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Academic careers in the humanities.
October 13, 2009 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Tell me why you decided NOT to pursue a PhD.

My partner, an academic, thinks that the humanities departments in the US are suffering a major brain drain-- that smart students these days are drawn to law, consulting, science, investment banking, etc., and NOT to graduate study in the humanities. I'm inclined to disagree but of course I have no evidence for either view. I'm curious to hear the experiences of people who considered pursuing a PhD and an academic career (especially in the humanities, but all fields welcome) but ultimately decided not to. It seems to be common knowledge that it's a very tough job market out there for recent PhDs, and I'm wondering if that grim reputation has actually deterred people who are making decisions about graduate study and career paths. I'm also curious to know how prospective or current grad students weigh the pros and cons of a potential academic career-- the specific intellectual satisfactions versus any frustrations you think are specific to academia.
posted by ms.codex to Education (67 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
When my faculty adviser told me that "the future is a scary thing". This occurred on the first day of my MA/PhD program.

Really. My job prospects had nothing to do with it -- my decision was purely due to personal antipathy (I figured my life would be filled with people like this particular professor).

I bailed after I got my MA, and it was the best damn decision of my life thus far. I specialized in Literary Theory, if that matters.

I now work in fairly hard-core engineering (real engineering, where people die when you make mistakes, not "software engineering").
posted by aramaic at 9:32 PM on October 13, 2009


I am not in the humanities, but I have a few friends who did exactly what you were looking for.

If I can channel them for a moment:

"Spending a decade learning zero job skills to fight tooth and nail for a tenure track position, which does not pay well and chains you to a single location for your entire career ... OR ... work 9-5 as an MBA grad at a myriad of jobs and locations AND be able to afford all the books you could ever want. The choice seems simple.".
posted by Spurious at 9:38 PM on October 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Money. Money. Money. And I didn't want to spend years of my life shoring up an English department by being underpaid to teach English 101 to resentful undergrads.
posted by kathrineg at 9:40 PM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I dropped out of a Humanities PhD 6 months ago, after having worked at it for over 2 years. The tough job market deterred me, sure. But so did the fact that it finally became obvious to me that nobody whose job I DID look at and desire, had won their position through having the higher qualification. Rather they had years and years of work experience and practical know-how (I'm in the arts by the way). Ultimately though, the biggest deterrant was the sheer loneliness of a life in solitary research (my department was quite small and isolated). I much more enjoy the constant collaborationa and interaction of the workplace.

Also, it was not that the life of an academic was totally unappealing, it was more that the chances of me getting a decent academic job in my field are so small as to be almost non-existent.

This and this sum it up pretty nicely, although you may have seen them already.
posted by Weng at 9:44 PM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Current PhD student here, albeit in the social sciences. The great paradox of academia is that at the same time as it draws its participants from the most anxious, neurotic pool of people, it also is one of those environments that will absolutely amplify anxiety and neurosis.

A pro of the academic life: You don't have the 9 to 5 workday, which at least to me seems interminably long. You work when you want to. Your schedule is flexible. I go to the supermarket at noon on a Wednesday when it's completely empty.

A con of the academic life: You don't have the 9 to 5 workday, which means that, unless you have tremendous self-control and a golden work ethic, you will never be free of work. You don't get to go home at the end of the day and think "ah, now I get to relax and not think about work again tomorrow morning!" At times your life will seem to stretch out ahead of you, a chain of one unfinishable task after another until the day you retire (and, let's face it, academics never actually retire).

Granted, I love being an academic, and I can't imagine what I'd be doing if I weren't in grad school. But I mean that literally: I have no clue what else I could do. This is what I'm good at. If I had marketable skills and could get paid a decent salary for doing something else I enjoyed... well, I'm not sure what decision I would make.

Sure, there's a case to be made for the virtues of living a life of the mind, but... to be honest, I think that's mostly something academics say to convince themselves that they made the right choice. I don't think being an academic is inherently more virtuous than any other profession. (Except for maybe a television news pundit.)

(As background information, I'm getting paid to go to grad school, and it's a top program with comparatively good job placement prospects. And I don't have to worry about that for a while because it's a damn long program. So my experience probably differs from many others, since I am in a relatively privileged position.)
posted by pluckemin at 9:53 PM on October 13, 2009 [10 favorites]


I wish I could find the link for it, but for the humanities, apparently you make LESS money overall if you get a graduate degree than only a bachelor's, once you take into account the cost of education.
posted by Nattie at 9:53 PM on October 13, 2009


In my field, computer science, the conventional wisdom is that people with masters degrees are the ones who stayed in school because no one would hire them after they cot their BS. People with Ph.D's are the ones who didn't get hired on their second chance, either.

In other words, grad schools get the people that industry doesn't want.

(And I'd like to mention that people can die because of software bugs, too. A friend of mine used to be involved in doing the software for avionics in fighter jets. On the wall of his office was a big sign: "If our software crashes, so does the jet.")
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:56 PM on October 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


I spent a year in a history PhD program, fled in terror, went to law school, and am now a lawyer.

I loved history as an undergrad, my undergrad advisors thought I had an extremely bright future as an academic, and I coveted the academic life. Then I got to a top-10 ranked program, was told to expect the degree to take at least 10 years, at which point I would be very lucky to get a job working at a mediocre four year school somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I suffered from severe depression that year, exacerbated by the atmosphere of my department and school (unsupportive and bitter), and got kicked out after I'd already decided to leave.
At that point I was still considering returning to grad school, so I went to a summer program in oral history. There I met dozens of people, mostly women, who were in their 40s, very well qualified, and still hustling to cobble together adjunct positions to make up something approaching a full-time job. Some drove hundreds of miles each week to the three different schools they taught at. I realized that I was unwilling to risk that level of uncertainty about getting a job, choosing where to live, and being able to raise children. I could not face spending another 10 years getting a degree only to *hope* I could get a job in eastern Idaho or wherever. In the course of my week at the program I decided to go to law school, because I knew I'd be able to decide where to live and would be able to support myself and my eventual family.
So yes, I was absolutely deterred, though not in time to save myself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. I can't say I regret it, though, because at least I know I tried that dream and found it lacking.
The bleak career prospects deterred me not just for myself, but also because they contributed to an incredibly bleak and toxic environment for grad students overall -- an environment I couldn't be in without it doing serious harm to my mental health. I had an even greater sense of peace with my decision when I realized I could always do historical research, and even publish it if it was good enough, but that I would never have to fight for tenure or teach several hundred miserable undergrads. The lack of control over my life was a trade I couldn't face making, even in exchange for the "life of the mind".
posted by katemonster at 9:56 PM on October 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't question that many people choose not to get a humanities degree for practical reasons, but I question whether this was ever different. The humanities have never been a reliable place to make your fortune, and I image they appeal to about the same subset of the population they always have. Some have speculated the decline in humanities majors is related to the current cost of higher education, which makes sense to me.

