Why Haven't Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed? 21 Answers From Readers

Is it love of learning? Are schools just desperate for cheap labor? Or maybe the years of low pay and long hours are still a good deal, compared to the other options out there. Our readers weigh in. 

Earlier this week, I wrote about the seemingly baffling fact that, despite a desolate academic job market, the number of new students enrolling in arts and humanities Ph.D. programs managed to grow by 7.7 percent from 2011 to 2012. Why, I wondered, haven't these programs collapsed along with their graduates' employment prospects in the ivory tower? After tossing out a few preliminary theories of my own, I asked readers to give me their thoughts. From terror at the overall economy to the financial motivations of the schools to the simple love of learning, commenters offered up ideas based on equal parts experience and thoughtful conjecture. I've collected some of my favorites below, some of which have been edited for length or typos.

"The job market is scary."

lebronjeremy: I graduated with a degree in political science and history, and I found employment in a call center, where I worked with 2 Holocaust deniers. The choice was clear: go back to school, or hang myself with my shoelaces while those two talked about how the Jews orchestrated 9/11.

grad2014: The job market is scary; I might as well delay by 2, 4, or 6 years to be paid to learn about what I love, before confronting the fact that I have no job prospects.

jseliger: I'm an ABD [all but dissertation] in English lit at the University of Arizona, and I noticed that most of my classmates, prior to enrolling, were either straight out of undergrad or another grad program, or had been working somewhat marginal jobs at bookstores, coffeeshops, and what not presumably for around $10 / hour. The U of A grad stipend pays about $20 / hour. That's still not a huge amount, given that it ranges from $14K – $ 17K or so, but supplemented with random work it's not insanely terrible.

My reading is that many humanities grad students view grad school as a lottery ticket.

You don't even hear how bad it is till you're stuck in the program.

jroberts548: Law school is relevantly transparent. Law schools have inflated employment stats. Humanities grad programs have no employment stats. You don't even hear how bad it is till you're stuck in the program.

"Special Snowflake Syndrome"

FlightlessPigeon: As someone who dropped out of a (slightly more pragmatic than most) humanities PhD program, I think Special Snowflake Syndrome is the major factor. When you're the best in your department as an undergrad and all of your professors are acting as though you're the Chosen One to carry on the field, even if statistics tell you there are 200 applications for every tenure-track job opening, you're the best in your department; of course you'll be the best of those applications. It isn't until you're a full-fledged grad student that you realize that EVERY ONE of those 200 applications comes from someone who was once the best in their department.

ETA case in point: when I was an undergrad, I DID sit around reading the warnings in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Most PhD students in my class did. We all ended up in grad school anyway.

“No English lit department wants to commit seppuku”

cristobal: I'm inclined to downplay snowflake syndrome as a major source of longitudinal change, especially in the short-run, and emphasize economic factors. There just aren't automatic jobs for lib arts and humanities undergrads like there used to be, especially given the explosion in bachelor's attainment, so it's off to grad school. More easy loan money, legitimately postponed (un)employment, studying something you love, keeping your undergrad loans in grace... it's not the worst deal.

The asymmetry of info market failure isn't a big piece of this puzzle. PhD candidates are painfully well aware of the debt they're incurring. It's a major source of grad student humor and a huge component of the subculture.

None of the institutional actors- government or academic- have any incentive to cut back. They're making money and churning out more PhDs to perpetuate the academy while keeping aspiring profs clawing for adjunct spots. As for sound advice from professors, even the best academic mentors want to create students in their image to at least some degree, and no English lit department wants to commit seppuku out of a paternalistic impulse to save grad students from themselves.

Gerry Canavan: Given that applications were down 1.5% in the same period that enrollments were up 7.7%, the effect appears to be entirely on the admissions side. The natural hypothesis is that schools are admitting students they previously wouldn't have for tuition and/or cheap teaching labor.

jpsolus: Friends with TT [tenure track] jobs who have served on grad admissions committees have told me that their departments decide how many students to admit based on the projected TA need. For programs at less elite or financially strapped institutions, TAships are the only way to fund/pay grad students. Those institutions also lack the money to hire more TT faculty, so grad student TAs (and adjuncts/lecturers) compensate for the dearth of full-time faculty. If most PhD programs admitted only as many students as could get TT jobs, they'd accept hardly any new grad students.

