Paul's Perambulations a personal blog

January 1, 2011

Pros and Cons of spending years working for a Ph.D. in the humanities.

Filed under: Education — admin @ 7:42 am

As this article in the Economist points out, academic opportunities in the humanities appear rather dismal for procuring full-time tenure and tenure-track employment. Doctoral Degrees: The Disposable Academic I believe that for many Ph.D. programs there is a significant ethical concern posed here. Doctoral programs in applied areas (which have recently expanded beyond the traditional professional degrees such as M.D. and J.D) are faring much better than the humanities, as are many of the science and engineering fields also.

I recognize that this article presents few Pros for a humanities Ph.D. My graduate work at Princeton was fully supported, and I enjoyed the experience while learning a great deal from leaders in their respective fields. Thus I can speak positively for those who might enjoy experiences similar to mine and under similar circumstances. But time and circumstances have changed academe significantly, and that was four decades ago. Make an informed choice, be realistic and flexible. I am currently recorded (via the graduate alumni association) as an advisor for Princeton graduate students.

In addition to the Economist link above, I have copied a selection of Comments on the article onto my first Comment section below.


  1. A sampling of Comments published in response to the Economist article:

    I do think it would be helpful if PhD programs were required to track and publish the percentage of PhD students who (a) graduate and (b) obtain full-time (not adjunct) academic jobs (tenure track) or full-time professional jobs in their field, within 1-, 3- and 5-years of graduation. This might allow new PhD applicants to look hard at valid statistics before jumping in.

    If you are in a PhD program that is (a) NOT in demand (in either academe or industry wide), a department that houses the program that is (b) NOT one of the top 30 in the world as far as the discipline is concerned, and in a university that is (c) NOT one of the world’s top 50-100, and (d) a core faculty adviser who is NOT well respected and well known within the field, then don’t even complaint about not finding decent jobs after graduation, because, unemployment or underemployment for PhD’s NOT meeting the above noted (a,b,c,d) conditions, is inevitable. There is nothing to complaint about, as James Carville (Bill Clinton’s campaign manager) once said, and I paraphrase here, it’s the market, stupid!

    On the bright side, one of our neighbours’ daughters went to one of the top 5 (in the world) business schools, got her PhD, got a tenure track academic job in a better known but tier 2 research university with a starting salary of $130,000/year, plus full benefits and a very generous pension plan, plus minimum teaching load (6 hours/week for eight months/year only) for the first 5 years in order to devote her time to do research, of her choice. The reason she got this opportunity is for one reason only; she met the four conditions (a,b,c,d) I mentioned above.

    (Academic institutions) acting as taxing authorities empowered to price discriminate via an effective regressive tax model through their practice of creating a “list price” for education with the full intention that this price will only be paid by those students whose parents have lofty incomes while this price will be reduced via a thinly veiled price-discriminating discount called “financial aid…”

    The problem is with the conclusion that high education levels => good job. This was true 40 years ago, but only because high education levels were the preserve of the elite. So the actual relationship is member of the elite => good job, which is largely self-evident. Now that a lot more people can do a PhD, two effects can be seen. First, a PhD is no longer worth what it once was (the benefit was not more education, but of proving that you are one of the very, very few who managed to reach that height). Second, the average quality of work being produced by a PhD has declined significantly. Compare a random paper published 50 years ago to one from today. There is a great deal more published research now than then, but a lot of today’s research is nothing more than “mostly harmless”.

    Comment by admin — January 1, 2011 @ 7:51 am

  2. Here is another NYTimes article that reports a similar story regarding the pros and cons of law school. The article particular focuses on the misrepresention endemic in marketing gradate education. When is education about the truth; when it is about the money? How much can you prostitute yourself and still claim it is alright because of a higher ideal? It’s called hypocrisy.

    Comment by admin — January 9, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

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