I am a current PhD student and I could have applied to graduate school in the humanities, but instead I chose an engineering PhD for mostly practical reasons.
posted by pseudonick at 10:13 PM on October 13, 2009


Arg. I struggle with this question daily. I'm not a PhD. Rather, I'm someone who fantasizes about turning his humanities BA into a PhD into a great professorship. I can only tell you the reasons why I haven't.

1) I did my BA at an Ivy. The PhDs I knew were struggling to secure assistant professorships at butt fuck nowhere colleges for something like 30k a year - and this is AFTER putting in a decade of work on your PhD in, say, something like philosophy (not that that was my area of study...ahem...ahem). To be a 30-something just starting out with a 30K salary and a PhD teaching at butt fuck college in Oklahoma? Teaching metaphysics 101 to first year undergrads?? Look, you and I both think the humanities are extremely important for everyone to study and all...but in reality, that is, in pragmatic 2009 reality, they don't matter. This is the dilemma of the English major. We can all read "To the Lighthouse" but we cannot all code xhtml.

2) The tenure process is absolute bullshit. One of my philosophy profs in college was a former member of the tenure board at UC San Diego and the President of the Kant Society and her Husband was Chair of the Phil Dept. at Columbia and is one of the leading philosophers of science in the world today (I say this only to give their opinions cred). He and She had many interesting things to say about the tenure process. Basically - you have 7 years (unless you have a child in there, and then you can get it extended to 8 or 9). If you don't get tenure after 7 years, you're chances of moving forward in your academic career (which you've already put 10 years into before the 7 year tenure process, aka 17 years) is near nill. And the tenure process is not so different from your eighth grade class president election. She (my prof) told me that most of the process was 1) filling out all the forms and going through all the motions correctly and 2) being on par with the general academic philososophy of the dept. I know that where I did my undergrad, if you were a prospective PhD candidate interested in, say, Heidegger, you would never have stood a chance at being hired as an associate professor simply because you like Heidegger and everyone else thought he was a douche. No, it has nothing to do with actual academics and interesting discourse. Yes this was at one of the most reputable schools in the world. Yes, it really is that crazy, and yes it is that stupidly fucked. Of course, I'm more jaded than most. So take this with some salt. Several teaspoons.

Look, the truth is that academia has gone the way of every other industry. I'm sure many will disagree, but colleges need to sell spots. We are at a point in history when there are a zillion - and I really mean A ZILLION PhD applicants for ever assistant adjunct professor job in the country. It's out of control. Smart students go into law, i-banking, consulting, etc. because there is money there. If you want to go the true academic route, even if you actually find a job, it will be in butt fuck nowhere, you will have to fight through tenure, you will have to suffer through paper work hell, you will have to essentially abandon your academic passions for pragmatism, and then maybe, just maybe, you will become a professor at a distinguished university. Last time I checked, the highest paid professor in the country made something around $115K - and that was at Harvard. The highest paid i-banker? Yeah.....

Higher Ed, at least right now, including higher research, is pretty much totally fucked. Say your partner is an expert on Joyce. Great. He'll get his PhD and write a brilliant thesis on Ulysses and it's relevance to 20th century classic music a la Ligeti and Elliot Carter (I'd read that, btw). And then for the next 20 years he will teach beginning composition to first year undergrads at Grand Rapids Community College (unless he is a genius, I really do not hyperbolize).

It isn't a tough job market. Banking is a tough job market. Fuck, these days construction is a tough job market. Academia is a suicidal job market. Every single undergrad attending a prestigious college this year wants to go into academic professorship and research. It's literally the new NBA.

Ok, perhaps that's hyperbole, and perhaps I'm bitter. But I am siding with your partner. EVEN IF you can manage to get a PhD without going into insane debt, you will be in your 30s by the time you get an entry level prof job, and nearly 40 if you can manage to get tenure (the earliest). Hey, I bet almost everyone on Metafilter wants to live out their days writing ingenious papers on the effect of Kantian aesthetics on contemporary concert music in Argentina (I employ sarcasm, but you get my drift), but alas...alas....

In my opinion, the moral of the story, as I've found, is this: we are in a generation of smartness. We are all very, very smart. But we cannot all be professors, and besides, the old way of higher education is ending. Sure, if you are a genius neurosurgen and have a lot of pragmatic knowledge to contribute to society, you have a shot. But if you are jonesing to teach english or history or sociology of philosophy...

Humanities has become a hobby. We live in a world where getting a paycheck is contingent upon practical contribution to the greater good, and the humanities, as fortunate or unfortunate as it may be, are no longer apart of that. Shakespeare and Wittgenstein are simply luxuries we must fit into our weekend warrior schedules and our soul-sucking 9 to 5's. Sigh, sigh sigh.

well, make a calculated risk. Are you the next Quine??? Or Wittgenstein??? If not...well...we all have hobbies for a reason.

Arg. I'm a bitter old man, even at the age of 24.

You asked why I didn't pursue a PhD. If someone has a more optimistic answer, my god, I welcome it, for my own sake.

No matter what, good luck to you and your partner. And remember, no matter WHAT you do for a paycheck, there are so many books to be enjoyed, and Shakespeare is always so much more beautiful than money in your bank account.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:17 PM on October 13, 2009 [36 favorites]


I was in an academia track for a little while. And it occurred to me when I was a student of Elie Wiesel, you don't go to school to be a Holocaust survivor. You don't major in Fucked Up Shit Happened To Me. There's no PhD program for that. Most if not all of the great people I've studied under, the Nobel-prize-winning people with tenure-for-life anywhere-they-want… their doctorates were honorary. The well-beaten path everyone in academia is taught to follow? That's not how you make yourself stand out in life. At all. And you will not be rewarded for all the suffering and bullshit you'll invariably have to put up with.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:19 PM on October 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


I was getting my M.A. (in a humanities discipline) while my sister was getting her Ph.D. (in a related, but more traditional, humantities discipline) in the mid-90s. When I saw the difficulties she was going through -- and knowing that she was infinitely more driven, ambitious, accomplished, and disciplined than I'd ever be -- I realized that I almost certainly would never, ever, ever get a job, and that I would be many tens of thousands further in debt than I already was for my troubles. Also, the back-stabbing and the networking drove me nuts. So I got out while the gettin' was good, and took my master's and ran.
posted by scody at 10:23 PM on October 13, 2009


In my field, computer science, the conventional wisdom is that people with masters degrees are the ones who stayed in school because no one would hire them after they cot their BS. People with Ph.D's are the ones who didn't get hired on their second chance, either.

