Getting a PhD in the Humanities Could Wreck Your Life

Monday, August 04, 2014

Finding a tenure-track position in the humanies is very difficult. (Copyright: Jorge Salcedo/Shutterstock)

Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate and Market Crash Course columnist at The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae hub, discusses grade inflation, issues between professors and students, tenure, the rise in adjunct professors, the perils of getting a PhD in the humanities, and other issues in higher education. After spending four years looking for a tenure track position after finishing her PhD in German, she wrote a guest column for Slate—“Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor”—and began her career as a higher-education columnist.


Rebecca Schuman

Comments [32]

Recovering Academic from Teaneck, NJ

All I want to know is if the photo caption is a spoof, besides for the misspelling of "humanities."

Gotta be one of the dumber captions I've seen in a long, long time.

How about any one of the following:
"Finding a tenure-track position in the humanities is harder than scaling Mt Everest in a bikini."

"If grad students think quals and dissertations are hard, they should try finding a tenure-track position!"

"Finding a tenure-track position makes the rigors of grad school look like kindergarten!"

"PhD in humanities: CONGRATULATIONS! Tenure-track job: HAHAHA!"

But as someone (not the grocer, landlord, or gas station manager) once told me, "Why do you need to be paid if you love what you do?"

Want to know the biggest challenge of life-after-PhD-and-no-tenure-track-position? Trying to heal from the bitterness about how little this country values scholarship and the humanities.

At least Alvin Ailey was recognized (posthumously)this year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But he was an entertainer, after all, not just some cloistered academic elucidating some point about 18th century baroque opera that may have stumped scholars for decades.

PS: Let's separate teaching from scholarly pursuits. Both are critical to a thriving society.

Dec. 31 2014 07:09 AM
Bill from New york

Teaching and healthcare are both labor intensive, but lack the productivity tools that other professions requiring well educated bright people. Economic productivity goes up in areas that get better tools, teachers still take 50 minutes to deliver a kecture, with chalk, or PowerPoint, and a 15 minute followup doc visit still takes 15 minutes. (Actually the medical records and billing system makes it take longer.) To pay competative rates, the charges must go up faster than the areas getting more efficient. Medical is not optional, so people pay it. Education is not so immediately important so state systems have continuously declining budgets.

Aug. 09 2014 11:06 PM
rick miller

As a college professor for 16 years (now a tenured associate professor eligible for promotion to full professor), I can validate everything Rebecca Schumann says. She could not be more right. Absolutely brilliant.

Aug. 09 2014 10:03 PM
Jeremy from Manhattan

Honestly, judging from the interview, she sounds a little small-minded and unimaginative. It doesn't surprise me that she didn't get a tenured job at an Ivy League school, or elsewhere. I have friends in the PhD track, and they are constantly getting feedback and signs concerning their job prospects afterwards. Maybe she was not paying attention to that feedback (and by feedback, I also mean not being recognized or having your work promoted or being asked to co-author articles). It's the same with becoming a writer or artist; just because you put in the time doesn't mean you are going to be recognized and rewarded for what you do. The world doesn't necessarily need more people with PhDs in German, or MFAs in creative writing. But they will always need, and reward, people with original ideas who can produce interesting work.

Aug. 09 2014 12:27 PM
Prometheus from Caucasus

This is just another example of the American middle-class going down the drain. Death by a 1000 cuts.

Aug. 06 2014 05:29 PM
CMC from New York

Hi I'm Rebecca Schuman and I'll take a large plate of entitlement with a side order of sour grapes, please.

"I always wanted to be a writer."

And there, my dears, lies the heart of the matter. People just do what you love, enjoy what you do, and leave the real work of being upset to those truly suffering and in need. Enough of this bourgeois upper middle class handwringing!


