Back to the future: $1.6 million Mellon grant for “broader career paths”


1989 or 2014? I can’t tell the difference.

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The American Historical Association and four universities will split a $1.6-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation aimed at broadening the career paths of history Ph.D.’s, officials announced on Thursday.

.       .       .       .       .

The university recipients of the grant—Columbia University and the Universities of California at Los Angeles, of Chicago, and of New Mexico—will each receive about $300,000, Mr. Grossman said. The history association will receive the rest. The institutions will begin different pilot projects, including creating mentor databases, increasing internship opportunities, and crafting curricula designed to give students better real-world skills, such as how nonprofit organizations work.

(Emphasis mine.)  I get it that the Mellon Foundation (and the AHA, which also gets a share of the dough) wants the prestige of these programs in taking the lead in a project like this.  But are Columbia, UCLA, and Chicago Ph.D.s really the ones having trouble finding jobs, provided that they expand their job searches beyond major metro areas in the U.S. and internationally?  I doubt that they’re truly disadvantaged.

I’m glad the Mellon grant includes New Mexico, which already has a strong public history concentration.  However, the sense I get from some of my colleagues in public history at Baa Ram U. is that they don’t want the Ph.D. to become the new terminal degree in public history, and I can see where they’re coming from.  After all, the Ph.D. is the research degree, requiring a student to concieve of, research, and write an independent scholarly monograph, whereas employed public historians are required to conduct research in any field, period, or topic that their employers or clients require.  A Master’s degree, plus three or four years of employment in public history, would seem to offer the same experience as having students go out and research their own dissertations.

But what do I know?  I’m the graduate of a department that received a great deal of Mellon money back in the late 1980s that helped in at least some small way to create the problem that this Mellon money is now designated to alleviate.  Twenty-five years ago, the “crisis” on the horizon was the too small number of Ph.D.-holding historians to replace the massive generation of men (yes, they were overwhelmingly men) set to retire in the 1990s.  So departments like mine were encouraged to figure out ways to accelerate their production of Ph.D.s, because no one at the Mellon foundation or at the AHA foresaw the adjunctification of the profession over the past two decades.

This program, too, seems mostly focused on the question of supply rather than demand.  I don’t have the habits of mind that would permit me to forsee the next crisis in academic history employment, but I wonder how far $1.6 million would have gone as seed money to encourage some more history departments in SLACs and comprehensive universities to convert one of their adjunct positions to a tenure-track job?  As we know, there’s plenty of work in higher education these days–otherwise, why all of the adjuncts?  And universities have been around for 800 years or so, and I’m guessing that they’re good for probably a solid millennia, give or take a century.  Why not invest in traditional academic employment first?

What’s your take?

38 thoughts on “Back to the future: $1.6 million Mellon grant for “broader career paths”

  1. Miriam Posner has a great blog post on why the alt-ac model isn’t necessarily the solution to the academic employment crisis: I’m in one of the fields Posner mentioned that is, at best, ambivalent about absorbing PhDs — in fact, I’m thinking I need to duck off Twitter again for a bit because I can see another round of PhD-resentment coming, which always underscores my sense that I am, in a sense, passing. I’m all for PhDs/near-PhDs identifying and developing transferable skills, but I wish AHA et al. would acknowledge the reality that other fields are/can be skeptical about hiring PhDs and not just try to solve that problem from the supply end of things.


  2. “But are Columbia, UCLA, and Chicago Ph.D.s really the ones having trouble finding jobs, provided that they expand their job searches beyond major metro areas in the U.S. and internationally? I doubt that they’re truly disadvantaged.”

    Yes, we’re having trouble finding jobs.

    Yes, we’re doing national and international searches.

    I’m a little bit weary of having this be the first assumption, that we’re not applying widely, because we are (and sometimes against our advisors’ wishes).

    I arrived at my PhD program from a background in the public humanities and I have returned to it after graduation, but I was not the norm in my program, and many faculty did not know what to make of me and my choices. Thus, I think the real question here, one that the AHA announcement does not answer, is what is this money being put aside to do? How does money actually change department cultures about the PhD and what post-PhD work is valued? I can not even imagine what this conversation would look like at my alma mater right now.

