Thinking About Humanities Grad School? Don't.

Friday, February 19, 2010

William Pannapacker, English professor at Hope College, and columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education, scares graduate students out of their library carrels with his most recent essay "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind.'"


William Pannapacker

Comments [36]

Bill from Midwest from midwest

I recently graduated with the Master of Humanities (interdisciplinary) with a
Classics focus. I don't regret it; however, I comprehend the apprehension and bitterness of those who have followed my path without a payoff. I lean in the direction of one blogger above who advocates for combining the Liberal Arts degrees with something vocational/applicable. A double major undergrad. or graduate level is possible. It gives a choice at the fork in the road.

Oct. 26 2010 06:46 PM
Dutchie from Netherlands

Living in Europe, whose academic life usually gets painted in rosy colours by Americans, I can only state: It's the same here!
Whole faculties get closed because they do not generate enough "student interest" (read: money). Recently, the last department of Dutch language and literature in the Netherlands was almost closed.
And the switch to the BA/MA system in Germany, the largest European economy, has resulted in a wild growth of "lecturer" positions, which are (poorly) paid per semester.
While the life of the mind is worth quite a few sacrifices, it cannot compensate for deprivation on this massive scale.

Apr. 06 2010 08:54 AM
S. (GI) from Brooklyn

Mr. Pannapacker's pessimism concerning job placement for PhD candidates in the humanities is neither surprising nor original. By admitting more graduate students than today's higher education market can accommodate, the corporate university cultivates its own cheap and expendable labor force in the form of committed (naively ambitious) TAs, while the same TAs go on to promote the label of the university that exploits them if they are "successful." It's a great system, and it's also one that characterizes the American work experience well beyond the academy.
However, Mr. Pannapacker neglects to remember the fact that once upon a time, knowledge was conceived of as something that was intimately connected to power, and that in many instances the humanities provide a space to accomplish something called critical thinking-a skill that is required to challenge systems of exploitation that occur within the university and beyond.
Perhaps Mr. Pannapacker should go back to school.

Feb. 19 2010 08:57 PM
Nic with some observations from Long Island

Your guest is completely right!! Thank you for coming forward WP. There are 2 major problems. One--The corporate university is concerned mainly with 1 thing--collecting your money. There’s really no concern or at best very little interest in making sure graduates find meaningful work in society. Granted I have a job in the arts, but I’m grossly underpaid. After graduating, should I really go back to waiting on tables or maybe pumping gas to pay the bills? I barely stay afloat.

Don’t waste your time in grad school unless it’s for a high paying profession with good job opportunities a waiting you!!

The other problem is, as a young person, you take warnings very lightly so things don’t register until one gets a dose of reality or when that sense of infinite youth comes to a halt whichever comes first. But I do think if the universities were more involved in presenting real hardcore stats, I, personally, might not have wasted so much time. I think young people need more guidance. There should be intervention!! haha

Even the Fulbright can't get a job!! WOW!! That's at least 2 and counting. This seems to be a serious - monumental - problem.

Feb. 19 2010 04:23 PM
Jay from New Jersey

Unless you already have a paying job I would not reccomend pursuing a PHD in the Liberal Arts.Even if you are working I would think twice.
It's a matter of financial common sense. Don't rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt for something that is most likely not going to pay off.
My father, may he rest in peace used the word saleable degree. Make sure the degree you get can be used.

Feb. 19 2010 01:51 PM
peter noble from cape cod mass

Your guest's views seem to be reflective of a common problem of unreallistic expectations shared by many graduaqte students inexperienced in professional working life. Regardless, the graduate school experience may still be valuable for those students as it can demystify, to an extent, just exactly what professional academic careers are like in the humanities. In addition, students can often pick up some survival skills that may serve them well in other office settings.

Feb. 19 2010 12:57 PM
peter from vancouver

voter, that is exactly my point :)

Feb. 19 2010 12:13 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

Simple question, Peter from Vancouver: What’s putting food on the table, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head—that is, assuming you have to work for those things and are not living off of inherited wealth or a spouse—is it history and the arts, or computer science? Which degree is the useful one and which one was the hobby?

