Larry Cebula, a historian at Eastern Washington University who blogs at Northwest History, is telling keen undergrads they should not go to grad school, because they won’t get a job anyway: “The reason you are not going to be a professor is because that job is going away, and yet doctoral programs continue to produce as many new Ph.D.s as ever. It is a simple calculation of odds–you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor.”

Now, I’m not a historian, but it doesn’t look to me as though the situation in history is much different from that in English, my own field. If anything, it’s better. And while job prospects are obviously far from great, I’d say it’s a good thing Cebula doesn’t teach statistics (for reference: the odds of winning the jackpot in a standard 6-from-49 lotto game are about 1 in 14 million; those of being struck by a meteorite are about 1 in 700,000; those of getting a tenure track job as a historian… well, they’re a bit better).

He’s certainly right about the decline of tenure-track positions and the increased reliance on adjunct labour. It’s a deplorable trend. But I find it hard to see pronouncements such as “your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty” as anything other than slightly rabid panic-mongering. Will there be fewer full-time positions for PhD candidates graduating five or six years from now than for those who graduated five years ago? I don’t know. I suspect there will be. Will this reduction spell the end of tenure, across the board? Of course it won’t.

I don’t mean to suggest that the academic job market isn’t really so bad. But Cebula’s blanket “don’t go to grad school” advice is extraordinarily short sighted — both as a guideline for students and as a strategy for academic humanists. For one thing, what statistics rarely reflect but most academics know is that it makes a significance difference where those prospective PhD students want to apply, and what subfield they’re interested in. I, too, might discourage a student from getting a doctorate from a second- or third-tier program or in a massively overcrowded field. But I wouldn’t dream of telling a student not to apply to the best departments (not the top-ranked ones, necessarily, but those with clear and recognized profiles in particular subfields); and while I’d have a serious conversation with a bright undergraduate persistently keen on a badly competitive subject area, I wouldn’t simply tell such a student to give up on the idea. Of course it’s true that plenty of highly qualified, talented, and personable PhD still struggle to find a job, even if they have multiple publications to their name and can demonstrate their teaching skills, and there’s no point in misleading undergraduates interested in grad school about the risks. It would be irresponsible to leave any potential grad school applicant in any doubt about the unfairness and fickleness of job searches. Sober advice is important. However, since it’s objectively untrue that no-one gets jobs anymore, utterly defeatist advice doesn’t strike me as especially helpful.

But here’s the thing that really gets me: if we tell our brightest students that there is no point in pursuing an academic career, aren’t we giving up on our own fields? If we believe that the study of history, or literature, or philosophy is a worthwhile — even an important — enterprise, don’t we have a responsibility to encourage smart and dedicated undergraduates to devote their lives to that enterprise? What would the alternative be? I find Cebula’s dystopian vision quite unconvincing, but his response seems only designed to make things worse, preempting the increasing reliance of humanities departments on part-time labour by discouraging the advanced academic study of humanities subjects altogether. Never mind teaching: if no-one goes to grad school anymore, who will do the research that Cebula presumably still considers worth doing?

And then there’s this, his most cynical argument:

I want to look at one factor that is too-little addressed in these discussions: the opportunity costs spending 6-10 years preparing for a career that, even in the event of your actually landing a tenure-track job somewhere (and again, that is not going to happen) will leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole compared to your friends who started professional careers right out of their undergrad program. In six years you could have entered a career, risen to mid-rank, bought a house, and had your IRA off to a healthy beginning. If you go on for a PhD, instead you will find yourself with student loan payments equivalent of a home mortgage but no home (and no equity), no retirement savings, and banking on the thin chance of landing a job in some part of the country usually only seen on American Pickers. The opportunity costs are at least a million dollars. You don’t care now, because you are young, but you will.

So what? As some of the commenters on his blog have pointed out, Cebula likely rather overestimates the opportunity cost of getting a PhD, but even if he doesn’t: so what? Has anyone ever been under the illusion that working as an academic in the humanities was a quick way to wealth, homeownership, and a stable nuclear family existence?