    That the Mellon has poured money into prestigious, contingent academic employment via the New Faculty Fellows Program “to assist recent Ph.D.s in the humanities who are beginning their careers in an inhospitable job market” makes me wonder, like you note in the last paragraph, what we’re really fixing. (This is the postdoc Rebecca Schuman had, for example; she, like many of the New Faculty Fellows never secured a permanent t-t job despite their very strong credentials.)

    All of this is to say that despite feeling called out as “less disadvantaged” on the market, I do appreciate your post, and am interested in a conversation on this announcement. I hesitate to applaud the AHA and Mellon in this venture. And I would really like the AHA to tell us what they’re actually proposed to do.


  3. sophylou–thanks for that link. It’s a great post. Here’s the nut, emphasis added:

    Don’t cry for me, ASA. As I said, I love my job, and I’m well-suited to it. But I do hope to give you pause as you consider what a university would look like if it were populated by many more people like me: flexible employees, carrying out a great deal of administrative work, whose time is managed by someone else, who do research when they can carve out the time, whose work belongs to someone else, and who have no voice in faculty governance. The picture begins to look a lot like a corporation. These alt-ac gigs can be great jobs, but they differ in some fundamental ways from faculty jobs as they have been traditionally understood — and not because we’re doing different work, but because we’re doing that work on very different terms.3 I think we begin to see why so many administrators have embraced the alt-ac model, and why we need to ask ourselves whether this is the future we want for scholarly labor.

    “It’s better than adjuncting!” you might say, and indeed it is. But with that argument, we accede to the narrative of inevitable casualization, and I hope we want something better for ourselves.

    Perhaps our Ph.D.s will go on to do other things entirely. Perhaps they’ll work in all kinds of interesting industries and bring their humanistic training to bear on all kinds of interesting problems. I hope they do. But we should be mindful that as we encourage an exodus of Ph.D.s from the professoriate, we are not simultaneously replenishing the ranks of the tenure-track faculty.

    And recent Chicago Ph.D.: thanks for commenting. I’m sorry folks from Chicago are having trouble finding work, too. I think you’re right that creating yet MORE post-docs and post-diss. fellowships is a strategy that completely misses the point.

    From my experience and observations, I can tell you what Penn did with their Mellon money designed to accelerate the progress to a Ph.D.: they created stable 5-year blocks of secure funding for grad students. That’s it! (Prior to this, the funding had been awarded on a year-to-year basis, so it was a great favor to those of us who came into the program in 1990, as we knew we had five secure years of funding.) But then when people failed to finish in five years (as most of us did), Penn hired people in Philadelphia on as (drumroll please). . . adjunct lecturers. HA! This is what we did (plus VAPs) instead of apply for the endless numbers of post-docs that are out there.

    It became an almost perfect adjunct crisis ecosystem. Here’s hoping this Mellon money goes towards NOT making new problems, even if it doesn’t SOLVE any problems.


  4. The institutions will begin different pilot projects, including creating mentor databases, increasing internship opportunities, and crafting curricula designed to give students better real-world skills, such as how nonprofit organizations work.

    This sentence is fucken painfully inept. Does the CHE not have copy editors?


  5. Note that the AHA does not have a standing committee on career paths nor a staffer dedicated to making connections that might help historians find jobs. Just sayin…


  6. I think you’re absolutely right about the problem with tackling the jobs crisis at the supply end. The program sounds great for those who will get to benefit from it, and it may well help them get jobs. But it won’t make more jobs, and so these Mellon beneficiaries will just push someone else out.

    What’s more interesting to me about the program is the part about trying to get trained humanists into non-academic arenas. It’s not getting much airplay, and who knows if it will work, but this does seem to have a more creative idea behind it.


  7. But again, I’d really like to stress that I’d like to see AHA do things like, say, partner with other professional associations/organizations in order to provide realistic information about those fields. (Hey! Maybe a career paths committee could do that?) The job market is terrible in my field and there is real resentment towards the idea of PhDs taking jobs from grad students in this area (who were also sold a bill of goods about upcoming retirements leading to a glut of available jobs. Meaning that I have now experienced that fiction twice, while getting grad degrees in two different fields! Yayyyyy!/kermit-the-frog-arm-wave) I feel like AHA et al. keep trying to solve this problem with bandaids shaped like postdocs, and also by turning to the alt-ac community to provide mentoring, but, chances are our fields are tight, too, and in my case, I’m still trying to find my way myself. I don’t know what the answer is, but I hope it’s not just going to be more postdocs.