Like most things Chocolate Pickle says, that's completely absurd. People with CS masters make more then people with Bachelors degrees, and PhDs go work for Google and Microsoft (and make a LOT of money). For example:
But Google also hires stars, PhDs from top computer-science programs and research labs. "It has continually managed to hire 90% of the best search-engine people in the world," says Brian Davison, a Lehigh University assistant professor...
or:
Mostly, Google has concentrated on recruiting those with a background in what you would expect: computer science. Founded by two near-Ph.D.'s who have purposely placed Ph.D.'s throughout the company, Google encourages all employees to act as researchers, by spending 20 percent of their time on new projects of their own choosing.
Also, people with master's degrees do make higher starting salaries, according to this
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, starting offers for graduates with a master’s degree in computer science averaged $62,806 in 2003. Starting offers averaged $47,109 for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science; $45,346 for those with a degree in computer programming; .... [etc]
That's kind of a side-track here but a PhD can bring in more money if you've got one in a technical field. And I've never heard that "conventional wisdom" before, I suspect it's repeated by (a hand full of) people who couldn't into graduate programs in the first place.
posted by delmoi at 10:23 PM on October 13, 2009 [10 favorites]


They wouldn't accommodate my desire to do the PhD part-time, so that I could parent the way I wanted. So I decided to have a baby (and then another) and keep up my consulting company throughout that.

The results?
* As the owner of a consulting company, I pretty much work on my own terms. I'm home with my kids most of the time (save for preschool). I can shop when I want. Go to personal appointments when I want.
* I teach at the university level.
* I do research on my pet subjects and then try to integrate that in my work.
* I've developed theories and models that I use in my business.
* I publish articles.
* I'm an invited (and paid) speaker.
* I don't have to worry about tenure.
* Thousands of people come to my websites to get my opinion.
* People pay me for my opinions.
* I've published three ebooks and one online course. They are popular.
* I get handed some really cool gigs. (Radio pilot, interviewing famous people, etc)
* I get to mentor people.
* I get to be an influence in other people's lives.
* I occasionally delight my clients with stories from my humanities research -- such as how the use of hybrid corn in Iowa is influencing my launch of their new Software as a Service offering.
* I make a very good living.

I no longer think about doing a PhD. I think I have most of the perqs without the debt load or time away from earning.
posted by acoutu at 10:28 PM on October 13, 2009


I dropped out of my computer science PhD program after I realized that a) they weren't going to let me study what I wanted to study, b) that I would spend 6 years or so as an underappreciated peon for a professor (whom I loved, but doesn't change the issue), c) that I would be forced into the publish-or-perish rat race, and d) that I was real, real tired of being a broke-ass student.

That first industry paycheck... man, that cemented my decision. I might go back and do my PhD. But, probably not until my 40's.
posted by Netzapper at 10:36 PM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


starting offers for graduates with a master’s degree in computer science averaged $62,806 in 2003. Starting offers averaged $47,109 for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science;

That's an apples-and-oranges comparison. The guy with the BS gets started earlier and makes money and gains experience while the guy with the MA is still spending money and toiling in the ivory tower. If you take two guys who start school at the same time, and one of them leaves the educational process after he gets his BS, he's liable to be making the same as the MA when the latter finally gets his first job.

And the guy with the BS will be carrying a lot less debt.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:39 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I dropped out of an Engineering program in the late 90s after passing quals and my dissertation proposal. Reasons included:

1. Advisor moved to a non-edu institution several hundred miles away, and I could not follow.
2. No jobs in academia. As mentioned above, academic jobs were (are?) especially scarce. I was in an OK program; top tier people were landing academic jobs in the middle of nowhere.
3. Funding. See 1.
4. Poor research progress. I had set out something complex, and was not skilled to build it myself (design, yes; build, no). I was not part of a lab, and didn't have funding, so I was stuck.

Given these, it should have been an easy decision, but it was still very difficult.
posted by zippy at 10:42 PM on October 13, 2009


I got about two years into a PhD in English before I dropped out. My reasons were as follows:
  1. I wasn't very good at it. Any of it. Except maybe TA-ing. I was an okay TA.
  2. I hated almost all of it. (I liked going to conferences.)
  3. The market. Even the brightest, most accomplished, hardest-working students graduating from my program are having an insanely difficult time finding any work--let alone anything resembling resembling secure, tenure-track positions at decent schools. I didn't Love It enough for its own sake to contemplate that kind of soul-wrecking job search. If Awesome PhD X can't even get a non-hobo job, how the hell could I when my heart's not even really in it?
There were other things going on, of course, but those are the Big Three. The whole experience was just numbing and crushing and awful (except for the parts that weren't.) When I look back on my two years of flailing around pretending to be a grad student, it's with some very, very, very mixed emotions.

And I have awesome job now that I love, so HA HA GRAD SCHOOL HA HA.
posted by Neofelis at 10:54 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Last time I checked, the highest paid professor in the country made something around $115K - and that was at Harvard.

I enjoyed your rant, Lutoslawski, but your stats here on superstar profs are low. The highest-paid philosophy professors in the country (and it sounds like philosophy was the discipline you were talking about) are paid $200-300K as their yearly salary. This is public knowledge because some of the top schools that compete for the best professors are public universities, and they make their budgets available online. On top of their salaries, superstar profs get research budgets (30K a year or thereabouts, I think?) and other perks like free travel to international conferences. Many are affiliated with things like cognitive science departments or international justice institutes, which drives income even higher, and many perform other academic duties like external reviews or public lectures that net them a few thousand here and there. And the guys who write popular philosophy books can get up to the millions.

Of course, that's the superstars: there aren't many of them, it's an impossible aspiration, and I can't think of many fields where the superstars in that field make less than that. I feel a little guilty about posting this because highlighting the ubersuccesses might encourage unwarranted optimism. Your pessimism is not misplaced.
posted by painquale at 11:00 PM on October 13, 2009


One of the documents that helped cement my own decision was reading David Goodstein's The Big Crunch. His essay primarily deals with the sciences, but applies doubly for the humanities which have fewer industrial outlets to drain off excess students.
posted by benzenedream at 11:41 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought about it, and then realized that I would be bored by ANY subject after 5 years of studying it. So I became a librarian instead, on the theory that I would have a new subject approx. every 10 minutes.
posted by exceptinsects at 11:45 PM on October 13, 2009


Did my honours (bit different here in AU than US), was seriously seriously thinking about it but:

a) Terrible, terrible salary

b) Pretty shitty job - guaranteed to be a contractor for years.

c) Having to move around a lot.

d) No idea if I would actually get a job.

