What you should know BEFORE you start grad school / PhD programs in English Literature: The economic, financial, and opportunity costs

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. [1]

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.

Further reading:

* 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.”

* “Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor.

* 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”).


[1] 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.

What happens when people with partial knowledge start talking about college costs in Arizona and elsewhere

One painful thing about knowing a complex politicized subject fairly well is that most of the commentary on it looks pretty dumb because the commentators don’t really understand it. The latest edition of that malady comes from A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona, which someone forwarded to me because a) I’m a grad student at the University of Arizona and b) I write about academic novels. The problem with the link is that while some of it is somewhat accurate, some of it less so, and a lot of it is taken out of context. For example, it shows a table demonstrating that a surprisingly high number of people working in low-skill professions that don’t require a college degree nonetheless have one—but that probably says more about the graduates than it does about college.

The next item quotes the conservative Goldwater Institute saying that the number of administrators has grown:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent. Arizona State University, for example, increased the number of administrators per 100 students by 94 percent during this period while actually reducing the number of employees engaged in instruction, research and service by 2 percent. Nearly half of all full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators.

(You can read more in this vein via Why So Many Administrators?, but although it asks “Why so many administrators?”, it doesn’t answer that question.)

Problem is, the Goldwater Institute study is specious for two reasons: 1) It doesn’t deal with changing definitions of “administrator” over time, and although it implies that more administrators equal more waste, it doesn’t actually talk about which administrators it wants cut. Job services offices are new and science grants often require administrators. Everyone is against bureaucracy unless it’s the bureaucracy they need. Hell, I’m against administration, bureaucracy, evil, simple carbohydrates (except for carrot cake), and the coyotes that ate my neighbor’s cat. So do we want the administrators in the beefed up jobs office cut? The ones in the disability resource centers that’ve opened widely? The ones that offer counseling to students contemplating suicides? The ones hired to manage science grants? You tell me.

Productivity among universities isn’t increasing—see College Costs: The Sequel for more on why:

College cost, and cost in the other similar industries, is rising for three broad reasons. First, over time we have found ways to reduce the number of labor hours and kilowatts of power needed to produce most manufactured goods and agricultural products. By contrast, many services remain artisan-like. The time of the service provider is the service itself, and labor-saving productivity gains are very hard to achieve. As a result, the cost of a year of college or an hour of a lawyer’s time must rise compared to the price of a ton of steel or a bushel of wheat.

This is “cost disease,” which is sometimes called Baumol’s disease, and a comment by Al zeroed in on it quite accurately. Rising productivity elsewhere in the economy generates this “disease,” while creating the growth that pays the costs for these more artisan-like services. The college-centric view of the world does not accord this argument the central place the data say it deserves.

[. . .]

A number of our critics noted that distance learning has the potential to revolutionize higher education. We wish we were as sanguine as the distance-learning optimists. The best evidence suggests that course work that blends face-to-face instruction with distance components yields the best outcome. The best courses for this are introductory classes with relatively static knowledge. Many universities already are well down the path of incorporating these approaches.

In short, we haven’t really found an effective way to increase the productivity of education because we can’t find good ways of educating mass numbers of people save through having them sit together with more experienced people who are supposed to be experts in their fields and having those “experts” (who we call “teachers” or “professors”) impart some of what they know. This doesn’t scale easily because the prof / teacher : student ratio remains approximately even. Although digital utopians want the Internet to replace teachers / profs, it appears that the vast majority of the population prefers watching porn and computer games to figuring out what the hell Hegel is talking about or how mitochondrial DNA works.

Then there are comments like this: “Arizona State University’s four-year graduation rate is a shocking 28 percent. Low standards and easy loans are a recipe for disaster.” There are two obvious ways to raise the graduation rate: raise the admissions bar so better students get in or make it easier to graduate. Grade inflation has already done the latter to some extent. ASU and UA will effectively take almost anyone, which they apparently need or want to for budgetary reasons.

An aside about grade inflation: one of the most useful efforts I’ve read about recently comes from A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean, which discusses UNC Chapel Hill’s effort “to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts. In addition, they expect to post further statistics providing context online and give instructors data on how their grading compares with their colleagues’.” This would be incredibly welcomed, because at the moment there’s a strong incentive for professors to give higher grades, which lead to higher evaluations, but don’t have any immediate cost for the profs involved.