Don’t get me wrong: there obviously is an economic argument to be made here. One could argue that academic salaries across disciplines and perhaps across institutions should be more equitable; one could (and should) argue that there is no possible ethical justification for adjunct salary levels, even if one could justify increasing reliance on casual labour. One could even argue that all academic salaries should be higher — that, to use Cebula’s example, an assistant professor should make significantly more than a Hooters manager.

But the argument that one shouldn’t go to grad school because one could be out there working, building equity, and starting an IRA? That’s not an argument at all.

Of course there’s an opportunity cost to higher education. There always has been. But there are also enormous benefits — benefits of a non-financial nature. Assuming you get a job (and that, remember, is an assumption Cebula makes in his opportunity-cost argument), you will spend the rest of your life doing exactly what you set out to do: read, write, and teach. You may make less money doing those things than your undergrad classmates who became lawyers or bankers, but so what? (Would I like to live in a world where academics are valued and rewarded more highly than lawyers and bankers? Of course. Though I wouldn’t tell someone not to go to grad school because we don’t live in that world.)

And in any case, once again, what’s the alternative? Pay graduate students the same salaries as starting Hooters managers? How? I agree that unfunded PhD programs are unethical and that we shouldn’t have students who amass loans the size of a mortgage (that the very idea seems mind boggling to me might have something to do with house prices in Toronto). But of course it’s always going to be less lucrative to stay in school for six years than to get a job out in the world — assuming, that is, that such a job is forthcoming. And why shouldn’t it be? I’m no longer young enough not to care about the things Cebula lists, but I don’t feel terribly hard done by simply because I wasn’t able to buy a house in my mid-twenties. I got to sit in the Folger Shakespeare Library in my mid-twenties. I got to unwrap Elizabeth I’s great seal at the National Archives in Kew in my late twenties, and hung out in the basement of Holkham Hall, leafing through Edward Coke’s library while being served tea and biscuits by the Earl of Leicester’s librarian. I built up a respectable amount of credit card debt in those years, but I’m fairly certain I was happier than I would have been sitting in a shiny new subdivision semi, building equity.

So I will continue to tell my students what I have always told them: getting an academic job isn’t easy. You have to get into the best graduate department possible, and that’s tough. Then you have to work hard building a scholarly identity, and you have to face the vagaries of an unpredictable, often nasty, and all-too-frequently extremely unfair job market. But if you’re willing to take that risk, and to put in the work — and most importantly, if doing the things we do (read, write, teach) is what you can’t imagine yourself not doing — then there is no better way of spending your life than this.

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42 Responses to Yes, You Can Be a Professor

  1. Vienna says:

    I love this! I want to be a history professor

  2. Dino B says:

    I found your post to be positive in many ways. That said, I found your comment on so called second or third tier schools to be a too little high brow. I graduated from such a school and most of its history graduates that I know have tenure track positions at college and universities.

  3. ADESEKE. TUNDE says:

    Life is full of choices academic pursuit is not for financial gains but to acquire knowlege and be able to apply productively.Its true that job is scarce because we no longer care about location of industries all should go to the field practise what you have learnt and expect less from the govt. Thanks.

  4. Ron says:

    Oh, I also forgot to mention:

    1) MANY of my peers have no business being a TT professor. Sure, they can research & write. Can they teach? NO! So out of 3, 1 of them gets a TT job, one has no business getting one, and the third is happy working beyond academia. Seems good to me!

    2) And this is related but if you have talent, you’ll find a job that suits you. All of my professors/peers with true talent & passion have pulled it off. Just because you have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you are talented or passionate. One of my professors has moved from good uni to good uni to good uni. He’s simply a talented, passionate dude. He is always finding jobs.

    Also related, I’ve had a few professors who had no business being a TT faculty member. Yet, they found jobs. I’m always confident that if they can find jobs, a talented, passionate Ph.D. surely can.

    I just think you need to be realistic. Just earning a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you’re TT material. Just being on the sports team doesn’t mean you are talented, you know?

    But to not give it a go…that’s crazy. I could have never imagined I’d be where I am sitting today when I started grad school in 2004. But, I’m a happy, healthy, talented, smarter person for all that I’ve experienced and gone through.

    Job or no TT job, I’m better for it.

