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A Graduate Humanities Degree? So Not Worth It, Argues Chronicle Of Higher Education

In education on February 25, 2010 at 8:52 pm
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Writes CHE columnist William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich:

Most undergraduates don’t realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training). They don’t know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect…and, as a result, they don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late…The completion of graduate school seems impossibly far away, so their concerns are mostly focused on the present….

Meanwhile, more and more students are flattered to find themselves admitted to graduate programs; many are taking on considerable debt to do so. According to the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, about 23 percent of humanities students end up owing more than $30,000, and more than 14 percent owe more than $50,000.

As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:

  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.

Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them.

What do you think? Given this brutal recession, does getting an advanced degree seem attractive?

Are you in, or considering, grad school? Do you think it’s worth it?

  1. As a child, I had always tinkered with electronics and radios. Going for an electrical engineering degree was an obvious decision for me. I’d have done it even if the job market for engineers wasn’t all that good.

    That’s the criterion I would expect someone to use for pursuing any education. Somewhere in all this marketing, the statistics of earning more money by investing in education took hold. That’s not why I would pursue an education, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for anyone.

    Conversely, some people don’t do well in a classroom and may be better served by investing themselves in the work market directly. Toward that end, we have to question the bias of so many human resource specialists who seem to feel that a degree indicates proficiency or even practical knowledge. I’ve known many with all sorts of degrees who have no clue what they’re doing or why. Let’s face it: some people are really good at classroom work and passing written tests.

    So is an advanced degree in the humanities worth while? Well, perhaps, if you’re pursuing it out of passion and genuine desire to learn –YES!

    Oddly enough, some metrics shouldn’t be pursued. Happiness is not measured by making money.

  2. As someone who’s fairly allergic to academia — and who has not gotten a graduate degree, I think it’ a tough decision unless you can get huge tuition breaks and have some excellent back- up plans. It’s the few (many?) who seem to think that a credential is sufficient are the ones heading for debt-laden trouble.

    Given the exorbitant cost of attending some grad programs, plus the attendant opportunity cost of two+ years’ lost income, it seems a treacherous “solution”
    to a lousy job market. I recently heard this writer interviewed on NPR and he pointed out, wisely, that students who still aspire to a career like his are aiming for a crowded greasy pole with slim chances of equal success.

    I imagine it’s much like this in journalism schools now as veterans of once-thriving newsrooms, now professorial refugees, try to prepare students for a work world utterly different in many respects.

  3. I still think when employers look to a resume and they see a grad degree there it puts that candidate one step above others. The problem is that education is too expensive, not that getting a grad degree is a bad idea. The debt is what is slowing people down. People work for less now and colleges are more.

  4. Why, Nick? Because it proves…? Diligence? Deeper understanding of a subject? So many people now have graduate degrees, it seems to me there’s a glut on that market. For something super-specialized, sure; for humanities, God forbid for trying for any sort of FT academic position, good luck!

    If I were hiring, I’d very much question what the putative added value of a (humanities) grad degree is to my firm’s bottom line, certainly relative to the employee’s higher salary expectations.

  5. I have recently been accepted to an M.A. (eventually leading to Ph. D.) program for which I’ve been awarded a full tuition waiver and a teaching stipend (small but really not much smaller than the salary at my current job). So if this isn’t expensive for me, and I’m just following the path I’ve already set for myself in studying 19th century American literature — what’s wrong? My fall back plan was never going to involve becoming a computer engineer or anything more sensible than this anyway. If I don’t have to take on any debt, and I’ve known all along that being a humanities major is a tough path, I still want the opportunity to live — if only for awhile — in an academic bubble where Melville matters.

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