These clashed with some of my other mid-late twenties goals, to wit:

a) Buying a home
b) Living in said home
c) Starting a family
d) Decent amount of trips overseas in a non-backpacky way

I still love the idea of a phd, but I don't love the idea of
1. Renting for another 15 years
2. Putting off kids
3. Moving to Bumfuck County for a job
4. Cancelling my awesome trips for shitty conferences
5. Being undervalued and underpaid. I may be undervalued now (debatable), but I am definitely not underpaid - and I don't have the level of expertise implied by a phd.
posted by smoke at 12:06 AM on October 14, 2009


I didn't pursue it because I had enough kissing ass as a grad student. The prospect of kissing ass for up to another 7 years made me say, forget it. "I can be a working professional or teach at a university now, so the world is my oyster. I've had it with school."
posted by CarlRossi at 12:06 AM on October 14, 2009


The facts I explain to people who ask my if they should do a PhD include:
1. You get paid $x to teach students who tell you they've got jobs which will pay them $3x or $4x. And you're supposed to be the clever one.
2. Opportunity cost means that, because of 1. you are effectively paying $2x to $3x to purchase the luxury of doing a PhD.
3. In my area it's not uncommon for people to work on their PhD for longer than they get funding - usually financed by personal savings. No other graduate position would expect this.
4. It's not uncommon for people on PhD courses to get married, have children, and want to buy a house; that paltry stipend may seem generous compared to your income as an undergraduate, and maybe you don't think you're motivated by physical possessions, but children are expensive and so are weddings. Oh, and the bank told me my stipend didn't count as an income for purposes of getting a mortgage.
5. In some subjects, new PhDs outnumber academic positions for new PhDs by a ratio of 2 to 1.
6. Supply and demand: The jobs paying 3 to 4 times as much have fewer qualified applicants per position. So they pay more and there are more jobs to be had.
7. The academics with whom I spend my time seem to spend most of their time doing administration work; and regularly take work home with them over evenings and weekends.
8. I have seen people with PhDs be refused jobs because they are overqualified; in other words a PhD might not make you more employable outside of academia, and may make you less employable.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:52 AM on October 14, 2009


I am finishing up a PhD in the sciences. I considered a PhD in the humanities at one point (BA in Liberal Arts could have gone either way), but I'm really much more of a science person and would not fit in well intellectually in most humanities programs. I'm getting a PhD because I am passionate about my subject and teaching, and I think I'll make a good professor and folks around me seem to agree with that. No, it's not always fun, and I pretty much hate the writing process right now. But I still get to play in streams and tell fun natural history stories to illustrate concepts in class, and call them both work.

I've been living off of grad student stipends for so long (and was in AmeriCorps before that) that I really laugh at people who think $40k is not enough money to live on and I've spent enough time at "prestigious" institutions that I laugh at people who think some college they've never heard of will be lacking in some sort of intellectual rigor that is allegedly present at R1 schools.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:05 AM on October 14, 2009


1) I did my BA at an Ivy. The PhDs I knew were struggling to secure assistant professorships at butt fuck nowhere colleges for something like 30k a year - and this is AFTER putting in a decade of work on your PhD in, say, something like philosophy (not that that was my area of study...ahem...ahem). ...

2) The tenure process is absolute bullshit. ... Basically - you have 7 years (unless you have a child in there, and then you can get it extended to 8 or 9). If you don't get tenure after 7 years, you're chances of moving forward in your academic career (which you've already put 10 years into before the 7 year tenure process, aka 17 years) is near nill. And the tenure process is not so different from your eighth grade class president election. She (my prof) told me that most of the process was 1) filling out all the forms and going through all the motions correctly and 2) being on par with the general academic philososophy of the dept. ...

Higher Ed, at least right now, including higher research, is pretty much totally fucked. Say your partner is an expert on Joyce. Great. He'll get his PhD and write a brilliant thesis on Ulysses and it's relevance to 20th century classic music a la Ligeti and Elliot Carter (I'd read that, btw). And then for the next 20 years he will teach beginning composition to first year undergrads at Grand Rapids Community College (unless he is a genius, I really do not hyperbolize).


It's a cute rant, but your facts are wrong.

Salaries for starting tenure-track professors are higher than you might think, though far from on par with Wall Street. Here's the AAUP salary survey for universities in Oklahoma, since you used it as an example. There's no "Butt Fuck U" listed, but even at East Central U average assistant prof salaries are well into the 40's; at OSU (a more likely destination for a graduate of a top-tier program) averages are up in the 60's. Again, by your standards this might be an atrociously low salary, but it is double the figure you gave.

Tenure is a miserable, brutal, awful process to go through, dehumanizing, stressful, and often degrading. But it isn't an eighth grade class election, and a negative decision isn't a career ender. People like to complain about it, and often do so in hyperbolic language -- you are making a mistake to take those complaints literally.

And lastly, no, you don't have to be a genius to have a shot at an academic career. You have to be willing to work really fucking hard, and you have to be smartish, but genius just doesn't play into it. Spend some time with newly-employed academics, and the idea of calling them all "genius" will make you giggle.

There are a lot of reasons to not pursue a phd in some humanities fields (philosophy and English both deserve beatings for keeping phd numbers high at the same time as the employment prospects declined, for example), but the decision should be made with facts, not funny ideas stated as facts.
posted by Forktine at 2:09 AM on October 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


The miserable job prospects are a big part of it. I figured to myself that it would be worth it if getting my Ph.D. or having an academic career were my heart's desire, but my other heart's desire was to get a novel published, and if I wanted a stable dayjob that wouldn't take too much time from my life in order to make that possible -- academia wasn't where I would get one.

I'm still thinking of doing my vanity Ph.D. when I'm 50 or rich.
posted by Jeanne at 4:18 AM on October 14, 2009


I did my MS in engineering because I was bored at work. I have an interesting job now. If I didn't, I would probably be working on my PhD and considering teaching afterwards.

There is a good chance I will do it eventually, but not in the near future. The job market isn't as big a consideration for me as there are opportunities both in and outside of an academic setting for engineering PhDs.
posted by chiefthe at 4:25 AM on October 14, 2009


ABD here. Agreed with most of the above posts. I quit when I was offered a job which was much more interesting than any of the "research" I was doing and paid a lot more than my fellowships and didn't treat me like shit. My office mate stayed on and finished her PhD and when she graduated, I was already a manager and she ended up working for me.

Also, I couldn't help noticing that "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." I watched fresh PhDs come to speak at my school in hope of getting hired and then watched them torn apart with sadistic glee by our faculty during Q&A.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:58 AM on October 14, 2009


Writing an undergraduate thesis (history) pretty much sapped any desire I had to be a career academic. I've also always preferred working over being in school, so that was a huge deterrent against 8+ years in history grad school. Another factor is that I most likely need to be able to take care of my parents financially in the next 20 years. I went to law school instead.
posted by ishotjr at 5:46 AM on October 14, 2009


I'm the unusual case of someone who bailed from a PhD program, enjoyed a stimulating job outside of academia. I chose to pursue a PhD in English five years later and graduated in July.

