Six bullet points on why people go to graduate school in the humanities

by on January 7, 2010 at 1:34 pm in Education | Permalink

These reasons are ugly, but a lot of it rings true.  Note the behavioral economics implicit in the explanations:

  • They are excited by some subject and believe they have a deep, sustainable interest in it. (But ask follow-up questions and you find that it is only deep in relation to their undergraduate peers – not in relation to the kind of serious dedication you need in graduate programs.)
  • They received high grades and a lot of praise from their professors, and they are not finding similar encouragement outside of an academic environment. They want to return to a context in which they feel validated.
  • They are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.
  • With the prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life in college becomes increasingly idealized. They think graduate school will continue that romantic experience and enable them to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars.
  • They can't find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don't interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
  • They think that graduate school is a good place to hide from the recession. They'll spend a few years studying literature, preferably on a fellowship, and then, if academe doesn't seem appealing or open to them, they will simply look for a job when the market has improved. And, you know, all those baby boomers have to retire someday, and when that happens, there will be jobs available in academe.

That list (there is more at the link) is from Thomas H. Benton and the pointer is from Jessica Crispin on Twitter.

Ted Craig January 7, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I’d say these apply to most undergraduate majors. Also, people want to party for another 2 to 5 years.

john January 7, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I’m studying maths, but those reasons look rather familiar…

Ted Craig January 7, 2010 at 2:12 pm

It also reminds me of why Schumpeter said the educated class was the greatest threat to capitalism.

Bergamot January 7, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Explain to me again how the academic system, where professors train students to become professors and train even more students, is not fundamentally a pyramid scheme?

Peter January 7, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I was very fortunate to have a philosophy professor who when I asked for advising about a PhD explained to me that there are 2 PhDs for every one teaching job (including any decent adjunct positions), and that I might do better to consider law school.

Michael January 7, 2010 at 2:37 pm

To reiterate other comments: Why restrict these reasons to the Humanities? These reasons would seem equally resonant for just about anyone going on to PhD programs in any field.

Miles K January 7, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I got ready to go for a PhD in philosophy but got frightened off by similar arguments. I became a stand up comic instead which is equally crazy and unlikely to yield a livable wage.

Andrew January 7, 2010 at 2:42 pm

“I know quite a few people in or recently out of graduate schools in the humanities who have a genuine commitment to their subject”

Survivorship bias. It is not about “time servers” it is that the people don’t know how much commitment is required.

I would add that grad schools do a great job of hiding that fact. It is only when you have no choice but to finish that you come to know this.

I’m in engineering, but in my qualifier the one comment a committee member had was “this isn’t a Master’s, you have to know EVERYTHING.” It was of course good advice, but I already knew more than they on my topic and more than most anyone on the planet, and it still may not be enough. The one saving grace for humanities, and it is a double-edged sword is that you just have to impress the people. In a technical field, mother nature is really hard to impress.

zbicyclist January 7, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Of course it’s fundamentally a pyramid scheme (@Bergamot), but if you are studying Jan Austrian the economist, or otherwise pick up some maths, you can likely make the transition to reasonably well paid private employment — albeit with the program you graduated from treating you as a failure because if you don’t make tenure somewhere, you don’t help their reputation.

The problem with a humanities PhD is that you can pick up negative equity in the job market, as Benton points out in the article.

Rich January 7, 2010 at 3:00 pm

“Why restrict these reasons to the Humanities?”

If your passion is numbers, there are numerous close substitutes available to you in the working world; at least one of them may be palatable. If your passion is Jane Austen, there are few, if any, substitutes for you; writing ad copy just doesn’t cut it.

Barkley Rosser January 7, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Just for the record, given some of the wimpy numbers being
thrown around, we had over 400 applicants for our tenure
track assistant professor position this year in economics
at James Madison University, including quite a few from top
ranked schools.

BTW, is “Jan Austrian” supposed to be some generic Austrian
economist, and does this imply someone more likely to get a
job or perhaps somebody likely to have more trouble due to
being too Austrian or not mathy enough?

Mass January 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm

You could take similar digs at any other adult occupation.

Still entertaining to read.

John W. January 7, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I did a semester of grad school toward an M.A. in English immediately after undergrad, and, on reflection, this list is very accurate (with the exception of the last point, which didn’t apply to me).

Eric Auld January 7, 2010 at 3:33 pm

What are some suggestions one might give for someone caught up in these reasons?