  5. Ron says:

    Hard data:

    “[A]nalysis of NSOPF data shows that only 31 percent of all the individuals who earned a PhD in history between 1966 and 1992 were tenured faculty as of 2003. Some of these doctoral recipients may have left academia by that time, but even the AHA agrees that only about one third of history PhDs will ever achieve tenure. One reason why this is happening is that the overall proportion of college faculty who work without any chance of tenure is now at 65 percent and keeps rising. The academic system is rigged against PhDs in history, and the rest of the humanities for that matter.”

    Eh, this doesn’t seem so bad to me. Do you think 1/3 of undergraduates who leave school with an idea of what profession they want to pursue end up doing that? What about 1/3 of graduate students in all areas? I doubt 1/3 of the people leaving medical school end up exactly where they want to be. Sure, a doctor. But are they at the top hospital? (I know that most like 100% become a doctor, but how many of them work in situations they are very unhappy with?)

    Yeah, not all TT jobs are great, but heck 1/3 seems just fine with me. I’ve pulled off way bigger things in my life against much longer odds.

    I think it’s important to be realistic. I also am not all that worried since a TT job is not the only one I want; I’d love to work in other areas and actually hope to.

    I don’t think anyone goes into academia to get rich. But heck, if you land a TT job the pay is pretty darn good, in my opinion, to read, write, and be happy. Many, many “powerful” folks earning six figures are not happy. And the idea of opportunity costs. Eh, I have one friend who took a job right out of undergrad. He has a lot more money than me. He owns two houses. He has a lot more money saved. He’s also jaded, overweight, hardly reads a thing anymore when he used to be an avid reader, doesn’t have a companion and has no prospects, and generally seems unhappy.

    So, I’m behind him on what exactly? Oh, money. Jeez, I’m only 30, I’ll have three degrees, less debt than most Americans, lots of opportunities, and my life ahead of me. I do wish I’d worked harder and finished a year ago, but I don’t wish I’d not pursued a Ph.D.

    If I let myself get down, by doing things like reading AHA stats or articles by negative folks, I like to think of the Latino dudes I play soccer with. Here are guys who illegally entered a country. Then they got their family across the border. And now they have a family, a job, a weekly soccer game, and did it all against MUCH bigger odds and MUCH bigger threats.

    If you have three degrees and you see your potential to earn a living as slim, you really need to expand your horizons, think creatively, and use your full set of skills.

    Thanks for this piece, Holger!

  6. Deb says:

    Thanks for the post and to everyone who left comments – especially those who have made me feel ‘less weird’ for not thinking that home ownership and job security are the only things worth pursuing. I recently re-enrolled to complete a PhD I started about 6 years ago. I am in my 40’s and I have a FT job that pays pretty well, but, 3 years in, I find my job stifling and uninspiring most of the time and that extra cash usually goes towards ‘rewarding’ myself for sticking at it.

    Now that my kids have left home and I am only financially responsible for myself, I am going back to study FT and doing adjuncting to support myself. I may be crazy but is it really any crazier than sticking at something I don’t like day in and day out just so I can own some bricks and mortar? I have about 2 years left in my program and I would love to see how this argument has fared in that time – will I regret it? Maybe. Will I regret not trying to do it? Absolutely.

  7. Susan says:

    I was with a group of people tonight, most of whom don’t get my academic job at all. To them, what I do is kind of weird and exotic. I’ll admit, at times I take that for granted. I get to spend my work week surrounded by historical documents. Sacrifices come with that, but it’s good for me to remember the benefits of academia that others aren’t privy to.

  8. [...] people advised students not to go to grad school. One of the pieces I brought up, by Larry Cebula, has been (not sure on the write word- critiqued?) by Holger Syme  . It is a decent critique that presents a fairly good argument for going to graduate [...]