  8. A clarification: to me, the interest in getting humanists into non-academic arenas isn’t about widening the alt-ac track for those earning PhDs, but about getting the values and insights of the humanities into more areas of social life. So not really about the labor market at all, but about longer term institutional and cultural change. although Tim Burke’s most recent post ( asks some very hard questions about whether that’s possible, or even a good idea.


  9. I really like what you have to say here, Historiann — it captures my own ambivalence perfectly. I teach at a regional MA comprehensive with a strong program in oral history (one matched by another sister university nearby). Wouldn’t it be great if we could get these MA students into work that took advantage of the potential public dimensions of oral history?


  10. I fear this is all a ploy by graduate schools to justify high enrollments when the academic job market is obviously so awful. They can just keep churning out PhDs that way. A humanities PhD is a hindrance, not a help, to getting job in practically every non-academic field.


  11. Are we in Goshen yet?!?,is all I can think of here. I’ve seen so many pieces of this puzzle flash by over the years, and played in more than a few of them, that it just seems like a blur. I was walking up the street tonight telling another historian that the only thing my program really did about the job crisis (same program as Historiann’s, only a lot of years earlier) was to level with us, brutally and early, about the unlikelihood that many or any of us would ever walk on the tenure track. But, I said (and I had never really thought about this before), I don’t know that they were sending letters to that year’s applicants, urging them to consider withdrawing their applications. And I certainly don’t remember that evening event of brutal candor being repeated in any of the many years that I stayed around thereafter.

    Model-building, forecasting, compilation of databases, and the development of cutesy buzz-labels ( have been the go-to impulses of professions and professional associations ever since the emergence of the middle class in whatever century you credit that phenomenon with having happened. What it will take to break the cycle of crisis is either the unimaginable (faculties deciding to bite the bullet and do hard cutbacks on the provision of unmarketable training), or the improbable-but-inevitable (the arrival of a generation that for some reason of random cultural variation is resistant to that “by the time you finish your degree, the jobs will be chasing the candidates” recruiting bullet). There are no truly efficient job markets, but fields like law, medicine, engineering, and others seem to do a lot better job of keeping aspiration and actualization at least on the same planet with each other.

    Meanwhile, I’ve got nothing against the well-intended databases and networking projects. But it seems like the institutions themselves that have created and figured out how to profit from structural imbalances they’ve created should be asked to bear the costs of the repairs. None of the four institutions except for New Mexico would seem to have desperate endowment insufficiencies. The Mellon money might better be spent attacking structural problems that inflict worse injuries than that “didn’t get to do what I really, really wanted to do” angst.

    I’m not making light of the latter. I was a runt-of-the-litter type at the brutal disclosure meeting who improbably stumbled through the minefield of proto-public history and did later get to walk on the track. But the people who didn’t, as far as I’ve ever been able to find out, lived pretty productive and creative and rewarded lives. People on the inside, almost by definition, can’t really “broaden” the pathways for people to get to (and to get by on) the outside.


  12. Public history isn’t much of an answer either. I would call myself a public historian. My MA degree is in history & museum studies. The musueum field is, if anything, just as disillusioned as academia. Not enough jobs. Too many people told they can make a go of it. Job security is practically nonexistent. I love what I do, and I’m lucky to have put together a good career, but unfortunately I worry that the ultimate answer is that just not enough people can or should work as historians. Period.


  13. I think *more* people should work as historians, and the problem with jobs for historians is that they’re aren’t enough of them. That’s my problem with the solutionism that focuses on the supply rather than the demand end of the chain.

    Has anyone complained that recent M.A. and Ph.D. grads aren’t good historians? Has anyone suggested that their training was deficient? No, or at least that’s not the main problem. The problem is that there aren’t enough jobs for the historians we’ve already made.

    The discourse on the “jobs crisis” seems to reflect a lot of the B.S in the whole “high cost of higher ed” conversation that’s dominated our lives since the Great Recession started 6 years ago. In short, it’s not that college students aren’t learning enough, or that they aren’t learning the right things. The problem is on the demand side–there just haven’t been as many jobs for college grads for the past several years as there were in the past.

