Today on Slate Katie Roiphe offers the standard rejoinder to Rebecca Schuman’s standard denunciation of graduate studies in the humanities of a couple of days ago. Schuman points out the statistical improbability of getting a job in academia, and how ill prepared graduate school leaves you for any other profession. Schuman’s point is well taken. Anyone considering graduate studies in the humanities should think long and hard about what they hope to accomplish with their lives.
The academic job market suffers from the simple problem of supply and demand. At the same time as graduate schools are producing as many PhDs as ever, universities are decreasing funding for the humanities. Graduate schools have perverse incentives for maintaining large programs, despite the lack of a clear career path for their graduates. A large graduate program brings much desired prestige to the school and the faculty. A large number of graduate students also provide a cheap labor source for programs that are feeling the pinch of decreasing budgets.
The perverse incentives for the graduate schools have resulted in a surplus of academic workers. Increasingly universities are responding to this labor surplus by cutting back on tenure track positions and using adjunct faculty to teach courses. A PhD holder working as an adjunct might work for two or three schools a semester, as he or she tries to cobble together a meager middle class income.
This is the reality that Schuman elaborates on. Graduate students spend years studying a topic that they are passionate about, only to leave the confines of their schools and find no jobs. It is easy to see how this can be psychologically devastating. People’s lives are ruined by it.
Katie Roiphe responds to Schuman’s argument by arguing that even, if you don’t become an academic, the years you spend in graduate school will prepare you for any job you might find yourself in. Years spent focusing on a seemingly arcane topic will teach one valuable lessons about concentration and commitment.
Roiphe’s piece is fascinating in its breathless lack of self awareness. She has been groomed in the country’s most elite academic institutions (Brearley School, Harvard, Princeton), and enjoys all the advantages of such a pedigree. As Ross Douthat wrote recently, America’s elite educational institutions are valuable not just for the superior academic programs they offer, but also for the social ties that are fostered within their gates. Roiphe lists the post graduate school careers of some of her Princeton classmates: English professor at a New York City university, New York Times reporter, and law professor. I would venture to guess that this resounding success is not common for all humanities graduate students.
It certainly isn’t for Schuman who graduated from the University of California-Irvine. I don’t know anything about the prestige of the Irvine English department, but California has one of the finest public university systems in the country, and it is safe to say that she received a fine education there. She likely did not, however, have the same networking opportunities as Roiphe.
The exchange between Roiphe and Schuman is tired and uninteresting at this point. Schuman is right: going to graduate school may well ruin your life. Roiphe is more or less right as far as she goes: studying and learning is important and worthwhile. The question remains: what is to be done with the intellectuals? While making my own decision about graduate school, I read many pieces in the Roiphe-Schuman genre. I would read a Schuman piece, get discouraged, and worry myself sick about how I could put my smarts to work in a productive manner. I would then read a Roiphe piece, and convince myself of the justness of my cause. Yes the job market is bad, I would tell myself, but living a life of the mind is honorable and vital.
I ultimately decided to take a go at it and applied for fall of 2013. I invested a substantial amount of time, effort, and money in the application process. I thought carefully about where I would study and who I would study with. I applied to top schools, in order that I might have the best possible chance at finding a job.
I’ve been rejected by every place I applied to, and my dominant emotion is relief. For Roiphe and the rest of the educational elite, graduate school might be a no brainer. They have the best chance in the academic job market, and they have many other options outside of it. For the rest of the aspiring intellectuals, the story is much more complicated. There is certainly a lot more I could do/ could have done to increase my chances of getting into a top graduate program. Even if I had done much better, the path is far from clear. For now, I’m counting my good fortune at having escaped graduate school, and trying to figure out how I can be the best man I can be.