I am depressed. I am feeling this way for a few reasons. The first is from a conversation I had with a student yesterday. I mentioned in class, while we were talking about education and personal economic benefit, that anyone who was considering doing a PhD in the humanities should come see me ASAP. At the end of class, there was a student. She wanted to go to a large private university in California where she could do a joint program where she would be working towards a law degree and a PhD in history. Her ultimate goal was to get into entertainment law, “but I could become a professor making $100k if I end up in a crappy firm.”
WHAT? Who told you that? A professor I know. She could see that I was…disturbed by the news that a professor had told her that a) you can make $100K as a history professor and b) then didn’t reveal that this eventuality was the exception rather than the rule. I told her that while I had no doubt that that professor made $100k, it wasn’t the reality for most PhDs in history (just as the professors at our college). And, you will probably have to live in a place like this (small town) if you want a tenure-track job. You will find yourself 10 extra years behind your peers in terms of career advancement and most certainly more in debt. Chances are, you’ll be adjuncting for a long time before even securing a tenure-track job, if you don’t give up first.
If you want to become an entertainment lawyer, then focus on that and become the best entertainment lawyer you can be. Don’t distract yourself with a PhD.
Students from my next class had begun to file in. Many of them heard our discussion, where I frankly and honestly described my own situation (in my 30’s, just starting to pay off my debt, no TT job, no pay raise anytime soon, I live here, etc). One of them is planning on going into education and didn’t want to hear about my economic situation. Don’t worry, I told him, you’ll make more money than I ever will, with better benefits and more job security. But you have a PhD, he exclaimed. I sighed audibly. Yes, I said, I know. Why did you do it, he then asked.
Because I did love the research. I knew what my PhD dissertation was going to be on while I was still finishing my BA. I also wanted the intellectual challenge; I’m not going to lie, I felt like I hadn’t really pushed or challenged myself when I was done my BA. Part of it was my own fault, but part of it was that most of my classes really didn’t challenge me. At the time, that suited me just fine, but when I was finishing up, I asked myself, is this it? So I went to grad school. And I did get the elusive tenure-track job but keeping it meant sacrificing my family.
And now I make less than a high school teacher who has less education and less debt. Reason number two.
The next reason is that I am not alone. I had my first “girls’ night out” in a long, long time last night. All of the women were either tenured or on the tenure-track at the same university where I work. And they had the exact same difficulty making ends meet as my family does. We all are a part of duel income homes, but they only had one kid each, as opposed to my two. I know they make more money than I do. I know they are paying half as much as I do for child care (our kids all go to the same preschool). And yet, we all got boneless wings, not because we particularly wanted them, but because it was boneless wing night and thus cheap.
At first, it was comforting to know that I am not alone in my financial struggles. We were able to commiserate about our students, our kids, our husbands, and everything in between. But when the buzz had worn off, I was faced with the sobering reality that the tenure-track job doesn’t really solve anything, at least financially. I guess part of me was still deluded, believing that even though I have given up on the tenure-track job, it could maybe ease some of the financial burden.
So to all you professors who are still telling students that they can earn $100k being a history professor, please stop, or at least give your starry-eyed students all of the information. To my younger self, please rethink the importance of being intellectually challenged (even though you’d never trade your husband and kids for anything). And, to all of my colleagues out there who struggle financially even though we hit the proverbial lottery of getting a tenure-track job, you are not alone. As depressing as that is for the health of our profession and the institution that we (once) loved.