Feb. 19 2010 11:40 AM
Former Grad Student in New Brunswick from New Brunswick, NJ

I totally agree with the guest on this.

Indentured Servitude: A system of employment where by employees pay a fee to gain entrance to the job itself. Often on the requirement of 7 years of forced labor.

The only major difference between this and our current higher education system is the fluidity of the debt. Just replace the passage on the sea for the degree we are forced to buy.

Those who can afford the fee get the jobs.

The goal of public education is to provide everyone the tools they need to succeed in life. But High School isn't doing the job and our public Higher Education system has been under attack for 30 years.

In fact, I am convinced that the people who want to become professors are among the most capable and intelligent people in our society.
Yet, we have a system that makes them brutally compete for slots in what is in fact a very fancy prison. Because, even if you become a professor, you are still alienated from addressing any of the real problems that your work may deal with. You're work becomes so specialized that is essentially meaningless in the lives of 99.9% of the population. Only other a few other Phds will actually read what you produce. Policy makers probably won't read it, that's why they created the think tanks to confirm their beliefs they already hold.

Otherwise you'll be in so much debt when you get out, that you won't be able to pay a mortgage, without a mortgage your retirement is gunna suck.

Get a high paying skill, I am focusing on the computer programming. Work from home. Limit your expenses as much as possible. And do what you love with all the time you're saving.

You don't need an English Phd to be a writer. You don't need a Sociology Phd to use data to create social change. You don't need to have a history Phd to be a historian.

As one of the best independent researchers once said, "Thus far the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it."

Feb. 19 2010 11:37 AM
AS from Manhattan

This is annoying. I have read the CHE articles and find them full of unsupported generalizations and some untruths. In my discipline at least (I cannot speak for others), full funding of 5 years of a program is almost universal among the 60+, plausible North American doctoral programs , and often extended. Most graduate programs post placement statistics on their websites (some more clearly than others, I admit). And EVERYBODY I know who advises undergraduates about humanities graduate schools at least tries to convey the dire hiring situation (some do this less well than others, of course). What evidence is there that there's some grand bait and switch deception going on??

Yes, the situation for hiring Ph.D.s is not great. Receiving a Ph.D. is not a guarantee of a job. Some very good people don't get jobs. Sometimes it's even the case that not so good people get jobs (views of quality do differ). How could it be otherwise? There's no single draft pool to dole out jobs to a group of candidates ranked on a single-scale. But even now, people do get tenure-track jobs right out of graduate school, and even more get them down the line. What's lacking is good data on the percentages, broken down by various relevant factors. This guy does not have it -- and it's not his field to get it. Anecdotes -- not even impassioned anecdotes about one's own deep unhappiness, touching though they are -- do not themselves count as good data.

I don't dispute that there are problems, and that we who can do something about them should work long and hard on them. But we should start on the basis of well-established, you know, evidence.

Feb. 19 2010 11:31 AM
peter from vancouver

rebecca, a business degree (to use your example) and an interest in the humanities are not mutually exclusive. i studied computer science but my interests are history and the arts. why should an interest in the humanities be formalized into a useless degree?

Feb. 19 2010 11:27 AM
William Pannapacker from Hope College

Those of you who are concerned about the breakdown of graduate education in the humanities: I hope you will add your comments to those at the end of my column.

Thank you,

William Pannapacker AKA "Thomas H. Benton"

Feb. 19 2010 11:18 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

#7 Rebecca,
The humanities will continue to be what they always were. Programs at elite institutions where wealthy people sent their children to be indulged in esoteria until they became professors living off of their trust funds or joining the family business.

Feb. 19 2010 11:02 AM
jen from Brooklyn

I have a PhD in English and appreciate the honesty of this program. I have done well: a postdoc, a tenure track job, but am brutally honest with my graduate students about the risks they will face. I don't discourage my students from pursuing PhDs but I do tell them to be open to a variety of teaching opportunities (from junior colleges to research 1 universities) and to be open to exploring jobs outside of academia.

Feb. 19 2010 10:59 AM
tonky from redhook

Advanced degrees like MFA's and MA's are needed by major research institutions as cash cows.

