Less Room in the Ivory Towers

20:26 Tue 14 Apr 2009
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From one form of labor exploitation to another, different but with some similarities: grad school in the humanities.

According to this article by Thomas H. Benton (the pen name, somewhat ironically, for a professor at Hope College), less than half of all doctorate holders will find positions holding the possibility of tenure (i.e. the top rung of academia and the only one with significant job security)—ever.

Benton claims that due to grade inflation and recommendation inflation, “there’s an almost unlimited supply of students with perfect grades and glowing letters” (thus making stellar students rather less rare than they might think); in a another column he refers to “students with egos inflated by a lifetime of empty praise”, so it appears the he has an axe to grind regarding how the American education system selects its top performers.

He points out that PhDs in non-technical fields can be worse than useless in the non-academic job market, but on top of this claims that for many, the grad school experience itself (discounting its economic aspects) is damaging:

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.
—Thomas H. Benton, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”, Chronicle.com, Jan 30 2009

The article does come across as somewhat bitter to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not on the mark as far as the economics go, and anecdotal evidence definitely supports the numbers that Benton outlines. Given how much debt graduate students in the US tend to accumulate, and given the economic climate, it’s hard to argue with Benton’s claim that graduate school in the humanities is only a reasonable choice in the following circumstances:

  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.

—Thomas H. Benton, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”, Chronicle.com, Jan 30 2009

(I came across this article via danah boyd’s Twitter feed.)

4 Responses to “Less Room in the Ivory Towers”

  1. monsun Says:

    “Less than half of all doctorate holders will find positions holding the possibility of tenure” – that’s pretty damn good. In natural sciences, the ratio of PhD students to tenured professors looks more or less like this: The Profzi Scheme

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Remember, though, that the 50% line in Benton’s article refers not to tenured professorships, but to positions holding the possibility of tenure.

  3. Tadhg Says:

    Nice cartoon!

  4. Helen Says:

    Love the cartoon!

    The stat that Mary works with is that 1/3 of all PhD graduates in the humanities will get tenure in the UK. For the rest of us, life after the Profzi scheme is even harsher, as unlike for natural scientists, there is not a ready and lucrative market for our skills in industry. But I will find a job, still, right? Doing something? Eeek?

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