    I’m guessing that if departments eliminated adjuncts & hired TT people instead that it would solve about 60%-70% of our so-called “jobs crisis.” But certainly, I think many graduate programs should at the same time look to dramatically reduce the numbers of disillusioned historians they’re producing as well (per WHB’s comments, upthread.)


  14. To them that hath, shall be given.

    I don’t know why Columbia, Chicago, and UCLA need $300,000 do do pilot projects. We’re designing a Ph.D. from scratch, which is piloting a number of projects to ensure that humanities Ph.D.s know about multiple job paths, and have skills that can be used in multiple settings. We’ve even designed a course, and one of my colleagues teaches it as part of her normal teaching load. She prepared for it the way she prepares for any other course: by reading widely and putting together ideas. She’s even shared her syllabus for free with someone at UCLA who is teaching a similar course. We should have asked for $50,000 for that! And while we’re talking about museums and digital humanities, we are also talking about how the ways in which humanists organize and interpret evidence is — hello! — important in many fields. (I’m leaving out New Mexico, because it’s so unusual for Mellon to give any money to any but the top universities.)


  15. Its a nice pot of money for the recipient institutions, but I am not holding my breath about a Melon grant changing much of anything. That said, my buddy Mike teaches at UMN – so good on ’em!.

    Really, it probably would pay for history departments at all levels to just cultivate their alumni and ask them to explain what they have done with a history BA/MA/PhD besides teach and research. I am going to have a chance to be chair of my department in three years, my goal is to invite alumni back to our school during homecoming to talk about how their History BA helped them not only find work, but make, as Indyanna said, “productive and creative and rewarding lives.”

    If those four universities put that money towards a similar project, I would say that they had done something worthwhile. Although we ought to be doing that anyway.


  16. We’re kidding ourselves with this alt-ac stuff. A PhD is a professional degree for higher ed teaching and research- full stop. Having someone with one do anything else is at best inefficient.

    We need to decrease the number of PhDs produced, probably by something like 90%, for four or five years, then gradually bring it back up to a level that meets demand. This is going to require a sort of disarmament treaty among universities, since nobody wants to unilaterally give up an advantage in labor and prestige.

    It’s also going to take a culture shift. We need to start shaming academics who take on too many advisees. Taking on PhD advisees needs to be viewed as slightly shady or disreputable- like smoking or day drinking.


  17. “Taking on PhD advisees needs to be viewed as slightly shady or disreputable- like smoking or day drinking.”

    Heh. I’d agree with this even if all Ph.D.s had full employment. There’s only so much time and attention each advisee can have from an advisor.


  18. We absolutely need to reduce the number of students getting PhDs, but that doesn’t help people who already have PhDs who need to earn a living. Alt-ac may be a bandaid, but saying that it’s “inefficient” for PhDs to work at other jobs seems close to labeling PhDs in other positions as failures — apologies if I’m misreading that. I’m not crazy about the “quit lit” genre, but there are PhDs who do want to go in other directions. And alt-ac can also mean “still doing research” (hello!) and for that reason I do appreciate the AHA’s mention of historians functioning as historians in other fields.


  19. Amen to pretty much everything above from this mid-’80s-cohort Mellon fellow (with a very similar experience to what you describe, h’ann, right down to the time-to-degree issues. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of a supposed 4-year Ph.D. — I suppose English Ph.D.s are supposed to be even faster because we don’t have to do archival work — it didn’t help that my department had incredible turnover in “star” and (justifiably) disgruntled senior faculty, i.e. potential advisors. I was a lecturer for a few years, and then they decided we’d be even more incentivized to finish if we didn’t have work — or library privileges, except for paid alumni ones — so I became an adjunct elsewhere, and trudged along for another 9 years or so, only finishing when I got a full-time non-tenure-track position which allowed at least year-to-year security, and could concentrate a bit better on my diss. At least they let me defend, though I don’t think my time-to-degree factors into any of the departmental statistics).

