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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- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
- Doctor Faustus (Marlowe; dir. Maria Aberg) Swan/RSC, August 2016
- The RSC and London: A widening Gulf?
- The Alchemist (Ben Jonson; dir. Polly Findlay) RSC/Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 2015
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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