Don’t go to grad school!

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in January 2010

600 words / 3 min.
Tweet Share
At least, don’t go to grad school in the humanities. That’s the message I’ve been hearing from a number of sources, including a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

At least, don’t go to grad school in the humanities. That’s the message I’ve been hearing from a number of sources, including this recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

It’s hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy — and lack of information — are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it’s right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.

via Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But here I am, anyway, in a PhD program in history. What makes me think this is a good idea despite all the evidence to the contrary? Or am I simply delusional? (Probably.)

Recent law grads (me included) might suggest that going to law school isn’t such a good idea either, although that seems more to be a function of the current economic situation that a long-term trend, even if the legal profession is going through a “correction.” Long term, there will always be a demand for lawyers, in some form or another. (Debt is another issue that needs to be addressed.)

But a humanities graduate program is different. It’s professional training for one purpose: to do research in the humanities and, to a lesser extent, to teach in the humanities. What’s more, fewer and fewer professional positions exist, and those that do are increasingly adjunct positions with limited job security (i.e., no tenure — but then, who else in today’s workforce benefits from anything like tenure?).

The humanities system (at least in large public universities, which provide the bulk of positions) is set up, many say, to exploit cheap grad student labor in order to teach over-enrolled undergraduates in an increasingly under-funded educational system. The role of the traditional humanities professor is dying out.

True or not, social science or not, job prospects as a history professor are certainly difficult. So why am I in grad school?

First, I chose to focus on science, not general history. Rightfully or not, a focus on science tends to equal greater job and funding opportunities.

Second, I am not giving up law to focus on history. I fully intend to practice as a lawyer at least part time. (Diversification is important as much for individuals as for corporations, I believe.) So even if I can’t find a position as a tenure-track professor of history, I still have my law degree to draw on. I also spent 10 years in IT, and have that to draw on too.

Third, the contacts I am making through the program are valuable in any field. I am, for example, volunteering for committee appointments with senior faculty and administrators.

Fourth, I needed family medical insurance (if I lived in Canada or Europe, this wouldn’t be an issue) and the ability to spend more time at home than a first-year associate is allowed. Grad school, unlike law school, is funded and paid for.

So am I crazy? I don’t think so. But I also don’t expect to have an tenure-track position waiting for me at the end, nor is my self-worth dependent on that.