Aug. 06 2014 02:35 PM
Peg M from Scarsdale, NY

While visiting Tufts with my daughter this past February, I picked up a copy of their school newspaper. In it was an article by an adjunct professor at Tufts who has taught there for years. If he didn't also teach at Boston College, he said he would not even have healthcare benefits. After listening to Rebecca Schuman on NPR yesterday, I did a comparison of colleges to which my daughter is considering applying. The schools with the lowest number of non-tenured faculty are 2 state schools with 26% and 31%(out of state for us) followed by 2 womens' Colleges with 32% and 35%. The school with the most adjunct faculty on her list was Tufts with a whopping 64% adjunct faculty. It's also the most expensive school on her list (Tuition, Room/Board, and fees = $63,400).

Aug. 06 2014 12:24 PM
For My Sins from Northeast

I worked as an adjunct for 15 years for a Catholic college. (Joke: To teach at a Catholic college, you must take a vow of poverty.)
One of my books, published by the major publisher in the field, was a supplementary textbook in our department.
In addition to my own teaching duties, I would take over classes of my tenured colleagues if they were ill or out of town. I did this as a favor and wasn't paid for it.
Two textbook publishers requested prospecti from me, after they discovered my name and publications repeatedly appearing in the bibliographies of their textbooks.
My student evaluations were sterling, with old students going out of their way to come back to thank me for my course.
Alas, no Goodbye Mr. Chips, though.
One year, without thanks for all my years of service, without explanation, I wasn't asked back and that was it.
Adjuncts are temporary, substitute stoop-laborers -- without a Cesar Chavez to take up their cause.

Aug. 06 2014 09:22 AM
History Dr. from Los Angeles, CA

I earned my Ph.D. at a top university in 1991. Throughout grad school, we were warned that a tenure-track position at a good college or university was not guaranteed. Many of us thought that this warning didn't apply to us; we would be the exception. Rather than choosing to take a job in a place where I didn't want to live (no offense, southern Alabama), I pursued a different, though related career. It's been very satisfying. I think every Ph.D. student in the humanities knows how bad the job market is at the very moment he or she starts the program. It's a sad reality. But again, you really have to be blind or ignorant to think that the job market is any different from what it is. Sorry, but to be bitter at the entire system is pointless.

Aug. 05 2014 10:58 PM
JS from New York

I must admit I'm the "magical unicorn" - I got a tenure-track job at an Ivy League school right out of grad school. I'm aware this means readers might not take my comments seriously here. But I feel I must issue a rebuttal. I have read Rebecca Schulman's articles on Slate, and to be honest, I feel she is doing more harm than good and basically kicking academia while it's down. Don't get me wrong - the adjunct issue is real and horrible, and it's certainly very hard to get a tenure-track job.

I don't disagree with her politics, I just think that her perspective is ridiculously one-sided. Since my grad school started offering ph.d.s in my topic (the first student graduated in the mid-1990s), every student who finished the program got a tenure-track job, many of them good ones. Students who finished before me or at about the same time teach at Amherst, Northwestern, Texas A&M, University of Pennsylvania, University College Dublin, University of Toronto, and the Open University (in the UK). And my field is in the humanities (and no, I did not go to Harvard or Berkeley, though it is a good department).

I just feel that if I were a prospective student listening to this, I would think there is no way I can get a job in academia, it's hopeless, why even try. And you know what? That's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because with less people applying, there will be more reason to fold departments. I think it's best to be realistic, to fight for good wages and stability for adjuncts, and to try to grow the humanities. But doing so does not mean spouting off this wave of one-sided negativity that makes all of academia seem vile. Not only is it offensive, it is simply not correct and gives the field a bad reputation.

Aug. 05 2014 01:44 AM
Lori from CT

I have been an adjunct at a community college for 5 years. My experince has always been that the adjunct professors work hatder, are more ddicated to their students and complain less about their situation than tenured professors. I serve on the First Year Experince committee and was askd rcently to co-chair the most important and time consuming activity of the semester. I wanted to, but just couldn't because I kept thinking how low my pay was already. I declined saying that although I was honored to be asked, the whole situation would be different if I wasnt an adjunct. The committee head, a tenued full-time professor, looked at me with all sincerity and said, "You are an adjunct? I thought you were full time." Adjuncts work hard.

Aug. 04 2014 08:00 PM
K Trout from Nobosibirsk, RU

Ph.D. programs are eupphemisms for ponzi schemes.

Cheers !

