Sunday, August 12, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Humanities Grad School?

An Australian correspondent writes:

I'm a current postgraduate student from Australia in my first year of a two year Master of Philosophy (Masters by research) degree in an evergreen humanities discipline. I'm interested in doing my PhD in the US for reasons that are long and not really logical (though I'm stubbornly set on it). I was wondering if you (or your readers) could assist me in figuring out how competitive PhD (tuition and stipend, preferably) scholarships are over there in the humanities? Or, if that's the length of a piece of string, what (aside from a strong academic record) are US graduate colleges and universities looking for?
I am teaching this semester and will teach again in at least one of the semesters next year. I have one minor academic pub and several non-academic but discipline-relevant pubs currently and will hopefully glean more from my thesis before I'd be applying. I've presented at one conference and have three more papers in the works/planned. I've also worked on a number of projects as a research assistant.
This would make me highly competitive at an Australian institution to receive funding but I'm also aware that our equivalent of tuition is government-paid, making all domestic scholarships stipend-only and therefore (I believe) less competitive. I'm currently juggling many things alongside my thesis/research and am slowly reaching the point where I'll need to say no to opportunities - loving and feeling insanely grateful for all of them, having a strategic reason for choosing one over another would be helpful.

I’ve argued for years that anyone who can envision being happy in any other endeavor should avoid doctoral programs in liberal arts fields.  The jobs for which those degrees prepare you are either adjunct or vanishingly rare, and if Paul Ryan’s plans get enacted, they’ll become even rarer than they already are.  The entire institutional edifice of non-profit higher education is groaning, under both external attack and the weight of internal flaws that I may have mentioned once or twice over the years.

In other words, the best plan is to do something else.

That said, if you absolutely will not hear of anything else, my quick advice would be to limit yourself to the tippity-top programs in your field, and to avoid taking on debt.  The opportunity cost of doctoral programs is herniating enough without adding debt payments.  (If you graduate and can’t find a permanent job, those debt payments can be brutal.)  The best programs sometimes offer highly desired candidates multi-year packages consisting of a combination of fellowships and teaching assistantships.  If you can find a package like that at a well-respected program, and you can keep your living expenses down, you have the best chance of emerging relatively unscathed.

In terms of what doctoral programs in the humanities are looking for in prospective students, I’ll have to defer to those among my wise and worldly readers who work in those programs.  That’s not my world.

There was a time, long ago, when the indentured servitude of graduate school made some degree of sense.  For a brief period in the 1960’s, there were academic jobs aplenty.  At that point, one could argue fairly that an early-career period of material sacrifice would pay off well over time.  (That same argument worked for law school until about five years ago, and it still mostly works for medical school.)  But that hasn’t been true for a long time.  At this point, graduate programs exist mostly to generate teaching assistants and research assistants.  When it comes time to try to make an adult living, you’re on your own.

The puzzler, to me, is that the system has survived as long as it has.  I’ve seen references to the “forty-year job crisis,” which strike me as self-refuting.  After forty years, it’s not a crisis; it’s the way it is.  It’s normal.  In fact, over the longer sweep of American history, the flush academic job market of the 60’s stands out as the aberration.  The mistake academics keep making is to keep assuming that the exception was the new rule, and that two generations of regression to the mean are flukes.  Yet smart people continue to pour into graduate school, convinced that they’ll be the exceptions.

Good luck.  If you must do a doctoral program in the humanities, this route should at least offer the best chance for a happy outcome.  But if the best offers you get are for nothing-special programs at which you’d have to borrow money for living expenses, don’t do it.  Just don’t.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Would you advise crossing the globe for a doctorate in an evergreen discipline?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

"I’ve argued for years that anyone who can envision being happy in any other endeavor should avoid doctoral programs in liberal arts fields."

That's good, but you should be careful about giving that advice to undergraduate students, because many of them won't understand.

In the words of Thomas Benton: "Some professors tell students to go to graduate school "only if you can't imagine doing anything else." But they usually are saying that to students who have been inside an educational institution for their entire lives. They simply do not know what else is out there. They know how to navigate school, and they think they know what it is like to be a professor."
The indentured servitude of graduate school makes sense in computer science, where people can go and work in industry afterwards. So it's not just law school and medical school. Of course, you can also do just fine without a PhD.
DD, I'm glad to see your version of the non-existent 40-year job crisis. In physics, as I documented some 5 years ago, the historic average demand has been around 30% taking jobs in academia. The time in the 60s when over 90% went into academia, often without even a post-doc appointment, led to a very painful shakeout in 1970. It is too bad that similar data do not exist in the humanities.

