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Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go (chronicle.com)
106 points by Arun2009 on Jan 4, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

I think the title is wrong. Should read: Don't go if you're planning to get a job as a professor and would mind wasting ten years of your life waiting.

On the other hand, if you actually enjoy what you're studying and have any reasonable amount of skill in something else (as many humanities majors who read HN probably do), then graduate school can be fantastic. You want to use computers to solve problems, but unless you're a low-level systems programmer or a CS researcher, you'll need some specific thing to make websites or computer programs about. School is great for that.

Last year I finished my MA in classical Chinese literature. The problems of OCR'ing, transcribing, and translating Chinese are enormously interesting. Even simply trying to present digitized versions of ancient Chinese texts is difficult (no one told Confucius that only so many characters would be in the Unicode standard). I got a lot of attention (and should have productized it) by making free information available in a more convenient way with a simple Rails app. There's a huge gap in the field for a young grad student who wanted to digitize information, present it attractively, and sell it back to libraries or individual researchers. And these gaps exist in most traditional humanities fields.

Aside: I went to UW, which has the most rigorous Chinese lit. program outside of China. Obviously don't go to graduate school in the Humanities at a school that is only theory--you're probably smart and coherent enough to make your way through it without really learning anything--go somewhere that has a difficult program where you learn linguistics, philology, or serious history. I also got all of tuition, a nice stipend, and optional health insurance by doing some PHP programming for a lab at the school--don't go into serious debt for a masters in the humanities.

there is a HUGE difference in time commitment and 'psychological toll' between a 2-3 year master's and a 5-8 year Ph.D. in the humanities. getting an MA is a great launching pad for new ideas and careers like teaching high school, etc., but i doubt people will still be so excited during their 7th year of Ph.D. with little job prospects in sight

Aye. My wife just finished her Ph.D. in psychology last year, and the whole process was quite an ordeal.

It does not need to take that long. My mother got her second doctorate at 58 for fun, and it only took 3 years.

IMO, Getting a PHD is fairly close to real work. So, if you aproach it as a job it's not that bad. If you aproach it like your X year of collage you will probably fail.

Part of the PhD process is learning how to do publishable research, and learning how to get it published. So if you've already learned that once, the second time should be smoother.

I'd go so far as to say that a big part of the PhD process is learning how to be productive without external guidance. It's a lesson you only need to learn once, and it's broadly applicable to life.

Largely agreed. My wife is pursuing her masters in history. Her plan is to start teaching at the high school level after graduating, but she is pursuing it for the love of the subject. If she cannot get a job directly in history she is ready for the possibility of working in some other field.

Hi - is your Rails app for ancient Chinese literature? Is it public anywhere?

I have a couple of things up with demos/screens and code available:

- A mapping tool that searches for Chinese placenames through about 2500 years of history and shows you when/where that name existed, what level of the administration it was in, etc.: http://www.digitalsinologist.com/places

- Beginnings of a Cocoa-based critical text editor. http://www.digitalsinologist.com/blog/index.php?id=40

- One attempt to format a critical version of a text online: http://digitalsinologist.com/texts/XieLingyun/text.html

A friend of mine in academia recently commented that jobs for liberal-arts Ph.D.s are so scarce that their grad school programs are basically Ponzi schemes.

i'm a bit late to this thread, so not many people will end up reading this, but i'm very much against overloading of the term "graduate school". in particular a Master's degree and a Ph.D. are not (not, not, not) merely different shades of the same beast. it's not like you do 4 more years of master's level coursework and suddenly get a Ph.D. A master's degree is technical training in an applied field (e.g., a master's in software engineering), whereas a Ph.D. is training to become an academic researcher. I'm not trying to say that one is better than the other, but they are different. Thus, this article should really be named "Ph.D. in the humanities: Just don't go". Master's in humanities is a completely different beast altogether. just my 2 cents!

Yes -- this is absolutely key. While the first couple of years in a PhD program can be like a Master's program, once you get to the independent research portion, it's completely different.

There is no more "standard formula" to follow, there is no more just being satisfied getting classwork done. You have to find your own ideas, your own schedule, and your own plans.

As somebody who hangs out with a lot of English PhD Candidates, I can attest that their job is way better than yours. Here’s what they do: http://squashed.tumblr.com/post/316844790/dont-go-to-graduat...

Yeah, humanities discussions are a lot more interesting that sciency type discussions. Having my degrees is nice, but I sorta wish I'd gone the arts route instead of the science.

The problem is that, eventually, the ride stops and you have to get off... and, then what? That's the point of the original article.