“Perhaps there is simply an inverse ratio between how much a person loves something, and how carefully they consider the economic wisdom of pursuing it.”

BlueInGreen48: One to way to address this question is to ask why graduate programs in the performing arts exist, or ever have. Those job markets are always poor, no matter the state of the economy, because they are always hopelessly overcrowded with the overly hopeful.

I didn't know a single student I went to drama school with who thought the job market was good, or ever would be. I remember turning to a classmate during graduation and saying, as our school's degrees were conferred (in Latin too), that we had just become unemployed actors. But we all thought we'd beat the odds. We thought this in a profession where the single most important thing is what you look like, and where a successful career means not finding one job, but hundreds, one after the other, for several decades.

Perhaps there is simply an inverse ratio between how much a person loves something, and how carefully they consider the economic wisdom of pursuing it.

lollardfish: I teach at a small suburban private school, from which a tiny selection of students leave for grad school in the humanities. I have also taught at elite private schools in which much larger percentages go to grad school. Since I started, I have worked hard to make it clear to students that the most likely result of grad school is NOT having a job in academia, or at best adjuncting and starving. Still, after long conversations, I tell them they will have my blessing if they don't go into debt. And yet, some do go get UK masters and go into debt despite it all.

Ultimately, if they apply, despite my warnings, I write them letters and do the best I can by them.

Here are my anecdotal conclusions: They go to grad school because as an undergrad they loved the subject, truly loved it, and got a glimpse of what it would be like to develop real expertise. They do see the professorial life (the good part, not the part that's about going to back to work in 20 minutes after I get the kids in bed) as appealing and maintain hope of entering the professoriate someday. They are, by definition, people who have enjoyed school and want more of it, perhaps as a delay before entering the market.

I do not see a blithe sense of professional invincibility from my students: My students are not as privileged as they were at other places I taught. That said, they have also never been 29-35, with a PhD in the humanities, and unable to find a job. They cannot process that reality and we should not expect them to. Hence, I emphasize not going or going if you can find funding.

Mapsandpeaches: History Ph.D. here--

Two major reasons, with this caveat first. I'm not in my program because I think I'm special, or more talented, or anything that falls under the condescending category of "special snowflake." I am actually very impressed by the other students from my BA and my MA and have felt fortunate to work with them.

The first is simply that I'm doing what I love. Full stop. I'm not going to argue over any cost/benefit analyses that more business-minded folks want to throw in my path. I don't care about that; I care about doing *this.*

The second is that a fully funded program, with heavily discounted healthcare, guaranteed for five years (in my case), was too tempting to pass up. It may not be much, but I am privileged enough not to need much, and I'm not accruing extra debt in the process.

"Most Ph.D. programs in the humanities don't cost the student a dime."

llilly: Most PhD programs in the humanities don't cost the student a dime. They teach in return for a complete tuition waiver and usually a modest stipend ($14-$20K/year from what I've seen) and wonderful health care coverage to boot. In fact, if your job prospects are poor anyway, going to school to study what you love while earning a subsistence wage and free health insurance may not seem like a terrible decision, even if you eventually end up working outside of your field.

skritscholar: I'm a first year humanities phd at Harvard, and, first of all, I love what I do. I love the subject matter, the flexible hours, the chance to meet other people who share my interests/general nerdliness, travel opportunities, writing, the chance to teach and work in education, and hey, the moment of impressed silence when you tell someone what you're working on ain't so bad either (although it is admittedly always followed by "what are you going to DO with that?").

But for those of you unmotivated by such intangibles, here's my financial situation (copied from my admissions letter).

