Thoughts on life after the PhD
Disclaimer 1: I am not the Delphic Oracle of Grad School Decisions. The following Bad Reasons to Go are simply culled from my eight years of experience as a humanities grad student, in the hope that potential applicants up late at night making that “Should I or shouldn’t I” list can see if any of these reasons apply to them.
Disclaimer 2: I received a PhD in the humanities (literature, specifically), so when I refer to “grad school” I am referring primarily to grad school in the humanities (literature, film studies, history, etc.). I think my perspective can in some cases be applied to law school or MBA programs, but obviously those are very different areas that I have no experience in.
Bad Reasons to Go to Grad School
1. You want to be a tenured professor in a city of your choosing and will accept no other job. Everyone applying to humanities grad programs should first be required to spend a solid six months reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the Academic Jobs Wiki. It would save people a lot of disillusionment and heartbreak later on. Bottom line: tenure-track positions in the humanities are getting rarer and rarer, and plenty of very qualified tenure-track profs are now being rejected for tenure simply because the university doesn’t want to pay them a tenured salary (and because of politics, departmental restructuring, etc.). If you don’t know much about the tenure system, do some research–you need to know.
The market is currently flooded with humanities PhD’s, and this isn’t likely to change soon, since humanities grad programs need to admit large numbers of grad students to cheaply teach undergrad courses and give their department prestige. Some PhD’s will search for months, even years for a full-time position. Many will end up adjuncting, making less money than bus drivers (I know academics are supposed to be above petty concerns like money, but a life of the mind doesn’t feel so noble when you have no health insurance and can barely make rent).
So you’ll have to be flexible in your career goals, and be prepared to relocate to a middle-of-nowhere town for at least a few years (or maybe longer). If you’re set on a tenure-track job in Los Angeles or New York…sure, you might get lucky. But you probably won’t.
2. You love your subject. Again, good place to start, but not a good reason to invest up to nine years of your life in something. There are many ways to express and develop your love of books or films without getting a PhD. Start a book club. Write a blog. Take continuing education classes (or audit undergrad classes) in the subjects that you love. Read on your own. Sadly, if you do love your subject, a few years of grad school can make you hate it–or at least make you sick of it.
3. You want to put off entry into the real world / avoid job hunting in a bad economy. Hey, I’m guilty of this one. It’s no surprise that grad school admission competition really heats up in an economic downturn. But it’s not a good reason to go. You need to be focused, determined, passionate, and persistent in your approach to grad school–you shouldn’t be treating it as an escape or a “Well, this will do till I have a better idea” option. You’ll have to face the job market eventually–and an academic job market in a decent economy is often much worse than a regular job market in a bad economy.
4. You think that life in higher education is inherently better / more meaningful than life in the corporate world. Sadly, more and more universities are becoming indistinguishable from corporations (though some would argue that they’ve always been corporations before institutions of higher learning). They cut departments that don’t generate enough profits. They funnel money into more profit-making enterprises like sports teams and pharmaceutical research. They expect professors and students to sell their programs to undergrads and grads, who they see as potential investors. They’re quick to sweep embarrassing incidents like sexual assaults under the rug to avoid tarnishing their brand.
There are a lot of good things that happen in universities, and there are wonderful examples of universities that really do care more about education than profits. But in the vast majority of cases, universities are corporations–that pay their employees a lot less than “real” corporations do.
5. You love to teach. Universities have a bizarre relationship with teaching. T.A.’s and junior faculty will have their teaching skills aggressively evaluated, and universities know that hotshot professors who teach large classes mean big money. But when it comes to applying for full-time jobs, what really matters is your research. I have witnessed some truly dreadful teaching by tenured professors, but they’re unlikely to be fired or even reprimanded for it if their research is seen as valuable or prestigious to the university. As an adjunct you’ll get a chance to teach but will be paid so little and work such long hours that the quality of your teaching will surely suffer, while as a junior faculty member you’ll be expected to take on so many roles that you often won’t be able to make teaching a priority.
So if you love to teach, consider finding a way to do it outside of academia.
6. You think that a PhD will increase your earning potential. In some cases it will. But in some cases you’ll actually be advised NOT to include your PhD on your resume. Why? Because it will make you seem overqualified and an egghead.
When I first set out to get a humanities PhD my mother kept telling me how happy she was that this was likely to mean a higher salary. I’ve had to explain to her repeatedly that a PhD in the humanities is different from a PhD in neuroscience, or an MBA. A PhD in the humanities is a prerequisite for a full-time academic job, and a good thing to have if you want to work for NGOs or certain government entities. But in almost all other cases it will not increase your earning potential, and can even work against you.
Some people go to grad school for bad reasons and end up loving it and eventually finding a fulfilling and decent-paying job. But looking back, I’d say 1, 2, 3, 4, AND 5 were true for me when I started. Yikes.
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