge of retirements in about 15 years. Liberal Arts studies are currently shrinking and being replaced by Business curriculums but I would think there would be opportunity for someone graduating high school now. What do you think?
" See the average income for professors to learn about actual incomes. The average salary for a full (tenured) professor at a private university in the US is $127,214. This seems to speak somewhat against the low-income assertions."
# posted by Anonymous

As has been pointed out, that's for full professors. In other words, level 3. They had to get a TT job, get tenure, and then get promoted to full professor.

Also, average income is a horrible statistic, since it will be pulled up by the upper tail.

Third, this includes business, law, and medical school faculty, who make much higher incomes than professors in other field.
After a few years of work in the real world as a database programmer, I went off to grad school for a phd in my undergrad major and real love, political science.

It was made clear from day 1 that the job market is tough (though nowhere near as bad as for liberal arts folks) and that a backup plan was desirable.

In my first 2 years of grad school, I saw that strong quantitative skills were essential for real success on the job market as an Americanist. I acquired them, even though it was quite difficult for me. My backup plan was to crunch numbers somewhere.

Right after my comps, a job offer at a 3rd-tier state school dropped into my lap. Salary, benefits, but non-tenure track and heavy teaching load.

4 years later, dissertation is finished (yay!), married a woman I met in grad school (not an academic), and I'm back on the job market, where I am much more competitive than other new docs because I have 3 years as a successful faculty member under my belt.

Good choices and good mentoring, my friends. It seems like part of the real problem here is that the liberal arts produce way more phds than the market can bear. In Poli Sci, this is not the case. Over 90% of new PS docs land tenure-track jobs inside of 2 years on the market.
If you're thinking of applying to philosophy grad school, you'll find a much more balanced discussion here:
I know that I'm entering this thread quite late, but I must chime in as a long-time lurker here. Very simply, I'm flabbergasted by the worldview expressed by "Dean Dad" and by a good number of the contributors to this discussion.

I would of course encourage all considering graduate school to go into it with eyes wide open: Attrition at any good program in my field (in the social sciences) will be over 50% and odds for landing the plum t-t jobs open in the year(s) you are on the market are, by definition, slim. As such, I advise undergraduates as follows: I tell the 60% that I see who seem to be heading to grad school to extend their adolescence to take on some sort of “helping” position, embark on the grand tour of Europe or hit the old “hippie trail” in Latin America or Asia for a year, or simply get a “real” job for a while before I will write them a letter of recommendation. I tell the 35% I see who seem to be heading to grad school simply because they were always “good at school” to consider the pursuit of a more “applied” or professional advanced degree and council them against the pursuit of an academic career (we were all “good at school,” so it is really beside the point).

That leaves 5%, who seem to have the genuine, burning “love of learning” that “logicguru” scoffs at above. This segment is admittedly the toughest nut to crack. Perhaps half of them are driven by identity politics or an activist bent. I warn them away from the “pure” social sciences (e.g., while the right politics might have allowed you to skate as an undergrad, the economists at Chicago really aren’t going to care) and into ethnic/gender/labor studies programs with a very strong qualification that they simply must tool up on theory, methods, and statistics far beyond what is usually required in such programs given the strong possibility that they will grow disenchanted with academia and will eventually trail toward the think-tank/government/NGO sector.

For the remaining 2.5%, I say the following: If you’ve got an extraordinary work ethic and a creative mind – and you must have both – an academic career is truly the “last good job in America.” Know going in that – if successful – you 1) will never make more than $100,000-$200,000 a year, 2) won’t buy a house or have a decent car until you are 40 (so weigh very soberly how much that stuff matters to you and realize that it might matter a good bit more to you at 35 than it does at 25!), 3) will race the biological clock (if so inclined), 4) will have to endure mediocrity and resentment from those who don’t make the cut and a good number who do (again, by the math, the vast majority that you will encounter in grad school), 5) subject yourself to a total institution that is going to systematically break you down before building you back up.

If that’s cool with you then, and only then, apply to the Top 10 or 20 programs in your field and, all else equal, go to the best place you can get into. You are smart and a hard worker, so you’ve got 95% beat hands-down in any domain, so you’ll never want for a decent living, regardless of whether you land an acceptable academic position. So endure the slings and arrows hurled by those in our instrumentally-oriented and highly anti-intellectual culture (including, again by definition, most you will encounter in grad school) and get to work. It is a short ride, so enjoy. And remember, there’s always med/law/business school…
I tried responding on Weatherson's site, but he wouldn't post my comment, so I'll do it here.

Everybody seems to be ignoring the sentence near the end of the piece, in which I argue that if you get a free ride to Harvard, by all means, have at it. It's the non-elite grad programs (the Midwest State of my piece) that ensure dead ends.

I'll also add that I was responding to someone asking about history. A few philosophers seem to think that showing a good placement rate out of MIT's philosophy program is the equivalent of saying all is well in academia. Well, no. That sort of elite-institution tunnel vision is what gets so many people in so much trouble in the first place.