Eric Auld January 7, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Since Benton’s article is about the Humanities, how applicable is it to graduate economics? I’ve noticed Ph.D.’s having that thousand-yard stare…

Andrew January 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

“You could take similar digs at any other adult occupation.”

The “it’s the same everywhere argument” always trips me out.

Academia is a vile, vile system and not many here will probably ever see it.

They had a symposium and one of the professor’s advice was “stay motivated.” That was the point that I knew that successful professors has absolutely nothing useful to tell me about how to succeed.

anon January 7, 2010 at 4:05 pm

You could take similar digs at any other adult occupation.

BS. I doubt you’ll find the same “digs” applicable to plumbers, electricians, machinists, mechanics, EMTs, nurses, and others who use their hands. And when you meet a person who is passionate about their work, even if that includes intellectual study, the digs don’t apply.

Too many grad students I’ve met are pursuing an “academic lifestyle,” not a discipline. It’s refreshing to meet someone pursuing a discipline and not a lifestyle.

Once you get good at “school” the real world just doesn’t compare – intellectual masturbation is much more fun.

And for those of you who are going to law school because you can’t get a job as an academic, you’re in for a surprise….

Dan * January 7, 2010 at 4:13 pm

It’s not about knowing how grueling graduate school is, it’s about knowing yourself and really understanding what motivates and captivates. I’m not in graduate school, but I do know I will thrive there once I find the right professor and research topic. I do not thrive in industry (where I currently am) as I just can’t force myself to do anything my boss wants of me. Sometimes it works sometimes it fails. I’d be much happier working harder, devoting my life to a specific set of knowledge while making less money. If you’re worried about keeping up with the Jones’s like most of my co-workers, then this is the life for you. And I’ll probably change my tune when I start a family. But for now I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than research.

Joey Slutman January 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm

cuz they’re losers

david January 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I’m in law school, and all these reasons ring about right, save maybe the first bullet point.

hatedgradschool January 7, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Ha ha ha! This article and the posts are excellent.
I used to laugh about votech “colleges”. Now I do, but only because they’re trying to look like academic colleges, which are all calling themselves universities, just as if they were all like Cambridge or Oxford or someplace like those.

Does anyone have a thought on ‘certification’ programs, such as those for programmers, business analysts, project managers, etc.?

farmer January 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm

i think there are two (rather more sunny) reasons left out. And they apply to UG as well

1) signaling value.
didn’t get into Dartmouth/Harvard for UG? Good news! Here’s round two! (no matter what anyone tells you, a Harvard/Yale Grad degree, in roughly anything, is still a good investment)
2) Mate Selection
you will be surrounded by scores of people who have passed tests (formal and informal) to ensure they are (on the whole) smarter and richer (or at least able to finance as if they are) than Jill from accounting or Joe from sales

Rick January 7, 2010 at 5:14 pm

The timeframe: mid 70s. My Tantalus: French Literature.

My professors told my wife that I would be a Mover & Shaker. Funny – they never told me.

I eventually fled the Ph.D. program because (1) I didn’t earn enough to travel and (2) the only jobs I ever saw from the MLA data were in so-called podunk colleges. I went into technical writing, which allowed me to create a career at the same time that the data processing industry was developing. Zero regrets.

Everything depends on how you deign apply the contents of your mind in the company of the people you love and the community you inhabit.

Bill January 7, 2010 at 5:24 pm

People should also tell the truth about academia as well, even if you get there:

1. Academics sit in their offices all day, seldom leaving, assuming they go to an office;
2. Academics fight over resources–secretaries, research assistants, (used to be computer time, but no longer), and worry about status and job security;
3. Academics spend time on websites writing blogs and surfing the internet;
4. Academics get bored stiff after teaching the course more than 5 times;
5. Academics are insecure but don’t show it and are jeolous of those working in the real world. Only if they could be in charge, they could….

My own view is that academics should arrange for a sabbatical in the real world every few years rather than going to another school to teach and attend seminars. Getting hands dirty in the real world can also be fun and the real world can use some fresh paint.

Andrew January 7, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I agree with Bill!

It’s kind of like going to War. The conscripts will never understand it isn’t really about honor and bravery.

I’ve said before that the only time I’ve felt like I was in a 3rd world bureaucracy is in my stint(s) in academics.

It’s the only time I feel like I’m in a Malthusian resource scramble.When I’m working on grants that have a 9% success rate that’s

Here’s another thing that I don’t yet have an aphorism for. I’m buying a deer hunting camera so that I can see who sabotages my stuff because I’m not allowed to keep them out of my lab. You are not allowed to say “this is the tool I need to graduate, so noone muck it up.” “Collaboration” was me and my lab-mate explaining our mislabeling code to eachother because we only trusted eachother. I leave the radio on so noone will come into the lab and steal stuff.

