This post started life as an e-mail to a high school teacher who is thinking about grad school in English Lit. I expanded and cleaned it up slightly for the blog, but the substance remains.
Pleasure meeting you the other day. I’m too well-versed in the anti-grad school lit, and the short version of this e-mail is “don’t go to grad school in the humanities.” If you go anyway, make sure you have an obvious fallback career; don’t assume that you’ll figure it out after five to ten years of effort. Grad school is not a good place to pointlessly delay adulthood (a phrase we’ll come back to later).
Let me start with Thomas Benton’s articles, like “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’” and “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read both. Read both twice. Then read Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, and pay special attention to the sections where he discusses supply and demand. I’m not saying you’re one of these people, but I get the sense that a lot of people spend more time deeply, critically thinking about fun restaurants for dinner tonight than whether grad school is really a good idea. Menand’s basic point is simple: most people in English PhD programs are not going to be researchers and tenure-track professors at universities. 
Don’t put too much stock in stories like “From Graduate School to Welfare: The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps,” but they are being told and repeated for reasons. People like the woman featured have made spectacularly bad life choices, and while she’s an extreme example, many would-be professors eventually curse themselves for starting grad school. If I didn’t have a second job working for a real business for real money, I’d probably be close to qualifying for food stamps (but without that real job I wouldn’t have made it this far in grad school, because it’s almost impossible to live a reasonably normal life on $13,000 – $16,000 per year).
I know grad students who can’t get a $7 sandwich at Paradise Bakery because it’ll blow their food budget for the month. They have to bring lunch to campus every day because they literally can’t afford not to. Tired in the morning? Tough luck. Make your bean-sprout sandwich or your lentil curry. Personally I like bean-sprout sandwiches and lentil curry, but I also like the option of take-out. Not having any money also sucks if you need or want a book and can’t get it easily or expeditiously from the library and find yourself unable to buy it for $30.
Consider what you’ve got right now, today. You’re a teacher, so I’d guess you make ~$30,000 – $40,000 a year. Call it $35,000. If you spend five years getting a PhD, you’ll be giving up at least $100,000 ($35,000*5=175,000; $15,000*5=$75,000) short of what you’d make teaching high school. And that’s not taking into account the raises you might get as a teacher, or the benefits, which can be substantial (especially if you’re on a 30-year retirement track). If you take 10 years, like the median PhD student, you’ll be giving up $225,000, again not counting benefits, which are certainly better as a teacher than they are as a grad student. Accounting for retirement benefits, you might be giving up more like $300,000. A lot of money, no?
If you get a tenure-track job, you could conceivably make up that amount over the course of your lifetime, but remember that you’re not even likely to make that much as a TT prof; I’ve asked the University of Arizona’s TT-track but non-tenured faculty gauche money questions, and they report making about $50,000 a year—and U of A is a plum job straight out of grad school. It’s certainly possible to make less and work more. You can do the math on how long you’ll have to work to financially make up for income foregone during grad school. It’s ugly.
If you don’t get a tenure track job, you may wish very deeply you had a couple extra hundred thousand dollars. These are only loose numbers, but I’d guess that making them more precise by counting opportunity / investment costs would only weigh them more heavily to being a teacher, not less, given how much of one’s lifetime income from being a teacher is backloaded by retirement pay.
So who is grad school good for? Again, let’s follow the money, and I’ll use the University of Arizona as an example because that’s where I am. The out-of-state credit-hour fee for undergrads for Spring 2012 was $1,024. For in-state students it was $651. About a quarter of Arizona undergrads come from out-of-state. Grad students teach about 50 freshmen per semester, or about 100 per year. That’s $48,825 in in-state tuition collected, and $25,600 of out-of-state tuition—but each grad student teaches three credit hours. Triple those numbers. They’re $76,800 for out-of-state students and $146,000 for in-state students, for a total of $222,8000. Some of that money goes to profs who run grad seminars, to facilities, to various other administrative functions, and so on. (Grad students also get a couple of one-semester, one-class waivers), but the basic calculation shows why the university as a whole likes grad students. Most universities love ABDs, who consume minimal university resources. Menand says:
One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time to degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing PhDs, but when it is producing ABDs […] The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, the overproduction of PhDs also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor.
There’s little incentive for universities to speed up the grad school process. If anything, their financial incentive is to slow it further.
Most people I know who aren’t in grad school and talk about going discuss the life of the mind, the transformative power of education, how they want to be a professor, their interest in teaching, their love of research and so forth. Most people I know who are in grad school talk about finances, economics, and the job market. Not all the time, to be sure, and I’ve had some lovely conversations about The Professor of Desire and Billy Collins and Heart of Darkness. But jobs and money are on almost everyone’s mind, especially as peers from high school or college are getting jobs at Google, or finishing their residencies, or getting promoted enough to discuss their “401(k),” which is a sure sign of aging, along with in-depth real estate analysis (remember back when we only talked about sex and art?).
Some grad students complain about being financially exploited by universities, but it’s hard to exploit highly educated people who have terrific reading and writing skills and who should know better, or at least do some cursory research before they spend as long as a decade getting a degree. The anti-grad school literature is vast—and highly accessible: type “Why shouldn’t I go to grad school?” into Google and you’ll see.