No matter how dark a picture we paint, many gifted students will go to grad school anyway -- if recent years are any indication, far more than academia can ever hope to gainfully employ. I'm trying to prevent a waste of time and talent that could have been spent doing things society actually wants done. Will that mean that nobody, anywhere, will ever find a job? Of course not. But I've got decades of history on my side showing that the odds are grim, the road is long, and the pay is low. Ex cathedra pronouncements from people with louder megaphones than mine won't change that.
Dear Dean Dad,

What I was reacting to in the 6:15 AM (anonymous) post was what seemed to be the "one size fits all" nature of your advice. As I pointed out, I activly track 95% of the interested undergrads that I encounter away from the pursuit of an academic career, but for the 2-3% who really seem like they are made of the right stuff, I lay out the cons (which are many) and the pros (there's no better gig in the country FOR THE RIGHT KIND OF PERSON) and encourage them to go for it. I can't see how one can justify doing otherwise.

I know the history job market is abysmal, but, of course, every year some small fraction of history PhDs do land great t-t jobs. My point is that we have a local responsibility to advise the right kinds of people to pursue such careers, rather than making blanket statements about "cycles of abuse" and such.

I also find very disturbing the implicit assumption that most who enter graduate school should land a R1 2/2 t-t job. Why? And what an unusal world it would be if that were the case!

The life of the mind is a highly competitive one that is premised on the idea that some ideas really are better than others. By the nature of the game, most will not make the cut. To starve a discipline of capable, interested people so that Average Joe can get a job seems a real abdication of professional responsibility. "Oversupply" they cry, but it is a free country. Nobody makes you go to graduate school. Some people just love history. Why should Average Jane - adequately forwarned with the hard facts - be denied her shot?
Anonymous -- No, you're falling for the 'meritocracy' fallacy.

As a cc, I'm not interested in the least-best researcher. I'm interested in the best teacher. These are not the same thing.

Different institutions define 'merit' differently, since different institutions have different needs. (See my Nov 28 entry on this for a full argument, with examples.)

In a true meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. That's how, say, baseball works: Mike Piazza was The Man in 2000, but was cut loose in 2005. With tenure, incumbents are bulletproof. That's not meritocracy; that's right place, right time.

I agree with you that academia has become ruthlessly competitive. I disagree that the competition can be described as meritocratic. Repeal tenure, put every position up for grabs, and we could talk about it. Until then, no. (Even then, different institutions would still have different needs, so even then, the argument wouldn't work.)

I understand why the folks at the top of the pecking order want to believe that we have a meritocracy: it flatters them. But that doesn't make it true.
Interested readers will note that I said noting at all in either of my posts about "meritocracy." Merely attempting to underline the peculiar idea that seems to drive many complaints about the "overproduction" of PhDs - that all should find desirable academic employment and, if they do not, there is something dysfunctional/"abusive" about the system. I just don't get it.(Indeed, name one desirable field, academic or not, in which there is not an "oversupply" of interested candidates and in which gatekeepers do not divide wheat from chaff based on a set of reasonably well-defined - if not "meritocratic" - criteria.)

On tenure, I actually happen to share your view in a general sense, but please realize that the abolition of tenure would result in far, far more inequality within fields than is currently the case and would almost certainly have dramatic, negative consequences for the bottom 50% or so in nearly all academic fields. The basic economics of tenure are such that, without it, it would cost academic employers far more to attract and keep top talent, resources that would likely be redirected away from the bottom of each field, adjuncts and tenured alike. This would open the doors for some adjuncts, but the implication that these would be the doors at the top, rather than at 4th string state unis is, in my view, highly misleading. While it may please the Foucauldian in you to believe otherwise, there is far, far less "dead wood" at the top than critics imagine (and far, far more of it at the bottom). Tenure is a bargain for those on the bottom, not the top and imparts a coherence and solidarity to fields that would be severly challenged by its abolition

they won't be the doors at the top and most adjuncts would likely be driven entirely from the market.
The problem with this post is that it leaves out the most important part of the decision: your passion for the subject.

I live comfortably though not extravagantly on my stipend and am guaranteed a tenure-track job directly upon completion (my school's placement record proves this). I will no doubt be behind most of my friends (though not as far behind as you suggest; most are taking at least year to find their feet and aren't making real money yet).

But I don't care about being behind my friends. I love my work; many of my friends, who are thinking about making money, will hate theirs. To me it seems obvious: comfort and loving your work beats extravagance and hating it/indifference to it. How many high school teachers are excited to start teaching every morning? I'm excited to start my research every morning.
Thanks for your candor. For a while now, I've been toying with the idea of pursuing a Ph.D in the humanities. On some level, I already knew there would be significant drawbacks to that plan, but your post and some of the comments forced me to contemplate aspects that I had previously glossed over in my own mind.

For example, I did not fully appreciate the crushing workload and lack of respect from colleagues I would face even AFTER completing the Ph.D and landing a tenure track position. Part of the reason teaching beckons to me is that I perceive it as being more collegial (pun not intended) and less stressful than my current occupation (attorney). Clearly this might not be the case.
Found the post through the Teaching Carnival. Definitely something that a lot of people need to hear.
Ahhh...that's a sigh of relief after reading this post and the comments. Yesterday I made a list of pros and cons - whether or not to quit grad school now, before it's too late. You have helped me firm up my conviction...I have a well-paying job waiting for me outside of academia. Thanks.

