That Awkward Protestantism

The real reason for getting a PhD?

The real reason for getting a PhD?

I was going to write more on the subject of reading, but I was distracted by a conversation over at Historiann, where the comments thread revealed what is probably one of the most pernicious, and most peculiarly American assumptions about labor in general, and academia in particular. This assumption takes many forms, and has very different proponents, ranging from tenured faculty to former graduate students and some sections of the “old media”. It’s the idea that “entering a humanities/social sciences PhD program, if you’re not guaranteed a professorship at the end, is a useless waste of your prime earning years”.

Now let me add the caveat that there is much wrong with the structures of academia today. Adjunctification and the continued refusal of PhD programs to address the state of the job market desperately need to be addressed. But what academia does not need are more self-inflicted wounds – the reinforcement of the idea that a PhD is only good for teaching, a quiet acceptance of the idea that people’s value is determined only by their labor power and earning potential, and a refusal to think of graduate students as actual people with some agency and decision-making abilities. And these are precisely the implications of this “academia as narrow professionalization” discourse.

First, there’s the assumption that a PhD in, let’s say, history is good for one thing exactly – research and teaching in History. A number of discourses feed into that. There’s the claim, largely anecdotal, that having a PhD is a disadvantage when applying for non-academic jobs. The story is that employers are afraid of overqualified candidates (this is just a pit stop for them until they head back to academia), or that PhD candidates are not taken seriously when applying for positions normally intended for entry-level college jobs.

There are several problems with this story – it underplays the complexities of the labor market, for one. A lot of things goes into job hunting – networking, self-representation, demonstration of interest, personal qualities, and it’s not clear that controlling for all of those things, PhD-s come out worse off than other candidates. Indeed, the very comprehensive survey by the American Historical Association on history PhD job identified only two people (out of a sample of 2,500) who were unemployed and “none of them occupied the positions that often serve as punch lines for jokes about humanities PhDs—as baristas or short order cooks.” This fits well with the national data which puts PhD unemployment rates at around 2-3% (compared to the roughly 7% overall unemployment rate). Okay, add the usual caveats about the importance of contingent labor, and just how many people are actually happy with their jobs – but again, these problems are common to the job market as a whole, they’re not PhD specific.

The deeper problem is that this “PhD as professionalization” discourse presents the decision to get a PhD as a very specific and economic calculus. To those who say that a PhD gives you a lot of flexible, transferable, and useful skills, the critics respond – yes, but you don’t have to spend 6+ years getting them. There are much easier ways to do that. There are Master’s degrees, internships and other kinds of credentialing that get you faster to the place you need to go, whether it’s consulting, the non-profit sector, government, museums, or secondary teaching.

This assumes both that there is no value to the process of getting a PhD other than preparation for a specific career, and that graduate students are making uninformed decisions, because the alternative-academic career is always framed as a substandard, “inefficient” decision, rather than an thought out one.

But of course, people make career decisions based on non-economic factors all the time. In fact, given the rates of graduate stipends, you’d think that most people going into PhD programs have to be prioritizing other factors besides money. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of hanging out with a bunch of smart people. There’s the privilege of being able to devise and execute your own independent scholarly project. There are the rough, yet flexible hours. The scenery can be quite good if you end up in anthropology, history or another of those traveling disciplines. It’s a way to live in countries and places many of us would not have otherwise access to due to prohibitive work visa restrictions that do not apply to students. It’s a 50/50 chance of getting an academic job… (again, judging by the AHA survey), which is not much – but more than you could say about any other job that does not involve getting a PhD. Many people come to a PhD program after five or six years in the work force, which is not seen as weird – all the more puzzling that people doing the reverse keeps on being labeled as somehow “poor judgement”.

This does a disservice to PhD students – who actually reflect on these things all the time. In this age, in this economy, mid-life career changes are common enough – people routinely spend a couple of years after college in consulting and then go back to school for an MBA; they work at non-profits, but then decide to become doctors; they move to Brooklyn and freelance for magazines before going to law school; the practice law, and then enter PhD programs. The reasons for these decisions are complicated, and rarely boil down to economics, “making a career”, or some such. And nobody should tell them they’ve “made a mistake”.

Perhaps more crucially, it does a disservice to what a PhD program should aim to be. The idea that PhD-level studies are only useful if you intend to do research seems ridiculously simplistic. Sure, each individual “transferable skill” from a sociology, history, or anthropology program could be taught more “efficiently” in a master’s course, but surely the process of conceiving, developing and executing a major scholarly project is both an exciting social and personal project? Even if all you ever produce in the realm of scholarship is one dissertation – is that still not a compelling intellectual journey worth taking? And one that can contribute immensely to the scholarly conversation (I see unpublished dissertations cited all the time)? And of course there are alternative ways of developing skills in critical thinking and scholarly analysis, but isn’t the point precisely that we would want to have these ways be as open and as welcoming as possible to enable people with different skill sets, learning styles and life goals to benefit from them? By defining the point of a PhD as narrowly as “academic research” and dismissing all the other benefits it offers as “not efficient enough” aren’t we contributing precisely to the kind of taylorization of work-life that we criticize in some other professions?

Look, this point is clichéd enough to be printed on a fortune cookie, but this constant defensiveness about the “utility” of the PhD, and the insistence of the tenure-track job as its only “successful” outcome is producing more anxiety than it’s worth and is preventing people from enjoying the process, as one of many good possibilities for spending six years of one’s life. Or to cite that fortune cookie: “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

Really, guys. Stop making people feel bad.

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5 responses to “That Awkward Protestantism”

  1. Cloud says :

    I came over from Nicoleandmaggie’s links post. Thanks for writing this. I have a STEM PhD and left academia right after I got the PhD for industry. Roughly half of my jobs have formally required a PhD, but I think I could have built a very similar career without a PhD. I’ve always thought that the most important thing I gained from doing a PhD was self-confidence and knowledge of how to teach myself new things even when they are really complex and/or difficult. I’ve always assumed that something similar would be true for most non-STEM PhDs, but most posts and comments I read imply that there is something fundamentally different and that a humanities or social science PhD can only be useful if you get an academic position. Thank you for providing the counter-argument!

    And you are completely correct about the other things that go into a job search. I’ve never found my PhD to be an impediment when applying for a job that does not require one- but I almost always find jobs via networking and even then write a cover letter that makes it clear I am interested in the position on its own merits, not as a stepping stone to something else. I think most people coming out of academia are completely unprepared for how non-academic job searches work. Even in my industry, which has a lot of PhDs in it, the applicants coming straight from academia make a lot of avoidable, basic mistakes.

    • avelmet says :

      Yup, I think one of the central issues is that transitioning careers is hard no matter which career you are transitioning from – it’s just people tend to conflate a universal job-market issue with an academic issue. This is compounded by the fact that, as you note, often people in academic careers are unprepared for non-academic job searches because of the peculiarity of academia – but that’s a problem with professionalization, not with the PhD education as such. The education, it seems to me, should if anything make these transitions easier, since data comprehension, critical thinking and written communication skills tend to be high up on most “top skills employers are looking for” lists… Thanks for the STEM perspective!

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