Highly motivated intelligent people are valued by employers outside of academia, and it's a good choice if you land in a stimulating job that's balanced with good quality of life outside of work. I can say first hand that's it's a good choice. There's no guarantee that you'll get a good job, though, or that it will be secure.

Pursuing a PhD in the humanities can also be a good choice. Funding is an issue, but US programs will typically offer tuition remission and teaching stipends to PhD students so that they can get by financially, albeit at the poverty level. The job market is ridiculously competitive. You have very little choice about where you will live if you are fortunate enough to get a job offer. A lot of people decide it's not worth it, and a lot of people decide it's worth a shot: you wouldn't have a glut of PhD unless lots of people were pursuing the option.

Either way, it depends on individual circumstances and aspirations. Those can change over time.
posted by woodway at 5:56 AM on October 14, 2009


Also writing from the other side (did the PhD, chased the brass ring, wound up tenured at a great job in a city i love working with colleagues who make my life the opposite of "solitary" or "lonely," as described above, and in a field that exposes me to constant new input, excitement, social networks, friends, ideas, brutal hard work i actually want to do, the joy of setting my own personal agenda to a great extent for decades to come if I live that long . . . where do I stop?)

Whenever I meet a prospective PhD student who wants to come to my program or work with me, or talk with an undergrad student who's considering the PhD, I do my best to scare her/him shitless about the career, the odds, the brutality of the work, the lack of control over where you live, the poor money (it gets better, and even good, at midlife, but you never make up for the opportunity cost of 5-10 years spent in poverty and another 5-10 spent in the lower middle class range, while you try to maintain status in an upper middle class social world). It's a ritual, and I up the pressure the more I detect genuine intelligence, real charisma, intense purpose, true discipline, and plain passion -- the qualities that make an academic career possible these days.

If I can't talk such people out of doing the PhD, I am betting they'll succeed at an academic career.

The vast majority of my former advisees have tenure track jobs they like. In a humanities field.

Do it if it's all you can imagine doing happily. It's like the priesthood. In bad ways and good.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:19 AM on October 14, 2009 [15 favorites]


Titles of articles in academic journals and PhD theses.

Seemed to me that the higher up one went in humanities, the more the fun was drained out of it.

And the frankly childish nature of so many tenured faculty members. Were there really my people? I thought not.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:27 AM on October 14, 2009


My reasons for doing a PhD:

Flexibility - both in terms of work hours and holidays/time off.
Ethically sound.
Learning.
Teaching.
Not being surrounded by overpaid pricks.

Reasons why I don't think I will:

Flexibility - I'm not driven enough to make work without making myself miserable. Much as I hate the 9-5 and limited paid holiday, I hate losing all my evenings and weekends to make deadlines more.
Competitiveness - I don't like competitive environments and definitely don't like making major sacrifices in my social life or having to move somewhere I won't enjoy for my job.

Frankly, anyone who decides against academia because the money isn't good enough makes me despair.
posted by turkeyphant at 6:28 AM on October 14, 2009


I'm a PhD drop-out (ABD) in the humanities (art theory). I decided not to finish because I had begun working in academic administration and adjuncting on the side and realized that I liked things this way and was already making more money than I would if I got a tenure track assistant prof position (and that's a big if since these are so competitive). I also decided that while I truly love academia for all it quirks, freedoms, and intellectual life, I wasn't interested in a job with homework (pressure to publish, grading, etc). So, I figured out how to make a career in a field I love (academia) just in a different job title than I originally planned.
posted by Pineapplicious at 6:30 AM on October 14, 2009


Last time I checked, the highest paid professor in the country made something around $115K - and that was at Harvard.

I know someone has already corrected this about philosophy, but this is pretty far from the truth in general. That is in the upper ranges for a typical faculty salary across a lot of different types of institutions, but it is nowhere near the top. See the Chronical of higher ed AAUP faculty salary survey for actual facts. For instance, the average (not max) salary at harvard for full professors is more like 200k.

But it is certainly true that this is the wrong career if you want to make money.
posted by advil at 6:34 AM on October 14, 2009


And the frankly childish nature of so many tenured faculty members. Were there really my people? I thought not.

I worked a dozen different gigs on my way to tenured bliss, and there were childish people in every one of those settings. I never understand the expectation of perfect dignity and rationality in the academy, when it occurs nowhere else in nature or society. I think it's a cliché, "the lower the stakes, etc" thing to say as if academia were not part of the real world.

Which is how it has liked to see itself, thus perpetuating the myths and the disappointments.

To the OP: never idealize any working situation.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:36 AM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I marched straight into my MA program with the full intent of going further with a PhD and becoming a professor in the social sciences. I was going to get a job in my department, pursue my many research interests, and inspire a new generation of students! Yay!

What happened? A reality check. I got a taste of academia that I hadn't seen as an undergrad. I got to see that being a professor wasn't quite the cushy job I had imagined it to be. I TAed a few courses and was shocked by the disinterest of the majority of the students. I found out that I love to write, but not within a prescribed academic style. I have a newfound respect for the graduate students and faculty in my department since doing my MA, but it is not the life for me. I'm glad I realized that before I started a PhD program I never would have been able to finish.

Another huge factor was the academic job market. Friends of mine have landed jobs since finishing their PhDs, but the majority have had years of adjunct hell and/or they have had to move to some remote location far from home. It made me realize how I attached I am to my home province and my community. Leaving this place would break my heart.

Do it if it's all you can imagine doing happily.

This times a million. I know too many PhD students who hate their lives and are unlikely to finish, yet they keep at it because of the shame/financial burden/uncertainty of dropping out, compared to the handful I know who are moving forward and thriving in this environment.
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:41 AM on October 14, 2009


I loved undergraduate work. I loved grad-school coursework. I hated teaching. Hated. Stuck in for two semesters, tried all manner of things, and the anxiety persisted and deepened. As an English lit PhD, the only way I could support myself as an academic would be by teaching. As much as I loved the reading and writing and thinking, teaching was too awful to bear. And that's why I didn't get my PhD.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:42 AM on October 14, 2009


Hated my diss, was getting fed up with my adviser, hated borrowing more and more money, hated hierarchical/sadistic academic politics, discovered I didn't like teaching, not many jobs in my field anyway. Easy call.
posted by languagehat at 6:45 AM on October 14, 2009


I would say no to your question re: "brain drain" - i think there are a ton of highly intellegent people pursuing academic pathways, and PhDs., in the humanities (and social sciences, other).

Now, your partner is definitely being an academic by passing judgement on those around him- that's one of the important things academics do - but I think he may be ignoring the basic reality that more people are going to school, pursuing graduate degrees, and PhDs now than in any point in human history.

