In Defense of the Humanities Ph.D.: It's No Crazier Than Becoming a Journalist

Yes, the academic job market is a wasteland. But that doesn't make spending your twenties reading poetry for low pay irrational.

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“Why haven’t humanities Ph.D. programs collapsed?” asks my colleague Jordan Weissmann this week. It’s a question that has drawn a host of reader responses, from “the job market is scary” to the point that the programs are funded, to “you don’t even hear how bad it is till you’re stuck in the program.”

These are all understandable answers, though it’s hard to tell whether they speak for the majority of individuals entering doctoral programs.

The bigger issue, though, is that “Why haven’t humanities Ph.D. programs collapsed?” is a leading question. It implies that they ought to have collapsed--which seems to make sense when you read Jordan’s great work covering the job prospects for those coming out of the programs. But there’s a step or two missing between presenting those job prospects and asking that question.

To begin with: In asking why people keep entering humanities Ph.D. programs when the economic payoff of the multi-year investment seems uncertain for individuals and negligible on average, the implication is that economic analysis is what’s first and foremost in the minds of the decision-makers. I’m not so sure that’s the case.

Asking why young people keep entering Ph.D. programs is a lot like asking why young people keep moving to New York planning to become actors. Or asking why young people head into journalism.

None of these life choices are particularly good bets when it comes to financial payoff. The choices involve significant non-financial factors.

But using the rational choice theory favored by economists one can still make a  pretty solid case for why people keep entering humanities programs. I’m not at all surprised that these places haven’t “collapsed.”

At the broadest level, if you accept the premise that Ph.D. students are risking six years of their lives and the possibility of debt (I’m skeptical on that one—let’s return to it later) in order to get a shot at a tenure-track job, what you’re talking about is a lottery setup: weighing something you’d really like or that has a huge payoff against the poor chances that you’ll actually get it. This is a problem that prospect theory was developed to address, and it’s not that much of a mystery. The idea makes intuitive sense: people make choices based on a combination of how much they value something and how likely they think they are to get it (“think,” I’ll admit, being a crucial word here—studies show humans rarely arrive at the same estimate of probability that math would).

But now let’s turn to the risks individuals take in reaching for what they want. This is where I think you can make the argument that Ph.D. students are better at rational choice than either I or Jordan Weissmann were when entering journalism.

It’s a mistake, I think, to have this conversation without putting front and center the fact that the majority of reputable Ph.D. programs are funded—meaning both that tuition is free, and that the admitted student gets a stipend to live on. Some competitive programs are now, in order to make money, only offering discounted tuition, and not the stipend as well, for the first year, and then culling students at the end of that year to determine who may progress to the rest of the Ph.D. with full funding. But even the few individuals I know who’ve wanted the Ph.D. enough and been confident enough in their own skills to take that risk haven’t gone into debt for it, combining part-time work with frugal living instead. I’d want to know a lot more about the individual responses in surveys about “education-related” doctoral debt before calling humanities Ph.D.s expensive. And the ones that are funded—and that’s most—are pretty secure propositions.

So what’s the deal that most twenty-somethings are taking when they say “yes” to an offer of admission? They’re taking five years of, let’s say, $20,000, studying something they’re truly passionate about, for a shot at a tenure-track position five to seven years down the line, and a shot at a tenured position in the long run with unbeatable benefits and job security. The downside is that it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll actually wind up with that job in the end. In other words, they’re accepting five years of pretty decent, if low-paying, security with a whole lot of questions once those five years are up.

Now let’s look at what Jordan and I signed on to when we entered journalism. First of all, I am not so sure that one’s shot at making a living wage in this business is actually better than one’s shot at making a living wage in academia. Second, though, while Jordan and I have lucked out so far, and The Atlantic pays better than a graduate stipend (and has worked its ass off to reach the state of financial stability it’s currently in), let me state the obvious: I am hard-pressed to think of any job in the industry that even approaches the five-year security of a Ph.D. program, let alone that of the golden tenured faculty position those students are aiming for. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of any job in the industry that has even one-year security.

Anyone saying humanities Ph.D.s are a terrible bet is already buying into the cultural paradigm that affects the students’ decision to enter the program in the first place: that a tenured job is so desirable that not getting one equals failure.

Let’s examine that premise. If at the end of five to seven years of being a graduate student, the student can’t land a tenure-track job, or at the end of the next seven years of the tenure clock, doesn’t get tenure, that individual has still been drawing a stipend or salary for five to twelve years. Not bad. Whether that individual is now less employable than he or she would have been had he or she not taken the Ph.D.—which is where a lot of the complaints come from—is a crucial question, but it’s not a particularly easy one to answer.

To start with, more than just the decision to enter the Ph.D. program plays into one’s employability five years down the line. Thousands of other decisions are involved: what the individual does while in the program, whether he or she has developed other skills, etc. But the biggest question when evaluating whether entering the Ph.D. program made this individual less employable than he or she would have been without the program is what the student would have been doing if not in the program.

And here things get tricky. First, the job market outside academia right now is indeed “scary,” as some of Jordan’s respondents said when justifying their decisions. But also, humanities Ph.D. students are self-selecting. I’m not sure that if they didn’t wind up in a Ph.D. program they’d be applying themselves with equal fervor to landing a high-security, reasonably high-paying job, say, in nursing, plumbing, or accounting. What makes anyone think they wouldn’t instead be doing something just as financially insecure and non-transferable from a resume perspective, like temp work, museum curation, music, or hitch-hiking towards self-discovery?

As one Atlantic editor with a doctorate put it, “When I was in my 20s, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I liked the idea of working in a video store and not worrying about a career. But I was also a little worried about not worrying about a career, and I was interested in the history of civilization. So I decided to do something I semi-joked about at the time as a plan to waste the rest of my 20s and get congratulated for it at the end.”

And it worked: He wasn’t particularly psyched about academia by the time he graduated, and he wouldn’t advise most people to follow in his footsteps, but he was congratulated. And then he went to work for McKinsey. And then he came to work for The Atlantic. He’s sitting five feet away from me and he’s my boss. Maybe he had a rough time living in the must-be-a-professor cult and then realizing it wasn’t for him, but he spent his twenties reading good books and having long vacations, and I’m spending my twenties working for him. (Because he’s nice, he lets me read good books in my work, too.)

I’m not trying to tell anyone to go start a humanities Ph.D.. But if you really want it, if it’s funded, if you think your abilities are a good match, and in particular if the choice is between spending your twenties reading Hegel while drinking or just spending your twenties drinking, then frankly there are worse ways of applying ones’ youthful passions.

Jordan, while we’re on this topic of rational choice, let’s adopt some good, old-fashioned self-interest: Can you please stop baiting the grad students? We’re in similarly precarious positions ourselves, and you’re only encouraging these guys to come take our jobs.