So you want to get a Ph.D. in the humanities?

Do as I say, not as I did!

Watch this first!  (Two different readers sent this to me, so I figured I should let the rest of you in on it.)  And then, if we really can’t talk you out of getting a Ph.D., read this and this.  Best of luck to ya.

Meanwhile, Tenured Radical has responded to yesterday’s post with a post of her own, if you’re interested, and Dr. Crazy has some further thoughts too.  (All of you prospective grad students should be sure to read these beauties, fer sure!)

23 thoughts on “So you want to get a Ph.D. in the humanities?

  1. I don’t know why but the part about Bloom made me laugh the hardest – I’m not familiar w/ him, and yet it sounded so familiar. . .

    But on a more serious note, the “here’s the truth about grad school” conversation is so difficult to have with students. Mostly they look at me like I’ve crushed their dreams out of spite. Really I’m just trying to save them the application fees.


  2. That video is very funny, and telling. Luckily, I dodged the bullet and did not apply for graduate school. Although during my junior and senior year, I did plan to apply. I think mostly because I was an older student, the professors felt comfortable to vent with me. And vent they did. By the time I graduated, my dreams of being the cool barefoot professor were over. Of course, I didn’t tell them. Because although I could have told them why when I let the deadlines pass, I was not ready to defend myself. Any hint at not applying would have been met with how I was behaving like a defeatist instead of them realizing it was their venting that showed me reality. I am glad. It has saved me time, money, and frustration. To imagine jockeying for a job, a job that may or may not be renewed each year is too much to bear. My only regret is not taking more business classes or something that would sell an English degree better, or even education (something I avoided because I thought at the time it was beneath the realm of a future professor).


  3. Oh, that stings. I tend to preface my conversations with professors about going to grad school with phrases like “Though it seems hopeless” or “I know everyone says it’s pointless to go to grad school for literature” but in the end the display of pessimism doesn’t save me from sounding almost exactly like the girl in that video.


  4. They have offices like that in Nowhere, Nebraska?!? I’d share that space with three other bright-minded nihilists. (Not necessarily Emerson scholars, though.)

    I don’t know, though. They didn’t tell my cohort that only fifty percent of us would get jobs of *any* kind. They said the Titanic is going down; nobody is going to get *any* jobs for at least fifteen years. And mostly nobody did. I guess the handful of us who were crazy enough to stay around benefited from the surfeit of empty lifeboats.


  5. I just posted on this at my own space so I won’t hijack the comments here, but here goes.

    Yes, I agree that the video is funny, but really, do very many of us not love our jobs? They’re not perfect, I know, and they are hard to do well, but honestly, isn’t teaching in the humanities a pretty great way to make a living? I hope we don’t lose sight of that.


  6. “obsessive, perseverating, delusional!” Right on!

    Horace: yes, compared to hauling trash, or customer service, or pushing paper to make rich people richer, a TT job in the humanities is pretty great. The problem is that, as the old song goes, it’s “nice work if you can get it,” but I don’t want to let my students think that “you can get it if you try.”

    It doesn’t necessarily work out for a lot of completely deserving people.


  7. I’m with you Horace; I laughed at some of this, but I also found it exasperating.

    Who am I to say somebody can’t get it if they try? Perhaps there’s something wrong with saying “well, I did it, and so you probably can too” in a bad economy. But I think there’s just as much wrong with saying “I doubt you can.” The notion that “things are a lot worse now” may be true–and sometimes feels true–but I also have read that stuff on the “myth of overproduction” and think we aren’t doing our fields any favors by making administrative claims that people are no longer interested in the work we do a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    If people love the idea of getting an advanced degree, poo-pooing it does nothing but convince people who might love it to abandon intellectual pursuits. So we have shrinking enrollments that allow deans to say “who needs you?” I don’t mean we should convince weak students to move forward against all odds just so we continue to have our departments, but our departments exist for a reason, and our work is important enough that damn it, students should want to go on in their studies and read it.

