Don’t be an academic!

Ken writes:

Here is an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the job prospects for humanities PhDs at the moment. It’s called “the big lie about the life of the mind”.

(The author also has two previous posts worth reading here and here)

To give you a flavour of the pieces, some quotes from the former…

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.

Just to be clear: There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.

…and from the latter…

It is striking how often the word “love” is used by defenders of the current job system in academe; they would never use the word in their serious work. There is a double-consciousness about graduate school in the humanities. We often pretend that it is a continuation of the undergraduate, liberal-arts experience when it is really — like law school and medical school — professional training for one kind of position: a research professor at a university, and, failing that, a teacher at a liberal-arts college.

All of which comes back to the point: What good is professional training for a job that you are not likely to get, after a decade of discipline, debt, and deferred opportunity?

…and from the first paper I linked to above…

Graduate school may be about the “disinterested pursuit of learning” for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.


7 thoughts on “Don’t be an academic!

  1. Mairi

    Sadly, the article and previous posts sum up a widespread problem. I make the connection between withering of the arts and humanities (which is very much a factor in my university), with the burgeoning of managerialism and a narrowing emphasis on production and utility. John Ralston Saul talks about The Unconscious Civilisation.

    Its the world of the Rumsfelds and Cheyneys and the depressing world of Gordon Brown and all those others who are fixated on ‘the economy’.

    I am not sure that the word ‘civilisation’ is appropriate any longer.

    1. Dot

      I’m not sure the Arts and Humanities are withering over here, though certainly public discourse seems to have no language for what they offer of value to society or the individual, but what is happening in Britain and Ireland and the US is a tremendous over-production of PhDs. I don’t know about the US, but here and in the UK there is great pressure to recruit students to do PhDs because of the funding they bring in to the department (not to mention the cheap teaching they do).

  2. Belle Inconnue

    I think academics can be very precious about their special area, thinking it’s so hard for them, they’re so special, so misunderstood, it’s different for other people, etc. Actually this exact same situation applies in a huge range of different professions. I work in an art gallery and it’s exactly the same. we have an enormous number of people volunteering for us, and the pay, and prospects of a proper job are awful – even for those with phds. I think science is almost the same, excpet scientists are not merely trained to be university lecturers, but can also work in industry. the same thing applies to all sorts of areas of work – there are lots of people who hopefully want to climb the ladder into a well-paid professional job, but even with qualifications and experience the number of top jobs is small, so hardly anyone ever makes it.

    sorry if it’s even more depressing to think that academics are not special and no different from everyone else, but on the other hand perhaps there’s comfort in knowing you’re not being specially persecuted.

    1. Dot

      That’s true, Belle Inconnue. And those of us who have got decent jobs in academia, as I have, need to remember what a great job this is in many ways – fulfilling, flexible (out of term-time) and with a great deal of scope for independence and pursuing one’s personal intellectual interests. It’s still true, though, that a lot of people are being encouraged to do PhDs who are going to end up very disappointed.

  3. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Sometimes I think universities should be forced to give ‘conversion courses’ to all Ph.D.s – something useful to do with your hands. I would have gone mad if I hadn’t taken up needlework.

  4. It depends on how you do the PhD too. If you are funded, as Becky is, it’s just a three year job contract, in a sense. It doesn’t matter at the end where she goes. An academic job or another job altogether. She had a great job for three years. But if she had borrowed the money to do it, then, yes, it only makes sense if there is a job available to her afterwards. A one year MA makes sense without requiring a related job after, even if you borrow money. But a PhD really doesn’t work unless you’re paid to do it or you have a reasonable chance of a job at the end. Alistair Minnis told me when I started my MA that I should write off doing a PhD. He said there were no jobs and I’d be better off doing almost anything else. That didn’t sway me from wanting to go on to do one, though. The method and technique of research and writing required at that level of academic enterprise took care of my ambition. Still, I’m glad he was honest and watching all the people I know here struggling to find work I’ve been thankful I didn’t go down that route.

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