Quit while you’re ahead

Bitch PhD posted this glowing praise of graduate school in the humanities yesterday:

Just Say No

She wrote in it response to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Benton that lists reasons why undergrads considering applying to a graduate program in the humanities should refrain altogether. He outlines many of the most common motives that undergrads have for pursuing more education:

  • They are excited by some subject and believe they have a deep, sustainable interest in it. (But ask follow-up questions and you find that it is only deep in relation to their undergraduate peers — not in relation to the kind of serious dedication you need in graduate programs.)
  • They received high grades and a lot of praise from their professors, and they are not finding similar encouragement outside of an academic environment. They want to return to a context in which they feel validated.
  • They are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.
  • With the prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life in college becomes increasingly idealized. They think graduate school will continue that romantic experience and enable them to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars.
  • They can’t find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don’t interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
  • They think that graduate school is a good place to hide from the recession. They’ll spend a few years studying literature, preferably on a fellowship, and then, if academe doesn’t seem appealing or open to them, they will simply look for a job when the market has improved. And, you know, all those baby boomers have to retire someday, and when that happens, there will be jobs available in academe.

And then explains why many of them later become violently disillusioned:

[H]umanities Ph.D.’s, without relevant experience or technical skills, generally compete at a moderate disadvantage against undergraduates, and at a serious disadvantage against people with professional degrees. If you take that path, you will be starting at the bottom in your 30s, a decade behind your age cohort, with no savings (and probably a lot of debt).

The great thing about this is that I’m right at that point where I can see things from both angles: I share many of the motivations for pursuing this and possibly my next degree, but I’m also fully aware of the dearth of academic positions available for graduates of this most abhorrent and first-to-be-underfunded of university departments. I’ve been very open with telling people that one of the reasons that I have pursued this degree, aside from my interest in it, it that I am afraid of the real world. All the while, I have held in the back of my mind some level of fear and loathing for the day that I will inevitably be faced with the choice of competing with hundreds of others for a meager number of academic positions, or else competing with fresh, young, and much more ambitious undergraduates for whatever positions I might be qualified for outside of academia.

One thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m exactly $0 in debt.


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