Should You Go to Graduate School in the Humanities?


At least this is the view of Thomas Hart Benton in his most recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is Benton on why undergraduates think they want to go to graduate school:

They are excited by some subject and believe they have a deep, sustainable interest in it. (But ask follow-up questions and you find that it is only deep in relation to their undergraduate peers — not in relation to the kind of serious dedication you need in graduate programs.)

They received high grades and a lot of praise from their professors, and they are not finding similar encouragement outside of an academic environment. They want to return to a context in which they feel validated.

They are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.

With the prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life in college becomes increasingly idealized. They think graduate school will continue that romantic experience and enable them to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars.

They can’t find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don’t interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.

They think that graduate school is a good place to hide from the recession. They’ll spend a few years studying literature, preferably on a fellowship, and then, if academe doesn’t seem appealing or open to them, they will simply look for a job when the market has improved. And, you know, all those baby boomers have to retire someday, and when that happens, there will be jobs available in academe.

He goes on to offer “a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities”:

You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.

You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.

You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.

You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.

Much of what Benton says here is worth thinking about, especially his remarks about the ever-tightening job market. It is hard to argue with any of these points. But in my view he is way too pessimistic and bitter. Perhaps he is tainted by his own negative experience searching for an academic job. He also presumes that undergraduates are shallow, really uninterested in their subjects, and afraid of the real world.

I don’t know what kind of students Benton teaches at Hope College, but I encounter many history students with a deep and abiding interest in their subjects. They are not afraid of the real world. They want to pursue an academic vocation because they are called to a life of the mind. Such a calling sometimes transcends economic considerations.

Of course potential graduate students need to know that graduate school can be a long haul with no guarantee of a job at the other end. I keep this lecture in my back pocket and I pull it out whenever a student comes to my office to talk about graduate school. But if I sense that a student has a passion for the subject and is aware of the risk, I have no problem encouraging them to pursue an advance degree in the humanities.

I believe our friend Philip Vickers Fithian had something to say about this. Here is an excerpt from p. 61 of the Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Cohansey’s middling farmers believed that they were living happy lives because they owned farms and had accumulated a modicum of wealth through their participation in the ever-stable Philadelphia grain market. They lived, after all, in the “best poor man’s country in the world.” If Philip were to turn his back on the relative prosperity associated with this way of life, he would need to redefine the pursuit of happiness in a noneconomic way. In a statement that would be the envy of any twenty-first-century college professor who has tried to explain to a student why a major in a humanities discipline was a good idea, Philip favored the love of liberal learning over the quest for personal wealth or comfort: “I hold a free Education in so great Esteem, that I should choose for my Lot, to live in the World in low Condition, if Providence thought it necessary, as to Wealth and all outward Greatness, under the Frown of Fortune, & be blest with Learning, rather than possess the most ample Estate, & be blind with Ignorance.” He requested that his “whole Patrimony . . . be applied to help in finishing my Education, even if it should be expended.”

4 thoughts on “Should You Go to Graduate School in the Humanities?

  1. What Russ said. The fact is that there are some of us who couldn’t imagine doing anything else, and we’ve made the attending sacrifices. So long as students go into it with their eyes open, and so long as they are encouraged to non-academic employment opportunities, I don’t know what we could do to dissuade many grad students. Everyone in my generation (taking the Ph.D in the mid-to late 90s, that is) who 1) conducted a national job search, and 2) took whichever tenure-track job they were offered is now a tenured faculty member someplace they can deal with. The only people I know who left the academic track are people who chose not to take the jobs they were offered, and/or chose not to cast their nets widely. Some people won’t do that–but I’m not terribly sympathetic to the complaint that “I got a Ph.D. in Comp Lit and I can’t find a job in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut!!!” Most of us don’t, at least not on the first try.I don’t know what new Ph.Ds and current ABDs are facing–right now it looks like it could be the absolute freeze of the mid-1970s through the 1980s, when the majority of Ph.D.s in history anyway didn’t find work in the academy. Even if this is the case, there will still be committed students who want to go to grad school.


  2. I don’t think much of this kind of essay (and I’ve read several, though all think they’re the first brave soul to admit the truth). As a first-generation college graduate, I wouldn’t have considered graduate school without encouragement from professors, though they gave me a realistic picture of graduate school and the job market.I think there’s two things at work here. First, despite his belief that he’s so hard-headed and realistic, he doesn’t have a clue that the job market in most fields is pretty tough. A decade ago, undergraduates were pushed into computer science because the job opportunities were supposedly limitless. I’ve never made a definite count, but I think my father (a systems analyst and later a network specialist) was laid off at least 10 times in his career, often with several months in-between jobs.The other, as you note, John, is his own experience of finding a job. When I first read his columns in the Chronicle, with no idea who the author was or where he taught. Given his descriptions of where he had to settle, I wondered what kind of 3rd-rate podunk college he was stuck at – quite a surprise when I found out he was at Hope College, because apparently I think much more highly of it than he does.


  3. Eric: Thanks for passing this along. I like the Burke essay that Jacobs references, but all of it is so pessimistic and depressing. Granted, we should not rush into graduate school, but at the same time I think there are many who are called to an academic vocation.


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