My advice to your correspondent from Oz is to first decide on two possible career trajectories, then decide where to go to school. A grad school friend took a dream post-doc in Europe, but vanished from the US radar for 2 years and had a difficult time returning. Getting a job outside academia is even more dependent on networking.

Ask people you trust whether your chances for the two kinds of jobs you seek in Australia (academic or not) will be hurt or helped by going to University X in the US. Someone else would have to address the market for an immigrant with a US PhD in the Humanities, but I'd guess your odds would be worse than poor unless you were a superstar in the R1 market.

And pay attention to money, including travel costs. Will you even be allowed to adjunct in the US?

PS - By the way, what happened to one of last week's blog entries about reverse transfers?
I can only second what Dean Dad and others have said about getting a PhD in a liberal arts discipline. Don't even think about it; run for your life.

Your chances of being able to make a decent living with such a degree are vanishingly small. You will be competing with superstars for the few full-time positions that are actually available. You will probably end up drifting from one part-time position to another, with no pension, no medical insurance coverage, and little prospect of ever getting full-time employment.

Even a PhD in a STEM discipline isn't worth all that much in today's marketplace. Full-time tenure track positions in STEM fields at R1 universities are exceedingly scarce, almost as scarce as are full-time gigs in liberal arts disciplines. With a STEM PhD, there is always the option of going into industry, but even these jobs are hard to get. Right now, industry is in an ultracautious mood, and just about the only chance for you to be hired is if you did your research in the very area that the company is currently pursuing. In computer science, the job ads all seem to list a set of requirements that would be impossible for a mere mortal to satisfy--they want years and years of experience in multiple computer languages, multiple operating systems, and multiple databases. In addition, many of these computer jobs can easily be outsourced to places like Bangalore.

So my advice is to avoid getting a PhD of any variety. With such a degree, you will doom youself to an endless stream of temporary, part-time positions that pay no benefits and that offer no retirement plans. You won't be able to afford a house or children, and you won't be able to retire.
Full Disclosure: I have a PhD.

I want to focus on a different piece of Dean Dad's advice (and disagree with him a wee little bit). I think debt is the main issue to consider and I am less convinced that opportunity cost is the real killer. There is a little bit of opportunity cost, as well, but Olympic athletes give 4 to 6 years to something lonely and hard. We respect them for that.

What you do not want to do is pile one debt. Outside of the "dream glamour school", I would rather go to a middling school debt free than a top school for $150,000 in debt. If you avoid that aspect of the experience, the worst that can happen is that you will get the same job as you would have with your Bachelor's degree only 5 years later. Lot's of people lose 5 years trying something out.

But the modern rules on student debt mean that you should minimize it at all costs. In Australia it may be different , but in both Canada and the United States this debt cannot be removed by bankruptcy. It can lead to your government retirement allowance being garnished.

That being said, the other decision point is to know when to stop chasing the academic position. I see far more bitterness among my fellow students trapped in low level post-doc and adjunct positions than the ones who just went out and found a job. The PhD can go either way on the job market, but played well it can end up as a small asset (relative to a BA, not relative to the five years work experience you trade off).
ArtMathProf: The job ads in CS are probably not strongly correlated to hiring at places that one would want to work. I don't have any hard evidence, but I do know that people who actually know CS have lots of jobs, especially in the SF Bay Area. Enrolments are also up here. I also know that industry pay is rather high.
ArtMathProf: What plam said. The job ads you're probably thinking about are not places doing interesting CS work, and these are also the places least likely to hire someone with a Ph.D. Good companies know that you can easily learn how to worth with a new data storage or operating system.

If you have a graduate degree in CS from a good school and did reasonably well there (i.e. were not below average), there's no shortage of high-paying job openings at the moment.

A separate question is whether a PhD is worth doing if you already have an MS. Salaries are typically higher for a new grad with a PhD than a new grad with an MS, but the MS grad typically has 4 years worth of additional experience and salary raises. In general, I wouldn't advise doing a CS PhD for the money (later, it's close to a wash, but for 4 years you have a lower standard of living), but if one is interested in the research, it may be worth while. At the least, you won't suffer a significant financial penalty.

For what it's worth, I have a PhD in Computer Science, and have been employed in the field since I graduated.
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