What about graduate school in computer science? Surely a Ph.D. in CS would have fallback options at places like Google or Microsoft where their graduate work won't have been wasted?

My anecdotal experience is that CS grad school is probably worth it. I have a MS myself and when I wrapped it (at the end of the Internet bubble in 2001), it was still worth 15-20% in starting salary at big corps. Some of my cohort continued onto the PhD - they <mostly> found employment in universities and research institutions over the last three or four years.

However, the Taulbee survey (http://www.cra.org/statistics/) seems to indicate that we are seeing a large increase in the number of PhDs over the last decade (1800 a year? thats a bunch to get sucked into Microsoft and Google on a yearly basis). Several of my cohort had to take postdocs or lectureship jobs (at $3K per class or something else ridiculous) to stay in academia, so it might be a bit of a CS PhD bubble as well. Falling undergrad enrollments over the last few years might have bottomed out as last year there was an uptick in BS enrollments.

The Taulbee data indicates that a large portion of CS PhD types (~60%) wind up in industry positions of one type of another.

I would probably encourage talented hackers with the interest to try grad school, but to not feel compelled to go at all if they can pick up challenging work at a startup or even bigger company.

Be damn careful about winding up an "IT professional" though. If you don't control that process, you'll wind up a jack of all trades in a job market that tends to reward specialization and scarcity of knowledge rather than general "get it done" skills.

Of course, if you start your own company, you can ignore all the above advice.

There are generally plenty of positions for PHDs in technical fields, and I have known of many employers that will pay the tuition for at least the masters in a technical field if you don't already have one (mine is, for instance.)

Humanities tend to have fewer direct applications in business though. History at least is seen as some value in certain types of analysis and historians are often used as consultants in some fields. On the other hand, perhaps I just run in the wrong circles, but I cannot think of any direct use for a PHD in say English Literature other than teaching.

I hope so ! I'm still pondering whether to do a Ph.D. or not myself. Almost done with M.Sc...

Most of the technical PhDs do just fine. There are too many biology PhDs though.

I have the vague impression that PhD computational biologists, bioinformaticists, are in demand and probably will be for a long time.

That's definitely true, I mean non-programming, regular biologists, molecular biologists, etc.

The problem in humanities is that the market is saturated, also, the majority of undergraduate classes are taught by graduate students (they're cheap!), further reducing the number of potential hiring positions.

So you have to actually be exceptional and have published something interesting to even have a good chance at making it as a professor.

You could do other things as well, write books or work for various foundations (teach high school!), but you can do those things without a Phd in medieval English literature.

You also are spending 8+ years not getting paid or putting yourself into debt, and that you still might end up working at Arby's (or what have you).

He left out that the pay for a starting professor sucks. (Considering that you just spent 8 years of your life getting the degree).

Computer science is a bit of a different ballgame in that it is applicable (well, vaguely) to software development. So you might be able to get a job that is orthogonally relevant to whatever it was that you passionately studied in graduate school.

The sad truth, however, is that the majority of software development does not come anywhere close to requiring a Phd. And you still come out up to your eyeballs in debt or flat broke. The good thing about it is that it looks pretty good on a resume. (Although weighing 8 years writing software against 8 years in grad school, I might go with the guy who has work experience... is kind of a toss up).

The google/ibm/microsoft research positions are few and far between, in any event.

The sad truth, however, is that the majority of software development does not come anywhere close to requiring a Phd.

The vast majority of current software development is guis for databases and can be done with relatively little training, not even requiring a BS in CS much less a PHD. But there is more advanced development where the more theoretical backing is at least useful.

(Although weighing 8 years writing software against 8 years in grad school, I might go with the guy who has work experience... is kind of a toss up).

I largely agree, but it depends on what kind of software the programmer was writing. Doing major kernel hacking for a Linux distro is highly impressive for instance, doing maintenance patches for yet another database front end is not.

Also remember that the two is not an either or proposition.

It requires a somewhat flexible day job and it may take longer, but you can work on a graduate degree while holding down a day job. I work a help desk part time for most of my undergrad degree and work as a DBA/Sr. Programmer while working on my masters right now for instance. On the flip side, you can go to class at day and contribute to open source or do contracting at night.

I think this would be a sad truth if I had just gotten a PhD and was hoping that it would provide me with a unique credential to write software. But as someone with a mere MS (not in CS in the first place), I'm pretty happy that I don't need a PhD.

Another nice thing about the world of software development is that you can actually get involved in many of the more (or most) interesting projects without any degree at all. There are some areas where you'd benefit greatly from a PhD, but you aren't at all relegated to "guis for databases" as a programmer with something less than a PhD.