    Again, it’s funny, but I don’t think the kinds of things the prof in the video says are any more honest than telling a student that they should try it and see. Many of the prof’s comments in the video are, I think, merely projections of how *other* people feel about academia. I know many people with phds who didn’t get tenure track jobs, and they are happily employed in a wide variety of fields now. Of 10 of my friends, not one of them regrets giving over 8-9 years to getting a phd in english. Spending 9 years being friends with good writers and readers, meeting lots of smart fun people, is not a bad deal. of course, debt is one thing–and I would never recommend students go on to get a phd unless they get funding–but again, it’s really not inevitable just because some people go into debt. Some people go into debt who aren’t academics–imagine that!

    I think when you say “it doesn’t necessarily work out for a lot of completely deserving people,” it *sounds* a little like either you’re an academic/tt prof or you’re a miserable person who failed and has to face the remainder of life knowing they failed; while some people may feel that way, it’s, again, not inevitable. I also know many people who have been in jobs outside of academia who think their career path “didn’t work out”–how many people’s undergraduate degrees truly prepare them for the job they will do later? Life doesn’t “work out”–it’s something we evaluate and re-evaluate daily, we make choices about our careers multiple times over the course of a year, so why not allow the possibility that a student will grow, change, and figure things out about their own lives in a single year of an MA or PhD program that have nothing to do with all of our anxieties and other shit we’ve internalized?

    Let departments’ admissions committees decide if they want to let students in, and let students learn from reliable sources what they face potentially in the field they intend to study. Sorry for the rant, but the nay-saying seems kind of unproductive for everybody. (and i have papers to grade, and so am clearly procrastinating, my own brand of unproductivity!)


  8. The funniest thing is that I have just had a peek at the job list at my field’s main associations website and thought ‘wow, so many jobs I would be qualified for” (if only I would get the damn thing finished…) 🙂 And I got all inspired to start writing that last chapter, so, to sing with Christina “don’t you bring me down today…” 🙂


  9. I feel a bit better now that I’ve seen the video, actually. At least if I do go to grad school, I know I intend to specialize in an area of cinema studies that has been comparatively neglected, rather than doing the cinema studies equivalent of Emerson and studying French Cinema (let alone Jean Luc Godard). But writing about death and cinema is definitely in my plans. Maybe I should rethink this? 🙂


  10. I liked that video because it was satire, not because it was gospel truth. Thats what made it funny. And I like to laugh.

    I kind of agree with cattyinqueens. Its not up to the recommender to decide who goes to grad school. Its up to the applicants who apply and the committees who admit them.

    To that end, I think its important for TT advisors to pay attention to the job market and trends in the profession. I should know what the job chances are in my subfield of Ruritanian-Meglomanian studies, as well as in the larger field of Eurasian History. I need to be able explain that to my undergrad advisees.

    When students ask me about graduate school, I tell them I will write them a letter, only if they earned an A in the classes they took with me. But that they also need to do research on the job market by going to the AHA websites, looking at adds and reading the article by Robert Townsend in Perspectives. Once they have done that, I meet them at a local coffee-shop, out of the usual office hours, and ask them a series of questions like:

    Given the fact that half the PhDs awarded in history are in 20th century US, what do you think your chances are of landing a job in that field? O

    r, for European history, How are you going to do dissertation research on nazi Germany when there are only a half dozen German Marshal Fund grants offered every year?

    Are you willing to wait ten years to: buy a house, contribute to a retirement plan, contribute to Social Security, or maybe even get married?

    When you finish in your mid thirties are you willing to work for a starting wage that would have been acceptable in your twenties?

    Do you understand your position in the academic labor market? Do you know that your job as a TA in the humanities is to do academic scut work?

    Do you understand that if you go to grad school you get five years of tuition waivers, insurance and $10k/year stipend to keep you in food, shelter and clothing? You will probably need to borrow money or a sugar daddy/mama to pay for anything else, like a computer, books, car insurance, etc.

    If they have thought about these questions, then its pretty easy to write them a letter because they have made a well informed decision. If the student hasn’t thought about these questions, then they usually change their mind about it and I don’t hear from them again.

