Is Getting a PhD in the Humanities Worth It?

15 02 2010

Check out this article by an English literature professor in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s all about the highly dysfunctional state of the academic job market in the USA, particularly in the humanities. Much of what the author has to say applies to history and the other social sciences, although the situation for us social scientists is somewhat less bleak because we have more options job outside of academe (e.g., think tanks, government).

This article has sparked a lively debate on the Chronicle’s website. There is a consensus that there are lots of unemployed and under-employed humanities PhDs out there. Alas, none of these people have asked why this problem has persisted for so many years. Why hasn’t the market cleared already? Fact: there are plenty of newly minted PhDs who would be willing to teach for much less than the average full professor. Fact: there are plenty of young people who want to study humanities at university but who find the costs difficult to manage (I teach some of these students) or who complain about large class sizes. So the question arises, why haven’t these two problems cancelled each other out already?

During the Great Depression, hunger was widespread. At the same time, foodstuffs were deliberately burnt is mass quantities.  This bizarre situation is analogous to the current state of the academic job market in the humanities.

It is not all doom and gloom. In the program where I did my PhD, about half of the people who got doctorates between 1990 and 2007 eventually landed tenure-track jobs. I know that some of those who did not get tenure-track jobs did so by choice– or rather, they were unwilling to have commuting marriages or to relocate to universities in non-metropolitan areas. Check out this table— some of the information in it is woefully out of date, but it gives you a sense of what the debate is all about.


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