Whatever you do, don't work too much on side jobs while writing your mémoire/thesis. I have seen many people get a part-time or full-time job when they were done with their project, alas not with their writing. It takes them years to finish the whole thing.. (I've seen 4 years for a master's)

It depends on where your priorities lie. If your goal is to finish your masters or PHD then I agree, I wouldn't work more than you absolutely have to on side jobs.

If you already have a career and are working on your masters on the side, then you need to focus on your job and do the masters as time permits. For instance, I expect my masters to take 7 semesters (3 1/2 calendar years) and it wouldn't bother me too much if it took 4 years. I have a job I like with a salary that pays the bills. I am working on my masters primarily for personal growth and hoping for some career advancement edges down the road.

I got my PhD without one dime of debt, and I think most of my classmates did as well. There is a lot of funding for grad students if you are flexible about what you want to work on. And if you absolutely MUST write your thesis on optimizing brainfuck compilers then you can still cover your tuition by working as a TA.

But this may just be the situation at my alma mater, a land grant university that attracts lots of research dollars but doesn't quite have the prestige to attract lots of talented students. I wonder if students at "name brand" schools don't end up with more debt because competition for funding is more intense.

There's a huge oversupply of candidates because humanities is 'exciting' and thus will attract a certain number of people regardless of how bad the conditions are.

Ultimately the less glamorous a job/career and the higher the barrier to entry the better the conditions.

(This is one of the reasons why businesses are often the best way to make money; it's an unpleasant and uncertain slog which few are willing to take on and navigate).

> There's a huge oversupply of candidates because humanities is 'exciting' and thus will attract a certain number of people regardless of how bad the conditions are.

I often wonder how much of the 'exciting' part is actually 'math was too hard so any hard sciences are out of the question'. Some students know for sure what they love and want, but some are in the undecided major for 2 years and then are forced to pick. The decision they make sometimes is influenced by their level of proficiency in the subject not by the love of the subject itself.

I'm not sure that people seriously considering graduate school (in any subject) would be influenced in their choice by a (perceived) lack of math skills.

many families strongly encourage children to get a graduate degree.

maybe there's just an oversupply of human beings in general.

To put that another way: The average level of talent in people is average. We've nailed average in the first world, automating or off-shoring much of what the average person can do out of existence. What are we going to do with all of us average people?

What are we going to do with all of us average people?

The answer is of course obvious. Roll the dice and start your own business in the hopes that you can become the exploiter instead of the exploited.

The owners in a business are the only ones who cannot be outsourced.

That doesn't really solve the problem. The average business fails.

The bigger question is "how to not be useless?" Useful people will do well in the market whether they're an employee or an entrepreneur. Useless people, by definition, fail whether they're an employee or an entrepreneur. If you can figure out how to build skills & assets that other people want - which is much harder than simply starting a business - then you'll always be in demand.

The question is not really "how to not be useless".

If you make society about being useful to the top 5% of the population, then the rest of the population is always going to be left in the dust unless you turn to geneticaly modified workers ala Gattaca.

The question is, how do you create a society where everyone can make a living?

It is ingrained into modern society thinking that in order to make a living, you need to be useful to someone else that has the money, power, and natural resources that you don't have simply because of age, luck, or someone being naturally smarter.

But what if everyone was guaranteed land to live in and produce their own sustenance? In a different type of society, or perhaps far into the future, this may be a possibility given population control.

In this manner, people are guaranteed to at least make a living. The tendency for riots will be greatly diminished when basic needs are met. Everyone else who wants to create more wealth and enter the monetary exchange will be free to do so.

The fundamental flaw with this line of thinking is that you need to be useful to others because to maintain any sensible standard of living you will need to trade.

Q: What do you trade? A: Things that others find useful.

Even if you give people land they will need tools, supplies, medicine, housing, plumbing, fuel, electricity, roads, computers, phone/internet, etc. They will need to trade, they will need to be useful.

One can easily move to the middle of nowhere montana/north dakota/alaska and live off the land with a little bit of planning. Most don't want to.

Not all people feel the need to consume as much as people in richer countries to feel the same amount of happiness.

There have been studies documenting this. Here is a short story from Tim Ferriss which sums this up where he realizes that a Mexican fisherman really has a very high quality of life.


I've never respected the pure capitalist prod of "work or die, whether we need you or not". But subsistence farming is probably the least attractive alternative ever known. Every sweatshop is full of people who think it's better than the farm. Serfs had to be kept farming by force of law--and some escaped, preferring life as a criminal in a disease-ridden city. People will do just about anything to stay out of that life.