Aug. 04 2014 02:43 PM
DocK from NY

Listening to the program and hearing - If you want to quit your job, get a doctorate and then go back to the job you were doing before you had your doctorate (if available), and think that it's "worth it" go ahead. (not a direct quote but that was the gist of it) - I finally felt, 'OK, I'm not the only one.'

I loved my doctoral program in Cultural Studies in Education with a major in the Psychology of Human Performance but positions as a professor were very few and then the APA decided to get in the middle of it and I was still not considered "qualified" in their judgment.

Prior to my PhD, I worked in finance in government but I loved fitness and the mind body connection and decided to switch fields. I did get a job with a college but finding that they wanted me to teach PE rather than be a "real" professor - I got out of there. I couldn't find a job, and as Dr. Shuman stated - what was out there wouldn't allow me to feed myself and pay my student loans. Yes, I got back into my prior field.

I do have to say that my doctorate helped. Performance Measurement and Management in government was the new hot field and my doctorate is essentially that but I took it from "performance excellence" in sports or fitness to operational improvement. Also, I am very good at research and any topic someone doesn't know anything about (but needs to), I am the "go to" person because I can research it and present it so others can understand it. The doctorate also has helped my salary level.

But, it feels disappointing and for a long time, I felt embarrassed. I wondered what the point of it was. Yes, the PhD helped negotiate better salary, but I also was completely out of debt before I started my studies. On the other hand, people would ask about my doctorate and then ask, "so what do you do?" and be understandable confused that there seemed to be little connection between the two.

So, somewhat comforting that I'm not the only one, but it is a shame that so many of us experience this when we went full steam ahead, trying to pursue the dream only to end up right back where we started.

Aug. 04 2014 01:44 PM
Larry from Brooklyn

I am a tenured full professor and I teach the same teaching load as the untenured full time faculty... I think it is only at elite research places that tenured people teach less.

Aug. 04 2014 01:21 PM
Gemma from Homeless

Remember this article about a homeless adjunct professor in the NYT? WITHOUT TENURE OR A HOME

Aug. 04 2014 12:46 PM

My husband is an adjunct at a state university and at a private Catholic college. Because adjunct faculty at the state university are unionized, he makes 1100 more. Also want to confirm what a previous caller said about students losing out because adjunct faculty do not have office space or time to meet with students because they have to shuttle to teach at different schools due to being limited to teach only 2 courses.

Aug. 04 2014 12:36 PM
Debbie Hamilton from Brooklyn, NY

This is my profession so this issue is dear to my heart. Please sign the petition for better wages for adjuncts.

Aug. 04 2014 12:36 PM
Julia from Manhattan

I often find myself wondering why students and professors don't figure out how to cut out the middleman. Is it naive to think that maybe groups of awesome professors could team up and become an accredited "universities" and just work with students directly? Personally I'd rather not pay for a school president and a massive campus, etc, etc... particularly when it comes to grad school. I just want to go to class and study and learn in as cost effective a way as possible. I'm happy to give my money straight to the professors. I spend less, they make more. It's a win-win!

Aug. 04 2014 12:32 PM
Ari from Manhattan

ON GRADE INFLATION: Sadly many young professors are simply terrified by the prospect of getting bad teaching reviews on Experiments have proven and experience tells us all that the more generously you grade your undergraduate students, the more they affirm your "good teaching," especially at lower tier colleges where students are struggling to pass. Grade these students according to real standards, and many students will rip you as a dud-professor. And young academics fear (with good reason, sadly) that their job prospects and promotions in part depend on reviews. College administrators and even some faculty search committees actually look at these kinds of websites (where you can also be rated for your "hotness") when judging candidates. Adjuncts are the most vulnerable as they have no protection and and many are perpetually looking for a full-time job. Just another example of how academia has been corrupted and corporatized over the years. Overpaid administrators selling dumbed down education to "consumers" while the majority of teaching is done by shamefully low paid adjuncts. The entire system is broken every and any way you look at it.