    Sorry for going on so long. Its not meant to be a thread hijack. I just don’t think its all that productive to tell students not to go to grad school. I think its more productive to make them perform their due diligence before agreeing to write the letter.


  11. I laughed pretty hard when I watched this, event though it was fairly predictable. (Naive undergrad wants a rec letter; exasperated prof. delivers gloom and doom professional scenario to said undergrad, who then ignores her advice, etc.)

    These short films by PhDs are popping up all over the place and are apparently not difficult to make.
    Here’s another one that I thought was quite funny and on an unexpected topic, “Diversifying the (White) Academy”:


  12. Ann, are you sure that you didn’t write that one?

    Also, on a side note, I showed my father this and he cracked up. Then he said, “My freshman year at Yale, a senior across the hall told me that he had taken a Shakespeare course from Harold Bloom. The student went to drop off a paper and Bloom’s door was locked, so the student slipped the essay in his mail slot, through which he saw Bloom doing naked yoga in his office.”

    …Pretty funny.


  13. Well, I saw one commentary on this that said it was just a burned-out prof externalizing bitterness on an earnest and appropriately persistent student.

    I was told, there are no jobs there are no jobs. I was warned that it was a cutthroat industrial complex. I was also warned that if there were jobs, they would be in terrible places like Ann Arbor, Madison, or Princeton, where no person used to decent weather or anything non provincial would, in their right mind, go.

    I said:
    – if I don’t get an academic job, I’ll do something else; what I am interested in is this education;
    – I realize it is a cutthroat industrial complex, I have already thought about that;
    – Ann Arbor, Madison, and Princeton are good institutions, and I can handle snow, and I can be in SF/LA/NY/Mexico DF/Yellowstone/ when classes are out and when I am on sabbatical.

    So my advisor went ahead and wrote the letter, and even helped me tweak my statement of purpose, and I got the PhD. Most of graduate school was fun, interesting, and worthwhile, and I do not regret it.

    However, the warnings I got were not the right ones. My professors really did not realize two things:
    a) writing, publishing, and so on are NOT harder for women than for men, so all the dire warnings about how hard it would be were misplaced;
    b) it isn’t that there are NO jobs, it’s that there are few jobs with conditions and even descriptions remotely resembling those of the terrible places — Ann Arbor, Madison, and Princeton — I was warned could be my fate.
    c) the correct warning would be about the nature of most institutions and most academic jobs, but my professors could not have given those warnings, as they hadn’t the faintest idea.

    The other warning would be: if you go to graduate school you risk becoming one of the “walking wounded” — i.e. those who have been bitten by the academic vampire and are now infected with the disease, and think that because they have certain academic interests they should be professors, no matter what! THAT is how adjunctification happens; it’s not that these adjuncts have no backbone or something like that, it’s that they’ve been guilted into thinking that they have to keep putting up with this, that if they don’t get a tenure track job it is because they haven’t put together the right portfolio yet, etc.


  14. Eh, I find this quite obnoxious, actually. Why is this student represented as so unintelligent and unqualified? I get that there are a lot of downsides to pursuing a PhD, and I am very aware that I may not get a job on the other side (and I greatly appreciate my mentors who told me what my job prospects will be like) but I don’t understand why the student in this video is treated with such disdain.

    The anger and dissatisfaction in this video just seems gravely misplaced to me.


  15. well, I watched this video and read Thomas H. Benton’s articles and still went to grad school despite knowing better. So now that’s I’m in it, I really can safely say just don’t even do it. It’s not even a thrilling experience that blows your mind intellectually; most of it is actually just sitting around listening to your fellow grad students take turns each week leading class with their half-digested misreadings of theorists and philosophers they admit throughout their presentations that they “found hard” or didn’t understand. What a freaking disappointment! Oh, and they all think they’re going to transfer to Harvard and Yale afterwards (and certainly get tenure shortly thereafter . . .)


  16. Pingback: Grad school confidential: back by popular demand! | Historiann

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