The reason why people don't like subsistence farming is because current society doesn't allow people to farm very well.

Most of the arable land has been concentrated in the hands of a few, and the technology needed to generate sufficient harvest to weather downturns such as drought or flooding are out of reach for everyone in 3rd world countries.

That's why you can't look at 3rd world country farmers and just say that no one would be able to live "off the grid" comfortably.

I wasn't very clear in my question or its context. What I meant was, people with average ability have been able to sustain themselves for thousands of years doing subsistence tasks. Until sometime in the 19th century, most Americans dug holes in the ground and dropped seeds in them, hung around, and then dug out the result later.

In the 20th century an American of average ability could sustain themselves doing office work or industrial labor.

Beginning sometime in the late 20th century, the average American seems (to me at least) to be less and less needed in the modern American economy. Jobs are automated or off-shored.

What do we as a society do about/with those "useless" people? It's a lot of people.

Or am I too pessimistic?

The useless people at least are the ones who buy the products created by the useful people, and if the useless people don't have any money, they can't buy products, and the useful people become less useful.

Of course, if the products are also exported, eventually the exploited people will figure out that they can cut out the "useful" middleman. Then we useful and useless Americans are all in the same boat.

We could make them all read "Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut. :)

That's the subject of the whole novel, and it's a really great one.

but sadly, kurt's answer in the book wasn't very satisfying. you could join the 'reeks and wrecks' and be miserable for the rest of your life, or revolt and be executed.

"The reality is that less than half of all doctorate holders — after nearly a decade of preparation, on average — will ever find tenure-track positions"

That doesn't sound too bad at all.

Presumably some percentage of doctorate holders do not want "tenure-track positions." Some might be good at things other then academia to which their academic expertise is useful. Some are probably already wealthy or old & do not want to work full time. Some are just not very good at being academics. You have that in every field regardless of training.

Being a history researcher is probably a less wonderful career path then Laws or engineering but I assume the students know this going in & prefer history anyway.

Besides, I know several PHDs working as academics with comfy 6 figure jobs that I would never hire for anything.

This article seems to be assuming that all PHD candidates are all of the highest "quality" and that even the bottom 10% would be flying high anywhere else and are wasting their talents in Academia. That's just not true. I'm sure that many are. These get their cushy professor jobs or do something else that they like.

And it would've been detected as such by this idea:


Have you put your idea in the Feature Requests


thread? I strongly support beefing up duplicate detection.

In this case I don't really see the problem. The previous submission was from 8 months ago. I don't understand why it's inherently bad if a decent topic is reposting a couple times a year? It allows for people to catch an interesting article they might not have seen the first time around.

Actually it would be good if a resubmission includes the previous submissions comments.

A lot of highly trained, unemployed talent pool of people available for teaching pretty much any humanities subject. Over priced tuition to be taught by a grad student or adjunct anyway.

The situation is looking very ripe for a disruptive business model offering the same quality of education online for a much lower price.

You aren't paying for the knowledge but the brand name on your resume. One student's fees alone probably covers two TAs salaries...

Exactly. Universities sell credentials, not knowledge. If universities actually did sell knowledge, they would have been put out of business by public libraries long ago.

"Universities sell credentials, not knowledge."

This is true if you're saying that universities sell credentials among other things but false if you're implying that universities _only_ sell credentials. They also sell a rich learning and networking environment; _structured_ knowledge that you're presumably acquiring from people who've already mastered a field and thus can bring you through it faster than you could on your own; motivation in the form of deadlines and so forth, which is often difficult for most people; editing / mentoring relationships that help you dialectically develop your skills; and a way to guide figuring out what you might be interested in.

None of that is to deny that universities sell credentials too, but if that were their only function, they wouldn't be essential to our society.

> They also sell a rich learning and networking environment ...

That is worth anything only if it will help achieve future profesional goals. You are probably thinging of a rich start-up culture. It can be awesome for engineering and business majors. But for humanities, I am not so sure.

> motivation in the form of deadlines and so forth, which is often difficult for most people;

There is some value in that. Universities used to play the 'in loco parentis' role in the past (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_loco_parentis). In other words they provide an environment where discipline and certain norms are enforced. I am just not so sure it is worth $120k worth of debt at the end.

> Universities sell credentials, not knowledge.

Could point. Therefore the diploma mill market. All in all it is just another bubble. The only thing that keeps the bubble going is that employers still screen based on degrees, therefore degrees are perceived to have value. Now I would argue for not even working for any employers that screen heavily based on degrees instead of extensively checking and matching a candidate's knowledge and personality fitness ... but that's just me.