Aug. 04 2014 12:31 PM

I absolutely love what I study as a Ph.D. student and have funding, but I do not want to try to stay in academia past the Ph.D. for the reasons the guest is explaining. One issue she may not have raised is that many students today are not prepared to critically read and write essays by the time they reach college. I find I have to spend a tremendous amount of time going over information they should have learned in high school, which not only increases my workload as a TA but also gives me a sense of the crisis at all levels of education in this country.

Aug. 04 2014 12:30 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Academia is oversized. The academic bubble is bursting. Good riddance. What we need are high schools that produce workers, not colleges that produce malcontents.

Aug. 04 2014 12:28 PM
History PhD from Brooklyn

I received a history PhD this past spring and will begin a job outside of academia this fall. The suggestion that the answer to this crisis is to limit the number of graduate students concerns me. I spent two years on the academic job market without any success, and yes - it was demoralizing. That said, no part of me regrets my time in graduate school. If we want to continue to argue for the relevance of the humanities or a liberal education, shouldn't we also be encouraging graduate students to share their knowledge and skills outside of academia in policy, government, or education? Perhaps the issues is that graduate schools cultivate the idea that academia is the only valid, legitimate, and worthwhile option - a perception that discussions about curtailing graduate numbers to fit with job prospects simply perpetuates. I am a better citizen, thinker, teacher, and human being with the perspective I gained during my graduate education.

Aug. 04 2014 12:28 PM
sally from NYC

At The New School the adjunct faculty are organized and have a union.

Aug. 04 2014 12:26 PM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

Spoiler alert - it's lavender.

Aug. 04 2014 12:22 PM

True facts :

A 1950 Rutgers student (on the GI Bill) paid $1250 tuition for FOUR YEARS here in New Brunswick.

A 1981 Rutgers student paid $1,170 PER YEAR for tuition.

A 2014 Rutgers undergrad (in state) will pay $10.954 + $2,679 in fees.

Tuitions are tracking GDP growth, where incomes are not. This mistake is going to cost us.

Aug. 04 2014 12:20 PM
Guy from NYC

I think this woman has the right idea and should be listened to. Publish and perish is exactly what is going on.

She parried Lenny's "tenure" question well and has put important focus on where the money is going.
Rather than try out the "education reform" that is failing disastrously at the lower levels, the public should call upon universities to account for their clear decision to eliminate tenure lines in favor of bloating bureaucracies, luxurious dorm rooms and whatever the hell else they are doing with it. There are future consequences to think about.

Excellent segment so far.

Aug. 04 2014 12:19 PM

I teach at two colleges in NYC, and estimate non-tenured professor's salaries and benefits are around 5% of total tuition. One might argue endlessly about cost of real-estate and other expenses are high in the city, but the course content is arguably more important than the building.. The fact is there is an oversupply of teachers, so the market works its magic.

Aug. 04 2014 12:17 PM

I work in a department at a public university and only one of all the tenured professors wants to teach.

Aug. 04 2014 12:14 PM
Andrea from Philadelphia

I'm a recent Ph.D. without a tenure-track job. There's a lot of talk now about finding/making alternate careers outside the academy. How did Schuman find her way into working as a higher education columnist? Does she have any advice about how to shift into other kinds of work after pursuing a doctorate?

Aug. 04 2014 12:12 PM
Larry from Brooklyn

Fewer full time faculty but tuition goes up. Why? More administration (many of whom have doctorates in higher education admin and do who knows what). Students get fewer contact hours with part time faculty because those faculty often must teach at more than one institution with no benefits whatsoever. The current value placed on STEM (I am in a STEM field myself) has pushed the humanities out.

Students and their parents are more interested in training, not learning. The pressure is on to get education for free with less effort. I do not think the future of higher education is bright. I feel I am a member of that last generation with a traditional position.

Aug. 04 2014 12:12 PM

The current situation is comparable to eating your seed corn. What happens when the current supply of professors has retired and not enough grad degrees have been awarded to sustain all the programs nationwide?

Will universities resort to Max Headroom for seminars? Can't see them being able to charge full price for distance learning classes.

Aug. 04 2014 12:09 PM
Jerk Store

Elusive seems more appropriate than illusive, they do exist

Aug. 01 2014 08:36 PM

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