I bet there are *more* *smart* people in the humanities now than in history, just numerically.
posted by RajahKing at 6:50 AM on October 14, 2009


My partner, an academic, thinks that the humanities departments in the US are suffering a major brain drain-- that smart students these days are drawn to law, consulting, science, investment banking, etc., and NOT to graduate study in the humanities.

Not having a ton of people studying humanities does not equate to a brain drain. In the US, more than half the science PhD candidates are international students. The problem is really that more Americans aren't pursuing the study of sciences. A PhD in Fine Arts or Philosophy is not going to do much for our standard of living as a society, even though it's good for cocktail party trivia.

I decided not to pursue a PhD in the social sciences because I stopped caring. All I really wanted was other people to be awed by me and think of me as a brain, but that was seriously childish and not a great motivation for becoming an academic. I decided I wanted to make money (I don't have any yet unfortunately) and have a job before I was in my thirties without any work experience.
posted by anniecat at 7:07 AM on October 14, 2009


Also, I couldn't help noticing that "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

This is the primary reason I bailed on my academic career after my MA in English. I blindly ended up on the wrong side of an intradepartmental spat by choosing a particular professor to work with on my thesis. When I started graduate school, the head of the department told all of us that we were not among the ranks of academia, little did we know we were the pawns in their disputes.

That said, I still enjoyed my graduate experience on the whole and learned quite a bit. Learning the above only caused me to reassess my career direction.
posted by trox at 7:16 AM on October 14, 2009


Oh god. So much for brain drain. I totally misread your sentence.
posted by anniecat at 7:18 AM on October 14, 2009


I did an MA in political science because I was considering a PhD. By the first week in to the MA, I'd realized that a PhD was not for me and that I would be better off going to law school (and I was right). It wasn't that you can make better money in law, but that doing a PhD is a very demanding intellectual and work endeavour which is suited only to certain types of people.

You have to be the kind of person who loves the idea of finding a very narrow question that no one has ever considered before in quite the same way, and spending four years reading everything ever written on the subject - three hundred books, hundreds more articles - in order to approach it in a way that is just slightly different from what anyone has ever thought to do before. If you've found a subject you're really passionate about, and you're the kind of person who loves to deal with ideas full time and in great depth, then it's the thing for you. But that's not my personality, and I just knew that I would find it really difficult to self-motivate through the major amounts of work.

And then, once you spend four years killing yourself to do something original, you're lucky to find a job in the middle of nowhere, let alone in a major city you want to live in. I knew a PhD who was thrilled to get a tenure-track job in Sudbury. Not the sort of return I'm looking for on an investment of four years of my life. But I have to say, even if I was guaranteed a tenure-track job at the university of my choice, I still wouldn't have done the PhD, because the MA made me realize that the contemplative life was not for me in the long run (though I would not have given up my undergrad liberal arts education for the world).

So I went to law school instead, and haven't regretted the decision a bit. I'm just starting out, and I work in the city of my choice, in a firm with lots of really nice, smart people. I hear of people struggling to finish theses that have gotten away from them, and I don't envy them. (Then again, lots of people leave law, or at least firms, because of the hours, so it's not all milk and honey.)
posted by Dasein at 7:21 AM on October 14, 2009


As an ex-PhD student (social science), I'm echoing a lot of people above - most recently the hat - and would like to add a colossal fuck-up regarding funding in my department (to the tune of about 500k that...stopped existing.) The way it was handled was going to force me to either take out loans really quickly or start, I don't know, doing something illegal to make quick cash, if I wanted to continue the next semester.

Second to this, my advisor was not a fan of meeting deadlines, and at the time, I wasn't pushy enough to make him do the things he was supposed to be doing. This resulted in the 4+ year MA degree. Grr.

This, as well as the political climate surrounding my original topic area - it wasn't going to be possible to actually go to the place I wanted to study - led to me falling out of love with my subject area. Then I went to therapy and figured out some stuff about what I really wanted to do. Working on that now.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:34 AM on October 14, 2009


My major was Computer Science, so this is a little off what you're looking for but what the heck. Two things kept me from going beyond my Masters. First, there isn't a lot of call for CompSci PhDs outside of research and academia, at least where I live. Not that I couldn't get a job outside of those areas, but the salary would not reflect the effort on my part. Second, the CompSci programs I looked at expected candidates to be fulltime students or at least be available during the day to TA. I have a job and while I might get some slack, I couldn't get that much slack. Other schools in other places might be more accomodating, of course.
posted by tommasz at 7:38 AM on October 14, 2009


I have a Master's in Humanities and began my Ph.D. work in 1997.

I quit after the first three hours, even though I'd secured a TA position at SMU and had my tuition partially covered -- and had already moved into on-campus apartments. Why?

$50k in student loan debt coupled with a management job in a small startup made me believe that I'd make more money (and pay my debt off faster, which I was already obligated to pay back by the time I graduated; I couldn't defer the payments any longer) if I just stopped then and worked for several years. I could always go back and finish my Ph.D., right? Why learn Greek or Latin now?

By the time I was 31 and had paid off my student loan debt, I'd gotten married, built a house (i.e., acquired a quarter million in property debt) and the startup had gone under -- but I was finding writing and editing jobs, just nothing solid, salaried or long-term. My choice was to finish my Ph.D. then while working full-time in order to make the house payments or keep on the career track I'd already chosen. A cursory glance at what I was making then vs. what I would've been making had I gone back to school? 60k vs. 21k a year. It's pretty hard to make a $2000/month house payment when you and your husband's combined incomes would be less than what you were making on your own if you didn't go back and finish the degree... which would've taken years and only made the money situation worse.

I might finish my degree someday, far, far in the future, in hopes of getting a tenured position before retirement. But in my city of over 2 million residents, there are probably 10 jobs total I could get with that degree. My current background in project management, online content production and marketing guarantees me 4x the salary I'd make as a fledgling professor with full benefits and a flexible schedule. Were I to focus on writing or research alone, forget it. Everyone in my family would have to die and leave me an inheritance just to survive on.

I miss the academic environment and the research, definitely. But I don't miss being poor and working 14+ hours each day or eating a Snickers bar for dinner in the library, not at ALL.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:17 AM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I dropped out of a philosophy PhD when I realized I was only doing it because I didn't know what else to do. I was very much enjoying it, but--as the French say--philosophy bakes no bread, and I wanted to be productive in the world. A PhD in metaethics seemed the wrong way to do that. Of course, I miss it terribly and I'm not sure I've managed to do anything productive or good with my life anyway, but now it's far too impractical an expense to go back to school and I imagine I'd never be accepted in any program.