Waived tuition fees
Waived health care fees
Academic Year Stipend: $25,260
Summer Research Award: $5,052
Presidential Scholarship: $4,000 (this is a sweetener that only goes to some students)

This amounts to $34,312 a year, guaranteed for five years and pretty easy to extend for seven. I also was fortunate enough to be offered a full scholarship to a state school for undergrad and to have my two-year masters funded, with stipend, by the US government for studying a "critical language." My parents are a school teacher and a salesman, so I'm hardly a trust fund kid, but I also know that I could count on them for a few thousand dollars if I really needed it.

"Many programs also lie about how much support is available."

GIJ: Most people won't attend Harvard and will likely have funding that amounts to half or less of what you're getting there ($34,312). Of course, you have to pay rent in Cambridge/Boston…

sarah: Many programs also lie about how much support is available. [Anonymous University],* for instance, claims that nearly all of their doctoral students find adjunct positions, which simply is not accurate. My fellowship evaporated shortly after I began doctoral study. As a wide-eyed 21 year old entering doctoral studies, it didn’t even occur to me that my financial support wasn’t guaranteed. Pursuing your doctorate is a tremendous investment of time, energy, and money, and it works out for some people. For most people, it doesn’t. A dear friend of mine is over $250k in debt to finish her doctorate in music, and I can’t imagine how she will ever live a normal life with that type of debt.

*I've edited out the name of the school from this post, since I haven't personally been able to verify the story, and while the point is interesting, I'd prefer not to hurl a specific accusation.

"...you don't want to go back to what you see as the drab world outside."

kagi: I've got a Ph.D. in English from a top 10 program, and I haven't got a tenure-track job. I think there's some truth to all the hypotheses here, but I'll add one more: people go to grad school in the humanities because they like to be around smart, well-educated people. When one graduates from a selective college, the rest of the world can look...a bit boorish. Even in high-prestige professions like law and medicine, it's rare these days to find people who will understand the literary references one has been trained to value. It's certainly hard to find a marriage partner who can keep up, culturally and intellectually. So, a return to the ivied walls, even for eight or ten years (let's not kid ourselves -- I've rarely seen anyone finish up in six years), looks pretty good. I think this is even more true for people who come from modest social backgrounds; once you've been changed by college and left your parents' world behind, you don't want to go back to what you see as the drab world outside. Now, as to whether a Ph.D. program will give you what you want, that's a different story.

Thirsty_Academic: It is my understanding (or perhaps my idealistic hope) that unlike undergraduate programs—which young adults pursue out of a rite of passage, parental pressure or under the outdated guise of getting a career or securing a future—graduate programs, particularly those in the humanities, are pursued by those who are genuinely passionate about the subjects; these students love knowledge and discourse.

During college, I would look around at my classmates in frustration and shame. They not only hadn’t read, the empty stares on their faces screamed “I want to be anywhere but in this class discussing this.” I couldn’t understand this. I felt a camaraderie with my professors, and instantly recognized that we understood the world similarly, even if we held different ideologies or were from different backgrounds. We believed in the power of the mind.

I went to a small liberal arts college. There were no lecture halls, no lectures even. Classes were discussion-based and encouraged students to make the larger philosophical, political, social and even pedagogical connections across disciplines and subjects. I thrived in this culture and became unbelievably thirsty for knowledge, not just in my major (history) but in general. I never saw my history degree as a means to an end. I became very uncomfortable and even hostile when so-called adults would ask what I planned to do with my degree. The same people did not see the power of knowledge or understand that enlightenment is far more valuable than a paycheck.

Furthermore, I knew the job market in 2008, when I graduated, was taking a downturn and holding a degree in almost any discipline wasn’t going to help my situation. This was confirmed after I discovered that I was the lowest paid employee at a retail store at the mall, yet the only one with a college degree. Why? My coworkers had been working in retail since finishing high school. I went to college. Experience rules the workforce, not education.

I hope to enter a doctorate program in my 30s. I have no plans for kids. So much like hopeful parents plan for the first five years of their first child, I am planning for my education. I have a BA in history and MFA in creative writing. I will be going back to school for myself, to be the best person I can be and to be in a community that appreciates the importance of fine-tuning the tools we use to dissect and understand the world around us. That’s why I will go, not for a bump in my career. (It’ll probably put it on pause.)

