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.