How else would they teach the hordes of incoming freshman?

And God forbid tenured faculty learn how to use a xerox machine!

Feb. 19 2010 10:59 AM
Margaret from Brooklyn

I went to graduate school in hopes to become a professor with a major in visual culture and theory. As I sought advice from professors and advisers at NYU as I began the application process, a lot of them simply said "Don't Do It!" advice I did not heed until I really looked at the facts, paired with disillusionment and inherent hoity-toityness of the industry. I decided I didn't want to be "beginning my life" saddled with debt, migrating to the work, and with the possibility of no health insurance or real job stability, not to mention the nightmare inducing tenure battle.

I made the decision to become a special education teacher through an alternative certification program next year and am also writing my master's thesis on the recession. Although the decision not to apply was sometimes taxing, overall I am thrilled, and sometimes relieved, feeling like I jumped off a sinking ship. (I also don't think I can tolerate the colloquial use of the word 'hermeneutics' for the rest of my life.)

Feb. 19 2010 10:57 AM

I recently graduated with a PhD in an arts related field. I could not agree with this speaker more, and I read his article on the Chronicle with great interest.

While I currently have a job, its been threatened repeatedly by budget cuts (I am a one-year temporary, and therefore expendable).

The job market is very bleak, and as a one-year temporary with a very heavy teaching load I have no time for writing and keeping up with the kind of scholarship that would make it easier for me to transition to a better position.

Had I to do over again, I would have gotten my Masters and moved back into the trenches of my field rather than sitting in my home office writing a dissertation that has indeed postponed my work and my family life.

Good luck to all...even those of us in jobs are still "on-the-market"

Feb. 19 2010 10:57 AM
Nina Malagi from north brunswick

In house college faculty politics and favoritism often means that professors have already hand picked those who will follow them-namely someone who will either enhance their own field or agrees with them.

Feb. 19 2010 10:57 AM
Rafael from Bronx

I even go further and ask my daughters(9th and 11th grades) to please not become teachers because of the unreasonable expectations in public schools in NYC

Feb. 19 2010 10:57 AM
Robert from NYC

Then isn't he promoting the demise of the Humanities if no one is there to teach them! Instead of discouraging folks from the Humanities just advise them how it might turn out and what they will be facing and so think about a second field to fall back on if their first "love" doesn't work out as they would have liked it to have turn out. After all this can happen in any field that one just doesn't get to where they intended; it's not Humanities specific!

Feb. 19 2010 10:56 AM
Danielle from Washington Heights

I agree with the guest. I obtained my MA in Art History and after much deliberation decided not to pursue a PhD. I work in a museum and am in regular contact with PhD students and graduates who are shockingly unhappy with their path. 99% of my colleagues say they regret the time spent getting their PhD. The process is long, arduous, uncertain, and their is no guarantee of even a low paying job. The real shame is that people pursue the humanities because of their passion for a subject, and that is often thwarted in the PhD process.

Feb. 19 2010 10:56 AM
Karinne from Brooklyn

I'm mid-way through a PhD in English at CUNY, and yes, cautious about envisioning the professorial future. The training of mind is unbelievable. The amount of time we all spend teaching comp instead of doing our graduate study can be onerous (though this means I have no debt). But I love teaching, and I expect to find a way to do it. The real problem is the drastic loss of livable jobs in college teaching, replaced by adjuncting, and this is something that the whole field, both university workers and university consumers--students and parents--need to reject.

Feb. 19 2010 10:55 AM
Anonymous from Brooklyn

Hi there!

And I have laurels and supporters.
Ivy credentials. Fulbright. Lots of other grants. Solid recommendations from the biggest in the field. A solid publication record. Great teaching experience and evaluations.

But after four years of searching, no go.

AND I have $50,000 in student loans;
$500 month payments. And I am unemployed.

Your guest is completely right. Those who make
it are an exception! It is NOT a meritocracy!

