Overeducated, Underemployed

How to fix humanities grad school.

The journalist and writer Anya Kamenetz once said that graduate students are “really smart suckers,” and I—as a Ph.D. who teaches at a liberal arts college—couldn’t agree more. It’s my view that higher education in the humanities exists mainly to provide cheap, inexperienced teachers for undergraduates so that a shrinking percentage of tenured faculty members can meet an ever-escalating demand for specialized research. Most programs are unconcerned about what happens to students after they graduate, and it’s not pretty. In all likelihood, a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma. A doctorate in English that probably took you 10 years to earn is something you will need to hide like a prison term while you pay off about $40,000 to $100,000 in loans. Your consolation: deep thoughts about critical theory.

I can only recommend graduate school in the humanities—and, increasingly, the social sciences and sciences—if you are independently wealthy, well-connected in the field you plan to enter (e.g., your mom is the president of an Ivy League university), or earning a credential to advance in a position you already hold, such as a high-school teacher, and even then, a master’s degree is enough. But this is not the place to remind undergraduates that most of them are out of their freaking minds if they are considering graduate school. I’ve done that elsewhere, and so have several others in the last few years. Now I’d like to suggest a plan for reforming higher education in the humanities that could, someday, make graduate education a responsible, ethical option for the students I advise, and students everywhere.

The first step seems reasonably straightforward:

1. Get organized, or get crushed. Higher education in the humanities lacks centralized leadership. There is no equivalent of the American Medical Association capable of coordinated action in its own interest. We should therefore assemble a group of representatives from a range of universities, colleges, foundations, and national organizations such as the American Association of University Professors. Together they can developstrategies for addressing problems such as unsustainably escalating costs for students and their families, the lack of learning among undergraduates, the declining respect accorded the humanities, a viciously exploitative academic employment system, and an unconscionable waste of talent (comparable to allowing 90 percent of neurosurgeons to work as bartenders).

The academy is unlikely to respond to directives—in fact, it’s likely to shrug them off. However, it’s vulnerable to the collective choices made by students and their families. That’s why a leadership organization should strive to better inform the public. Honest, potentially effective recommendations for reform would likely include some combination of the following:

2. Expose who’s really teaching undergraduates. Reliable, up-to-date information should be available about the employment practices of individual universities. Prospective undergraduates and their parents should be able to choose institutions on the basis of who is actually doing the teaching: tenured faculty with a long-term relationship to the institution and the protections of academic freedom (necessary for honest grading), or an army of transient, ill-paid, hired-at-the-last-minute adjuncts and graduate students without terminal degrees who are retained primarily on the basis of high evaluation scores from students (traded for high grades and low expectations). This information should have an impact on institutional rankings and the standing of graduates. Eventually, that might begin to reverse the trend toward gutting undergraduate teaching (now about 80 percent off the tenure track). If parents come to know how their children are being shortchanged—at such great expense—they might support reforms aimed at reallocating resources toward teaching.

3. Tell the truth about graduate school. Faculty members are the most important source of information about graduate school, and many of them should be better informed about the realities of their profession today. Many academics are motivated to reproduce themselves professionally because they see students as their “children,” they have little or no experience outside of higher education, and they regard a graduate-school placement as an accomplishment: They have “saved” a student from entering business. That’s why it is essential that students seek independent counseling from career services about their options apart from graduate school. Undergraduates should have access to accurate, realistic, and up-to-date advising that is focused on their interests rather than the labor needs of universities wedded to romantic notions about the lives of college professors.

4. Disrupt the graduate-school labor scheme. Independently verified information about individual graduate programs should be made freely available online. That information should include acceptance rates, financial support, teaching requirements, time-to-degree, attrition rates, and, most important, job placement, accounting for every graduate with specific details. (No more claiming that a visiting assistant professor—an academic temp—is “successfully placed.”) This cannot be a one-time report; it must be updated continually. Even though college fundraisers keep tabs on alumni easily enough, many graduate programs will resist it, saying that the data are too hard to gather and that they don’t have the time. (Also, the results will probably be damaging for most of them, including the most prestigious.) But pressure from the boards of accreditation, disciplinary and professional organizations, and, ultimately, the students themselves should bring most programs into compliance.

5. Train students for real careers. Graduate programs must stop stigmatizing everything besides tenure-track positions at research universities that almost no one will get. They should cultivate an “alternative academic” sensibility by redesigning graduate school as professional training, including internships and networking opportunities, and working with other departments and programs, including partnerships with other institutions, granting agencies, government, and business to cultivate humanists who are prepared for hybrid careers in technology (“the digital humanities”), research, consulting, fundraising, publishing, and ethical leadership. They should cultivate new ways for people with humanities sensibilities to build entrepreneurial projects outside of traditional academe, and make these alternative paths the norm, without shame. Successful programs should be celebrated as credible alternatives to traditional programs with poor academic-placement records.

The difficulty involved in each of those steps is substantial—and they could take a decade or more to accomplish—but I think even a couple of them could contribute to a gradual reorganization of higher education in the United States. The largest challenge, however, is the misguided investment of most tenured faculty members in the current system combined with the passivity of most graduate students and adjuncts, aggravated by the fear of unemployment that is now a permanent characteristic of academic life. You may be part of academe’s disenfranchised majority, but you don’t have to accept that situation. Which brings me to a “nuclear option” for bringing about positive change.

6. Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now. Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even the more privileged students I mentioned earlier—and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don’t have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.

In order to reform higher education, many of us will have to leave it, perhaps temporarily, but with the conviction that the fields of human activity and values we care about—history, literature, philosophy, languages, religion, and the arts—will be more likely to flourish outside of academe than in it. As more and more people are learning, universities do not have a monopoly on the “life of the mind.”