The harder way to raise the college graduation rate is to make classes smaller, track each student more carefully, increase the number of advisors, and so forth. All this will decrease “productivity” (it’s very “productive” by simple measures of productivity to have one prof lecture 1,000 students). In short, big schools would need to become more like Clark University, where I went to undergrad, only with tens of thousands of students, and this would raise costs, ceteris paribus.

The biggest problem with this article is that it acts like college administrators and professors aren’t aware of the kinds of issues raised. They are, and there’ve been endless books written about them. A recent winner: Why Does College Cost So Much?.

There may be a “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona,” but it isn’t for the reasons stated or implied in this article.

A meta point: most big, complex social systems (think healthcare, education, government, military, companies) don’t exist as they do because they’re the theoretical best. They exist the way they do because they’ve evolved thanks to reactions from social, financial, and other pressures into the beasts they look like today. Most people don’t have the historical knowledge necessary to understand why and how they evolved they way they have.

My overall political feelings are usually captured by The Onion, mostly because so much day-to-day political discourse looks like parody. Two examples from America’s Finest News Source: “Barack Obama – Either Doing His Best In One of The Most Difficult Times In American History, Or Hitler,” since we all know politicians must be one or the other, and “Jan Brewer – Not Afraid To Do What The Federal Government Won’t And Shouldn’t,” which basically describes what Arizona politics are like:

By demanding that police check any suspicious- looking individual’s immigration status, Brewer stood up for the kind of racial profiling that other politicians wouldn’t, and under any circumstances shouldn’t, have the guts to support. Refusing to bow down to sense or reason, Brewer also made it possible for citizens to sue police officers who fail to carry out the troublingly vague terms of the new law, no matter how much it might tie up the state’s court system—a bold stance the federal government simply couldn’t be bothered with.

Efforts to solve big, institutional problems tend to suffer from unintended consequences. They tend not to respond well to ideologically driven solutions, whether those preferred by the left or right. They tend to to require a lot of strenuous effort if you’re even going to understand them, let alone propose to fix them, and the problems are much easier to identify than possible solutions to those problems, which might be worse than the problems themselves. Note one such example above: a simple way to improve the graduation rate at Arizona universities is to raise the admissions bar. But doing so means that some deserving though marginal students won’t get a shot at college at all. They’ll be more likely to steal the car of the people who write “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona.” And so on.

This is the place where I’m supposed to propose solutions to the kinds of problems universities have, but I don’t have any that are short and easily digestible. Beware people who say they do.

Announcement: The Tucson Festival of Books is this weekend

tucson_festival_books_tents21I’ve complained before about the dearth of literary activity in Tucson, but this weekend ought to shut me up for a while: the Tucson Festival of Books is coming to the University of Arizona campus this weekend. Preparations on the mall are underway, as shown on the right.

I’m particularly interested in Billy Collins and Elmore Leonard, who are both speaking on Saturday afternoon. Expect a report next week. If you’re in town, be sure to come!

Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education — Murray Sperber

Federal Requests for Proposals (RFPs) like the Grant Competition To Prevent High-Risk Drinking or Violent Behavior Among College Students are like sheets of paper held up as protection against the hurricane of larger social forces. The program aims to “develop or enhance, implement, and evaluate campus-and/or community-based strategies to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior among college students,” but it’s facing a campus culture that, as Murray Sperber describes in Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, has shifted to drinking and fanatical attention to sports in lieu of learning (I couldn’t help but think of a classic piece from The Onoin, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which sums my feelings about sports I’m not actually playing).

The “How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education” subtitle is slightly misleading: big-time college aren’t themselves crippling education, though they are a contributing facto. Rather, they combine with shifts in university priorities toward research, curriculums, graduate departments, and star professors that, combined with a negative feedback loop thanks to big-time sports and decreased state and federal funding support, leads to inferior undergraduate education at many big schools and big public schools in particular. Hence the “beer and circus” formulation that alludes to bread and circus, with beer deadening thought and circus in the form of sports. Sperber’s argument is not a bad argument, although it’s overstated—universities are not as callow as he makes them out to be. Furthermore, if students in the aggregate didn’t want beer and circus, they would vote with their feet and wallets, as many of the financially able and academically inclined do.