What is really odd is that I got into this mindset that it was a revelation that living like this is certifiably insane. I had almost forgotten what a sane system feels like, and I actually knew better coming in.

mk January 7, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I think what some commenters defending grad school are getting at is that if you scratch any human activity long enough you’ll find motivations like fear, doubt, insecurity. To dwell on the bad things seems harsh and unnecessary. But in this case, the harsh medicine can be justified because you might save them 2 years of aimlessness that doesn’t help them in the end.

Actually, the one item which is missing from this list (except smuggled into #4) is: people want a social bubble where they can meet girls (or boys). This is natural because grad-student-candidates are often in their 20′s and their hormones are still encouraging them (read: yelling at them) to be “active representatives of their genetic material”.

And when you think about it, sitting at a desk all day isn’t very conducive to that.

J January 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm

“No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen”

More correctly, your co-workers who speak enough English to know what a Jane Austen is think you’re an idiot for wasting so much time and money (you borrowed money to do that?). And as assistant managers, they make more money working the drive through than you do at the counter.

“Ask anyone in the military, and they will scream from the rooftops they’d rather have one person who knows a local language/culture over a hundred engineers/technocrats”

Evidently it’s possible to not know anyone in the military.

David Smith January 7, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Some of us have actually enjoyed graduate school. I enjoyed being able to read as much scholarship as I could, learning new styles of thinking about things, getting new skill-sets, producing my own research, constantly being surrounded by other people from whom I could learn and always have an interesting conversation. In return I taught undergraduates for peanuts, and although I lived in relatively straitened conditions I was perfectly happy with the deal. If you don’t find you’re enjoying grad school for at least a few of the reasons mentioned above, I don’t see how you’d enjoy a job as a professor, even if you could get one, so you should probably leave. If you do enjoy such things then you might find grad school worthwhile even if you don’t get an academic job (though the frustration could be enormously painful).

Stinky January 7, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Point #3 seems related to why people seek careers in the military too.

anon January 7, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Why is this a problem?

Who said it was a problem?

Just don’t BS yourself that because you are good at “school” that your credentials signal much to anyone outside academia. You may find that a PhD in english or history, while of great value to you and *possibly* demonstrating high IQ and stick to itevness, won’t mean much outside academia. As long as you are prepared for that, no problem. But don’t ask anyone other than your fellow grad students to feel much sympathy that you invested many years and dollars studying something that qualifies you to sell encyclopedias – Whoops! – or life insurance.

Grad student support at good schools is pretty generous these days.

Take advantage of it now, because it isn’t going to be quite so widely available in the near future due to increasing problems with state (and federal) finances. Police and fire departments are more important to me than more english grad students and english PhDs, no matter how passionate.

And dearieme, it is pretty easy to see if something is in the US Constitution. Here it is:
http://www.usconstitution.net

From wikipedia:

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is one of the most famous phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence, and considered by some as one of the most well crafted, influential sentences in the history of the English language. These three aspects are listed among the “unalienable rights” of man.

Declaration of Independence here:
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration.html

boondoggle January 7, 2010 at 10:06 pm

‘I enjoyed being able to read as much scholarship as I could, learning new styles of thinking about things, getting new skill-sets, producing my own research, constantly being surrounded by other people from whom I could learn and always have an interesting conversation.’

Weird I know, but you could be doing these exact same things outside of graduate study as well.

CBBB January 8, 2010 at 12:37 am

This is all true for almost every degree outside of perhaps Engineering and Accounting. I graduated with a degree in math – and took lots of courses in computer science and economics to try and make myself more relevant but my career prospects are about the same as someone with a degree in 19th Century Feminist Movement Theory with a minor in Amish Basket Weaving.

Al Brown January 8, 2010 at 4:34 am

you forgot to mention that many are getting someone else to pay the bills while they’re studying

Barkley Rosser January 8, 2010 at 7:57 am

Got it. “Jan Austrian” is the econ takeoff of “Jane Austen.”