  9. Thank you so much for this article! As a PhD student desperately searching for fellowships and jobs as I finish writing my dissertation, I find it very difficult to stay positive about the odds of my finding a job. I have accumulated a ridiculous amount of debt over the years, too, especially compared to my friends who have jobs they don’t particularly like, houses far bigger than they need, and all the latest electronics. I may still rent an apartment, not have cable, and have a car that is on its last legs, but I’ve also read an original copy of the Scottish National Covenant, letters from James VII in France to his faithful Jacobite followers in Scotland, and read notes written by several Archbishops of Canterbury from the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been behind the scenes in palaces and castles, where the general public doesn’t get to go. Some of my friends make fun of me that I’m never going to “grow up” and get a real job (don’t get me started on the idea that a PhD isn’t a job), but I also notice they are the ones who wish they traveled as much as I do and have seen as much as I have because of my research. So, thank you, for reminding me of all the good that has come of my decision to get my PhD! I really needed it!

  10. [...] www, the alternative viewpoint came along fairly quickly. Holger Syme, at disposito, counsels, “Yes, you can be a professor.” As he says there, the situation in English literature probably matches the dismal scene in [...]

  11. [...] Syme offered a nice response to Cebula’s post, saying, “Yes, You Can Be a Professor”. I don’t mean to suggest that the academic job market isn’t really so bad. But Cebula’s [...]

  12. Kathryn says:

    Typical blogger, I posted about your post.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  13. Douglas Forasté says:

    I teach Classics at a place like Eastern Washington (Cal State Long Beach) where the systemwide Chancellor’s stated goal is tenure density of 20% with the balance of faculty adjuncts. It’s very, very hard for me to recommend the vast majority of my students to attempt to get a Ph.D. when not only are the job prospects limited, but the satisfaction level can be attained from getting a Latin teaching credential and teaching high school. That said, I have former students in grad school and at least one who became a rising star in ancient history at UC Irvine before passing tragically of a stroke at age 40. I am not convinced that going to the “best” programs is always a solution either. When we have hired tenure-track people in the past, we have looked for candidates we though would be a good fit. That didn’t generally include the Ivy’s.

  14. Sylvia Barnard says:

    First of all, I never considered owning a house because teaching, research, and child-rearing,(much the most important domestic activity) absolutely precluded the time commitment of private home maintenance. Now I am retired, my TIAA-CREF is more than adequate and I have no need of equity in property and I have all the advantages of senior housing, elevator, maintenance, and so on whilst living in the ctr of a vibrant urban community.That off my chest, teaching and research give valuable skills for other types of work. What company doesn’t have people conducting training programmes, and writing reports? Are these not teaching and research? Another point is that some people through the efforts of partners or inheritances or other strokes of fortune do spend long careers untenured or part-time and do splendid work. Wd they prefer a soulless full-time gig that they wd hate? Obviously not, but it is equally obviously unfair that this is an option open not through merit but through luck. Maybe if adjuncts had tenure and a minimum wage more people cd participate in what for me was the most fulfilling career I cd have imagined.

  15. Sean Takats says:

    Thanks, Holger, for this passionate defense of scholarship and its rewards. It does seem to me that signals are getting scrambled here, especially in the comments. I’m not aware that Cebula (or anyone else) is arguing that it’s not intellectually rewarding to pursue graduate study. He’s just saying the professorial job is overwhelmingly unlikely to be there at the end of the road, and that irrecoverable, nontrivial costs will be absolutely be incurred. These conclusions shouldn’t be controversial at all. I’ve written more in my own response to these two thoughtful blog posts.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Hi Sean — and I just commented on your post! Thank you for that challenging and thoughtful response.

      I guess I’m not convinced that the two conclusions are really that obvious. How “overwhelmingly likely” is it that there won’t be a job at all? (A dream job, or a job in your preferred location, or a job with great working conditions — that’s a different matter.) And how universal is that outcome? I don’t think it’s just survivorship bias to say that where one gets one’s PhD makes a difference — is it? I don’t have the data to back up the assumption, but witnessing job searches in three rather different English departments has not left me with the impression that where candidates went to school, who wrote their letters, where they’ve published and presented, etc. doesn’t make a difference at all (even as I realize that luck and other intangible factors still play a huge role). As for the opportunity costs — that’s what my comment on your blog was about, so I won’t repeat myself here.

      • James says:

        “How ‘overwhelmingly likely’ is it that there won’t be a job at all?”

        Are you counting an adjunct job as a job? It technically is one, I suppose, but I think most people who say “job” above mean a tenure-track job – not “a dream job, or a job in your preferred location, or a job with great working conditions” necessarily, but a tenure track job.