Finally, as many people have mentioned on here before me: Many programs do not cost the student a dime. In fact, the most competitive programs have stipends, and yes, health insurance.

"I have a Ph.D. and I am a professor; you too, can be like me!"
sarah: One of my theories (I am currently a doctoral student, albeit one that works full time in the arts industry) is that professors encourage their favorite students to pursue PhDs. because to them, it is the highest level of achievement and success – “I have a PhD. and I am a professor; you too, can be like me! Be a PROFESSOR!” Many students go in thinking yes, the job market is bad, but my mentor assures me that I will find a position, that my work is meaningful and unique, etc. 

Mike O'Connor: I've got a Ph.D. in the Humanities, after which I took three short-term teaching jobs in three different states over the next five years. I'm about to publish a book, but at this point it appears that I will never again have a full-time academic job again.

So I know the people this article is asking about and, indeed, am one of them. I've thought about this question a lot, and agree most strongly with the "study what they love," "special snowflake," "cheap labor" and "poor media feedback" hypotheses. One that you did not mention, however, is simple confirmation bias. An college upperclassman considering a humanities Ph.D. has an abundance of people around him/her to provide examples of success in that field: his/her professors. Even if the faculty tells the student not to go (as more and more are doing) that message does not come through as strongly as does the fact that the student himself personally knows several successful humanities Ph.D.s but (most likely) not a single graduate washout or frustrated, underemployed graduate.

"There are actually jobs for these people in non-profits."

James_Blair: There are actually jobs for these people in non-profits. In certain non-profits, the degree is almost like an admission ticket to the higher layers. These people are often indirectly (and unintentionally) trained in most of the business skills necessary to function in management at a non-profit. While academic jobs are mostly unavailable, the number of NGO, foundation and non-profit jobs keeps growing.

They can also function well in certain businesses. Some of them can end up, for example, in advertising of all places. They usually have good writing skills and good presentation skills. Certainly better than many people coming out of ordinary college.

Some of them follow a track where they get their undergrad degree, find that their job prospects are zero, and then deal with the problem by staying in school. A PHD program can be an avoidance strategy in terms of dealing with a rather harsh world. Debt isn't great, but it can be better than a bad dead-end job with no prospects at all.

"...we all recognized that graduate students are not there for us to suck money out of. That was never even a consideration."

Sarah Bond: First, I really think you should have consulted classicists, historians, english majors etc. before even writing this piece.
Second, as a historian and classicist, I will tell you humanities PhDs are not just about making money and we don't live in la-la land grasping for our chance at the ivory tower by going off to grad school with eyes firmly shut. To be sure, the job market is a difficult process and adjuncts are indeed being taken advantage of, but you need to consider a few things.

1. Getting a PhD is not just about job training. The ultimate goal in life is not always to achieve a job.

2. Many graduate students train in the humanities but then go elsewhere. I now have friends who work for non-profits, are in higher-ed administration, work for museums, or work in public policy. Being a professor is but one option when you graduate with a humanities PhD. Some of us became professors, as I did, but some of us went on to other things. We ALL apply the critical thinking skills, writing skills, knowledge organization training, and other types of training we acquired in graduate school.

3. Today's humanists are not as caught up in the ivory tower as you may think. I learned how to XML code while in graduate school, I worked with museums, I learned languages. If I had decided to leave (and many in my program did), I would have still taken these marketable tools and contacts with me to my next job.

4. Foreign students are not propping up many departments. I sat in many meetings at UNC-Chapel Hill, where they try to fund every single graduate student in history, and we all recognized that graduate students are not there for us to suck money out of. That was never even a consideration. Furthermore, this debate IS happening in hundreds of departments all over the country. We recognize the problem. We are trying to be responsible people.

5. We hustle. I hustle for my students. My advisor worked hard for me. We feel a responsibility to our students and use everything we can to find internships, workshops, and job opportunities. Once they finish a masters or PhD, they are not completely on their own. Please know that we take our jobs seriously and want only success for our graduate students--whether that is in academia or outside of it.