Talking about the Economic Realities for a PhD in the Humanities

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.  
Apparently not.
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.

16 thoughts on “Talking about the Economic Realities for a PhD in the Humanities”

  1. I hit that same myth when I tell people I dropped out of the Phd race. "But aren't the baby boomer professors retiring soon….there is a lot of demand for PhDs!" Amazing how lives can be decided on hear-say.

    Great post.

    James from

  2. Oh my goodness. Wow this prof needs a talking too! A friend of mine did something similar to this student of yours…and totally regrets it. Now she's got loans from her PhD in the humanities and law school. She's been strugglying to find a job for four years…and she's also in the UK where the largest group of unemployed professionals is in law and the humanities job situation on the verge of taking a deeper nose dive.

  3. Thanks for this post. Very interesting. I decided a year or so ago once and for all against the PhD. Had I been reading blogs like this I might've made the ultimate decision earlier. Teachers really should be more realistic!

  4. Great post! Really hit a nerve. I wish someone had had this conversation with me fifteen years ago. While I don't regret the choices I have made, I wish I had had a better understanding of what those choices might have meant for me and for my family, especially when the future holds so many unknowns.

    I have the PhD and teach full time (TT) in a professional program (undergrad and grad). I understand the financial struggles. I have an ugly amount of student loans. I am supporting a spouse with a debilitating illness. While I have managed to save some money for retirement, I will have to work until I'm in my 70s. I try to be as frank as possible with my students, especially the undergraduates who are applying to graduate programs at my uni or elsewhere, encouraging them to know the sacrifices they are making to take this step. Likewise with the graduate students in our professional program, which is not a high-paying field either since it's tied so closely to the humanities. Our students will never be rich. Still, I hear those $100k comments from faculty _outside_ our department and just want to scream. Or I hear from faculty in the humanities departments encouraging students to add a UG major or grad degree from our department to their plans because then they will get a job in history or art. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe a student will find their "dream job" in NYC, as one student did, working for less than $30k a year. I'm not so sure that that is necessarily better than not having a job.

  5. Don't ant of you have anything encouraging to say to those who want the humanities phd because they want the challenge? The intellectual stimulation? The transformative experience? Because they want to learn more and gain skills they don't currently have?

    Really? Nothing?

  6. @cforte: The student made it clear that she was only doing it for the money, in case the lawyer thing didn't work out. She also admitted to me that she doesn't really like the idea of teaching, nor does she like students, such as she perceives them to be. I would be doing a disservice to encourage her into going to the professoriate. And yes, I did say that if she was really passionate about history (or, more specifically, a focused area of history) and wanted that kind of intellectual challenge, then she should go for it, but with full knowledge of what it involves financially. She said she wasn't really interested writing a dissertation or teaching, just the money and prestige. She was very honest with me and I was honest with her in return.

    Look, grad students need to know ALL of the fact before they choose the "life of the mind." I admitted as much in my post: I attended grad school for all of the reasons you just outlined. But, I went into it naively and full of misinformation. I want a student to choose the path for grad school with the most likely outcome in the front of their minds. If they are ready to face that reality, then they will have my blessing.

    And, really, isn't it a little sad that all of those elements that you describe used to describe the UNDERGRADUATE experience? Also, is spending tens of thousands of dollars the best and only way to gain all of those things you describe? This is exactly why we need to start doing things differently.

  7. Great post, Lee. Good for you for being honest with your students. I always give my potential advisees and referees what I call The Speech.

    I will say I feel like kind of a jackass when I do it, though, because my own situation is very good: at my uni, we are paid *very* well, and I just got tenure, after getting a job while technically ABD ("A-Bout to Defend," in my case).

    (Didn't that paragraphs just make me sound like a jackass?)

    So when I say, it's awful, it's risky, you'll be poor, your heart will be broken, etc, I can see them LOOKING at me, thinking, but it worked out great for you? Are you really that much better than me? I'm just a fluke I tell them, but still they look at what I have, and yeah it's pretty sweet: I don't have the moral high ground to shoo them away. You know?

  8. I love the post, and it related a lot to what I'm going through in the first year of my grad program. Masters in Education here in Toronto. And I, too, am considering going forward. Your blog and the varied comments offers a nuanced and critical authentic look at what it will take, emotionally, physically and, some would argue, most importantly, financially.

    Thankful for the post,

    Sam Tecle

  9. I've been working in higher education for 12 years within academic and student affairs. As a previous adjunct professor, I have noticed a shift to the functional aspect of degrees rather than knowledge as the end.

    For me, it’s trying to help students ask the right questions. I think asking students, what will the degree do “to you” rather than “for you?” is helpful. How do we help students become more Aristotelian in their pursuit of education ? I'm glad I found this blog.



  10. "And, really, isn't it a little sad that all of those elements that you describe used to describe the UNDERGRADUATE experience?"

    I love this question. Why was it only in my master's degree or fourth year honours that myself and others truly felt engaged and challenged by the material. After working as a teaching assistant (during and post m.a.), I was shocked at how many students truly didn't invest in their degree as a transformational learning experience. Perhaps it should have inspired me to become a better teacher, but instead it helped make the decision not to apply for my phd.

  11. Great post! I can think of a half-dozen starry-eyed seniors in our honors program that I am going to refer to this. Not to take the wind out of their sails, but to make sure they set their compass carefully.

  12. I totally agree with you. We were just talking this morning about how a PhD can be a wonderful experience. But if it doesn't have intrinsic value, don't do it. Also, I think it is a bad thing to borrow money for — if you don't get a scholarship that pays something you could consider a salary for doing this work you love for 4 years or so, think twice.

    And I also agree about the fact that undergraduate degrees should be interesting and challenging. I'm going to sound like a jackass but when I was teaching my colleagues and I tried very hard to make it so, right from the intro class. Colleagues in other departments frequently wondered at the content in our 1st year course, having decided that 1st years weren't up for it.

    Your students will rise to the challenge. And there is nothing wrong with supporting them in achieving at that higher level. Stop thinking so little of your students. (This is not directed at you, personally, because you clearly do challenge your students but at everyone out there feeding pap to undergrads.)

  13. I can totally relate to the economics of TT assistant profs counting pennies, even w/ dual incomes! My cohorts and colleagues still pick up furniture off the street and live just a notch above grad student life. The only difference is we're not so clued in to where the free wine and cheese events are going down, but that is honestly more a function of the Great Recession than anything.

  14. This is something that I struggled with when deciding to pursue a PhD. I work full-time in a job I love, however I also love the challenge of school. Although I'm currently enrolled in a PhD program, I worry about the increase in debt from the program as well as limiting my opportunities outside of a University because the PhD. I also worry about taking a pay cut if I do pursue a tenure track position once I graduate. This post pretty much lays out what I had suspected all along but no one told me! I'll still pursue my PhD, but I continue hoping that it won't hold me back in the "real world"!

  15. Thanks, Lee. This post, as well as everyone's responses, really speak back to what I've been experiencing. I knew getting into it that it was going to be a struggle, but I don't think I realized how much uncertainty and doubt would play into it because I have always been so certain of my path. I'm not quitting. For all I gripe, I love academia, but certainly more students need to know before they throw themselves into this lifestyle.

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