        • James says:

          Hard data:

          “[A]nalysis of NSOPF data shows that only 31 percent of all the individuals who earned a PhD in history between 1966 and 1992 were tenured faculty as of 2003. Some of these doctoral recipients may have left academia by that time, but even the AHA agrees that only about one third of history PhDs will ever achieve tenure. One reason why this is happening is that the overall proportion of college faculty who work without any chance of tenure is now at 65 percent and keeps rising. The academic system is rigged against PhDs in history, and the rest of the humanities for that matter.”

          Source: http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/2009/01/my-aha-paper.html

          I suspect things have gotten much worse since 2003.

          • Holger Syme says:

            I think that’s a slightly strange metric, but even taking the AHA estimate of 33% of PhDs getting not just TT jobs, but actually receiving tenure, I don’t see how that is an argument against what I wrote. It would be interesting to see a more detailed breakdown of those figures, showing where those 33% come from.

            As for things having got worse, I thought the market in history was up in the years before the recession hit? Some of the tables in the article you linked to certainly support a less gloomy interpretation (see, for instance, chart 2, which shows that the proportion of full-time positions in history in fact increased significantly between 1998 and 2003). I’m sure things have been worse in the past three years, but I don’t know that that reflects a development peculiar to the academic job market.

            • James says:

              Dr. Syme, you seem like a very intelligent man, and I have found your pieces on Shakespeare (which is how I first became aware of your blog) extremely interesting, but I am going to have to conclude you are hopelessly out-of-touch on this issue. Maybe things really are dramatically different in Canada – if so, lucky for the Canadians.

  16. [...] recent blog posts by Larry Cebula and Hol­ger Syme high­light the deep divide that sep­a­rates the pes­simists from the opti­mists in [...]

  17. There is, of course, an exception… in scientific disciplines, you will be hired. Everyone is looking for more engineers and scientists. You may not be able to find a tenure track position, but you will certainly have a job.

  18. Janice says:

    I’m somewhere in the middle here. Teaching at a geographically remote regional comprehensive, I get a lot of good students who don’t really understand how academia works. Some have really close ties to the region: they can picture themselves going away for grad school and research, but they desperately want to live and work in just one place. Others are in relationships where they put a high priority on their partner’s happiness or their kids’ situation. Still others can’t feel comfortable with the long odds of securing stable employment even if the romance of research is alluring.

    I don’t tell good students not to go to grad school but I do discuss the reality of grad school timelines, stipends and job markets. I also suggest they speak with some of my younger colleagues, especially some of the adjuncts. Armed with that kind of information, students can make more informed choices about what works for them. Some are up for the great adventure. Some choose a different adventure.

  19. Tony says:

    I’m clearly biased here, as I returned to do doctoral work at age 38. But I will say that – on both sides of the question – I don’t buy the justification of my PhD by the (non)existence of my job prospects. I’m well aware of how hopelessly naive this makes me sound (which is just fine, because it’s a pretty fair indication of how hopelessly naive I actually AM) but I chose to give up an extremely rewarding career and come back to school because I wanted to learn stuff. I am quite well aware of the impossible odds that I will face as a 43-year old rookie Shakespearean job candidate, but even if a career in academia were a lock, frankly, I don’t care. I could be dead tomorrow. But I’ll have learned some cool stuff. That, as you suggest, Holger, is the point. For me, it’s the only point.

  20. Alex says:

    Oh captain, my captain: “I’m fairly certain I was happier than I would have been sitting in a shiny new subdivision semi, building equity.”

    The sensible course: warn students of the negative impact of a PhD on their lifetime earning potential, tell them the job market is hellish – but tell them that if, knowing this, they still want to read (even write!) interesting books more than they want to sit in an office thinking about their retirement savings, then they should go right ahead and apply…

  21. Associate Professor @ State Univ. says:

    I agree with Todd Butler that the difference between the two articles may be as much a function of the fact that the writers are at two very different institutions. Going from Oxford to Harvard to Toronto is likely to give one a much rosier view of academia than teaching a 4/4 load (or even 5/5 load) at an underfunded public university or community college.