For all the sneering at humanities grad students, and some may
well be deluded, those who actually get through and succeed in
getting one of those rare tenure track academic positions are
likely to be pretty smart. Indeed, if I remember correctly, Tyler
here even once blogged on this, arguing that an assistant prof in
English might well be the smartest assistant prof on a campus,
given all the competition to get that position. Now, I am not
going to argue that the English assistant prof is necessarily
smarter than say the math or physics one, but I am reasonably
certain s/he is likely to be smarter than the typical assistant
prof of marketing or management, who will be paid much more.

david foster January 8, 2010 at 9:53 am

“16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes”…I think quite a few people go to law school because they think law firm life will be the same kind of step-by-step process…also to some extent true of MBAs pursuing the consulting track.

anon January 8, 2010 at 10:31 am

Anyway, we’re just rehashing hold cliches about humanities majors driving cabs.

I was an undergrad double humanities major, with no regrets and no debt when I graduated – worked all the way through college and paid my way as I went.

And I loved driving a cab, did it for more than 5 years after college – learned a lot about people and the city I drove in.

But I was under no illusion that, although my double majors were very interesting to me, I would find any good jobs after college. And I didn’t care. I was able to and liked living frugally and never had a sense that I was not well off, even though I had much less money than my parents. I had no illusions that anyone owed me anything, had no sense of entitlement. And still don’t.

While a cab driver I met many unhappy lawyers, truck drivers, cab drivers, doctors, waitresses and waiters, CPAs, pilots, bartenders, etc. I also met many happy lawyers, truck drivers, cab drivers, doctors, waitresses and waiters, CPAs, pilots, bartenders, etc.

My experience is that people are about as happy as they want to be, regardless of occupation and income. (Purely anecdotal, but very consistent nonetheless.)

Hmmmm January 8, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I am taking a break from finishing my Austen syllabus to report the standard advice that my English department colleagues and I give students who say they want to go to grad school in literature (rhetoric is a different matter):

–do this only if you absolutely have to.
–do not pay for this yourself or borrow money to do it. Know that you may not have a job at the end of the process. There were 250 applicants for our last job opening (some years ago) and 100 of them would have been a decent fit.
–do not do this unless you can put your life on hold for six years.
–do not do this unless you are willing to spend a lot of time reading critical theory and second-rate literature.
–do not do this without a well-thought-through Plan B.

We manage to discourage all but the most determined. We really do not lead anyone down the garden path, and the folks I know at other institutions don’t seem to, either.

Dan H. January 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm

The root problem is that we’ve created a bubble in academia in the same way we created asset and debt bubbles – too much access to easy credit and lots of unique ways to avoid deferring gratification.

Couple that with social conventions that say it’s perfectly okay, and even desirable, to borrow as much money as people are willing to give you, so long as you are ‘getting an education’.

The result is that we have a glut of student chasing degrees. This has driven up prices and watered down standards. And because we’ve convinced kids that any education is good, too many of them are crowding into the easy faculties and staying away from the hard sciences, engineering, medicine, and law. And where the kids go, the money goes.

To fix this problem, we need to eliminate student loan programs as they exist today. The government should stop insuring them. If you want to send your kid to college, take out a second mortgage on your home. If you want to go to college yourself, work for a couple of years and save some money, and set yourself up with a part time job while in college.

We need to put more financial pressure on the system by cutting off the flow of easy money. That would drive more real innovation in post-secondary education. Community Colleges cost a fraction of what the big colleges cost, and at least for the first two or three years of undergraduate education are perfectly acceptable alternatives. Internet learning and commercial training/certification organizations would find more customers.

In addition, if loan officers actually cared about your ability to pay back the loan, it might be easier to get a loan to study engineering or science than to study ancient left-handed basketweaving, and they might care more about whether your grades showed an ability to actually complete a college program, and we’d see a better balance of students in the college system.

As for grad school itself – I took a number of grad level humanities courses in college, and was mighty unimpressed by the level of scholarship. You quickly learned that the path to good marks was to say the right politically correct things and know what to kiss, and when. You can get through at least a Masters in the humanities while learning very little.

Aaron J January 10, 2010 at 1:31 am

I know a lot of visual artists almost begrudgingly go to grad school more because it increases the opportunities for gallery representation afterwards, than to any desire to spend another two years plus in school. Counter to the theme of fear of the “real-world” found in this list, its just one more obstacle to sanctioned (and and possibly profitable) participation.

Nathan January 12, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Monkey Man,
I agree with you about the BSing through humanities courses, but without a firm foundation in humanities (ethics, politics, etc) knowledge of chemistry is simply a means without an end. There is obviously something missing in academia–probably the whole society–, when it seems like all the humanities majors have no practical value and all the rest have no interest in the ethical consequences of their actions.

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