That last designation, “academically inclined,” is an important one: Sperber discusses the four loose categories students tend to fall into, with the collegiate wanting parties, Greek life, and sports, the academic wanting knowledge, the vocational wanting a better job, and the rebels looking for life fulfillment. I might add the “lost” group, or those who wandered into college as an extension of high school and don’t really know why they’re there except that their parents told them to go. These categories aren’t rigid, and students can shift from one to the other and carry traits from more than one, but they’re useful nonetheless. Sperber cites research efforts to explore the composition of schools based on those categories, and it appears that, at many big public schools, the collegiate and vocational students compose the vast majority and have at least since World War II. Schools in turn began shifting their priorities, which accelerated in the 60s and early 70s, and appears to have reached its apotheosis sometime around there.

There’s some danger of propagating a myth of the golden age, but Sperber does seem to have found a genuine shift, especially when he’s discussing funding priorities. The most useful section might be devoted to the culture gap between many of those who control university departments and their undergraduate students. In this respect, the academic outsiders of undergrad eventually become the professors. Here’s where I wonder if the mythological aspect is rising, since, as a percentage basis, the academically inclined might not have dropped any or much, but the sheer number of them simply hasn’t kept up with the collegiate or vocational, and consequently, their influence might have waned. Academic-types also probably can’t connect with professors as easily as they once might have and are more likely to be left adrift in vast classrooms Sperber analogizes to mass transit stations, with all the charming behavior that implies. At the same time, the gulf between undergrads and professors grows: most professors came from the academic culture, while their students don’t. Conflict naturally arises, and I’ve now experienced it—most often indirectly but occasionally directly; the instructors will snicker when they (we?) hear excuses like, “I couldn’t come to class because my sorority kidnapped me…” Such excuses can be especially galling when they come back to back with students who have real problems, like family medical emergencies. How should one respond, I can’t help but asking? There doesn’t seem to be an ideal way, in part because of different values—and I can’t help believing mine are superior. And it’s not easy to inculcate those kinds of values regarding critical thinking, writing, and the like on an industrial scale to people who chiefly want to party. The question becomes, “What should be done?” and the answers—discussed briefly below—seem likely to remain in the ethereal realm of ideas rather than the practical realm of implementation.

Obviously I’ve spent some time considering Sperber’s conclusions and reasoning. But, alas, a book like Beer and Circus reminds me of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why in that both are unlikely to reach the people who need them most—in Bloom’s case, people who don’t or seldom read, and in Sperber’s case, people in positions of power at colleges or who are choosing colleges. The kinds of people most likely to read Beer and Circus are the academics, who are already opposed to the beer and circus mentality and don’t need to be convinced. We find a paradox: someone insightful enough to read this book and who knows something about large universities in the United States will probably already understand the problems it describes, while those who don’t see the problems or like beer and circus aren’t likely to read it.

So how could you decrease campus drinking and such? By now, the game-day culture is sufficiently entrenched that you probably can’t, but one could allocate more money to universities with the stipulation that the money a) not supplant existing teaching funds and—here’s the critical part—b) go entirely to support teaching, rather than research, athletic centers, administrators, and the like. It’s likely to be more effective than approaches like trying to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior through band-aids that don’t fix the fundamental problems underlying the behavior: a persistent focus among faculty on research, among undergraduates on each other, and with almost no one but grad students (like me) minding the undergrads. Small schools and honors programs help somewhat, but Sperber justifiably calls them “lifeboats.” Real change would cost more, take more time and effort, and require more full-time teachers and professors who are actually rewarded, socially and otherwise, for teaching. All that seems improbable: what’s more probable is business-as-usual, with books like Sperber’s marking time in unused libraries while most of the student body spends time on the field and in the stadium.

(Oh, and for more Onion-related mockery: see Shitload Of Math Due Monday, which is not unlike many comments I overhear at the gym.)

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