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Don't Go, Part 2: The Perils of Grad School in the Humanities (chronicle.com)
14 points by jseliger on April 16, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 9 comments



This can be extended beyond the humanities... Science and Engineering graduate schools are under increasing risk as the job possibilities of their output is reduced - reduction in DoD funding, outsourcing/offshoring, reduction in commercial R&D funding, etc.

Yeah, the Boomers' retirement will help, but that's not going to occur in the near term. Countries, somehow, have to be net job creators if they want to keep the tax revenue coming in and the government cash going out.


Philip Greenspun wrote a piece called "Women in Science" about this issue, which is at http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science . I think the emphasis on "women" is wrongheaded, especially since the majority of Ph.D.s in many humanities subjects—including English—go to women these days, but the essay is worth reading as long as you can ignore the sexism and pay attention to the discussion of incentives.


It's just as skewed a perspective to look only at the negatives as it is to only consider the positives.

Science and engineering may not be the paths to easy street, but at least there's some sort of perfectly rational story as to how an engineer can get paid: Someone pays the engineer to make stuff, and make stuff better, then sells the stuff. Engineers can actually expand the economy, with new resources, new things to do with those resources, better ways to use those resources, and so on. Yes, there's up-and-coming competition, but it's not as if we're going into that competition empty handed or as if the other side is populated with some sort of superhumans or something (yet); it's just competition. Cry about it if you must, but then get back to work.

For those with humanities degrees, and especially the PhDs we're really talking about in the context of this story, they are, not to put too fine a point on it, luxuries. Expenditures. Ones we're a bit overstocked on, too. And they do not grow the economy, their sustenance comes from producers.

This is not intrinsically bad. We have humanities PhDs in general for good reasons. I am not trying to draw intrinsic "goodness" judgments from this point, because that depends too much on your personal definition of goodness. The point I am trying to draw is that going into science and engineering in general is going to be a stronger bet over time, because you're much closer to the parts of the economy that generate economic value. The humanities majors are at the end of a much longer chain, with every middleman taking their cut, and too many of them trying to drink from the same hose. And what they generate may be valuable to humanity, but... it's hard to eat a thesis on the philosophical similarities between Marxist dialectic and Dingbellian Hypertrophisms as manifested in the movie Titanic. And that's before we talk about "oversupply", which drives the economic value of such things even lower.

I don't think science and engineering are particularly "increasing" in risk; they've never been perfectly safe and they continue to not be perfectly safe; I'm unconvinced the magnitude has changed much, it's just the delusions of safety have been replaced by reality. Humanities is at increasing risk, because in a contraction they're really, really easy to cut off, especially when there's more than we need. And contractions happen.

(Remember, as raw and as rough as it may sound, nothing is perfectly safe. When something is portrayed as perfectly safe, run screaming. Someone is either lying to you, or deluded, and neither is good. Engineering and science are as good a bet as you're going to find over the next 25 years, but in general, the closer you can get to generating value the better. You may get parasites, but try to find ones smart enough to realize they have to let the host live for it to work.)


It's wrong to equate science and engineering in terms of productivity. They're both technical disciplines, and a lot of what you learn as a scientist can be applied to productive endeavors, but science in itself isn't inherently productive.

Science is speculative. A good scientist is answering questions for the sake of the questions, and doesn't expect anything for answering them. She certainly doesn't expect to make something that can be sold for a profit.


Who's equating? I just said they're both more reliable than humanities; that does not imply they are equal. You can overspecialize yourself out of a job in science and engineering, but at least you stand a chance.


You're implicitly equating them every time you use the phrase "science and engineering", as if they were a dual entity. They're very different, and you're far more likely to be employable as an engineer than a scientist. Totally different beasts.


No, I'm not.

My explicit disavowal trumps your implicit-ness argument.

Go back and read it. I haven't edited it since you posted this, and it's not actually part of the point. It reads just fine without that.


It doesn't really matter whether you explicitly made the comparison or not. Science and engineering are totally different things, but you drew a bright-line distinction between them (as a group) and the humanities.

It's far easier to find a job as an engineer than as a scientist. That's all I'm saying.


This, by the way, is of particular interest to me because I'm ignoring the advice given in the article and am in grad school for English lit, as I discuss tangentially <a href="http://jseliger.wordpress.com/2008/12/28/laptops-students-di....




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