    Honestly, this initiative strikes me as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Personally, I’d like to see money put into something really revolutionary, like one of the following:

    –experimenting with restructuring Ph.D. programs to work with every-other-year or every-third-year admission of new cohorts, but no substantial increase in entering-class sizes. Since nobody wants to eliminate their Ph.D. program entirely (and there are good reasons not to drastically reduce the number of programs, in terms of fostering intellectual diversity, etc.), this is one way I can see to reduce the number of new Ph.D.s There would still be the question of how to maintain a lively menu of seminars for the remaining students (probably easier in programs that also offer a terminal M.A.), but that — and perhaps the need for an increased number of independent-reading classes to fill some gaps — is the sort of thing money might help solve.

    –paying departments to suspend admissions to their Ph.D. programs entirely for a middle-length period — I’m thinking 5 years — perhaps on a rotating basis. Once again, this could be tricky structurally, but it could provide a middle way between canceling programs entirely and continuing the overproduction of Ph.D.s Grad faculty could turn their attention to undergrad classes (including those that would need replacements for TAs — perhaps a chance to interact with colleagues on a new basis?), and/or could be offered some research leave as compensation (once again, a place where money could help).

    –probably in conjunction with at least one of the above, create some NEH-style summer seminars designed to help contingent faculty with “stale” Ph.D.s get up to date with the latest scholarship and reanimate their research agendas. Obviously, one would need to pay the participants quite well — well enough to compensate for missed summer salaries, and allow residency away from what, in many cases, would be established homes with families in continued residence. So money would be helpful. Such seminars would also provide occupation for faculty currently on hiatus from teaching in a Ph.D. program because of one of the above, and might give such faculty a sense of investment in their summer students (probably not as much as they have in students they have recently shepherded all the way through a Ph.D., but it would provide a bit of a counterbalance to the bias toward hiring “fresh” Ph.D.s, which I’m pretty sure stems at least in part from self-interest in continuing to teach Ph.D. candidates). Contingent participants could also provide valuable perspective to both grad faculty and any Ph.D. candidates still on campus — there would, presumably, be some, even in a program in slow-down or hiatus mode — about what it’s like to teach in varying modes at varying kinds of institutions — something that faculty at Ph.D.-granting institutions are often a bit clueless about.

    I suspect that any or all of the above would sound like “modest proposals” — or at least enforced birth control — to faculty at the sort of institutions that have received the current Mellon grants. But I propose them in all sincerity. At the very least, these institutions need to ask why they’re so determined to keep producing Ph.D.s, when there are so few full-time, secure jobs of the sort for which the Ph.D. is a necessary (as opposed to possible) qualification available.


  20. I really like Contingent Cassandra’s first proposal, for (multi?) year-long intervals between cohort admissions, for a variety of reasons besides potentially being a way of thinning the horde of graduates chasing adjunct work, post-docs, and a few more substantial jobs. Actually, what I would do is admit a cohort, run them through a rigorous one-semester “proseminar” (that’s what Penn calls them anyway), and then ceremonially “expel” everyone! To the archives, on their own, without a hoked-up prospectus that’s long on the intellectual pseudo-sophistication we all begin with but short on raw imagination. And say to them: after a year, bring back a problem that you’ve found in the sources, not on a reading list, that you’d be willing to go through hell with to complete, just because you think it matters. Then the coursework could begin again, and it would be possible to find the books you need to read to carry through the project you’re autonomously committed to, not the project you think/hope you could execute to live up to, or do justice to, or challenge, the books you (perhaps naively) came to admire as a neophyte.


  21. I’ve asked this elsewhere, but I am curious about which departments are still irresponsibly admitting hordes of PhD students. And also concerned about what dramatic reductions in graduate admissions will do to diversity in the field, in terms of both content and personnel. By the time I got to Penn in the mid-90s, they had already cut admissions by over half from what they had been a few years earlier, and it was already having a serious impact on non-U.S. fields. My current department can barely run seminars in non-U.S. fields, because we are trying to be responsible about admissions and the university has slashed or terminated graduate programs in literature, anthro, film studies, etc. that used to send students to courses on other parts of the world. Even at Penn, non-U.S. courses were already pretty dependent on students from cognate departments twenty years ago.