I was also the only woman in the department that year and, while I did not feel unwelcome, it was a constant struggle to be included in the conversation. I left after the first year.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:23 AM on October 14, 2009


I was considering MA/PhD programs for engineering, but ended up not doing it for several reasons.

1) Job availability, the field I would like to go into is pretty specialized, and I'd heard many horror stories of people not being able to get a job because of seeming specialized even if they weren't.

2) Job availability (different side of the coin), I talked with people and found out that I could get the same types of jobs with the degree I was getting already. (of course this leaves out some possitions which I would like (research possitions that are hard to come by anyway), but see above concerns)

In hindsight, the people that work where I do and have advanced degrees do exactly the same kind of work I do, and as far as I have been able to work out the pay scale is more based on years of experience than education (for example there is a masters grad here doing the same work I am and is at the same salary grade). This doesn't mean I won't go back to school if things start looking a bit brighter, but I'm definitely happy with the decision not to pursue an advanced degree. Also, in my field there are lots of work/part time school options wherein the employer pays for your degree.
posted by Feantari at 8:32 AM on October 14, 2009


Last time I checked, the highest paid professor in the country made something around $115K - and that was at Harvard.

I know someone has already corrected this about philosophy, but this is pretty far from the truth in general.


Gar. Sorry, you're right. I was completely mis-remembering something that I read a few years ago. Should have fact checked myself.

This is from 2007-2008, but it lists the average highest pay for profs at various universities, the highest being just under 200k.

posted by Lutoslawski at 8:45 AM on October 14, 2009


Lutoslawski, I believe you are misreading those charts. I don't think this is your fault, due to misleadingly ambiguous language, but I know non-medical-school professors who make more than those amounts. The charts show the average pay for full professors at the various institutions, and it is sorted by the institutions with the highest pay.
posted by grouse at 8:58 AM on October 14, 2009


Actually, in a recession, the pool of applicants for the shrinking pool of funded PhD program positions increases in size and quality. This is going to be a banner year for strong applicants.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:13 AM on October 14, 2009


I have colleagues, humanities professors, who make more than 200K; so grouse is right.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:13 AM on October 14, 2009


I have colleagues, humanities professors, who make more than 200K; so grouse is right.

I stand corrected again. Though it is true that the language on those charts is extremely misleading (i.e. "highest paid full-professors").

Eh, half of the reason for my extremely strong positions on this issue is because I'm trying to talk myself out of doing something I really want to do.

To the OP's partner: Just know what you're getting yourself into. If pursuing that is what you need to do, well, than you need to do it. Life is so very short. And what do I know? I'm 24. I may still pursue a PhD. Lord knows that not pursuing a PhD has not led to any kind of happiness or fulfillment (or money, for that matter).
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:32 AM on October 14, 2009


I had a very bright mentor (also happened to be my boss) who HAD a Ph.D. who strongly discouraged me from the Ph.D. track: "Unless you REALLY want to teach, and would be happy dealing with high-level bureaucracy bull**** your whole career, don't waste your money. You're doing Ph.D.-level work now, and you'll go much further on your own than you will be being stuck in a university hierarchy somewhere."

Bright man, and I took his advice. Today I own my own business and am happily controlling my own destiny. I get frustrated just hearing about the myriad dysfunctions of the educational field from my husband!
posted by northernlightgardener at 9:55 AM on October 14, 2009


Shakespeare is always so much more beautiful than money in your bank account.

I think you mean, "Shakespeare is always so much more beautiful [with] money in your bank account."
posted by anniecat at 10:14 AM on October 14, 2009 [9 favorites]


I am a PhD student in business. I do psychology and economic research- essentially I am a social scientist. I am excited to be doing my degree. Business schools are booming and they make a lot of money, so they pay their professors quite well. I have friends who have started assistant professorships at schools that are getting payed upwards of $175k. And they are psychologists or economists in disguise, publishing in the same journals but getting payed much more.

The scrabble for funding is much less of a pressure in a business school- Harvard Business School does not allow faculty to apply for grants- if you want the money, ask them for it and you get it (within reason). Other schools aren't as generous, but this does reflect the very different mentality in business academia.

And if you want even more money, you can teach executive education or do consulting work, the pay is usually around 10,000 a day.

Even if you dont get a position at a top school, the salaries are still quite high.

Because there is all this hope for getting a decent job and salary, the atmosphere is very different- people are usually much more positive and relaxed. I am having a great time doing my PhD and when I tell people that, they look at me oddly and say that I shouldn't be.

Anyway, if any of you are interested in the social sciences, I suggest looking at PhD programs in business (e.g. finance, marketing, management, etc.) you might find a good fit with your interests in a better environment.
posted by Caius Marcius at 10:26 AM on October 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


I did not go further than my Political Science masters because the more I observed in school, the more I came to see academia as a field where that a) has a very high degree of interpersonal conflict, backstabbing and office gossip; b) has an extroadinarily long probation period in the form of sessional work prior to getting an associate professor position; c) requires a lot of transparent networking, grovelling, etc in the early stages of a career and finally d) has one being very vulnerable to politics (big world and internal) prior to achieving tenure. (And outside of North America, tenure isn't a typical arrangement at all for lecturers anyway.) Also, while I loved researching, I really didn't enjoy perfecting and submitting my work to journals, attending conferences and all that. The main advantage I percieved of the academic route is that once one had tenure, they didn't need to keep playing the social games.

Compare that to government: a) only 1 year probation, relatively little change of getting stuck in a contract work ghetto; b) higher anonymity of work meaning more collaboration and less competing; c) a slightly less high degree of interpersonal conflict in the office; d) networking is less intense (although present throughout the career). And I can still do a lot of academic-type research and tasks, but I don't have to go through the hassle of publishing - I just explain the results in plain language. The main downside is that (obviously) I have much less leeway in the subjects I examine.

The other thing I had to realize was the no job was going to bring me self-actualization, which was an expectation I had during my undergrad years, and something that I thought academia would do. Instead, I realized that a) the best I can hope for is a job that pays well enough, leaves enough time for me to persue the intellectual and other persuits I enjoy, and doesn't drive me crazy and b) that's still pretty good and a lot better than most people have.
posted by Kurichina at 10:41 AM on October 14, 2009


And lastly, no, you don't have to be a genius to have a shot at an academic career. You have to be willing to work really fucking hard, and you have to be smartish, but genius just doesn't play into it. Spend some time with newly-employed academics, and the idea of calling them all "genius" will make you giggle.

I quit my philosophy phd program because I needed to work a lot harder at it than I wanted to work in order to be successful. I also thought that it was where all the smart people wound up, but I couldn't agree with Forktine, quoted above, more. Superstar academics are geniuses, but most of em are just smartish and work their asses off. I'm smartish and a little lazy, so I self-selected out as soon as I realized it.
posted by Kwine at 10:46 AM on October 14, 2009


It seems to be common knowledge that it's a very tough job market out there for recent PhDs, and I'm wondering if that grim reputation has actually deterred people who are making decisions about graduate study and career paths.