    After all, not all academics have the privilege of doing archival research “at the National Archives in Kew in my late twenties.” I was able to do a year of research in the British Library as a graduate student, but only because I was in a top-3 research institution that was able to give a me a $20,000 fellowship to do precisely that. To assume that most graduate students (even at “first-tier” schools”) have access to these kinds of resources is myopic, and perhaps classist.

    I do agree that the claims about debt are exaggerated, and probably reflect bad individual decision-making rather than general truths about academic. My advice to students seeking a PhD in the humanities: DON’T go unless you are fully funded (which means full scholarship and SOME living stipend).

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thank you for your comment. I realize I’m writing from a position of great privilege; I was very lucky to end up where I’ve ended up, and I’m fully aware that my working conditions are far better than those of many of my friends and colleagues. As Todd said, it would be irresponsible to pretend, in talking to our students interested in an academic career, that they’ll all wind up in well-funded research-driven institutions with low teaching loads.

      But the inequality between institutions is, I think, something of separate issue from the question of whether we should tell our students not to go to grad school at all (and what kinds of grad schools we should encourage them to apply to). Where they wind up after their dissertation is in large measure the luck of the draw — but the better prepared they are, the better their chances, no?

      I’m not so blinkered that I think all good grad schools can and/or do send their students on extended research trips to Europe. Mine didn’t (hence the credit card debts). But it’s not like this sort of experience isn’t (or shouldn’t be) part of a certain kind of research training: how can someone do a PhD in history, say, without ever practicing the extensive archival work expected of most researchers in the field? And how can you do that work, or learn how to do it properly, unless you have at least adequate financial support? (I obviously couldn’t have financed a research trip on Visa if I hadn’t had a scholarship at all.)

      All of which is to say that I completely agree with your advice to students, and would add to it that they should be as sure as possible that the places they’re applying to will in fact support their training properly — will make it possible, that is, for them to learn and practice the research methods of their chosen field and to allow them to develop their professional skills. I know many graduate programs don’t do (or aren’t able to do) many of those things.

    • Realistic says:

      You hit the nail on the head. Holger is just another example of sample bias. If you ask those that have “made it”, of course they would recommend it. When you look at the population as a whole, you’ll see that the story is a lot more dismal. Can someone have an enjoyable career in Academia? Yes. Can everyone who studies enjoy such a career? No. Maybe only 5-10% get such a privilege (e.g. our friend Holger Syme).

      No matter how you look at it, Cebula is right.

      see Women in Science by Phil Greenspun for more explanation about this.

      • Holger Syme says:

        If I had written “Go to grad school! Academia is fantastic, we all have wonderful jobs, and most PhD walk straight from graduation into a tenure line,” you’d have a point. But I didn’t. At all.

        I don’t know where your 5-10% figure comes from. If it’s supposed to refer to the number of academics who have a job that allows them to live the scholarly life many of us imagined in grad school, 10% may be right. If it’s supposed to be the number of PhDs who get jobs, it seems very far-fetched to me, and at least as much an example of bias as my own views. Some data would help. Nothing I’ve seen from the AHA or the MLA backs up this extremely gloomy picture. (Which, again, isn’t to say that things aren’t gloomy — just not quite as gloomy as that.)

        • Realistic says:

          No you didn’t write that, but reading between the lines, you definitely gave the impression that “Hey, it worked for me – it can’t be all that bad.” And the title “Yes you can be a professor” is without a doubt misleading.

          At least you admit that you value your academic experiences over financial security. Such behavior by academics is labeled as “having passion” or “being ambitious”.

          It is really funny to me when professors look down at their colleagues or students who have married or had children, or have sold out to work in industry instead of academia. They take it as a sign of lack of ambition. Actually, I think just living for academics is a sign of lack of ambition. Trying to have both a family and be in academics sound more ambitious to me.

          Again, I would recommend reading Women in Science by Phil Greenspun.

          http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science

          Yes it more geared toward the sciences, but the story is basically the same (if not worse) for the humanities- just substitute adjunct for post-doctoral scientist.

          In the biomedical sciences, about 8% of PhDs out there have a tenured position (Genome Technology 2010) and that is in a very in-demand field at the moment. For the humanities the rate is probably less.