    Switching to alternating admissions would certainly reduce PhD numbers, but the cost of this kind of slash-and-burn approach to graduate admissions could well be the viability of histories other than those of the U.S. and the accessibility of the profession to students from non-elite backgrounds. Would U.S.-ists, many of whom seem totally oblivious to the numbers situation in other fields and thus perfectly happy to cut, be willing to take responsibility for that? Should we resign ourselves to teaching all non-U.S. histories purely on a volunteer, independent-study basis, since TPTB keep raising the minimum enrollments for course to go? Or is someone going to take on the task of deciding which graduate programs can continue and which can’t? If so, who, and by what criteria? And at what expense to diversification efforts? If the elite coastal graduate programs overwhelmingly admit students from elite coastal undergraduate institutions, as recent AHA data seems to show (sorry can’t find the Perspectives link), then we’re headed back to a professoriate of the elite that looks an awful lot like the one that many people have spent the last forty years fighting to change. There are people out there saying we just need to accept that the PhD is henceforth only for the independently wealthy, but I don’t want to accept that.


  22. CC: I really like the idea of admitting cohorts on an alternating year basis. That makes a lot of sense, as opposed to shrinking cohorts. I think, Ellie, that there would have to be a quota system in place (a regional/chronological quota system) for faculty who wished to keep training graduate students, to avoid over-representation of Americanists. Indyanna, that’s a great idea (the prosem idea) especially since I encountered many people who didn’t really like the research stage once they got to it. Had they learned it earlier, it may have helped them reassess (as opposed to in year 4 or 5 when it can be harder to drop out – psychologically, I mean).

    I wish I had the memo that circulated my department recently, because we’re in the middle of restructuring our grad program and there were stats floating about the cohort sizes of our “competitor” departments. The question of how many programs admit irresponsible numbers depends on what you consider an irresponsible number – 20? 15? I think there are large programs that still admit in the 15-20 range, although my previous employer (a flagship state u) had just shrunk it’s program from 18-22 down to 12.

    Thank you for this discussion. I’m skeptical about alt-ac tracks as well, and agree with you whole heartedly H that the problem is on the demand side. It would be great to see the AHA and other leading organizations work on tackling the adjunctification problem.


  23. What Ellie said:

    “A clarification: to me, the interest in getting humanists into non-academic arenas isn’t about widening the alt-ac track for those earning PhDs, but about getting the values and insights of the humanities into more areas of social life. So not really about the labor market at all, but about longer term institutional and cultural change.”

    The current problem, from my perspective, is faculty teaching in graduate programs who won’t imagine a Ph.D. for anything *but* teaching and scholarship at the college/university level. They even (especially?) look down their noses at scholars who have gone into university administration, as if it would be better to have administrators who don’t care what scholars do or have scholarly values.


  24. @Ellie: re: irresponsible admissions: For next year, we’ve admitted 15 new students to our medieval Europe PhD program.

    There are 33 programs in North American that offer PhDs in medieval history. If every other program admitted only 1 student this year, then that’s 15+32 = 47 in this year’s cohort. If they were as irresponsible as we were…let’s not think about that, actually.

    This year there were only about 20 medieval jobs in North America (depending on how you define medieval). I can’t imagine the market is going to improve significantly by the time this year’s cohort finishes. So….yeah.

    @sophylou: failure is probably too harsh a word, but a PhD who fails to get an academic position has earned a very expensive conversation piece. even if you get out of grad school with no debt (which Dr. Karen demonstrated isn’t common), getting a PhD in history takes 5 to 10 of your prime earning years. if you were just going to end up in finance or IT anyway, it’s better to go directly there. You can value the humanities without wasting your 20s and early 30s training for a job you’ll never have.


  25. @rustonite: Really don’t need this ”splained to me, thanks. The “expensive conversation piece” bit is an example of the kind of attitude Tenured Radical is talking about, down to the use of the word “fail,” and grad students and faculty both can have it. While academics being willing to not view people who go to alternate careers as “failing” won’t necessarily create jobs for PhDs, it *would* go a long way towards acknowledging that too few jobs + too many PhDs is going to mean rethinking what a PhD offers in terms of skills etc. Deciding that a PhD qualifies you for one thing and one thing only means it may be harder to retool should circumstances leave you unable to get employment doing that one thing.


  26. Today’s our post on tt jobs as the only option. Are PhDs really useless except for teaching in tt jobs? I would have thought there was a value to learning to do research and to think like a historian. Or is that only imparted at the masters level and the remaining 5+ years completely useless unless you’re going to teach undergrads or work at a museum? That’s a pretty depressing waste if true (maybe arguing we should get rid of the field of history entirely if taken to an extreme!). I sure hope it isn’t.


