The labor market for humanities Ph.D.s stinks and other economic facts that should be obvious to everyone.

8 05 2012

Let’s get the easy comments out of the way. It’s awful that people with Ph.D.s are on welfare. It’s also awful that there are too many graduate students going into graduate school in the humanities in the first place (despite multiple warnings not to do so). The hard question is, what is the relationship between these two awful things?

Oversupply of Ph.Ds? Check. Deliberate restructuring of demand? Check. Did I mention the probability of tens of thousands in student loan debt that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy? Of course there are Ph.D.s on welfare then.

That’s why Jim Grossman’s admission that he’s never heard of a historian on welfare is so disappointing. I realize he told the Chronicle that that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, but he’s not really bothering to look for it either. On the other hand, the incomparable Michael Bérubé tells us:

“Everyone thinks a Ph.D. pretty much guarantees you a living wage and, from what I can tell, most commentators think that college professors make $100,000 and more,” he says. “But I’ve been hearing all year from nontenure-track faculty making under $20,000, and I don’t know anyone who believes you can raise a family on that. Even living as a single person on that salary is tough, if you want to eat something other than ramen noodles every once in a while.”

The “everyone” in that first statement should not include professors, especially tenure-track professors, who ought to know how bad things really are. Willful blindness is no excuse. And if you know how bad things really are, then don’t you have a moral obligation to inform prospective graduate students who might not know as much you do? The thesis advisers of those adjuncts on welfare are the people who should be most ashamed by that story. Do they even know? Do they even care?

Just because you love your chosen field does not mean that your students are exempt from economic reality.

Update: Looks like Jim Grossman’s ideas on this subject didn’t entirely make it into the story.



3 responses

8 05 2012

“Oversupply of PhD’s” is one of those phrases that makes me wince; yeah, there are more grad students than good jobs, but that can as easily be seen as “too few jobs.” As the number of undergraduates that need to be taught continues to rise, and the number of PhD’s which are given *doesn’t* rise — in my department and in my field, most departments are cutting their incoming classes — it becomes clearer that the latter is at least as accurate. In other words, there’s a Malthusian trap we should avoid falling into, where we blame the low price of labor on the abundance of laborers, thereby tacitly overlooking the economic structures that prevent sufficient employment.

8 05 2012
Jonathan Rees


Of course I agree with you. Hence the other factor cited there.

Still, staying the course on admission numbers in hopes of future improvement doesn’t strike me as fair to them. Grad students can’t even defer loan repayment anymore. That means grad school isn’t even a good escape from reality.

14 05 2012
Twitter is (mostly) a meritocracy. Academia (mostly) isn’t. « More or Less Bunk

[…] I want to try to take another bite at the apple and see if I can explain what I tried to say in this post a little better than I did last […]

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