          I really doubt telling students to sta

  22. Todd Butler says:

    Debt levels aside, I too find finances an ultimately unconvincing argument. (By the way, has Cebula looked at his TIAA-CREF account or house value lately?)

    What I do think needs to be clarified for undergraduates is the vast disparity of working conditions *within* tenure-track ranks. There’s a substantial difference in “doing what you love” with a 2/2 load at an admissions-competitive school where one teaches primarily juniors, seniors, and graduate students, and doing the same on a 4/4 at an essentially open admissions university where a teaching schedule is two first-year comp classes, a sophomore-level survey, and one upper-division course.

    None of that is to say that there aren’t people (many of whom are my friends) who indeed love all of those types of work. Nor is it to say that students who attend small, regional schools in “fly-over country” don’t need passionate, smart teachers. There’s a good argument to be made that they actually need them more than students attending “better” schools.

    But it does mean that when we’re having “the talk” (an interesting analogy) with our clever undergraduate that it’s important to clarify both the conditions of labor and the frequent mis-match between the expectations and work one does within a highly-ranked graduate program and the type of job that’s most frequently available.

    As an aside, a colleague and I were discussing recently whether graduate study should follow the pattern of medicine (his daughter is in her 2nd year of med school) in requiring “rotations” at different types of institutions. For example, a Mellon fellowship that would place people at a community college, a regional state university, a liberal arts college, and a major research institution. All sorts of issues aside, it’s an interesting idea to contemplate.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I completely agree, Todd. In Canada, add the idea that getting a job will likely mean moving to the US for at least part of your life to the list of topics for “the talk.”

      I love the idea of a post-doctoral rotation. Can’t see it happening for all sorts of practical reasons, but as an idea, it’s great.

      • Todd Butler says:

        Any time you want to rotate out west, you just let me know. Ask Cheryl–we do a mean potluck.

  23. JM says:

    I find economically-based arguments, especially ones re: the fields of academics and teaching, a tiny bit crass in their single-mindedness; and they always miss the point. The argument should be focused on the worth of one’s calling. If Cebula wants to advocate, perhaps it might be more productive to use his position to question the current situation and reasons for why he’s prompted to espouse his negative philosophy so strongly. You’re absolutely right in questioning the focus. Ultimately, owning a house will not make you truly happy. But doing what you love most certainly can. In my opinion it’s THE definition of success.

  24. Elizabeth Dunn says:

    I agree, if one could read, write and teach, the job would be worth it. My issue is that we spend less and less time reading, writing and teaching important, meaningful subjects to engaged students. We spend more and more time pushing paper, dealing with administrative tasks that have been pushed down to the faculty in order to cut staff, and responding to the needs of the increasingly overgrown bureaucracy. One example: after I win a grant, I now have to get clearance from ELEVEN university offices to make a simple two week trip to the field! We need to talk about what has happened to academic life, and why the time to read, write and think is no longer a given in our jobs.

  25. Cary DiPietro says:

    Holger, I largely agree with your criticism of Cebula’s overstatement and unnecessary cynicism, and I appreciate the eloquence and open-mindedness of your response. I am, however, curious about one thing: are you suggesting that a grad student’s best hope of achieving a tenure-track appointment is to attend an ivy-league or Oxbridge school? I know that’s not your point, and I recognize the distinction you make between academic programs and institutions. I’m not sure that hiring committees, at least in their decision-by-committee form, are always capable of making such distinctions. But I also distrust the distinction between academic excellence (especially in its more pernicious rhetorical uses, for example, when appropriated into the branding mechanism of the corporate university) and institutional elitism. Doesn’t Cebula, despite his cynicism, have a point if what we’re saying is that the majority of PhD granting institutions are incapable of producing PhDs with good employment prospects? More importantly, if we believe, as you suggest, that the study of history, literature and philosophy is worthwhile (and I agree, of course) surely the best approach is built upon principles of inclusion and wide accessibility rather than institutional or academic exclusivity in order to ensure the longevity of such study into the future.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Hi Cary — thank you for the comment. I think that’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, partly because it pits idealism against pragmatism: I know which option I want to go with, but I’m not sure I could properly justify it!

