The humanities PhD and the meaning of life

1987: just received the title "doctor of philosophy"

Just over a week ago digital fisticuffs broke out among historians and other humanists. Unlike the typical humanities knife fight, where someone gets called a racist or else uses Foucault to cudgel the theoretically blinkered, this clash had to do with teaching. In fact, even more startling, this one had to do with advising, an area you would think would inspire as much controversy as the meaning of Thanksgiving. (Oops—okay, bad example.)

Larry Cebula at Northwest History kicked off the fracas with an open letter to his students, “No, you cannot be a professor.” “Every long-term educational trend,” he explains, “points towards the end of the professoriate.” Instead of living the dream like Larry Cebula and me and Richard Dreyfuss, students seeking history PhDs today will almost inevitably fall victim to the casualization or adjunctification of the humanities higher ed, teaching many classes a term for a small percentage of a regular faculty member’s pay, with no benefits and no real prospects of gaining a tenure-track position. Cebula also hammers home the opportunity costs of following the chimera of academic humanism. Even if you successfully earn a PhD, “you will find yourself with student loan payments equivalent of a home mortgage but no home (and no equity), no retirement savings, and banking on the thin chance of landing a job in some part of the country usually only seen on American Pickers.”

These are hard words for an idealistic undergraduate to hear, though in a milder form I received the same message from one of my professors, Ernst Ekman, at the University of California, Riverside, way back in the late 1970s. So I can understand that an undergraduate would want a slightly different point of view. Since this went into the www, the alternative viewpoint came along fairly quickly. Holger Syme, at disposito, counsels, “Yes, you can be a professor.” As he says there, the situation in English literature probably matches the dismal scene in history higher ed.  Even so, the universities will not all close. Humanities programs will survive, and these will need a steady stream of new academics. Some people win the lottery, some are hit by meteors. And a statistically higher percentage also find and land tenure track jobs in the humanities. For those who have the ability and the passion, Holger Syme says go ahead—someone has to keep these disciplines alive. As to the opportunity costs, “Cebula likely rather overestimates the opportunity cost of getting a PhD, but even if he doesn’t: so what? Has anyone ever been under the illusion that working as an academic in the humanities was a quick way to wealth, homeownership, and a stable nuclear family existence?” (And remember, this is the positive side of the argument.)

Well, we historians have seen this kind of divide before. The Duros and Blandos in the Argentine military. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Even though I’m sure they could find some common ground in a personal discussion, their default advice goes in opposite directions. Sean Takats, a history professor at George Mason, introduced a social psychology perspective to this debate (survivor bias / survivor guilt) and also tried to quantify the “lost opportunity” argument made by Mr. Cebula. For Takats, leaving a well-paid job with IBM to pursue that history PhD meant the loss of almost half a million (!) in salary and expected raises, quite apart from bonuses. No mortgage and no equity either (of course, lots of people in the last few years have ended up with a mortgage and no–or negative–equity). One of the commenters on Takats’ posting offered some reality testing. He was a teacher at a private school, making only slightly more than he made as a graduate assistant in his doctoral program. That matches my own experience. I earned my daily bread teaching at a Catholic high school, which, at least at that time, did not have a salary schedule that exactly matched IBM’s. The career path forked pretty clearly in front of me—keep teaching high school with the prospect of a well-paying position in the public system, or strike out for higher academia. I gave up, or at least deferred, the possibility of the public job for the mean streets of New Brunswick.

But according to Damon Horowitz, a successful tech entrepreneur and currently the in-house philosopher at Google, Sean Takats did exactly the right thing when he turned his back on IBM and its filthy lucre. “I see a humanities degree as nothing less than a rite of passage to intellectual adulthood. A way of evolving from a sophomoric wonderer and critic into a rounded, open, and engaged intellectual citizen.” Wait! This is someone from the tech side? He’s advising what? What about those opportunity costs? “You imagine, for a moment, the prospect of spending half a decade in the library, and you can’t help but calculate the cost (and ‘opportunity cost) of this adventure,” he writes. “But do you really value your mortgage more than the life of the mind? What is the point of a comfortable living if you don’t know what the humanities have taught us about living well?” Holy cow! Strike a blow for the Blandos.

This divide is a genuine philosophical issue, the kind described by William James, one with “cash value” (literal and metaphorical). The side you choose makes a difference in what you do with your life, or what you advise your students to do with theirs. I think the best approach is to make as much information available as possible, and help students understand the consequences of their decisions. When one student came to tell me he wanted to become a history professor, I took him to the division’s work room where we stored the applications for a position we were searching for (in this case, in political science) . His eyes widened as he looked over the three boxes jammed with about 200 applications. But the profession has provided plenty of grist for this philsophical mill. A 2009 paper at the American Historical Association (AHA) meeting gave detailed numbers and charts on the expansion of history PhDs and the decline of work for same. The paper concluded that more and more of these talented, well-trained young people should move toward work in areas allied with history. A much more recent paper co-authored by the president and executive director of the AHA urged prospective historians to quit thinking of public history or another field outside of higher education as “plan B.” They give figures for the employability of history PhDs as bracing as anything offered by Larry Cebula. “Yet,” they continue, “graduate programs have proved achingly reluctant to see the world as it is.” I can only hope that the faculty in graduate programs begin to take seriously the advice of Jim Grossman and Anthony Grafton—to shift their perspective away from reproducing themselves in the students who go into graduate work in history, and to begin to rework the training available in PhD programs to help students take the craft of history into more parts of the public and private sectors.

So, if any undergraduate history majors have persisted to this point in these reflections, then maybe you have what it takes to earn a PhD. But I urge you to consider the advice that follows:

  1. History majors can find attractive, interesting work, the kind you will look forward to every day. But these jobs are highly competitive, and most will require both some graduate education and work experience (internships! volunteering!) in the field to land the job. Go back to the Cebula article, and read to the end, where he offers some very good directions for those who want to make history their vocation. “There are some great jobs in public history–working for local government, or federal agencies, or museums, or as an independent contractor, or a hundred other things. These jobs are also competitive and hard to break into, but there are more of them and you only need an MA. Or you could get certified and teach history in the public schools–again, quite competitive but not nearly so much as college teaching.” The M.A. degree, in various specialized fields, makes perfect sense for most undergraduates. More and more, the master’s degree is the entry ticket to work in professional fields. The one area where a master’s is desirable but still not necessary is teaching. If you plan to teach, you should have a degree in the field you teach and not in education. Your depth of knowledge of the content will make you a better teach. No argument there.
  2. And perhaps that means earning a PhD. For someone with an established career at the high school level, seeking a doctorate in your field makes sense (not as much sense as saving your pennies and buying AAA-rated mortgage securities, of course, but those who yearn for history doctorates are not normal people). If more history teachers had the experience of graduate school, the give and take of seminars, the slow plodding work of writing the dissertation, they might  get better at showing their students the value of history in their lives. Any minutes spent watching presidential candidate debates will prove that we need a better sense of history. And these better educated historian-teachers might feel emboldened to take over the history curriculum from state boards of education.
  3.  Finally, if you believe that you must seek a career in academia, then pay careful attention. You must work at one of the top programs in history. The top program will differ, depending on the specialty you want to pursue, but find out which programs are recognized as the leading ones in the country. There are not that many of them. Decide which faculty members you want to work with, and make a mercenary judgment about what aid they might give you as you enter the Darwinian struggle of the academic job market. If you cannot get into one of the top programs, then go back to points 1 and 2.

Update (2011.11.29): Larry Cebula responds to comments on and responses to his blog.

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