Feb. 19 2010 10:54 AM
History PhD from Rutgers from Princeton, NJ

I agree completely, most students should be actively discouraged from pursuing a humanities degree. When I was getting my history PhD at Rutgers in the late 1990s, it felt verboten to ask advisors/professors about ways to leave academia. And yet the writing was already on the wall by 1997 (and has only gotten worse since): only the lucky few were going to land decent tenure-track jobs.

Feb. 19 2010 10:54 AM
Lorraine from New York

It would help if faculty would not scorn students who are in graduate school but not planning to teach. If one lets it be known one is not planning to get a tenure-track job, one might as well announce that you have treatment-resistant lice.

Feb. 19 2010 10:53 AM
Andrew from Piscataway, NJ

As a community college professor, I'd like to ask your guest to speak to the growth of community college enrollments, the increasing federal funding given to community colleges, and the tendency of grad schools to avoid encouraging students to pursue the community college as a valid career option.

Feb. 19 2010 10:53 AM
Steve S. from Washington Heights

I'm a current grad student in an English Ph.D. program, and much of what the current guest says resonates with me. I'm in my 6th year but still not close to finishing. In the time I've been in grad school, many of my friends have completed law school, med school, business school, etc. and meanwhile I don't feel as though I've received any particular kind of training. Our professors may be wonderful people but tend to leave us to our own devices to sink or swim. I think, though, the biggest problem in the Humanities is a profession-wide malaise. As a grad student, I see how little even tenured professors enjoy the intellectual work of our discipline. Many, though not all, of them enjoy teaching, but publishing and conferences are not stimulating to most of us due to the overspecialization that has alienated not only the general public but also us from one another. Competition and backbiting such as the sciences may experience less of is also a problem.

Feb. 19 2010 10:52 AM
steve miller from scarsdale

Grad school is like sex. Fantastic, but you should never pay for it.

I read one of Prof. Pannapacker's pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I basically agree with him. I once dropped out of an anthropology PhD program - a field with similar career possibilities to humanities.

But there's a caveat to his position. If you can get funding, go for it. There's nothing more intellectually broadening than grad school.

Feb. 19 2010 10:52 AM
Jamey from Astoria

I would like to know the guest's feelings on obtaining a Master's degree in the liberal arts or humanities and the value in that. So far we are speaking specifically about doctoral programs.

Feb. 19 2010 10:51 AM
Rebecca from New Haven

Stop! This is disgusting. Yes, choosing to go to graduate school in the humanities can lead to an extraordinarily difficult life. But if this country devolves into the type of pathetic institution in which higher education in the humanities simply dies out because the students don't have the heart to at least try - and the type of place where society at large so undervalues and fails to support the humanities - then sorry, I guess I'll move to Russia, where professors are some of the most underpaid people in society but I'll take that life over a business degree any day, thank you very much.

Feb. 19 2010 10:51 AM
Mandy DeLucia from NY city

After studying Art History in undergrad, I felt that i would need a graduate degree to get any job in my field, I went on to get an MA in Museum Studies and racked up a mountain of student loans only to realize that the jobs I was hoping to get maxed out at about 50K a year in a city that requires much more than that for comfortable survival. I agree with the guest!

Feb. 19 2010 10:51 AM
Bill from New York

Thank you! The humanities is so glutted that it's practically fraudulent for many universities to offer Ph.Ds, because they know full well that they aren't producing anyone who can compete in the field.

Feb. 19 2010 10:50 AM
Merrill Clark from NY, NY

I am an attorney and the same is going on with going to law school. See WSJ 9/24/07 article featuring disgruntled law school graduate Scott Bullock. Link to story:

Feb. 19 2010 10:50 AM
Pen Name from Brooklyn

14 graduate programs are slated to be cut at the University of Iowa.

It's a sign of what we will see more of.

And there's a reason for it.

They are fewer and fewer jobs for Ph.D.s

THANKS for this program.

Feb. 19 2010 10:50 AM
Gary from Upper Left Side

Finally, someone in academia who is honest about the job prospects for those in the humanities. Get an MBA instead of a Ph.D.

Feb. 19 2010 10:49 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

Weren’t liberal arts typically hobbies for the generationally wealthy and not careers?

Feb. 19 2010 10:49 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.