> ... they would have been put out of business by public libraries long ago.

And a lot of universities already publish quality course materials on the web.

Uh, aren't we talking about the people who don't get jobs from their degree? Seems unlikely that such people care a lot about a brand name they won't use.

You're assuming that in-class education is the most significant thing gained out of college experience. Not necessarily true.

I am doing communications degree(easiest on campus). And you are right, if all I gained from it was material from my COMM classes, it would be pretty crap. But I each semester, at least 50% of my classes are in topics I am really interested in at the b-school.

Personally I like doing my communications degree because I can easily get the degree part of it taken care of and then nitpick classes all over the places that interest me. I came into school hoping to goto b-school. But the intro classes and the prerequisites at the b-school are so exhaustive and boring I gave up.

You might argue I am a special case. Probably. But here's one way you can make humanities work in your favor. They give you the much-hyped "college degree" and they let you pursue your other passions. For example, my COMM classes are full of basketball players:)

That is brilliant. I agree, pretty much everything that the university offers to humanities can be replicated without the university. The only subjects that require a university are the science and engineering disciplines that depend on expensive equipment.

Sorry to say, this article is very realistic about a lot of things. Since tuition got so high and heavy debt became common, starting college without a realistic idea why you're there is a bad idea.

There's nothing new about PhD's leaving school to find nothing, except that there are more of them chasing fewer opportunities. Don't expect colleges to clue you into these realities: it would be bad for business.

If you go to a top ten school in your field and have a prestigious advisor with some weight behind their recommendations then you'll be fine. The problem is that every school wants to hand out graduate degrees. If you're getting your phd in history from Northeastern Wichita State you're fucked.

A lot of the same things are true for law school. I think a lot of people go into PhD programs/Law school because it sounds prestigious and assume with prestige comes money.

(Disclaimer: Read this when it came out, haven't re-RTFA.)

Sad, but accurate. On one hand, some humanities academics are directly responsible for this; the attitude of many academicians that research was the "real work" and teaching was just commoditized grunt work ended up hosing the humanities. Physicists can afford to cop that attitude, because if they're great researchers the university will put up with poor/no teaching, but those in the humanities can't, because the transfer of culture to rising generations (e.g. education) is the raison d'etre of humanities departments.

On the other hand, the corporatization of the university and research world in general has been an unmitigated disaster, and it'd be better for all of us if the trend reversed.

It's not a matter of the general attitude of academics, it's criterion imposed by the institution - as the article says, it's an incredibly competitive world. Humanities must work extremely hard to achieve the requirement for tenure. A lot of them know quite well that teaching gets slighted in this process but simply don't have the time to do everything.

If by "some humanities academics", you mean the deans and heads of departments, you might be right but otherwise you're blaming the soldiers for the large-scale situation.

We've lost belief in all the principles that underlay the humanities, and thus we're succumbing to corporations. Plato's guardians were made to live like commoners precisely so they wouldn't subvert their skills to making a quick buck.

Are any Humanities Ph.Ds under the impression that they can actually do anything with their degree (besides teach)?

A Ph.D in CS is not, as I understand it, a prerequisite for success in a technological field, but PG was able to make use of it to start Viaweb. Could a Humanities Ph.D do anything like that?

I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in History in 2003 after getting the consolation MA, got an entry-level customer support job at a dot-com on the strength of some BSing and the school I came from, and accidentally found out my history degree was pretty useful for product management. Attention to detail, understanding source material and translating it into other languages (translating sales-speak is easier than working with Old Church Slavonic), writing skills, etc. Co-founded my first start-up in 2008.

I found this article by Rands very relevant when I read it:


In my experience it's not that humanities Ph.D.s can't do anything with their degree - in general, these are smart, analytic people - but that they don't want to.

In college we had a joke:

Those who study engineering learn to ask "how does that work?". Those who study the sciences learn to ask "why does that work?" Those who study account learn to ask "how much will that cost?" Those who study liberal arts learn to ask "do you want fries with that?"

This is a bit self-serving, it having come from an engineering school (where I was a CS student), but there's some truth in there.

Not everyone has the mathematical intelligence, willpower, mental health, and emotional stability required to make it through an engineering, science, or even business degree. In addition, many students feel they have to go to college just to get a job. For those reasons (and others) many students end up studying for a liberal arts degree. What should those students be doing instead?

There are lots of trade jobs and civil service jobs that pay very well. "Many paths can lead to riches, few in sunlight, most in ditches."

We had the same joke at the liberal arts college I went to...

Could a Humanities Ph.D do anything like that?

Of course--but that same person could do it without the Ph.D.

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