alt-ac careers and the purposes of humanities doctoral programs

Marc Bousquet has a piece in Inside Higher Ed on the topic of alt-ac careers and the disciplinary-institutional motives of departments and universities in relation to them. I really don’t disagree with him, particularly when he writes:

faculty like having graduate programs and, perhaps more to the point, administrators need them. For faculty, grad programs confer status, provide emotional gratification of several kinds and legitimate the teaching of fewer, smaller classes. Crucially, however, administrators need doctoral programs across fields to maintain the institution’s Carnegie classification.

He suggests this is a cynical explanation for the motives of having doctoral programs even when there are clearly not enough tenure track jobs for all the students. But I don’t think it is really all that cynical at all. Faculty enjoy teaching graduate courses and graduate students. On it’s face, there’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with administrators seeking to improve the reputation of their institutions by having such programs. And as long as students freely enter those programs without illusions of what they offer, then I’m not sure there’s any malfeasance here.

What would be cynical and deeply problematic is if graduate programs sold themselves like commercials for for-profit online universities that promise entry into the middle class when so many of their students just end up deep in debt. That is, if doctoral programs are promising tenure-track jobs and a chicken in every pot then that’s unethical. If they can cite real statistics about completion rates and tenure track job placement at the point when students are choosing to attend, then  students can make informed decisions, and I think those programs have done their job.

As Marc points out, PhDs in the humanities have low unemployment rates and generally good jobs and incomes, even if they don’t get tenure track jobs. That said, in strictly financial terms, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to get a Phd in the humanities. Even if you end up landing a tenure-track job, you still probably could have ended up better off financially following a different path. But if that was your priority then you’d probably not be considering a humanities phd anyway.

Thinking back on my own decision a little over 20 years ago to go to a phd program, certainly I had it in my mind that I would like to become a professor, but if you’d told me there was only a 20-30% chance that I’d find a tenure-track job (which no one did), I don’t think it would have deterred me. After all, I’d just spent two years in New Mexico writing poetry in a creative writing MA. I continued on to a doctoral program because I enjoyed my master’s program, not because I thought it would get me a great job. Somewhere in the middle of the degree program I got married and started thinking about having a career. That pragmatism influenced my decision to specialize in rhetoric.  A few years later, when I was a postdoc at Georgia Tech in the late 90s, many of my colleagues were leaving academia for start-ups or technical writing jobs or management consulting gigs. I happened to land a tenure-track job, but it could have easily gone a different direction.  So I’m hardly a role model, but in the conversations I’ve had with our incoming grad students, my orientation to job prospects as a new grad student is not atypical.

In the end, I am completely on board with Bousquet’s suggestion that we need to insist that we create more tenure-track teaching-intensive positions or, at minimum, such positions with lengthy contracts. Fo me, that’s a separate although related concern.

So the bottomline.

  1. Spending 8 years getting a Phd in the humanities probably doesn’t make good financial sense.  So don’t do it for that reason. (I know, that’s a shocker.)
  2. If you want to get a Phd for other, non-financial reasons, then, as they say, “it’s a free country.” However, it’s important to have both a national and program-level understanding of the career prospects of your degree, because at some point you will be looking for a job and you should at least make an informed decision.
  3. For different reasons, we should make an effort to create better careers for college teachers, though even if we did, point #1 would still apply.
  4. Part of creating such college positions should be thinking about the alternative-academic careers Phds pursue on our campuses and ensuring as well as we can that those are well-paid and secure positions.