For what it's worth, this has almost always been true. There were little blips post-WWII (due to the GI Bill) and during Vietnam (due to the baby boom and the student deferment from the draft) when academia as a whole was expanding quickly enough to make jobs for most of the qualified grad students coming up through the ranks. But the tough job market you're talking about has existed since the late 70s.

(Certainly things are worse this year than they were last year or the year before. But even during the boom years, the odds of getting a professorship weren't good.)

I'm also curious to know how prospective or current grad students weigh the pros and cons of a potential academic career-- the specific intellectual satisfactions versus any frustrations you think are specific to academia.

It's really not as much about "intellectual satisfaction" as you'd think, at least for me.

The reason I'm in grad school is that I enjoy the day-to-day work. Yeah, okay, first of all, I like teaching, but if that was the only thing I'd be teaching high school instead. But also, I love statistics and databases and graphs and whatnot. For whatever strange reason, academic politics feels more natural to me than the politics of an ordinary workplace. I like technical reading more than I like reading novels or creative nonfiction; I can't remember the last time I finished a nonacademic book I was reading purely for pleasure, and it's not for lack of time. Same goes for writing — I actually enjoy laying out squirrelly little technical details; I wouldn't particularly want to be a novelist.

If I weren't going into academia, I wouldn't be going into some other high-mindedly intellectual job. I'd wind up writing auto repair manuals or do-your-own-income-tax books or some other damn fiddly technical thing.

At that point, I figure it's like any other job with an intense and unusual working environment. Most of us would hate being cops, judges, park rangers, farmers, airline pilots, or those frantic shouty dudes on the floor of a stock exchange, even though a lot of us buy into the ideal that justice, nature and food are important, that flying is totally fucking awesome, and so on. And the reason is that whatever your ideals are, those jobs involve working in some weird-ass conditions. The people who make good cops, judges, etc. etc. etc. are the ones who like those weird-ass conditions. AFAICT, the same is true of academia.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:49 AM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I never understand the expectation of perfect dignity and rationality in the academy, when it occurs nowhere else in nature or society.

At a young age, one is still idealistic. Now older and wise, I expect much less, and find the academy mostly amusing.

But I still wouldn't want to live there, and only in part for the other reasons I gave.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:06 AM on October 14, 2009


That's an apples-and-oranges comparison. The guy with the BS gets started earlier and makes money and gains experience while the guy with the MA is still spending money and toiling in the ivory tower.

You're not going to go from $47k to $63k in two years, which is how long it takes to get a masters degree. I have a friend who earned her masters in an accelerated HCI program in something like 14 months and started at $90k (in S.F, which is expensive, but still)

And the guy with the BS will be carrying a lot less debt.

33% less debt (4 years vs. 6 years). And with the salary differential they will have made back that investment in 2-3 years.

If you take two guys who start school at the same time, and one of them leaves the educational process after he gets his BS, he's liable to be making the same as the MA when the latter finally gets his first job.

Again, a master's degree only takes two additional years. You could maybe make that argument for PhDs, but not master's degrees.
posted by delmoi at 12:56 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


1. Didn't want to play politics to get ahead.
2. Enjoyed the joy of learning much more than the sport of competitive research.
3. Wrong program.
posted by matildaben at 1:39 PM on October 14, 2009


I don't know where people are getting this idea that a phD is even remotely financially sensible. It's never really made much sense in terms of money, which is why people who stay in these programs (such as myself) aren't really tied down to financial obligations and/or don't have a problem with living frugally. I know a few families with children where one of the parents is a doctoral candidate, but the other almost always has a full-time job bringing in real money.

What I'm trying to say is, you do the phD for the love of it, and maybe to open new opportunities in the future. Otherwise, there's pretty much no financial incentive -- i.e. I'm a major car issue away from broke, but I don't care*.

* I feel like I fit the criteria because a month and a half ago I was looking for a job -- I was planning on dropping out of the program at the start of summer
posted by spiderskull at 7:28 PM on October 14, 2009


I spent my last year as an undergrad seriously considering going for my PhD in philosophy. As such, I read a lot about different graduate departments and talked with a lot of the professors and grad students at my own school (NYU, which has a strong philosophy department). It's something I very much wanted to do, and was strongly encouraged to do by my adviser and other professors, but I ultimately decided against it because the career prospects were just too grim. Take a look at this, for example. It just seemed like getting a well-paid job in a city I wanted to live in would be almost impossible. One of the deciding moments that I still remember quite vividly was when I was talking to a grad student I was friends with who was close to getting his PhD. He told me: "If there's anything else in the world you like and are good at, do that first."

So I finished a computer science minor during my senior year as an undergrad, and now work as a web developer in NYC. I like it, and I'm good at it, and it pays well.
posted by miskatonic at 8:40 AM on October 16, 2009


I wandered back to this thread to read:

I don't know where people are getting this idea that a phD is even remotely financially sensible

Remotely? It's a good deal more than "remotely" sensible for the right person.

If you're good enough, work hard enough, and have an entrepreneurial nature, it's not like playing the lottery. I didn't pay a dime for my PhD; I was paid (not much, but paid) for doing it, as anyone getting a PhD should be (see above -- do NOT enroll in a phd program without full funding, rule one). I got a tenure track job after 6 years in grad school, before even completing the PhD. Another one 3 years later at a better school. Yeah, the untenured years were a stretch financially, but if you start young enough you can make it. Tenured after 6 years there. I now make, in my mid 40s, a solidly upper middle class salary, 15 years into my career, with large swatches of time off, complete freedom to define my own agenda, and a few really significant benefits (like half tuition, at least, when my kid goes to college).

Granted, had I put those same years in as a lawyer, I'd be making more money (but my time would not belong to me). If I'd put them in selling crap to rich people (I did this long enough to know) I'd be well off and miserable at the waste of my life.

Oh, and did I mention the job security? My better-off friends who work in corporate jobs these days are shaking in their expensive boots. I've got a piece of paper that says they can't fire me unless they close down my department and fire a dozen other tenured people at the same time.

I worry that the doom-saying here goes too far and will discourage people who might otherwise be suited for the career. If you're really bright, really suited for academic work, and a very hard worker, it is not economically irrational to do the PhD with the goal of pursuing an academic career. Just be honest with yourself about what you can deal with, how hard you want to work, and how much scholarly work means to you.

America still needs PhD-holding college faculty. Just not as many as the number of PhDs we're producing. If you're at a top program and work your ass off, you can succeed predictably in this field.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:50 AM on November 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


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