  27. These discussion seem to reveal something that to my European eye seems particularly American (sorry for the generalization) – a way of making judgements of character based on the idea that a person’s career decisions should only be based on the maximization of one’s “prime earning years”.

    Because, of course, people make career decisions all the time based on far broader considerations than “earning potential”. I know people who went to do PhD because they liked the hours. Because it was steady (although not particularly well-paying) employment for six years during a recession. Because it allowed them to travel or live in places they would otherwise not be able to. Because they thought their particular, non-academic interests were well-served by academic training. Because they liked the people.

    This idea that once people are out of college, they’re no longer allowed to experiment, try out different things, change careers mid-way through, seems pretty damn outmoded. Could you imagine if you told someone who went into consulting that they would be wasting their prime intellectual development years if six years later they decided to change careers? Too late to become a teacher now, you failure of a consultant. I agree with sophylou, this seems to indicate that academics valorize their profession to an unhealthy degree – when really it is time to wake up and realize that in this 21st century, precariated, high-speed world, everybody changes careers at 30 for all sorts of reasons and it’s /pretty damn okay/.


  28. @Aro–
    It seems especially bizarre when the main point of a PhD is supposed to be to train people how to think and how to learn independently. Those are skills that should provide *more* rather than *less* flexibility.


  29. Pingback: That Awkward Protestantism | PhDe-stressed

  30. I think what Aro said is pretty powerful – sure, if you were going directly into finance or consulting right after college, a PhD does involve missing out on your “prime earning years.” But what if you weren’t a Harvard graduate with the clear alternative of walking out into a high-paying job in finance? What if you’re someone more average, and your first couple years after college aren’t “prime earning years,” they’re years when you are struggling to move up from part-time, really poorly paid jobs into the “grown-up”, professional, full-time jobs with benefits you thought a college degree would help you to get?

    Then maybe everyone you talks to tells you that your options are to tread water and hope to eventually move up within one organization, or get a master’s, because that’s what most people above you have (in my case, in the overcrowded museum field!). And you don’t get other advice from your elders, because your parents don’t understand why jobs don’t fall out of the sky for smart people anymore. Then you find out that MAs cost a LOT of money, which you do not have, and PhDs PAY you, maybe even more than you’re making now, with income guaranteed for a few years, and that sounds like a great deal!

    That was my thinking, at least, and I know plenty of others who thought the same thing. In my early 20s, graduate school wasn’t an “expensive conversation piece,” it offered financial security. Five years later, I see that struggling for most of your 20s can eventually lead to better things, but the years that I’ve spent in grad school were not “prime earning years” for most of my friends, and they were harder years than I’ve had for some. Of course, starting over several years behind is definitely a disadvantage – and how I wish someone had told me that a PhD could actually hurt your chances for jobs that didn’t require it, that never would have occurred to me! But I think it’s important not to romanticize what the alternatives are for recent college graduates today. I agree that the problem is not just “too many PhDs,” it’s too few secure, full-time, benefit-inclusive jobs, period.


  31. Good points, anonymous grad. You describe my thinking exactly when I entered my Ph.D. program 24 years ago. I didn’t have any real plans or ideas as to how to make my way, and getting paid the princely sum of $7200/yr. to read books and be part of a university community seemed like a great deal.

    I will quarrel with what you said about your point that “MAs cost a LOT of money.” Most Ph.D.-granting programs charge cash of M.A. students, but if you find a strong M.A. program in a department where that’s the highest degree, you might get paid cash money on top of having your tuition paid, too. At least, that’s the case at Baa Ram U., where we offer students a degree that makes them fully employable in public history or secondary school teaching in two years, for free plus a stipend for serving as a grader.

    It’s a pretty damn good deal, friends. Students can get a degree that makes them working historians without taking on debt, if they live simply for those two years. Furthermore, we have a great record of getting people paid employment over the summers.


  32. MA programs that don’t require debt for tuition or living expenses are wonderful gems! It seemed to me that they are rare even for terminal MAs, but it was also just me & the internet when I was applying, so I might’ve missed a lot. I wonder if there’s a centralized list out there now.


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