People who aren’t in grad school, along with people who are professors and have jobs, also talk about wanting to be involved with “the Conversation” (I capitalize it in my head), which means the book chat that happens in peer-reviewed journals and books about writers and ideas. But if you want to contribute to the Conversation, get a blog from http://www.wordpress.com and start producing valuable work. Comment on the work of other book people. Write about what you notice. This will not get you tenure, and it will probably not get you read by other professors, but, if you’re any good, you will probably have more readers than the average literary journal. See “No One Really Reads Academic Papers” and “The Research Bust.” In writing a blog no one has heard of, I’ve had greater impact and reach than 90% of tenured humanities professors.
To be sure, some people succeed in grad school. Maybe I’ll be one, although this looks increasingly less likely. Maybe you’ll be one, if you go. A PhD is not a lottery ticket, but it can start to feel like one. If you do go, you better know the odds and know the costs, financial and otherwise. You better know that there are very, very few tenure track jobs, though there are a lot of one-year gigs at random places that are happy to offer you not very much money for not very good job security. The system is rigged against you. Humanities academics are often very interested in talking about all kinds of exploitation, but they very rarely want to talk about the exploitation that happens in grad school itself.
Too many people—maybe most—enter grad school so they can pointlessly delay adulthood. Adulthood, however, arrives sooner or later anyway. Too many people enter grad school because they’ve succeeded by conventional academic metrics and hoop-jumping through most of their lives and find the big, amorphous real world terrifying. But grad school, if it was ever a good way of avoiding the real world, surely isn’t now, because the real world is a far harsher place when you’re 32 and have a degree of dubious value and are trying to cobble gigs together to pay rent. See again the link above concerning PhDs on food stamps.
There are also dangers that are rarely discussed. In humanities PhD programs, dissertation advisors and committee members may be distant or unhelpful. Outright theft of work is rare, but indifference is common. It’s possible for a single person to outright block or retard individual progress in a way that’s extremely unlikely in normal jobs. A committee can offer no or positive feedback, then outright reject a dissertation. A sudden retirement, departure, or sabbatical can imperil years of a candidate’s work. You don’t want to get in a situation where a single person can annihilate your career. That’s what grad school in the humanities often means.
I don’t know anyone in the business who is really gung-ho about encouraging smart, motivated undergrads and recent graduates to go to humanities grad programs.
In addition, if you don’t thoroughly read everything I’ve linked to in this post, you shouldn’t go to grad school because you haven’t invested enough time in thinking about and learning about what you’re getting into.
EDIT 2016: When I first wrote this in 2012 I was still in grad school. I’m updating it in January of 2016. Let me be blunter: going to grad school in the humanities is an idiotic life choice that will likely fuck up your life. Of the people I know who were my approximate peers, two live at home; one works at an Apple Store; another works in a preschool; another is teaching the SAT, LSAT, and the like for one of the big companies that pay $15 – $20 an hour for such work; and a couple are adjuncts. A few have short-term contracts. Only one or two have the tenure-track positions they were training for.
If you must, must, must go to grad school despite knowing how dumb doing so is, quit after two years with an M.A. Don’t waste years of your life. There is often a false dichotomy presented between the “life of the mind” and pursuing lots of filthy money. But I like to observe that it’s reasonable to seek reasonable material conditions while pursuing the life of the mind. If you can’t achieve reasonable material conditions you should do something else.
* Most universities hire exclusively from elite universities. If you don’t attend an elite university, you’re unlikely to get a job regardless of your publishing record.
* Robert Nagel’s “Straight Talk about Graduate School.”
* Penelope Trunk’s “Don’t try to dodge the recession with grad school,” as well as “Best alternative to grad school” and “Voices of the defenders of grad school. And me crushing them.”
* As of 2015, “The Job Market for Academics Is Still Terrifying.” Fewer than half of humanities PhDs are “employed” (using whatever metric they use) and about 35% are unemployed altogether—which is at least three times the national unemployment rate, which also counts high-school dropouts.
* If you are male, see “Insanity in academia, or, reason #1,103 why you should stay out of grad school: Kangaroo courts” to better understand the culture you seek to join. You’re an accusation away from having your career destroyed.
* “The New Intellectuals: Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?” (Note the sections about the bogosity of peer review and the economic precariousness of the “new intellectuals”).
 Menand also writes:
Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with PhDs.
This fact registered after 1970, when the rapid expansion of American higher education abruptly slowed to a crawl, depositing on generational shores a huge tenured faculty and too many doctoral programs churning out PhDs. The year 1970 is also the point from which we can trace the decline in the proportion of students majoring in liberal arts fields, and, within the decline, a proportionally larger decline in undergraduates majoring in the humanities. In 1970–71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal arts fields, such as business. The only liberal arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000–01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970–71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.
Fewer students major in English. This means that the demand for English literature specialists has declined.
The number of undergrads in English Lit has declined while the number of people getting PhDs has remained constant or risen. There is basically no industry for English PhDs to enter. You do not have to be an economist to understand the result.