Educators' bad math
Peter Brimelow, 05.31.99

We've all heard that U.S. higher education is the best in the world. And so it should be -- it consumes 2.5% of GDP, compared with about 1% in the U.K., Germany and Japan.

Less widely publicized: The great American Ph.D. machine is out of control -- in part because it's fueled with taxpayer money.

Look at newly minted math Ph.D.'s. Their unemployment rate has only just fallen below the national average, as the second glut in a generation is worked off. Historically, the unemployment rates for newly minted math Ph.D.'s has been suspiciously divergent from the national experience (see chart).

Partly, the expanding economy is mopping up the glut. More math Ph.D.'s are finding nonacademic employment. "People are more open-minded as they get feedback about the tough time Ph.D.'s have been having," says James W. Maxwell, associate executive director of the American Mathematical Society. But about a quarter of the employed recent Ph.D.'s say they've taken a temporary position because they couldn't find a suitable permanent post.

And the recent improvement may reverse soon. Students entering math Ph.D. programs jumped by 4.7% in 1997, the first increase since 1991.

Doctors on the dole? Graduating into unemployment is a disturbingly common experience for new Ph.D.'s. Unemployment rates in 1997 reached 8.8% and 7% for Ph.D.'s in English and political science, respectively.

But they are surprisingly high as well for hard sciences like biochemistry and computer science (4% and 2.4%).

Unemployment is lower for the entire population of math and computer scientists in the U.S. But a considerable proportion end up working outside the science and engineering fields. Not always a bad thing -- but arguably not what their expensive educations were designed for. Supply and demand don't match in science education because supply is subsidized. Only a third (32.3%) of science and engineering grad students are self-supported; not even a fifth of math students are.

The federal government is the primary support of about a fifth of all science and engineering grad students. Most of the rest survive as research and teaching assistants -- cheap labor for the academic establishment.

"The whole graduate education funded-research game has gone too far," says Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis. "It is a big waste of taxpayer money, is ruining people's lives and is discouraging our best and brightest from going into the sciences."

Stop them before they educate again.
When I was working on my terminal MA in history, my thesis committee was fully aware that I planned on becoming a cc professor. I can only conclude that there was a "friendly conspiracy" to shield me from reality of my chances of ever landing a full-time job. I graduated with my MA in my mid-thirties. Fifteen years later, I'm still an adjunct although I recently completed a two-year visiting lecturer contract at a local university. Even though I never pursued the PhD, I'm working on my tenth publication and I have taught sixteen different courses--my PhD is in Results :).
In order to make a living (I'm single), I teach about 25 classes per year (one during intersession, ten each semester and four during the summer). You can imagine how difficult it is for me to keep from rolling my eyes when I hear TT university profs complain about the impossiblity of publishing while teaching a 3/3 load.
Fortunately, I already owned a house and had given birth to my children before I went back to school, otherwise, I would not be able to do what I love most--teach history.
I went back to school (graduate) in the midwest at age 32. I taught at a cc for one year before I landed a tenure track job in ancient history at another midwest university. I teach my 2/2 and do my research and earn a good living doing what I love. This is a very competative field. You people who don't excel in your field should be ashamed of yourself for discouraging people fromn doing what they love.
Do not let a few "lottery winners" convince you to pursue this profession.
If you get a Ph.D outside of science or engineering, you are patently stupid. You will, in all probability, never earn enough money to justify the investment of time, money and work. The science degrees are, at least, marketable in the private sector.
If you really want an advanced degree go to law, dental or medical school. You could also do better with an MBA from a top school. Take a look at top MBA salary quotes for first year employees and then look at academic salaries. There are plenty of 25 year-old MBA's making way more than 68 year-old professors.
Im 28 years old and only now getting my associates in history. Near perfect GPA, absolutely obsessed and in love with studying history. I just cant do this anymore, I work full time to pay for college. I am married and my wife has been trying to talk me into a more convential choice of work. I hate my current job and have no passion for being a diesel mechanic, but the sad truth is that if I am to continue attendimg college for the next ten years with the intended goal of being a history professor, I would most likely begin my teaching career by taking a 50% paycut from my current job. I would have made for an informed and passionate educator, but I can not feed my family on a budget of this kind. Thank you for the harsh wake up call deandad.
Great article! This is so truthful about getting a full time teaching job at a Community College. They also abuse the part time faculty paying them little to nothing and giving the administration huge salaries and wasting other budget money. The system really needs to be re done in a fair way.
This is beyond brilliant. I went as for as an MA in history and didn't walk, RAN away. I thought about teaching high school, but I heard the job market is atrocious. Starting my own business instead :)
I’m fully aware that grad degrees are requisite, but outside of that, I’m really in the dark about entering the higher ed world. So, my questions are: tuition agency
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