Monday, April 6, 2009

Blog IV: Going to Grad School

My advice on going to graduate school in history is simple: don’t.

I will bet that was not the advice you were expecting. You are probably wondering: Why?

Well, my reasoning is simple. The market is saturated. In the late 1980s an important study predicted that there would be a shortage of academics in the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, graduate schools increased the numbers of students they admitted in the early 1990s. The expected shortage never developed. Long story made short, the supply of people with Ph.D.s in history vastly exceeded the demand—and by demand I mean jobs—for these individuals.

We all know that when supply exceeds demand, the market favors the buyer. The results is that jobs become more and more difficult to acquire. Indeed, now even small regional state schools can require that their faculty have active research agendas and community colleges can and regularly do expect that their faculty will have Ph.D.s.

Is this a bad thing? All depends on what you want to do with your life and career. Most doctoral programs in history train you to expect to end up at a like institution. Harvard is preparing their students to expect jobs at Stanford and Chicago; UC, Berkley is educating people to end up at the University of Virginia and Indiana University, and so on. The expectation at these schools is that their faculty will have heavy and serious research agendas with light teaching loads. The average professor at the University of Michigan or the University of Texas teaches two courses a semester. The fact, though, is that most jobs, even for people coming from the best schools are going to be at teaching schools where the teaching load is three, four, or even five courses a semester. It is difficult to maintain an active research program when it is combined with the heavy demands that come with developing and teaching these courses. Students at top flight graduate schools usually get little preparation to handle heavy teaching loads, much less while maintaining active research efforts.

The other thing that happens when there is a surplus of supply is that price (in this case salary) goes down. Of course, that is if you are able to get a job. When the number of people exceeds the number of available positions, you end up with a lot of smart unemployed people. It takes on average seven years of schooling following the bachelor’s degree to earn a Ph.D. That is a lot of education and time to end up having nothing to show for your effort, and there is a real chance that is what you will have—nothing.

I know that a number of graduate students—or undergraduates about to start a graduate program—think that this won’t happen to them because they are going to Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton, or Stanford. Well, okay, but what happens if two people from your school apply for the same job. That means that someone from your prominent school is going to be rejected—can’t hire two people to work in one job. Numbers are numbers and they are the same for all of us, regardless of where you got your degree from. If you don’t think so, then the fall is going to be all that much harder.

Another thing that has happened with this surplus of supply is that academic administrators have turned to hiring adjunct faculty in massive numbers. The last figures I have seen are that about 45 percent of all undergraduate classes are now taught by part time instructors.

In an ideal world the use of adjuncts is a good thing. You can bring in people with impressive skills and have them add something to your degree program. Imagine having Walter Cronkite teach a class on journalism ethics on a once a year basis. Or, if you are unable to land a full-time, tenure-track job, working as an adjunct allows you to gain important experience in the classroom as you prepare for you next venture on the academic job market.

The problem is that administrators are using adjuncts as the equivalent of academic menial labor. From the administrator’s point of view this practice makes sense: adjuncts can cover the same number of classes as full-time faculty, and are cheaper. They often end up teaching the freshman surveys that the tenure track types do not want to teach. Adjuncts also keep the salaries of full time instructors from rising. It is a supply and demand situation. If a professor wants a pay raise or receives an offer from another school, most administrators can fill that position with two or three adjuncts and pay them $2-3,000 per class without having to cover their health benefits or retirement. When someone leaves or retires, why replace them another full-time salary, just hire an adjunct. When adjuncts get tired of being treated in this manner, they can easily be replaced with another part-timer. There are, after all, more people than jobs.

Don't believe me, here are a couple of news stories on this topic:

The Invisible Adjunct mentioned in those article titles is the most famous academic blogger out there. The Invisible Adjunct left the profession, but her postings are available at:

The result is that people getting a Ph.D. in history need to be prepared to end up looking for and working outside of academia. This might sound simple, but employment opportunities for history Ph.D.s are limited unlike individuals with a degree in a field like economics or public policy where there is ready demand for people with that degree. The history Ph.D. does produce important expertise analytical abilities, and communication skills that do have adaptability to other professions, but it will take a little more entrepreneurial effort on the individual historian’s part to adapt themselves to a non-academic career. The good news is that working outside of a history department is no bar to making important contributions to historical knowledge.

What anyone thinking of going to grad school in history (or any other field) needs to do is to answer one simple question: Do you really need a Ph.D. to do what you want to do? Of course, that begs another question: What do you want to do?

If you want to be a professor in a history department at a major college or university, then, yes, you do need a Ph.D., but you also need to realize that the odds of you being able to get that type of job are low, extremely low.

In the end, my purpose in writing this blog entry really is not to keep you from going to grad school, but for you to realize that you need to have a backup plan about post-graduate employment.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for providing this useful information about the realities of finding a university job with a history PhD. Like yourself I learned the hard way what the real value of a history PhD is outside a university setting. I completed my degree several years ago and have been on the market ever since trying to find work. The best I’ve gotten in two years was part time contract teaching which I quickly found to be an exercise in being grossly underpaid for the high workload required. I won’t even mention how shoddily some tenured faculty treat contract teachers in some places… yep, I'm bitter ;)

    I agree with everything said in this post. My only other advice to add for those considering entering graduate school:

    1) Take what you hear from anyone in depts with a HUGE grain of salt. Sadly too many people like myself don’t know enough about the ins and outs of the profession starting out and are too easily led to believe - by well meaning professors - that a PhD is a ticket to a teaching job. After all the people telling you this got jobs right? How hard could it be? Of course such jobs, as you rightly point out, are very few and far between and the demographic shift that was supposed to lead to tenure track jobs for everyone is not happening, nor likely will it. Keep in mind that most of the prof advisors and department heads encouraging you to take up graduate school really have no idea themselves what the market is like today. Why would they? They got their jobs years, decades, before, and are not the ones wishfully scouring the job ads daily, sending off applications, etc. Also keep in minds that profs will encourage you to enroll in a program because they have a personal and professional interest doing so. More students = more funding, better chances at getting grants, more prestige among peers, etc. All should, but few will, admit this.

    2) If you are a history buff and just want work in the archives for fun, you don't need a PhD. But if you are set on becoming a prof, look into what the job prospects are FIRST: talk to contract teachers looking for work, subscribe to job ad listserves and see how many jobs come down the pipe in your field, talk to dept secretaries and ask how many applicants they got on the last few advertisements (often >100), see how many jobs in your area even exist in the places you’d like to live. Also check out what part time contract teachers get paid and do the math - its criminal really. All this will give you a sense of what you’re getting into. And of course, read this and the other blogs out there. I wish they were around back when I started my degree!

    Thanks again for starting this blog – I look forward to reading through all of your posts.