      I dislike the “academic excellence” tag as much as you do: it’s a marketing phrase. But when it comes to considering PhD programs as a student, I think a degree of elitism can’t hurt. Not that the conventional “elite” institutions (Ivies & Oxbridge) are necessarily the best choice; far from it. The lack of teaching experience and the structure of UK doctoral programs put candidates at a real disadvantage in the North American job market, I think, despite the institutions’ reputation; and not all the Ivy League schools are particularly good at placing their graduates. That said, I do believe that universities with budgets that allow them to fund their students, to provide the academic infrastructure for serious research (ever more important, given the cost of electronic resources), to perhaps provide funds for research and/or conference travel, etc. are more likely to offer their PhD students the research opportunities and the exposure that will make them both more experienced and well-prepared scholars and more competitive in the job market. And the more prominent a place, the more likely it is to attract a large number of the brightest candidates, which makes for a more inspiring cohort of fellow students. It seems to me that it’s hard to overestimate the importance of those two factors, and both are intimately connected to an institution’s reputation and financial power.

      On the other hand, I also agree with your plea for inclusivity. But that’s on the faculty level, no? I wouldn’t dream of disregarding a colleague’s work because he or she teaches in a place I don’t know. I wish the resources available to those of us at tier-1 institutions were available to everyone — I think it’s a crime how expensive EEBO and online journal collections are, for instance. But it also seems to me that there’s a distinction to be drawn between teaching and working in a lesser-known university and going to graduate school there. Surely there is a qualitative difference between the kind of graduate training — at least in research — that’s possible in a well-funded, highly regarded program and that which can be provided in a poorly supported one, no matter how dedicated and/or brilliant the faculty may be? I don’t know that that is a difference that will or could be erased. And given its existence, I know what kinds of grad schools I’d recommend to my students, and what kind I might steer them away from. Is that elitism or judgment — or both?

  26. David says:

    Thanks. This is a well-considered response to a poorly-considered piece.

  27. Lecturer says:

    This is freaking wonderful! Thanks for posting it. I’ve spent the last three years facing the awfulness of the humanities job market and still find myself loving it. I do have one minor nitpick, though. Your subset of the advice to only go to one of the top-tier grad schools is that a student can pick a grad school that’s at the very top in a particular sub-field that might not have the same marquee value as an R1. I think that that’s something to be leery of.

    A student could go to Hypothetical U that’s so-so in most respects but has the best research in, say, eighteenth-century Dutch economic history. The problem with that is that this student going to Hypothetical U might find him/herself facing a search committee from Soybean State that’s made up of an Americanist, a Medievalist, and a guy who works on Ming China. For this search committee, Hypothetical U isn’t going to set off lights as they think of the home of the greatest living scholar on early modern Dutch economics. They’re going to think, “Where’s that again?” and then go back to a stack of CVs that’s going to have folks from Prestigious State R1, an Ivy or two, and possibly Oxbridge.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thank you for your comment — and good luck! Your point is well taken: I think the individual strength of one person or subfield in a particular department can only go so far. But I do think there’s a distinction to be made between places that tend to rank highly and places that are highly regarded; they’re not necessarily the same (and it’s a distinction almost impossible to understand for undergrads considering grad school). I can think of two or three highly ranked departments, for instance, that have pretty horrible placement records; on the other hand, it would be pretty easy to make a list of places that do great work and whose PhDs tend to do very well on the market even though they don’t routinely appear in the top 20 of whichever rankings one trusts. I’m sure most academics could make such lists. So it’s not exactly a distinction between universities with name recognition and those with great programs in narrowly defined areas of strength, but rather one between the conventionally highly ranked institutions and those that have a significant reputation in the field. Not sure that makes sense — I may be splitting hairs…

    • Faculty member at Hypothetical U. says:

      As a point of fact, UC-Berkeley is the best place to to study Dutch Economic History (Jan de Vries). I wouldn’t consider it “Hypothetical U that’s so-so in most respects.”

      The point here is that better is better, less is less, worse is worse. The top ranked schools have more money, better scholars, more research support, and attract better students.

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